Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we talk to Roastworks, a pioneering roastery that’s set its sights on shaking up the UK’s specialty coffee scene.
For a time, Will Little hated coffee.
He’d been surrounded by it from a young age after his parents opened a roastery in the late 80s and, like any rebellious kid, was determined not to follow in their footsteps. But then things changed.
“My mum’s Finnish and my dad’s American,” he tells me. “They used to travel to California during winters and were inspired by the second wave coffee scene in places like Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay Area. When they came back to Finland, they opened their own coffee business, Little’s.
“In the 90s, coffee wasn’t cool at all. I also hated it, I thought it was crap. So for me, it didn’t even register on the list of things I wanted to do with my life.”
While studying to be a graphic designer in the UK, Will met his wife, Caroline, and the pair moved to London to pursue jobs in the creative industry. It was during this time that Will started to notice coffee more and more.
“As fate would have it, I worked right near where Monmouth had a café, so I would often smell roasting coffee, which was reminiscent of home,” he says.
“At the same time, Square Mile had just started up and were doing pour-over filter coffee using lighter roasts. They had this little place called Penny University where they used drip filter methods. It kind of blew my mind and I was hooked from there.”
It wasn’t long before Will and Caroline packed up their things and left London to help out with Little’s, where Will continues to be managing director. It provided them with a firm grounding not only in coffee production, but also in the competitive world of retail.
Yet after four or five years, they decided they wanted something different.
“I suppose you could say I had this artisanal itch,” Will says. “We’d raised the bar with Little’s, but I realised I wanted to do something more in specialty.
“I saw a gap in the market and felt there was no-one pushing specialty coffee into the brick-and-mortar retail sector at the time. In 2015 and 2016, you could walk into any supermarket in the UK and specialty coffee basically wasn’t represented. At least not in the way I wanted to do it.”
The rise of supermarket specialty
If you walk down any supermarket coffee aisle in the UK, you’ll notice that the vast majority of options are instant and freeze-dried coffees.
While they tick the boxes for a caffeine fix and basic coffee taste, they tend to be miles away from the complexity and flavour of specialty coffee. Noticing this, Will decided to do something about it.
“With Roastworks, I wanted to make specialty coffee more accessible,” he says. “Not only does it taste better [than commodity coffee], we believe it’s a solution to a lot of problems, whether ethical, environmental, or socio-economic.
“It was always a retail-first proposition, trying to put good coffee where good coffee isn’t.”
Roastworks launched in 2016, with a 1971 Probat LG12 for roasting and an ambition to shake up the world of supermarket coffee. And things got off the ground fairly swiftly.
While working for Little’s, Will and Caroline had built up several strong connections in retail and soon had a listing in Marks and Spencer, one of the UK’s premium supermarkets.
Roastworks’ distinctive black-and-gold bags started to appear on shelves up and down the country, stirring excitement among consumers.
They quickly outgrew the Probat and replaced it with Will’s dad’s refurbished 60kg roaster, now the “heart and soul of the roastery”.
Business was booming and more supermarkets had started to take notice, among them Waitrose and Wholefoods. Yet despite their success, Will tells me that, from the start, they’ve faced some challenges.
One of them is the issue of freshness. Unlike selling directly from the roastery, retail coffee can often spend weeks, if not months, sitting on the shelf before being consumed.
Naturally, this brings into question the issue of how roasters can prevent their coffee from losing its quality before it reaches the consumer.
“You can nitro flush all you want, put your degassing valves in, all this sort of technical stuff, but it doesn’t change the fact that coffee isn’t going to taste great if it’s six months old, especially if it’s pre-ground,” Will explains. “So that’s been a big challenge for us.”
However, Roastworks were among the first roasters to include a “roasted on” date, which gives consumers a good idea of when their coffee was roasted.
Will says they also avoid selling to the UK’s vast number of farm shops, where product turnover is relatively low and the coffee is more likely to spend months on the shelf. This helps ensure their coffee is as fresh as possible when consumed.
A coffee pod epiphany
Coffee pods, like supermarket coffee, have often struggled to carve out a space in the specialty market. Question marks over freshness, quality, and more recently, sustainability, have led many specialty consumers to turn their nose up at coffee pod companies like Nespresso.
For years, Will felt the same way – but then he had something of an epiphany.
“As a company, we’d explored the Nespresso market and I’d basically written it off. I didn’t like them, I thought they were naff, and bad for the environment.
“Then I went to visit Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood and he brewed me a coffee. I drank it and said, ‘Wow, that’s really good. What is that?’
“He told me it was a coffee pod, and I couldn’t believe it. I think it was a Panama Esmeralda Geisha, and it was unreal – probably one of the best coffees I’d ever had.
“So I started thinking, ‘If he can do that with it, what can we do?’ So we launched our own Nespresso-compatible coffee pods.
“They’re made from 100% aluminium, which is the most abundant metal on earth, and they’re infinitely recyclable, so there’s a lot going for them from an environmental perspective. And they taste really good. They have this character and sweetness and complexity – I love them.”
Like their supermarket core range, Roastworks has managed to find a sweet spot in the coffee pod market. Affordably priced and widely available, yet high-quality and sustainable, they adhere to the brand’s central philosophy of making specialty coffee more inclusive.
Their training centre and cupping area – called The Lab – was established with the same intention. Set up to create both an interesting place for cupping and give consumers a peek behind the curtain of roasting, it helps promote a more transparent and generally more friendly specialty coffee market.
As Will points out, “The market has done a good job of alienating people. Now’s the time to change that.”
Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? Next time, we’ll be speaking to The Boy & The Bear, a small chain of specialty coffee shops in California with inextricable links to Colombia.
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Photo credits: Roastworks