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Craft’ coffee is becoming the province of chin-stroking joy thieves

I remember when the first Starbucks opened in my hometown of Middlesbrough, probably in the late 90s. Nobody knew what a frappuccino was. Staff had to put a handwritten sign saying “milky coffee” next to the generic window sign plugging their “delicious latte”.

The queue was full of fearful locals who just wanted a pot of tea. But it was an undoubted thrill for the young folk. Actually, getting some frothy milk in a cup is still more fun than most people up here will have in a lifetime. And the sight of the first gingerbread latte of the year still gets me all hot and bothered.

To me, coffee shops are quite fun places for all – teens like them because it makes them feel grownup; adults like them for meetings; you can have a harmless date there, and some are even licensed (yay!). What you don’t want is some chin-stroking, smirking joy thief looking at you like you’ve done it wrong at the till. But that’s what’s happening.

As a nation, we drink about 165m cups of coffee a day. Men (1.7 cups) drink more than women (1.5 cups). More than eight out of 10 of us drink it at home, in the office, or in one of the tens of thousands of coffee shops that litter every town and city, which equates to an annual national spend of more than £1bn.

But as the industry grows, so does the aching presence of the coffee bore. And they’re everywhere. Not for the first time, the “craft” movement is slowly and earnestly sucking the joy out of something that isn’t half as complicated or important as some people think it is.

'The “craft” movement is slowly and earnestly sucking the joy out of something that isn’t half as complicated or important as some people think it is.'
‘The “craft” movement is slowly and earnestly sucking the joy out of something that isn’t half as complicated or important as some people think it is.’ Photograph: Alamy

Until last week, I had never seen or heard of Caffeine magazine. But there it was, in an indie Manchester coffee shop that had just nervously taken three attempts to crack my order of black coffee with hot milk. “Is Fika just a fad?” pondered the magazine. I don’t know, but the reason I don’t know is because I don’t know what Fika is. I’ve never seen a more niche magazine – and I’ve worked for the company that publishes Coin-operated Laundry Monthly and Rubber & Plastics Weekly.

Do I want my beans ground fine or coarse? I don’t know. I don’t care enough about the production method. Yes, sneer if you like. But it’s only coffee, isn’t it? Well, not to the bloke who stood next to me in the latest coffee house to spring up in Manchester’s Northern Quarter recently, who spent a good 15 minutes cross-examining one of the poor baristas about which variety of Guatemalan bean he’d best be suited to. He wanted to see them. And sniff them. A lot.

I am but a mere normal. I like quality but I’m not obsessive. I’ll go to Costa or Starbucks just as much as the indies. I don’t have a favourite variety of bean. I accidentally bought ground coffee in the supermarket the other day thinking it was instant, because all I was really looking at was the shiny tin it came in. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that I don’t own a cafetiere.

I’m not an idiot. I went to university. I know how to change a car tyre. I’ve put two children through school. I just don’t know everything there is to know about coffee. Sorry. Has anybody else started to develop a jangling case of nerves as they approach a barista? Just me? How has this happened?

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When the craft ale thing started to happen, it was made slightly less enjoyable by the intensely solemn “punk” taste-makers, who acted as a sort of unofficial booze police. In a nutshell, they were rude, patronising and painfully boring. I just want a nice cup of coffee.


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