Thursday, January 05, 2006
Coffee to go - Bikes
Through our partnership with Singletrack magazine we have now developed a particular affinity with serious mountain biking enthusiasts.
In August 2004 we took one of the trailers to the 24 hour endurance event called "Sleepless in the Saddle" and served espresso non-stop for 32 hours!
In 2005 Hill & Valley Coffee jointly sponsored endurance teams at the Saab Salomon Mountain Mayhem event in Herefordshire and the Kona Sleepless in the Saddle at Catton Park in Derbyshire. Both are 24 hour "enduros", where good coffee is more or less essential.
As you might have noticed we filled the course with coffee beans! The genius behind the design of these shirts is Graeme Collins, our co-sponsor who is standing on the far left. Have a look at his creative design business.
Coffee to go - Horses.
For about eight months, March to October, Hill & Valley Coffee gets out on the road...
We have two espresso bar trailers that we take to outdoor events mainly in the south central and south western region of the country.
When we started in late 1999, we would turn up virtually anywhere, preaching the creed of great coffee wherever we could. With time and experience we have specialised and these days we are nearly always at a British Eventing affiliated horse trial with at least one of our trailers.
In both 2004 and 2005 the highlight of our season was in the stables area behind the scenes at the Petplan Blenheim International Horse Trials.
In 2005, the gold medal winning British squad and their support team were able to toast their victory with fresh roasted Hill & Valley Coffee!
I just had to take an hour or so off from creating this b-blog to take part in one of my favourite activities - taking in a new green coffee delivery. Anyone who knows us at all will be aware that this is one of those tasks at H&V that is all done by my own bare hands. A pallet of 12 bags of green coffee may be an insignificant drip in the global coffee ocean, but when you have to lift, drag and wrestle with each full 60-70 kg sack, you begin to feel "at one" with your product. We've already put the new coffees up in the online store in the "old site", and will be roasting all the outstanding orders tomorrow morning to get them to customers for saturday morning enjoyment.
Three or four coffees that went out of stock come straight back in :
Brazil Cachoeira Bourbon
and we have two new coffees for us :
Colombia "Relationship" Quebradon (from Huila district)
and one I'm really looking forward to getting to grips with after hearing my supplier's ravings,
Nicaragua "Finca Linda Vista" from Nueva Segovia district, a national prize winning Strictly High Grown single farm coffee grown at an altitude of 1560 metres near the north western border. The green aspect looks perfect, just the deep green I always hope for as the sign of a well - rested gourmet coffee.
Want to try already? Just go the online store now!
Hill & Valley Coffee in context
The mid 1990s saw the speciality food boom echo across the North American continent from the West Coast and in coffee the explosion originated in Seattle, in the eclectic coffee houses and gourmet coffee shops such as the original Starbucks. Still today, the Pacific North West would lay claim to the highest standard of coffee on the North American continent.
A new awareness of the variety of coffee both in origin and the way it could be served and drunk saw small enterprise grasp the banner and the independent coffee house and small town roaster was reborn. Suddenly Coffee House owner became at once a credible and viable lifestyle for free spirits across the 50 states.
With the support of the Specialty Coffee Association of America a new breed of entrepreneur became entranced with the variety of different coffee available in the exotic locations throughout the globe where coffee is produced and the constant demand was for the highest quality beans, showcased in imaginative ways. Continental Europeans have long felt that they held the high ground in the quality of coffee that they buy, although any trip around a French hypermarket would leave you at a loss as to where the fresh roasted beans were.
In the UK, despite journalistic hype and designer magazine articles the most popular beverage remains instant or soluble coffee, and monstrous multi national food companies exert a huge degree of influence over consumer choice. In the past 6 years cappuccino / latte bars ( they don't sell much espresso!) have multiplied first in London and now almost everywhere, but as yet the UK public at large has not quite figured out what it is they want in gourmet coffee. There is still an awful lot of flavoured milk being sold as “coffee”, and misinformation is the norm.
Where might it lead?
We at Hill & Valley feel that, just as it took the "wine bar boom" of the late seventies and early eighties to launch discriminating wine buying in the UK, a similar phenomenon may happen in coffee. Once the mystique of the roasting and blending process is stripped away, consumers should be liberated by recognising the different taste characteristics that can be brought out in a correctly brewed coffee. More people may begin to demand the freshest beans possible, which is the sole way to guarantee the release of the volatile flavours in the cup and not at the roasting factory. Conventional channels of retail distribution cannot support this need, and a direct relationship between drinker and roaster is the logical consequence to ensure delivery as soon as possible after roasting.
There is no doubt that the interests of “big food” and “big shop” run counter to this trend and the offer of beans in all supermarkets remains derisory. Unlike in Germany, Switzerland and the USA, no attempt is made to allow the consumer to grind his own beans at the store, the absolute minimum requirement for an attempt to preserve coffee flavours intact for the drinker at home. The “real” coffee market continues to be dominated by mass produced (large batch roasted) pre-ground (pre-deteriorated) coffee in fancy packaging (glamour not taste) roasted in 3 or 4 monstrous factories dotted around the UK.
The current trend for various "ethical" brands of coffee does nothing to improve consumer knowledge of the simple truths behind a good cup of coffee. Hopefully as we engage more and more individuals in this debate, we can remove the patronising approach to growers and make more people aware of the virtues of drinking coffee produced by enterprising small businesses, whose absolute priority is delivering a high quality product, not holding out their hand for a conscience-salving handout.
Secrets of the Trade
Dominated as it is by monstrous global food companies, the roasting sector has up to now done all it can to hide it's processes from the consumer. (Some soluble coffee factories are harder to get inside than a nuclear power station!) The consumer has been led to believe that the process must be complicated and hard to understand.
Nothing could be further from the truth, but a realisation of the simplicity is a threat to the stranglehold of the brand. Coffee people in producing countries are almost without exception open hearted folk. Coffee cherries have to be picked by hand, often in mountain locations, and then nurtured on their processing journey to the hard nutty green bean. It is the work of the gardener, not the alchemist. Next time you are in the supermarket look at the packets of blends - where did the coffee come from? Would you drink wine that comes from "various countries"? How do you know what makes it taste like that? Could it taste better? Should it taste better for that price?
At Hill & Valley we will tell you everything you want to know about our coffee. We can bore you to death with it, if you like. The few blends we offer are not secret recipes - they are our opinion of what goes well with what - that's all. Our single origin coffees are just that. We try where we can to ensure tracability from individual family owned farms or growers co-operatives who seek accolades for their high quality. Where this is not possible, we support producers in evocative areas, such as the highlands of Ethiopia and coffee grown by failing tribal peoples in Indonesia. But only if the coffee measures up in the cup! We don't sell a "Kenya Blend", but we do have a Kenya AA Main Crop most of the time. We ask you to trust in the fact that we do not want to keep secrets from you. All we are is the means for you to appreciate the grower's craft in your cup. It is they who deserve your praise, not us, or any secret techniques that we may pretend to employ.
Come Discover with us!
We'd like you to go on a voyage of discovery in coffee and we'll try to help you along the way. Like us you'll find certain combinations that "hit the spot" and you'll stick with them for a while. You'll dabble, like us, and experiment. That's the fun. You shouldn't blend wines from different growing regios, but you as sure as hell can and should try blending coffees sometimes! We'll help you through the secrets of brewing - they are few. Grind just before brewing; use good water; get the right temperature; extract at the optimum rate for the machinery; wash up well. That is the route to coffee perfection.
The real secret about making great coffee is that it is not expensive or especially slow, but it can be wonderfully ritualistic. Espresso drinking in the morning in Italy is a ritual. A Cafezinho in Rio is a ritual. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony where coffee is roasted, brewed and drunk is the original coffee ritual. Take joy in your own coffee ritual, whatever it is - and never forget the many bare hands that your coffee had to pass through before it got to your lips.
Beans - why beans, not ground?
Simple - grinding takes away freshness. The outer skin of the bean is nature's way of guarding the flavour within. Once this seal is broken, a big part of the goodness flies away before it gets to the packet, never mind your cup. Each roasted coffee bean is a flavour capsule that the roaster has carefully allowed to stabilise with the volatile aromatics locked inside. We could try to explain the chemistry, but you can prove it yourself. Grind some coffee beans. Smell it. Come back in five minutes. Smell it again. Where did it go? Not in your cup. At Hill & Valley we will only sell you beans. Of course, if you don't see the importance you could try going to Majestic and try to buy some opened wine, but you may feel a little silly, and we don't really want to share it with you. So, please if you don't want to hurt our feelings, buy yourself a grinder from the vast array now available and never ask us to send you ground coffee.
Our role in the market today
When we started selling fresh coffee beans online in 2000, along with one or two others in the UK, we were pretty much pioneers in the field. That is not the case any more and we sincerely hope that this means that the sector overall is growing to the detriment of mass produced coffee. Those that buy their coffee in bean form from an online seller remain an extremely select band and in terms of the overall market for coffee in the UK, the whole sector remains statistically insignificant. In the last two years or so there has been a tendency of all these small roasters to buy from the best one or two importers and diversity of offer is not always what it should be. This seems a little unfair on the consumer, who deserves to be guided towards real choices.
The problem with coffee is that the subtle nuances of flavour between fine types can be undetectable, except to an experienced taster in control conditions. Variation in roast, water, brewing concentration and freshness / grind frequently masks these differences. This means that any offer of variety to the consumer must genuinely show detectable differences, ie. a real choice.
For this reason in 2006 we have decided to somewhat change our approach to our product range. We will be offering fewer coffees at any one time (rarely more than 8 or 10), but we will be offering distinguishable “styles” and rotate within those style bands frequently. In particular we hope to bring back coffees that you cannot find elsewhere from time to time and will be even more rigorous with ourselves on the issue of freshness, both green and roasted.
We have also decided after a certain amount of soul searching to withdraw from selling on our green beans in small quantities suitable for roasting in popcorn poppers and other kitchen devices. There are others supplying this market now, often with the same coffees, and having spent 20 odd years in trading green coffee, we hope you'll excuse us if we concentrate elsewhere. We have kept our bulk sales of green beans available to support semi-professional roasters who have to buy in smaller volumes.
Hill & Valley Coffee Deep Background
Charlie became a “coffee nut” in his teenage years at university in London and shares the passion for an excellent cup or the perfect espresso with Hill & Valley Coffee's regular online customers. Having been a devoted espresso drinker since his first trip to Italy 25 years ago, Charlie says the taste is now enriched by knowing the secrets of those blends. His one souvenir of a romantic trip to Florence and Rome in 1982 was a Gaggia Espresso Machine and two kilos of locally roasted beans, which he found impossible to replace in the UK.
Career in Coffee
Schooled as a futures trader in the wild commodity markets of the late seventies, Charlie worked in green coffee trading for 15 years before launching Hill & Valley Coffee on the web. He has travelled extensively in coffee producing regions in Latin America, Africa and Indonesia. During the late 1980's he co-ordinated green coffee buying for one of the leading importers to the Italian market and he discovered the true passion held by small roasters in Italy for their coffee and the secrets behind the arcane world of blending for espresso. Having formed a successful import and pioneering speciality roasting business in Poland in the 1990's, Charlie understands “both sides” of the market intimately.
Direct to the Drinker
Today Hill & Valley Coffee continues to focus directly on the consumer - the appreciative drinker of a fine cup of coffee. Since 2003 Hill & Valley Coffee no longer provides wholesale coffee on account. The complement to the online store are Hill & Valley's twin espresso bars at outdoor events and The Coffee Tree coffee house in Aylesbury. Hill & Valley Coffee is not available through re-sellers and the highest quality and absolute freshness remain twin mantras.
The Journey Continues
For 2006, Charlie has decided to purify the coffee offering by distilling a range of more than 20 single origins and blends down to 8-10 rotating coffees of different styles, challenging Hill & Valley coffee's customers to continue their journey of coffee discovery with him and not to get fixed on one particular favourite, or to be seduced by "gimmick coffee".
Every bean of coffee roasted by Hill & Valley Coffee is hand roasted by Charlie and the final cup is the result of Charlie's passions and taste preferences.
Five years on Hill & Valley continues to prosper in it's "micro-niche". Most customers are valued long termers who understand the simple value of a carefully grown, rigorously selected and carefully roasted FRESH coffee bean, delivered to the doorstep straight after roasting.
A Life in the Grinder - Chapter 1
First Brew at the theatre of Coffee.
I can remember my first encounter with “real” coffee, but can't bring it down to month or year or even remember my exact age. I can just remember my Dad coming through to the dining table with a scruffy cardboard box from which he began to take various pieces of unfamiliar glassware. I was probably the early sixties and that means I could only have been seven or eight years old. Real coffee at home in those days was either “Kona” coffee or it was just made by pouring boiling water over the grounds in an earthenware jug.
We were middle class (or so we thought) so we had a Kona coffee maker. Like some pre yuppy era barbecue ritual, it was definitely Dad's job to brew the "proper" coffee in the "proper" equipment, so it didn't happen that often! I can remember the ritual though: the assembly of the tripod with it's double - decker glass jug arrangement; the careful slotting of a glass rod into the neck of the glass funnel and above all the small squashed glass jar with it's wick and the intoxicating methylated spirits that he decanted in carefully. Incongrously, I can distinctly remember being told that "Tramps drink this" and "It makes you go blind", each time the ritual occurred.
The wick was then lit and carefully slid in below the whole arrangement. Last of all the coffee tin was prized open and the gritty brown powder was poured into the funnel above the water. I can remember there was some aroma from the grounds, but it was nothing to what I experience today! My Dad probably then would use another match from the same box of “Swan Vestas” or “England's Glory” to light his pipe and sit back to patiently await the performance.
Once the wick was lit, nothing happened for ages. My brother and I didn't even believe it was burning as the flame was invisible. How could an invisible flame heat up that big decanter full of water? Only the brown stain slowly appearing at the base of the water decanter and a few lazy bubbles in the water gave any clue to what might be about to happen. But eventually this device lifted out of some 2nd form chemistry lesson began to perform. And what a spectacular impossible-to-understand performance it was to an eight year old audience. The curtain raiser was the increase in the bubbles down below. Eventually they got to some sort of peak of frenzy, there was a pause, and then slowly but relentlessly there appeared to be some sort of levitation of the coffee grounds above, accompanied by mud-geyser like eruptions. At first there seemed to be no relation whatsoever to what was happening below, but eventually after a few seconds I could see that the water level below was in fact falling and the water was re-appearing out of the top of the spout below the coffee grounds in the funnel. Soon some sort of tipping point was reached and the grounds above began to convulse on the surface of the liquid frothing and surging about in the increasingly dark brown soup that was forming.
Dad seemed to know how to bring the whole performance to an end just before the water ran out below and he removed the burner from the base of the tripod. Now, in defiance of all pre-adolescent knowledge of gravity, the liquid, and the weight, was in the upstairs part. But this lasted a short few seconds after the flame was removed. Then it was “about turn” and the liquid (miraculously less the grounds) gurgled it's way back down the funnel. I could never understand it (and truthfully it troubles me slightly to this day!), but that slender glass rod that had been placed in the funnel mouth was the key to the whole operation. Most particularly it somehow prevented the coffee that was now in the bottom jug from being full of the swollen coffee grounds. Amazing!
I loved the sounds and I loved the smell, but most of all I loved the theatre of it. I can't say I loved the coffee (that came later) as we rarely got to taste any unless it was merely the colouring to some hot milk and dredgings of demerara sugar . We did get hot chocolate though, which not surprisingly we preferred. We sat as adults "after dinner" and shared out the After Eights if the clock allowed it!
As a teenager I soon forgot the “Kona” ritual. Staying at the table after we'd eaten seemed pointless with either a neglected record player upstairs or mates to rendez-vous with. The apparatus seemed to stay in it's box most evenings and Mum and Dad never seemed to “entertain” other adults with it. Maybe the magic glass rod got broken. Apparently everybody else's did and the manufacturer still does a roaring trade in the replacement rods. You can't exactly find them in Tesco's can you? I seem to remember there was a short phase of making “proper” coffee in a pale green earthenware jug, but this had little interest to us and like most of our generation Nescafe became “coffee” to us.
Thankfully puberty sorted me out...but that's for chapter two.
Hill & Valley Coffee in 2006
We've decided to re-vamp our corporate website this year and it will become solely a storefront for our online freshly roasted coffee sales.
As we introduce new coffees to our range you will find out about them first here and hopefully we will also be able to post some interesting stories for you to pass comment on as well.