It's a bit of a loaded question when somebody asks: "Would you like a cup of coffee?" It is tempting to say yes, but then the questions begin. Will it be made in a cafetiere, espresso machine or filter? Are the beans arabica or robusta, high, medium or low roast? When were they roasted and, more importantly, when were they ground? Is the coffee from Guatemala, Ethiopia or Brazil? Maybe it is easier to just say no. Although almost 90 per cent of the coffee we drink nationally is still instant, our interest in fresh coffee has never been greater.
Anita Le Roy has been selling coffee in Covent Garden in London for over 20 years. Walk into her Monmouth Street Coffee House and you enter a glorious world. Anita started the Monmouth Coffee Company in the mid 1970s, when a huge question mark hung over the future of Covent Garden vegetable market and the Tube closed at 6pm on a Friday.
"It was the we-can-do-anything era," recalls Anita. "One day I noticed a huge discrepancy between the price of coffee futures and the retail price, so I bought a shipment of green beans, got somebody to roast them for me and that was how I started. But I soon realised that to have any control over quality, I needed to do my own roasting." Anita's dark roast is what many would call medium. There is no high roasting here. "I am adamant that the inherent flavour of the coffee must come through," Anita emphasises. "If the roast is too high, you lose that character.
We are standing in the tiny basement of her shop, and the even tinier British-made Whitmee roaster is working at an intense heat on some Guatemalan Huehuetenango Cuchumatan beans. The roasting process caramelises the sugars in the raw green beans, which is what gives off the wonderful aroma. With a dark roast, the sugar almost burns and blackens the beans.
Roasting times vary between 15 and 18 minutes, but the moment at which to stop is crucial - a matter of seconds rather than minutes. How do you know when? "Colour, smell, taste and experience," says Anita, biting into a bean while pulling a lever that releases 20kg of medium-roasted beans into the cooling sieve. Moments later, we are making the most delicious coffee upstairs with the same beans.
One of the downsides of the enormous increase in coffee drinking in recent years, according to Anita Le Roy, is the movement away from single-estate varieties (beans from one designated estate) towards blending. The Indian Koorghully that she sells is the first single-estate coffee to be sold in this country since the 1930s.
On other side of Cambridge Circus in Soho, is the Algerian Coffee Stores, opened in 1887 by Mr Hassam. The current owner, Mr Crocetta, inherited it from his father-in-law, who refused to accept credit cards or sell tea bags. Coffee was delivered to the basement, roasted, then sold wholesale or through the shop upstairs.
The shop now sells 120 different types of coffee and over one tonne of coffee each week. It is also a stockist for Alessi products, imports and repairs espresso machines from Italy, and does now sell tea bags, along with some delicious chocolates - coated plums and ginger and large bars of sleek black Valrhona. The roasting is done in a separate warehouse - there simply isn't room in the shop.
Mr Crocetta buys his coffee through brokers, who send him samples. He then roasts these in his tiny roaster on the top floor of the shop. If he is happy with the beans, he places an order. What does he look for? In essence, that the coffee's inherent characteristics are all there and that there is no water damage to the beans.
And, as a nation, are we buying more coffee? Undoubtedly, according to Mr Crocetta. Not only is this evident from the huge explosion of coffee bars, but he has also seen a 30 per cent increase in the purchase of espresso coffee in the last five years. Anita Le Roy, coincidentally, has only recently started selling an espresso blend.
What does he think of vacuum-packed supermarket coffee? "The life expectancy may well be a year or so, but the coffee is already several months old. Once you break the seal, deterioration is, in my view, going to be fairly speedy."
For all you espresso junkies, there is rather more to making the perfect espresso than you might think (so much so that companies are now springing up to teach staff how to do it correctly). And who hasn't received a frothless, dull, boring espresso in even the smartest of restaurants? If you are in Soho, Ross Guyatt at the Algerian Coffee Stores will happily show you how. It was certainly one of the best I have ever tasted.
Monmouth Coffee House, 27 Monmouth Street, London WC2. Tel 0171 836 5272 (mail order available). Algerian Coffee Stores, 52 Old Compton Street, London W1V. Tel 0171 437 2480 (mail order available).
What you need to know about coffee:
Why all the fuss about arabica and robusta? The oldest variety of coffee is arabica. Full-flavoured and aromatic, the plants will grow only between 2,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. Robusta is a lot less fussy and flourishes in a range of climatic conditions. Robusta generally contributes body and strength of flavour, but has less depth and aroma than arabica.
The cherries (two coffee beans embracing each other wrapped in an outer skin) are picked from the bushes when ripe. There are two ways to remove the outer husk: wet fermentation (favoured for arabica) and dry (for robusta). During wet fermentation, the beans are placed in water tanks for 48 hours to remove the skin. This lends more acidic, winey flavours to the coffee. The beans are then laid out to dry for a few days. For dry fermentation, the berries are simply left to dry in the sun and the outer husk is then rubbed off. This gives the coffee a more gamy flavour.
For smooth, well balanced coffee with strong characteristics, look to Central and South America and the Caribbean. For full-bodied, fruity coffee with a balancing acidity, head for East Africa and Arabia. For smooth, elegant, full-bodied coffee with low acidity, aim for India, the Pacific and Southeast Asia.
Once beans have been roasted, they have a shelf life of two to three weeks at room temperature. Once ground, a day or two, according to purists; a week if you are more relaxed about it. Vacuum-packing and storing beans in the freezer helps considerably. Grinding beans from frozen is acceptable, but before you make the coffee, allow the grains to come to room temperature first.
Many high-quality coffees are fine as they are, but blending can often produce a good balance, drawing out the best characteristics of each coffee. While most coffee retailers produce their own blends, you can also ask them to make up one for you. Ask their advice, identifying the characteristics you like, and when and how you drink your coffee. 'After dinner blend', 'Continental blend', 'specially selected by our master blender' - what do these terms mean? Absolutely zilch. More importantly, does it taste full-bodied, chewy and big, or thin, elegant and subtle? Some coffees are more aromatic than others. Some more acidic. It is less a question of good or bad, than of preference. Why are lightly roasted beans dull, while dark roasted beans are shiny? The oil in the bean is drawn out the longer it is roasted, which gives it a shiny coating.
For a cafetiere, use a mild, mellow coffee (such as Algerian Coffee Stores' Connoisseur, Costa Rica and Colombia). Cafetieres and jugs need medium-grind coffee. Anita Le Roy makes her coffee with a filter or in a jug. Mr Crocetta uses only an espresso machine. For filters, you need finely ground coffee. For espresso machines, extra fine, and it must be a dark roast. Medium-roast coffee used in an espresso machine can produce very acidic flavours.
This is hard to dictate as you must be your own judge. As a starting point, try a rounded dessertspoon of coffee per small cup. Anita Le Roy says the worst mistake is to make coffee too weak, which only highlights bitterness and off flavours. If you don't like your coffee too strong, make it as above, then add hot water. The strength of coffee does not depend on the roast, rather on the concentration of the coffee. The roast should simply enhance the coffee's inherent qualities. As a guide, a light or medium roast is recommended for more delicate coffees. This preserves the acidity and draws out the flavours. These coffees are good for breakfast and with milk. A dark roast, which has a slightly bitter caramelised flavour, is better drunk black and as espresso.