We’ve come a long way with our coffee in Britain. Until 1987 I’m not sure I’d even seen a proper espresso coffee machine. I’d seen milk frothers and hot water boilers but coffee was the poor cousin to tea. I’d seen a lot of teapots and loose tea by then. There was Horlicks and hot chocolate aplenty but coffee was generally made using instant coffee. The ‘better’ places had filter coffee but it was as if we had forgotten the coffee house experience.
The appearance of Central Perk with Friends in the mid 90s caused confusion. It looked a really nice environment but one which was completely alien to British culture – groups of friends just hanging around taking valuable seats without drinking very much. And then the chains arrived and Central Perk started to become a reality. These days there must be barely a high street which doesn’t serve the full range of coffee styles.
To me, the rapid expansion is starting to show its less attractive side. Most staff these days don’t look skilled (most don’t wear the t-shirt saying Barista on the back) and, although they may have the right equipment, there are some distinctly ropey cups being served at very high prices. The plastic lid goes on and unless you are quick you won’t get anything more than a glimpse of what you are drinking. There are many of those back street coffee machine-free who could teach the new bunch a thing or too. They may not have been serving a flat white but they were clean, friendly, reasonably priced and you’d usually be able to sit at a table without the last three occupants crockery. You’d also generally not stand ten-deep at a counter before facing the problem. I don’t ever remember seeing a ‘dirty protest’ at Central Perk.
If the chains continue to neglect their customers just because they own a piece of equipment their days, like Friends, are numbered.