At the narrowest, most eastern point of a strait that marks the border between Denmark and Sweden is the sleepy, coastal town of Helsingborg. It’s known for its beaches, some charming medieval landmarks, and its proximity to the Copenhagen airport—but for the few who visit Helsingborg, it’s often to make a pilgrimage to Koppi’s cafés and roastery.
Now almost a decade in operation, Koppi was started by the couple Anne Lunell and Charles Nystrand, who grew up in Helsingborg and have known each other since their teens. Both are particular luminaries in the specialty coffee scene; each has won the Swedish Barista Championship (Charles in 2005 and Anne in 2006) and most recently, after 10 years away from the competition circuit, Anne won the 2016 Swedish Brewer’s Cup.
We spoke to Anne on a Tuesday afternoon in December; she had just gotten off a flight from London where she spent the weekend. Shortly before, she had been on an origin trip to Colombia; she meets regularly with Koppi's producers and is known to cup over several hundred cups of coffee a day. Exhausted but amiable, it became clear that Anne has a sense of focus and drive that excludes superfluous opinion or perception. All the well—Koppi has been quietly successful over the years without so much of a need for sales or self-promotion. Today, 90% of their coffee is sold abroad, all from customers who approached them directly.
Over Christmas, Charles and Anne worked double shifts to compensate for staff who were away or ill, taking only one weekend off to spend with their respective families. Koppi’s ethic of quiet dedication is embodied in Anne’s responses. Despite winning multiple competitions, she said, “We are not competitive people in general. When we do something we want to do it as well as we can—for our own sake and vanity and not to show off to someone else.”
Anne: Charles and I met in high school, way before we both got into the coffee industry. Then, twelve years ago, Charles began working at a local coffee shop. At the time he was also studying to be a sound engineer and I was studying architectural history and economy at the university.
Charles started hanging out at some coffee bars in Malmö and the competition scene was a big part of the specialty coffee community. He decided to compete, and ended up winning the 2005 Swedish barista championship with coffee roasted by Kaffa in Oslo. I competed the following year and won as well. That’s when our interest in coffee started for real.
Charles already had roasting experience when we decided to open Koppi in 2007. It came naturally that Charles would roast and manage the shops while I would focus on the administration, traveling, and green buying. It’s easy for us to work together because we share the same views and values. We have the exact same preferences when it comes to coffee and we tend to choose the same coffees on a cupping table. There haven’t been more than a handful of times where we have disagreed. This is good because we can always trust that the other person is choosing coffees that both of us will really like.
Helsingborg is a small but pretty town on the southwestern coast of Sweden. It’s the town we both grew up in but we didn’t plan to end up here. When we were still living and working in Oslo, a friend of ours who was a chef contacted us. He wanted to sell his restaurant and wanted us to take over the space. It was an offer too good to turn down, so we opened Koppi here.
We are unwilling to compromise on quality, and we’ve been really vain about the coffees we’ve had. Most smart business owners would look at the margins and see where they could make money and if they could buy cheaper. But we’ve always been focused on flavor and what excites us. And we’ve had some very exciting coffees over the years. We’ve been selfish. We’ve always been wanting the good stuff.
I find the whole Gesha hype problematic… I would never use a Gesha for a competition.
The aspect of coffee geekiness keeps the industry moving forward. For example, Maxwell’s water research that demonstrated it was important to measure composition in addition to the hardness of water. Or the research on grinders and the evenness of fines, where it turned out that maybe the fines were contributing the flavor because the total surface area of the fines added together is more surface area than the medium-sized particles.
It’s interesting to keep pushing the limits, but I believe that coffee is so complex there will never be a totally right or wrong answer. To say that every coffee should be brewed the same way, with the same methods is stupid. To claim that all coffee will always taste better at the highest possible extraction is also stupid. I believe that you can use technology as something to help make your everyday life easier and to help you repeat something you find working, but I also believe you need to trust your palate at the end of the day.
I find the whole Gesha hype problematic. It showcases such a small, small part of the industry. From my understanding there are obvious problems, such as spontaneous mutations with the plant. It’s a Gesha one year and then suddenly the next year it’s acting totally different and cupping much lower. And all these farmers are risking their livelihoods because they’ve seen others making a fortune off Gesha auctions.
Personally, I would never use a Gesha for a competition. I won the 2016 Swedish Brewer’s Cup with a washed Caturra from Colombia, which is quite possibly the best coffee I’ve ever had. I came across the coffee a year ago in Columbia and it was spectacular in every aspect. I ended up carrying home 45kg of it on the plane, and there were two bags altogether shared between three of us. The volume was small not because it was a limited Gesha—it was small because it was a small farm and from the farmer’s weekly pickings.
Instead of obsessing over Gesha, we should pay more attention to other varieties of coffee as well. When I was down in Colombia I visited a really cool farm that was only growing Tabi, a rare varietal that’s a cross between Typica, Bourbon, and Timor. Timor is a Robusta strain so every time someone mentions Timor, people shudder. But it was unbelievably good. The Tabi cupped at 89 points with flavors of green mango and pineapples. What we should do is to showcase each coffee in its own uniqueness.
I think as roasters we have a responsibility to try to pay more and make it financially viable for our producers to stay in the business. There’s a shortage of farmers in the world, especially in the coffee growing sector. It’s such hard work I imagine it would only be attractive if the money were good enough.
What we try to do at Koppi is to commit to producers—buy from the same people and never really negotiate price. There needs to be a mutual understanding that we will be returning customers every year so they need to deliver a certain quality. We would never try to bargain with our producers because it’s much easier for us to adjust our margins, charge our wholesale customers a little more, and add a little more to our drink prices. We’re in a different situation here, and not pressed financially as they are.