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An evening at the H. R. Higgins Coffee Tasting Masterclass

From the warm welcome on arrival, to the personal thanks offered by the hosts as we said our goodbyes, Thursday evening's Coffee Tasting Masterclass at H.R. Higgins on Duke Street in Mayfair was a magical journey into the world of three generations of one of London's finest purveyors of 'Black Gold'.

Despite their rich family history and immense knowledge of the entire process from methods of obtaining the bean from the cherry fruit, through to farming, sourcing and trading, roasting and brewing (and every step in between), David and his father, ‘Mr Tony’, remain entirely democratic with regards to exactly how coffee should be enjoyed. Espresso, pour-over method, Aeropress, with milk, or with non-dairy – you choose, you decide they say.

A large part of this father and son duo’s charm comes not only from their deep love of the product but also from the pleasure they clearly take in sharing it with others. They do not dictate or preach – they inform and discuss, nurturing their guests’ interest with facts, figures and a back catalogue of anecdotes and stories that could surely fill a coffee table book or two (hint-hint!).

Started in 1942 by the current Managing Director David’s grandfather, the story of H. R Higgins (Coffee-man) is a heart-warming tale of a man with a vision. Harold Rees Higgins was an entrepreneur who managed to convince  

the Ministry of Food to allocate him enough coffee beans to start a business, right at a time when austerity was not a lifestyle choice but a necessity. Today, the smartly designed coffee house is a testament to this vision.

The tasting started with a palate cleansing Espresso Martini, the perfect livener to ensure we were alert and ready to pay attention. As with wine and food tasting, coffee tasting requires concentration to identify the myriad of aromas and flavours, from the top notes of fruit and acidity to almost ‘boozy’ warmth, the scale and range of differences are immense.

First we tasted the very special Tanzania Kibo Chagga, a medium roast, full-bodied single-origin coffee from the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. Tanzania Kibo Chagga is one of the first coffees sourced by the founder in 1960s directly from the growers. Harold Higgins ventured by local bus from Nairobi determined to make personal connections with the farmers in East Africa, a trading relationship that amazingly still stands today.

Next we tasted the Nicaragua La Bastilla Blueberry Candy, another single-origin medium roast but an entirely different beast to the delicate Kibo Chagga.

A lively discussion ensued, was this sample stronger, with more caffeine because it was a darker colour? At this point we learnt that the darker the roast, the more the caffeine is reduced – and that the Pour Over method of brewing also retains more caffeine than the Mocha stovetop method – two great myth-busters for the coffee fact repertoire!
Our final sampling was a speciality house blend Creole – a best seller since the 1950s. Creole is a very darkly roasted blend of beans grown in both Brazil and Columbia – designed to be strong and punchy, but without bitterness. Questions were raised around the tasting table on blends versus single origin coffees and which is better? As in winemaking, there are no hard and fast rules, bar the aim to achieve a great result, and blends, of course, allow consistency of flavour and quality, whereas single-sourced beans can be influenced by weather and climate conditions.

Whether to unlock the charms of single-origin beans or to achieve a balanced and consistent blend, roasting is a vocation that David Higgins was born with. The passion and dedication is in his blood. “It’s the best job in the world, to be a coffee roaster,” he says, “it’s very exciting, you can get lost in it – there’s a lot going on, you have to listen as well as watch - each batch is different, and beans behave differently with seasons. For example, beans can be drier so you have to listen out for the crackling”. Tony Higgins, now in his 80s, is still a keen roaster. “It’s wonderful,” he says. “If we need to take a break from the commercial elements of the business we will go and roast together.”

Coffee appears to evoke emotion in many of us and has done for a long time. The London coffee houses of the 1700s were places where men gathered to share information and news, often before it was printed in the newspapers – an early form of Twitter! Tom, a customer of H. R. Higgins also there for the Tasting Masterclass, told me his personal coffee journey: “I stopped drinking coffee, it was too strong and the bitterness was overpowering. But then on a visit to The Hague and a chance encounter with an Italian café owner, I did some research which led me here, and now it’s ritual. It’s not just drinking a cup of coffee – it forms part of my day.”

I was invited to the Masterclass as a guest and left as an admirer, and very possibly a devotee. A goodie bag of the three coffees tasted has corroborated my thoughts on the night – and now I must recognise a craving for the tantalising charms of the Tanzania Kibo Chagga. Fortunately, H.R. Higgins have offered a postal delivery service since the 1960s so no need for me to take an overnight bus.

Karen Richardson


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