UK Coffee house trade to get ‘Michelin-style’ gradings

Jon Skinner

The British coffee house trade is to get its first grading scheme, identifying venues which have been assessed as brewing coffee and tea to the standard that the modern consumer demands.
The idea has come from the Beverage Standards Association, which has made a move away from what are now considered the ‘old-fashioned’ kind of catering trade awards. Instead of seeking to recognise a ‘top café in the UK’, or similar title, it now seeks instead to recognise all cafes and catering establishments who can be seen to do a professional job of preparing the standard hot-beverage menu.
The intention is to invite cafes to compete for a grading or rating, with successful operators receiving display material to advertise their status. The consequence, to the benefit of the beverage industry in general, is that the high-street consumer will begin to see visible evidence of the trade’s high standards.
The idea has been in preparation for some time, but the potential of it has yet to be fully and clearly promoted.
“I don’t think even the BSA realised the potential of their own idea at first,” said Jon Skinner, the barista trainer who is guiding the association’s technical assessment for the award. “It’s something the industry has never had before – it’s a move towards our own kind of Michelin star.”
The BSA did previously have a conventional awards scheme, which sought the country’s ‘best’ café. The organisation has now steered away from that concept, and in doing so is in tune with the current trend away from the kind of awards which are at best subjective, and at worst influenced by commercial pressure or preferentiality.
Instead, the modern requirement of a trade award is something which clearly reflects professional achievement, and in this the BSA has acknowledged the influence of the UK Barista Championship in rewarding people who demonstrably ‘do something well’.
In its own new thinking, the BSA will not look for one ‘best’ venue. Instead, it hopes to recognise a large number of venues which make drinks to a consistently high standard.
Café operators who enter for the awards are invited to specify the beverages on which they wish to be judged. It is compulsory to be judged on a straight espresso shot, but then a café may choose to be judged on its milky espresso drinks (cappuccino, latte, flat white), on its filter coffee, or on its hot chocolate, or its tea.
Venues will receive a rating which is illustrated by a number of cups. Those who achieve a rating of three, four, or the top rating of five, can display a laminated sign promoting their status as a place which has been recognised as preparing beverages properly.
There is a secondary individual prize, for those who are judged to have served the best single drinks during the assessments.
In preparing for the first series of awards, the organisation is still finding its way through certain practical details.
“Judging the espresso drinks are easy,” says Jon Skinner, “because there are already accepted competition standards.”
However, he acknowledges, a curiosity arises in that certain beverages are prepared to the exact point at which they are to be consumed, and some are ‘finished off’ by the consumer. Typically, tea should not be served as a finished drink, because the consumer chooses the time it is left to brew in the pot, and changes the drink by the amount of any milk they add.
“It’s the same with coffee in a cafetiere,” observes Jon Skinner. “But if the server brews the beverage correctly to start with, then puts the teapot or the cafetiere on the table, and remembers to say: ‘please give this three minutes’, then they’ve done the right thing, and ticked an important box.”
The precise choice of product being brewed is almost secondary. A venue which brews a vintage pu-erh cannot be compared directly with one that uses an English Breakfast tea-bag, but what is common to both venues is that they can be seen to go through the correct brewing ‘ceremony’ for the product they choose. As a result, either can be recognised as a venue which brews its chosen beverage properly.
“I cannot judge a café and criticise them for their choice of product,” confirms Jon Skinner. “The best hot chocolate I ever had was the thick dark kind from a paddle machine, but many cafes prefer to use a Cadbury’s powder. I can’t mark them over which one they use – we have to judge their ability to do the best they can with the product they choose to serve.”
This in turn raises the question of whether a venue could choose to be judged on its house speciality, which for a coffee-house might be a flavoured latte. The entry form does not allow for such detail, and while the BSA has indicated that judges will not mark a flavoured latte, Jon Skinner has suggested that if a venue wishes to specifically ask for it, then they should have it judged.
However, he points out, it is early days for a new scheme, and any such curiosities will be ironed out in time.
The BSA has told us that ‘entries are beginning to flood in’, and that even with an entry fee (£35-£45) they hope for 300 participants. (Their old-style café awards usually achieved something in the region of a hundred.) Closing date for the current series is April 29th.



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