With the launch of the Tia Maria + Coffee Project and a selection of new, innovative serves that unite coffee culture with cocktail hour, Tia Maria is leading the way in coffee cocktails.
To celebrate this, Tia Maria teamed up with MUNCHIES for Coffee and Conversation, a series of conversations over coffee with the owners of some of London's top coffee-serving establishments. We talk about all things Java: the industry, the cocktails, the science, and the steaming mugs of Joe at the heart of it all.
For this installment, we visit Coral's, a restaurant curing hangovers, serving coffee, and creating classic cocktails in South London.
Around two years ago, Lerryn Whitfield opened a cafe on Rye Lane in Peckham, South London. Unlike a lot of new bars and eateries in the area, Lerryn's wasn't the sort of place to chase trends or promote gimmicks on its menu. It simply offered locals a restorative brunch and quality coffee. During the summer of 2014, when bartender and chef Sean Blake hosted a pop-up cocktail bar in the cafe, it also offered a great night out.
After the success of the pop-up, Blake and Whitfield joined forces on a fulltime basis. Lerryn's became Coral's, and the cafe expanded its daytime service to include dinner and cocktails.
I recently caught the bus to SE15 to talk to Whitfield and Blake about coffee, cocktail experimentation, and establishing themselves in Peckham. They also gave me an espresso cocktail and some French toast, which was extremely great of them.
Hi Lerryn, hi Sean. I was hoping you could start by telling me how Coral's came to be? Whitfield: Lerryn's, the cafe, started in 2014. That summer, Sean ran a pop-up bar here and it went really well. During that time, I was thinking of changing some things anyway because the cafe's garden had just been taken from me. So me and Sean decided to come together and make a new business, which is this: Coral's.
Blake: Lerryn's always worked in cafes and she wanted to do it for herself. When I came, what really we wanted was just somewhere relaxed that was open all day and that people could get something that suited each point of the day. One of our big inspirations was treats—just nice things when you want them.
So, it wasn't like your escape from any sort of soulless corporate job? Blake: For me, it was. I left another restaurant company about four years ago, after seeing it grow from one restaurant to almost ten. I'd been doing the pop-up stuff, hoping to find a way to get my foot in the door somewhere. Me and Lerryn clicked so it seemed like a sensible thing to do. That's kind of where Coral's came from.
Why did you guys decide to open in Peckham? Blake: I grew up in South London, I've never lived anywhere else. Lerryn's lived here for the last ten years. It's just local. Obviously there's this whole, like, "renaissance" of South London, but for me it's quite nice. For the last ten years, I've had to go to Central London to earn my money. Whereas now, work is on my doorstep.
Meaning you'd have opened it here whether or not there was a "buzz" around Peckham? Whitfield: The cafe opened before that was starting to happen in Peckham. I didn't move here or open the cafe because that happened.
What obstacles have you faced since opening? Whitfield: With Lerryn's, there were tonnes. I opened it on my own, which is why it was so nice when Sean came in to share the responsibility. I suppose the longest and most detrimental was the garden. It was closed after a noise complaint. And from that I went through lots of different appeals and tried to adjust my license. I started an online petition as a supporting document for an appeal which turned into a decision eight months later. It was hard—we probably lost customers over the summer—but we adapted. Now we've got the garden back.
Why did you decide to grow from Lerryn's, which was just a cafe? Whitfield: Yeah, just hangovers and brunch.
… to Coral's, which serves from morning until night? Whitfield: Sean's so good at making cocktails. When he did the pop-up at the cafe, it would light up the nighttime. It needed a makeover anyway, so coming together was just a way of utilising both our skills.
Blake: And in London, you need to use the space you pay for otherwise you can't make your money. Why be closed when you can be open?
Did the switch to Coral's bring about a change in clientele now that you were providing different things? Whitfield: I can't tell really. I think it's a mixture of us changing and Peckham changing. When I first opened the cafe, it was just me, my friends, the locals, and now Peckham isn't like that anymore.
How do you come up with the menu? Is it like a seasonal thing or more outright experimentation? Blake: It's very much dependant on the season. We change it whenever an ingredient we're using is not available. We've had really lovely figs for a few months, and now we're going into stone fruits, more wintery things. Although we do have a set structure—like the French toast—it will always be there but it will have a different topping on it depending on the season.
Was it a tricky transition when you expanded the menu from just breakfast? Blake: The first dinner menu we wrote, we weren't used to the space, so we've had to work it out, play with it. But that's kind of the fun bit of the business. Now we've settled into a really nice structure that works for us and the customers.
Whitfield: It's also a really small kitchen. You can only have one chef or one bartender or one barista in there.
Moving on to coffee - how do you go about selecting yours? Blake: We have a really good relationship with Climpson's, a British coffee roasting company. They've got an arch by London Fields. They're a lovely company, we can go and train with them whenever we want. They teach us about the blends and our staff can learn how to make coffees there. They're good to us and the coffee's delicious.
Whitfield: The beans we're using at the moment are Colombian and Ethiopian, but it changes.
Blake: You get those citrusy, sour flavours from areas like Ethiopia.
Whitfield: I like chocolatey flavours—they're more the South American beans.
The coffee here seems pretty strong, but that may be because I'm a coffee wuss. Is the strength down to the bean or how the coffee is brewed? Blake: Every morning, we set up our machine so we're getting exactly the right weight of grind—we're getting the right yield of espresso that's coming through for the right amount of time. So we measure in 18 grams of espresso exactly, then we expose it for between 27 and 32 seconds—this changes it from a bitterness to a sweetness. The length of time the espresso's in contact with water changes the taste of the bean. Climpson's do have quite a strong blend, but that's what you pay for.
And why are people more inclined to pay for better quality coffee these days? Blake: Everyone's had one of those fluffy lattes from a chain, and when you taste a quality coffee you notice the difference straight away. Not only that, on moral levels: It's been responsibly sourced, people are getting paid what they deserve to get paid for their beans. Those big caramel spiced pumpkin latte toppings are just there to cover up the shit coffee. We just do really short, nice, strong coffee.
Whitfield: I think your palette gets trained by trends. If coffee becomes really accessible and it's everywhere, you suddenly start wanting good coffee over bad coffee. But I didn't like it when coffee first became a "thing," and everyone started being a dick about coffee. I think it's nice that it's now toned down a bit. We just have nice coffee.
Now that you're also serving cocktails, is coffee still an important part of your establishment? Blake: It's the bread and butter that keeps you open. It's the constant throughout the day. People come for the coffee but then they see the menu and have something to eat.
Whitfield: All the regulars are the coffee drinkers.
Blake: And then after 6 PM, the cocktails are the bread and butter.
Let's talk cocktails. I just tried your vodka espresso. I don't drink a lot of cocktails—is that a typical cocktail? Did you come up with that? Blake: My first ever bar job was with Dick Bradshaw, who invented the Espresso Martini. Originally it was called a vodka espresso, before "martini" became such a useful word for selling cocktails—essentially a martini is a polite way of asking for a chilled glass of gin or vodka—nowadays it tends to label anything that's served in a martini glass. I just wanted to have his recipe on the menu. He died this year, so I wanted to do it his way. With a lot of our drinks, we tend to do things as classically as possible, whereas the trends are to have big garnishes, glasses shaped like God knows what.
I take it you're not keen on any sort of wild experimentation with cocktails? Blake: There's plenty of room for experimentation within the flavours and liquid content of the drink, but for me, it's less about tasting with your eyes and more about tasting what's in it.
Why do you think there's been this renewed interest in cocktails? Whitfield: Are cocktails having a thing?
Blake: I think cocktails have been going in and out every 15 years for the last 100 years. There's that whole prohibition speakeasy thing which put loads of craft into bartending—and it had become a lost, Eighties art, where people were making big blue drinks in pineapples, setting things on fire—all the bar flare and stuff. I think nowadays, people care about the ingredients, rather than how drunk it's gonna get you or how big it looks.
You ever tried making any other coffee based cocktails besides the vodka espresso? Blake: Yeah, we had a White Russian on our menu. But we went a bit silly. We used cereal to sweeten it.
Whitfield: You know the milk at the end of a bowl of Frosties? It was that milk. It was very sweet and delicious. Like pudding.
Blake: I like putting a shot of coffee in a rum sour as well. Coffee and lime go really well together.
Alright guys, tell me who you'd most like to share a morning coffee with. Blake: I actually really enjoy it when me and Lerryn share coffees in the morning. It's our one chance, especially on a Monday or Tuesday when we're closed, to actually take a step back and take everything in.
Whitfield: That's true. While we're open during the week we're part of this joint roller coaster, which is full of emotions and stresses. Then when we close for the day, we get to be friends again. It's not always coffee. Sometimes it's wine. We also have a loyal customer here called Diane, who's here at 9 every morning to help us set up.
She must be one of you favourites … Whitfield: Definitely. She's helped us set up every day for the last three years. She just comes in, it's part of her routine. I give her cups of tea in exchange for her polishing the cutlery.
If someone was planning a first date to Coral's, would you advise them to have coffee or cocktails? Whitfield: Cocktails.
Blake: Yeah. I think I'd rather drink when I go on a date.
Whitfield: I love seeing dates here. I feel like you always know when it's a first date. Especially in the evenings. It's a date place.
What plans do you have for the future? Whitfield: One thing I'm trying to plan is "Coral's Dinners"—which would be asking different chefs or bartenders to come and host for the evening and work with Sean to make a menu. The first one of those is November 17th.
This article is from Coffee and Conversation, click here to read more.
All photos by Tom Griffiths.