Drawn together: coffee filter cones

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: coffee filter cones

AJ Kinnell, Monmouth Coffee Company

We’ve been around for quite a while. The company was started by Anita Leroy in 1978, when she opened a shop on Monmouth Street, Covent Garden. Years later, in the mid-to-late nineties, the company was one of the first specialist retailers to arrive at the Market. You’ll find us on the corner of Park and Stoney Streets. 

I’ve been at the Monmouth Coffee Company for about 13 years, so have seen first-hand how things have evolved. My role is quality assurance, which means I look at every aspect of our operation, from before we even buy the beans, through to how we roast them and of course how we sell and serve our coffee.

Though we had a refit at the Borough Market site a few years ago, it looks and works pretty much the same as it always has done—a bean counter for retail at the front, the big communal table in the middle, the pastries at the back and so on. We used to have tables and chairs outside but that wouldn’t be possible now with the way the queue snakes round!

Fast moving queue
The service model has developed over time. That queue can be long, but it always moves pretty fast. Someone takes your order early on, so by the time you’ve moved past the rack of filter coffee cones towards the till, your drink is pretty much ready. At really busy times, we have a person taking orders in the queue, which again ensures the process is as efficient as it can be.

I think we serve in the region of 8,500 coffees a week. And on our busiest day we have up to 15 people taking orders, pouring filters, working the espresso machine and steaming and adding milk.

We serve both espresso based and filter coffees. Espresso coffees—things like flat whites, cappuccinos and lattes—are very popular now, but the filters perhaps reflect the origin of our business best.

Quick and clean
When Anita started in Covent Garden, the business was purely a coffee roastery and retail shop. There was, however, a sampling room upstairs, where people could taste the coffee and decide which variety they wanted. We made the coffee through a filter because it’s quick and clean, and after a while it just made sense for Anita to sell filter coffees too.

You can still taste a filter brew coffee before buying any beans. Or if you’re having a filter coffee to go, you’re also welcome to select which bean variety we make that coffee from. In effect, it’s how we’ve always done things.

Most of our systems have developed in a fairly organic way, and rather than an overly scientific rationale ours is based on “because we like it like that”. This includes the type of filter cones we use, and the way we like to drink our filter coffees. 

Squared-off base
You’ll see eight to 10 ceramic pouring cones racked up towards the front of the service counter. They’re based on a shape that Anita liked when she first began, and had a ceramicist friend recreate. After a while a colleague who was from Japan recognised the shape as being similar to one made near her home, and we’ve been importing cones from Japan ever since. They have a squared-off base, rather than the pointed tip that some brands have, so the papers that we use have to match that to fit.

For a long time the measurement of beans that we used for a serving of coffee was “a handful”. That roughly translated to 20-30g beans, depending how big the hand was. Around 15 years ago we made it a more formal 25g serving. Over the years we’ve tried everything from 14g through to 30g, but we keep coming back to that 25g amount.

The way we pour is perhaps a bit different to some of the modern cafés. We dampen the grinds briefly to wake them up, then pour one big concentric pour, let that sink down, and add another. There’ll still be water dripping through when we take the cup away, which means coffee is still being extracted, and it’s ultimately quite a punchy coffee, which is what we prefer. We’re not being contrary or trying to buck a new trend. It’s just how we like it.

We’re not precious about the method. Ultimately, I think that if people are buying beans to use at home they should use whatever quantity they want, or be as particular as they like about coffee weights, brew ratios, filter techniques and so on. It just so happens we enjoy a strong cup of coffee. Maybe if one was opening a roastery and café now, you’d put a lot of thought into this sort of stuff. But in the seventies it was probably more a question of getting the doors open and selling coffee. And things have evolved over time, based on our and our customers’ preferences. People seem to like it.