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FOOD FEATURE: Rod Landman visits the Sabins' roasting shed to sample their coffees

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: December 19, 2013

GOOD BEANS: Emma Sabin opening a sack of green beans.    Picture: Mike Southon. Ref:  BNMS20131210D-009_C

GOOD BEANS: Emma Sabin opening a sack of green beans. Picture: Mike Southon. Ref: BNMS20131210D-009_C

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On arrival at the Sabins' roasting shed I'm greeted by Emma with a cheery: "You put our coffee in a filter, didn't you?" She can't quite keep the contempt (or is it pity?) out of her voice.

A coffee confession. A month previously when I first met Emma she gave me a sample of their house brew. The following bleary Saturday morning I whipped a couple of spoonfuls into my trusty cone and let it drip. "Not bad," I thought, "but not great."

My wife was appalled, and for our next cup threw the switch on the Gaggia we were gifted for our wedding. I do not consider myself an aficionado, but the result was incomparably better. Village gossip meant that word of my coffee faux pas had got back to Emma. Not a good start to my tour.

But first a quick history lesson. Around 350 years ago Charles II, known as the Merry Monarch, attempted to ban the drinking of coffee. Nothing very merry about that. The king feared dissent spreading throughout the land, engendered by "the activities of intellectually stimulated men gathering at the coffee houses for political debate, discussions on philosophy and finance". Within days, public opinion encouraged Charles to withdraw his edict.

The baton, however, passed to the women of London who presented a petition that stated: "Never did Men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever . . . [this] we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE."

Given that Charles owned to fathering at least 12 different offspring via a succession of mistresses, I'm not sure he needed to be concerned about the fecundity of the nation. He seemed to be doing a good job as a one man baby boom.

Now my own child-rearing days are well behind me, so I had no reason to feel nervous as I joined Emma and Paul Sabin at their kitchen table outside Hersham. And I've always been a bit partial to a cup or two of heathenish liquor.

Paul and Emma, after a lifetime of involvement with coffee, are now importing, roasting, grinding, blending and marketing their own brands. The roasting machine takes pride of place in the garden shed and produces 30kg of roasted beans a day.

As I arrive Paul is at work on what he calls "the darkest roast I have ever attempted". It's a fine art. The beans he is using are Mexican. Just dark enough and they produce a superb flavour. But too dark and the beans are burned and unusable. These will be blended with beans from Papua New Guinea and the Dominican Republic. The world in a cup.

This brew has a smooth nuttiness with the Mexican beans contributing, as Emma says, "a dark, lingering, slightly bold background".

It is the best coffee I have ever tasted. Later, along with a very more-ish Devon apple cake, I am plied with their Ethiopian yigacheffe. A superb flavour with hints of toffee and banana.

We're all snobs about something aren't we? I don't think Emma would mind being called a coffee snob, despite being as down to earth as they come. The hour in her company convinces me that if you're going to be a snob about something, coffee should perhaps be it.

So serious and profound is the Sabins' approach to their coffee that filters, sugar and "coffee art" (the leaf motif on the top of your latte) are all verboten. Filters do not produce the pressure sufficient to extract all the flavour and caffeine. And they will only sell to cafés and hotels who will look after the coffee properly.

During Christmas markets they will be selling moka pots from their stall to encourage the best possible result for their customers.

Coffee drinkers with a conscience need have no fears about origin either. All the Sabins' coffee is grown by local co-operatives, and many of the farmers' names are known to Emma and Paul.

All the beans are Arabica and all bought in season. They aim to get the coffee from the roasting machine into your cup within two weeks. After that, they reckon, the flavour starts to diminish rapidly. With the big companies, selling through supermarkets, the beans have often been hanging around for months.

The Sabins' mission is to sell only locally, either directly or through trusted outlets, and at a price that is often cheaper than the supermarkets.

The coffee is now being sold through two cafés and a hotel in Bude, and the Sabins are on the lookout for more outlets. After Christmas they will be selling direct through their website. They will also be present at a number of Christmas farmers' markets, including Hartland on Sunday, December 22. For details of the market turn to pages 6 and 7.

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