How We Stopped Going to Starbucks and Learned to Love Our Independents – Neil Anderson, Coffee Repair Guy

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How We Stopped Going to Starbucks and Learned to Love Our Independents – Neil Anderson, Coffee Repair Guy

Coffee, and how we enjoy it, has gone through some major changes over the last five or six years; you can hardly fail to have noticed. Where once the cool kids were all hanging out at Starbucks or Costa these days they’re more likely to be patronising a local independent place where the quality of what’s in the cup is a lot more important than the squashiness of the sofas.

The UK independent coffee scene is in robust health and there’s plenty more growth to come. We are collectively rediscovering the joy of patronising cafes where people are passionate about what they do and everybody really does know your name. Walk down any high street and you’ll find a place where the decor, the ambience and above all the coffee speak of a very different set of aspirations from the homogenised, corporate uniformity of the big coffee chains.

Coffee Blog

We tend to think of our social and spending habits as mirroring those of our cousins across the pond but the UK experience reflects that of Australia rather than the USA. Starbucks attempted to get a foothold in the lucrative Australian market in the early 2000s opening 84 stores across major cities. Eight years later all but 23 of them had closed as Australians voted with their feet and took their business to the small independent cafes. Today, of the 6,500 coffee shops in Oz, ninety-five percent are independent. That’s a massive vote of confidence in locally owned, niche places all with their own take on quality coffee and café culture. And now it’s happening here.

It may seem unlikely on the UK’s recession hit high streets but, as far as coffee is concerned, quality is now taking precedence over price. Coffee drinkers have embraced smaller quantities of higher quality coffee served by people who feel a strong sense of identification with their cafe and wear their own clothes to work; the corporate look and branded aprons of the chains have no place here. The baristas in the new breed of independent cafes are typically well-educated, well-travelled and passionate about all things coffee. It’s a little bit more than a job in places like these.

This may make it sound as though these cafes are exclusively hipster hangouts where punters need a geeky interest in coffee to risk ordering a brew. Happily, this seems not to be the case from what I have observed. Specialist coffee shops are usually peopled by baristas and proprietors keen to spread the word and welcome the uninitiated. Tell the barista you’re not sure what to order and he or she will likely take pleasure in talking you through the options and ensuring you get a brew you’ll enjoy.

Coffee beans

Alongside the blossoming of independent coffee shops we’re seeing a new breed of independent artisan coffee roasters setting up. These specialist concerns will often source small batches of beans direct from farms across the coffee growing world and roast and blend them to produce brews of satisfying complexity and quality. Single estate beans of a particular growing season will produce never-to-be-repeated coffees with a unique taste and texture. You can go into any number of high street independents and experience the pleasure of tasting a coffee rich with the flavours of the land, climate and culture it was grown in and prepared with passion and attention to detail by someone who loves what they do. Not bad for a couple of quid.

There’s a part of all this that fits well with our straitened times, I think. Perhaps it’s about valuing a moment of aesthetic and sensory pleasure and relaxation in a unique place removed from the slash and burn imperatives of the hard-pressed high street. Coffee is truly an affordable luxury, the coffee shop a sanctuary and social hub. Coffee embodies a spirit of decadence whilst lifting the spirits and sharpening the wits. We’ve loved it for so long but we’ve never had it in this profusion, at this quality and with so much passion, commitment and expertise attached.

My personal concern is the machinery that produces the coffee. I sell, service, repair and rebuild every kind of espresso machine. I’ve been doing this job for over ten years and I’ve never been busier. I still do a lot of work for restaurants, hotels, pubs and coffee shops operating in an old-school environment of coffee as just another aspect of catering.

Increasingly, though, I’m being asked for top-end machines capable of delivering minutely controllable temperature and extraction settings and offering a more hands-on role for baristas. Just this week I installed a Kees van der Westen “Speedster” in a small art gallery in Berwick Upon Tweed. The “Speedster” is both a gorgeous-looking piece of art and the best small machine in the world. An installation like this simply wouldn’t have happened two or three years ago and it’s a sign of how far we’ve come with coffee culture in the UK.

So, happy coffee drinkers, an independent success story, unique social spaces, a beacon of quality on the beleaguered high street and a business that can generate a healthy and sustainable profit; the growth in coffee culture is good news all round. The only long faces in all this are likely to be in the distant boardrooms of Starbucks and Costa. But, if that’s the only downside, I think I can live with it!

Neil Anderson 07515629847 (Twitter @coffeerepairguy)



About the Author:

Richard is the owner of RCM Stocktaking Solutions Ltd which provide Stock Auditing services to the licensed / restaurant / hospitality sector.