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'. 



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.


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.


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


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.

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.

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