Friday, 6 July 2012

Profile: Callum Hale Thomson, Barista

At the London Coffee festival I found a not too quiet stair well and grabbed some time with Callum Hale Thomson AKA Young Barista, a future star of the coffee scene. I say future as due to a rule change he is actually too young too compete (after previously doing so) at the UKBCs. On meeting Callum I way enthused by his clear love for coffee. From the way he spoke about the subject with such passion, energy and knowledge it was great to talk. This is what was said.

Hello. Who are you? and what do you do?
Hi Callum Hale Thomson and I am currently studying, working and competing in coffee in my spare time, in and around London.

What do you do day to day?
Go to school, study, revise for my GCSE exams (at the time of posting now complete) and then go make some coffee.

How do you first discover real coffee?
In my family we have always had a tradition of drinking coffee in the mornings. As soon as I was old enough to use the mocha pot in the house I jumped at it and started buying my own coffee. I mean really bad coffee but it was exciting.

My dad’s friend was an investor in Flat White in Soho, one of the founding coffee shops in London. Through them I managed to have a lesson on the espresso machine and learn how to make proper speciality coffee. I was about 13 and it was an amazing experience, really exciting, fascinating. From there, my dad opened up a gallery (he’s an artist) and I had the opportunity to make coffee there. So I contacted Square Mile who were just round the corner from the gallery and they helped me, they let me buy a bit of coffee from them. I was still very much in the early stages taking in everything and going to events.

Then I started in my spare time; when the gallery closed I started to get part time jobs in speciality coffee cafes around London and really just trying to absorb everything. And then I decided to compete. Last year I competed for the 1st time  and I did again this year in Norwich.

and how well did you do?
I came 3rd in the London heat and this year for the Norwich heat I took part but because of a rule change I can no longer place (due to age).

Where have you worked?
I started out working in Climpson and Sons in Broadway Market and I’ve done stints at Tapped & Packed and freelanced for Ristretto in places around London. Now I work semi regularly for Prufrock on Sundays. It is very fun.

What is it that makes making coffee so great?
You have the opportunity to take something from a farmer who has looked after the crop and who has processed it well and has taken consideration at every step. Then a roaster who has taken care of roasting it and making sure it is packaged properly. 

You have all these stages where people have done their job incredibly well and you have found this coffee and it is your job to do it justice. You have so many ways of doing that, there are so many variables. It is so easy to pull an awful shot of coffee or an awful brewed coffee. It is the challenge of pursuing that perfect cup and to present it to someone, to really change their perception of coffee.

What drink do you make the best?
What can I say? I like to think the most important thing is the espresso shot and I like to think that when I feel confident that part is mastered most of the time.

What should I be looking out for in my local coffee shop?
The biggest thing for me is hygiene. If someone is working in a clean environment, and you can see that they are noticing everything and everything has its place  and its not all over the place. That being said you can still have excellent shots from people who are slightly messy. It is more if you have a machine that has been cleaned daily, or back flushed every hour, and everything is spotless, then the coffee that comes out of it gives you the opportunity to make the best shots.

Not to dwell on the negative but what thing would you see to raise a concern?
When I go into a new place I try to go in with a really open mind and not look at the barista and not look at how they are doing it. I just try an espresso and see how it is. I don’t like to be judgmental about places, I like to give it a shot and go back a couple of times and see how it goes.

I definitely would say if it was really noticeable that everything was all over the place and that the machine was really dirty and the person that was doing it didn’t have the passion for what they were doing and it just seemed like an every day job to them, then I think that would be a slight turn off.

If people are making coffee at home, any tips to help them make a good coffee?
If making coffee at home then brewed coffee is the way to go. Making espresso is such a finicky method and although you can get great machines at home, even if you buy the most expensive machine at a couple of thousand pounds if you want a coffee in the morning you won’t have the time to dial through 6 shots and then keep the machine in spotless condition and clean it and back flush it everytime you have done it.

So definitely brewed coffee. I would say the biggest thing is to maintain your brew ratios. My family initially would put a couple of scoops in and it would change day to day but if you want consistently really tasty extractions then you need to maintain your variables. The amount of coffee you put in and the water weight and use scales for this, then you will be able to slowly find out what really works for you and you will be able to consistently brew much better coffee.

How would you suggest people find out what is best for them?
There are the main UK roasters, Square Mile, James Gourmet, Has Bean, they all have fantastic offerings and pretty much anything from them is going to be great. So I would say if you can’t ask someone for a recommendation just order something random, that sounds interesting or you have found rave reviews for. Put it through your brew ratios, try it, taste it, maybe try a cupping at home and have a bit of fun. It takes me a while to dial in a brewed coffee but it should be fun.

When you are picking a coffee what do you look for in a bean or a blend?
I try to stay quite open because I mostly now working in places and I serve what has been ordered by the cafĂ©. At home I have a subscription to Has Bean in my mug which is fantastic as every week I get a random coffee that has been chosen by Steve (Leighton). It is great to have what he thinks is great. I like the idea that someone else with experience is choosing the best and you get to enjoy that. Its like when I walk into a coffee shop  its nice when the barista there will make me something I will like and use there professional expertise to judge that.

What will you order?
The first thing will be an espresso most of the time, maybe a brew. I don’t tend to drink milk drinks unless I feeling a bit sleepy.

Do you prefer any machines or grinders?
If you have good coffee and have got a decent grinder, a burr grinder then you can make pretty great coffee. The machine itself is not going to make an incredible difference. The difference will be if you are using 3 month old blackened coffee or if you are using fresh medium roasted artisan coffee, that will make the big difference.

You can’t extract something amazing if you have an amazing machine  if you have coffee devoid of all flavours, its been Roasted out, you still can’t get anything good.

From planting to ending up in the cup what is the most important part of the process?
That’s very difficult. The big thing is, the important thing that I have realised that Everyone plays such a massive role. I can’t say. There are so many things that could go wrong. If the farmer picks the cherries too early or too late. If they pick unripe cherries and process them it is going to be a problem.

During processing If they are being naturally processed and left out too long they ferment, they start to taste alcohol and vinegary. If it is transported in the wrong way, if it is kept at a dock the beans might change or if the roaster roasts it wrong. I think every person has such a big role. Sometimes that really isn't appreciated. The coffee’s that we have in good coffee shops are the work of everyone doing it perfectly, it is not just chance.

When you are home, how do you make coffee?
If I’m making it for the whole family then I will make a Chemex. I have my pouring kettle and my filtered water. When my filtered water runs out and I have to use tap water it is just horrible. If I am making it for myself then I normally just use a V60 or an Aeropress.

Do you have all the toys?
Not as many as people would think. Those are my main three. I have a wood neck but I don’t really use it because of the filter. It’s a bit more work.

Anything else you would like to say?
One of the big things that has helped me get into coffee is the amazing industry in London. I’ve been to New York and the States and there is definitely a coffee scene over there but In London the community is so brought together by coffee. In many instances there is no competion. There are very few people bad mouthing other people’s shops. Its kind of like as speciality shop we are all in it together and instead of fighting against each other we are fighting against bad coffee. That’s one of the nice things about coffee in London

A final question, do your parents make you make the coffee?
Most of the time.

Thanks for you time.

If you want to get a coffee from Callum then you can find him at Prufrock. Keep your eyes peeled for this enthusiastic and talented barista on his way up.

Twitter: @young_barrista

Additional pictures used with permission from
YCN photos taken by by Alex de Mora (@alexdemora)
UKBC photos credited to Liz Bishop Photography


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