Learning About Coffee - The James Wise Wayby Michael Cleland
James began his specialty coffee journey as an avid home brewer and curious customer. An insatiable desire to learn inevitably led him to his first cafe job at his local cafe (FCB) in 2015. In two short years he's opened China Plate Espresso, Silkies, Treves & Hyde, Hyde and Son and won the prestigious UK Coffee Masters in 2017.
James is now one of the most talented, driven and knowledgeable people in the UK coffee industry. To celebrate his joining us officially here at Assembly we thought we'd catch up with him to discover how he learned, created and advanced so damn fast!
Welcome to the official family man!
My pleasure bra!
You've accomplished a lot in a short amount of time Mr. Wise. What's the secret? Tell us something about learning.
Man, experience is learning. Take coffee for example. All the theory is essential but it’s irrelevant if you can’t cross reference it with what you’re tasting and have experienced tasting before. I think it’s probably the same with loads of things, and it definitely has been true in my experience with all the different aspects of the coffee industry.
What have been some of the key learning experiences?
Well I guess it began when I was studying to be a tattoo artist and used to drink coffee at FCB Denmark Hill everyday. I was curious about coffee and had started brewing at home, so I’d ask the guys all sorts of questions every time I went in there. What I realise when I think back on it now was that it worked because I was asking and they were answering. Learning isn’t about answering the questions. It’s about motivating people to ask them.
Then through the roastery I met Nick (Mabey) and we used to go for beers fairly often. I’d just done a higher sensory course that he had hosted and we hit it off talking about the industry etc. There’s so much information on the internet to dig through, but I progressed so much faster face-to-face because it was tailored to my skill and knowledge level at the time. Learning has got to be relevant based on what you know already.
Then there were the cafes. I took over China Plate Espresso then Silkies and, most recently, Treves and Hyde. I learned so much at these places. It was way more about running a business, the industry we're in and a deeper understanding of the consumer. I learned it because I had to to do my job. I think that’s important. You learn by default just by keeping your job. Different jobs you learn different things.
I still felt like I still had more to learn on the coffee though and that was really my motivation, while working in the cafes, for getting into Coffee Masters. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the drive to learn more about the product, it's just that there was no urgency and I was so busy with other things.
Deadlines of any sort are pretty good for speeding up your learning. I was in this intense period where there was a lot to learn on everything from origin identification, extraction rates, brew techniques and everything else. You don't want to go on stage and fuck up right?
So competitions are the best way to learn about coffee?
When you go into the industry it's all about 'creating' the product and that completely makes sense because you need to serve it to sell it. Customers would be colleagues if they cared about your refractometer.
I really think that starting with a sensory understanding and having that base of knowledge speeds up all learning thereafter though. It's a foundation for interpreting and understanding every new experience.
Competitions are one way to motivate yourself to build that base. Especially if you're super busy......or lazy.
What drew you to coffee masters?
For me the format was the most attractive part. That everyone has the same ‘unknown coffees’ means sourcing and support (that aren’t accessible to everyone) don’t influence your chance of success.
Every format has it’s merits. For me particularly Coffee Masters was most similar to working in a cafe. You have to talk, discuss and explain coffees on the fly. I guess it is weighted towards the service of coffee rather than presentation about coffee.
I’d get questions like 'Why are you using V60 instead of x?’ You’d be getting the same questions, albeit phrased differently, if you’re working bar in a cafe.
Have you learned anything in particular from competitions that you think can be applied to running a cafe successfully?
Let me flip it a bit. Competition taught me that the most important place for learning IS the cafe.
Your knowledge is acquired from and shared with the people you’re working with. I’m constantly learning about the product, service, from colleagues with backgrounds outside of coffee etc.
I draw a lot of strength in competitions from the idea that it’s not me on stage, but really I’m the product of the people around me. The people I serve and work with everyday are constantly sharing little bits of information, different perspectives and new ideas.
Also, and most importantly, you’re in contact with the people who buy the product. The distance between industry and consumer is closer here than anywhere else. You’re learning from your colleagues, you’re learning about consumers and you’re learning from consumers.
You might have regulars from Finance, Construction, HR, everywhere - and you’re not only learning about what they value as consumers, and therefore how we can use this to make the cafe great, but you’re learning from all of their different backgrounds too.
In the competition format the process is the same. You’re around like-minded people that you’re sharing goals, values and ideas with. There’s something unifying about sharing the experience of the competition and celebrating community.
There’s also that other unifying thing which is that we’re all there to win some cash!
What can the independent coffee industry learn from competitions?
In competition, everyone has their strength. For some it’s a particular discipline, for others it’s a particular perspective.
People have such vast experiences, skill sets and knowledge. Competition taught me that you can learn something from everyone.
The industry is too closed-off man. Competition (in the industry) naturally creates segmentation when what we really need is unity, community and open sharing of information if we’re going to be competitive against the chains.
When you have community and things get shared, everyone progresses exponentially. In fact, I’d go further and say it’s dangerous to take information form just one source. I don’t get it when you see a customer at a different coffee shop and they feel guilty about it. I’m there too drinking a coffee.. That’s weird; people should go around and try different things. Variety in experience is learning. That’s what independent coffee is about for me.
What about customers who feel embarrassed to say they sometimes go to the chains?
Well you’ve probably already ‘cost’ them some stress that the chains don’t if they feel that way, but I think both can - and should - coexist. The key is keeping them distinct. The same people go to GBK as go to McDonald’s and no one has a problem with it because they suit different purposes. Getting a homogeneous caffeine hit super quickly might be exactly what someone wants at a certain time of day, but there’s always an opportunity cost and that’s where I think independent cafes can embrace being unique.
“The industry is too closed-off man. Competition (in the industry) naturally creates segmentation when what we really need is unity, community and open sharing of information if we’re going to be competitive against the chains.”
Independent cafes are intrinsically linked to community. Baristas end up knowing their guests fairly intimately. If you’re providing the type of warm service that’s only possible without the time restrictions of the chain, there’s one reason already that customers should come back twice for every single time they’re in the chains.
We know too much man, and we want to share it with everyone. Sometimes I think we underestimate how much customers value personal interaction and a normal conversation. We’re in hospitality and product is just one small part of the guest experience.