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Finding a perfect cup of coffee on the high street

The perfect cup of coffee

As you may have noticed, high street coffee shops are hugely popular in the UK. But is the coffee from the big chains any good? What do you look for in the perfect cup of coffee?

I love drinking coffee. I’ve spent over 30 years in the coffee business – tasting, blending, learning to roast and occasionally even being a judge at Central American coffee competitions. More recently l have been testing the ‘consumer side’ of the business with the researchers at Which?.

Over the past few years we have sampled the large number of cafes blossoming in the high street. In Which?’s latest snapshot coffee taste test I tried coffees from five of the major chains – Caffè Nero, Costa, the M&S Café, Pret A Manger and Starbucks. And this year I praised the Americano coffee and cappuccino from Caffè Nero.

In fact, Nero’s Americano was the only coffee where I could identify the origin of the bean. As far as the others, Costa’s Americano did well as I liked its smoothness and body, but it lacked the depth of Nero’s coffee.

It’s certainly true to say that the growth of independent cafes has pushed the big brands to continue reviewing their offer, improving the choice and quality of that simple caffeine fix.

Ambience vs quality

But is it the prospect of a good coffee or the ambience of the venue that makes us choose a particular coffee bar?

Personally, I skip ambience and go for quality, though some people may call me a snob for being critical or over-demanding about the coffee l drink. Others may agree with me that we should go out of our way to find the best.

The price of beverages isn’t a big factor for me, since it doesn’t differ much between the big chains. For me it is more important to understand the basics of how the coffee is prepared and the reasons why some taste better than others.

So what does affect the flavour?

In my experience, there are three important factors that affect the flavour of coffee:

1. The blend of coffee beans

Is it (a) only blended as a strong (slightly burnt!) bean to ‘make an appearance’ through a heavy shield of milk? (b) rich and full of character, creating brilliant flavour no matter how it is presented? Or (c) light, plain and lost in the milk?

2. Proper brewing and measuring

What’s the dosage of ground coffee per shot of water? Does the coffee taste (a) thin and overstretched? (b) nicely balanced with quality taste? Or (c) full, solid and aggressive?

3. Professional frothing of the milk

Ignore for a moment whether it is semi-skimmed or full-cream milk. Is the foam (a) watered down or over-aerated? (b) creamy and intense with fine bubbles? Or (c) over-heated and tinted with burnt caramel flavour?

I am also asked if labels like fairtrade and organic have any effect on quality. I say no, but it is good that they exist.

For me, the skill and craftsmanship, right from farmer to barista, creates the flavour and taste I look for in a really great cup of coffee. Have you found the perfect blend?

Bella says:
13 July 2013

Come to Wellington, NZ, for coffee paradise. Here, every corner has a coffee shop (some with their own roasters) and every coffee shop has its dedicated fans. Onlt Italy can compete.

Review Police says:
22 February 2014

You lucky so-and-so!
I can’t imagine what you must think of the which? panel, who gave the Nescafe Azera such a high mark. WHat on earth possessed which? to use the term”expert” in this context? And who are these people – NEscafe employees, or perhaps the same people who promoted that “Chorely Wood” bread as better than Mum’s homemeade in the 1960s?
I’m British, but not always very pround to be so, sometimes!

Same with central zone, San Francisco, Bella, especially the Mission district, where cafes and eateries with superb local coffee are on almost every block (at a reasonable price) and there are many roasteries to provide them with their coffee. All of the roasteries I found have their own attached bar. A lot of the cafes sell espresso-based coffee, but the majority use slow-filter system.

Most of the roasteries also sell filter equipment for use at home – aficionados will need a jug and ceramic filter cone (with paper filters), an even grain size grinder (expensive) and a balance to weigh the beans and water.. My son, who’s right into all this, says that roasted beans will keep no more than three weeks – and they need an expert to roast them properly, so no, you shouldn’t do this at home.

The Cafe Nero coffees are superb and the Hot Chocolate Milano is to die for.

Dixiepeach says:
14 July 2013

Whilst the five coffee shops in the survey are good, if, like many of us, you are not in the same league as the researcher for whom cost does not appear to be an issue, then you could do just as well by buying your daily caffeine fix at McDonalds’ McCafe or a smaller coffee chain such as Nosh. The espressos and lattes from these two outlets are just as good as those from Starbucks, Costa and Nero and significantly more affordable for those on a budget. M&S I don’t really rate as quality can vary between stores and Pret has only ever been average in my opinion.

ML says:
14 July 2013

Like the researcher I’m prepared to pay extra for a proper coffee, so nice to have my opinions confirmed. As I drink mainly Americano I prefer Costa, only 2nd Nero (I find their coffee sometimes a bit too ‘harsh’ for want of a better word). Starbucks generally has coffee looking like tea and their cuppuccino tastes like flavoured milk. Food chains are not coffee experts, and I personally will only buy from them if there is absolutely no other choice. Life is too short to drink poor quality coffee 🙂

Alex Scott-Samuel says:
14 July 2013

Coffee lovers like me have no interest whatever in fashionable Italian coffee froth: we are solely focused on high quality filter coffee – in my case, Colombian is all I wish to drink, with simple cold milk. You don’t seem to cover this at all. Is Starbucks the only chain which supplies real filter coffee?

I feel that coffee from a coffee shop is very subjective and as a result I personally disagree with this test result. In fact I would go so far to consider if this review was a waste of subscribers’s money.

Which? is great at helping consumers decide on the purchase of something that they cannot test; like a fridge or toaster. For an item like a £2 cup of coffee, I feel the results are subjective and for £15 one can do one’s own test, so overall I feel that this review is not value for money.

M Doble says:
14 July 2013

I can only comment on the cappucino but I think Giles is way out here eg. putting Starbucks ahead of Costa! I think he also should have tried a few different branches of each one as I dont recognise some of his descriptions. M&S is an interesting choice, but not somewhere you might specifically go for a coffee, what about AMT/coffee republic?

Difficult to put a number rating on brands as to a certain extent its down to mood/personal taste.
Costa – The best, and the other comments in general bear this out. Even if you seem to get a giant cup of it in the middle size. What Giles describes as bitterness is actually flavour. It was a major advance in civilisation when they started opening at motorway service stations, and no longer will i have to gag on a milky flavourless cup of Upper Crust.
Nero – A very close second but different in style. Good balance between coffee/milk. for reasons of convenience I drink one every day so they can’t be too bad.
Pret – These are not ‘served with too much milk’, if anything Pret has the lowest proportion of milk and the most foam (the foamiest too) in a cappucino. A pret cappo has coffee which has a silky chocolatey flavour and if the mood strikes me I would choose over the above.
Starebucks – ‘A bit low on coffee flavour’ is an understatement. Pretty much zero coffee flavour, just an acrid burnt flavour overwhelmed by milk.

Ste says:
14 July 2013

Personally, I think that most of the coffee served up by the big coffee chains is grossly over-priced rubbish and avoid it like the plague – and why is it served in such huge cups or containers? There are some small independent coffee shops who seem to know how coffee should be served if you are lucky enough to find one. I prefer to make my own filter coffee and take it with me in a flask if I am driving somewhere.

It seems you need to go to Italy or Spain (or almost any other country on the Continent) to get excellent coffee served everywhere at very reasonable prices.

Nick says:
14 July 2013

Clearly taste is a very personal thing but if the ‘expert’ prefers Cafe Nero to Costa then his expertise is in development and not fully mature. Agree with the Kiwi about the antipodes and Italy being where the art of the espresso and capuccino reach their zenith. However it is a treat to be able to drink good stuff in Blighty having had so many years of awful stewed Cona rubbish.

There are ‘Gails’ coffee shops springing up and I have one local to me. They use Union coffee and I think they are the best. I suppose what the survey can’t measure is the skill of the barrista, a bad one can ruin a cup of coffee very easily.

Sue says:
14 July 2013

I find that M & S Latte leaves a bitter taste in my mouth for quite a while.Costa flat white is very good.

Peter Clarke says:
15 July 2013

I agree wholeheartedly with Ste. The whole experience is dismal. How many of your readers have tried a Viennese coffee house, I wonder. That should be the starting point. No slippery trays, no clattery ambience, fresh cakes and courteous service. The coffee, by the way, is excellent. I just can’t understand why the concept doesn’t catch on here.

Why is it so difficult to buy a filter coffee these days (I drink mine black)? Everywhere seems to be converting to espresso and chucking out the filter machines. I was even told in Austria that filter coffee is ‘old-fashioned’!
I do not like espresso, even when diluted in an americano. Mostly I find it bitter and burnt tasting. Yesterday I could smell burnt beans on the street when passing a coffee shop.
I make a point of asking for filter coffee (even if I can see it is not available), quite often to be told that their espresso/americano is filter, either that or they look at me as if I have arrived from the moon, in the vain hope that it might eventually filter(!) through that not everybody likes or wants espresso. A vain hope I fear.
To return to filter coffee most British shops make it far too weak – more beans please.

Fred says:
17 July 2013

While allowing for the subjectivity of taste and the differences in skill at the companies’ different branches, my wife and I completely agree with the Giles’ assessment of the Nero, Costa and Starbuck chains’ coffees (haven’t tried the other two). But all are a very poor substitute for properly made filtered varieties. What really makes the mouth water is the smell of coffee – and where is that on the ‘High Street’ these days. We recall visiting Southend years ago (before the British had completely succumbed to American influences) and catching – long before we got to the shop – the wonderful aroma emanating from Planter’s.

Ian says:
17 July 2013

I have been told by the staff at my local M & S that they no longer use whole milk for their coffee. Shouldn’t they now change their menus to reflect this and show all coffee to be of the “skinny” variety? Could they be breaking the “Trade Description Act” if it still exists.

Judith says:
18 July 2013

It probably is a matter of personal taste. I know I prefer Cafe Nero and particularly like their cappucinos. I like the music and the general ambience but one of my friends dislikes it immensely and prefers Starbucks (I dislike their cappuccino as I find it a bit sickly tasting, but their filter coffee is OK). We tend to compromise and go to Costa or M & S or if short on cash then Pret as they do a cheapo coffee – not the best but it will do on occasions – for the price alone.
Where possible I will try and choose an independent coffee chain as they are up against the big High Street chains and often I find I prefer their coffee, especially if it is Illy, and you can often buy a cup of coffee rather than a trough. (One of the reasons I like Cafe Nero is because you can choose to have a small cup of coffee).
One of the best machine coffees I had was in a hotel in Trieste and I think that was probably Illy.

mollie says:
21 July 2013

I think Café Nero is the best of the chains but come to Blackburn or Clitheroe for a superb taste in The Exchange Coffee Company. It beats them all and lots of people agree with me. As usual the small independents win!

Just been to Cornwall and sampled various coffee outlets.
Costa as usual not great. An iced coffee tasted very powdery !!
Cafe Nero very good.
Starbucks very good.
Independent on a beach very good.

INDEPENDENTS if you read this, please stock soya milk as one of us is allergic to milk and doesn’t like black coffee very much. So we have little choice but to go to the chains. Not one independent we tried had soya milk.

Easy solution for you, alfa: take your own, as I do.

Soya milk from a freshly-opened carton (ie, not been open in the fridge for several days) will easily last a day or more, even if not chilled. In fact, on a weekend trip, I usually take a fresh carton, and after being opened for first use keep it where it won’t spill for the rest of the weekend. With luck, the accommodation will allow us to keep it in the main fridge.

We usually do have some with us, but sometimes can’t be bothered to carry it or were not planning to have coffee out.

What do you do when flying since liquids have to be less than 100ml? Last flight, a coffee shop air-side let us have some soya milk in a coffee cup but charged a fortune for it.

We carry several 100ml bottles! One at destination, it’s not difficult to find a shop with soya milk, though in US supermarkets, it’s almost all flavo(u)red with vanilla and more.

Musician says:
9 December 2014

All coffee and coffee machine reviewers ignore the poor souls who, like me, have to drink decaffeinated coffee as, for one reason or another, we cannot have caffeine – in my case it makes me very ill However I love coffee and want a good strong-tasting cup, but decaff is usually a weak blend, not a specific bean, probably the leftovers all ground up together, in most cases turning out weak and tasteless. I wouldn’t buy a Nespresso machine as their decaff is rated half the strength of other pods and the amount is dictated by the pod size. I would buy an espresso machine but even the best buys seem to have serious drawbacks, such as they leak or break down frequently. So back to the cafetiere for which if I’m lucky, I can at least buy ground Columbian decaff coffee and make it as strong as I like. Anyone else have my problem?

Mmm, Musician! We drink decaf sometimes (Tesco’s own is pretty good, as decaf goes) but I do like a strong cup, so pods are out!

So we have two sizes of filter ‘machine’, one 2-cup (one mug) Melitta Aromaboy (a ’60s classic still available) and one 10-cup from Aldi which looks rather like an espresso machine and has a thermojug. (The standard ‘cup’ appears to be a French demi-tasse of about 150ml.)

In any case I reckon this to be better than the espresso-based coffees for flavour and certainly a lot cheaper to use and with a hugely better range of coffees available. See my comment above of 22 Feb about San Francisco roasteries.

The supermarkets know what real people buy, and it’s mostly NOT those pod machines that keep being tested. Tesco, for example, have a small display for each pod and for specialist machines; a small display of roasted beans and a ground coffee display featuring 8 brands, at least 30 sources and taking up 10 times the space of the others combined. Supermarkets allocate space according to sales volume, so the relative public preference (after instant) for loose ground coffee is clear! Which? staffers tell me that they don’t now test filter machines because they tend to be uniformly good, so personal preference is all you need.

Any comment, Which?