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Roaster profile: Dark Arts

Dark Arts Coffee from London’s Hackney neighbourhood makes its magical Coffeevine debut with a sweet and silky Guatemalan coffee from Finca Palo Blanco

Specialty coffee is very serious business. So serious, in fact, that it is almost like a religion but it’s important to also have a bit of fun along the way, right? When I first came across Dark Arts Coffee from London, I was immediately intrigued by the funky packaging that showed both sides of the Dark Arts Coffee coin. On the one hand, a clear commitment to creating a unique brand with a focus on great coffees and on the other, a hilarious side that speaks of its founders’ characters.

One of the best quotes from the packaging is: “We’ve never made any business decision sober.” LOL. Naturally, you can rest assured that they won’t be roasting their fine coffees drunk but it’s refreshing to see a coffee roaster adding a bit of cheeky language to a space that is normally used for sober commitments to sourcing, roasting etc on.

The coffee that we chose for our forthcoming August ’19 coffee box is from producer Tulio Sergio Ovalle who has his farm in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. Having put a lot of effort into environmental protection and education has awarded Tulio various certificates from the USDA and Rainforest Alliance to name a few. The coffee consists of Bourbon, Caturra and Villa Sarchi-Sarchimor varietals and offers notes of cacao and honeysuckle melon.

Scroll down to read my recent interview with Colin Mitchell and Jamie Strachan of Dark Arts.

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Interview with Colin Mitchell and Jamie Strachan

The Coffeevine: What is your name and what is your position in the company?
Colin Mitchell: My name is Colin Mitchell and I’m one of the co-founders and directors of Dark Arts. I actually do fuck all and I don’t really know anything about coffee, but I always get roped into filling out these sort of questions… Bradley Morrison is the other co-founder and he’s the Managing Director. Fuck knows what he does. Jamie Strachan is our Head of Coffee and he does all the work, dresses the best and is the best looking.

TCV: What is Dark Arts all about?

CM: We turn coffee beans into warm brown bean juice.

TCV: London has a very developed and, in places, rather saturated coffee scene. How does Dark Arts fit into this landscape?

Colin Mitchell: 15 years ago, the only place you could get a good coffee in London was Flat White. Then 10 years ago, if you heard a New Zealand or Australian accent, you might have a pretty good chance of a decent coffee (just as long as you didn’t have to listen to the pricks). 5 years ago when we started, we were planning on just copying whatever America was doing, but then London caught up, fast.

Like you say it’s a very saturated coffee scene, like a sodden napkin under an overfilled cup in an alcoholic’s shaking hand, before the first drink of the morning.

Our first contract, we were supplying someone with a reputation for shitty coffee, so we were just planning on going full style-over-substance, because no one in London was doing coffee thug stay-off-our-hashtag kooks-only-no-locals bad boy coffee thug coffee, but then because of Jamie, we accidentally got good.

TCV: Tell us something about your sourcing practices.
Jamie Strachan: We work closely with a few select importers who we have built rapport with over the years. This makes it very easy to shortlist what they have on offer to what will be appropriate for us. The coffees we decide to buy are based primarily on taste. If we think they’re tasty we buy them. Some consideration is obviously put into building a comprehensive offer list ensuring we have a range of (in season) origins, flavour profiles and price points.

TCV: What can you tell us about the coffee Guatemala that you guys will roast for us this month? What makes this coffee unique?

JS: ‘Dead Brick’ is a blend of fully washed Bourbon, Caturra and Villa Strachi-Strachimor from the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. This small farm is owned by the Ovalle family. Tulio Sergio Ovalle has had the farm since 1990 which is situated 1700masl.

The topography here means the region receives hot winds from the lower part of La Democracia. This creates ideal conditions for exceptional coffees. The coffee has tasting notes of honeysuckle melon with a chocolate mouthfeel and satsuma acidity. But asking what makes this coffee unique makes me uncomfortable.

I can tell you that the Tulio Sergio and his son Ivan have worked hard on renovations and changes in production over the years which has lead to the farm being certified with various seals including NOP USDA, Rainforest Alliance, Utz Kappe, and CAFE Practices. This makes the farm unique to this region.

As for the coffee itself. It’s a solid coffee that works well as an espresso or filter. It slaps. But that doesn’t make it ‘unique’. This consumer drive to have unique and special coffees is having a very negative impact on the lives of many producers. Most notably is the current obsession with gesha which has pushed many farmers in central and south America panicking that they will be left behind and lose their livelihood, rush to try and grow this guaranteed seller, resulting in a lot of money, time and effort producing coffees that didn’t sell as well as promised.

As an example of the extremity of this, I heard of a recent instance where one farmer was charging 1000,000 Colombian pesos (258euros) per kilo of gesha seeds. For context, a kilo of Cattura seeds like what is part of dead brick typically costs 60,000 COP or 15.50 EUR. I don’t think I need to explain more how damaging this can be to the producers in all origins being pushed to use experimental processing techniques or ‘exotic’ varietals to meet current trends in U.S and European markets when the time taken to change processing and farming infrastructure takes years and may indeed miss the trend.

So to conclude this coffee is fucking tasty, it’s uniqueness isn’t as important to me as that it is creating a livelihood for the Ovalle family and making a tasty cup of brown toasted bean juice to help wake you up in the morning.

TCV: Thanks for this guys!

Don’t miss out on our exclusive August ’19 coffee box featuring:

Jonas Reindl, The Barn and Dark Arts


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