How much do you really know about coffee?
Do you, for instance, know the difference between coffee and Coffee? The capital letter aside, one is just brown stuff in a cup and the other is an art form that can, if executed correctly, give you a taste sensation that totally blows you away.
This is a post for people who love Coffee.
No, I mean really love Coffee.
Don’t bother reading it unless you feel exactly the same way about your morning cup of delight that Charlie Bucket feels about chocolate.
I’m going to tell you what happened to me on Tuesday, when I met the Willy Wonka of Coffee and two of his oompa loompas. Actually, that last bit is quite insulting: I actually met three Willy Wonkas. Wait up, though: we can’t begin this way.
First, let’s try for an analogy. Stay with me, here: I’m not great at drawing them.
Let’s take books, for example: if you ask most readers who they love, you’ll get answers like James Patterson, JK Rowling or Dan Brown. If you ask the same question of writers, you’re likely to end up with a list that includes Terry Pratchett, John Irving and Neil Gaiman. This is because, while some writers create great stories, others produce such an intense quality of work that literally everything they put out into the world is beautiful.
To that end, I imagine that a master barista’s favourite coffee is brewed by Harris & Hoole.
Let’s kick off with a statement: it’s a bit bold, but I’m going to make it anyway, and I’m qualified to do so because I love both companies. Here it is:
‘Costa is going to be in a world of trouble if coffee ever becomes a business of taste over convenience. In that arena, Harris & Hoole will win.’
It’s possible that I’m being overly harsh, or that the word convenience doesn’t quite cover why the Costa chain has become so dominant. People ask me the reason I visit Costa so much and why I champion their brand, and the answer – aside from the quality of the coffee – is quite simple: it’s the light. Costa shops tend to spring up in bright buildings with expansive glass windows: our local drive thru resembles a massive human fish bowl. If, like me, you suffer from depression or some sort of mood imbalance, light is a vital tool to help prop you up….
…but, when it comes to taste and – crucially – the experience of actually enjoying the coffee you’re drinking, then Harris & Hoole are without equal. I mean it: forget the likes of Starbucks and Café Nero. We’re quite literally in a different league, here.
But why? Where have they come from, and why is their coffee SO good? Ever since I tasted my first H&H cappuccino, I’ve wanted to know.
So, when Brands2Life invited me up to London in order to take a masterclass with the experts behind Harris & Hoole’s incredible range of coffee, I immediately jumped at the chance to pull back the curtain and find some answers.
Boy, did I ever find some answers. You see, the thing that makes H&H coffee magnificent is not the machines, not the beans, not the sourcing and not the environment (although all these things play their part). It’s the passion and the expertise of the people behind the coffee. It really, truly is.
Check this out:
I arrive at Southwark station with only seconds to spare, dash through a crisscrossing network of streets before I end up in something that looks like a cross between a science lab and a joinery workshop.
Enter Mark Lamberton and Jochem Verheijen. I can barely describe these two guys, but I’m going to give it a damn good go. Imagine you’re watching Interview With the Vampire when, suddenly, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise – still in character as Louis and Lestat – drift out of the TV and, arriving in your living room, proceed to talk to you about coffee. Before we were properly introduced, I naturally assumed that these guys were too casually confident and relaxed to be part of the industry, and I took them for a pair of journalists.
Lamberton runs Quality Control and Education Development for H&H. He also trains baristas, but forget all that: this guy is the James Bond of coffee. His love for the stuff has taken him to Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Australia, and Indonesia, and he’s already carved his own reputation as a badass barista in the major leagues. I do some research on him, and the first thing I turn up is an article in LA Weekly (click his name above to check it out). Suffice to say, his masterclass workshop was off the chart: what this guy doesn’t know about coffee could be written on the back of a small postage stamp. He took us on an unbelievable journey from sourcing beans to refinement and the wonderful revelation of a fully developed end product.
If Mark was the Luke Skywalker of coffee, there’s a half decent chance that Jochem Verheijen is Obi Wan Kenobi. The ludicrously stylish Head of Coffee at H&H, he dipped into the talks here and there to offer advice on slurping – yes, it’s a thing – and to educate us all on the coffee flavour wheel: a mind-bendingly complicated wall chart that ran the gamut of smell and taste, ranging from something like ‘gentle aroma that is distant and difficult to determine with nasal integrity’ all the way down to ‘charred’. It wasn’t until they let me loose on one of their coffee machines that I realised how easy it is to move up and down those grades without realizing: the slightest change in any one of the various steps will produce an entirely different creation. We’re an incredibly varied species and, as far as taste goes, some might like it hot, but a few like it burnt.
We moved from differentiation between beans and fine grain, all the way through to infusion and the process of working the machine in order to produce the best effect on the coffee. We tackled slurping, identifying aroma, pinpointing tastes on the flavour wheel: the lot. Along the way, Mark and Jochem regaled us with coffee stories: tales of worldwide barista competitions, international tasting events, brewing on flights descending at 10,000 feet.
After the latte art, we had a race to make a single, quality shot and I took on the girls: I lost.
The whole experience was just wonderful….
…and that was before Yoda arrived.
Nick Tolley is the boss of Harris & Hoole, but he’s an incredibly genial and fun guy to be around. He arrived pretty much undetected until Mark pointed out that he had quietly joined the group, and then proceeded to muck in with our training, pouring shots, frothing milk and making latte art to demonstrate the craft.
I poured some of my own, though making coffee in front of Nick Tolley is like making chocolate in front of Willy Wonka. It could have been worse, I guess: his brother could have been there. The rumour mill paints Nick as the head and Andrew as the heart of the company, but the online suggestion that the latter actually bathes in coffee reminded me more of that immortal Hungarian countess – another bloodsucker – than the Man from Del Monte.
Still, as far as the quality of their coffee is concerned….
…well, the Man From Del Monte, he says ‘YES’.
This post ‘The Willy Wonka of Coffee’ was written by Davey Stone on a train from London to Ramsgate after an encounter with the coffee-slurping vampires at Harris & Hoole. Just remember the next time you’re sampling those delicious H&H cappuccinos that these guys really do take one for the team: they slurp so you don’t have to. Thanks for reading ‘The Willy Wonka of Coffee’.