I’ve just returned from 10 days in Rome, five for work, followed by five days of sight-seeing. It’s a city that I adore, but I must confess that I approached the trip with more than a little trepidation, looking forward to the sight-seeing far more than I was the coffee. I last went to Rome almost 10 years ago, long before the Coffee Spot, back when I thought that Italian espresso (and Italian espresso culture) was the pinnacle of coffee. It’s also the city, where, almost 20 years ago, I first gained my love for espresso.
Since then, many things have changed, including my taste in coffee and my opinions of it. I feared that I wouldn’t enjoy the coffee, which in turn might spoil my memories of Rome. Coffee in Rome, and Italian coffee more widely, divides opinion. There are those who dismiss it, saying that Italy has not moved on, that the coffee is rubbish, while at the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty who still hold Italian espresso as the pinnacle of coffee culture.
As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Airline coffee has a pretty bad (and, frankly, often well-deserved) reputation, but around the industry, steps are being taken to rectify this, with British Airways and Union Hand-roasted leading the way. The two have teamed up to provide Union coffee at British Airways’ UK lounges and, on long-haul flights, in the First Class and Club World cabins. Last month, I flew to Tokyo and back in Club World, giving me a chance to sample the coffee both on the ground and in the air.
I wrote up my experiences of the coffee on my way out to Tokyo and, on the back of that article, got an invitation from Geoff Cliff, the man at Union responsible for the day-to-day management of the British Airways account. A week after I returned, I popped over to Union’s East London roastery, where Geoff and I talked about the considerable undertaking of providing not just coffee, but also the training that goes with it, across the entire British Airways long-haul fleet.
Today’s Saturday Supplement is a follow-up to my original piece, where you can discover what I made of the coffee on the way back from Tokyo and what I learnt from meeting Geoff.
Yesterday, I wrote about About Life Coffee Brewers, a lovely coffee stand in Shibuya, next door to both my office and my hotel for the week I was working in the area. Using the rear entrance to Shibuya’s Mark City (my hotel was on top of this long, thin shopping mall) and turning right, the office was a two minute walk down the hill. However, left, if I turned left, About Life was two minutes up the hill. So, naturally, I started my day by going to About Life for coffee…
One of the frustrations of being a coffee blogger is that I rarely go back to places on a regular basis, nor do I get to sample the full range of coffee on offer, particularly somewhere like About Life, which has six single-origins available as either pour-over or espresso. However, it struck me as I ordered my two-shot latte on the first morning that there were no other decent coffee options near the office and, with two or three long breaks each day, there was every chance I could actually sample all the coffee.
So, I set myself a challenge: to try all six single-origin coffees in a week…
Regular readers of my Brian’s Travel Spot posts will know that I have a poor opinion of airline coffee, and, as a result, I’ve taken to making my own coffee on long-haul flights over the last few years. However, to its credit, British Airways has also recognised this short-coming and has recently partnered with Union Hand-roasted to up its coffee game. Union is supplying coffee to the British Airways lounges and, in the first instance, to the First Class add Club World cabins on long-haul flights, although there are no immediate plans to roll it out to World Traveller cabins or to serve it on short-haul flights (I had originally thought that this would be the case, but I since learnt that I was wrong!).
As luck would have it, on Friday I flew with British Airways from Manchester to Tokyo, via Heathrow, not long after Union’s coffee was introduced, giving me the chance to experience it first-hand. Normally I would write this up as part of my longer Travel Spot covering the flight. However, these take me absolutely ages to write and, since there’s quite a bit of interest in this, I thought I would put it on its own, self-contained post, rather than burying it in a longer post.
Last week I received an intriguing e-mail from Aniko Somogyi from the Anikona coffee farm in Hawaii. Aniko hosts a show called My Favorite Coffee Story on VoiceAmerica, an internet-based talk radio station. I must confess that I’d not come across My Favorite Coffee Story before (or VoiceAmerica for that matter), but I was intrigued. Each week, Aniko interviews someone from the world of coffee and they spend an hour talking coffee. The shows are pre-recorded and broadcast, unedited, every Tuesday at 4pm Pacific Time (midnight in the UK), with all the previous episodes available on-demand on the VoiceAmerica website or as a podcast (just search for My Favorite Coffee Story on your podcast software/service).
The purpose of the e-mail was to ask whether I’d like to appear on the show. Me? Talking about coffee? For an hour? Hell yeah! As anyone who saw my talk at the British Library last weekend will attest, I can talk about coffee for a long, long time. So, naturally I said yes, and last Wednesday I sat down (virtually) with Aniko and we talked coffee for an hour. Then, last night, the show was broadcast…
This time last year, I kicked off 2017 with a plea to stop using disposable coffee cups. In a piece of remarkably good timing, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published its report on disposable coffee cups yesterday, almost a year to the day after my piece. Now, I can’t take all (any?) of the credit for this: plenty of people, some of them a lot more influential than me, have been making the point for several years now, although seemingly with little effect.
According to the report, at least 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each year, with ½ million coffee cups being dropped as litter each day. What’s worse is that a lot of these cups are put into recycling bins by well-meaning consumers who think that they are recyclable when in fact they are not. This potentially contaminates the whole load, which means that it’s worse than just throwing them away. As the report notes, a depressingly small 1 in 400 disposable coffee cups are recycled.
In response to this, the report’s proposed solution is a minimum 25p levy on each disposable cup, something which has met with mixed reactions within the speciality coffee industry.
Welcome to the second of my three-part exploration of traditional Vietnamese coffee. As I explained in Part I, I’ve been exploring the local coffee culture during my time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese are volume coffee drinkers: I’ve not been anywhere with this many coffee shops! They are literally on every corner, often open from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.
However, traditional Vietnamese coffee, made using the cà phê phin, a cup-top metal filter, served either hot or over ice, and often with condensed milk, has a reputation for being strong, sweet and heavy on the Robusta. Sadly, much of that does not appeal to me, but, despite my initially scepticism, I found, to my surprise, that I liked many aspects of both the culture and of the coffee itself.
In Part I, I shared my initial, rather unsuccessful, forays into traditional Vietnamese coffee, followed by my conversion when I tried the combination of speciality coffee and the cà phê phin. In this, Part II, I continue my exploration with coffee over ice plus coffee with condensed milk. Finally, Part III covers my experiments of using my own cà phê phin to make coffee.
In the run up to my current trip, I’d heard an awful lot about the Vietnamese taste for coffee. There’s no doubt that the Vietnamese like their coffee. There are coffee shops everywhere, open from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, ranging from tiny independent hole-in-the-wall operations right through to massive national chains. Starbucks is also here in strength.
However, volume of consumption is one thing, but what about the quality? Yes, you can find speciality coffee in Vietnam, and pretty good coffee at that, but I’m talking about traditional Vietnamese coffee, made using a cup-top metal filter (cà phê phin), strong and sweet, served either hot or over ice, often with condensed milk.
I confess that this did not appeal to me. I gave up sugar in my coffee over 25 years ago and the idea of coffee with condensed milk makes me shudder. I’m also no fan of cold coffee, except a good quality filter that has been left to go cold. Cold brew, coffee over ice, anything like that, I really don’t enjoy.
That said, I’m not one to dismiss an entire coffee culture out of hand, so I thought I’d better give it a try…
Today’s Saturday Supplement is a little out of the ordinary. I avoid “Top 10…” lists like the plague. I detest rankings. I can’t abide arbitrary scoring systems. I write about coffee shops I like and put them on the Coffee Spot so you can find them. However, I can’t help but develop favourites, and, if there was a list of my favourite coffee shops, the original Flat Caps in Newcastle’s Ridley Place would be one of the first I’d pencil in.
That is, if I was writing the list today. If I wrote it tomorrow, Ridley Place wouldn’t be there. Because today’s its last day. Tonight, Joe closes up for the last time. Not that it’s the end of Flat Caps. Come Monday, you’ll find Joe at Flat Caps Carliol Square or maybe next door at Flat Caps Campus North. Flat Caps goes on, but the place where it all started, Ridley Place, will be no more.
Joe’s written about why he’s closing Ridley Place, a lovely piece which I urge you to read. Today’s Saturday Supplement isn’t about the whys and wherefores of the closing, but rather my own reflections on one of my favourite places to have coffee.
[Note: Yes, I realise that I’ve posted this on April 1st. I do hope this isn’t an elaborate April Fool’s joke that Joe’s playing on us…]
One of the Coffee Spot’s tag lines is “places I like to have coffee”, so today’s Saturday (on-a-Wednesday) Supplement is something of a departure for me since I’m not sure I’d describe Cafe X as somewhere I’d like to have coffee. Somewhere I’d go to get coffee, perhaps, but it’s definitely not somewhere to have coffee. However, there I was on Monday, in San Francisco, minding my own business, when Cafe X announced its grand opening. A block from my hotel. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, so along I went.
So, what is Cafe X? Well, put simply, it’s an automated coffee shop, with a pair of high-end bean-to-cup machines and a robot arm that takes the place of the barista. There’s a choice of beans from local roasters, such as Verve (Santa Cruz) and Oakland’s AKA (previously known as Supersonic), plus a fairly standard selection of espresso-based drinks, but only one size (8oz). You order using one of the tablets attached to the Cafe X kiosk, or preferably ahead of time on your phone using the Cafe X app. Typically your coffee will be waiting for you in under a minute. Well, that’s the theory…