Picture Perfect?

Instagram is awash with perfectly lit shots of latte art and on-trend cafés with bare brick walls and wooden counters, but does it really have anything to add to the speciality coffee culture? Chloë Callow is unconvinced

For what is essentially a lighthearted, image-sharing app, is Instagram far more powerful in shaping our behaviour and the way we view the world than it would at first appear?

I give you the proliferation of coffee images across the platform, led in part I suspect by our adoption of brunch – a motif of our freelancing culture, that of young creatives and coffee as a lifestyle. A flat white cradled by perfectly manicured nails, a macchiato draped in soporific light, a matcha latte shot from above, stripped-back brick walls, wooden countertops, a shelf of succulents, avocado on toast, more latte art. On the whole, I recognise the cafés, a good mix of east London speciality coffee classics interspersed with the latest café hotspots, with others clearly chosen for their “Instagrammable” qualities.

Suddenly, life’s aesthetic is evolving. Everything is either stark white, clean lines and Scandi chic or dark and brooding tones, urban cool – there’s very little that doesn’t conform. Windows take centre stage as we attempt to capture natural light.

Take a stroll down Shoreditch’s Redchurch Street, for example, where every other shop is a lifestyle concept, heavily styled as if specifically for an Instagram shoot. Kit & Ace, Mast Brothers, Barber & Parlour, Allpress and now Modern Society – it’s no coincidence each has its own coffee (or chocolate) bar. Coffee, with all its trappings and tattooed baristas, is as integral to that lifestyle aesthetic as the Apple devices used to capture it. The aforementioned street is also home to two of the UK’s first Modbars, less (at a guess) about functionality and more about being cutting edge and looking pretty damn cool.

Everything is whitewashed, implausibly styled and filtered to within an inch of its life. Forget, for a second, what this might mean for our self-image. Let’s talk about the coffee…

Style over substance

While it’s true that coffee as a lifestyle motif has infiltrated Instagram, it often feels as though true speciality coffee has taken a back seat to the frothy world of milk art and café culture. Where are the black coffees and notes on the origin, process and roaster that we might expect to see? Is the downside to coffee’s acceptance by the Instagram community that it has had to sell its soul for the privilege? It reduces the inherent geekiness – the extraction numbers, water science, grind size and brew methods – to a faintly vacant series of pretty pictures.

On the other hand, does Instagram give some independents – the little-known neighbourhood cafés, the guys we’re always championing – the recognition they might never otherwise receive? A couple our favourites, Embassy East and Saint Espresso, have benefited from a lot of IG love. Does it matter that the overall message is “this cafe is pretty” if the exposure is there? Perhaps that’s the most we can expect from a medium that’s best utilised as a set of beautifully curated feeds. Maybe we should just be grateful that there are any endorsements of speciality coffee at all.

For a long time I refused to follow large accounts, sticking instead to my own community of friends and acquaintances. I shunned the over-styled and aspirational styles, repetition of popular images, camera angles, twee messages and the overuse of hashtags to gain likes.

Recently, though, I’ve allowed myself to be seduced. It started with just one or two accounts, partly for inspiration and partly because that’s what the app is for. The shots are gorgeously imagined – sometimes aggravatingly, affectedly styled but beautiful all the same and with the sort of lighting you’d wait a whole lifetime to capture. And the coffee – so many lovely shots of coffee. How do you know when you’ve lost the battle? When you simply can’t post a picture because the light isn’t right…

If you follow us on Instagram (and if not, why not?!), you’ll have noticed that we’ve recently instigated a series of takeovers, handing over our account to others that are not only beautiful but have coffee as a theme or are people we know drink and subscribe to the speciality coffee ethos. We like to think of it as a social experiment of sorts.

Our social experiment of sorts kicked off with IG superstar @ClerkenwellBoy (also the focus of last issue’s 10 Questions), who bombarded our account with a steady stream of what can only be described of as food and drink porn, in the form of recommendations and accompaniments for coffee. He drinks mostly black filter coffee with the odd macchiato on occasion and I like that his feed is honest, if on the aspirational side. There aren’t many people who could eat and drink out at the latest and greatest at quite his level. He tells me he uses Instagram mainly as a visual diary. “I don’t think it’s healthy to chase likes nor is it always necessary to have a ‘message’ for each post,” he says. “Don’t overthink it, just do what feels natural.”

One of my personal Instagram favourites is @elice_f, a beautiful feed filled with landscapes and vintage cars and liberally peppered with coffee shots, so I was delighted when she agreed to a takeover. However, hers is an account that jarred on one crucial level – although her persona indicated she was a “coffee person”, that didn’t sit comfortably with her more superficial images of flat whites. When we met, I waited for her to place her coffee order: black filter coffee as expected, confirming my suspicions of her real-life good taste, but making me question her seeming rejection of our mutual speciality coffee world.

Collector’s cards

Meeting Richard from the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green prior to his takeover was enlightening, opening my eyes further and confirming the lengths some go to for a good-looking feed – it turns out that nothing in this world is accidental. Have you ever noticed how you often see almost the exact same image repeated across IG accounts – that turquoise vintage car against a wall of graffiti in Shoreditch, Big Ben through a Southbank arch, a wall of lights? Richard describes these as the Instagram version of baseball cards, a collector’s item. What I would consider copying or cheating he sees in a rather different light. “It’s about getting the best version of that shot,” he says. His being a business feed, it’s all about follower “engagement” and “community” – two IG buzzwords.

Of course, some feeds provide a balance of sound coffee information and great visuals. We love the very graphic style of @bryanschiele, while @lastguest_hh has many lovely images and @milkcoffeeldn, @fieldscafe and @assemblyroast’s streams are full of very on-brand updates.

“I think we need to acknowledge that consumers don’t necessarily hold the same values as you and I when it comes to coffee,” says Michael Cleland of Assembly Coffee. “If our ultimate goal is to encourage more people to embrace independent coffee, and thus perpetuate the sourcing and preparation we find fulfilling, then appealing to the values [eg, café lifestyle] held more commonly by the broad public is necessary.”

When it comes to Instagram, he’s convinced of its necessity. “I don’t think there’s an alternative that serves the same purpose. Whether you like it or not, it’s 2015 and your customers and potential customers are on it. It’s often mistakenly viewed as a sales channel, but its value really lies in creating awareness and brand loyalty.”

Since our first meeting, Elke of @elice_f and I have bonded over coffee and Instagram. “Instagram is for visual storytelling,” she says. “If the recommendation or story I wanted to tell didn’t have a strong visual aspect, I’d use a different platform to share it.”

Rather than chasing likes, she uses them, along with feedback via comments, to improve her photography and the curation of her gallery. “I enjoy observing and recording the day-to-day details of the contemporary creative culture around me – local craftsmanship, independent coffee places, vintage cars, bicycle commutes and streetscapes, in east London and on my travels. And as having coffee is a daily ritual of mine, naturally, it finds its way into my pictures.”

Know your audience

Instagram is Elke’s happy place, somewhere to talk, inspire and share. But as with all things shared, “it’s a more enjoyable experience when all parties involved appreciate it,” she says. “So when it comes to coffee within my thread that means I mostly share the milky stuff – because to most of my followers, it looks more appealing than a cup of coffee that’s as black as a moonless night or some more technical equipment involved in the process of preparing it.” Not to mention that the baristas enjoy showing off their latte art skills to her audience.

As a recognised regular at her coffee shop of choice, this adds another level of fun to her caffeine experience. “The first question from the barista is often not what I would like to have, but what I intend to do with it,” she says. “Would I like something pretty for Instagram or simply a good coffee? If they know I’ll be taking pictures, the next question is what colour should the cup be? It’s all part of the culture now.”

Clearly I wasn’t wrong when I said that Instagram was changing behaviour.

Were the results of our takeovers as we expected? As a snapshot it was never going to be particularly extensive or conclusive, but it appeared to confirm that the most liked images were more to do with café culture than a particular technique or the actual coffee. It’s perhaps not really surprising that the prettiest picture wins in this scenario – in this instance a very lovely interior shot of Coffee Collective by @thecuriouspear – and then again it’s not very fair to pit latte art against filter coffee, or a styled interior against a technical shot on such a visual platform.

What have we learnt? Well, ultimately, that to succeed on Instagram you need to play the game and speak to your chosen community in its own language, and eventually you’ll have your own engaged audience to speak with.

In the meantime, feel entirely justified to unfollow me if I post an image of a matcha latte on my own feed. @faerietalefoody @caffeinemag