Four - minute read
Each month, we will be profiling one of our favourite independent bars, cafés, restaurants and retailers. This month we meet Nathan Retzer, owner of Quarter Horse Coffee in Birmingham…
I’ve got a confession to make. I had a few preconceptions before our visit to Quarter Horse Coffee, an independent coffee roaster and café in Birmingham’s southside – and it made me a bit anxious.
During the past 10 years or so, coffee shops have changed. As a result, (not all the time, but more frequently than I’d like) when I walk into an independent café, I feel a bit awkward. Maybe it’s because there’s almost always an aloof, hipster barista, who sighs at my incompetence as I try to choose between mushroom latte or blue algae tea. Or maybe it’s the concrete floors, bare lightbulbs and pallets repurposed as tables that sets me on edge.
But Quarter Horse is different. It is the opposite of the picture I’ve just described (bare lightbulbs aside.) Step into the bright, spacious coffee shop and roastery on Birmingham’s Bristol Street, and your hipster-induced café anxiety will immediately dissipate. The friendly, knowledgeable staff are happy to tell you more about the coffee being served (it changes every six weeks or so) and there’s not a mushroom latte in sight.
This warm, welcoming, atmosphere is exactly what owner, 31-year-old Nathan Retzer and his wife Ameeta, wanted to create with the space. “We don’t want to cultivate this kind of elitist thing with coffee,” he explains. “It’s a nice beverage; it’s a nice luxury that we can all pretty much afford. This is a shared space and we want everyone to feel as welcome as they would if they were in their own living room.”
This is exemplified by the diversity of Quarter Horse’s customers, who are impossible to pigeonhole, but do share one characteristic: “The thing they all have in common is that they like the space,” says Nathan. “So, whether that’s a freelancer working from here in the middle of the day, or a family at the weekend, or an older, retired couple who come in for a Sunday coffee with the paper – it’s all the same; they just like being here.”
UK vs US
Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Nathan has worked in coffee for almost 12 years. He’s done everything, from barista, to manager, to roaster, honing his skills in a country where coffee culture was – and still is – very different to the UK. “There’s a lot more demand for coffee in America; there are more coffee shops and they’re a lot bigger,” he says. People also use cafés differently in the US, he argues. “Here, people often use cafés as places to work from – not that they don’t do that in America. But, in the US, if you have a favourite coffee shop, you would be in there every day for a takeaway.”
This grab-and-go approach to coffee is not as prevalent in the UK, meaning less volume. Did that worry him? “No. There are pros and cons to the differences. For example, the cup size is smaller here and you can limit the number of options you have available, too.”
The ‘gateway drug’
We get to talking about the evolution of the UK coffee shop and how smaller independents seem to be offering something to consumers that the larger chains are perhaps not. “In the States, everybody who I ever worked with in the coffee industry all started the same way; with a tall vanilla latte from Starbucks. That’s the ‘gateway drug’ if you will. You kind of get aware of coffee that way. Then, your coffee starts to get a bit smaller and the vanilla goes away and once you’ve gotten to drinking coffee that tastes like coffee – from somewhere like here – you really notice the flavour difference. They [Starbucks/Costa] serve a purpose; we need someone to go through that transition.” Nathan likens this to the craft beer industry which has seen a similar evolution, with more than 300 independent breweries launched in 2016 alone.
A tale of two cities
Until January this year, Quarter Horse had a sister establishment in Oxford. This arrangement meant travelling back and forth between the two cities, trying to juggle the management of both shops, plus the coffee-roasting side of the business. The travel began to take its toll and Nathan and Ameeta had to make the difficult decision to sell the Oxford café and refocus their efforts towards Birmingham. “We just got to the point where not being in there was hurting the shop. So, we sold it on to local people who love coffee – and our coffee is still used there,” he says. Now he’s able to be at the Birmingham shop almost daily and is confident they made the right decision. He currently splits his time between roasting coffee, liaising with the many local coffee shops and restaurants he supplies, and managing the business side of things. “I don’t have anything to do with the day-to-day running; I’ve got a manager who works really, really hard, which allows me to just sort of hang out on the roastery side,” he says.
The shop houses Birmingham’s first coffee roastery in one half of the premises and the coffee shop on the other, so that customers get to see the whole process. The plan had always been to combine the two elements in one building, and because space in Birmingham is so much cheaper than in Oxford, they had much more choice when it came to venue options.
Nathan operates the roastery alone, but the idea of roasting amongst the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop appealed to his sociable nature. “I could have roasted in an industrial space, but I just didn’t want to; it’s a bit lonely. I didn’t want that to be my life,” he says.
Quarter Horse has also housed a pretty impressive array of events, including choral music, a latte art ‘throw-down’, performances by students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and numerous pop-up restaurants – a product of Nathan and Ameeta’s good relationship with local businesses. “The whole pop-up food thing came out of the fact that they [local restaurant owners] were all coming in here to get coffee. You get talking and you do one event and then it just develops from there,” he says.
Before I go, I have to ask: where does the name Quarter Horse come from? He smiles. “A quarter horse is a race horse that runs a quarter-mile race. I liked the name, but that was back when I was living in the states – then I moved here and realised no one knows what a quarter horse is because it’s an American breed,” he says. “I wish there was a really great story – but there isn’t.
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