Coffee etiquette with Whitechapel Coffee Co.


One of life’s great pleasures is to sit in the sunshine on spring day (preferably outdoors but indoors will do just fine), perusing the Sunday newspapers with some freshly baked pastries and, of course, a pot of warm coffee on the table. For us, that’s pure bliss. Whether your order is black, no sugar or white with two sugars (and a little bit of cream), there’s a coffee type to suit everyone. We spent the day with Patrick Vinck from Whitechapel Coffee Company to learn all about the art of coffee roasting and discover some useful coffee etiquette.

Tell us a little bit about the history behind the Whitechapel Coffee Company.

I fell in love with coffee when as a young boy I watched my father roast coffee; large machinery, a lot of smoke and an incredible aroma – how could I not? I started my career as a coffee trader but when I realised that tasting the actual product in the sample room gave me the most satisfaction, I turned towards retail. Like my parents before me, I started roasting for family and friends but that quickly grew (helped by the wide reach of the internet) into a full-time roasting business.

Four generations running the same business is a huge achievement; what inspired your family to start their own business?

They came from a mercantile background in Antwerp and, always on the look-out for new opportunities and new products, they started in coffee. That was a serendipitous choice because the attraction of the product itself and the many trading relationships that have turned into friendships have made it possible for us to stay involved in it for such a long period.

What’s a typical day like in your job?

My involvement in coffee is such that my working life is very varied. In a typical week, I will be in London tasting coffee, buying and selling coffee or preparing for one of our workshops, then there will also be a spell in the countryside where we roast and pack our coffee. I also do quality control for the futures market in London and I am an arbitrator, which means that I help to resolve disputes between various parties involved in the coffee trade and industry. 

Where does your coffee come from?

Coffee is grown in a wide band between the Tropic of Cancer to the North and the Tropic of Capricorn to the South. Within this area, you will find both Robusta and Arabica. For Arabica, we tend to move our buying around this belt, according to the season, but mostly within Central and South America. The altitude is important because the higher grown the coffee, the better the quality. We also like to buy East African coffees, mostly for their good balance between body and acidity. The little amount of Robusta we use comes mostly from the Far East.

What’s your favourite coffee blend and why?

I’m glad you didn’t ask me which one is the best coffee because that question lead me to start our coffee workshops. There is no ‘best coffee’ per se but there might be a best coffee for you personally and in our workshops we try to help you discover what that is. I don’t really have a firm favourite – it seems to change all the time. Even if I had one, it probably wouldn’t be everybody else’s.

Will you be adding more blends to your repertoire in the near future?

I am always looking at new blends and a lot of our clients have their own personalised blend, a little variation on a theme that makes it just right for them. The blends that we have generally available cover most of the taste spectrum but I am sure we will still add to them in the future. Our experiments with new coffee blends are available in our ‘Sample Room’. I must say, I was looking at your website and I spotted your Esme cups. For some time now I have wanted to roast what the Americans call a ‘melange’. This is basically one type of coffee half roasted dark and half roasted light, which then brings out different, complementary characteristics of that coffee. Somehow, your Esme cups made me think of that and when I find the right Central American or Colombian coffee I will offer this soon. Who knows, I might even call it Esme…

How do you take your coffee?

I take it black with no sugar but that really is just a personal choice.  When tasting coffee, you pour hot water over the unaltered ground coffee in a wide cup. My mother would famously say during tasting that it would help her to have milk and sugar in it because that was how she was used to drinking her coffee; sacrilege in the sample room but quite sensible if that is what you like.

Which is best – cup or mug?

That is almost a lifestyle choice question. I think drinking coffee in a mug is quite often a solitary exercise; it sits there on your desk, or it comes with you into the garden or wherever you are doing something, usually on your own. Coffee in a cup tends to be more sociable; a wide cup at breakfast for your cafe-au-lait whilst buttering your croissant and discussing your plans for the day, or a small espresso after dinner whilst relaxing and laughing with your friends.  Somehow coffee always tastes better when we go back to its Ethiopian beginnings and we take a slightly ceremonial approach to it, so whether you are a cup or mug person think hard about which cup or mug to use – and make it a beautiful one.

What would be your tips for making the perfect cup of coffee?

Invest in a grinder. Freshly ground coffee is an important factor in getting the perfect cup. Also when you grind the coffee, you get to smell even more of those delicious volatile aromas that all contribute to enjoying the perfect cup. Water is the main part of your cup so the quality of your water will obviously make a big difference to the quality of your cup of coffee. If you have very hard or strongly chlorinated water, I would advise you to use a water filter.

Are there any do’s and don’ts to remember when making or drinking coffee? 

Use about 65g of coffee per litre of water. Let the water slightly go off the boil before you pour it over the grounds or you will scorch it.  Keep all your utensils meticulously clean because any stale coffee oils will affect the quality of the cup.

Which types of coffee would you say are best for drinking at certain times of the day?

Choose more acidic coffees in the morning. Acidity in coffee is like dryness in wine; this liveliness will wake you up if nothing else does.   I love to have a four-o’clock espresso with a small amount of Robusta in it; so Mediterranean in smell and taste and exactly what I need to keep me going. After dinner, one of the heavily bodied coffees will round off the day.

Are there certain coffees that are best for drinking at certain times of the year?

Yes, top quality Arabica coffees have a limited shelf life so they are best appreciated when they have recently arrived in the country. We always have the right coffee at the right time of year in our blends and in our ‘Sample Room’.

Britain is a nation of tea drinkers – do you think coffee will ever overtake our love of tea?

Did you know that this country was, in fact, a nation of coffee drinkers and some of its great institutions started in the coffee houses of the XVIIth century? They were the basis of the Stock Exchange, Lloyd’s, auction houses, newspapers and democratic debate. The UK’s current love of coffee is essentially not a new thing, but a coming home.

Photo credit: Alexander James Photography