I, Lawrence, sat down with James, the director of Wogan Coffee, who gave me a fascinating lesson in the process of trading coffee from sourcing the plant through to supplying customer.
After taking a job in the warehouse, James soon realised his knack for the business and rose to taking the reins. His Granddad, Brian Wogan, started the business in 1970, and one of the original roasters built in 1968 is still in use after being refurbished. What used to be the main room for production is now an area fully equipped for AST certified barista training, and the site also boasts a brew bar that opens through the week.
Wogan sources their coffee from 24 different origins, and the warehouse can store about 25 tonnes of the stuff. I stand by and take in the smell of huge sacks of raw beans churn through their 150 kilo roaster, heated up slowly in a meticulous process and filtered through a destoner to remove unwanted bits of plant material. When the beans filter out, you can hear their “first crack” as they expand to release gas and moisture;around 18% of their weight in water is lost, James tells me.
However, before it even reaches the roaster, there are three ways in which coffee can be processed: natural, washed, or honey. Natural coffee contains more sugar, as when the coffee tree is harvested, the cherry (the fruity container of the bean) is removed after it has dried out. This gives time for the bean inside to germinate which uses the sugars in the mucilage and cherry layers, adding a funky fruitiness to the flavour of the bean. Washed coffee means the fruit flesh of the cherry is removed before drying, so the sugar inside doesn’t contribute to the flavour of the bean. This produces coffee that tastes a little crisper, cleaner and more acidic. Honey processing is somewhere in the middle; only parts of the mucilage are removed and the remaining layers are left on to dry.
Once processed and packed up, Wogan’s fleet of electric vans ships out plastic tubs of coffee that are collected and refilled every new delivery across the South West. They supply all of Bristol’s BBC studios with coffee in zero waste tubs, replacing the old one kilo foil packaging. Wogan’s solar panels on their warehouse also generate as much electricity as they use annually, and they have managed to source LDPE bags and lining for their packaging too, so you are able to recycle these in supermarkets. Customers are incentivised to return their old bags with price drops, and James says some bags are still returning three years on with the old branding on them.
As we speak, James is receiving Whatsapp messages from a Nicaraguan farmer. He has spent his fair share of time in South America, establishing direct relations with and suppliers, and they previously helped fund the construction of a school in Nicaragua. James is currently working on a project to build a warehouse in Laguna, Colombia, for a collective of 12 family farms there. It has been quite the journey for him in this respect, learning Spanish, business and farming along the way.
Yet running Wogan also requires a level of expertise in choosing their quality, single origin coffee. This is why James went through the process of Q grading, a certification awarded by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). He was the youngest person to ever receive it in fact, but unfortunately this title was claimed from him in a mere three days…
Becoming a Q grader means passing an intensive six day exam, but James had to practise with three cuppings of coffee a day for a whole year before! The exam involved triangulation tests requiring James to pick the odd coffee out from, for example, three coffees grown on a specific Rwandan farm but one of them is grown on the Western slopes and the other two on the Eastern.
Looking forward, James recognises the threat of climate change which is making frosts and floods more extreme, and even the warning of these events makes market prices skyrocket. James has had to adjust their prices over the last couple of years to account for what has been roughly a doubling in the cost of raw coffee.
Nevertheless, the business is going strong, and James is delighted to tell me about how enthusiastic their regular customers are about Wogan’s coffee. James noticed a customer milling around near the checkout, and it was nice to see him immediately spring in to serve and answer all the questions the gentleman had.
So many people rely on coffee everyday, and James gave me an insight to the extent that we are indebted to the plant and the people that spread it around the world. There are many challenges in making the coffee trade sustainable, ethical and accessible, yet I feel Wogan is ticking many boxes in these regards. It is a pleasure to stock their Honduran Ocotepeque and Ethiopian Lekempte coffee in store at Smaller Footprints for £2.75 per 100 grams. We have a decaffeinated coffee from Peru for £3 per 100 grams. Or, head down to Wogan’s brew bar on Clement Street through the week to try it yourself first!