It’s like 8 hours of barista competition

June 7th, 2010

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.


(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.


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.


Penny University

NYT Piece on Penny University

Penny Universities – Wikipedia Article

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