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.
I flew to Tokyo on Friday, 13th July, starting off with a short hop from Manchester to Heathrow, and then an 11-hour daytime flight to Tokyo. Since I was travelling in Club World for work, I was able to sample the coffee in both the lounge, during my layover at Heathrow, and on the flight to Tokyo. I did briefly pop into the lounge at Manchester, but due to trouble checking in (the systems were down) I was only there for a few minutes and didn’t get a chance to check out the coffee. However, I didn’t see any evidence of Union branding, so I wonder if it hasn’t been rolled out to Manchester yet (I’ve since learnt that the coffee is in all the UK lounges, but that there is only Union branding at Heathrow and Gatwick). Similarly, while I did have some coffee on the short hop down to Heathrow, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Union…
However, when I got to the North Lounge in Terminal 5 at Heathrow, there was no doubt. As you walk in, there’s a large coffee bar to your left which has several large “Union Hand-roasted Coffee” signs plastered above the coffee machines, and the distinctive Union “U” is on all the cups. I think it’s safe to say that Union Hand-roasted coffee has been rolled out to the Heathrow lounges.
The coffee is made with large bean-to-cup machines, serving the usual push-button espresso options. Since I really wanted to be able to taste the coffee in its purest form, I decided to have an espresso. I put the cup under the twin spouts, pressed the button and held my breath (well, actually, I didn’t: I took lots of photos). The coffee looked pretty good coming out, but the real question is how did it taste?
Pretty good, actually. It was a rich, full-bodied coffee and while it’s never going to convert light, bright, acidic espresso drinkers and was a little bitter for my tastes, it was perfectly drinkable and one I’d happily have again. It’s even more impressive when you consider it came from a large bean-to-cup machine: I’ve had a lot worse in supposedly good coffee shops.
In-flight coffee brings with it a whole new set of challenges. The lower air-pressure in the cabin changes the way the coffee brews, plus the coffee comes in pre-ground bags and then goes through a bulk-dripper, none of which says great coffee to me, which probably goes a long way to explaining why I’ve never really enjoyed airline coffee. However, at the end of lunch, rather than making my own coffee, I duly ordered one from the cabin crew. The sacrifices I make you for, dear readers…
Having set the expectations suitably low, my post-lunch coffee was okay. I’m not going to claim that it was anything special, but it was perfectly drinkable, although it could have done with a little more body. I’m trying hard not to be too critical, but if I’m honest, I was a little disappointed. It’s certainly a lot better than the vast majority of airline coffee that I’ve had, but it didn’t leave me wanting another cup.
In order to have something to compare it to, I decided that I should make some coffee for myself, so later on I popped up to the galley with my Wakecup, Aergrind, Travel Press and some beans I’d recently received from Manchester’s Grindsmith which I’d been enjoying at home through my cafetiere. One of the perks of flying Club World is that the cabin crew are generally happy to let you hang out in the galley and, in my case, make some coffee. Tony, the member of the cabin crew on duty, was fascinated that I was making my own coffee and was particularly interested in my coffee-making equipment. We had a long chat while I made my coffee and it was a pleasure to talk with someone as well-informed as Tony.
Then it was crunch-time. How did my coffee stack up?
Well, it wasn’t the perfect cup of coffee, but it was pretty good. Sorry, Union (and British Airways), but in this sample of one, I still (marginally) make a better cup of coffee. In Union’s (and British Airways’) defence, I was using freshly ground coffee and making a single cup for myself, rather than trying to serve an entire cabin at the time.
To summarise, the introduction of Union Hand-roasted in the lounges is a definite success, while there’s still room for improvement when it comes to the in-flight coffee, although the environment is not working in anyone’s favour there. I’ll definitely be visiting the lounges for coffee again, although I’ll be keeping my coffee kit in my hand luggage for the foreseeable future when it comes to actually flying.
I don’t want to come across as too critical though. I started this piece by applauding British Airways for stepping up its coffee game, but equal praise needs to go to Union. Not ever roaster would be prepared to put its coffee in such a high-visibility location, where there’s relatively little control over how the coffee is made and plenty of potential for things to go wrong.
Both British Airways and Union need to be encouraged, not knocked, and other airlines need to follow their lead, although I believe that Virgin Atlantic has recently upped its coffee game too (that said, I’ve not flown with Virgin for ages).
December 2018: Improving Airline Coffee: British Airways & Union Hand-roasted has won the 2018 Best Saturday Supplement Award.
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