Keeping Coffee Real
For a drink that is enjoyed so frequently by so many of us, we know remarkably little about coffee. Did you know, for example, that the bean is a seed inside a bright red berry that only grows in a ‘bean belt’ between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn? Or that Charles II issued a proclamation in 1965 banning coffee houses?
It is also the case that most of us usually drink poor quality coffee. That is, at least, according to Gary Best at Coffee Real, based on the Graylands Estate in Horsham.
He said: “There are good cafes around that are as fussy about coffee as we are. But most cafes are not serving coffee correctly. Even if they have rubbish coffee anyway, they are not getting the best out of it. There are many attributes to making great coffee, but it’s all to do with education and training.
“You do have the occasional cafe that springs up that is totally engaged with coffee products and know what they are doing, but that’s rare. Most are chucking out coffee for coffee’s sake.”
Gary has been on a mission to educate people about the value of good coffee since Coffee Real was formed in 2007. Along with his wife and business partner, Maarit Lotvonen, he has immersed himself in sourcing the best Arabica coffee beans from all over the world and roasting them to the highest standards.
He said: “My background is in marketing, and I spent 17 years working for an American logistics company, based in the UK but travelling a lot. That came to an end, and I thought ‘what am I going to do now?’ Maarit also wanted a new challenge. We were a little eccentric in that we were roasting coffee at home. We would go out for a meal once a month but it would always be to a good restaurant. Every time we would have good food, good wine, then at the end of the meal, there would be dreadful coffee.
“With every single restaurant or hotel we went to, we would find that we were making better coffee at home. I know that sounds arrogant, but it is true. We would have people around for dinner, and they would say ‘this is fantastic coffee, where did you buy it from? It was our own.”
After a while, a couple of local businesses asked the couple to provide them with coffee. As a result, Gary and Maarit decided to create a business plan together. They installed a 12 kilogram roaster in their garage at home, but eventually grew to the extent that they needed to move the business to a barn.
They then needed to knock through and expand the size of the barn three times as Coffee Real expanded, before they moved to a larger unit on the Graylands Estate last November. The company has stuck to its original ethos of roasting high quality coffee, and has so far resisted blending coffee.
“We don’t blend anything,” said Gary. “All of the coffees we have are from top quality farms from around the world. At the moment, for example, we are roasting five different beans from Brazil, and if you were to put them all in a cup and try them all you would notice that they are completely different. One might be nutty, one sweet, whilst another might have a hint of apple. The flavour range varies wildly in a single country.
“So we focus on single estate coffee and that is what is different about us. Some companies might blend a Colombian, a Guatemalan and a Costa Rican bean to come up with what they think is a good blend.
“We don’t do that. We only blend our espressos. You can have a single estate espresso, but usually they are blended as you need a base flavour as well as some kind of fruit and sweetness.
“You won’t get nutty, caramel notes out of a Kenyan bean, so you have to blend and design beans together to get a different taste.”
Originally, Coffee Real bought their coffee beans from a UK wholesaler but now they buy about half of their beans directly from farms. They travel regularly and have recently returned from a 17 day coffee hunting expedition in India. A crop that has just arrived from the sub-continent has been used in their new Born Free espresso blend, which raises funds for the Horsham-based international wildlife charity. The blend was launched at an Open Day on 17th April, and to celebrate the initiative, Virginia McKenna OBE, founder and trustee of the Born Free Foundation, roasted the first batch.
Gary said: “We’ve been to Central America, South America, all over Africa. We’re going out to Tanzania at the end of the year as we want to find two good farms there. I really like Ethiopian coffee and African coffees are generally stellar.You can’t sit on your backside in the UK and just buy coffee and roast it. You will never get the quality. You need to see the farm and understand how the coffee is grown and immerse yourself in absolutely everything to do with what ends up in the customer’s cup.
“If you’ve never seen them pick the cherries, met the farmer, witnessed the fermentation process and everything that goes into selecting coffee beans, then you don’t understand the process. In my view, any coffee roaster who has not been to a coffee farm is not a proper coffee roaster.
“There is one farm called Tiger Pond in Chikmagalur that we are starting to work with, and they are coming over this year to visit. They want to better their coffee and want to export more. We tell them what our customers are looking for, which they don’t know. But they do know about coffee farming. We have to marry our knowledge together.”
The amounts of coffee coming in from single estates can be very small, perhaps even a single bag if it is a small farm. But the amount of money paid for a pound of coffee can rise considerably if it is from a farm with a good reputation.
Sometimes, the farms will send small samples to coffee roasters such as Coffee Real, and if they like it they can either go straight to the estate to buy coffee, or buy bags at auction on the Coffee Exchange. Just like wine, quality makes a huge difference. As a commodity, coffee costs about $1.42 per pound, but one recent arrival of Bolivian coffee cost about $20 per pound.
And when it does arrive at Coffee Real, the business works like a laboratory. The coffee is roasted in six different ways to discover which flavour profile best suits the original bean. These are now roasted in a new £100,000 machine. Gary said: “The first roaster we had is a traditional roaster and people have been roasting coffee like that since the 1800s.
“This new machine still only roasts 36 kilograms, so it’s still a small batch roaster, but it roasts in what is close to being an inert environment, so there is hardly any oxygen in the roast chamber. When you are roasting, the one thing that attacks coffee and gets rid of aroma and flavour is oxygen. So if you take that element away you are locking in flavour. It is about maintaining the quality.
“It is also environmentally friendly. We bought it because it offers quality, but it is smokeless. In a traditional roaster you get smoke and in the roast chamber it’s hard to get rid of that smoke element so the coffee takes on a hint of smoke. We want to keep the individual flavour notes of coffee, and the new roaster helps us to do that.”
Coffee Real has three main sources of income.
They sell roasted beans, mainly to farm shops and delicatessens including The Village Larder in Washington, Village Greens in Ockley and New House Farm in Horsham. So far, they have refused to ‘sell their soul’ and target supermarkets. Secondly, they sell on their website. People can go online and buy any of the 50 or so different single estate coffees or nine espresso blends.
Thirdly, Coffee Real has a food service. Gary said: “We don’t work with anybody. We make sure that, whoever they are, they are going to be brewing the coffee correctly. So we primarily deal with selected hotels, cafes and restaurants. We will work with a Greasy Joe at the Truck Stop if they’re interested in producing a fine cup of coffee.
“Our aim is to continue to get our coffee to hotels and restaurants and show them that our coffee is so much better than what they have. These eateries should be treating their coffee like they treat their wine.
“The other thing that will happen eventually is that we will open what we would term as a brew bar. It’ll be nothing like a café, it will be purely coffee.”
For more information on the company visit www.coffeereal.co.uk