London coffee culture's Antipodean roots

Ask a Londoner and they'll tell you our coffee scene is among the best in the world. But ask an Australian or a Kiwi and they'll say it all started from there

London coffee

"Gingerbread latte." That's what I would have replied, if you'd asked me what speciality coffee was in the early 2000s. I was – not obsessed, but certainly partial to Costa's concoction of coffee, flavouring, sugar and milk. I knew big coffee chains held questionable mores around the purchasing of both coffee and real estate, but I couldn't fault their innovative, tooth-achingly sweet takes on a drink that back then, as a student, I regarded as foul but necessary. So ask me then what I thought the future of coffee looked like, and I'd probably have dreamily conjured up a billionaire's chocolate shortbread latte.

Fast forward ten years or so, and I'm partly right. The billionaire's chocolate shortbread latte has (lamentably) come to pass. Yet alongside this obesogenic trend for "milkshake coffees", as executive director of Climpson & Sons, Danny Davis, dubs them, has been a revolution in the way coffee is roasted, served and drunk in London and the rest of the UK. Those in the business describe it as the third wave of coffee culture – the first being the exponential growth of coffee consumption thanks to the mass production of instant and ground coffee, and the second being the now ubiquitous high-street coffee shops. The third wave is characterised by the appreciation of roasting and serving coffee as a craft; of coffee as an artisanal product; and the significant influence of British-based Antipodeans.

The truth is that behind almost every good coffee shop in the last 20 years or so there lies a New Zealander or an Australian – either explicitly or by extension, in much the same way as the French were once behind good restaurants in London. "Early players circa 2005-2010 include the guys behind Sacred Coffee, Nude Coffee Roasters and of course Cam McClure of Flat White in Soho. These guys all focused on quality and the Australasian style of service," explains Sam Langdon, the head roaster at Caravan's coffee roastery.

"The next and consolidating moves were made by us at Caravan, bringing speciality coffee to the fore in an all-day restaurant environment, with roasting on show to the public in 2010." Anyone who has visited Caravan's 'open roastery' in King's Cross will have smelled the roasting equipment before they've seen it: intoxicating cocoa and nut aromas emanating from a large stainless-steel machine behind a coffee bar at the back of the restaurant. Together with Sacred, Nude, Flat White and Volcano roasters, Caravan "opened the door for established New Zealand coffee companies Allpress and Ozone to join the party," says Langdon – a party which, in 2019, still shows no sign of getting the last train.

They've changed everything: "the whole shebang," says Langdon. "Quality of bean, temperature of roast and quality of service." Where once our coffee habits were defined by tall or venti, syrups and sprinkles, now we discuss which province of Guatemala we'd like our beans from and consider our lattes and cappuccinos incomplete without a creamy tattoo of hearts or ferns. "Latte art is a classic example of this new craft approach to coffee," says Davis at Climpson & Sons, which after three years of operating from a stall opened its first bricks and mortar shop in Broadway Market in 2005, in an old butchers shop. "It takes time and attention, whereas the Italian coffee culture is more about knocking an espresso back."

The traditional Italian approach was "amazing," acknowledges Langdon – it is, after all, the foundation of most coffee culture here and abroad – "but it left little room for flexibility or adaptation." Their milky coffees rely on UHT, long life milk, which tastes "horrible" on its own and reacts very differently to being steamed than fresh does; and their baristas are invariably less interested in the technicalities of coffee than in the gossip-filled, smoke-wreathed social aspect of their role at the bar.

Though coffee's third wave would not have been possible without baristas from both the antipodes, it is the Kiwis who have really cut it when it comes to coffee culture in London. Agnes Potter, the Kiwi-born, UK-based general manager of Allpress Coffee, has several theories as to why her country has been so influential, from its robust dairy industry – a quality they share with Britain – to their frankly inspiring resistance to chains.

"In New Zealand there's a strong desire to support independent businesses. There's not been much influence from chains" she explains – allowing budding baristas to thrive on their own, and set the standard. In addition, while Australia already had something of a coffee culture thanks to the number of Italian and Greek independents, the Kiwis didn't 'discover' fresh coffee until they started travelling to Europe in the 1980s. Prior to that, says Potter, it was coffee essence or tea.

"Those doing their overseas experience – OE – brought the coffee culture back from Italy, and it evolved in isolation to that in Australia – or America, where filter was most popular." It took on its own character: it was espresso-based, as it was in Italy, but the milk in New Zealand was fresh and of a high quality. "Steaming fresh milk gets a smooth velvety texture – not the big, stiff, bubbly drink you find with UHT milk," says Potter.

Monmouth was one of the coffee game-changers

The sugar in the fresh milk caramelises as it steams, creating a naturally sweeter drink than one you'd find in an Italian or French café. The flat white was born of this refinement. One third milk, two thirds coffee, its creamy surface artfully swirled, it is "not as an intense as an espresso – espresso drinkers are in a different league", says Davis of Climpsons – "but it shows more appreciation of coffee than a latte." While espresso drinkers are likely to hang round the bar and geek out with baristas on beans and machines, flat white drinkers "will take a seat and linger," he continues – their coffee being too long to shot, and too short to warrant taking away.

"The rise of coffee in New Zealand was aligned with something of a food revolution. We were discovering good food as a means to relax and socialise, and coffee was part of that," says Potter. Places making good food served good coffee; kitchens which cared about the provenance of their ingredients cared where their coffee beans came from. "New Zealand has always grown a lot of its own produce – it has to," she continues, "so concern for the origins of coffee was there from the early days."

When Allpress landed here in 2010 having been going for 26 years in New Zealand, the "all-day dining culture" that characterised New Zealand's food scene was largely confined to the recently opened, Kiwi-owned Caravan and the Providores, co-owned by Peter Gordon, one of their greatest culinary exports. "The Tapa Room downstairs at the Providores – that is such a New Zealand thing, to have a quality place where you can stay from breakfast to evening," says Davis fondly. Miles Kirby, Caravan's executive chef and co-founder, was the head chef at Providores for eight years prior to doing his own thing. "I was always a fan of the Tapa Room. I felt the vibe in there as something I'd always want to recreate."

Both The Providores and Caravan served quality speciality coffee: Caravan from its own roastery and The Providores from an independent, London-based, Kiwi-staffed roastery. "When we opened in 2001 I did have a dream of opening a roastery – but it never happened," Gordon confides over an espresso martini, as his Tapa Room transitions seamlessly from afternoon flat whites into evening cocktails. Like Davis and Kirby, he sees the relationship between coffee and food in New Zealand as symbiotic, enabling people in both sectors to specialise and innovate while at the same time creating environments where customers want to linger: "ours is an entrepreneurial, confident, can-do attitude, but with an easygoing quality."

"Coffee was one of the first waves in Britain where you started to see care for the product and the customer experience," says Davis. "Britain was famous for bad service, with its restaurants and cafés staffed by 'creatives' who just wanted to get out and be artists." With quality produce, warm, informative staff and a relaxed 'vibe', the Kiwis echoed and vastly improved upon Starbucks' 'third place' concept: the idea that going for a coffee was as much about overall experience as it was flavour; and that a café was a place to eat, rest and socialise in as well as get your daily caffeine hit.

Being the big bad boys they are today, it is easy to dismiss the role Starbucks played in the growth of specialty coffee, and of coffee shops as an alternative to pubs or bars for socialising. One of the first coffee roasters in New Zealand was born as a direct result of the eponymous Michael Allpress travelling to America as part of his OE. "He saw Starbucks in Seattle when it was just a single café," explains Potter. "Not the monstrosity it is now, but an independent coffee shop doing something that was different." Back then Starbucks were one of only a handful of places in the entire country to be buying quality, single-origin coffee and shouting about where it had come from – a stark difference from the local diners stewing a watery soup of unidentifiable filter. "Michael was inspired and set up a coffee cart back in Auckland – then he started sourcing the beans and roasting them himself to get the flavour he'd loved in Seattle."

Naturally Starbucks is the subject of cynicism now – "it's too big. Once you get to that size it's impossible to control the quality" says Potter – but when it comes to the growth of the specialty coffee industry "they hacked a path for the rest of us."

Understanding where coffee comes from and how it's produced is not just a hallmark of good Antipodean coffee roasters, but the reason they're good: "if you know where your coffee is from and how it's been produced you have an idea of flavour profile and how it will react once you've roasted it," says Potter. "You don't want to cover the nuances of the coffee fruit. We don't want to burn it," adds Davis. "For each different bean you want to find the perfect developmental point between the temperature of the roasting and the time."

Aussie accents resonate around cafes

Like Caravan and Allpress, Climpson's has gone beyond single-origin coffee to single-estate – even single-microplot: "one part of one farm, roasted and packaged separately," enthuses Davis. It's a far cry from the "black, oily things" you find under chains and big brands, which taste and look similar, but could have come from anywhere in the world.

"Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, Myanmar – wherever they've come from, they will taste like burnt coffee" says Davis, "and they'll have been blended, so there's no sense of place or origin." Climpson's does do an espresso blend – they all do, in fact, because coffee roasters and cafés need an espresso that works consistently with milk, and because it avoids changing the types of beans used in an espresso machine during busy service – but these consist of rarely more than two or three single-estate coffee beans, carefully selected. What's more – while big companies tend to use blending to mask their beans' lack of freshness, quality and provenance – Davis, Potter and their compatriots make a point of sourcing beans that are never anything less than green (shades range from sage to lichen, depending on the origin) and garden-fresh.

Which brings us to Monmouth Coffee: the company without which no explication on London's coffee scene would be complete, or even possible. Founded in 1978 by Anita Leroy, one of the several gastronomic gamechangers behind the rejuvenation of Seven Dials in Covent Garden, this small roastery and shop on Monmouth Street was sourcing, roasting and brewing speciality coffee when the third wavers were no more than a twinkle in their Antipodean eyes.

"When I left New Zealand for London, everyone at home kept telling me, go to Monmouth for your coffee," recalls Monmouth's head of quality assurance, AJ Kinnell. Back in 2002 when Kinnell embarked on her OE, Monmouth was one of the only places that sourced their coffee fresh, roasted it, and sold it direct to the customer. "Everyone else bought it from a retailer who bought it from a wholesaler who bought it from a roaster who bought their beans from a wholesaler who bought their beans from the importer," she laughs. "Anita really rocked the boat by buying beans fresh from the importer, roasting and selling them."

"It was all about Monmouth," agrees Davis, who landed in the same year as Kinnell and with the same recommendation. "It were the biggest established independent roastery," – and this was before Monmouth had converted the railway arches at Spa Terminus, he recalls. They were still roasting underneath their tiny shop in Covent Garden.

To say Monmouth was ahead of the curve is to underestimate Leroy's vision. "I don't think we are even on the curve," says Kinnell. "For us it is so much more about being a conduit for connecting coffee farmers and customers rather than looking to define trends or shape anything external to that vision. That's been the same since 1978."

Monmouth was the first to put the farm's name on the bag; to talk about provenance to customers. All that has changed, in line with the third wavers, improvements in roasting machinery and further developing farmer relationships. "When I got to Monmouth 15 years ago, I was really impressed with the quality of green coffee they were able to access. At that time in New Zealand there was still a slightly longer chain – I guess because of shipping channels and the way business was done then – and I was struck by their roasting fresh green beans and selling them over the counter." Their café upstairs in Covent Garden was, initially, a tasting room so customers could sample before purchasing. "They offered a genuine love affair with coffee," acknowledges Davis – a relationship that is as unavailable in high-street coffee shops now as it was back then.

Yet Monmouth didn't just serve the Antipodeans coffee. They hired them – right from the very beginning, Kinnell discovered. "I asked Anita about the early days of Monmouth and she told me Kiwis and Aussies have been here forever." Before the days travelling Antipodeans were allowed to work in any industry, hospitality was more or less their only recourse. It's why their accents continue to resonate around cafés and restaurant kitchens; and why finally, after years of tired jokes about waiters and out-of-work actors, we are taking a leaf out of their books and offering better coffee, food and service.

"There's the flat white of course – you couldn't get one for love nor money 20 years ago, even here. We put it on the menu – but the unseen impact is the level of the professionalism in the industry," Kinnel continues. "Specialising in coffee – even specialising in food – was in its infancy when I first moved to Britain, but when I was growing up in New Zealand, being a barista was something you could do with interest and pride."

At Monmouth, it was "a two-way street": the Kiwis and Australians brought their knowledge of espresso-based, milk drinks and in turn learnt from Leroy the importance of sourcing fresh green beans and highlighting their origin. "That's exactly it!" Kinnell explains, when I ask whether she felt Monmouth was an incubator for budding Antipodean baristas. "So many who worked for us went home and set up their own business, or opened in London or elsewhere in Europe."

Other forces have since made their mark on London's coffee scene – the Scandinavian penchant for lighter roasts, the refinement of filter coffee, the rise of micro-sourcing – but no one has a stronger claim to changing the 'whole shebang' than the Antipodeans and their alma maters. "It's taken a while," Langdon at Caravan continues, "but speciality is becoming the norm in London."

So what is speciality coffee? For Kinnell there's no fundamental definition, beyond "coffee with provenance, roasted locally and fresh. Ideally with the farmer's name on it." For Langdon, however, the journey of speciality coffee "does not start and stop with the bean. With the term comes an expectation at café level that the baristas preparing the coffee will grind, extract, pour and serve the coffee with care and a consideration for quality." After all, he continues, "there is no point in spending money on great coffee, only to fuck it up at every subsequent stage in the process."

As for our changing experience of the drink – our move from the idea of coffee as fuel to coffee as something to enjoy, think about and socialise over, Langdon laughs. "Us Antipodeans are a chilled-out bunch aren't we? I think – or hope – that the Brits are seeing that it ain't cool being in such a damn hurry all the time. Chill out, drink your coffee, I promise, work will still be there when you get back." I don't ask him if adding gingerbread flavoured syrup counts as fucking it up. I don't need to. In 2019, I'm a flat white convert, and I know what coffee means to me: not just a drink, but an expression of expertise, ethical values, community, provenance and time.