Places and Faces

Introducing: The Other Black Stuff

The Other Black Stuff

The Other Black Stuff

Sitting in a courtyard in Covent Garden, drinking a cappuccino, this is where coffee came to life for me. I had drunk coffee before (mostly instant) but this was a watershed coffee, ordered in a whimsy. It made me aware that there was more to coffee than I had previously realised – warm, sweet, and satisfying. The problem now is that being ten or more years further along this coffee journey; I cannot remember if this coffee was any good. I suspect modern me would probably never have sat down in the place in the first instance. Instead I would have surreptitiously identified a glaring flaw with some element of the coffee preparation technique and exited stage-left without delay. That or I would have sat down, glanced at a neighbouring table, identifying “soap bubble” foam on top of a latté and resigned myself to having a tea or a soft-drink. If past me had not ordered that cappuccino though, modern me might not exist. The space-time continuum is in jeopardy.

Modern me, despite being more than a little obsessed with coffee, does not drink a lot of coffee outside of the home. Modern me is an embittered snob. To my discredit I look down my nose at the unwashed masses drinking their lattés (most often), accepting mediocrity, unaware of the flaws – ignorance is bliss. I held myself back as I witnessed a woman who received a latté and complained that she had ordered a cappuccino was satiated by the addition of some cocoa powder to the top of the foam. I look at coffee chains opening new stores all the time, and my heart breaks for the shiny new La Marzoccos and Mazzers that will never produce a great espresso, or cappuccino, or latté.

I go to restaurants, award winning restaurants whose chefs clearly have an appreciation for taste and flavour, chefs so skilled that they make haute cuisine seem effortless. These same restaurants produce espresso that can only be described as effortless; a dark black liquid bereft of flavour and aroma, with an imperceptibly thin crema. I just spent €30 on some halibut – couldn’t you spend 50c on some fresh coffee beans? Needless to say, more and more I am rounding off my dinner with a glass of port instead (Coffee 0 Alcoholism 1).

The situation is not uniformly grim though. Both established and up-and-coming pioneers exist who are driving quality coffee in all parts of this country. Some of these are nationally and internationally recognised names, while others have a more local reputation. Irish coffee importers travel the world; they cup samples of the latest crops. They taste the coffee at origin, trying to identify that lot of coffee to add to their next blend. They often spend far more than fair-trade price on these coffees. There are big roasters who supply supermarkets, multiple independent coffee retailers, and some of the coffee chains. Bewleys for example has done more to push speciality coffee in Ireland than anyone else and have been doing so since well before coffee became trendy.

Latte Pour

Latte Pour

There are medium sized roasters supplying cafés and also the end-user (you and me). One advantage these guys have perhaps is that they do not have the unjustly quaint reputation that Bewleys has in some quarters. Despite the growing commercialisation of these medium sized roasters they still have an air of the independent “artisan” about them. Then there are the smaller guys selling roasted coffee on the internet, in farmers markets, or in their independent café. At all points on this scale you can see that there is appreciation for what makes great coffee. Conversely, even down to the artisan guys, you can see the concessions made in the name of remaining viable (pre-ground beans going stale on supermarket shelves).

At the retail end the chains dominate, and the masses flock, comforted by the familiarity and uniformity. Not all of these chains are equal, but nearly all have a lot of room for improvement. Typically observed problems are: filter baskets insufficiently cleaned between shots, stale beans, dosers full of ground coffee going stale, under-extracted shots, topping up already hot milk with cold for steaming (mmm bacteria), and overheating the milk. Many independent retailers are equally culpable, and the increasing domination of the market by the chains is inevitable if these independent retailers don’t demonstrate the potential for greater quality.

There are some great examples to follow. Perhaps they are not immediately obvious, but if you search them out you will find them. There are the Italian guys whose heads were wetted in the Italian espresso scene, whose baseline for a good espresso tends to be quite high. If you follow a group of Italians around for long enough maybe they will lead you to these places. There are plenty of Irish guys too, in Dublin, Galway, Cork, and elsewhere who “get it”. They understand the importance of freshly roasted, freshly ground beans. They train their staff to know the difference between good and bad coffee. They insist on better coffee. These guys don’t live in isolation though. Behind them there is the chain. The chain goes back from retailer, to roaster, to importer / buyer, ultimately to the co-op or farm where the green coffee emanates.

Naked Portafilter

Naked Portafilter

Surely the guys making the brilliant coffee are rolling in the euros and like a virus the idea of quality speciality coffee is spreading? It’s not that simple. The unwashed masses I referred to previously are in fact the greatest obstacle to improving the standard of coffee commonly accessible in Ireland. No one really wants to create crap coffee, everyone wants to take pride in their product, but the roadside is strewn with the corpses of coffee shops with principles. What’s the point in getting the finest beans, and observing the best standards and preparation techniques if your customers neither understand nor appreciate the difference? Despite the increasing familiarisation with terms like macchiato, ristretto and arabica, they are little more than buzz-words to many.

With this in mind it is the objective of this website to draw attention to those in the Irish coffee scene who strive for excellence, not to criticise those who fail to meet these standards, because ultimately the market defines the standards, and our market is not there yet. This website wants great coffee in Ireland to become the norm. Moving the standard of coffee forward in Ireland need not be an exclusive elitist effort. In fact to really succeed it cannot be that. Through awareness, passion, and example the bar can be raised for everyone. If this website, in any small way can put a little spotlight on those whose cross this is to bear, then it will have succeeded.

Modern me wants to drink more coffee outside of the home.

P.S. This website does not advocate stalking Italians.

P.P.S. Maybe a little.

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