Inside Job

Posted: Wednesday 13th February 2019

With its state-of-the-art coffee roasting facility at HM Prison Aylesbury, Redemption Roasters at Coal Drops Yard is giving young offenders a second shot at a career, writes Simon Mills.

A cursory glance at the Redemption Roasters’ logo, etched onto the window of the coffee house’s Coal Drops Yard location on Stable Street, suggests nothing more than lucidly communicated corporate branding; two capital R’s, arranged back-to-back, representing the initials of the company name. A closer look though, reveals a second graphic device; the two letters coming together to make the shape of a deadlock keyhole — a subtle clue to the maverick philosophy and working practice of the Redemption Roasters marque.

Go through the keyhole and you enter a caffeinated nirvana. Customers requiring a perfectly executed morning livener will be offered Redemption Roasters’ own 1874 blend, made to brackish, espresso perfection on a shiny chromium ‘Slayer’ contraption. The requisite café orchestra of Faema-powered steam heat, loud sucks and scorched blows, nonchalant bangs and delicate tamps, delivers classic milky flat whites, cortados, cappuccinos and lattes. Mugs of single origin coffee — perfect with one of the café’s fresh pastries or avocado-on-sourdough toast snacks — are made via a batch filter process, while a slower, drip brew of Rwandan Nyarusiza is dispensed by way of a funnel-shaped V60 coffee maker. So far, so second-wave coffee, right? But the difference at Redemption Roasters is the unconventional career path of staff manning noisy machines and serving hot cups of morning joe — many of whom have also served at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

On a mission to help young offenders successfully reintegrate into society, and armed with the knowledge from the Ministry of Justice that prisoners are 50 per cent more likely to re-offend if they finish their sentences without skills and the opportunity of a job, company founders, Max Dubiel and Ted Rosner, raised £80,000 to launch a coffee academy at HMYOI Aylesbury prison. At the Buckinghamshire young offenders institution for 17–21 year olds, prisoners are schooled in competition-level barista-skills and the fine art of professional roasting. They learn about flavour profiling; coffee bean varieties and how to grind them; how to warm and nurture beans on a state-of-the-art Petroncini roaster; how to operate, maintain and clean an espresso machine; and, of course, how to make and present a cappuccino that looks and tastes like Milanese ambrosia.

While on the Redemption Roasters course (which can run from a few weeks to a whole year) inmates get a worthwhile inside job, serving coffee to the prison community at a Redemption café, the programme’s ultimate aim being to place its graduates at one of its shops or with an affiliated coffee wholesaler upon their release.

As Redemption Roasters’ Marcus Wood likes to put it, “We take young men who have never even tasted proper coffee before… and turn them into fully rounded coffee nerds.” While other coffee chains are criticised for unpredictable and unstable ‘zero hour’ contracts, poor working conditions, low pay and long working days, Redemption Roasters is offering alternative, fairtrade coffee industry employment and an honest, viable future.

With the initiative over a year old and further roasting academy programmes currently running at HMP Bullingdon, HMP Springhill and Wormwood Scrubs, business at the world’s only self-styled, ‘behind-bars speciality coffee company’ is heating up. “Just as our coffee sourcing is ethical,” says Dubiel, “We’re showing the whole process can be socially responsible too. The result is a finely crafted cup of coffee that raises the bar for everyone.”

Do prisoners get paid for their work? Ensuring that everything is fair and legal for its graduate students, Redemption Roasters also collaborates with the authorities on a carefully structured payment system. Rates for prisoners working during their sentences are controlled by the Justice System, individual prisons and a ranking based on each prisoner’s behavioural record. “We don’t have any influence on the amount any individual apprentice is paid, neither are we allowed to pay them directly,” explains Dubiel. “But we do pay certain fees to Aylesbury prison in respect of expenses they incur in hosting our roastery, an element of which covers pay for our apprentices. When we give work experience to prisoners released on temporary license, we pay them and cover their expenses… something we aren’t obliged to do.” Woods adds, “The trainees don’t technically work for us… we are simply helping them out.”

Of course, working under prison conditions with young offenders, many of whom have been sent down for violent crimes, is not everyone’s cup of Java. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons last year said that violence and drug activity had risen and that safety at Aylesbury was a “major concern.” But Wood, who is head roaster at Redemption Roasters at the prison, says he’s never once felt threatened during his time at Aylesbury. “As workers we are all issued personal alarm bells by the authorities. I have only ever pressed mine once… and that was by accident. Before I began a career in coffee I spent a year working as a GCSE teacher and I can tell you, I feel far safer in the prison than I ever did in the classroom with a bunch of 14 year-olds.”

This article first appeared in the winter 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.

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