The trend for independent, specialist coffee shops is growing in Britain and our lifestyles are becoming increasingly in tune with Continental Europe, where a morning, mid-morning and post-prandial coffee is now the accepted norm. Recent industry studies have shown that the £5 billion coffee shop market in the UK continues to grow, year on year, and the future for artisanal coffee houses is looking very rosy. There are now over 14 000 coffee shops in Britain, and although the three main branded players, Costa Coffee, Starbucks and Café Nero, dominate the commercial landscape, there is no doubt where true connoisseurs prefer to take their caffeine fix. The artisanal coffee house business is booming.
In Bath, Colonna and Small’s, a family owned business that has recently moved into very stylish premises at 6 Chapel Row, is setting the trend for what discerning coffee consumers are looking for. The décor is extremely light, bright, uncluttered and modern, with wooden floors, tables, chairs and stools, turquoise china cups, wall paintings and graphics and gleaming, up-to-the-minute coffee making equipment. The building itself is very beautiful, with tall ceilings, white walls, glass alcoves, big windows and a lovely patio garden out the back.
Maxwell and Lesley Colonna-Dashwood source their coffees from four main roasters: Origin Coffee, Square mile Coffee, James Gourmet Coffee and Hasbean. All have direct relationships with growers, and the focus is on the flavour diversities and varietals grown. The types of coffees are changed every week and with the changing seasons, and the choices are written on a chalk board.
Now that it is the beginning of autumn you can choose between an 80% Finca Shekinah and 20% Eltalapo blend or Finca Suiza (all from El Salvador), a Kicker Blend from Hasbean or a Sumatran blend for your Espresso. There is a brew bar and a slow bar where three types of methods are used to brew filter coffee, by aeropress, syphon or clever dripper. By changing the ratios of beans to water, you can create more or less delicate and sweet coffees. I am offered a small cup of the latest brew, and the taste is very nutty, delicate and quite earthy, whereas my cappuccino is very rich, strong and creamy.
“The Professional Barista Handbook” by Scott Rao is on the bookshelf, and leafing through its pages makes you appreciate just how complex, layered and skilful this trade is. Maxwell has won his fair share of awards already, both as a barista and as a taster, and he speaks like one for whom making coffee is not just a livelihood but a compulsive passion.
“I started in Melbourne, Australia,” he told me, “and first of all I was running a restaurant. I became increasingly drawn to the craft of roasting and making coffee. I went to work for the specialist coffee house Brother Baba Budan and that really inspired me to travel and to specialise within the trade.”
Peter Attridge works alongside Lesley and Maxwell and he tells me how they always make sure they have coffees that go well with milk. 80% of the market is for milky coffee and milk is steamed to 65 degrees C. in order to optimise its sweetness and texture. They balance all coffees in the brewing: sweetness, bitterness, acidity and sourness all have to come through in perfect balance on the palate when drinking a good coffee, so it is important never to add sugar until a coffee has been tasted.
Along the front counter you can see a range of fresh cakes, biscuits, pastries and croissants.
“We may well increase the range of food we sell here,” Maxwell continues, “but the essence of our business will always be the coffee side. We are going to be using the space we have in our basement to do coffee tastings and run courses as well. Just like the wine and the whisky trade, customers want to understand more about coffee as a drink and the time is right for sharing our knowledge and experience with a wider audience.”
On the walls you can read all about the natural, fully washed and pulped methods of processing coffee beans, and the names of Arabica varietals read like seed catalogue kitchen garden hybrids, with evocative names like geisha, longberry, acaia, mundo novo and heirloom.
The clientele already feels at home in this beautiful shop: mothers come in after the school run with babies in buggies and businessmen with laptops and mobile phones appropriate the biggest tables and spread the wherewithal of their trade across them.
According to industry reports there are seven key trends for the future of coffee shops globally: consumers will be looking for very authentic coffee experiences that they cannot replicate at home; they will be looking for relaxed, comfortable and homely places to enjoy their coffees; there will be an increase in demand for specialist equipment for making coffee at home; consumers will be buying more mobile apps and using social media to find out and communicate the best places to enjoy the best coffees; sustainability, fair trade and ethics will feature prominently in the decision making process as to which plantations and distributors consumers support; online and mail order sales will continue to increase and, lastly, by 2020 it is estimated that 38% of all consumers will be “silver shoppers” who enjoy treats and look for interesting, artisanal, narrative driven food and drink experiences.
Colonna and Smalls are well placed to face the coffee future. The location of their shop, facing a handsome garden square in central Bath, extremely knowledgeable and friendly staff and a very vibrant, fashionable atmosphere renders this new initiative exemplary. In the depths of a recession we need somewhere like this to help slow us down, help us reconnect with community and craft and remind us to enjoy simple diurnal pleasures. It is extraordinary how far coffee has come, and perhaps even more remarkable what its future holds.