Editor Jennie Milsom heads to Hasbean to sniff out some winning coffees with industry legends Steve Leighton and 2017 World Barista Champion Dale Harris Editor Jennie Milsom heads to Hasbean to sniff out some winning coffees with industry legends Steve Leighton and 2017 World Barista Champion Dale Harris
I’m standing among neat rows of 60 or so red bins in Hasbean’s green coffee room with Steve Leighton. Each bin contains a different coffee and is labelled with country of origin, the coffee’s processing method and a little sticker of the country’s flag. The range of coffees in this room is quite something. For instance, there are eight Pacamaras from Nicaragua (“Paca” is a mutation of Bourbon and one of Leighton’s favourite varietals) yet, because they’ve undergone different processing methods, they’ll all end up tasting very different. Scoop some of these beans into your hands and stick your nose in and you’ll smell anything from fermented sherry-like trifle in one to hay-like Weetabix in another. And this is pre-roasted state; the prospect of developing these flavours further during roasting and brewing is immense.Leighton challenges me to a game: I must select any bin at random and he’ll talk about the coffee it contains. I pick a Costa Rica and, like a game show contestant, he launches into a story about Finca La Casa Vista al Valle, its farmer Oldemar Arrieta Lobo and his wife Marlene, and the Yellow Honey coffee they process in their micro mill. One of the three farms they own, Fidel, won Costa Rica’s Cup of Excellence two years ago, he beams. I learn later on Hasbean’s website that, after roasting, this coffee will have flavours of mandarin and single cream. Each bin contains stories of farmers and their land from Kenya to Colombia and Leighton knows them all – his passion for visiting coffee farms is detailed in his regular updates on long-standing blog Has Blog – but he’s keen to move into the adjoining warehouse: a lofty stash of wholesale goods from grinders to brewing kit, along with half a million quid’s worth of “green” landed from around the world, stacked up in sacks on teetering towers.
We meander through despatch. “Here it’s locals who want a job,” says Leighton. He tends not to hire coffee geeks as they’ll get bored, he says, instead employing those with less interest in coffee who may become excited by it. Luke, who’s been at Hasbean for six years and is also dating Leighton’s sister (“I ran out of family…” Leighton says), is taping up boxes. Through another door is the packing department – the bottle-neck of the business and the hardest job – and then the roastery itself: a vast, spotless space containing roasters from 2kg to 60kg, the larger ones accessed via portable steps.
It’s curious to imagine all this activity and exquisite coffee tucked away on a regular industrial estate, a 15-minute cross-country drive from Stafford town centre. Hasbean is Stafford’s best-kept secret. The town has barely a coffee scene to its name and most Stafford locals haven’t heard of Hasbean. The roaster’s reputation has side-stepped the town in favour of coffee-loving cities in the UK, Europe and beyond. It’s the subtle but unmistakable smell of roasting coffee wafting around the car park that hints something interesting is happening within.
Interested in coffee from the age of seven, Leighton’s professional journey began in 1999 when he started sourcing and selling specialty coffee on a market stall, albeit with mixed success (some customers, presuming it was instant, were perplexed by the coffee’s lack of solubility), then ran a cafe for three years. He ventured into roasting in 2003 in the back of his garage, founded Hasbean, and shifted into a smaller unit on the estate where they are now. His goal was to buy coffees from producers and to visit them all.The Hasbean crew has survived six winters here without heating and adapted to the chill – staff are kitted out in hats and gloves and Leighton is permanently zipped up in a Puffa. We head up to the training room where Leighton and team, including Hasbean director of wholesale and 2017 World Barista Champion Dale Harris, run SCA-accredited coffee training for consumers and wholesale customers. The Hasbean branding is a definite red (Leighton’s favourite colour) and his personality extends across work stations, upholstery and milk pitchers, repurposed as plant pots on red coffee tables. Even the beams of the apex roof are red. It’s quiet now but you can imagine packs of baristas getting stuck into grinders, espresso machines and drip brewers on each workstation. Cupboard doors have tampers for handles (a Leighton touch – the tampers were faulty, he says, so he turned them into handles) and a row of framed prints of farmers smiling in fields line a wall above the coffee stations.
An area of sofas suggest it’s not all work and no play (the word play features regularly in both Harris and Leighton’s vocabulary) as do the table tennis table, drum kit in a corner and beer fridge (the latter is because Leighton and another colleague write unofficial reviews for a craft beer company, he explains). A large, friendly dog wanders around. To the backdrop of a patter like rain via some out-of-sight machinery (which turns out to be a giant vacuum snaffling up kilos of beans in the packing department below), Harris is making coffee: a washed Bourbon by FInca San José from El Salvador, brewed in a Kalita Wave dripper set over scales. I’d previously enjoyed one of Harris’ coffees last summer in Hasbean’s pop-up brew bar [H]AND in a clothing store in London, before his win in the UK Barista Championship propelled him onto the world stage in Seoul, where he was crowned World Barista Champion.
The specialty coffee scene in the UK has undergone a dramatic transformation since Hasbean started out 15 years ago. “Back then you were lucky to find reference to a coffee’s country, let alone the farm or information on brewing ratios,” says Leighton. It was during 2006-2008 that the UK’s specialty coffee scene really took off, he says “The whole idea of a coffee community happened in London, guided by Square Mile’s James Hoffman and Anette Moldvaer. There really wasn’t any competition. We were all educating each other.” Leighton would hike down from Stafford for events in London. “We were involved but as outsiders,” he says. “I’d dip in and out. I knew all the players.”
Leighton met Harris in 2009 at a barista competition in London and knew he wanted to work with him. Harris was working in training and development at what was to become UCC. “I persuaded him to come and work with me, for less money and without any perks,” Leighton smiles. “The lure of better coffee seemed to cancel out his losses.” Harris agrees. “Five years later the market was a very different place,” says Harris. “It was exciting, being in the same place at the beginning.” Exciting times indeed: the UK produced World Barista Champions in 2007 (James Hoffman) and 2009 (Gwilym Davies), and in 2010 London hosted the World Barista Championship (WBC), attracting industry names from around the world who flocked to the capital for its flourishing coffee scene as much as the competition itself.
Since collaborating, Leighton and Harris have worked to build loyalty and friendships in the coffee community. For many roasters and operators, though, it’s about the need to survive, so instead of working together, some feel pressured to compete for business. “The impact of the coffee shop explosion on the roasting community has made it more competitive,” says Harris. Leighton predicts further change in the coffee industry. “There’s going to be a lot of consolidation in the UK industry,” he says. “Some shops will disappear. We’ve seen it in the US with roasters being taken over. Brands may come and go but coffee is getting one little step better at each stage of the process.” While it can be a tough market for cafes and roasters, the ebb and flow creates opportunities for new businesses to enter the market and drive on change. “It can be a good thing – a sign of success,” says Harris. “The UK market filters down from London and has huge potential.”
Hasbean has always favoured creative thinking. They’re not interested in doing the same as everyone else; paying for a booth at a festival to convince people to buy their coffee doesn’t appeal. Running [H]AND brew bar last year was one such success story, encouraging people to talk about relationships and for roasters to communicate directly with consumers. “At [H]AND it was hugely positive for us to get the recognition that our coffees aren’t just for espresso,” says Harris. Leighton believes Harris’s customer-facing role at the pop-up strengthened his WBC performance: “It’s the incremental gains.”The move from their original unit seven years ago to the larger premises they currently occupy was quite a milestone, says Harris. Years ago they launched their weekly podcasts (which are still produced from the custom-built, windowless partition in Leighton’s office) as a way to build relationships with customers. “It was our way of opening the doors. It’s still a really valuable part of what we do,” says Leighton, who recalls a filming a seven-part video about building the roastery. “It’s a personal approach. It’s not just coffee – it’s about relationships running through on every level,” he says. Today it’s social media but ten-plus years ago Leighton was engrossed in online forums Too Much Coffee and Coffee Geek. And as for online coffee subscriptions, Hasbean pioneered their model years ago.
Regarding Hasbean’s relationships with coffee producers, some are business-focussed while others transcend the professional. Alejandro Mendez (“Ale”) from El Salvador is one such pal, says Leighton. He originally grew Bourbon for commodity before switching to the specialty market. One of the major differences between Hasbean and the standard approach of other roasters is that their product list evolves and grows, so relationships with producers are long-lasting. “I’m loyal and I’ll be in it for the long-term,” says Leighton. “I show up every year and promise to buy a certain amount.” In January, he organised a lunch in Costa Rica for ten producers – some travelled three hours to make it. And in November he flew producers Ale from El Salvador and Brian Gakunga of Kiriga Estate in Kenya to Cup North’s Manchester Coffee Festival, where he launched his book Coffeeography: The Coffee Producers. Both he and Harris delight in remembering the two farmers from different continents, talking ten to the dozen in the back of the car about coffee farming. “They are the real moments of helping and connecting communities,” Leighton says.
Bolivia is another producing country close to Leighton’s heart and he’s visited every year since his first trip in 2005. “It’s the number one trip I look forward to,” he says. It was here that Hasbean launched an agronomist programme to plant new varietals of stock. “Most coffee producers are wealthy but in Bolivia they are very poor people, real subsistence farmers. Yet they are well suited to farming and have the perfect climate. In Bolivia you feel that you’re making a long-term difference.”
It was Ernesto Menendez Arguello of Finca Limoncillo in El Salvador who produced the Yellow Pacamara “Petites” in Harris’s winning WBC routine. Of Ernesto’s four farms, Hasbean buys 100% of the output from three. The fourth is the largest and highest-yielding and Ernesto can continue to develop it, confident that the rest of his crop has a guaranteed buyer. “We ride the good and the bad together,” says Leighton. “When Brexit messed up the dollar last year, Ernesto lowered my prices.”
Since February Harris has found himself in a different country most weeks, and in his role as WBC has plans to return to Seoul, along with trips to China, Romania and Budapest among others. Having been focussed in preparing for the WBC, his win was “a big surprise” and it took him a while to work out how to use it – for him, for Hasbean and for producers. “If we can turn the WBC win into an opportunity to buy coffees and for producers… I’ve been teasing some ideas out,” he says. “I don’t need my life to change. I’ve been exploring some ideas through the competition and I can magnify them now.” He’s no stranger to competing: he first went through to the UKBC in 2009, and most recently had missed out getting through to the World finals by half a point, on a technicality. This time was different. “All the stars aligned,” Leighton says.
Leighton’s view on coffee competitions is complex. “If the goal is quality, competitions can push it and they can also dilute it,” he says. “An explosion of roasters can mean the message is harder to get across or people tune off to the message completely. There can be confusion in the terminology. We purposely stopped using phrases such as ‘best coffee’ and ‘direct trade’ for this reason.” Surely Harris’s win is a boost for Hasbean? “I’m ecstatic about his win,” Leighton says, “but now I’ve lost him for another six months!”