Getting Roasted at Union Coffee

9 Oct

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day? Two or three? I’ve been known to hit six when I’m burning the midnight oil. Yet this all pales into comparison compared with the sheer quantity of coffee consumption reported on my visit to the Union Coffee Roasting factory. Whilst being shown how to use something that looked more like a car than a coffee machine, we got into a friendly ‘who drinks more coffee than who competition’. Four cups a day seemed to be the winner until we asked Arianna, our guide for the day. She casually mentioned that calibrating the machine this morning she had consumed around 8 shots of espresso. When we expressed concern she airily told us that was nothing.

She then recounted her time judging the world Barista championships, consuming over forty cups on the first day. The entire night was spent weeping with frustration, unable to sleep a wink. Apparently she now uses pills to sleep. So you can tell these people are serious about their coffee. In my youth I had drunk it mainly to stay awake, although these days I can be found in Monmouth downing espressos with the best of them. I had come to Union to learn more about the process that occurred before I drank it and what separated the good from the bad. Fittingly, I arrived at Union’s roasting facility in desperate need of caffeine. My wide eyed stare and slightly vacant expression seemed a source of concern for some of the other attendees, so I focused on lining my stomach with pastries from Gail’s. Previous experience had taught me that coffee on an empty stomach is a recipe for nothing but pain.

We were then introduced to the two founders Jeremy and Steven, who were as bouncy as you would expect two men whose life is dedicated to coffee to be. Jeremy explained the philosophy of Union to us. For them, the key question when dealing with growers was “more coffee or better coffee”. They said that encouraging growers to subscribe to quality over quantity central to their approach. They made regular visits to their growers to ensure standards were maintained as well as to help improve their standards. Their ethical approach was also very much in evidence from the posters thanking them for donations to various charities. Our day consisted of a tour of the factory and then some training at the school. Union takes its training very seriously because a bad barista can ruin the hard work of not only the roaster, but the grower as well.

This was one of the most interesting points raised. How often have you said “Oh, I don’t like this brand of coffee”. Unlike a pint of lager, which will taste the same from bar to bar, the taste of your coffee is in many ways in the hands of the barista. Their skill is in doing the coffee justice through proper technique. I was surprised to learn that other people not only had favorite shops, but preferred baristas. I felt like a coffee novice. No such label could be ascribed to Arianna. She expertly lead us through the coffee process, patiently explaining the exact amount of time that the blend we would be brewing with needed to have water put through it. Too much and the flavour could become lost. Too little and the coffee would be unpleasantly bitter. A good tamping is also key.

Wielding a device much like a stamp used to approve loans, Arianna precisely tamped the coffee ensuring an even distribution. As each coffee rolled out of the machine it was surprising to see the pronounced difference between the first cup and the fourth. The fourth was sweet and more rounded and arguably more enjoyable. For many people, coffee would not be complete without the milk. We then moved onto learning the proper steaming technique. Never before have I had such a fractious relationship with a dairy product as I did that day. From the frothing to my attempts to pour it into the cup it was simply not meant to be.

Vibrating slightly after all the coffee, we had some lunch and then moved onto the roasting tour. All of Union’s Coffee is hand roasted which gives them a great control over the quality and flavour of the roast. If you’ve never seen coffee in its raw state before, a small green reminiscent of a giant lentil. We watched as over time, the machine turned this green legume into the dark brown basis for the fuel of so much of working life. Roasting is another art that must be mastered in the quest for quality coffee.You must learn to intuit the perfect balance between an array of variables, all the while avoiding that dreaded over-roast.

Whilst many brands now roast entirely by machine, Union still employs roasters to monitor the beans by hand and pass critical judgment. After the roasting, we were then initiated into the art of cupping. Disappointingly less perverse than it sounds, this is a process akin to wine tasting, involving a great deal of slurping and serious faces. It forms the basis for Jeremy and Steve decision on what beans to buy, so is serious stuff. The subtle differences in the various lots was hard to detect for a novice such as myself, but with help I slowly began to discern nuances hitherto undiscovered.

My trip provided me with a great insight into the whole process and will certainly inform my next trip to a cafe. No longer will I merely reply “strong and black” when required to give my coffee preference. If like me you want to learn more, or want to develop an existing passion for the black stuff, check out their website. The guys at Union are totally committed to both their product as well as the lives of the people growing their coffee. Put simply, they care.

Union Coffee can be ordered online from


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