British coffee – is it really that bad?

The majority of espresso coffees tasted by the assessors in the first stage of this year’s Beverage Standards Association awards have failed to meet expectations.  An analysis of the first hundred venues judged, from a cross-section of sites over England, Scotland and Wales, has shown that 54 per cent of espressos served were unsatisfactory. “Our standards are not ‘pie in the sky’,” head judge Ranald Paterson told Coffee House magazine. “Our assessors do not expect world-shattering quality – ‘basic’ will pass. Unfortunately, basic is too high for some in our industry.”

The point of the BSA awards is not, as in some trade schemes, just to hand out prizes for the sake of it. The point is to highlight the need for good practice in beverages, and to allow professionally-run venues the chance to display something to show that they have been assessed as meeting trade standards in their work – the ambition is that as these accreditations become more familiar on the high street, more venues will strive to achieve them, and the standard of coffee in general will rise.

The awards were launched a few years ago with the ambition of becoming the coffee equivalent of the Michelin stars, but a more realistic parallel, which the trade’s news magazine has made on several occasions, is with the Cask Marque scheme in real-ale pubs.

That scheme is widely credited with the great rise in the standard of real ale over the last twenty years, and it is because of this that several in the coffee trade have not been entirely depressed by the head judge’s findings.

“All the findings were from first-round assessor visits,” Ranald Paterson has confirmed to us. “A small espresso is the one compulsory drink required of all entrants. All 54 per cent failed on extraction time alone, the majority through under-extraction (or, ‘too fast’).  There were parallel faults such as too hot or cold, and incorrect water volume.

“That does not mean that the remaining 46 per cent were all good. Let us say they were ‘acceptable’. Less than five per cent were of our 5-Cup standard.

“A variety of reasons for the unsatisfactory espressos were given, including insufficient training to make espresso, machines awaiting service, and ‘I know it’s bad, but only the service engineer is allowed to alter anything’.

“It is true that espresso on its own is a minority drink in the UK. But it is the base of all the biggest-selling coffee drinks, and inevitably the standard of these drinks is compromised by a bad espresso.”

This is not a new observation. Indeed, it was at a speciality coffee conference a couple of years ago that James Hoffmann, the UK’s first world barista champ, remarked that: ‘ninety-nine per cent of all cups of coffee brewed in the world are bad – maybe ninety-six per cent, but nearly all of them’. And nobody in the coffee trade disagreed with him.

Two companies from the coffee trade have, between them, sponsored well over a hundred entries into the BSA’s awards contest this year. Their reactions to the news were more optimistic than might have been expected.

“I would be saddened to the point of a cliff jump if any results from my own customers were that bad!” said Angus McKenzie of Kimbo Coffee, who imports a range of espresso coffee blends from Naples. “There is a good and a bad side to the policy of sponsoring many entries to a contest – on one hand, results like this would appear to be bad press for the industry, while on the other hand, we feel we may get a more real picture of what is actually happening.

“But… you might imagine that when the Cask  Marque organisation started judging beer back in the 80s, they found ninety per cent of them to be undrinkable, badly-handled beers, from which they went on to massively change practices and knowledge among consumers, suppliers and publicans, as a result of which, we now drink great beer.

“So, let us fly our flag and explain about best practice. This may be the light that starts showing the way.”

It was Jaguar Espresso Systems, a supplier of espresso machines and parts, who sponsored most entrants.

“While 54 per cent of espressos were ‘unsatisfactory’, almost half were satisfactory,” commented Jaguar’s Helen Taylor . “The BSA’s benchmark for ‘satisfactory’ is actually a very good standard.

“The BSA stipulates that every outlet must be assessed on its espresso (and rightly so as the base of all drinks). Perhaps because over 95 per cent of drinks in most coffee shops are milk drinks, cappuccinos and lattes, coffee-shops do not recognise how important the espresso part is, and in many instances are simply not used to serving it. I cannot remember the last time I was in a coffee-shop and the person in front of me ordered an espresso.

“Perhaps more emphasis needs to be given during barista training to espresso making – extraction time (why it is important) and grinder set-up, how (and more importantly, when) to adjust the grinder.

“If the industry is being challenged, standards will hopefully rise as a result of this.”

Reaction elsewhere in the industry has so far ranged from agreement to downright rejection of the findings.  The La Cimbali brand of espresso machines has made the point that the coffee trade now needs to judge the correct balance of manual skills and technological assistance (it has recently introduced a system by which the espresso machine and grinder ‘talk’ to each other and automatically adjust their settings if necessary).   One of the world’s biggest coffee brands has, understandably, commented that instant coffee avoids the problem completely!

Elsewhere, equally predictably, there has been a questioning of the reliability of the assessments.

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This story first appeared in Coffee House magazine and on the Caffe Culture news portal, which is allied to the UK coffee trade’s main show.

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