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Londoners: I'll take a 'flat white'... What?

London's multicultural spirit on display at the Summer Games includes food and drink. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports on London's coffee revolution.

LONDON — The British capital won the 2012 Summer Olympic bid with a pitch for its multicultural spirit.  And in the past two weeks, that claim has been borne out by a batch of gold medalists hailing from diverse backgrounds — take for instance, heptathlete Jessica Ennis (British-Jamaican) or long-distance runner Mo Farah (British-Somali), who won the men's 10,000-meter race.

But London’s multicultural spirit lives not just in the people but also the food and drink.

Take coffee, for instance.

In the past decade, this most devotedly tea-drinking city has seen an independent coffee culture gradually take root and flourish, led by the "flat white," a coffee import from Australia and New Zealand that was readily adopted by London's caffeine brigade.

The coffee drink that’s a lifestyle

"It's an espresso with some milk in it," said Gwilym Davies, who opened Prufrock Coffee, an independent coffee house in Holborn almost two years ago.

It sounds simple, but it's not.

Adrienne Mong

The espresso machine at Prufrock Coffee gets a regular workout.

In fact, explaining what goes into a flat white can lead to a lot of discussion over proportions of coffee to milk — a debate that some of the independent café owners now find tedious.

“[D]escribe it as a latte with less milk or a cappuccino with less foam or however you will,” said Anette Moldvaer of Square Mile Coffee Roasters.  (Fans say the flat white tastes like a very strong latte, ie, more bean, less milk.)

"There's a lot of mystique around essentially what you could argue is just a balance of milk, foam, and espresso,” said Ben Townsend, owner of The Espresso Room, a tiny gem of a café also tucked away in Holborn that opened in 2009. Ultimately, he added, the "flat white describes a style rather than a specific drink."

That style is very much a London hybrid.

London’s multicultural coffee scene
Moldvaer, Townsend, and Davies comprise a group of aficionados who have built a London coffee culture that now rivals – some of the independent café owners say even surpasses – those of Italy, where the espresso was invented.

“[I]f you look at all the major continental brands, the Lavazzas, the Illys, they dominate the market, and…I’ve never seen transparent listings of where the coffee’s from. It’s just named as Illy or whatever,” said Townsend.

Adrienne Mong

The Espresso Room is tucked away on a Holborn side street.

Whereas in London, the independent cafes learned from the Scandinavian countries, adopting “their roasting styles and their ability to get good green beans from the farmers,” said Davies.  Depending on the season, the beans might come from far-flung countries in Latin America (for example, Guatemala) or Africa (at the moment, Ethiopia or Kenya).  "It's a seasonal product, and therefore it will taste different from month to month, season to season," said Townsend.

Combined with what some describe as “Australian-style” service and speed, London’s cafes have produced their own hybrid culture. “The London scene has been an incredible fusion of quality and speed, and I think you can easily say that London coffee is equal – at its best – to anywhere in the world,” said Townsend.

Even so, “the independent coffee culture here is still young and in constant development, very much creating and educating its customer base as it goes along,” said Moldvaer.  She and her business partner James Hoffmann started Square Mile Coffee Roasters in 2007 “to help London serve and drink better coffee.”

Along with other outlets such Workshop (formerly known as St. Ali—a Melbourne outpost), the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, and Allpress Espresso, the independent coffee houses have also had an impact on the chains.

In 2009, Starbucks and Costa in the U.K. rolled out their own version of the flat white.  The move within weeks made the flat white, as one observer put it, “as edgy as a soy latte.” (For non-coffee drinkers, that's a diss.)

Adrienne Mong

London has seen a rapid growth in independent coffee houses during the past few years.

The trend hasn't quite caught on across the pond.  Although it has popped up in hipster U.S. neighborhoods like New York’s Tribeca and Williamsburg neighborhoods, the filter coffee still reigns strong, according to baristas at the popular Chicago-based independent chain, Intelligentsia Coffee.

In the meantime, purveyors like Prufrock are happy that customers have moved onto the coffee itself.  “We’re finding a growth…in black coffee,” said Davies.  “And we’re exploring different farms, different varieties, different processing of the coffee bean and exploring the flavor essentially.”

Coffee has come such a long way in London that inevitably one wonders, what will happen to tea?

“You can’t replace our tea,” protested Davies. “I love my tea. If there’s a little disaster going on, I sit down and we have tea.”

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