After two and a half years of planning, St ALi UK opened its doors in Clerkenwell on Saturday, with London-based Melburnian Tim Williams (aka Tim Styles) at the helm as Director of Coffee.
Tim, who left London’s Square Mile Coffee Roasters to join St ALi’s Clerkenwell Road cafe, is returning to the St Ali fold after a seven-year hiatus. But this is not where Tim began his coffee career, he has quite an impressive resume of globe-trotting, having started out at Ray cafe in Brunswick, before a stint at St ALi in Melbourne. He then moved to London and began working at Flat White, and went on to Intelligentsia in the US before returning to London to work at Square Mile, which has led the coffee industry in the UK. Now he’s returned to familiar territory at St ALi UK, where owner of the St Ali Group Salvatore Malatesta sings his praises. “He’s a superstar. He must have a soft spot for us.”
St Ali Melbourne chef Ben Cooper (Nobu London, Longrain) will spend three months in the St Ali UK kitchen, but Salvatore expects the London menu to evolve organically, driven by different produce and trends.
St Ali UK will be roasting its own coffee in the gleaming centrepiece roaster on show in the cafe. Salvatore bought 58 tonnes of green beans on a recent trip to Central America and one third of this bounty is destined for London, while the other two thirds will be roasted in Melbourne.
The specialty coffee scene in London is blossoming and it’s not surprising to see the entrepreneurial Malatesta in the mix. He bought the flagship St ALi store in 2008, and speaking from Luxembourg Gardens in Paris (where the pastries are lovely but the coffee rubbish), Salvatore says he’d like to one day open stores in Oslo and New York.
So if you’re in London anytime soon, here’s the address:
St ALi London
27 Clerkenwell Road, London
We had to chat to Tim Styles about coffee culture in London and where it’s going:
Broadsheet: Can you tell us about St ALi London and how it’s different from what's currently available there?
Tim Styles: With regard to coffee service, London has really come an incredibly long way in a few short years. With ST ALi we're looking to make sure the progress that's been made continues, and in truth that takes some substantial effort and resources. We want to challenge, develop and support our roasters, baristas and floor staff, and make sure there are avenues open for them to progress and grow with the organisation, as well as ways for them to operate as and to get paid as true professionals of their craft.
Alongside that, by setting up a roasting operation in our store, we also hope to trigger a higher instance of conversation about the process that occurs before a customer comes through the door and orders a drink. We want people to begin to think more about the agricultural significance of what they're drinking, and to understand a little more about the hard work that goes into every stage of the process from seed to cup.
Finally, the food aspect of ST ALi is a restaurant in its own right.
Are you guys doing any wholesale yet?
No wholesale, yet. We're looking at getting our own operations running well and focusing on getting the coffee to exactly where we want it. When we do roll out wholesale, we want to ensure that we're able to take care of and support our customers as well as possible, and that means getting the foundations established properly.
Do you think the London market is better educated than it was a few years back, when cafes like Flat White started opening up? Is it anywhere near mainstream yet?
The London coffee consumer continues to impress me – the standard continues to rise with each new opening. The wonderful thing about being a coffee operator in London is that we're not carrying a lot of baggage or legacy into how things are done. We don't have an entrenched history of coffee traditions, so in some regards we have a relatively clean slate on which to make our mark. There's a certain level of freedom still possible in London coffee retail that is tougher to implement in other parts of the world, and that's a great thing.
Consuming coffee as a part of a daily ritual is as mainstream in London as it is anywhere in the developed world; getting people to think more deeply about what they're drinking and why is still the greatest challenge for us, as it is for specialty coffee companies the world over.
Is there a strong educational component with St ALi London? How do you hope to engage people who aren't familiar with specialty coffee?
To be honest, we're aiming to engage with our retail customers on whatever level they choose to be engaged on. What we hope to encourage and develop in our baristas is an understanding that not everyone wants to discuss processing techniques at 7am – and that's OK.
There's very little confusing the fact that we're a coffee-focused organisation here: there's a roaster in the front window, an espresso machine front-and-centre on a beautiful bar, and another roaster looming in the back of the store. For the customers that are interested, and want to hear about what we're doing on that front, we're delighted to engage; for the guy who just wants a cappuccino to talk about how Arsenal got robbed in extra time the other night, [that’s okay too].
That being said, in the store that's been built we do have a wonderful resource for sharing what excites us about coffee in a number of different ways. From a production and tasting perspective, we have a lovely cupping lab area in the back of the store that will also soon be fitted out with a single group Synesso.
From there we plan to do some Saturday and Sunday morning espresso training sessions for the passionate home barista. We also plan to host public cuppings and tastings on a regular basis and, carrying on from some of the work that's been done in Melbourne, and in conjunction with the kitchen team here, really start to look into the culinary aspects of coffee.
It all sounds very exciting – a big step for coffee culture in London.
What's going on here is really exciting. Despite a wealth of experience in the organisation, we're really starting from the start here. It means there's an incredible amount of work to do, which is very humbling and filled with potential.