WITH its bespoke beans, gleaming machinery and an ethos of treating coffee with the same respect as fine wine, two young entrepreneurs are hoping to set new standards with their coffee shop venture
Eating a banana can help when you’re feeling wired.
So says one of the baristas at Brew Lab, a soon-to-open coffee shop in Edinburgh.
I have the caffeine jitters.
There’s a not-unpleasant tingle inside my forehead as I perch at their grey concrete bar – where they’ll soon hold tutored tastings – and sip my fourth coffee.
None of these has been my usual latte, for this is no bog-standard caff.
Brew Lab has been four years in the making and is part of what has been dubbed the Third Wave of Coffee – a movement that considers this drink artisanal, like wine, bread, beer and chocolate.
There are already such places in New York, London and Berlin, but this is a first for Scotland.
Think of it as a venue for connoisseurs who treat a cup of coffee with deference, rather than knocking it back in one gulp.
Owners Dave Law and Tom Hyde, both 26, wanted to open a regular cafe after graduating in 2008 – Law with a degree in Culture, Media and Society Studies from Napier University, and Hyde in Economics and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. However, after a research trip to London which involved visiting Third Wave coffee shops they decided to introduce this specific type to Edinburgh.
The pair of coffee nerds have since invested in an armoury of machinery, all designed to coax the flavours out of their precious beans.The piece-de-resistance is the very shiny Slayer – a hand-built espresso machine imported from Seattle, of which there are only three in the UK.
“It costs about the same as a smallish car,” says Hyde, who, until recently, was manager of the wine department at Edinburgh’s Harvey Nichols.
Despite its temperature gauges and swish walnut handles, the device, which allows a barista to fine-tune the water pressure, looks rather orthodox.
That is, compared to the other gadgetry that sits atop their custom-made bar – it’s like the deck of the Starship Enterprise.
There’s equipment that resembles chemistry flasks, a fancy water boiler (“the Über Boiler – not as expensive as the Slayer, but maybe the same price as a moped,” Hyde, who hails from Stratford-upon-Avon, explains) as well as a comparatively low-fi halogen heater and a machine that looks like a giant egg timer.
Order a coffee in this venue and you can have it made in the Slayer, by Syphon, or Chemex.
The latter is probably the simplest and most traditional method. It utilises a pour-over technique (the water is tipped over the grinds, which are sitting on filter paper, and pulled through by gravity).
However, you’ll have to wait three minutes and 30 seconds for your brew.
“It’s sometimes described as slow coffee,” admits Hyde.
The speedier 90-second Syphon – the oversized egg-timer-like piece of equipment – uses a vacuum to suck the water through the coffee, while the halogen heater glows beneath it.
For all three methods, there are very specific measurements, temperatures, grinds and pressures.
My mind boggles. If it wasn’t for the caffeine, I might’ve fallen asleep while they were explaining this to me.
But, then, I never paid much attention in standard grade chemistry.
I can, however, appreciate the theatrical element when they whip-up these drinks in full view of the customer.
For each preparation they use beans from single origin sources (“the equivalent to using a single vineyard wine,” explains Hyde), with a mixture of two varieties in the espresso blend that goes into the Slayer.
Law, a former marketing executive, pulls a handful of beans out of the grinder and waves them under my nose. They are copper coloured, with tiny white fibres still impacted along their groove.
How are these treated in comparison to, say, Starbucks’s finest?
“They roast their coffee really dark – the traditional French roast,” says Law, a Chester native who drinks around six cups a day. “When you look at a dark-roasted bean it has a sheen to it, because the oils have been extracted. Coffees of the Third Wave are roasted a lot lighter. They’re brighter, with more acidity.”
You could compare them to a rare steak, rather than an incinerated one.
The boys found their ultimate dream beans – Kenyan Karatina AA (the latter is the grade of the beans and AA is as good as it gets) – after a visit to their supplier and roaster, Has Bean, based in Stafford.
“They asked us for a three-word brief and we gave them a much longer one,” explains Law. “We wanted something very different to what you can already find in Edinburgh, but we didn’t want to take people too far out of their comfort zone. So, they’re biscuity, nutty, caramely and full-bodied, but also sherbety, citrusy and dynamic. We had an epiphanous moment when we tried them.”
They had been sourced from a co-op of 1,400 farmers in the Mathira region of Kenya (the Third Wave of Coffee is all about specifics and terroir).
I get to sample them once they’ve been ground, then brewed in the hand-blown glass Chemex.
They taste like… “Jaffa Cakes,” interjects Hyde, “There’s an effervescent quality, a slight spritz.”
Yep, that’s it. God, he’s good.
I also sip a coffee made from the Ethiopia Kebel Kercha Sidamo Guji beans that’ve been brewed in the Syphon. That is, once it’s cooled to the appropriate drinking temperature (“the sweet spot”, says Hyde).
Like a wine, there is depth. I taste molasses.
“The overriding notes are of blueberry muffin,” says Hyde, swilling the black liquid around his mouth. “Also, these are naturally processed beans. Sometimes they’re washed, but these have been left to dry. So there’s a distinctly musky, farmyard flavour, as they’ve been allowed to ferment a little.”
Can one add milk?
“It sometimes spoils the flavour, “says Law. “Milk brings out a sourness. Though, our espresso blend in a flat-white tastes like Jelly Tots.”
Is this all getting a bit too complicated? Won’t potential Brew Lab customers, innocently on the hunt for a mug of Nescafé, be scared off when they see the gadgetry?
“At the moment there’s a lack of knowledge surrounding coffee,” replies Hyde. “Trying new things is all about building trust and educating people. Everyone knows wine is important and serious, but coffee is emerging, and we want to help teach people about it.”
And, if you drink coffee purely for the kick, this stuff is pure gold.
Go – just remember to take a banana.
Brew Lab, 6-8 South College Street, Edinburgh (www.brewlabcoffee.co.uk), opens on Thursday.