For years we have bemoaned the failure of posh restaurants to embrace speciality coffee. I think we have secretly enjoyed feeling superior to these celebrity chefs…with their willingness to brew on capsule machines, brew Nespresso and rebuff our advances.
I remember when Jenni Bryant (then Prufrock Barista now GM of Market Lane in Melbourne) took it upon herself to approach the River Cafe in 2009 (the stunning restaurant where Jamie Oliver was discovered) with a cafetiere tasting flight concept. Interested but not suitable for their style of service she reported. And pretty much everyone during the food revolution has heard about Jay Rayner’s predilection for charcoal where coffee once stood. Even high profile food critics have been reinforcing the surprisingly anti-specialty coffee stance of the Michelin chefs.
In the past I’ve found it easy to say of Michelin Star chefs that they are just Jacks-of-all-trades-masters-of-none; megalomaniacs, trying to control it all. Whereas us wholesome baristas devote our careers to just brewing and sourcing one refined perfect product and we scorn those who spread themselves too thinly doing everything from butchery to biology. Having now watched every episode of Chef’s Table, my opinion is reversing and I’m starting to get worried.
Now I should say I haven’t totally reversed my opinion but I am concerned that the best coffee in most towns or at least the perceived best coffee in town at the moment is possibly no longer in a speciality coffee shop. I’m very concerned that these Machiavelli’s of the kitchen have turned their gaze to coffee and they are just starting to think about starting to kick our arses, at least on coffee glamour.
Noma of course lead the way as Tim Wendelboe at last knocked down their door. As I understand it, they used to spout the nonsense that the coffee at the end of the meal was an offering from street level to bring you back to earth. Words to this effect. Now in a complete turnaround, they have exclusive microlots from Tim, they have a brew-bar and use scales and timers.
More alarming still, Heston Blumenthal is brewing on scales and doing a Brewer’s Cup like routine at the table. While Prufrock might try to argue that the water temp will be unstable with this rigmarole, compared with the noble Uber boiler, the consumer is busy having their mind blown.
Talking with Amir Gehl, the owner of Difference Coffee who has carved out a niche as a supplier to Michelin Star Restaurants, he tells me there are restaurants in London now charging £50 a round for Geisha tasting flights. Amir has capsules of Esmeralda Geisha and recently acquired the COE #1 winning lot of Brazil Pulped Natural. (You know Starbucks reserve got the natural process #1 lot right? For the second year in a row!) Of course there’s lots of Koppi Luwak on some of these fancy restaurant menus too but my point is that people are coming back from their 20 year wedding anniversaries and their 40th birthday parties having splashed hundreds on dinner feeling they have reached coffee nirvana and even if this coffee was brewed in a capsule, we can’t deny that sometimes the bean quality and the attention to detail will actually be there.
Over the last few years, it has been widely remarked that all the best coffee in the world (the Best of Panama’s, the COEs) go to Japan and South Korea. This is still fairly true but no longer exclusively true. Whilst considering this, and knowing the last two years of COE number one for Brazil has gone to Starbucks Reserve you should also know that Schultz has recently moved over there full time to focus on the premiumisation (his word I believe) of the whole Starbucks brand.
Look out, Costa have got the Splurties in (though they will of course call them SP9s, not cool) in their new concept shop. In a time where we expected the industry to widen the quality gap between speciality and corporate coffee, this is appearing to not be happening at all and the appreciable difference between these concept shops and specialty coffee shops is narrowing all the time.
All this is getting my competitive instincts piqued. I’ll not stand by and lose our edge to part timers or to corporate coffee. We will benefit from the innovation from these unexpected areas. Just the trickle down effect of the fifty quid cup trains our future customers into feeling more at ease with the five quid cup but we must try to remain the arbiters of finest quality in coffee.
So as part of reasserting our position in the industry as the most qualified to deliver well extracted coffee with good water and good grinding, re-processing, dechaffing, you name it: the fine bone china and the tasting notes…the goal of getting our hands on the interstellar green coffee that has not historically passing through these lands, has drawn us to the Bunny Brand nano roasting concept we have explored at Prufrock with my competition coffee from FST and a little Graciano Cruz late harvest bamboo geisha over the next couple of weeks. Look forward to some Bolivia in the next month (which we will be featuring as the sponsored coffee in the #MazzerZMFilterCup). We are doing all of this in such microscopic quantities as to almost be a hobby. But still it gives us an edge.
Perhaps Michael Cameron’s extension of the George Howell’s cryogenic coffee concept will step us towards a more risk free system of trading ultra-specialty without fear of age related deterioration of expensive coffee. Michael’s specific innovation is to take the vac thing to freezing roasted coffee instead of green like George does which means dialling in once for weeks of brewing so the waste is massively reduced too. A cafe like Prufrock might only do 10 or 20 brews of geisha per week so if the other 850g from your minimum batch size of 1kg (if you’re lucky to have a tiny roaster at your disposal along side your production roaster) can be vac-packed and frozen post-roast, you’re much more comfortable with the 100 quid of coffee sitting around for another 5 weeks until you use it up. Gwilym is totally all about the Michael Cameron’s system now and reckons there’s no perceptible flavour change from frozen to fresh. If you’ve seen Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen nightmares, he’s always going on about frozen meat tasting frozen but these two are so convinced and let’s say the vac pack prevent ice crystals forming which do the damage that we are going to get experimenting in earnest.
Perhaps this nano roasting and defrost-to-order brewing might be the future of ultra-specialty. A little step towards this can be seen in the recent licensing agreement between Ikawa and Panasonic appliances in Japan (for the Japanese market only). The users who purchase the roaster (best suited to literally 50g at a time) receive micro consignments of barcoded green coffee that connects to prepared profiles on the Ikawa. This is a sensational idea and I rather applaud Ikawa for their role in the colab.
I have a few lucky friends who have dined at Noma. Expect to spend in the region of £250 quid a head. In their situation, with something like a 12 month waiting list for their new locations, if they threw the coffee at you and filtered it through a tennis racquet you’d be ready to celebrate the occasion as the most refined coffee experience of your life. You see, I still want to mock them, but I fear they will actually use filtered soft water, an swanky grinder, a scale, deliver considerate and easy to digest flavour notes and Tim will have sourced them something incredible to brew. The Chef’s Table made me realise I’m awed by the multi-talent of these brilliant chefs…
So let’s make sure as a movement, that we aren’t losing our edge.