There are few names in London’s speciality coffee scene that mean as much as Association. Hidden away in the heart of the city of London, Association is a true bastion of great coffee in the middle of big business, finance and fast food outlets. The inside is studded with suited characters, and the occasional big beard, flannel shirt. The huge bar should eat into the rest of the room, but the space is so large and economically used that there is large amounts of seating, and it feels uncluttered. This is good, because Association fills up fast, especially with the delicious food selection tempting on the bar.

The staff at Association can only be described as elite. The focus is entirely on the coffee with the equipment needed to get the best out of the coffee. The overall atmosphere is one of quiet reverence: the staff are unpretentious, but industrious. The food is an aside, ancillary to the main purpose, but this doesn’t diminish from the quality of it. The sandwiches change regularly and are made from quality ingredients: and they aren’t small either. One of these should easily set you for lunch.

The coffee is provided by Square Mile, but I know that they regularly have guest roasters on their roster. Aeropress is available for filter, but the coffees are switching round regularly. In addition, a Synesso is set up to pull the espresso: this machine isn’t a guarantee of quality, but it is always a good sign, and looks gorgeous too. My double espresso was delightfully sweet and flavourful: the Dummerso single origin espresso from Square Mile is something unbelievably special. It’s rare that an espresso reaches such a clarity of flavour, but this is a mix of strawberries and a floral bergamot flavour. This gives it an almost earl grey-like aftertaste. I tentatively claim that the Dummerso, brewed by Association is an espresso even non-coffee drinkers could enjoy.

I also had the Monte De Oro Ladera, Red Catuai. This is one of two coffees that Association were brewing for Aeropress: the other was the Monte De Oro Ledera, Yellow Catuai. The two coffees are both Square Mile and from the same farm in Guatemala. The sole difference is the variety of coffee used, so you can, if you choose, try them next to one another. I just went for the Red Catuai variation and was impressed by the flavours that they brought out. The coffee had a sweet, nutty body, like almonds. It was followed by a long drawn out grapefruit aftertaste.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding Association, and it’s surprising it took me so long to get down to it. However, it was worth the wait, and I was not disappointed by either coffee served. It stays close to the speciality coffee roots, without closing its doors to the commercial world that surrounds it. This has led to a unique convergence of cultures inside the walls, all brought together by a want for good coffee.

Maybe it’s been working on my dissertation – written about experts in society – or maybe it’s been my summer of meeting great coffee people, but I have been thinking a lot recently about expertise in the speciality coffee industry.

First a discussion about what expertise actually consists of in coffee. It may pertain to two things:

  1. My expertise as a barista when encountering someone who knows nothing about the modes and nuances of speciality coffee.
  2. The expertise of opinion formers in the realm of coffee. This consists primarily of the roasters, but also prominent career baristas.

For a little bit, I want to talk about the second of these types of expertise. Information in the coffee world – new techniques, new equipment, new methods of productivity – is spread primarily through a network of blogs, specialist events and classes. These aid the furthering of knowledge by creating dialogue between baristas, roasters, shop owners etc. There are problems with these kinds of interaction.

It is worth, initially, bearing in mind that roasters and coffee shops are independent companies. The desire to share knowledge is, on some level, hindered by this. Experts in the field are shaped by their own interests, financially. In some way this holds back innovation; as you would expect it to. In other ways it enhances it. Competition leads to people developing separate models of working, which means greater variety.

Recently, there has been a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the EK43. A spice mill turned coffee grinder that has the potential to lead to better extraction rates. This enthusiasm came to a head in two prominent blogs by two coffee experts. Dale Harris, of Has Bean, criticised the leap to embrace EK43s, whilst James Hoffman, of Square Mile, meticulously took apart this criticism. Without going into too much detail about this debate, it is worth pointing out that Hoffman’s points were substantially directed against Harris’ decision to criticise the EK43 without having experimented with it first.

I don’t intend to make any contribution to that debate. However, it does illustrate the paradox of the expert nicely. It was all very well that Hoffman had used the EK43 and drawn his own conclusions from it, and others had too. However, the actual dialogue has been constrained by the fact that the array of blogs written on the subject are unable/unwilling to publish empirical evidence showing the effectiveness of the EK43. (I believe they are unable to: the EK43 has been espoused in classes given by Ben Kaminsky, who, understandably, doesn’t want the contents of these classes outlined.) This may have led to frustration from Harris; it is certainly frustrating for me.

This frustration is initial, and will disappear as more and more information trickles out with regards to the EK43, and maybe when I get the chance to try a shot pulled from EK-ground coffee. I also don’t judge the lack of information available: who would share such vital information without first extracting some kind of money first? The paradox, however, is an interesting one. The coffee expert wants their information seen, wants the status of being an expert to be justified, and wants (and this above all the case for the coffee industry) the quality of coffee available to go up and their values to be vindicated. The coffee expert also wants some kind of renumeration for their hard work, and has other kinds of interests that permeate the small world of coffee. The resolution of this paradox is not straightforward, though further professionalisation of the industry will require some kind of solution to be found.

Recently, I reposted an interview I did with Klaus Thomsen, previous World Barista Champion and co-founder of the Coffee Collective. Since then I’ve been out there and experienced their coffee first-hand. The Coffee Collective have three locations: Jægersbrogade, Torvehallerne and Godthåbsvej, and supply coffee roasted in the latter property to a number of locations in Denmark and Sweden. I visited all three.

Jægersbrogade
This was the Coffee Collective’s first shop, and the first roaster is here too. The set up is a bit bizarre to start with: no bar. This means there’s no barrier between you and the barista. In some ways, this is a great idea as it improves accessibility and makes the coffee brewing supertransparent. If you choose to, you can stand and watch your aeropress being prepared. It also feels slightly unusual to not have the traditional boundary between server and customer that a bar brings, though I imagine it helps to make best use of the space. Jægersbrogade is in the middle of the up-and-coming Nørrebro area, a mix of arty types and cheap rents makes it the Hoxton of Copenhagen.

For coffee, I tried the Esmerelda two ways. The Esmerelda is a limited run coffee, often cited as ‘the best in the world’ – which is rubbish – but it is a very nice coffee. It was available in Aeropress and Espro-press. The espro-press is a type of french press that has a metal mesh in it for enhanced filtration, avoiding much of the nasty sludge that cafetieres are prone to getting. The Esmerelda as produced by Coffee Collective is very tasty, and really different from the Tim Wendelboe variant of the same coffee, but still maintains the clean qualities of the coffee. I wasn’t able to taste the differences between the espro-press and aeropress versions, so I did wonder why it was on the menu in both forms, but maybe someone else could taste something I couldn’t.

Torvehallerne
The Coffee Collective’s most central location is in Torvehallerne; an indoor market somewhat akin to Borough market in London, but more sheened and less rugged. It’s worth going here even if it didn’t have a great coffee shop. Fortunately, it has another Coffee Collective outlet, which is a bar decked out with a series of kalita pourovers and a custom-made espresso machine. Behind the bar is a world map that outlines where each of the coffees they are brewing can be found. Superb idea, and develops the theme of transparency that the Coffee Collective holds dear, especially with regards to its relations with farmers in coffee-producing countries.

Here has a limited amount of coffees, presumably to simplify matters for the baristas at Coffee Collective’s busiest location. But the quality is maintained, even in this atmosphere, and I found that the engagement was good for what is arguably the closest to the ‘fast food’ model of coffee preparation of all Coffee Collective’s outlets. Torvehallarne is, without doubt, the easiest to get to what tourists and a great place to go for a morning of wandering around taking a look at Denmark’s food offerings.

Godthåbsvej
This is the newest of the Coffee Collective’s locations and houses the roastery, as well as more space for offices (?) etc. It possibly wins the award for longest bar:stuff ratio with a really minimalistic attitude towards coffee equipment. Despite this, a selection of brewing equipment, a Strada espresso machine and a Marco uber boiler shows that Godthåbsvej really means business. It also has the largest selection of coffees, with some you won’t find in the other shops. I tried four, which will be simplified into the following format:

Kieni – Kenya – Aeropress. A rare mix of sugariness and fruity acidity. Both a beautiful example of a Kenyan coffee and also an individual mix of its own. The coffee the staff seemed most enthused over.
Yukro – Ethiopia – Aeropress. A very subtle kind of sweetness, with a good mouthfeel, but not as interesting as the Kenyans.
Finca Vista Hermosa – Guatemala – Espropress. A well-rounded cup, a little spice, a little brightness and a chocolatey aftertaste. I think the espropress suited this coffee, though being unfamiliar with the brew method, I’d like to experiment more.
Gichathaini – Kenya – Kalita. Poetry in a cup. Like drinking parma violets, with a touch of acidity and a silky mouthfeel.

If you’re not sure what to get, they do a cupping experience for 100kr (£10), in which you get talked through all the coffees with the barista. The barista will, regardless, bring the coffee to your table and tell you the story of where the coffee has come from. This is a great touch that I would have enjoyed in Jægersbrogade too. I heard the Godthåbsvej shop described as ‘intimidating’ in its size, which I can understand, but it also conveys the seriousness of what it’s doing. There is a glass wall separating customers from the roastery, which enhances the transparency. Clearly a lot of thought has been put into space here, and it has had fewer constraints than the other two shops. It’s a bit out of the way in Frederiksberg, but a bus stop serves it and F’berg is a lovely area of town to spend the day.

Notes
The Coffee Collective
@coffeecollectif

Malmö is not the kind of place you’d expect to find first-rate coffee. The streets are modern, but quiet. The ‘old town’ has a regal architecture that hides what is actually a very vibrant coffee culture. It has undoubtedly benefited from proximity to Copenhagen, across the new bridge, but Malmö also has an individuality to it. Djäkne is a great example of the clean, spacious feel of Malmö. It has functionalist, but stylish design with an emphasis on huge spaces. This was especially evident when I arrived as the shop was next to empty.

A long bar holds behind it a Marzocco and pourover is available for the more filter-minded drinker. Djäkne offers traditional continental foods, such as pastries and muesli, but the menu is compact. Behind the bar they have a selection of their favourite roasters, Koppi, Coffee Collective, as well as some more local roasters. But these are just for display. The coffee they provide is from a local roastery in Malmö called Lilla Kafferosteriet, though they also occasionally have guests on.

The coffee I tried was a Kenyan, from the Kianjiru plantation. It was well crafted through V60, and I found it to be complex. The primary notes I found were chocolate orange with a small  acidity:brightness ratio. This made it incredibly easy to drink and, whilst I would have liked more body, I daresay that is merely personal preference.

I seriously recommend this, especially if you are on a flying visit through Malmö as I was. It’s very central and you can see a lot of the old town on the way from the station. It’s also got free wifi (a godsend, and a little less common in Scandi than the UK) and some cool music as well.

Notes
Djäkne (swedish)
@djakne
Lilla Kafferosteriet

Quick post to inform everyone that Danish Review 2013 has been published. This is an online English language journal addressing Danish/Scandi culture, produced by various members of UCL staff/students. It’s fairly new, and next year it will hopefully become print. Thanks to Jesper Hansen, the editor, and teaching fellow in the Scandi Studies dept at UCL. I contributed a small interview with Klaus Thomsen (of the Coffee Collective and previous World Barista Champion) on coffee culture in Copenhagen uniting my passion of coffee with my heritage of Denmark. The full pdf can be found here. Here’s a short excerpt:

‘London has been very lucky’, Klaus Thomsen tells me in his impeccable English. ‘There are so many cafe chains’. In fact, Klaus started his coffee days in a Starbucks in London: an ironic, if unsurprising start to a prestigious career. ‘This was in 2001 and I didn’t know better back then!’ In fact, London as a whole didn’t know better about quality coffee, but Klaus contemplates, ‘having a Starbucks or Coffee Republic on every corner started getting people interested in coffee’. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for a really successful speciality coffee business environment. In Copenhagen, however, ‘people don’t go out as much for lunch. There’s not this culture of popping out of the office at lunchtime to get a coffee and some food’. This is changing, Klaus mentions, and more and more people are taking time at lunch to sample coffee in Copenhagen.

Please give it a read. At any rate, the timing of this is great because next week I’m going to Copenhagen to experience the culture – and the coffee – first-hand. Expect pictures and blogs!

subjectivity coffee perceptionThis blog post will look at a significant issue for coffee lovers, especially those who love speciality coffee. In places it is very theoretical, to the point of being philosophical, but it has practical implications.

The problem is familiar to all who have ever tried to convince a friend that they should try coffee x, rather than their substandard coffee y. The conversation might go something like this:

“Why do you always drink instant coffee? It’s much worse than my expensive/well-made/better-tasting coffee.”
“Taste is subjective, I’ll drink what I like.”

The standard response at this point is to admit that taste is indeed subjective, and that’s the end of the debate. This leaves the coffee lover in a state of discomfort: they know that their coffee is better, and yet if someone else is simply impervious to this argument, how can it be better? Coffee drinkers descend into a pit of subjectivity where all opinions are emotional and not supported by facts.

What I briefly outline below cannot hope to answer this question. I cannot suggest how coffee lovers might make ‘coffee x is better than coffee y‘ an objective statement. This blog is just a thought on how we can start to claw back some objectivity from the position that we are in. To do this, I reference John McDowell*, a philosopher of perception. Broadly, McDowell says that too often we make a claim that something is objective/subjective when actually it is mind-independent or mind-dependent. To illustrate the difference: when we perceive the colour yellow we often say it is subjective, when actually we mean it is mind-dependent. It is not subjective in the sense that there is any chance of disagreement – like there is with ‘coffee x is better’ – but it is true that it requires a person for it to exist. The same is true to some extent of coffee: the flavour of coffee is dependent on someone tasting it, and this is what we mean when we say coffee is subjective.

With this view, it’s possible for coffee flavours to be objective, though it is still dependent on a mind perceiving the flavours. What does this mean for coffee lovers? Not a huge amount. But it might suggest that making tasting notes is not necessarily in vain. Coffee is objective because we can agree on how flavours may, given the ideal conditions (brew-time, temperature, a tongue without chewing gum), be teased out and agreed upon between different people. But…

The Bottom Line… under this view, we can maintain objectivity in coffee tasting. What we cannot do at this point is say ‘coffee x is better than coffee y‘. That will have to wait for another blog.

Please ask questions, stimulate debate. This is not uncontroversial.

References
*John McDowell, ‘Values and secondary qualities’ Honderich (London, 1985) in and ed. Ted Morality Objectivity

Finding great coffee outside London is a task no matter where in the UK you live. It’s even more challenging in small towns like Deal, that’s why I’m always pleased when a shop pops up in the way Pop-Up Cafe has done. It’s still young, and has only recently converted from a genuine pop-up to something more permanent, but the coffee passion is here. A genuine coffee passion too, one of perfectionism and a desire to learn and share knowledge.

First, a note on the feel of the place. Despite having a small shopfront, Pop-Up cafe has a spacious inside with two floors of seating. Bright decor and a mismatch of chairs and tables reminds me of the tea rooms I used to frequent in York. The service is at-table – famously difficult to achieve in coffee shops – but the staff are very friendly and helpful, and most certainly attentive. There is a food menu, which is brief, but of very high quality. I enjoyed a sandwich with chorizo, cheese and onion, with a lightly dressed salad. Nutritious, healthy (ish) and the perfect size for lunch. The food is warmed, but balanced for a filling, yet light, lunch. Other dishes were similarly well portioned. This is simple cafe food done with attention to detail.

Enough of the food, let’s get onto the geekery. Nude Espresso. A Marzocco Linea. A Mazzer grinder (Super Jolly, I think?). The Nude Espresso coffee has seen a bit of a revival recently, as they have diversified and started to really develop their single-origins. This means that although their espresso is as good as ever, their filter coffee is beginning to be very worth making a trip for. Ben was really excited to share a new coffee he had just got in, which he was trialling: Nude’s Costa Rican Las Lajas. It was brewed in an aeropress, which Ben said he was new to, but I’m not sure I believe him as it tasted unbelievably good. The Las Lajas is a naturally processed coffee, but this isn’t immediately obvious from the flavour which are a cacophony of earthy and clear tones: both fruits and aniseedy tones come out. As the cup progresses these even out into a starburst opening, followed by a woody, smoky finish. The complexity of this cup is not subtle, or nuanced, but laid bare to confuse, and stimulate, the taste buds.

flat white

Impressed with this offering, and eager to try more, I thought I’d see what sort of espresso would be coaxed out of an old, but apparently reliable Marzocco Linea. Nude Espresso’s ‘East’ blend is well-known and used often, representing the pinnacle of antipodean influence in London coffee. The Australian roots of Nude Espresso means that the coffee has been designed to sit at its best in milk. The flat white I got served was truly one of the best examples of the East blend that I have tried. The sweetness was pronounced, and complimented the sweetness of the milk perfectly. I got tones of digestive biscuits, and a fruity distillation in the tail. The milk was textured to the point of butter and the art (as if such things mattered) was well executed.

I tried some of the cake, which was a flavour sensation, a mixture of dark chocolate and marmalade. And with it, I decided to try some more of the coffee, hoping for something equally impressive to the Las Lajas, especially as Ben has more experience with pourover than the aeropress. Unfortunately, this coffee, also a Costa Rican from Nude, was lacklustre compared to the previous one. I have a feeling that this was due to the grind setting being still set for aeropress, which would cause the pourover to come out under-extracted. It was a shame, but I can certainly empathise: Pop-Up Cafe doesn’t have filter officially on the menu yet, so it’s very much a work in progress on this front. Most customers will be satisfied with the excellent espresso-based coffee, and it will take time to develop a base for filter drinks.

Despite this, the overall quality of Pop-Up Cafe was excellent. Far more than one would expect from Deal. And this is part of the excellence that Pop-Up Cafe represents: if this can happen in Deal, it can happen anywhere. For a coffee industry that focusses on London, it needs to realise that the battle for independent, speciality coffee won’t be won in the cities. The real evangelicals are those that have the courage to bring superior quality coffee to small towns and small cities and are willing to create a market for their product as they go.

Notes
Pop-Up Cafe
@Pop_Up_Cafe
Nude Espresso
@NudeEspresso

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