Full of beans
A Second World War shelter in the grounds of Tate Britain has been transformed into a roastery, which produces more than a million cups of ethically sourced coffee every year
During the Second World War, the ever-looming threat of the Luftwaffe and wailing of sirens must have elicited every last drop of British bulldog spirit from staff and patients alike within the draughty confines of the Nissen Hut shelter at Westminster Hospital.
When two bombs hit in 1940 and a landmine exploded nearby in 1941, still the hospital continued to function, exemplifying the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ approach so requisite during the country’s darkest hours.
In post-war years changes came thick and fast: the NHS was born, the hospital joined forces with and moved to Chelsea, and old buildings changed use with one former site reborn as the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre after fire gutted the original building in 1950.
The Millbank buildings now provide catering and admin premises for Tate Britain, where staff now chow down in the canteen in the former chapel.
So, understandably, when the war ended, few could have envisaged that the corrugated tin Nissen Hut would still be standing nearly 80 years later.
And given that the closest most people came to a whiff of coffee during wartime was a mug of ‘Camp’ chicory extract with maybe a meagre pinch of rationed sugar, fewer still could have imagined the hut’s recent metamorphosis into a coffee roastery.
Now a recognised quality product (a former coffee of the month in industry magazine Caffeine) coffee at Tate is literally going from strength to strength, with every bean now sourced and roasted in-house.
With grader and guru Tom Haigh at the helm, the innovation at the roastery has been on the rise in every positive way imaginable.
Grateful for the positive encouragement from Tate, Tom has been able to establish the gender equality project. Coffee beans are now sourced from 75 per cent female suppliers, a huge stride forward from the 100 per cent male domination previously.
“I wanted to bring more of the Tate’s vision and ethical stance on inclusivity into the sourcing side of things, so that’s when we came up with the gender equality project,” says Tom.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to research and investigate for a long time, and it felt like Tate was the perfect platform for that.
“Initially I started travelling a little bit, I went to Brazil and Columbia last year to look into traditional cultural gender roles over origin, and started working with some female producers in Brazil and we developed a family producer community lot in Columbia, because Columbians are very family focused.
“We’ve tried to tell the story through our coffee and represent gender on an equal level.
“Then recently we’ve been to Guatemala and Honduras as well and we’ve been engaging with more female producers. It’s really taken off.”
But this innovative and inclusive approach doesn’t stop there. With around a million cups of Tate coffee now sold per annum across site (a figure that is on the up, as is the 200% increase in packaged coffee sales after Tom changed the packaging and made it available across site) you would think that the roastery had its work cut out. It does, but in fact only two days a week are spent roasting coffee for Tate.
For the remaining three days Tate is doing what other roasteries would find unthinkable: they run slot roasting days, whereby coffee shops in London can use the roastery and share in the equipment and knowledge. And they are keen for more coffee businesses to join the inclusivity:
“The roastery is non profit. I run it as a business and all of the profits that we make are donated back into the arts. As long as we make our budget and forecast we try and donate as much back into the industry as possible. Many roasters won’t be as open with their equipment and their roasting secrets but we try and be as accessible as possible in the industry,” says Tom.
“When I started travelling and met the people behind the production there was a bit of a realisation – I guess you understand how many hands the product has been through before its even arrived into the roastery. It’s so inspiring.
“I come back from each trip feeling more honoured to be doing what I’m doing but it also puts more respect into the product for us, we treat every roast that we do with as much respect as possible because we know how many years, hours and days have gone into growing each bean so it really puts things in perspective. There’s a lot of science behind roasting and brewing the coffee but we can’t add any quality with that science, we can just maintain that quality”
“It’s a very complex industry but it’s quite simple in a sense. Coffee transcends cultures, it has such a deep-seated history and it has formed the livelihoods of millions of people. Coffee is not just a cup of coffee, I feel it’s more something that brings people together. That’s why we love it so much, every cup tells a story.”