Earlier this month, just at the beginning of summer, we spoke with Andrew Kelly and Aaron Wood of Small Batch Roasting Co. The weather had turned frigid on the other side of the hemisphere, but with laughter and glasses clinking in the background, the two sounded content and busier than ever.
Andrew started Small Batch almost eight years ago after opening Auction Rooms, his café in Melbourne, and Aaron joined him soon after to assist in roasting. We talked at length about the current rise of Australian cafes outside of Australia – especially in New York where it has become something of a phenomenon. As both Andrew and Aaron explained, the setting for coffee drinking in Australia takes place almost exclusively in the café, as opposed to the coffee shop. In Australia, good coffee is just one element of a holistic cafe experience, which marries coffee with exceptional food and hospitality. This explains the continued success and symbiotic relationship of Small Batch and Auction Rooms, which won both the best coffee award and best café award from The Age.
Since its inception, Small Batch has embraced a distinct “producer’s mindset,” defined by an emphasis on traceability and provenance. In the last year, they have made half a dozen visits to Colombia alone and retain a Spanish-speaking staff member to communicate with farmers there. Small Batch dedicates a majority of its resources towards developing vertically integrated greenbuying, based on building relationships directly with producers whenever possible. Andrew's visits before, during, and after harvest allow him to analyze and improve producers’ methods, as well as influence details of production, resulting in a tailor-made product with higher quality and greater longevity. Each seasonally sourced coffee is at its raw prime, allowing Small Batch to simply focus on the roast.
Andrew: I started off working in a coffee cart. You’d open up a bag of beans and it would have a best by date of 18 months. The beans were darkly roasted, oily, and oxidized instantly. There was no integrity or traceability or any celebration of provenance going on. It was the worst of the old school – this was only 12 years ago.
I began roasting coffee at home and it made me realize that this was a fascinating field. I had a huge desire to do something in food and coffee that would combine a great space with a warm and knowledgeable staff, with the best of everything. The best free-range eggs, the best sourdough, the best coffee.
Looking back, I didn’t have a strong sense that I would change any scene or influence anything. What I had was an emerging “producer’s interest.”
Looking back, I didn’t have a strong sense that I would change any scene or influence anything. What I had was an emerging “producer’s interest.” I wanted to be a creator of a product and an experience, and I didn’t think anything beyond that. So I was really just setting a challenge and wanting to do it. And then blindly and stupidly, ignorantly, youthfully making it happen.
Andrew: Imagine a producer in Colombia: they produce maybe 20 to 30 bags of coffee a year which is split between two harvest periods, each good for maybe two to three months. But they’ve got fertilizers to buy and people to pay and they need to eat. Sometimes they can’t wait a couple of months to accumulate the coffee that we would purchase. Sometimes they just need to sell it off to pay their living expense and to pay pickers. So what we’re trying to do is find ways to purchase their coffee in the small portions that it’s produced so that the producer receives the full premium. And that involves having some local operatives to work with and finding ways to transfer money into Colombia. And it sounds like it should be a trivial thing to sort out but it’s not at all trivial. It’s very difficult to casually pay producers if you haven’t received the coffee yet.
I think on a global level, an appreciation of the level of detail required to buy coffee well is needed. It’s not a matter of buying the stuff that tastes beautiful on the cupping table as the sole green buying approach. Some sustainability issues really need to be addressed, even with the high caliber roasting companies of the world. Buying anaerobically-processed Geshas from Colombia, for example – we can’t fetishize this uber level of processing to such an extent because it isn't accessible to a lot of producers who are just producing delicious caturras.
We demand from ourselves to engage on a level of absolute transparency. Is your story and your flavor backed up?
Aaron: You have people taking pictures of being on a coffee farm and putting it on Instagram, and traipsing around with a tour guide like they’re on holiday -- but there’s very little communication between the people who grow the coffee and the people with whom it finally ends up. We demand from ourselves to engage on a level of absolute transparency. Is your story and your flavor backed up? Or is it just that you read the tasting notes off of the card given to you by the green supplier that you bought from? How direct trade is your coffee exactly? You’ve been to Colombia, but did you meet the producer or were you just being chaperoned by a green bean company? There needs to be substance behind it.
Aaron: You have to work back down the chain because with each step down the chain the coffee just gets worse and worse and now you have baristas trying to polish a turd when they could take a couple steps back and get better quality to begin with. This green importer that I’m buying from, let’s bypass them. Let’s go straight to the exporter in the origin country – let’s bypass them and go to the co-ops. And then bypass them and go straight to the producers. You start to break down the barriers to quality.
Instead of trying to eek out that extra half percentage point of extraction that you think will miraculously improve the taste of your coffee, why not just buy better coffee? There’s a much greater scope to be focusing on.
Andrew: In addition to all the useful improvements in technology and equipment, I think another hallmark of where we’re at right now is convergence. Now pretty much everywhere there’s a sense of measuring things. Espresso recipes, for example, have essentially converged around the world. You put 20g in and get 40-45g out in about 25-28s. And for me what that leaves us to focus on, apart from good service, is green coffee as the stage for all the future advances. It’s an interesting point of comparison, you know, chasing extraction, when, like Aaron said, you could just buy a better coffee. It’s kind of the same idea. There’s infinitely larger scope to improving coffee at the farm level and at the producer level. There’s also infinite scope to improving the way it’s purchased. That is paying higher prices, that is encouraging people to transition to organic, that is using it in a fresher window so you buy more frequently.
Andrew: Everyone wants their coffee to be sustainable, but it’s difficult to actually articulate what that means. For us, trying to distill the essence of sustainability means knowing producers well enough and being able to communicate with them effectively. It also means we want to be sure that they’re going to find coffee a worthwhile long term endeavor and take pride in remaining coffee producers for the foreseeable future. That their children find coffee production to be sufficiently incentivized so that they themselves will continue to do it. We want them to make the best coffee that they possibly can with the most regenerating inputs that cost as little as possible and have no long term effects on the soil. When you start talking about sustainability where do you even stop? Environmental, financial, educational, generational, it has to encompass all those things and it has to be complicated.
Instead of trying to eek out that extra half percentage point of extraction that you think will miraculously improve the taste of your coffee, why not just buy better coffee?
Andrew: My celebrity coffee crush is Peter Giuliano. I admire his articulation, his progressiveness, and his educational approach in the industry.
Aaron: Mine is probably Scott Rao. He’s obsessive and not cool in any way and is just a strange guy, but I love his approach.