Stirring up business at town’s coffee shops

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YOU need to be full of beans to work at Costa Coffee, there is no doubt about that.

Watching the ‘baristas’ at the Riverside branch of Costa dancing around each other to skillfully churn out endless espressos and cappuccinos, I quickly realised how much energy, knowledge and skill is involved in producing a professional cuppa.

With the number of coffee shops in Northampton growing all the time, and a new drive-thru Starbucks planned for St James Retail Park, I had decided to find out more about the current buzz surrounding all things caffeinated and explore what it is like behind the scenes of one of the country’s best known chains.

Sarah Gammage, manager at the town’s newest Costa branch at Riverside, equipped me with a crisp black shirt and apron to don and talked me through the process of becoming a barista. It was soon clear that I was never going to master the art of coffee making in one morning.

She explained: “Different people learn at different speeds. On average, with a team member who starts as new, it will take six weeks to learn coffee skills.

“Once they are certified as a barista, they can do the barista maestro course which is in London, where our beans are roasted. They can do advanced coffee skills.”

Costa has four training academies in England and Scotland, but as I get to grips with the coffee machine, grinder and steamer, while trying not to make myself a nuisance amid a busy team, I realise I am nowhere near ‘maestro’ status.

First, Sarah teaches me how to make an Americano, which, she assures me, is the easiest to produce.

Out comes a cup and in goes some hot water. So far so good. Then I move onto the grinding machine, which expresses freshly ground coffee in the correct quantities.

I twist the handle to release two shots of the nut brown powder and then have to compress this down, using another contraption, which forces the coffee into the correct consistency to enable the water to pass through it evenly.

Sarah shows me how to attach the little round of ground coffee onto the main machine and, after a quick press of a button, water is released and coffee pours out. Sarah moves the cup so the coffee pours into the rear of the cup, producing a ‘crema’ film on top; typical of the Americano.

I quickly learn that the appearance of each coffee has to be what customers would expect of that particular style and some of this is simply down to the movement of a cup or the way the milk is poured. There is a lot of dexterity involved.

Sarah agreed, saying: “It is a very touchy feely thing and takes a lot of practice. We encourage new people to try it and we take them through every step of it.”

The whole process of making a latte seems to prove Sarah’s point.

Milk is poured into a jug fitted with a temperature gauge. A steamer nozzle is then placed into it and the temperature raised to 120 F. The position of the jug under the steamer then has to be changed again so the milk bubbles, and the temperature is taken to 140 F.

The milk is then taken off the steamer and poured into a glass until it reaches a couple of inches from the top of the glass. The jug is then swirled so the foam comes out when it is next poured. The last thing added is the coffee, which must leave a ‘drop mark’ where it has been poured in.

The newest addition to the coffee menu at Costa is the flat white which, I learn, is the strongest beverage, containing three shots of freshly ground coffee, and which has a velvety texture and pattern produced by special techniques in steaming and pouring the milk. Too advanced for my skill level.

According to Sarah, the cappuccino is the hardest beverage to get right.

She said: “You have to get a third coffee, a third milk and a third foam in equal proportions and that is a skill, also it is about getting the texture of the cappuccino foam just right, it has to be silky, without any visible bubbles. The test is to rest the back of a spoon on the foam and watch it sinking down.”

This kind of coffee making seems all about passion and flair, and I suddenly became glad that I am a journalist and not a barista; but not as grateful as Costa’s regular customers should be.

Is the tide of taste turning from tea?

WALKING the length of St Giles Street, Abington Street and Gold Street in Northampton, it is possible to count more than 30 locations from which it is possible to buy a coffee.

Britain may be known as a nation of tea drinkers, but the tide of tastes could well be turning.

But, with such a wealth of cafés and specialist coffee spots around, is there enough custom to go around?

Kate Parfitt has been running Academy Coffee Haus, in College Street Mews, for more than 12 years.

She said the number of coffee traders has soared since she first established her business.

She said: “There was just me and Cafe Morandi, we were the only places which were independent. Now you can’t walk down the street without finding another coffee shop.”

She said, with the number of chain coffee businesses setting up, she wants to change people’s mentality to try independent venues.

But, she said, recession has affected the trade.

“A few years ago, people had disposable income and would read the Sunday paper in a coffee shop, now it is hard. I would say the recession has hit.”

Yet she added: “I think the demand for coffee will get stronger as we come out of recession.”

Are You Being Served? in St Giles Street may be a tea room, but, according to its owners, half of its drink trade is coffee.

Christine Small and Wendy Wenham explained that they are expanding their coffee range all the time to cater for the more unusual varieties being requested by customers.

Christine said: “We have had people asking for things that are not on the menu, which we will make anyway, with ingredients like hazelnut syrup. I think these tastes come from people travelling more.”

But, Christine commented, the town should be careful that there are still enough shops and other reasons for people to visit the town.

She said: “People come into town when they are in doing other things, the balance between shops and coffee shops has to be right.”

Tony Egan is the manager of Blenders, a shop which sells many coffee varieties, as well as tea. The store even roasts its own coffee on the premises.

He said: “Since I have been in St Giles Street it seems we are drinking more coffee than tea. It is 75 per cent coffee now, I think it has almost switched.

“I think there is a big European influence, like from Polish people who love their coffee. People know more about it now, they know exactly what they are asking for.”

But, travel aside, why is there so much public demand for coffee?

Costa’s area manager Sandy Gourlay believes that coffee consumption has become an important part of social life in the UK and lunchtime coffees have taken over from the pub meetings that business people may once have enjoyed.

He said: “The experience of coming out for a coffee has been another massive growth in the last 10 or 15 years. We are still a small part of a wider sector.”

He continued: “Disposable income has increased over the last few years, the coffee shop experience is about meeting people and having that space for yourself.”