Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Michael Cleland and Nick Mabey of Assembly Coffee
“In big cities, it is easy to slip into routines and your life can become small. But in London, every day can take you to different areas where you discover a new space or a different part of the city that you thought you knew well but have never explored. Then it rejuvenates you and it feels like you are visiting the city for the first time again.”
Michael Cleland and Nick Mabey
Co-founders of Assembly Coffee
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
We are Michael and Nick, the Co-founders of Assembly Coffee, founded in the beginning of 2015 in London. Michael looks after the day-to-day Marketing and Nick is in charge of Product and Procurement, so all of the coffee sourcing and working together with the origin partners and farmers, as well as the ethical initiatives from our sourcing partners.
You both play a significant role behind Assembly Coffee and Volcano Coffee Works. What’s it like to work with two renowned coffee brands in the city?
Michael: The impetus that led to the manifestation of Assembly Coffee was based on the observation in the industry that there was a big disparity between the inherent value built into the specialty coffee model, both from a product and an ethical opportunity perspective, and the way it was being communicated to the end-consumer. In order to resolve that and do a better job at delivering on the potential of specialty coffees to consumers, cafes and roasters needed to have a closer working partnership to improve the way coffee is sourced, delivered and communicated.
What is it like to work at Assembly Coffee?
Michael: At Assembly Coffee, we are both excited to have the opportunity to improve the way coffee is sourced and served, as well as the opportunity to work with people like you and other businesses that truly care about the standards and ethics of delivering coffee to our consumers.
Nick: It is challenging but also very rewarding. We are in a unique position because we have a very diverse business model with Volcano Coffee Works that enables us to see multiple, juxtaposed audiences, which helps us find what is needed in terms of innovation in the industry. This is really the driving force behind our business. That said, inclusivity is also a big part of our company culture and people. From a coffee point of view, London’s coffee industry is still quite young and only now are businesses starting to take a different approach to focus on and really understand its customers’ needs and scale up.
Were you guys always coffee connoisseurs, perhaps even before starting your journey into the world of coffee?
Michael: Growing up in Australia, there was an abundance of coffee shops so it wasn’t uncommon to work at a cafe as your first job in high school or university. For me, being in the midst of all these incredible cafes, I was instantly drawn to the hospitality, the lifestyle that seemed quite European and exotic, and it was a chance to be around food and drinks. Then I started to work in cafes, and back then the only quality perspective was latte art. At a certain point, I finished university and started gaining work experience working in marketing and strategy planning. Naturally, I got into specialty and ethical coffee, exploring taste, origin, taste profile and diversity of the coffee and impact of the coffee taste. As I went deeper, I found out that by paying higher prices, you receive higher quality coffee and at the same time, it can redistribute value to farmers and the greater community. I became fascinated by it and so I decided to go full circle on this coffee journey by going abroad before going back to New Zealand. At the time, my thoughts were to stop by London before heading home to learn more about coffee in London as it was emerging as the frontier for coffee, being a leader in the market. My coffee journey has led me here today.
Nick: Mine began back when I was in university and I had friends working at one of the first roasting operations in New Zealand, which was an institution in the coffee scene back then. It was at a time when Wellington coffee culture in New Zealand was at its peak in terms of its position in the world at the time. I got into making coffee and relished the opportunity to be close to a roastery which was where it all began for me, but I wasn’t aware of the supply chain all that much. It was a different world back then and there were no brewing recipes and everything was sort of concealed. Then I moved to Australia and worked for another coffee company called Savinelli whilst trying to be a full-time musician. I was repeating that pattern when I moved to the US, then back to New Zealand and finally to London with the band, and then I fell into coffee with Volcano Coffee Works as a specialist, a sort of career shift for me. When I moved to London in 2012, I remember having a very different perspective on what it means to be a barista, as opposed to back home in New Zealand. In the UK, I took notice of the level of professionalism within the coffee industry, and that the standard doses and recipes have shifted immensely. Here in the UK, it is much more about the sourcing element and people here have a greater understanding and knowledge base of where the coffee comes from.
How do you think you fit into the term “Urban Explorer”?
Michael: For me, urban exploration implies a sense of discovery, a discovery of tangible man-made things to intangible elements of a city like the history and culture. I lived in Belgium for 6 months before moving to London. I was based in Brussels before that and on the surface, it seems like an industrial city, and may not be deemed interesting for a young kid like me back then. However, just before I left, I started discovering different parts of the city with so many different things happening inside of it, all at the same time. Based on my preference for routine, when you live in a big city, it is easy to slip into routines and your life can become small. But in London, every day can take you to different areas where you discover a new space or a different part of the city that you thought you knew well but have never explored. Then it rejuvenates you and it feels like you are visiting the city for the first time again. There are always places in the city that you know by name or have casually visited but then you go and spend some time there, and you instantly rediscover something great again.
Nick: I guess personally I feel like I could be categorized as an urban explorer based on my life experience. I have lived in 31 houses in 18 cities. The urban life is so fundamental to the evolution of civilisation. I am drawn to city life and New York was my big ambition. I lived there for some time in my twenties and I feel that New York is quite a frontier for urban exploration. I am very familiar with big cities and what they have to offer. Some people cannot really handle the fast pace of the big city and the intensity that comes with it, so even carving out a life for yourself in a bustling city is an achievement in itself. Fundamentally, it is about exploration. My philosophy has always been never to be afraid to put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
What does a day in the life of Michael and Nick look like prior to the current pandemic?
Michael: Prior to the pandemic, I would spend half the day going to meetings and the other half of the time locking myself in a room to get some laptop time. Prior to the pandemic, we were getting involved with suppliers during event season like London and Paris Coffee Festival. In the evenings, I would go out to restaurants, gym and live my normal life. Then the lockdown happened, and now I pretty much work from my living room. We had many things planned for this year such as the coffee competition, which would have been exciting and some community collaborations like coffee festivals and summer pop-ups in Soho, but the pandemic has really affected every element of our business, and the world for that matter.
Nick: My life was intense with traveling for the last few years where I was always between trips. But on a typical day, I would get into the roastery and be heavily involved in the management role in terms of managing the people and overall strategy, meanwhile looking into the next steps with our product. I spent lot of time with our staff trying to figure out how to instil ownership in our people to take the brand to the next level. On a practical level, I would be communicating the ethical dimensions of coffee and how utilise the relationship with our suppliers in the value chain.
London Coffee Scene
Do you notice any growing trends in the London coffee scene or perhaps even in the coffee industry in general?
M&N: In specialty coffee, broadly speaking, there is a lot going on in diversifying and exploring very new processing methodologies. But there is also the big question mark in terms of what climate change means to the feasibility of the existing producing place. I guess now if you speak to most exporters, people are starting to look at more long-term positions now and now that we are going back to regular buying patterns, we have definitely seen a spike in sales online. Some businesses have fundamentally grown on e-commerce so there will be a shift in how people look at managing large volumes of coffee. Also, having more transparency reports reveal something that has been lacking in our industry for a long time, bringing to light the standards for how to behave. Some big trends already on their way is the premiumisation of coffee that you can enjoy at home. Nowadays, more premium coffee products are becoming home accessible. With the current situation where most people are spending their time at home, the marketplace online has given consumers the opportunity to purchase and replicate the same coffee experience they would normally get at cafes in the comfort of their own home. It’s starting to untangle itself now and it is interesting to see how long these new behaviours will stick around for.
A cup of coffee depends on many factors, from the bean itself to the roasting technique and brewing process. Now in terms of roasting, can you walk us through the entire process of how it works?
M&N: There are 2 different supply chains – a more direct model and a more commercial model. Essentially, a majority of coffee is grown by a small number of producers that have a huge source of impact that can change people’s lives by very simple measures in terms of payment, transparency and understanding. Coffee beans are generally grown and harvested, a slow maturation rate with lots of sweetness coming from the soil. After harvesting, it is important to figure out how it will be processed, either by putting it straight into a pulper or a manual pulper to chew up all the flesh and the fruit of the cherry. Then, it goes into sorting to get rid of the unripe. After that, it goes into drying. In the phase of fermentation, you break down the bean with a 24-hour full washing cycle before it gets dried in the sun. After that process comes the milling, which depends on the size of the beans and what market is it going to. This process is extremely industrial and difficult. Then it goes to the market or straight to the supply chain. After that, the bean goes to the roastery where it gets roasted and packaged before it goes to the end-consumer. The whole process can take up to 6 months, from choosing the coffee to placing it in the catalogue.
What do you think makes the perfect cup of coffee? Can you share any tips with us when it comes to brewing a perfect cup of pour-over coffee?
M&N: One crucial factor that makes a perfect cup of pour-over coffee is the water composition. If it is too soft or too hard it can really change the overall taste of the coffee. Instead of using tap water, you could buy bottled water with different mineral compositions and calibrate it, so you can create a better cup of coffee. Aside from the water composition, a good coffee grinder can really affect the final outcome of your pour-over coffee. Using a good grinder is the next step up from not using one. You can use a Comandante coffee grinder or an AeroPress that is a gamechanger for making coffee.
Do you have a London influencer, artist, writer, photographer, notable person who you most admire?
Michael: In terms of coffee, Fabio Ferreira, the Co-founder of Notes Music and Coffee & Flatcap, really opened my eyes to coffee. He has such an enthusiasm for coffee drinking. Rob Dunne from DunneFrankowski, a firm that advises and manages the set-up of cafes and in London, was also someone who taught me everything about coffee.
Nick: In terms of London artists in the music scene, I really admire include David Bowie, who was an embodiment of London, especially in Brixton, as well as popular artists from the 1960s like The Kinks and The Beatles.
Now, more than ever, we are getting the travel itch. Where does your inspiration for travel come from?
Michael: For me, it is equal parts food and history. I go to Copenhagen purely for food, but ideally, I would love to go to place that has the best of both food and history.
Nick: I cannot avoid historical pilgrimages; I am just fascinated with history. My personal travel is pretty much rooted in geological sites so I really enjoy visiting places like Italy and some other Roman cities. In Guatemala, I was obsessed with ancient mines. I love something authentic.
What destinations are on your bucket list?
Michael: I would love to go visit Mauritius or anywhere in the Mediterranean like Greece after the pandemic is over.
Nick: Mine would either be St. Petersburg or Madagascar.
In a world where there is no pandemic, which area(s) in London would you recommend first-time visitors to explore?
Michael: You could come to London and not really get a sense of the size and significance of London itself. I agree with Nick about the West End, and you can get a sense of it around Bank where there is still the road structure and the circle leading up, and you can see the significance of the city and the power and influence it has. If you cruise across Tower Bridge and you look back on the shoreline on the north, you can see Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral. There, you are really seeing London. Brixton has that kind of suburban densely-populated area that I like. Even in Soho on a Friday night when all the restaurants are humming, you get a sense of how much activity and energy that exists in London.
Nick: I love the West End for the grandeur of the houses and Hyde Park, as well as old imperial London. I would also recommend East London. I miss the run-around in the London Stadium and I also like the Stratford area, especially around the river is amazing. During my first two years in London, I spent probably 5 nights a week in Soho and I love the atmosphere of it.
London is always bustling with excitement. When you want a bit of headspace, where do you go in the city to find your sweet escape?
Michael: The closest place to feeling like you are escaping London is probably Hampstead Heath.
Nick: I spend a lot of time in Hampstead Heath and I love biking around Richmond Park. I found myself in the vastness of Hyde Park, and it was absolutely beautiful. I am going to try to make it back there soon.
Being a London local, can you tell us 3 restaurants you think embody the city and really offer something different to the big-name restaurants?
Michael: I really want to visit Mãos at Blue Mountain School, a 16-seater dining space that serves a three-hour-long immersive tasting experience. I also really like Brawn on Columbia Road, a neighbourhood restaurant housed in a converted warehouse serving Mediterranean small plates.
Nick: Davies and Brook, an elegantly muted hotel dining room for high-end contemporary fine fare from New York Chef Daniel Humm, for a special occasion meal. I would also highly recommend Ombra in Hackney, a nice take on Venetian bacaro. It is a modern, canal side space for Venetian Cicchetti with mains, wines, spritz and cocktails.
Michael: For wines, I recommend Newcomer Wines (Dalston); for cocktails, I suggest Davies and Brook at Claridges; and for beer, I recommend Prospect of Whitby (Wapping).
Nick: For pints, I would recommend Duke of Edinburgh (no weekends though); for cocktails, I really like Tayer + Elementary; and for wine, I suggest Sager + Wilde Paradise Row.
Favourite shopping street?
Michael: I’m going to be lame and say Oxford Circus if you can count the adjoining streets and areas. I buy lots of perfumes so department stores are essential, plus you’ve got Mayfair and Covent Garden within walking distance for independent perfume shops, book shops, and all the clothing in Soho.
Nick: I just moved to Northcote Road Clapham and it is amazingly diverse. There are numerous cool antique shops, delis and book shops.
The best markets to explore?
Michael: In my opinion, you can’t beat Borough for an introduction to London. I would also recommend Maltby Street around the corner for the adjoining restaurants and the drinks options. Neil Market in Hackney has good coffee (Paradox), food (Bao’s original site), Ceramics, and books, you name it. Brixton Village is a good option if you want a weeknight destination.
Nick: You can’t go wrong with Borough Market, also Brixton Market is a favourite, but the best experience, if you’re up for it, is to get up really early at 4am and check out the carnage that is the Smithfield Meat Market. I did it once years ago with a friend who was on a photography assignment and I really enjoyed it.
Favourite place for a Saturday morning stroll?
Michael: I really like Victoria Park, and even along the Canal out to Hackney Wick and back if you are up for it.
Nick: Clapham Common early before all the Aussies come out
If there were 3 words you could use to describe London, what would it be?
Michael: Sprawling, Diverse, Significant
Nick: Diverse, Stimulating, Crowded