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Specialty coffee in Europe.

On a cold and misty morning, at the very instant the rising sun kissed the rim of the mountains, and with a fresh dawn perfume of mimosa and the fragrance of wood smoke in the air, I tasted my first cup of real coffee. It had been roasted in an outdoor day oven, ground in a hand-mill, fleshly brewed. If I could only have caught and bottled that precious moment I would now be a very happy man, and filthy rich as well.

If you' re starting to wonder what this attack of nostalgia has to do with the specialty coffee market in Europe the answer is quite a lot. That first experience gave me the benchmark by which to judge all future coffees, and taught me to care about what I was drinking.

I've travelled both East and Western Europe I have made a special point of noting the quality of the coffee I've been offered. Accordingly, I reckon the best scheme is to begin right on my own doorstep then take the rest from there. As it happens, this means we begin with the bad news.

The statistics show that 90% of all the coffee drunks in Britain comes as one or other of the solubles, and that does not leave a lot left over for the quality trade. This all helps to explain, though, why British magazines which devote themselves to the higher forms of food snobbery often run best-of-brand tests which compare not roasted beans but five or six instants.

There is a brighter side though, and that's in the remaining 10%. I think it's fair to say that there isn't a city or even a major town in England that doesn't have at least one store selling a range of coffees. (Scotland, Ireland and Wales tend to be addicted to tea.)

But one word of caution here. As with the rest of Europe, not all these shops do their own roasting. The majority are delis with a flourishing sideline in coffees, supplied by contract roasters---and some of these contractots are very good indeed; there are also a good few retail roasters, including one or two I could compare with the best in the U.S.

In Europe, I have found that small roasters are not at all the same thing as, specialty roasters. As some of you may have found out personally on vacation, quaint little outfits can, and often do, supply some of the world's worst Robustas, and often at steepish prices.

In England, I calculate that the specialty trade has about 2-3% of that dismal 10% top, of the whole of the real coffee trade. The rest is taken up in the supermarkets by Nestle, Kraft General Foods, Lyons and a few other big names which stay in the real coffee market.

We happen to order our coffee from a little firm called H R Higgins in Duke Street in London, which charges anything from around $5.50 a pound for Sumatra Blue Lintang to something like $ 50 a pound for genuine Blue Mountain. There are a good few other reasonable outlets in London, too: Costas, which operate a big chain of good stores at the main London and other railway stations; Algerian; Ferns; Drury Tea & Coffee; Cafe d'Or; and several more, including Harrods and Fortnum and Masons.

It's when you move out of the city that the really good coffee shops, with their own roasters, get harder to find. And when you do finally locate them they tend to be Small. And that' s the trouble really. When I say small, I mean small. I mean tiny. By some U.S. standards I mean positively microscopic. They tend to operate the smallest machines that they have trouble getting serviced. But they do sell good coffees.

And let me really stick my neck out an extra inch or two. The real espresso habit is growing. In spite of the ersatz, the phony espressos which are hitting the market, the good restaurants are selling a lot more of the real stuff, and the big machines are now being imported by the truckload. But the British market for real coffee's tiny, so let's head across to mainland Europe, where coffee is still the main non-alcoholic fuel of the masses. And let us begin at the top left-hand comer, with Finland.

FINLAND

The Finns drink probably the best coffee in Europe. One company, Paulig's, actually contract roasts over half the brands, but the other companies are still highly competitive and there isn't a lot of difference in their prices. The only trouble is that because the coffee companies all have a more or less reasonable share of the total market, and they all sell a breathtakingly good variety of coffees, even Paulig itself counts as a specialty coffee outlet. There is a reason for this.

To put it bluntly, the problem used to be that in the long, bleak winters, Finnish farmworkers and other open air toilers drank. A lot. They staggered out half-fuddled into the fields or forests of a morning, and they came hiccuping home at night. They had good reason; when the temperature is more or less permanently below freezing, you need something to keep the chill out of your bones, and since neither tea nor coffee were drinkable, then alcohol was your only defense.

The answer, it seemed to the post-war Finnish government, who had to pay the hospital bills, was to wean the nation away from the home-bred hooch, and they did this by a simple tax system which made it less costly to import good coffees than cheap ones.

The Finns now have the highest per capita consumption of coffee in the world: 11 kilograms a head, and virtually all of it high grade Arabica, of which under 1% is instant.

NORWAY

Though the Norwegians drink a little less coffee than the Finns, and the nature of the country-- long, thin and mountainous--makes all of its coffee traders specialty operations, it remains one of the noblest of all the coffee drinking nations. They average a healthy four cups per adult a day.

Like their neighbors the Finns, the origins of the Norwegian passion for coffee also lie with the demon drink. In 1835, the government took a firm stand against moonshine liquor, and as the trade in booze is still rigidly enforced, the red-eyed, axe-flinging Norsemen of happier times have now become the virtuous abstainers of today.

But the Norwegians have made another, extraordinarily important contribution to Europe's coffee virtues, the Norwegian Coffee Brewing Center in Oslo. This superb organization was a focus of excellence for all European coffee for close to a quarter of a century-so much so that the International Coffee Organization in London decided to take it over and expand its role throughout northeastern Europe.

That was in the late 1980's, and it was also a mistake. In March 1991 the ICO was deprived of its promotion fund when green coffee prices began their big slide, and the Scandinavian center was closed. Undaunted, in May last year the Norwegians revived the center as Norske Kafe Information, and it now has close ties with Sweden and Denmark to the benefit of all three. It also runs courses for retail and catering companies, taking in large-scale roasting techniques, brewing methods for public and home consumption, how to clean and service brewing machines of all sizes; quality, taste, aroma--you name it, they teach it. There are even courses on how to make good coffee at the country's 1,000 schools.

Above all, the center has revived its famous, and often feared tests on all forms of coffee brewing equipment. If what you offer either the trade or the public is, shall we say, a little short of perfection, then it may be better to go hawk your goods elsewhere.

SWEDEN

Sweden is an heroic consumer of coffee, almost equal to Norway. Trouble is, most of it comes from the usual few, excellent, but big roasters. There used to be a Swedish specialty, a rough, tough farmers coffee which was brewed all day long on the stove in a smoke-blackened iron pot, just like the ones they used in all the old U.S. cowboy pictures. It tasted, so I'm told by old Swedish coffee experts, like rat poison.

Now, however, I' m happy to learn that one of the few new specialty roasters is Peter Paulig, of the Finnish coffee family, who has set up two ace American-style coffee shops that sell superb beans instead of ready-ground.

DENMARK

But across the next border, in Denmark this time, we find another country where our trade still fourishes. Denmark is, in fact, one of the few countries where specialty coffee still isn't. Isn't specialty, that is. For the Danes, specialty coffee is what you buy in all coffee stores.

The Danes are both wealthy and fussy. They're third in world coffee consumption, and they will only drink the best coffee. This is middle class society personified, and they go for what is good: Decaf has under 3% of the market; instant 2.5%. Currently, their top suppliers are Colombia. Moreover, they like their coffee to taste like coffee. The average dose per Danish cup works out at around double the U.S. figure; it's as though the whole Danish coffee business was run by specialty fiends.

Which, in a sense, it is. There' s a big roaster in Jutland, and two more in Copenhagen itself. They sell good coffee. And so do all the other 10 specialty roasters who make up the rest of the industry. And remember that Denmark is a tiny country, with a population of around five million, absolutely surrounded by countries with huge coffee industries which are all doubtless dying for their share of that luscious Danish pastry.

GERMANY

Next we look at Germany, the largest single market in Europe. The coffee in Germany is generally pretty good, and that applies most spedally to the big, bright brands. I won't quote a list at you, but most of the coffee the big German roasters buy is excellent, and though they're not keen to pay over the odds, they do not complain, at the moment, anyway, about the odd pfenning here or there.

When I first started visiting what was then West Germany, many of the best roasters were being forced to add kampfrnischung to their range and kampfmischung means "battle blend" --the loss-leader. There were experiments with high-speed roasts, dark-roast blends, the 13 ounce pound, chicory and grain

mixtures. There were a lot more big coffee companies around then, and a whole lot more small to medium ones. They went bust, or they amalgamated.

Old coffee, poorly roasted coffee, badly stored coffee, rat and roach infested coffee--West and East Germany both had them, in those cute little country stores. And for several years more you could still find them in little towns and villages in East Germany. West Germany had a more ruthless solution. The luckier firms sold out. The unlucky ones went bust, and by the hundred. In the East, the state took charge by limiting the amount of coffee; the West left it to the bailiff' s men. Either way, the result was the same.

West Germany now has about 150 roasters, of whom around 20 rate as good to excellent specialty stores; Tim and Kinder in Hamburg is well worth a visit. There are the big roasters who survived, although it was a very close-run thing with some of them, who ran losses into hundreds of millions of marks, and the rest. About 150 or so, all told.

Nowadays the big German roasters all make good coffee---Tchibo, Eduscho, Jacobs Suchard, Darboven, Aidi, all of them in and around Hamburg or Bremen. For the most part people are happy enough to buy those, because they're freshly roasted, well packed, the shops are attractive, and there are hundreds of them all over the country.

What there aren't, though, are specialty shops. There are a few, but only a handful; the best informed guess is around 20, and that's a generous estimate if what we' re talking about is real specialty coffee shops, the kind you're used to here. My brother-in-law, who lives in Berlin, knows of exactly two.

The big coffee roasters in East Germany are now owned by Eduscho, Tchibo, Darboven, and Douwe Egberts, and by all accounts the coffee they're roasting is not precisely the best in the world. In fact, it's not a lot better than what the Eastemers used to have. But here's an odd thing: the coffee they produced was not all that awful. True, the beans were a bit iffy, but the roasters lavished more care on them than they would if they'd all been prime Arabicas, of the rarest origins.

In the West, when coffees proved difficult they changed all the machinery; in the East, they could neither change the machinery nor upgrade the coffee, so what they did was to roast every bean as though it was prime. And I'll bet it won't be long before they' re buying the best again.

Coffee has always been a German totem. In the grim days immediately after the war. people were prepared to pay the equivalent of a week' s pay for a pound of beans. In the Netherlands and Belgium they were even worse off, because what little coffee that was left had been seized, and roasted acorns were about the best substitute. But they recovered soon. Curiously, these two neighboring countries have taken radically different routes in trading their coffees. One has, in effect, handed the job over to a single company, plusa few small attendants. The other has, by contrast, one largish company, and roughly 130 smaller operators, most of who sell an excellent selection of coffees and all of whom sell at least reasonable blends.

THE NETHERLANDS

The first country is the Netherlands, almost totally dominated by the great Douwe Egberts, plus the tiny Albert Heijn which is primarily a grocery chain, and Smidt and Dorlas, which sells good coffee to institutions and restaurants and the like. There is also the Golden Coffee Box, run by Willem Boot, who used to work in San Francisco for Probat. Willem and his brother Barendt own this store, plan more, and are young men to watch.

BELGUIM

Belgium, on the other hand, has no trouble at all maintaining a neat appearance all the year round. Apart from Rombouts, the entire country is given over to well equipped, well run, and very well presented coffee shops.

But the cost for owners is high. Some have to work their little roasters anything up to two or three days a week. Last July for instance, I was in one small store where the young couple had to keep going several hours a day to outsell the supermarket across the road. To be sure, they had to think a lot about things like polite staff, crafty pricing and lots of other important matters.

What's more, I'm assured by their overall chairman, Ivan Rombouts, who does not work for the family firm, that all the other stores have just as tough a time. This is why, I guess, every now and again, so many Belgian coffee folk feel the need to jet off together to some exotic locale to look at coffee beans, to try the local beaches and sample the local cuisine.

SPAIN

When I first went to Spain in (30, General Franco was still in power and the whole country reminded me rather unhappily of South Africa in the early 1950' s. Still, I was on holiday, and since the coffee was on the rough side I made do with the wine, which was also rough, but less than the coffee.

The next visit was months after Franco's death, and although spirits were lighter, the coffee was mainly lousy but getting better.

My third visit was for a Coffee Symposium, and the coffee was great. Franco's rulings, which had kept most of the roasting in a few hands, had been swept aside, and although the country didn't have the cash resources to import the best coffees, the overall standard was much higher; only trouble was that the Spaniards had acquired a taste for instants, around 20% of the market. The big multinationals had moved in, swallowing the weaker companies.

But on the last visit things had changed again, and in the most curious way. True, there were fewer of the old Torrefacto roasters, where the operator adds shovels--full of sugar in the final stages of the roast, but those that were left were better. Some of the instants were going out of favor--and some of the multi-nationals weren't doing quite as well as they'd expected. Still, the coffees in the bars and cares were better than they had been, and coffee had become a regular Spanish custom again.

This is not to say that Spain has lots of high quality, specialty coffees outside the high-fashion stores of Madrid and Barcelona. People are better off, and it shows in the way they dress and eat. But the coffee still has a way to go.

ITALY

Italy has some 700 roasters, a few big, but none too big, most a reasonable size for a good local trade. The coffee they sell is fair to good, and their espressos--plus the machines that go with them--are now world-record breakers.

But do those 700 include our definition of specialty roasters? Now, I have to say that my definition of "specialty roaster" has been drawn for me by by some of the best specialists ,in the world, by Americans, who have turned one of the most tattered and battered sectors of the American retail economy into one of the most refined and respected sectors in this country.

I've always loved America, and I'm always happy to be here. But if I judge Italy, and a lot of the rest of Europe, by American standards as set by the specialty trade, then a lot of Europe needs to drop that smug expression. On the other hand, if we are talking about the big boys--we ain't got a lot to worry about. Not even in England.

PROBLEMATIC AREAS OF EUROPEAN COFFEE

Eastern Europe presents the whole coffee world with one of its most baffling phenomena. There has arisen what, by all accounts, is an almost mystical yearning for coffee, among people who have for decades had to put up with the lowest grade of beans. What beans they did obtain were usually what was left after the supplying nations had satisfied the needs of all their traditional Western customers who could afford to pay for their requirements in real money, and not the tanks, warplanes, warships and general weaponry which their totalitarian clients had on offer.

But here's a curious fact. Salesmen from Probat of Germany noticed that the coffee they were served in East Germany was, if not precisely brilliant, then not exactly as revolting as the rest of the food on offer in even the hardest of hard-currency cares and restaurants.

The coffee people had found the answer. The beans were poor, the machinery was antique, the roasters all worked for the state. You know the joke: I work for the State, which pays me in worthless currency, so that's how much work I do.

But, unlike so many of their hapless fellow toilers, the folk who worked with coffee still maintained a stubborn pride in what they did. Then came the great falling apart of the socialist empires, and one of the first areas of recovery has been the coffee industry.

The real professionals, who cared more for coffee than they did for the Party, kept their old jobs, with the happy difference that many now work happily for Tchibo, Eduscho, Nestle and the other big Western companies which have moved into the old East German market in battalion strength.

You will find Douwe Egberts and Julius Meinl, of Austria, well and truly ensconced in the Czech State and Slovakia. DE and Jacobs do very well in Hungary.

But outside of those countries it Still tends to be either pure bandit territory, if there is such a thing as a pure bandit or, as in the case 'of Poland, still more or less a State enterprise. That's the official line, anyway.

Poland may have its old factories still, but outside the main cities, there are scores, not of mom and-pop stores, but little roaster outfits run by two or three people, all eager to cash in on the reborn longing for a half-way decent cup of coffee.

You'll find the same sort of thing too in Hungary, the new Czech state and its poorer Slovakian neighbor, in Bulgaria, Rumania, and the Baltic States which were great coffee drinkers before Russia grabbed them. And more and more, you'll find the same yearning for coffee in both Russia itself, and the often Moslem states to the South which once made up the Soviet Union.

Russia itself still relies apparently for its coffee on the big state-run enterprises, because it remains traditionally a tea drinking and, more importantly, a tea-growing country. But the Moslem-influenced states are very different, and the word is that coffee will soon get the attention it deserves.

In the former, shall I say "client" states, though, the coffee state of affairs is very different. I remember a time when all African coffee tasted about the same: reasonable if it was fresh, grim if it was stale. And that, is still the state of affairs which exists in the greater part of the Eastern Bloc.

The coffee is drinkable, but it is not good coffee. It is the best that the roasters can produce from the beans they can get.

Yet the East Europeans who buy their little bags of coffee every week are standing on the identical spot where our own forbears stood not all that many decades ago.

True, they can't afford much more than the cheapest Arabicas and the kind of Robustas that the rest of us only look for in the cut-price instants, but coffee remains for most of them the one small luxury they can afford.

My own guess is that at least half of them, those who spent the fewest number of years under the Soviet thumb, will soon have developed the same kind of coffee outlook the West now enjoys, more or less, that is. But let me end on a note of caution.

A couple of years ago I happened to be entertaining the last of my relatives who still lives in South Africa, at a London club whose coffee would start a rebellion in Fort Zinderneuf.

"Tell me," I asked her fondly, "What's the coffee like back in South Africa these days?"

She thought for a while, and then draining the last drop from her cup, she said: "Dried aardvark droppings."

So, if you're ever tempted to lower your own standards, remember my sweet cousin.

This article was excerpted from a speech delivered by Richard Clark at the Specialty Coffee Association Conference, Boston, Massachusetts, May 1993.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:European Coffee Report
Author:Clark, Richard
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:3867
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