Before Amsterdam became by home in 2007, I had lived in the north of England for three years while attending university. Lancaster, to be precise. The home of the red rose is a small city overlooking Morecambe Bay with a huge campus university on its southern fringes. I look back at my three years there with lots of fondness because this was the first time in my life that I felt truly independent while at the same time, experiencing the onset of adulthood.
Many times, I headed down to Manchester, the next big city, to see gigs, have a night out with friends or just to go shopping. Liverpool, the other big city in the area, didn’t get much of my attention. In hindsight, I do regret that but as it turned out, Liverpool only really started coming out of its shell in 2008, when it was European capital of culture, two years after I had left Lancaster.
From what I’ve heard, the city has since become somewhat of an art and foodie Mecca, with its own Tate Museum, a fully redeveloped waterfront and really great coffee to boot. A few months ago, I started following Neighbourhood Coffee from Liverpool on Instagram and I was instantly enthralled by their funny videos and content that gave me the impression that these guys were having a lot of fun doing what they were doing. Turned out, they are.
A few weeks ago, I began working on a plan to have Neighbourhood Coffee featured in one of Coffeevine boxes and this February, they will be making their debut with a lovely Colombian coffee from Finca Patio Bonito (a replacement for the Guatemala, which we had initally picked out but which had to be changed due to a miscommunication with one of the other roasters in the February box – sorry). To mark the beginning of our partnership, I caught up with co-founder Chris Holloway to learn a bit more about Neighbourhood’s origins, the company’s evolution and who is behind the great social media content.
THE COFFEEVINE (TC): “Hey Chris, you originally studied sports management, right? How did you end up in specialty coffee?”
Chris Holloway (CH): “I have worked in hospitality for years. I’ve actually had five or six careers.”
TC: “For your multiple personalities, wink wink?”
CH: “Ha ha! No. I just took a strange meandering route to get here. I started working in restaurants, bars and cafés, and then made my way into green coffee trading, which later led me to setting up a coffee roasting business almost nine years ago.”
TC: “That was around the time when most of the specialty coffee in the UK was concentrated in and around London, was it not?”
CH: “Yes. So, Ed [Peck], my co-founder, and I we used to work at this green coffee trading company that used to be called Schluter and had its office here in Liverpool. Their head office was just outside Geneva and they’d been going for 150 odd years, focusing on African coffees.
This was around 2010 or so and we had already been working with Square Mile and Has Bean who were still quite small at the time. There were some others popping up in places like Bristol, Bath and other cities and we just thought to ourselves ‘someone is going to do this in Liverpool soon so it’d better be us.’
We then found a space and started teaching ourselves how to roast coffee commercially rather than just samples. We already knew how to do that. Luckily, we already knew a lot of people in the local hospitality industry who were willing to give us a chance.”
TC: “So you approached them and said ‘check out this locally roasted coffee for your café or restaurant. We’re the first specialty roaster from Liverpool. Do you want to work with us?’ Was this enough to pitch your new venture?”
CH: “Basically. And enough of them said yes that we could start our business.”
TC: “I really love that. It’s very easy to rally behind a local champion who is doing something for the first time and really doing it for the local community. I lived in Lancaster for some years between 2003 and 2006 and back then, there was no specialty coffee anywhere. How would you describe the Liverpool coffee scene today?”
CH: “Oh it’s changed hugely in the last decade or so. Back when we started there were maybe one or two good shops, one being called Bold Street Coffee, which has since been sold to new owners. They were the local champions then, offering V60s and Aeropresses, and they were just consistenty busy. The rest were just old school cafés.”
TC: “Like Costa and Café Nero…”
CH: “Exactly. But then Liverpool had a huge transformation in 2008 – 2009 when half the city center was redeveloped. And then things just started taking off. We wanted to raise the coffee culture and make it really fun and transparent, not confuse people with jargon and make everything mystical and opaque.
“Our main aim is to make specialty coffee accessible and easy to get into because it is affordable. It doesn’t take huge budgets and lots and lots of equipment.”
Liverpool has such a great food scene and such lovely people and we’re so proud of it. However, many people were using roasters from down south or even from places like Berlin and we just thought that there should be space for a local roaster that is good enough so these cafés could source locally. That was our mission really and now, we have our coffee all over town, which is great.
These days, there are also other roasters, of course. It’s not just us doing this singlehandedly. We all worked to put Liverpool on the map.”
TC: “But you guys don’t have a café space right now, correct?”
CH: “We had one for a couple of years but the building where the café was didn’t reopen after the pandemic. I kind of enjoyed wearing different hats and being a café owner too but this venture didn’t work out. We might do something again in the future. It just has to feel right. We have been growing quite quickly and we need to ensure we can help the team that we already have.”
TC: “I like what you said earlier about wanting to make coffee acessible and not using particular jargon. Is this also why you have these fun music related names for your coffees?”
CH: “Yeah. We’ve both been in coffee for 12-13 years, which is a long time. Back when we were still in green coffee trading, we saw a lot of roasters starting up and they all had the same type of packaging. Everyone was super interested in all of the details but if these don’t get properly translated for the public, we have an issue.
Our main aim is to make specialty coffee accessible and easy to get into because it is affordable. It doesn’t take huge budgets and lots and lots of equipment. You can just get started with a handgrinder and plasic V60 or an Aeropress and be on your way towards making really amazing coffee. It’s not like other product categories like wine or whiskey were you need to spend a lot of money to get the really good stuff.
So, we thought, how can we make this stand out on the shelf? How can we grab the customer’s attention? How can we convey just the right amount of detail to give the customer an idea of what’s inside? We then decided it had to be bright colours for one. This would make people go ‘oh, that’s one of Neighbourhoods’ Guatemalas because it’s green or that’s one of their Ethiopias because it’s pink.’
The other thing is that Liverpool is a musical city and we wanted to make people smile. Coffee’s not rocket science or brain surgery. It’s supposed to be fun and joyful and so we went and put little musical puns on our labels. We initially thought it would just be a shortlived thing but nine years later, people are still coming and saying ‘oh, I just thought of this new one or that new one.'”
TC: “That’s so cool. I was wondering what the thinking behind these was. It makes people talk about your coffees and can help them to build relationships with them.”
CH: “Yes. People still come in and ask us for that purple one or the one that had the pun ‘Grind control’ on it. It just gave people a different angle from which to approach coffee rather than having to say this Finca or that processing method.”
TC: “Do you assign one unique pun per unique coffee or do you rather have a system where a given pun refers to a particular cup profile?”
CH: “If it’s a farm that we’ve worked with before, then usually we keep the same pun. We now have quite a few long term partners. For example, we have a fresh ‘Grind Control to Major Tom’ every year now as it comes from the same single farm.
However, if it’s a community coffee like from some producers in Peru that we buy from, then it might be that one year the coffee comes from one community and then the next year, from a different community down the road, depending on which one tastes better. For them, we have a hot pink colour and the pun ‘Sip me baby one more time’ and this combination just really fits.
If it’s a relationship coffee and we know the producer because we’ve visited them or we’ve got direct contact, then we prefer to keep the name for that coffee in the following years.”
TC: “Can you take advantage of your previous network from your time as a coffee trader when building relationships with farmers you want to work with?”
CH: “Yeah, absolutely. There are producers we knew already. We also buy from a couple of different mills in Ethiopia that we’ve both been to. Ed actually lived in Ethiopia for 18 months at some point.
We’ve also got a seven-year relationship going with some communities in Brazil, which we were introduced to by our old trade network. Those guys help us with exporting the coffee.”
TC: “How do you put together your coffee offerings? Do you go for a combination of very accessible coffees for cafés and more mainstream customers as well as more exotic lots to satisfy more adventurous coffee drinkers?”
CH: “We try to cover as many origins as possible without making things too complex to handle. We try to have a nice combination of more accessible coffees with chocolatey and sweet cup profiles alongside more exotic seasonal lots. Because of our background, we lean a bit more heavily towards African and Colombian coffees, basically origins that we’ve been to a few times. We’ve completely fallen in love with the variety of Colombian coffees and we really want to show that.
“We want to keep growing, which means trying to find good people and offering them great careers that are fulfilling and rewarding.”
And then, if we find something that the customers really love and that is quite flexible, we can use it for both espresso and filter. Wholesale cafés can throw it in their grinders, make pourovers or sell retail bags of it. We like digging deeper and hunting for new coffees, talking to exporters and booking trips out to visit them.
Sometimes, we find this producer that has an incredible Pink Bourbon but he also grows some less exciting Castillo that cups at 84 or 85 points instead of 88 or 89 and we’ll say to them ‘listen, this is what’s it’s like to be a coffee farmer. You don’t just grow exceptional stuff.’ In order to survive, they need to grow more commercially viable coffee and we want to give these coffees a home too. You can’t just be drinking Geishas and Anaerobics all the time.”
TC: “Of course. Farmers cannot survive just off expensive micro lots. They need those commercially viable coffees too.”
CH: Indeed. If they only sold special lots, they’d be bankcrupt within one season. The other thing is that if we want to widen the circle of people drinking specialty coffee, then we also need to give those coffees a place.
If we can get people off instant coffee and all that nastiness and towards clean and sweet specialty coffee that isn’t mega complex and for which you don’t need super super detailed brewing guides to make one delicious cup of coffee, then we’re getting something right.
If you can bang it into a filter coffee machine and it tastes really good, then there’s a place for that because it’s really important for the farmers that there’s a market for those lower grade coffees too.”
TC: “Let’s talk about your hilarious social media. How did you find Hayley Forrester [social media manager at Neighbourhood Coffee]? Did you recruit her or did she come to you and what was her brief if any?”
CH: “She had already spent quite some time in hospitality and she simply applied one day. She’s brilliant and we just let her get on with it. From the moment she started, she fully understood what we were trying to do and what the brand is all about really, which is a light-hearted sense of humor while still being serious about what we do.
We try to be friendly and accessible and just to put a smile on people’s faces in the process. Our logo is a smiling face and we put smiles on our coffee bags. We want to create special moments for our customers, whether that’s a really ace espresso in a café, your retail order arriving and you making that first V60 or Aeropress or whether that’s you watching a stupid two-minute video of us pretending to do stuff.
I just think that if we’re not bringing smiles to people’s faces and there isn’t any joy involved, aren’t we then just wasting our time? Otherwise, it’s just some brown liquid in a cup as if it was some kind of drug. But if you are able to visit farmers and make those connections or you go to coffee festivals and you see that there’s a whole community around this thing called coffee, that is just amazing.”
TC: “I totally agree. And I also think that you need to distinguish yourself way more these days than just offering pretty packaging because there are now so many great roasters out there doing outstanding work. These days, roasters are putting their coffees into ever more intricately designed bags or boxes and firmly moving away from the more homogenous look from the early days of specialty.
At the end of the day, specialty coffee is indeed an affordable luxury but it has to be more expensive than regular supermarket coffees for the farmers to be paid fairly.”
CH: “I use that phrase ‘affordable luxury’ all the time to make people understand that they can indeed spend a few Euros or Pounds on a month’s worth of coffee without breaking the bank.”
TC: “So, obviously, we’ve just come out of a global pandemic that changed many things and still has ripple effects. But if we look at the year ahead, what are some of the things you’re most looking forward to in 2023 and beyond?”
CH: “For the time being, inflation is still running at around 10% in Britain, which is quite high, making everything ore expensive. Coffee is still a more affordable luxury than most other things but it’s still going to end up costing more. Our packaging is made in China. Our coffee comes from all over the world. There are delays etcetera. Not everything is back to going smoothly. We want to keep growing, which means trying to find good people and offering them great careers that are fulfilling and rewarding.
We also want to continue to grow the bubble of people drinking specialty coffee. If we just keep talking amongst ourselves, we’re never going to get more people into specialty coffee and will always lag behind the big chains and supermarkets. We need to be happy and brave to try new things.
When you’re tiny and you fail at doing certain things, maybe no one will notice but when you’re bigger you try stuff that doesn’t work, then at least you failed and learned something. That’s really important.
So for 2023, we’ve got lots of stuff lined up. We bought a 60kg roaster last year, which we’re still fine-tuning. Our production team is doing a great job but you know, it is a totally different thing from when it was just two of us roasting on a 15kg roaster compared to now when we’re churning out thousands of kilos every week.
The team is awesome and we want to keep growing but not for the sake of growing. We want to grow organically. In another year, we’ll have been in business for a decade, which seems like a phenomenally long time and we want to make to make a splash about turning ten.
I want to continue putting smiles on people’s faces and taking coffee to the widest audience.”
TC: “Thank you for chatting with me. It’s great to get to know you!”
Are you keen to try some outstanding coffee from Neighbourhood Coffee alongside exquisite picks from TOMA CAFÉ and Rozali? Then be sure to visit our shop to choose your ideal February 2023 Coffeevine box.