When International Coffee Day came and went at the end of September, it got me thinking about the odd coffee culture here in Ireland. Why do I call it "odd"?
I'm an Irish-American now living in Ireland -- I call myself an Irish-American-Irish. :-) Having spent my 20s and early 30s (what I might call my "formative coffee years") in America, I was exposed to the "specialty coffee" culture which has existed there for the better part of four decades. I have been "into" coffee as a hobby since my college years, but the single biggest factor in my pseudo-obsession with the art and science of coffee came into play when my dad decided to open up a coffee house / bakery several years ago.
The coffee side of it was surprising, given that he's never imbibed a single cup of "Joe" in his life. His forte is in the bakery side of things ... and I suppose the coffee part was just a good marriage of tastes. My dad is very much a subscriber to the maxim, "Anything worth doing is worth doing right." Thankfully, he's passed that onto me. Given this outlook, he wanted to be sure he educated himself and his employees on the cutting edge of the speciality coffee culture. This meant sampling the products from quite a few micro-roasteries across the country, and even hosting a focus group to determine which beans had the most universal appeal.
After selecting the roaster he'd be working with, he set out to find the very best in equipment for grinding, dosing, and brewing the coffee. He spared little expense, and what resulted was a positively magnificent cup of coffee -- done up any way you like it (straight espresso, Americano, cappuccino, latte, drip, French press, etc.). In all this pursuing of excellence, I learned alongside my dad and his employees about what really makes a fine cup of coffee.
Unfortunately (and perhaps fortunately in some ways), this process made me a true "coffee snob." It's a two-edged sword, indeed, but it's a moniker I don't deny. I'm not cruel about it, but I will not bother drinking anything that's not a proper cup of coffee according to the standards I've learned over the years. Like anything, when you train your taste buds and your olfactory to a certain standard, nothing else will do.
With that background out of the way, I wanted to take a brief look at coffee culture here in Ireland. Perhaps I should say the lack of coffee culture, because Ireland still lags well behind many other countries when it comes to coffee shops and coffee roasters who offer a truly excellent product. In fact, I can count the number of coffee roasters who properly roast their beans (i.e. not to the point of making charcoal out of them) on a single hand ... with a couple fingers to spare.
In terms of retail coffee shops, I have encountered very few which serve a "proper" cup. I know of a small handful in Dublin (send me a private message here if you want their names), but outside of those, I have yet to encounter any shopfront where one can acquire a truly excellent product, if even passable. I know ... I'm just a coffee snob. But again, this is where the maxim above comes in: "Anything worth doing is worth doing right." It seems innovation in the world of coffee both started and stopped on that stormy night at Foynes Airport in County Limerick when the first "Irish Coffee" was served.
I order my freshly roasted coffee beans mainly from two great roasters in the mainland U.K. Being proudly Irish and wanting to support local businesses, I would much rather buy my roasted beans from a roaster here in Ireland. But I've come away consistently disappointed almost every time I do that. I've now started roasting some of my own beans in small batches at home, which will give me greater control over extracting just the right taste to suit my palate. On a positive note, I have been told that one of those "proper" coffee shops is even now setting up their own roastery and will begin selling their own freshly roasted beans at the beginning of 2014. I have high hopes for that.
So what's the deal with the lagging coffee culture here in Ireland? Why haven't things caught up to much of the rest of Europe? I came across an extensive study done by Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) which breaks down the preferences and tendencies of coffee consumers in Ireland. Just about anything you want to know on this subject can be found in that report. What I see when browsing through the data in that report is a population who has not yet been exposed to much of the "gourmet" side of things when it comes to its coffee. This is interesting to me given how far Irish cuisine has come -- leaps and bounds. Why has coffee not come along for the ride as well?
I think at least part of the answer can be found in the incredible prominence of tea in Ireland. We're among the leading nations of the world in tea consumption per-capita, with some sources even placing Ireland atop that list. I think this has impeded the introduction of a great coffee culture in this country. Plenty of people drink it, though, so why is there such a dearth of knowledge when it comes to identifying a sub-par coffee beverage when we have one?
I'd love to open a top-notch coffee roastery and café here in Galway (or at least manage one for someone else), but I'm left wondering if the palates trained with charred beans and poor brewing techniques would appreciate the difference. I think we're seeing small, incremental progress here in Ireland, but how much further will it go?
I'm including an interesting info-graphic on the history of coffee making around the world created by Datadial for their client Wild Card. It includes a handful of interesting statistics, including the number of cups of coffee made consumed every five minutes throughout the world ... more than 2 million! Are you a coffee connoisseur? If you've been to Ireland and tried the coffee, what were your impressions?