According to Julie

Hunting for coffee in the land of tea


“Can’t I just get a normal coffee?”

This simple question is written on a magnet on my fridge. Beside this fridge, I can get a normal coffee (black, freshly ground beans, French press). But although I sleep in a two-bedroom flat in Camberwell, I live on the LSE campus in central London, surrounded by coffee shops that don’t sell coffee and sandwich shops that don’t sell bread.

Café chains that (claim to) serve coffee and sandwiches dominate central London. There’s Starbuck’s of course, but also British chains in more or less the same format: Caffé Nero, Costa Coffee, Prêt a Manger. Just like in the US, I was initially baffled by the size of their drinks. Forget the Tall = Small confusion Starbuck’s offers; I couldn’t even get a barista to explain what the difference between a small and a medium cappuccino was. An extra shot? More of everything? No, just more milk, apparently. But to me, that means it’s no longer a cappuccino (one part espresso, one part milk, one part foam); it’s caffeinated hot milk.

The Daily Mail did a cappuccino test last October, and found that foam accounts for more than a third of the contents of most high street cappuccinos.

“Order anything larger than a 12oz cup and you are getting a watered-down coffee,”  Marco Arrigo told the Daily Mail. Marco trains baristas at Illycaffe’s Universita del Caffe in London. If only he got through to more of the hot milk purveyors around Holborn station and along Fleet Street.

Just like I wouldn’t order cocktails at a bar where they don’t know what a gin&tonic is, I usually default to americano when I’m unsure about a new coffee shop. Espresso with extra water won’t taste sour like drip coffee that’s been sitting around in a thermos for hours, and you neatly avoid the problem of too much milk or milk at the wrong temperature. And even if the espresso isn’t great, adding water will usually smooth that out a bit. It’s pretty hard to mess up an americano.

Or so I thought. English baristas add milk to it.

Specifying that I want “an americano without milk”, is like ordering “salad without marshmallows”. Yes, I know that it is possible to add sponges made of glycerin and sugar to salad, but surely that stops it being salad. (Yes, I know Americans add marshmallow to salad. That stops it being salad. Nothing can convince me otherwise.)

About half of the time, even if I manage to specify that I want my americano black (oh, it feels so wrong to have to specify that), my single-shot americano arrives in a cup so big and filled with water that I can see to the bottom.

Even if I make a conscious effort to leave the high-maintenance, over-caffeinated side of my personality on the opposite side of the Thames, this is just wrong. I may be in tea country, but I expect more from a cosmopolitan city like London.

So I have started to order like, to quote the PostSecret postcard above, a douche: “Could you make me an americano and use about half of the water you would normally use? Please!” (Must remember to say please. I am not in Norway anymore). So far only one barista has told me this was “impossible” (at the Tea and Coffee Festival at the South Bank Centre, of all places), but most of them give me funny looks. Even so, they don’t get anywhere near as grouchy as the woman behind one the LSE coffee counters did when I asked her – as a curious economics student – why the americano was cheaper than the espresso.

At the Pret A Manger next to Holborn tube station, the guy who sold me a customized americano and a BLT on bread that tasted much like marshmallows, was quite good-natured about my fussiness: “My Italian friend hates coffee in London,” he told me, “He says we add too much of everything but coffee.” I agreed and asked him why the English did this, and he shrugged and said: “It’s different in Italy. Here in England, you can get a white americano.”

I have had decent coffee here. TimeOut wrote a feature on coffee shops a while back, and if you hunt for coffee, it can be found. But even at good places, the quality is inconsistent, and it all depends on who’s shift it is and whether they have time to care (or you have time to wait). I guess I have gotten spoiled, forgetting that Oslo, despite being a terrifyingly expensive miniature city, has an amazing coffee scene.

On the other hand, walk into any London pub and enjoy at least four different draught beers, served with a smile and an offer of samples. Maybe I’ll just drink less espresso shots and more pints.

6 thoughts on “Hunting for coffee in the land of tea

  1. Hmm.. despite moving back from London many years ago I still ask for a black coffee whenever I buy one, which often leads to raised eyebrows here 😉 As for bread, I either made my own or ate crisp bread in the UK as British bread is mostly just water and air (I saw a documentary on this ages ago, apparently most of the suspicions Norwegians feel towards British bread are true)

  2. Oslo = “terrifyingly expensive miniature city”. Yep, that’s it in a nutshell.

    • Actually, I still think “paying for a Ferrari, getting a Volvo” is the best description of life in Oslo. On the other hand, life in London is sometimes paying for a Ferrari, getting a Ferrari… with broken windows and mouldy seats. And then getting stuck in traffic with this Ferrari.

  3. Pingback: The perfect city « According to Julie

  4. Suggest you try Monmouth coffee in Borough Market and avoid the chain shops you Americans are so fond of.

  5. Bartlebeans – Actually, Monmouth is a chain, and I’m not American.

    Seriously though, I’m sure Monmouth is great. I also enjoy Notes, which has two cafés in the Covent Garden area, and Fleet River, which is close to LSE. I guess what bothers me is that chains in Oslo do care about coffee. Although the quality is sometimes inconsistent and dependent on the individual barista’s experience, each company still seems to be consistently trying to make good coffee, coffee that tastes like coffee, not milk. The chains here in London don’t seem to know what they’re doing. It’s like they’re more focused on looking like Starbuck’s and handing out big paper cups with their logo, than on maintaining quality standards in their actual product. Or maybe their product isn’t coffee, but that paper cup. And sandwiches, of course. Maybe the fact that they also have to compete with lunch restaurants is part of the problem.

    Oslo coffee chains focus on the espresso in their espresso-based drinks; everything else is just extra frills on the side. London coffee chains seem to be all frills, no espresso.

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