Discover Leeds' First Ethical Coffee Roasters North Star Coffee
Leeds' first coffee roastery, North Star Coffee, celebrates its 10th birthday this year. We catch up with co-founder Holly Kragiopoulos to find out more about their journey into the world of ethical coffee roasting
It was also at university that Holly met North Star’s co-founder, her husband Alex. ‘We both came into the coffee industry professionally from the source first – we weren’t baristas who worked our way up to roasting and sourcing, but rather we started by going to Kenya for three months in between our second and third years at university, visiting coffee producing regions, talking to farmers about their experiences producing coffee, and learning about the social and economic impacts that working with Fair Trade has,’ she explains. ‘This experience pulled us hook, line and sinker into the coffee industry.’
Following their trip to Kenya, Holly and Alex couldn’t believe the intricacy of the coffee supply chain, how many people were involved and how many families depended on it. ‘We also realised what an amazing opportunity it presented for positive development if coffee was traded more responsibly, putting the farmer at the centre of the transaction,’ she says.
Once Holly graduated she knew she wanted to continue in the coffee industry and got an unpaid internship at an importing company in Harrogate, sourcing coffee directly from producers across the world, bringing it to the UK and selling it to roasteries across the country. ‘I was there for three months and learnt everything there was to know about coffee. I became a certified Q-grader which is a certified coffee taster – a bit like a sommelier for coffee,’ she explains. ‘I learnt everything about the industry and the different roles within it, as well as how many different opportunities there are.’
At that time Holly and Alex noticed the area was lacking its own independent roastery. ‘There were 60 roasteries in London and 14 in Bristol, as well as little pockets of craft independent coffee roasteries popping up across the country, but there was nothing happening in Leeds, which was a real travesty from our perspective as we couldn’t actually enjoy coffee in our home city,’ Holly says.
‘We were in the privileged position of being 22-years-old with no mortgage, family or responsibility back then, so we took the chance and opened our own roastery in 2013. For both of us it has been our only job and never in a million years did we imagine employing people and doing what we’re doing now – it’s been a huge journey for us.’
Carving jobs out for themselves, Holly and Alex put everything they had into starting North Star Coffee. ‘It wasn’t something that we thought we would do on the side, we were passionate about the experience we had which opened our eyes to the inequality in the industry. It was a risk because we were aware that we might not be able to source coffee in 30 years’ time, partly because of climate change, but also because producers had been marginalised for such a long time that people were starting to uproot coffee, because it’s too difficult to participate in and grow,’ Holly explains.
Holly and Alex therefore felt strongly about setting up a business which at the very least provided a better way of working. ‘Alex did a lot of the ground work when it started, paying himself on occasions just £10 or £20 a week. We grew the business very organically and we’ve never had any outside investment,’ Holly says.
Filling a gap in the market, North Star Coffee became the first roastery in Leeds and was well received by locals who had clearly been missing authentic artisan coffee. ‘There was a huge amount of local support which has always been so appreciated,’ Holly says.
However, a lot of people are unaware of the intricacies behind creating the perfect coffee. ‘Roasting is essentially cooking coffee and not a lot of people understand the role which a roastery plays. I think they think you source it from wherever it grows and just like that you can put it in an espresso machine and it will make a great latte. That’s not the case at all.’
Sourcing from a network of producing partners which they have built up over the years, Holly and Alex import coffee in its raw state of bright green beans. ‘It looks a bit like lentils and smells nothing like coffee in its raw form – it actually smells like garden peas and has to be roasted to make it soluble in water,’ Holly explains. ‘The roasting process itself involves a big machine which has a drum rotating above a gas flame. Ours uses hot air which cuts down emissions by about 80 percent. There are lots of roasting machines out there, but there’s a lot more involved than just pressing a few buttons and turning coffee from green to brown. It’s a completely sensory-driven science.’
Using bean temperature probes allows Holly and Alex to make decisions around how to adjust the profile they’re roasting. ‘There are many flavour compounds in coffee which change by applying heat through the roasting process, grinding and extracting flavour. We can essentially roast beans to bring out a specific flavour profile that exists purely because of the soil which the coffee grew in.’
Not only were North Star Coffee the first roastery in Leeds, they have also been a driving force in sustainable and ethical coffee packaging. ‘Right up until 2019 a recyclable coffee bag didn’t even exist,’ Holly says. ‘There’s very little carbon footprint in growing coffee as a crop, in fact it’s carbon positive a lot of the time because it grows underneath trees. By far the worst part of the coffee industry in terms of the negative impact it has on the environment is the use of espresso machines to brew coffee in coffee shops which use a lot of energy, as well as the milk and the packaging,’ Holly explains. ‘Those are the big three which we have our eyes on in terms of how we can alleviate some of that waste and some of that impact.’
In 2019 North Star Coffee switched to recyclable packaging, but when the pandemic hit their online sales skyrocketed showing them just how much plastic there was in the coffee industry. ‘It didn’t sit well with us. Regardless of the fact that it was recyclable, not many people do recycle and we were bothered by that so we put a year’s worth of research into our customer needs and also into the options which were out there,’ Holly explains. The result was that North Star became the first roastery in the UK to launch a home-compostable option. ‘It was a huge leap because up until this point there had only been industrial compostable material which isn’t accessible to lots of people at home who don't have food waste collections. We launched compostable packaging in September 2021 and we’ve been really happy to see that as a result there are now 10 to 15 other companies in the UK which have made the move as well.
‘What’s probably on our side is our length of service. We were the first and only roastery in Leeds for about 18 months from when we set up so we had a good crack of the whip to get our coffee out there and grow our brand and develop our own skills,’ Holly says. ‘We’re probably most proud of our team as we have one of the most qualified coffee teams in the UK in terms of skillsets within the business, and because we are more established we’ve got the ability to work on the things which will make the difference in the long term,’ she adds. ‘It’s been amazing [to grow a business in Yorkshire] and it’s quite emotional to talk about because Alex and I often find it hard to believe we’ve become a part of people’s everyday routine.’
Looking ahead to the future Holly and Alex want to expand their chain of coffee shops, focusing on proving that a hospitality business can be run without compromise on quality or ethics. ‘We’re not looking for global domination, or to become the next Starbucks, but what we do want is to make a definitive mark in Yorkshire,’ Holly says. ‘I would love to have another 10 years at this and get to a point where we’ve built a blueprint of how to run this kind of business so that we can potentially help others do the same, or share that learning to make a bigger impact.’
What’s your favourite blend?
Our Christmas blend because we change it every year and we have loads of fun putting it together. A lot of people think it’s a real gimmick but we genuinely pick coffees which evoke the flavours of Christmas – so tastes of dried fruit and oranges – and every year we nail it. Plus, the fact it’s only around for four weeks so you absolutely make the most of it whilst it’s here.
Your go-to coffee order?
It would be a black filter coffee but it would come with a lot of necessities – good coffee, good equipment and someone would have to know what they’re doing with it. If I go somewhere and think this isn’t the place for that then I have a cup of tea. That’s what comes after 10 years of being a coffee taster, you become very snobby about the coffee you drink.
Other than coffee, what’s your drink of choice?
Probably wine as I have a huge interest in it. I’m one of those really annoying people who will sip a wine and say it tastes of this, that and the other.