These days coffee drinkers have developed a taste for single-origin and light roasts. We've learned to recognise terms such as terroir, crema, microfoam, we understand tasting notes – well, most of the time – and understand what different roasting profiles actually taste like in the cup.
London's coffee scene has burgeoned over the past 15 years or more, with a passion for quality evolving to spawn new and independent coffee shops, roasters, equipment makers and festivals. The capital is now home to one of the world's most exciting coffee industries.
So, if you've ever wondered what's in your cup, here's a brief guide from Lani Kingston – author of London Coffee: The People, the Places, the History – to help you navigate the menus of some of London's best modern coffee shops:
Drip or filtered coffee is a basic method of coffee extraction that involves pouring hot water over coffee grounds that are suspended in a filter. The water passes through the ground beans, extracting the soluble fats, chemicals and aromas, and falls into a collection pot or cup.
There are multiple methods of drip coffee brewing, some which are designed for convenience and others that are quite laborious: generally considered artisan methods. Third wave coffee connoisseurs have brought specialty drip brew methods such as the pour-over into fashion, with single cup drip coffee becoming a popular brewing method in specialty coffee bars.
Coffee brewed through a filter has fewer lipids than coffee prepared using other methods; meaning filter coffee has less coffee oil than espresso. This can either be a positive or negative – fewer oils can make for a crisper cup, but some prefer the thick, syrupy mouth feel of those coffee brews rich in oils.
Different types of coffee beans with different flavour notes are often best matched to one type of brewing method - and filter methods are best used with beans that have been lightly roasted to pronounce the fruity flavour of origin, promoting sparkling acidity. Curators Coffee (two locations in the city), are a great pick for enjoying filter coffees – with a rotating selection of beans and roasters, you can enjoy a different filter beverage every time you visit.
Speciality coffee's rise shows no sign of stopping. But how much do you know about its origins? Read more about coffee's journey from bean to cup.
Espresso is perhaps the most common coffee extraction method. There are a number of different styles and methods for brewing espresso coffee, however they all operate on the same basic principle – hot water is forced, under pressure, through finely ground coffee beans to extract a concentrated flavourful and aromatic liquid. An espresso shot is the base of many milk-based beverages popular in cafes worldwide, and there are dozens if not hundreds of ways to prepare an espresso-based beverage.
The machine was designed and manufactured by Achille Gaggia in 1946. Originally using hand-powered pistons, eventually the machine evolved into the modern version still seen in coffee bars and cafes worldwide today.
European style coffee bars and coffee aficionados sometimes still use hand-powered piston machines, as some claim that manual operation allows greater control over the espresso shot. A striking piece of machinery, the hand-powered piston espresso machine requires a lot of skill to ensure correct timing. While these machines can make a beautiful, flavourful cup of coffee, many elements need to be controlled to ensure correct compression of the lever and extraction of the shot.
It's best to leave this to the professionals - such as the team at Bar Italia, one of the only old school Italian espresso bars left in once teeming Soho. Their hand powered espresso machine makes thick, syrupy beverages 22 hours a day, and their two baristas have worked the machine for a combined 40 years.
Legend has it that the Americano was invented for American servicemen in Europe, to turn the strong, European espresso into the sort of beverage they were used to from home. An espresso shot is diluted with hot water to resemble the common American filter coffee. As the base of this beverage is espresso, these are best when made at a cafe specialising in espresso drinks – such as Kaffeine, one of the first in the wave of Australian origin espresso bars that helped kick off the third wave coffee movement in London.
From Scandinavian fika to Italian espresso bars, check out our guide to London's best regionally inspired cafés.
Cappuccino and latte
In Italy, espresso drinks with milk are generally not consumed after noon. It is thought that milk is not good for digestion, and milky drinks such as cappuccinos are usually only drunk very early as a breakfast item. The cappuccino is traditionally known as a drink of thirds – ⅓ espresso, ⅓ milk and ⅓ foam, however most London cafes add a little more milk.
Ratios for lattes and cappuccinos differ between establishments, but the general rule of thumb is that a latte will have less foam, and is often served in a smaller cup or glass. Small independents like Coleman Coffee Roasters are often 'bean to cup', ensuring high quality and a delicious beverage by roasting, grinding, brewing and pouring themselves.
This beverage originated in Australia and New Zealand. The story goes that in Australia and New Zealand – before the mid-century arrival of Italian immigrants who brought with them espressos from their homeland – coffee was steeped dark, strong, sometimes with a dash of milk. After Italians opened the first espresso bars, locals would come in and ask for a 'flat, white coffee' – in opposition to these new, domed, frothy cappuccinos. Thus, the 'flat white' was born – an espresso beverage topped with mostly steamed milk and just a dash of froth on top.
One of the original third wave coffee shops, Flat White in Soho, is still a well loved fixture of the Antipodean coffee scene and still consistently ranks highly for it's namesake drink. Using a 30ml espresso shot, microfoam and steamed milk, the flat white is often served in a ceramic cup, a little smaller than a cappuccino cup.
Given our love of artisan coffee, it's about time someone thought about making the perfect milk to go with it. Read more about Estate Dairy, the dairy making perfect milk for your coffee.
Methods of cold brew generally consist of simply steeping the ground coffee in cold water and then filtering out the grounds. These methods are very slow at extraction and can take anywhere from 2 to 24 hours, however they produce a very strong liquid which is then often diluted with hot or cold water or milk.
Cold brew coffee is known for low acidity due to the long extraction time, as certain oils and fatty acids are only released at high temperatures. Using a lower temperature brewing method, flavour compounds are extracted and some of the bitter acids and oils are left behind. Cold brew can be found in stores and cafes throughout the city - Sandows brew a nitro-infused version, which poured on draught (at Origin and Grind) looks just like a Guinness and has a creaminess to it - but no milk.