Whether it’s the name, the sleek interior, the in-house roastery or the laboratory-like, glass-walled room on the second floor, there’s something remarkable about Richmond cafe Kiss The Hippo.
The cafe, which has been named by both GQ and Eater as one of London’s best, is also home to award-winning staff.
Wholesale manager Paul Ross was crowned winner of the 2019 UK Barista Championships, while the George Street store’s head of coffee Joshua Tarlo took home the same accolade in 2018.
Paul, 27, even represented the UK at the international equivalent of the competition in Boston earlier this month.
On arrival, I’m greeted in the glass-fronted lab by Paul, who is experimenting with a sous vide machine. He explains that by regulating the temperature of the cup, saucer and coffee itself, you can control what flavours your mouth will register.
REMARKABLE: The cafe’s in-house roastery. Photo credit: Kiss the Hippo.
With this, and the arrival of Joshua, it becomes increasingly clear that the the pair’s enthusiasm for their craft is infectious.
Able to outline the positives and negatives of stocking coffee from across the world, they are most keen to stress the need to recognise and reward quality whenever they encounter it.
“We’re working towards direct trade and the idea that you can trace your coffee from farm to cup,” said Paul.
“It’s that kind of relationship that means people get a fair price, people are treated well and there’s no exploitation within the chain.”
A close working relationship with coffee producers across the world sounds commendable, if logistically fraught.
Joshua, 31, is confident though: “We’re trying to bring direct trade in a more considered way. We want to be in constant contact with producers, but I can be on Whatsapp all the time with them without having to jump on a plane all the time.”
By aiming to lessen the environmental impact of their connections, KTH believe that they can maximise value for everyone in the chain.
But how can you actually quantify the quality of coffee? As a qualified ‘Q-Grader’, Joshua is part of a global movement which is trying to do just that.
Though there are base layer characteristics to all coffee, he said that “quality is really tied to the rarity of the flavour experience.”
SLEEK: The inside of Kiss the Hippo cafe. Photo credit: Kiss the Hippo.
This is why, if you look on a bag of KTH’s coffee, you will see tasting notes detailing the fruity notes buried within Costa Rican coffee, or the florality of some African blends.
Paul said: “We talk about things like acidity. You can have really nice acidities like vinegar on fish and chips, or you can have really tart lemons.
“One is really nice and beneficial to the food while the other is kind of inedible.”
Coffee has clearly thrived in a globalised economy, in the sense that unique flavours can be pulled from across the world. Yet KTH’s desire to support a more sustainable coffee economy reflects a concern with some business practices.
Joshua noted: “The commodity price for coffee is now the same as it was in 1988, which is just so unsustainable.”
With huge chains able to monopolise trade, there is a concern that producers’ margins are being squeezed to breaking point.
Of their high street neighbours, Paul is reflective: “They’ve created a massive coffee market for drinkers, which is great actually and means we can exist. But there are also questions like ‘how you can buy a filter coffee for £1’, right?”
He added: “There’s pressure on everyone to reduce their costs, and where does that stop?”
Though not suggesting untoward practice within any particular business, the pair are aware of the maelstrom of factors which are impacting the coffee world.
Joshua said: “It’s converging with the climate challenge. Coffee’s getting harder to grow, prices are somehow going down, elder producers are dying out and demand is going up.”
Despite these challenges, the pair remain optimistic about the future of their industry.
Modern forms of communication allow constant contact between producers and vendors, while there is an increased public awareness of the environmental and humanitarian impacts of a globalised economy.
Though coy on the prospect of a new store, the pair are intent on making Kiss The Hippo a cafe which is at the forefront of change. They want to have some fun along the way too.
Perhaps the fairest conclusion to make is that great coffee, or a sustainable chain to support it, can’t always be made in an instant.
Feature image shows Joshua (left) and Paul. Photo credit: Kiss the Hippo.