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Projects and projections

21 Sep

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted. Self employment and working with others has left me with little time to blog and a good chance to work out thoughts practically rather than theoretically.

So, status update; The Coffee Vagabond (which evolved from Peel & Peel) came to a conclusion at the Northampton location in July and will be relocating soon. But in between now and then another project is keeping my attention. Pull Brew Melt the indie Coffee, Tea and Chocolate festival is fast approaching, 29th & 30th of September.

On going work with Monkshood Coffee has been fantastic and shown repeatedly that the public, when given the option will err on the side of quality and are wanting to learn about their products. In response to this enthusiasm we’ve been show Elliot and I decided that it’s time to really make something of the wider UK coffee scene as well as bringing lovers of tea and chocolate together to make it a sensory weekend.

From the outset we were determined that this won’t be a trade show. This is a public show with free entry (donations to Coffee Kids are encouraged), our goal is spreading awareness and interest in a really accessible and fun way and while we’re at it we will be raising money for Coffee Kids.

We have a raft of different forms of entertainment and education, from talks and Q&A’s to jazz bands and cellists as well as anything impromptu that comes to mind over the weekend.

All this is happening at the Waddesdon Plant Centre which is about an hour from Brent Cross by road. Check out the website or Facebook (Day 1, Day 2) for more info.

Brief show info:

Address:The Glass House, Waddesdon Plant Centre, HP17 0JW
Times: 10:00-4:30
Entrance: Free (donations to Coffee Kids welcome)

Any questions, contact me on Twitter @awlred


Good things must come to an end…

4 Jul

Back in September I broached to the owners of The Courtyard Brasserie (where I work) about doing a monthly coffee evening.  After a resoundingly positive response from the monthly speciality cafetiere project I have pioneered and run I wanted to share more specialised coffee and start discussions about coffee.  This helped me realise a few issues I raised in a blog post last summer about the community lacking outside of London, and Steve Leighton said in a follow post to ‘get off your arse and make one’ which is what I tried to do…

Of the wonderful people who attended these goals were realised. We’ve had some fantastic questions asked and it was very vindicating to have people from outside coffee to be interested in coffee in a very specialised way.  We had people discussing processes, varietals, origins, organics, biodynamics, brewing techniques and a host more topics. It’s been a truly fulfilling experience and so it’s with a heavy heart I have to put them on hiatus.

Though we had a great response from those who came, unfortunately the numbers that did attend made it an endeavour that ran at a loss and so, this coupled with a widening of other commitments and distractions has lead to this decision.  It is not one I took lightly and if I had the finances to do so I would fund it and run it entirely out of my pocket.

I would like to say a massive thank you to everyone who came to the coffee evenings and supported the goals we had.  The idea is not entirely gone and I’m constantly thinking of new ways to share great coffee with people and welcome any suggestions or input.

It won’t be the last coffee event so watch this space…

The working barista conundrum…

17 Jun

OK, I don’t think this is the first time I’ve touched on this, but, currently it’s very prominent on my mind.

The coffee industry seems to be split into a slight divide of barista folk.  There’s the old school and the new school.  By this i don’t mean the 14g=2oz of espresso vs updosed ristretto pourers.  I am referring to people who dropped other careers to pursue coffee and bring better coffee to their world.  I’m thinking of the boys at Flat White, James at Dose and the team at Monmouth as the examples of this group.  The second group is the one which I fall into. We are young-ish and have worked in coffee for the majority of our working lives, and many of us aspire to open our own coffee projects in various forms and functions.  The problem arises that the start-up of a business like a coffee shop requires a fair bit of fundamentals investment and the majority of coffee jobs are relatively low paying (another post blah blah blah), in addition, you don’t simply open up and make money.  Opening a coffee shop takes a fair while to see profit in most executions for a variety of business and sociological reasons.

So as well as providing the income for a coffee shop, the business starter ought to have enough money to keep ahead of bills at home and in the business for a good few months.

Where is this to come from? Are the coffee professionals who are willing to make long-term loans to encourage the start up of new shops? Should aspiring coffee shop owners pull 80 hour weeks to attain their goal? I don’t know, I’m having a slightly ranty, emo post just for the catharsis of it. If anyone wants to invest a few grand in a coffee shop with no guarantee of return then PLEASE let me know, otherwise…any ideas?

Cafe Review; Tea Monkey

6 Apr

A few weeks ago I saw a new name sign appear over a long unused unit in the Milton Keynes shopping centre. I was excited to see a branding I was unfamiliar with ‘Tea Monkey’. After a little homework I discovered they were a new brand with the Milton Keynes store being the launch pad.

Tea monkey are a new shop that is launching themselves toward the coffee shop faithful and offering a huge range of teas. From english breakfast to Oolong mystere (a delicious blooming White tea).

They are located in Midsummer Place, from the outside there is a covered seating area and stands out boldly from the bank’s which are on either side of it and the high street chain clothing stores opposite.

Upon entering you are surrounded by earthy brown, lime green walls and crisp white surfaces, which is very refreshing compared to a lot of places which try to go for the homey feel by using only warm colours and also makes the shop feel very vibrant. A truly extensive menu of tea is made less intimidating by very friendly staff who seem really passionate about their tea.  The view out through the huge glass frontage is of the rest of the shopping centre but between them is a old and majestic acorn tree which makes it seem much more picturesque.

On the three visits I’ve made so far i have tried three different teas and they are all delicious. All the tea is served in beautiful glass ‘la cafetiere’ tea pots which let you watch the tea brew and in the case of the blooming teas then it really is a treat. A very nice touch is the white and green teas are served in double walled glasses and the black teas are served in porcelain cups.

Tea at Tea Monkey
Silver Needle white tea with a Malteaser Cup cake

The other thing to check out is the cakes. All the cakes are made fresh and in house. I’ve sampled their blueberry and malteaser cupcakes aswell as the house cupcake. All were light and fluffy, the chocolate ones were balanced perfectly in flavour without being so light in flavour as to be wanting but so much as to be over powering. The butter cream on them were all different but absolutely perfect. It would be a huge shame to miss out on these.

I haven’t sampled the coffee and feel it would be unfair to judge them on it as it’s not their speciality.

A few other things to point out, the shop is very spacious and not over-furnished, a nice touch compared to some places which try to cram in as much seating as possible. The staff are friendly, helpful and seem to care about what they’re doing and check to make sure everyone is happy.  I over-heard that the weekend was very busy and the service slowed down while they found their feet but lessons were learned, after all it was their first weekend, but if you are to visit on the weekend perhaps it would be worth preparing to wait for a little while.  On the far wall are a row of iPads with internet connection which are free to use, this is a lovely touch!

All in all it’s a very refreshing shop to visit.  Gorgeous teas with beautiful cup cakes and friendly staff.  It’s very nice to have something unique in Milton Keynes Centre and gives me a reason to go there.

Service in Coffee

19 Feb

An anonymous barista (I assume) recently posted a listing on London Coffee Jobs calling out London’s speciality coffee shop owners to pay a better wage to their baristas (It had since been removed).

Of that particular argument I will distance myself from as I don’t work in the city. But I do feel the sentiment.

The argument was put forth against that London’s baristas are, in some cases, lacking the skill of good customer service and that if wages are to rise then so too does the quality of service that is provided.

And so rises the question of what constitutes top service in a coffee shop?

I’ve spent some time mulling this as it’s something I do but have never properly analysed.

I think the problem stems, in part from the perception that a barista is a short term job or a school leavers job, which it is, at least some what. Outside of a very tight circle, a lot of baristas are indifferent about every aspect of their job and so the public expectation is lowered and people will, as a general rule do the minimum they can to get by. So enter the rock star/ hipster baristas. I really dislike using the term, so I want to clarify my meaning by saying the barista whom is driven entirely by ego and is in coffee because it’s ‘uncool’. Not all hipsters and hipster baristas and not all hipster barista are hipsters. These are the group that seem to fuel the negative stereotype and cast the industry in a poor light.

Service expectations change from location to location, in a diner type restaurant I expect friendly service perhaps a brief bit of shooting the breeze if the server isn’t busy and being made to feel very much at ease.  In a more typical restaurant the expectation is different, it’s more formal, the focus is on the food and your company.  So I think the question you have to ask is where do you place your coffee shop on that spectrum, if at all.  Again we need to remind ourselves we are our own industry and shouldn’t follow other areas of the industry blindly.

Service should never be pretentious nor rude. If a customer were to ask for vanilla syrup then the correct response is to apologise for not having what they request and politely explain the reasoning for not doing so. Scoffing should never happen, not only is it outrageously rude and arrogant, you also rob the chance of converting someone to enjoying their coffee as it’s own delicacy and most likely of a future customer, not to mention the people they may discourage from visiting you.

For people wanting to become ‘career baristas’ then they need to not only match the service expectations of do their utmost to supersede them and deliver outstanding service to stand out and make a reputation for themselves not only as being passionate about coffee but being passionate about their customers as well.  Any shop that does this earns many repeat visits from me and I recommend them to anyone who I know will be in the area.  This is how word of mouth works and it is still the most important promotional recommendation that anywhere can receive.

Coffee shops are unique in several aspects.  Baristas are often compared to sommeliers in that we are expected to have a keen palette and be able to describe the coffee in it’s flavours and also know it’s origin.  I think for the most part we do this well, but we’re also expected to create the beverage, which beyond pouring from a bottle into a glass, is not the role of a sommelier, but again I think for the most part we know what we’re doing here, but we’re also expected to perform the rest of the service transaction, serve (and perhaps cook) food, cakes etc. and process payment.

This is an almost unique situation, a chef is not judged on their service skills, and a waiter isn’t judged on their ability to cook. Baristas must take both roles and fulfil them admirably.

When trying to juggle all these elements it’s easier to drop the element you’re least passionate about when you’re in the middle of your rush but this is when it’s most important to keep all your balls in the air.  Taking the moment to break concentration just to smile and say ‘have a nice day’ can really stand you out and make it feel like you care, which at the end of the day, is the goal of the service role.

Processing Methods Evening Write up

22 Dec

Those who have been following the blog recently will know I’ve been hosting coffee evenings at the restaurant in which I work for the past few months.

This month we did an evening that I was perhaps most excited but most worried about doing. When I first tasted a triple pack of processing methods (Square Mile’s 2009 El Salvador Finca Kilimanjaro) I was struck by just how much influence is had far before a roaster has influence and shows that growing great coffee isn’t just down to terroir and varietal but also the care put in after picking.

It also made me rethink what attributes flavours into a cup and how much is terroir, varietal or process.  This made me question things I thought I knew and pushed me to learn more, as well as help me find a level of preference within these methods.

My trepidation was spurned by my knowledge that I am a geek.  I worried that no-one else cared that or why these changes happen.

This time we presented El Salvador Finca Mauritania. A 100% Bourbon and it’s cascara.

I am very happy to have had my fears entirely alleviated and my faith that the public is ready for great coffee renewed. To have 8 people give up their Friday evening to listen to me talking about coffee and trying these things, and for them to pay to do so proves that there are people are out there, not just in London but in small towns in the middle of no-where also! All we need to do is make it available and people will be drawn to improved quality and people who create their drinks with passion.

I can’t thank the people who came to this months evening enough for their support and I am looking forward to next month’s evening.

Also a thank you to Square Mile for roasting and providing an excellent coffee to carry this example through.

Daily Grind

14 Nov

One thing I find myself telling customers over and over again is that the best investment for their home brewing is their own grinder. I quickly add to avoid the “whirly-gig” blade grinders and spend the same on a hand powered burr grinder. Unfortunately this is usually met with little enthusiasm. And I can understand why, grinders are relatively unimpressive to a non-coffee geek. In the coffee circles the ownership of the first burr grinder is somewhat of a right of passage. It symbolises an investment in every subsequent cup of coffee, but to a non geek it symbolises a portion of the much coveted espresso machine. (Another issue I’m sure to cover in a fun little rant)

I do try to convey that grinding on demand is important because various flavour compounds evaporate from ground beans much faster than they do whole bean and try to explain the difference in grind quality that is available from a burr grinder in opposition to a blade grinder. These are the most tangible reasons to always grind on demand, but other, less visceral virtues are also borne from this small act.

Grinding at home you can realise the huge amount the tiniest grind adjustment can make, and also see how brewing a cup in a non-standard fashion can change the cup you experience. You gain a fuller understanding of the processes that happen and can find a personal preference for extraction. It also opens up the ability to try the same coffee in a variety of different brewers. Most homes have a cafetiere and a good portion have espresso machines. These are two brewers that cannot use the same coffee grind, but given the flexibility of a grinder you can see how a coffee can go from butter popcorn in a cafetiere to cola bottles and lemon drops in espresso (Square Mile’s Sweet Shop blend from this year did this exact transformation).

Anyone that knows me, knows I appreciate a beautifully pulled espresso as much as the next person, and though I have an espresso machine at home, I very rarely use it. This is for a multitude of reasons, the largest, simply being the labour in comparison to the end result. For my to pull an espresso, I have to turn the machine on, let it get hot, pull a shot or two to dial in my grinder, get the temperature down (EuroPiccolas have a habit to overheat after a couple of shots are pulled) then pull a shot for myself to drink. Then I have a shot for about 2 minutes. Then I have to clean the portafilter out empty the drip tray and knock box. In that amount of time I could have made and drank a much longer drip or aeropress cup.

There needs to be a level where we say that’s enough. I certainly wouldn’t expect every home to invest in a Refractometer, but I think a grinder is the biggest investment that should be made by anyone who classes themselves as a coffee lover. But for the general public I would say that even if not ideal, a good coffee that is bought from a good roaster then preground could be acceptable, owing to that simple matter that the grinder a supplier has available to them will almost certainly be superior in the consistency of the grind than most consumer grinders, additionally the person would have a knowledge of how to grind for different brew methods.

We also have to accept that while the consumer may appreciate these great coffees for what they are they may not have the palettes to notice the nuanced difference between a coffee ground immediately prior to brewing and one ground a few days prior, and that’s ok.  I’m not making excuses or saying we should stop trying, but as I keep seeming to say, it’s very easy to alienate the consumer to our cause if we get too dogmatic and too pushy.  Having most people brewing their own coffee everyday with good results is still a way off, lets get them driving before we ask them to race.