By way of tradition, here's the last post of 2023 with a review of our year, highs and lows and what's to come.
- New bags
- Building news
- Events and origin trips
- Special coffees
- 1% for the planet contributions
- UK Roasting Championships
- Rocket Espresso Experience Centre
- The year in numbers
Good things come to those who wait and we were very very patient waiting for our new bags to be finalised at the beginning of 2023. There were lots of to's and fro's with the manufacturer to get them absolutely as we wanted, which meant a lengthy period of 'temporary bags'.
We asked local artist George Goodwin (@omgidrawedit) to create a new design that wrapped around the entire bag and illustrated the journey of coffee from harvesting, processing, fermentation, drying, roasting, brewing through to drinking. All done in George's unique and fun style.
We investigated and discussed different materials for a long time with the supplier and finalised on PCR (Post Consumer Recycled) plastic where a minimum of 80% of the construction comes from recycled sources. They're single layer and are easily recycled in the household recycling.
In an ideal world we'd be able to use bags that are fully compostable at home, but to maintain a good level of freshness an oxygen barrier needs to protect the beans. In the distant past we had 4 layered bags with an aluminium lining which were absolutely the best material for maintaining freshness... but they were not easily recyclable... not at all.
These are a 'modern' packaging material and no doubt the technology in food safe packaging will continue to develop. Hopefully in time, we as an industry will go another step in eliminating plastic.
We've had amazing feedback on the bags from our customers, both retail and wholesale. Ultimately it's the quality of the coffees inside that really count and we hope people love both the insides and the outsides equally.
The start of the year gave rise to a lot of anguish and confusion over our future at our current location. We took on a 6 year lease in October 2019, when 2025 seemed a long way off. The building was sold to developers in February of this year, and even though they did visit to inspect their new premises, at no point did they explain what their intentions were. The first we knew about our unlikely future in the building was a council notice on the lamp-post outside the front door, stating they were applying for a 'variation' on an existing (10 year old) planning application.
There was a huge and immediate backlash against this from customers, supporters and friends. That backlash was unfortunately misguided and mis-directed although it did send the owners and their local agents a strong message that they couldn't just do what they wanted without considering the consequences to local businesses and residents.
Ultimately they will develop the site into flats and plan to do that as soon as our lease expires in October 2025. One thing that many of us involved learned through this process is that a planning application that has been approved previously cannot be quashed.
What this means is that 2024 will be our last full year at Basement 130 Fore Street. We will need to find a new home and due to the difficulty finding a suitable site for a roasting operation in the city, we'll likely split the cafe and roasting businesses physically (they are already separate entities administratively). I'd always wanted a cafe-roastery site having been inspired by many of them in Australia before starting Crankhouse. It won't be the end of that dream and desire. It will just be different.
When I get to writing the 2024 wrap-up I'd like to think we have firm ideas for future site(s), or perhaps even contracts in place.
We were involved in a couple of special events through the year, the first was held at Assembly Coffee in Brixton where fermentation specialist Lucia Solis was live (virtually) from her home in Colombia. Through a collaboration with Lucia, Cat from Cata Exports, Emma from Algrano and Nick from Assembly we roasted and tasted the same coffee fermented 3 ways during one of Lucia's Fermentation training camps. I had attended one of Lucia's camps back in 2022 and we discussed then a way of bringing FTC coffees over to the UK.
The event was a sell-out and through sales of coffees on the night and then online and also through a special parnership with Tom from Skinny Dip Coffee in Margate we raised just under £1200 which we rounded up to £1500 and sent to Lucia. She was thrilled and used the funds to funds to sponsor two producer spots at the next FTC camp.
Through Lucia's fermentation discord and podcast I'd met (virtually) a producer from India, Pranoy. He wanted to understand the UK speciality marketplace and planned a visit to coincide with the London Coffee Festival. I knew by just speaking to him that we could form a strong connection and that with his knowledge of fermentation and processing that his coffees were likely to be good from his farm Kerehaklu Estate. I don't think Jack and I were quite prepared for exactly how good.
Pranoy extended his stay in the UK and came down to see us in Exeter and we hosted a cupping of some of his Arabicas and a Robusta. The turnout was good, with some regulars and new attendees intrigued by Indian speciality coffee. During his visit and he asked if we'd be interested in being a part of a special project he'd been working on, a Koji fermented Liberica.
Our experience of the various 120 or so species that have been identified and classified under the Coffea Genus is pretty much limited to 2: Arabica and Robusta. They make up 99% of cultivated coffees, but there is a growing movement towards finding alternative species that might be suitable and help ensure we have a supply of coffee as the effects of climate change take a firm grip. This article gives a good overview of the origins of this species, previous attempts at cultivation and its characteristics. Most of us in speciality coffee were first made aware of the Asian rice mould Koji being used to ferment coffee by the work of Christopher Feran. His blog post is well worth a read and describes how that Koji fermentations work in a very different way to yeasts and bacteria. The motivation for his study was to see if this ancient method for fermenting foods in Japan and China could improve the flavour profile of coffee.
It was challenging for a few reasons. Firstly, we'd never seen let alone roasted Liberica before. Secondly, Pranoy had only processed a very small quantity of green coffee which he was sending us to roast, 1.3Kg. The smallest batch size we'd ever roasted in Loretta was 2Kg previously so roasting this tiny batch of unfamiliar coffee was never going to be easy. One shot only, just one chance to get something decent from it. The result was interesting and definitely something that opened up the conversation about Liberica and Koji.
We're currently waiting to hear what lots Pranoy is planning on sending across to the UK next year (he's in full Arabica harvest right now). I have no doubt we'll be adding Indian Arabica (and possibly Robusta to our offer list).
In May I took my first visit to Africa and went to Rwanda hosted by Raw Material coffee and their in country partner Muraho trading. Kigali was clean, modern and full of energy and even though our extra trip to Burundi was cancelled it was eye opening and energising nonetheless. We visited 5 processing stations in the week and the welcomes form the workers at each station were unforgettable. You know they're putting on a show as they've been instructed to do but it seemed far from a chore. They were genuinely excited to welcome us and the singing and dancing just kept going on and on. Abstaining was not an option, and it was quite an intoxicating experience.
Particular highlights for me were the stations and their vistas around Lake Kivu up in the Nyamasheke region with Gisheke taking the top spot. Evidence of landslides and heavy rains were everywhere and at one point we got caught in a deluge which was literally like standing under a power shower. The run to the boat on the shore of Kivu is a memory that will last a long time, as is the rhythmic stamping of the coffee cherries to break down the mucilage prior to floating and grading by density in the serpentine channels.
Jack had his second origin trip since joining Crankhouse and he went back to Colombia in October this year with the fabulous team at Raw Material. The visit was focused mainly around the Villamaria association that we've been buying from for the past seven years, but also included a trip to the DESCAFECOL decaffeination plant and some time at Raw Material's El Fenix farm. Full trip report and pictures here.
Special coffees and special relationships
We've had some extraordinary coffees throughout 2023 and there are a few in particular I want to mention.
First up are coffees from Sebastian Ramirez and his farm El Placer. I visited Sebastian last year before I embarked on Lucia's fermentation camp, and we met again at El Fenix later on in the year. We've been buying from El Placer for three years now and Sebastians coffees are always complex and delicious. This year we've had a Natural LM Pink Bourbon that was absolutely stunning, a Black Honey CM Pink Bourbon that was delicate and fizzy, and we currently have on a White Honey CM Gesha that is so incredibly floral and tropical.
I feel a special connection with Sebastian and want to continue building that relationship and representing his coffees. We have three more coffees from him recently landed and are very much looking forward to sharing them with you. Some sad news came through from Sebastian last week, his faithful and beautiful cattle dog Niña passed away at the weekend. She was clearly an important part of Sebastian's life and I was very happy to have met her a few times. RIP Niña.
Another Colombian producer that I was fortunate to meet and connect with again this year is Wilton Benitez. His coffees are are crazy and complex and this year we've had an anaerobic natural TS Orange Bourbon and an anaerobic washed TS Gesha which tasted like peach and mango cordial. Extraordinary stuff from an extraordinary producer.
My personal favourite of the year is from a producer I have yet to meet, Jhoan Vergaras and his farm La Flores in Huila, Colombia. He co-owns El Divisio with Nestor Lasso (yes we've had some of his coffees too this year) and the similarities in advanced thermal shock processing is evident. The particular coffee was a washed Java and for me it was so incredibly clean and almost effervescent tasting of blackcurrant and elderflower. It's the first coffee we've taken the effort to freeze.
For the third year we had the IREME anaerobic natural from Gasharu coffee in Rwanda. Gasharu is owned and managed by Valentin Kimenyi and another likeable producer that it felt easy to connect with. Year on year this coffee never fails to impress with its complexity of character. We've secured a small amount again which will be arriving early 2024.
Finally, this year we bought four coffees from the same Kenyan producer Rosebella Langat and her farm Chepsangor Estate. I met Rosebella at Lucia's fermentation camp last year and we worked via a green importer to bring four different processed coffees over to the UK. Washed, Natural, Anaerobic Natural and 'Sleeping Bag Anaerobic Natural'. We've already released the washed and the natural will follow shortly as well as a four pack showcasing how processing influences and determines flavour profile.
There are many more standout coffees we've had the pleasure of sharing this year and I hope you can see from the above examples that it's the connections we've made over the past few years that are of great importance. In particular our relationships with importer's Raw Material and Cata Exports have special significance and building on these is something I'd like to see us continue to do as a priority in the way that we source our coffees.
1% percent for the planet contributions
This has been our second full year of making contributions to various organisations that are working on projects to help save our planet. The commitment made is to give 1% of the annual turnover of your business to one or more chosen organisations.
In addition to the above we try and make an effort to purchase from suppliers that are also One percent for the planet members. I'm sure we do less than some in our efforts, but just as likely we do more than most. I'm determined to continue supporting these organisations both local and international and hope you approve of these efforts.
ZHAW Certificate of Advanced Studies in Coffee Excellence
At the time of writing this newsletter/blog I have only one remaining task to do to complete this course run by the Coffee Excellence centre at Zurich University, the final exam.
The course has been incredibly detailed and covered all aspects of coffee including it's history, botany, taxonomy, trading, through roasting chemistry, grinding, decaffeination, then extraction kinetics and chemistry and sensory science. WOW. It makes me tired just thinking about all the pdf's, slides and other media I've been through over the 14 months of the course. One of the major highlights was meeting some of my fellow students and our course module leaders and administrators at the World of Coffee in Milan.
There have been moments when the 6-7 hrs (minimum) per week has felt somewhat onerous whilst running a small business and all that that entails. But, I've always relished a challenge and always wanted to know the 'why' of things. This has been an amazing journey and I'll miss my regular 'virtual' class, engaging with some of the worlds experts on various topics and being able to ask them questions, however trivial. Assuming I pass the final exam I'll be sure to post a picture of my certificate in a subsequent newsletter, for proof (wish me luck). A special mention goes out to Samo Smrke aka 'Dr Fresh', an engaging and likeable analytical chemist (I know there's a contradiction right there), and someone I feel a strong personal connection with. Thanks Samo.
UK Roasting Championships
This year was the first year since 2019 that the SCA had organised the UK Roasting Championships. I'd competed for the first time back then and was eager to have another go. The process of competition makes you question your abilities and try and be better, learning more and pitting yourself against some of the best roasters around. This year it was held down at Pharmacie coffee in Lewes in East Sussex and once again it was an incredible experience shared with some great people. I'd like to say I did better than my 5th from 2019 but that's not the case. A disappointing 8th this year but the top 3 were worthy winners. Amazing all-round coffee professionals and fabulous people. I wrote a blog about it here detailing the 2 days of competition and highlighting the importance of preparation. It was tense and fun, and I came away knowing I needed to be better if I ever want to get close to a podium spot.
Rocket Espresso Experience Centre
The most recent development to finish the year off is something that's made me remember why I started Crankhouse back in 2014. The brand was always intended to combine my two passions of cycling and coffee. In those early days back in my garage I made an effort to release coffees for particular periods within the racing calendar.. Spring Classics, Grand Tours, Falling leaves etc etc. I gained a bit of following with some professional riders and ex-pro's including one in particular, Russ Downing. Russ is something of a legend, having won the national championships as well as some major international races and racing for Team Sky and JLT Condor. Recently I'd seen his name pop up connected with Rocket Espresso machines which are a brand synonymous with professional cycling over the years.
Two weeks ago, Russ emailed me and asked if I'd be interested in Crankhouse becoming a reseller partner with his business Pro-Espresso, focused on Rocket home machines. I didn't hesitate and as of this week we are officially a Rocket Espresso UK Experience Centre.
We have two of these beautiful espresso machines in the training room currently, along with one of their new grinders, both for display and testing purposes. If you have been thinking about upping your home espresso setup then get in touch and we'll give you a demo of these beauties.
One of the things Russ and his business partner Tim discussed is a Rocket Experience Centre road-trip. Hopefully at some point in early 2024 Russ will come down to us and we'll organise a group ride starting and finishing at Crankhouse where we'll serve coffees from these beautiful machines and Russ will tell us a little about his racing career.
The year in numbers
Just numbers and in themselves don't tell too much. We've had a 20% growth across both wholesale and on-line sales. Due to increased costs across the entire supply chain we've had a slightly reduced net profit this year but nothing to be alarmed by.
We've had our coffee served and retailed in some of the best specialty coffee shops in the UK and continue to receive positive feedback from our regulars as well as newcomers.
We'll end the year with over 1000 newsletter subscribers and nearly 10,000 instagram followers. Just numbers again but nice round ones.
One thing that has changed this year is the addition of public cuppings and Home Barista classes in our dedicated training space. In total we ran 11 public cuppings and 4 Espresso Level 1 classes. This is something we'll be hoping to build upon in 2024 and if there's anything in particular you'd like to see us cover as an education class then please let us know. We will also be offering Rocket Espresso demo days and if anyone has a particular interest in attending then please let us know.
What does 2024 have in store ?
Amongst the new releases we have planned for the new year are two coffees we're particularly excited about. The first is the return of the Natural Gesha from Finca Momoto in Panama. We'd bought this coffee in 2020 direct from the Hartmann family and at that point it was the best coffee we'd ever roasted.. by far. I'm hoping this latest crop will be as good. The second is the most expensive green coffee that's ever been on the Crankhouse list. A natural Gesha from Gesha Village in Ethiopia. Gesha Village coffees are some of the most sought after Ethiopian coffees in the world and when I was given a chance to purchase a 30Kg box I jumped at it. It will be limited, and it will be expensive.
Our first two releases of 2024 will likely be the DR Congo natural from a women only producer group from the Katana village, and the second is from Raw Material's own farm El Fenix and an 'anoxic washed' Pink Bourbon. As is customary we'll add a little discount code to the site for these two releases '2024KICKSTART' which will give 15% off if you order both.
If you currently take a subscription service from us then you should have already received notice that we're changing the back-end payment mechanism from the current 'ReCharge' system. This change is planned to happen soon and 'should' be seamless (fingers crossed).
There will be plenty more coffees of course in 2024. I hope it's not just the case of 'same again' and we continue to build on our relationships with our suppliers (producers and importers alike) as well as with our retail and wholesale customers.
This has been a particularly long sign off for 2023. If you've made it this far then bravo and thank you for your support. It's you, our customers, that drive us to be more than average and be better. We're always open to suggestions on how we can improve our business, whether it be through our communication channels, sourcing mechanisms, roasting style, branding, marketing or anything else. If you have anything in particular you'd like to discuss or suggest then please drop us a line.
Many thanks for your continued support and I hope you're having a lovely restful festive break.
Best wishes for a great start to 2024.