XWHY Meets: Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood… Coffee Connoisseur!

Coffee is more popular than ever before! 10 years ago our knowledge of coffee – past knowing whether you wanted it “black” or “white” – was likely fuzzy or non-existent. Now however, speciality coffee is a part of pop culture. We’re excited to hear that a new coffee shop/café has opened close by; We critique the quality of our cup of coffee; can distinguish different tastes and appreciate the intricate Latte art so beautifully created by our favourite barista. But, have you ever wondered where coffee comes from and why it tastes the way it does?

Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, in his comprehensive A-Z guide, explains the whole coffee making process from sourcing and growing to harvesting, roasting, grinding and brewing. With three UK barista championships under his belt and co-owning a hugely successful independent roaster, Maxwell shares his knowledge to explain the key factors that impact the taste of your coffee. XWHY were lucky to speak with him about his career and achievements in the coffee industry, his new book The Coffee Dictionary and plans for the future.

The Coffee Dictionary

The Coffee Dictionary, published 7 September 2017, is now available to purchase for £15.

When did your interest in coffee begin?

Around 10 years ago, after travelling in India for 6 months, my wife and I decided to hang out in Melbourne. I got a job in a café on Collins St in the centre of the CBD. Very quickly I could see that how you made coffee mattered; it was something you were expected to do to a certain standard. At that point I still didn’t enjoy coffee, it was more the process that I found interesting.

One of the regulars who could see that I was interested suggested I go to Brother Baba Budan, a tiny hip coffee shop that had chairs hanging from the ceiling. That was the first time somebody asked me if I would like a single origin coffee. I had no idea what that meant or where coffee came from.  The lady made me a coffee and said it would taste like strawberries and vanilla, which at the time I thought was really obscure. I sat outside and drank it. It was a life changing moment for me. I thought it was incredible! I’d never had anything like it; it was the best thing I had ever tasted. That was really were I began to get excited about what coffee could be.

The next day I changed jobs and worked in shops that focussed on coffee. I spent my weekends visiting the best places in the city for coffee. I took coffee courses and would stay back after work to use the equipment and try to get better at making and tasting coffee. I didn’t feel that I was getting better until I did a course with David Makin, the Australian barista champion at the time. He spent 3-4 hours – much longer than I’d paid him for – telling me all about coffee and all the things we didn’t know. It was an interesting time because we didn’t know all of the reasons behind how and why coffees tasted differently. Then, a world opened up to me in trying to find out why coffee tasted the way it did. I wanted to understand everything about how to achieve the perfect cup of coffee.

Coffee is very different to wine in that wine is a finished product from the place it was produced. Coffee is unique in that there are so many different steps along the way that impact what ends up in the cup. You have the quality of the producer, the way the coffee cherry is processed, the type of coffee, where it’s grown, the climate and the soil – it then makes its way across the sea where it needs to be roasted (which is a big deal) and then has to be made by someone. Every step impacts how the coffee tastes.

That was the beginning and I’ve never looked back since. I was excited by how much there was to find out and explore. In hindsight, we got involved in coffee when the specialist third wave movement was booming. I was curious that even though there was great coffee, it was hard to find.

The Coffe Dictionary - page beans

How did you progress your career in the coffee industry once you returned to the UK?

I wanted to build a business around just the coffee. We left Melbourne, came back to the UK and started an events business. We served coffee at music festivals. It was a good business but there was a limited interest in the flavour of a single origin coffee at 6am! We then decided to open a café in Bath because it has universities, tourists and the biggest part of the local economy is creative, modern tech and media – a natural audience for specialist coffee.

Once we opened the shop, I started taking part in barista competitions. I won the UK championship 3 times (2012, 2014 and 2015). Those competitions open you up to this world of global coffee. You get to network with people all around the world who are just as obsessive as you are and share ideas. I actually saw the girl who served me that coffee in Brother Baba Budan and I said to her “you don’t know this, but you’re the person who served me the cup of coffee that got me into coffee”. She was quite hysterical and loved that that was my beginning in coffee.

We’ve also been involved in lots of scientific research. Working with academics, we’ve had 4 published papers. I wrote my first book with a chemist, which is a textbook about how important water is for coffee. The same beans brewed in different parts of the country or different parts of the world, taste completely different based on the water.

We then started our roastery. We’d built up an audience who were interested in what we were doing. We used that audience to focus on buying the most interesting coffees instead of trying to find a balance between buying coffees that are more commercial, appeal to a large audience or are a lower price. Then I wrote this book, which was an exciting opportunity to use a whole book to explain why coffee is fascinating. And that’s the coffee dictionary.

What was your fact-finding mission in preparation for writing the book?

What I like about coffee is that there are so many disciplines. Coffee can be taste based, academic or culturally focused. I have a good knowledge across the board with more expertise in certain areas. There were certain areas that I needed to do a lot more research on but I’m very lucky that the coffee community around the world is very connected and loves to share. I can find out the answers from experts as it’s easy to get in touch with people who have the knowledge. I really had to make sure that my facts about certain coffee origins and coffee cultures were correct.

Some of the historical stuff can never be clarified, such as the story about who was the first person to ever make a cup of coffee. There is a story about Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat-herder, but it’s really a myth. It’s not a historical fact. There are also many different interpretations of that myth so I had to decide which ones to use. In the book I outline when something isn’t certain. For example, there is a debate about who invented the flat white. I think that sometimes the debate is as interesting as the fact.

The Coffee Dictionary - coffe page

What is your favourite anecdote or piece of history in the Coffee Dictionary?

One of my favourite entries is about the third place. There is an idea – from America – that work and home are the first place and that a coffee shop is the third place. It’s a place where you socialise and meet people. An important cultural place. Which is a part of why I love coffee so much.

It is hard to pick a favourite entry, although one of the entries that was most difficult was finding something to go into ‘X’. I asked people from the coffee community on Twitter and this one guy from Holland suggested the Coffee X project. It’s a project from Rhode Island about creating a coffee maker for use in Out of Space on the International Space Station. The actually figure out how to deal with the no gravity issue.

Did you have an ideal audience when you wrote the book; is it for lovers of coffee or for anyone who wants to learn more?

I was adamant that I wanted it be both for someone with a mild curiosity and a book for the coffee pro. I think there is material in the book that people who have worked in the industry for years might not come across. There is this idea in coffee that specialist coffee is for the hard core geeks. I don’t think there’s anything about coffee that can’t be explained to everyone. A lot of it comes down to the way you explain a complicated term or an obscure idea. The coolest thing about coffee is that everyone drinks it, so there shouldn’t really be anything about coffee that you can’t get people interested in. It’s about how you tell that story and that’s the way I tried to write this book.

Which areas do you prefer coffee beans being produced from?  

All of the world’s coffee gets graded. For coffee to be classified as ‘speciality’, it technically has to be graded over 80 points. To be of value coffee has to have nice acidity, isn’t very bitter and has a sweetness to it. That only represents 5% of the world’s coffee supply.

The world’s most sought after coffee is Geisha. It is a particular variety that originates in Ethiopia but is grown in panama and it tastes very flowery. For me, it’s almost not coffee like at all. People debate whether it’s overpriced as it sells for 100’s of pounds a kilo. Whenever I do a blind tasting and a Geisha is on the table, people are blown away. I love these coffees too, I guess I have expensive taste.

What we like about coffee is that we’re getting harvests from different parts of the world all year round. We really enjoy the change. Speciality coffee is about the pursuit for new and exciting flavours.

The Coffee Dictionary melbourne page

Do you see coffee culture in the UK developing and where do you think it is heading?

The UK is really interesting; we have become a hot bed for innovation in speciality coffee.

Established coffee cultures where there is a strong idea of quality often struggle with innovation and exploration because all of the customers have a strong idea of what they want. It very quickly becomes quite traditionalist. In Melbourne the general standard is extremely high: well steamed milk, well made coffee, highly trained baristas. Australia pays baristas higher than anywhere else in the world.

When I came back to the UK, 85% of coffee consumed was instant coffee. That has now gone down to 80%. On the whole, the UK consumer is curious about exploring new things. They want to try having no milk and explore flavours. The UK has quite a few World Barista Champions and is well-known internationally for being an interesting place for specialty coffee. In the last few years’ speciality coffee has started kicking over into the mainstream. Language such as “single-origin”, which was once obscure, is being picked up by mainstream coffee franchises like Costa, Starbucks and Pret. McDonald’s did an ad that took the piss out of speciality coffee. That demonstrates that one of the biggest companies in the world thinks that specialty coffee in the UK is important enough to poke fun at. Coffee is becoming part of pop culture. The future for speciality coffee in the UK is really bright and there’s more interest than there ever has been.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m not competing in Barista Championships anymore. I’m 31 and retired, it’s ridiculous! People don’t realise how much goes into competing – you train for 6 months of the year, practice every night and travel around the world. For the last two years I have been the National Coordinator for the UK Chapter. I’ve taken on the role of running the UK competitions and I’ve been involved at the world level in evolving the rules.

We are currently involved in a lifecycle study at Bath University about the environmental impact of different waste space coffee. I also have a second illustrated version of the Water book coming out, which will make it easier to understand that topic.

Nobody in the speciality coffee industry has a 5-year plan. We are all involved in this exciting thing and you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next couple of years, which topics you are going to be involved in and where you’re going to go. I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to be involved in these interesting projects.

You can purchase The Coffee Dictionary from amazon HERE or all good bookstores.

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