Considering the number of coffee shops we have you would think the UK was a nation of coffee aficionados. Far from it. We might like our coffee, we know nothing about it, according to Amir Gehl who has developed a range of Nespresso-style coffee pods containing the world’s finest coffees that he believes can transform the coffee experience in the UK’s best restaurants, bars and hotels.
The days of ordering a cup of coffee with the same price tag as a Super Tuscan or Grand Cru Classé could be around the corner if Amir Gehl gets his way.
For coffee aficionados out there hearing someone just ask for a cup of coffee at the end of a meal, is a little like a Master of Wine plumping for the house Pinot Grigio.
But just as we are no longer happy ordering a standard white coffee down the local Starbucks, it seems the opportunity to upgrade, and specialise with your coffee order is becoming as complex and geeky as you like.
There may not be an Institute of Masters of Coffee, but that does not mean there are not as committed or specialist individuals out there that with as much knowledge about every type and style of coffee bean and coffee region than there are those who know every grape variety on the planet.
So it makes perfect sense if you are looking to provide the perfect drinks offer to your customers that you make sure your coffee range is as well crafted and researched as your wine and spirits offer.
Amir Gehl of the Difference Coffee company is one of a number of highly specialist and premium coffee suppliers that are helping to take coffee in the on-trade to a completely different planet to what is on offer at a high street Starbucks or Costa Coffee.
The term speciality coffee does not really do justice to the level of knowledge, expertise and sophistication that goes in to every stage of the production process. In fact, Gehl only works with coffee that 99% of us would normally never see.
This may be news to you, but for those who make, buy and sell coffee for a living it as much a regulated and graduated process as the Bordeaux Granc Cru classé system.
To be able to taste the world’s very best coffees then you are best going to Asia which has 80% of the 100 point coffees, mainly sold in Japan and Taiwan, with a good tailwind in Australia.
There are as intense judging competitions for coffee growers, producers and suppliers as there are for beers, wines and spirits. They are as coveted and contentious as any other drinks competitions.
New to coffee
Gehl admits that prior to setting up Difference Coffee he was not particularly a regular coffee drinker. Mainly because he did not like the quality of coffee that he was usually served whilst eating and dining out. Even his Nepresso machine at home was largely unused. “I did not really know a lot about different types of coffee,” he said.
But once he became interested in sourcing and looking at more specialist coffees he also appreciated that there were few restaurants or bars that could truly invest in the space or the equipment to provide a high class coffee offer. Never mind employ a fully qualified barista.
Those that did were mainly concentrated in Japan, other areas of Asia, or in Australia. “Coffee as a category was very under-developed in the UK. Why should all the best coffees go to Japan and Australia?” he asked.
Which is why he ultimately went back to his Nespresso machine at home.
Now here was a simple device that has captured the consumer’s attention and brought a better cup of coffee in to people’s homes.
Was there a way in which he could take the Nespresso and coffee pod concept in to the premium on-trade and offer restaurants, bars and hotels the best quality of coffee available, but in pod form that can be used in an average Nespresso machine.
That in a nutshell is at the heart of the Difference Coffee Company’s offer. But instead of mass produced pods that might sit in people’s cupboards for years and go out of date, Gehl wanted to bring hand crafted, super premium pods of highly specialised fresh coffee with a limited shelf life of up to a year, but the expectation most will be drunk in a matter of weeks.
“Only 1% of the world’s coffee has earned the prestigious title of ‘Speciality Coffee,’” he explains, “but that’s the 1% I wanted in my capsules”.
Pods that are fresh straight from roaster.
Getting it right
All of which is easier said than done and it took some 18 months of research, development, testing and trialling with the world’s top coffee farmers before it had an offer he felt matched up to his high expectations.
Time he was able to take thanks to the support of his sixth generation family tobacco business based in Israel.
The result is what he claims is the “best of the best” coffees available, but in the convenient pod format.
He has worked hard to bring the cost per pod down to around £2.50 to £3 to £6, which is a big jump from the average Nespresso. But it is up to the restaurant how much margin they then put behind that.
With some cups of specialist coffee selling in the on-trade for between £12 and £20. Yes, for some, it’s a serious business.
Gehl is hopeful his coffee pods can make a difference in the country’s most revered restaurants. “There is a great opportunity when you think 30% of Michelin-starred restaurants are selling Nespresso coffee.”
But it is, he admits, still early days and he is building up the business on more of a “word of mouth” basis than any formal advertising or promotional campaign. Even its website is by “Invite Only”.
Great for creating curiosity about the brand, not ideal if you want to find out more about it. Or order some.
But if you can find a way of signing up to the Difference Coffee Company you are joining a very exclusive, albeit it growing, club of those very much in the know.
So with such a limited and exclusive coffee range to play with it is vital it gets the right quality and blend for its customers. Gehl likens it to producers working with the right winemakers, the right grapes and vineyards.
“You have to have the best baristas and roasters,” he adds.
For the Difference Company, Gehl works closely with professional Q coffee grader, Johnny England, who is also a lead judge in world coffee competitions.
For England coffee is all about freshness. “That’s the most important thing to get right. Freshness is key. It’s like working with fresh bread,” he explains.
England has been involved in roasting and working with coffee since he was 17 and joined Master Roast company for initially work experience.
In a nutshell he describes the vast difference between the instant and day to day coffees we drink and the highly rarefied coffees that he deals with.
“There are around 1,000 aromatic compounds to be found in the best coffees. But most coffees we see on a daily basis don’t have any of those compounds present,” he explains.
Drinks buyers’ skills
His job as a professional coffee taster and grader is very similar to a drinks buyer. All coffees, other than espresso, are tasted and then spat. Espressos have to be swallowed so that you get the “after taste” and “finish”.
The kinds of coffees he is talking about include Geisha, and Kopi Luwak, often described as the most expensive style of coffee in the world.
Why so expensive? Well it is rather hard to come by as you need to rely on what is known as a civet cat to eat a coffee bean, and then the coffee is extracted from the cat’s faeces. Exactly.
The Geisha style is England’s favourite coffee. “It is the best I have ever tasted. It’s like drinking chocolate fruit juice.”
And he if could only buy coffee from one country, then it would be Panama. “The quality from Panama has shot up in the last five years,” he says.
Difference Coffee has four different types of coffee pods available, each expertly sourced, selected and roasted. They are: Hawaiian Kona, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Wild civet coffee, Kopi Luwak and Panama Geisha.
“The last is so special. So little is produced, that it’s sold by auction once a year but we got some. It has been compared to hallowed wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti,” he says with triumph.
Batches of coffee are only made when customers ask for them to ensure they receive the pods, all beautifully presented in either limited edition cigar style leather presentation cases or a standard chocolate box design case. He hopes he can build a members club similar to how Napa producers have developed interest in wines such as Screaming Eagle.
Put to the test
The Buyer had the chance to taste Difference coffees in the suitably rarefied surroundings of Harry’s Bar in London. It was going to be hard for them to live up to the build that Gehl eloquently gave them, but they were indeed not like any coffee you are used to drinking.
Such is the depth and complexity you immediately appreciate that these styles of coffee need an appreciation and understanding of a fine single malt or Grand Cru Bordeaux.
Gehl says sipping a speciality coffee compared to a normal restaurant standard filter coffee is similar to ordering a £10 glass of wine compared to a first growth.
“The £10 wine will give you lots of fruit and power, but the first growth will give you refinement, better balance, more subtle notes of flavour and texture. It’s simply a lot more complex,” he explains.
Particularly successful was the Harry’s Bar version of an espresso martini made using a pod of Difference Coffee straight from a Nespresso machine.
Gehl has built up a strong relationship with Harry’s Bar. Its coffees are an ideal match for its customers and high quality offer. It has even allowed him to create his own golden coffee cup in which his coffees are served.
So if you lucky enough to enjoy a lunch or dinner at Harry’s Bar and see a man with a golden cup. Introduce yourself. You’re guaranteed a life changing coffee.