Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Come To The Dark Side... We Have Arabica Here ...

As a motorcyclist my licence is precious to me - so I don't really drink alcohol. And after working for an alcohol and drug dependency charity and seeing the effects of the demon drink, I'm even less attracted to the stuff. Except a very occasional glass of wine, at home.

Add to that ; the fact that most of my biker mates are the same, it means we tend to socialise in coffee bars and tea rooms rather than pubs. In fact on a 'biker day out' we tend to hop from one source of caffeine to another - it's been that way in the fraternity for 50 years, hence the term 'cafe racer'.

So I've become - sadly - a coffee snob. Sorry about that.

And when it comes to the decent stuff, I'm constantly searching for the best caffeine fix. To paraphrase author Lee Child in one of his Reacher books, my need for caffeine makes heroin addiction look like a little take-it-or-leave-it sideline.

So here's the problem... I also strive to shop ethically. I will not pass my money over to a corporation that; damages the earth; or poisons our environment; or uses child or forced labour; or refuses to pay it's whack in taxes.

The British High Street tends to have at least one outlet of the top three chain brands of coffee store in the UK. Here's why I now frequent none of them.


After making £ Billions of profit in the UK over the last few years and paying minimal or no tax, leading to a public backlash, it is only pressure of actions by groups such as UKUncut that has led to Starbucks 'volunteering' to pay up in 2013. That's nice of them.

So clearly Starbucks is out - just as well, as frankly what they call coffee I wouldn't soak my engine parts in it. To call it 'weak, flavourless - yet bitter - American crap' would be a compliment - and Starbucks cynical misuse and disregard of the FairTrade movement - while using the FT logo for marketing - has also been noted.

Caffe Nero

So in the last two years I've rather become a devotee of Caffe Nero; fine brews, and excellent staff, at least in my local Surbiton outlet, but that's all had to stop - as Nero's own issues with tax have been publicised.

And that's a damn shame, because their baristas are really well trained. They claim to make the best coffee this side of Milan, and I would not have doubted it.

Which leaves me with...

Costa Coffee

Costa have enjoyed quite an uplift from the misfortunes of Starbucks and Nero. The problem is, frankly, their blends are rather bland. To the average caffeine palette they might be fine - but I need more kick and more variety.

And Costa don't keep cinnamon behind the counter. That's just criminal.

The Independents

So I'm left with one choice - and in the end, the choice was obvious from the start. Local, independently-owned cafes have finally woken up to the demand for decent brews and started marketing themselves as an ethical choice. And started selling decent stuff.

In my area Surbiton - just outside London - I've tried them all and can now reveal that the best in Surbiton is :

[insert drum roll or dramatic pause as you see fit]

The PressRoom

Undoubtedly the best. And strangely enough, I can't put my finger on why. The coffee is first-rate - that really goes without saying, for me just to cross the threshold.

Service was efficient, effortless, and quick. The decor is relaxed and subtle without being 'let's-pretend-we're-in-Rome' pretentious. Wifi signal was pretty good, too, with the password given willingly and not grudgingly as I've had in other locations.

I just felt... comfortable there. Almost though, as a customer, I was actually - shock - welcome through their doors. I felt I could linger and not have the barista's eyes staring daggers at me just because my cup was nearly empty.

The Press Poom.
And looking around at my fellow customers, I could see that they, too, we're 'picky' people. And we'd found a home. People not from Surbiton come to Surbiton just to get their coffee here.

Try them. You'll never drink crap coffee again. They're on Twitter as @pressroomcafe and on Facebook here.

Thankfully others are waking up to the joys of the locally owned coffee shop - there are two good listings of London's best Independents here and here.