A dilemma for many café and restaurant owners, finding the perfect coffee blend is a decision that should never be made in haste. So how do you choose the coffee which suits both your customers and business whilst fitting within your budget?
The first port of call and the simplest way to impress your customers is by brushing up on your coffee knowledge, so when they ask you can tell them exactly what’s gone into their hot cup of java.
Origin of the species
Though mostly referred to by its natural bean form, coffee is actually a fruit, close to the cherry family and the reason why its freshness is so important.
At this point it’s worth remembering the two main species of the plant, as they both deliver beans with a different taste, smell and strength. Arabica is the elder of the two and originates from Kefa, an old province of Ethiopia. Robusta has its roots in Uganda and is the less ‘fussy’ of the two in terms of growing conditions. Whilst the two species grow in opposing climates, Arabica beans are generally considered by experts to be the better quality. If in doubt, you can identify them by look and feel alone, as the Robusta beans are rounder whilst Arabica beans are distinctly oval-shaped.
Sourcing a supplierWith so many experienced, reputable growers established in the UK, finding an excellent product is not too tricky. However, guaranteeing that your deliveries arrive on time each week is more difficult.
It may sound cliché, but it is pure passion that drives the best supplier networks. Marketing and sales patter can be left in the dust if you can find a supplier that you know is dedicated to the scene. Ask them how they first got into the industry and why, how they learnt their trade and what they enjoy about it most. You should be able to see through the smoke and mirrors to discover a genuine supplier with the relevant experience and knowledge that your business can depend on. When in discussion with suppliers ask about current trends and use this knowledge to help your coffee choices stand out from the rest.
A quick rundown of six key objectives to remember when starting your search:
- Research as much as you can online
- Visit local cafes and restaurants prepared with questions about their current suppliers
- Buy locally, reducing food miles
- Ask for samples
- Ask potential suppliers about the services they offer and any training programmes in place
- Make sure your coffee complements your food menu
These are some of the most common coffee regions, and will give you a good idea of what to look out for when trying supplier samples:
Brazilian: Mainly fuller bodied robusta beans, often with an aftertaste of cocoa and used commonly in darker roasts.
Ethiopian: A larger diversity than other regions but many blends are described as having a syrupy consistency and sweet berry aftertaste.
Kenyan: Bold with medium acidity, you can taste the ‘bite’ from these blends. Some describe an almost tropical taste but most agree on lingering hints of blackcurrant on the palette.
Indonesian: Blends from this region feature an earthy, wholesome quality and smoky flavour, with a distinct aftertaste of natural cocoa.
Hawaiian: Coffee from this region has a distinctly sweet aroma and mild, floral taste.
Within the world of coffee tasting there are some key terms to familiarise yourself with. The following list will help you describe individual characteristics of the coffee you provide to impress your customers, ensuring they continue to pay premium prices:
Aroma: Smell and taste are quite different. Trust your nose over your taste buds as it can detect more subtle dimensions of flavour such as smoky, floral, fruity or nutty hints.
Balance: Exactly what it sounds like, this refers to the proportion of all other characteristics in this list. For example, coffee described as having a low balance would feature one aspect of taste which overrides all others, leaving a weaker aftertaste and underwhelming sensation on the palette.
Acidity: This means the sharpness or ‘bite’ of the coffee, also described as ‘brightness’ and detected in the corners of the mouth rather than on the tongue. Without any acidity at all, coffee would simply taste dull and boring. A little produces a more mellow flavour but too much will inevitably destroy the balance.
Roast: Simply the amount of time that the beans are chemically altered by heat, affecting both taste and appearance, yet a critical aspect of the production process.
Body: This refers to thickness or density of the finished product when consumed. For example, a lighter body will have a thinner consistency, a bit like skimmed milk when compared with full fat.
Finish: Similar within wine tasting, this describes the sensation left on the palette after consumption, with some varieties leaving behind a chocolate or fruity aftertaste by contrast.
Waste is a thief. Most premium coffee will not come with a long shelf life like budget brands do. If you are seeing ‘best before’ labels on your beans years into the future, this is not a good sign. The ideal peak flavour period is between 7 and 14 days after the roast date, which should be clearly labelled on the packaging. After this period the quality and intensity will start to diminish, as will the enthusiasm and assurance of your patrons. You can extend the life of coffee beans by storing them in a freezer, for example, but to avoid the risks of air and moisture seeping into them, vacuum-packing is the only true solution. Just make sure to label each bag clearly to avoid any confusion, and of course waste.
Rise Of The Machines
With ever more discerning customers and demanding palettes, the thriving caffeine economy is ensuring that the days of serving inferior coffee are long gone. This is largely down to significant improvements in bean-to-cup technology which has closed the gap to traditional machines. This offers venues like garden centres and quick-service canteens whose coffee may not be their proudest asset, a relatively low skill method of producing premium quality coffee. This means untrained staff can make coffee quickly and consistently, whilst saving time and costs in training and maintenance. This also eliminates waste in the form of mistakes, over-measuring and what corporate companies often deem as ‘leakage’. In most cases this production method involves little more than a single button press and remembering to leave a cup under the spout. This is ideal for the domestic market, but now more frequently witnessed in restaurants, cafés and hotels.
Some argue that the theatre and grandeur of traditional manual pressure machines with their impressive dials are the way to guarantee customer confidence, but as we know the bean-to-cup option is not only cheaper and easier to maintain but saves space too, crucial for those businesses happy to tap into the coffee craze without claiming it as their main USP.
A third option comes in the form of capsules or pods, which bypass any grinding, tamping and measuring of beans altogether, effectively taking out any element of inconsistency. According to Nespresso, its machines can be found in the kitchens of around 30% of the world’s 2,400 Michelin-starred restaurants. So, although exploding onto the consumer market, this new breed of machines have begun invading territory once occupied by the traditional, more expensive manual machines that require professional training for your staff to use.
Unlike an automatic machine, you may even find more benefits from using a commercial grinder. If you still prefer ‘old fashioned’ brewing techniques or have even invented your own, these essential pieces of coffee-making kit range all the way from the adjustable KG49 model from Delonghi to the heavy duty Santos ‘63’ coffee shop grinder: capable of producing 120kg of ground coffee per hour!
By Jeff Gibson