Food & Drink Thursday, January 7th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: James Gourmet Coffee

Just add water: the man who searched the world for the perfect coffee bean

Food & Drink Thursday, January 7th

Just add water: the man who searched the world for the perfect coffee bean

If modern-day coffee culture has been overrun by the hipster-barista, Peter James is about as far from the twirled moustaches of Shoreditch High Street as you can get.

“I don’t like to go east generally. Going eastwards means more traffic, more time. Why would you?’” said the Ross-on-Wye roaster extraordinaire.

He drives a Land Rover, drinks filter coffee (“It’s just coffee and water”) and tries to stay out of the echo chamber that is the speciality coffee community.

“We source on taste and on provenance, in that order.

“There’s a few cheap, new importers who call themselves speciality but just supply the same 10 or 20 coffees to a lot of independents. They are independents, but they’ve got the same coffee as everyone else.

“They put a new name on the bag. I like to buy coffees other people don’t have.

“That’s why I don’t want to listen to what other people are doing.

“I like nearly everyone in the coffee world. But I can get frustrated with people that think they have discovered something, when in fact it’s been discovered a long time ago.”



 A father-of two, he was there at the birth of the Fairtrade movement. He has worked under armed guard in Central America, trying to find rare beans and remote farms unknown to the UK market.

And he has watched the rise and rise of the UK coffee scene, from Starbucks to Nespresso.

It is a scene that has seen coffee overtake that most great of British institutions, the cup of tea.

Late to the game, Britain has fallen in love with the coffee bean and fallen hard.  Now Londoners routinely pay almost double for their cappuccinos than their continental cousins, and around twice what they would have paid just ten years ago, when Mr James’ rare French mission coffee from Kenya was winning World Barista Championships in the grinders of James Hoffman and Annette Moldvaer.

There are unavoidable realities in the coffee trade. Most of the beans are grown in developing countries where farmers live in poverty or extreme poverty - oftentimes unescapable - and most of the coffee is drunk in the West.

But with the paper cups now costing more than the coffee sold in them, Mr James believes more can be done by an industry he describes as ‘biking’ on the work of those poor farmers.

He said: “For many years I was afraid to make a profit out of what we do. I thought that, if you look at the cost of what growing is, it seems wrong that we’re making a profit too.

“People look at you in a certain, dirty way. That you’re a capitalist.

“It’s changed so fast in so many ways.

“There are some people who have got really rich through growing coffee. And good for them.

“Someone said to me – ‘Why should I feel guilty if my coffee farmer’s driving a bigger, better car from me, and he’s got six houses?’ But they haven’t all, have they? That is just one particular case.

“I think when you bike off it, you have to try and do it as a socialist.

“That might not necessarily be my political background but I think you have to be socially aware when you buy things from other countries.

“This isn’t the Empire any more, and even if it was it wouldn’t be a healthy way to treat the rest of the world.

“So the aim for what we do is that it is sustainable model the whole way through - from bean to cup.”


One of the machines at work at James Gourmet Coffee HQ in Ross-on-Wye.

Starting as a one-man packing operation working out of a 40 square-metre shed on the family farm in 1999, James Gourmet Coffee is now renowned for sourcing unique and powerful flavours from across the globe.

The boss, however, has a soft spot for Guatemala, where the company buys hundreds of bags from.

Despite his affinity for the wonders of the South American bean, and countless trips across the ocean, Mr James admits to on occasion looking like the “stupid Brit abroad”, having yet to master the local tongue.

“My Spanish is useless,” he said. “I married a Dane and she made me promise to learn Danish before I learnt Spanish. And Danish is a hard language.”

However the language barrier has yet to get in the way of James Gourmet Coffee discovering new farms and mills, and with them new flavours.

Mr James doesn’t speak Swahili either, but that didn’t stop him sourcing the rare blackcurrant-flavoured coffee Gethumbwini from Kenya, that would later become fantastically famous.

Relationships differ from country to country. In Brazil, by law you must go through a bank to trade, but in Guatemala he works with a young woman whose father owns a mill.

This collaboration allows the company to “pre-fund” small-scale farmers during the harvest, meaning those farmers can get paid a fair price for their harvest ahead of one their busiest seasons.

“Guatemala is one of our big suppliers, and we buy from the same farms year after year, as long as the quality is still there. We have some amazing ones from there.

“I don’t know what I’d do for coffee if I didn’t love it quite so much.

“But when you deal with micro-plantations like Pelicano - where I think we've made a huge difference - you just hope it’s going to be the same as last year. No two crops are the same, and no two days are the same.

 “We had another sample through in December, and thought ‘Wow, that’s good’.

“But the Coutini family who grew it were a bit short of money, so we paid up them up front. The family will have the money to see them through the harvest and we will get the coffee sometime in January.

"It's better than paying cash at the gate to the first dealer in a pickup truck.

“Everybody’s happy, everybody wins.”

 The process of finding great new flavours, hasn’t always been quite so straightforward.

“I remember going to Nicaragua in the early-2000s and having armed guards at the door,” Mr James said.

“But it wasn’t actually that much fun. You’re on an air-conditioned bus in relative luxury, and outside there's families of four, five, six, no shoes, in sweltering heat.

“It is really, really healthy to see that though. To be in touch with the reality of where you are, in both worlds.”

If the coffee trade has often asked the question on how to close the gap between those two worlds, for Mr James, Fairtrade isn’t the answer.

He was at the first meeting for Café Direct, and years later was asked by George Alagiah in his role as the patron of Fairtrade to consider moving to London to develop a better quality model.

He told him that he didn’t much like London, and Mr Alagiah never got back in touch about the offer.

The problem with Fairtrade for Mr James is that it was never about quality.

In essence, producers were never paid more money for caring more or producing better coffee. 

“The driver gets paid more, and something goes to the school, but it’s not necessarily about the coffee,” he said.

“Fairtrade coffee was always cheap, and a farmer who has a good harvest may end up getting three times less than his neighbour, who sold his at the market rate.

"Provenance is lost. And however good or bad an individual farmers produce is, it is also lost and becomes part of what a co-operative is selling.

"This is a great mechanism for big corporate business and consumers with little imagination. For them it's a a box ticked - 'It's all the same and just tastes of coffee'."


Britain’s coffee industry has lurched forward since then. In his compact packing days in the late-90s, most of the delis and whole foods stores he would supply had a handful of varieties, “different shades of brown, from a different country if you were lucky.”

On the high street now, even in Herefordshire, you can’t turn a corner without running into a big coffee chain.

While the independent and speciality markets have grown with the mainstream, most of the big players source primarily on cost.

The surprise package is Starbucks.

“They might be the shocker,” said Mr James. “Because they roast everything super-dark you can’t tell where it’s from, but their sourcing is more grown-up than most of the rest of the chains put together.”

Working mainly in Herefordshire and the south-west, JGC supply almost-exclusively to independents.

“Sometimes we supply to chains. It happens, but that turns us into a factory, and that’s not fun. I’m not driven by how much we can roast,” Mr James said.

The same edict should perhaps be reinterpreted by any prospective café owner looking to establish themselves in Herefordshire’s own coffee culture, where James Gourmet Coffee already supplies more than a dozen locations.

The familiarity developed over years of roasting and tasting harvest after harvest, means Mr James can acknowledge and embrace the subtleties of a changing Colombian crop. And have the patience to know when it’s right.

If you expect that level of integrity to get as far as the cup, you better know what you’re doing.

He said: “Consistency is what we all yearn for, and it’s something you only get with experience. Lots of experience.

“It’s not as simple as just turning on a coffee machine and you’re an expert.

“What’s my perception of the café culture in Hereford? My perception is that number of people will be disappointed.

“You can spend £7,000 on a machine or you can spend £500 – it doesn’t matter.

“To a degree, I say shooting myself in the foot, it doesn’t matter about the ingredients either. There are so many other things that are important.

“Hereford isn’t huge. I think there will be a critical mass and there will be casualties.”

So for a man that admires the simplicity of drinking filter coffee, what’s his take on the Pod Revolution currently taking over the kitchens and office-kitchens of espresso-lovers across the UK?

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, he is not a fan. Although he concedes that the coffee-pod machines popularised by brands like Nespresso, may one day get to a point where they can provide high-quality espresso coffee in 60 seconds or less.

“Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood is one of the best baristas in the world, he has two very successful places in Bath and he’s just written a book. He’s disgustingly young and doing very well for himself. And he’s now working on pods. A lot of people in specialty coffee are now working on pods.

“I can see that overall it’s probably great for coffee. But I’m not touching them with a bargepole.

“The packaging is half the weight of the product, and for me that’s wrong.

“Also, coffee is 3-3,500 particles per bean. If it’s not held in a zero-oxygen atmosphere, once ground it’s going to deteriorate and just become useless.

“Science may get them there. But I’m going to do without them. For me it’s not the future.”

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