Master of beans

Drink - Victoria Moore on the University of Coffee

Every year, according to statistics published in The World of Caffeine, the world drinks roughly 600 billion cups of coffee. And, thanks to the high- street coffee war waged by the likes of Starbucks and Costa, whose extensive menus woo our palates and our central nervous systems, we all flatter ourselves that we're coffee experts now.

We know a skinny decaf latte from a hazelnut syrup macchiato; we have chosen whether to follow the cult of Illy or that of Lavazza; we could write a thesis on the comparative merits of the cafetiere, the mocha and the filter machine; and we won't be palmed off with robusta when arabica beans are on offer. (Arabica beans are considered to be superior and are generally more expensive than robusta, which is used in most instant coffee, though there is some quality overlap - come on, keep up at the back.)

Well, you ain't seen nothing yet. The current coffee fever continues to burn. In the past few weeks, I have met people so obsessed by coffee that they claim to be able to identify a bean, blindfold, by the smell alone. This is the sort of skill more usually associated with wine freaks. You might ask, is it all getting bit out of hand?

Those who wonder what they need to know about coffee, apart from where to buy it when Starbucks is closed, had better look away now because I'm about to dazzle you with some more facts.

It takes 50 beans to make a single shot of coffee. Because arabica contains less caffeine (about 1.5 per cent) than robusta (8 per cent) there's more caffeine in a cup of instant coffee than in an espresso. Most espressos (65 per cent) drunk in Britain are consumed in the south-east. In Finland, the per capita coffee consumption amounts to 13kg.

These latter statistics come courtesy of Illy, the family-run coffee company based in Trieste in the north-east of Italy. I can understand Illy taking coffee seriously because it is, after all, their livelihood, but I do wonder if it isn't going a bit far to found - as Illy has done - two Universities of Coffee, one in Brazil and another in Naples. I don't see the international building materials group CRH setting up the University of Concrete, for example. Well, perhaps CRH has and, on second thoughts, there's probably a great deal more necessary to know about concrete than there is about coffee.

But why carp? I am generally for anything that improves things I can eat and drink, and because Illy seems to be so whizzy at marketing, I am going to try to persuade the company to do something about liqueur coffees. Yes, liqueur coffees - and if cafe frappe (cold coffee - the best use to which you can put that old jar of Nescafe you haven't touched for the past three years) can make a comeback, then so can they.

Until recently, the last liqueur coffee I'd had was in a gay bar on the Greek island of Mykonos. Surrounded by butch men, sitting like pussycats as an enormously fat lady played the piano and sang Nina Simone songs, my friend Claire and I indulged ourselves in black coffee doused with metaxa and watched the sun go down night after night.

Then, I actually had a liqueur coffee the other day at an Indian restaurant called the Bombay Brasserie. There were ten of us, tasting it to please the PR, and none very enthusiastic when we ordered what they call the Cobra Coffee. The confection came in a glass painstakingly twirled with ribbons of freshly caramelised sugar. It was made with Scotch, kirsch and a large strip of orange zest and topped with a blanket of whipped cream. It turned out to be delicious, and I have to say I've been fantasising about it ever since.

So, you see, there is some way to go before our coffee obsession can be allowed to rest. I admit this isn't something that Starbucks is likely to go for - alcohol-free, low-dairy decaf Irish coffee is more their style - but I live in hope.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and rise of President Blair