If the bitter robusta espresso is the revered national drink of Italians, then Rubens Gardelli is the country’s biggest heretic (or its Joan of Arc, as he jokingly likes to say). The iconoclast grew up imprinted with coffee culture—his parents ran a coffee shop when he was young—though for awhile he was on a different path; he flew airplanes and lived and worked in Santa Barbara. In 2008, he returned home to Forlì, a small town in northern Italy, to help his mother’s struggling coffee shop. Rubens began seeing the “necessity of doing things differently” and roasting shortly afterwards, buying green beans from Sweet Maria’s, and learning largely through trial and error. Without the necessary funds or resources, he built himself a machine that would roast 700g of coffee.
There’s an element of defiance and self-reliance in Rubens; everything he knows is not only self-taught and hard earned but also against the cultural coffee convention. For almost three years, Rubens worked every day of the year—at the coffee shop during the week and roasting full-time on the weekends. To this day, he still roasts every batch of Gardelli’s coffee personally on a 5kg machine (in June he’ll upgrade to a 15kg one for slightly more ease). And because of this hectic roasting schedule, he has never left the roastery for more than a week.
Rubens’s admirable work has not gone unnoticed. He placed second at the World Brewers Cup in 2014, and has won the national roasting championship a record four times in succession (2014-2017) and the national brewers cup twice (2014-2015). From talking to Rubens, it’s clear that success doesn’t come easy, but there’s always reason to trust your judgment and let yourself be consumed by the things you love.
Rubens: In Italy, the reality is that I still don’t sell much of the single-origin coffees I roast for filter and espresso. The people here just don’t like it. It’s too acidic, too bright for their taste. Italians don’t like acidity—they are used to robusta, which has zero acidity and so much bitterness. The perfect espresso for them is when they find a coffee that has lots of crema and is very dark and bitter. That’s the culture here, but I knew I had to go against it and follow my vision. I knew also I had to change the stereotype of what you would expect from an Italian roaster, and those stereotypes are hard to break. It takes awhile, but now people who taste my coffee tell me, “Wow! That’s the first time I’ve had good coffee from Italy.”
My Uganda project started simply with the goal to go straight to a farmer and produce the most amazing coffee I could. I had written a step-by-step protocol for processing, picking, and fermentation—and I wanted to find a farmer who would be willing to apply my protocol exactly. I was looking at countries where I could do this and thought about Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, Colombia—all countries renowned for their quality. But in the end I chose a strange place, Uganda, because I wanted to change the mindset about the relationship between a country and its supposed quality. I had the conviction that you could get competition coffee from places beyond Ethiopia and Colombia, and I saw it as an adventure to test out my theory.
I said, “Alex, what is this tree?” That tree’s cherries had fully ripened, all of its cherries. It was really unusual.
I went to Uganda and found Dijon. Every small detail, he followed. He was like an extension of me and it was really unique. In my experience working with other farmers, especially the well-known ones, they have a lot of business and are not interested in following my specifications. They would send me the coffee and I would say “Really? This is the coffee that you produced using my protocol? That’s impossible.”
Dijon and I planted the coffee where the elevation was highest, at 2000m above sea level. He was willing to do everything possible to follow my protocol and the coffee he sent me was very good. It scored 89 points. But I tasted those 89 points and I also knew it could be much, much better through an improved protocol. So I changed the protocol a little bit on the fermentation and went to Uganda with him and Alex, the owner of the farm. I proposed to Alex that I was going to buy the entire production, 50 bags of 60kg each. I told him I would pay a premium price plus 50% of what he was receiving now. In exchange, I wanted an outstanding coffee.
It had everything: sparkling, very intense acidity, like a Kenyan, but a complexity and fruitiness like a natural Ethiopian.
Coffee in Uganda is a cash crop. They only do washed coffees and the washed coffees are ready five or six days after picking. They depulp it, dry it, and the coffee merchant who passes through the village pays them right away. With my project, Alex had the entire coffee production in cherry form in his house because it was a natural process. And since he had to ship overseas, we have to fill a container and wait for the entire lot to be ready to ship it all at once. Alex needed the money right away for his children’s tuition, so I paid 50% of the entire value of production before I even received the coffee.
In a few weeks, I’m going to receive the finished coffee. It’s a 92, 93-point coffee. When I first tasted it, I started tearing up. I was right—it’s not about the country where the coffee’s from. It’s about the process, about how you ferment, how you dry, how you take care of the cherries. So this is my vision. Little by little, I want to sell only coffees directly like I did with Uganda, to go to a country and find a relationship with one farmer. It will be very difficult, but I want to develop these kinds of relationships and these kinds of projects.
I always request green coffee samples to be sent to me, and I know it’s annoying, but I believe one of the main reasons I can be called one of the best in the world is because I always choose coffee on a blind tasting using my protocol. Having a protocol is really important: I roast my samples on my own roaster and cup them with my water. I keep those variables constant and on the table I am able to spot the best lots. That’s the starting point.
I don’t like what a lot of my competitors are doing. They travel, they go to origin, and they arrive at the merchant’s office, or the office of the milling station or cooperative. And they taste coffee and make their decision on which coffee to buy while they are over there. But you end up buying 100 or 200 bags at origin without properly controlling for the roast or the water. At origin, they generally roast with a three-barrel sample roaster, and it’s not precise. So, you take your pictures of you traveling in Ethiopia and Kenya tasting coffees and it’s very good for marketing, and your customers will say “Great! They are at origin visiting the farmer and they are buying the best quality directly.” But this is not the best way to buy coffee.
Also, people often just buy coffees that score well, but the scoring of the coffees can be inaccurate or misleading because they were scored at origin. For example, the best Kenyan coffee I ever tasted was in June 2016, Kiriani, and it was unbelievable. It scored 93.5 points and did even better than competition coffees that year. But the merchant didn’t even score it a 90!
It’s not about the country where the coffee’s from. It’s about the process, about how you ferment, how you dry, how you take care of the cherries.
Recently, I was on the field in Uganda again, and Alex had five different plots of land with trees of different ages in varying levels of shade. The first plot we were picking from was planted in direct contact with sun and was planted with all SL14, which is quite like Kenya SL28. We started to pick and at a certain point I noticed a strange-looking tree. It was very dark, the leaves were really, really dark. I said, “Alex, what is this tree?” And he said, “I don’t know Rubens. It’s the same SL14, but I don’t know why it’s looking like that.”
That tree’s cherries had fully ripened, all of its cherries. It was really unusual—you never find a tree that has all of its cherries fully ripe. So I was able to pick from that tree very easily. I also picked two other lots and put those lots alongside the single-tree lot in my luggage and brought them back to Italy. I dried them all in my bedroom. So I was in full control of the fermentation, and the drying. It was December in Italy and the cherries took almost 60 days to dry. I tasted all three lots blindly and, immediately, I knew that the single-tree lot was the best coffee of my life. It was even better than my 2014 competition coffee when I took second at the World Brewers Cup (which had the highest cup score, so it was then the best coffee in the world). If I could give this coffee a score it would be close to 100, maybe 98. It had everything: sparkling, very intense acidity, like a Kenyan but a complexity and fruitiness like a natural Ethiopian. Body, aroma, complexity, even umami. I was crying. I later learned that the coffee was a result of a natural mutation called purpurascens that can happen within any variety. But it made me ask, “If this coffee is not a 100, what coffee could be?” And I didn’t know if what I was tasting was a result of the variety or of the unique processing that I did in my home. So I saved around 30 seeds from that single-tree lot. I will plant it and we will find out.