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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?

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.