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