Back in 2009, Justin and Chanel Cornelius launched their 918 Coffee Company. The business has developed the world’s first eco-roasting technology, that uses coffee waste as fuel when roasting the beans
Alfred visited their Semley headquarters.
Stumbling upon the 918 Coffee Company is a pleasant surprise. Tucked away amongst the low-rise, interwar industrial units alongside Station Road, your nose might well guide you to the sweet, rich smells of coffee roasting. Their tasting area, where you can sip and stock up on your favourite blend, is a bit more Shoreditch than Semley – a small room with stools, walls decorated with lengths of untreated wood and trendy filament light bulbs.
“We’ve been accused of being very secretive, hidden away. It was not until we opened the doors to having a tasting room and an outlet that people said, “We didn’t realise you were here,” said the owner, Justin Cornelius.
He’s definitely someone you would describe as an entrepreneur. During his varied career, this trained civil engineer has designed and sold fishing lakes and planned children’s playgrounds in Sweden.
When he started this coffee venture, Justin wasn’t happy with his supplier, so he decided to do it himself. The business on Semley Business Park now employs fourteen full-time staff as well as part-timers. “We now have over 1,000 customers and we operate a roastery and warehouse,” said Justin.
It’s a deceptively large space. They need the room, as they have expanded rapidly, and have some well-known clients. “We roast for a number of different companies locally, nationally and internationally,” Justin explained. Sometimes those brands, which include Waitrose and The Eden Project, will use their own identity on the labelling. “The tell-tale sign on most of our stuff, if you look on the packaging, you’ll see Eco-roast. It’s the technology that we invented.”
I was keen to see how coffee roasting and recycling had come together through revolutionary technology. Mark Summerill took me on a tour of the roastery. Unusually, we started our tour discussing the leftovers from the coffee making process.
When I heard the company was recycling coffee grinds, I had expected a little brown mountain inside. “It’s outside, neatly stored in containers. A brown mountain is hard to move. The olive tins of coffee are easier for us to handle,” said Mark.
Tons of coffee waste goes to rubbish dumps, but Mark said it can accelerate the decomposition of other material. Those effects can be more damaging than CO2. “It’s a natural accelerant when it hits some landfill and creates quite a lot of methane. We like to collect it and divert it from going to landfill in the first place. We have lots of great customers who are collecting coffee in recycled olive tins that we get from one of our customers, then we take it back here and turn into biofuel,” he said.
We walked to the centre of the unit, where there was an interesting, slightly steam punk, Heath Robinson collection of interconnected gadgets. Lots of shiny piping and big cylinders rose toward the high ceiling of this warehouse. “You can’t go out and buy one of these,” said Mark, as he leaned on a contraption resembling a massive food mixer. “This is something that we’ve developed over the years here.”
Mark explained how it works. “It started life as a coffee roaster. A traditional coffee roaster would be heated with gas. You would just have an element underneath a drum and that would roast the coffee for a certain time. Instead of using gas, we’re using our spent coffee, which has been turned into pellets and we are burning through an odd-looking thing with pipes coming out of it. It looks somewhere between a steam engine and something that you’d expect from the back of a rocket.”
As the machine whirred into life, the noise of the beans going up into the hopper was deafening. The machine can take up 70kg of beans. The room was filled with a wonderful aroma. You could almost eat the air.
The company is also dealing with its other waste. At the corner of the large warehouse unit, coffee cups are compacted and packed together in large squares, like newspapers dropped off in the early hours outside the paper shop. “They go back to a reprocessing plant, shredded up and turned into other products. There are just a few recycling plants in the UK,” said Mark.
I had assumed that compostable cups were easily processed. “They are only compostable in an industrial composter. When you serve someone a drink, you have no idea where that paper cup is going to go. It’s just educating people to keep the cup and try and get it back to a place where it can be recycled,” said Mark.
And he would love coffee fans to carry their own cups. You can purchase reusable receptacles, but some people are resistant. “The biggest problem we found is people don’t want to carry a plastic cup around in their bag with iPods, iPhones, chargers and sunglasses. I think it’s something you have to look at. Have it ready for your barista to make a coffee into the next time you’re in a coffee shop,” he said.
I wanted to know about their coffee range. Mark said that some of the coffees supplied would be considered rather exotic. “We do have the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which is very expensive. It carries prestige. We’re big on coffees with back stories. We have coffee from the DR Congo – from a women’s collective. They decided that they have greater buying power when working together. It’s a great coffee from a part of the world that doesn’t normally make great coffee. We have another cooperative in Costa Rica. We’re sourcing from smaller micro farms and that’s something that we’re really proud of. You wouldn’t be able to get that on the high street,” said Mark
Coffee differs in taste according to its country or continent or origin. “You get some of our African coffees, with fruit flavours and maybe a cola acidity to them. We have got some coffees with hints of blueberry skins and wild strawberries. They’re very subtle. Those fruit flavours aren’t present in Central American coffees, which can be chocolaty, really cocoa-like with a bold mouth feel. If we want a multi-dimensional espresso, we pick coffee that is a bit spicy, and then pick something a bit sweet. We blend them together and get our perfect expresso blend.”
Mark tastes a lot of coffee. ‘We batch test everything that goes out the door and we’re constantly tweaking and tasting.” I joked that he must have last slept in 2016! “I have quite a high tolerance to caffeine,” said Mark.
I wanted to know how the company found these small producers. “We’ve been doing this for a while, and we’re well connected. We have people who are really passionate about scanning the horizon for new things. We’ve also developed a name for ourselves. It’s hard for the smaller people to approach a large coffee roastery because they have their dedicated places that they buy coffee from. We’re quite happy to be dynamic, a little bit more flexible, because of our size,” he said.
The company doesn’t send staff from Semley to travel the world, tasting and buying like a coffee-version of the ‘Man from Del Monte’. “We’re an eco-conscious company and air miles are precious to us. Our carbon offsetting would be wasted if we were just out on a plane, jet setting around,” he said.
I wanted Mark’s advice on the perfect brew. “Try your coffee black first – not too strong – and don’t have the water too hot. Dumping in vanilla syrup and stirring in full fat milk means you’re not going get the best from your coffee. We’re seeing a real trend towards people enjoying single origin coffees made by slow filtering. It’s like taking tea. It’s like a real ceremony. You have a kettle and a paper filter. Let the coffee filter for two to three minutes and enjoy a long black coffee and savour the flavours of what the coffee is producing,” Mark advised.
Shaftesbury’s water is hard and that’s not great for coffee. “We take filtering really seriously. All our coffee machines in the field have what looks like a small fire extinguisher. It’s filtering the water for nasty elements, like heavy metals, and removing chalk and unnecessary minerals that could scale the machine up. It cleans up the flavour of the coffee. You have got to have good water,” he said.
Before I left, I asked Julian to estimate the amount of coffee roasted in Semley. “We produce anywhere between 5 and 12 tons of coffee per month. That’s an awful lot of coffee beans,” he smiled.
Now the secret is out, it’s worth a visit to 918 Coffee Company. Their knowledgeable staff will quiz you about your taste preferences and help you find a roast that you’ll relish. And start as you mean to go on – take your own cup.