Backpacking through Asia a few years ago, I became obsessed with Thai and Vietnamese coffee. Strong, sweetened with condensed milk, and in Vietnam each cup with it’s own little brewing contraption, it’s the stuff of any coffee fanatic’s dream. Now whenever I see it I have to stop.
Such was the case one (rare) sunny morning in London’s Maltby St. Market, where I came across Gary Kirby and his stall Beanbag Coffee. Gary brewed me a coconut Thai coffee, one of his most popular flavors, and told me snippets of his story.
While teaching martial arts at a gym in Thailand, Gary spent his free time visiting temples and drinking lots of coffee. He became fascinated with the brewing method, where you soak the beans in a cloth filter, infuse them with different ingredients, and then serve. Next, he spent time at the coffee farms of the Bolaven Plateau in Laos, learning more about how coffee beans are grown, quality, and tasting. Back in London, he worked in a coffee shop for a few months to perfect his barista skills, meanwhile working on his signature brew. Soon, Beanbag Coffee was born.
In the ten minutes I stood by the cart, a line of coffee drinkers spiraled through the market, some well-versed in Asian brewing methods, some who had never heard of Thai coffee before. Gary prepared each coffee methodically, not letting the line stress him out, while explaining the brewing method and answering questions. He’s one of few, if any, baristas brewing Thai-style coffee in the UK, so his popularity is understandable.
We caught up again a few weeks later, sans market, and Gary told me more about his ingredients and philosophy.
“It’s very important to use fresh ingredients,” he says. “Which is why I source all of my ingredients locally.”
About 30 percent of Beanbag Coffee beans come from small farms in Laos and Thailand, with the rest changing weekly and coming from India or Vietnam. But all added flavor and other ingredients come from local vendors. Avocado, banana, chocolate, peanut butter, mint–the flavors go on and on (and are all worth trying!), and many are made possible by collaborations with other carts at the Maltby St. Market.
Though Beanbag Coffee started out as strictly Thai-style coffee, Gary’s method has expanded into a blend of many Asian coffee traditions.
“The brewing method is specific to Thailand, but I take everything in Asia into the diffusion. Ginger, turmeric, carrot seeds, cloves, things from Pakistan, things from Cambodia, really a mix,” he says.
In the future, Gary hopes to look into new coffee bean markets, partially because as a small business it can be hard to buy quality beans at reasonable prices.
“Why not use Cambodia? Why not Burma?” he says. “My philosophy with my coffee is I want to make great coffee and I want to make sure people don’t get ripped off. At the same time, I want to build a relationship with farmers. I want to give them an opportunity,” he says.
Gary will be expanding his business in 2015, selling packaged iced coffee from his cart, teaching more classes, opening up a permanent shop in Tower Bridge, and working with more businesses. Already, he’s partnered with One Mile End Brewery in London to provide coffee for their coffee porter.
“It’s a very exciting time,” he says. “Next year I think it’s going to explode.”
One of the events Gary is most looking forward next year is going back to Thailand. He plans to set up his card in Bangkok and invite locals to test out Thai coffee made by an Englishman. The Bangkok Post is already planning a story on it.
I already can’t wait to try another of Gary’s coffees soon. Or multiples, so I can taste every flavor. And of course I had to ask, which is his favorite?
“I love the original. That’s how I learned it. Just the condensed milk. I’m a sucker,” he says with a smile.
If you’re in London, find Beanbag Coffee every weekend at the Maltby St. Market, or weekdays from 7am to 4pm at One Tower Bridge. And be sure to follow along on Twitter and Facebook for random cart appearances and the latest coffee news.