We interview North Tea Power’s Wayne Lew

You go to large coffee chains for exactly the same reason you go to fast food restaurants: you know what you’re getting. They’re cheap, fast and above all they’re consistent. But if, for a similar price, you could get consistent excellence rather than mediocrity, it would be a no-brainer, right? In steps North Tea Power, winner of 2012’s “best coffee shop” at The Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards. We paid a visit to see what all the fuss is about…

Image by Sam Ryley

Arriving on a Saturday afternoon the shop is teeming with activity. The queue is almost out of the door as the regular residents and commuters are joined by their weekend counterparts to savour the aroma of fresh bread, wax jackets and ground coffee. But no matter how much demand is placed on the unflappable baristas by the unending traffic, there is never any question of this becoming a production line. When my flat white is served in the open air seating of the Smithfield Building arcade it has been afforded all the precision and care the house blend – Deerhunter – deserves. The milk is sweet and light and the espresso shines through with a rich, rounded glow. For dessert the black coffee is smoky with a caramel zest. These are not your average coffees. Owner Wayne kindly takes the time to explain the principles behind North Tea Power’s success:

Why is it impossible to replicate artisan coffee “at home”?
Equipment and materials are the main factors. Commercial equipment weighs a ton, must be plumbed in, filtered and costs a lot. In a busy shop, we can ensure the freshest beans, ground on demand, and milk sourced direct from the dairy daily. Finally there is the skill and natural ability of the barista to dial in the grind, the dose – basically to set all of the factors involved in making a perfect shot. This knowledge takes time to learn. The key to success is to a large extent a matter of practicing specific tasks involved in making coffee over and over. Wayne, Jane and one or two of our baristas have all probably achieved, individually, well over ten thousand hours of artisan coffee production. This makes them baristas. What can be replicated at home is the simple science of the brewed by hand filter coffee. With the right equipment, good fresh coffee (roasted within four weeks and ground on demand) and correct temperature water, anyone can make a coffee like we do in North Tea Power.

Specifically in terms of the coffee and its preparation, what sets an independent speciality coffee house apart from, say, Nero or Costa?
All of the above. Clearly we are more interested in making the most perfect drink than making any money! Also, we like what we do and this shows, we take the time to chat – we don’t treat customers like cattle as that is not how we would like to work and we don’t treat our coffee like cash – “how can we make it cheaper?” – we are into craft brewing!

Are there coffee “trends” and do you feel you need to keep up with them or assert your own identity?

We assert our own identity – if we want to introduce a new drink, question sizing, milk temperature, shot size, new preparation methods, we will do so and make our mistakes in public. We don’t feel that we are “keeping up” with trends as we are already engaged in that dialogue – it is what we think about every day!

Which of your coffees are you most proud?
We are very proud of making espresso as it is the technical basis. It is the benchmark by which all coffee shops should be judged, as milk can mask irregularities in a bad shot and latte art can sometimes detract from the fact that the drink is badly prepared. We are also proud of our little flat whites and our cortado. These drinks require a little bit of perfectly textured milk and are finished with the barista signature, a little rosetta or tulip. Finally , we are also highly proud of our “Brewed-By-Hand” filters – Aeropress, V60’s, Syphon coffees – these are single origin black coffees prepared by hand and by the cup, all components being judged by the barista and without the aid of equipment; just a filter, some coffee, hot water and a digital temperature probe, scales and timers! These coffees all show the technical ability of the barista in a highly visual way, but we are also at pains to make sure that they taste good. This is our primary goal – that we have done justice to the farm, the country of origin and the roaster and made a coffee that they would recognise as being a good representation.

North Tea Power is open Monday to Friday 8-7, Saturday 10-7 and Sunday 11-6 at 36 Tib Street, Manchester. Our wager is once you’ve tasted the difference you’ll never go back to a chain again.

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