The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
Cairngorm Coffee has deep roots in the Scottish coffee scene, from being involved with the Scottish Aeropress Championships to its reputation for roasting quality coffees. I’ve been following Cairngorm on social media and I had a few questions about the business. I reached out to the founder, Robi Lambie, and he shared some exciting insights about what it is like to work at a coffee roastery.
Could you tell me a bit about why you started Cairngorm Coffee?
I started Cairngorm Coffee more as a means of working for myself. Whilst coffee was something I was extremely interested in, this fascination really amplified once I had begun my journey with Cairngorm Coffee.
What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the roastery in the morning?
I would imagine that you would expect the answer to be, ‘make a coffee’, but actually I need about a bit of time to acclimatize myself with the space again and don’t really make coffee until I’m further into the day. The first thing I do when I’m on my own is a bit of tidying up to clear my mind - I’m often rushing out the door later in the day to get parcels sent out so the place usually needs to be straightened out a bit before we go again! If I’ve got the team with me then the first thing we do is sit down to have a catch up and set plans for the day ahead.
What tasks take up most of your time as a roaster?
A lot of the time is taken up in more mundane tasks in the packaging side. Getting parcels ready to be shipped involves a lot of time consuming processes from printing packaging forms and address labels, to writing personalised notes.
It also happens to be one of the most satisfying parts as I love seeing the product come together. I’m fortunate to be so involved in the process from choosing the beans we buy, profiling them, roasting them and even designing the packaging. There’s of course a huge amount more that the producers and importers handle before I get a chance to cup the coffees too, and seeing a final, tangible product at the end is really rewarding.
How many people work on your team? How are they involved with Cairngorm?
We have 13 staff involved with the business. Two of the Baristas, Jack and Nicki, also help me in the roastery most of the time. I’m really lucky to have a team I can rely on, especially with Covid which has meant I have been stretched much further trying to juggle everything.
What skills do you think are crucial for any aspiring roaster to have?
Definitely being a realist. One thing I have learnt is that being too much of a perfectionist can be detrimental. That might seem like an odd thing to say, but there are so many variables involved with coffee - in itself a natural product and therefore not altogether consistent - and you have to accept that perfection is not always possible. You will not always be able to make every coffee taste exceptional. It may be because it has aged whilst you’ve stored it or because it’s just not exposed quite as much complexity in its acidity between two weeks. If you are obsessive about perfection then you really aren’t going to enjoy it at all and will drive yourself insane in its pursuit.
I learnt this the hard way as I was pretty down on myself for a long time when we’d do quality control cuppings. Every week I would think, ‘if I make this tiny change to the profile it might be just a bit better’, and I’m still pretty bad for this. The problem is that you need to be objective and think about the end goal. If the coffee is being shipped to other cafes to use in espresso, then perhaps making those tweaks to get optimum clarity in the cup will be the opposite of what will taste ‘perfect’ for their purpose.
I’ve noticed that you recently launched a new website. What goals did you have in mind while launching your new site?
We had a few problems with the ecommerce side of our site. This was mainly an issue for customers checking out, and we were really keen to improve this level of service. It was a chance to look at things with a fresh perspective and kind of turn a new leaf at the same time as we launched our new packaging sleeves. The main goal was to improve turnover on our online shop and we’ve been really proud this is something we’ve achieved.
How do you source new coffees? How do you choose which ones to sell for retail?
The first process is to receive lists of coffees that are available from our importers. This is a pretty fun exercise, but there are a lot of considerations for us before we start picking which ones we’d like to sell. Something we have been trying to get better at is ensuring we have a varied list both from a price and flavour profile point of view. It’s important to us that we try to be inclusive to a large variety of customers, whilst ensuring we aren’t in a ‘masters of none’ situation.
Once we have a gauge over the amount of coffee we require and the general processing and flavour components we’d like, we’ll start to think about what is in season and ensure that it will reach us from origin or warehouse within our timescale. Afterwards we request samples and cup them to decide which we think will work well with our roasting style.
We generally offer all of the coffees we purchase as retail but often we’ll hold off on launching them until we have streamlined our list a bit so it’s not too hard for customers to decide what to buy!
What coffee(s) are you drinking at the moment?
‘Thangaini’ - our Washed Kenyan that we launched recently, it’s been tasting brilliant on Kalita. I’ve been using the ‘San Pedro’ from Mexico that we have now sold out of on our home espresso machine too. Finally, I was gifted an El Salvador coffee by my wife for Christmas. It’s from an amazing roaster, Gardelli, and it’s been useful to get some perspective on our roasting in comparison.
What roaster do you use at Cairngorm Coffee?
We use a Probatone 12kg roaster by Probat. It’s a big hot beast and has moved with us from the Cairngorm’s to Edinburgh.
Where did the name Cairngorm Coffee come from?
Where it all began! My Dad set up a cafe in the heart of the Cairngorm National Park 15 years ago and I’ve been picking his brain ever since.
You can find out more about Cairngorm Coffee on their website at cairngorm.coffee.