Coffee is nearly as popular in much of the UK now as it is in the States. In fact, in much of London, you can't discharge a shotgun in the streets without winging at least two artisan coffee shops, making cold-brewed coffee with beans sourced from individual smallholdings in Guatemala. Not surprisingly, Starbucks wants a bit of that action, and is going upmarket and artisan with the Reserve cafe in central London.
Located just off of Upper St Martin's Lane, immediately inbetween the Ivy, where well-heeled diners talk about Alan Yentob over seared tuna, and The Mousetrap, where bewildered toursits totter out going, "Well that was crap," Reserve boasts some impressive coffee tech.
First up there's this Clover machine, which is apparently exclusive to Starbucks and uses a process almost like a cafetiere/French press in reverse. Ground coffee and hot water are placed in the container at the top, and allowed to steep for 30 seconds, before a piston rises and falls below, creating a vacuum that sucks the now-brewed coffee through a mesh.
I'm going to be honest and say I know nothing about coffee, although I drink gallons of the stuff, but the result is very 'smooth'.
For the traditional Starbucks enthusiast, who mainly uses its establishments as places to blag free Wi-Fi, Reserve is also a big leap forward. There's up to 100Mbps connectivity, and also wireless charging. Just pick up a Lightning or USB charger from the middle of the table, put it in your phone's socket and place it artfully on this charging point. Apologies for the foccacia crumbs.
The coffee beans used are exclusive to Reserve and come from single crops, so will change throughout the year. As well as familiar South American and African varieties, there's Vietnamese. As you can see, everything looks considerably more upmarket than what you get at your standard Starbucks, and they don't even have Katie Melua playing in the background.
Now we move swiftly past the AMOLED display screens, which loom over artisan sandwiches and cake… You'll note that there's a platter of agreeable cheeses on the end, and that's cos Reserve also does sharing plates, between 6pm and 9pm, with table service and everything. Oh, and if you really can't be doing with coffee, artisanal or otherwise, you can also get boozes from around the world.
…Which brings us to this milk frother, nestled amidst the syrups and milks. Looking like an elongated blender, this violently agitates milk to create a much denser froth than you get with traditional steaming methods, and is also cold rather than hot.
Applied to the top of an espresso you get something that looks like Guinness, has an 'interesting' mouth feel, with the mix of hot coffee coming through cold, thick froth that's almost like whippped cream. And then there's a sprinkling of cinammon on top, because it's Starbucks. That is really nice, actually, if odd.
Moving in a more low-tech direction, Reserve also makes use of the syphon method of coffee production. This is about as labour-intensive a way of making a drink as you can imagine, and a long way from the usual Starbucks ethos of pour-it-out-write-the-guy's-name-on-it-but-spelled-wrong-and-then-hand-it-over.
Coffee syphons resemble a lab experiement in which you boil water over (in this case) a halogen burner, causing it to evaporate and then condense in the syphon's upper chamber, where ground coffee is added to it. After brewing for 45 seconds, you then remove the syphon from the heat, again causing a vacuum to form, which pulls the brewed coffee down through the filter that sits between the upper and lower chambers of the syphon. Got that?
The result is a brew that is, if anything, even smoother than the Clover machine, with none of the bitter notes that you generally associate with coffee.
And real coffee nuts will also be pleased to know that chemex pour-over coffee is also available (smoothness rating: high), as well as all your boring old espresso variants, most of which are again not what you'll find in your high street Starbucks.
The tech fest is rounded out by the ability to pre-order drinks via the Starbucks app, ordering in the cafe itself via tablet-wielding staff, and a complete absence of tills, to get a contemporary, contactless payment vibe going. You can still pay by cash, but you can imagine that Starbucks would rather you pay by contactless, Apple Pay or its own, pre-paid cards.
If you have issues with Starbucks' approach to paying tax and employee relations, it's doubtful that craft ales, artisanal coffee-making, cakes and agreeable cheeses are going to sway you, but as an example of a mega corporation trying its hand at a style of retail that's been the preserve of rivals who are either more upmarket, more independent or both, Reserve is undeniably pretty impressive.
The staff definitely seem to know a hell of a lot about coffee and were hugely enthusiastic in their attempts to explain the difference between Vietnamese and Ethiopian varieties to me. Their skill, and the range of cutting-edge coffee tech being employed means that even the most ardent caffiene snob is likely to be impressed, even if they won't admit it. Also, I recommend the artisan cheese plate. Mmmm, cheese.
Yes, that was a lot of uses of the word 'artisan', wasn't it?