From Delhi to Brooklyn and Singapore to Berlin, these enticing speciality coffee distributors and roasteries are filtering out the competition with their focus on quality, community and provenance.
Our need for a caffeine fix has made coffee one of the most traded commodities on earth and the colossal global coffee industry is being shaped by new ideas and distinctive smaller brands. In the US, for instance, around half the country’s $32bn (€23bn) coffee market is now represented by speciality products. Whether it’s shade-grown, organic, fair trade, single-estate or home roasted, coffee brands are finding their niche.
The café, too, is changing as ideas from Australasia and Italy set standards and the title “barista” makes its way, in earnest, on to CVs. And as middle-class consumers in Asia and South America turn on to the merits of a flat white new business models are emerging to cater to their tastes.
When Papa Palheta, a Singapore coffee roastery and distributor, begins to supply coffee beans to a café in the city it has one stipulation — its client must send a member of staff to attend their coffee course to learn how to make a perfect espresso. There are no quizzes at the coffee school but the instructors take the process seriously as a way of ensuring brand quality. “The focus is not just on the quality of the coffee but on engaging with the community,” says Leon Foo (left), who founded Papa Palheta in 2009. He has since persuaded the Singapore government to subsidise classes for aspiring coffee makers.
This is all part of Foo’s vision for the company—the aim has been to build a coffee business based on distribution, supplying Arabica beans imported from Ethiopia, Colombia and Asia, and Synesso and Rocket espresso machines to cafés and restaurants. Two years ago, he also added a flagship café, Chye Seng Huat Hardware, set in a restored art deco hardware shop, to showcase the company’s coffees and meticulous brewing techniques. His iced coffee, for instance, is steeped for 10 to 12 hours to deliver a less acidic, smoother flavour, then served in a retro brown medicine bottle with custom-made labels, with a glass of ice and sugar syrup on the side.
Papa Palheta is a rarity in Singapore. The company’s concept has become a benchmark in a city better known for large malls than independent outfits and encourages a new type of retail. Foo says he is keen to keep the enterprise small to maintain the freshness of his coffee and the company’s personalised approach. “If you want to have a good brand, it should be within reach,” he says. His focus is solely on the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur markets along with a home-subscription service that delivers 500 grams of freshly roasted beans to customers’ doors each month.
India might be the world’s fifth-largest producer of coffee but little is drunk domestically. Around 80 per cent of its harvest is exported, particularly the best-quality beans. As a result, it can be hard to find freshly roasted coffee anywhere, particularly in the tea-drinking north.
But husband-and-wife duo Matt Chitharanjan and Namrata Asthana (pictured below) are determined to change that. A year ago, the pair launched Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters – in an annex attached to Asthana’s parents’ home in Delhi. Armed with a small benchtop roaster, they began roasting coffee beans to order and posting them to customers. “It was a new concept. We really didn’t know what response we would get but it has really taken off,” says Chitharanjan.
Their business idea came from personal experience. “We’d lived in the south earlier where there’s a much larger culture of drinking coffee and we just couldn’t find that here,” adds Asthana. “We thought, there must be others who want freshly roasted coffee and to know where it comes from.”
Today, Blue Tokai offers single-estate coffee sourced from five farms in south India. “Each estate has its own growing and harvesting practices, which has an impact on flavour,” says Chitharanjan. “Selling single-estate coffees means we can highlight those differences.”
Business took off fast, particularly when wholesale orders started rolling in within the first six months. Demand quickly outgrew the capacity of the small machine, so the couple upgraded their roaster, investing $40,000 (€29,000) in a German-made Probat capable of roasting 5kg at a time.
Around 70 per cent of sales are to cafés and restaurants – mostly in Delhi but some farther afield – while the remaining are individual orders dispatched to individual customers’ doorsteps. With buyers in cities across India and some in rural areas, sorting out deliveries forms a large part of Chitharanjan’s job.
Flush with their early success, the couple has plans to grow bigger and set up an interactive roastery and café: just the thing to welcome yet more coffee drinkers into the fold.
In his day job, Marc Sasserath (pictured bottom, right) comes up with ideas for other people’s marketing efforts. He runs SasserathMunzinger+, a Berlin-based brand consultancy, and works for clients such as Deutsche Bank, Telecom Italia and Lufthansa. But he is an entrepreneur too. “Whenever I see an interesting brand idea and have the chance to get involved, I do,” he says.
Last year Sasserath got together with fellow marketing expert Toni Kappesz (pictured left of Sasserath) to create a brand that brings the coffee style of Harlem to Berlin.
To spread the word about their new brand they developed a beautifully made magazine that talks about the overall coffee scene instead of simply selling their own product. “First of all – we love coffee,” says Sasserath. Harlem Black Coffee is still a small but growing business. “Currently we sell to some nice coffee shops, retailers and creative industries, as well as to a lot of friends,” he adds.
Customers can now order Harlem Black Coffee at Berlin’s Tegel airport, at Gate 10/11. Its makers plan to expand in terms of distribution and product development. “We believe in the renaissance of filter coffee,” says Sasserath, who has big ambitions for the brand. “We would love to have a nice flagship store in Berlin and to one day launch Harlem Black Coffee shops in Milan, Singapore and New York.”
“The shop opened up many doors for us – from friendships and collaborations, to partnerships,” says Nathalia Gunawan (pictured left, centre), the owner of One Fifteenth Coffee in the South Jakarta neighbourhood of the Indonesian capital. Opened in summer 2012 the detached 60-seat space represents a growing tide of coffee houses in the city that are investing in the provenance of their brews as well as the beauty of their spaces.
Although coffee has always been big in the city the way it’s being enjoyed is changing, says Gunawan. “Many of our customers are starting to appreciate the process and craft of coffee making.”
One Fifteenth favours Arabica coffee beans from Indonesia and works with local cooperatives to ensure the quality and the transparency of their business model.
Currently, its house blend also uses naturally processed Arumanis coffee from the island of Java – a rare and much-prized flavour that’s hard to cultivate in the Indonesian climate.
As well as the black stuff, the emphasis on local produce extends to the brand’s menu. The eggs used for breakfast are sourced from Gunawan’s cousin’s farm, while her aunts prepare Sumatran food.
Even the furniture hints at the brand’s priorities of openness and creativity. The free-form layout changes with its guests and the sturdy wooden seating can be moved to accommodate larger groups
“Would you like me to start a fire?” Steve Mierisch (pictured bottom, left) asks as he peers in the direction of a brick fireplace. More akin to a hidden-away supper club than a coffee-roasting warehouse, Mierisch’s space is comfortable, well-equipped and affordable.
That’s the basic premise under which Mierisch founded Pulley Collective, a shared coffee roasting facility in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood. “I created Pulley to lower the barriers to coffee roasting,” says Mierisch, a native of Nicaragua who estimates a single company could need up to $1m (€724,000) to start its own operation.
Instead, six members of the collective pay $850 (€620) a week for a six-hour slot on Pulley’s machines. In addition, they get access to a well-maintained, shared space. “The community aspect is just priceless,” says Ed Kaufmann (pictured bottom, right), who oversees the roasting operations at Joe, a small coffee outfit with eight shops in New York and two in Philadelphia. Mierisch says his members all benefit from not having to worry about the cost of utilities, equipment maintenance and space rental; they only have to think about getting the beans just right. And members have the option of sourcing their raw coffee beans directly from Mierisch, whose family has been growing coffee in Nicaragua since 1908.
Cofix, a new takeaway chain in Israel, has tapped into public concerns over the soaring cost of living with an affordable product – everything on its menus is just ILS5 (€1).
The shops feel anything but budget and have been laid out in slick monochrome by leading Israeli interior designer Alona Eliasi. Founder Avi Katz says that his low prices mean each Cofix franchise can make a forecast annual profit of ILS500,000 (€104,000).