Expat Survival Series: Coffee

Coffee, coffee, coffee, that brown, bitter nectar that has been fuelling the American engine for centuries. You may, dear compatriot, find a bit of a change to that old familiar beverage upon making it to Blighty. No, they don’t do something amazing with espresso or drink a lighter or darker roast coffee.

The Brits are tea drinkers. Sometimes they literally drink it instead of water. My inlaws drink no fewer than 15 cups a day per person. I am not humorously exaggerating either. I was the only one to drink water from the tap when I lived with them when I first moved to London. My nephew said that he wouldn’t trust London tap water. Yet they filled their kettles with tap water and it was magically okay. Of course they boiled the water, but only for a few seconds. Whatev. I am really getting off the subject here.

So the Brits tend to drink tea. Some have a cup or two of coffee, but it’s usually instant. You might notice on your first trip to the shops that there are so many varieties of instant to choose from. Or you may encounter your first cup on your first visit to a friend or family member.

For some Brits, brewing coffee, even in a press pot, is seen as akin to an elaborate tea ceremony. Sometimes you will find hosts breaking out the huge cafetiere, but for informal visits, expect instant if you ask for coffee instead of tea when offered a hot drink.

The Brits use of instant is mainly down to two reasons I think. One: Most people drink tea brewed from bagged tea now in the UK, so they don’t expect to go through more trouble to make a similar but less favoured drink. Two: Because the culture is much more focused around tea, it’s hard to find people to share a pot with.

Fortunately, some of the instant sold here isn’t too bad. Not so fortunate is that the most popular choice, at least around here, is horrible. Ah well, their more “posh” selections aren’t too horrible. But chances are, you will get the old reliable plain old stuff, and you will soon find out why we call it “Nasty-cafe” in this household.

There are some better brands. We tend to stick with Clipper’s instant. That’s right, I drink instant coffee. I drink a lot less coffee now than in the States, and I don’t feel like making a pot and dumping most of it. So during the week I drink instant when I don’t feel like making coffee in my press pot or moka pot.

When out to eat, have a bit of lower expectation when it comes to coffee. Sometimes I’ve had really brilliant cups at restaurants, but a lot of the time it seems like there’s a lot of metal in the taste meaning they probably over clean the equipment that touches ground coffee. Also, I’ve seen “filter” coffee advertised but have received press pot coffee. It seems that sometimes “filter coffee” means anything not instant and not made in an espresso pot/machine. I tend to choose something else when we’re out to eat.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great cafes and chains. Pret A Manger tend to have nice drinks, and there’s a Starbucks on every corner in many areas. Usually you can get a pretty wide range of drinks, even if you have to settle for an Americano in some chains if you want something resembling drip coffee. But you knew you weren’t moving to a “coffee country” to begin with, right?

As for home brewing, get yourself a drip machine (a little more expensive than the States) and happily make your own. It’s a little more difficult to get whole bean coffee in the UK, and you will need your own grinder if you relied on store grinders or even a barista grinding it for you at your local cafe. I don’t bother with whole bean as I’ve not gotten around to getting a grinder (having to replace your whole kitchen sort of knocks that down a bit on the ladder of priorities). I buy Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference regional pre-ground (I recomend Ethiopian Sidamo or Sundried Quinchia, but all in the range are at the least good coffee), and I use it in all three of my coffee makers (drip, press, stove-top moka). There are also places where you can buy bulk beans and coffee speciality stores, but nowhere near the number as you would find in the States.

But, if all else fails, learn to drink tea. I know that sounds a bit pat, but I’ve found that I get more enjoyment from a cup of coffee when it’s the only cup I’ve had all day. I drink tea for most drinks, mostly herbal but sometimes a proper cuppa. Well, I drink mostly tea of some sort and scary London tap water. MMMM, scary tap water.

Never forget, however, your coffee culture. Hey, if other cultures can have tea culture, why can’t we have coffee culture. Be sure to show people what real coffee tastes like when you have the chance.


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March 2010
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