The UK’s love affair with coffee began over 300 years ago, but far from fizzling out, our romance with the black medicine is reaching fresh heights of passion. New coffee shops are opening and the independent traders who once had sand kicked in their faces by the big chains are making a comeback. Supermarket shelves feature a dizzying choice of beans from faraway lands. You may, rightly, care about their origin and the welfare of the farmers who grew them, but how often have you thought about where they were roasted?
Roasting coffee is a form of alchemy, turning bullet-hard green beans into the fragrant brown nuggets of comforting loveliness from which your cup of Joe is made. Like bread, coffee is at its best soon after it's roasted (and a long time before it reaches those supermarket shelves). Roasting itself is a delicate craft; a few seconds in a roasting drum can change the flavour from fruity and light, to dark and chocolatey. Though traditionally us Brits have been partial to a very dark (some would say burnt-tasting) brew, today the high quality beans available and the re-emergence of artisan roasting mean an almost infinite variety of taste sensations are available. It's coffee Jim, but not as we've known it.
'Artisan' is a much abused term, but a new generation of small scale, skilled roasters, for whom quality trumps quantity, is now emerging. We invited the growing Sheffield community of roasters to sit down (with a coffee) and tell us all about it.
Sheffield’s roasters don’t just drink coffee, they live and breathe the stuff. Having spent years buying beans from other roasters, Trevor Neville (Smith Street Coffee) decided it was time to roast his own and after lengthy experimentation teamed up with friends to install a commercial roaster in his garden shed. "It saves on rent" he chuckles.
Rather than risk his savings on a new machine, Frazer Habershom (Frazer's Coffee) decided to use his welding skills to build his own roaster from scratch. For Tom Robjohns (Buckshot Coffee) it was years of experience serving drinks in his own coffee shop that made the leap into roasting seem like a logical progression.
One thing all agree on is that our city is naturally blessed with one of coffee's most important raw materials: good water. "The importance of water really can't be overstated", says Lee Newell (Foundry Coffee). Sheffielders argue over the detail but the consensus is that the surrounding moorlands create soft water, without many of the minerals and impurities which hard water areas (like London) have to deal with.
Bean provenance and the welfare of the farmers growing coffee in some of the poorest countries in the world are a major concern for these roasters. Because they're buying beans at the specialty rather than bulk end of the market, prices are higher and the farmers themselves receive a better return. Though coffee bought in this way might not be part of official programmes like Fairtrade or organic certification, you can rest assured they usually go above and beyond those standards. Which leads us to the thorny issue of price. Are people happy to spend that little extra for a better product, which pays a little more to everyone in a lengthy supply chain? Tom Robjohns thinks the market is changing, but still has some way to go. "People in Sheffield generally see food and drink as a necessity rather than something to explore and enjoy. We are hardworking people so the idea of sitting in a coffee shop and enjoying a good cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is seen as a luxury not the norm".