(NB: This is a follow up for uni - I started a discussion on here a while ago asking why coffee is perceived to be Italian at least in the UK. These are just some thoughts and experiences on that topic)
Walking round Darlington town centre gives you a relatively large selection of places to get cups of coffee. There are numerous 'traditional tea rooms' where coffee is an afterthought, and greasy-spoon cafes who will do instant Nescafe in a polystyrene cup. And then there is two Costas, a Caffe Nero and the brand new Starbucks. So far, so uninteresting. Darlington does boast a few independent cafes, however: The Voodoo Cafe which I am still too biased to express an opinion about, Coffee Bamber – an expensive and somehow unappealing place which, commendably, only sells FairTrade coffee, and “Coffee @ Elliotts.” This company actually has two branches now on either side of town, and I decided to try it out.
Coffee @ Elliotts is done out quite attractively, all art deco with huge chandeliers, ornate mirrors, heavy wooden furniture and the odd bust dotted around on shelves. There are also lots of sepia pictures of old style continental pavement cafes with titles in... French?
This is surprising. I had honestly expected the elusive Elliott to pretend to be Italian. Costa claims to serve Italian-style coffee, Caffe Nero are so Italian they've even added the extra 'f', Starbucks was apparently inspired by Italian espresso bars... Admittedly, Coffee Bamber doesn't seem to know what it is selling, and I tried to make the Voodoo Cafe as Latino as possible, but otherwise it is a safe presumption that most coffee shops have some Italian connection. Elliotts does serve espresso, cappuccinos, lattes, and all the rest, but also apparently sell 'coffee' as well, without giving it an Italian identity. All drinks come in 'regular' or 'large' as opposed to 'grande' or even 'venti'. Although the emphasis is on coffees, they also serve panninis and biscottis, but also plain sandwiches, cakes and jacket potatoes. None of which sound particularly continental.
The coffee at Elliott's wasn't bad at all, and was actually cheaper than the bigger chains. And then I found out why – they were using a Bean-to-Cup machine, which is about the same size as a Gaggia espresso maker and works on the same principle, but doesn't require the same human input. This machine will make espresso-based coffee, but only requires that you fill it up with beans, water and fresh milk in different compartments, and press the right button depending on what you want. It presses the coffee and steams the milk all by itself, and the 'barista' just has to put a cup underneath.
This makes the coffee cheaper – not because it is cheaper to run, or cheaper on staff costs; the baristas are still there to bring your coffees to you and cash up etc. It is cheaper, I think, because it requires less skill to produce. And also, less showmanship. Making coffee like this, looks easier to anyone watching. Therefore, value cannot be added to it by making it look more skilled. The process does not look sufficiently complex to warrant charging more to compensate for the skilled labour involved. This sort of coffee is less of a luxury.
This does not mean, however, that anyone could do it. It is still highly unlikely for many people to have a bean-to-cup machine at home, and so the luxury of having someone make it for you is still there. Even with a machine like that, there still has to be some product knowledge involved. An example is that the coffee from Interval bar at Sheffield university also comes from a bean-to-cup machine, just like at Elliotts. Elliotts coffee is infinitely better tasting however. Baristas still need to know how to maintain the machine, set it to the right temperatures and pressure, and what coffee to put in it. Elliotts coffee tasted as good, if not better, than Caffe Nero's equivalent, whereas the coffee at Interval is somewhere between burnt and stale and possibly flavoured with ground up car tyres. This, to me, implies that there is more to making coffee than just which machine you choose.
As shown by the Barista Championships, there is a lot of skill, art and showmanship that goes in to making espresso based coffees, and the fact that these competitions, and this style of coffee-making are still so popular implies that it is still what consumers want – there must be a specific selling point to make the coffee shops invest in Gaggia machines and in training their staff. If the bean-to-cup machines were as good – and they are quicker, more efficient and dare I say it, convenient, then Starbucks and Nero would use them and the art of the barista wouldn't be so called for. Something has to make the 'real' espresso coffees of higher quality.
I would argue that it is the Italianess that is that selling point. Italianess is part of the 'experience' which the big brands are so keen to promote. Caffe Nero, for instance, want to offer the experience of a old fashioned Italian espresso bar and continental cafe. It gives the coffee, and this 'experience' an identity, which is very important to the brand, Being 'Italian' not only makes the place sound sophisticated and if not exotic, then certainly different to the quaint English tea rooms, it also adds an element of performance. Espresso was invented and perfected in Italy, the first espresso machines were designed and patented by Italians. This style also happens to require more skilled human input, more visual techniques and as such, more labour. Increasing the labour involved increases the value of the end-product, the customer perceives it to be of better quality entirely because of the added labour-value, and so espresso coffees become more expensive. This could be the main reason why coffee shops, like Coffee @ Elliotts become Italian, when they are on Darlington high street, run by Americans and get their coffee beans from Brazil.