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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?


Used to love Tim Hortons in Canada.