Little’s coffee: brewing a revolution

Littles vanilla coffee

Littles vanilla coffee - Credit: Archant

A Devon company is making its name among the giants of the instant coffee industry

Littles vanilla coffee

Littles vanilla coffee - Credit: Archant

It was the smell of roasting coffee that, you could say, brought Will Little to his senses. A graphic designer in London, he’d go past Borough Market on his way to work and catch wafts of coffee coming from the nearby Monmouth Coffee Company.

Freshly roasted coffee. It’s a distinctive, powerful and tempting aroma, but its effect on Will went far deeper than just the call of a flat white. For him, the smell of coffee was about childhood, family and his legacy.

Like most of us, Will took what surrounded him as a child for granted. Born in Finland, his parents Henry and Leila had been inspired by their travels to set up a coffee roasting business. Young Will spent his childhood absorbing the world of coffee, listening to his parents talk about beans, flavours and brews as he made dens out of coffee bean sacks.

Henry and Leila had been to California in the 1980s where they came across the thriving alternative food scene.

Will says: “Dad was interested in organic farming and the idea of being good to the soil. The organic scene was booming – it grabbed their imagination.”

Henry and Leila also discovered speciality coffee roasters who were infusing their coffees with natural flavours and, after coming home, it wasn’t long before they’d packed in their jobs, bought a second-hand roasting machine and started their own company.

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In 1995, when Will was 11, they decided to move the family to England. Settling in Newton Abbot, they gradually built up a successful business roasting coffee and supplying businesses and caterers.

Will had gone to Exeter College where he met Crediton-born Caroline and together they’d moved to London. Like Will, Caroline was also creative and was pursuing a career in fashion design. Coffee hadn’t entered their minds until that fateful walk past Monmouth.

“Suddenly coffee was cool,” says Will. “It wasn’t my parents doing it! But Monmouth reminded me of the way they roasted coffee.”

No doubt Will had absorbed much more than just the smell of hessian and roasting beans during those childhood years, because in 2010 his renewed interest led him and Caroline back to Devon to join the family business.

Nowadays there are many speciality coffee roasteries springing up around the country, including Devon, but what has always made Little’s unique is its penchant for flavour-infused instant coffees, something Henry and Leila had experimented with ever since their California trip.

“People deserve better coffee,” says Will. “Most of it is pretty dreary so why not put a complementary flavour and aroma in it?”

Instant coffee is produced when beans are roasted, ground and brewed before the flavour compounds are extracted and then freeze dried. It takes about 3-4kg of beans to make 1kg of instant coffee, which is why most companies use a lower grade and cheaper bean, to keep costs down. But Little’s only uses good quality Arabica beans and, crucially, only extracts the best flavours.

It’s a delicate process, as Will explains: “It’s a bit like when you squeeze a tea bag against the side of a mug. We don’t do that. We want to get the right flavour and way better coffee.”

The coffee is then infused with the flavours, like cardamom, vanilla and coconut, which have been carefully blended to be in harmony with the coffee.

Until a couple of years ago, Little’s was still roasting coffee for private labels, but then came a brave change of direction. The roasting arm was sold, and the money invested in a move to a new premises on the outskirts of Willand. Staff were taken on and the coffees given a big boost with branding and marketing. Little’s is sold in more than 750 small retailers, but when it succeeded in getting in to Sainsbury’s last year it raised the game another notch, putting it on the same battlefield as the instant coffee giants.

“Moving to this place was our biggest hurdle. But we took the plunge and haven’t looked back since,” says Caroline.

“We’re in charge of our destiny now. There’s no safely net - but I quite like that,” admits Will.

Hip Roast

Having thrown his heart into instant coffee, the lure of the coffee scene also led Will to set up his own speciality roastery, Roastworks Coffee Co. He sources and roasts beans for retail and wholesale, supplying cafes and restaurants. He also offers barista training and tasting sessions in a purpose-built on-site training area. At the heart of the operation is the family’s original 1958 German drum roaster, which he overhauled by taking the whole thing apart, cleaning it and putting it back together again.

Roastworks gives Will “a place to be geeky about coffee”. “It allows me to exercise my hipster muscle,” he confesses before emphasising that his real aim is to reveal the variety of flavours in speciality coffee (it all depends on bean varieties, growing conditions and roasting techniques) and to support a more sustainable coffee industry.

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