When I meet Anette Moldvaer at her east London roastery, she’s fresh off the plane from a trip to El Salvador and Honduras. Jet lag is, no doubt, in full force. So, what better way to have a chinwag than over a cup of the black stuff. I’m a filter girl myself, so Anette eschews Square Mile’s biggest seller Red Brick Espresso for the Columbian single origin she’s most fond of. Now, down to business.
“My business partner James Hoffmann and I wanted to make London famous for good coffee. People are starting to understand the difference between cheap commercial coffee and the good stuff, and once you’ve tasted really good stock, it’s hard to go back to the stale, bitter high street or supermarket options. The difference in price of a cup of really bad coffee to a cup of really good coffee is so small, it’s the cheapest luxury you can have.” With more than 20 years of combined experience and multiple awards under their belts, I have no doubt Anette and James’s mission to put London on the coffee-tinged map is possible.
The thirst of Londoners for the liquid kick up the arse is something that’s noticeably grown in the last few years. So what is it that inspires Anette to work towards quenching their thirst?
“Coffee is such a big topic, such a big, complex and challenging industry. It’s also thoroughly human. It’s grown by people, processed by people, roasted by people and drunk by people. It’s these people who inspire me, starting with the farmers. I love the cultures, towns and homes and I get to visit, and the cups of coffee I get to share with the people who grew it.”
So, how did it all begin? “I’ve been in coffee for 17 years now. My first taste of it was when I was really little. My mum used to mix it into the chocolate glaze when she was baking cakes. When I got older, I started working as a barista back home in Norway before moving to the UK to finish my drama degree. I got a job at a coffee importing company, and later helped them set up the London School of Coffee. After a few years there I felt roasting was the next logical step and so, in 2007, Square Mile was founded”. Her partner in crime James has an equally impressive background. He matches her win at the World Cup Tasting Championship with a victory at its World Barista equivalent.
When it comes to business though, they each take on their own roles. They’re very different. James’s background is in sales, so he’s become more of the face of the company.. “I’m the lab rat,” Anette laughs. “ I hide away in the roastery and do more of the travelling.” Anette spends nearly four months of the year abroad, visiting the likes of Kenya, Costa Rica and Guatemala, meeting farmers, cooperatives and exporters on a quest to find the best coffees she can. “Having the direct relationship is great. They can explain what they did with their harvest and processing, and I can feedback how the coffee was welcomed by our customers. The interaction allows both sides to learn and improve on what they do.”
When she’s not on the road, day-to-day business running is mixed with keeping production on point. “When our containers arrive at port, we immediately get the coffee to our roastery for testing. Samples of each is measured for water activity, test roasted and tasted several times”. Anette shows me into the production space to see the sacks of beans (when they’re empty, London Zoo take them to reuse as bedding for the animals) and the roasters. The two 1950s machines are absolute beasts. Fifteen and 35 kilograms of German industrial equipment to be precise. They’re real ‘work horses’ she tells me, with a hint of fondness in her voice. Like any member of a team though, they have their own unique personalities, and her and her roasters have had to get to know their quirks before they can operate them to their highest standard. “Nothing is computer controlled. Our roasters work the machines manually, watching, smelling and listening to the beans as they go from green to brown. It’s a lot like cooking, but there are no recipes. You just have to work with the coffee and your machine, tasting everything and adjusting little details until you get it right.”
It’s this kind of detail that makes the guys at Square Mile as knowledgeable as they are. Their skill in sourcing, roasting and advising their customers in preparation is pretty unique – a word we don’t use often.
It would be a selfish to keep this knowledge under wraps. That’s why Anette spends a large wad of her time (what’s left of it) running events in-house, something that will no doubt grow with the recent completion of a huge new event space. “We love coffee and we want to work with people who also love coffee. By holding public events, we can meet people who just want to come and geek-out with us.” The map-plastered tasting room is set up with the remnants of an earlier cupping session. No, not that kind of cupping, the cupping that works like a wine tasting, but for coffee instead of plonk. They also hold workshops and organise lectures with farmers who can talk about their produce and take part in Q&As with local enthusiasts.
Next door is the training room. Anette and her team invite cafes who want to serve Square Mile to send their baristas down to the roastery to learn outside of the busy cafe environment. “When we started out, people were a bit confused by our lighter roasting style, but soon came around to appreciating the clarity and complexity of flavours that this allows in the cup. It didn’t take long before the changes in flavour profile was something that got people curious and excited, and encouraged them to explore new tastes and new growing regions.”
Learning about coffee has certainly gained in popularity over the last decade. As a result, Anette, James and their team are constantly evolving to try and discover new blends to keep up with the explosion of interest that’s surging through London. It was a different story when they started looking for a premises eight years ago. They’d heard “horror stories” from friends in roasting companies around the world and contacted Tower Hamlets council to ask about their dos and don’ts. It was a first for the council who, after weeks of deliberation, told them to do what they wanted as long as they didn’t bother anyone. “It seemed like we were doing something pretty novel. It was exciting to think we were breaking new ground in London – that’s rare”.
Breaking new ground is something Square Mile does on a day-to-day basis. They’re constantly trying to find ways to source and roast better coffee. The blends they create change three to four times a year depending on the harvesting seasons, and what’s available as fresh crop greens. More collaborations with other industries are also on the cards. Anette confides that they’re working with a chocolate company to create a coffee-infused bar, and an experimental coffee spirit might not be too far off the horizon.
Her passion is palpable. A passion that she no doubt instills in both her producers and her customers. For Anette and James, coffee isn’t just something you drink. It’s a ‘social glue’. It brings people together and that’s something Square Mile are proud to be a part of. It would be poignant to end on a company motto, but “ I’m not sure we ever formulated one, as such. Good coffee speaks for itself – it doesn’t need a tagline.” Judging by my empty cup, I’d be inclined to agree.
Words by Millie Milliken
Photography by Chris Seddon
First Published 31st November 2016