J Atkinson & Co - the Lancaster coffee company celebrating 175 years

PUBLISHED: 12:02 09 February 2012 | UPDATED: 23:28 23 October 2015

Sue and Ian Steel at J Atkinson & Co

Sue and Ian Steel at J Atkinson & Co

Food and drink writer Philippa James meets a Lancaster couple who are brewing very nicely

Lancashire Life - February 2012Lancashire Life - February 2012

Ian and Sue Steel turned their backs on successful careers to concentrate on making life one long coffee break. And their decision has been thoroughly justified as J. Atkinson & Co, of Lancaster, continues to go from strength to strength.

They had both reached a point where they craved a life change and decided they wanted a project to work on together. Ian said they asked themselves: ‘What part of our day do we most enjoy?’ The answer was their first coffee of the morning and now the couple want to create that enjoyment for everyone.

Entering the wonderful building on China Street, you are transported back to an age of elegance where time seems to be suspended… the walls are covered with original tea and coffee urns, and vintage 1930s direct flame coffee roasters which bring out the subtle aromas and individual flavours from a wealth of ukdifferent coffees. As Ian said: ‘Every bean counts!’ The art of the coffee roaster is one to be awed by; there is an immense skill to getting each roast right, turning the raw bean into a fine finished product.

In the raw product there are only 40 compounds but, after roasting, the thermic mix leads to around a thousand complex flavours.

Maitland Steel outside The Music RoomMaitland Steel outside The Music Room

As I watched Ian roasting a batch of beans, he explained the chemical reactions caused by heating the beans and told me that after roasting, they continue to lose carbon dioxide and other residual gasses for up to three weeks.

Ian and Sue roast every day and have an excellent reputation for their coffees and have amassed an impressive collection of awards, including, the award for best coffee in the UK presented by The Beverage Standards Association.

The couple have already expanded into the Music Room, a magnificent three storey building which is now a light and airy contemporary cafe which was run by their son Caspar during his gap year from university.

And now they plan to extend into Lower Priory Hall, next to the original China Street shop, where they want to develop a teaching platform and demonstrate best practice for all things concerned with coffee and tea – our national drink isn’t forgotten, they have over 150 teas and tisanes available.

As I sipped on a delightful Java while lacing the tiramisu with dark espresso, a gentleman upstairs in the Music Room’s mezzanine gallery enquired what I was making. It transpired that, many years previously, as a lad of just 15, Steve Marshall had worked in the same premises, building Silver Cross dolls’ prams that were sold in Chris Willan’s famous toy shop.

The influence of the younger generation is really important to the business – Ian said the couple’s two sons, Maitland and Caspar, are ‘always pushing us on, they prick our conscience all the time and goad us along, not letting us sit back and rest on our laurels.’

The lads also bring the artistry of the barista and where other coffee houses serve coffee in buckets, here there is a pared back menu of black or white coffee in 4oz, 6oz and 8oz measures.

To ensure they get good concoctions on record, in order to repeat them, brew weights are measured, along with the quantity of water and brewing times. ‘It’s a science,’ said Maitland. ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure.’

And yet, amid this science is a dash of romance – each coffee of the season is named after one of the nine muses, Melpomene, the muse first of singing and then of tragedy, being sipped as winter was embraced, now spring approaches Terpsichore is on the menu, from the Greek meaning of delight and dancing, light and ethereal.

From humble beginnings Atkinson’s, who celebrate 175 years trading this year, and who have been based at this historic premises since 1901, now supply a vast array of wholesale and retail businesses as far afield as London. For customers who can’t make it to Lancaster, Barton Grange Garden Centre at Preston stock a range of products and serve Atkinson’s tea and coffee in their restaurant and café.

Tigger’s Kitchen news

If Sky television don’t decide to throw Jonny and I off the channel, following the Valentine’s episode of Tigger’s Kitchen, (Jonny had been on the wine, and it was all getting very giddy!), I am delighted to report there is to be a second series. Keep watching Lancashire One, on Wednesday, and Sunday, at 7pm, and for those without Sky, you can follow the link from their front page when the programme is on.

Tigger's Kitchen at Lancashire One

The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012  issue of Lancashire Life 

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