London’s coffee scene has a new, transatlantic entry: Roasting Plant will currently open at 4 Borough High Street, between London Bridge and Borough Market, on 16 January. It is currently open, and serving coffee, which has been described as “gimmicky as hell ... but actually pretty delicious” by at least one drinker.
The American roaster and café operator, whose first London store will be cashless, prides itself on a system called “Javabot.” This proprietary technology, developed by founder Mike Caswell and team, fires coffee beans at pressure through plastic tubes — first unroasted, to a roaster, then to storage tubes, and then into super-automatic machines. A barista, in the traditional sense, never goes near the drink other than to serve it. This isn’t to be dismissed as a sign of poor quality. Automated machines have improved incredibly quickly in recent years, and this Willy Wonka-esque tube system should provide some kind of spectacle at the reportedly 500-seat site. The ‘craft’ aesthetic — with the working feel of a brewery — has won the company fans stateside, as has speed of service, and the opportunity for drink customisation.
Customers are even able to select their own blend from a list of roasted single-origin beans. While this is a potentially neat feature, coffee blending is a complex topic. Coffee beans from different origins will vary in their solubility after roasting — this, along with factors controlled by the barista or machine, governs the rate at which flavour compounds in the beans extract. A blend with wildly variable solubilities will taste imbalanced, unless the nuances imparted by terroir are roasted out of the bean. What’s more, some origins’ flavour profiles simply don’t go well together. It’s a tough ask for a barista to steer customers away from a potentially horrible drink without coming off patronising — clearly Roasting Plant is confident that all of its choices blend well.
What’s more, Roasting Plant prides itself on resting beans “for no longer than 48 hours,” to prevent “decay.” Coffee beans do not decay — they do go stale, like bread, but this process takes months if storage is correct, and beans brewed too soon after roasting will lend an unpleasantly metallic taste to the drink. 48 hours, by many measures, is too soon. In other places, the brand writes that “a week” is optimal, in one of many examples of broadly third-wave coffee messaging.
Roasting Plant’s franchise model has seen it expand into Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver and San Francisco, though not without controversy. The coffee roasting company was subject to a $9,500,000 lawsuit from a Detroit franchisee, alleging misleading profit and revenue projections when pitching the franchise. It was subject to another suit over business loans in 2015, which pivoted on disputes over the viability of international expansion.
London Bridge is relatively well-served for coffee: there’s a serviceable Grind on London Bridge, with the excellent Black Swan Yard down on Bermondsey Street. It will be interesting to see how commuters and local workers take to this new coffee shop’s proposition — a halfway-house between speciality and convenience.