Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, Colonna

"We want to do creative things, interesting things, and exciting things. We've got clear vision of what we want to do and how we want to do it."
Roaster Colonna
Bath, United Kingdom
Coffee El Liquidambo

The people who devote their lives to food and drink often talk about a “culinary epiphany”—that single, transformative moment when a taste enlivens and changes you forever. For Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, the experience came by way of a chance encounter with a Kenyan espresso during a yearlong stay in Melbourne. A successful artist, he began to delve deeply into the world of specialty coffee, and after his return to the UK, he and his wife set up shop in Bath, dedicated to coffee’s flavors. This was almost a decade ago; now, we know him as three-time UK barista champion, research pioneer in the chemical processes of coffee, an all-around innovator in service of advancing taste and augmenting the audience of specialty coffee.

In addition to his very celebrated coffee shop in Bath, Colonna and Smalls (which has its own decorated staff of UK latte art, tasters, and brewers cup champions), Maxwell has in the last year, launched his own roastery. Colonna offers both the accessible and the very rare (like the Cup of Excellence El Liquidambo we featured in January) in both whole bean and Nespresso-compatible capsule form, intent on curating and diversifying ways to experience coffee. At Collected, we love both making and drinking filter coffee, but we also think that capsules if done well, can be a good conduit for drinking espresso at home. For those of you who are curious, Colonna capsules will be soon available in Collected’s Shop.

We spoke with Maxwell last week after he returned home from London. Unwinding with a glass of wine, Maxwell was still full of buoyant energy as he talked to us about his projects, his interests, and his ambitions. He speaks rapidly and has a knack for explaining the serious and mundane with enthusiasm and charm. We learned, as you will below, an exceptional amount—and it’s good that Maxwell doesn’t believe in five-year plans, because frankly, we think he would be successful in any role.

Maxwell: My first real vocation was portraiture. I worked in different places around the world and painted a lot as I moved around. Then when I came back to the UK, I started building a business out of that. It became quite successful, but I actually found myself missing hospitality and realized that I preferred the world of food and drink.

After my wife Lesley and I got married, we had a visa in Melbourne for a year. I got a job in a café function center, which was not a specialty coffee shop at all—that says a lot about Melbourne, that even the standard of a non-specialty shop is higher—but I quickly became interested in all the processes and one day, one of the regulars said to me, "You need to go up the road to a shop called Brother Baba Budan." So I went up the road on my lunch break and it just completely blew my mind. It was the first experience I'd had of such a presentation of a coffee, and it was amazing. I began to do some research and realized that coffee was changing a lot, and even in Melbourne, it was disruptive to serve a single origin espresso at the time. This was 10 years ago.

Then after, I worked in cafés that had a greater focus on coffee. We spent our weekends visiting roasteries, visiting barista champions. It was a real turning point for me when I started training with David Makin, who was the Australian champion at the time, who now runs Axil Coffee. I'd gone to all these barista courses and they'd all taught me coffee by numbers. 25 ml, 25 seconds. That you need to do this, this, this, and this. It didn't sit very well with me because it didn't make sense. After working in coffee for a long time I recognize these rules are a bunch of averages; to communicate and educate the complexities of coffee to a beginner is seen as unachievable, so we almost tell a white lie. We tell people a simplified version of coffee, which isn't really the truth, but it's a way to get them to understand some of the concepts.

At Colonna, we'll explore ways to showcase exciting coffees, and whichever one ends up being the most successful is the most successful.

After our year was up, Lesley and I headed back to the UK and started an events business, serving coffee at music festivals and regattas, which was great, except that audience has a limited interest in the nuances of coffee, especially at 6 AM in the morning after they've been partying all night. So we sold that business and decided we wanted to have a physical shop where we could explore not only ideas we had about coffee but also how we wanted to serve it.

From our point of view at the time, we felt that coffee had so much to offer that couldn’t get explored in a normal café setting because the customer had different expectations from a café. Ironically, even though coffee's a driver, in most cases it isn't really the whole point of the shop. It's sort of the fluid that makes the shop runs. The focus on the product is really, really minimal.

We made a commitment that we were not going to just be a café—we decided we wanted to create a space that was just about the coffee. Part of the reason we moved from our little shop to our big shop is that the little shop was very cozy, very small and warm, and we noticed that when people walked through the door, none of our design at the front of the shop reflected how obsessed we were with coffee and what we were trying to achieve with it.

The new shop was an art gallery and we thought, "Ah, this is awesome. It's already an art gallery so it can be a gallery for our coffee. We can keep the front windows free of any chairs, we can put displays in the windows, and then we can basically design a shop that's more of an experience." You walk in, and everything on the wall is something about coffee, and so customers relate it to coffee.

We took all the coffee menus off the table. The menu behind the board, behind the bar is just six coffees we have on at any one time, three espressos and three filters, and flavor notes. So there's none of that usual structure that you see behind a bar on a menu board.

When you break the customer's expectations, the service becomes very important, because you haven't got the menus to do it for you anymore, and maybe the customer doesn't understand. So we focus heavily on service, the way we say things, how we explain things. Like the idea that if we've got a shop based around flavor, then it's highly important and very natural that we're going to explain the best way to showcase that flavor.


What we are doing as a company is saying, "The coffees we buy are really unusual, they're really, really different, you're more than welcome to have it any way you wish, any way you choose, but if you really want to explore the flavor of the coffee in the way that we sourced them, roasted them, and brewed them, then we recommend trying them like this.”

Can we get the coffee to taste amazing? Can we change the way people engage?

I can understand when I go to a commercial coffee shop and drink a black coffee with some cream in it and it tastes like a cup of chocolate. Then we have our delicate, floral coffee, and you put a bit of milk in them, and it flattens the florals but there's no body or roast to give it anything else. It isn't the cup of coffee the customer was hoping for, and it's not the one we wanted to showcase either.

A lot of people say, "Oh, I love coffee," and what's going through my head is, "I wonder what kind of coffee you love. Maybe it's what we do and maybe it's not." With the championships and the reputation and the reviews and the blogs, nearly everybody who visits our store now knows that we do things differently—that these coffees that are about flavor and it's like a wine bar but for coffee.


How can we learn more to get better at making coffee?

The water project was a turning point where coffee from a roaster didn’t taste very good at all, and we sent it back to them because we assumed that we'd checked all of our variables and so on and so forth. They tasted it on their end and they were really happy with the product. It made me think that a lot of the time we talk about a coffee we’ve tasted with someone in another country, we talk about the same coffee as if we've had the same experience. But rarely have we actually had the same experience.

I wasn't the first person to focus on water at all, quite a few people in coffee had spoken about its importance. I'll never forget that James Hoffmann said to me, before the whole water project started, that water really unnerved him because it meant he never really knew what the true character of the coffee was, if the water has such an impact.

When Chris [Hendon] came into the shop I saw the opportunity to ask him some questions and see if he could shed any light on it. As a chemist and a guy who loves problem solving and gets excited by challenges, I think he was really surprised at how interesting coffee was, but also how many questions we all have in coffee. So we just began that project. He got more and more excited as I taught him about coffee and he taught me more and more about chemistry. Very quickly we realized this could be an academic paper, and we did more and more studies, and then that evolved into my UKBC routine to win 2014 and then the routine at Rimini. Then we followed that with the book [Water for Coffee]. Chris has become a resident scientist in coffee, and we did other projects together like the grinding project which brought a lot of other people from the industry in.


The inspiration for Colonna capsules was a question. On paper these capsules should make amazing coffee, so can they?

What's fascinating about the Nespresso audience is they're an audience who share a lot of the same values of wanting premium and quality as specialty coffee drinkers. We assumed that the person who bought a Nespresso wanted convenience, but Nespresso has done a brilliant job of presenting themselves to the average consumer, that if they want the best coffee technology on the market, they should buy capsules.

We had to go through an R&D process. It was not as simple as just putting our coffee in a capsule. There's quite a few roasters in the UK who had stuck some coffee in a capsule out of curiosity and it had been sent back to the roastery and they'd go, "This is sour, this is crap, capsules are rubbish." But I had the inclination that Nespresso was a different brew method, and there were various details to the process, so surely we'd need to explore those to see if we could maximize quality.

If you change an element in brewing, all the rules change. The first thing was the capsule itself—what type of lid does it have, how does the lid pierce, how thick is the lid, what's the texture of the lid? The capsule design itself, there are lots of different patent designs to do with how they collapse, how they break, how water flows through them.

So we started to look at different designs on the marketplace, and we also teamed up with a company in the UK. They've got a really great lab, they've got a laser particle analyzer, they've got all these different bits and bobs which are hard to get hold of. We began to develop the project together. A lot of it, for freshness, is can you get the oxygen content under 1%? That's a lot to do with the machinery, the production system, how it lids the capsule, and where the nitrogen is introduced. In this system, the coffee was ground into the top using an EK43 and flushed with nitrogen immediately. Then as it makes its way along the line, it continues to get flushed—that production facility actually has its own nitrogen generation room.

Then different capsules will also flow differently, which then impact how you grind and how you roast. A couple of things we realized is Nespresso roasts really, really fast, and quite dark. What that does is it makes your coffee very, very soluble. Which I think often surprises a lot of coffee people. They assume that if you roasted a coffee long to the same color it would be more soluble than short to the same color, but actually an aggressive quick roast will make coffee the most soluble.

How can we learn more to get better at making coffee?

Then one of the main things, James [Hoffman] pointed out in his blog when he first wrote about it, is these brewers, these Nespresso machines are amazing little bits of kit. They're incredibly temperature stable, but the temperature is lower—it's 88-90 degrees—than what most of us specialty roasters roasting and brewing coffee, are looking for.

The last thing that we approached differently was the strength. In specialty coffee people are brewing longer shots now, but everything's also a lot stronger. If we were doing it by concentration, I would say that most specialty espresso I taste around the world is somewhere between 7 to 11% strength. Then I would say that most filter is somewhere around 1 to 1.4% strength. Capsules fascinatingly are around this 4-5% strength, so bang in the middle.

By specialty standards, capsule espresso is a lungo. But if you pull a lungo on a machine then you have a juicy body, whereas what's interesting about the capsule machines is the pressure's very, very high. People often don't realize that pressure is relative to resistance, so even though the pumps are small in the Nespresso machine, the resistance is high because the exit holes and the entry holes are small. So the pressure is nearly always higher than a commercial espresso machine.

You get this kind of aerated drink—it becomes really, really creamy. And you get a unique combination of texture of strength that you don't experience with any other brew method. A lot of people would complain that capsule coffee wasn't very vibrant, so in our exploration of roasting we'd noticed that with really quick roasts, we found they were like almost too vibrant, too in your face. Not elegant enough. So when they're brewed at 7 to 11% strength, they were overwhelming.

So we took that approach to the capsules, which is to roast more quickly and to make it very bold so that at 5% strength you get a lot of the vibrancy of the coffee. And also we do roast it darker, but you don't taste that because of the brewing temperature.

We continued to explore the capsules and develop new projects with them. Now we've come full circle. We're back to academic research now because when I started the capsule project, my primary goal was can we use these as a delivery system for amazing coffee? Can we get the coffee to taste amazing? Can we change the way people engage?


A lot of people will go, "Oh, okay, so what you're trying to do with capsules is reach a larger audience, compromise on quality, dumb it down." And I'm like, "You've got one of them right." I'm trying to reach a larger audience, but you've got the other two wrong. I actually think that capsule brewing allows for a sophisticated experience, a bit like doing a beer or a whisky or wine tasting—it makes it really easy for people to taste different coffees and start talking about the way they taste.

The core principle behind what we're doing with Colonna and the people we team up with is we want to do creative things, interesting things, and exciting things. We've got clear vision of what we want to do and how we want to do it.

Because of the type of coffee we buy, I honestly believe that with more expensive coffees, capsules have more scope than wholesale beans. Shops have all their financials and infrastructure set up to buy coffee at a certain price point, and it's a real risk for them to buy Geisha, for example. Whereas if you put it in the capsule and go straight to the end user, you're accessing that customer who wants the best coffee and they've got a shelf life which keeps it fresh for a year. Suddenly you've got a lot more scope to sell expensive coffees.

At Colonna, we'll explore ways to showcase exciting coffees, and whichever one ends up being the most successful is the most successful.

I often say with the capsules, we couldn't have made them five years ago because the specialty audience was defining a good coffee by thickness or crema, and so on and so forth. But now there's a lot more people who are judging high grade coffee on the quality of the ingredient, the provenance, and how it tastes. I think that opens up a very different world of possibilities. I personally think that there will always be a manual, ritualistic craft in coffee. I think it has a lot of value. But now that we've established the value of coffee as a provenance driven product more like wine, it's not necessary that everything has to be manual. There are benefits of capsules, benefits of automated machines. I think we can all agree in specialty coffee that if there’s an improvement of taste and an improvement of engagement of people, there’s value there.