Nate Brown loves a good cocktail and he loves a good cup of coffee. So why, he asks, do so few bars in Britain do both well?
A great coffee served alongside a Whisky Highball, a bitter espresso in the same sitting as a clean Negroni, an americano and an Americano. Little moments of heaven. Or so I imagine. Because as delightful as these sound, the chance of me getting a decent coffee where I can get a decent drink is frankly slim to none. There are exceptions, of course. However, on the whole, the coffee that bars serve is so usually embarrassingly, insultingly terrible.
It shouldn’t be like this. After all, coffee is a mixed drink, prepared to order and delivered. A few rounds of Martinis followed by a bright, bitter espresso can be the shortcut to why we go to bars in the first place. And if that’s a bit too much for you, the rise of low-ABV drinking walks hand-in-hand with the coffee world. In theory, they’re the same thing. In practice, the bar world has all but turned its back on the bean. Which is a bloody error. If I meet a colleague, we shouldn’t have to choose between going for a coffee or a for a drink.
And don’t talk to me about margins. I’m not advocating replacing drinks with coffee, I’m talking about additional quality offerings. There is something contemptuous about the token hot drinks offering. If you’re going to do it, do it well; your guests deserve better. I asked one of the precious few who has migrated from booze into coffee and back again what his thoughts were. “Bars cannot be fucked,” was his response. This is more depressing than it first appears, because bars should be there for the guest, not for the ego of the bartender.
Is it a culture clash? Do those baristas that embrace the pull of espresso exist in the energy of the morning, and the shot-slugging bartender crew arise only for the glamour and sex of the evening? If so, then they’re missing a trick because guests no longer define their days in this on-duty/off-duty dichotomy. Why do bars and coffee shops? Last month’s Coffee Festival showed some of these cultural differences in the cruel light of day. The general atmosphere between the dozens and dozens of competing soft drinks brands, espresso machineries, roasters, and merchandisers was jovial, friendly and positive. The booze additions, however, brought scandal. Mr Black’s juvenile attempt to undermine Tia Maria was ill-judged, especially considering that Tia Maria was one of the main sponsors for the event. The brandishing of spiteful stickers was at least appropriately childish. It was a stunt that may have impressed bartenders, but to a coffee crowd it was generally seen as darn right bitchy. Shame on us.
Moreover, coffee is growing up. The processes involved in bringing bean to cup have clear parallels with distillation. Washed processing, like column distillation, creates cleaner flavours; in contrast, natural processing is the pot distillation of the coffee world, producing bolder funkier flavours..And then there’s terroir: try beans from Ethiopia for berry-like fruit, like, say Pinot Noir; or beans from El Salvador for a richer, maltier flavour. See where I’m going with this? Perfect fodder for today’s more aware guest.
Sure, to some, the coffee and alcohol crossover manifests itself as the increasingly popular Espresso Martini and no further. This is hardly surprising, given the general disregard given to the coffee by bartenders. Just once, I’d love to have an Espresso Martini that celebrates and showcases the coffee. Nespresso Ne-no-no.
Bars have a duty to provide a third-place world for their guests. And yes, they are guests, not customers. We are in hospitality, not retail. It makes a difference. And when we position the emphasis on providing a welcoming, affordable place for our guests to enjoy, to escape into, to mingle in and connect, the drinks we serve become mere vehicles for this hospitality.
Indeed, the drinks we serve have to excite and entice, to create conversations and provide intrigue and value. This is exactly what coffee can do just as well as booze. Hell, the word ‘Barista’ even means ‘bar-tender’. It’s about time bars realised this. Time to wake up and smell how crap your coffee is.
Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.