The experiment began innocently enough. After all, an eleven-hour flight to the other side of the Earth leaves plenty of time to muse over life-threatening situations. I knew that I’d be able to find a fix – Starbucks’ website assured me that there were 170 stores in London for me to choose from – but I vowed to leave Starbucks when I left the U.S. I needed to know for sure: would a cup of British coffee taste so very different than American coffee? Certainly coffee would taste better in England because everything in Europe was supposedly better: wine, cheese, beer, bread – everything. Why not this sacred morning elixir?
I drank coffee for two crucial reasons (the caffeine high was merely an added bonus). Aroma. The coffee aisle in the grocery store wielded an uncanny power over me; most trips to the store, I didn’t even buy coffee, but I was still compelled to drag my uncooperative cart down that extra aisle for the fragrance. Coffee smells reminded me of Folgers commercials from my youth – a considerate someone was always brewing the perfect cup while a lucky someone else lay in bed only to awake to an outrageously steaming cup of coffee. The same intoxicating coffee smells forced me to frequent artsy cafes with too-loud music where I paid the $3.50 for a short latte, often with couch-scrounged change.
Warming properties – my second and most compelling reason to drink coffee. Coffee warmed my stomach and my memory. Up until kindergarten, I gleefully accompanied my grandma to a small town-diner for breakfast every day. Breakfast could not be breakfast without coffee – especially to a precocious four-year old. Each day I gulped my Boston luxury comprised of milk, sugar, and a splash of diner joe. My warm stomach (burning and churning to be more accurate) was actually an argument, one that I consciously and deliciously denied each time I indulged, not to drink coffee. I often justified this unhealthy digestive reaction with obviously flawed logic: coffee was helping to break down my food faster.
American coffee embodied small-town values and big-city culture; what would British coffee embody? I pondered further as I approached the site of my first British coffee experience; perhaps my cultured surroundings would inspire tastier brewing. I ordered. I was certain that I saw my upper lip near the corner of my left eye as I witnessed a rather rude and non-creative-looking coffee guy push a button and catch a drooling stream in a one-size-fits all cup. No ssscchhhhwuuusccchh of steaming milk. No music. No beret. No smile. No tip jar. Very different indeed.
English coffee had less acid than American coffee – a sacrifice suspiciously made for aroma, flavor and quality. I attempted to resuscitate hope: there is always that one token terrible coffee kiosk in America too. It’s just easier to identify because it’s the only kiosk without a 5-car line in drive-thru. And so the coffee experiment continued, but with a slight wheeze.
The following morning’s dormitory breakfast promised a second chance for savory redemption. As I struggled with the unusually heavy and uncooperative metal doors, my nose waited for aromatic ascension. My nose continued to wait patiently until my half-closed eyes ruined the much-anticipated moment – another insto-presto coffee machine. This Nescafe wonder machine offered nine beverages. Without the frowny face of the unartsy coffee guy to affect my taste, I remained scholarly and spent nearly an hour in my examination of presto-coffee. Diagnosis: not terminal, but the lack of aroma was hardly worth the amount of caffeine I’d ingested.
I fought the urge to dash into Starbucks; I spied one of these beacons every few blocks. The notion that America’s corporate consistency would ensure quality coffee threatened the validity of my mission. Coffee from Starbucks would not be British, regardless of the establishment’s physical location. Under the pretense of optimism and exercising unusually mighty will power, I rejected Starbucks and sought out one last coffee guru. Her grave expression revealed no information about her craft, but she squinted yes to my question, “Can you make espresso?”
From behind her long back I spied the specious coffee baskets and handles. Her whisper of, “50p please” vanished into the dying cries of the coffee experiment – a non-pungent espresso in a styrofoam cup quashed all hope of recovery.
Had Americans dumped coffee in the Boston harbor, no one in England (definitely not the prosaic coffee guy) would have given a damn. The U.S. may have a National Coffee Association and a Specialty Coffee Association of America that convene for blind taste tests and conferences, but the British added another meal to their day just so they could drink tea. Tea is the preferred beverage in England’s coffeehouses for a reason, and after that styrofoam espresso, I understood. I began drinking tea, the British way.
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