We were lucky enough to share some emails back and forth with Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, the guest roaster for this month’s October Superlatives (you can read more about the “Elephant Bean” here!) He shared some really cool insights on the origins of Colonna, art and business, and the general worldview of Colonna.WeI’ve edited lightly for clarity but left most intact.
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Maxwell’s journey into the world of coffee began with an about turn on how he thought about coffee and what it was capable of.
“I come from an Arty household. My father is a Sculptor and my first real vocation was portraiture, assorted painting, and drawing. I worked hospitality jobs on the side to supplement the artwork. The artwork began to take off and I had to give up the jobs in bars and restaurants.”
“I missed them — art was too solitary for me and I personally found hospitality businesses fascinating. I thought they could be very creative and engaging in a different way to the artwork.”
Around this time Maxwell met his wife Lesley, and they decided to travel. In 2007, after six months in India, they ended up in Melbourne on a work visa.
“I got a job in a cafe/conference on Collins Street and quickly found I was expected to make coffee to a certain standard. It was not a specialty coffee shop by any means, but I had to master milk and multiple drinks and the like. A regular could see I was interested in coffee and suggested I head up a few blocks to a place called Brother Baba Budan. My wife was working a few doors down and we met up for lunch to go check it out.
“I was greeted by a friendly lady adorned with a crawling coffee plant tattoo up one leg, and was asked if I would like to try the single origin espresso. It was from Kenya and had flavour notes of fresh strawberry and vanilla. At this point in time, this was very alien to me — I was working with an espresso blend called “Supremo” and had little idea of coffee’s origins and its potential as a culinary masterpiece.”
“That cup of coffee blew me and my wife away. Suddenly our minds were racing with questions. I changed jobs the next day and we set about discovering why this coffee was so different. We spent weekends exploring Melbourne cafes and roasters. I worked in high pace Barista roles and stayed after work to use the equipment, tasting different coffees and exploring technique. A hunger to understand coffee and to be the best barista meant reading blogs, magazines and taking coffee courses with the Australian barista champion. We quickly knew coffee was what we wanted to work with; the perfect entity to utilise our love of hospitality and creativity.”
Maxwell and Lesley headed back to the UK where they started an events business, serving coffee at music festivals and events around the country. It was fun — and successful — but they quickly realised it limited their ability to engage with people around coffee and its flavour: “Who can blame people for a lack of interest at 5am in the morning, dancing away.”
They sold the business and searched the UK to open a shop. “We were based on the South Coast at the time and were looking for the right location where we could be a speciality coffee destination. We settled on Bath, a small city known widely for Jane Austen and Roman baths. On the face of things, this may not be a natural location to open a coffee mecca. However, Bath has a dense city centre layout that is all walkable by foot, allowing us to place our shop slightly out the way, whilst still being really easy to find and walk to. The biggest part of the local economy is actually modern tech and media companies. Add to this two great universities and Bristol a ten-minute train ride away — and we had the home of Colonna.”
Starting off as a small shop “much in the Melbourne understated style”, they lived in the small flat above and built up a following. “But we also realised there was a disconnect, that our passion and interest in coffee wasn’t clear, and that we are seen more as a little local independent cafe.”
From there they moved to their current space, formerly an art gallery, with a clear vision to use the space and design the store in a way that would help them. One that would influence expectations and set the stage for customers and visitors. They’ve been there for six years now and it continues to be the hub of the business.
Around this time Maxwell started taking part in barista competitions, opening up all sorts of avenues for collaboration and exploration, whilst also aiding the goals of the shop. Colonna collaborated with Bath University and Christopher H. Hendon on what would become Water For Coffee. “We have been involved in three published papers now, and are working on a sustainability paper for our fourth.”
“We opened the roastery two years ago and that pretty much brings you up to date.”
Remembering a barista routine in the UKBCs, Maxwell says: ”It was about how coffee shops in speciality coffee are too self-indulgent, and how they should be more customer focused. I interviewed the competitor afterward and I had to reign it in because I see it really differently, but it wasn’t my routine or my time to preach.”
“I think what had been labeled as self-indulgence, in this case, can actually be the core of a business. It can be the passion of the business and an attraction for customers. I would say Colonna — both the shop and the roastery — is really self-indulgent, in that we created businesses where we get to explore coffee in an uncompromising way.”
Circling back to the origins of Colonna, Maxwell continues: “I guess this is where my art background comes in: you wouldn’t go to an exhibition and say the problem with this exhibition is this work is all about what the artist wanted to create. Of course it is. The issue is, if no one finds that artist’s work compelling or resonant — then they make no money.”
“Colonna was founded on a belief that there is a big potential audience to come and take part in our passion, which is our curation of coffee.”
“The foundation of Colonna means that we can offer passionate coffee people a company to be a part of where they can really explore their interest. This is not just because we buy and serve coffee in a way we want to, but because we have built a customer base of highly engaged customers who share our interest. From a hospitality and customer engagement point of view, there is nothing better.”
Pressing on, I ask if there is a “philosophy” behind the company?
“Wow! This is the kind of question we find almost impossible to answer concisely or easily. Myself and the team spent a whole morning discussing this question. There is plenty of philosophy in the company for sure! We have a really strong culture with a small team of highly motivated engaged individuals who share our vision. Interestingly, the vision isn’t a manifesto or any such thing. I think our company culture is behavioral. Sure we have the core values you would expect — exceptional coffee, authenticity, quality, transparency and so on — but these are not unique in coffee.”
“I think you see the philosophy of a company in the details of what it does. It is easier to get an idea of who we are I think, by looking at what we have done, and what we continue to do with coffee.”
“As a company, we have been involved in a variety of aspects of coffee. It was definitely an awesome time to get involved and it continues to be an exciting space. I find coffee to be an interesting balance between the search for a timeless authentic quality in coffee, juxtaposed with an interest in new ideas, in disruptive and innovative thinking.”
“This is definitely a balance we explore at Colonna. We don’t seek to do new things for the sake of it. We are fascinated by the detail, but we don’t want to get so blinded by it that we lose focus on the whole. It is exciting that as a community around the world coffee is about always seeking to explore and improve. The only time this loses balance for me is when coffee is presented as something that needs complete re-thinking; something that a company is going to revolutionise or reinvent. For me, we are all building on the shoulders of many others that came before us.”
“We are always keen to simplify things that are needlessly complex, but we are also keen to recognise when something is complex and we do not seek to dumb it down unhelpfully. With most things, there is a desire to always have an answer, and Colonna is founded on the idea of not asserting answers where there are none.”
“At the core of what we do is a passion for customer experience and a strong belief that speciality coffee is not the sole domain of the initiated geek, but a culinary spectacle that many people will enjoy and become engaged by if the storytelling and the communication is right.”
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