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History of Coffee Part V - Speciality Coffee

With the large multi-national coffee companies focused purely on coffee as a commodity rather then a drink to be savoured, it allowed a new sector to emerge in the coffee industry: Speciality Coffee. Speciality coffee was nothing new, rather the opposite; it stripped coffee making back down to the grass roots: pure arabica beans, roasted long enough for the coffee to fully develop all its characteristics and flavours.

During the 'Dark Age' of coffee there was still excellent coffee available, if you knew where to look for it. A number of small cafes and shops continued to trade, sourcing and roasting high quality arabica beans. These outlets were typically run and frequented by immigrants (usually Arabs, Turks, Greeks and Italians), far from the mainstream.

All this began to change in the 1960s, with the post World War II 'Baby Boomers' coming into adulthood. Many of this generation were keen not to follow in their parents footsteps, preferring to act in a more bohemian way. For them, these cafes and shops were an ideal place to meet, read poetry, take drugs and experience alternative culture.

One such coffee shop in Berkeley, California is widely credited as being the main inspiration on the emergence of the speciality coffee sector. Peet's Coffee & Tea store, opened in 1966 by Alfred Peet (dubbed the 'grandfather of speciality coffee'), enthused a number of its customers, who later became key players in the speciality sector. Peet, an immigrant from Alkmaar (Holland), had developed a distinctive style of roasting coffee from working in his family's coffee and tea business. After emigrating to California, aged thirty-five, he opened his shop employing his artisan coffee roasting techniques to build a loyal customer base. Peet's coffee was so loved that he even had his own set of groupies: the 'Peetniks'.

Two of Peet's most important customers (historically) were a couple of Seattle coffee lovers named Jerry Baldwin and Gordon Bowker. In 1971, after tasting Peet's fine brews, they were inspired to open their own coffee shop back in Seattle called Starbucks. Starbucks opened as a bean-only-store, steadily building a loyal customer base during the 70s and early 80s through its fine arabicas and darker roasts.

Starbucks

In 1984, the director of retail operations and marketing, Howard Schultz, tried to persuade Baldwin and Bowker to open the first Starbucks coffeehouse. Schultz had just returned from a trip to Milan, where he had noticed the existence of coffeehouses on almost every block. These were not just places to enjoy great espresso coffee, but also served as meeting places. Schultz was keen to recreate this kind of coffeehouse in America, but Baldwin and Bowker rejected Schultz's plans as they were unwilling to get into the restaurant business.

Undeterred, Schultz left Starbucks in 1985 to open his own coffeehouse, 'Il Giornale'. Still using Starbucks coffee beans to make espresso drinks, Il Giornale proved extremely popular with the Seattle public. So popular in fact that, in 1987, Schultz was able to buy Starbucks from Bowker and Schultz. Changing Il Giornale's name to Starbucks, Schultz began to rapidly expand, opening over 1,000 stores in a decade.

The story of the first British speciality coffeehouse also involves Alfred Peet. In 1995, Scott and Ally Svenson wanted to open a coffeehouse in Covent Garden, London. Their background was in marketing and design and, even though they were originally from Seattle, they did not know much about coffee. This is why they approached Steven Macatonia and Jeremy Torz of Union Coffee Roasters. Steven and Jeremy had fallen in love with coffee while working at Peet's in California. On their return home they decided to open their own roasting outlet and were soon supplying places such as the River Café, the Caprice, and the Ivy.

The Covent Garden coffeehouse, named the Seattle Coffee Company, was another big success and inevitably expansion soon followed. The rapid growth of the company caused increasing demand on Union Coffee Roasters, so the two companies decided to merge together. In 1998, after opening over 60 outlets throughout the UK, Starbucks came knocking at their door. They saw the acquisition of the Seattle Coffee Company side of the business as an ideal way to enter the UK market. Soon the Seattle Coffee Company was no more, with all its stores re-branded as Starbucks.

The popularity of coffeehouses has been phenomenal. Almost every high street in Britain has a least one coffeehouse now. Words such as espresso, cappuccino and caffé latte are commonplace. In fact the price of a caffé latte is now one of the products that the British government use to measure inflation. Market analysers believe that the success of the coffeehouse is not solely due to the coffee they serve, but the atmosphere in which it is served. Coffeehouses in Britain in the 1990s were a break from convention. In the consumerist landscape of the high-street, coffeehouses represented a place to relax. Customers were encouraged to take their time over their coffee; sit on big comfy sofas; offered the daily newspapers to read; allowed to idle the afternoon away watching the world go by. In other words, coffeehouses had returned to playing their original role in society, as they had done when they first arrived in Britain back in 17th Century.

The growth of these coffeehouses has helped to heighten the public's awareness of the speciality coffee sector. Increasingly, individuals are looking to have a slice of the coffeehouse in their own home, investing in espresso makers and other coffee accessories. Coffee is now widely available from a multitude of origins, roasted to differing degrees and ground to your requirement. In short, the 'Dark Age' of coffee is well and truly over.

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