There’s been a boom in cafes offering real coffee across West Dorset. Elisabeth Dunn ventured forth on a coffee adventure to discover why a temperature probe is better than a spoonful of sugar in making the perfect cup.
About a million things can go wrong in the process of turning a coffee bean into a flat white, or even a simple pour-over filter, but happily there are increasing numbers of serious coffee practitioners in Yarn country – almost enough to rival Clerkenwell – dedicated to minimising the risk of a cup of rubbish.
In this rarefied world of specialists, chain coffee shops – your Costas and Starbucks – are anathema. Partly because they are ambassadors of rampant capitalism and partly because they don’t do justice to the sacred beverage. “They have their place on the high street,” is the guarded response to questions about global brands. Here, baristas are never happier than discussing the terroir, the merits or otherwise of shade-grown coffee, the character of the soil in which it is nurtured, the Scandinavian style of roasting the beans – so much more subtle than the aggressive roasting practised in France and Italy which leaves you tasting the roast rather than the bean. They outstrip wine buffs in their enthusiasm for arcane knowledge and language because, they insist, there are so many more steps in the making a cup of good coffee than in pouring a glass of good wine.
On a chilly morning, the imposing doors of The Lyric Theatre in Bridport’s Barrack Street are shut firmly against the weather, though a board on the pavement promises coffee within. Once inside, you might suppose yourself to have timewarped into a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec – it’s all deep crimson walls and mirrors and a sense of down-at-heel grandeur. This is the Box Office Cafe: three or four small tables, a couple of red plush theatre seats and, this morning, Sean Regan behind a bar hung with coffee sacks from across the globe, an espresso machine, the complex batterie of filter equipment and above him four menu boards describing the provenance and processes of the coffees he can offer you today. Will it be from Burundi perhaps? Or Rwanda? Or Guatemala? Will the beans be washed or pulped or natural? It makes a difference. Washed beans are treated with water under pressure to separate the bean from the fruit that envelops it; natural beans are left within the fruit while it dries and they acquire some of the fruit’s flavour in the process.
Ordering a flat white seems a bit uneducated in the circumstances but Sean makes an informed decision for us and delivers the Burundi, having made all the necessary calculations about extraction time, water temperature (between 92 and 96 degrees) milk temperature (71 degrees) and executed that athletic sleight-of-hand, known in the trade as latte art, which feathers the surface as he pours the milk over the coffee.
He explains that while the coffees of Africa have a light, fruity, citrus flavour to them, those from South America are darker, richer, and more chocolatey in character to the point where you feel you really ought to have another cup. This time, I think, a Guatemalan filter. The menu board over Sean’s head is rather stern: “Black only” it reads. “No sugar.”
“We do have sugar,” he says, just short of taking offence, “but we ask you to try it first without.”
Quite pale, quite translucent, our coffee comes with a digital thermometer – sorry, temperature probe – to be hovered over the cup until it reaches the suggested 47 degrees at which it is at its very best. This produces some rather philistine sniggering at our table but Sean insists that the flavour changes as the drink cools. And, reader, it is true. It softens and sweetens as the level in the cup descends. We don’t need the sugar.
As the morning progressed, you couldn’t say that the cafe filled up but we were joined by Niki McCretton who sold her house to buy the theatre and provide a home for the Stuff and Nonsense touring company and who groaned cheerfully about the migraines brought on by negotiating grant applications and snow on the roof. When we left, my companion, as they say in reviewing circles, said he felt as if he’d spent the morning in the West End.
In truth, even this beacon of caffeine-related independence is stalking capitalism. It is an outpost of Number 35 in High West Street, Dorchester which opened a couple of years back, making the pair of them an embryonic, but independent, chain.
Not yet a chain, but certainly to be seen across West Dorset and beyond, is Laurence Norman whose stripped and dazzlingly-polished Land Rover (which he calls Womble) parks up in Bridport’s East Street every market day. From this he serves up a blend of his own devising (Columbian, Kenyan AA, Ethiopian Mocha, Brazilian Santos and Indian Monsoon Malabar, which does make a heavenly flat white) and a lot of coffee evangelism under the banner of The West Country Higgler. A higgler, by the way, is a merchant. The butter higglers of Poole were severely reprimanded by magistrates in the 19th century for running a cartel to fix the price of the product.
From a dank field near Glastonbury where the Higgler will be serving coffee to high-end campers at this year’s festival, Laurence reflected on his transition from sommelier to mobile barista, on the striking similarities between wine and coffee production and the mystiques which surround them. He is generously gifted with the gab and determinedly local. He buys his coffee from a roastery in Budleigh Salterton:
“David Tate, he’s an artisan roastery and he knows everything there is to know about coffee. British coffee is so like British wine. People were putting rubbish in it for years but there have been people working in the background to make it better so that now there are some brilliant British wines. And there are people who know the difference between right and wrong in wine and in coffee and there are people who just want a white coffee, so they can have a white coffee. No matter how many bottles of brilliant wine I’ve drunk, there’s always someone who can tell me more.
“When I started, I went all over the West Country drinking coffee until I thought I was going to have a heart attack and I learned about the million things that can go wrong. The milk, for instance. You mustn’t burn it. It has proteins in it like an egg and you wouldn’t cook an egg three times, would you?”
Which is why your conscientious barista is always polishing the steam wand on the espresso machine.
He doesn’t do de-caff because it would be difficult to grind it separately from the fully caffeinated blend and he couldn’t guarantee that pre-packed de-caff hadn’t been processed without chemicals. Only the Swiss water method of decaffeination would do, contamination-free and taking ten hours of intensive treatment.
In August 2013, just about the same time as Laurence was first revving up the Womble, Xanne Carey was opening her coffee shop and kitchen in Lyme Regis. It is called Amid Giants and Idols – an anagram derived from the names of her two nieces. Anagrams are not my strong suit so I Googled it and was offered “Malign Toad Disdains” but I can’t believe that’s the correct answer. Customers in the shop are invited to work it out and staff behind the counter are sworn to secrecy.
Xanne, Queen Bean, rather disliked coffee until about six years ago when she underwent an epiphany while on a trip to Australia and New Zealand. Inspired and motivated by the taste experience, she went to work on coffee. She came 11th in the UK Barista Championship 2013 and started her own business because she likes to be in control of the whole process. To this end, she incorporated her own roastery into the enterprise and when we spoke, she was in Oslo, on a tour of some of her overseas suppliers. In her absence, Michelle presides over the beans in the airy little shop in Silver Street, which is rather like a cottage front parlour with added art.
The house espresso brew is Coast, a blend of Brazilian and Costa Rican beans, processed naturally with honey and the board provides helpful tasting notes promising flavours of “marzipan with baker’s chocolate and raspberry”. It is possible, you will have noticed, to become carried away with all this rhapsody. It is also just what you need after the haul up Broad Street.
Michelle is keen to share her own enlightening experience when she joined Amid Giants and Idols of taking one bean and making three different kinds of coffee from it. She selects Kochere, a bean from the hills of Ethiopia and submits it first to the aeropress filter method, (like pour-over only with pressure) then to a powerful espresso shot, then a flat white.
The aeropress cup tasted almost like tea, fresh, grassy and lemony; the espresso was muscular, saltier, stronger as it cooled and some claim to find overtones of malt whisky in its dregs; with the steamed milk added, the flat white tasted rather like a liquid biscuit.
To one who remembers when Cona coffee (a percolating technology which involved the brew sitting on a hotplate for hour upon hour) my coffee adventure was the last word in sophistication. All this beverage scholarship raises both an eyebrow and the realisation that there are more things in heaven and earth than Gold Blend.