Hey Will. How’s it going? Pretty well thanks!
Where are you from? Have you always lived in Bristol? I’m not originally from central Bristol. My parents live about 45 miles north – near Yate – which is between Bristol and Bath. Much more of a country bumpkin than a proper Bristolian, really!
When did you start to get into coffee – from a young age? Not really – it’s all Ali’s fault really! I used to hate coffee but she’s always liked it from an early age and has always worked in little independent coffee shops. I used to try and impress her by taking her to fancy coffee shops, but stuck to mochas with loads of sugar to mask the actual coffee taste. As I got into it I started to drink flat whites and then I went to Colonna and Smalls in Bath. It blew my mind! It’s one of the best coffee shops in England, if not Europe. You get a lot of people on the internet talking about the flavours in coffee but more often than not, it just tastes burnt. We realised at C&S how different it can be. It was at that stage that we realised we wanted a shop of our own.
The name of the shop is certainly unique. What is the story behind it? It goes back to my grandpa. It’s something he used to say to me; he likes people to go out and do stuff for themselves rather than waiting for handouts. At one stage, Ali and I were unemployed for a while so we thought he would approve of us starting our own business. You also get a lot of coffee shops with punny names – something playing with beans, grinds, or roasts – so we wanted something different as well. It gets people talking!
Would you say that making a decent coffee is much more than just the beans? Is it a case where every element is equally important, before it even reaches the cup? There are so many variables and techniques vary. A lot of people hate it when you use wine or food as an analogue but there are so many more processes that can affect the flavour than, say, wine. There’s a lot more focus on the way it’s served as well; if I was to give you a bottle of fine whisky you’d get 5 glasses of top-drawer whisky, but I could give you some really expensive coffee and you can easily ruin it. So it’s that mix of considerations before the beans get to you and it’s the coffee shop’s job to present them in the best way.
The coffee scene in Britain seems to be growing out of high street chain domination. Do you think artisan coffee shops are biting back successfully? I hope so because each independent place is unique to some extent and offers something original. The problem’s that, for a lot of people, a coffee shop is merely a place serving coffee – everyday fuel – due to the commodity value it’s developed. Saturation of the market is a problem, too. There are also a lot of places where there’ve been plans to open a new branch of a leading chain – occasionally even an independent shop – and locals aren’t happy as they don’t want their town or village to be full of coffee shops. That’s why differentiation is key. Some say you can have different kinds of coffee shops. Thankfully, Bristol is great for being independent and different – it’s something that everyone embraces and supports. The whole Tesco thing in stokes croft is testament to that. As far as the independent coffee scene is concerned I think it will grow quite rapidly – I remember a few years ago in different cities you were never guaranteed to find a quality cup of coffee which is strange.
Do you feel people are becoming more interested in coffee in general, buying beans, espresso machines and giving it a go at home? Before Full Court Press, Small St. Espresso and ourselves there weren’t any speciality places in Bristol. So when we first opened, we were surprised just how many people were really in to coffee. Clearly there were a lot of closet baristas tinkering at home. We’re often asked how we brew and what beans we’re using. For people who want to give it a go, we stock a range of beans and brewing equipment, which gives them access to the beans we use and some top brewing methods.
I’ve seen that you have done pairings and affogato and granita. Yeah – everyone loves cold brew at the moment, but we’ve never been able to replicate the likes of Matt at FCP. We often think of new ideas to provide a refreshing speciality coffee product for when it’s hot. I once pinched my parents ice cream maker and made a single origin ice cream and poured a shot of coffee over it – now that was really nice!
With coffee you also stock Harts Pastries and cakes. How did you come to collaborate with Laura Hart? We were quite lucky considering how in demand she is. When we were finalising plans she was redoing the space by Temple Meads where Harts currently resides. At the time I don’t think anyone realised how successful she was going to be! 18 months down the line and everyone knows who Laura Hart is and it reaffirms the idea that if you put a little more time and effort into something you love, it’ll all be worth it.
What’s your personal favourite Harts’ treat and coffee pairing? Personally, it’s the Cinnamon Buns and earl grey brownies.
Is it hard to set a barrier on the quality of the coffee you’re expecting to brew? We imagine you must always be pushing boundaries and trying something different? That’s the problem – we never used to weigh the coffee when we dosed it but now we realise what a difference it makes. Even the smallest difference could cause a massive fluctuation in the quality. Then you think to yourself “have I been making awful coffee?” At first we were just happy with making a dark liquid! There is a lot to get into – you can go down the equipment route but if you hit your peak and can’t afford what’s regard as better equipment then it becomes a challenge. You need to look at improving and perfecting other areas. The same could really be said for the beans too.
This all sounds like it can get awfully expensive? Yeah, especially if you go down the espresso route! Tha’ts one of the major problems for people who want to make coffee at home and think an espresso machine is the best option. If you did want to brew at home, we always advise using filter as it’s far cheaper and makes a great coffee. You can get a clever dripper for £10 to £13 and a decent hand grinder for £25 to £40, whereas espresso machines just go up and up and up. I built my own coffee machine because I couldn’t afford the lump sum to buy one as we were on job seekers at the time. I used to spend my fortnightly dole money on different parts and slowly constructed it with my own designs.
How did you go about designing an espresso machine yourself? Ever since I’ve been interested in coffee, I was obsessed with the Slayer machines. I knew that even if I did have my own shop, I couldn’t expect to buy one. So when I made my own, I designed it with similar paddles and pressure stuff. That way I knew I was creating a decent machine that performed at a high quality level.
Did you send your designs to Slayer? We went to speak to Dale who was the wholesale manage at Has Bean and the UK distributor of Slayer. At the time we told him we didn’t want to buy one because of the cost. I mentioned the coffee machine I’d made and sent him some photos. Without saying a word, he forwarded the images on to the guys at Slayer! I think they thought I was a bit weird; why would someone spend all their money trying to build a machine like theirs?! I did notice, however, that about a year later they brought out a very similar model.
Do you think you have the experience now to repeat the process from your own designs? It would take quite a lot of shop testing. Although, I’ve always thought about building a high end British built espresso machine – Fracino is the only solely made British espresso machine in the country. Just having a quality British brand focusing on cutting edge design is something I’d love to pursue.
Where did your love for design come from?All my family is very practical: my granddad who was a carpenter, my dad’s an electrical engineer ,my mum makes jewellery and my brother makes books, so I have always been surrounded by design. When I was applying for uni I applied for all sports degrees except one design degree. Despite all my interest in sport, I went to do an advertisement design degree which taught me a lot about design development, but I didn’t see the cut throat mentality. Then I met Ali at the end of uni and got into coffee through the machinery and design at first.
I’d seen that some of your designs had been sold off so I was wondering if you could make it as a designer would you? If it could provide a stable living I would do it in a heartbeat! I love coffee and the nuances of making it but being quite introverted, I’m not fully in my comfort zone being front of house 6 days a week isn’t my dream. I love it and love all the great regulars and customers, but doing it day in day out isn’t something I want to do long term.
If you not drinking your own coffee, where do you head to? Full Court Press! Matt helped us out a lot with getting set up. He’s like the oracle. We would go to Small Street a lot more but their opening hours are the same as ours. Matt’s open 30 minutes later so we can actually make it and can always pop down on Sundays.
If you do go out in Bristol, where do you tend to go? None of the places we should have! We used to just pack up shop and head home. There’s a long list of places we want to go to and being an independent business owner, we want to support the people that support us. It’ll be great to try Chris’ evening menu at the Workhouse Cafe, and just sit down and relax at Harts bakery. The Rosemarino on Colston Street is also one our list. We’ve been down to Small Bar on King St. a few times under Matt’s influence.