Guest Shift: The long and short of improving your coffee

02 May 2023

Guest Shift Tom Clarck
Tom Clark co-founded Coutume coffee roasters in 2011 after spotting a gaping hole in the French market for specialty coffee. Now stocked in 250 hotels, bars and restaurants across Europe and the Middle East, and with top chefs clamouring for his coffee, he explains the importance of the brown stuff for any hospitality venue.

What was the French coffee scene like when you arrived?
"Nonexistent, as polite as I can be. It was quite surprising coming from a burgeoning coffee culture as in Australia. We had brasseries that were pretty much the go-to place for people to have coffee that had no understanding or interest in serving good coffee. Restaurants were also doing the same thing."

And now?
"It's extremely exciting. France, and Paris especially, has a really active specialty coffee market, with roughly 300 independent coffee shops today."

What does great coffee taste like?
"It's that interaction, that balance between acidity for length and complexity, bitterness for the contrast, and the umami effect you get between the acidity and bitterness and sweetness.
Espresso should obviously have more body. It should almost have a texture on the lung, on the tongue. It should have nice length. It should leave you wanting more, like a good wine.
A filter coffee will be more elegant. Sometimes it's juicy. Sometimes it's a little bit more on the acidic side, but it should always have that juicy, elegant kind of profile where you want to just continue drinking."

What does it mean if you have coffee breath?
"Coffee breath? Well, it means that you’ve probably had one or two too many coffees or don't have dental hygiene!
A standard espresso should be served with water. In Italy, for example, they always propose sparkling or flat. And sparkling generally cleanses the palette a little better. There are also natural ways of getting rid of coffee breath, such as chewing an apple when we do coffee cuppings."

Why should bars or venues care about serving good coffee?
"Well, I think there are various motivations there. First of all, I think it fits into the overall experience. Coffee should be elevated to the level of the wine service, or food mixology eventually.
It's a very powerful medium to communicate in a very low-key, friendly, hospitable way, because coffee is pretty much internationally the way of welcoming somebody to your establishment or to your home."

And good for business too?
"You can also make a good business out of it – coffee has great margins. Margins are only one thing, the other side is volume because you make good margins but on a relatively small ticket. Compared to a cocktail or a bottle of wine.
So, the best way to get volume is by being good, consistent, and that's how you create a loyal base. And I've seen many successful hybrid concepts that do a really good coffee shop/ brunch or lunch and from 7pm the chandelier drops down, candles get put on the tables, music changes, and the bar transforms into a cocktail or any bar.
Coffee is one of the most complex sensory experiences out there. So, anybody who enjoys flavoured taste and enjoys the artisan craft of transforming in a raw ingredient into a drink, has every interest in incorporating that into their venue.

The clientele's there, the demand's there. So, if you're not delivering it now, at least in France, you are behind the market and it really just leverages everything."

What can your average bar do to improve the quality of the coffee served without much investment?  
"If you don't have the budget for a good espresso machine, you can make really good filter very easily. You can make a batch brew system work for a higher volume around €1,500, which includes a good professional grinder. The batch brew system is one very easy way of doing consistent high-quality filter, which could be incorporated into your brunch because it's very volume friendly.
"And if you have a smaller setting or you want to go more bespoke, a pour-over on the bar is very ceremonial, it's extremely sexy. You could even do it at the client's table: you bring over a tray with the V60 filter, the scale, and you grind the coffee just before you come to the table. We've done that with some Michelin chefs and even just really implicated restaurants and the clients love it. It's probably about a €150-200 investment for a pour-over system."

On a night out, what's your go-to drink?
"I'm an old-fashioned guy, which means I would probably go for an Old Fashioned. I think that's just a perfect cocktail. If it's hot and it's summery, I could also go for something like a Long Island Iced Tea. I think that's a great underrated cocktail, although it definitely…you can't have two of them."

So, not an Espresso Martini??
"Not really, to be fair. I think it's just become a bit like the Mojito. It's just become too generic and it's often done with a badly made espresso."


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