Most specialty coffee businesses are still relatively new, at least new enough to not necessarily be hereditary although many of the roasters I’ve spoken to over the past years do hope that their children will take over one day.
Cartwheel Coffee Roasters founder Alex Bitsios-Esposito is already a step ahead. As a young boy, he helped out at his mum’s coffee shop in Beeston, Nottingham, cleaning tables and taking cash. By age fourteen, he’d fulfilled practically every role in the business and had acquired a deep understanding of how to run a small company.
While his family spent a short time living in Canada during his late teens, he discovered his passion for great coffee and upon his return to the UK, he went on a mission to learn all about specialty coffee. Eventually, he and his wife Becci decided to set up their first coffee shop in Nottingham to bring a taste of specialty coffee to this city in the English Midlands at a time when the local coffee culture was dominated by big highstreet chains.
Thus, Cartwheel became a local pioneer and trendsetter, and allowed Alex to continue the tradition that was originally started by his mother more than two decades earlier.
When the team at Cartwheel reached out to us to inquire about a possible collaboration, I was thrilled. Having been a champion of the British coffee scene for almost a decade, I love being able to shine the spotlight on roasters from smaller British cities who are doing such great work for their local communities and the coffee community at large.
During our most recent blind cupping, Cartwheel’s Colombian Pink Bourbon from producer Gildardo Lopez landed in the top three, opening the door to Cartwheel becoming one of our June 2022 Coffeevine partners. A few days ago, I connected with Alex over Zoom to get some more juicy details about his intersting story, what sets Cartwheel apart and to discuss this beautiful coffee that they will be roasting for us very soon.
THE COFFEEVINE (TC): “Alex, tell us how you got started with Cartwheel.”
Alex Bitsios-Esposito (AB): “I started Cartwheel in 2015. We always had the intention of starting a coffee roastery combined with a café. We were very interested in bringing good food and coffee together, which had not previously been done in Nottingham.
I had previously worked in coffee most of my life doing a large number of different roles and the desire the roast our own coffee had always been there since the early days. I spent many years researching how we were going to do this, everything from specific details about coffee roasting itself to green coffee and sourcing. I kind of consumed every bit of material that I could find.
So, the idea really began to form back in 2010 but I was busy doing a lot of other things at that time and I knew it would have to be almost a separate endeavour to running a café. The two really had to come together. Initially, we only had the intention of supplying ourselves and maybe one or two other local shops and it is only really since the last few years that we renewed our intention to supply other people.
We’ve changed slightly since the early days, back when we intended to roast just a few very exceptional coffees that we could find, 90+ kind of stuff. Now, we offer a much broader selection with more accessible coffees.”
TC: “That’s so interesting. Were people in Nottingham asking for these kinds of 90+ coffees at that time?”
AB: “Yeah, in 2016 that was my sourcing philosophy. We wanted to serve these exceptional coffees at our own café on the brew bar for pourovers and to introduce them to our customers by the cup. We had put a brew bar at the center of our café for everyone to see and even used siphons. Granted, this was more for the theatre of producing filter coffee. And, I suppose, this grassroots approach to putting great coffee on the map in Nottingham is what established us as the local experts in that area.”
TC: “You can safely say then that you were really a pioneer for your local coffee community. I love that. What about your mother’s coffee shop? Where does that fit in?”
AB: “We were definitely one of the firsts but my mother opened her coffee shop back in 1998 and she already had all the right elements in place to serve specialty coffee back then. She sourced coffee from Union, which was called Torz and Macatonia at the time after the two founders, and we had a La Marzocco machine, which is still a super high quality machine. And I think that I was the first person in Nottingham to be pouring latte art back in 2004 or 2005.
[My wife] told me a story about a work night out some from five years ago where she had done cartwheels down the street, the very street where we wanted to open our café.
I started going to all sorts of trade shows starting in 2008 or 2009, probably around the time when things really kicked off in London and the term ‘flat white’ was coined. So yes, when we brought this coffee culture back to Nottingham, we really did feel like pioneers. We have since taken over my mum’s old coffee shop and turned into the second Cartwheel location in our city.”
TC: “Tell me a bit about the brand. When I look at the bags, I think that they look very elegant but there are also some playful elements all over. And then the name ‘Cartwheel’ itself is also fun and different. Not something I would immediately associate with a coffee roaster. How would you describe its personality?”
AB: “The second one is easier to answer to begin with. Initially, in 2015, when I was thinking of a name, my wife and I had found a site for the first café and she told me a story about a work night out some from five years ago where she had done cartwheels down the street, the very street where we wanted to open our café. And I thought, that sounds cool. We wanted to bring something fun and playful to a coffee industry that seemed very serious at the time.
We wanted to combine the inherent sense of precision that is so prevalent in specialty coffee with the socialising aspect of hospitality. There’s an artistic side to coffee too that we wanted to bring out. In a way, we wanted to tell the world that we’re quietly confident that the stuff inside the bags is of really high quality and has been for a while”
TC: “Clearly, you guys have come a long way and I can imagine that running two cafés and a roastery is quite a complex job. What is your involvement in the company today? I understand that a few years ago, Ted Mahoney joined as your head roaster and you have some other people working in your team.”
AB: “I wear a number of different hats in the company. Predominantly, I cover everything from HR to Accounting to Sales but it’s true that a lot of it is day to day operations. Ultimately, I want to step away from these day to day operations and focus more on creating processes and systems to enable others to do these jobs in my absense.
I really would like to be able to focus more on sourcing and roasting, which are our main activities and then also brewing the coffees that we are so proud of. The last two years have been rather abnormal, which has made this challenging. Covid was a huge disruption to what we considered normal but out of it, opportunities also arose, coffee consumption patterns changed and so my role will continue to evolve.
Since Ted joined our company, I have tried to help him with the sourcing. Mostly we cup all the coffees together and I fully trust his judgement. He and I are both Q-Graders. But during the pandemic, I was just not able to dedicate the same amount of attention to this because I’ve also been setting up our new coffee shop, the one in Beeston, over the past 18 months. That was my mum’s old coffee shop. We needed to redesign the space, put in a kitchen, hire a team and so on. That’s been quite a big job.”
TC: “Going back to your coffee sourcing, I am curious to learn a bit more about how your seasonal selection has changed. What do you look for in coffees nowadays? How do you keep things fresh and interesting? I mean this pink Bourbon from Gildardo Lopez that you are roasting for our June 2022 box is a pure delight!”
AB: “I suppose we’re led by fresh seasonal coffees. It became clear to us that our customers didn’t want the same coffee throughout the whole year. They wanted variety and different flavours and our sourcing really reflects that. We aim to release at least one new coffee every week. Last year, we roasted around 53 different coffees in total. Effectively, we buy less of more.
“[Pink Bourbon] …. It’s just a touch more exciting and special than your traditional Caturras and Bourbons.”
Where possible, we will work with the same producers again, year after year. This is, of course, dependent on our suppliers and whether they maintain those relationships but it’s our goal to have long-term partnerships with a group of producers who we trust. For instance, in 2020, Ted and I went to Ethiopia to visit a producer there who owns various farms and wet mills and it was just great to see him. We ended up buying a lot of coffee from him.
Generally, we focus on single variety coffees. We don’t really do blends to be honest. Except for one, which we’ve kept because of customer demand.”
TC: “In your company description, you mention that traceability is super important to you. Of course, this has not always been easy in some origin countries and has only in the last few years become a badge that most roasters wear on their sleeves.”
AB: “We have always been driven by flavour and a desire for high quality coffees and this sort of superceded the relationship part in the beginning. We just found great importers with super tasty coffees and trusted that they would have the relationships with the growers.
Over time, we became acutely more aware of the importance of understanding where our coffees come from and trying to build long term relationships with farmers. That’s also why our bags prominently feature the producers’ names or if it’s a community lot, we put their name on our bags.
We also look for coffees that have a single screen size or size of coffee beans that is more uniform because it allows us to roast more evenly and bring out more brightness. We follow Scott Rao’s idea of decreasing the rate of rise and when Ted came on board, we really h0ned in on creating repeatable roasting processes and a consistent between batch protocol.
TC: “Maybe as a final note, how long have you been working with Gildardo and what can you tell me about this coffee?”
AB: “This is the second year and also the second year we’ve been working with Osito Coffee. Stuart Ritson is the UK representative for Osito and I was already familiar with Stuart from his days at Workshop Coffee and Café Imports. He reached out to us after he started his current job at Osito and we were delighted to find that they had some really good offerings from South America.
I think, actually, that Ted will be able to give you a better answer.
– Goes to get Ted from across the room –
TC: “Hi Ted, nice to meet you!”
Ted Mahoney (TM): “Nice to meet you to! So as Alex just said, we got this coffee via Osito and when they sent us their offer list, I noticed that they were bringing in a lot of Pink Bourbons. They’re like a mix between Red Bourbon and straight Bourbon and when we got some samples in, Gildardo’s was the first one we tried.
It was sweeter and brighter than the other samples we got. It really shone on the cupping table and we just kept sourcing this varietal. I know Pink Bourbons are still somewhat rare although more and more Colombian producers are offering them nowadays. Last year, we started with Gildardo, then we got some from his brother José and then Stuart got in touch again to tell us that Gildardo was coming back this year and we just really wanted it again.
It’s complex and sweet but still very accessible. For those who drink Colombian coffees regularly, this is a little step up, I think. It’s just a touch more exciting and special than your traditional Caturras and Bourbons.”
TC: “Thank you both for your time.”
Find out more about Cartwheel Coffee Roasters by visiting their website.
This coffee is part of our upcoming June 2022 Coffeevine box that also features other stunning coffees from Good Life Coffee and Fjord Coffee. To choose your ideal box and get in on the fun, just pop over to our shop now.