Big Interview: Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

Big Interview: Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

Co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee Jeremy Torz says he is not worried about being among the “cool kids on the block”. 

“In the last eight to nine years of the coffee explosion we have not been the cool kids on the block. Our moment of graft in a wooden shed, which is very fashionable amongst roasters, was back in the mid 1990s,” he laughs.

“It does not mean to say we think we know it all. That is one of the sheer joys of coffee that there is always so much to learn.”

Along with co-founder Steven Macatonia he was one of the early pioneers bringing quality and ethically sourced coffee to the UK market in the 1990s working out of a wooden shed. 

“We started roasting coffee when you could not buy takeaway cups in the UK market. You could not even buy 250 gram bags that were suitable for hand packing coffee,” Torz says.

“If you asked the average person on the street what a Latte was they had absolutely no idea.”

Union now boasts 74 staff, a head office with roastery and training centre in East London.

A recent deal, which hit the headlines, has seen it supply coffee to airline British Airways while in January it purchased Brew Lab, the speciality coffee operator.

By March the marriage between Union Hand-Roasted Coffee and Brew Lab delivered its first joint initiative - a cold brew coffee.

It all started in the early 1990s when Torz and Macatonia were visiting San Francisco where a craft coffee movement was starting to emerge. They were fascinated by the knowledge and passion of those involved in coffee. They ended up staying there for four years.

After networking “like crazy” and getting a basic education in roasting they headed back to the UK with grand plans to launch a coffee shop.

“The bank manager laughed us out of the bank,” he says.

“He said: ‘You guys have never been in business, you don’t have a clue what you are doing'. It was the best piece of advice he ever gave us. He said that if you really want to do this go and start a wholesale business. If you are around in a year's time and you still think it is a good idea come and see me.”

The wooden shed

The result was they sold everything and bought a 15-kilo roaster.

“We found ourselves in a little wooden shed on the outskirts of London. We shut ourselves away out there for about six months,” he says.

By the mid-1990s they were selling their coffee into the restaurant market and that is when a relationship with fledging retail chain Seattle Coffee Company was started.

“Both businesses were evolving to try and create a new landscape in the UK,” he says.

A merger with Seattle Coffee Company beckoned and there were supply deals with Harvey Nichols including the Oxo Tower, Bluebird and River Café.

By 1998, US chain Starbucks realised that the UK market was ready for the coffee revolution, and acquired Seattle.

“We had gone from laying a floor and building worktops in a shed to being part of Starbucks,” Torz says.

They stayed with Starbucks for two years leaving in July 2000.

“We felt our interest in what we were being asked to do was waning,” he explains. “We then thought what do we do now?”

They decided to pursue their desire to know more about the origin side of coffee and a trip to Central America and Guatemala saw Union born in 2001.

“We saw coffee growing communities at a time when the price was on the floor. We saw families that couldn’t afford to keep their land and communities in Central America that were undergoing famine and poverty,” he says.

“We started thinking and talking about the world of coffee. It became clear quickly that as a roaster we had that unique position of linking the producer side and the consumer side.”

It was this experience that shaped the approach of Union to source its coffee sustainably and support farmers. It currently sources its coffee via its own Union Direct Trade, which offers not just a fair price but also a partnership with farmers and a commitment to minimum purchase.

“It is finding people with potential that are willing to go on a journey with you and finding ways to work with that community to enhance with what they produce,” Torz says.

Ethics and principles

“All that comes back to what Union is really all about which is great coffee underscored by qualities and ethics and principles.”

He says he “likes to think” that the Union Direct Trade approach is a “better model” than that offered by Fairtrade. He has concerns about the focus on co-operatives as “not all co-ops are perfect,’ he states.

“Fairtrade says if you pay people enough quality will improve. The reality is that this does not always happen,” Torz says.

“If you get someone paying a premium.  Are you going to invest in new seedlings? Or are you going to get better food for the children and clothes or a new roof on the house?”

One of Union’s latest initiatives is supporting an area in Ethiopia, which is on the border of a protected forest region. It has invested $20K to build a training centre and lab on the site of a school to help local people to be trained in cupping and quality testing.

“Coffee farmers are poor not because they are lazy or stupid but they don’t have the same opportunities and advantages,” he argues.

Another major challenge is to get consumer countries to understand the true value of coffee and the link between price and quality.

He is critical of the fact that the UK market is cost focused with coffee being used as a “high margin cash cow product”.

And he makes no apologies for Union charging a premium for its coffee as it pays premium at source.

“We can’t afford to visit, do workshops, put in extra effort into those communities if we can’t cover those costs,” he argues.

“Some of the trade activists say roasters capture all the value. We don’t. There is enough money in the coffee value chain for it to be equitable in all places.”

And what next?

He believes there is still a challenge to reach out to people that still don’t know what a great cup of coffee is about.

“I have always believed in the build it and they will come philosophy,” he says.

"If you put a great cup of coffee in front of somebody most people will be able to say what is the better cup. It is our job to know why it is better and keep putting it out in front of them. If you do,  people will appreciate it and will find it hard to go back."


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