“Hmmm…Sumatra lingtong, grown on the Western slopes, I’d say. Full and fragrant with overtones of spice and ripe loganberries….”
Time was when a request for a cup of coffee in Ireland was met by a heaped spoonful of powder dissolved in boiling water. Then came the cona machine, which rapidly became a stock feature of pubs and restaurants the length and breadth of the land. Hey presto, coffee was now ‘real’. It didn’t seem to matter that the brew was left stewing all day, refreshed only when the glass bowl ran dry. Continental tourists were probably the only ones who realised just who bad coffee in Ireland (as opposed to ‘Irish coffee’) was.
The next phase of the revolution came with the importation of the cafetiere or ‘plunger’. The first ones were brought here by returning holidaymakers. Upmarket lifestyle shops were quick to cop on to a hot product. It didn’t take long for the cafés and restaurants to catch on. At last it was possible to enjoy freshly made coffee away from your own home. Around the same time, coffee importers saw possibilities in the varietal bean and began to offer Java, Colombia, Kenya and Costa Rica, etc., alongside their established ‘breakfast’ and ‘after dinner blends’.
The last seven years have witnessed an espresso/cappuccino explosion. Exotic looking machinery proliferates, the first generation styled along the lines of baroque fountains or 1950’s American car radiator grilles. Now functionalism is the norm.
Cappuccino is king. And maybe there’s more to come. In Seattle, in Sydney, in Amsterdam, and presumably in other major cities of the world, there are coffee houses where customers’ regard for the aromatic brown bean ranks on a par with the respect that a Master of Wine reserves for the great chateaux of the Medoc. Establishments where suburban housewives and students, sales people and civil servants, sample and compare ’boutique’ coffees, some even the produce of a single estate. With no big breakfast fry or indeed, no food of any kind to distract them, customers are seemingly happy to pay a premium price to sip the Chateau Petrus of the coffee grower’s art.
So will it happen here? Why not, we’ve already got Japanese minimalism and the juice bar? Dublin is certainly receptive to new trends. But while the Dubliner’s cup of coffee is less of a price sensitive item than of yore, given that the rates per square foot for prime commercial property in central Dublin can be close to central London charges, sustaining a café’s overheads on tea and coffee sales alone is hardly feasible. Food and beverages must co-exist as elements in the total marketing mix. A look round the establishments in the shopping area bounded by Wicklow and South King Streets would seem to confirm this view. Most offer food, everything from a designer sandwich to a full Irish breakfast.
While some outlets offer a choice of Colombia, Kenya, Java or Costa Rica, and even more exotic coffees the majority have rejected the varietal approach, opting instead for a medley of tunes played on the cappuccino machine; a multitude of fancy dan coffees, based on espresso, milk and foam in varying proportions, here a marshmallow, there a blob of chocolate. ‘Flavoured’ coffees, a trend pioneered in the USA to extend ‘the coffee experience’ beyond the traditional drinker and widen the potential market sector are gradually being introduced but the take-up has been slow.
Many of the espressi and cappuccini sold are woeful indeed. Watery long espresso or cappuccino served in large cups with vast quantities of milk and froth are all too common. Staff rarely undergo barista training and those who operate the machines fail to understand the process. Ireland is still one of the hardest places in Europe to find decent coffee.
As in any new taste crusade, there’s resistance to overcome. When I ran my own café I was determined not to serve coffee by the mugful. Requests for “a mug of coffee” were met with a patient explanation as to why the excessive dilution would do nothing for the flavour. This was endured stoically, and I like to think they enjoyed their fresh cupful, but with the benefit of hindsight I’m sure that many of them quickly reverted to buying their bucket of overcooked cona or huge milkfest cappuccino in the place down the block.
The coffee we buy is almost invariably a blend of two types of bean, arabica and robusta. The robusta beans are grown principally at sea level, the arabica on the higher slopes. The latter have a lower yield; the crop frequenly at risk from climatic extremes and difficult to harvest. The flavour of arabica coffee is fragrant and delicate. Robusta lends strength to the blend, at the expense of flavour. Arabica is approximately three times as expensive. Premium blends carry a higher proportion of arabica beans.
Skilful roasting is just as important as the composition of the blend.
You would expect cafés serving blends with high consumer recall to have a discernable advantage but this is not necessarily the case. Lavazza, Italy’s biggest seller, offers a variety of blends and has a strong retail presence, but here in Ireland you do not find people walking into cafés demanding Lavazza. Illy, Italy’s ‘snob’ coffee has a toehold on the upmarket restaurant sector but is barely visible at street level. In many traditional cafés you still see signs bearing the legend ‘We serve Bewley’s coffee’ but, to cappuccino conscious shoppers, Irishness might be seen as a disadvantage.
Branding café coffee is a classic marketeers’ problem. Where you have a product that’s segmental by geography (Colombia, Kenya, Mocha*, Costa Rica); by style (cappuccino, espresso, Americana); by portion (regular, mug, demi-tasse); and by method of production (filter, espresso machine, infusion) it is difficult to create a viable brand identity, especially in a still-developing market. Moreover, cafés have their own branding to do, vis-a-vis their competitors. Where a café’s coffee is its own USP, the supplier must, of necessity, remain anonymous. As one café proprietor put it to me “I want my customers to think Café X coffee, not Lavazza or Robert Roberts”.
In conclusion, while coffee consumption looks likely to continue to rise, it would be a brave proprietor indeed who put faith in the ’boutique bean’. Premiere Cuvée coffee is some way off yet.
*The term Mocha was originally applied to coffee grown around the periphery of The Red Sea. These days, Mocha (frequently misspellt ‘mocca’) is more likely to imply a blend of coffee and chocolate.