The key to great coffee is terroir, says Difference Coffee founder Amir Gehl

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

03 May 2019

Difference Coffee supplies top-tier coffee to some of the world’s most lauded restaurants. In celebration of UK Coffee Week 2019, we sat down with the founder of the luxury coffee supplier to chat terroir, coffee’s third-wave movement and how even Starbucks is scared

When I meet Amir Gehl, founder of Difference Coffee, at Annabel’s in Mayfair, he’s brought a vacuum-packed bag of coffee with him. It’s the best coffee in the world – actually. He buys the stuff, alongside a range of other premium beans, from auction, has them roasted by coffee extraordinaire Jonny England, and creates high-quality capsules that are used in 200 of the world’s best restaurants.

You say you’ve got the best coffee in the world – do you really?

We do – literally. I follow competitions like Best of Panama, see who wins and buy the beans from them. You can go to Harrods and buy what they’ve got but ours will probably be just a bit higher scoring which, in turn, means they will be better. We also buy from a competition called Cup of Excellence. In order to win a Cup of Excellence competition, you have to score 86 points. Those that do are taken to auction, with lot number one [which is the highest-scoring coffee in the competition] getting split in half. One half goes to Japan, the other half goes to people like us. What I’ve basically done is create a little collection of the world’s best coffees.

What’s the key to making quality coffee in a restaurant?

It’s all down to volume. The biggest problem you have with coffee is that it loses flavour very quickly. Much like in wine, where if a vat has been open for a few days it will lose a lot of its flavours, if it’s ground coffee, it will lose its flavours within hours. So the question is, are you going to go through coffee quickly? If you’re a coffee shop and you’re going through 80kg a week, there’s no problem because you go through the bags really quickly. But if you’re a Michelin-starred restaurant and you’re only doing 20 cups of coffee a service, how are you going to keep the coffee fresh? Restaurants cannot employ a barista full time like they can a sommelier, so this is where capsules come in.

I’m also a believer that you need good equipment and trained baristas – if you have those, things won’t break. Normally the coffee companies will come in, bring somebody for a couple of hours and that’s it. What I do is come and do some training, but we try and insist that there is a head barista, who we take to do a two-day Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) course – it will cost about £500 but he or she can teach the other staff.

Are people taking their coffee more seriously these days?

We’re experiencing what’s called a ‘third wave’ of coffee. People are saying that they want something that tastes good, roasts that are lighter. What you see is that people are migrating away from Starbucks and Costa to more independent shops. Starbucks, as a result, is even creating its own speciality concept called Starbucks Reserve. They also understand that people are into better coffee. There’s a big coffee movement in Nordic countries where they drink a lot of filter coffee, and it’s happening in London now with better roasters and more education. I always say to fine-dining establishments, ‘You wouldn’t buy PG Tips tea, so why not invest in your coffee?’

Do you think there’s a similarity between how people talk about coffee and wine?

Big time. You can easily compare terroirs [of wine] with those of coffee. I always say if it didn’t happen in the field, it’s not going to happen in your cup. I can roast the s*** out of it, but it’s not going to make a difference. The truth of the matter is that it’s really down to the raw ingredient. Just as a sommelier doesn’t go, 'Look, I’m the best in the world, which means the wine will be', with coffee, you do need to roast it but it’s still 90% the farmers.

Are customers interested in knowing origins of their coffee, like they are with wine?

It’s the same: 90% don’t care, but the 10% that do care are the ones who lead. That 10% set the precedent, and they're the ones who drive restaurants to be more creative and the other 90% to care… If you look at every single ingredient that restaurants and bars buy, they’re always looking for artisanal products. Places of high quality want better and with coffee, you don’t have to spend that much for higher quality.

I always say if it didn’t happen in the field, it’s not going to happen in your cup

Are there terroirs of coffee like there are with wine?

Yes, there are even terroirs in the world for coffee that are equivalent to wine terroirs – Panama, for example, is the equivalent of Burgundy. Coffee beans also have varietals in the same way you have Merlot and Cabernet. In Panama, Geisha coffee was discovered in 2003 and the estate is was discovered on is the most coveted estate in the country – we represent them. The terroir means the beans are floral, acidic, with hints of bergamot, rose petals and stone fruit. Jamaica’s Blue Mountain has a terroir that produces chocolaty, nutty, and not as complex coffee, which a lot of people really enjoy.

What three coffees should a restaurant have on its menu?

It depends what the venue is. For somewhere like Annabel’s, I’d say you need a very good specialty coffee as standard that would work well with milk and a standalone espresso, then you can have premium ones like Jamaican Blue Mountain, then you can have something more complex like a Panama Geisha. I’m working with a coffee shop in Mayfair and we’re going to be doing just that.

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