September 2006 was the bookend to one of the best summers in England many can remember. The good weather was noted, the World Cup in Germany another reason. The world was a different place anyway – pre Financial crisis, pre-Isis, Tony Blair was still Prime Minister. I was settling into a new life and the first impressions were good.
But not all was well. Every morning, before work I had a handful of places to chose from that I could order a flat white from and in return, receive just that, a flat white. Made with love and care, as it should be. That was Sydney. In London, the flat white was a myth – did it even exist?
I underestimated the cultural difference between Australia and England, especially when it came to coffee and beer. The best coffee in those early days was Monmouth Coffee at Borough Markets. A trip there became a very regular thing indeed. But slowly and surely the tide turned – thanks in many ways to my fellow antipodeans who brought the coffee culture. But there were others too.
Around this same time, a young Brazilian couple arrived in London. Having spent time travelling here in 2004, they decided they would pack up their life in Brazil and move to London, primarily to learn English; but perhaps the draw of the international city and the opportunity that comes with it excited them.
Fabio Ferriera worked in pharmaceuticals in Brazil, but he knew that without speaking the language it would be difficult to find a job in the same industry. So he turned to his other skill. Coffee.
Since Notes first opened in Canary Wharf toward the beginning of last year, I’ve become a regular; first at their hole in the wall in the Canary Wharf underground station, then at the state of the art site at Crossrail. Sometimes I visit twice a day. In doing the calculation I have probably had over 200 coffees from Notes and never had a bad one.
I was curious to know why, so I reached out to Notes and they put me in touch with Fabio, the co-founder and Director of Product at Notes. In this role Fabio is responsible ‘for pretty much everything that is for sale in the store’. I wanted to know how they ensure every coffee is so good.
The answer is both very simple and very detailed. The simple answer is through traceable quality from bean to cup. This is the critical difference between a ‘third wave’ coffee house and a high street café.
When Fabio first started Notes, back in 2010, they would buy beans direct from growers in Brazil. Fabio’s family were farmers and he knew the coffee growers and was certain of the quality. Eventually, as they grew they would source through reputable distributors. The current blend used in store is from Burundi, the Central East African country bordering Rwanda and Tanzania.
After finding the right coffee beans, the next step is the roast. As they grew, Notes began to roast their own beans, which is critical to achieving quality, consistency and uniqueness. Fabio explains that roasting is a very scientific process with many variables, such as temperature and time, that impact the favour. The process begins with a test roast and that can be repeated up to five times. The flavour is then reviewed. When I asked how he describes flavours of coffee his face lights up. Just like beer and wine, there are countless adjectives and dimensions to describe coffee. The sweetness, the aroma, the mouth feel, the aftertaste all have a multitude of ways to be described and defined.
Once roasted it needs to get to from cup to customer. ‘Coffee is like baking a cake, you have to follow the recipe’, quips Fabio. He writes up coffee recipes for the baristas in store that outline how to brew, to treat the beans as they age (the coffee should be used between 4 and 10 days after roasting); adjusting grind size and amount, how long to brew for and at what temperature all with tasting notes. I asked Dwayne Lloyd-Smith, the assistant manager about this. He shows me the recipe he receives via email. Its very prescriptive, but it ensures quality. You can tell Dwayne absolutely buys into the ethos.
From bean to cup, every step is controlled and traceable and outlined with vivid detail and instruction. Can you imagine this from a high street chain? When I talk ask about competition, Fabio tells me its competitive but there is comraderie between the independent coffee houses. He mentions Taylor Street Baristas, another Canary Wharf resident, who he sees more as friends than competitors. The real competition is the big high street chains; Costa, Nero, Starbucks, he insists.
Dwayne agrees. ‘You almost have to re-educate high street coffee drinkers about what coffee can be. Often people will be surprised that a flat white comes in 6oz cups and there is no large, or a that a latte comes in 8oz, not 16oz’. But it’s working. They have built a steady trade of loyal drinkers who are shunning the nearby Costa, Pret and Starbucks in favour of the quality of Notes.
I can see similarities with craft beer in this sentiment, the camaraderie between the smaller independent producers against the might of the large corporates. Which leads me to ask about their beer offering, which includes some of the best craft beers in the country. ‘I love beer’, Fabio beams. I asked him about the beer and wine list? Why not just be a café? Why were Notes interested in being a bar too? Do people really want to drink at a café?
When they first opened, their lease allowed them to operate to 11pm. With most people not drinking coffee late in evening due to the effects of caffeine they spent, time effort and money building a wine list. The beer was an afterthought. His fellows directors though a few bottles of Peroni would do the trick. Fabio resisted. He wanted to build a beer list with some of the up and coming craft breweries in London.
They needed a lager and Camden Hells was a perfect place to start. They also built a relationship with The Kernel Brewery, who were among the first beers served at Notes, and retain four beers from their range on the menu. Fabio tells me they still maintain a direct relationship with Kernel today. He’d love to have more. While they change their wine list quarterly the beer list changes less frequently. His favourite is Camden, at its close to where he lives and Beavertown Gamma Ray. And they’ve recently added Cloudwater Motueka Lager.
Its mainly women who drink at Notes in the evening, quaffing a nice glass of wine in a comfortable, relaxed environment. ‘I think they want somewhere other than the pub’, Fabio tells me. They can get a seat in a relaxed environment. Dwyane tells me they do get men too, many unfamiliar with the beer on offer and ask for recommendations. ‘You can’t go wrong with the Kernel, but I’m a fan of the Gamma Ray’. They are changing their evening menu to include small plates with a view to attracting more evening drinkers. Time will tell if it’s a success.
The quality control that goes into the coffee is so evident in the delivery and taste. Craft brewers and bars can learn from Notes approach to quality. The attention to detail in ensuring the product delivered is to the highest possible standard is aspirational. Knowingly delivering sub-standard product in an increasingly competitive market where others strive for excellence is a dangerous approach.
Invariably there is an overlap between people that enjoy great coffee and great beer. Notes is a great place to enjoy both, in a relaxed friendly setting.
Thank you to Fabio and to Dwayne for their time in allowing me to ask them about Notes and for their gracious responses. In addition to sites at Canary Wharf, Notes can be found in Trafalgar Square, Moorgate and Kings Cross.
I was inspired to write this post after listening to the Good Beer Hunting Podcast episode 65 with Stephen Morris