Grinding your own beans at home is nothing new in the world of coffee, odd obsessives like myself have been doing it for years, but Roasting Plant takes that even further. In bringing it to the high-street it does something special and makes it available for everyone. As a result of technology that at first appears more at home in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory than a café, every single customer can choose their bean and have it freshly roasted and ground to order with no sacrifice on time or service.
Roasting Plant was started by former Starbucks employee Mike Caswell in the United States. He spent time travelling with his former company, choosing and tasting beans and bringing them to the stores. Over the years, he identified the problem that a select group of coffee nuts have been shouting about for years: pre-roasted beans simply lost the freshness that makes a good coffee great. Alongside his passionate belief that all drinkers should be able to select from a wide variety of beans and blends to their liking, he broke away and embarked on a somewhat bonkers mission to change the world of high-street coffee.
The result was the Javabot. This patented technology was originally developed by Caswell with a hoover in his garage but now it enables Roasting Plant to be the only company in the world that roasts its beans at every single site. When you walk into the store you are struck by the vast array of pipes and machinery. There are 16 large tubes, eight of which contain just roasted beans and eight of which contain raw beans. When required, those raw beans travel up through the tubes and across the store into the Javabot where they are roasted, cooled, and then returned back to the just-roasted containers. Customers can then take beans home from here pick-and-mix style but otherwise, the technology means that as soon as the barista selects a drink on their machine, the exact quantity of beans required is funnelled over, ground, and served. Just sitting back and watching the whole process is somewhat addictive.
Originally based in New York, the chain maintained its US origins before moving to the UK a few years ago and opening stores at London Bridge, High Holborn, Selfridges, South Molton, and on the Strand. The Strand location was where I went to meet manager Naomi. In a prime location for students, lawyers, and tourists alike, the store was busy but turnover strikingly fast. The automation of the whole process means that baristas are able to focus on often neglected milk perfection and customer service.
When ordering, you are greeted by a rotating projector menu of drink types and beans. These are broken down into easy-to-distinguish categories such as ‘full-bodied’ and ‘mild and sweet’. With many customers obviously unsure as to what they want to order or what bean they prefer, that previously discussed easy automation means that each barista has the time to talk you through what you might want. If you are unsure, there is also the house blend which is a simple and strong coffee designed to fit most palettes.
I must say that going into the tasting, I really wanted to not be able to tell the difference between this and the coffee I take so much care in making at home. I’m sorry to report though that Roasting Plant really is doing something special here. There is a smoothness and a freshness to the drinks that genuinely does stand out, especially over any other high street drink, and the fact that the price point is equal to or even undercuts many brands is even more striking.
My first drink was a filter of the Ugandan single origin. This was strong, punchy, and bitter as Naomi promised and suited me perfectly. The Ethiopian reserve was a much more neutral option as a latte and the Mexican made a notably smooth, sweet, and easy-drinking long black. The standout for me though was the decaf. Naomi described decaf drinkers as their most important customers and health problems have meant that I have recently had to significantly reduce my caffeine intake. That meant a long long journey to find acceptable decaf drinks but so often they are over-processed, excessively bitter, and sour. Here, the Colombian decaf couldn’t be more different. I tried it as a double espresso and it was by far the smoothest and lightest decaf I have tasted. If you are looking for a bitter french style blend then you might be left disappointed but the change from what has become the norm in the decaf market is more than refreshing.
Freshness of coffee might be what has made Roasting Plant the brand it is but the food on offer takes on that same ethos. There are breakfast options of granola, yoghurt, pastries, and eggs as well as lunchtime soups, toasties, and savoury croissants. The Greek salad makes a great light option and the almond croissant is filled with a liquidy paste that is very different to what you might usually find (it is delightfully sweet but I’d split it if I were you!). Cookies are gluten-free but still manage to remain moist in a more than welcome break for people often restricted to the dry chocolate brownie option that has become the easy out for so many cafes across the country. The poached eggs, smoked salmon, and avocado on toast was my favourite of all the edible offerings: the avocado was fresh and plentiful and the yolk delightfully runny to make for a filling but healthy lunch or breakfast option.
Roasting Plant calls itself a ‘revolution’ and the ‘new wave in coffee’ and I wouldn’t blame you for being seriously sceptical of the PR branding that so many cafes and coffee companies shout about. Something is different here though — that freshness and care really do shine through and the patented technology means that there genuinely isn’t any other company in the world offering this level of dedication to coffee in all of its stores. This market is ever-changing and developing at a faster pace than most in the food industry with the UK much more open to new concepts like this than European destinations with a more established coffee culture such as Italy and Spain. The fact is that getting a coffee out in the UK costs far too much — £2.5 espressos have become the norm and the quality of coffee on the high-street has gradually collapsed. This has left to the recent huge boom in independent and specialist cafés. If you are going to pay that high price-point, Roasting Plant at least gives you the choice and flexibility to get a drink you really want. The taste and personalisation are great and the fact that the price stays more than reasonable is even better.