Coffee Query: Stuart Ritson, Workshop Coffee
Stuart Ritson is the wholesale manager for Workshop Coffee Co. in London. He recently MC'd Irish Aeropress Championships, & his passion for coffee and its industry is something to behold.
What got you into coffee and what’s kept you in coffee?
Coffee was part of my daily routine long before I started working in the industry, but I was mostly just drinking ‘2nd Wave’ coffees. While the coffee wasn’t that great, I was entirely hooked on the whole experience of going to cafes and the cafe culture really drew me to look for a job in coffee. In my final year at University I applied for a barista role at Fitzbillies in Cambridge. It had just been revamped and was one of the first places in the town to serve anything vaguely resembling speciality coffee. I still remember being shown how to steam milk by a friendly Aussie called Caz, who was barely tall enough to reach the Linea we had perched on a high counter. From there I developed a real interest in what we were serving, how we served it, how we could make the bar flow better - basically it began to take over my life. At one point I even, somewhat foolishly, took out Ivon Flament’s ‘Coffee Flavour Chemistry’ from the library. My complete lack of a chemistry education meant it was entirely impenetrable.
When I graduated I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to carry on working in hospitality. A great opportunity at a tea company came up so I then left the coffee industry for a while. The problem was, no matter how much I enjoyed the teas we were sourcing and brewing, I could never get away from my desire to be behind a machine and learning more about coffee and cafes in general. Eventually I packed in the tea job and I haven’t looked back since.
What have been your favourite coffees, both in filter and as espresso?
That is a very tough question. I am blessed in my role as Wholesale Support Manager for Workshop Coffee to be exposed to a lot of amazing coffees, not just from ourselves but from roasters around the world. I’ve had a few coffees in the last year that have stuck in my mind. As a filter I’d say it was probably the Kabingara AA, Kenya - a really juicy coffee with clear raspberry notes which was unbelievably forgiving to brew with. On espresso it is likely the Hunkute, Ethiopia. We have had it twice as the Cult of Done Espresso and both times it has been genuinely unforgettable.
What’s your home coffee setup?
I could give a long list of all the different equipment I have at home, including a fairly obscure stove top brewer that I’ve been told is worth around £400- £500 (it was a gift before you ask), but the truth is I don’t really make coffee at home. Being in London I am spoilt for choice with good cafes and after I started working at Workshop Coffee, I found no matter how hard I tried, I was never satisfied with the quality of coffee I could make with my home brewing equipment.
Where do you want Dublin/Ireland’s coffee culture to develop next?
I think it would be arrogant of me to point Ireland or anywhere in the world in a particular direction. Dublin has a great little scene with real potential to grow to being something bigger. In my view the whole of Europe has a lot more to give and I am sure that things I cannot even imagine will happen in the coming years, which may fundamentally alter the way cafes, roasters and baristas work. I just wish I knew what that ‘thing’ was.
Who’s someone you admire in coffee?
When I was just starting out in coffee I met Simon Fraser, the owner of Hot Numbers Coffee in Cambridge. He served me ‘the coffee’ that changed my view of what coffee could be - it was sickly sweet, floral and had an easily detectable strawberry note. My tastes in coffee have changed somewhat since then but I still have phenomenal respect for Simon’s passion, his emphasis on quality but more than just that, his desire to be an integral and beneficial part of the local community.
What advice would you give to somebody just starting out in your field?
Everyone has something to teach you, so keep learning and never discount anyone else’s experiences. However, never imitate blindly, always inquire. I think if everyone did this, we wouldn’t still be seeing baristas worldwide bashing the sides of portafilters with their tampers.
Also, I think its important that where possible we try to commit to a cafe, coffee bar or restaurant for a good length of time. I think it is a real problem that often baristas and other coffee professionals only work in any one place for a few months before moving on. If you want your boss or your colleagues to invest in you, give you better training and support and take your ideas seriously, then you have to show them you are committed first.
What are you drinking now?
This morning I had our latest Cult of Done v22, as a flat white and an espresso. It has just come out so I’m still trying to taste it as much as I can. It is a really exciting Colombian coffee - El Diamante from Huila. What is so special about this coffee is that it is made up entirely of Yellow Bourbon, which is a relatively uncommon heirloom varietal in Colombia. I’ve not drank a great deal of this varietal in the past, especially not as an espresso, so I’m really enjoying the opportunity to try something different.