Introducing… Mike Riley

Introducing… Mike Riley

Welcome to our ‘Introducing…’ series! We’ve interviewed some of the people that make Rounton Coffee tick – whether that’s people in our team, people who we’ve met along the way, or figures in the coffee industry that help us do what we do – we want to be able to share with you the stories of the people behind the coffee you’re drinking. First up is arguably the most knowledgable mind in coffee that any of us know, the brilliant Mike Riley! 

Name and Occupation

I’m Mike Riley. I’m in speciality coffee sales for Falcon Specialty and I also work independently as a Q Grader Instructor. This means that I work with some of the best coffees in the world and sell them, in their green and raw state, to small batch speciality coffee roasters all over the UK and Europe – Rounton Coffee is one of our best customers which is great because they’re on my doorstep (I live in Harrogate) and it means I can cup (taste) coffees regularly with the roasters at The Granary and talk coffee at one of my favourite cafes – the Joiner’s Shop in Ingleby Cross.

I am currently the only Q Grader Instructor in the UK. In this role, I teach high-level coffee tasting and run extremely demanding courses in which students must pass 19 blind cupping exams over three days. If they pass all of the exams (only around 30% do) they become licensed Q graders which is regarded as the highest qualification in coffee tasting in the world. I was delighted when Dave Burton of Rounton Coffee attended my last course and passed at the first time of asking. It means he has a very discerning palate, which is a great asset for Rounton Coffee.

How did you get into coffee?

I’ve been involved with coffee all of my working life – that’s 32 years! I grew up not too far from East Rounton, in Robin Hood’s Bay, where my parents fished for a living. That’s a difficult and unpredictable way to earn a living and it never appealed to me but it was my introduction to the food industry. After school, I went to college in Scarborough to train as a chef and then studied food science in Leeds. After my final exams, I got a position at Taylors of Harrogate as a trainee in tea and coffee. Five years later I was Head of Coffee which meant I was responsible for buying and blend development. I held that position for 20 years before leaving to set up the speciality coffee division of Falcon Coffees. That was in 2011 – not long after I met Dave and the fledgeling Rounton Coffee, and was able to help with some blend development.

What is it that you like about coffee specifically?

That’s a tough question because there are so many elements of this business that I love from the sociology of coffee and the need to apply sound ethics in all transactions, to the creative process of blend development. I love the speciality coffee community because everyone is so passionate about what they do. Ultimately though, the thing I love best is the flavour of coffee. I am fascinated by the huge variations that exist in those little brown beans. There are chocolatey coffees, fruity ones, coffees with floral nuances and others with distinct tropical fruit flavours – others with boozy rum and raisin flavours. It’s as varied as wine and just as fascinating.

What is your favourite coffee origin, and why?

That’s not fair! It’s liking asking me which is my favourite daughter. I suppose it depends on my mood but usually, my favourite coffees usually come from Africa. I love the high lemony notes of a beautiful washed Kenyan coffee but would I swap it for a floral, bergamot-like cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe? And then there are those amazing Bourbon coffees from El Salvador and the deep chocolaty coffees of Sumatra. It’s too difficult. Can I get back to you on this?

Washed or Natural, and why?

I love the fruity, sweet and complex flavours in a natural processed coffee – those beans that are dried in the fruit. They have big, bold flavours but I like them best when they are balanced within an espresso blend since they have enough character to kick through a flat-white or a cappuccino. However, if I could only drink one type of coffee for the rest of my life I would choose a washed process variety. In the washed process the outer fruit of the coffee cherry is removed immediately before a brief fermentation and washing process which brings about really refined and clean flavours – often with a lot of pleasing citrus fruit-like acidity. So in short… washed.

How do you drink yours?

My first drink of the day is tea! The next is coffee and I use a V60 (a porcelain filter) that I can sit on top of a small glass jug or my favourite mug. I weigh out 16 grams of coffee and use 250ml of freshly boiled water. It’s really quick and the results are great. When I’m on the road I really enjoy the occasional flat white. I love the barista’s ability to finish the cup with incredible latte art which makes the coffee look so appealing.

What is your proudest achievement in coffee?

I am proud of my qualification that allows me to teach the art and science of coffee tasting, but it’s the ethical work we do at Falcon Coffees that I’m most proud of. We have several projects around the world which involves helping smallholder farmers to grow and process much better quality coffee – and for this, they can get up to three times higher a price. The coffee tastes great and the farmer has a better income so everyone’s a winner.

If you were not working in coffee, what would you be doing?

I’m nearly certain that I would be working with tea. Since I started my working life as a trainee coffee and tea taster, I have a deep love for both beverages. Tea is just as varied and fascinating as coffee, although sadly, despite it being our national drink, it doesn’t seem to be loved as much as coffee by those in the industry. The speciality coffee industry has generated a huge amount of interest and passion during the last decade whereas tea seems to be lagging behind. We have become a nation of paper teabag drinkers and yet those little leaves have so much more to offer. I think tea’s time will come during the next few years – pretty much in the way we have seen with coffee, gin, craft-beer etc.


If you could change one thing in the coffee industry, what would that be?

I worry a lot about coffee farmers. They work incredibly hard, often for very little reward. The speciality coffee industry has had some impact on improving things by creating the demand for very good coffees and paying farmers much higher prices for these. However, around 90% of world coffee consumption is of lower quality commercial grade coffee. Prices for this are determined by the world markets – robusta in London and arabica in New York. They are both currently very low – in many cases, the prices farmers are receiving are below the cost of production – a situation that sustains poverty and struggle. If the large commercial roasters would pay higher prices so that farmers could thrive and the consumers would pay higher prices for their coffee, the world would be a better place. That’s a big ask, so in the meantime, I just encourage people to drink ethically sourced, high-quality coffee – the stuff that Rounton Coffee is roasting.

What do you do away from coffee?

I am married and have two teenage daughters so they take up a lot of my time. I play the blues harmonica and am learning classical guitar. I love walking, gardening, great food, travel, watching football (Leeds United) and I’m an avid reader. If I’m not drinking great coffee then the odd craft beer or really good gin and tonic will hit the spot.