tct12: north star micro roastersBack
“Getting people here shows people how accessible good coffee is” – Ellis Hall, North Star
The journey of a coffee bean to a coffee cup is a longer one than many people realise, and seeing the start of the process thousands of miles away on the farms of Kenya brought a couple of things home to North Star Coffee’s Alex Kragiopoulos.
First was the impact that FairTrade and the ethical sourcing of coffee had on the lives of the farmers he met on a trip to Nyeri in summer 2011. Second was that, after the coffee beans had travelled great distances across wide continents, the final stage that made that coffee a drink that could be enjoyed in Leeds still happened far from the city.
“There are over sixty roasteries in London,” says Ellis Hall, who was working as a barista in Harrogate before he started North Star with Krag late last year. “There are ten in Birmingham, and then we were the first in Leeds – and Leeds has the third largest population after those two cities.”
“For Leeds not to have a roastery was just a real shame,” says Krag.
Bringing coffee roasting to Leeds – in unit 27 at Penraevon, just down the way from Leeds Bread Co-op – does more than just ensure Leeds has the roastery its status says it ought to have. Leeds coffee shops now have a local source for quality and collaboration, so a trip to London isn’t be necessary to source good coffee.
“It was so hard for us to sell at first,” says Ellis, remembering taking sample bags of coffee around the shops and trying to convince people that yes, North Star really did know what they were doing. “So one thing we do is bring people down here instead and have a tasting session, and show them what we have to offer. Getting people here shows people how accessible good coffee is – we can explain where the coffee has come from, and they can see the whole process and the supply chain on a personal level.”
Coffee can be blended and roasted to suit the customer, too – The Food Academy at Leeds City College’s new Printworks campus and Outlaws Yacht Club both source signature coffee blends at North Star, unique coffees developed on site at Penraevon in collaboration with Ellis and Krag.
“It’s all about experimenting, tasting, changing things,” says Ellis. “No two roasters will roast the same, so we had to develop through trial and error and learning for ourselves. There are constantly variables, like room temperature – in winter we’d come in here and it’d be five degrees and it would be horrendous. Today we’re here and it’s eighteen degrees, and that plays a big part in how the roaster behaves.
“It’s about knowing that you’re hitting the right points. When we started hitting it time after time, and we knew that was the way that the coffee wanted to work, and we were getting the best flavours out – it does feel good knowing that we can consistently produce that. Coffee going to the centre of Leeds will be exactly the same as coffee going to Brighton or somewhere, even if it’s a completely different batch roasted on a completely different day.”
The mainstay at North Star is the Dark Arches blend, named for the Victorian engineering that keeps the railway station out of the river, and supplied to Out of the Woods and El Topo at Granary Wharf, next to the arches themselves, as well as to dozens of venues around Leeds.
“Dark Arches is something that will work well in all situations,” says Krag, “as an espresso, americano, flat white, latte – something that will cut through milk and still be really flavoursome. We wanted that blend to be quite chocolatey and nutty, maybe a few hints of berries – and it’s roasted ever so slightly darker.”
North Star’s second blend is Czar Street, a seasonal espresso that changes four or five times a year as the coffee harvests come in. “Czar Street is our chance to showcase how varied coffee can be,” says Ellis. “It’s constantly showcasing the freshest coffees – that still work well together as a blend.
“We do single origin coffees as well, to showcase a coffee from one single co-operative or farm, and we tend to serve them as filter coffees. We have coffees from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Peru, Kenya, El Salvador – they’re to showcase what that farm is doing at the moment, rather than the roastery. People can taste that coffee year on year to see how that farm develops and changes.”
The Czar Street name stuck from the search for a home in Holbeck before finding Penraevon, and there’s no oddness to a unit on one industrial estate producing a coffee named after another; it reflects what North Star want to do with their space. They recently hosted a night of acoustic music (and coffee) from Jack Haining, Hunting Bears and Bianca Gerald, on a night when Unit 27 was transformed by cushions, throws, bunting and lights.
Ellis and Krag also hosted Leeds’ first ever latte art throwdown, a knockout competition that showcased what some of the region’s best baristas could do with coffee and milk – and declared Oakley from Crema Espresso in Bridlington the winner.
“A coffee shop isn’t going to host a latte art throwdown for all the other coffee shops,” says Ellis, “but as a roastery we’re neutral, so we got all the coffee shops down to us. It helped to make all the coffee shops aware of us, but also it was just a bit of friendly fun and competition.”
“Everyone came and had a good laugh,” says Krag. “Obviously there is a bit of rivalry between coffee shops – baristas are almost like footballers these days, where if they move from Everton to Liverpool it’s a big shock – so we just said, let’s forget all the rivalry and get everyone in the same room and see what happens.”
Ellis and Krag’s approach to their space strengthens the web of inter-connections that is growing around Leeds and at places like Penraevon, bringing the industry and the raw ingredients closer to the cups and plates of the city, and providing points of interaction and experimentation.
“When you’re using a local supplier you’re happy with, there’s no reason to change, and all our customers are enjoying buying local and telling their customers that they use a local roastery,” says Krag. “We have branched out to places like Brighton because people have started coming to us, but here it’s great to have the Bread Co-op just over there – they give us bread and we give them coffee. We’ve met so many great people in the food industry as well – it’s all connected. For example, we supply The Greedy Pig cafe on North Street; they’re so focused on food, but they want good coffee as well. Leeds is really collaborative in that sense.”
Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 12