Just before Christmas (and lost in their red cup cinammon and peppermint festive frenzy) Starbucks launched their first flat white. A “response to customers asking for less milk”, and a decision no doubt influenced by the rash of places offering the drink across the city, it marked a leap into the mainstream for the newish (to London) drink, and was followed shortly after by Costa (the best of the bad bunch four – Pret, Starbucks, Costa, Cafe Nero) who brought in the big guns (Peter Andre) to mark the occasion. Now Andre’s got involved it seems only right and fair to spend a fortnight seeking out the best the city has to offer. Bring on the Great Flat White Hunt….
Let’s begin with Starbucks. The guys that work in the branch that’s attached itself to my office space like a desperate limpit are nice enough. They don’t do the whole “who’s-next-please” when I’m still standing there thing and their banter is better than most chain-shop employees, but true to cliché their flat white is cold, ethereal and a whispy pot of frothy nothingness with just a cocktease hint of coffee that smells vaguely of disinfectant.
From these depressingly inauspicious beginnings, there’s nowhere else to go but straight to the source, the place said to have brought the flat white to London: Flat White (obvs). Everything about this place is perhaps inevitably the antithesis of Starbiz, from the espresso cups tied to a piece of string that rise as you open the door to the impeccable soundtrack (Besnard Lakes upon entry). The dudes inside are beardy, band t-shirt-bearing, horizontally laid-back but hellbent on getting every coffee right. The drink’s silkier than Jordan’s bedsheets and a whole lot purer, made by committee by the committed duo behind the La Marzocco machine (the Florence-built dual boiler crops up a lot this week). We might be on Soho’s grottiest street but you could spend a week here. Then someone orders a cappuccino for his boss to sanctimonious groans of “making that kills us every time”. It’s a withering sign of self-righteousness that lets this place down at the last minute and hints at a dark side behind London’s cult of coffeee.
Out east the following day and the Farm Collective, based next to Fabric in Farringdon. Here the music (Cheryl Crowe’s ‘Every Day Is A Winding Road’) is the only thing that lets this place down. I’m knowingly undercharged, the coffee takes a reassuringly long time to arrive from the imposing Syneso machine and arrives stylishly-streaked on top with a real depth to its creaminess and a tangible coffee flavour now noticeably absent from yesterday’s FW. Brickwork’s exposed, food’s made downstairs, the vibe is good.
Nearby Taylor Street Baristas take their coffee seriously. Signs everywhere tell you about the coffee, the fourteen variables involved in making it, the 800 distinct flavours in beans (as opposed to 400 in wine). Theirs, apparently, have notes of berries and cucumber and by the power of suggestion I taste both. You don’t come here to relax; it’s more of a queue from the ‘in’ door to the ‘out’ door than a coffee shop and the tables are just glorified shelving. You come here to eschew the chains and grab a drink for the train, and a team of ten specialist baristas whistle through the queue, seemingly knowing everyone around me. Their loyalty card offers a free drink in five, which says a lot.
The “disloyalty card” at Dose says even more. On this you get stamps from eight local coffee shops and your reward is a drink made by the UK’s first World Baritsta Champion. For someone halfway through a meandering quest for coffee greatness, that’s like getting an invite to have tea round the Maharishi’s house. At Dose the music is tropical spa chillout, and I start to see a theme emerge. More dudes with beards exuding a slacker passion, a menu made out of alphabet letters, book shelves dedicated to caffeine porn (here the pack’s led by a dog-eared copy of God In A Cup). Again, and this is starting to grate somewhat, it’s not somewhere to hang out, specialising in the kind of kids furniture you get in banks and doctor’s waiting rooms. In fact I’m surprised there’s not one of those rollercoaster abacus things for us to finger while slurping drinks. The coffee itself is a deeper, darker roast, the milk creamy but the quiet brother to the espresso shot’s gregarious noisiness.
The following day I’m stranded on the South Bank, perhaps the best part of London but somewhere seriously lacking in good coffee shops. A gust of foolhardy masochism that blows me into Eat. I thought of coffee’s 800 notes as I reluctantly ordered a latte (they haven’t noticed the bandwagon yet) but the only overtones I was getting were of muddy puddles full of crinkled leaves drifting bleakly across the surface.
Monmouth Coffee Company is the area’s saving grace (and supplier to most good coffee shops that aren’t buying from Square Mile beans). Plonked squarely in Dickens’ stomping ground it hasn’t changed much since, aging heaters and clocks hanging above uneven floorboards and a huge communal table full of drinkers sharing bread and jam from kilner jars. It’s been written about a lot and is pretty much the best coffee house in London and, finally, offers somewhere (albeit squashed) to hang out. It made me do something weird too. For the first time this week I left the lid off, eschewing the nipple drip of a plastic top for big gulps that brought forth roasty, woody, nutty beans I could taste the fire in.
Sacred, off Carnaby Street, takes the worship of coffee literally. Angels and ikons adorn the walls, the Marzocco’s atop a pulpit, church candles burn solemnly, their flames blown by the bass of some noticeably non-secular hip-hop. Despite these OTT efforts to come across kooky it still feels unnervingly like something from the Costa del Pret and is run with a ruthless efficiency. They already have a stall at Westfield so perhaps we’re seeing the kernels of our next superchain. Baguettes, focaccias and pain au chocolate look decidedly forlorn and the speakers start blaring some inexcusable drivel (Placebo’s ‘Every You Every Me’, in 2010?). The coffee, incidentally, is as velvet as the next place but the beans have the personality of Alex Reid. Time Out called it “a place for worship” (surely soundbites like that are the catch to the owners’ brainstorm meetings’ bait?) but unfortunately they’re worshipping false idols.
Midweek the following week and I find my favourite so far. Soho’s Milk Bar is Flat White’s sister joint (and weirdly only a few blocks away) and a furtive, dark den of caffeine abuse. Rainbow screens cover the windows, behind which loner bean freaks huddle over their drinks. Vegemite’s stacked up against the wall and the owner talks at length about the tunes he’s playing (The Budos Band and The Dap-Kings). Apparently this place is part funded by the BBC trust, of which Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is a member, who can be seen drinking there often. It’s my hairdresser at Fish telling me this, as he sups a Fernandez & Wells flat white (instantly firing up coffee envy within me).
“Eighteen minutes is the time taken to roast our beans” a sign on the wall boasts, “as opposed to the seven minutes by companies more concerned with profit than a passion for coffee”. Sounds righteous, but there’s a problem. We’re in Costa (it had to be done). And they just served me this, which is less flat white and more milky filter coffee with a frothy gimp mask on.
My final day ends with a marathon. From Stokey we trek to Tina, We Salute You, which just topped Cosy Coffee Shops’ poll. We were hoping to try Taste Of Bitter Love but they close on a Saturday, which I just can’t get my caffeine-addled head round. Tina’s shrine is pure Dalston, smeared in squatter’s art (dirty white walls covered in paint splodges and sequins making dramatic statements), populated with traveller chic art students in fashion dreadlocks and haughty hipsters, and marked by a pile of fixed chain bikes lined up outside. While the place reeks of self-satisfied smugness and there’s nowhere to sit save a bench in the corner it’s the bubbliest coffee yet, an impeccable texture that offered a tangible pause between the coffee’s first hit and the gush of liquid.
From there we were propelled by the double shot to Time Out’s ‘Best Coffee In London’ (as voted in a feature they dropped during the making of this blog), Shoreditch’s Prufrock. This place takes the coffee-shop-as-pitstop concept and runs off down the street with it. It’s essentially a (vintage, 1950s) machine plonked in a pretentious clothes shop and manned by the UK – and world – barista champion (who wasn’t there on our visit). You don’t hang around, but then you wouldn’t want to after the 20 minute wait for the drink. The reason for the hold-up is the replacement barista’s incessant geeking out on his beverages and his Clarkson-esque fetishisation of his machine. “It offers a 45 second extraction time as opposed to the standard 28 seconds” he boasts while lovingly stroking the steam spout, “that includes a pre-infusion time that applies 12 atmospheres of pressure…”. I would be dozing off if it wasn’t for the torrents of caffeine gushing through my veins.
Almost by way of contextualising his coffee obsession, he directs us to the South East branch of the UK Barista Championships which, in an impeccably appropriate turn of events, is taking place around the corner at the Rich Mix. We walk in on a tragicomic scene as one hapless competitor with an extreme case of the shakes attempts to create his signature drink for a panel of seven judges. Over Crystal Maze-esque dance music and in front of a smattering of coffee connoisseurs he sets off dry ice on the table and heads over to his mini stove, which fails to light. After several botched attempts he gives up and stands there prostrate waiting for the clock to tick down, looking like he wants to commit suicide.
At which point I realise I’ve written 2,000 words on coffee, and need a lie down.
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