When well-sourced, carefully roasted and properly brewed, coffee speaks of the place it was grown, where the pace of life is generally much slower than that of those drinking the end product. Many years of work have gone into your cup of coffee, and in our opinion, it's worth spending a few minutes to prepare a cup and a few more savouring the flavour.
One way that the ‘specialty’ coffee industry has established itself in the market place is as something 'other'. Quality-oriented coffeeshops are defined against a backdrop of high street chains and those stuck in the second wave. The wares of a ‘specialty’ coffee roaster square up against anonymised blends comprised of cheap, defective and typically carbonised coffees from commercial coffee roasters, available for a few pounds in your local supermarket, often replete with FairTrade and Organic logos. Through brand tribalism and a shared language and aesthetic, we have defined ourselves in opposition to what else is available. Yes, we can discuss cup scores and defect counts, but ultimately ‘specialty’ coffee is experiential, emphasising flavour, provenance and quality over convenience, frugality and affordability.
If you want something special and delicious, time and skill are as necessary ingredients as high quality beans and brewing equipment. If you want something less costly, more everyday, and you aren't so fussy about your morning cup, cheaper coffees are available, often coming ready-ground to save you some time. And, if you value convenience over everything else, at the expense of affordability and flavour, you have instant and pod coffees.
These are the antithesis of special.
Pods and instant coffee fall into an even lower category than the cheap whole bean and pre-ground coffee options; they're not even proper coffee. Watching with growing concern at a recent muddying of the waters between specialty and commodity coffee, we now see 'specialty' coffee roasters introducing certain products into their own ranges that, for us, cannot be considered specialty.
‘Specialty coffee solutions' that remove the need for cleaning up, along with any effort or skill in coffee brewing, are becoming increasingly prevalent. You can buy 'specialty' instant coffee, 'specialty' coffee pods and single-serve drip packs and coffee ‘teabags’ that you simply dispose of when you're done. No grinding, no mess, no fuss, and undoubtedly an inferior tasting cup of coffee at the end of it.
To be clear, we're not a group of curmudgeonly Luddites looking to preserve the status quo and neither are we against our industry pushing the boundaries. 'Specialty' coffee has always been progressive by design and delivering quality coffee is an ongoing, iterative process underpinned by continual change and improvement, driven by experimentation and learning. However, it needs to be said that these apparent advancements and embracing of technology developed for convenience and commodity coffee are detracting from the value of 'specialty' coffee. A subpar and innately compromised product is being peddled at an inflated price tag.
First addressing the subpar and compromised product, 'specialty coffee pods' and 'specialty instant' are ludicrous in the same way that 'Gourmet Microwave Meals' are; the promise of something special is instantly undermined by the delivery mechanism. The calibre of the beans being used to create instant and pod coffees is not retained via the process of pre-grinding and dosing into pods or through freeze-drying brewed coffee. To claim to be delivering both quality and convenience when these product lines are introduced onto a 'specialty' roaster's offer list is equivalent to the promise that pots of instant noodles can provide a comparable flavour experience gained when eating a bowl of slow-cooked bone broth and hand-pulled noodles. Convenient food products don't claim this, accepting their mediocrity as a trade-off for convenience, but grandiose claims are being made about the quality of the wares in ‘specialty’ roasters’ 'convenience' coffee ranges.
Onto the inflated price tag. Whilst rebranding a coffee pod a 'capsule' may make the price of 55p sting a little less, for just 5.4g actual coffee that's a price of £101.85/kg. If you splurge for the 85p capsule, you're spending £157.40/kg. That's equivalent to £25.46 or £39.35 for a 250g retail bag of beans. As difficult to comprehend as the high prices is the idea that 5.4g coffee is a reasonable dose of coffee to prepare a single cup.
Lacking enough raw ingredient to create good flavour intensity, body or to give the drinker the caffeinated effect they seek from their brew, means that a coffee pod’s size inevitably mars the discerning coffee drinker’s experience.
'Specialty instant' is even more costly. It can cost upwards of £3.10 for a sachet designed for 250g water. You'd need 16.8g to produce 250g brewed coffee in a pourover using a typical brew ratio of 60g/L. That’s the equivalent of around 15 ‘serves’ per 250g bag of beans. The equivalent cost of a 250g bag of coffee in terms of instant, in this case, would be approximately £46 per bag or £184/kilo.
We should not applaud convenience at the expense of quality, especially when it is also at the expense of expense itself.
In today’s world, many of us would sooner waste money than time because the latter feels increasingly finite. It's something we understand, but we also believe it can be overcome. After all, it takes less time to grind your coffee than it does for your kettle to boil, and if you want to enjoy a delicious, freshly brewed cup of coffee whilst remaining hands-off, there are fantastic brewers that fit the bill, such as the 50-year-old MoccaMaster.
Extremely convenient coffee options like instant and pods create problems when they're embraced by the ‘specialty’ coffee industry. Coffee becomes just one more ingredient that people become more detached from. We, as an industry, shouldn't be encouraging people to stop drinking 'proper coffee'. The dumbing-down enabled through offering convenient, fast foods means we're eradicating the skills and understanding required to purchase and consume a whole host of ingredients consciously. We also run the risk of seeing these sorts of products retraining a person's palate to accept and tolerate stale tasting goods. In this case, as in many others, faster is not always better. If you're looking for nothing more than a quick medicinal caffeine hit there are far more efficient and cost-effective ways of doing so.
If you haven't got five minutes to make a cup of coffee, grind the beans and drip water through the grounds, then you definitely don't have the further ten minutes to enjoy it. If speed is critical, buy a pod machine, but make peace with the fact that what you are drinking is not special.
However, if you do want to carve out a niche in your day for enjoyment and moving slowly, then here's a link to our V60 brew guide.
At the end of September, Japanese outdoor lifestyle brand, Snow Peak, announced that they’ll be opening their European flagship store in London’s St. James’s Market. Alongside their array of high quality clothing, camping equipment and gear, their first ever European location will also be operating a full-service café in the three-story store, which will proudly serve Workshop Coffee.
Having spent several months working closely together on both the design of the coffeebar and the equipment it will hold, Snow Peak will be pulling shots of our seasonal espressos using a combination of Nuova Simonelli Mythos One grinders and a 2-Group La Marzocco Linea Classic AV. The team will also be showcasing our filter coffees using their own range of titanium coffee brewing hardware to make clean, sweet and fresh cups brewed as pourovers.
From the moment we began speaking with Snow Peak’s Vice President, Lisa Yamai, the parallels between their approach and our own were apparent and abundant. As we continued our conversations and gained a greater insight into their approach, we realised those similarities ran to the very core of both companies.
As well as sharing a passion for things done well, Snow Peak are in continual pursuit of better products. To do this, they're forever tweaking and iterating on what has come before with the aim of making something better.
Their desire to inspire more people to enjoy the outdoors also struck a chord with us. We're always looking for ways that offer people access to the exceptional coffee wherever and whenever they choose to drink it. Snow Peak's beautifully designed, carefully considered outdoor brewing gear is an exciting way of helping people to do exactly that.
We're incredibly excited to begin working together and know exciting things lie ahead in the coming months.
Snow Peak’s London store opens on Friday 25th October and will be located at 16a Regent Street, St. James’s, London, SW1Y 4PH. If you can’t wait to visit their first European store, their UK online shop is open now.
For the first time in our eight years of roasting coffee, we’ve decided to create a dedicated filter roast profile for our decaf offering.
The quality of the most recent crop from El Teruel is exceptionally good, and we know that a lot our customers enjoy brewing decaf as a filter coffee. Until this point in our coffeebars, we've chosen to amend our Clever Coffee Dripper brewing recipe when preparing a cup of decaf filter using our dedicated espresso roast profile.
Similarly, for home brewers, getting the best results from our decaf for filter has involved tweaking normal brewing specs ever so slightly. The results have been good, but with this new roast approach designed specifically for filter brewing the coffee has never tasted better. We’re really happy with the results, and hope you enjoy this first from Workshop Coffee.
As with a lot of regions in Colombia, the micro-climate of the area around Planadas, Tolima allows farmers to harvest coffee cherry twice in one year, which helps a great deal with cash flow. The Asopep (Asociación de Productores Ecológicos de Planadas) Co-operative, made up of 35 coffee producing families, all practice organic farming and are certified as such. The coffees making up this particular lot, El Teruel, underwent a 22-hour dry fermentation before being fully washed and subsequently dried on raised beds. It then underwent the Sugar Cane Ethyl Acetate process to decaffeinate the beans. Not only does this method provide a secondary income to the producing country, the Descafecol plant between located between Planadas and Medellín in Colombia, but the green coffee only needs to be transported by boat once rather than twice. More eco-friendly and less costly, reducing the travel time compared with coffees decaffeinated in Germany, Switzerland, Mexico or Canada means we get to work with a fresher tasting product. The conditions in which coffee is transported are rarely conducive to preserving quality, and so avoiding this process from happening twice is always beneficial for the cup.
The filter roast of our El Teruel is tasting complex and layered, with sweet fruity notes of dates and papaya, turning almost jammy in the finish. Gone are the days of forgoing a delicious cup of coffee after dinner for fear of hindering a deep slumber.
Driving to Perú Profundo.
As we approach our 9th birthday, it's impressive to think how far we've come in that time. Starting with a roll-call of just seven producing countries - Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Brazil and Colombia. Today, we buy from double that number. Fourteen different origins now keep us, and you, supplied with delicious, fresh coffee all year-round. This increase has been brought about through ourselves expanding our horizons, coupled with quality programs in countries that have resulted in delicious coffees becoming abundant in more places.
However, we can't rely on finding the best coffees from new origins whilst sitting in Bethnal Green. Trips oversea are required, this time to the thirteenth country we've had the pleasure of visiting. That country? Peru.
Unreal scenery on the road to Calca town.
Hairpin turns on the roads, pretty much all the way.
One of the benefits of setting off before sunrise is getting to see the early light dancing through the clouds.
The first three coffees, purchased for our hotel coffee programme last year, all came from the historic region of Cusco in southern Peru. With this the focus of our trip, we arranged to meet the association of farmers behind two of the lots; Valle Inca Group.
The newly elected president of Valle Inca, 29-year-old José Prudencio, greeted us on our arrival in Cusco before driving us to the nearby town of Calca. Home to the cupping lab, warehouse and offices of Valle Inca, they provide agronomical advice, along with financing for farmers to implement infrastructure improvements in their land.
Cool storage for the coffee at Valle Inca’s warehouse in Calca, 2,980m.
Beautiful clean parchment coffee from one of the association’s members.
Growing up, José used to pick coffee with his father, sleeping on sacks of coffee after a long, hard day's work. Enthusiastic and incredibly hard-working, he tries to connect as frequently as possible with the members even though they live in incredibly remote areas around Cusco. José's goal is to connect all the small scale producers in the group with buyers by finding the correct market for their coffees. Having paid $5,000 last year for an organic certificate, applicable to all their producers, gives Valle Inca an edge in marketing their coffee to specific buyers, especially those in the US. Word has spread about the group and the positive work they're doing, that has seen numbers grow from 100 members last year to 200 at the current count. However, being a member of Valle Inca isn't just about having the right coffee varieties like Typica or Bourbon. A willingness to improve, adapt and possess the right mindset is crucial if a farmer is to benefit from everything membership to Valle Inca has to offer.
Along the narrowest of Andean roads, as we climbed well above the clouds to 4,568m at our peak, a myriad of frozen lakes, thermal springs, Incan ruins and waterfalls flashed by on the long journey to visit the remote farms of members. We were most definitely in 'Perú Profundo' (Deepest Peru) and, unapologetically, a little unsettled at times as we witnessed José both cross himself and mutter a quick prayer as he navigated the seemingly endless blind, hairpin corners. Llamas, alpacas, vicuña, sheep and wild horses were plentiful to spot, but sightings of the secretive puma or bears wearing red hats remained, unfortunately, elusive.
Beautiful animals roam the historic countryside.
We shared the roads with plenty of animal herders.
It's a strange feeling, descending to coffee farms, as we usually climb when in most producing countries. After several hours in the car, with any remnants of phone reception lost much earlier in the day, we arrived at Finca Progreso in Huaynapata, the farm of Agustin Ccasa Ccoyo. Due to the remoteness of the farm, when José wishes to visit or collect coffee, he must first visit Quebrada. There, at the local radio station, he transmits a message to Agustin as they have no other means of communication; hopefully he's within earshot! Luckily our trip was pre-planned, so Agustin knew to expect us, greeting us on arrival.
Having bought 20 sacks of his coffee last year, it was a pleasure to meet Agustin and witness his farm and production techniques first-hand. With mineral-rich black volcanic soil and situated at 2,150m, his farm has incredible agricultural conditions for coffee!
The mature cherries here are very large, growing at 2,150m.
The view from Augustin's house, where he relishes the peace and quiet gained from being so remote.
The mature cherries here are very large, growing at 2,150m.
Predominantly growing Red Bourbon, Agustin explained that coffee produced above 1,650m in Peru sees both Roya and Broca become much less prevalent. Rise above 1,850m, however, and these two major threats are, thankfully, all but non-existent. However, humidity is an issue in Huaynapata, so Agustin lets his trees grow tall, pruning back any growth on the first metre of the trunk to allow better ventilation between the trees, reducing the chance of moulds. The resulting willowy three-metre trees are too tall to harvest normally, so workers, armed with a rope and hook, bend the trees as they pick.
Clearing the first metre or so of growth to create better ventilation.
Agustin amongst his bourbons.
Thankfully for Agustin and his pickers the tall coffee trees are willowy and supple, able to bend over to pick.
In processing their coffee cherries, they first float in water to skim off the less dense fruit. Fed through a manual disc depulper to remove the seed from the fruit, the depulped parchment is then sieved to remove any coffee cherry skins.
Floating any damaged or unripe coffee cherries.
Experimenting in their approach to fermentation, they place the mucilage laden parchment coffee into GrainPro sacks and then seal in a plastic barrel. A tube allows for degassing, as the microbiome breaking down the coffee's mucilage produces CO2 during this stage. After 24-28 hours, the fermented coffee is washed before being put out to dry on their tiered, raised beds in a ventilated secadore (solar dryer).
Ready to ferment in barrels.
Turning the parchment coffee whilst drying.
Back at the farmhouse, we chatted over a strong coffee. Brewed in the 'Gota Gota' (Drip Drip) method and roasted in a traditional Q'analla (a clay pot pronounced with a click on the Q), it was the perfect accompaniment to the chirimoyas we munched on. Having farmed coffee here for decades, we discovered we were the first buyer to visit! A freshly slaughtered rooster soon became a hearty broth made in our honour and, coupled with some beers, we raised a toast to Pachamama (the Quechuan name for Mother Earth) to thank her for providing everything she does.
A toast to Pachamama when the work is done.
José Prudencio preparing Gota Gota coffee.
Preparing vegetables for lunch.
The next day we set out to visit Ricardo Ccallo at Finca Pampa Blanca in Quinuay, from whom we bought 50 bags of coffee last year.
Beautiful still lakes added to the eerie quality of this region.
No shortage of breathtaking views.
With a very different environment to that on Agustin's farm, Pampa Blanca is much drier and windier. Growing mostly Typica on his 1,900m farm, Ricardo actively tries to keep moisture in the soil by leaving any fallen matter from shade trees along with any spent Coca leaves, chewed by workers as they pick, which grows in rows amongst the coffee.
Ricardo amongst his typica trees.
The quantity and health of the flower buds will determine the fruitset.
He also creates a rich compost, mostly from chicken and guinea pig droppings, as well as spent coffee pulp, which worms break down into rich black humus. A good handful is added to each tree just before the rains come, to help distribute the nourishing organic fertiliser, with any trees looking less vigorous receiving two handfuls of the nutrient-rich mulch.
Home to Ricardo’s homemade compost.
Black and rich in nutrients for his coffee trees.
Farming coffee here for 25 years, most of Ricardo's trees are between 20 and 30 years old. All trees get pruned right back every 6-8 years, but he admitted that some of his farm requires replanting soon.
Ricardo likes to very gently and smoothly manually de-pulp the coffee, which he says is only achievable with a ripe harvest. With the sugars acting as a lubricant, it makes the job of turning the hand crank that little bit easier.
Ready to process a tiny batch.
Floatation is still performed with these small pickings.
Once sieved to remove cherry skin, large batches ferment in a plastic-lined tank with a lid placed on top. Smaller lots, which have been more prevalent this year, are processed in the same manner as Agustin; bags sealed in barrels to perform what they call an "anaerobic fermentation".
Ricardo wakes around 3 am to wash his coffee when fermentation is complete as he wants to get it out into the rising sun to maximise the hours of sunlight available. Dried on black mesh on patios and under a plastic roof with both sides open for ventilation, Ricardo wishes to eventually invest in raised beds to have more control over his drying.
The biggest and best avocado I've ever eaten.
As we sat down for a very late, but delicious lunch of yucca, rice, broth, Ricardo handed me the largest avocado I've ever seen!
Well above the clouds.
Back at the Valle Inca lab in Calca, we cupped some fantastic coffees from other members in the Valle Inca association with José explaining some of the very in-depth processing techniques being employed to maximise the potential for quality on each of the farms.
As we had a flight to catch in Cusco, some hurriedly prepared samples passed through the huller before being visually graded. In removing visible defects and screen sizing the coffee to take only 15+ size beans, José mimicked the process at the dry mill allowing us to cup again back in London.
A sample of clean parchment coffee.
Back in Lima, we visited the Expo Café dry mill, where the parchment coffee will arrive after a 32-hour drive from the cool warehouse at 2,980m in Calca. Here we witnessed how the coffee is graded and refined, from initially checking certain physical traits like the moisture content of the coffee, through to hulling, size grading, density grading and optical sorting.
One of many cuppings during our travels in Peru.
Peru is a fantastic country, and in travelling to visit Agustin and Ricardo, we witnessed some of the most breathtaking yet remote scenery imaginable. We promise to follow up soon with the announcement of those lots we've chosen and are sure you'll be mightily impressed with the quality in the cup. Workshop will be back.
We’ve teamed up with our friends and partners at tokyobike and Kinto Japan to bring you the chance to win an incredibly covetable commuter package.
From an ongoing to supply of coffee, to everything you need to brew and transport it, the prize will also include your own two-wheeled transportation in the form of a brand new tokyobike.
The lucky winner will receive:
A 12-month Workshop Coffee subscription, straight through your letterbox each week
A place on one of our Home Brewing Masterclasses for you and a friend.
A tokyobike Classic Sport Limited Edition
A white 350ml Kinto Japan Travel Tumbler
A Kinto Japan 4-Cup Brewer Stand
With a combined value of over £1,500, entry is simple: just enter your details below between now and Sunday 8th September.
We wish you the best of luck.Win A Covetable Coffee Commuter Package
We’re always looking for new ways that we can help people to brew the best coffee outside of our coffeebars. It’s the reason we began hosting our hands-on, Saturday morning Home Brewing Masterclasses over six years ago and which now take place at our Roastery in Bethnal Green. It’s also why we share our hard-won experiences with a range of brewing equipment with you, be that via thorough testing in the Roastery or taking some of that equipment into environments it’s less than familiar with.
In making this information available, we hope to better equip coffee lovers with the knowledge and tools they need to enjoy exceptional coffee whatever their level and wherever they might find themselves.
Most recently, we’ve been working on augmenting our Online Brew Guides, aiming to make them even more useful for home brewers. Pairing up with London-based voice consultancy and design studio, Vixen Labs, we’ve spent the past couple of months bringing our step-by-step guides to life as voice-enabled audio guides and are proud to introduce you to them.
Introduced by our Head of Quality, James Bailey, the Workshop Coffee Alexa Skill is now available to download and use from the Amazon Alexa Skills Store and contains audio brew guides for our favourite brew methods: AeroPress, Clever Dripper, French Press, MoccaMaster and V60.
Much of the information outlined will be familiar to those that have used the online guides, as we walk through the required equipment, ingredients and crucial steps involved in creating a consistently delicious cup of coffee. However, there is one particularly big, and very exciting, development that the audio guides bring with them: their hands-off nature. Conversing with an Alexa smart speaker, listeners’ hands are entirely freed up to grind, pour and plunge as they listen along and prepare their brew. This, we hope, makes them even more useful to even more people.
The guides also contain a number of additional features.
Built-in, voice-activated timers mean you can be sure you’re perfectly dialled in to experience the vibrant, nuanced flavours of your chosen coffee (whilst remaining in control of when said timer starts). The Alexa Skill also contains a tasting tips section, where James explains what to look out for in each cup, helping listeners to better understand what it is they love about some of their favourite coffees and like a little less about others.
Available to download from the Amazon Alexa Skills Store now, you can find it by saying “Alexa, open Workshop Coffee”. Alternatively, follow this link.
With special thanks to Jen and James of Vixen Labs for their support, help and expertise in bringing this project to life.
There's no doubt a cup of coffee is an end itself.
The result of hard, focused work conducted by exceptional farmers and producers at origin, followed by informed and consistent roasting, before considered, conscientious brewing, there really is no end to the rabbit holes that can be fallen down in the pursuit of creating an ever-improving cup of coffee. It's why we spend each day of the working week focused on the plethora of data and details, which help us to produce the best cup of coffee possible.
However, coffee can also be a means to an end.
From the ten minutes we take for ourselves over our morning brew, to aligning plans and finally meeting up with some old friends, coffee frequently acts as the backdrop to balance in your life. Allowing us to carve out time in our increasingly busy days for that moment of control, or a platform to bring people together, it can be an excuse.
It was undoubtedly the catalyst for our latest expedition. Born out of a conversation over a couple of cappuccinos with Jordan, friend and owner of wholesale partner G!RO, we continued to exchange emails and phone calls until we found ourselves in Esher, Surrey, our bikes fully-loaded with everything we needed for a weekend of cycling, brewing and sleeping in the wild.
With brewing hardware readily accessible, our small team of four departed, quickly leaving roads and tarmac behind in favour of loose-packed gravel and lumpy single-track paths. The sound of traffic was replaced by the melody of idle conversation and a continuous, comforting chorus of clanking enamel cups and pots; suspended from the back of our bike luggage, they knocked together as they rolled with the ditches and divots of the North Downs Link.
Our focus was on exploration, rather than destination, so the ability to stop and brew up when and where we wished lent itself perfectly to the style of riding; another excuse to take a touch more time and appreciate the places we were passing through.
The first brew method, a simple V60, played into this. With involved and repetitive actions, the pourover process -- pour, bloom, pause, steady concentric circles, pause, stir, serve -- drew the group in. Providing us with a few more minutes in our beautiful brewing spot, the calming preparation and resulting cup of Githembe AB acted as a remedy to the hard kilometres already covered on the challenging and unpredictable terrain.
The second stop was for Cowboy Coffee -- the most basic of immersion methods that simply involves bringing a large jug of water to the boil, adding ground coffee, stirring and waiting. Being so hands-off, the two most important rules to adhere are to exercise patience, easy when you have the people and the surroundings to distract you, and pour gently, to minimise grounds in the cup. Obviously less refined than the erudite, ritual-driven V60, we drank in both our surroundings and the delicious Andrés Reyes Hernandez. Happy and content, this journey to nowhere in particular provided us with exactly what was needed.
You can read more detail for each method in our Brewing In The Wild piece here. You can also see what we took with us, along with several tips and more photographs from the weekend, below.
What We Packed:
A Camping Stove: we used MSR's Whisperlite Universal, a hybrid fuelled backpacking stove that not only packs down incredibly small but is wonderfully simple to operate.
A V60 2-Cup Clear Dripper Set: this plastic 2-Cup V60 is light and robust, making it perfect for putting into your bag. Just make sure you don't forget your filter papers.
A Coffee Measuring Spoon: when packing light, scales can be excessive, but that doesn't mean you can't still work to a recipe. Our wooden Coffee Measuring Spoon holds 17g of coffee, so we can always be confident in our coffee/water ratio.
Enamel Pots: Depending on how you're brewing, you'll need at least one vessel to boil your water in, and two if you're planning on making a pourover.
Two Bags of Coffee: The morning we left, we ground two bags of freshly roasted coffee for our chosen brewing methods. Ensuring they were well-sealed, we knew we'd brew all 500g within 36 hours, so the contents would remain relatively fresh throughout.
Special thanks to Jordan Addison from G!RO for his help in putting the weekend together and his photos; Curve Cycling for providing their ever-reliable bikes; and George Galbraith from Jam Cycling for sharing his company and photos
Caffeine can be a bit of a taboo in the realms of specialty coffee. We choose, quite rightly, to focus on flavour and provenance in the coffees we showcase. However, there's no getting away from the fact that caffeine plays an important part in coffee's consumption. After all, it's what gets many of us up in the morning.
With this in mind, we recently welcomed Christophe Reissfelder, formerly of Botanic Labs, to our Roastery in Bethnal Green. Well practiced in pharmacological plants and their effects on the body, he was perfectly placed to host a couple of sessions for the team on caffeinated alternatives to coffee and tea.
There are around sixty plants that contain caffeine, approximately eight of which are consumed around the world. Unsurprisingly, coffee sits comfortably at the top of the pile as the most popular, followed by the next most obvious answer: tea. But from there, caffeine sources become lesser known and are, at times, in danger of being forgotten completely.
It was these more obscure options that we wanted to familiarise ourselves with.
We started with Yerba Maté, a drink made from Ilex paraguariensis, a tree related to Holly that is grown in the Atlantic Forest in South America. We tasted two styles, with the first hailing from Brazil. Simply steamed and then dried, it had a very green taste that was reminiscent of Sencha. The second had been dried with smoke, a process more popular in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. More heavily processed, it offered a more pungent aroma with notes of tobacco and leather, reminding us of roasted oolong.
Next up was Guayusa, a cousin of Maté, and native to the Amazon Rainforest. Unlike its relative, Guayasa contains no tannins at all, so you can boil it for a long time without experiencing any astringency or bitterness. Containing L-theanine, an amino acid also present in tea that's known for its calming effect, this can help to temper the jitters caused by something we're all too familiar with: caffeine overdose. L-theanine is very umami rich, making Guayusa a tasty addition to stocks and soups. As well as tasting Guayusa as a tea, we also enjoyed a delicious blueberry drink, prepared by steeping the Guayusa in a water bath for 12 hours to create a thick, dark liquid. This allowed Christophe to extract as much L-theanine as possible, which gave the drink an incredibly syrupy texture. A blueberry puree was added and the drink was served chilled.
The third plant of the day, we soon discovered, became synonymous with the UK Techno scene in the 1990s. Club goers would chew gum laced with Guarana, a powerful stimulant that contains over twice the amount of caffeine of coffee, in order to keep themselves going into the early hours. Unlike Yerba Maté and Guayusa, the seed of the Guarana fruit is the part that's used. Slightly roasted and ground into a powder, the end result is compacted into a 'stick' and then dried in the sun. To drink, the sticks are grated into hot water with a bit of sugar. When Christophe is short on time in the morning, and doesn't have time to brew coffee, he'll drizzle a sugar syrup, made using Guarana, over his porridge.
Our final stop on our voyage through caffeine is often chewed in West African countries and presented at social events to guests and loved ones, as well as being used as a sacred offering during prayers. The kola nut is native to the tropical rainforests of Africa and was the original ingredient used in Coca-Cola before a switch to synthesised caffeine was made. The taste is very bitter, so we grated it before steeping it in boiling water and adding it to a paste made from lime zest, sugar and rose petals. Served over ice with fresh lime juice, it was the perfect tonic for a warm summer's day.
These insightful sessions saw us exploring caffeine found naturally in other substances, but just like with coffee it was interesting to pursue as much deliciousness as possible. After all, if you're looking to reap the functional benefits of caffeine, why not do so in the most delicious way you can? Typically bitter herbs, barks, roots and powders touted with health benefits aren't used creatively in cuisine, more often than not being thrown in a smoothie or, even less inspiringly, taken in tablet form with zero gustatory impact. Christophe not only wanted to explore the effects but also the flavours of these ingredients, and we were more than happy to join him on his journey.
Coffee seedlings being tended at a JASAL nursery, Santa Ana, El Salvador.
The constant availability of quality coffee is not a foregone conclusion. Like many other species of flora and fauna across the world, it is under threat. Climate change, pests, disease, drastic swings in crop output and numerous other factors all have the potential to substantially affect the long-term viability of the product we love so dearly.
We want to ensure we're doing all we can to guarantee its future, which is why, for the last eighteen months, we've included a donation to World Coffee Research (WCR) for each kilo of green coffee we purchase from Nordic Approach, Caravela and Café Imports. Having established themselves intending to grow, protect and enhance supplies of quality coffee, we see the work WCR are doing as vital if we want to continue enjoying the best coffee possible. Our Head of Quality, James Bailey, offers greater insight into the initiative and the positive impacts it's already beginning to have.
Journalists tend to cover one of three topics when the time comes around for a new article on coffee: new research proclaiming health benefits, conflicting research that says coffee is bad for you, or an increasingly common topic worthier of your attention; coffee is in peril.
Due to the scale of the supply chain from farmer to consumer, one in sixty people on the planet relies on coffee for their daily income. Whilst 70% of coffee produced globally is by smallholders with less than five hectares of land, demand still grows. Regions historically suitable for coffee production are now encountering new challenges; increasing costs of production and lower yields, to greater susceptibility to both pests and diseases, all are making it harder for supply to meet demand.
And, of course, drastic changes to climate patterns fuel the fire of these challenges, casting a shadow of doubt on our coffee-growing future.
When you look at the history of coffee propagation around the world, you can begin to understand why the crop's future hangs in the balance. Originally taken to Yemen by Arabic Traders in the 15th century from the genetically diverse range of varieties native to Ethiopia, a handful of what we now call Bourbon and Typica plants then made their way to India along the existing trade routes in c.1670. The Typica variety travelled the globe, via Indonesia to the Caribbean arriving sometime between c.1700 to c.1720, whilst Bourbon took a different path, leaving Yemen in c.1720, travelling to Île Réunion (then Île Bourbon), before finally arriving in South America in the middle of the 19th century.
Newly germinated coffee plants, Cauca, Colombia.
These two plants, which represent a tiny proportion of the diversity of the wild forest coffee that still grows in Ethiopia, are responsible for populating Asia and the Americas before coffee even spread to other countries in Africa. From c.1890 to c.1950, countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi saw varieties entering from Yemen, India, Jamaica, the Americas and Île Réunion. These, however, are all from the first small group of Bourbon and Typica varieties taken from Ethiopia in the 15th century, so even East Africa is historically populated with coffee from the same shallow gene pool as the rest of the world.
This lack of genetic diversity, as typified with the Cavendish Banana, increases the risk of precarious monocultures collapsing and is being documented more and more frequently as farming intensifies globally.
Coffee has often been described as an orphan crop and for a good reason. The absence of research into coffee varieties, with no one group, body or organisation stepping in to oversee and ensure its long-term success as a crop, has meant the development of new coffee varieties is extremely far behind when compared to other commercial food crops. From 125 known wild species of coffee, fewer than 60 varieties of arabica and robusta have been developed to support global demand. It's a huge contrast when held up against other farmed crops: from 6 wild species of maize, 20,000 varieties have been developed; 62 native apple species have birthed 7,500 cultivated varieties, and a somewhat obscure point of comparison, there are 2,690 varieties of watermelon, and yet global coffee trade is 142 times larger than the world's demand for watermelons.
To make it even harder, coffee seeds cannot be indefinitely stored for future use in a seed bank such as the Svalbard Global 'Doomsday Vault' Seed Bank in the way most other plant seeds can. That’s because, over time, coffee seeds degrade and ultimately lose their viability to germinate.
However, WCR has a solution to this; a living, breathing 'seed bank'.
Experimental F1 hybrids await planting at a WCR Farm, El Salvador. (Photo credit: Sara Bogantes)
Currently conducting 31 International Multi-Locational Variety Trials (IMLVTs) in 22 countries around the world, WCR has planted the same 31 arabica coffee varieties in each IMLVT. This allows for analysis across a range of conditions that include elevation, soil type, sunshine hours, degrees of shade, rainfall and temperature. No program has ever achieved this level of cooperation across the world's growing regions and already the trials are beginning to give results. In 2018, first harvests were seen at 21 of the IMLVTs with coffee cherry adorning their trees; the ultimate reason for the research. Information had been gleaned before this time, however, such as when a hard frost wiped out almost all the varieties planted on an IMLVT in Laos and led to them being able to identify a group of F1 hybrid varieties which possess frost tolerance.
These trials aim to identify the optimal varieties a farmer should plant depending on the conditions found in their locale. World Coffee Research hopes this work will also allow them to steer coffee producers onto the right path when it comes to their agricultural practices, minimising the use of inputs and increasing both the quantity and quality of yields, especially as climate degradation begins to change the world we live in.
Laboratory-grown F1 Hybrids in development. (Photo credit: WCR)
Taking decisive, affirmative action to establish themselves as the world leader in coffee variety research, WCR have set themselves an audacious goal in the process: to develop varieties of coffee which are high yielding and demonstrably resilient in the field, whilst at the same time, delicious. Three traits that don't typically go hand-in-hand, hardiness in the field and resistance to certain pests and diseases are commonly associated with hybrids such as Catimor, which contain Robusta genes and cannot shake their reputation for poorer cup quality. WCR is combining the best qualities of some of the traditional adapted varieties, such as Caturra (mutated from Bourbon) and Maragogype (mutated from Typica), with new genes introduced from Ethiopia, as well as those hardy lines from a robusta lineage such as Sarchimors and Catimors. The difference is that they are focussing first and foremost on cup quality, with the bonus of improved hardiness and increased yields, even when growing under shade, simply additional agronomical benefits.
The first of the commercially available F1 hybrids (F1 designating a first generation crossing of genetically distinct parent plants) were developed just before WCR's time, in around 2010. We have since seen these early F1 types, along with newer varieties WCR have been working on, now appearing on cupping tables during our visits to Central America. Marsellesa (an early Sarchimor fixed line developed by CIRAD-ECOM), Centroamericano (F1 hybrid of Sarchimor and Rume Sudan) and Starmaya (CIRAD-ECOM developed F1 Hybrid which can be propagated by seed) are quickly becoming part of the ongoing conversation into coffee varieties both with farmers and buyers alike, being planted in significant volumes thanks not just to their resilience, but their success in cupping competitions. In the 2018 Nicaraguan Cup of Excellence competition, 9 of the top 20 coffees were F1 hybrids and that success is only expected to increase. With a plan to commercially release the next wave of F1s in 2025, the work being done by WCR is, in our eyes, crucial to the continuation of the supply of delicious coffees into a future we can't predict.
Marsellesa (Villa Sarchí x Hybrido Timor hybrid), planted at Aquiares Estate, Turrialba, Costa Rica.
All of this costs money. In the past year, WCR has spent over $3.2m doing its work globally. Since we became a partner at the end of 2017, Workshop Coffee has contributed over $12,000 to WCR, raised through the purchase of every kilo of green coffee we buy from Nordic Approach, Caravela and Café Imports, helping fund their research. Even better, Caravela and Café Imports are very generously matching that amount, further increasing the contribution.
The reason we've chosen to include this as part of the total cost of our green coffee purchases is that we see it as crucial in this ever-changing world. Investing in the research and development of coffee varieties suited to a range of climates, that are resistant to pests and diseases, and are capable of delivering a good cup profile seems, to us, to be the right horse to back. As WCR put it, investment into agricultural research is "as far upstream as it's possible to go", which means that a slightly increased cost per kilo of green coffee for us has the ability to aid in the research and development of coffee varieties, their optimal propagation and an impact on the global coffee production chain. The ongoing results from WCR's work will be so widespread as to potentially help every coffee producer on the planet, arming them with tools, information, materials and greater control over their own, and ultimately our futures in coffee.
From Friday 26th April until Monday 29th April 2019, you'll find us brewing up filter coffee in Covent Garden alongside New England-based running brand, Tracksmith.
Dedicated to championing the pursuit of personal excellence, Tracksmith seeks to celebrate, support and add to running's distinct culture. Their pop-up Trackhouse in Seven Dials, which marks the brands first ever physical presence in the UK, is an embodiment of that commitment. Not only will it showcase their limited edition London Collection and other clothing staples; it's also bringing together the rituals that surround the sport. Conversation and conviviality will be facilitated by freshly brewed coffee and cold beers.
The Trackhouse will be playing host to shakeout runs and panel discussions throughout the weekend. We'll also be there fuelling running's era and facilitating conversations between and with visitors. Showcasing our tangy, sweet Ecuadorian filter, Felipe Abad, we'll be using Kinto Japan's 2-Cup Brewer Stands to brew delicious cups throughout the pop-up.
Their first visit to the UK couldn't be better timed, as tens of thousands of runners descend on London to take part in and support one of the biggest running events in the global calendar: London Marathon. We're excited to be a part of Tracksmith's inaugural visit to our home city and hope to see you there.
Coffeebar opening hours:
Friday 26th April - 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Saturday 27th April - 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Monday 29th April - 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Trackhouse opening hours:
Thursday 25th April - 12:00 p.m. - 8:00p.m.
Friday 26th April - 8:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Saturday 27th April - 8:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
Sunday 28th April - 9:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
Monday 29th April - 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Location: 9-11 Short's Gardens, Seven Dials, Covent Garden, WC2H 9AT.
For more information on the pop-up and the activities happening around it, visit the Tracksmith website.