To get to Newcastle, I catch an old but beautiful beast of a train from King’s Cross. I’m on my way to meet Stuart-Lee, director and roaster at Pumphreys Coffee – a company with an history stretching back to 1750. I met Paula Archer, Stuart-Lee’s sister at the London Coffee Festival back in April 2013 and my eyes popped when I heard just how long they’ve been around.
Their name has been on a list of roasters I wanted to feature since April, but Newcastle being a bit far, it was easy to put off the journey through the beautiful greenery of England to go and meet them. Having been there and having tasted the goods, I’m happy I did.
Name: Stuart-Lee Archer
Been roasting since: 2010 full time, but helping his uncle for the last 10 years
Learnt to roast on a: Whitmee 28lb (pre-WW2) & larger 156lb (just post war)
Now roasting on a: Still the same two machines
I drink: Golden Ales and IPAs
Favourite coffee: My desert island coffee will be a Yirgacheffe – it’s never the same but always good
Coffee Party Trick: Setting the roaster on fire – 3 times.
My home brewing secret: Spend as much money as you can on a good grinder and always grind fresh
It’s a Thursday morning and I leave the backpackers in central Newcastle with a smile on my face as I’ll have enough time for a huge breakfast at the cafe next door before meeting Stuart-Lee. Googlemaps indicates that Pumphreys is literally around the corner from where I rested my tired head the night before.
I find the Pumphreys Coffee Emporium in the centre of Granger market. A large, permanent stand, with serving counters on both sides. The contrast of antique containers holding a wide range of coffees with the modern espresso machine and home brewing equipment, draws you in and, of course, the smell of freshly ground coffee does it’s bit to help you make up your mind in case you were on a very narrow fence.
I realise immediately though that this is not a roastery and remember vaguely reading that there are two sites. So much for being on time. Eve is one of the three ladies making sure that customers remember their visit to the Emporium for a combination of great tasting coffee and that warm Georgie hospitality. I have a espresso and flat white, to get a hint of what is waiting for me at the roastery. Delicious. I leave reluctantly as I could savour the ladies’ company and the ambience of the Emporium a bit more.
On arrival, I’m greeted by another broad smile as Paula welcomes me to the roastery and showroom amongst a beautiful an even wider selection of Espresso machines and coffee kit. Whilst waiting for Stuart-Lee, Daisy, the Showroom manager, prepares me another espresso. There are worst jobs than mine, I think to myself.
Stuart-Lee is a large and amiable guy that laughs often as he proudly shows me the two Whitmee roasters that have been churning out delicious coffees for decades to their customers. “These are open-flame roasters”, he says. “The drum speed and the temperature are constants so the only variables you have to work with is the volume of beans and the roast time.” I can immediately understand how this makes the process easier in some ways but more difficult in others. He explains how the taste is also greatly influenced by which of the two roasters they decide to use and I can see that he enjoys explaining the process and subtle differences in roasting with these beauties.
I ask him whether he ever thought about replacing the Whitmees with a more modern roaster that allows for accurate profiling and control over each imaginable variable. “I wouldn’t mind having a more technical machine as a 3rd roaster, but only to see if I can replicate what we achieve on the Whitmees. The problem with more modern machines and having such a level of control is that you don’t stumble across something if you are trying to make it. With the Whitmees I discover nuances in taste all the time – I like being surprised”.
I ask if the quality of the coffee can compare to that produced by such technically superior machines. He smiles a very broad smile while he is quickly counting in his head before he answers. “Five out of the twelve coffees in the UKBC finals in 2012 were roasted on Whitmees, I think it compares perfectly well.”
After the roast we head up to the tasting room and he makes me a couple of coffees using a Yemeni natural he’ll be entering this year’s UKBC with. I ask about how he handles the legacy of such an established brand with the more modern coffee science. As he recently became a director I suspect it is something that he must be thinking about often and he’s answer reflects that he does indeed. ” We have customers that bought coffee from Pumphreys, and only Pumphreys, for their whole lives. When a company is this old, it takes on a life of it’s own and you have a responsibility towards it’s customers not to taint their experience. There will definitely be some changes to how we operate but it is like turning a very large ship – you cannot turn to quickly”.
I can sense that Stuart is as serious about the quality of the coffees they offer as he is about the way the business operates. And, I’m sure, the Phumphreys ship is in very capable hands with him at the helm.