Few drinks have conquered English culture quite as effectively as coffee. The modern explosion of coffee drinking culture, which is itself an imitation of the previous 18th century heyday of coffee drinking, means that every town and city in England has a plentiful supply of coffee shops, while our supermarket shelves are full of all kinds of varieties and styles of coffee, produced from beans grown and processed in a wide array of locations.
Yet for most of the history of Britain, coffee was an unknown drink. After all, this humble bean was the product of a tropical plant that was grown in lands that were thousands of miles away. As with chocolate, tea, sugar and spices, coffee was known only to a handful of individuals who had the contacts or the opportunity to venture far overseas.
That began to change in the 17th century. This was the era when Europeans first began to discover the wonder of coffee in significant numbers. The early history of coffee in Europe, however, was a controversial one. At this time, all coffee was imported from Arabia, which led to problems, particularly in Italy, where some church figures said that Christians should not drink it. That sanction was lifted abruptly, when the Pope reputedly tried a cup, and gave it the thumbs up.
It took a while for this drink to spread in popularity, but eventually it reached England, where the coffee house soon became an increasingly common feature in every city, a base where the wealthy and ambitious could meet up, debate, argue, strike deals and even gamble. But the goodness of coffee could not be confined to the upper echelons. As coffee became more widely available, it was taken up with enthusiasm by the rest of the population, and the development of instant coffee, to which you need only add hot water, made it a convenient beverage that was accessible to all.
It may be the most popular form of coffee drunk in England, but the instant variety is but a pale imitation of the real thing. Unfortunately for our taste buds, for most of the twentieth century, English people had to manage with the mass-produced version served up by major food manufacturers.
That began to change in the 1990s, thanks to the arrival of major coffee shop brands such as Starbucks and Costa in England. English coffee drinkers became acquainted with the cappuccino, the macchiato, the latte and the art of the barista, refreshing our love affair with the coffee bean.
This has led to an increasing fascination with the coffee-making process. As well as getting our coffee from specialist outlets, English coffee drinkers have increasingly been turning to making their own brew. The availability of coffee machines that work with discs or pods has helped to accelerate that process, but the ultimate coffee experience can only be attained by preparing your own coffee from home, starting from the original bean.
As a result, there is a thriving home coffee making business that has offered a significant boost for a host of English coffee roasters, who have developed some fascinating and tasty coffee products. To help you begin to explore the fascinating world of English coffee, here are some of the most popular and exciting coffee roasters to check out this year.
Neighbourhood Coffee Roasters
Based in Liverpool, Neighbourhood Coffee Roasters have become one of the top choices for artisanal specialty coffee among choosy English customers. Their beans are obtained from South America and Africa, and you can buy them in whole form or ground, according to your preference. The company has a presence in the areas from where they source their beans and take care to speak to those involved in the process, as well as taking steps to ensure all beans are ethically sourced.
They also take the time to roast their beans in small batches, which is regarded as the best way of ensuring that the quality of the sourced beans and their distinct flavours are preserved.
Perky Blenders is a family run east London company that runs two roasteries and a handful of coffee shops. It supplies its popular single origin coffees and blends to over locations and also offers a letterbox subscription service, which includes a Blend of the Month selection. All their coffee is traceable, sourced sustainably and where possible, produced by smallholders. In addition, the coffee bags are oxo-degradable, which means it will breakdown fully when placed in landfill sites.
Their signature forest blend brings together the power and creaminess of the best natural processed Brazilian beans and the tang and sweetness of washed Colombian beans produced by a smallholder collective, for a balanced blend that works well either as espresso or longer filter coffee.
One of the top coffee bean roasters in England, Origin Coffee take their beans from a wide variety of nations, including Nicaragua, Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador. They use professional roasting machine technology, operating in a carefully controlled atmosphere, and they take care to analyse the form, colour and smell of the beans they use. Each roast takes several days and continues until the desired flavour is acquired, at which point, their coffee is deemed good enough to sell.
North Star Coffee Roasters
Based in Leeds, North Star Coffee Roasters was established in 2013 and has become one of the country’s top coffee roasting operations. Their extensive organisation, which takes beans from around the world, also extends to a series of courses for baristas, teaching the skills of coffee making.
North Star tend to favour specialty grade Arabica coffee beans, but they apply considerable attention to detail when choosing their beans, with flavour profile, consistency and cleanliness all considered to be important considerations. Like most of the best coffee roasting operators, North Star travel to travel to the areas they are importing beans from. Their beans are bought while green and fresh and are roasted in small batches, so each variety retains its flavour and unique characteristics.
Chimney Fire Coffee
The founder of Chimney Fire spent years working in the Ghanaian coffee industry and started his operation by roasting small batches of coffee in his garden shed. In the space of four years, Chimney Fire had expanded to a high quality roastery in the Surrey Hills serving a growing customer base.
The company offers an array of excellent coffees, including an interesting discovery taster pack which allows you to experience the full range of their single origin coffees, complete with traceability and tasting information on each type. Two of their most successful products are the Guatemalan San Antonio washed coffee, which offers hints of cherry, brown sugar and fruit, and the Brazilian Fazenda Sertao, from a long-established coffee-growing family. Chimney Fire are also notable for their sustainability ethos. Everything from coffee chaff to grounds is recycled and the company also works closely with farmers, paying above Fairtrade prices and giving investment opportunities.
Caravan Coffee Roasters
Based in London, Caravan Coffee Roaster are well known in the world of artisan specialty coffee. They carefully select green coffee beans of the highest quality, focusing on environmental and sustainability principles. Their roasting process is slow and careful and designed to bring out of the inherent flavours in their beans, through the use of modern roasting technology. Their commitment to diversity and support for local farmers is exemplified in one of their most popular coffee brands produced from beans grown by a Colombian all-woman collective.
Turtle Cup actually began as an attempt to repair some of the environmental damage caused by the proliferation of single-use coffee cups, through producing alternative reusable cups, and working with a charity to clean plastic from UK beaches.
They have since developed a flourishing coffee production business. All of their beans are Fair Trade and are roasted at the Tate Gallery coffee roastery before being packaged in fully compostable bags that even boast vegetable ink labels.
Turtle Cup currently produce two varieties, a strong espresso blend and more floral option called Wakey Wakey – based on an Ethiopian single origin bean from a farming cooperative. This latter brand offers delightful hints of apricot, jasmine, and bergamot, leading to a blend that is both heady and floral in flavour.
Clifton Coffee Roasters
Based in Bristol, Clifton Coffee Roasters have developed into one of the most successful artisanal speciality coffee bean producers. Their beans are gathered from El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, Brazil and Kenya, using sustainable growing and harvesting methods.
The company started life as a retailer of espresso machines, but it has since developed a thriving coffee roasting operation, and their in-house production roastery, along with their experience of the coffee trade means they are well placed to handle everything from sourcing to sale.