I recently interviewed the founder of my favourite coffee shop in Bristol. After I took a few quick snaps of the ambiance at FCP, Matt North and I discussed the ‘third wave’ of coffee shop lifestyle over a latte (what else?) and Crack magazine. His is a scientific approach to coffee making. He calculates flavours with a machine, all in an effort to give his customers the best cup of coffee. Read on to discover his method, journey, and tastes.
As a journalist, I rely on chain coffee shops, even though I crave the (superior) coffee from artisan coffee shops…
You’re using the coffee shops as, what they call, the third space. The first and second spaces revolve around your home and your work, the third space is what you do outside of that: where you mingle, where you work, so it’s like mobile working. Coffee’s become that – it’s always been the community centre, in the way that bars work. Its the concept of coffee being the third space for the other part of your life. That’s really common because they always have space.
Places like Colonna & Small are known for their excellent coffee, but I never used to associate Bristol as being so gourmet about coffee. I’ve been a regular at FCP since day one, but it wasn’t until recently that I heard about the science behind what you do. Could you talk me through how you started?
I’ve been in and out of the industry for about 15 years. I’m a Physicist by training. After doing a Physics degree at UMIST (the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology ), I started my Ph.D. I gave it a go but found I’m more hands on and when you get to a certain level in any field, the chances to be more hands on deteriorate. I realised I wasn’t cut out to write long papers, doing computational stuff like that – that’s boring. But I needed a job. I went back to my old job at Cafe Nero where I’d worked part-time. It was probably the best you could get at that time, this was around 2002. I really enjoyed the service part of it. It wasn’t about the coffee. Coffee was a drink. I drank it hot with some sugar in, probably. You can’t really get into coffee working in a place like Nero because it’s not about that. It’s about getting people through the door, hitting targets, workflow – it’s about the retail, rather than the coffee, scene. I enjoyed seeing the same people, having a chat. So I stayed with it and turned out to be quite good at running chain stores. Moved from there to London to another chain, then to Bristol and became an Area Manager at Boston Tea Party, then an Operations Manager. Ran all the coffee shops for Fop for a while, the record store. Before they went bust and were bought out by HMV they had about 6 music cafes that I ran for them.
Kind of like Friska, Rise?
Yes. And with music cafes like Friska and Rise, the idea is that they want people to stay. Dwell time: the longer you can get people to stay the higher the chances are they’ll buy something. The big bookstores in the states like Borders or Barns & Noble have cafés so you can take a book off the shelf and read it there and then. The chances are, you’ll end up buying it.
Foyles are doing the same thing here.
That’s how they work. We also used to do film nights, salsa nights, live bands et cetera. But they went bust. So I needed to move on. I bounced around. Sold chocolate syrups, was a coffee engineer and delivery boy until I eventually opened my own shop.
What made you decide you were going to stop working for other people? Because you said you were quite good at managing those businesses.
Just time and money. Opening a shop costs money – there’s no other way around it. Through one reason or another, I’d never had access to enough money to open a shop until that point. It just took time to get that together. I did it on 32 grand, and that’s not much. Especially considering a couple of new places in bristol have opened for 80, another one for 150. It’s a lot. Opening a shop costs money.
So that training period was also a saving period?
It was training and saving, yes. Also, although I didn’t plan it that way, I learned something new each step. I networked, I met people. I learned how to engineer my own machines and I can now run a business because I was an Area Manager. So I took the best parts of the systems and I employed them here. And then it became about developing the coffee. Happily, coffee changed. We stopped being what in the industry is known as the second wave – the chains, the Starbucks – and became what is called the third wave. It has a focus on traceability, a focus on single origins, maybe hand brewing, a slower approach to coffee. With that, the quality of what we could get rose.
It seems to be a knock-on effect. There is a growing desire for the slower approach and, ironically, the notion of saving money by investing in quality. Making your life a bit more valuable day to day.
So would you say the change in the industry was a catalyst for your very specific method?
Yes. If I’d opened 10 years ago, when I’d first wanted to open a place, it would be like the places I used to go to when I was 18, 19. Comfy seats, a couple of press pots of all-you-can-drink coffee for £1.40 with a 99p book. Read the book, drink the coffee, have a sandwich – go. That was my day. It was really comfortable, nice and I would have opened that. It was a good third space. But with the industry gradually changing, I became better at tasting and more interested in flavour.
That’s interesting, from what I’ve gathered from the regulars here, you’re seen as an innovator. It’s funny you say you were influenced by…
There are always people before you. Always. And they might approach things in a different way. That’s what makes a place unique. If you own and operate your own place, you wear it. You are the shop. This space is a reflection of my ideas. The guys take it on, but I allow them the freedom to also put their reflection across. I’m inspired by other people’s approaches, but I also cherry pick.
Where does your coffee come from? How do you source it?
I try very hard to source from roasters I trust. I don’t roast, it’s a very different skill. I prefer to focus on brewing and work with roasters I know and trust. At the moment that’s about 25 different roasters from all over Europe and occasionally outside of Europe. They’ll send me samples, we’ll have a conversation about what’s fresh crop, what’s really interesting and what green has really matured. It’s all single origins now. Actually, that’s a bit of a loose term now –
Yeah, can you go into what that means exactly?
It means coming from a single place. What we tend to go for is farm or cooperative level. So the traceability takes us back to the farm from which it was grown or the co-op which drew from certain farms. Case in point: in Columbia, it’s generally going to be farms because you can trace really well and the farms are bigger. In Ethiopia, however, chances are you’re going back to the co-op or the washing station. Ethiopia doesn’t have many big farms, just lots of individual back gardens basically. People pick their forty coffee trees from their bit of forest and they take it to a washing station. That station then becomes your traceability point. So we go as far as we can. That means coffee tastes slightly different because of where it’s grown, how it’s processed, factors like these.
I’ve noticed Ethiopia has cropped up a lot recently.
It’d be hard to list every country we buy from, this time of year we’ve still relatively fresh crop from Ethiopia and Kenya. They’re picked late 2015, takes four to six months to reach us and then they’re the fresh roasted green crop. They’re also my two favourite origins because they’re unique. Kenya has lots of phosphate in the soil, which gives it a unique flavour profile. Nothing else tastes like Kenyan coffee. Ethiopia is pretty much the only place coffee grows wild. So it has a ridiculous genetic stock, insane variety. Whenever the board reads ‘heirloom’ or ‘wild’ that means we don’t know what it is. It’s wild coffee picked from somebody’s forest. The amazing thing is they don’t know what it is either, yet it tastes so good.
Do you use local roasters from Bristol or Somerset?
Yeah. In Bristol we use Clifton, as well as Extract every now and then. Round Hill are based in Midsummer Norton so they’re not too far away. Colonna is based over in Corsham, near Bath. And from all over the country.
Can you tell me a little about your process? I’ve seen you comparing different coffees and saying ‘this one’s too short.’
Coffee is soluble. So whenever you make a coffee you take the dry grounds and you dissolve that in water. The flavour compounds in coffee – acid, sugar, lipids etc. They dissolve into the water and then we have our drink: coffee. There is a maximum amount we can dissolve – 30%. You don’t want it all, because as well as the good there is the bad. A common problem is that people extract too much flavour. This gives that really harsh, bitter, astringent flavour – kind of like chain coffee. Chains use coffee that’s badly roasted then poorly extracted and we end up with very bitter flavours. We dial in the coffee. (Note: dialing is a method of taking coffee and finding the point where you like the flavour.) Personal preferences aside, we try to make it taste its best. As humans, we generally like things to be balanced. We like acidity, sweetness, sourness, bitterness, but we like them to work together and create something that works. So we search for that balance point, that synergy where all the flavours work together. To do that we have to adjust a recipe. We’ll take some coffee, we’ll leave it in contact with an amount of water for a certain amount of time. There are other variables, but when we talk about longer or shorter, for espresso it means run more water through the coffee. By doing that, we take out even more flavour and that will hopefully balance the flavours. Its a process of trusting our taste buds, which is something we’ve worked on. Then we’ll double check that against some numbers we can do – a science that gives us an idea of what’s going on.
So it really is science and craftsmanship?
Yeah, and you have to train the palette. The sensory skills are applicable, but you then have to put the contextual skills with it. So I have a good palette for coffee, but I’d have to work at a palette for tea or wine.
So you repeat this process for every new coffee?
Yes. We have four coffees a week, two espresso, two filters. We do that for every coffee and then we check them all every morning as well. If we need to make adjustments, we’ll go through the same process again.
Before this place, I used to force myself to ‘love coffee.’ I’d settle for sugary coffees and saying how much I loved drinking coffee, when really all I was drinking was hot water and sugar.
Hot sugary caffeine.
Basically, one of your regulars made a broad generalisation the other day, in saying that only Italians like that strong, bitter Italian coffee… There’s also a notion that Scandinavians are developing a new science to coffee.. Would you agree with either of those statements? (The coffee wars: a difference between traditional, which is a very strong, almost burnt taste and the modern palette.)
The Italian coffee: they invented the espresso and they like to keep to their traditions. But also it has to be cheap, there is a law: it has to be a certain price. Mussolini put it in place for the workers: it has to be sold cheap and it still is in Italy. But businesses can’t make much money from doing that so they have to use cheap coffee. In order to do that, you have to use a lot of coffees; blend them together to try to maintain a consistent flavour and roast them a little darker because cheap coffee won’t taste good if you roast it light. And in that respect, that’s common across the continent. In Europe, there is a movement towards the lighter roasting – the third wave. The traditional coffee is still there but there’s a generational shift. This movement towards lighter coffee was actually influenced but the states, due to their money and access. Forget what they became, they started out as pioneers in trying to source coffee from individual farmers and roasters.
And that influences the culture of coffee also. For example, in certain parts of Italy they don’t really sit around sipping coffee. It’s a quick thing.
Yeah, they stand at bars. I was there this weekend: ordered my coffee and was already reaching for the sugar as soon as I’d ordered because I know what’s coming. You’re given the espresso, sugar in, stir, gulp and then you’re out the door.
I guess that allows it to be a bit more straight forward and enables it to keep to its traditions comfortably. Starbucks introduced not the coffee itself, but the flavours the coffee is adorned with, The names, the decorations…
Starbucks is retail so it’s about choice. Having your every whim served. You know that in every Starbucks queue, it goes: savoury, sweet, drinks, pick up, order. They know what they’re doing in getting you to spend while you wait. They’re very good at that and that, again, is contextual. When you go in, you know what you’re going to get. You go to an Italian espresso bar, you know what you’ll get. When that breaks down is when a business miscommunicates: dressing up like a classic Italian espresso bar and trying to give a Starbucks-like service. That’s why we deliberately don’t have the chain sort of look here at FCP. If we did, people would expect to come in and order likewise so you try to break that down before they even get to it. It places an onus on us to do the work, but it means we’re not breaking down in our promise.
I’ve noticed there’s only one pot of sugar in the entire building. You’re not huge fans of sugar, are you?
Again, it’s contextual. With Italian coffee, sugar adds sweetness to the really bitter taste. But a natural sweetness is present in coffee. So if you have a lighter roast coffee where the sugar is still present in the bean and you brew it correctly, the natural sweetness is there. We never deny anyone sugar, but the reason we have the pot (with the sugar firmly under the lid, I might add!) is because we like to give you the option. We recommend you try the coffee first because auto-condementing is one of the worst things in the world in food. We’re all guilty of it, but it’s terrible. Adding sugar changes the tone of the drink, it shifts the balance. So if you add sugar to one of our espressos, it won’t sweeten it but takes the acidity south. It’s always a recommendation to give it a go without sugar first. I don’t frown on people having sugar, I just hate it when they eye ball you and say ” but I really want sugar…” We put effort into what we do and we ask you to trust us. We repay that trust by producing something that is hopefully good. I mean if you’re going to have that attitude, you may as well go to a two michelin star restaurant and ask for ketchup.
When opening this place, you were quite brave to keep the gimmicks out. You didn’t rely on any staple ‘coffee shop’ vibes to entice knew customers who were looking for the familiar. How did you know anyone would turn up?
I didn’t. Opening any business is a risk but we’d done some research so I knew there was some desire for us to open. We had some very quiet days in the beginning. Very quiet. You just have to wait for that word-of-mouth to start working… And it’s actually self-policing.
What about competition?
Within the region there about 15-20 cafés.
It must have been a little testing to follow a model you knew worked?
But now it’s paid off because you stand out.
Well, you have to differentiate yourself in some way. We had to be completely different. For example, the word “coffee” isn’t in our name because if you see that, you’ll expect Starbucks style coffee. So, to break it down, from the minute you look at the shop you already have an idea we’re different. So we filter at the door: we lose customers but that’s fine. We’re not set up for that model. We regularly turn people away. Maybe once every couple of weeks, we’ll say “I really don’t think we’re going to have the right product for you. I all you want is (insert type), go and see our friends across the way. They’re going to give you what you want.” Its hard when you first start, but you learn to read people. We’re all capable of making judgements and that’s okay. You have to do it in order to give good customer service: from the way they look to the way they act and finally the way talk about what they’d like. To me, that’s better service. Rather than just taking their money.
That would defeat the object of FCP.
Yeah. It’s not what we’re about.
Find Full Court Press: 59 Broad St, Bristol BS1 2EJ
After grabbing a latte and, more often than not, a pastry, I like to head downstairs where it is often quieter. My third space.
I’m kept company by a bike in the corner and a selection of independent magazines like CRACK and Cereal mags – both homegrown brands FYI.