Our caffeine society needs better coffee

Jeremy Torz’s company puts the emphasis on high-quality blends and looking after the growers. James Moore asks if it can break the hold of instant gratification 

James Moore
Saturday 21 November 2015 02:14 GMT

"When we were out in Kigali several years ago, we had to find some expat restaurants. The problem was the growers just didn’t have the flavour palates to be able to talk about coffee in the way we needed. They’d never tried butterscotch, or caramel, for example.”

It’s not just the Rwandan growers who Jeremy Torz, the co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, has to educate about the huge number of flavour compounds in a premium cup of coffee. It’s the British public. There may now be an espresso bar on every street corner, but according to the market research firm Mintel, while sales of instant are in decline, it still accounts for 75 per cent of the market.

Mr Torz is convinced he can persuade us to broaden our horizons. The good news is that as his business grows, along with those of his rivals, more and more coffee growers – too many of whom are grappling with rock-bottom prices on the global market – will benefit too.

The flavour guide on Union’s website drills the 800 flavour compounds in its coffee blends down to four groups: Floral & Herbal, Nuts & Spice, Fruit, and Chocolate & Caramels. Subscriptions can be customised based on which of those groups you prefer, or you can just let the roaster pick for you.

“What we’re trying to do is educate people. The aim is to draw people in and show them what is available. That’s what differentiates us,” says Mr Torz, who talks about his product with an evangelical zeal.

Espresso bars may have opened people’s eyes, but he is not particularly complementary about their product. “I was at a coffee show with the commercial director of one of the chains. A woman tasted some of our coffee and said to him that he should buy it. But it’s too expensive for them. Their economic model wouldn’t allow it. A lot of what you’re paying for in your cup from an espresso bar is rent. Landlords have seen espresso bars as a way of charging extra,” he says, not without justification.

Some of the extra cost that subscription services incur comes through working with their growers, who receive a price far in excess of what they might get through selling to the bulk market.

Mr Torz says Union’s growers can easily be paid two and a half times what they might otherwise receive.

“It’s not simply a question of paying the money – we have to get the right beans into our roastery, but we like to build up a long-term relationship so they know what they need to do and they have a place to sell their product,” he explains.

That can help pull those lucky enough to be selected out of a desperate cycle of poverty. Growers of robusta beans, often used in instant varieties, are suffering badly at the moment. Prices have dropped by a quarter in the past 12 months on London’s Intercontinental Exchange. A glut in the supply of Brazilian beans, stoked by the slump in the country’s currency, is to blame.

Those supplying to Union’s roastery should be rather happier. That roastery isn’t to be found in the sort of place you might associate with a coffee revolution. It is on an east London industrial estate and to reach it you have to drive down a road with the sort of potholes that might even raise eyebrows among Mr Torz’s Rwandan growers.

This precarious highway is flanked by light industrial premises and scrap metal merchants. It’s an espresso bar desert and you could very easily drive past the oasis; there is nothing on the outside to suggest what is being percolated within.

But once you’re through the doors, all that changes. You enter coffee geek heaven. There are no cushions on the chairs in the waiting room. Instead you sit on coffee bean sacks, facing a ridiculously fancy espresso machine the cost of which would probably leave the manager of your local coffee shop in a swoon. Dotted around are the inevitable pictures from coffee-growing regions.

Then there is the aroma. It permeates through the entire place and is still hanging around my car by the time I reach home. If you’re the partner of a staff member, you’d best acquire a fondness for it. Your relationship is probably doomed if you don’t.

As I am led through to the tasting room, I notice a youthful group being trained. They are from a gastro pub – one of a small but growing number of such places to take caffeinated drinks as seriously as the alcoholic kind.

“It’s usually the last item on the list. Too many restaurateurs don’t see the coffee at the end of meal as an important part of the experience –but it’s beginning to change” says Mr Torz.

So what of those flavours? I’m a confirmed espresso-head but am presented with a range of filters, which run a gamut of flavours from citrus – one of them, I swear, could transport you into a Spanish orange grove – to a stunning Brazilian blend redolent of rich, dark chocolate and butterscotch. Tasting it, I think I’ve fallen in love. Even better, it makes an espresso to die for.

When I’m done, I’m positively crawling up the walls. Were I not mobility impaired, I’d be out on a run.

“Look at the supermarkets – at some of the prices they’ll sell olive oil at. And yet with coffee you’ve only got three price points: value, standard and one above that. That’s what we want to change,” says Mr Torz, whose company turns over £9m, employs 60 people, and supplies to cafés and restaurants as well as the gastro pubs.

If he can keep sourcing beans that produce a drink like the Brazilian coffee I sampled, that ambition shouldn’t be too difficult to fulfil.

Ground down: Britain’s coffee tastes

* Instant accounts for 75 per cent of the UK retail coffee market, but declined by 3 per cent last year

* Sales of ground coffee and bean coffee have, however, stagnated. Pods are the big growth area.

* Half of the British population drinks ground coffee at some point during the day, but only 15 per cent do so once a day or more – significantly less than for instant coffee (35 per cent).

* One in three buyers say they are interested in “artisan coffee” supplied by Union and its rivals.

* The cafetière is the most common type of coffee-maker, with just over a third of survey respondents owning one. However, only 62 per cent of owners use it to drink ground coffee.

Source: Mintel Coffee Report, August 2015

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