Even in his first job at 16, Sheffield’s coffee maestro Bryan Unkles was making the brew.
It certainly wasn’t Fairtrade 100 per cent pure Columbian Arabica. He spooned instant from a catering tin for hoards of thirsty workers on a building site.
The man who has done so much to improve the city’s coffee scene he was named Food Hero at the Eat Sheffield Awards trained to become a bricklayer.
He has never pondered how life would have been had the recession not prompted him to quit his bricklaying apprenticeship. “Those early days taught me a lot. But don’t look back. I absolutely love the industry I’m in. And mentioning you have a coffee company is a great line at dinner parties!”
Bryan’s early encounter with bricks and mortar came about because he flunked his GCSEs at Hope Valley College. He says with a wry smile: “I only got maths and English, which was a disappointment to mum, a primary teacher at Deerlands and Southey Green.
“I went to Chesterfield College to do my re-sits but midway I heard a building firm was taking on apprentice site managers in Worcester.
“I was the general dogsbody. I swept up and making tea and coffee - instant of course. I didn’t know there was anything else.”
He came back to Sheffield for the next stage of his apprenticeship; learning a trade at Parkwood College. There was only space on the bricklaying course, so he got stuck in. But as he started his second year he discovered there wasn’t going to be a job at the end of it, packed in and got on a sales scheme.
He got a placement selling photocopiers. But his boss hit hard times, 18-year-old Bryan didn’t get paid - and persuaded his dad Malcolm to give him a job instead. The family firm sold citrus drink concentrates to leisure centres and hospitals.
Desperate not to be a drain on his dad, who he knew couldn’t really afford to set him on, he threw himself into boosting sales. The business prospered and was bought by Lions Beverages Ltd.
When they also bought a coffee business, Bryan learned there was a lot more to the drink than a heaped teaspoon of Brooke Bond Red Mountain. He became general manager at 28, running the business from a distribution centre in Sheepbridge.
When the company changed hands, he went to work for a big Italian coffee brand in London. It opened his eyes: “I went to a roastery in Holland producing Fairtrade coffee,” he says. “I knew the principles of Fairtrade but thought it meant sacrificing quality. When I discovered the opposite was true - that giving coffee farmers a fair wage meant they could look after their crops better - I had to be a part of it.”
What prompted him to set up his own coffee business in 2004 with partner Andy McClatchey was the death of his mum Valerie from cancer. “She was only 58. It made me realise you’re not here for ever,” he reflects.
He believed Fairtrade was the way to go: “People were getting interested in the provenance of food and drink. I knew the Fairtrade coffee industry would grow. It’s not just a worthy thing, it makes good business sense. It ensures quality. Good coffee is all about good quality.”
Why name it Cafeology? “The Maureen Lipman adverts for BT,” he grins. “The idea of having an “ology” when I’d left school with only two GCSEs appealed.”
Within two months Cafeology had a deal to supply all concessions at Glastonbury that year. Other contracts followed and Bryan decided to take the next step; to source his own coffee. He found a roaster in Peterborough and then headed for Columbia.
“The first time I saw beans being picked on a plantation I got quite emotional,” Bryan, 42, admits. “It has to be picked by hand, at the perfect time, in very difficult terrain. There’s a three-day window from when the berries turn red.”
Some 70 per cent of Cafeology’s coffee comes from a consortium of growers in Apia, a remote Columbian village. The rest is from El Salvador, Guatemala and a carbon-neutral plantation in Costa Rica which ferments bean pulp to make fuel its farm vehicles.
He “absolutely loves” his two-yearly plantation trips. “It makes it real,” he says. He wants Sheffielders to appreciate coffee’s incredible journey from tree to mug too. “We are about good coffee with traceable ethics - and telling the story of where it has come from,” says the man who recently brought Francisco Herrera, president of the Columbian consortium, over here. To his delight, Francesco took snapshots of his coffee in being sipped in Sheffield cafes back home to complete the story’s circle.
Ten years on, annual turnover is £2million, a 21.9% increase on the previous year. Wife Toni, an ex bank manager, looks after the company finances from the Acorn Business Park HQ and Cafeology supplies the coffee drunk by staff at eBay’s HQ in Switzerland and visitors at Germany’s largest indoor climbing centre. In Sheffield it’s served in restaurants and cafes, theatres, universities, colleges and hospitals.
At the city’s Decathlon sports store sits Cafeology’s first coffee pod. Other planned Decathlon retail outlets will change the dynamics of the business.
There are now Teaology, Cocoaology and Frappeology brands. But it’s all Fairtrade; every sip is helping impoverished families to prosper.
“We don’t want to be the biggest, we want to be the best,” says the man who adores his pure Columbian coffee filtered with a splash of milk. “It’s not only about making money. I wanted to be able to put my head on the pillow at night and know that everything I’ve done has benefitted people right the way down the line.”