It’s UK Coffee Week, which is as good excuse as any to introduce you to another two fabulous coffee roasters in the North, following on from August’s initial round-up.
As more and more of us seek to perfect our own home barista skills, it’s important to make sure we seek out local roasters who are putting coffee farmers and communities first, whilst also ensuring the best possible quality and flavour when it comes to their blends.
While UK Coffee Week is a week-long campaign in which coffee shops, retailers, and brands fundraise for Project Waterfall – helping thousands of people in coffee growing communities gain access to clean drinking water, improved sanitation and a better future – independent roasters typically work to support their coffee growing communities year-round, by building strong working relationships with the farmers and exporters they use, and paying above the global commodity price for beans.
Since first publishing the 5 ethical Northern roasters to fuel your caffeine addiction post, I have discovered many more wonderful Northern roasters, all with fantastic tales to tell and equally fantastic coffee to boot. Today we meet Pilgrims Coffee in Northumberland, and Neighbourhood in Liverpool.
Sitting one mile off the north east coast of England, located mid-way between Newcastle and Edinburgh, lies the historic and beautiful Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Cut off by the sea twice a day, the island boasts beautiful landscapes and thriving artisanal businesses, including family-run, ethical coffee roastery and café, Pilgrims Coffee House.
“I met my wife, Victoria, in the catering industry when she started her first job as a waitress,” says Pilgrims co-founder Andrew Mundy. “Fast forward a bunch of years, and Pilgrims Coffee House was established in 2006 – with very little experience or sleep, but with an abundance of passion and drive!”
Of course, that doesn’t quite cover the full story. “While travelling in Australia in the early 2000’s,” he says, “I found myself inspired by the cafe culture there, and wanted to do something similar back home in Northumberland. In 2014 I began roasting coffee in a yurt at the top of the garden, initially to provide the cafe with delicious, high quality and sustainably sourced coffee. Since then though, the roastery has flourished and now operates a very successful online store, and supplies wholesale coffee to many businesses in the north east and beyond.”
Andrew’s love for coffee stems from early adulthood. “When I was about 18 I had an old Italian boss who competed in national barista competitions,” he tells me. “Back then the focus wasn’t on latte art or speciality coffee, but more on traditional Italian espresso and well steamed milk. Then a few years later in Australia I met this Lebanese guy who had a particular flair for latte art. This stoked the desire to work in coffee, and the rest is history!”
We buy from people that put people first, and coffee a very close second.
Andrew has a particular fondness for the African coffee producing countries, most notably Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda, and tells me it has been important for him and Victoria to work with importers they trust. “We’ve built solid relationships with them because our values are aligned,” he says. “We buy from people that put people first, and coffee a very close second. Because we trust them we can focus on choosing the best coffee. We have some coffees that we buy every harvest, because they are consistently great and can be relied upon for our blends. Then we have other coffees that we buy in smaller quantities for our single origin and decaf options.”
“We are working towards only using coffees that have been farmed organically,” he says. “We aren’t certified organic, although it is something we will pursue in the future. Right now we just want to know the coffee has been created with as low an impact as possible. We only have two coffees left that don’t tick this box, but we’re working to replace them with organic alternatives, and believe within a couple of months we’ll be totally organic.”
When it comes to roasting, Andrew tells me the most important factor is consistency. “To know what is happening you must know the temperature of the beans and the temperature at specific parts of the roaster,” he says. “You have the image of a perfect graph in your head when you start out roasting a new coffee, that comes from experience roasting similar coffees, and the basic principle of a constantly declining rate in a rising bean temperature. Your aim is to have a graph of logged temperatures with as smooth a line as possible, as any drastic deviations, spikes or crashes will result in poor tasting coffee. If you can keep everything the same, you can learn from the batches you have already roasted, thus allowing you to predict exactly what a coffee will do.”
Pilgrims use data logging software to track all of the variables at play during a roast. “However, it all starts from having a perfectly consistent starting point going in,” says Andrew. “This is achieved by a regimented and consistent protocol between batches. When you finish roasting a batch, you do exactly the same thing, every time, to the degree or the second! When you finish roasting and the gas is off, the roaster starts to cool, and you must make sure you let it cool by the same amount as last time so you have the same thermal mass going into the next one. If this is done correctly your graphs will look identical to the reference roast (the best tasting batch roasted to date).”
“Once your roasts are repeatable, you can start refining the variables that you control during the roast, such as the level of gas, the amount of airflow and the time at which these changes occur. When you’re dialling in a roast – which never stops as every time you roast another batch you learn something new about the coffee – it’s an ever evolving process of tasting a roast, and looking at what has a positive and a negative impact on the flavours in the cup. You can then recreate the roasts which taste the best and constantly improve how you roast a coffee!”
“In regards to roasting styles in general,” says Andrew, “our Daily Bread blend consists of coffee roasted a shade past medium and post blended. You get plenty of body, sweetness and the suggestion of acidity. The Holy Grail is comprised of coffees with greater potential acidity and high notes. The key here is to roast these coffees just enough that the coffee is sufficiently developed whilst retaining these characteristics. I’d describe them as light to medium.”
Pilgrims worked with Newcastle-based artist, filmmaker and illustrator, Theo Scott to create the quirky illustrations they use for their branding and packaging. “He already had the basis in the form of the cuties,” Andrew tells me, “he just adapted them for our needs. We love them, they’re part of the family! The designs are always evolving.”
When it comes to sustainability, Andrew tells me there is a constant battle at play whilst trying to create and maintain a successful business. “It’s something that keeps you awake at night,” he says. “We have wandered into a way of life that is completely unsustainable, at least with the planet and future generations in mind. At Pilgrims, single-use packaging is our biggest contribution, and it’s something we work on daily to try and create/find a solution to. But it’s tough, as you’re pulled in many different directions along the way. Ultimately we have decided that sustainability is our number one goal, so positive changes to our single-use packaging are in the pipeline. This aside, if you’re visiting the roastery please bring your own container, and we’ll give you 10% off for being such a good sort!”
They currently use recyclable packaging made with LDPE 4, which is the same material used for shopping bags. “No, we don’t like shopping bags either,” he says, “but it means that our bags can be recycled with carrier bags at most supermarkets, and also some home collections, giving them the greatest chance of actually being recycled. Twin this with decent barrier properties and we have a winner, for the short term. Sustainability awareness is something that’s grown in us over time. It’s at the forefront of every decision we make now, and something I would say we are passionate about. Our three young children highlight the need for responsible thinking in every aspect of life. We get all our renewable electricity from ecotricity, we use environmentally friendly cleaning products, all paper products are made from recycled materials, and our disposable packaging is all plant based compostable from vegware. We’ve also got an electric vehicle for most of our local deliveries, and use carbon-neutral DPD for all the rest. We’re investing in a Loring smart roaster, which is the most advanced and efficient gas roaster available, saving thousands of kgs of CO2 per year. We’re also a corporate sponsor and member of Trees for Life; a charity responsible for rewilding the Scottish Highlands.”
The period of lockdown would usually have been a busy time for the cafe and for wholesale orders, however this year was naturally a different story. “Fortunately online orders flourished as people searched for speciality coffee that could be delivered to their homes,” says Andrew. “Throughout lockdown our roastery remained operational, and our wonderful roaster Joe continued roasting to fulfil orders. During this time we were able to reconfigure the roastery building into two halves, one remaining the roastery and the other containing everything we needed to run a takeaway cafe service. We reopened from this repurposed half of the roastery structure on the 3 July.”
Even with the potential for further lockdown measures on the horizon, Andrew sees a solid future for the industry. “Millions of extra people staying in the UK for their holidays, and a revived focus on local producers,” he tells me. “I also feel people are moving away from bulk options, and opting for more considered purchases with a focus on quality and not necessarily price. People want to know more about what they buy, and the care and attention that has gone into it. This is what I feel Pilgrims offer.”
⊗ Pilgrims Coffee House & Roastery, Marygate, The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, TD15 2SJ. View map
Pilgrims packaging images © Matthew Baxter; Mundy family photo © Katie Ashworth; video © Christou Visuals; all used with permission.
Green coffee has flowed through the Liverpool docks for centuries, and as Liverpool’s first specialty roasters Neighbourhood Coffee founders Chris Holloway and Ed Peck know they have a great heritage to uphold. Chris initially gained entry to the coffee industry running restaurants and bars in the early 2000’s, when coffee brands such as Illy still dominated the scene, before moving into trading African specialty coffee. “Ed and I were both green coffee traders,” he tells me, “and helped start-up roasters with green coffee supplies. We knew there was a huge gap in Liverpool and Merseyside for a quality-focused roaster. Ed had lived in Ethiopia, and we had both traveled extensively in Africa, so we also knew the amazing variety and stories behind coffee, and wanted to link up producers and drinkers – hence the name, Neighbourhood.”
We wanted to link up producers and drinkers – hence the name, Neighbourhood.
The pair take pride in carefully selecting each variety of green bean ourselves. “Our long term aim is to visit every farmer every year,” says Chris, “and to work long-term with farmers and producer groups to ensure we pay sustainable prices that we help them create a market for their coffee, and work together on quality projects. We appreciate that we’re still a small company though, so we’ve made a start on that in Brazil, Colombia, and elsewhere, but since different countries operate different coffee systems, in some places it’s near enough impossible. In Ethiopia, we work with a coffee wet mill in the Yirgacheffe region called Konga that is supplied by 600 smallholder farmers, so working with them on an individual level is impossible!”
Transparency and honesty are key for Chris and Ed, along with a desire to get better prices for their coffee, and invest in quality. “We don’t tell farmers how to grow coffee,” Chris says, “as they’re very much the experts! We’re interested in exploring flavours, through improvements in processing, in picking, and in partnering with them to find people to drink their coffee. We’re in it for the long haul, and we expect bumps in the road – coffee is a seasonal agricultural product, and there will be good years and bad years! What’s really important to us is that our farmers know we have their backs, that we’ll do all we can to grow the demand for their coffee, and they’re happy to let us tell their story.”
When it comes to a personal coffee of choice, Chris tells me there is too much variety to pick just one. “If we had to say that we’d only be able to drink coffee from one country, then it’d be Ethiopia, it’s the birthplace of coffee and there’s something magical about it. But Colombia would run it a very close second! In terms of the types of brewing method, we drink everything, from espresso to milk drinks, filter, batch brew and aeropress.”
They don’t set much store by Fair Trade, Organic or RFA marks themselves. “Often the coffee we source may have these certifications, but those marks don’t always equal quality, while some of them aren’t available to the producers. For example, for a coffee to be certified Fair Trade the farmer must be part of a co-operative group, so if they aren’t their coffee can never be classified Fair Trade. Likewise, many farmers won’t use any pesticides or chemical fertilisers at all, but can’t afford the Organic certification, so their coffee can never be classed as Organic. We know the prices we buy coffee from are at levels far higher than the minimum levels guaranteed by these marks, and also far higher than the global commodity coffee price. It goes without saying that we don’t work with anyone who is exploitative, or who uses child labour. In every country we work in, there will be an exporter with whom we work, so they act as a partner and will often be in touch with the farmers and producers on a day-to-day basis.”
Neighbourhood use a 15kg Giesen double walled roaster, hooked up to Artisan roast profiling software, taking temperature, air flow, drum speed, and other measurements every second. “Each coffee will have its own temperature profile,” says Chris, “and the production team will often test multiple profiles on smaller batches before we release a coffee to sell; either online or via our wholesale partners. Each coffee will behave differently, depending on the altitude, varietal, posture content, as well as the harvest date and the conditions it was shipped in, so we quality check every coffee every week, and test every batch.”
“We have a house style,” he says, “and look for a balance of sweetness, acidity and a touch of bitterness, whilst telling the story of the coffee and paying homage to the people who grew it, and to their hard work. Roasting can only ever showcase what’s inside the bean, as we can’t add anything else in! Happily, there’s a world of flavour compounds inside each one, and our aim is to make sure that regardless of how it’s brewed, it brings a smile to the person drinking the finished cup.”
Neighbourhood rebranded a year ago using a small digital marketing company, Artisan Digital. “They have a heavyweight reputation,” says Chris, “and nailed what we are about within a day of meeting us. Up until then we had struggled to adequately communicate what we were about. They helped us find our voice and we love working with them. The branding and the language we use is meant to convey our fun-loving, easy-going nature. We’re massively serious about the quality of the coffee and the farmers we work with, but enjoying coffee should be just that – enjoyable. There’s a risk that specialist coffee people can come off as a little aloof or even ‘exclusive’. We want to break down every barrier we can, and make great coffee accessible for absolutely everyone.”
“Our packaging is now 100% recyclable, which is a huge step. The customer just has to peel the label off and then it can go in the plastics recycling, and it’s LDPE (category 4), so it’ll be remade into chairs, panelling, bin liners, or even shipping envelopes. Various roasters are trying to push the envelope with regard to sustainability, and we’re pleased that this is a first step for us.”
Neighbourhood coffees have grown a bit of a cult following in Liverpool and beyond, in no small part due to the fun and quirky names they’ve given to blends. From Guatemalan roasts Grind Control To Major Tom and This Is How We Brew it to India’s Kiss From A Roast and Ethopia’s Brew Let The Dogs Out?, each one raises a few eyebrows and plenty of laughs. “We started with just choosing them ourselves,” says Chris, “as we wanted something to catch peoples eye on the shelf, on the website, or in a cafe. They’ve been part of what we’ve done since day 1, so they’re kind of a brand standard now! It’s become a thing in its own right, and we have multiple people submitting puns, or messaging us at 3am to tell us they’ve just thought of a belter name. Entire offices have been known to submit their best ones, and we often reward the person who comes up with them with a stash of coffee bearing their pun. My personal favourite is probably (You Gotta) Fight for your Right (to Latte), or Grind Control to Major Tom – both of them have been around for ages (4 and 5 years respectively), and they are now staple offerings – the names are funny and make me smile, but the story behind them both is awesome, and developing each season.”
Like many speciality roasters, Neighbourhood offer a subscription service to customers wanting to stay in good supply of their beans. “Apart from the hassle-free existence of having coffee turn up at your house, we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to keep fuelled with awesome coffee,” says Chris. “You can select from a discovery journey, where we take you on a coffee tour, or opt for a favourite blend – if you know what you like, and you just want to keep enjoying it. Subscriptions will come with farmer details, the story behind the coffee, tasting notes, and we’ve just relaunched the subscription as a coffee club, so you earn discounts as you go. So by month 6 or 7, the coffee will be free, and we also will be dropping random gifts in there at random times, just to put unexpected smiles on faces. I would say more but they are strictly under wraps for now!”
Lockdown naturally had an effect on the roastery, particularly since they had only just moved into a new roastery space a week before the country shut down. “Happily our online orders just went nuts as everyone transitioned to working at home,” says Chris, “so we were busy enough fulfilling these, as well as sorting up and building out the roastery space.”
“Going forward we’d love to do more of what we are – make people smile with coffee. Whether that’s someone snatching 5 minutes in a busy day, or a barista in a cafe who’s serving the best coffees, or someone taking their first sip of specialty coffee, or whatever – we want to grow, to create more employment, to work with more farmers and to do it better, to tell more coffee stories and get more people involved in the neighbourhood. We’ve just moved into a much bigger space, and we’d love to see it full of happy people doing an ace job, and having a blast as they do so.”
••• There are coffee shops across the North of England serving Neighbourhood Coffee including Wylde (Wirral), The Flower Cup (Chester), Kapow (Leeds), Chapters of Us, Land, Potts Coffee and StoryHouse (all Liverpool).
Images © Neighbourhood Coffee, used with permission.
∗ You can support UK Coffee Week (19-25 Oct) by purchasing coffee from a participating coffee house (find your nearest one here). You can also support Project Waterfall directly by texting ‘COFFEE’ to 70331 to donate £3.