I picked up a hire car in London early in the morning, looking forward to the three hour drive through a part of the country I have not yet seen. My enthusiasm is dampened somewhat with the traffic around Euston station, a troll in a convertible and rain clouds promising to let loose after a spell of sunny days – which, might have been the reason for said troll’s questionable behaviour. An hour out of London, the traffic subsides, the mini cloudburst suddenly makes room for the sun we have now taken for granted and the rolling greenery of the country side.
I arrive at the roastery around lunch time to be greeted by a very polite and friendly fourteen year old Jacob, whom I correctly assumed to be Peter’s son. Jacob goes to tell his father that I’m there, comes back and asks that question you wait for when you arrive at a roastery, especially after driving three hours – “Would you like a coffee”? He prepares a perfect pour over with the confidence and conviction normally seen in your favourite coffee shop. I can tell that here, in this roastery, coffee is very much a family affair.
I then join father and son for something to eat in town and try to write down furiously all the bits of information and UK coffee trivia that I need to research for blog features in between conducting the interview and navigating the cheeseboard I’m having for lunch.
Name: Peter James
Been roasting since: 2003
Learnt to roast on a: Diedrich
Now roasting on a: Pinhallense / Diedrich IR12 and a Loring Kestrel
I drink: I taste a lot of coffee and drink it for pleasure on weekends and those rare occasions - like holidays
Favourite coffee: Broadly speaking nothing can touch a well produced Ethiopian natural or a top washed Kenya. Qualities the rest of the world can’t emulate.
My home brewing secret: Filtered water & fresh beans keeps the good roaster’s promise
Peter, you have been working with speciality coffee for a long time. Can you tell us in a bit more detail how you came into coffee?
Like many in the industry, I come from a cheffing background and also worked in Horticulture for some time. Sixteen years ago, I used to do contract packing for a company selling coffee. After a while, I moved on to buying green beans and having them roasted for me. The move towards roasting myself was gradual and in 2003, I bought 2 Diedrich roasters (back in the day they were about the same price as a single Probat) and began self studying and experimenting.
Going it on your own couldn’t have been easy. What memories do you have of that 1st period starting out?
The 1st year was hard. I knew what I wanted the coffee to taste like and made a decision early on to absolutely focus on the quality of the green beans, but roasting coffee as a beginner that tasted consistently great was difficult. The frustration of having to throw away kilos of test batches because I wasn’t 100% happy was at times very tangible. But, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and despite many mistakes, the process of learning was fast and the times when I was happy with what I roasted became more and more frequent quite quickly.
Even when I ask roasters who have been roasting for 5 years how much the scene has changed since they started, they all agree that it has changed quite a lot. I can only imagine, looking back 16 years, how different coffee in the UK must have been. What did the coffee scene look like then?
It was very very different. Strangely enough, coffee was in a sense more commercial back then. The majority of roasted beans was sold in Deli’s but for the most part, it was varying forms of charcoal, roasted to a crisp.The deli owner would barely be able to tell you from which country the beans were, let alone the farm or varietal. Guys like Bill McAlpin started sending much higher quality coffee to the UK, but 9/11 impacted the import and the large scale supply of quality green beans suffered as a result.
The curious thing was that, when you did come across an amazing coffee, it was like two totally different drinks. The contrast was just so obvious.
Would you say being a chef first impacts how you view coffee?
I guess it does in some way. I see coffee as an ingredient that needs to be looked after and nurtured, from the farmer all the way to the barista. Making my contribution as a roaster to bring out the best out of the bean I possibly can, remains exciting.
Where do you get your coffee from, importers or direct trade?
Over the years we
You are being vague on purpose. Give us a hint!
(Peter laughs out loud) Nope. I’m playing this one close to my chest. You’ll just have to wait.
I’ve met Jacob and you have mentioned Anni a couple of times. It must be a privilege to be able to have the roastery as part of the family?
It is. At the very beginning it was even more so! My sister used to do the books, my parents would help out with the deliveries and my brother helped out a lot. Anni is here a large part of her day (she is also a studio photographer) and Jacob is interested in coffee as well. (Jacob told me the plan was to qualify as a chef and then open a brew bar. Judging by the single coffee he made me, he’d be doing well for himself)
When it came to picking a coffee for BlankBox, Peter wanted to make sure he provided the right coffee. He asks about how our subscribers drink their coffee, thinks a bit and then makes his suggestion. You can see this is a guy that, even after so many years in the business, still enjoy that feeling some of us know. The feeling of making someone a great cup of coffee.
Peter doesn’t keep a formal blog, but the write-ups on the coffees and products he sells are quite extensive – and funny. Have a look at JamesGourmetCoffee.com