The Micro Roasters

It’s fascinating how trends can manifest themselves in different ways in life.  Take ‘craft’ or ‘micro’ brewing for example – an output from people seeking greater linkage to ingredients, to food production, to provenance and a reaction to mass-production and everything that can attend it (additives, adjuncts, over processing…) – often in the quest for better taste, or more taste, or a more authentic experience.    Well I had missed how this same trend, this same reaction is going on with coffee at the moment.  This was brought into sharp relief through a client I’m working with just now – a client operating near the top of the market in their sector but wanting to understand how they can continue their growth whilst at the same time, growing and protecting the reputation of the category they’re in.  And this got me into investigating coffee and specifically Micro Roasters as a parallel world.

Blimey. This coffee trend had passed me by; or perhaps more accurately, I had passed it by.  Whilst clearly we’ve been witnessing a veritable explosion in coffee shops, at the same time, high street coffee retailers, like Whittards, have been struggling.  So  I had managed to walk past Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street in London countless times, smelling the coffee but not pausing sufficiently long enough to arouse my curiosity and actually cross the threshold.  Even closer to home,  just round the corner from my office is a ‘Kaffeine’ – again a micro roaster, but more focused on the serve experience. Here I’d once purchased a latte on my way to work, swearing never to return after they had assaulted my wallet for a cup half the size of normal.  Mind, they put a lovely fir tree pattern in the froth.  But putting that behind me, once I learnt about this ‘micro roasting revolution’ I thought I’d go and investigate it with my radar turned on.

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Monmouth Coffee, or a Mumford & Sons album cover. You decide.

My brief immersion into this world has revealed lots of parallels of course.  Around the raw ingredients themselves; where and how they are grown, what varieties and how they can influence the end result. You’ve got to push further than the ‘Arabica’ vs ‘Robusta’ debate (who isn’t claiming ‘100% Arabica’ nowadays for Heavens sake?). But the actual species (Bourbon or Caturra anyone?). The roasting too – not just the level of roast, but the way the beans are roasted, how quickly, with how much movement, in which style of roaster.  And the grind – when to do this; how to prevent secondary roasting; how – like beer – to prevent oxidation and stale characters in the coffee particularly at the point of packing.  And how you pack it of course: how to let the beans ‘gas off’ (release CO2); how best to store.  Many parallels – but for me, no revolutionary learnings.  I’m left thinking that brewers could do more about the grain varieties – yes, I know that Maris Otter is a great barley – but there must be more to this.  Where is the best barley grown?  What character can different grain blends bring to the taste and texture of beer, to the head and colour?  But could brewers do a lot more than they currently are:  not much.

No, what has really struck me is about the potential for coffee to grow even more through the rituals: the ritual of selling and presenting coffee and the ritual of serving and enjoying.

This is an area that beer would consider itself strong I imagine, but there’s more we can do.  Just consider the experience in Monmouth or Kaffeine.  There’s the presentation of the beans. In one shop, these were laid out in individual oak tubs, with simple tasting notes, ready to be bagged for your purchase (the bags of course, simple, elegant and colour coded in an understated way to help you best enjoy your purchase). In another, blackboards did the same job, in a witty yet informative way.   And there’s the little touches – no bags of crisps with your pint here, but simple accompaniments designed to complement not fight the flavours of the coffee.

Yet more impactful was putting the serving of the coffee right at the heart of the action; the coffee ‘station’ turned round, facing into the room, sitting in close proximity to the baristas.  Making a display of grinding of tamping and tapping out the spent, washed through grains.  The serve too – water with the coffee of course, to cleanse the palate and let the flavours bite through with each mouthful, but simple touches like just warmed milk on the side.  Although the crèma I suppose is the staff, knowledgeable but not arrogant, imparting just enough information to encourage the mystique whilst holding back enough not to put off or bore their clientele.

I had a decaff single origin (Brazilian) Americano.  Beautifully served in beautiful surroundings by beautiful people.  Shame I didn’t like it….that’s taste for you I suppose.  But the experience left its mark.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

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