Ask Jeremy Torz, director of Union Coffee Roasters, to describe his coffee and words such as “strong” and “smooth” are conspicuous by their absence.
Torz instead likes to compare his coffees to photographs. So to him a darker coffee is a black and white image of Humphrey Bogart, cigarette in hand, smoke curling; while he equates a more subtle roast to a typical soft-focus shot from American landscape photographer Ansel Adams.
“The coffee bean is like the negative of the photo,” he says. “The farmer’s responsibility is to produce a bean with the right exposure and composition, but they are still latent characteristics. It’s the roasting that draws them out. We try to get into people’s minds that coffee has a real personality before it gets into the foil bag.”
This unconventional thinking is at the heart of Union Coffee Roasters, which had an unlikely genesis. Torz, a self-proclaimed foodie, was an optician before he got into the coffee business, and his business partner Steven Macatonia was a medical research scientist and immunologist.
Their belief was that coffee should be about taste, rather than lifestyle accessory. “Coffee is on everybody’s radar, but it is an anonymous product - the cash cow of the caterer,” says Torz. “We realised that nobody was thinking about the coffee itself.”
While the tall latté may be a favourite of the time-pushed commuter, to Torz it is nothing more than “a little bit of coffee and a lot of milk” - hardly the drink of someone who cares about how their coffee tastes.
Torz and Macatonia set up Union, with its premises close to West Ham tube station, three and a half years ago, having previously had a stint at importing coffee. Instead of going for volume, they opted to concentrate on producing the best quality they could.
Union achieves this by hand roasting its coffee beans in small batches in the time-honoured way. The company has two roasters, a 10kg roaster for small runs and testing, and a 100kg machine that roasts up to 10 batches each day.
No corners are cut, says Torz. While some companies will spray coffee with cold water to quicken the cooling, Union lets it cool naturally so as not to affect the sweetness of the bean. Union’s coffee beans also lose 25% of their mass because of the longer roasting process, according to Macatonia, while the industry average is around only 16%.
While this means less coffee produced per batch, he is adamant that the quality is much better.
To ensure its beans have the correct “composition”, Union’s other major focus is ensuring that its farmers get a fair deal for the beans they produce. Poor pay still blights the coffee industry, says Torz, but this is something Union is not party to.
“We found a real problem facing growers was that the money they were receiving just wasn’t commensurate with producing good quality coffee. We felt we could do something that would address that and change people’s attitudes.”
According to Torz, Union recognises the “chain of stewardship that goes into coffee and all the hard work that gets put in at origin”, and it “celebrates the partnerships between primary producer and consumer”.
Union says it is fastidious in its farmer selection, and pays all its farmers a fair price for their coffee beans.
While some of its products are Fairtrade, it is happy to take beans from a small family-run farm and forgo the mark - which is only applied to farmer co-ops and plantations - if they are the best quality it can get. As Torz says: “Just because you pay a fair price does not mean it tastes better.”
Union produces 11 retail lines - four under its limited-edition collection and seven standard lines for Sainsbury, Asda, the Co-op and Somerfield. It has also worked with Meantime Brewing, providing coffee for its Fairtrade coffee beer, and has just started providing Somerfield with coffee for its new deli counters. But while it is looking to expand in retail, it is not hell-bent on world domination.
“We don’t have big chunks of money to put down and say ‘here, list us’. But we do believe we’ve got something different. If retailers want to stock it, we’d be delighted as it means we can make an increasing commitment to the producers that we work with. That’s what it’s all about.”