A plague of the hospitality trade is the assumption that coffee is "just coffee". It annoys the beverage trade immensely but, on the other hand, coffee roasters are now vastly impressed by those hoteliers and restaurateurs who are thinking seriously about how to choose their coffee.
Six successful business managers tell us what they wanted for their house coffee - and their roasters tell us how they responded
By Ian Boughton
The Malmaison and Hotel du Vin hotel chains have moved from a giant supplier to a regional artisan roaster, Origin Coffee of Cornwall.
"They took a huge risk by leaving a big one to come to a wacky small roaster, but they have looked thoroughly at it, and they're doing everything right," says roaster Tom Sobey. "They were quite clear in their expectations, wanting coffee that rivalled the high-street coffee bars."
Malmaison now buys "seasonal" coffees. This is a modern concept that goes against the traditional promise of big brands that their taste will always stay the same. Modern roasters adapt their blends according to the coffees that are ripening, and may offer three or four different seasonal blends a year.
"We looked at what sells most," says Malmaison's executive chef John Woodward. â¨"I drink espresso, but what sells most is latte and cappuccino, and most people like their coffee 'not too strong', and so I needed something universal.
"We also wanted something new and fresh - not 'just coffee'. We loved the idea of not having one coffee for 10 years, but an offer that changes with the seasons, and we shall promote this."
Sobey says that Malmaison has also taken on such concepts as "grind-to-order" - not having ground coffee sitting around all day, but grinding just enough as required, for freshness.
"I do feel that hotels who want to improve need to be willing to listen, like Malmaison, and be open to advice," he concludes.
POLPO Russell Norman (left) chooses to work with a London roaster of Italian origin - the Olmi family of Drury Tea and Coffee - at his Polpo bÁ caro chain (bÁ caro is a Venetian word to describe a humble restaurant) .
"Russell used to be a director of Caprice, where we had dealt with him for years," says Marco Olmi. "He started a chain of Venetian-style tapas and now has five incredibly trendy restaurants. He regards coffee as an important part of the whole concept, and his brief was very simple: great coffee with the minimum of fuss - please sort it!
"His choice was Riserva, a pure arabica espresso blend very much in the Italian style but roasted less than five miles from the restaurant itself. The blend works very well in a variety of applications, but is perhaps best suited to after-dinner drinking as a short espresso. It certainly seemed the best fit given Polpo's style of cooking."
It follows the leader's taste, Norman says. "As with everything in our restaurants, I start by asking myself what I like. I usually want a strong hit from an espresso in the morning, and a longer coffee, an American or a single-origin filter, in the afternoon. I never try to second-guess what people like, and I hope my tastes are fairly normal and universal. It is important to be able to rely on consistency, and Drury provides that."
BETTYS CAFE TEA ROOMS
Bettys Café Tea Rooms, probably the most famous tearoom chain in the country, is supplied by Taylors of Harrogate - not surprisingly, as they share the same family history.
"We know our customers very well," says catering director Paula Kaye. "Many are regular visitors and come to Bettys to enjoy a superior coffee that's a bit different, that they can't buy anywhere else. Our new Colombian Fedar has been sourced specifically for us and fits the ethos of the business. It is grown on a small Rainforest Alliance-certified farm which works to support the local community - this really appeals to our customers."
The link between the companies means that the roaster always knows what coffees have sold best in Bettys, says Emily Hawken, coffee buyer at Taylors.
"The coffee we have chosen comes from a really small farm of just 10 hectares in the foothills of the Andes. It exhibits all the characteristics typical of excellent Colombian coffees, with a clean and bright acidity, a butter-caramel sweetness and a delicious fruity character.
"It has a wonderful story: Fedar is a foundation set up to provide specialist education for children with learning disabilities and to support their families. It's the first of its kind in Colombia."
The Arora hotel at Gatwick is another that's chosen to work with a local roaster. Executive head chef Tony Staples picked Coffee Real of Horsham.
"I believe the more discerning customer is pulling away from commercial chains and moving toward quality artisan producers, which follows the trends in food," he says.
"Our choice was also narrowed by not wanting coffee from a faceless commercial roaster or one who did not roast in the UK.
"We tasted a number of blends and chose a 100% arabica from India (for the buttery base), Guatemala (for fruitiness) and Brazil (the sweet nuttiness). We have a lot of international guests, so it had to be a blend that every customer would enjoy. It had to punch through milk, and it needed to be very forgiving, due to how many different staff work on the espresso machine during a 24-hour shift."
This blend is called Gone For Lunch, says Gary Best, director of Coffee Real. A good consultation with a client is crucial, he believes. "Most customers do not understand the complexities involved. So the path is all about consultation - location, demographic, footfall, daily trading peaks and staff experience."
THE SAVILE CLUB
The Savile is a long-established London gentlemen's club. Its motto "Sodalitas convivium" is said to mean "convivial companionship", and the coffee contribution to this is by Café du Monde.
"We have just 900 members who use the club regularly, so it is easy to know the common denominator for taste - they like it strong and punchy," explains company secretary Julian Malone-Lee.
However, the Savile needed a change in coffee practice, adds David Latchem, managing direct of Café du Monde.
"They were serving bulk-brew filter coffee for breakfasts, lunch, dinner and for banqueting, and were not happy with the quality. Bulk-brew deteriorates within two hours at most.
"We changed this to a high-capacity water boiler and cafetières of various sizes, which immediately upgraded the members' perception to quality and freshly-brewed coffee. The Savile wanted to use one house coffee and decided on our Continental - an arabica blend of mild Colombian beans, ideal for breakfast and pÁ¢tisseries, with a classic Kenyan after-dinner coffee and a Brazilian for body. This is an existing blend which we had created as an all-day coffee."
Caterers are well advised to look at the practicality of coffee service, he advises.
"They must make the coffee supplier aware of their reasons for their requirements - filter, cafetière and espresso coffees are all totally different in characteristic and in what is required in brewing them.
"They must identify their customer profile and what realistic price point they are looking to sell for. When charging £3.95 or more for a coffee, the difference between 6p and 9p per cup is not worth upsetting a customer for. So make the right choice and get the quality."
PONTI'S ITALIAN KITCHEN
Ponti's Italian Kitchen has chosen to work with an Italian coffee - Tierra, from Lavazza - which comes from a sustainable development project that supports three communities of small coffee growers in Latin America.
This was the choice of Ponti's chief executive, Stefano Ispani (pictured, top). "Tastes keep evolving, but the biggest cultural difference between London and Italy is still that milk-based coffees are consumed after midday here, and even after the evening meal - in Italy this would be considered heresy," he says. "The Tierra blend has the characteristic of a naturally sweet taste when mixed with milk, so it is ideal for our overwhelming sales of lattes and cappuccinos."
Ponti's considered both customer tastes and company ethos, says Lavazza's marketing director Barry Kither.
"Tierra fitted their brief for a 'round-tasting' blend towards the milder end of the taste spectrum. It would help if more trade customers would research their consumers like this before defining their requirement. Often the senior managers let their own tastes influence the choice. We always urge customers to consider the high percentage of milk-based drinks."