Since writing this piece for Caffeine Magazine, Workshop has now opened to much positive press. I managed to visit last weekend when they hosted the UK aeropress Championships in conjunction with Square Mile. The image below is of the UK Aeropress Champion, Gabrielle Von Koss, with the three judges; James Hoffman, James Bailey and Klaus Thomsen.
‘Australian export, St Ali, landed slap bang in the middle of London’s burgeoning third wave coffee scene three years ago, to welcome arms, an excitable fanfare, and a lavish party. However, things soon went awry and, after just a year, owner James Dickson and head of operations Tim Williams parted ways with the brand, quietly, stealthily rebranding. St Ali was re-born as Workshop Coffee, an honest reflection of their business and maybe a nod to the old textile factory they inhabit, with a graphically simple logo that has become synonymous with the roaster we’re all familiar with today. For some, the ghost of St Ali will always linger, perhaps in name only, with the Clerkenwell store
Right from the very beginning, the flagship Clerkenwell store, was never just a cafe, or even just a coffee emporium for local businesses, but a destination for the entire experience. The antipodean style food menu, a fusion of influences, draws quite the crowd; there’s, more often than not, a caffeine hungry queue creeping out of the door for their famous brunches each weekend. They’re one of the few cafes that manages to provide an all day service with panache, seamlessly shifting between breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything in between (and if you haven’t tried their rare breed burger – you’re really missing a trick). Craft beer and a well sourced wine list wouldn’t look out of place in some of London’s better bars, but it’s their beans that show where their real talents lie.
Presiding over what you might be mistaken for thinking is now a blueprint for cafes and restaurants around town these days; urban cool, exposed brickwork, naked lights, and rather more uniquely, their living wall, is a 12kg, probat roaster. All of the beans are still roasted at the back of the cafe, amongst towers of hessian sacks, leaving you with no illusion where their focus lies; on roasting days customers become part of the process, finding themselves immersed in that intoxicating aroma, enhancing and reinforcing sips of their chosen beverage. This area is also where much of the quality control happens, and that means cupping; lots and lots of tasting, overseen by Head of Quality, James Bailey.
Their second site, the tiny coffee bar in Marylebone, opened shortly after the first and is a lesson in simplicity; an efficient little space in the heart of the West End. But, rather than continue to expand visibly, outwardly to the public, Workshop have been taking time to expand and regroup internally first, focussing on building a strong core team of staff and investing resources in training. This has allowed Tim Williams and Richard Shannon, head roaster, to travel to Central and South America and Africa to develop direct relationships with the farms, enabling them to source the very best beans sustainably. For example, Tim tells me he was able to purchase 250 bags of green beans from Ethiopia and Kenya on his most recent trip, where the previous year they’d bought just 20. This enables a certain level of buying power that just wasn’t available to them previously. In turn, this translates as a better understanding of their core product to all members of staff, which can be passed on to the customer, to create an all-round more coherent and informed experience.
Workshop Coffee may be seen as one of the most consistent roasters, knocking out a steady stream of delicious, clean, sweet, lightly and carefully roasted new harvests, but it’s also seen as one of the most expensive. Tim explains that their filter roasts are actually not that different in price to their competition, however, yes, their espresso blends, the constantly evolving, Cult of Done, are. This is because they source specifically to build a blend that tastes exceptional, rather than working back from a price point and buying their green beans on that basis. This is something he’s clearly proud of, he speaks with an obvious passion when telling me about the next two espresso blends, already lined up.
Workshop Coffee are clearly now at a point where they’re feeling strong enough as a brand to proactively expand and open up to the public. Towards the end of last year they launched classes aimed at home baristas, and now that they have Stuart Ritson looking after their wholesale division, this area is looking increasingly strong. Think of some of London’s best cafes and you’ll notice they’re serving Workshop Coffee; M1lk in Balham, Embassy East, Daily Goods in Kinoko Cycles and Rapha Cafe to mention a handful.
I ask how they maintain the integrity of their product in a retail environment that’s not their own, especially when those wholesale accounts are growing at an increasingly fast pace. James Dickson tells me “Working with great people and great cafes who care about the attention to detail that Workshop goes to in sourcing coffee, is often the best way to protect the integrity of your brand”. However, I’m rather more curious about those that aren’t necessarily as dedicated to serving the beans in a way that Workshop might be proud of.
Tim Williams is more pragmatic in his answer, telling me that whilst they provide full support, you can’t force anyone into training, that you’d be surprised how few people really respond well to a training program. At the end of the day Mr Olke Bire (an Ethiopian coffee farmer that grows particularly good quality beans) doesn’t care wether his beans are brewed well or not, for him they’re simply a commodity and he’s more concerned about providing for his family.
He also doesn’t feel they have anything to worry about when I casually touch on the current roaster wars that appear to be gaining in momentum for those of us watching in the wings. Tim calmly tells me of the combined years of experience the Workshop team have behind them, 15 of his own, and reiterates how heavily they’ve invested in quality control and staff training. Just because, he continues, “some of the new crop of roasters are using the terminology they’ve seen others use, doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.” Maybe, he rationales, “it’s down to the fact we’re growing up, have families and mortgages now,” in answer to why there appears to be a turn for the serious and less of a sharing, caring feeling between them than there might once have been. It’s their livelihood after all.
So, the third Workshop site within the Amazon building on Holburn Viaduct is as different from the first two cafes as you will learn to expect. As part of a new build, the scope for the cafe has been almost unlimited and I get the impression it’s been very kid-in-a-sweet-shop territory, albeit if that kid had a very stylish and an on the verge of OCD neat vision and those sweets were very expensive pieces of kit. Here, they’ve pulled together the very finest equipment to create a dream working environment, perhaps more Tim’s vision than anyone else’s; his taste in bar design seemingly as clean as his taste in coffee. By the time you read this, there’ll have been a full week of training to get the team of baristas up to scratch and iron out any practical niggles, so that by the time they open, the cafe will operate like a well oiled machine.
More on that kit. When the Clerkenwell site originally opened, they hadn’t bargained for certain issues and London complications; we’re talking water here. Far from the water issues encountered at the first site, Holburn is more than prepared to do battle with London’s worst, with a large Bespoke Water RO system, the same system used in the states by the likes of Bluebottle and Handsome roasteries. It’s the first system in the UK and more than up to the challenge of handling the large water demand required for an incredibly impressive set-up working at full capacity. Perched in pride positions on the bar, poised and ready for action are a gleaming and glowing pair of La Marzocco Linea PB espresso machines’s, a pair of Marco Uber Boilers are located on two alternative points, there are also bulk brewers just out of sight. A whole artillery of Mazzer grinders, walls of steely dish and glass washers, fancy water taps, scales and other coffee paraphernalia provide back up for any possible coffee related situation.
Affable James Bailey’s eyes light up at the sheer range of new toys at his finger tips, he comments with childlike glee that it’s “just like Christmas”. Even Tim Williams cracks a smile when he gazes at the bar; a balance between precision workmanship and natural beauty, custom built for ease and efficiency of service.
Yes. That bar, shall we talk about the sheer beauty of vast expanses, sheer planes of Italian Calcutta marble, whispering coolly of elegance and of a polished finish. If you can tear your eyes away, forget just 50, the rest of the space is a million shades of grey, warming, just, to muted teal, with jewel like flashes of blue and silver to mimic the multi faceted logo. A thousand grey suits will, no doubt, finish the picture. The floor is a subdued natural wood, inlaid with white graphic tiles that again echo that diamond cut Workshop logo, the symbol for quality. The ceiling, encompassing all the intricate pipework, is whitewashed, the antithesis to the glossy detail at Clerkenwell. Caged lights illuminate back and side walls and an explosion of domed black light fittings create a feature towards the back of the cafe. The overall effect is that of sitting in a giant, organic, shimmering pebble; at once soothing, natural and sleek but cool and calming, perhaps exactly the counter balance to, what is to be, a frenetically busy service.
A wrought iron sliding door will be able to effectively splice the space in two, directly through the centre of the bar, allowing the back section to be hired out for meetings or events, complete with barista and bar. Seating is kept to a minimum, just 25 at the back, a combination of leather and grey upholstery, with standing tables towards the front and opposite the bar. I notice a vibrant yellow, go-faster stripe that turns out to be a bum rest for those queuing for their coffee. This is not designed to be a space for loitering.
The focus for Holburn is very firmly on creating an impressive, fluid coffee service, all attention is on high impact coffee making, serving as many people as possible their quality brew of choice. There will, of course, be a food offering; this is a busy city location, but it will be kept simple, not quite the succinct offering at Marylebone but a long way from the food service at Clerkenwell. For now. I’ve seen the kitchen area and it’s not inconsequential, there’s certainly scope to offer more, should the need arise. Increasingly processes are being brought in house wherever possible; laundry and food prep just two, another element to their all pervading desire for quality control. Control. Quality. Two words that are echoed many times when speaking with anyone from Workshop Coffee.
You can’t have failed to notice that it’s competition season for many baristas and I wonder aloud that Workshop have no staff entered. Tim explains that, aside from the time investment required for training, he feels that there’s too many of the ‘old guard’ still involved with the competitions, in his opinion holding things back. Ultimately, he doesn’t believe that winning comes with the prestige and opportunities it once did. He goes on to say that he wouldn’t stop any of their staff from entering, James Bailey is the reigning Brewers Cup Champion after all, but if, and when, they do, make no mistake; they’ll be in it to win it. There’s a glint in his eye that belies his smile, this man’s not joking and neither is his attitude to coffee.
You’ve probably heard the rumours of site number four already. It’s true. Tim confirms their 4th store will be just off Regents Street, in prime position to take on the corporate coffee world that is rife in the area. In keeping with the other three sites, the style and feel of the cafe will be dictated by it’s surroundings and also completely different to the previous cafes. So, think Regency era Victoriana then….’
I’ve now seen the next site on Fitzrovia’s Mortimer Street and very much look forward to it opening. It seems that area is becoming a sort of the new coffee hub, as we’ll see the second cafe from Curators opening around the same time, to join Kaffeine on Great Titchfield Street, Mothers Milk on Little Portland Street, TAP on Rathbone Place and Dunnefrankowski at Sharps on Windmill Street (although I’ve heard rumours they may be on the move soon….).