The artisan trader has become one of the best known market disrupters since founders taste expert John Quilter, chief executive Colin Pyle and entrepreneur Bodil Blain, who first had the idea, set up with crowdfunding in 2013.
Kicking against what they saw as the capsule pre-eminence of the big machine makers, CRU saw an opportunity to break into a market worth over £177 million by producing compatible, recyclable pod alternatives filled with organic, fair trade coffee.
Now as well as the capsules, it supplies standard packs and also coffee flour, a gluten-free ingredient with a world of new recipe potential, made from the once-discarded husks of coffee cherries after harvesting.
For CRU, whose pods currently work out cheaper than the mainstream brands’ equivalents, quality and taste go hand in hand with environmental responsibility and a zero tolerance to waste.
Based in west London, its coffee is a favourite of hipster connoisseurs with a finely honed instinct for authentic sourcing.
Similarly the brand also has celebrity cachet, praised by Jamie Oliver and now a multi-channel retailer, selling online and stocked by the likes of Harvey Nichols, designer retailer Net-a-Porter, hotels such as the Marriott chain and luxury boutique group Edition, as well as Amazon.
Angel and institutional investment close to £2 million have helped build £800,000 turnover last year as CRU, which employs 18, expands beyond the UK market to Europe and the Middle East.
Company founders John Quilter and Colin Pyle
CRU is now big enough to trade directly and the quality of Colombia’s coffee has markedly improved
Although previously it has sourced its coffee through distributors, for this new Colombian venture it went direct.
“CRU is now big enough to do that and in the last five years the quality of Colombia’s coffee has markedly improved as the country’s situation has stabilised,” explains Pyle, a Canadian businessman and motorcycle fan with a taste for exploring off the beaten track.
Latin America’s third largest country for years Colombia was regarded as a risk too far for businesses, many of its regions paralysed by conflict and drug cartels.
But not just the fight back but the rebirth is well underway as the rule of law and growth return to a land with huge resources and skilled human capital.
Recent agreements with have opened up trade and now it is ranked by the World Bank as one the easiest on the continent for doing business, and regarded a top reformer with a good degree of investor protection.
CRU Kafe’s Colombian coffee brand
“But my father always warned me to ‘kick the tyres’ first, so check out who you are dealing with which we did,” says Pyle, adding “and then we got a very pleasant surprise.
“I had contacts from my former college classmates and we worked through a trading platform of certified suppliers, Lojas Beans, that introduced us to a cooperative in its Caribbean coastal region.
“There we found people very open and welcome. We met farmers who had struggled for years but loved their land, cared for it and produced excellent beans.
“While the infrastructure could improve, everything to do with the local mill we dealt with was really efficient and modern, so doing business was professional and straightforward.”
CRU’s first investment was been a container of beans, that now roasted has become its Sierra Nevada brand.
It offers aficionados a cup of coffee with flavours of dark cocoa, spiced pastry and tart fruit underpinned by hints of wildflower honey, that’s a perfect accompaniment for chocolate.
Come autumn the company hopes to be able to unveil new compostable coffee cups to go with its packaging, what it calls “better software for the machine manufacturers’ hardware”.
The new product, being developed in Italy, taps directly into consumers’ concerns as outlined this week by analyst Mintel in its report about the growth in UK coffee shops.
John Quilter and Colin Pyle enjoying a coffee
This forecasts the market to be worth £4.3 billion by 2022, with 87 per cent of drinkers having an environmentally caring side and wanting to wage war on waste and recycle their cups.
“All the founders want to make our products compostable,” says Pyle of their grande goal. “We are seeing a much younger customer shop with us and they certainly love that. We’re hoping it’s this kind of progress that will get us on to the shelves of Waitrose.”
For more advice about doing business in Colombia – where there are openings in construction, transport, whisky, education, biotech, mining and fintech, visit Exporting with Colombia, British and Colombian Chamber, UK Colombia Trade.