All Articles
All Articles


Our interview with barista champion and Dublin coffee bar owner Colin Harmon

by Julie Wolfson
on 23 February 2012

Three-time Irish barista champion Colin Harmon loves Dublin. We got a taste of his infectious enthusiasm for the city on a recent tour of his two Third Floor Espresso (3FE) coffee bars there—one in the Twisted Pepper building, where it serves as a cafe by day and cocktail lounge for the music venue at night, and the newer 3FE location on Lower Grand Canal Street.

3FE_7a.jpg 3FE_7b.jpg

While he was working on opening 3FE, Harmon turned down numerous offers in other European cities in favor of staying in his beloved hometown. This emotional decision propelled him into becoming a leader in the burgeoning community of food makers and entrepreneurs in Dublin.

We recently talked to Harmon about his coffee journey while driving around Dublin in the 3FE delivery vehicle, gleaning insight on the 3FE company and his goals to be an ambassador for the city he loves.

What aspects of 3FE do you feel are uniquely Irish?

I do some traveling as part of my work and every time I meet people from another country they say, "Oh, it must be so bad there with the economy and the recession and everything." You read terrible things about the city and the country and what's happened, but ultimately life goes on. You can see there are still buses driving around and still people going to work and getting on with it. That's the ethos of what 3FE is about. We started with very little money. We started with just enough money to get a decent espresso machine and some good coffee.

How did you raise the money to buy the espresso machine?

I sold my car. It was very much "spend the money where you need to, then bootstrap from there." So we make a little, we spend a little. I suppose it's a very Irish way of doing things.

How much does 3FE's home influence the way things are done?

Irish people are very good at starting off with what you have, putting your head down and getting on with it. I think doing it in a friendly and approachable way means everything to us—engaging people, talking to them and making them feel welcome. At 3FE we feel like we are ambassadors for the city. We have a lot of tourists coming in who have been recommended by friends. We are proud Dubliners and want to show people that we might not be the richest city in the world, but we still can do things right. We want to work hard and have a good time as well.

How did you get the Twisted Pepper space?

Before this I worked in finance. I was a trustee officer for a professional investment fund. I was very well paid. I tried to quit five times and they kept shouting bigger numbers at me to make me stay. Finally I left my job and decided I wanted to find something I love doing. I fell into coffee. I got a job at Coffee Angel that is owned by 2006 Irish barista champion Karl Purdy. And after six months with coffee, I won the Irish Barista Championships. That year I finished fourth in the world.

And at that time, you had bought the machine and it was in your apartment?

Yeah. I had set up a competition training room in my third-floor apartment. Then I did a lot of traveling for about a year, but I wanted to stay in Dublin. I am a Dubliner. I wanted to be here, so I started to look for a shop. Not having the budget to open a retail store I was kind of hamstrung. I then met Trevor O'Shea who owns Bodytonic Music and runs the Bernard Shaw on the South Side, and the Twisted Pepper on the North Side. Trevor was trying to get people in during the day. So he said, "Why don't you come in, set up a coffee shop, and when you are making money you can pay the rent." It gave us a hand-up. The banks had been laughing at me. It was the only serious offer we had.

How did you decide on a coffee to serve at 3FE?

We only serve Has Bean, whose owner, Steve Leighton, is my business partner at 3FE. Steve started Has Bean about nine years ago. He originally had a shop, but decided to focus on roasting. We met just before the World Championships in 2009 when I began looking for someone to roast my coffee as I was representing Ireland. Steve was the first person I contacted and he was so accommodating and supportive. We've been thick as thieves ever since.

So we started 3FE. And it literally was one cup at a time. We were serving maybe 15-20 cups of coffee a day, but the next day it would be 25 and the day after that would be 30 cups. Be nice to people. Make good coffee. Hopefully they will come back and bring a friend. Soon we got too busy for the front porch at Twisted Pepper and we had to move in to the main bar. Last September we opened our second shop on Lower Grand Canal Street. We also supply other coffee shops in the city and train their staff. We now employ 14 people—two chefs and 12 baristas.

What's on the 3FE menu?

We split our menu into two sections: a tasting menu and a drinking menu. The drinking menu is for people who just want a cup of coffee. If somebody comes in and orders from the tasting menu, we understand that they are there to experience something. They'd like a sample or to learn something about the farm. The coffees change every week. When you order a trio on the tasting menu, you get the same coffee beans made as an espresso, a cappuccino and a filter coffee. It's a good way to get to know a very distinct coffee. The other one that is popular for us is the filter tasting. We serve two different coffees side by side. We do hand pours. We always make two very different types of coffee. We might serve a washed Kenyan next to a pulped natural Brazilian.

3FE_5a.jpg 3FE_5b.jpg

For our hand pours, we use a Marco Uber Boiler that is made here in Dublin. We also have a Marco batch brewer. For espresso, we use the Aurelia Nuova Simonelli. It's the competition machine. We have one in both of our stores.

You get some famous fans?

We get a lot of people who are coffee daytrippers. One day these guys came in a sat down at the bar. They said that they would like to taste something interesting, and had a few hours to spare so I told them they could sit there and I would feed them tasters of everything and that at the end they could pay what they thought it was worth. They seemed up for it and they seemed like nice people. I started making them espressos.

Then if I was making a filter coffee for someone else, I would give them a small cup to let them taste the thing and talk them through different flavors. Basically I had a chat with them for about three hours. In the course of this they said hey were going to Oslo soon. I suggested they go see Tim Wendelboe. I asked, "What do you do?" "We're musicians." I said, "Really? What is the name of your band?" They said, "We are Arcade Fire. Have you heard of us?" My jaw dropped at this stage.

They've become very good friends of ours at the shop. They often email us from different cities and ask our advice for where to go. We have sent them to cafes in Croatia and Copenhagen and everywhere in between. Every time they come back to Dublin they do a coffee tasting with us.

How do you respond to people who ask, "What's the big deal? It's just a drink"?

It is just a drink, but I think at the core of everything that is generic there can be something amazing. So you could take something like lasagna—why would I order a lasagna? But there is definitely a place to go where the lasagna will blow you away. It's the same for ice cream, same for stout, same for whiskey. I think that engaging people with something as common as a cup of coffee, but making it amazing—how incredible that can be.

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft
Loading More...