Norway has always been a pioneer when it comes to specialty coffee. Norwegians, along with their Finnish neighbors, drink the most coffee in the world—rumor has it, the taxes on alcohol were so high during its prohibition period that coffee became, and continued to be, the social drink of choice. The man who helped lead much of the specialty coffee revolution is Robert William Thoresen. A former architect who found himself enamored by the burgeoning coffee scene in San Francisco of the 90s (where he lived for several years), Robert returned home to found Java, a coffee bar, in 1997, the same year he became the Norwegian barista champion. Then came Mocca, another café in 2000, the year he won the first ever World Barista’s Cup championship. And this was just beginning. After roasting unofficially in a basement for many years, Robert founded Kaffa properly five years later, and finally the Collaborative Coffee Source, a green importing company in 2011.
Robert’s family of interconnected coffee companies–coffee shops, roastery, and green importer–has been exceptionally significant, a game changer for the world of specialty coffee. The driving force has been his relationship with producers and a desire to treat them fairly, and the only way Robert saw to do it was to have an "integrated ecosystem" and build what he calls a chain of companies working vertically with coffee.
Today, Kaffa has tripled the amount it roasts per year to almost 150 metric tons. In specialty coffee, bigger has always been shunned as worse, as lower quality. But this is only because people have been reluctant to try; Kaffa set a goal to reach new consumers and more people and to maintain quality while doing so. In this, Kaffa has already succeeded. Through their vertically integrated model, they are able to keep costs low and quality high—using direct trade coffee from origin, carefully roasted, for everyone, including supermarket shoppers. Below, we talk to Erik Rosendahl, CEO of Kaffa and co-founder of Drop, about Kaffa’s vision and the future of specialty coffee. For Erik, Kaffa is excelling in “doing what we were already doing, just more of it.”
Erik: I’m from Sweden and used to be a freelance radio journalist. During that time, I shared a co-working space in Stockholm with a bunch of other journalists, photographers, furniture designers, and illustrators. Half the room was for working and the other half of the room was for hanging out and drinking coffee. We found, maybe unsurprisingly, that the fewer jobs we all had, the more coffee we would make! I began to fall in love with the ritual of making coffee and I had this strong desire to communicate, to stop people, and get them to taste coffee. The owner of the space let me and my friend Oskar Alvérus open a coffee bar there and that was how Drop Coffee began. We threw out all the designers and illustrators, but they ended up coming back—to buy coffee. One year later we started roasting. I worked with Drop until 2015, when I sold my part of the company. Love took me to Oslo and I started working with Kaffa.
Specialty coffee has undergone a lot of transformation in terms of what people think is good. When I started as a barista, the whole craft of being a barista was being able to look at a shot and see when it was perfect. Today we use scales and automatic machines, and we’ve gone back to automation because we’ve realized the machines do a better job at this. Later, when we started Drop, we handpacked the coffee because we roasted on a 1kg machine and it wasn’t hard to pack a few bags while we roasted the next batch. But we saw that other bigger roasters with a packing machine would still advertise that their coffee was “handpacked.” And I thought, “Why do they want to handpack coffee? Was there anything to this that was making the coffee better?”
A couple of years ago it was important for us to be small, but I’ve been changing my mind. I think it’s possible to do good things bigger—you just have to keep your core values.
There’s been a lot of discussion within the SCA about what is specialty coffee exactly, but it’s easy to tell when you look at it from green coffee quality. As long as there’s a strong effort to preserve the integrity of the green coffee in the cup, I think it’s specialty. And within specialty, we need a lot of different players. We need small roasters that run a “handpacked” operation. We need pioneers like Drop, La Cabra, Kaffa and Tim Wendelboe, who spend a lot of money and time doing very special things with their coffee. But we need others as well. Farmers who can still implement sustainable growing practices that are scalable ten times as big, for instance. Or roasters that can scale their operation while maintaining quality and consistency.
It’s not hard to find specialty coffee today. Now specialty coffee is not just for the few, it’s a very big business that’s growing very rapidly. A couple of years ago it was important for us to be small, but I’ve been changing my mind. I think it’s possible to do good things bigger—you just have to keep your core values. We are spending a lot of effort into all our individual coffees and also finding ways to grow, to make them more accessible to people.
The people picking coffee have the hardest work but their income has barely changed in the last 20 years. We have to find ways to get more of the value added—past the exporter, past the farmer, past the landowner, and all the way down. Because if you pick 50lbs of cherries, you are still underpaid and completely in the hands of the market.
I want to pay more for the green coffee, but at the same time I don’t want to add more to the customer’s cost. In Scandinavia, coffee’s getting more and more expensive and a lot of coffee bars are having hard time making a good business out of it. How much extra cost can I shoulder before we start losing customers or stop growing? I want to charge our customers less and pay our producers more. It might seem like a contradiction, but that’s the goal.
We have this idea that coffee has to taste a certain way to be considered good. It’s important to have standards but we can’t forget that customers have their own preferences. So how do we give people what they want without compromising the quality of the coffee? At Kaffa we roast for the cupping table, but we also look at how people brew at home. If the standard for Norwegian palates is around 60g/L for filter brew methods, it’s unreasonable or us to go down to 50-55g/L of water to get that transparent and cleaner cup, because the result is that we lose 95% of the market. At the end of the day, the customers don’t get a better cup—they get an underextracted cup. There are people who care what others in the industry think when they cup their coffee against other roasters, but that’s not our end goal. It’s about how the coffee tastes in people’s homes after they grind it and spend 10 minutes making it. So that’s the balance. We need roasters who are pushing the boundaries, but we also need others. At Kaffa, we are trying to be both, somehow.