Big Interview: Coffee by Tate
Inside a WWII Nissen Hut, hidden within the imposing structure that is home to Tate Britain in London’s Westminster, is the ‘Roastery at Tate’, delivering fine coffee to the four Tate galleries; Britain, Modern, Liverpool and St Ives.
It is also home to the Slot Roasting Collective, a roasting solution utilised by eight to 10 coffee clients each week. The roastery also produces white label blends and performs contract roasting, which all help ensure the resident Probat 25kg roaster is never idle - it produces 60-65 tonnes of coffee a year.
“We see ourselves as a stepping stone for people to move into their own roastery operations, if that’s what they want to do. Roasting can be inaccessible financially and in terms of knowledge, and we are helping to break those barriers down,” says Thomas Haigh, Tate’s head of coffee and certified Q-Grader.
Partnering people and creating communities is at the very heart of Tate Coffee, with ethicality, transparency and gender equality its lifeblood, explains Haigh, who was brought on board three years ago to take-over the roastery by Tate Catering’s CEO Hamish Anderson, a notable wine sommelier.
Along with inheriting the roastery (Tate has been roasting inhouse since 2011, but previously in Herne Hill), Haigh has established Tate’s Gender Equality Project (GEP) in partnership with import and export partners Falcon Specialty and Caravela.
“I was really interested in equality in coffee and when I took over the roastery it was the chance for me to use it as a platform to research and engage with the issue – which I believe is at the heart of sustainability,” says Haigh, formerly Climpson & Sons' head of coffee.
Equality is, as Haigh describes it, the narrative that runs throughout everything Tate does, with the roastery, as a non-profit business, helping to fund Tate galleries while championing coffee producers and professionals throughout the coffee chain.
Last year, 63% of coffee bought by Tate was grown by women, with the rest produced by families.
“This narrative ordains everything we do. One of the issues that women producers face is access to market, and we’ve created export avenues for over 60 independent women in Latin American since we started,” he explains.
An example is Mezcla de Mujeres in Honduras, which champions the talents of eight women producers in Corquin, Copan and was an initiative Tate established with Falcon in the region.
“It is a way for us to increase our impact with the women of the area… to create high volumes and cost effective, exportable coffee for them as well.”
He continues: “Accelerating equality makes huge changes within communities. Yields and quality go up too. After all, if you’re under-mobilising half of a community, that community’s potential is diminished. By reducing inequality and creating accessibility, communities thrive, the harvest thrives and quality thrives.”
Furthermore, he believes the coffee sector’s obsession with quality is often counter-productive for the growers, adding that it can be Euro-centric and egotistical too.
“I believe [the coffee industry’s] focus on quality isn’t doing much for equality, so we’re working with partners to build quality from the ground up. When the focus is on experimental processing on ‘in vogue’ varieties, such as Geisha, we’re all creating a symbolic culture around quality which is inaccessible to producers in marginalised areas.
“Our understanding of quality is very different to the producers we work with. We’re worlds apart when it comes to analysis and understanding. But by reducing the inequalities within the communities in which we work, we’re seeing different types of quality coming out and we’re having to react by changing what we do; how we roast and talk about the coffees, and showcase them.
“Women don’t have the same access and knowledge that men have got, so they’re finding new ways and thinking differently when it comes to treating their crops.
“Rather than me having expectations of quality and expecting producers to fit in, we’re creating platforms for women and producing communities to thrive by using whatever quality comes and reacting to those qualities – which are still within our idea of quality, because the coffee is sensational. There are just different ways of getting there and it is quite empowering for both parties.”
And Haigh continues: “Personally, I find it all super refreshing, because it changes the direction of the narrative,” adding that he wouldn’t be able to do ‘all of this’ if it wasn’t for working in a non-profit environment.
Tate Coffee doesn’t wholesale its coffee, but offers it just for sale in the galleries – selling one million cups of coffee to what is a diverse and international audience each year.
“Quality is a factor but not the overriding one for us. We operate on the periphery of speciality, making speciality enjoyable and accessible for all.”
Tate - which has a range of four coffees, its single origin espresso, two micro-lots from different regions and a decaf - pays a premium price for each kilo of coffee purchased and pays into the World Coffee Research Institute, which explores ways to secure the future of coffee. Money is also donated to the Partnership for Gender Equity.
And Tate’s equality project doesn’t just focus aboard, but at roasting level here in the UK too. Lottie Poulton is head roaster at Tate, having joined earlier this year.
“We had got to a point in the business where we wanted to reach out and have more impact outside of the roastery. Lottie is fundamental in this and has played a big part in making us a more accessible, education-focused space, where people feel safe and feel good about coffee.”
“We’re trying to be that space that people can use to learn about sourcing, roasting, operating a roasting environment, the logistics, financials and operations so they develop relationships that will last.”
He concludes: “A lot of the time roasters and baristas brew coffee they want to drink, not what their audience wants to drink. We can’t afford to do that. We have people from all over the world drinking our coffee and it has to be accessible and enjoyable for all.
“What we’re doing here is a refreshing change in speciality coffee.”
He adds, “there’s no room for egos within Tate Coffee’s WWII bunker”. Instead, Tate Coffee is all about helping to empower people to live better.