Ireland's coffee connoisseurs take their caffeine seriously
Ed Power speaks to café owners about the change in Ireland's coffee scene.
Coffee used to be a strictly no-frills affair. Invariably, it came from a jar, tasted bitter and had a very specific niche as hot drink of last resort, to be slurped when you were out of tea or wrestling a hangover.
In brash, shiny, 21st-century Ireland, the once humble cup of Joe occupies an altogether more rarefied position. Coffee culture is one of the great trends of the age. Rather than the pub, we prefer to cloister in coffee shops - meeting friends, frowning over our laptops, taking Instragram snaps of the libation we are about to sample. You don't go to a coffee shop to simply load up on caffeine - you go widen the contours of your life.
We're more educated about what we're chugging, too. Back in the day, which is to say approximately five years ago when many of us could not have explained the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, the idea that someone could proudly list their profession as barista would have struck us as ludicrous. Barista? You may as well have boasted you scrubbed dishes for a living.
Now, we are a nation of coffee fetishists: across Dublin, and increasingly in other cities and towns, too, high end coffee shops proliferate. With their minimalist decor and grave employees, these are not frivolous hang-outs. Instead, they are gleaming temples to the cult of the bean. Here, coffee is taken exceedingly seriously. Staff and customers will hold forth on espressos and flat whites in the sort of hushed tones a wine enthusiast might employ when discussing a particularly delicious Chivas.
An indication of how far we have travelled was the announcement of a dedicated tea and coffee festival at the RDS next month.
All the while, big chains such as Starbucks and Costa proceed with their seemingly endless roll-out. There are now more than 30 Starbucks in Dublin - in parts of the city centre, the famous mermaid logo is visible, or so it feels, on every corner. On Westmoreland Street, two large Starbucks glare at one another from across the road, like siblings who have had a falling out.
Meanwhile, the George Clooney-approved Nespresso coffee-pod system ratchets up its campaign for domination in our homes. A two-storey, dedicated Nespresso store opens off Grafton Street later this year. Our caffeine passion appears to know no bounds.
"Coffee is trendy," says Katie Gilroy, owner of Urbun Cafe in Cabinteely, Dublin. "People care more about what they are putting into the bodies - for instance, you see a massive market for health foods and organics. The public are fussier about their coffee as well. We opened three-and-a-half years ago and, even in that period, have noticed the change.
"What you are seeing is coffee going through the same process as the wine trade experienced. There is so much depth, so many varieties. You have customers coming in and eagerly discussing different varieties of coffee - the notes they can taste and so forth. It is quite a transformation.
"People need this social experience - they want to go out and link up with their friends. And they are not going to the pub as often," says Alan Andrews of Coffee Culture Ireland, a consultancy service which provides barista training to coffee houses and restaurants.
"They are looking for the 'third space' in their lives - the coffee shop is cheaper [than the pub]. You can gather for an hour or two, spend five, six euros, meet your friends. "
"I had a friend who was retired and would go to the pub most nights of the week - have maybe one or two pints. Then, on a Thursday, he might have three pints. A few more at the weekend. He was spending 50 quid a week. Now he goes for coffee and saves a lot of money. It is really difficult to spend a massive amount on coffee and yet you are receiving a social experience."
"We offer free wi-fi and because we have lots of space we don't mind if people take their time," says Gilroy. "They may come in for two or more hours with their computer or whatever. It's become a fashionable place to hang out."
Andrews identifies a distinct divide in the market between smaller, independent coffee houses, such as 3FE in Dublin and Gulpd in Cork, and chains such as Starbucks. Each has their place, he says.
"In any market you are going to have a range of offerings. I'm not going to say one is better than the other. It's comparable to retail - you have smaller independents, then you've got the big supermarkets and their generic brands. Whereas the smaller independent stores really care about what you are tasting, want to make sure you get the flavours."
Nespresso has carved a niche because of convenience. However, it ought be noted that this is not always a priority for the modern coffee drinker.
"We did a survey of [4,000] customers and convenience was the lowest factor," says Andrews.
"You now have people driving across town to get a good cup of coffee. You see them taking pictures with their phone: a cup of coffee and the steering wheel in the background. They have gone out of their way to get their favourite coffee."
He isn't afraid to sound slightly pretentious talking about high end coffee. Just like wine, good coffee can contain a world of nuances.
"People may not like coffee because they associate it with harsh and bitter tastes. We say to them, 'we can make coffee with different taste notes: blueberry, strawberry, plums and chocolate'. They don't really believe you and then you make it for them and they are going 'oh wow, so you can do that.'"
'The Italians have drank coffee like this all their lives," says Stephen Lane, founder of Bell Lane Coffee in Mullingar.
"In Ireland we have only just discovered these [varieties of coffee]. We are catching up. I suppose it's like everything in life. People are really into running today - you see a lot more triathlons in Ireland. Look at the craft beer market. Coffee is undergoing a similar evolution."
"It's not just about getting your fix in the morning any more," adds barista Vini Arruda, a citizen of Chile who moved to Ireland five years ago. "People want to learn about coffee. Customers will ask me what coffee I am using, which variety it is and so forth. They are genuinely very interested."
Asked if anyone can make for a good barista, he pauses: "In life, you have to have passion no matter what you do. Everyone can learn. Okay, some people may have more skill. Ultimately, if you bring the passion, then you can do it."
Still, we have a way to go before we are at the top table of coffee consumers. On average we consume 1.3kg of coffee per year, ranking us 35th globally, behind the US and most of Europe. Curiously, the Nordic countries boast the world's biggest coffee habit. Finland is number one with an astonishing 12kg consumed yearly, followed by Norway (9.9kg) and Iceland (9kg).
Nor are we quite as overrun with Starbucks as we might believe. Seoul, with a population of 10 million, has 284 Starbucks; London has 207. Even smaller urban areas leave Dublin in the ha'penny place Starbucks wise: Portland, Oregon, has 102; Edmonton in Canada 72. So if you think there are Starbucks everywhere in Dublin, there is room for a few more yet.
You might imagine the big chains, Starbucks especially, would be regarded as something of a Great Satan by independent coffee stores. In fact, the company is perceived as catering to a slightly different demographic. Its coffees tend to be easy on the palate and if that's what people want, well good luck to them.
"They know what they are doing. They produce sweet drinks, everything has a flavour or syrup," says Bell. "That's their business model.
"Whatever else happens, however, I think there will always be a market for a quality product delivered the way it should be delivered. The only way to drink real coffee is to buy the beans, grind them fresh and make them through your filter or espresso machine. That won't change."
Coffee For Beginners
It can be hard keeping pace with the fast-moving coffee world. Here's a beginner's guide to the cult of the bean.
A shot of espresso and hot steamed milk - but without the froth associated with a cappuccino. Originated in Australia and New Zealand, it is popular in self-consciously edgy Irish coffee shops.
An intense coffee brewed by forcing nearly boiling water under pressure through coffee beans. Because of the method by which it is brewed espressos tend to taste stronger than other coffees.
A coffee made with espresso and steamed milk. In Italy 'latte' means simply milk. Often incorrectly spelled with an accent over the last 'e', the modern latte was popularized in Seattle in the early 1980s.
What they serve in Starbucks - scourge of the coffee aficionado. Order one in a fashionable coffee shop and expect eye-rolls and a pitying smile.