Wednesday, 5 November 2014

UCC & Make Decent Coffee: I don't think that they get social

So I feel a bit sorry for Matthew Kay at Klood, he'd done a good job at managing me, getting my review, and then coming straight back and following up when I wrote it.

I'm not sure UCC really get social though - this was the reply from Dan McGrath the Marketing Manager at UCC to my review after Matthew chased him, I've included it in full with my reply at the bottom, as I didn't get any response.

I agree with Dan that yes, the fact that MakeDecentCoffee is a part of UCC is noted on the MakeDecentCoffee's website, you can find it tucked away subtlety in the privacy policy and the terms and conditions but you certainly won't find it in the about or the manifesto.

They do have a small team doing a good work rate of synthetic posts on their facebook page, lots of easily accessible stories and images pulled from the internet, and nicely made graphic design based posts that doesn't actually require a 'real' coffee shop (which is how the page tries to feel).  

This on the otherhand is the facebook page for Stag coffee, they opened in Cardiff February/March this year, run by the same people who do the Men's grooming place down the high street.  If you want to see a 'real' coffee shop Facebook page, have a look: it's full of random stuff going on, real pictures of what is being prepared in the shop, and reviews posted that they have read and loved.  You can see real food in there, what they are living and doing, and and more importantly it works: my wife dropped in there this week and it was absolutely rammed. For owners that said when I saw them at opening that 'they didn't really get twitter and social' they are doing a darn fine job.

It's not about being slick, it's about being authentic.  If your operation is meant to be super slick in the real, then your social operation should be super slick.  If you're an ex pub manager who REALLY wanted to run their own coffee shop, then just putting out there the food you are trying, and trying to keep coffee fun is spot on.  If your social is super slick, and not matched up in the real, it'll quickly become vacuous. 

So my recommendation to UCC is not to make out like you have a friendly local coffee shop based in  a big industrial park in Milton Keynes (which incidentally is where I grew up).  It's not wrong, but it is spending a-lot of effort blowing things into the blogosphere that people will very quickly filter out and ignore.

Could be anywhere

Only made here


----- Original message -----
From: Stephen Broadhurst <stayingawhile@myfastmail.com>
To: Dan McGrath <Dan@ucc-coffee.co.uk>
Subject: Re: Make Decent Coffee
Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2014 09:09:34 +0100

Hello Dan

Thanks for taking time to write, I'd love to come down to MK and have a cup of coffee and a proper chat, I'm back in the UK from 13th of October and have relatives there so it's pretty easy for me mid week, would sometime that week or the next work for you?

Sincerely

Stephen

----- Original message -----
From: Dan McGrath <Dan@ucc-coffee.co.uk>
Subject: Make Decent Coffee
Date: Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:51:24 +0000

Hi Stephen, 

Thanks for taking the time to review MDC on your blog. I’m glad you enjoyed three of the coffees and appreciate the detail you went into. Thank you also for your feedback - we appreciate this and it will be considered as we review and improve our website and products.  

Make Decent Coffee is part of UCC Coffee UK & Ireland. There is a small team dedicated to Make Decent Coffee and we believe in the mission. We want people to experience great coffee at home and our goal is to teach people how they can achieve it and to sell to our customers the materials required.

We don’t intend to mislead anyone with Make Decent Coffee - the fact we are operating under a trading name is noted on the website.

Our THREESIXTY range has recently been listed in Waitrose, which means it is no longer exclusive to Make Decent Coffee. However, we are currently working on adding new additions to the range that will only be available on the website and at Make Decent Coffee events. A festive one should be available before Christmas.

I hope this helps clear up any of your concerns, do let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.

Regards,

Dan McGrath
Marketing Manager

T : 07917 045727
W : www.ucc-coffee.co.uk


            The Total Coffee Solution
UCC COFFEE UK LTD | 2 Bradbourne Drive | Tilbrook | Milton Keynes | MK7 8AT | United Kingdom
Registered in England No 2159182

UCC Coffee UK Limited trading as UCC Coffee UK & Ireland. This email message is confidential and intended for the exclusive attention of the addressee(s) indicated. It may contain privileged or confidential information. If you have received this message in error, please notify the originator immediately. All information or opinions expressed in this message and/or any attachments are those of the author and are not necessarily those of UCC Coffee UK Limited trading as UCC Coffee UK & Ireland. Although this email has been checked for viruses and other defects, no responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage arising from its receipt or use

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Pact Coffee Visit: musing on startups and social business

So back in February I reviewed Pact coffee’s subscription service, and was pleasantly surprised in March when I got a phone call from Stephen Rapoport the founder, thanking me for the review and asking whether I wanted to come down, try some coffee and have a chat.  I managed to do this in April, and am now finally getting round to writing it up.  The visit was really interesting, a mix of a start-up working hard and fast, overlapping a lot with my day job in the way they were presenting themselves online: socially and using data, and a lot about the coffee.  I got a lot of time, from both Pete Sivak head of their community and Stephen and was able to ask a lot of questions, which I was pleased to take up.  So this entry isn't really a review or an exposition of Pact as a coffee service, but really just a collection of things from that day which I thought were interesting, and from a company I thought was getting a lot of things right in a difficult space.

So to start mainly on coffee: one of the questions I asked was, who Stephen saw as Pact's competition.  Answer: the Supermarkets.  He was really clear, they aren't going to be able to compete against ultra gourmet coffee internet suppliers – there are some very specialist people out there in supply and very particular people on the demand side.  However they think they can convince the public that getting freshly roasted coffee this way makes such a big difference that they can convert a lot of people away from supermarkets to buy by subscription.   I’m currently just back from the States, and I’m always surprised how many of the supermarkets have grinders next to the beans.  I think that’s the risk I’d be worried about if I were Pact; one of the big supermarkets deciding to give some of that shelf space, currently taken up by bags and bags of very similar (ground-ages-ago) brand coffee, to recently roasted specialty wholebean, and offering to grind there and then.  

It was a nice place when we went in, lots of people busy, lots of coffee on the side, and a friendly welcome.  The side bar packed up with coffee equipment, and Pact and other people's coffee being tried out.  Stephen had a long espresso in a handle free cup, Pete and I some pour-over whilst having a chat.



So on talking about roasting and grinding: Pact’s roasting approach is a balance, and one which I got to ask some good questions on.  Pact were actively thinking about their roasting schedule, (currently weekly with a commitment to less than 7 days old) trying to balance hitting:  the largest number of orders for the key weekend fresh cup;  allowing people the flexibility to change their order up to the last minute (something which I use a lot); maintaining reliability of delivery, and roasting more often to have more recently roasted coffee.  So that’s it pretty much right there, they aren't staking their reputation on something like Twodaycoffee with ultrafresh very small batches, and that’s what my review pretty much found,but they are trying to deliver convenience and fresh coffee, and being open about how they are going about it.

There is too much bad coffee out there, and I think Pact does a good job bridging that gap.  Frankly having gone on through the year trying coffee services, Pact works out a little bit more expensive; you’re paying £6.95 including delivery for each standard bag, and that’s a flat rate over the different types (with a premium for specials which come along every so often).  If you look online, you can probably find the same sort of coffee, roasted more regularly, from specialists from around £5 plus £1.40 shipping, and maybe if  you shop around less than that.  But in Pact you get a slick mobile enabled service and good delivery (reliably in my experience to date) so it’s not a big difference.  Pact are trying to do something different and reach a wider audience regularly, I did hear some people at my work joke that they couldn't move through our office without finding one of their £1 first free bag cards.  They are pressing hard but I think it’s a good way to see if more freshly roasted coffee is going to be better for you, and if it convinces anyone to leave the supermarket ground, and try out a bag, I’m all for it.

It was really nice to head over with Stephen and Pete to see the coffee packing, and actual bags of coffee leaving via a room full of very busy people, grinding, and measuring, and matching up with orders.  The original grinder from when Stephen was running the company as YourGrind from his kitchen (not being used now) was there 



and some new kit in the form of a large measuring machine that was in constant use.  I was really surprised to find that over 60% of the shipped bags that day (and pretty typically) were ground.  This really surprised me, but kind of fitted as we talked through - most people are converting from buying supermarket ground, and just going fresh is enough of step up along with the convenience.  If you are signing up for Pact, or any other freshly roasted internet service, you’re going to notice a difference, but I’d really encourage you to go whole bean and grind your own – you’ll notice a difference again.  Just a simple decent ceramic burr hand grinder if you’re prepared for some arm work will make another jump in your coffee.  It’s also a nice thing to do and makes a great smell leading up to your coffee.

One of the reasons for the visit, had been some coffeegeek forum questions about the Pact roasting method, and who did it.  I did ask some of those questions and got great answers, but actually got a lot more side tracked by other interesting things to talk about: what startups feel like, what’s important to get right, and the strategy which Pact were following.  Actually Pact had already done a better article than I can document here, in responding to the forum.  So if you'd like to know Stephen’s forumresponse back in Feb, then the roasting article on the blog shortly after my visit , and more recently following up on roast depth for more customer feedback.  So if you want to know how they are roasting it’s pretty easy to find out, and they are very approachable, with a lot of good events, including the India Biba coffee tasting and others like coffee cocktails recently if you'd like to go and talk more.

One of things that you have to get right if you want to create a socially led brand, is to be transparent, consistent and authentic.  If you get there, then you have to also listen – social is not just an outbound broadcast channel.  People will be telling you what you are doing right and wrong, if only you are listening.  I think that Pact shows a number of really good examples of that, and my visit really struck me as one of those:  something had come up, people asked questions in forums and socially,  they invited people down to see it in person and meant it, and replied through all the same channels.

One of the things Stephen said he’d really like to have was a coffee shop attached to the office, maybe through a big glass wall, but a way in which when trying out something they could just go and ask what real customers thought quickly and honestly.   It would cut out the abstraction, enable being able to talk to people actually buying and enjoying your product then and there, and ask them what they thought about something new.  I love that immediacy of working with startups, when we had visited the grinding room, one of the recent developer joiners (with the baseball cap), was just testing out the barcode scanner integration that he had been up late the last night writing.   Here was the first working demonstration: he checked with a package that it was working in the background whilst we were talking, saw Stephen and showed the Founder scanning the next packed package off of the desks.  Stephen checked it appeared on screen over the shoulder of the person who normally had to tick off each order manually, and that was it.  It was signed off for use, and that person previously entering that the order had been packed didn't need to do that any more and could move onto the next problem.  That’s agility, and the sort you only get when you’re hands on, being totally over what’s going on in your business and you trust the people working for you.  All credit to the developer (apologies I didn't catch his name) for the on the spot test, and the fantastic corrugated cardboard stand for the smartphone running the integration you can see in the picture.



Trust, customer feedback and agility came up a couple of times.  Pact were running a big survey of all their customers at the time, well designed enough, and I’d filled it out, but I've always found those very hard ways to get meaningful data you can act on, unless you are asking very carefully crafted questions.  Also often if you do that careful crafting, what often comes out is that you learn something telling you that there was a different carefully crafted question you should have been asking.  However the data guy was finishing processing the results, and they had some initial outcomes and been able to run it quickly,  but it was that immediacy of feedback that a coffee shop would afford, and listening through social that Stephen already found gave most of the answers they needed.  Stephen talked about the challenges of where they were at as a start up and, what really rang true for me from working with other startups, was him saying that the biggest challenge for him and Pact right now "was not working out what to do, it was working out what not to do"; they could improve and work on any number of things: but what was critical? what was going to move the company forward? and what did customers actually want?  Stephen was clear that they weren't like Facebook (move fast and break things) - they couldn't afford to break too many things and they couldn't afford not to move fast - so being able to go through that feedback loop quickly was extremely important.  So longer term, having an in house roaster would be great, but was that the most important thing right now? or was it scaling with automation to meet the volume of daily shipments (as I’d seen being worked on), or was it looking at the roasting frequency? – back to that question of what did people want? even fresher coffee, or was reliability of delivery and flexibility of the subscription more important?  That’s the fundamental challenge that faces start ups all the time; we know everything we want to do, but what are we going to next?



There were three things on the walls at Pact I loved, and I’d recommend for any business, but particularly at this sort of stage.
                Get shit done (quite possibly my favourite coffee based photo of the year)
                The customer before everything
                Data helps us win (didn't grab a photo)



There is something incredibly powerful about having everyone in a room, having a brand that has formed around some key people, and some key ideas, and then getting up and writing them up on the walls.  All credit due.

Especially with a social, Omni-channel approach, you have a real challenge as a company grows, rapidly like Pact is, maintaining the ‘rightness’ of the people you’re bringing in and continuing to give them the same freedom and autonomy that you had at the start; you need them to wield in order to move as fast as you have to.  So I’d been really impressed at all my touch points with Pact – it all felt right and the same tone, from the forum response, to the tweet responses, to the blog, to ordering on web and mobile, to email, to Stephen’s phonecall, to the visit.  That’s a lot of channels to deal with and a lot of touch points to get right.  There is no way you can afford in something the size of this to be using something like Hootsuite (good though it may be) to be vetting each of your employees tweets before it goes out.  You've got to have faith that you've brought the right people in, that they are doing the right thing, allow them space to do it, and if you or they make a mistake, put your hand up and fix it.  Pact were on top of this well, a good example here with the V60 offer for new customers in August, it had really annoyed some existing customers: but the Founder takes time to write, writes personally, includes the actual social info, says it wasn't good enough, says what they are going to do.  Listening, reacting:  it again feels right and consistent with the rest of things I saw on the wall, and through my other interactions.

I asked specifically about how they were handling the social side, and finding the right people needed to maintain that as they grew.   Stephen thought it was an interesting challenge as they continued to get bigger, but at the moment most employees tended already to be a Pact customer and had taken up one of the additional interaction opportunities with them: they had done a bit more than just buy coffee and that was a good start point.  Then they needed to talk to three of key people founding/running the business, and if those three people agreed then the fit was reliably right enough. 

As a complementary example when talking about the most common problem that people might complain about (which was unsurprising typically an occasional delivery being wrong or not hitting the right day) most people in the office had at one time or another delivered coffee to people by hand on their way home.  That’s a great thing to have happening at your office, and talking through it, it turned out was a really nice thing to do both for the person getting the coffee, and the employee as well, because normally the person receiving it were delighted.  OK so that only works in London (or wherever you are based), but I think it’s a great litmus test of whether you are maintaining the right attitude on your floor: if people are doing that for you, they are probably going to be actively promoting you well through their other personal channels.

Of those social channels, I just don’t think we can underestimate the ‘real’.  Social, Virtual, Immersive, Web, Mobile, Video, Audio.... are all good and customers are very happy to use them when they are quicker, cheaper and easier to reach you and your products.  But it’s too easy to send out spam through all of those, or just make them much harder than old fashioned ways where as they should be easier for you and your customer.  If you can’t back up what you are putting out into the socialsphere, with high value, real people, real places, actual doing interesting things, the public will just edit it out of their introspective feed.  It’s clear to the savvy audience we have now, what is lip service, what is synthesized, and contrastingly what actually feels like a place you might want to interact with in person even if you never actually do it in the real. Having a base and real face to face opportunities is crucial to maintaining your authenticity.  One of my colleagues went down for a cocktail evening at the office, and I had a great chat to him about what that felt like, why I hadn't gone (I’d got an invite), who he’d talked to and what he thought.  That conversation is going to have generated far more powerful advocates than just another how-to-brew-coffee youtube video.

So often you can tell a company’s health (startup or otherwise) from the feel on the floor, and oddly with startups you often find in the most uninviting of the most of inviting and friendly of companies. So what was visiting the biscuit factory like?



It's in a part of town that's a bit intimidating: people going to the cocktail evening where a bit worried, luckily it was summer and so light evenings.  
But on the other hand this was the free tote: 


one of the staff had designed and was given out to some other customers before last Christmas, and I think I received the last one, as we talked about Hario putting origami in their packages, and other companies putting gummy bears in and what it meant or felt like to the customer.  Best of all, getting lost looking for Pact initially, I found this view round the corner from the office (still inside the biscuit factory).  It pretty much describes to me the London start up scene, from re-purposed industrial startup space, looking up to spiraling shards.  Pretty inspirational view.



So a long write up, and a bit disjointed, mostly just full of things which I thought were interesting, but an important part of catching up with the subscription reviews, and looking forward to restarting some of those.

But oddly I didn't expect to still be a Pact customer at this point, my plan was to signup, do the review, and leave.  But actually I still am.  Generally I’m swamped in coffee, I get given it for free fairly often, I’m trying out a number of places and coffees at most times anyway,  why do I need a fortnightly subscription?  Well in turns out that a fortnightly subscription is really not what’s it’s turned out to be.  I got in a good groove with one of Pact’s Brazil mix espresso blends, when I got bad coffee or ran out elsewhere, the app took moments from the phone in my pocket to hit deliver and good coffee came through my door, reliably and when expected.  I’ve only actually had 6 bags since this visit, and that’s because the delivery reschedule function works so well and doesn’t stop you saying "next bag in six weeks" or whenever.  So I’ve never ended up with coffee I didn’t want: the email warnings on dispatch are good.   I’ve just delayed those orders out, or hit "NOW" when I needed it.   So to date, whilst it's not the absolutely best coffee I’ve found, I’ve found very good coffee I like, a really good service and company I feel very happy with, particularly good delivery format, and it’s the only one so far I can reliably order the next bag from one handed with my phone whilst waiting for extraction.  It turns out that that’s a winner.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Dropping the nose-to-tail from the blog

So I've dropped the nose to tail content (the blog posts are there, but now un-indexed) of the blog.  We are still cooking nose to tail, the brawn is still waiting to be done, and I did some great potted cheek and oxtail recently, but the writing didn't work out.  Mainly the photographs all looked the same, and the internet is full of bad food photography which I didn't want to add to.  There are people out there doing it way better, I like http://foodurchin.blogspot.co.uk/ in particular.

So the content adding something, and from the analytics, by far the most read is the coffee and hifi, so I'm sticking closer to that, and more making it more of an outright blog with what is going in on with me.

The posts for the next three articles finally proof read by my better half, and scheduled waiting to be published this week.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

MakeDecentCoffee: A synthetic social brand for UCC


Review over four packs of the MakeDecentCoffee service, 2nd in the series.

Writing had recently completely stalled, and so I am making a concerted effort to restart and catch up.

Unfinished Hasbean, and Two Day Coffee reviews, and a Pact follow up on-site interview after they dropped me a call after the last review have been skipped over to cover MakeDecentCoffee.  This was the first coffee company that reached out and asked for a review, and as they were sending me some free coffee I thought that made them top of the list to see the review up.

I was unexpectedly uncomfortable having had been sent two bags of coffee for free, and it made reviewing the overall service a bit hard, so I ended up buying a further two bags and registering on the site to make sure I could do the same format end to end as I’d planned to do for my other reviews.  I thought it would be a very straightforward thing after that, but despite keeping trying to write it, something didn’t quite ring true, and so the review ends up deviating considerably from the originally intended thinjetty coffee format, but proved interesting none the less.

MakeDecentCoffee: What do they say they are they about?

So MakeDecentCoffee have a manifesto, it’s not very long, so I thought worthwhile repeating in full here, as whilst the coffee was fine, I don’t think some of this manifesto rings true at all, but when I asked what they were looking to come through in my write up, this was what was copied and pasted in by their social media consultant, so it seems like the best place to start.

“Whats this all about then?

We're glad you asked - allow us to enlighten you.

Make Decent Coffee is an idea, a movement, a message. It's a collective of everyday coffee enthusiasts & the occasional coffee guru - keen to share ideas, knowledge & experiences that are centred around alternatives to instant coffee in the home, office, family picnic …just about anywhere really.

Our mission is to educate & make decent coffee accessible for all through simplifying coffee brewing methods as best as our collective experiences allow. Coffee is a labour of love, a little more time spent can really make a huge difference to your coffee life.

We'd like to challenge the idea that we all need to settle for bland, 'burnt-toast' tasting instant coffee as the only option for a quick coffee. We need your help & experiences to see this ambitious idea gain a foothold - lets get the phrase 'decent coffee' into the everyday vanacular.

We view the achievement of our coffee ideals as an on-going process & the content of this little web-space will reflect that. So please take a look around the place & let us know what you think - we need your feedback, your opinions & want to hear about your experiences to see everyone 'doing-it-decently'. 

Peace.

THE MDC TEAM”

All very noble, there is too much bad coffee out there, and moving people away from instant, and above that away from ground sat around supermarket is something I fully support.  A lot of people and companies entering this area and trying to get this through, and a lot of enthusiasts are out there, being involved and talking about it in a very social way.  I'll just use MDC (MakeDecentCoffee) going on as that's how they sign this off

What’s the site like?

So I was setting out to review subscription services as part of starting to get all my coffee through the post but MDC isn’t a subscription service. According to LiquidJolt interview with MDC this is because it leaves the customer to choose and experiment.  Fair enough.  So what though is the purchasing experience like through the site? The site is very direct, it leaps you straight to buying coffee by brewing method – clearly at the top Buy Coffee, Buy Coffee Equipment.  On offer is 360 coffee and Lyons beans from £3.19 for the Lyons up to £6.99 for the Grand Cru 360, and a good range of enthusiastic brewing method equipment, Chemex, V60, Aeropress etc.

Behind the purchase prompts, are a good set of guides on how to use the equipment, and a series of blog articles talking about enthusiast coffee topics.   It has slick produced infographic style pictures, abet from generic coffee style pictures, none of it is very personal, but it’s short and clear and generally good information on moving away from bad coffee.  MDC are pretty active at the major coffee festivals etc, hosting a lounge at the London Coffee Festival winning the “Favourite Key Feature”, they are getting out there with pop up stands, and well done for doing so

The site though doesn't work make it very easy to order from mobile devices, it renders OK but in fullsize style, so a lot of zooming necessary to get through screens which is a pain.  Ordering by mobile is important me as that’s what I have to hand when I run out of coffee, and I’m normally heading off to do something else, I don’t want to have to log on to my laptop and get distracted with work to solve the coffee problem.

What was the coffee like?

So MDC moved to weekly roasts each Wednesday for the weekend back in May 2013, I found the info a bit hard to find on the site, but it was repeated in their emails.  I was sent two bags for free, and bought two further bags.

Bag 1: Brasil Bahia


Out of the Gaggia came a Brasil and El Salvador blend I was very happy with, and this went in.  It slotted right in, straight away tasting very good, definitely fresh, good balance, good crema.  Mild chocolate notes, sweet and well rounded read the tasting notes and completely agree.  Went through normal way I test coffee , moving through the very short espresso, then a double espresso working out the right grind, turning out actually very similar to where everything was already set.  It’s recommended on MDC's iste for Pourover or Aeropress, and I tried it those ways as well as usual and it was fine, but actually I was by far most happy with the espresso machine.  (Cap was nothing special  Very happy with this coffee indeed, and happily turned to the second bag.

Bag 2: Espresso Revolution

This one's tasting notes read full bodied caramel sweetness.  Beans came out looking beautiful but very dark, not sure the picture does them justice, but all was not well. I thought I’d messed up the short espresso, and kept trying, the double still the same: both came out ridiculously strong tobacco tasting and smelling - as was the nose of the beans.  I really couldn’t get past it to make any better appraisal.  Frustrated I went back to the Brasil Bahia, and locked these up in an airtight container.  I tried again the next weekend with drip, but just opening the container put me off – too much of a tobacco aroma to stomach.   At this point I gave up as the smell just wasn’t going let me review it properly.  So unclear whether it’s just this week’s roast, but didn’t get through normal test method at all, and can’t recommend this one.


Bag 3: Italian Deli


Another very dark roast, and I was rather worried after the last, but this bag smelled good.  This coffee was really fussy with the grind level and took some perseverance, maybe four espressos before I was happy.  But then got a really reliable very European style standing outside the metro at a tiny cafe bar style espresso. Rarely does the bags advertising this sort of thing seem to deliver, and was pleased here that it did.  Tasting notes say creamy almond, I’d say more fine bitter dark chocolate, but not too bitter, and a good acid balance.  Really liked, not normally what I look for, but good.  It did though fade really quickly, I normally run a bag on a fortnightly cycle (through this test though running both of the second bags over the period) but second week this bag just wasn't doing it for me anymore.  It wasn't bad just had lost that initial flair.  Didn’t make very good drip, came out a bit bland in the chemex, a bit burnt in aero or V60. Espresso was definitely the way to go

Bag 4: Guatemala Antigua

More versatile, more suited to V60/Aeropress, I used this one extensively whilst travelling, not as much lemon as I’d have hoped for given the notes and style of coffee, but agree with the good mouth feel, and a good balance.  Not sure I’d seek out especially, but a decent cup.

Round Up

One very good, two decent, and one I really didn't like, and bar that bag all appreciably better than supermarket bought ground, and definitely better than instant.

Post and Packing

I don’t think that MDC has this right for an internet based shop.  The bags are standup style for shelf display, which when looking at putting coffee into boutique shops makes sense, but it doesn’t for selling online as they won’t go through a letter box.  The first two bags were delivered in a jiffy bag, the second two came in  this huge box – it wouldn’t fit in our parcel box  either, so it’s just lucky one of us was in the day it arrived.  laces like Hasbean/Pact, both have dedicated flat packaging that goes through the letterbox, I particularly like Pacts stiff outer cardboard sleeve round the padded single way valve jiffy,  but either works much better than this.




The second bags came with some branded chocolate scattered in the box, which was a nice touch.  Hario put gummi bears in sometime, Hasbean wrapped my Chemex in an old full size coffee sack, and a couple of other online shops but this was the first time I’d got chocolates.

Cost

So pretty competitively priced for the sort of coffee, post and packaging kept low.   You’ll pay around 50p more at Hasbean by my judging for equivalent, or £1.50 for your subscription at Pact, but it’s very dependent on exactly what you are buying and the postage charged.

Conclusions

Decent Coffee Roasted Weekly, but not sure what the differentiating factor for MDC is.

Suggestions

So I very much wanted to write helpful reviews, so the key practical things I’d suggest for MDC would be.


  1. Update the site to work with mobile
  2. Explain who they are upfront with the welcome to the site, don’t just leap into BUY – explain what sort of company it is.
  3. Move to an internet delivery friendly flatter packaging format not stand up shop style bags
  4. Make it easier to find information on where your coffee comes from, the company and the roasting approach.


Would I buy again?

Absolutely not.  

So a couple of things struck me as odd whilst getting through to this point: why the person reaching out to me was Michael Kay from Klood a search optimization and social business consultancy rather than one of the “enthusiasts” from MDC.  My tweets tagging the @name went unacknowledged, and the sort odd slightly impersonal style of the blog, and the site, and getting information being just slightly harder than I thought it shoul dbe, meant that I really didn’t get MDC as a company and went off to look at why that was.

Turns out MDC was setup in 2012 by UCC UK, in term owned by UCC WW (Japan).  Actually UCC are a pretty well laid out and transparent company judging from their website, I liked their page a lot more.
It talks about their 28 global roasteries, 11 European, Dartford and Corby roasting 80kg of coffee at a time and it covers clearly their multiple brands Lyons, Grand CafĂ©, Cooper, Three Sixty, Grand Cru, and MDC going on to talk about how UCC is Japan’s largest producer of coffee with £2bn annual sales turnover globally and 7,300 employees

Multi-nationals are not bad – far from it, there are great things about buying from a multinational, and the things that scale of company is able to do, but it become clear that MDC is a simply a branded front trying to look and feel like an enthusiast start up, and that’s highly disingenuous, and not somewhere I’d like to buy my coffee from.

The more I checked, the veneer became clearer and clearer.  If you check out most companies in this space people are proud to be part of them and list them.  If you search for the MDC employees on LinkedIn, you find out they don’t exist.  The “Team” all work for UCC - going through the three listed blog writers from the MDC site you have

Philip Smith – “Category Manager at United Coffee UK & Ireland” since 2003.

Donna Carter – “Graphic Designer at United Coffee UK & Ireland”

I think her LinkedIn blurb sums it up nicely.

“The United Coffee Studio works alongside some of the UK’s largest contract caterers, independent coffeeshops and even a high profile celebrity (Peter Andre) to create funky, engaging coffee brands.”

And then Sean Pittaway, who to be fair has come through as a barista: Notes Music and Cofee in Covent Garden, Ozone in Shoreditch, then joining UCC

So this is a cooked up social brand, reselling the main companies existing products of 360 coffee, and Lyons, and not particularly well.  Putting them both on the same site doesn't make sense to me as the blurb for the “premium” Lyons beans reads much like the Grand Cru – are you trying to encourage me to spend £3 on coffee or £7 per bag?  On 360 it doesn’t list anywhere on the MDC site the special google map co-ordinate search information that is a feature of the packaging for 360, t’s just changed a black bag to a brown paper one for MDC.   I mean just buy 360 coffee from Waitrose, what is MDC for?

The UCC site is open, clear and doing some good things from end to end training on coffee quality, helping bespoke brands and boutique coffee shopts compete, it’s really clear who they are.  The MDC site on Facebook says – Coffee Shop – but you’ll find no photos of anyone in the coffeeshop. The address is an industrial estate in Tongwell Milton Keynes it’s no sort of coffee shop you’d go to hang out in, there are just slick produced infographic style images, and then pop ups at coffee festivals etc.  That just isn't enough with the sort of look and feel this MDC site is presenting.

More importantly it is absolutely not what their manifestos states.  It is not a “movement”, it is a not “collective of everyday coffee enthusiasts” it’s a synthetic front designed by a multi-national to address social market and it’s missing the point.

          If you want to sell socially you have to be authentic.

With all the other companies in this space, they have been nothing but authentic, key people reaching out to me unpromted, wanting to engage, and proud about what they are doing.  Here is a company none of the three major writers list on their CV, and employing a social business consultant to cynically go round and try and drum up some coverage, and cutting and pasting words from the website into a email.  Here are a few of the others sites receiving free coffee about the same time as me from Matthew if you’d like to check what they think out.

http://www.edinburgers.co.uk/make-decent-coffee/ 
http://www.coffeemumbojumbo.com/2014/07/25/time-to-play/

I’m fine with buying coffee from a big multi-national, I just don’t want someone to try and fool me into thinking that I’m not.

This MDC vehicle for me is literally aping the enthusiast coffee movement with launch stunts with people in Gorilla suits and Peter Andre (at least he actually runs coffee shops in Brighton and NY).  That is not appreciated, and frankly I doubt will help UCC's brand very much either.


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Digital v Analogue Speakers: the Dream and Reality

So I am a huge fan of Meridian kit for digital reproduction (well Sonos excepted), key leaders in lossless processing. Pretty much the most impressive thing I ever heard whilst working in Hifi were 6 x DSP6000s run through a 568.2mm processor at a Hifi show (might have been an early 800 mule to be honest, but it were the DSP6000s that left the impression).  Despite being in probably the most dreadful possible arena for sound reproduction - massively noisy, fake walls - they sounded stupendous.  Only heard DSP6000s a couple of times afterwards and as long as you have the room always sounded epic; One of my future should-I-win-the-lottery purchases (much prefer the monolith look to DSP8000s).  The 568.2mm is a great box, and I was delighted as they came within purchase range recently, it handles all my movies and digital side.

You don't need to go as far as that as DSP5000s work in a huge variety of rooms, and with a decent digital source, and meridian processor you have to go a long way to find something sounding better.  My brother's all time favourite, and we sold a lot of them over the years.  That combination of moving the digital to the speaker, allowing a digital crossover, control of the whole package, two 24/96 (in the two later versions) DACs and 3x75W individual amplification for each drive unit, just put such power and control together in a actually quite compact, and with the DSP, very tolerant box.   It also gets rid of all the piles of power amps that you quickly end up with otherwise.  You get a neat and beautifully designed (if a little boxy for some in shape) system.   You can get them now for £1800 and when you look at what you get, that looks like a bargain to me.

So why don't I have a pair?  Well I would apart from one thing, you can't turn the digital off.  It just seems wrong to me to spend so much money on getting your turntable to sound wonderful, then digitize it on the fly.  I can understand if people want to record their vinyl to high resolution digital 24/96+ for the portability and get access to those original recordings and improved dynamic range and then playing it back digitally when they want to listen (and protecting that precious disk).  But if I am going to be getting up, opening a beautiful gatefold, cleaning a record, carefully placing the needle, I really don't want to know that it's being digitized on the fly, even if into brilliant 24/96 DSP.  I ran my turntable for a while into the 568mm which is digital only. To be honest it sounded absolutely fine, however it didn't feel right at all, and ADC change the volume digitally and then DAC as I only really listen to music on the 568mm in Direct (DSP off), seemed a huge waste.

So I'd like to be able to say that I have one dream system, unfortunately in that virtual living room - and to be fair, it would need to be a very large one, or preferably two large rooms - there needs to be two: One digital and one analogue.   As I slowly build up what I'm listening to at home, I've quickly come to the same challenge, and who has the room or the budget to maintain two?  At some point you need to compromise and pick the junction point in the system for doing that, and which (no matter how balanced you can be), gets final priority digital or analogue.  Two main positions on this one.

Digital wins: use DSP speakers, and a very high quality digital pre-amp with DAC built in of the sort I was looking at like the Mytek 192 and accept the digitization of the phono signal as high up the chain as possible then digital to as close to the speaker as possible.

Analogue wins: use conventional speakers and shorten the path directly through from the phono through a analogue preamp, then feed in the digital as low down the chain as possible with a separate digital preamp/processor, typically into the preamp, but if possible directly into the power amps and speakers.

I'm going with the latter, and next post is on trying to cut out having two pre-amps to do it.

But if space and money wasn't a constraint, and those systems could be kept separate, what would they be for me?  Well a lot of my choices are for the attachment I have to things, as well as the outright sound quality but both of these would sound awesome.

Digital
Massive room
Meridian DSP6000 x 6, custom 4x 15" cult of the infinitely baffled  style front facing subs
Second massive room for the subs to vent into behind the screen.
Meridian 800 series processing and decoding

Analogue
Massive room
Martin Logan Statement E2
Krell 700 Power Amps
Some sort of Krell PreAmp
A Linn LP12 with a Woodsong plinth, probably a Peter Swain Signature

So starting to work towards those, seems like a massive room is a pre-requisite... not to mention a lottery win, ah well back to looking at how to get my Analogue and Digital to play nicely together.

Not actually Statement E2 but rather Martin Logon CLSii, from the Martin Logon site but I rather like this picture and it's using a creative commons licence allowing reuse.







Monday, 26 May 2014

Unbalanced Power: The Tyranny of Interconnects

So after getting the Cyrus 3 Power Amps happily installed I really wanted to know whether balanced XLR or un-balanced RCA connections were going to sound the best, and secretly I really wanted XLR to win.

I hate interconnects.  They are always too short, too expensive, and never enough of the same type to match. It's a complete tyranny in Hifi circles, you have to have the "Right" cable.  That cable is then ludicrously expensive, and hence short, and short is also supposed to sound better, so some are REALLY short,  then suddenly you can only plug your hifi together in maybe one or two configurations without straining any of the leads, and almost certainly that isn't the configuration which would be naturally ergonomic, or often even practical.  But it's notionally going to sound better, and you've invested all this money in shiny gold, silver, copper and PFTE you aren't going to compromise it just because it makes the the buttons difficult to reach.  By the time I've got a digital system to play nicely with my analogue system and both to play nicely with movies, that is a lot of boxes and cables and I'm fed up with them telling me how to organize my kit instead of the other way around.

So balanced is the great hope, use a technology which makes you less dependent on the type of cable, less dependent on the length.  Buy some good but not silly cable, some nice connectors and make your own the right length.  One nice soldering iron and silver solder (the states type you aren't supposed to use in the EU) and I was ready to give it a go.

So balanced is definitely the way to go if

1) You need long lengths of line level connections (say if you want your amplifier in different rooms)
2) If you have a lot of radio frequency interference (RFI)
3) You have kit which is designed from the start only to use balanced.

Balanced if perfectly implemented should be superior, but it's quite rare in kit in the UK, more common in the States, and on less than very expensive kit often it can be an added on after.

So we have the Cyrus 3 Power Amp - offering a balanced XLR imput and an unbalanced RCA input - which sounds better?

These were my creation of test cables, 2.75m long, Neutrik NC3FXXB and NC3MXXB connectors, Van Damme Tour Grade Classic XKE microphone cable, Qables 6.5mm Y-Splitters (to avoid having to daisy chaining with an RCA)  This is a spec you'll find widely on forums for instance on Hitchhikers here.  Having made a setup I can thoroughly recommend all of it - very nice kit. Probably about £35 of parts.  Most from VDCTrading apart from the splitters which are well recommended by headphone enthusiasts from Qables



These were up against my chosen RCA cable of choice from way back when, the Chord (Silver0 Siren.  Silver plated conductors, Teflon outer, nice RCAs.  I've gone through and reconditioned all of mine recently as some of the RCAs developed intermittent connections.  Taking a deep breath and cutting my limited collection of 1m pairs in order to make some really short ones for daisy chaining and linking power amps and meaning I could use them for all my power side.  Chord Silver Siren was about £65 RRP if I remember.  So expensive, short and a fetching shade of matching.purple which pleased me greatly.


So the Cyrus 3 is quite a popular model, more expensive second hand that some that came after without XLRs.  Is it worth it.

Annoyingly no.

I really wanted the balanced to sound better, but on this amp, in this test it doesn't.  The RCA option is more transparent, more open and fresh.  Not that the balanced is bad, if you weren't doing a back to back you wouldn't notice.  But not a retrograde step back I was prepared to solder a complete set of cables and switches to take.

Yes balanced *should* be better, but in this case, on this amp, it isn't and I'm not alone in thinking this.  Various threads on Cyrus forums here

So if you are buying a Cyrus 3 for the balanced connections for sound quality (rather than dealing with distance runs) don't bother.

So this isn't a hugely precise test.  Ideally it should be exactly the same length and cable type balanced and unbalanced to get a precise answer.   But for me it doesn't matter, balanced was a route to great sound with longer cables, and with more widely available cables at low cost and that I could adjust cables without such a very deep breath before cutting precious materials.  So regardless of which part of the picture, the length, the pure copper rather than silver, the insulation, the internal balancing circuitry in the amp, it doesn't matter the RCA sounds better, and I'm back under interconnect tyranny.

At this point I'd really like to state how nice the balanced materials were to work with..  If anyone is out there designing an amp from scratch, design it to have XLR end to end.  Solid, reassuring, and the right size for my fingers and level of dexterity.  RCA isn't.

The Neutrik and Van Damme stuff is made in huge quantities for stadia, studios, and outdoor broadcast.  It's lower cost because of volume at the same time as being beautifully made.  The plugs have enough space to solder and get a really nice connection on them, even if you aren't a soldering master.   They grip the cable fantastically and support the connection, with a dedicated shield stopping shorting out against the case even if you are stretching and abusing the connection.  The plugs lock in and out of components they have metal solid ends, nice tactile flexible ends.  They are in short friendly, robust and everything most hifi plugs aren't.

 The Van Damme cable is very pure, well shielded, strengthened with really nice string cord internally flexible outer insulation, stiffer inner insulation, strips nicely, cuts nicely, feels nice in the hand.  Again everything Hifi cables often aren't.

Hifi cables almost seem to have to be awkward to use otherwise you aren't sacrificing enough for the sound!






Saturday, 24 May 2014

Changing Allegiance on British Amps

I've always been a big fan of the Arcam Delta 290 (A) Integrated and Power Amps (P), and have since 1996 or so a growing stack of 290Ps until recently biamping left, centre and right, and single amping my rears for music and movies.

There has always been a great British Amplifier tradition amplifiers included and around that time there were three or four in particular which were talked about for somewhere around £500 for the integrated and then powers on top to biamp.

The Audiolab 8000 series, What HiFi raved about these, and ran a stack of 4 mono 8000Ms as their reference system, tonally a bit drier than the Arcams which a lot of people liked, and (IMO) pre the 1998 takeover by TAG Maclaren produced some really fine kit before loosing their way a bit after.

Then there was the Arcam Delta serious, bigger, more space in the boxes, warmer at the bottom and sweeter at the top, though not quite as taught.   I thought it was great, better than the Arcam 8 and 9 that followed (though the 9 is based upon the 290) and that's what I bought into.  Technically you could bridge the 290s for powerful monoblocks, but that wasn't the way they worked best, buying a 290A and then horizontally biamping with a 290P produced a really fine sound and you could argue about which one should power the tweeters and which the woofers all day (to my mind the 290P).

I never got to grips with any of the Mission/Cyrus gear.  Mainly because the shop didn't get on with the rep or the company that well, you had to run the speakers because of the awards at What HiFi but they always made it such hard work compared to the Arcam and Meridian which we were doing a lot of.  But I'd always been intrigued.

All this kit is available at extremely reasonable prices now.  You can pick up a 290A/8000A for £150-180 (watch out for the input selector on the 290As), powers for about the same, Cyrus 3 Amplifiers and Powers in good condition a bit more.  More like £180-220.  Any of these will make extremely fine noises if looked after, whilst processing, DACs have moved on hugely, good amplifiers with decent numbers of the right connections are still flexible and sounding excellent.  You just need the space to stack them up.  So something like this I had on test recently after getting each part reconditioned, really sounded beautiful,



So through April I took a plunge and replaced my set of 4 Arcam Delta 290P Amplifiers with a set of 4 Cyrus 3 Power Amplifiers.   Why?

Mainly space.  4 Cyrus (3) Powers occupy the same space as only 2 Arcam 290Ps, and I want to get everything away and in one rack and when scratching my head with how to do that, they came with a lot of additional stuff.  Flexibility to be biamp or bridged, upgradabale with a PSX-R to have two power suppliers one running the control and audio, one the main power stage which also upped the power from 50 to 70Ws, and also offering Balanced connections.

I've got balanced outputs on my Meridian pre-amps and similarly back when I was selling hifi we had one or two XLR compatibles in the shop, but never really ran an end to end balanced demo system, or had enough of the right cables to do be able to do a detailed back to back.  RCA dominated.   So I was eager to get to grips with Balanced.  Most of the DSD dacs also sport balanced, and if I upgraded I wanted to be able to go balanced end to end.

So initially purchasing 2, then another 2, what did I learn about the Cyrus 3 Power Amplifer?  Well there was quite a lot to learn, so here is a collection of useful things if anyone is thinking about them

Firstly they came with either very annoying 3mm banana plugs of slightly less annoying, but not as nice as 4mm normal banana BFA plugs (the hollow stackable type).  This was because of electrocution concerns over on the continent with 4mm bananas going into plug sockets too sweetly leading to lots of EU grumbling abouts.   There are no binding posts so you have to have the right connectors, I've ended up with an amplification pair of each type.

Moorgate Acoustics sell the best 3mm banana plugs I could find
http://www.moorgateacoustics.co.uk/cyrus/cyrus-3-mm-plugs-set-of-4-1444495-395863-555054.php
You used to be able to get nice bananas just like the 4mm usual ones, and one seller included 2 of them reminding me, but now you only seem to be able to get 3mm bananas is nasty nickel finishes, so these moorgate ones are pricey at £27.50 but good quality.  If anyone out there has any classic gold plated 3mm bananas (socket and screw) I would be interested in buying them! So if buying a 3mm one make sure you factoring into any connectors into the purchase price.  The quality of the connection on the 3mms seems more solid and satisfying than the BFA ones, and some BFA plugs aren't very nice to solder to.  One of my amps the centre pin in the BFAs seems worn as well.   So I'd recommend if you have the choice go for the 3mm ones and plan ahead.  Some forums say you can squeeze down one of the stackable BFAs from 4mm to 3mm carefully with a crimping or pliers.  Whilst you can get something to "work" like this, the connection was highly unsatisfactory and it made a mess - I would leave well alone.  You can also try and remove the 3mm sockets and replace with 4mm, but it's an arkward place in the amp, and the de-soldering risks breaking plastic bits if you aren't precise. Again I'd leave off and buy the Moorgate plugs or similar.

Next up is that (very simple but internal) modifications are needed to use with a PSX-R so depending on how the seller has been using it may just sit and flash the diagnostic lights at you if not compatible with what you are trying to use it for.  The modification is to change around the order of 4 main coloured cables with connector clips on internally.  Taking the case apart and making the swaps is easy, however I haven't got a good guide to post with pictures.   As I had one that worked and one that didn't I changed the one that didn't to have the same order of wires to the one that did....

This was the only picture I took, a little blurry unfortunately, but you can see the 4 pins, near the transformer at the front, which run Yellow, Blue, Grey, and Brown/Red.




You also need to turn the amps off to change between states mono/stereo and balanced/unbalanced which doesn't make very quick back to back comparisons as easy as they could be, though to protect the amps it's understandable.  I have to say the self diagnosis and protection is very good.  Despite shorting on the case trying to sort speaker connections, and plugging them in in wrong modes, no blown fuses, and accurate flashing lights when reading the manual.

They also run a lot hotter than the 290Ps, not painful to the touch hot or enough to trip the protection (even after sustained loud for long), but quite enough that if you have a front on your hifi rack you notice it's getting plenty warm inside.   The classic Cyrus Hark stands with their flush open edges to the cooling fins clearly weren't shaped like that incidentally.  If putting in a closed unit worth considering.  They also seem to idle in standby a lot warmer.  Being noticably warm if not switched off at the back.

So if you press through a surprising amount of setup learning, what do they sound like?

Against the 290s.  Clearly in the same class, but slightly better.  Taughter and bigger at the bottom, not as sweet at the top, but with more overall detail, and more expansive.  Generally very nice.  I think the tone of the 290s I still preferred, but with the space saving and potential upgrade space, I was happy to trade some slight tone for the resolution and scale.

They are also really compact, although that does encourage you to get a large number of the boxes, you could have 8 just for 2 speakers (4 mono powers and 4 PSX-Rs) if you really wanted.

So all in all a worthwhile change, and at the same time I moved from horizontal biamping (one driving the tweeters left and right, and one driving woofers left and right) with the the 290s to vertical biamping (one driving left tweeter, left woofer, one driving right tweeter, right woofer).  I can't say I can notice any difference in sound quality, however that compact footprint lends itself to being place physically nearer the speaker it drives, and seems to lend itself to a vertical stance allowing shorter speaker cables.