Jaunted: London is not exactly known for its coffee culture. How do you think St. ALi fits into the scene here, and what do you think is significant about its arrival?
Tim Williams: I think that in the last five or six years, London has increasingly become a city known for coffee. We've been home to three of the last five World Barista Champions, and have seen an explosion of quality stores open, especially around East London.
ST. ALi's opening here in London is not about reinventing the wheel, but moreso being a part of London's ongoing development and maturation as a coffee-loving city. We're very lucky to be able to serve a more 'restaurant-style' breakfast and lunch menu, alongside great coffee, which is something that's been missing from London. Couple with that the fact that we're roasting everything on-site, in a beautiful sky-lit roasting facility within the cafe. While it's hardly revolutionary, it's something new for London.
Mexican-style fritters and a poached egg
J: London's truly great coffee places are notably often run by Antipodeans. What is it about their ethos/approach that makes for such wonderful coffee?
TW: While it's true that there are a number of extremely good coffee operators in London that have roots in Australia or New Zealand, it would be unfortunate to think that being Antipodean is some kind of magic bullet when it comes to coffee. It's true that Australia, and perhaps Melbourne in particular, has a dynamic and wonderful cafe scene, but that's a different thing altogether from constituting 'wonderful coffee'.
In a lot of ways, being a part of such a young and rapidly developing coffee scene here in London, we're in a great position to help shape customer's expectations when it comes to specialty coffee, without too much of the baggage that comes from a more deeply-entrenched coffee scene, such as we sometimes see in Melbourne and the U.S.
Being in London, we're so close to Scandinavia and the amazing things some of the roasters there are doing, as well as being just a little closer to some of the guys in the U.S. who are also putting together wonderful and interesting retail spaces. With ST. ALi London, what we're aiming to do is to draw on experiences and influence from all over the world, cherry-picking the best elements from a wide variety of varying communities and operations, and compiling them into a great experience for our guests.
On-site roasting at ST. ALi
J: What is the most innovative contribution you think St. ALi is making to London's coffee culture?
TW: At present, I'm working hard with Baptiste Kreyder—our Head Barista—on putting together a certification programme for our Baristas. Essentially, we want to do everything we can to ensure that our staff as a whole is as well trained, educated and informed about coffee growing, production, processing, roasting, brewing, storage and so on.
J: What's the trick to a solid, home-brewed cup of coffee?
TW: There's really only three main things that commonly let down anyone's home-brewing set up, and they're inexpensive but massive things.
1. Buy a grinder. Even a hand operated mill from someone like Hario or Porlex. Grinding your coffee fresh, right before you brew with it will make such a staggering difference to the quality in the cup that you'll regret not having done it earlier.
2. Buy a water filter. If you live in London, the water that comes out of your tap is horrible. There's so much mineral content in London water, that the coffee has a very difficult time releasing solubles, and the result is flat, lifeless and dull coffee. Brita make some great filter jugs, they're cheap and they're available in most supermarkets. Try drinking freshly filtered water and London tap water side-by-side, and the difference is amazing.
3. Buy good coffee. It seems very simple, but without good coffee to start with, there's very little even the best home barista can do.
Always make sure that the coffee you buy has a 'Roasted On' date on it (not a 'Best Before'; this tells you nothing). It's best to brew coffee within three weeks of roasting, and it's worth noting that most supermarket coffee was roasted much longer ago than that.
Always demand to know more about a coffee than simply the country it's come from. Brazil is a very big place, and coffees from different regions, different farms and different producers vary greatly. In the same way that the best wines are not labelled as being from 'France' or 'Europe', but instead by variety and region, expect the same of your coffee roaster's packaging.
Always buy coffee in small amounts, and aim to run out. There's no point 'stocking up' for a few months, as the coffee will deteriorate dramatically after a month or so. Make sure that the coffee is stored with either the bag closed, or in a glass or plastic air-tight container. Oxygen, light and moisture are coffee's enemies when it comes to storage and preservation. Don't bother with refrigerating or freezing your coffee, unless you want to get very involved in portioning-out and sealing very small amounts. Some where dark, dry and airtight is as complicated as it needs to get.
By simply buying good coffee, filtering your water, and grinding fresh each time, you'll be a very long way towards brewing coffee at home like most industry professionals do.
Photos: Heidi Atwal