It's a scene that's repeated every morning across the country in thousands of venues. Queues snake up to counters in cafés, and tall Americanos, dry cappuccinos, double espressos, venti-caramel macchiatos and skinny vanilla lattes with an extra shot are dispensed to the red-eyed population with the efficiency and methodical regularity of 19th-century soup kitchen slop. Except slightly more expensive. As the biggest tea-drinking nation in the world, Ireland's addiction to coffee has been as steady an incline as it has been a rapid one. From thinking that a spoon-and-a-half of Carte Noir with boiling water was the height of sophistication, to fitting our kitchens with €1,000 Gaggia machines, coffee has become almost as much a part of our daily ritual as tea has. Over the past decade, we have been measuring our lives in coffee spoons, as TS Eliot put it, such was the regularity of our coffee consumption. But is our love affair with the cup of Joe waning?
Last week, Starbucks closed five stores in Dublin, but perhaps more worryingly for the industry, our daily spend on takeaway coffee is falling dramatically. A survey conducted by the Sunday Tribune, both online and on the streets, showed that many people have completely reassessed their daily coffee expenditure, from cutting it out altogether by preparing coffee at home for the day ahead, to halving how much they spend on a daily basis, to switching from several takeaway cups a day to just a few. To get the full picture, we spoke to leading experts in the industry in Ireland to find out what the future holds for coffee.
The way Irish people consume coffee can be broken down into a few areas: first up, there's the huge chunk of the market that buys instant coffee in supermarkets. Then there's the slightly smaller but nevertheless substantial number who buy coffee beans, freshly ground coffee, or vacuum-packed ground coffee to brew at home – either in a cafetière, filter coffee maker, or a more sophisticated machine. Then there's the section of coffee drinkers who just want something hot and dark to gulp on the go – let's call this kind of brew 'convenience-store coffee'. These people get their coffee from a machine in a Spar or a petrol station, where they press a button and something vaguely drinkable emerges
And finally, there's the very large portion of the market who buy (or at least think they're buying) barista-led coffee, coffee that's made (mostly) to go, to order, in front of your eyes in a Starbucks or Insomnia or local independent coffee shop. It's the latter market that boomed in the past decade, with coffee shops popping up on every street corner, in every city, town and village across the country, and chains expanding at a rapid rate. And for a while, many people thought nothing about dropping a few quid daily on a cuppa or two or three, and coffee became more overpriced, more adventurous, and more of a feature on the Irish Times letters page ("I paid €3.85 for a small cappuccino in Wexford at the weekend – is this a record?")
But as the end of the decade approaches, so much of our behaviour is being readjusted due to economic pressure: and one of those adjustments is how we consume coffee. We'll always be reluctant to cut coffee out of our lives completely, not least because it is, after all, addictive, but according to industry experts, the way we consume coffee has changed almost irreversibly.
"What we were drinking 10 years ago was very different," Michelle McBride, the retail director of Butler's Chocolate Cafés told the Sunday Tribune. "The market has evolved and people have become much more discerning in the same way they did with wine in the '90s. Once there starts to be a gradient of quality there is a market for a higher price and coffee of better quality."
McBride says that Butler's has actually benefitted from the collapse of the convenience-store coffee market and other low-quality takeaway coffee outposts which are struggling for custom.
"A lot of coffee drinkers are moving towards higher quality. There has been a massive decline in takeaway coffee through the convenience sector in your Spars or Centras and a move towards barista-led coffee prepared in store," she said.
"There isn't much difference between the price of a coffee. It's around €2.50 or €3 more or less everywhere. But you can get a very bad cup of coffee for €2.50, or a very good one. People are thinking if they want a cup they want a very good cup. There's an awful lot of crap out there being sold at that price, and people are buying less of that. A lot of people today know what good coffee is, more than they did even a year ago."
There's also the nutritional impact of drinking full-fat lattes, sweet coffee syrups, iced coffee drinks laden with sugar plus all the special offers which encourage customers to spend just a little bit more and get a muffin or scone. Many people are still buying coffee with the same regularity, but switching to smaller sized drinks, skipping an extra shot, or opting for a standard Americano rather than a more expensive milk-dominated coffee.
Alan Andrews, the founder of Independent Café Owners Association who was preparing for the 'Promoting Dublin Café Culture' conference in the Mansion House on Friday last, said that he's driving for quality amongst independent cafe owners. "Business is down, people are cutting back, but where I see the business going is the customer looking for quality," he said.
"I think people cop on that they're not getting a good-value product, and I think that's what happened [with decline of takeaway coffee sales]. These are chains that have a mass-produced product rolled out on a global scale. I don't know how you can achieve a quality product when you do that. The real gems are owner-operated stores. O'Briens did the exact same thing. They rolled out, got greedy, and it tarnishes the whole industry. The people who make the best product are passionate and drive it forward."
Nearly every industry professional we spoke to were critical of Starbucks' marketing techniques – crowding the market with stores and then shutting them down soon after – and their actual coffee product. Starbucks sent us a statement from Darcy Willson-Rymer, the managing director of Starbucks UK and Ireland: "I was in Dublin last week and I was lucky enough to speak to a lot of customers. I know that many of them are facing tough choices about the way they spend their money, but I also know that coffee culture has got deep roots in Ireland. We have regrettably had to close a number of stores, but we remain committed to Ireland and to providing the best quality coffee to our customers. I'm glad to say that we've been able to offer all the partners from those stores employment in our other Irish coffee houses. In fact as a mark of that commitment to coffee in Ireland, we've just chosen our coffee ambassador, Alan Hartney from Dublin, to spread the word about great coffee in the UK and Ireland."
Alan Andrews is fully enthusiastic about independent cafés, but at the moment, they're one of the most vulnerable business models around. Overheads, product cost and rent is huge, especially when so many chain cafés are throwing out a poorer product at a cheaper price. But the interesting thing is Irish people aren't as seduced by coffee chains as they are by a quality product and of course habit. Starbucks may be seen as trendy in some quarters, but if it's not between your bus stop and your office, then you're not going to take a detour to go to it.
The repeat morning customer is an independent café's best friend at the moment. "Your grab-and-go customers are valuable customers because you get the same customer coming back and buying coffee every day," Andrews said, adding: "People are being more selective of where they spend, and that's the way forward for the industry – getting the balance between quality and value for money, charging the right price for the right quality."
One person who isn't incredibly enamoured by the quality of Irish coffee is Stephen Morrissey, the World Barista Champion. Speaking from Dubai, he told the Sunday Tribune that Ireland has a long way to go before we give up on poor-quality coffee and start working on our taste buds.
"I think Ireland has more of a café culture than a coffee culture. I don't know if we are pioneers in delivering truly high-quality coffee... Good coffee is very hard to find. Five per cent of America has good cafés, maybe 2,000 cafés trading with good-quality coffee. In Ireland it's a very small amount. There are maybe four or five [cafes]." Morrissey believes that although people will adjust their spending and reassess how much coffee they drink, it's still very much "an affordable luxury" for Irish people. "They might give up the Lexus, but not the lattes."
Until then, it seems as though we are finally getting smart about coffee, and looking for the Lexus of lattes, as opposed to any old banger. Our love affair for mass consumption of chain takeaway coffee may be firmly out of the honeymoon period, but perhaps it's time to settle into a more mature appreciation of the best quality, for the most reasonable impact on our coffee-stained wallets.
1840: Bewley's Limited is established, becoming the largest importer, roaster and supplier of fresh coffee in Ireland.
1927: Bewley's opens on Grafton Street in Dublin.
1937: Nestlé invents the world's first instant coffee.
1942: Joe Sheridan, a chef at Shannon airport came up with a drink to keep passengers warm after their flights. He dropped a shot of whiskey into some black coffee with sugar and added cream on top. The Irish Coffee was born.
1996: Bewley's pioneers the importation of Fairtrade certified coffee into Ireland.
1997: A coffee company called Insomnia backed by four Irish entrepreneurs opens its first outlet in Galway – by 2001, there are four more in Dublin.
1998: West Coast Coffee begins operating in Dublin.
2004: Bewley's closes landmark Dublin cafés on Grafton Street and Westmoreland Street.
2005: Starbucks opens its first Irish branch in Dundrum Town Centre.
2008: David McKernan starts operating his carbon neutral Java Republic roaster in north Dublin.
2008: Irishman Stephen Morrissey wins the World Barista Championship, cementing the Irish coffee scene's impact on an international level.
Drinking: A regular Americano from Cafe Vivaldi in Temple Bar
"In the past I've regularly spent €10-€15 a day on take away coffees and teas. When you add that up over the course of a week or a month, it comes to a ridiculous amount of money that I spent unnecessarily. Over the last few months I've cut right back to two kick-start coffees in the morning, the kind that gets the heart racing. A kettle and a box of tea on my desk supply the rest of the day's hot beverages. Simon's Place on George's Street and Butler's on South William Street are my daily brews or The Bald Barista on Aungier Street at the weekend."
Drinking: A regular mocha from Insomnia
"I wouldn't get a takeaway coffee every day, probably more like once a month. It would be a treat. Most of the coffee I drink I either make it at home or if I was to get one in town, I'd sit in."
Drinking: Tall latte from Starbucks, tall cappuccino from Starbucks
Brian: "I usually buy grande coffees, maybe two to three a day – an Americano in the morning and lattes later on. I am more conscious of the price than I have been. You don't realise how much you're spending until you tot it up in your head."
Maurice: "A lot of the coffees I would have would be linked to a business meeting. It's cheaper than a meal, and it's an easy way to meet because we work remotely."