UPDATE: Penny University to pop down 30 July.
If you want to see a Londoner famous for his temperature control get a little hot and bothered, just tell James Hoffmann in the most noncommittal tone you can muster you thought one of his featured brews from Square Mile Coffee Roasters was “fine” or “okay”. Better still, tell the 2007 World Barista Champion that, upon reflection, you suppose his coffee shop in London’s Shoreditch, Penny University, “fills a hole”.
“Ambivalence,” says Hoffmann, “is a terrible thing”.
Conversely, saying you positively hate his prized Blackburn Estate coffee from Tanzania is likelier than not to make him smile and get his attention. A puritanical shrine to brewed coffee that deprives its would-be disciples of espresso, milk and sugar, Penny University is meant to provoke. And so Hoffmann will take a “definitely hate” over a “sort of like” any day, even if devotion and love are the rightful responses to this groundbreaking, unplugged, pop-up coffee shop.
Make no mistake, Penny U is a retail space built to showcase and sell coffees, Square Mile coffees to be precise. Fearing some might wrongly judge the quality of the coffees according to the expense of machinery used to brew them, equipment most can’t use at home, Hoffmann and his associate Tim Styles (above left), who runs the shop he helped design, have taken the low-tech route. They’ve eschewed £10,000 brewers in favour of three manual home brewers made by the Japanese glassware company Hario: the V60 paper-filtered pour-over, the TCA-Syphon (vacpot) and the woodneck cloth-filtered pour-over drip pot.
By providing even water temperature and distribution for the proper measure of coffee grinds, these filter brewers help a barista produce a cup of great clarity and often sweetness that unmuddies the taster’s experience. For me, it’s easier to pick up the aroma and taste of hazelnuts in the Capao Chapada Diamantina from Brazil or red berry nuances in the Blackburn Estate than it would be in an espresso. You almost want to ask Hoffmann where he sourced the hazelnuts and strawberries, which is just the sort of naïve and deceptively simpleminded question he and Penny U baristas Styles and Tobias Cockerill crave.
Everything in the cup, notes Hoffmann, is “from the roasted seeds of coffee cherries. The spectrum of flavours when they’re ground and dissolved in hot water is unbelievable.”
I’m not giving up espresso and neither is Hoffmann. But there’s no denying that as presented at Penny U the slow quiet of the pour-over and siphon brewing processes constitutes a spiritual retreat from the humming, hissing and clickety-clack of the typically frenetic espresso bar. Seated at the six-stool counter you find yourself possessing both the time and the inclination to ask Tim or Tobias about the coffee they’re methodically brewing for you. The baristas may be answering you but they’re talking to everyone in the shop. Soon you are exchanging thoughts with neighbours to your right and left. Conversation starts with coffee but strays easily away from it. That’s the coffeehouse experience.
You don’t need to spend much time studying Penny U to notice contradictions within its dogma. The coffee is said to be about the ingredient, not the brewer, yet the Hario coffee makers, on sale in the shop, are very nearly objects of worship. The results are said to be attainable at home, yet the care and precision of the accomplished baristas seems paramount – and irreplaceable. It’s a big part of the experience. Furthermore, the no-sugar policy is a great conceit. I rarely drink my coffee with sugar. I understand their wanting and even urging us to discover the character and natural sweetness of their coffees apart from – and uninfluenced by – the flavour of the sugar and, yes, the milk. But isn’t sugar dosage a coffee drinker’s prerogative? Shouldn’t he or she get to decide if a coffee roasted by Square Mile tastes better or worse with sugar ?
Hoffmann has good answers for these challenges and you may have a few of your own. Indeed you can’t very well have a “penny university”, as the estimated 400-500 coffeehouses of 17th century London were known, without the certainty of a good debate. These haunts were so-nicknamed for the price of a coffee and the education that went with it.
An anonymous verse from that period went:
So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was anyIn which you may a Scholar be, for spending a penny
Penny University – 5 Redchurch Street, London EC 7DJ