James Bailey
Workshop Coffee
James Bailey works as Head of Quality at Workshop Coffee, a specialty coffee roastery based in Bethnal Green, East London. With over a decade of experience working in coffee, for the last 8 years James' role at Workshop has evolved, to heading up the green coffee sourcing as well the company's roasting program, as well as leading a team of barista trainers to ensure that the inherent value of the product is maintained and carried through every stage, from sourcing, roasting, brewing and ultimately serving customers, whether in Workshop's own coffeebars or via their many wholesale partners.

After several years of competing in various barista competitions, including winning the UK Brewers Cup in 2012 and the inaugural Coffee Masters competition in 2015, as well as judging at international competitions and achieving a Q grader qualification, James' motivation has moved away from competition and collecting accolades towards focussing more on how to buy better coffee, roast it as well as possible and motivate a hard working, dedicated team at Workshop, whilst honestly telling the story of how the coffee has been produced and procured.

I remember an old colleague of mine, Tim, telling me about a trip to the dentist. With a pick in his mouth, he was extolling the virtues of preparing proper coffee, buying great beans, grinding them fresh, using nice water, and so on. The dentist just thought it was a lot of faff. After the check-up the dentist told Tim that he should brush before breakfast for 2 minutes, invest in an expensive electric toothbrush, then after breakfast use a mouthwash, thoroughly floss, use a tongue scraper and then repeat the process of brushing for 2 minutes and thoroughly floss before bed, ensure you keep the toothbrush charged, replace the heads regularly, and increase the frequency of appointments. Now, I’m not going to knock what sounds like a thorough dental regimen, but for someone recommending that Tim invest money, time and instill a new practice to write off grinding some beans and dripping water through a cone as a lot of faff there seemed to be a disconnect. 

Everyone will have something in their life that they understand more than most folks. Through understanding you might also find more enjoyment and fulfilment. Some people like to paint miniature figurines, some like to crochet or make quilts, and these people are hobbyists. Of course, everyone brushes their teeth with varying degrees of rigour, but similarly everyone has to eat and drink and engages with the products they ultimately imbibe across scale of involvement. Coffee is very widely drunk and enjoyed around the globe, being second only to good old Adam’s ale. It is strange to me that people who bake their own bread, make jam or grind their own coffee beans are thought of as hobbyists as if they were LARPers or trainspotters. My nan always used to say that she got very funny looks from her neighbours and heard whispers of “Oh, you knit your own yoghurt, do you?” as she’d make kefir and prepare things from the Cranks cookbook, then revolutionary! Nowadays there is a chasm of difference of cookbooks on shelves between ludicrous promises of 10-minute meals (maybe I’m a day late and there’s a 5-minute meals cookbook out now), that might fill a stomach but won’t sate an appetite for genuinely enjoying food and company, and books on foraging, preserving, slow cooking and more philosophical insights into how to grapple with food, from ‘Reinventing the Wheel’, ‘The Art of Fermentation’ to any from the tome of sourdough cookbooks out there. People feel time poor and the appeal of a quicker solution in any avenue of life is anointed with the promise of allowing you to invest your time in other pursuits, side-lining the choresome hassle of feeding yourself so that you can binge watch another episode on Netflix or doomscroll Instagram for another 20 minutes before bed. 

Alan Watts’ message on washing up has always resonated with me. You only ever have to wash up one plate; “this” is the only one you’ll ever have to wash up. Live in the moment and be present and you only need to wash one dish and it can be a game rather than an endless burden, with all future crockery and pans piled up ad infinitum. The hesitation to do something properly can often be due to a kneejerk mentally projected addition of all the times you’ll need to do something in your life. ‘Damn all this buttoning and unbuttoning!’ can be enough to kill a man. 

With all of this said, I am still incurably envious of those working in the chocolate and beer world. They can sell their wares to discerning, conscious consumers and deliver fantastic goods which simply need to be cracked into or have squares snapped off, which is a fairly easy final hurdle for the customer to jump over. In my industry I need to work with a clientele from whom I require a comparably vast amount of input! I am grateful that more people are switching to a mentality of moving and thinking slowly.  

The term ‘educating customers’ has never quite sat right with me, more so than ‘enlightening’ for sure, but perhaps ‘guiding, ‘helping’ or ‘informing’ is more apt. I want to share honest and interesting information about the product so that customers are armed with a little more reverence and humility when approaching preparing a cup of coffee. It is something worth a little effort and input. The process itself of preparing a cup can be enjoyable and worth revelling in, as well as the ultimate drinking of that cup. The onus is on the home brewer to carry through all of the potential value and deliciousness in the cup. The investment in taking a little more time and paying a little more attention is one that pays dividends. As the myna birds of Pala remind us: "Attention!" 

Since lockdown, which has altered the landscape regarding every avenue of everyday life, we’ve seen a complete shift in how folks engage with their daily coffee routine. Many have been strongarmed into the world of home coffee brewing, some looking for convenience, speed & frugality, for which there are myriad products in the marketplace. Thankfully we have also experienced a wealth of new custom from people wanting to learn, wanting to better their morning cups and learn more about how to get the most value out of the beans we’re selling them. These are the people willing to invest their time as well as their money into a superior product which they can enjoy on a whole new level. We implemented an online brewing helpdesk and have been revising our brew guides and releasing tutorials and demos on our YouTube channel to guide coffee lovers as best we can without being able to directly prepare drinks for our customers. The response has been wholly positive and rewarding, and has scratched an itch that I’ve had ever since I stopped working as a barista in a cafe, talking with customers at length day in day out. Home brewing shouldn’t be about having the best equipment, following nerdy brewing techniques or pulling your hair out trying to chase the optimal extraction. For me, it is about slowly honing a craft and taking the time to focus on each step, engaging your senses and drinking deeply from the cups you brew. Sourcing wonderful coffee through a dedicated roaster is just the first step, you’re now charged with pulling out all of that intrinsic value, which simply requires some care and attention.

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