Maxwell Colonna Dashwood — Colonna Coffeeby Michael Cleland
Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood on coffee pods, water for coffee, barista competitions and learning about coffee
Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood is a name synonymous with innovation in the Speciality Coffee movement in the UK.
Firstly Maxwell, and wife Lesley, have Colonna and Smalls in Bath, Somerset. The couple's cafe is so highly regarded that it regularly entices both international and UK tourists into making the two hour trip from London so they can experience coffee executed at its most elevated standard. Then there were the competitions. Maxwell has won the UKBC a staggering three times and gone on to represent the UK at the World Barista Championships. More recently there's been Water For Coffee; a reference point for the industry to explore the chemistry of water and ultimately its effect on the taste of coffee. Most recently Maxwell brought us the wholesale arm of his roastery, Colonna Coffee, curating and roasting some of the most incredible coffees from around the world.
And now....? Colonna Coffee launched their retail offering and new website this week. Leading this is official launch of their coffee capsule range; Nespreso compatible coffee pods which showcase the complexities of specialty coffee in pod form.
Read down to discover more about Maxwell's perspective on Colonna Capsules, automation and the changing role of the barista.
What’s been going on?Well the shop's still going strong and our Roastery has been going on for a year now. We have a growing list of interesting wholesale partners around Europe and Asia.
Well the shop's still going strong and our Roastery has been going on for a year now. We have a growing list of interesting wholesale partners around Europe and Asia.
I’m thrilled though that we just went live on Wednesday the 5th of October.
Basically, we’re just super excited to share the coffees with everyone at the moment and show them the value of pods.
Traditionally, it always seems that, the more specialised the cafe the narrower its audience although one thing that has always fascinated me about Colonna and Small's sis the diversity of its guests. What do you attribute this to?
I realised if I wanted to run a business where I got to engage with coffee all day I had to have one where the customers, however diverse, were engaged in coffee.
I think people often assume that the more curated the experience the more you narrow the breadth of who can enjoy it. I think people sometimes seem too easily resigned to the point of view that consumers ‘just won’t get it.’
My argument from the beginning is that you can actually do the opposite. The specialisation which is potentially isolating can be flipped around to be precisely the thing which is engaging. It's about figuring out the difference.
Good coffee doesn’t speak for itself though.
If customers can understand ‘why’ you do what you do then they’ll be on your side.
So how does one promote their guests understanding - 'why we do what we do?'
Confusing people is the worst thing that you can do. It’s about being unapologetic but in an inoffensive, hospitable way. Be clear and honest about what you’re trying to achieve.
“Engagement is key; not education”
Most of the people who come to Colonna and Small's aren’t coffee professionals. Mostly we have people who are just beginning to dip their toes into our coffee world. They might have stumbled across us, been referred from a friend or seen us on a list.
The first thing you need to do is excite them then they will learn without even realising it. Engagement is key; not education.
I like to think of the shop as a theme park or a cinema. We should offer customers a seat and let them watch. Then they can engage as little or as much as they want without being intimidated. Our coffee world is interesting. You just need to find the right way to engage people.
“After the 4th or 5th visit coffee ‘starts’ to speak for itself”
The way we put it forward is that we know what we’re doing is unique. Another aspect is service. Not only are we more specialised that other coffee shops, but we make sure that the service is different, that it's a service driven business. For a consumer that’s a win win in the long run. So much of communicating the value of coffee to consumers comes down to service and being able to engage consumers with your conversation.
After the 4th or 5th visit coffee ‘starts’ to speak for itself.
“Does competition influence industry or to what extent is it a diary of what’s changing in the industry?”
What have you learned from competitions?
I’ve been involved in competitions for 5 years and seen them evolve heavily from their inception. It’s very much gone from being about brewing drinks to being predominantly a presentation based discipline. Obviously the quality of the drinks is still paramount, but this is what drew me to competitions because they were a way I could explore presentation. The presentation is really a conduit for the judges experience of the coffee.
Like I say, coffee doesn’t speak for itself though which is where you see the competitions and industry sentiment cross over.
It’s a chicken and egg scenario. Does competition influence industry or to what extent is it a diary of what’s changing in the industry? Either way they’ve both evolved. Competitions for example favour automation now which obviously facilitates the presentation of knowledge.
“(competitions have) very much gone from being about brewing drinks to being predominantly a presentation based discipline”
Presently in coffee there is a lot of talk about automation. Is this the future?
I think it's easy to be against automation as a concept, as anti craft, anti speciality, but automation creeps into our artisan coffee making everywhere, the places where we can't achieve the best results. The future is inevitably going to be technology improvements that increase the ability to make better cups of coffee.
We want to be engaging with people on a topic and a subject. For years we’ve been talking about how to make coffee. Automation means we can talk about what is special about the coffee we’re making.
Automation has just changed where the focus of the craft is.
“For years we’ve been talking about how to make coffee. Automation means we can talk about what is special about the coffee we’re making”
Price is driving it too. Until we work out how to charge as much as we want to for an outstanding brewed coffee then the ability to make it faster is very alluring.
Do you think the growing interest in automation reflects something of a deeper nature in the industry? Is it responding to specific objectives and/or obstacles?
I think there are a few different ‘deeper’ factors pushing it forward.
The first factor I think is that the independent industry has proved a lot about the value of coffee to broad culture/ consumers. There is less need now to prove the craft every time by demonstrating it with hand brewing. The idea of provenance is an example of this. It’s starting to catch on now which opens up new directions and potential for the narrative to take.
“There is less need now to prove the craft every time by demonstrating it with hand brewing”
Another factor is that specialty coffee, and independence, has always incorporated, or been built around, an innovative, disruptive mindset. It used to be disruptive to present coffees from a ‘slow bar,’ that is, hand brewing for coffee service. This is much more abundant now and championing automation is really becoming both disruptive and innovative.
You could also argue that automation reflects an industry which is looking at coffee with an aim to improve efficiency. Shorter wait times, reducing waste etc.
Ultimately ,however, I think it all comes together if you examine the concept of best practice. That is coffee shops, generally, are characterised by wanting to do things the ‘best’ way. If that means taking twice as long, I think people will still do it because it produces the best cup. If it taste better on a blind taste, however it’s brewed, then I’m all for it.
We (as an industry) are better at examining cup qualities now and we look at technology differently also. We’re more knowledgeable now and we’re better at being objective. If it tastes better it tastes better.
“We’re more knowledgeable now and we’re better at being objective. If it tastes better it tastes better”
Understanding coffee intellectually is one thing but engaging with it in a physical way is another. I think you need both to complete the circle,
This is where I have some potential concerns, if we loose that physical making process, do we loose a certain connection to the coffee.
One of the reasons I think that my staff are good at their job is that they have a thorough knowledge of coffee from their experiences making it.
I think there’s a point where you can balance how automation assists being able to have these conversations but also making sure the staff have a thorough knowledge of the coffee they’re serving
I use the making process and its fascinating intricacies to help engage the staff.But coffee is fascinating beyond the making process.
“Understanding coffee intellectually is one thing but engaging with it in a physical way is another. I think you need both to complete the circle,”
I guess this brings us to pods. There seems to be a lot of conversation regarding them as a delivery method recently. What are some of the myths and truths you’ve come across as you’ve been exploring pods?
In some ways it feels similar to when we published Water For Coffee. I’ve been chatting on the topic of capsules for a while now and observed the dialogue change. The conversation now regarding capsules is much more open minded and curious as to how they can benefit our industry.
Interestingly a sustainability expert’s point of view I spoke to explained that pods are essentially quite efficient overall. If you compared them to say espresso brewing the carbon footprint is actually significantly lower. Things like flash heating water or the lower dose of coffee all contribute to this. The problem though is that the waste created is tangible. Aluminium is the ideal way for preserving aroma chemical and therefore shelf life but obviously we are committed to finding better solutions of the environment without sacrificing functionality. Recycling will always rely on uptake, in that people have to action it, For this reason, at Colonna we are pursuing a bio degradable solution. We hope to transition to this within a year from launch.
“I really think that there is the potential, however, to have pods as a co-offering just like you might have batch-brew at the same time as single serve.”
I guess the other misconception about pods is that they can’t taste like freshly brewed, fresh crop coffee. This isn’t true. You have to roast differently because it’s different brewing conditions but you’re going to end up with a TDS between 4-4.5 in the cup. The machines are cheap and a fantastic piece of technology too. You’ll get more consistent, and accurate extractions than say a 300 pound espresso machine. In terms of producing a cup which expresses origin it’s very accurate.
I’m not saying that espresso service doesn’t have a place. The value of a physical, crafted process is always going to exist. Showcasing the craft will always be valuable. I really think that there is the potential, however, to have pods as a co-offering just like you might have batch-brew at the same time as single serve.
So...tell us about Colonna Capsules?
Well Colonna Coffee is driven by the core purpose of sourcing, roasting and curating incredible coffee. Furthermore, it’s about constantly exploring innovative ways to achieve this so the capsule offering is a natural evolution for us.
Hand brewing coffee is a process that requires expert oversight to achieve the cup characteristics which accurately represent a coffee and it’s fantastic when it’s done right. Capsule technology, however, allows ‘us’ to oversee the craft for you. We precisely measure doses and control grind sizes and preserve the perishable nature of coffee by encapsulating each coffee in the oxygen free chamber which is the capsule. We in essence offer a barista made product
Ultimately, if we can control the quality then we can talk about the taste. We spend so much time talking to the home consumer about how to brew coffee that it’s often to obstacle to talking about what’s important, which is the taste.
Our approach is to look at capsules and think ’technically, it is a great way to showcase coffee, and it opens up options on the narrative we can have with the consumer.’ In fact, it’s ideal.
“Our approach is to look at capsules and think ’technically, it is a great way to showcase coffee”