Phil Mellows meets publican Thomas Polti, the man widely regarded as the greatest barista in Britain, and finds the secret of a good coffee
Thomas Polti leaned forward and narrowed his dark eyes so they steamed like two small cups of hot espresso. "Only the brave ask for tea," he muttered. "People know who I am, you see."
So you don't know who Thomas Polti is? Take some friendly advice in case you run into him. Don't say "It's only a cup of coffee" or tell him "There's a smear on your chrome". Most of all, "How about a nice cup of tea?" can be a very dangerous suggestion. You might find a horse's head in your crockery cabinet.
In the world of coffee Thomas is generally regarded as the greatest barista Britain has ever produced. He has twice won the national Brasilia Barista of the Year competition, only narrowly losing his title at the end of 2001.
In the world of pubs, Thomas is not so well known, even though he is himself a publican.
Behind the bar of the Chequers freehouse at Millbrook, Bedfordshire, the usual pumps and Optics are outshone by a gleaming coffee machine. Thomas won't say exactly how much coffee he sells, only that it is "more than many Italian restaurants".
"People come here looking for coffee," he said. "A lot of people appreciate a good coffee these days."
Which is fortunate. Thomas selects his own beans and has them roasted in London to his own specifications before the beans are shipped to Hertfordshire. The ground beans are at the heart of a coffee menu that includes six kinds of espresso plus cappuccino, café latte, Americana and a range of flavoured lattes.
In this, of course, the Chequers finds itself in tune with the coffee bar revolution that has hit Britain's high streets over the last couple of years. As Thomas puts it, "pub coffee used to be three hours old, stewing in a pot on the back-bar. Now things are changing. People are realising that there is money to be made - especially if it's good coffee.
"If you are having a meal the coffee is the last thing you consume - the experience stays with you if it's not good."
Good coffee lies in a combination of the ingredients, the barista - Italian for barperson - and the machine. The latter is as much a merchandising tool and theatrical prop as it is a coffee-maker.
"It is my engine room, I'm proud of it," he said. "If it's clean the chrome is really impressive. People notice it and it is as if they have got to try a coffee when they see it. Young children like to watch it in action, with all the clouds of steam that come off it.
"I have taken the machine to pieces just to see how it works. When I have been away the machine is the first thing I look at when I get home. I know immediately whether it's been looked after properly."
Thomas is away a lot. Success in competitions has given him an international status and he has acted as consultant on new coffee bars opening in Scandinavia and Russia. He has produced his own training video for staff, and he recently organised Finland's first barista championships.
Not surprisingly, this unusual passion for coffee comes from Thomas's Italian roots.
"I grew up with coffee in my veins," he said. "When I was eight I was making coffee at my parents' restaurant in Italy. If you get it wrong the old men say to you 'what's this?' and you do it again until you get it right. That's the best way to learn.
"In Italy, coffee is an essential part of life. They don't say 'let's go for a pint', it's 'let's go for a coffee'. It's a need. People will stand at the bar and drink an espresso down in a minute. They don't realise they do it. It's like smoking a cigarette."
It's a habit Thomas would like to encourage over here. Even though his customers are arguably getting some of the best coffee in the country, prices at the Chequers are far from extortionate, ranging from £1 for a simple espresso to £2.50 for a fancy flavoured latte. "We want to keep coffee as an everyday thing, not a luxury," he said.
That doesn't stop him creating specials tailored to the taste of his customers. "I often make something up on the spot, improvise something that fits what someone is looking for," he said. "You have to know what will go with coffee and milk of course. You can't put a créme de menthe in an espresso."
The Poltis came to England nearly 20 years ago to run an Italian restaurant in Woburn. Thomas trained in hotel management and gained experience at London's Park Lane Hotel. When the family bought the Chequers, in 1997, Thomas became the licensee. Mum Susan and dad Paolo work in the business as does his brother Andrea, his aunt Anne and an old college friend Gerry Sepede.
"The whole family pull together," said Thomas. "It is the Italian way."
At first glance, there is nothing specially Italian about the Chequers. Although Thomas doesn't like to label the business, fearing it will restrict his profit opportunities, it is recognisably a traditional village pub.
There is a mixture of English and Italian dishes on the menu and a Mediterranean feel to the new restaurant out the back. But Thomas is almost as proud of his cask ale as he is of the coffee, and the staff training, which he carries out himself, is rigorous across the whole business.
Perhaps the barista and the publican aren't that different. A good barista is as concerned about the cream on an espresso as a good publican is concerned about the head on a beer.
The principles of customer service are the same, too. From the age of eight Thomas was equipping himself with the necessary social skills. "As a child I was quite comfortable talking to 40 or 50-year-olds. I saw them as people, not adults, and the experience gave me confidence."
Apart from the technical skills required to make a perfect cup of coffee, the barista needs the kind of awareness of customer needs that any licensee will be familiar with.
"A barista is attentive, he knows what's going on in the bar all the time. You need eyes everywhere. You have to spot the person in a hurry and serve them quickly, for instance.
"Body language is very important. I can nearly tell what people want to eat when they sit down at a table."
So what if someone says they don't like coffee?
Thomas is sceptical about such an idea. "I bet they will be drinking it before they leave," he said. "It's usually a bad experience that puts people off."
Champions of coffee
The world of sport is charged with the electricity of great duels - Ali and Frazier, Ovett and Coe, Connors and McEnroe. You can add to that list Thomas Polti and Rossi "Five Hands" Cinquemani. Thomas and Rossi, who works at Soho's Bar Italia, said to be Britain's first Italian café, have been arch rivals over the four years that coffee machine manufacturer Brasilia has organised and sponsored the UK Barista of the Year contest.
In 2000 Rossi showed why they call him "Five Hands" by winning the speed section of the finals making a record 42 cups of coffee in five minutes. Last year Thomas, who had been practising intensely, was fastest with 40 cups, and Rossi was bitterly disappointed to manage only 35.
The espresso race is the surprisingly exciting climax of a full day's competition in which contestants must prove their skill at making a range of drinks, creating a speciality coffee and answering technical questions on the barista's craft.
If anything, the 2001 title proved that many more talented baristas are coming through to challenge the established experts.
The overall winner was neither Thomas nor Rossi but a Serbian barista called Ivan Pantovich who works for the Costa Coffee chain. There was even a female barista figuring strongly - the Irish champion Yvonne Gamble from Coleraine.
If you, or any of your staff, are up to the challenge, contact Lisa Hoskins at Brasilia on 020 8236 0039 for details of this year's contest.