Matthew Carroll – Owner @ Fortitude

Juggling a newborn baby, running a coffee shop and a roasting business; Matthew Carroll (owner at Fortitude) took the time to have a chat about all things Edinburgh. We hope to get Matt back sometime in the near future for a Podcast, he is such a lovely guy and touched on some super interesting topics.

This chat with Matt inspired the article,
Nothing Too Fancy Please, read here.

On all things Coffee

First getting into coffee

My first reaction was “shit, this isn’t going to be good”. But [John Lewis] was my first experience using a coffee machine and working in hospitality and I quite enjoyed it. I think it was the coffee side [that got me hooked] - they had all this ridiculous equipment that nobody knew how to use properly so I took it upon myself to figure it all out.

Me and John [Gibson - formerly of Brew Lab, Roaster now at La Cabra in Denmark] started to realise that there was more to it than we were being told, so we started to explore a bit and ended up reading lots stuff up on the internet and watching hours of ,how to do latte art’ Youtube videos and messing around. At the time, we started going to visit some of the good coffee places that were available 6 years ago - Wellingtons or Artisan - so we’d go there for coffee and really enjoy it. Our interest grew from there.

First opening Fortitude

Honestly I cringe when I think about some of the things we were doing at first. Just really stupid things that if you sat down and planned properly you wouldn’t do. But that’s part of the experience and part of the adventure doing it. We spent maybe the first six months to a year correcting everything we’d done wrong at the start.

Starting getting into Roasting

I saw it as a time to explore. It was a case of buying any coffee that you like the sound of and just giving it a go in the roaster, and learning through that process. Learning what works well, what doesn’t work well, what I like to roast and what I like to drink. Starting the roastery the whole point, was to be able to have more of a personal stamp on what were doing.

Why do people come to Fortitude?

I like to think it’s because first and foremost we are welcoming. As friendly a service as we possibly can. It’s why I tell every person who starts working here that before they learn how to make a coffee, service is at the forefront of everything you should be doing. At the end of the day you’re a hospitality business, you’ll be serving people. You could serve them the most amazing coffee but if you’ve been a dick to them then they probably will not enjoy it.

There’s nothing worse than somebody saying: “I really like going to that place but it really depends who’s on”. What’s the point?

How important is product?

Very important.

If our coffee [quality] drops overnight I reckon we’d start to see our sales drop pretty quickly. Especially in Edinburgh where there’s plenty of other places you could go.

But ambiance is a good part of it. I think having a good soundtrack is vital - if we’ve got good music on people will come up and tell you. It always makes a difference I think. People are going to walk away not only remembering the coffee they’ve had but the experience they’ve had as a whole.

On the big coffee companies

There is a definite appreciation of them being around, but then at the same time I do think that they distort the market a little bit. Not necessarily what it’s worth, but what a coffee experience should be. The amount of people who come in here and ask for a tall vanilla latte and then you have to start your whole talk that unfortunately, that isn’t something we do here, “but would you like a regular latte that we do with this coffee?”. Sometimes I feel like those people go away disappointed, not aware or thinking that we’re a limited place. “Oh they don’t even offer that” as opposed to understanding that there’s a little bit more going on.

Where can speciality coffee bars learn from them?

It’s definitely something we’ve tried to do from the start, which is [to have] quite an open approach to things. I think one of speciality coffee’s problems in the very beginning was that it was very narrow minded. It was like ‘we are doing this one thing and if you don’t like it then that’s tough’, whereas obviously at Starbucks you can have loads of choice, mix things up. If you want this you can have this, if you want that you can have that, and that’s something speciality coffee didn’t really do at the start. We’ve had it from the very beginning that, apart from things that we simply don’t have, if somebody wanted a little less coffee or the milk a little hotter we always just go ‘yeah sure’.

Accessibility is the number one thing that we can learn from commodity coffee.

The Rest

Food and drink in Edinburgh

I feel like it secretly has one of the best food and drink identities but for some reason it doesn’t really get shouted about all that much. I think when people want to do a restaurant tour or a coffee tour in Scotland they usually go to Glasgow. I know a lot of people will skip right past Edinburgh and straight to Glasgow when they’re thinking “where’s good for coffee in Scotland?”.

Maybe that’s part of the charm [of Edinburgh].

On working with the cocktail bar downstairs (Nightcap)

We have a cold brew which we do, it’s quite a unique cold brew. So we use sonic cavitation to extract it - it’s quite a unique process, where we essentially use sound to break down the coffee beans and extract the flavour over 24 hours. But we do a really concentrated version of it that the guys downstairs use for their cocktails. They use it in their espresso martini.

Ever since the guys opened we’ve always had a dialog to try to do things together. I think there’s definitely more space for that.

Opinions on Restaurant Coffee

I am amazed still that more restaurants haven’t tried to offer a better coffee menu. With such a highly curated food menu, highly curated wine offerings and now more beer offerings, the coffee is still just awful. Just generic commercial coffee at the end of the night.

There is 100% room for it, I guess it’s just about breaking down those barriers. I know there has been slightly more interest now since places like NOMA in Copenhagen (best restaurant in the world 2010/11/12/14) - they work with Tim Wendelboe on their offerings, and the Coffee Collective as well. So if they’re taking an interest in it and want to use good coffee as an ingredient in things, and offer it to their customers, that should hopefully start to trickle down as being an option. A place like that where I imagine everyone looks up to it, it’s like “Oh shit. They do speciality coffee? Get on the phone to someone!”.

If I was a restaurant owner I’d want everything to be at its best, [but here] they get to the coffee and they just stop.

Opinions on the direction Edinburgh is going

I think it will plateau for a couple of years. I feel like it’s reached a certain point now where everyone has got their little space and everyone is doing is pretty well. There’s so much changing in Edinburgh right now, there’s so much development going on -there’s the new St James centre being built - that I think you’ll start to see changes after like five years.

On ‘hipster things’

There’s still a divide in British culture full-stop to distrust ‘hipster’ places. There’s a strange distrust for that. There’s this term ‘gentrification’ and people lump it into that. A lot of people in this country pine for this Britain that used to exist that wasn’t actually that great anyway. They just don’t want it to change, so when they see things changing, half the people are like “Oh nice, here’s a little independent shop” while the other half are like “Oh man, I remember when this used to be ‘this place’ so I’m not going to go there.”

They seem to much rather frequent a Starbucks or Costa than a ‘hipster place’ because they seem to want to give their money to the international conglomerate that doesn’t pay their taxes rather than honest hard working people.

It probably is a little bit of feeling out of your comfort zone. That’s definitely part of it. I think as well, the British have this very unique approach to food and drink which is changing slowly. But it’s this idea that food and drink isn’t something that can be really really good, it’s like “nothing too fancy for me”. It’s a very British term-  “oh, nothing fancy, just a coffee please”. Whereas in Australia it’s like “no no, I want the best that’s going”.

I always use my mum as a barometer for this. She thinks that we’re incredibly posh and I’m like “we’re really not”. It’s very down to earth and we’re just trying to make some decent coffee [at Fortitude]. Nothing too fancy.

What's missing in Edinburgh?

I really like going to see live music, there’s precious few venues to go see music for free.

Where Matt goes from here?

I usually go home!

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