READS COFFEE ROASTERS
Eliza Adams, Features Writer. Glen Cheyne, Editor.
Writing about a rural coffee roasting business could easily slip into a Dorsety-Worsety tome of work-life balance and the artisan dream. It could be a perambulation into the craft of coffee roasting or a how-to guide designed to educate you in the fine art of brewing.
In this, our inaugural feature, we’re setting out our stall by tugging at the threads others leave untugged. This, dear reader, is a love story. A visit to Reads Coffee Roasters, where I am to meet founders Giles and Charlotte Dick-Read, takes me to the western edge of Sherborne and to a beautiful old house presiding over Limekiln Farm. Horses stand ready in ramshackle stables, the organic dairy herd watch from a distance and Badger the (black and white) cat welcomes you in. Behind the front door, requiring a hefty shove, are the Dick-Reads, a family going about their day in the way that families do. A house full of teenagers, dogs and all that goes with it appears somehow, to flow effortlessly alongside the demands and distractions of running a business.
I am quick to assume that this scene had been carefully stage managed for my benefit but after only a short time in Giles and Charlotte’s company I come to realise that family is clearly their first priority. The organic growth of their coffee roasting business seems to have happened without contrivance or calculation. It is motivated by the simple desire to be together as a family. From this foundation Giles and Charlotte have shaped their careers around a common interest and one that enabled them to build a business from home. Having known each other since childhood, Giles and Charlotte balance each other professionally and personally. The friendship of their youth eventually blossomed into romance just as Giles, weary of London, decided to fly to Vancouver for a year of self-discovery. After leaving his Canada base to tour the west coast, Giles found himself working at the centre of the coffee culture explosion. It was 1993, coffee shops were appearing on every corner and Starbucks were having a ball, opening an average of two new shops every day. Back in London meanwhile, Charlotte, working with Café Rouge, was contending with life in the coffee dark ages. Weekly transatlantic telephone conversations inevitably turned to the topic of coffee with Charlotte, relaying news of suppliers and roasters. The stateside thirst for speciality coffee was yet to be echoed here and the UK industry was lagging behind the couple’s shared knowledge and enthusiasm. Having immersed himself in the science, philosophy and business of coffee, Giles returned to London and promptly established himself as Pret A Manger’s first “Coffee Guy”. He trained their baristas and introduced systems that would contribute significantly to the company’s success. Giles and Charlotte married, and settled for some years at a cottage in Oxfordshire. With space on a nearby farm available to him, Giles bought his first roasting machine - a beautiful, shining red Ambex 15 kilo that he strokes affectionately while recollecting his early experimentations. Back then, for Giles, roasting coffee beans was a hobby, something to fit in around his day job. This unassuming workhorse of a machine however enabled them to explore the viability of roasting professionally and has remained their sole roaster until only very recently.
A growing family then gave purpose to the couple’s relocation to Sherborne. Here they would be close to both sets of parents and embrace a slower pace of life. By now established as something of an industry expert, Giles was often called upon to train baristas across the UK and advise companies on the implementation and use of technologies.
Giles and Charlotte’s parallel paths through the coffee industry, a shared interest and common value has somewhat inevitably culminated in them running a thriving coffee roasting company of their own. Far from the clattering coffee house energy of London and California where they began carving their niche, I find myself at their kitchen table, drinking coffee, surrounded by the paraphernalia of everyday life and begin to feel rather at home. It might just be the Aga of course but there is a genuine warmth here and it is extended to the regular flow of visitors dropping in to pick up their bags of freshly roasted beans.
After coffee I am given the tour. Eager springer spaniels leading the way, we take a gentle trot from the farmhouse to the adjoining office, then onto the roasting barn. Giles hauls open a huge sliding door which makes for an appropriately dramatic entrance into his domain. Then, the smell. Oh, the smell. A heavy, heady, intoxicating rush of warm air floods over me. It’s almost tangible and I can’t help but draw long deep breaths. The faithful Ambex still present is now dwarfed by a very serious looking piece of engineering - the Probat P25 Mk2, a Teutonic powerhouse and the first of its kind in the UK. Giles leads me past rows of hessian sacks containing a range of beans sourced from various specialist growers. He still insists on collecting the shipments of beans in person from Tilbury docks. Giles is excited by the arrival of a new Kenyan bean that forms today’s roasting schedule; he cuts opens the sack, his first experience of this particular bean and the scent just bursts free. It can only be described as ‘green’ – a blend of freshly mown grass, podded peas and springtime woodland walks. Giles smiles as he runs his fingers through the raw beans, musing on the method of roast he has planned for them. Part of Giles’ remit as a consultant to the coffee industry is ensuring that companies understand how to get the best out of their chosen machine. Whether that be bean-to-cup vending machines in service stations, or the top end, hand grinding artisans. Giles is keen to point out that what they create at Reads is a high quality ingredient, one which can be used and misused like any other. “It’s not my place to tell people how to drink their coffee, some like a straight cup of espresso, others want it milky with two sugars and I think it’s important to encourage people to drink what they like. But I do want to help people understand the science of coffee and that by applying this understanding they can make a consistently and notably better end product.”
Back outside, it’s easy to overlook the vintage grey horse-box at rest in a corner of the yard, as an ageing feature of the Lime Kiln farmstead. It is however a gem of a conversion that the whole family pile into to sell their coffee at festivals, fairs and events throughout the South West. The three Dick-Read children already have the artful flair of an experienced barista and the patter of seasoned traders. These family outings can see them serving upwards of 600 cups a day. That’s a lot of coffee but their collective attention to detail never waivers. They have been trained by one of the best in the business and know that even with the best beans, it can go easily wrong.
To call this a lifestyle business doesn’t really do it justice. Giles and Charlotte work incredibly hard whilst somehow managing to make it look effortless. Both fondly claim the other is the driving factor behind their success but this is clearly a joint effort, not just from Giles and Charlotte, but the whole Dick-Read family. As our time draws to an end, Charlotte and their eldest daughter leave to tend the horses while Giles walks me to my car. Looking back at the farmhouse and already missing it, I comment on how perfect this is. He looks around and takes it in as if seeing it for the first time. “Sometimes we are so consumed with running the business and juggling family life that we forget to look up. But when we do we are very quickly reminded of just how lucky we are to be here, together as a family, doing something we love.”