Ed is the London-based UK account manager for Ally Coffee’s EU Specialty Division. He tells us about his transition from a university degree in ancient history into the active world of coffee service as a barista, roaster, and Brewers Cup competitor. His time behind bar has taught that proper dish washing is a crucial component of quality and that it is best to expect the unexpected.
I started working in coffee about three and a half years ago. When I left university I needed something physical to work with after 18 years of education. Coffee was kind of the outlet.
I was at university at Newcastle, and after that I came back home to Norwich, on the east of England. Out of curiosity met a roaster at a farmers’ market outside my house and just was chatting asked, “What can you do working in coffee?” and they talked about it and at the end it was like, “Well, can I work in coffee?” and they’re like, “Yeah, sure!” So they gave me a job.
That was at Grey Seal Coffee up on the north Norfolk coast, which is a stunning coastline in the UK. It’s wonderful white sand and it’s soft and it’s flat; it’s beautiful. I worked up there for a year working as a barista and roasting coffee. That was my first proper introduction to it. It was quite nice because there were I think four of us in the roastery and they had all started in coffee because they wanted to have a coffee shop and then coffee roasting was kind of a thing, so none of them had experience with it. It was very much a practical way of learning. We would all be like, “How does this work? How does this work?” It was a really nice way to begin because I basically had free reign to go to a roastery and getting involved, which is very nice.
I got my foundation there, for sure. I started understanding how things work, but when I moved to London — that’s an enormous market. It was much more specialized and there was much more push in terms of the education side of things. I worked at a roastery in North London called Vagabond and that was the first step into a very specialized sense of what I do. They guy who I was working under, called Edgaras, he was very rigorous and very professional about how he roasts and how to understand roasting in terms of quality control. It’s one thing to understand the theory, he was a lot more wanting to push the way people think about coffee roasting rather than “you throw it in and it comes out brown.” He wants to focus on how roasting affects quality, so it was quite an intense just under a year roasting there where I learned everything.
Working on the bar was quite new for me as well. It was the first specialist coffee shop I had worked at, because where I worked before was primarily a restaurant and coffee was just kind of a fun thing they did. Coming to London and working in a coffee shop it was very focused on serving the coffee that you are roasting. That was also quite fun to say, “I’m the person who roasted this” to customers.
I started competing in Brewers Cup while I was there using a coffee from a roastery called La Cabra, based in Denmark. From that relationship, at the end of the competition they were joking around and saying, “Oh, when are you going to move to Arhus?” which is the town where they are located, and I was like, “What if I do?” And then they got serious, and I moved out there for six months. I worked in the roastery and behind the bar. That was the best placed I’ve worked in terms of elevation of how to think about coffee, how to discuss it, and also the quality there is unbelievable. It’s the highest quality coffee I think I’ve ever worked with. It’s a pleasure to work with every day and it’s a very refined environment. Architects and designers are half of the company, so there is a lot of thought in terms of the way things are presented, making sure the quality matches the way things are presented as well.
After that, that’s when I moved to working at Prufrock. The reason I joined Prufrock was because Matthew [Robley-Siemonsma] was the manager at the time; he’s the two-time UK roasting champion, and he ran roasting master classes. He was trying to set up a shop roastery inside Prufrock and have a few things on the filter bar where you buy some Geisha — that’s always on there — and since I was wanting to get more into the roasted coffee side of things, the green coffee side of things, that seemed like a most creative and the best output in terms of what I wanted to be doing in coffee at that time.
I joined Prufrock to help him get that off the ground a bit. It kind of did work and it kind of didn’t work at the same time. Unfortunately, the project was in mind and we both wanted to do it, but he had so much work to do as a manager and I had so much work to do as a barista, and at the end of the week you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to do a day’s worth of roasting as well,” and that kind of took its toll and it had to take a back burner, but I still learned a lot through the process.
We would cup coffee all the time. We might not necessarily have roasted it, but we would always be kind of looking at the roast from a quality point of view. This tastes good, but what could they have done or why did they do something in a certain kind of way? There were always conversations about roasting theory, being able to bring out the best profile you can possibly have. I learned a lot from Matthew, definitely. He also ran master classes, so it was like a beginner’s roasting lesson. I attended quite a lot of those because I wanted to have a bit more of a professional education.
On the bar, it’s the busiest shop I’ve worked at. We did 30 or 40 kilos of coffee a week. All about efficiency at the bar, making sure everything is being done the optimal pace possible. That’s what I learned the most from being there. To be able to streamline things as it got busier and busier from where it started with curiosities like, “What happens if we do a siphon? What happens if we put coffee in a thermos?” That had to take a back burner as we made sure the quality was all the same. Things were more rigorous and strict with everyone doing the same thing and being on the same standard.
I got very good at washing up, as well! How to clean a cup, how to stack things. My washing up skills improved a lot. Ultimately, that comes down to the elevation of base level quality. They didn’t want anything to be poor. Even the smallest thing you had to do, like how to polish a cup, that was still “this is how to polish a cup.” Not because they thought you were an idiot, but because this is the set standard of what things should be. You can do it in a different way, but it always has to look like this. And that was good to work around. Also, Prufrock drew a lot of people who wanted to work in coffee, so everything was focused on coffee and hospitality, which I think lends itself really well to the customer base who was so friendly.
Regarding competition — I don’t want to put barista competitions down because I think they are valuable and there are a lot great baristas out there — but I can’t do the pageantry. It’s not for me. Brewers Cup is a bit more relaxed; we’re just brewing some coffee and we’re going to drink it. It’s quite nice. There are some very interesting things going on in the barista competitions, but having a really lovely coffee is more my style.
Brewers Cup is a fun thing to be doing. You know every year you’re going to see a group of people who all enjoy the same things. This is going to be the third year I’ve done it, and I’d say maybe thirty or forty percent of the people are going to be the same people who have done it again and again. It’s nice to have that learning environment where everyone goes there and comfortable to go up to each other and to be able to have that community that’s going to have some fun. That’s what Brewers Cup is all about; being able to have some fun and share coffee.
My degree was very research based. It was an ancient history degree. Lots of reading, analyzing, spending time in a library. It was great and I still find it all fascinating. There are lots of similarities where I can see naturally why this grew into the progression that I have. Coffee had the physicality I missed from being in a library 24–7, but it also had the theory element of it, the way of thinking of how to address things. It does have a thinking element as well as the physical element.
Ultimately green coffee was the direction I was aiming for in the first place. I’m still always around baristas, I’m still always around coffee. Working at a coffee shop you’re always checking in to make sure people have a nice product, which isn’t too different from what I’m doing now.
The things that I really enjoy in coffee are the things that are not expected. I try to approach things from an incredibly neutral point of view. I don’t want to go into things having a bias or a possible outcome I’m thinking about already. Either you are disappointed or it just matches your expectation, so it’s “Oh, this is just like I thought,” and not “Oh wow, this is actually really tasty.” When I approach coffee it’s from a point of view that is very neutral.