Diary of a Coffee Consultant, Part 1: Bath to Budapest
I’ll get no sympathy for saying this, but sometimes work travel is exhausting. I know, I know, I get to work in places like Melbourne, Prague, and Florence regularly. And most years I incidentally get to avoid much of winter. This month has been one of those months that makes the endless hotel rooms, airports, and dishonest taxi drivers (I’d say thank God for Uber, but you can’t really say that anymore) all worth it.
Stop 1: Bath
Imagine a postcard photo of a perfect university town in the English countryside, complete with ancient thermal baths and a surprising number of good coffee shops, and you’re imagining Bath. I had the pleasure of spending two days in Bath and Bristol while working for the lovely people at Clifton Coffee Roasters, and finally got to visit Colonna & Smalls. I like a good coffee as much as anyone else, but what really wins my heart at coffee shops is a warm, inviting staff. Maxwell and his crew couldn’t have been more hospitable and friendly, and visiting them was a great start to my trip. I finally got to try Maxwell’s famous capsules, and other than first being served a natural from the capsule machine (he apparently doesn’t read this blog), the capsule coffee didn’t disappoint. Two days later, my final cup, an Aeropress Colombian, consumed while trading thoughts on water with Maxwell, was memorably delicious, and made it more difficult to leave Bath.
Stop 2: Bristol
My first regret of the trip was to not allow enough time to explore Bristol. Bristol is much larger and more vibrant than Bath, but also gorgeous and incredibly compelling, especially on a nice 24c day. I had been invited by Clifton Coffee Roasters to spend the day roasting together, followed by a brewing talk in the evening with their staff and customers, and finally a group dinner at Bosco, a bustling and modern Italian restaurant. Friendly, spirited discussions ensued about the merits of buying larger-than-needed roasting machines (my take: always do it if you can afford it), brewing smaller pots of batch brew (just do it; no excuses), and gut bacteria (of course). I’m grateful to Clifton for the work, the hospitality, and the enthusiasm; it was a blast.
On my way to London I stopped at Red Pig Coffee (redpigcoffee.com) for a short roast session with Adam Smith and a delightful lunch at Soho Farmhouse, not far from Oxford. The Soho Farmhouse www.sohofarmhouse.com restaurant is beautiful—it’s hard to describe, but it felt like a cross between a London boutique hotel and a country inn from Downton Abbey. It’s members-only, and very worth befriending a member :).
Stop 3: London
I confess: I like my cities warm and affordable. London is neither, unless you’re a Russian oligarch, and then it’s both. But this was my most enjoyable London visit to date, due to the 25c weather, two intense, intimate roasting classes at Prufrock, an intellectually stimulating dinner with James Hoffmann and John Buckman (it’s a joy to be the dumbest person at the table), and a chance to finally explore flow profiling on the DE1+.
I hate to say it, but my day of cafe-hopping in London was a complete bust, full of charred-but-green-tasting light roasts sourced from far-away roasters (why bother buying such bad roasts from so far away?), oblivious customer service, and expensive batch brews served two hours after brewing (WTF?) Good coffees at Prufrock and newcomer Catalyst were highlights of an otherwise disappointing tour. I fear too many London cafes have become complacent, and like cafes in other very expensive cities, they are so focused on throughput that they forgot to offer a nice customer experience.
Prufrock hosted me for a double header of small roasting classes with a novel format: ten roasters came to each class and brought two roast samples each, along with printouts of the roast curves. We cupped all of the samples as a group, compared the cups to the roast curves, and discussed how the roasts could have been improved. The classes were very productive and genial, with all of the participants open to group feedback about their roasts, and I suspect most of them were fascinated to hear how various roasting machines required different strategies. Among the machines represented were the usual Diedrichs, Probats, and Giesens, as well as an electric roaster, a Loring, and a direct-flame Vittoria. Such classes are a lot more intense for me than the typical seminar, due to the frenetic pace of cupping, analysis, and questions I had to ask about each machine, but everyone seemed to walk away happy, and I’ve already received numerous emails from attendees who said their roasts were instantly improved by the experience. Thanks to Prufrock for its always-professional support of my classes, and to everyone who attended.
Stop 4: Prague
Dear Prague, You have far too many tourists, your language is inscrutable, drivers brake far too close to pedestrians in crosswalks, and you really need to serve vegetables other than potatoes in your restaurants. Beyond those small flaws, you are charming, gorgeous, romantic, and kind. And you are probably the world capital of hard-working, humble citizens.
Coffee people may not realize this, but not only is Prague littered with good cafes (thanks in part to the coffees of Doubleshot and the training efforts of Gwilym and Petra, coffee’s most-loved couple), but it also has as many good tea shops as good coffee shops. At the top of the heap is Tea Mountain. Tea Mountain specializes in Sencha, the Yirgacheffe of teas. After a coffee-cupping session, Jaroslav of Doubleshot and I stumbled into a cupping of new-crop Senchas at Tea Mountain.
Martin, the owner and Japanese-tea obsessive, invited us to partake. It was a great experience, and I walked out with some lovely Kabusecha as well as my first-ever Japanese oolong, perhaps the finest beverage ever consumed on a Wizz Air flight (yes, that’s really the name of an airline.)
I came to Prague at the request of Jaroslav Tucek, one of the nicest people in coffee, and the co-owner of both Doubleshot roasters, and my favorite European cafe, Můj šálek kávy. If you go anywhere in Prague, go to Salek and walk two blocks to Tea Mountain afterward -- you’ll be thinking about buying real estate in the neighborhood as soon as you do. Salek is a special place: it manages to nail that rare combination of friendly service, great coffee, delicious food, and a warm atmosphere. Salek is the only cafe I’ve been to outside of Australia that serves both food and coffee on a certain level.
Doubleshot is, amazingly, owned by three men named Jaroslav — Czechs are nothing if not consistent in the way they name children. I spent two days roasting with the Jaroslavs on their restored UG22 and had some intense cupping sessions and discussions about roasting. Thankfully, in the end we unanimously agreed on our preferred roasts and we all left quite happy with the new profiles.
Stop 5: Budapest
This year’s World of Coffee was held in Budapest, a city remarkably like Prague, but somehow a little darker in character, at least in my experience. One of the brightest spots in Budapest is Espresso Embassy, run by the thoughtful Tibor Varady. Tibor was gracious enough to host my masterclasses a few years ago and I’ve been smitten with Espresso Embassy ever since. EE is set in a charming space with a ceiling made of brick arches, the staff is friendly and earnest about coffee, and especially during the week of the World of Coffee, the buzz at EE was electric. It was the social hub of the expo and I lost count of the number of spontaneous coffee-people reunions that took place there. I personally met at least 10 people at EE with whom I’d spoken to many times online but had never met in person. It was a treat.
Espresso Embassy hosted John and me for a demo of the Decent Espresso machine. It was the most fun demo to date, partly because the DE1+ now does flow profiling, which is fantastic, but also because the room was buzzing. So many people came that we needed to have two consecutive demos, with people waiting outside between the sessions. The crowd was extremely excited about the Decent, the Kenya was tasting big and juicy as espresso with none of the sharpness one usually expects, and after many demos using random espresso grinders, I was finally able to pull shots of a coffee I roasted using a Mythos. Kenya + flow profiling + Mythos = Scott happily had too much espresso to sleep that night.
I gave two roasting masterclasses in Budapest during WOC week. The classes were a resounding success, after four years my PowerPoint finally looks professional, thanks for my friend Tiffany’s design brilliance (if you want smart design work done efficiently and affordably, contact Tiffany.)
I enjoyed having such luminaries as Matt and Gwilym in the room. If I wanted to know if I was communicating well, boring everyone, or saying something too complicated, all I had to do was glance at Matt’s facial expression. Luckily, he seemed happy throughout class, but that may have been because he was sitting closest to the pot of Kenya and sneaking tastes every 10 minutes.
Thanks for reading and coming along on my journey. Tune in next week for Part 2: Florence to Lisbon.