Guest coffee blog: What Makes a Good Café?

coffee, Coffee

I am delighted to welcome Farooq from Ihya Magazine who goes back in time to discuss the history and characteristics behind what makes a great cafe.

——-

The growth of independent coffee houses in Birmingham is a good sign that the city is developing as a cultural social hub. Creativity and cafes are synonymous with each other ever since coffee was first discovered both for its delicious taste and ability to keep one awake back in Yemen around the 15th Century, to the impact of coffeehouses upon the Enlightenment; something Steven Johnson explores in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation’. Since then coffee houses have evolved as a social lubricant and developed into the vibrant café culture we experience today. However it has taken some time for café culture to really take root in Birmingham as experienced in cities and countries who have centuries of café culture to speak of. Cities like Venice, Paris, Cairo, Istanbul and London have developed their own café culture identity over centuries, and in recent times countries like the US and Australia have also come to develop their own distinct café culture.

What distinguishes each of these places is their history of café culture and how they’ve come to influence the coffee experience, whether it is in the types of coffee made to the whole aesthetic and social experience. However we are now living in a time when we increasingly see cultural boundaries blur as people adopt from different cultures to either make it their own and create something new, or abandon their own café culture and adopt the dominant culture, thereby leaving their café culture indistinguishable.

This is a danger that faces many independent cafes in Birmingham. Style and the aesthetic experience is an important part of the coffee experience, however if the coffee is of a poor standard then it defeats the whole purpose of the café. Style over substance seems to be the scourge of our times and quality of product is often trumped by style. However when the aesthetic style and social experience of a café is built around the coffee then we have the foundations upon which to build a strong coffee culture.

Knowledge of coffee, as in everything, is essential to being the best. This is one reason why I find Java Lounge in Moseley, Birmingham so refreshing because the owner and its star barista really know coffee. What is particularly exciting is how they are actually coming to define a café culture that could not only come to define Birmingham but could also potentially come to define British café culture as a whole. As they draw upon their Yemeni roots from where coffee originated, they are aiming to fuse East and West café cultures together to create something quite unique. Consequently if you want to know what makes a good café, a good starting point is to speak with the owners of coffee independents, and if they exhibit the depth of knowledge and passion that can only be matched by delicious coffee then know you have found something truly special.

Farooq is a scientist, and writes a science blog on Scilogs and is editor of a blogzine called ihya that curates the cultural trends of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.