Let’s get 2021 underway with a new Meet the Roaster and Chimney Fire Coffee. Started in his garden shed by Dan Webber in 2016, Chimney Fire moved to its current home in Ranmore Manor in the Surrey Hills in the summer of 2017. In theory, I could walk there and back in a day (as I did with Surrey Hills Coffee last May), but laziness/poor planning got the better of me, so I ended up driving over the week before Christmas when I unexpectedly found myself with a car and nowhere to go.
Like many roasters, Chimney Fire had its business model turned on its head by COVID-19, but is thriving despite this, expanding over the summer and recently employing two additional staff. Its Ranmore signature espresso is joined by a various single-origins with a variety of roasts: espresso, filter and onmi.
I’ve been enjoying Chimney Fire’s coffee for several years, often at Canopy Coffee (where it was a regular guest) and at home, with Chimney Fire being one of the first roasters I ordered from at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was therefore with great pleasure that I caught up with Dan and the team just before Christmas.
In the Coffee Spot’s early days, central London had a handful of coffee shop/roasters, with the likes of TAP, Caravan and Ozone all roasting, then serving, coffee on the premises. However, rising rents, along with expanding demand, led to roasteries moving to bigger/cheaper premises in outer London: of the three examples mentioned, only Ozone still roasts in its original location. Therefore, when the subject of today’s Meet the Roaster, coffee shop/roaster Catalyst, opened in Holborn in late 2016, it was already bucking the trend, something which continues to this day.
I remember the buzz its opening generated, when it was only a coffee shop, the likes of Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato singing its praises. Before long, the 12 kg Diedrich in the basement was up and running, and Catalyst hasn’t looked back, although it took me until last month before I managed to visit, when I wrote up Catalyst as a coffee shop.
Today it’s the turn of Catalyst the roaster. It has an impressive output, with a retail espresso blend and multiple single-origins, with various options on espresso and filter. Even COVID-19 can’t slow it down, Catalyst seeing a large boost in its direct-to-consumer sales through its website!
Quarter Horse Coffee opened its Birmingham café/roastery in 2015, the roastery operating on one side of the space, the coffee shop on the other, the two separated by a waist-high counter. While this arrangement had the obvious advantage of making the roastery very visible to the customers, it had its drawbacks. As the roastery became busier, the inevitable interruptions that come from having such an open and visible roasting operation began to have an impact on productivity.
Nathan, the driving force behind Quarter Horse, decided that he need to make some major modifications to improve the roastery. However, the question was how to accommodate the disruption that the structural work would cause, which would inevitably shut both roastery and café for several weeks. Then along came COVID-19, with its enforced shutdown, giving Nathan his opportunity…
The results of the remodelling were plain for all to see when Quarter Horse reopened on the last day in July. Although it would be more accurate to say that they weren’t plain to see. Although the roastery hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s now enclosed in its own room, leaving Nathan and his team free to get on with the important business of roasting in peace.
This Coffee Spot Update focuses on the roastery, while the café has its own update, where you can find more details of the physical changes.
I first came across Surrey Hills Coffee in early 2016 at what was then Turn Fit Deli on Chapel Street in my hometown, Guildford. Although starting out as a deli, it quickly morphed into a coffee shop, supplied by Surrey Hills, which had started roasting in 2014, although Chris and Monika, the Swedish couple behind Surrey Hills, have a much longer involvement with coffee than that. In April 2016, Turn Fit decided to concentrate on its fitness business, and while Chris and Monika hadn’t planned on becoming coffee shop owners, they saw the opportunity and took over the lease to run the coffee shop themselves.
One thing led to another and by 2018, the original shop had moved to much bigger premises in Jeffries Passage. That same year, Surrey Hills opened its second coffee shop, The Pod at London Square, as well as growing a thriving, local wholesale business, supplying other cafes and retailers. Although the current COVID-19 pandemic has put the coffee shops on hold, this has, ironically, given Chris and Monika a chance to catch their breath and re-focus on the heart of their business, the roastery, which I learnt more about when we caught up last weekend.
With the COVID-19 situation getting worse every day (all UK coffee shops closed as of last night), now seems like a good time for a new Meet the Roaster feature.
I first visited Ue Coffee Roasters back in 2014 for a feature in Caffeine Magazine. In those days, the roastery, on Windrush Industrial Park, a couple of miles west of Witney, was a standalone operation. These days, it’s been joined by a lovely café & kitchen, which occupies the front of the building, the roastery still in its same old spot, a large, warehouse like space at the back, which you can see through the windows behind the counter. Even better, the café’s toilets are in the roastery, so you have a legitimate excuse to nose around!
Ue Coffee made its name as the UK’s only wood-fired roaster. However, it’s come a long way since then, launching a sister company, Jeeves & Jericho, offering artisan loose-leaf tea and opening not one, but two coffee shops. While still doing much of its roasting on its bespoke, wood-fired roaster, there’s a new, gas-fired 30kg Giesen, along with a sample roaster, reflecting a new emphasis on high-scoring single lots and micro-lots. There’s also a plan for a new organic roastery in Cheltenham, due to open later this year. With all that in mind, Amanda and I had a tour with head roaster, Jon.
A well-established name in London Coffee circles, HR Higgins has been going in its current form since 1944. A family-run affair, now onto its third generation, I visited the lovely, old-fashioned store on Mayfair’s Duke Street in September, writing up the delightful basement coffee shop. Now it’s the turn of HR Higgins Coffee Man, which features in today’s Meet the Roaster as both roaster and retailer.
Whereas many modern, speciality coffee roasters have a few blends at most, along with a handful of single-origins, HR Higgins is from an era when coffee merchants carried a wide range of beans, reminding me of the likes of Soho’s Algerian Coffee Stores. HR Higgins currently has beans from 23 origins (two of which are decaffeinated), drawn from all the world’s main coffee growing regions, plus eight different blends. These are roasted anywhere from medium to very dark, and, while HR Higgins hasn’t succumbed to the modern trend of light roasts, it has been developing direct trade relationships with various coffee farmers.
If coffee’s not your thing, HR Higgins is also a tea merchant of some repute, with over 40 different loose-leaf teas available, although it received its Royal Warrant as a coffee merchant.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed during my various visits to Japan is exploring its varied speciality coffee scene. There’s a strong, local tradition of roasting high-quality coffee, with an emphasis on darker roasts, epitomised by the likes of Maruyama Coffee and Sarutahiko Coffee Ebisu. However, in recent years, there’s an up-and-coming local scene where the emphasis is on lighter roasters led by the likes of today’s Meet the Roaster, Onibus Coffee.
Onibus Coffee is a small coffee shop/roaster chain in Tokyo. Its Nakameguro location was one of my first stops when I came to Japan in 2017, my first time in the country. Back then, it also housed the roaster, in a small space behind the counter, but with the business steadily growing, the cramped conditions were proving impractical, so Onibus relocated the roastery to a new, dedicated coffee shop/roastery in Meguro.
I visited the coffee shop in September, on the first of this year’s two trips to Japan, where I was offered a tour of the roastery, scheduled for my returned in November. I gratefully accepted, heading over to the roastery in Yakumo on my first morning in Tokyo, where head roaster, Yohei, showed me around.
Serendipity’s always played a large part in the Coffee Spot, even from its inception over seven years ago when someone said “why don’t you start a basketball blog” and I thought “a coffee blog! What an excellent idea!”. No matter how much I plan, chance discovery always plays its part and today’s Meet the Roaster is no exception
Visiting Chromatic Coffee was always part of the plan for my return to San Jose earlier this year. I’d heard great things about the coffee shop from my friend Richard on my first visit in 2017. Getting out to Santa Clara was also going to be the issue, so when Richard offered to drop me off on his way to work, I jumped at the chance.
Before I left, I had a long chat with the manager, who, on learning that I was staying in San Jose until the end of the week, suggested attending Chromatic’s public cupping, which takes place in the roastery every Thursday morning. And that led to me discovering that Chromatic’s roastery is a couple of blocks from Richard’s flat.
Naturally I went, enjoying not just the cupping, but also receiving a tour of the roastery to boot!
Welcome to what has turned into a very rare occurrence: a new Meet the Roaster feature! This is just the second of the year after Peixoto Coffee Roasters, which came out in February. Mind you, that’s an improvement on last year, when I managed just one! The focus of today’s Meet the Roaster is Walthamstow’s Wood St Coffee, which started off six years as a Sunday pop-up in Wood Street Market, run by Gareth with the support of his girlfriend, Claire. Fast-forward six years, and Wood St has gone from a one-man, once-a-week operation to a thriving coffee shop and now roastery, employing multiple staff, a real success story and a testament to the hard work of Gareth, Claire and all their staff.
Although the roastery’s output is primarily to support the coffee shop, Wood St has a growing wholesale market, as well selling direct to the consumer. You can buy 250g bags of Wood St’s coffee in the coffee shop itself, or on-line on Wood St’s website. These days, all the coffee is roasted on-site using a 5 kg Probat in a container outside Wood St’s home in the Blackhorse Workshop, although, as we’ll see, that’s a fairly recent development.
Something that I really admire about the speciality coffee industry is its commitment to improving the lot of coffee farmers by paying them a decent price (far above commodity prices) for their coffee. At the same time, the industry’s finding new ways to ensure that more of the value stays with the coffee farmers/producers. Perhaps one of the most exciting is the concept of farm-to-cup, also known as crop-to-cup (which has the advantage of being alliterative), where the entire value chain remains with the farmers who control every stage from production (crop) to the final drink (cup).
I’ve seen this in countries such as Vietnam (Oriberry Coffee), Thailand (Akha Ama Coffee) and China (Lanna Coffee), but the first time I saw it outside of a coffee growing region was in Arizona, when I visited Peixoto, in Chandler, southeast of Phoenix. Peixoto was set up specifically to roast and sell coffee from the family farm in Brazil, something which it’s been doing for the last four years (it celebrated its fourth birthday on 31st January). I’ve already written about Peixoto as a coffee shop: today, in this Meet the Roaster feature, I want to look at the rest of Peixoto’s operation.