Good Hands in Coffee: an Interview with Stuart Ritson

For many coffee pros, Stuart Ritson needs no introduction. The former chair of the Barista Guild has worn many hats in the coffee industry, including serving as Cafe Imports’ director of European Sales. In 2019 Ritson left that position to take some personal time and reevaluate his long-term goals. After that sabbatical, Ritson launch his own consulting company, a roasting project, and is working to amplify the voice of charities working at coffee origins.

We recently caught up with Ritson over Zoom to learn about his new projects and how taking some time off gave him a new perspective.

How did you get started in coffee?

I was in my last year of college and needed a job. I applied at all sorts of places and nothing stuck. I got an interview at a café and bakery that was re-opening. The new owner had a real focus on specialty coffee. I really fell in love with coffee and wanted to stick it out.

After that, I started with Monocle to run their café in London. It gave me a chance to be hands-on running something, but I didn’t stick that out too long.

I realized my skills are better behind the bar than on the bar, so I joined Workshop Coffee for 3 or so years. I was their wholesale manager and trainer. All sorts of stuff. It was a very formative time for me. By the end, I was cupping like a pro.

In 2019 I left Cafe Imports to take a personal break and work out what I really wanted to be doing. I now have a really broad portfolio of what I do. In essence, I source green coffee, I roast for another brand, and my own brand, Untitled Coffee.

Tell us about Good Hands in Coffee.

Coffee is something that impacts the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the world. Sadly coffee has a history of colonialism and exploitative business functions.

There’s a lot of charities and NGOs working to change the lives of farmers and pickers, but when I spoke to people, I never could find more than 2-3 examples of charities working in coffee. I found that hard to believe. I spent time researching this, trying to find as many charities and NGOs working in the coffee sector. I was able to find quite a few. It’s not exhaustive, but I’m working to increase it.

Good Hands in Coffee is a list of those charities. It makes it easier for someone whether they run a cafe or roastery to find a charity that’s working in a part of the industry that they want to be changing. Someone like Food for Farmers, who provides material relief for farmers between harvest times, when there’s often a lack of funds. Seasonal poverty is a reoccurring issue.

When I was a barista I told countless customers that paying more money for coffee help farmers. Is that even true?

It’s a really tough question a lot of people are wrestling with. In essence, paying more for a better product is not necessarily beneficial. With a higher quality product, there are almost always higher costs. In some cost analysis documents I’ve seen, it costs considerably more to produce micro-lots.

I now work with an importer called Osito. I feel confident we are supporting all the producers we can, and not just buying top microlots.

For all of the failures I could point out, I rather live in a world with specialty coffee than without, and I think most producers would agree. It provides new outlets.

You have a personal project called Untitled Coffee.

This is something I’ve dreamed about doing for a long time. I have a strong interest in art, contemporary art especially. And for years I’ve had these conversations like “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could put a picture on a coffee bag with no information, and the coffee bag sold itself?” Not to be cynical about packaging, but if you go into a wine shop or a beer shop you might see the packaging and say “cool, I’ll try this out.”

I obviously have a strong focus on coffee and the coffees I’m sourcing for this are really high quality.

For the first release, I used my own artwork. That was easy because I didn’t have to pay myself.

The goal is to work with artists to be able to use the project to support up-and-coming artists— young artists who are trying to make art a career. We get a limited run of bags so that it feels more like a print. The first releases were all 100 bags. This time we’re doing 200.

This latest release features an Icelandic artist, Sigurrós Eiðsdóttir.

Sigurrós is an old friend of mine. She used to live in London and I met her husband through coffee. We both moved to Berlin and have a strong interest in collage art. In the future, I’m sure we’ll work with artists who use all sorts of mediums.

What’s your approach to roasting?

Our roasts are all filter roasts, we’re not doing any espresso just yet. I don’t think there is one right roast. It’s a matter of interpretation. I want to get good sugars and good development. I much rather have a coffee that’s a little sweeter and maybe missing some acidity than a coffee with good acidity that tastes grassy or green. I think over the years the European marketplace has become full of roasters trying to roast as light as possible.

If anyone reading this is a roaster, I’m looking at end roast temps of 204-208 c. I’m roasting on a Probat 12. I don’t have my own facility. I really like the idea of people sharing resources. I’m taking up time on a roaster that would be dormant a couple of days a week.

Thank you Stuart for your time. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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