Interview Tom Blackwall


As global head of coffee at Finlays, the international coffee producer with customers including the major grocers and top high street names, Tom Blackwall is passionate about coffee and the industry.  As the newly appointed chair of the British Coffee Association, he will be striving to bring UK coffee businesses, large and small, together to tackle the key issues affecting coffee now and in the future. Kate Oppenheim reports

“Coffee is a very emotive topic, a lot of people are very passionate about it, myself included,” begins Tom Blackwall, global head of coffee at Finlays and the newly appointed chair of the British Coffee Association. 

“It has a positive impact across the globe. It’s a trading commodity and a high value cash crop, but being a commodity on the Futures Market means that the price fluctuates wildly, and that has resulted in prices being very low at the moment,” explains Tom, voicing concern that it’s currently hard for farmers at origin to cover costs of production. “Coffee companies and consumers,” he continues, “need to make greater efforts to ensure they are paying a fair and proper price for their coffee.”

Not an easy task, he readily admits. “It is hard. I visit many areas around the world and see that the cost of production varies enormously from one country to another, as it is dependent on so many things. It is difficult to buy a blend of coffee and know that the farmer is getting good value for it. I know that many companies do strive to create a sustainable supply chain, where every actor within it is profitable.

“It really is up to each individual company to ensure they are paying a fair price, and for companies and industry to come together to see what we can all do collaboratively to ensure farmers are being paid fairly.”

Projects at origin, including working with farmers to increase yields, reducing inputs, such as fertiliser, all help and were key to helping farmers be able to better withstand fluctuating market prices, he adds.

“Coffee is a luxury item for people in the developed world, but for a farmer it is essential for their income. The BCA brings together key players within the industry to look at sustainability issues, ranging from reducing packaging material to working to tackle concerns at origin,” Tom explains.

BCA currently has 62 members, representing the whole sector and involving some of the biggest players within the industry, including Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero, Bewley’s, Lavazza, Nestle, Matthew Algie and Finlays. For a full list of members, click here

One of the top jobs on Tom’s ‘to do’ list is to increase that membership to include some of the smaller roasters, the independent and speciality coffee shop operators. The BCA has a structured membership fee, which bases cost of joining upon annual turnover, to make it affordable for smaller businesses to join.

“We provide a very valuable service to our members, from offering help with technical issues to regulatory matters and, of course, questions relating to the current political situation.”

A highly topical issue for roasters at the moment was the levels of acrylamide in coffee, which the BCA could advise them on.  “A member can phone us up and ask how to reduce the amount of acrylamide in their coffee and we can assist. While current EU levels are advisory, it’s highly possible that these will become enforceable within the next few years,” he adds.

Platform for coffee’s next generation

“I am also passionate about the next generation of leadership within the coffee industry. Under my chairmanship, I am very keen to create and embrace this next generation – the many young men and women working within the smaller roasters and businesses who are passionate about what they do. I am keen to create a platform for these people and help them define the future of our industry.”

Campaigning and lobbying is a big part of the BCA’s remit and fighting against a no-deal Brexit is another key issue. “We are pushing for, and will always fight against, a no-deal Brexit.

“If no-deal plays out it will have a massive impact on the coffee industry for two key reasons. One, it will see a return to World Trade Organisation tariffs, which means roasted and processed coffee imported from the EU will have a 7.5% tariff and instant / soluble coffee will have a 9% tariff. That will add a massive cost to the supply of coffee in the UK.

“Green coffee will remain as a zero tariff, but the UK imports a lot of coffee, especially soluble coffee from the EU. If there’s a no-deal, the price of coffee will go up and it’s also quite likely that choice will go down.”

Tom continues: “Secondly, migration and labour movement into the UK. The UK economy relies heavily on the inward migration of EU workers and the current position on no-deal suggests free movement will end in favour of EU visas, favouring highly skilled workers, which will be to the detriment of younger European workers, who are the sort of people working in retail and coffee shops.

“The profitability of our members is of great concern to us and reducing the volume of labour and costs will impact on them.”

The BCA, says Tom, will ensure its membership gets a voice, both within the UK and Europe.

It recently produced a White Paper, looking at sustainability across the supply chain.

“There are many issues in the world of agricultural commodities that one company can’t tackle on its own. But working together as an industry with the BCA we can. As chairman, I am also keen to promote collaboration within our membership but also within Europe and the US with other associations too. The BCA is a key contributor also to any Defra reports and also collaborates with the ICO (International Coffee Organization and wider European coffee associations too.”

Another topic high on Tom’s and the BCA’s agenda is the issue of waste recycling, discussing key issues such as the need for a national waste infrastructure to end the current post-code lottery of recycling. 

“The issue of plastic is a difficult one, as coffee stales very quickly and making sure coffee quality is maintained is a priority. So, we are actively speaking to the Government about waste recycling. It’s really important, especially as people are unsure of what’s available to them locally; what to do with their cup – do they put it in the compost or recycling bin? Most compostable cups can’t go in a home composter, they need industrial composting,” he adds. 

“There’s talk of a tax on plastic to pay for recycling schemes, but Government needs to recognise that businesses can’t absorb all of these extra costs. We all need to think and consult on the best way forward. It’s important Government gets the infrastructure right first – it’s not about bulldozing through measures.”

So, whether you’re a green coffee buyer, roaster, independent café or speciality coffee shop, it’s highly likely Tom and the BCA will be wanting to speak to you, as he begins his campaign to give a voice to more businesses, while rousing the next generation of coffee’s passionate ‘next generation’ to step forward and join him in his mission. 

This article was commissioned and published in Beverage Business World (Quinic Events).

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