Bean There, Done That


It is difficult to find a link between immunology and coffee. In fact, there probably is no direct connection, other than that both have held a fascination for me.

Even as a small child I was intrigued by biology--dissecting dead goldfish, or probing into the eye of a head chopped from a chicken being prepared for dinner. Wanting to know the answers to how and why a system functioned led me into science at school and then, when choosing a university course, I discovered the subject of immunology simply by looking through university prospectuses. I had never heard of the field before, and immediately the idea of studying how the body worked to fight disease grabbed me. I had no desire to be a 'medical' doctor, but was nevertheless attracted by the strong clinical element to immunology.

Kings College, University of London, was the only place at the time that offered immunology as a degree. During the course, I took the option of an extramural year to do laboratory research. And so, when the time came to consider what to do for my future, it felt natural that it should be research. I was extremely enthusiastic about the opportunity to immerse myself in a subject in detail, and chose the mechanisms of cellular immunology to study for a PhD.

The project was productive, and although I had occasional crises of confidence I assumed that this was normal. Now that I had made this commitment I was determined that I would complete the PhD. I was able to publish several papers, which was a great incentive to continue to strive for more. In essence I was happy working in my own arena, being responsible for myself, and directing my own development. In many respects being a PhD student was like playtime everyday. It was necessary to put in the hours, and some periods were shear hard slog, but there was no burden of responsibility for running and maintaining a lab, no concerns about funding, and no need to direct other peoples' research. I also realise, with hindsight, that my transition into being a postdoc similarly followed the path of least resistance--I remained in the same lab, albeit with a different project.

However my supervisor and I realised that I needed to see a broader perspective, and we arranged a 6-month sabbatical for me at DNAX in Northern California so that I could learn some new techniques to bring back to the United Kingdom. Knowing that time would fly past, I got down to some serious work immediately. But the cliché of "work hard, play hard" prevailed and I fell deeply in love with the United States. It was the intoxicating mix of amazing weather plus the naively innocent attitude of the West Coast population who lacked the stuffy class constriction of the British.

The project was a good one and opened out to raise more and more questions in a very competitive field. The unlimited resources in the DNAX laboratory made my earlier experience in the Medical Research Council-funded lab in the UK seem like shopping at Woolworth's compared to DNAX's Harvey Nicks! Not surprising, then, that I quickly realised that I would not be returning to the UK at the end of the sabbatical. I was having too much of a good time. The decision to stay was not difficult, as there was a place for me at the institute. Letting others know was hard, though, as I had commitments and I felt a great burden of responsibility to the project and supervisor I'd left behind.

I continued in research for a further 3 years, but I was starting to have doubts about my original long-term career plan in science, for several reasons. I realised that the abundance of resources at DNAX were only likely to be available in the corporate world. Yet those resources come with strings attached--the research has to be strongly directed toward yielding a product. Having the freedom to explore and experiment for myself was important to me, rather than being constrained by what I was told.

Also, the idea of running a lab did not appeal. I was happy to organise my own work, but I did not feel comfortable about the responsibility of directing other people. I enjoyed research and science but was concerned that I might reach my personal ceiling too soon. I began thinking about what else out there in the world I really wanted to do.

Food had always been another of my passions, and I had been taking classes at the California Culinary Academy on the weekends. I knew if I was going to make a leap out of science it had to be a big one. Something worthwhile making the jump for, not just going to work for someone else, but doing something for myself. So although I ruled out the thought of working in a restaurant, I was too terrified to even think of opening my own establishment. Instead I started to think about a café or bakery, as the amazing quality and style of the baked goods in California was so very different to that which was available in the UK. Coffee had to be an important part of my offering and I started to evaluate why the coffee that I was drinking here was so delicious.

I started to visit my local coffee store, "Peets Coffee," considered an institution in that part of the Bay Area, initially once a week, then a couple of times a week, then every day, and even twice a day as I rapidly became more addicted. I graduated into buying beans and grinding them at home. I tried three or four types of bean from different producing countries to compare the differences in tastes and flavours. I asked the staff in the coffee store questions about the different coffees--why were there differences in flavours? The excitement built up in me as I realised that nothing like this existed in the UK. Here was the opportunity to really get into the bones of a subject that was fascinating.

In my mind I started to create what I now would call a business plan, except that in those days my commercial naivety was so great that I had no concept of what a business plan actually was. In fact, innocence probably turned out to be my strongest point. If I had known what to expect, I might have been too overawed to continue any further.

Initially the most difficult task was to begin to tell people what my future plans were. I was concerned about the kind of reaction I would receive, but in every case my science colleagues were enthusiastic, and surprisingly some even shared a confidence that they were also planning a new career outside science.

I vividly recall my emotions at the time of leaving California. I had the feeling of jumping out of an aeroplane and, although there was a parachute on my back, I did not have a clue how to use it, and did not even know if it would open.

Starting the new business did not go smoothly at first. The plan was to open a retail shop offering high-quality fresh roasted coffee. But landlords considered an individual with no business track record too great a risk, so I was unable to secure a retail location. The plan was revised and the business was opened in a tiny workshop. Now the objective was to create a wholesale business, offering freshly roasted coffee to restaurants and cafés, and also to private individuals by mail order. The coffee was of a quality that had never been available in the UK before. Although the first year started slowly, we built a high-profile portfolio with restaurants such as Le Caprice, The Ivy, The River Café, and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saison becoming our customers. They had the foresight to recognise that we could offer coffee at a quality higher than anything else available.

Timing was everything, because the company preceded the wave of the "American-style" coffee shops that was about to become a ubiquitous feature of the British high street. In fact we were roasters to the UK original, the Seattle Coffee Co., which was started by an American couple (from noncoffee backgrounds). We were able to provide the authenticity and passion for the coffee that differentiated this chain from the soon to appear "me-toos"! The late 1990s was a period of rapid expansion and saw us merge with Seattle Coffee Co. to become a vertically integrated business. The roasting operation was growing fast, and now I was employing 25 people, with five direct reports, and roasting 1 million kilograms of coffee per year. So much for not wanting responsibility!

Within about 12 months, the U.S.-based Starbucks Coffee was looking to enter the UK market and saw the acquisition of the Seattle Coffee Co. as a mechanism for gaining a rapid share of the market (as well as knocking out the competition).

So from our humble origins, my title developed into 'Director of Production for Starbucks Coffee EMEA' and I now found myself in the corporate environment that I had tried to avoid several years earlier. It was interesting to see inside the business world at this level, but after a while I became aware that I was much happier controlling my own destiny. And soon I began to feel the next big change in my life coming on.

Surprisingly it took several months for the idea to crystallize. Coffee was still my passion, and now I had the opportunity to approach setting up a new company using all the previous years of experience. Union Coffee Roasters is now just over 1 year old. "UNION" conveys the relationships we have developed with the farmers that grow our premium quality coffee. We have a strong ethical stance on the way we choose to source our coffee, ensuring we have full trace-ability and also contribute premiums to the farms for reinvestment in social and environmental programmes. Travelling and developing relationships with the producers takes a lot of time. This year alone I have travelled to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and Rwanda.

We have had an amazing reaction from our customers and have been fortunate to achieve listings in Sainsbury, Waitrose, and Tesco for a selected range of our coffees. Plus we have reinstated our direct mail order programme for our wider range of 22 premium Estate coffees.

I am convinced my science background has been useful in the coffee world. Certainly a tenacious character is a useful attribute in both environments. I do not feel the 10 years I spent in research was time wasted as I enjoyed it, I know that I made a contribution towards accumulation of knowledge, and I also gained a considerable amount of confidence. I have often explained coffee as the perfect marriage of art and science. I certainly used a methodical and rigorous approach to defining what I call our "roast curves"--the plot of time versus temperature which defines the degree of roasting for coffee beans of different origins to bring out the very best flavour characteristics. Yet, the skill and expertise of roasting coffee is in the hands of the human, as every batch of roasted coffee is unique. Differences in moisture content of the beans, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, temperature, density of the coffee, and also what flavour qualities am I looking to develop and highlight in this coffee--these are now the questions that I consider every day.

Union Coffee Roasters is available in Tesco, Waitrose, selected Sainsbury outlets, and also by mail order--see the Web site for details. Tel: +44 20 7474 8990; e-mail:

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers