Dublin: An Interview With Colin Harmon, Soon To Be Roasting At 3FE
Colin Harmon is a 4-time Irish Barista champion and co-owner of the highly regarded 3FE Coffee in Dublin. It’s been 4 years since 3FE started in a little nightclub in Dublin’s centre, where the cafe has served as a bellweather for the increasingly vibrant Irish coffee scene. Over that same timespan Mr. Harmon and 3FE have served as the exclusive distributor of HasBean Coffee in Dublin, helping to place the Stafford, UK based roaster’s coffee in 20 or so accounts throughout the city. Today we’re able to report to you on Mr. Harmon’s plans to develop 3FE into a stand alone business with its own proprietary roasting operation, with continued green sourcing and quality control support from HasBean.
This is enormously exciting, of course – 3FE are opening a roastery! – but as with all things in life (and coffee), the process of getting something right takes time. 3FE have targeted November as a start date for the first appearance of their new roasting operation, with wholesale distribution intended by Christmas 2013. I had the chance to chat about all this with Colin Harmon at his cafe in Dublin, in a conversation that touched on 3FE’s roasting plan, the road they’ve traveled since opening in 2009, and Mr. Harmon’s freewheeling, thought provoking, and oft-hilarious thoughts on “the industry” at large. Settle in and read on.
When I visited the original 3FE in its Twisted Pepper location last year, it was nothing like I expected it to be, hidden partially away in a funky bar on main street in Dublin. You’ve since closed that location, come through a 4th year at the WBC, and now you’re going to start roasting. It feels like a lot is happening for 3FE at the moment. So, what changes have happened in the last year?
Specifically in the last year?
Well, I guess since you’ve been open then, 4 years ago.
The first year, in 2010, I was just preparing for competition. Looking back, I think I was a little bit obsessed with competition. Myself and Steve Leighton were just “Competition! Competition! Competition!” and the shop was just somewhere for me to hang out and make coffee until the competition came around. But once I got through that, I was so tired, the shop was getting so much busier, and we were also starting to buy so much coffee from Steve. And it felt like there was a ceiling there. I wanted to do more career-wise and I wanted to make this bigger. I’d also had a girlfriend for far too long and I knew she needed to be my wife at some stage… *laughs*… so I knew I needed to grow it!
So, I said to Steve, “you take half the business and I’ll start distributing your coffee here and once we have sufficient scale, we’ll build a roastery.”
So, it’s always been in the plans to start roasting?
Yeah, we thought about building a roastery from the start but it’s a hard way to do things. It’s expensive. We have taken some flack from people here because the coffee isn’t roasted in Ireland. It’s a big thing here. Irish people are very patriotic.
The first three years were just very difficult in getting it going especially in the current economic climate. We started the business with Steve and I each putting in 5000 euro and just starting that way. We both didn’t want it to be on a HasBean bankroll. We built it up from very little. In the last year we’ve become, I suppose, stronger financially, and we’re turning 3fe into a proper business. It started as a pop-up shop, you know? So, we’re trying to become a lot more professional. Which is very difficult when you came from a base where you just wanted to make nice coffee and that’s all. But circumstances change.
Coffee shops are very difficult. You could set up a cafe and not make any money for a year saying, ‘it’ll be worth it, it’ll be worth it” and someone opens up around the corner from you and starts taking your customers away. So, we changed the focus of the business. Our execution is better in terms of the wholesale and the retail.
So yeah, it’s been an interesting year, a little bit painful. I’d like to think that we’re quite fascinated with what we’re crap at. We often get people to come in and look at what we’re doing and say ‘you’re really bad at this’ and try to take it on board. That’s been the most painful thing. But it makes it worth it in the long run.
We have our premises for roasting and the roaster will be delivered soon, and we’re already looking for a second roaster as well. We’re hoping to roast for the shop by the end of the summer and all of our wholesale customers by Christmas.
Will you switch all of the wholesale customers over?
One at a time. The danger is that our customers will say to us, “oh, we prefer the old stuff.”
Pete “Petesy” Williams, who will be the Head Roaster, is going to go to Birmingham in the next few weeks and train with Steve, and he’ll train Yann Chalmers next. Steve will be really hands on. In the day-to-day at 3FE, he doesn’t really do that much, but this is a chance for him to get more involved. We’ll send samples of every roast back to him and he’s really going to monitor it. We’re really fortunate to have that as well.
I mean, the word passion is so overused in coffee, but anyone who’s met Steve, well, the definition stops there, to be honest with you. He just works so hard. It’s really inspiring.
What roaster will you be using?
We have a 15 kilo Ambex and Steve’s also looking for an older 22 or 25 kilo Probat. We want to get to 30 decent wholesale customers by the end of the year, and we’re probably about two-thirds of the way there at this stage. That’s the goal and then we’ll take a break. Because you know, I’m 31, the “old man” of the company, so everyone’s always looking to me for answers and sometimes I’m like, “I have no clue! I’m making this up as I go along.”
You’ve built up quite a base in Dublin already, but are you looking to get some customers outside of the city?
We’ve started supplying someone in Ennis, on the West Coast. We’re really hesitant to do it because it’s harder for us to help them. But this guy was really into it and he wants to do a good job. But we do it tentatively.
I love the coffee map you’ve made of Dublin! It’s really great that you’re promoting not only your own customers but other cafes as well. How is the coffee community in Dublin?
I suppose in a way that map is really an extension of what Gwilym Davies did in London. It’s just nicking his idea and making it better!
The Irish Aeropress competition was really good. You know, we had over 120 people there and I knew about half of them. Even two years ago, at the events it was all the same people all the time. It was just in danger of going stale. The community has been given a new lease on life lately! Which is really great to see happening. You can’t have the same people pushing it all the time. It needs to have some fresh perspective and people doing things different ways. It’s a lot healthier.
In Ireland, there are about thirty roasters, from the large scale down to the small ones. But we have the same population as New Zealand, and they have hundreds of roasters. So, I think there’s scope for more roasters to be here now. The difference between Dublin two years ago and now is unbelievable. By the time the WBC rolls around in 2016… there’s such a huge opportunity there! It’s a small city you can walk around everywhere.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely people who don’t like each other here too. But Dublin is social like that. You can walk from one cafe to another and run into so many people you know. I guess it’s just the size of the city.
Since first opening 3FE, how has your own perspective on coffee changed?
I tend to try and push the business more in “real time”. I think a phrase that irritates me so much is “we as an industry” - beacause no, it’s not like that! Like, Nick Cho doesn’t come and clean my toilets and Tim Wendleboe doesn’t do my invoices. We’re here and this is our business and the people we deal with are the ones who walk through the door, and the people we send our coffee too. The “Specialty Coffee Industry” that’s on the Internet and you see at trade shows is really amazing, but it stops there. We as an industry need to stop thinking of ourselves as “we as an industry”.
For example, when people say, “we have a huge problem with surly baristas” and it’s just some cafe in Toronto, well that cafe is the one you should go and talk to, because it’s their staff that has the issue. If you come to my shop and say I have that issue, then I’ll deal with that. I don’t tend to take on as many “industry issues”, do you know what I mean? There’s a time for community, of course, but also a time for focusing on what you’re doing yourself. It’s hard to draw that line sometimes. It can become an echo chamber where everyone’s saying, “oh, you can’t do that” and “we don’t do things that way”. Like, I’ve talked about this with Nick Cho. I open up an article and it says I’m not allowed to use wine analogies. Well, who are you to tell me what I can and cannot say to my customers?
I really like Nick Cho, by the way! But if you want to name your coffee after horses, do it. Do your colour coding or whatever. Do whatever you like. Everything is fair game. Define what you want to do, and do it.
A really simple example is the way most people do filter coffee in Dublin. There’s this perception that has developed here where people think that you can’t use blends for filter coffee. And I find that really interesting. Why is that? The answers that people give are really interesting. Crazy answers. And it all came down to a price list.
Or take the Marco Über Boiler. So many people have them and don’t ever put a Chemex underneath it. And why is that? Some London guys visited our shop and saw us brewing right into a Chemex and thought it was so revolutionary. But that’s how it was designed! Everyone else uses kettles. I guess it started at Penny University, because they had four seats and they wanted to pour in front of people so they used kettles and then everyone started doing it. I mean you’re allowed to do it that way as well but it’s strange how these norms develop because that’s what we do “as an industry”.
I always say to the guys, “just because something is different than what we’re doing, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
So then, how does one “define what you do” – what does that mean?
Oh, that’s the difficulty. I don’t know. 3FE is supposed to be approachable. Whether it is or not, is up to other people. We’ve always tried to make it as approachable as possible. And to do coffee as, I suppose, differently than what people are used to. So, it might come down to just smaller cup sizes, or single estate offering, and just making it as good as it possibly can be all the time. It’s not perfect by any means. I don’t think it is anywhere. I’ve never been to the perfect coffee shop. We spend more time controlling, not how great it is, but the deviations. How bad does it get and how good does it get?
When you start roasting, what are your goals?
I actually have very few goals with roasting, in terms of it being an extension of Steve. He’s in charge of all that. And I don’t want to change that. I am comfortable with that. There’s a time I wanted to do everything. But have you tried the brownies at our cafe? The brownies are amazing. I have nothing to do with them.
People won’t thrive and develop unless you let them. They’ll come to you with panic on their faces and you have to say, “it’s your problem, deal with it.” It might be painful, but we give out a lot of responsibility. There’s only one way to get experience, and that’s to get experience. Delegation is a big part of what we do because I am not scalable. The competitions are great, but the shop runs day to day with just regular people coming in to get a cup of coffee.
I have very little to do with the shop. I haven’t been on the bar since December, which has been really difficult. I want to be, but it’s just not fair. I had to step off and take a phone call or send an email and I was letting people on the bar down. It was unmanageable. I decided then to just stop. Coffee is still very much my passion but I’m running a business now with other responsibilities. Now I can spend more time on the direction of the business.
Do you feel like you didn’t have time to focus on that before?
I did. I was just exhausted. I was working seven days a week and I was doing everything at 60%. And I found that it was very de-motivating to people when you don’t trust them to do things. It scares the hell out of them when you give them responsibilities. The big thing really, is just being trusting of other people’s mistakes. Like, I’ve made some really big mistakes, absolute clangers, which I’m not going to tell you about. I mean, stuff that would cost the business thousands of Euros. And then when someone else would make a mistake that would cost 50 Euros, I would hit the roof. That isn’t fair.
So for the roasting side, Steve Leighton and HasBean will still be sourcing all the green? Will there be some 3FE exclusive coffees in the future?
Yeah, he’ll still source all the green. And in time, we’ll probably have different coffees. We sell coffee differently to how he does. I mean, HasBean is predominantly online, and we definitely have a different market. It will be interesting to see how that goes. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how it will all go. It’s really exciting!
Did you see yourself here 5 years ago, before 3FE? Is this your dream of what a coffee shop in Dublin could look like?
Yeah, this is it! Don’t get me wrong; there are still things to fix. But yeah, this is my dream. This is what I want to do. What I’ve always wanted to do. It’s been a hard slog, been very difficult. I love my job and what I do. I get to travel for work, and now someone will meet me at the airport and show me around their city. That’s the way to see the world! It’s really rewarding. It’s a great industry and community to be apart of.
We always look back 6 months in the past and cringe, but I think that’s a healthy way to be. Always look forward to what an ideal coffee experience is, and work towards that. Sometimes it happens. But I don’t know if it’s really achievable.
It would be like being in a relationship with someone and deciding that you want to fall in love with them every single day. That’s unattainable! I think it would end pretty quickly. 90% of the customers who come here just want a nice coffee and they’ll come back. That’s what it’s about.
Coffee Common founder Sean Bonner covers 3FE for Boing Boing.
3FE cafe photos via Aaron Frey’s FRSHGRND.
Learn more about HasBean at their official website.