A Coffee Pilgrimage to Britain – Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to spend two weeks doing something I have dreamed of for many years; spending two weeks exploring the coffee culture in one of the Western world’s oldest coffee cities – London.

I suppose I have always been something of an anglophile, but oddly enough with all of my travels around the world I had never spent any time in London. Probably because most of my travels professionally have been tied to countries of origin, not countries of consumption! When you factor in my near obsession with old British coffee technology, coupled with the presence there of several very good friends, you will understand that I finally had to get organized and get going!

My first week in London was spent in the company of my good friend Keith Holdup, a retired green coffee trader of renown that has spent, as have I, nearly his entire career in coffee. I don’t think that there is much about coffee that Keith doesn’t know, and I have availed myself of his knowledge and connections too many times to count. Keith lives in a historic small community on the outer edge of the London metropolitan area, where urban becomes rural.

After picking me up at the train station near his home, Keith and I proceeded to visit one of his favorite country pubs for pints of beer and pub sandwiches. (In addition to his expertise in coffee, Keith is also an aficionado of traditional English pubs, going so far as to having developed with a close friend of his their own private rating system for pubs. My kind of men, indeed!) Formerly a staple in every British neighborhood or community large or small, these traditional old pubs are beginning to fade away, losing their customer base to newer chains of modern eateries and drinking establishments. Hard to imagine England being England without these wonderful local establishments, where the granite thresholds have often been worn down an inch or more by the countless footsteps of ten or twelve generations of your forebears, coming in every day for a refreshing cask ale or spirits. I imagine it makes you think differently about running a business, when you consider that it has been opened for business daily since the 16th century. You don’t own a business like that. You're taking your turn as its caretaker, knowing it actually belongs to the neighborhood or the village.

Mastering (or attempting to) London’s excellent public transit system, I rode into the city daily on the Southeastern Railway line from the quaint, little station in Sunbury, an enjoyable 15 minute walk from my hotel in Bromley, to the terminals of either the London Bridge station for my destinations on the south bank of the Thames, or the Cannon Street station for destinations on the north bank. From these two stations, it was easy to transfer to the Underground for fast subway service almost everywhere in the city.

One of my first visits in London was with Ian Breminer and his team at Complete Coffee, a highly regarded green coffee trading firm with its offices located in a historic building down a narrow lane a few steps off the Borough High Street on the south bank of the Thames. Ian sits as a trustee with me on the board of CQI, and toured me about their business, including visits to several prominent London coffee roasters which I loved!

For those that have never been, the south bank of London was originally the old Victorian-era manufacturing district of London, much of which has (or is in the process of) being fixed up into trendy businesses, restaurants, hotels, and so forth. In contrast, the north bank sections of London have traditionally been the cultural, financial, and political centers. So great to see these beautiful old buildings being preserved, including Ian’s, instead of being ignored (or worse) as they had been in the decades following the end of the War.

One of the things I enjoy the most about being in the coffee business is that everywhere I go – from Nairobi to Bogotá, New York to Addis – I discover other people in the coffee business are all so friendly and open.  I really doesn’t matter if they are a smallholder farmer, or a big importer. People seem to love being part of the coffee business, and it shows in how we behave with each other. Even competitors in this business are almost universally warm and friendly with each other, which is certainly not the case in most other industries! And without a doubt, my time in London really epitomized this wonderful coffee industry characteristic for me, and made me appreciate it even more. As I was with Ian at Complete Coffee, I was warmly welcomed by all of the coffee folks I met during my two week visit. Even if we met as total strangers, I was immediately made part of their family. I love that, and it’s certainly how we try to be here at Coffee Bean International!

 

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