England 1996. I am freshly arrived in London and I know nothing much about it, apart from what I’ve read in books and learned through watching Masterpiece Theatre. One thing I quickly realize is that the English don’t truly like coffee. They regard it as inferior to tea, which they drink at every opportunity. For some people, it’s a bit like water.
So I don’t buy coffee from anywhere and I rarely think about it. Before arriving in London, I was working for a coffee chain in Los Angeles. I’ll admit, my diet consisted of a variety of frozen coffee drinks, made with powder, so this switch to no coffee is pretty extreme.
But I’m young and carefree. Who wants coffee when you can have beer or gin? I live my life in the pub anyway.
England 2012. I have two children, precious little spare time and regard copious drinking during the day as something guaranteed to give me a headache and make me incapable of feeding the kids, bathing them and putting them to bed, which requires the energy of an athlete on steroids.
So what do I? I drink coffee and lots of it. I spend my weekends generally lurching from one coffee to another, always looking for the next high or something to get me through an hour in the park on a drizzly and cold day.
In other words, I’m an expert. The English are becoming experts too. Gone are those dark days when the English used to drink milky tea with sugar and not much else. Now they regard themselves as coffee snobs. Coffee shops have sprung up everywhere. Getting good espresso has become some people’s idea of a pastime.
I happen to live in a part of London where I can walk to about 15 different coffee shops in about 10 minutes. From this, any Londoner can infer something immediately: this area is so gentrified you wouldn’t be able to afford a house unless you are:
- very rich
- a banker
- or you bought 50 years ago
Which is why we live in a tiny flat being devoured by mold.
A few months ago a cheap greeting card store went out of business. For a few weeks there was tantalizing advertising on its boarded-up exterior. ‘Harris and Hoole is coming’ it proclaimed. I had no idea what Harris and Hoole was, but I was intruiged.
Honestly, I should have guessed it would be yet another coffee shop. This one, though, is aiming a bit higher than its neighbor, Starbucks, who is literally next door.
You see, it’s not enough to be a good coffee shop – you’ve got to elevate it to an art form. When I walk into Harris and Hoole, I notice the cool-but-chic interior. It’s understated, in the way black pants are understated. Yes, it tries to exude class but not too much. Hence, there are strange chalkboard drawings on the wall, designed to make it look artistic, perhaps, or a bit bohemian. It reminds of a child’s art project.
When I go to order, I realize the drinks menu is minimalist. There’ll be no triple-shot, venti, gingerbread latte with whipped cream. Nope, you just get the basics.
So I order a latte. I am told my barista’s name and today’s recipe, also helpfully on the board. The recipe is this: espresso extraction time, 23 seconds; extraction temperature, 93 degrees Celsius; and the coffee is served at a coolish 60 degrees because it will bring out the natural sweetness. Who am I to question this quest for perfection?
I get the coffee and it’s good, as you’d expect, but it’s also a little too cool for me. It says you can ask for it hot from your barista, but I imagine that your request will be met with a stare that says, ‘you are nothing more than a coffee heretic, why don’t you just go next door and order from the enemy because all you really want is dessert?’ So I will probably never say anything.
I am sure I will go back to Harris and Hoole. I might even grow to love it. But there’s just something vaguely irksome about a place that takes itself a tad too seriously. Lighten up. Great coffee is great, but must we really venerate it so much?
It’s like when I went to San Diego and tried to order vodka from a bar. You’d think a bar would have vodka. Uh, no. I was told – by a poker-faced master spirit distiller (bartender) – that vodka tasted, well, just a bit too plain for their liking and they didn’t serve it. I would have laughed if it wasn’t so damn preposterous.
Next thing you know, people will be trying to sell us upscale water. Oops, that’s already happened.