When it comes to coffee, I’m a purist: I take it black. No sugar, no milk, no shots of steam or flavoured syrups. As with tea – and, for that matter, malt whisky – I like to savour the flavour of a single-origin, star performer. Safely blended, blandly neutral and – perish the term – ‘easy-drinking’ versions just don’t bake my biscuit. Sadly, when it comes to coffee, even in a lot of first-rate restaurants, they’re often all that’s on offer. Why is this?
For those who don’t want it black, corner coffee shops everywhere now have more variations on the basic combination of coffee beans, water, milk and sugar than they can chalk onto a blackboard. I used to have problems getting a cup of my favourite, Earl Grey tea anywhere bar my own kitchen; now, happily, it pops up – or should that be brews up? – everywhere, along with teas made from almost every herb or fruit you’ve heard of, and some surprising flowers, too. And haven’t wine lists come a wonderfully long way? Even the smallest establishment can produce one that runs to several pages.
So why, when you order coffee, is it so rare to be asked which beans, which estate or even which country of origin would you prefer? ‘ They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil,’ sang Sinatra, back in the Forties. Well, they’ve got it in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, too, and in Jamaica, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Indonesia, and at least as many more countries again – but ask for an Unwashed Ethiopian or a Monsooned Malabar or a Pico Duarte after dinner, and you’re most likely to get a blank look. Just as you probably also will if you ask for the pedigree of the one-and-only coffee on offer. Yet, like grapes, coffee beans carry the flavour characteristics of their birthplace – so ‘Where’s it from?’ is as relevant a question to ask as it is of a wine or a cheese.
The good news is that these days supermarkets, grocers and coffee merchants sell a wide range of coffees for us to enjoy at home, so I’m not altogether missing out on Blue Mandheling or my favourite, Mocha Sidamo – but a lot of good restaurants are missing a trick.
Do, please, wake up and smell the coffee!
PAT RICHARDSON Founder, HotelsThatWereNot.com