Wake up and smell the coffee

This article first appeared in the Donegal Democrat

Whenever Americans asked me why I’d left such a beautiful country and county to live in the concrete jungles, I used remind them of the old Connemara proverb: ‘You can’t eat the scenery.’

Later, when asked by those I knew had been to Ireland, I said it was because I couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee back home.

We’re a tea-drinking nation. We drink more tea per head than any other nation in the world, including the British. We have rituals more intricate than the Japanese Tea Ceremony, leading the unwary visitor into tricky waters. Many a tourist has unintentionally insulted his host by accepting the offer of a cup of tea too quickly, or by being too insistent in refusing one.

There’s a rhythm to the offer of a cuppa. You don’t want to appear too eager, in case your visit is interpreted as an excuse to get a free tea. On the other hand, you don’t want to appear ungrateful when the offer is made. The art is in resisting just enough.

“You’ll have a cup of tea?”

“Ah no, I couldn’t.”

“Go on, you will.”

“No really, I’ve been drinking all day. I’m full to the gills.”

“Just a wee one then?”

“All right, but only the one.”

There’s an art to a decent cuppa. Teapot to kettle not kettle to pot, how long to let it draw, when to add the milk. We can make a mean cup of tea all right. Always have done. But most of us couldn’t make a decent coffee if our lives depended on it.

It is changing though. Coffee shops are springing up throughout the country, in the most unusual places. They have cute names like ‘Insomniacs’ and ‘The Pure Drop’, but that doesn’t matter, so long as they can prepare a decent brew.

Coffee shops are a new development here, one of the changes about the place that struck me when I emigrated back home a couple of years ago. Maybe their popularity is due to the crowds of emigrants who flowed back home as the Celtic Tiger gathered pace. Maybe they are just a symptom of the Tiger itself, our willingness to try new things now we have a bit more cash in our pockets.

There are still too many places where instant coffee is considered acceptable. But in more and more restaurants, pubs and hotels, there’s an understanding of the other cuppa.

In kitchens and living rooms, you’ll find percolators and cafetieres. Coffee making is gathering its own set of rituals. Always using cold water, keeping the beans fresh…

Almost overnight it seems, Bewley’s isn’t good enough any more. Cheap beans roasted to burning point to disguise a lack of taste were all very well when the only alternative was the powdered dust served up by Maxwell House.

Not any more though. A lot of us are sticking with the traditional cuppa tea, but at least now it isn’t because we think all coffee tastes like the dreaded instant or some stagnant potion which has been stewing for hours. Mercifully, we now have a choice.