It’s the new law of coffee physics and you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand it.
The basic principle is simple if not bizarre: the rise in the number of coffee shops is in inverse proportion to the temperate of the hot beverages served in these establishments.
In other words, the hotter the competition in the booming consumer coffee market, the more likely it is that your latte will be lukewarm. I was brought up in the era of Mellow Birds but I am aware of the difference between a frappachino and a cappuccino. Which in my experience in Birmingham, isn’t very much at all.
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I am an advocate of the rise of independent food and drinks businesses in Birmingham. I enjoy the quirky differentness and Stick-It-To-The-Man spirit of non-chain cafés. I have brought into their dream of a world without Costabucks.
So, is it too much to ask to get a cup of hot coffee?
Over the past months, I have had borderline tepid coffee at Birmingham’s Urban Coffee (in both Church Street, in the city centre, and in Harborne) and at Faculty Coffee in the Piccadilly Arcade. I had a delicious Brazilian daily special at Brewsmiths in Livery Street. It was one of the best value coffees I have gulped this year but it too suffered from lack of heat due to it being kept for customer top-ups (an eminently sensible idea) in those catering flasks you see at hotel buffets and conferences (an eminently not sensible idea).
The actual taste of the coffee in all the establishments was good, even if I can live without froth art. But if you pay £2.50 to £3.50 for a warm drink you like to think you will be able to nurse it for 10-15 minutes while you have a chat or stare into the middle distance and wonder what the hell everyone is typing into their iPhones.
Maybe it’s me, I thought. Maybe Mellow Birds was meant to be served hot but modern coffee is an altogether more rarified product and requires sipping at room temperature to appreciate its subtle complexities and flavour profiles.
I decided to ask someone who knows a thing or two about coffee, not least because she is Italian and drinks four or five espressos a day. Valeria Mazza was crowned Barista of the Year by The Universities Catering Organisation in 2013 and was a judge at this year’s final in Blackpool. Valeria had to taste 72 coffees over two days so she has an informed view on taste and temperature and an inability to sleep.
Should coffee be served anything other than hot, as in not hot? Never, says Valeria, who works at the University of Bristol. “If I was served coffee that wasn’t hot I would ask for another one,” she says. “Coffee should always be hot. Always.”
In the name of research, I flew 12-and-a-half hours to California and set by satnav for the state capital, Sacramento.
Okay, I had other reasons for heading to the gold rush city but while I was there I decided to check out Temple Coffee which is indeed a temple to coffee.
Temple bagged first place in the Coffee Review’s Top 30 coffees of 2013 for its Ethiopia Yirgacheffe ECX. The coffee scored a remarkable 96 points out of 100 for its “crisp, nut-toned chocolate; lush night-blooming flowers; ripe tangerine” and “pungent sandalwood” aroma.
Unfortunately, the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe wasn’t on when I visited 9th Street so I had something Brazilian. (I know, “something Brazilian” is a very poor description. I did take a note of the exact name of the coffee but then lost it. Percolate me.)
I had the coffee French press style. Geekery rules at Temple and the barista gives you a stopwatch (with an alarm) and instructions on how to push down the press when two minutes is up. I had a green chilli cheese scone while I waited and mused: will the coffee be hot?
When the pinger went off, I pushed down the plunger and poured the drink which not only tasted fantastic (the barista said stuff about cabernet sauvignon notes and dusty berries) but it was also unquestionably hot.
The scone, by the way, was terrific.
There’s too much sweet confection in British coffee shops for my liking. Mind you, the breakfast pastries in Temple are pretty irresistible too…
I will happily return to Urban Coffee, Faculty Coffee, Brewsmiths and all the other Birmingham espresso joints because I dig the vibe and the business philosophy.
But this time if the coffee isn’t hot, I’ll ask for another because really, on this one, I don’t think I’m wrong. I suggest you do the same. Don’t get cold feet.