Norwich has a small, vibrant and thriving coffee scene, based around old favourites such as The Little Red Roaster and Strangers Coffee House, along with (relative) newcomers such as Kofra. Part of that mix, although a little under the radar, is local roaster, Smokey Barn, the brain-child of civil-engineer-turned-coffee-roaster, Chris.
From humble beginnings in 2011, when he roasted in a shed in his garden (the original and literal “Smokey Barn”), Smokey Barn moved into its current premises, just 10 minutes’ walk from the railway station, at the start of 2014. Smokey Barn has one of the most beautiful interiors I’ve seen in a roastery (which are not usually renowned for their beauty), kitted out in brick and wood, a far cry from most, which are typically industrial units.
Smokey Barn typically roasts five single-origin beans, plus decaf, with the (very) occasional blend thrown in. These are all available on-line from Smokey Barn, or you can pop into the roastery itself and buy a bag or two from Chris (best call ahead first to check that he’s in, though). Even better, if you ask him nicely, Chris will make you a coffee as well, using Smokey Barn’s fully-equipped espresso bar.
June 2021: Chris sold Smokey Barn in 2016 (I think). I’m not sure what happened to the company over the intervening years, but these days it’s still going strong, run by sisters Sophie & Megan, who continue to roast, but have also turned the roastery into a coffee shop (and about time too in my opinion!). One day I hope to get back to Norwich so that I can do a proper update.
In the meantime, you can read my thoughts from 2015, when Chris still ran the roastery, after the gallery.
Chris, the man behind Smokey Barn, has had a passion for coffee since childhood. His parents owned a coffee shop, which, he says, had the only espresso machine for miles around and stocked 10 different beans. Fast forward a few decades, and Chris, bored with civil engineering, found himself constantly thinking about coffee. However, sensible man that he is, Chris realised that cafés are far too much like hard work, instead turning to roasting.
Smokey Barn has shown slow but steady progress from its birth in Chris’ garden shed. Like a growing number in the industry, Chris principally roasts single origins, either for espresso or filter. He’ll occasionally blend if he thinks this will improve a single origin, but he finds that this is rarely needed. Ironically, one of Chris’ rare blends, Purple Ribbon, was declared, in Issue 4 of Caffeine Magazine no less, to be one of the country’s top 5 micro-roasted espressos.
Like many up-and-coming roasters, Smokey Barn’s biggest problems is getting customers. Put simply, it’s very hard for a new roaster to displace an established one as a coffee shop’s main supplier. The challenge is obvious: unless a coffee shop is really unhappy with its existing roaster, it’s very unlikely to undergo the upheaval of changing suppliers. Even then, my own anecdotal evidence suggests that when coffee shops switch, it’s usually to another well-established roaster, rather than to a potentially untested start-up.
This, of course, begs the question of how roasters get started in the first place. Unless you have your own coffee shop to supply (Birmingham’s Quarter Horse Coffee Roasters springs to mind as a good example) you’re relying on retail accounts, getting into start-up coffee shops (which can be almost as hard as displacing an existing roaster) and selling on-line direct to the consumer, a route which an increasing number of roasters are taking. Indeed, for some, like Sheffield’s Foundry Coffee Roasters, this is their main distribution channel, although that’s still quite rare.
Coming back to Smokey Barn, Chris has a beautiful set-up, one well worth a visit. In a bright, airy space, he’s split the operation into two parts. At the back, behind a wooden counter, is the Toper coffee roaster, where Chris works his magic of turning green beans into beautifully-roasted coffee. On the right is the fully-equipped espresso bar, complete with two high bar-chairs. If that doesn’t take your fancy, there’s a window-bar opposite and a bench.
Chris is always happy to make coffee for visitors (and to sell them beans!) and, while we were there, Chris and my guide for the day, Alex of Strangers, took turns to make various espressos and flat whites with Smokey Barn’s Ethiopian Aramo beans. On its own, it was a little bright, but very drinkable, while in milk, it was really smooth, with a chocolately finish.
That Chris doesn’t sell more coffee over the counter is a chicken-and-egg thing. Although 10 minutes’ from the station, it’s 10 minutes in the wrong direction, and, being a little off the beaten track, Smokey Barn doesn’t get much footfall. However, if ever there was a place crying out for a dedicated, full-time espresso bar like the ones in say Rave Coffee or the Tandem Coffee Roastery, this is it. So, people of Norwich, you know what to do…
|UNIT 1A ABC WHARF • 165 KING STREET • NORWICH • NR1 1QH|
|www.smokeybarn.co.uk||+44 (0) 1603 610351|
|Monday||09:00 – 15:00||Roaster||Smokey Barn|
|Tuesday||09:00 – 15:00||Seating||TBC|
|Wednesday||09:00 – 15:00||Food||TBC|
|Thursday||09:00 – 15:00||Service||TBC|
|Friday||09:00 – 15:00||Payment||TBC|
|Chain||No||Visits||7th July 2015|
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