Four years ago, in what he lovingly calls “the smallest city in the world,” Esben Piper, together with his stepfather, founded La Cabra. He had been traveling around, living in Vancouver and Shanghai, playing music and dabbling in local coffee scenes. Upon returning home though, the former literature student had a fortuitious encounter with a cup of Guji from Sidamo – and in a romantic way that speaks to his nature, he decided to pursue coffee after a single, revelatory sip.
Taste – and almost exclusively, taste – has informed La Cabra’s roasting style ever since. While the current trend of specialty coffee lies in ever complicated technology, and physical and chemical analyses, La Cabra is careful not to solely rely on metrics. Their decorated team (including multiple Barista and Brewer’s Cup winners), their universally celebrated coffee, the worldwide respect they garner as a roaster – are testament to a certain truth. Coffee ultimately, belongs to the palate, not the refractometer.
We first spoke to Esben a month ago; it was nighttime in Aarhus, and after a long day, he was relaxing over gin and tonics and looking at the remarkable view of the water and forest in Aarhus. He mentioned how La Cabra is the work of so many who supported him: his team, who helped him realize his aspirations, his stepfather who taught him the practical aspects of running a business, and his girlfriend Melanie who co-wrote La Cabra’s film Brightness and is the first person he turns to for advice.
Just two weeks later, we were incredibly fortunate to talk to Esben again when he visited New York. We shared coffee and sour beer, and in candid form, he was passionately critical and unfazed by both – it was clear, as you’ll see below, that matters of taste are profoundly meaningful to Esben. And rightfully so – on the important things, why compromise?
Esben: We started four years ago, me and Mikkel (Selmer, head roaster at La Cabra and Danish Brewer’s Cup and Aeropress Champion in 2014) and a group of baristas. We started with Drop and Bonanza and some local roasters. We just went in head first, just curious. Interestingly, however, we found very quickly after we began that there wasn’t that much – some basic theories about coffee roasting, but nothing that really worked for us. So from day one our approach has been to roast for the cupping table, and this has been our philosophy ever since. And then it’s the headache of the barista to extract it well and make it taste beautiful and balanced. It just has to perform on the cupping table, and if it doesn’t, we try again.
We do quite the opposite of what Scott Rao is writing right now...we just want to do things in a very simple way. We don’t want to make it complicated and we don’t want to look at roasting as a complicated thing. We want to develop the coffee, develop what’s already there, and to make it taste clean.
I cup so many coffees and I don’t understand why it has to be so complicated. It’s all about the raw material and when James Hoffman is writing about roasting coffee and that when it’s working it’s like catching a paper in the wind, and when it’s not working it’s completely impossible – that’s not our experience at all. Our philosophy when it comes to buying is to buy high and sell higher. We know that we are one of the more expensive roasting companies out there but we are just buying coffees that excite us. (La Cabra is working towards a direct trade model in Colombia; last year, it brought on a new partner, Ben Evar, who completed a dissertation on biochar and is now in Colombia implementing his research at the farm La Palma & El Tucán.)
When we say brightness, we’re not only talking about acidity. It’s about purity, it’s about transparency.
When we say brightness, we’re not only talking about acidity. It’s about purity, it’s about transparency. It’s a discussion of the final cup as well. There’s a purity that I look for when I say brightness – a purity of taste. I don’t want to drink a coffee without brightness; brightness drives sweetness. We had a barista, Dane Oliver, go to the brewer’s cup in Australia. He competed with our Kenya, an extremely lightly roasted Kenyan. He brewed it and extracted just about 17% and 1.2 TDS. He won that. Then he went to the nationals in Australia with a Gesha. He brewed that at 16.5% extraction. He scored a 90 for that coffee and won unanimously. I mean, numbers are very important, but it’s all about trusting your taste buds. This was around the time when there was a lot of talk about pushing the extraction as much as possible, but I have to disagree. It’s not always the best thing to do. That’s just how we look at it. To be very clear, we are still a bunch of very technical baristas. I understand and acknowledge the importance of using these tools and the know-how to improve quality and consistency. Also, our roastery is very data driven – we log everything. But ultimately we want to develop a coffee where we can taste the terroir, and we can taste the processing. We don’t want to taste how it’s roasted, or how it’s been brewed, or somehow have the numbers influence our taste.
I think there is such a thing as being too consistent. You won’t be able to make the exact same cup each time, but that’s what excites me and that’s the beauty of it. And yes, it is romantic. I do what I do because I can’t help myself, because I’m in love with it and because I’m super curious. That moment that makes you feel something special is very hard to define...I think that’s what we’re looking for. That moment of being in New York, for example, and having all the noise around you, and then having that cup of coffee that makes your life pause. It inspires you and it just has that power, you know? For me when I have a coffee and I can taste all that, it makes me want to go back to a simpler life, back to the starting point, back to the earth. And that’s what we’re after, something that you can’t quite define, something that makes you pause.
I’ll have days where I can’t sleep because the espresso doesn’t taste good. That’s part of working with something as fragile and organic as coffee.
Taste is everything. There’s just so much out there where it’s not a true representation of what it is. What is this coffee? Why did you roast it? Why are you working with it? And at La Cabra I don’t think it’s too much to ask of my team that with every coffee that we have, all our baristas develop a personal relationship with the coffee. When we wake them up in the middle of the night to describe the taste and describe the balance and texture. And to cup it blindly and pick it out of 50 coffees...it’s a lot to ask for, but taste is so extremely important.
Taste is everything.
Let me be honest about this. I never drink coffee in the morning. I hate drinking coffee in the morning because my taste buds are not good. I taste coffee and I taste espresso when I’m dialing in, but I rarely drink coffee in the morning. I’ve had maybe ten good espressos in my life.
Mikkel and I when we travel we have a little index of what we drink. If something is “servable” it’s extremely good, and if it’s “drinkable” then it’s something special. And if it’s something where we say “Can I have another?” it was not only drinkable, it was juicy, it was present, and filled my mouth with something extraordinary and transported me somewhere else. I honestly just think that most people aren’t serving servable coffees.
I think there is such a thing as being too consistent. You won’t be able to make the exact same cup each time, but that’s what excites me and that’s the beauty of it. And yes, it is romantic. I do what I do because I can’t help myself, because I’m in love with it and because I’m super curious.
I’ll have days where I can’t sleep because the espresso doesn’t taste good. That’s part of working with something as fragile and organic as coffee. We are moving away from anything that is generic. We all know that feeling when your friend offers you chocolate with “coffee taste.” That’s when you just want to jump into the harbor. That’s so uninspiring and it’s coffee at its worst, that generic “coffee taste.” But people are aiming for that. People are streamlining it in coffee, wine, bread, whiskey, in everything. But it’s not why we fell in love with coffee to begin with. We just have to be very mindful of that when we talk about numbers and consistency. It’s not why we fell in love with coffee in the first place.