Coffee Query: Colin Harmon, 3FE
Having really kick-started speciality coffee in Ireland, in the lobby of a now defunct nightclub, Colin Harmon remains humble. His change of career from a financial world 9-5'er to superstar barista has been well documented, but his passion for coffee and Dublin remains a real inspiration. We're thrilled we got to sit down with the gentle giant... Take it away, Colin!
What got you into coffee and what’s kept you in coffee?
Honestly, what got me into coffee was probably just sheer boredom..!
Like, I worked in finance and I had a good job, but I just hated it. The best part of my day was leaving my office to go have a cup of coffee. And I’d worked in cafes and restaurants and bars all the way through university, and I missed the buzz of cafes and stuff, so.
One thing I always regretted when I went to work in finance was that I never actually learned to use the espresso machine. I worked in a place called Lemon, which is on South William St.. At the time, Lemon was like the epicentre of coffee in Dublin, and it was a really busy place, and they had three guys - Barney, JP, and Damien - and they were in charge of coffee, with a girl called Claire as well. And they always drove all the coffee and I was never allowed - I was always, like, the NEXT one, “Yeah, you’ll be next to learn, but right now we are the gatekeepers; it’s only us.” And I think coffee was like that back then, y’know, you had the “gift” of coffee.
So, I always regretted that, and when I went to work in finance that was kind of like my daily hit - getting a cup of coffee. And I just got really interested in it, and I had this disposable income, and every week I’d be buying.. Like, I had lots of gear for all sorts of hobbies that I never took up, like surfing - all sorts of random shit. I just used to spend my money on this random stuff to try to make me happy, and so I bought an espresso machine!
Then I found an internet forum that taught me how to use it a little bit better. Taught me how to even make tweaks to it, buy different parts that would improve it.. So I started doing that, and then I started buying coffee online, and then I started buying coffee from Has Bean; from Square Mile.. Then I got involved on a boards.ie coffee forum, and I met a guy on there called RE*AC*TOR. And RE*AC*TOR and myself got a load of people to come together to do a group buy from 49th Parallel in Canada. And then we organised a few other group buys from different roasteries around the world, and they’d always throw an extra coffee and cups and stuff..
We used to meet in the back of supermarkets and stuff, dark carparks, and swap over packages - it was all very fun and interesting! It felt very rough an’ ready, and it was part of a subculture that we knew. Like, I could make better coffee at home than I could buy in a shop, and that was really interesting to me.
So, then I went to London to go to a coffee tasting event with RE*AC*TOR, and myself and RE*AC*TOR spent the day walking around London one of his friends, tasting coffees at different cafes. Then we went to the tasting a Square Mile, and I just knew, “This is what I want to do, this is amazing!”
So I jacked my job; I got a job with Coffeeangel, and then it just didn’t stop after that!
And what’s kept me in it..there’s always - there’s always something else, y’know what I mean? I’ve never gotten bored with it, and I’m the sort of person who gets bored with stuff very easily.
So, I think my role within 3FE has changed, like, incredibly - I haven’t worked on bar in 2 1/2 years, that’s the biggest difference, but I’m interested in stupid things like spreadsheets or afterburners or plumbing systems..! Or even stuff like staff development or building websites.. Coffee has become a conduit to meet really amazing people, to work with really amazing people, and just to do really interesting stuff. And that’s why I’m still here.
What have been your favourite coffees, both in filter and as espresso?
Ooh.. Y’know, I’ve read that question, but still, now I’m like.. wow.
It sounds really cheesy, but what I almost take for granted is that the coffee’s going to be good, okay? So, if a coffee wasn’t good, I don’t remember it. And then, if it is really good, it’s in the ballpark. And then the special ones are the ones that have memories built around them. Does that make sense? So, seems like a really stupid, or cheesy, thing to say, but those are the ones I’ll always remember.
For filter coffee, when myself and RE*AC*TOR went to the 2009 World Barista Championships, I was a year working in the industry. So, I’d only been allowed to steam milk at Coffeeangel for 2 months..
I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand the difference between, like, natural processing and Catuai - I didn’t know if they were the same thing or different things or even related things. Like El Salvador and, I dunno, cascara. What’s the difference. So, we went, and it was the first time that.. To me, speciality coffee only existed on the internet, because we didn’t have it in Ireland - there was nothing here, there was no representation of it. And the places in London like Flat White and Fernandez and Wells were all just focused on espresso, really. Filter coffee just hadn’t taken off. And we went to a place in Atlanta called Octane, and this guy who works there called Ben Helfin - he works at Counter Culture Coffee now - and Ben served us some Idido Misty Valley from Ethiopia, and I remember just having a cup of it and just being like, “..What the hell?!” I couldn’t believe that people could have something that amazing, so readily available to them, and they weren’t losing their shit! Like, there were people sitting in the cafe just reading their laptops I was like, “What’s wrong with you people? Why aren’t we all having a party about this?!” Like that was, that was amazing. It was just a big Ethiopian fruit bomb! Like, the irony of this is - and I’m always quick to try and remember - is, like, today I probably wouldn’t..it wouldn’t be my favourite, because it was this natural Ethiopian, and people, when they get into coffee, tend to lose the grá for that sort of coffee. You get more into, like, clear, transparent coffees. You can disappear up your own arse. But you can’t forget about that gateway coffee, and I always remember how excited that got me.
Let me think.
There’s a coffee that we used to get from Bolivia, called Machacamarca, and we can’t get it anymore. There’s a chance of it coming back - Has Bean had always bought all their coffee off them, and they got their farm taken off them, and then they got it back, and the plant stock was completely dead.. Anyway, so when I went to the World Championships in 2009, and I had no clue what I was doing, and I would taste - I had the machine at home in my house, and we just kind of went with it because everybody else seemed to like it. Didn’t even know.. But then, once we got to Atlanta, we dialled in the espresso machine and pulled a shot, and I remember giving it to RE*AC*TOR, and he tasted it, and he kind of looked at me as his eyebrows picked up. He looked shocked. And I didn’t know if it was a good thing or bad thing, and he handed it to me, and I took a sip and was like, “..Wow..!” Suddenly I had this confidence, like this coffee was going to win, and I’m just going to follow the coffee.
So that’s another that sticks out in my mind.
Both from the same feckin’ 3-day period! [laughs]
What’s your home coffee setup?
I haven’t had an espresso machine at home since.. 2010? So, that was an Aurelia - I think I just went way overboard and I just wanted it out of my house! Like, it was just this constant presence - I could hear it beating in the other room. [laughs] So, I just wanted that gone.
And then, I have quite a simple setup at the moment. I have just a Porlex hand grinder and I have a Clever Dripper. I’m not particularly enthused with the Clever Dripper - it’s just excellent if you have young children, ‘cause you just put the water in, put it down, grab the children, look after them, come back, put it on top of the thing, grab the children again, and it’s done! So it’s hands-free coffee brewing with very little faff, and it’s a paper filter - I tend to like paper filters, and that’s what I do!
I have scales, though the scales aren’t really important - I’m not big on brewing recipes, which is a weird thing to say, I suppose. But I think with filter coffee it’s..it’s very intuitive, so I kind of know - I probably have a specific recipe, but it’s just in my head. I don’t write it down. You see, with a Clever Dripper, it’s just all in, x amount of time; all out. Sorted. It is what it is, which is kind of why I like it. Like, I love Chemex, but I don’t have the time to be very precise when there’s kids running around.
When I come to work I do all of that, but when it’s at home I just want it to just be done. And most of the time my wife makes it at home anyways, and she’s pretty good.
[Brew ratios] - I just use half a litre of water and 30g, and I’m done. And I use Ashbeck water from Tesco if I can get it, because the water at our house isn’t very good!
Where do you want Dublin/Ireland’s coffee culture to develop next?
It’s happening, so I don’t want it to sound like - it might come across as being almost obnoxious for me to say, but it is happening. But what has improved over the last 6-8 years is professionalism. That you have a hard core of people that want to be professional, and it’s coming to work on time, treat your colleagues with respect, treat your suppliers, your boss; your customers with proper respect, y’know? Apply yourself, and demand a lot from yourself. Invest in education, invest in your own education..just be professional.
When I won the first Irish Barista Championship, I had only been making coffee for around 9mos at the time, and people were like, “That’s incredible!” - and it was kind of incredible, like, how could that happen? And it wasn’t because I was very spectacular, what I did, it was actually terrible. It was just from what I could see, nobody else was really bothered. Like nobody was being very professional about it. Like, I had a plan. I worked hard. But what you see now is that people are being very professional about it, and that’s what’s going to advance your career.
And it’s an industry that has suffered from having a lot of people that are out to make a quick buck, or else just in it for “the scene,” and they just want to talk about the “coffee scene” all the time. Don’t get me wrong - I love the coffee scene, but there’s a time to get work done as well. That’s really important - we should not lose the service side of that, because there’s no reward that comes to you unless you work hard, and that’s something that we all need to remember.
So it’s all happening, but that’s what I’d like to see more of.
Do I sound like a grumpy old man? [laughs]
Like, it’s really simple things. If you worked anywhere else you’d be expected to turn up on time, and be well presented, and say please and thank you - it’s really important. All of that!
Who’s someone you admire in coffee?
Who inspires me in coffee.. Em, I feel like I should say someone offbeat. ‘Cause I’d say Steve Leighton, obviously. He’s been a massive influence on me. Not just in coffee, but just as a person - he’s incredibly hardworking, very generous; very genuine. Does the right thing, all the time. Sometimes does the wrong thing, goes back and fixes it, does it right - y’know, he’s a very good guy. That’s important.
James Hoffmann, obviously. I’ve been lucky enough to work very closely with him on a few different projects. An incredible wealth of information, like, what he doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing.
And then, on the more business side of things, I think Cosimo Libardo has always been a great support for me. Any time I’d get to a place where I’m stuck, I’d always call him, and he’d give me his 3hr answer, and I’d listen attentively and come up with a solution. He’s someone with incredible foresight. Incredible foresight - just sees things 24 steps down the line, and you might disagree with him at the time when he says it, but then it comes to pass and you’re like, “Wow, okay..!”
But if I had to pick one person who was offbeat, that wasn’t someone you’d automatically go to..I think I’m gonna say Simonas Ledžius. Simon, as we all know him, is the coffee roaster for 3FE. Simon taught me how to make coffee, so he was the first person to teach me how to make coffee at Coffeeangel when I worked there. So I started, my first day, and I was his boss, and I didn’t know how to make coffee, and he hated me! We fought like cats and dogs for like, 2-3 months, but slowly I managed to earn his respect. I don’t think he expected me to last more than 2-3 weeks!
But Simon has an incredible work ethic. Always does the right thing. Has completely transformed himself as a coffee professional over the years, and is one of the most decent and hardworking people I’ve ever come across. Gets little to no credit. We’re very lucky to have him. I think he was a bit more open [to me being his boss again] the second time around. He’s worked as a barista for a long time, and he wanted to do something else with his career, so I think it was a good time for him to move on. And it was weird, ‘cause we were trying to think of someone to hire for the roastery, and it’s like, “I need someone who’s gonna just be consistent and good work ethic, and be reliable, who will just get the job done. Someone like Simon.”
And then Juan was like, “Well, why not Simon?”
What advice would you give to somebody just starting out in your field?
Get out of my field.
I would say spend a lot of time separating signal and noise. Like, there’s a lot of stuff that’s unnecessary, that doesn’t really need to happen..that you don’t really need to know or understand - or you might, someday, but now just focus on these things.
You can progress very quickly in coffee if you just focus.
Pick the most important things and just go for it. We’ve always been very good at doing that - like, I wanted to open a roastery and a cafe from day 1, but I didn’t want to, or I wasn’t able to, y’know? And I wanted to have my own premises and I couldn’t. So, I was like, “What’s important?”
And the important thing is that you start. Start doing something. And I think a lot of people try to do everything at the same time, and it’s very difficult to learn that way. But if you just focus, and get a job in a good place, be professional, apply yourself, and just ask questions - it’s a very open industry to people that are willing to learn.. Like, the food and beverage industry in general - it’s very easy to advance yourself in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, most of the people that work in the food and bev industry aren’t doing it as their career, so that wipes out 60% of the competition already. And then of the 40% thats left, 30% just aren’t applying themselves very well, and they aren’t going to move on to anything else, they’re going to stay doing what they’re going to do..So there’s just 10% that are the hammers, and those are the ones that succeed, and that’s what you need to focus on.
Like, it might be very difficult to be the only person at this cafe who’s really trying, but if you do it for 2 months, you can get noticed. You will stick out like a sore thumb. People will notice you, come and find you, and offer you better positions, or your bosses will promote you, and you can change everything in 2 months.
We’ve had people that came in the door here that didn’t know anything about coffee, and within 6 weeks were managers. That’s because they applied themselves. A meritocracy is something I feel is really important, and I think there’s a huge opportunity, a massive opportunity, especially for people that may not have a solid education - like it’s not an industry that you need a huge amount of education for. All you need to do is apply yourself, and trust that hard work and dedication will pay off, because I think you can jump the ladder a lot faster here than in other industries.
Like, in the finance industry, it was all seniority - you had to do x amount of years get to this position, and that position, and then that position. It was soul destroying to know you couldn’t jump above that guy because he was there longer than you, or you couldn’t jump above this girl because she had more qualifications than you.. Whereas in this industry it’s like, if you’re doing it, you’re doing it - that’s it. Let’s go. That’s why it’s so exciting.
And like, cafe’s and restaurants and bars are crying out for really great people - people that are career-focused on what they do, and that’s a rare thing to find.
What are you drinking now?
The coffee I’m drinking right now is called Nano Challa from Tim Wendelboe, from Gera in Ethiopia. It’s a washed coffee, and it’s excellent. I’m drinking it at home as a filter coffee. I think Tim has a very different roasting style than what we do. What we do is we try to set up a swap with him, and we swap with a few different roasters, but I really enjoy drinking coffee on their terms and going, “This is great - I don’t want to do this.” But it’s coming from a very respectful place, ‘cause they’re doing it from their perspective as well, y’know? And I’m not one who believes that there’s one way to do everything.
So, this coffee is exceptional. It’s one of the best filter coffees I’ve ever drank. Like, I rarely finish a bag, just because I always want to try the next one, and I have a ready supply already around me - like there’s always customers and friends who always drop bags or post bags to us, so in any week there’s always 4-5 coffees from different roasters. But this one is exceptional though. Knocked my socks off.