“Tony, who needs gambling?”

I remember my father saying, after one of his teaching sessions when I was learning the skills of tasting coffee: “Tony, who needs gambling?”. I recognised this as a rhetorical question and listened as he went on to say that embarking on his dream to create a specialist coffee business was for him the biggest kind of gamble. And that he had no desire for any other form of risk. When I think of the formidable obstacles he faced and the risks he took, I can only wonder and admire his determination and self-belief.

As a trainee in the 1950’s, my duties would begin by laying out all the unroasted samples we were going to taste. (It’s called cupping now). We would examine the raw coffees. I would roast them, grind them and carefully weigh them into the tasting bowls. I would then call my father and we would examine them for their aromas. After this, I would infuse them making sure that each had the identical amount of water. It was always a blind tasting and there would be two bowls of each coffee, identities concealed. So, I had to find not only the most flavoursome but get them in their correct pairs. Extraordinarily difficult.

He taught me the physical side of tasting, and to respect my palate as a gift I needed to nurture. I tasted moving along the line of bowls, moving the ones I liked to the left and the ones rejected to the right. I was always looking for the pair. He taught me to identify the characters of the coffees. How to recognise quality and faults, the flavours due to poor production and transportation.

He taught me the mental approach. To make my decisions. You could say “To go for it”. The coffee wouldn’t wait. Flavours were changing all the time as the coffees cooled. Our palates were also changing the more we tasted. No dithering, not to be afraid. First decisions were often the best ones. Of course I was nervous, especially at first. There was a lot at stake! But he taught me that if you were so terrified of the responsibility of getting it wrong, making a mistake, that you couldn’t accept falling on your face, so to speak, you would never make a good decision.

My cupping over, I turned the bowls around revealing their identities. We would compare notes, and he would go over with me what we had discovered and how well, or not I had done.

Decisions made, I would clear away. I always had the lovely job of emptying out and cleaning the spittoon and retrieving any spoons that had mysteriously found their way into its murky depths. We don’t us a spittoon now – Ah- such is progress! He became very complimentary about my palate. I found an entry in his diary where he says “Tony has an extraordinarily good palate”. The time came when he said I was ready the day to take the responsibility of making the choices. Times have moved on. I am fairly confident that if my father is somehow standing beside us now when we cup, when we taste, it is David my son who will be getting all the accolades!

Bringing you the coffees that will delight your breakfast time, coffee break, or make the perfect finish to your dinner is something I still love to do. It is challenging, exciting, and it always comes with an element of risk. That can make the process feel like taking something of a gamble. There is usually plenty of coffee about but not of the exceptional quality we have made it our business to bring you. Those coffees often only come once a season. We have to make a commitment based upon seeing and tasting just a small sample of the actual purchase. Then, to agree a price for a delivery way into the future is subject to the risk of the volatile coffee market. The whole process can feel like venturing into the unknown, you could say, a bit of a gamble.

So much about our business is based upon trust. But that’s a possible subject for another blog. So, for now, thank you for reading this and for all your encouragement to us to go on finding the coffees that will make your cupping, your tasting a special experience.

With my very best wishes.

Tony Higgins