How did it come to be that a Norwegian biochemist finds himself in northern Poland, roasting coffee? Audun Sørbotten, a self-described coffee geek who came to specialty coffee late, made up for lost time by plunging headfirst, trading a PhD for eight years at Solberg & Hansen, the esteemed (and oldest) roastery in Norway. Perhaps unusually, what drew him to coffee were its complexities, difficulties, and challenges, which Audun enjoys experimenting with and solving.
Audun’s scientific background also lends itself to a more serious and controlled approach in roasting than most. His systematic manner, combined with superior production cupping skills, have proven extremely successful; during his time at Solberg & Hansen, Audun roasted the winning coffees in the Nordic Roaster Competition in both 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Audun moved to Poland, opened his eponymous roastery the following year, and then, in 2015, became the winner of the World Coffee Roasting Championship.
Today, Audun continues to experiment and receives a roster of some of the most interesting coffees in the world weekly. He’s in a unique position where the nascent Polish specialty coffee scene is receptive and eager for his variety of spectacular coffees he serves up. And all the while as Audun is fulfilling his dreams—luckily for us and Collected subscribers—we’ve been able to enjoy the fruits of them as well.
Audun: I was more interested in coffee than I ever was in my work. I had finished my master’s in biochemistry and was in a four-year research program, but when the research money ran out, I decided to apply for coffee jobs instead. There was an opening at Solberg & Hansen for a coffee roaster position. At first they didn’t believe someone with an academic background like me would like the job, but I convinced them that I could do hard, manual work everyday. And when I did get the job, it was a scary moment. I was forgoing my whole education to work in coffee. But after a few months I knew I had made the right choice. The sheer complexity and difficulty of coffee, of the job, makes it challenging and rewarding. I’ve been happy working with coffee everyday since.
My goal is to have many, many different coffees from many different countries and to roast all of them well. I want the coffees to change all the time and I want interesting products.
Solberg & Hansen has the widest selection of specialty coffee in the world. They roast up to 130 different coffees every week, from lower grade specialty coffees to Cup of Excellence winners. These coffees are cupped and evaluated everyday by a team. I was responsible for setting up the cupping table everyday at Solberg & Hansen for eight years. We aimed to roast each coffee so that it was individually distinct, with no off flavors. In general, the goal is to roast as light as possible without any negative attributes coming up in the cup. But you have to be able to identify these negative attributes and that requires some experience.
In my opinion there are different cupping skills—if you are good at one area of cupping, you are not necessarily good at another. One cupping skill is “descriptive cupping,” or being able to describe the coffee. Some people are really good at this and have a natural talent for remembering flavors. Most people need to practice a lot in order to accurately describe what they taste. And then there is “selective cupping,” which is when you’re able to pick out the best-processed coffee in a group of coffees. This is the skill you need if you are a green coffee buyer to find the good coffees. And the third skill is the most important if you are a roaster, which is “production cupping.” This is when you want to optimize the flavor of a particular coffee. So when you taste it, you want to be able to say if this coffee can improve, how it can improve, and how you want to change it. As a coffee roaster it’s very important that you are trained in production cupping, but of course it’s a high status to be a good descriptive cupper as well. Oh, and there’s also “competition cupping,” but I don’t think being good at picking out the correct cup in front of an audience and a ticking clock has any value in the coffee quality chain. It seems fun as a party game.
…it’s almost a problem that the coffees here are too fine! If you walk into a Polish cafe, it’s assumed you are a coffee geek.
Having a background in science teaches you how to be systematic, how to change one parameter at a time. Coffee chemistry, for example, is very interesting, and reading about it is very interesting, but it doesn’t help as a roaster. I get told a lot, “You’re a chemist, so coffee must be really easy for you.” But it really doesn’t help. It’s the scientific mindset that is important. You need to know what experiment you’re doing and be aware of changing only one parameter at a time and not more. For example, a lot of people who experiment with roast profiles end up making changes to the roast color as well. You have to control for the roast color before you can see how the profile is changing the coffee.
I was lucky at Solberg & Hansen. I started in 2006 and for the first four years I was just doing my job roasting and not thinking too much. But then we got the Loring Smartroast. This machine was like a racecar! You could do anything with it. You could log everything and do very specific experiments. So that’s what I did. For the next three years, it was one experiment after another with Cup of Excellence winners and rare varietals. On this machine it was easy to hit the same roast color each time even if you were changing the roast profile. So I did a lot of experimenting. If it weren’t for this period, I would never have thought it was possible to start my own roasting company. It inspired me and I built myself a model of roast profiling, which I use to this day.
My goal is to have many, many different coffees from many different countries and to roast all of them well. I want the coffees to change all the time and I want interesting products. This is important for me—I wouldn’t be happy if I only had three or four coffees. My philosophy at the roastery is to buy one or two bags of each coffee at a time. That means that all our coffees change every two to four weeks, and every week I have new coffees. So far, the Polish market absolutely loves this. The Polish cafés, they love having new coffees all the time. And it feels natural for me to change coffees all the time because of my background with Solberg & Hansen.
Compared to Norwegians, the Polish drink very little coffee. The coffee culture is not as developed and coffee is expensive for the Polish. As a point of comparison, it’s as if Americans had to pay $12 a cup for coffee. So if you’re paying $12 a cup, you want it to be very special and interesting. But it’s almost a problem that the coffees here are too fine! If you walk into a Polish cafe, it’s assumed you are a coffee geek. You have a choice of five to six pour over brewing methods and sometimes it scares normal people from going to cafés and trying coffee. I want to change this mindset and develop the use of batch brewers in Poland, so ordinary people can have access to good coffee cheaper and more quickly, so they can drink more coffee. In my coffee offerings I have two slightly less expensive coffees to encourage cafés to have good drip coffee and to buy batch brewers.
Having a background in science teaches you how to be systematic, how to change one parameter at a time.
I wanted to go to Poland because I heard the Polish community was the most eager in the world for better coffee and I wanted to be amongst the first roasteries here. On top of this, I also like traveling. Poland is in central Europe so everything is close—Berlin is just three hours west, Prague is just south. And I like Polish cities—they are very different from Norwegian cities. People are surprised when they visit—Poland is not this gray, post-communist place. They have beautiful buildings here, rich history, and the cities are enormously beautiful.