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Back Buzz - February 25, 2002

[pumping heart]Coffee Revolution, 471 Ecclesall Road, Hunters Bar, Sheffield S11, South Yorkshire

Regarding the gap between this column and the previous one, regular readers may have been wondering what happened to me. Did I pass away from a caffeine overdose? Have I been in a coma? Did I abandon the civilised coffeehouse life and run off to the hills so I could move into a cave and live on lichen drippings and raw meat?

No, none of the above. I simply ran out of ideas.

I'm not knocking East Kent and its beautiful hop- and sheep-dotted countryside, nor its charming villages, fascinating Roman ruins, elegantly faded seaside towns, and varied pubs frequented by interesting characters. But the dearth of coffeehouses and espresso bars was beginning to depress me beyond description. Being an urban girl at heart I found myself desperately craving a city where it might actually be possible to find things like freshly baked bagels, unsalted almond butter, bead and jewellery supply shops, boutiques with clothes small enough to fit me, and aromatic temples offering refuge to espresso addicts. "JC Mitch, JC Mitch, where have you been? I've been to Sheffield to drink caffeine!"

That's right, I'm now in Sheffield for the time being. Although not as swarming with espresso bars and cafes as London, this cosmopolitan Yorkshire mecca has a number of places for me to explore. With two universities and students everywhere it simply has to.

In a recent London Times article Marion McGilvary claims the bottom is falling out of the English coffee bar market and she's glad, citing obviously inferior espresso drinks sold by Starbucks clones. I agree with her that scalding burnt lattes slurped out of cardboard cups and accompanied by chocolate chip muffins aren't exactly the definitive coffee experience; but her suggestion that Brits should turn back to tea is a bit extreme. Fortunately for us non-tea-drinkers it was reported in the same journal that the Caffé Nero espresso bar chain has reported a rise in sales in the past few months. According to chief executive Gerry Ford -- presumably no relation to the ex-President -- coffee bars are "not a fashion or fad any more than pizza restaurants or pubs." Yes, there's the proper parallel: pubs! Regardless of the sanitised Starbucks/Tully's offspring English coffeehouses, like pubs, are a centuries-old tradition which will definitely survive.

And now, on to my first Yorkshire coffee experience! In Sheffield Ecclesall Road is the natural setting of several coffee establishments. Natural, I say, because there are so many trendy shops, restaurants, and university students around. And students need plenty of caffeine if they're going to do well in their studies and be trendy enough during their leisure hours. One popular place, Coffee Revolution, is more like a Starbucks than a true coffeehouse. On the sunny, bright, and snowy Saturday afternoon we stopped in it was extremely crowded with students; I believe in the crowd of around 50 I counted only 6 of us who were definitely over the age of 25.

Along with the Starbucks-minimalist chrome-and-hard-floor atmosphere Coffee Revolution also imparts that Starbucks drink-it-and-beat-it aura; this is not a place in which you'd hunker down and while away the hours as you linger over one large cappuccino. Although a popular meeting place -- the noise was deafening at times -- the turnover is quite high among the caffeine-revived patrons, and the door was constantly opening and shutting as people came and went.

My friend and I ordered "large" macchiatos, after I was reassured this was the same as a "doppio". My first impression was good: my drink came in a pleasant-shaped white china cup properly sized for a macchiato, accompanied by a small spoon. Capping our drinks was just the right amount of perfectly-done milk foam. The shots of espresso themselves possessed a slightly burnt flavour, although this may have been the result of the particular blend of coffee beans. Also the shots tasted like slightly too much coffee was used: is this the practice of Coffee Revolution in general or just because of the high percentage of caffeine-deprived students? All in all the drink was not as good as Caffé Nero or Costa Cuore, but at least the taste was rich and the resulting caffeine kick was indeed impressive -- or was that simply the frosty air outside?

As we sipped our macchiatos we noticed we were sitting next to Grand Prix star Damon Hill -- or was it simply his twin? A woman at the same table was drinking a latte decorated with a swirly rosetta, something I haven't seen on an English cappuccino before. In a country where every pint of Guinness comes with a shamrock drawn in the head by the bartender, you'd think latte rosettas would be more popular. Ah, well, there is still time.

Coffee Revolution serves a wide variety of hot and iced espresso drinks, hot chocolates, and a variety of teas. Our large macchiatos were £1.60 each, which seems a bit high compared to Seattle standards. But then again, even though this crazy snowing-while-sunny weather with its pea-sized hailstorms reminds me of Seattle -- and both cities are built on seven hills -- I must realise I'm in Sheffield, not Seattle: two F's, not two T's. Still, the parallels are strong enough that the coffee ought to cost the same.

If you sit at one of the high tables with stools, be careful -- they tend to be horribly wobbly. They remind me a bit of the impossible stools at the Caffé Vita in Seattle's Lower Queen Anne, where more than a few people have practiced their pratfalls. If you feel like doing your Buster Keaton, Chevy Chase, or Gerald Ford (the US Prez, not the Caffé Nero CEO) impression just be sure you set your coffee somewhere safe first...

Speaking of options other than living in East Kent, such as moving into a cave and eating raw meat, following is an e-mail exchange from last summer with my Bay Area friend:

Reading through a few sections of the paperback Importing, Exporting and Beyond, which a co-worker lent me as an orientation to the business, I was startled to read, concerning the rationale behind import restrictions, that the U.S. government erects trade barriers to imports of [nearly everything] because it deems them detrimental to the wellbeing of its citizens:

I've actually been thinking about the possibility of moving into a cave and eating raw vegetables and minerals. It'd save quite a bit on rent, groceries, petrol, and toothpaste. But if the entire US population did the same thing, think of the skyrocketing property values! My god, then we'd end up with suburban and exurban cave communities, rush-hour goat herd traffic, and drive-through raw vegetable joints on cul-de sacs! How terrible! Then everybody would start dropping out and moving to Chicago to live their dream life as a rush-hour taxi driver!