Last Updated on January 8, 2021 by Nick Baskett
Roasters Corner is a series of articles by veteran coffee roaster and founder of Carvetii Coffee, Gareth Kimble. Gareth writes thought-provoking and unique articles from his experience in the industry.
I have a notebook in my desk drawer which dates back to the months leading up to the formation of our coffee roasting business. It makes for interesting reading as it shows how our approach to coffee roasting, and espresso blends in particular, have evolved over time.
In those early days we were roasting samples of coffee at home on a Gene Café coffee roaster, and playing around with different combinations. It was a small, electric drum roaster designed for home use. Even back then we were diligently recording the various phases of the roast. One of the early entries really struck me as I looked back on my notes – we roasted a coffee called Brazil Santos.
Santos is a port in Brazil through which coffee is exported and it also gives its name to coffee grown in the surrounding region. Prior to the 1989 a quota system existed in Brazil which focused on delivering volume rather than quality.
In order to meet these volume demands, producers would combine various grades of coffee: some very good coffee, some good coffee, some average coffee and some poor coffee.
When this quota system broke down in the early 1990a and as producers responded to the opportunities of selling into the speciality industry, the very good coffees from the region were ‘creamed off’ and therefore the overall quality of this regional coffee was reduced.
Contrast this with the first coffee we actually purchased for our initial espresso blend – Carmo Estate. This initial purchase defined the direction of the business as the provenance of the coffee became important, and we quickly learned that regional or coffees with a non-specific origin rarely reached the high quality notes which we were interested in.
Our steep learning curve was also evident in our approach to the blend itself. Those original notes referenced what would be regarded as a traditional espresso blend combination: a Brazil or Colombian base, a Central American component to add interest and a small percentage of robusta or an Indonesian coffee for a robust cream and a bit of a kick.
Our initial blend was 60% Carmo Estate from Brazil and 40% Cafetalera Herbazu from Costa Rica. Not a million miles away from a ‘traditional’ combination but the approach to roasting was what really defined the character of the coffee.
We often talk about speciality coffee in terms of quality but it is also worth consider-ing it in terms of defects.
Speciality coffee will have a minimum number of defects and as the quality of a coffee reduces, the number of defects increases. Defects will have an impact on the flavour and character of the final coffee.
By purchasing speciality grade coffee we can be lighter with our roasting so that more of the character and flavour of the bean comes to the fore.
If there are too many defects in green beans, the approach to roasting needs to differ, and more of a roasted character is needed to hide the defects in the coffee.
Rather than being a blend of lower grade, regional coffees with a less than subtle percentage of robusta, our first tentative steps into the world of coffee roasting resulted in a lighter roasted, farm specific combination which has been the blueprint for our business ever since.
One of the key aspects of speciality coffee is to use green beans when they are at their freshest otherwise, over time, they can dry out and lose the aromatics we so crave.
This means we have to look at alternative components every three or four months to ensure the freshness of the raw materials.
Our second blend also helped shape the direction of our business and our under-standing of coffee as a whole. It also contained just two components, both from Brazil.
This seemed a bit strange at the time but in those early days we were fortunate enough to have a shoulder to lean on from an established and highly regarded coffee roaster.
The roaster suggested using two coffees from Brazil to address the need for sup-plies of coffee in-between harvests when options were limited.
What made this blend interesting was that one coffee was a fully washed Brazil and the other was a pulped natural Brazil.
The processing method used in each instance helped shape the character of the blend and it allowed us to introduce this concept to our customers who were used to the traditional espresso blends on offer.
We have always been fans of coffees from East Africa and it wasn’t long before we started to introduce these components into our espresso blend.
All of a sudden we were ramping up the fruity notes in the coffee, along with the acidity. It was at this time that we learnt a very important lesson with regards to blend-ing coffee – that the solubility of the components has a very important role to play.
This experience cost us one of our more lucrative wholesale accounts and it was one of those tough learning experiences which stays with you for a long time!
We were using a Kenyan component in our blend at the time and our roast profile had resulted in this being a very soluble coffee. The resulting espresso was not only bright and fruity, but was also very unforgiving for the end user.
Fail to dial this one in properly and that brightness quickly became a tart and sour experience which many people (including myself) find unpleasant. Even in milk this blend proved challenging.
We have always believed in learning from our experiences and building a better, stronger business as a result. It took many months of hard work, lots of coffee consumption, way too many spoilt batches, but we eventually developed a better understanding of solubility and how each stage of the roast could have an impact.
At this time we were also exploring the moisture content and density of coffee and how this impacted on roasting and solubility. Through our amazing coffee broker, Mercanta, we were able to source two blend components from two different origins, but with very similar densities and moisture contents.
We’ve only bought coffee from one broker and this loyalty has paid dividends over the years. It has allowed us to develop a strong working relationship and a better understanding of each other and the role we play in the supply chain. They have been able to source coffees for us based upon our understanding at the time, and the aforementioned blend is one such example of this cooperative way of working.
At a time when relationships can seem superficial and fickle, it has been heartening to build our business around this partnership.
Our Kenyan experience had a long-lasting impact on the business and for a while we were very much risk-averse when it came to our blends.
Gone were the bright and fruity East African components and perhaps, for a while, our espresso blend became more mainstream. Still a light roast but a little more re-served in its character.
To combat this, and to allow us to return to espressos which we enjoyed drinking, we introduced a second blend into our range. This was called Knott Halloo, which is the name of the hill behind our premises.
The hospitality sector in our region has been slower to adopt the fruitier speciality coffee blends, so we now had a coffee which would have a milder acidity, allowing us to once more return to a flagship blend with those African components.
Many high street coffee chains want a consistent character and flavour profile to their coffee than their speciality counterparts.
They have to adopt a different approach to dealing with seasonal variations. Their blends will use many more components so seasonal fluctuations are less apparent, they will roast darker so the flavour of roast dominates the cup, and they will carefully select coffees to match their desired flavour profiles.
Conversely, there has only been one instance where we needed to choose a coffee to retain a consistent flavour profile.
We plan our coffee buying months ahead with support from our coffee broker. Many of our purchases are made based upon pre-shipped samples, and we will have staked a claim on those coffees before they get anywhere near the UK.
This means we are always trying to predict when existing supplies will run out in the hope that our next coffees will have landed in the UK.
Remember freshness is important to us, so we do not really want the coffee to be sitting in the UK for too long before we start roasting it. Sometimes we cut it too fine, and we had to extend the life of one of our blends by buying an alternative coffee for a couple of weeks.
In this instance we needed to maintain the flavour profile of the existing blend to ensure consistency until the new shipments arrived.
These days we cannot afford to cut it so fine as our volumes are too great, and so we accept that the coffee needs to be in the UK with plenty of time to spare.
Coffee now arrives in Grainpro bags, which are a plastic and nitrogen barrier de-signed to extend the shelf life of the green beans.
With the introduction of Knott Halloo, our flagship espresso, which was still called the rather dull ‘Seasonal Espresso Blend’ was suddenly set free and more recently we have been running this as a 100% African blend, again depending on the availability of coffees.
It was one such blend which led to us being shortlisted for the Great British Food Awards 2020. Our components in this blend were all from Africa: Société Maitea from DR Congo along side Shimlingwanda and Lunji Estate from Tanzania. It just goes to show what can happen when you stick to your core beliefs.
The final chapter in the evolution of our espresso blends has come about as a result of COVID-19. Speciality coffee has always been a niche industry accounting for less than 8% of global coffee sales. Over the past ten years I have been astounded by the number of roasters who have appeared in the UK, many of whom seem to want to trade in this small speciality market.
The impact of lockdown on our trade has made us realise that we need to appeal to the mass market, that 92% if you like, as much as our niche market. To address this, we rebranded our espresso range and introduced a third blend which we hope will give us some long term security.
Our flagship ‘Seasonal Espresso Blend’ has become ‘Latitude Espresso’ and will al-ways be the coffee we most enjoy drinking. We began our business because we enjoyed particular coffees, and we feel it is important to retain a level of pleasure in our work; well-being as business owners suddenly becoming so much more important to us.
‘Knott Halloo’ has become ‘Solitude Espresso’ and will only utilise a single component. (we hate using the term ‘single origin’ but I’ll save that rant for another time).
Creating an espresso with a single component is so much easier than a blend and probably explains why there are so many ‘single origin’ espresso options on the market. There is no need to balance components, nor is there such a need to worry about solubility.
Solitude Espresso will also pave the way for an exciting project we are marking on with our coffee broker. We have identified a farm in Colombia who will supply us with coffee for the next 5-6 years. We will be buying all the coffee from this farm across two annual harvests.
We expect there to be seasonal variations in this coffee, and we might see a more fruit forward cup one year, followed by more chocolate tones the next. Currently, this farmer sells within a cooperative and is paid less for the coffee than he will be by work-ing with us.
Our new blend ‘Solitude Espresso’ is our take on a more traditional style of coffee. We’re only using coffees from Brazil and Colombia in this blend, making use of the fact that both these countries have two coffee harvests in a year.
This will give us a more consistent product to appeal to new customers. We have tried to avoid roasting darker but have instead worked on extending the development of the coffee to achieve the desired results.
Those origin characteristics are still there but expect nut and chocolate tones in an easy-to-use coffee.
I’m pretty sure every coffee roaster has been through their own personal evolution and steep learning curve.
The one consistent factor throughout these experiences has been the importance of working with key partners. ‘No man is an island’ has never been truer than it is today, although lockdown restrictions often makes us feel isolated.
Our relationship with our coffee broker, other roasters and our customers has been key to the successes we have experienced and the failures we have weathered.