If the London Coffee Festival highlighted anything, it’s that coffee, and by that I mean good quality, artisan coffee, is now mainstream. According to an LCF press release, over 22000 people attended the four days of the festival and queues around the block and a ticket sell-out were testament to both the enduring and growing appeal of coffee.

Mission Coffeeworks were only one of a number of great roasters at the LCF.

Mission Coffee Works were only one of a number of great roasters at the LCF.

With the focus on days three and four of the festival on consumers rather than trade business, I made my way to the stand run by Make Decent Coffee and spoke to their head, Phil Smith. Make Decent Coffee is the militant wing of UCC, a large coffee corporation that sells mostly at trade level to companies and the hospitality industry. MDC is their consumer-level group that seeks to engage with the home coffee consumer, both for retail but also, crucially, to help them improve their coffee-making skills.

Phil told me that the crux of Make Decent Coffee’s mission is “taking the mystique out of coffee”, specifically “changing people’s habits around instant coffee”. The stress is on education, but in “a nice way”. Engagement with customers takes place at their level, not assuming any kind of pre-existing coffee knowledge or background, stripping out confusing terminology, so that a farm is a farm and not a finca. This allows customers to learn about coffee without the barriers to entry that required knowledge might present.

MDC roast their coffee with Andronicus in Corby, Northamptonshire, and sell direct to customers online. They don’t yet offer a subscription service as it is felt that the opportunity to choose and experiment is more useful and interesting to coffee neophytes.

An event like the London Coffee Festival is, according to Phil, crucial, not only as an opportunity to sell the brand and its philosophy, but also “to get a feel for the customers and feedback about what they want”. MDC are looking to get involved in events outside of London too, bringing their mission of making great coffee available to all through education and help more widely available.

The V60, my preferred method of home-brewing.

The V60, my preferred method of home-brewing.

In a field where knowledge is crucial and where discrete and complex terminology can leave consumers feeling alienated, MDC are at the vanguard of breaking down barriers to having great coffee at home. For me, it is a great approach, one mirrored by the best coffee shops such as Sharps x DunneFrankowski, who place a similar premium on the educational and engagement aspect of serving customers. Buying great coffee is no longer the issue, and with people like MDC and Dunne and Frankowski inspiring coffee consumers as they help them learn, making great coffee is getting easier too. You could buy a good coffee machine, of course, but there are some alternatives for those who prefer to home brew.

I was lucky enough to get behind the MDC bar at the London Coffee Festival too and chat to Matt and Craig, who showed me how to make French Press and V60 coffee easily and better than I was previously managing. Here are their tips:

French Press:

For three cups, use 45g of fresh, roughly ground coffee and 750g of water. For two cups, use 30g and 500g of water. Always weigh out your coffee pre-grind, and then put the press on a zeroed set of scales to get everything just so. Assuming you are going for two cups, warm the press first with just boiled water, and then tip it out. Add the 30g of coffee and then add 100g of water, pouring against the side of the press rather than directly onto the coffee. This agitates the coffee without scalding it, allowing it to infuse and setting off some of the gases trapped in the coffee. Give the coffee a bit of a stir, and then slowly pour in the remaining 400g of water, again onto the side of the press rather than directly onto the coffee and water mix. When all the water is in, use a spoon to scoop out the ground coffee that has risen to the top. This prevents the coffee from becoming too oily or bitter. Once you’ve done that, push the press bit down slowly. And boom, you have better coffee! The key tricks are weighing, not pouring the water directly onto the grinds, and scooping out what rises.

The MDC crew chatting to coffee lovers.

The MDC crew chatting to coffee lovers.

V60:

For the V60, weighing is again of crucial importance. Use 32g of medium to fine ground coffee for 500ml of water, which would be enough for two cups. Wet the filter first, which removes the bleach taste which can cling to some paper filters and heats the cup or server the coffee is going to sit in. Add the coffee to the centre of the filter paper, having discarded the water you used to wet the paper and warm the cup. Make an indentation in the centre of the pile of coffee and pour, slowly, 50g of water into it, making sure the water is at least 30 seconds off the boil. Ideally, use a pourer rather than water straight from the kettle, as it takes the edge off the temperature and allows for a more direct pour. Then agitate the water and coffee mix gently, which again allows some of the gases to escape. You’ll see the bubbling and crowning of the gases as white bubbling when this happens. Once done, gently and slowly pour in the remaining 450g of water in a circular motion around the edges of the mound of grounds. Remember, an even soaking makes for an even extraction, which is what you’re aiming for. This should take a couple of minutes and, at the end of the process, you’ll have beautiful, fresh coffee.

And that’s how simple it is. I hope you’ve found that useful. My thanks to Phil and the team at MDC and the folks at the London Coffee Festival.

Make Decent Coffee’s website can be found here and they are on Twitter too.

Mission Coffee Works, who are not linked to MDC but whose coffee is great and made for a good picture, can be found here.

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The product in situ at Vagabond.

The product in situ at Vagabond.

What makes a good café? Good coffee, certainly. Ambience is important too, as is the quality and general friendliness of the people who work there. But, and sometimes it is a big ‘but’, any coffee shop with aspirations towards being good, or even great, is providing a service for any potential, not just coffee geeks. I know from my own experiences of going to places with my partner Jennifer, who is a dedicated and knowledgeable tea drinker, that the variation in quality of available teas is massive. Cafés can sometimes put too much on an emphasis on their coffee to the detriment of other drinks and, therefore, to the detriment of their customers.

In the latest of my new series of interviews, I wanted to explore aspects of the other products available in cafés. And into my head popped Paul Eagles.

You might not know Paul, but if you have been to any one of the hundreds of cafes or businesses countrywide that stock his Kokoa Collection hot chocolate, you will appreciate that this is a man who knows his stuff. The signature design, that of small disks of chocolate rather than the customary flakes or powder, is instantly recognisable. Paul’s chocolate comes from a wide array of countries and each has different cocoa and sugar contents that mean that there is great variety in the taste and texture of the chocolate.

Paul’s passion for chocolate began at university. As Paul told me, “My room was always the one where there was chocolate – I was always brewing my own recipes, trying things out”. A love of travel took him to various countries and, especially in Spain and Italy, where he found a much higher quality of chocolate than was available here in the UK. Experimentation and blending opened Paul’s palate to the range of tasting possibilities in chocolate, something that he has put to good use at Kokoa Collection.

Paul is quick to point out, though, that he doesn’t see himself as part of the chocolate industry: he sees his company as fitting into a wider community around the coffee or café industry. He started out working for Esquires, a chain of independent coffee shops, on the product sourcing and new business side of things. This led to a growing awareness of products in other areas associated with coffee; for example, Paul introduced Esquires to Suki teas. However, as he told me, “the one area that people hadn’t really addressed was chocolate”.

Putting the touches on.

Putting the touches on.

So Paul started Kokoa Collection, which trades in speciality hot chocolate. There are various origins, but the major departure was putting the chocolate into disks, which makes the recipe a lot easier and saves cafés from using too much or too little: three disks will make a standard six ounce cup. This, of course, saves money, and it is no surprise that Paul does a lot of his work with contract caterers who specialise in delivering to large companies such as Disney and Sky.

Hot chocolate, of course, is usually seen a luxury item, not a staple pick-me-up like coffee or tea. As Paul says, the stuff has “an air of indulgence”; it’s a treat. All the more reason, then, for the chocolate served in artisan cafés to be proper and not the powdery or flaky chocolate that many places still seem intent on using. This, Paul thinks, is largely down to a lack of knowledge in cafés rather than a lack of interest. While the growth in artisan coffee has seen a commensurate growth in knowledge, “chocolate hasn’t moved the same way. Each origin has a distinct character. You can taste the difference in plant varieties.” As Paul sees it, much like with good coffee, “there is a story to good chocolate”.

Nonetheless, for Paul, the key is not to bamboozle clients or customers with details about growing regions, cocoa content, emulsion, and so on. While a level of training is necessary, and very worthwhile, Paul is quick to stress that the importance he places on the enjoyment of the chocolate is everything: “It’s about quality ingredients, yes, but it’s about still being fun, about returning to the fun and not being so specialist”. I suppose with any area of knowledge there is always a danger of becoming too specific, and you can see that with some coffee-shops. But an emphasis on knowing your product and your product being great does not have to lead to bombarding a customer with information that they don’t really need. If they do want to know, they will always ask. Paul told me that he did miss answering customers’ questions, and generally chatting with them, as much as he did at Esquires. To compensate, he keeps his hand in working a coffee stall at Muswell Hill’s Sunday market, providing him with a chance to stay in touch with the people who make the café industry, the customers.

The finished article. It was yummy.

The finished article. It was yummy.

I asked Paul what he thought was next in the world of speciality chocolate. Places like Hotel Chocolat, which sells edible speciality chocolate, have now added a café component, and Paul sees this a sign of things to come. The range and quality of drinking chocolate will improve “outside of cafés, and then move back in”. As the awareness of what good quality chocolate can bring to artisan coffee-shops grows, spurred on by these external advances, Paul sees coffee-shops responding to that and putting a greater emphasis on the product, alongside coffee and tea.

As part of this effort to grow and share knowledge, Paul has launched the UK Hot Chocolate Festival, inspired by a similar event in Vancouver. The aim is to promote not only hot chocolate, but to showcase its versatility alongside other ingredients. Cafés, restaurants, and even a cinema in Norwich, have experimented with Kokoa Collection to come up with signature drinks, such as Vagabond’s Chocolate and Lavender drink or Eteaket’s Ecuadorian Chocolate and Chilli Rooibos blend. Paul hopes that the event will demonstrate the versatility of hot chocolate, get his customers thinking about ways they can experiment just as he did while at university, and, perhaps, show the rest of the coffee scene in the UK what they’re missing.

The UK Hot Chocolate Festival runs from 24th March to 6th April. Paul will be at the London Coffee Festival as well, talking about mochas.

You can find his website here and his Twitter feed here.

Special thanks too to Kate at Vagabond, N4, for making me a delicious hot chocolate for photography and drinking purposes. You should go there and try it; it’s sublime.

Writing about coffee is writing about people. It has been a central tenet of this blog that the human interactions that cluster around a cup of coffee, of its buying and selling and consumption, are what make a place good. The overall quality of coffee is so high these days in the independent sector that, to stand out, you have to bring that quality of personality, of care, to the sale of coffee.

With this in mind, I have decided to set the blog off in a new direction, alongside my traditional interest in venues and the brews they sell. I have decided to speak to the people in the coffee business, from baristas to café owners to roasters to people running coffee subscription services.

So here goes…

Andrew and Nick Tolley are two of the three siblings behind the Harris and Hoole chain of coffee shops. They started Taylor Street Baristas in 2006 having moved from the coffee-rich culture of Australia, and quickly saw that they could help introduce quality coffee to London. I sat down with them in the Cannon Street café we talked coffee, business, and that Tesco thing.

The brew bar at Cannon Street.

The brew bar at Cannon Street.

Both Andrew and Nick have been in what we might call the new wave of artisan coffee in London from the outset. As both observe, the demand and availability of good coffee has exploded in the last few years. Part of this is, in their minds, down to the impact of the big three, as Andrew explains: “High street chains have introduced espresso-based coffee to a bigger market”. He sees this boom as being the inspiration for a wider and deeper coffee culture: “If you look outside of London, in Leeds, Bath, Brighton, there is quite a high density of very good cafes.” Nick continues, “In all of these places there are lines out the door, manifest demand for good coffee”.

Having been in at the ground floor, the Tolleys have built a reputation and experience of the artisan coffee in the UK and used it to grow what they pitch very much as a competitor to high street chains, rather than other artisan venues. From a business perspective, this makes sense to the Tolleys: “The opportunities are in the high street, not chasing the independents.” The figures speak for themselves, as a conservative estimate suggests that around 95% of all coffee bought in the UK from coffee shops is from the big high street chains. The aim is very much to present a venue that feels like a high-end high street coffee venue, capturing customers from Starbucks or Costa, not from Coffee Circus or Bread and Bean.

Harris and Hoole is therefore geared to providing what Nick and Andrew feel is lacking the high street players and their business ethos was developed to drive this. As Nick explains, “managers have ownership and autonomy, but by the same token, from day one we highlighted three core planks”. These ‘planks’ are great coffee, passionate and inspired staff, and ‘local friends’, the idea that a branch would look to build links with the community.

On quality, Andrew is strident: “It’s about helping customers appreciate how good coffee can be”. He goes on: “We tried to make quality an objective measure, choosing the top 2-3% of available beans for roasting.” This is achieved by maintaining a long-standing relationship with Union, which originated when the Tolleys set up Taylor Street. Andrew sees Union’s ethos as crucial to what Harris and Hoole are seeking to do, because “they have a strong belief in sourcing quality coffee by developing a good relationship with growers”, using a direct trade model. In a two-way process, growers are encouraged to develop techniques that provide consistent product, which in turn guarantees a supply chain. The same approach is being rolled out to tea producers, like the Rishi cooperative in Nepal that grows on three hundred year old tea trees; this partnership should help Rishi grow its brand and guarantee a consistent quality of tea for the business.

From the Crouch End store.

From the Crouch End store.

Without good staff though, the quality of coffee is almost irrelevant, and so the role of the barista is crucial. In the early days, baristas could bring customers with them when they left a café, such was the variable quality of staff; if you found a barista who nailed it, you would stay with them rather than their coffee shop. As such, training to achieve uniformity, consistency of your cup, is privileged as most important part of the business. This, in turn, Nick and Andrew believe, allows baristas to feel inspired by what they doing. Both feel that it is only by empowering staff and valuing them that you get a product that is always of high quality. This worthy approach obviously has business benefits, as Nick is quick to acknowledge: “The staff feel more engaged, it becomes more meaningful and that’s conveyed in the way they engage with the business.” It improves retention of baristas, a worthwhile consideration when training has such a premium placed on it.

Beyond this, though, it is the idea of rooting each branch within its community that might be the most interesting facet of the business model, what they refer to as ‘In Good Company’. As Nick explains: “A coffee shop is so much more than just a place to get coffee – it builds communities and friendships.” It is part of the ethos of the business to hark back to the age when coffee shops were nodes around which communities clustered, met to talk and exchange ideas, to be exposed to new ideas; indeed, the Pepys inspired name is a nod to that. As such, my local Harris and Hoole regularly hosts new artists like up-and-coming locals Sophie Gainsley or Adam Joppich, literary events for the likes of Peirene Press, as well as fitness classes and meetings for local charities. And that is before you consider the people using the café as a venue for various forms of work (like blogging!). Each store can take its own direction on this so, for example, Peirene is local to N8, which is why the store welcomes them for salons and discussions. This, to me, is the most interesting and best part of the business model. According to Nick, it isn’t a specific form of CSR, largely because they don’t measure the effects, but it “reflects the family values; it’s the right thing to do”.

The competition.

The competition.

A lot of commentators would not see a business relationship with Tesco as “the right thing to do” though. It is, rightly or wrongly, the thing for which Harris and Hoole are most famous. I have made my feelings on this clear in another post, but I was interested to hear what Nick and Andrew think. According to Nick, the relationship developed largely because the Tolleys were looking to grow the business towards the high street after the success of Taylor Street and Tesco were looking to expand their portfolio into coffee. An initial chat, largely about the state of play in the coffee market arranged by a mutual friend, led to a recognition that a business could grow out of the relationship. Nick stresses that Tesco are like “the good parts of a private equity firm” interested in developing a business but with a longer-term view than might have been expected from other sources of funding. He says the relationship is “intuitive”, growing and changing as the business does and that the expertise Tesco brings in fields like property development is invaluable. Most importantly for Nick, Tesco are invested for the long haul and happy to accept “slow-time” development if it maintains quality. He sees no difference between accepting funding from Tesco and accepting it from any other normal source of investment, and, indeed, the lack of critical response from most of the independent coffee sector itself would tend to suggest that they feel the same. Having said that, Tesco have an interest in growing the business alongside the Tolleys’ philosophy and certain areas of skill that can help this happen, which makes more sense than simply taking money from a bank or investment firm. Indeed, Harris and Hoole are pioneering developments in the field, securing Danielle Andersen from market leaders Burberry to be Head of Digital Experience to head up a new app and other digital tie-ins, and it is likely that while the innovation comes from the Tolleys, the funding from Tesco doesn’t hurt.

While their tie-in with Tesco has been controversial, Nick and Andrew remain optimistic and, indeed, impassioned. To them, providing a better, more engaged coffee business to high street customers that helps them learn more about coffee can only be a good thing. If what I have seen at my local Harris and Hoole is indicative of some of the ways they might achieve this, then I am inclined to agree.

Nick Tolley is CEO & Founder of Harris and Hoole

Andrew Tolley is Coffee Director & Founder of Harris and Hoole