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May 16 2014
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Marko

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The craft of coffee – Part 1: Experiences and people

Our appetite for coffee is staggering. The UK’s consumption, for example, is defying all odds, reaching a staggering £6.2bn turnover in 2013 = bucking most other retail trends in the same period. In this series of blog posts we will delve into the pinnacle of the industry – the world of craft, or specialty coffee, and outline some of the latest trends to understand what might (and how it might) be served in a high-street coffee shop near you soon.

Following a recent meeting in central London I managed to convince a non-coffee drinking PDD colleague to take a 5 minute detour on the way back to the studio and stop for a quick brew. A well-earned chance to decompress and debrief after what had been quite an intense morning. I must admit that there was an ulterior motive behind all this as my aim was to visit a coffee shop that I had desperately wanted to visit since it opened a few months ago. Mother’s Milk, a tiny space akin to a pop-up shop, somehow seemed both sparse and packed to the rafters. The menu was simple: espresso, £3; milk, £3; filter, £3. And not a hazelnut syrup or half gallon cup in sight.


Mother’s Milk c2014. Image credit: PDD

A friendly welcome from the proprietors, Will and James, was followed by a detailed description of the coffee they were serving that week – a blend of two quality Ethiopian beans from a renowned roastery in Germany. Very quickly we knew everything about the local geography and climate, the manner in which the coffee was processed after harvest, the way it was roasted in Schwabhausen and importantly, what we were to expect in the cup.

My colleague’s choice of milk based drink was tailored to suit both her taste but also, at Will’s recommendation, something that would work well with the espresso – providing just enough encouragement to venture towards something new. The 5 minutes easily turned into 20 and resulted in not only one of the tastiest espressos, but also one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had for a long time. All echoed by my colleague too I should add. We left, buzzing with grins on our faces, with loyalty cards in hand (no room for stamps – “just show it to us next time and we’ll know you’ve been here…”).


The fine selection of (cardboard) pastries at Mother’s Milk.

As a service and product design innovation consultancy our ultimate aim is to craft meaningful experiences for people and this was the epitome of a meaningful experience  – totally refreshing, entirely captivating the senses, making time (and money) seem irrelevant, and leaving you with a positive impression that seems to last forever.

What was it that made this so special? This wasn’t typical coffee being served in a typical coffee shop by typical coffee shop baristas – a different world to the big coffee chains in every possible way, and intentionally so. Craft, artisan, specialty – these are the terms most often used to describe places like Mother’s Milk, but the common thread is that they are run by people with an absolute passion and devotion to their craft, facilitating an experience they believe in, serving a product that they truly care about.

In line with the whole coffee industry, specialty coffee has been transforming rapidly over the last decade, and we find ourselves at a point where extremely exciting advancements are happening right before us. Using the term “specialty” certainly makes it all sound very niche and raises the question of how relevant all this is to most people, but bear in mind that the ubiquitous flat white was the preserve of a couple of “niche” cafes in London even only 4 years ago and one would be hard pressed to find a place that doesn’t serve it these days – or indeed an average coffee consumer who doesn’t know what it is.


Australian celebrity Peter Andre at Costa Coffee’s introduction of the Flat White in 2010, the first major chain to introduce the drink in the UK (the Flat White originates from Australia and New Zealand). Image credit: zimbio.com

The specialty coffee movement has been around since the 1980s – often referred to as “the third wave of coffee” (though this is a bit of a contentious term for those in the industry) –its focus has been on the treatment of coffee as an artisanal foodstuff in the manner of wine and chocolate. If this sounds rather ambitious for a seemingly bitter, one-dimensional stimulant, it is generally accepted that coffee has more aromatic compounds – and therefore flavour depth and aroma variation than wine, so it is only fair that similar respect should be paid (perceived to be around 800 vs around 200 aromatic compounds).


The Specialty Coffee Association of America Coffee Taster’s flavour wheel. Image credit: scaa.org

This approach and mentality have manifested themselves as a care and attention that has been applied at every step of the process in producing and consuming coffee – from the planting, cultivation and picking on the farms through to the processing, transport and ultimately preparation, consumption and of course, a keen analysis by devoted drinkers.

Direct trade relationships with small farms and co-operatives who dedicate the necessary care and attention in the formative stages have blossomed, and the increasing quality of beans has seen an evolution in roasting approaches – with a definite focus on the importance of lighter roasting styles of single origin coffee so as to not mask the true nature and “terroir” of the beans and best represent their origin in the final brew.


Steve Leighton of HasBean, a respected UK speciality roaster maintains that direct relationships with farmers result in the highest qualty product, seen here with coffee farmer David Vilca and his wife in Bolivia. Image credit: lyndonscoffee.com

In the following parts of this series we will have a look at the influence that science and technology are having on the preparation of coffee and a report from the recent London Coffee Festival.

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Posted by Marko Plevnik
Principal – Industrial Design

Languages spoken: English, Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian (take your pick!)
The last thing that inspired me: Eduardo Souto de Moura's concrete arches at the Sensing Spaces exhibition.
My dream project: I'm really wanting to make a pair of raw denim jeans right now!
My obsession: Mackrel. Sourdough.

Image credit Featured image: Lloyds Coffee House London c1798. Image credit: blaqswans.org

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