Alex Kragiopoulos, co-founder of North Star, Leeds’ first speciality coffee roaster, speaks to JLife’s James Wilson about his mission to bring quality, sustainable coffee to the North.
Hi Alex, could you tell us a bit about your North Leeds roots?
I grew up in Roundhay before attending university in Newcastle where I first met my business partner and now wife, Holly, from Harrogate. We’ve been so happy to have pursued a career back in Leeds and now live in Oakwood alongside many of our friends who we’ve known since school days!
How did your love of speciality coffee come about?
Really it was Holly who introduced me to coffee. She insisted I went out to Kenya with her as she conducted research into Fairtrade for her final year dissertation. We were incredibly fortunate to spend a few weeks among rural smallholder farming communities exploring how their lives had changed from working with Fairtrade. This was such an eye opening experience for both of us and we came back absolutely hooked on quality coffee.
When did this passion transition to an idea to start a business?
All we really wanted was to get a consistently good cup of coffee in our hometown and felt a personal responsibility to make that happen! At that point there were around 60 specialty roasteries in London, 10 in Bristol, five or six in Edinburgh but none in Leeds!
We started to think about perhaps doing it ourselves but this idea didn’t really come to anything until Holly got a job with a coffee importer in Harrogate. This gave us the skills to be able to taste, buy, roast and blend coffee and an amazing insight into the UK coffee industry.
How did you go about setting up?
We started to hunt for second hand coffee roasters and viewed a lot of industrial units to find a base for ourselves. Luckily, we came across a retired guy in Wales who had purchased a five kilo machine so he could roast coffee for himself as a hobby. He had quickly realised that by doing just one batch he was ending up with enough coffee to last him a year!
So we managed to bring back his machine to Leeds where we named her Roxanne (thanks to her red colouring) and installed her in a unit in Meanwood. We had six months where I was essentially locked away learning how to roast. Holly would then taste samples and give feedback and from there, we finally managed to get the coffee to a point that we felt confident it was singing in the cup.
Could you tell us about the efforts behind the recent explosion of North Star coffee?
I took samples into nearly every coffee venue I could think of, we hosted public tasting events, we took over supply for free in many outlets just to spread the word. Thankfully, the coffee did most of the talking! Our base in Meanwood had been perfect for us and there was a really lovely community down there, but we started to struggle with space.
Leeds Dock approached us in early 2016 to see if we might be interested in relocating to a site that would give us more of a shop window. We went to view the space and found it to have the perfect room for teaching that would allow us to run industry recognised qualifications for coffee professionals from across the UK.
The retail space was never in our plan but that sort of followed in July 2017 so we now have the perfect opportunity to show customers everything that goes into the coffee supply chain before it gets into their cup.
How have your brand values made your coffee stand out in a competitive marketplace?
Quality and ethics are the two values that underpin everything we do, dictating which opportunities are right for us and which ones are not. We will never compromise the quality of the coffee we roast nor the manner in which we purchase the coffee and work with our producers. We really think these values come across in our retail space where we try and communicate the stories behind the coffee to everyone that comes through the door. Social media has also really helped us reach our customers and build a brand recognised for the principles that define us.
What are your plans for North Star moving forward?
Our focus over the next couple of years is to put some investment back into some of the key producer relationships we have in the form of quality improvement initiatives at farm level or into community projects that really will make such a difference to the lives of people living in areas that are often very isolated and environmentally and politically volatile. Quality is the answer and we all need to get on board with the concept that we must pay a little more for our coffee if we want to be truly ethical in our purchasing decisions and guarantee the supply of that coffee in years to come. If we can continue our mission and convert more people to ethically sourced, freshly roasted, specialty grade coffee then we will be happy!
You don’t need any fancy machinery to brew great coffee at home. North Star is a huge fan of the simple cafetiere. The trick is to ensure you weigh the right amount of coffee to water and keep an eye on the timer. North Star recommend starting out with its single origin Brazil Fazenda Rainha da Paz or house blend Dark Arches, available locally from Lidgett Lane Larder. You can buy it pre-ground, but nothing beats grinding it fresh yourself!
Here’s North Star’s step-by-step guide to making the perfect coffee for one using just a cafetiere and some scales:
- Weigh 15g coffee. If you have a grinder, grind the beans fairly coarse. If buying pre-ground, ensure it’s been ground for cafetiere.
- Rinse the cafetiere in boiling water, place on the kitchen scales and press tare.
- Add the coffee and pour over water, just off the boil, until the scale hits 250g.
- Stir the slurry, insert the plunger until it rests on the surface and set a timer for 4 minutes.
- When the timer goes off, plunge slowly and enjoy!