Two Northern Ireland men with a passion for coffee abandoned their jobs to open up a specialist coffee house on the Ormeau Road.
Ben Craig and Simon Johnston, from Ballycastle and Bangor, have an approach to coffee that is both refreshing and painstaking and their methods are certainly working with accolades aplenty pouring in after just a few months of business.
Passionate as they are about coffee, they are also great believers in conversation so have not installed wifi at the premises in order to stimulate engagement. They also have strong business ethics and pay more than 30% above Fair Trade prices to farmers.
After briefly living in New Zealand in 2002, Ben regales of how drinking his first Macchiato in Joe’s of Queenstown got him excited about coffee. It was then on subsequent trips to the West Coast of the USA that he first noticed the careful and considered treatment of coffee, from its ethical sourcing, to its roasting and brewing.
Intoxicated by the smell of freshly roasted beans, he describes the pleasure of sitting in thoughtfully laid out spaces where the attention to detail and the service was unlike that which he’d experienced in any cafes before.
He returned to Belfast enthused and with the goal of opening an organic cafe. Root & Branch was born as the vehicle with which to realise this. It evolved to the point where he was able to produce his own blends of coffee, roasted in London, shipped to Belfast, and served with craft in Root & Branch pop-ups around the country.
That coffee was experiencing a new birth in Northern Ireland was an understatement. Established Coffee was beating out a path in the Cathedral Quarter and this speciality coffee market had also piqued Simon’s interest.
Simon’s taste for coffee goes back as long as he can remember. Whilst at university in Aberdeen, his friends always joked that they’d get a better coffee in his apartment than they would in the local cafes in the city. After further study in London, he co-founded a church on Westminster Bridge Road in Central London which saw him and his colleagues start a busy cafe as a social enterprise.
Not only did it provide experience and employment for local low-opportunity kids, but as in following with the historical tradition of cafes, it became an incubator for political discourse and social engagement. Being so close to Parliament, MPs would sip on their cappuccinos and discuss policies whilst other conversations amongst Simon and customers gave rise to what would evolve into a global anti-sex trafficking campaign. Iain Duncan Smith MP noticed and his Centre for Social Justice awarded Simon their prize for ‘Innovation in Activism’. Coffee has a lot to answer for!
A perfect blend
So that Ben and Simon would meet and soon after start hatching plans was a given. Ben invited Simon to accompany him on a pop-up at a local festival and it became apparent that their experiences, passion and skills made for a perfect storm. “Where are you guys based?” was the question that would constantly be asked of them across the bar. Again, they popped up at the Northern Ireland Coffee Festival in the Titanic Quarter in September 2015, and this same question kept coming at them.
Complete dedication to this invitation for permanency saw them quit their full-time jobs and devote themselves to the study of coffee. Travel and conversations with coffee farmers, roasters, importers, equipment manufacturers, baristas, and locals, continued to give them the steer they needed. Their kitchens became makeshift coffee labs and their bedside tables were stacked with books on all aspects of coffee.
After nine months of research, along came 1B Jameson Street in Belfast. Its previous tenant – a friend – was vacating the premises, and the potential for Root & Branch became apparent to the boys.
Too small for a roaster and kitchen, they decided that they’d focus on delivering the best coffee and tea that they could, and so parked their ideas on food in favour of being a Speciality Coffee Micro-Roastery. Simon’s previously unused biochemistry degree had the cobwebs dusted off of it and he set to roasting. Ben got to work on the bar and together they formed a feedback loop ensuring that each bean would be roasted and poured so as to elevate its own wonderful and particular characteristics.
Showcasing fellow artisans
On arriving at taste notes, they would pass these to their baker – Lorna Milligan of Tacacucina – who would then begin to imagine and create exclusive cakes to pair with each coffee. Sitting alongside their coffees, they were the first in Ireland to stock Chash Tea from London, now the tea of choice for London’s Waldorf Astoria and the National Gallery. Belfast’s CoCouture supply their hot chocolate and Helena Lavery’s Belfast Love Bombs – raw balls made from Guatemalan ceremonial grade Cacao – make up the simple but refined offering from Root & Branch.
Coffee & Tea – We are hot drink ambidextrous. We were delighted to be the first stockists of @chashtea Specialty Tea in Ireland. Now stocked by the Tate, Waldorf Astoria, & Young Vic in London, it is really worth tasting. First in our line up is the Earl Grey 1833 with its black leaves infused not with synthetic lemon like most EG's but with Calabrian Bergamot oil & peppered with cornflowers. #specialtytea #coffeeroasters #tea #goodbusiness #ormeau #belfast #coffee #nofilter
What makes Root & Branch unique
And yet, since they opened their doors on May 1, in this simplicity, there is another feature that has no price and is not on the menu.
It is their ‘welcome’. They and their baristas frequently talk about and practice “throwing down the welcome mat”. Going against the grain of the modern cafe culture, they opted to not install wifi, and instead attempt to foster a space for engagement and conversation. Here, people talk. It might start about the coffee and end up on rugby, or weekend plans, or the exchange of phone numbers, but there is always a social edge.
On Sunday afternoons they host live music, with local musicians or those passing through. On Thursday evenings, they often host brew classes for those aspiring to pour better coffee at home. There is no doubt, this little place is quickly becoming a community hub, and that’s why they claim “We’re really glad we’re in a residential area, because we believe in local community and that local independent business can actually enhance it.”
Alongside this focus on the local, they are equally conscientious with regard to those further afield, upon whom their business is dependent. Paying farmers at some 30% over Fair Trade prices, they are determined that farmers and their labourers receive a better livelihood than they have in the past during the era of commodity coffee. Equally, Root & Branch has environmental credentials that they’ve worked hard on. The first in Ireland to use fully biodegradable coffee packaging, they can be heard letting customers know that their finished bag of beans can be put in their home food waste, or indeed kept, since it’s adorned with the artwork of local artist Glenn Kennedy.
It’s perhaps for all these reasons that on the August 13 they were shortlisted by the Irish Times from 38,000 nominations as being in the top 12 cafes in Ireland.
They were also recently charged with setting up the coffee offering for Howard Street Restaurant’s new project – The Permit Room – on Belfast’s Fountain Street. Permit Room owner, Niall Davis, claims that Root & Branch coffee allied to their food, has proved hugely successful for their new business.
The word is spreading because Root & Branch are now being served at Dublin’s new Two Boys Brew and Fia Cafe as well as in The Rocketman in Cork.