Coffee Query: Dale Harris, Has Bean Coffee
Dale Harris is the Director of Wholesale for Has Bean Coffee in the UK. Amicable, energetic, and self-deprecating - he's incredibly approachable and helpful to the coffee community. He makes hard work fun, turns problems into opportunities, and is always a pleasure to work with!
What got you into coffee and what’s kept you in coffee?
Second half is better! [laughs] What got me into coffee was a girl.
There was a coffee shop above a bookshop - I was at college and started going to the cafe in the village (because it was above a bookshop) where I grew up where there was just a village, and then a shopping centre was built and it became the biggest thing there. It’s horrific! It’s called Clarks Village - it used to be owned by Clarks shoes - the only people with money historically in the village was the Quaker family of the Clarks. They built the schools, they built the outdoor swimming pools to make us all healthy, and then they built, like, the retail mega-complex that is now Clarks Village. And it’s kind of, like, I think the idea was that foreigners would visit it and go, “Oh, isn’t it twee, it’s like a real village!” But it was a real village beforehand! And then they built a shopping centre, and inside said fictional village there was a bookshop called Bookends, and at the top was Madisons. Madisons was on a mezzanine floor looking down on the bookshop, and there was a bar where you could look down on the books. The manager was called Stacy, and I was 17, and, like, she was a skinhead - like, she was proper, like, number 1 all over and shit? But she had good skin and she was very cute.
So I used to go in and buy coffee - some sort of mocha with caramel syrup in it - and it was part of my development as a human being, drinking mochas there. And it evolved into lattes. And it evolved into this stupid idea that I liked coffee and I would like to work in a coffee shop.
So that’s why I started drinking coffee, drinking good coffee came later!.., I worked [at the time] at a shop selling Ben Sherman clothes, and I’d then train people on how to sell clothes, how to fold clothes, do merchandising for shop windows and stuff, and I used to travel around their stores across the country doing training for them, and then I lost my job - the franchise went bust. So I was left unemployed for a while, and I worked for a different clothing company - I worked for Billabong. I have never surfed in my life. They took me to nice places and I SAW good surf, and I sold good wetsuits, but I didn’t care about them at all, and I had enough money that I could decide that.. I used to lie down on the floor in the stockroom upstairs and go, “Oooh my gooood; killing me..!”.. And I decided that I wasn’t going to do a job that I didn’t want to do anymore, so I decided I was going to work in a coffee shop because I would like to make coffee, and that was it!
Then, when I left there, I worked for a chain in the UK - Costa - thinking it would help me learn how I could do my own cafe, and I read about business while I was there and got promoted because - basically, I worked for a company that wanted to be a big company, so I knew kind-of secrets on what a shop should be doing, so it was very easy for me to progress. After 12-18 months I was managing 6 stores for them in the southwest, and it was fun and it was good, but I wanted to learn about coffee, and I learned everything they wanted to teach about coffee in like, 4 weeks. For real! [laughs] I came second in the first Costa barista championship! ..Or it might’ve been that I was second in one of their sub-divisions. I got a shirt with different writing on the back.
And, so, I knew I couldn’t learn anything more from them about coffee, and one of the managers that I worked with applied for a job as a coffee trainer with a company that supplied equipment - a coffee trainer/engineer sort of thing - so I applied too, stole the job from John (sorry pal) started working for them as a regional, engineer-based thing and that started exposing me to the kind of coffee that I wanted to drink, that tasted nicer, and getting into coffee as a scene. I was really lucky I was in that company at the right time - that they wanted to do bigger things, so I got to progress there.
I met people like Gwilym [Davies] working shows for them and later, James Hoffmann and Annette Moldvaer who were just beginning to set-up Square Mile Coffee together were used as consultants for the company and I got to sit in on their training sessions.. I used to do lots of training for big corporate clients - to train in their coffee bars. Like, one of our biggest customers was Barclays, or the catering company that supplies Barclays, so the Barclays head office in Canary Wharf has four Starbucks star cafes on the bottom floor, and then on, like, the 31st floor there’s the executive suite, which is all wood-panelled and has turners on the wall, and a little Linea and two baristas - just in case a head director wants a coffee.
So it was fun, I was very free to learn and play with people and stuff like that, and I got to work with them on a number of projects for 3 and a bit years, and then Steve [Leighton] found me and saved me. Like, through it all I found coffees that tasted more interesting, so when I started working for Costa, it tasted pretty good, and as far as I was concerned I was making the best espresso I could make. And then I got exposed to other things, and there’s always been another level of taste that you could get to, and then I found Steve, and began working with coffee that always delivered on the taste level and now there are other challenges!
Tasty stuff and nice people kept me in coffee.
What have been your favourite coffees, both in filter and as espresso?
Okay..hmm.. We’re gonna find a favourite, we’re gonna find a favourite..!
Um, so, hmm..
That is a hard question!
Can I say my favourite Brazil? Okay. My favourite Brazil which I think I can say is.. okay, I’ve had lots of very good espresso, and I’m very open to lots of different ideas of what good espressos are. Like, I like new things and weird things, but there was a coffee that we had maybe 4 years ago that we had from Brazil. Shortly after I first started working for Steve, we had our first direct trade container, and all of those coffees were from a region of Brazil called Bahia, and Bahia is.. Like, most of Brazil is massive estates, and huge flat slopes where the coffee grows - they grow on a vast factory scale. But Bahia is like a national park. Bahia is all mountains and valleys, and the coffee farming there is much more like Colombia - smallholders, and small coffee lots and the flavours are much more diverse. So their first year, and the year after, that we had direct coffee containers from Bahia - that were just so phenomenally diverse!
There was one called Aranquan, the Aranquan washed - it was like vanilla custard. It was gloopy and round, but clear vanilla, and then chocolate. It was awesome! Aranquan washed. And then, like, I think that was the second year that we had that one.
My favourite FARMER..ish..my favourite farmer in Brazil..favourite farmer that I’ve never MET..for favourite farmer stories is.. I’m worried about offending anyone..!
So Alejandro is my favourite coffee farmer because he slept in my house, and we have lots of fun and he acts like a 7-year-old.
But Adeodato is, I think Steve said he was in his 70s, like 78, but he looked like he was about 45, had a long grey ponytail and grey beard, and he’s obsessed with biodynamics. So we had a video of him talking through biodynamics, about fixing the soil and bringing things together.. Like, all the things you love about Luca [D’alfonso} in the Fumbally - imagine that in an 80 year old man jumping around woodlands. So Luca in a few years. [laughs] I’m gonna offend everyone..! But no, like, he was somebody who was not just a poor farmer, or a rich farmer, not a businessman, but someone who had a real passion for coffee. And coffee was part of the passion, but it wasn’t the whole passion - he was very..the way he thought about his coffee, and the way he was talking about coffee and his farming was very much..he believed. I like people who believe in what they’re doing, and he’s a really good example of that.
And he had super weird coffee - it wasn’t delicious - like, it tasted very interesting, it tasted very…Jif floor cleaner and pine resin! There were reasons for it, but it was just.. The farm was called Terra Madre, which is “Earth Mother” or something. There were these two lots, and he didn’t cut anything, and there were was an area of the farm that was surrounded by pine trees, and it tasted like pine resin. From the same region as Aranquan - Aranquan was the delicious one; Adeodato and Terra Madre was like, the clever story, and they made me love Brazil, and I’m really sad we're unable to still access those coffees. The relationship, the connection we had that helped us get coffee from that area broke down after a couple years for various reasons to do with local politics in the area. So we haven’t had those coffees for years, and I would LOVE to taste them again. They were great.
….Not THE answer, but AN answer!
Like, my favourite coffee - not because of how it tastes, though I really liked the way it tasted - one of my favourite coffees to drink, would be Finca Argentina the San Jorge lots that we produced with Alejandro, because one - they were there when I first started working with Steve. They’d just arrived in the door, so I’ve kind-of tasted every crop that we’ve had from his farm. Every coffee that we had from him in that first year was exceptional, but I’ve seen the quality of the coffee increase across the farm - I now understand Alejandro and what he does there, I understand his motivations; I understand a lot more about how you can improve coffee on a farm through the experiments and projects we've shared there.. So that one is really close to my heart. I really like the flavour of it, the San Jorge washed. It is everything that speciality coffee should be to me. It doesn’t make it the best coffee - it’s not the “best” coffee flavour out there, but it’s definitely in that line of coffees that I am excited to see what they will taste like when they come in next year. Like, that is the one I’m waiting for right now
Filter or espresso - they’re the same! Let’s not pretend they’re different. They’re the same, just one of them is stronger. You forgot to add the water. [laughs] Espresso is like, for me, espresso is a way of tasting lots of different things very fast - like, you can experience wonderful things, but filter coffee is where I really enjoy coffee. And when I have cappuccinos and stuff like that..I like cappuccinos that are well made, but I don’t learn anything about the coffee that way. Normally I would have a cappuccino because I want to enjoy coffee with someone else, because I’m going to sit down with someone and have a conversation - or because I just fancy milky stuff! Like, I don’t think I can tell quality beyond preparation in a milky drink.
What’s your home coffee setup?
Chemex (1-3 cup) - that’s for travel, a glass-handled Chemex, ‘cause I’m awesome, ‘cause SteMo - Stephen Morrissey, once made a video and he had a glass-handled one.. The home Vario is my grinder. Unmarked bags of Has Bean coffee, and Japanese teacups. And Parisian Telescope owl teacups. All the good stuff. AND - special secret - the Zevro. It’s like a Clever Dripper, but it’s not fucking ugly. I also have lots of dusty shit that I don’t brew coffee on - including magic Chemexes, Aeropresses, Moka pots, and something that looks like a bicycle pump that my older brother bought for me because “he knows I like the coffee.” So he thought he’d spend a crazy amount of money on something I’d never use. It’s shit. “Handpresso.” So it comes out the colour of espresso, but not the flavour. It’s true.
So the answer to your question is: a Chemex.
But, getting up to brew coffee is - like, at the roastery I can get up and do it at any point, but I’m busy working, so I don’t. If I work from home, which I do maybe one or two mornings a week, then I can probably brew 3 (bigger) Chemexes in the morning whilst I’m doing emails and stuff like that - a litre and a half of coffee, on a Monday. It’s good for you! [laughs]
Where do you want London/Europe’s coffee culture to develop next?
I would like.. So, like, it’s weird - the more I travel, the more I see different places on the same journey, but at different stages. I’ve been to Budapest a couple times over the last few years, and it’s very much— the last time I was there was in February, and it’s very much in a place where it’s clearly progressed from the first time I went there in 2012. I met some Hungarians there, so like Tibor [Varady] - I met him in 2010 and we had a few chats, and then he was a customer for a year or so, at a shop called Printa where he was the head barista. So we were supplying Printa, and I visited Hungary to meet our distributor there, and that was around the time when Tibor was opening his own shop, Espresso Embassy. Then I went back to Espresso Embassy this year, very briefly, and in the meantime I’d seen staff that had worked in Espresso Embassy and at Printa working in London and travelling around, and had seen how that scene had developed. To my eyes, Budapest is in exactly the same place now as London was when I first started working in quality coffee in London. So, there’s two or three really good coffee shops, there will probably be 10 in the next year or two, and then it’ll go crazy.
Like, there’s a few cities like that - Paris is a little further along, though it’s taken a long, long time to get there with a lot of people’s hard work, but Paris probably has 10-15 good cafes that you can go to with a few different coffee roasters, a few different styles, a few different ideas of what quality is, and that works quite well. Like, I have my idea of quality, but I can recognise other peoples’ ideas elsewhere, and Dublin is probably at the same point as Paris is around now as well - you’ve got a choice, but there’s still opportunity.
I’m actually really excited to see where London goes next, because I think London is at a stage of maturation, where all the other cities are going to end up at some point, and you’ve seen in the States - I’ve never seen the next stage. I’ve never been to Australia, where in Melbourne and Sydney they probably are at that stage where there are players in speciality who are a bit bigger, and have 6, 10; 20 shops, who are encroaching on each others’ spaces, who have locations, let’s say, like the UK equivalent, with a location in London and Edinburgh and Bristol and Manchester and stuff like that. We don’t really have that here. We have Harris + Hoole and Taylor St who are larger operators, but you don’t have those bigger organisations that are hitting each other or encroaching on each other’s space in speciality, and when that happens, I think there will be interesting things to learn from. It’ll be interesting to see what London does, and how that affects newcomers, and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects new baristas.
But I also think that’ll mean cafes will become bigger, and a little bit more defined, and they’ll be more clear in what it is they’re doing rather than everyone saying the same thing, there will be different identities appearing. Like, Kaffeine is a great example - there are now two Kaffeines - what bit of the original Kaffeine makes it to the second one? And what bit from the second one makes it back to the first one? Taylor St would be another good example - they have 7-8 stores under the Taylor St brand, and all of them are different, and all of them will always be different, because the spaces are different, and even if the demographics are the same, every cafe is going to have its own vibe, but what becomes the culture of that bigger business…what does that mean for baristas, what does that mean for customers, and what does that mean for the way they interact and talk about coffee quality?
Who’s someone you admire in coffee?
See, I have to be very careful, because I’d have to say Steve and then I realise that I really mean it! Like, Steve has probably inspired me more than anyone else, but it always feels like a cheap answer! Because I work for him, and I work with him, and I see it all, but he is.. He works really hard, and I think it is easier to find good coffee, and make coffee well, and brew coffee well than ever before. It is probably easier to market an online business, and sell to people, and grow your business if you throw your money and energy effectively - but Steve’s been doing it for a long time, and he started with nothing, except he knew he wanted to do it, and he decided to put everything into it.
Even now, today, he was working so hard - he has his meeting, he has his things, and then he cups coffee - like, he is always on, he is always working.. I wouldn’t say he’s always having fun, but he’s always enjoying it. And working for it, and working as hard as he’s ever worked, because it matters to him. And I like that, and I like the fact that..I don’t know how you measure success, but Steve is successful, and he’s successful because he worked harder than anyone else would.
Like, he’s certainly not successful because he always did everything the right way, or the fastest way, or the cleverest way, but every time he makes a mistake or the company has made a mistake, he’s worked past it, or worked over it, or tried something else, and I find that amazing.
And he’s nice, too! Most of the time. He’s a prick, too, sometimes! He’s a bully - like the only games we have in the roastery are ones that he’s good at! [laughs] But I think that’s a fair thing to say.
There are lots of other people, too. But mainly Steve. I like working for him.
What advice would you give to somebody just starting out in your field?
Be very clear about what you want, and pursue it as hard as you can. Like, be happy, and find the place that is going to give you all the things that you want, and then stay there and learn as much as you can from there, and do as much as you can when you do the job. Like, the best growth I’ve had while I’ve been in coffee has been when I’m working really hard in a place where I felt that I was learning all the time. And not learning in a particularly defined way - I wasn’t ticking off a list of skills, but being in a place where I felt supported.
Find a business that you believe in, and commit to spending time there and doing the hard work, and going on the journey with them for a solid amount of time, and learning as you go.
I think a lot people want to master everything, like we all do - we all want to be good at what we do, and we want to grow and learn new things, but mastery doesn’t come from hearing all the information and doing it once. Mastery comes from showing up to work every day and doing it for years and years until you look back and go, “Ahh, I can do this!”
And the only place where you’ll feel motivated to do that is in a place that you believe in, and a place that you enjoy being in. Like, The Fumbally is a place with an energy. First Draft is, 3FE is, and Has Bean is.. The other companies I’ve worked for, whilst I was there, I felt like that. Like, even when I worked for Costa, I was committed, and I believed, and I understand that I feel differently now, but when I was working there, I really committed to doing it, and doing a good job, and learning as I went.
And I had solid goals in my head - it wasn’t that I was just going to do this thing day-to-day - I had a clear goal that I was going to learn as much as I could about coffee before I moved to do this other thing, but I didn’t rush to do the other thing. I made sure that I got everything that I could from that experience, and had done all the things that were available to me there before I started looking outside of it.
Like, I think it’s easy to write off all of these jobs, and skip from place to place, and never actually do the learning. Because the learning happens when you’re in there, and it’s hard, and it’s stressful, and when you look back after that. If you jump too soon, you miss those really important lessons, and I think if you skip jobs every 2-3 months, then you miss that learning curve, and you miss that journey, and that progression that comes from doing something repetitively, or working with a team of people, or being part of something as it grows and changes.
What are you drinking now?
I’ve ordered two coffees from Five Elephant because their new packaging is so super-cute - I got the Ethiopian Chelelectu, and I wanted to buy their Kenyan, but I got distracted, and bought their Burundi! Super excited!
[Later note from Dale: "The Five Elephant arrived, they added the Kenyan in, which was all kinds of kind, and all 3 were delicious, but the Burundi was the winner - clearest honey note I've tasted in years ;)"]