In May of 2020, Bewleys, one of Ireland’s largest tea and coffee companies, announced that they would be closing their flagship store, one of Grafton Street’s most notable occupants, which had been open since 1927. This news came as a shock, but once it was revealed that the company had made a loss of €462,000 in 2019, and a staggering €3.15 million loss the year prior, it became a wonder how the company held out as long as it did.
The COVID-induced closures that impinged the entirety of the food and beverage industry throughout 2020 signalled the final straw for the company, as they admitted defeat against unrelenting lockdowns. However, despite the huge losses incurred in the years prior to the pandemic, Bewleys made a somewhat miraculous revival at the end of the year, announcing the reversal of their decision to close in August of 2020. Ireland’s thirst for coffee had not yet been quenched. This raises the question, however, of whether Bewleys will be able to stay in business for good. When it comes to tea and coffee, what is truly brewing in the minds of Irish people?
“Dublin is the second most “coffee-crazy” capital city in the world, with 180 coffee shops per 100,000 people, and imports of €94.94 per person per year.”
A survey carried out by BrewSmartly in 2020 revealed that Dublin was the second most “coffee-crazy” capital city in the world, housing 180 coffee shops per 100,000 people, with imports being the equivalent €94.94 per person per year. Of course, the impact of COVID-19 impeded the nation’s coffee habits — national coffee shop and cafe revenue were 34% in 2020 from the year previous, as people were forced inside, and cafes were forced to shut. However, while overall spending in the food and beverage industry saw a decline in 2020, coffee shops still received a larger segment of this spending, as adaptations such as “takeaway only” and impromptu coffee hatches were established to work around the restrictions.
2021 has also seen the sector make an outstanding recovery, with the second quarter of 2021 seeing growth in spending of up to 158% compared to 2019. These soaring statistics, in contrast to Bewley’s seemingly fluctuating performance, raise the question, where are Irish people getting our caffeine fix?
Well, the answer can be found on just about every street in Dublin City, and every town outside. Distinguished by their minimalistic branding and sleek, industrial interiors, Ireland’s 21st-century solution to their coffee addiction comes in the form of small, independent, artisanal coffee shops. These cafes provide consumers with small-batch roasted espresso, blended with a perfectly foamed alternative milk of your choice, made by a meticulously trained barista, and complete with a €4+ price tag.
This growth in modern, caffeinated consumer tastes is often credited to Karl Purdy, who, in 1996, opened The Ground Floor, a coffee shop in the centre of Belfast. This was one of Ireland’s first exposures to seemingly foreign beverages such as the “cappuccino” or the “latte”. Due to the glamorisation of cosy coffee shops in much of the mainstream media at the time, such as the infamous Central Perk of Friends, The Ground Floor was an immediate success. Three years later, Purdy decided to sell the business, but within this time he had altered the country’s coffee culture entirely.
By 2004, Purdy was ready to get back into the beverage business, capitalising on the wealth at the coast of Ireland’s capital. He established a coffee cart, under the name Coffeeangel, at Howth pier, later moving to Dun Laoghaire. This preceded the opening of the first branches of Costa and Starbucks in Ireland in 2005, marking a new stage in Ireland’s coffee evolution. Coffee’s cosmopolitan image was well and truly on the rise, with personalised coffee orders becoming a symbol of a “Lorelai Gilmore-esque” allure.
Even with the added competition of glamorous international franchises, Coffeeangel saw immense success. In 2011, Purdy decided to return to the traditional coffee shop structure, opening a temporary pop-up on South Anne Street, and this three-month project quickly turned into a permanent fixture. Since then, Coffeeangel has opened four additional locations across Dublin, and business is doing as well as ever.
“Many people have followed the Coffeeangel path, offering specialty coffee from their simple-yet-stylish locations, which have spread even further than the capital.”
Many people have followed the Coffeeangel path, offering specialty coffee from their simple-yet-stylish locations, which have spread even further than the capital. Each of these coffee shops capitalize on the Irish taste for a bespoke brewing experience.
Certain locations point further than local Coffeeangel’s humble beginnings for their inspiration. Coffee shop and roaster Two Fifty Square, established in 2014, boasts “inspired in Melbourne, roasted in Dublin” on their website. Similarly, Clare-based gourmet coffee roasters Anam Coffee explain on their website: “I will never forget tasting my first Ethiopian heirloom brewed on a V60 pour-over in Melbourne in 2014. I never knew coffee could taste so sweet, so delicate and so floral. I was immediately hooked by the whole roasting process to produce such an amazing coffee unlike anything I had ever tasted before.” While chains like Starbucks and Costa capitalise on the American glamour of the traditional coffee house, it seems as though the new wave of coffee culture in Ireland is taking their inspiration from Australia.
According to baristainstitute.com, 95% of the coffee shops in Australia are independently owned, and just like their famous Flat White, Australians are focused on the flavour and quality of their coffee above anything else. Speaking to Trinity News, Brian O’Briain, founder of Anam Coffee verifies that this turn towards coffee quality has been imported to Ireland: “People now realise that independent cafés by and large are very good and you do get a high standard. They are putting the time, the research, the right equipment and the right training in.”
“The flip side of that, interestingly, is that people expect a very high quality from an independent [coffee shop]. It’s almost like they’ll go to a chain and grab a coffee and a tuna melt and accept that it’s a bit middle of the road. But if people go to an independent they expect a very nice experience – which they should – there’s that expectation that it will be very good.”
“There’s an interesting future ahead for the independent café scene, but it should be community led, authentic and compete on quality.”
This evolution and elevation in quality has also led to an elevation in prices within the coffee industry, but O’Briain continues, explaining that consumers are more than willing to pay extra for the benefits they receive from buying from small and independent businesses: “Ultimately the consumer will need to pay more. This in turn allows producers to pay more and in our case, pay our staff properly and our coffee farmers substantially more for producing organically”.
“Irish consumers understand the value in a good cup of coffee, and small coffee chains, through their expert barista qualifications and their small-batch brewing, understand how to provide this.”
Ireland’s coffee culture has been through many stages in its evolution; from a hesitant introduction to coffee through classic companies like Bewleys, embodying American glamour in the rise of Starbucks, and finally to mirroring the Australian method of focusing on the unique quality of each cup. As Purdy himself has explained in the past: “Irish people know their coffee. I don’t have to phonetically spell out cappuccino anymore; they’ve been to Australia and they know what a flat white is.” Irish consumers understand the value in a good cup of coffee, and small coffee chains, through their expert barista qualifications and their small-batch brewing, understand how to provide this.
As the coffee industry in Ireland continues to evolve, it is likely that independent businesses will maintain a competitive chunk of the market. With all eyes on the environment and sustainability, small cafes can boast a smaller carbon footprint due to their use of small-batch coffee roasters and compostable containers, and as the impacts of COVID continue to unfold, consumers are more willing to support local. This focus on the sustainability and global impact on coffee will lead to an emphasis on its source, and small roasters like Anam Coffee already prioritize this: “We hope to raise awareness for the farmers. These are the people the industry relies on. They might walk many kilometers down the side of a steep mountain carrying enough coffee on their backs to fill the couple of bags consumers see on café shelves.
“We are committed to finding new ways to show our customers all that goes into getting coffee from the tree to their cup.”