My mission at the moment is to investigate all these ideas of quality and waste in the next stage of coffee production – I’ve seen the farms, now I’m supposed to be visiting the roasters. Easier said than done. I need to know: can roasters improve the quality of coffee? what do they actually do that adds value? what skills are required? What, if anything, is wasted during roasting, and how? what happens to this waste? Finally, and perhaps most specifically, I need to follow up with the retailers of this coffee – why do they choose this style of roast? What do coffee shop owners look for when they find roasters and coffee suppliers? What do they believe is a good quality roast? Is this even important to them?
I wanted to start with Caffe Nero, because in some respects I think it would be a simpler process, but also with perhaps clearer ideas of ‘quality’. Caffe Nero are alone amongst the big chain coffee shops in that they are the only chain which does not roast it’s own coffee; instead, Coburg coffee roasters do it for them. Starbucks has its own roasters, Costa has coffee roasted for them by another branch of the Whitbread group which is essentially the same company. Caffe Nero, however, pride themselves on selling ‘the best espresso this side of Milan’, have apparently designed their own secret blend and roast, but pay an independent company to actually supply the goods. I want to know why.
Coburg, (like many roasting companies in my experience so far), remain elusive. Consequently, the following train of thought is based almost entirely on guess work until I can actually get to see them in person.
I am very intrigued by the relationship between Coburg and Caffe Nero. There is a guy who works for Caffe Nero head office who I have spoken to briefly about all this. He is apparently a ‘buyer’ for the company, and has been for nearly ten years. In all other circumstances, coffee buyers are the people who travel out to coffee producing regions, engage in cupping sessions, and suggest a price based on their judgement of the coffee’s quality. But if Coburg are roasting for Nero (and as far as I am aware, Coburg also import all this coffee, for Nero, their own label, and for other companies- most notably, Mokarabica, which Gusto Italiano use for their independent shop in Sheffield) – and the roast has been designed specifically for Nero which is what they claim, then why do Nero need a buyer themselves? And why do they need to employ one continously for ten years? What does that guy actually do?
Unless of course, Nero change not only the farms from which they buy their coffee from, but also the roast profile they/Coburg use for the Secret Nero Blend, on a regular basis. This then gives the buyer something to do, but it throws up more questions – do they change it because the coffee harvest varies so much? Can people tell if they have changed the coffee? I’ve never noticed, but then I do notice if it has been made well or badly, or just differently to usual. Am I tasting a difference in the skill of the barista in making the espresso, or a difference in the roast and origin of the coffee itself? Essentially, I still need to ascertain how important the roasting is to the taste of the final product. Does roasting well or badly, enhance or decrease the quality? And how exactly do you roast badly anyway?
As I said, so far, I haven’t heard a squeak out of Coburg, despite repeated attempts to go visit them. So, I turned my attention to figuring out what Caffe Nero managers actually know of the roasted coffee they serve every day. When I worked at Durham’s Caffe Nero branch, I askedthe manager where the coffee came from. He told me a company called Rizzi roasted it, and he reckoned it came from the Isle of Wight. This worried me a great deal when I first started this project – how on earth was I going to research on the Isle of Wight? Could I commute from Darlington?? I also found virtually nothing during google searches for “Rizzi”, and especially not when looking for links between coffee, Rizzi and Isle of Wight. In fact, it is very nearly a googlewhack. The only reference is to a Mr Mike Rizzi, who is a member of the Isle of Wight fencing club. And even more bizarrely, judging by the dates, I may even have met the guy when I used to fence at competition level. Utterly surreal. But aaaanyway….
By the time I worked at Darlington’s branch of Caffe Nero, I’d been promoted to Shift Leader. I asked the Darlington manager if she knew where the coffee came from, and she told me to just have a look when I had to open up the shop and take deliveries the next morning. Coffee arrived: in unmarked silver sealed bags, in an unmarked box with only the Use By date stamped on it. Not helpful. Further digging eventually led me to discover that Rizzi IS actually a coffee roaster, but it hasn’t existed as a company for many years. It is now owned entirely by Coburg. And they are not in fact based on the Isle of Wight, but on the Isle of Dogs – ie: Woolwich. Much easier to get to. The manager of Durham’s Caffe Nero is a Geordie, and I guess anything that far south is indistinguishable and Foreign. But it does not suggest a particularly close relationship between Nero’s retail staff and the roasters.
I have been contacted by someone who works at Caffe Nero, and has managed the seemingly impossible – visited the Coburg roasters. Given her current position, I will keep her anonymous. But interestingly, she was not very impressed. I quote:
“The guy that showed us… round, really didn’t know his stuff about coffee, he knew about prices, and what they were doing, but not about taste,seasonality, blends etc. I thought as a roaster, who stocked and roasted … he would be more knowledgeable on it. … I do know that Nero make up at least 75% of their [Coburg’s] business though. … their own brand coffee is pretty poor, and I don’t think they sell that much as only a small part of the warehouse is dedicated to its storage.”
She went on to say that the Nero coffee is roasted very quickly at extremely high temperatures (“blast roasted”) and can then be stored for up to a year before arriving at the Nero stores. Neither of these two facts suggest excellent quality to my knowledge. Sure, Nero prides itself on its ‘Italianess’ which usually means roasting the coffee to espresso strength, which is very dark, but it shouldn’t mean burning it. I was also taught (during the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe’s roasting workshop) that master roasters identify flavours within different batches of coffee – based on the altitude and year and geographical location – which can then be brought out and highlighted by roasting in a specific way. Even if Nero’s coffee is not blast roasted exactly, surely it should not be all roasted in the same manner, given that each batch from each harvest would be subtly different?
I cannot verify any of this yet until I actually visit Coburg for myself. Until then, I can only learn through comparisons. I know for certain that the independent roasters, Pumphreys in Newcastle, consider coffee roasting to be a highly skilled art. I’d love to know what they think of large scale roasting for a large chain, as with Coburg and Caffe Nero. What do they do differently, and why? For further comparison, there is of course, Starbucks, who do have their own roasting company within their vast empire. If Coburg are being so elusive, I imagine I would have major problems trying to visit Starbucks; instead, I can quote from Joseph Michelli’s exceedingly unctious book “The Starbucks Experience – 5 Principles of turning Ordinary into Extrordinary”:
There is no hidden inferior material at Starbucks. On the contrary, Starbucks epitomizes a company that has acheived amazing success by not compromising on quality. … The mission statement asserts that Starbucks partners will “apply the highest stardards of excellence to the purchasing, roasting and fresh delivery of our coffee.” To that end, Starbucks do what is necessart to meet or exceed their quality standards… The leaders are constantly researching and developing technologies and systems to improve the consistency of the company’s roasting process and the freshness of their coffee.
But that is it. That is the only reference to roasting in the whole book (and yes, I did actually endure reading the entire, excrutiating lot of it.). Roasting at Starbucks is performed, somehow, to high quality standards. Apparantly. But what those standards are, and how you actually go about acheiving them is not mentioned. Maybe roasting is such a skilled art, that to preserve its magic, it has to remain mysterious? We shall see!