Food To introduce our new seasonal menu, ARKET head chef Martin Berg invited speciality coffee pioneer Jeremy Torz, of Union Coffee Roasters, for a lunch-and-espresso conversation on great flavour at our café in London’s Covent Garden.
During a trip to San Francisco in the mid-90s, young scientists Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia experienced the difference between good and bad coffee, and fell in love with the city’s new café scene. Back home in London, they decided to embark on their own journey of discovery, experimenting with roasting beans in Steven’s parent’s garage. Increasingly, they also developed a commitment to ethical sourcing and everything that comes behind our daily coffee, which led to the founding of Union in 2001.
‘It’s always about so much more than just a cup of coffee,’ says Jeremy Torz. ‘We can’t make a great cup of coffee without great beans, and the most important thing is, we will not be able to do it next year, or sustainably, if we don’t look after the growers and producers and support them in what they’re trying to do: farming their land, having a productive income, raising their families on it, and allowing them to hand it on to the next generation.’
For so many years, even decades, Torz says, coffee has been under-appreciated and under-produced. A ‘death spiral’ between the big coffee trade, the major roasters and big institutional outlets that kept the quality ‘down in a pit’ – simply because they could while still satisfying the baseline expectation of the customers.
‘If Union was going to change things for the better, it had to start with a great cup of coffee. We can’t fulfil our mission of supporting these farmers if we don’t engage the consumers, not only with the story but the sheer enjoyment of that cup. These things together give people a reason to come back, enjoy more of our coffee and the positive impact it creates.
Many people claim they can’t taste the difference between mass-produced and more carefully selected ‘speciality coffee’. So why bother?
Martin: I think it comes down to knowledge. Compare it to the evolution of the modern bread culture for example. Our Nordic rye bread tradition had all but vanished 20 years ago, replaced by supermarket bread. But then, these artisan bakeries started to emerge and sort of reintroduced real bread to the public. I remember it was the same thing, you know, ‘who wants to pay this much for loaf of bread?’ But it came with a story about the quality and craft behind it, and people started to catch on.
Jeremy: That’s something I believe deeply in – that you can bring people along on a journey, but you have to show them the relevance and make sure the steps are within their reach. A problem with the speciality coffee scene when it really started to expand 10-15 years ago, was that the flavours were just too radically different from where the average customer was.
As a roaster, I've always felt that the important thing is creating a fair and balanced interpretation of the coffee and not to be swayed by short lived fashions or trends amongst the roasting community. There's no point in seeking a point of difference; leaving a coffee under-roasted, where it's sort of aggressive and slightly sour, because the public isn't going to understand or appreciate it. We’re not here to tell people what coffee is or should be, more to help them find a better version of what they may know.
Everything we do is about not being elitist. Our work is simply about putting a better cup of coffee in front of as many people as we can and reaching a wider audience. Because the more people in the world who are drinking great cups of coffee, the more sacks of beans we can buy, and the more we can support the communities who grow it.
What is a great cup of coffee?
‘For me, it’s about elegance. It’s sweet and clean. That’s the foundation for everything that sits above. And it comes back to having fruit harvested carefully and at the right time so that you don’t have inconsistency and muddiness competing with the finer elements of flavour, like a delicate acidity.
There are so many different flavours present in coffee. We talk a lot these days about fruit tones – like peach or pear or strawberry – and across the world of coffee, you will find common things from the roasting process, such as dark sugar or cocoa. But only if the coffee is naturally sweet and clean, you have a complex base.
What makes speciality coffee different is the ability to present those flavours to us, so that when you take the first sip, it feels alive. Not bitter, not harsh. And as you finish, the flavours come back to you, layering in the mouth.’
Do you think speciality coffee can replace commodity coffee on a larger scale?
‘I don't think that's viable because not every coffee fruit can be speciality coffee. There are physical, environmental as well as technical issues that prevent some coffees from having that sweet and clean quality. And in the world that we live in, you know, coffee is a habit. There are moments when food and drink are fuel and other times when you contemplate it.’
Martin: A friend of mine said that maybe we should view meat the same way we do lobster. It’s not for every day and all the time. Coffee is the same. It’s a habit, yes, but many of us, particularly here in the Nordics, drink crazy amounts just because it’s possible – and it is possible because it’s cheap and low quality.
So often, the ingredients are the first thing that gets compromised, which is a shame. For a café like ours, the quality of the beans and the livelihood of the farmers are not where we want to cut costs.