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Controlling Interest – An interview with our Master Roaster Bartosz Ciepaj

Coffee has been taken to the next level in the newly transformed Food Halls, as roasting and blending comes in-house.

“We can create bespoke blends and do tiny batches of speciality beans.”

Young, wiry and cutting a dash in a crisp shirt and on-point thick-rimmed spectacles, Bartosz Ciepaj looks more like a tech-company high-flyer than a master coffee-roaster. But after a few minutes in his company, it’s clear this is a man who knows his beans. Bubbling over with coffee knowledge, Ciepaj rattles away on everything from roasting temperatures to tasting etiquette as we sniff and sip our way through four steaming cups of coffee. Each one has been made with Arabica beans from a different country, and we’re following a tasting procedure known as cupping – a global standard used by coffee professionals to benchmark quality. To begin with, freshly ground coffee is steeped in 94°C water for exactly four minutes, before Ciepaj gently skims off the “crust”, waits for the coffee to cool, dips his spoon and takes a short, sharp sip with pursed lips and a surprisingly loud slurp.

“You need to take in lots of oxygen when you taste so you can really get all the flavours,” he explains. He ruminates for a few seconds, before reflecting: “This is an Ethiopian yirgacheffe coffee, which has lots of citrus and floral notes. It’s pretty good, but could be a little brighter.” Ciepaj’s tastebuds have been working overtime in preparation for the opening of the in-store roastery and The Coffee Bar – the first stage of an ambitious redevelopment programme for the Food Halls. He and his team now roast and grind coffee beans in full view of customers, using a bespoke black and aged-brass roaster, which can hold up to 25kg of beans at a time. The unique blends and single-origin coffees they create are  packaged to be taken home – in pods or bags. They’re also available in The Coffee Bar, where more than 15 different coffees are prepared by baristas. In the evenings, The Coffee Bar transforms the freshly roasted coffee into espresso Martinis and coffee Negronis. “It’s an immersive experience in which customers can take a close look at every step of the process from roasting to brewing,” explains Ciepaj. “When a third party is roasting for you, you don’t have the same control over quality. Roasting in-house means we can create bespoke blends, do tiny batches of speciality beans, and serve it incredibly fresh.” Generally, coffee is bought and sold at auction in huge volumes as a commodity crop. At the top end of the market it’s a very different story, with quality, not price, the driving force. Only coffees that score 80 points or more out of 100 qualify as “speciality” under the international industry standard. To reach this exalted level, coffee must rate highly for aroma, flavour, balance and body, and must have few or no defects. In practice, this tends to mean beans with complex layers of flavour reflecting both the environment in which they were grown and the skill and care that has gone into the roasting and brewing.

“Coffee is like wine… but more difficult,” says Ciepaj. “There are so many variables – what’s in season, which farms, how the beans are stored and roasted. And then there’s actually making the cup of coffee.” The stories behind the green beans that are roasted in-store are
fascinating. Order a cup of Kenya Jungle and you are sipping three different types of bean grown in fertile volcanic soils on a single estate near a town called Nyeri, north of Nairobi. It’s sandwiched between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountain range, where the climate helps produce bright and fruity beans, redolent of blackberry, citrus and chocolate. There are also chocolate notes in Jamaican Blue Mountain, but this coffee has a nuttier profile, with herbal notes of camomile and a touch of acidity. This reflects the high elevations, rich soil and continuous rainfall where it is grown on the Wallenford Estate,  first cultivated by British naval captain Matthew Wallen in 1746.

Beyond single-estate coffees, Ciepaj also combines beans from different countries to create blends of depth and complexity. This is particularly true of the new Knightsbridge Roast, Harrods’ house espresso blend, served across the in-store cafés and restaurants,
and used as the base for everything from lattes to Americanos. Knightsbridge Roast is made from four types of arabica beans: Brazilian beans are used for sweetness, body and nuttiness; Colombian for delicate bitterness and cocoa flavours; Sumatran for spice; and Costa Rican for a gentle acidity. The blend has been a true labour of love for the young roaster. “The Knightsbridge Roast is moving away from traditional Italian-style espresso,” Ciepaj explains. “It’s made with a lighter roast, but is still full-bodied and has caramel chocolate notes.” It also smells absolutely delicious when the beans are being roasted in-store. “Nobody can resist the smell of freshly roasted coffee,” he says confidently, before taking another noisy slurp.

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