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Wake up and smell the coffee!

Take it or leave it, coffee is serious business. For many, it is the only way to start the day. That first sip. The smell of freshly brewed coffee: a smell that is arguably better than the taste itself. A coffee aficionado will think nothing of taking a swift detour on their way to work in order to secure that perfect custom cup.

Illustration Fernando Volken Togni

Words Rebecca Hattersley

Never has coffee been more of a commodity, and a coffee shop more of a go-to destination. Regardless of your drink of pleasure, or preferred time of the day to partake, the daily necessity for coffee is increasingly apparent. The most widely used drug in the world is available at every corner and consumed effusively, with an average of 80% of London's population drinking 2.3 cups of coffee daily - that's approximately 15 million cups per day in London alone.

Coffee is convenient, an affordable luxury, and an aid to the frenetic pace of modern life - both a comfort and a catalyst to longer, sharper ideas. A coffee shop can take the nerves out of a job interview, the staleness out of a team meeting. No need for a boardroom - let's grab a coffee and chat. A coffee shop has long been a venue for conversation and creativity: brains buzzing with caffeine, novels penned, inspiration sparked. The romance between coffee and culture lives on, with coffee shops such as the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs acknowledging the blissful union with a coffee-focused social hub on London's Leather Lane.

With over 800 flavours attributed to coffee, extensive and ever-changing drink combinations, and with a new coffee shop opening almost weekly in London, choice is certainly on the menu. But the market for coffee would appear far from saturated, with needs driven by a sophisticated addiction that shows no sign, or desire, of being kicked. Demand is such that newcomers are welcomed, with coffee enthusiasts heading on over to test the wares.

But with so much good-looking competition, knowledge really is power. Coffee drinking is no longer a mere act of refreshment, but an experience to be savoured, with new wave coffeehouses at the forefront of delivering true artisan coffee and first wave corporate chains resorting to brand reimaging in a bid to retain status. But what makes a cup of coffee superior?

What motivates a busy city dweller to queue and wait their turn, spilling out onto the pavement in the winter months? It's personal, of course, which certainly explains why such an abundance of coffee shops coexist harmoniously. But with a premium coffee culture sweeping London, will 'speciality' inevitably become the norm? An independent café does not have the same exclusivity and glitterati as a high-end restaurant. A good cup of coffee is for the daily window in anyone and everyone's diary. So with accessibility at the crux of coffee consumption, how can coffee operators continue to stimulate and differentiate, and hold on to the devout line of coffee drinkers and the select cup they seek?

In order to answer these questions we need to turn not just to the hand of the barista, but to the hand that nurses the bean to beverage - the speciality coffee roaster. Part science and part craft, the roasting of coffee is an integral part of the journey that leads coffee cherries from the tree to your beautiful cup of coffee. What does a coffee roaster do? A question with a simple answer, you might think, but the roasting process is complex and all-encompassing. It would be easy to classify the coffee roaster as the middleman, sitting between the coffee farms and the coffeehouses, feeding beans into a machine, but this does not convey the know-how required of a roastmaster.

A coffee roaster is responsible for sourcing quality coffee farms, maintaining relationships with the farmers and developing a trained palette with which to identify and manipulate the inherent flavour characteristics of a coffee bean. Cupping is the method of systematically evaluating the aroma and taste of coffee beans and is used by roasters to assess the quality of a sample before purchasing.

Homes & London met with Agnes Potter, Training Manager at speciality wholesale coffee roaster, Allpress Espresso, a New Zealand-born venture on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch. In order to claim speciality coffee roaster status, a certain grade of coffee bean must be used. But what makes coffee so varied and delectable, Agnes explains, is not just the bean's natural flavour profile, but also the degree of roast, which unlocks these flavours.

Agnes uses the analogy of frying onions - flash frying versus sautéing, and the difference in both taste and appearance of each. The roast profile is what makes a brighter, lighter, citrus cup, or a feisty, full-bodied, sweeter cup.

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