It’s like 8 hours of barista competition

Perhaps the best description of working at Penny University!  (In a good way)

I say this having only worked there a handful of days, which have left me inspired by the people who’ve come for coffee and full of admiration and appreciation for Tim and Tobias who are doing this full time – and doing it incredibly well.

This post isn’t really about the experience of working bar there – despite it being incredibly different to any bar I’ve ever been behind.  This is more about a collection of thoughts that have resulted from it opening:

Balancing accessibility

I guess this is one of the hardest things to do.  On paper a number of things have made the space likely to push the anti-snobbery button in people: No milk, no sugar, no takeaway, no espresso based drinks.  8 seats, 6 of which are sat at the bar with the baristas.  Each of these could be taken as trying to intimidate the customer.  Someone asked, before we opened, how I could say that I am all about accessibility and inclusivity (opposed to exclusivity) and yet want to open a place like this.

Every time someone writes an article about speciality coffee online there are angry comments – the NYT article about Penny University is no different.  We, as an industry, have made them this way by making them feel stupid at some point.  No milk, no sugar isn’t about depriving people of pleasure.  Instead, when you’ve described a coffee’s flavour to them it is quite important that they experience those flavours.  If they do then the experience (for customer and barista) is fantastic.  Milk and sugar both make that discovery significantly more difficult.

None of us should be surprised that people like milk and sugar in their coffee.  Most coffee, nearly all coffee, requires addition of one, the other, or both just to simply be palatable.  Many baristas and roasters get frustrated when they see people loading sugar into their coffee – not because they don’t want people to enjoy it, but because of what it is obscuring.  We do send something of a mixed message though – despite our frustration we still have sugar bowls full of the stuff, condiment stands bursting with sachets.  That’s another thing though I guess.

ExtractMojo

(Again – I know!)  Seriously though, this is what this tool was made for.  Dialling in coffees every day is incredibly useful, I feel like every time we learn something new.  Single cup brewing is incredibly difficult, because of the tiny tolerances of recipe that are somewhat negated by larger batch brewing.  In an environment where just about every customer is tasting their coffee consciously (to steal a Peter G phrase) then the room for error is tiny.  I will take any and all help in this – and this is my favourite weapon in the arsenal right now.

I’m getting an education

Beyond the coffee stuff I mean!  Every time I’ve been on bar interesting people have come and sat down and I’ve gotten to talk to them.  More often than not the conversation has spread to everyone at the bar which is when things get really interesting.  (I am aware this is why coffee houses were called Penny Universities, but I didn’t dare think that my hopes of this happening would be realised!  So far, sadly, the political discourse has yet to get to the point wherein the Monarchy tries to shut us down.)  It is so different to work behind a bar with so much time to talk to the customer, and while I try as much as possible to avoid forcing information on people who aren’t really interested – it is almost a relief so many people have so many questions.

Diversity

This is something I think about a lot.  I think it is a big part of changing how the public see coffee.  The idea that “this way is the only way” is a terrible one.  It would be arrogant and wrong to think or say that every bar should be like this, should offer coffee like this, should try to interact like this.  I love what the antipodean’s have brought to London, but I love the other styles of businesses and coffee that have evolved before them and along with them.  I think that if London is going to continue to evolve as a coffee culture then diversity is key, and I hope we are contributing something useful to that.

Links:

Penny University

NYT Piece on Penny University

Penny Universities – Wikipedia Article

17 Comments

  1. A great insight into PU, James. I’ve yet to enrol, can’t wait ;)

  2. Hi, dropped in the other day, a unique experience, great banter, and better coffee. I assume that this is what you were going for, and in which case you have succeeded. Gwilym (and Tina!) will still get my espresso business, but as I am only starting to appreciate the virtues of brewed coffee, I will certainly be making more visits. I also think that you shouldn’t worry about pretension. It’s not pretentious to just do things properly, pretention comes from being disingenuous, and this you are not.

  3. I think the quandry of milk and sugar is one that every next generation operator faces and ponders. And after carefully considering it, I came to the conclusion that not offering it was inconsiderate at best and pretentious at worst.

    To my mind, it’s akin to going into a restaurant and having the salt withheld. And while many may poo-poo the addition of sugar to coffee, I’ve found that minor amounts of sugar can have an enhancing effect on the flavor of a coffee, and I could not find a proper justification not to offer sugar. Even someone of the caliber as Keller offers a selection of salts at The French Laundry.

    I disagree with the assertion that milk and sugar make discovery more difficult. As with anything, moderation is the key towards enjoying the nuances and complexities of coffee, and sugar can enhance that experience for many drinkers.

    But like you, I’m finding the brew to order bar to be quite educational and very exciting. Everyday new customers and regulars come into the shop to learn, explore and become fascinated by the coffees and the brew methodologies.

    As for myself, I wish I had more time to work the bar, brew the coffees and engage with our customers. It’s infinitely fascinating but sadly, the multitude of issues of running the company occupy most of my days.

    The diversity thing is an important distinction. Even today, while discussing Spro with someone else in the city part of our style philosophies came up – specifically about music, or our lack of music and WiFi. I explained that those were not part of our presentation but that those features are available elsewhere and that our community is richer for that diversity.

    I’d like to see more variety in approaches to coffee and their presentation. If for no other reason than to give me a place to go and hang out for a bit.

  4. Thanks for both the visit and the kind words. I’m delighted you had the sort of experience that we hoped people would have! And I’m with you on Present – the only place I’ve had a chance to have an espresso outside of the Roastery recently and they consistently do an amazing job!

  5. I come and go with the sugar thing. Occasionally I think along the lines you mention, but already the number of times people have been surprised and delighted to find they enjoy coffee, plain old black coffee, without sugar has made the decision worthwhile.

    We’re not saying that you should never add sugar, simply that we’d appreciate the opportunity to make you coffee and nothing but coffee.

    I could go down the route of specious reasoning – why is it ok to offer sugar but not offer cinnamon? Lots of people like cinnamon in their coffee – like sugar it helps disguise the ugliness in the cup. Sadly I suppose sugar is habitual because bad coffee is habitual.

    I’m with you on wishing I could work the bar more. It is both pleasantly tiring and quite invigorating!

  6. They really do an amazing job, something to consider bearing in mind the age of the machine and the seemingly woeful rate at which it can produce a cup!

  7. This is kind of off topic, but I saw the picture and it reminded me of something: have you found any weird tastes coming from the bamboo stirrers? How are you cleaning them? We stopped using wood stirrers at Comet after Jim noticed a strange taste from stirring them in hot water. Any thoughts?

    To get to the point of your post, I love the idea of an atmosphere where I could actually sit down and talk with my guests about the coffee, the brew method, and just life in general. As I go deeper and deeper down the ExtractMoJo hole, I find that I hate the inconsistency of single-cup, manual brew methods, but I really LOVE the amount of time it offers me to spend talking to people. I’ve found that with some of our guests the 3-5 minute wait has gone from an inconvenience, to a stolen moment that people actually look forward to. Working in a college town with a great university nearby brings in some really brilliant minds and I’m constantly in awe of the amazing people I have the privilege of serving.

    Has the limited seating been a problem yet? Our seating is a little less sparce (4 2-person tables and 6 bar seats) but initially a zoning problem prevented us from having seating at all. We got through it, but I kind of miss those months when we all stood around drinking coffee.

    I respect your thoughts on the to-go cups and cream/sugar issue. Has it been an issue at all so far?

    Have you noticed any trends with your guests? Do many work in the coffee industry?

    I’m happy that Penny University exists. The idea of sitting at that bar and talking with people, drinking some of the world’s most beautiful coffees is incredible. I’m really happy for you, and I look forward to visiting you guys someday. I’ll be sure to bring my own Splenda! :)

  8. The link to Penny University is broken :(

    PS I love the concept and the “no sugar, no milk”-policy.

  9. Geez, reading the NYT article’s comments, one in particular wants to take us back to the Boston Tea Party days, it seems that more than coffee could be a-brewing!

    Some familiar goblins raise their heads again: The old ‘wandering the streets of Paris or Milan’ one. I have lived in France, and man, I must’ve been missing something because I’ve yet to find a coffee there that didn’t make me wish sugar could make it better.

    Why are folks so keen to criticise the idea and not the coffee? Now, for one, it’s a pretty inexpensive experience, and if it didn’t meet your expectations, it’s not like your evening is ruined by not enjoying a pricey meal. You’ve parted with a mere £2.50-3.50 and 10 minutes, is that not a fair trade for something you MIGHT actually enjoy? Just try it for crying-out-loud and THEN cast judgement. I’m sure that some folks may not enjoy it, and I’ll tell you what; Tim/James/Tobias would be at least a little hurt, but happy that that person actually tried it and THEN made their mind-up. You can’t please everyone.

    Choice is overrated anyway: Would you salt sushi? Ask for sugar in your Jasmine tea? Drink your champagne at room temperature or demand that your Chateau Margaux is served chilled? Why not? Would you want a McLaren F-1 in automatic? Does one get upset that there is not half, quarter, or double sugar Coca-Cola available? Who the heck is that waiter to tell me that the wine tastes best at 15 deg C or the Coca-Cola Company to tell us that we can only have seven teaspoons of sugar in a can? I want sweet sixteen, dammit!

    One last thing: If ANYONE visits Penny University and can honestly say that they felt the man behind the bar was arrogant or sanctimonious, or anything like that: I’ll give you a free coffee with as much sugar and milk as you like, and I’ll even make it with pride and offer no opinions as to your preferences. Why? Because you tried it, you spoke to them (hopefully listened) and you’ve made an informed decision, unlike some people…

    P.S. I have had a couple of G&Ts to temper today’s extreme caffeine consumption, hence the verbosity of this ‘comment’.

  10. I am sorry to say I cannot agree with anyone that dismisses the concept of brewed-coffee-only as pretentious. When properly roasted and prepared, coffee, as gustatory and social experience, can be phenomenal. James surely recognised this along with the (sadly) generalised absence of venues offering this kind of coffee experience and stepped in.
    Surely those wishing to get a latte, cappuccino or even an espresso, having discovered this isn’t on offer at Penny University, are unlikely to succumb before reaching the nearest “traditional” cafe? If you don’t like the fact you won’t be able to get milk/sugar there, then don’t go.
    I personally think it’s fantastic that the speciality coffee world has evolved to such a level that a niche has been created where an establishment as this may take root and flourish, spreading ideas and techniques and hopefully exposing a great many more people to the utterly amazing sensory experience that coffee can offer.
    Drop by, give it a shot, and you will see for yourself.

  11. I think it’s great. I love that you’ve properly pushed the boundaries when the rest of us think groundbreaking is not having syrups and 16oz cups! You are doing something truly original which is really exciting for me both on coffee and business levels.

    I look forward to visiting.

  12. I felt like at the end of a pilgrimage, coming to the Penny University yesterday. I enjoyed the coffee, the learning experience and do have a thought to offer on the “milk-sugar” debate. First an anecdote from a hotel school in France (ca. 1978):

    A rich arabic Sheik comes to your restaurant, orders the cod and a red burgundy to go with it. What do you do?

    The students were divided. The French took the “german police” attitude: “Verboten”. The students from abroad, especially the african thought that “who pays decides”. A norwegian friend of mine said:

    Point him towards a red Bordeaux, that goes best with cod. All norwegians know that!

    In a world where it is unwise to alienate the customer, Mike Philips et al. approach at serving layered coffee experience might work. So in that spirit here’s my proposal. Serve each coffee at the University with three cups. One for only coffee, next one with sugar/milk and last one for a flavor or spice of choice, honey, custom made syrup or such.

    In my opinion, “University” is a place to experiment as well as to teach/learn. So, old style dogmatism may be “old style” but that could backfire a 3 generation coffeehouse. The barista is there to make the coffee, but he has also the opportunity to learn from the customer.

  13. Although I am not in the camp of withholding sugar and other condiments from customers, comparing sugar to salt is apples to oranges. Salt is used to enhance flavors that are already present (also apparently has the ability to suppress undesirable flavors). Sugar (or sweeteners) are not widely believed to have the same properties, in that the addition of sweetener does not enhance the flavors that are already present, but at least in my experience, tends to flatten out any complex flavors that are hopefully present in your cup.

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