Creating a better coffee world!

Creating a better coffee world!

When his father told him he wanted to retire and invited him to take over the family coffee business, Colin Smith had already established a successful career in teaching.

There was no obligation for him to make the move – his father had always valued the fact that a QE education gave Colin (OE 1957–1964) opportunities that he had not enjoyed himself. And it was not a decision Colin wanted to take lightly – “I thought about it for around a year”.

But in the end, he was drawn by the challenge and duly made the move, working as the third partner alongside his father and uncle for about two years, before then taking the helm at the business his grandfather had established in 1936.

Since switching careers in 1980, he has not only greatly expanded Smiths Coffee Company, but has also established himself as an international award-winning expert in specialist coffee, while putting his expertise to use in charitable and philanthropic work, too.

“With the knowledge I have accumulated through many years of experience in the coffee industry, I am attempting to create a much better coffee world,” he says.

Colin has many happy memories of the education that his father so prized. He was a regular QE actor – appearing, for example, as the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan and as Mrs Hardcastle in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.

A Sub Prefect and a keen athlete, he was also editor of the Elizabethan magazine, sang in the School Choir and did Scottish dancing in a club run by Languages teacher (and Old Elizabethan) Derek Fry, where the boys enjoyed the chance to dance with their counterparts from Queen Elizabeth’s Girls’ School.

“John Todd and I were the first pupils to take A-level RE, under the personal supervision of John Pearce (Deputy Headmaster – Second Master), who gave up his free time to tutor us,” says Colin, who won the Broughton Divinity Prize.

Colin was heavily involved in scouting activities, representing Hertfordshire at the Marathon Scout Jamboree 1964 and becoming a Queen’s Scout – the highest award given in the movement.

He also secured his Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. “I remember asking Mr Edwards [Headmaster Timothy Edwards] for a day off to go to the presentation at Buckingham Palace, showing him the card from the equerry to Prince Philip. His comment was: ‘I don’t think I have much say in the matter; my authority doesn’t go that far.’”

After leaving QE, he went to St Luke’s, a teacher-training college that is now part of the University of Exeter, where he studied PE & Biology, took up fencing and sang in the college’s Chapel Choir.

Qualifying as a PE teacher, from 1967 to 1971 he taught at Beaumont School, St Albans, becoming head of department there.

He took a year out to study Laban Movement at the Art of Movement Studio in Addlestone and then moved to become Head of PE and head of year at Oldborough Manor School, Maidstone, Kent.

Even when he took over his father and uncle’s business, his links with education remained strong. He served as a Governor of Dollis School in Hendon for 15 years until his company moved from its factory in Mill Hill to new premises – a factory in Hemel Hempstead – in 1997.

“The company has developed from roasting coffee in a shop window at my grandfather’s grocer’s shop in Mill Hill in 1936. Smith’s Coffee Company now roast around approximately 10 tonnes of coffee per week for the retail and catering markets. I am also a partner in a small shop roasting business in Leighton Buzzard.”

Smiths Coffee Company specialises in quality coffees and teas and has an organic and Fairtrade branch, The Natural Coffee Company. “We also have a company, Arabica Espresso Services, which supplies & maintains espresso machines & coffee making equipment.”

Five years ago, Smiths developed a process for flavouring coffee to meet an ever-increasing market: “Now we are probably the biggest coffee flavourist in the UK”.

Having won major contracts over the years, such as roasting coffee for Whittard’s 125 shops, the company has grown and today it continues to expand: it recently secured a major account with Warner Leisure Hotels. As a result of this expansion, it is looking for new premises once again.

“I was a founder member of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) in 1997 and was President from 2005-2007,” says Colin. He served on the board of directors until 2011 and in recent years has organised around 18 trips so that members can visit places where coffee is grown – around three a year. The countries visited include India, Kenya, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, Sumatra, Tanzania, Panama, Papua New Guinea and the US (Hawaii).

“Visiting the farms and tasting the coffees at origin has expanded my experience and knowledge of the product, with its progress through the roasting, cupping and blending processes.”

He has also organised SCAE educational activities and assisted in the arrangements for the SCAE World of Coffee event each year. “I have represented the SCAE in Japan, Costa Rica, USA, Sumatra and many other countries and in 2006, I represented Europe on the panel of judges who cupped the coffees for the Costa Rica Cosecha d’Oro, at their invitation. I appeared on TV to discuss the importance of quality coffee to the European market. I am also asked occasionally by local radio to comment on various aspects of the trade. The last one was on Kopi Luwak, a very rare and expensive coffee!”

He is a member of a four-strong Which magazine panel which samples and assesses retail coffee products. In December 2011, he was awarded the Allegra European Coffee Award for outstanding contribution to the European Coffee Industry and in June 2013 the SCAE Award for Excellence: Lifetime Achievement Award.

“My extensive knowledge of the subject enables me to give many talks and lectures on all aspects of coffee, as well as training sessions on the use of coffee-making machinery. I am often asked to give advice on the setting up of roasting plants and coffee shops.

“The knowledge gained through all this experience has helped the company to focus on a range of coffees, from real speciality to good grade coffees for the selective market.”

In 2017, the SCAE combined with the Specialty Coffee Association of America to form the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), for which Colin is an Ambassador.

“My ethos is to educate members of the coffee industry and the consumer to understand the value of speciality coffee.  This will further the speciality coffee market and enable more people to assess the quality of better coffee.”

He also puts his expertise and knowledge to good use in serving wider society. He maintains close contact with the local Hospice of St Francis’s Corporate Partnership Committee on a voluntary basis, supporting many of their events with supplies of coffees. “I also give many talks on coffee and the money raised is used to support the St Francis hospices and the Peace Hospice in Watford.”

A qualified SCA trainer, he has worked with local prisons to train prisoners in a rehabilitation programme before release. “Until December 2019, at The Mount Prison and Bedford Prison, we had a café in the visitors’ room which enabled the prisoners to gain experience in communication with the public and to practise the skills learned in taking the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) barista Foundation Course. Profits gained from the cafes were given to HACRO, the Hertfordshire Association for the Rehabilitation of Offenders.”

Colin lives in Berkhamsted and is married to Marina, his second wife. Between them, they have 13 grandchildren. He has two daughters with his first wife, Sue, and one with Marina.  “Also on a personal level, after 40 years I no longer play hockey for St Albans, but I am I am trying to play golf.”