Our Man In London

15th February 1998

Seattle and its coffee

By Afdhel Aziz

I am a coffee addict. This dates back to the time I used to do the morning show on TNL Radio and had to wake up at obscenely uncivilised hours, get dressed, drive to the station and remain coherent on air for three hours, at a time when most people were picking the sleep from their eyes and wondering whether to have another fifteen minutes snooze or not.

To avoid babbling like a deranged lunatic, I found that the one thing that would give me a short, sharp shock was coffee. (Of course, my detractors would argue that the coffee made not an iota of difference and that I babbled like a lobotomized gibbon anyway. But that's another column altogether). Anyway, I soon realised that I needed coffee and needed large quantities of it. But I also realised how difficult it was to get good coffee , since the way to make it in Sri Lanka is to add enough milk powder to make it go from brown to albino, and land enough sugar to feed a small Ethiopian village for four days. It's not so much coffee , as coffee-esque, if you know what I mean. And London is no different, with the grey sludge coming out of the machines and cafes here execrable to say the least, toxic to say the most. Here the common routine is to splash scalding water on a pile of dehydrated powder of the kind that NASA pioneered back in the era of the Apollo landings. What you get is not so much a beverage as a sediment.

So it was with great pleasure that I discovered the chain of Seattle Coffee Houses which are all the rage in London. Seattle, on the North-West Coast of America , up near the border with Canada is famous for many things - amongst them inventing the musical form known as grunge which spawned bands like Nirvana , Soundgarden and Pearl Jam . It is also the headquarters of one Mr. William Gates Esquire and his world conquering Microsoft.

But while the two are worlds apart, I bet the one thing they have in common is a love of good coffee. The story begins in the late 80's when local coffee entrepreneurs got creative with the beverage offering it frothed, foamed, flavoured and iced - basically, any way you wanted it. Seattle's rainy weather may have something to do with this obsession with finding the perfect antidote to a gloomy day.

It's now known as the Espresso Capital of America and the coffee revolution that started there has spread around the world. 'Bittersweet yet rich and comforting, complex yet satisfyingly bright , uplifting, rich, earthy with subtle depth, dynamic, distinctive yet easygoing ...a companion, a joyous meditation'. No , not a theatre review, but a large quote emblazoned on the walls of one of the Seattle Coffee House branches. These are not fast-moving places - they are places where you can hang up your coat, take a seat and have a brief respite from the rigours of the retrace. An oasis of dark orange sofas, Mark Rothko-like canvases of reds and blues, newspapers, sacks of coffee beans from Kenya and Papua New Guinea piled in an untidy heap. The names of the different coffee blends roll beautifully off the tongue .....Arabian Mocha Java Blend, Colombia Armenia, Sumatra Lintong, Guatamala Antigua, Mount Rainier Blend. And you have to learn the lingo of coffee, the jargon that sets you apart as a connoisseur as opposed to a dabbling amateur. In the coffee gourmet world, cups are divided into short (8 oz) , tall (12 ox) and grande (16 oz) . You can have a single, double or triple when it comes to espresso, referring to the number of shots poured into each cup. If you want it 'dry', that's extra foam; 'wet' means you want extra steamed milk. 'No fun' means you want decaffeinated coffee while 'skinny' means you want fat free skimmed milk.

'Harmless' means you want it 'skinny' and 'no-fun' which kind of misses the point really. 'Wild' means you want it with whipped cream and 'with wings' means you want it to take away. I walked in one rainy day in London ,and ordered a short hazelnut latte from the barista, the coffee bartender on duty. 'One short hazelnut latte' he yelled to the coffee maker , and then turned back to me 'With wings ?' he asked. I looked at the grey skies outside , and the sleeting rain , and then at the cozy couch and the stack of newspapers. 'Nah' I said, shrugging off my coat. 'I need a break.'