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Established in 1837 as The Grasshopper Tea Warehouse, our beautiful old shop is now the centrepiece of a thriving Independent Coffee sector. We are big believers in Relationship Coffee. Building strong sustainable links with our coffee growers and like-minded café owners, as well as coffee enthusiasts at home.

Welcome to Atkinsons - Our story began in the auspicious year of 1837 when a young Queen came to the throne of an empire on which the Sun never set...

HERITAGE & INNOVATION

It's a Rich Legacy:
180 years old and still young at heart. As we approach our bicentennial Atkinsons is sitting on a wealth of tea & coffee heritage, the like of which just can't be invented. It's in our brand DNA to take the long view, which means looking for sustainable relationships with suppliers and doing our part to be kinder to the environment, so that we can still be here tomorrow enjoying a coffee together…

When we took up the baton as Guardians of the Flame back 2005 we took our custodianship of this much-loved local institution very seriously and still feel this responsibility every day when we open our doors to the steady stream of customers old and new. The shop and Roastery were just about ticking over after a long period of continuous trading for 168 years. When the young Thomas Atkinson opened his Grasshopper Tea Warehouse in 1837 there were already 6 other Tea Merchants in the bustling west-facing port of Lancaster. Now there was only one. One last link to the city's distant, sometimes glorious, sometimes infamous maritime past, clinging on by its fingernails to the cliff edge of mercantile obscurity, an abyss littered with failed businesses, victims of unscrupulous dealings or commercial ineptitude and hope-filled start-ups that had succumbed to the ravages of changing trends, resulting in piles of obsolete products. Atkinsons stuck to its guns, no compromise of quality, through two world wars and regular recessions and depressions on the world markets. One market remained strong, a staple that was also an affordable luxury, the demand for a really good cup of tea or coffee and it was not just an everyday necessity but several times a day!

When we took over, there were just two part-time staff and a manager, who had been there for 50 years. Like a goldfish in a small pond the business had grown to a size limited by its habitat and occupants. But it was in danger of becoming fossilised. The charm of walking into a Dickensian time-warp was not lost on us. Indeed the very neglect that had taken hold became our greatest blessing. The previous owners very graciously left every artefact, every lock, stock and Jamaica Blue Mountain barrel for us to pick through. For the first couple of years we were still discovering various ephemera hidden away in nooks and crannies. It was like embarking on a project of Retail Archeology!

From this comfortable low plateau we were about to embark on a scarily steep North Easterly direction on the graph of Business Growth. We spent the first few years promising concerned regulars that nothing was going to change in their beloved Atkinsons, all the while making subtle improvements to the fabric of the place and buffing up its best assets, that they might be seen in a better light. Behind the scenes more dramatic progress was happening to the structure of the business. On the Wholesale front we were pushing back at the incursions into our territory made by competitors who had enjoyed a clear field for the past 20 years or so. Business, like Nature, abhors a vacuum and the one around us had been filled by an assortment of hungrier, more predatory outfits!

SOURCING & LEARNING

It's the longest Supply Chain:
400 Man-hours to produce a pound of beans. When we go to the source, we learn, we educate, we absorb the sensory ecosystem and translate it into the roasting experience back at home, the penultimate link in the chain.

We use this incredible statistic in our training, when we are impressing upon our Baristas what an incredibly precious thing the Speciality Coffee bean is. We aim to instil respect for the bean. Not to be wasteful. To remind them that the final send off, the last leg in the journey of this humble bean, that started so far away, is in their hands. It has passed through many other pairs of hands to get this point, all of whom took great care in its preparation - the hands that planted the seeds or pruned the sapling for its first two years to ensure a good yield in its third year - the hand-picked teams of hand-pickers that choose only the best cherries, to hand over to those grafting in the mills and raking parchment on the patios - the hands that type out the contracts in logistics. As a Roaster I get to spend about 15 minutes or so with the green beans turning them the right shade of brown. There is a familiar ritual that starts with delving hands into the sack of green beans and filling the senses with its verdant vegetal fragrance and imagining the lives of the farmers and pickers that we have met at origin.

ROASTING & BREWING

It's a Demanding Taskmaster:
10,000 hours of hard graft to acquire the artisan craft of roasting, of brewing, of pulling the God Shot. It's a passionate love affair that gets us up every morning to greet the day and pause for a moment.

This is another startling statistic that conveys the fact that nothing can replace the sheer weight of experience it takes to familiarise oneself with the vagaries of the different varieties of beans we handle. Looking back at some of the old coffee lists, it seems Atkinsons have always stocked a comprehensive roll call of the world's coffee. We have carried on this tradition but with an eye on the different harvests, that happen at different periods either side of the equator. So, we try to reflect the seasonality that ensures even our green beans are at their optimum freshness. Having spent so long standing in front of the roaster, bathed in the radiant, conductive and convective heat creating their alchemy within the drum, we have built up a memory bank of the various characteristics that need to be developed in each different variety of bean.
Nowadays, of course, we have a wealth of data recorded in the profiles stored in the Loring, the most advanced, eco-friendly roaster on the market but we still keep the Unos and the Whitmees going, as they are still the best to learn on. The assault on the senses is intensely visceral and gives the roaster a mighty whack in the solar plexus! It gives us a vital connection to the bean and we carry this inwardly digested information over to the stainless steel digital domain of the Loring, so despite basing each roast on a stored profile, when it comes to the crucial decision of when to stop, we stop screen-watching and engage manual override, based on the behaviour of the bean.

CUPPING & SERVING

It's a Scientific Conundrum:
With over 1,500 recorded flavour compounds it's the most complex beverage known to the human palate and we're not just imagining this or over-romanticising, it is based in the molecular structure of our coffee chemistry.

There is an elemental simplicity that creates this chemical complexity. Somehow, by just adding Fire, to dehydrate this green tropical seed and then diluting its grounds, in various ways, with Water, we produce a beverage made up of all kinds of Hydrocarbons, Alkaloids, Aldehydes, Ketones, Acids, Esters, Lactones, Phenols, Proteins, Furans, Lipids and Pyrazines to name just a few. This is partly due to the salami-slicing of the long chlorogenic acid chains that happens as the heat divides them into the shorter chains of volatile aromatics that we love so much in the enticing fragrance of our coffee. It must have been this alluring aroma, on a campfire in the Ethiopian Highlands, when Kaldi's village elders, in the apocryphal story of the birth of coffee, having chucked his beans into the fire and told him to get back to his flock of dancing goats, decided, "Hey, that smells great! We might have hit on something here..."
It is this sensory satisfaction that drives us on to keep working with all these different permutations to see what we can get out of our coffee. We keep exploring the influences of terroir, variety, process, roasting and brewing to see what we are going to discover next in this heady cocktail of chemical complexity. A lot of our coffees are grown in volcanic loam. So, while the plant was a living organism, it would have been drawing up enzymes and nutrients from the soil through its roots, which might explain why we might pick up traces of Phosphoric and Sulphuric Acid in the chemical analysis. Not a great selling point but the main lesson I learnt from Coffee Chemistry is that: "A lot of bad things come together to make something good."

WORKING & ENJOYING

It's a Family Affair:
10,000 tiny decisions made every day to move the business in the right direction, informed by one clear vision. A company culture where people enjoy coming to work and customers enjoy what we make.

In the early days of our tenure, when we were having resistance to every little change we tried to make, I felt the need to write a Company Culture document. I know this sounds very ‘Corporate’ but we’d reached a crisis point with our two members of staff and I needed to clear the air and set out how I wanted to create a better atmosphere. The slightly stuffy world of retail was a far cry from the relaxed individualism of the world of film and advertising that I had been used to for the last twenty years. Now, with 42 mouths to feed, the Company Culture document still gets given to every new member of staff along with their handbook. It’s only a sheet of A4 but I think most of the time we manage to run a happy ship. The best compliment anyone can pay our business is if they say we have great staff, who are so knowledgeable.

Most of the producers we buy from are small family firms too, of course many of the places we visit at origin are huge co-operatives, made up of thousands of small-holders but we always make time to visit a small family farm. In this great big coffee world, it gives us a sense of scale that we can relate to. It’s a world where 80% of the world’s coffee is controlled by just 5 mega corporations and on the flip side 80% of the world’s coffee is grown by small farmers with just an acre of land or less. Our notion of Relationship Coffee is very real when we have met the families involved in its production, no matter how far away they are.


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