I pop into Black Sheep Coffee on Camden High Steet two days after they moved from the Collective popup space just up the road. I’m met by a simple yet cosy interior, finished in OSB board – that stuff normally used as shuttering but also to kit out cool interiors on a budget. Despite them just moving in, the shop’s atmosphere is already beginning to be established – partly with the help of a huge skylight, a smiling barista and the delicious smell of toasties, freshly prepared by Toastd in the front of the shop.
Black Sheep Coffee lives up to their name, not only by what they aim to bring to the speciality coffee market, but also as far as being featured in BlankBox; none of the founders are roasters, all of them came into coffee from finance instead of the typical barista-first or chef-first route and their Robusta Revival is our first Robusta coffee feature.
Sitting down with Gabe and Eirik – Max joining us later, I can hardly wait to taste their coffee. “The first thing they tell you during barista training is that there are two species of coffee; Robusta and Arabica. Arabica grows at higher altitude, is more difficult to cultivate and tastes better and is the only one worth learning about. Robusta is cheap, makes bitter coffee and not worth even discussing.” Gabe tells me this while I wait for the espresso and flat white, my standard two tasting brews to arrive.
I am keen to understand how then is it that they think they can change that. “Robusta has a reputation for tasting awful. But part of the reason is that it is not cultivated and processed with the same level of care and skill that Arabica is.” Eirik especially, from Norway where premium grade Arabicas are light roasted and drank as smooth filters, are very serious about making sure the coffee’s taste is what sells it.
To get the coffee they use wasn’t easy. They set out to find a great tasting Robusta, even travelling to the farm in India, something most coffee peeps only embark on a little bit later in their careers, to meet the farmer. What they did bring back was the Robusta grown on the Sethuraman Estate in India. This coffee achieved one of the highest R-ratings (the equivalent of a Q-rating for Arabicas) from the Coffee Quality Institute and, with the help of good old Google, it is clear that other coffee mavericks think very highly of it too.
The time for tasting has arrived. With almost twice the caffeine than you’ll find in Arabica brews, I’m kicking myself for skipping breakfast and slightly worried that I still need to have an Aeropress later on. The coffees are definitely different to anything that’s ever been in a BlankBox. It is like the coffees I drank down in Sicily, except it’s good. A woody, 100% dark chocolate with a natural oiliness that lingers in the mouth long after you swallowed. It would take me a few cups to get used to it, but I most certainly enjoy it.
Eirik makes a very interesting point when I ask about sustainability and what it means for the coffee farmers. “If Robusta can reach a critical mass in speciality coffee, it will mean many of the farmers who are currently producing it, will get better prices for their crop by focusing on the quality and the processing of their coffee. This is a much more achievable option than replacing Robusta trees with Arabica ones as the costs associated with doing so is huge and the Arabica trees just doesn’t fare well at lower geographies”.
For four friends that met once a week via Skype from all corners of the world, lamenting about their jobs in finance and making a decision to get out and do something different, Black Sheep Coffee is more than simply a promising business model. It is about taking a chance, about friendship and also being able to say, in a few years from now when everyone knows what a good Robusta tastes like, that they were some of the pioneers in this exciting new avenue of coffee. And, judging by their recent, successfully funded Kickstarter campaign that will see them go from popping up to putting roots down in their current location, it seems like their customers want the same.