CHAIN REACTION: Lifeblood

Singletrack editor Chipps Chippendale reckons that a good coffee is worth more than better margins...
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As a teenage bike shop hanger-on, it’s the sign that you’ve ‘arrived’ when the boss asks if you’d like to put the kettle on “...and make one for yourself”. Before that moment, you were just someone who popped in every Saturday to look at bikes, maybe paw some shiny components that you could never afford and get volunteered for cutting up some cardboard. After that moment of brewing up, you were officially ‘in the gang’. You had been shown where the teabags live, you had been told about Brian the Mechanic’s two and a half sugars and you knew that the boss always had the Rockshox mug.

It’s the same for customers. You can come in every week and buy something, but it’s when the manager offers you a coffee that you know that you’re not only recognised, but valued.

Teabags cost pennies, but the act of making a cuppa blurs the line between customer and retailer. It’s a perk and a privilege to be offered it. There’s no going back either – once you’ve been offered a coffee or tea, protocol demands that you are forevermore offered a beverage, so it’s not an offer to give lightly.

Every now and again, you’ll find a shop or supplier where there’s a coffee fanatic (they seem more common than tea fanatics for some reason, probably because it’s hard to make terrible tea, but so easy to ruin coffee). The presence of a coffee fanatic is easy to spot as there will be a shiny, steaming machine in a corner, next to an equally shiny grinder. Occasionally it’ll be a drip-machine, but the true coffee nut will have found a way to justify a proper espresso machine.

In the same way that a good mechanic will hear imperceptible squeaks and rattles from a drivetrain and instinctively reach to fix them without thinking, so the coffeehound will work to keep their machine in tip-top condition. The grind of the beans will be adjusted one click at a time so that the coffee flows from the spouts of the filter-handle in a perfect, creamy brown drizzle. The steam wand (always shiny and cleaned between frothings) will dispense dry, clean steam to freshly poured, cold milk. Often there’s no need for a thermometer as the temperature will be judged by a brief grasp of the hand and the pitch of the steam roar through the milk.

The resultant coffee will be served (in the correct cups) with apparent nonchalance, but quiet pride in a coffee well made. Your barista won’t expect praise, but will be listening out for the ‘Mmm...’ of the first sip. That is reward enough.

I know that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for coffee. I’ve been to many places where good coffee is served and if you want the best run-down, you need only ask your nearest travelling bike rep. They’re the ones who know where to find the best coffees and will divert miles out of their way on a spurious excuse to secure a good coffee. Ask them nicely and they’ll let you know where to find it too.

They’ll talk about Bike Treks in Ambleside, where the always-smart Keith will immediately stop work and return shortly afterwards with an Italian, perfect, small cappuccino, complete with biscotti.

A visit to Escape Route in Pitlochry is always worthwhile when Kevin Dangerous plies you with enough perfect espressos to make the journey down the A9 bearable. Then there’s Joe at Summit Cycles, who can bluff with the best of them about Fracino espresso machines, and don’t get Michael Bonney from Orange started. His home coffee machine has refuelled many a flagging traveller on their way back down from the North – again, always served in the right cup (and he’ll remember what he made you last time too) and with a selection of biscuits.

Magazine staff notoriously survive on nothing but coffee and strong booze, so they’re always worth a visit. Future, previously the home of awful Nescafé by the bucket (or filter coffee if the publisher’s in the meeting), has moved into a building that has a Starbucks downstairs. Now that’s dedication.

And Singletrack? Well, our first machine was quite modest, yet still turned out a fine coffee. However, once we gained more staff it couldn’t keep up and the progression to a full-on, plumbed in machine was inevitable. We now have a Wega machine worthy of a London café and an account with the local coffee roasters. And strangely, we appear to attract a lot of ‘just passing’ reps and bike industry folk, whether they’re heading to Scotland, or they just live down the road.

The machine’s always on...

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