Casino Mocca is still a bit of a well-kept secret; its coffees are served at only a dozen or so cafés outside of its native Hungary, and almost all of them are in Europe. Yet at SCAA this year, we kept hearing from a number of professionals that we absolutely had to try Casino Mocca’s coffee. When we did, it was clear why. Their Nano Challa, which we featured this month, is one of the best Ethiopians we’ve had in recent memory, with notes of lemon sorbet, honeysuckle nectar, and sweet cream. This was also Casino Mocca’s first arrival into the US, and we are extremely proud to contribute to their well-deserved growth in the coffee scene.
Started by Zoltán Kis, together with Szabolcs Temesvári and Lajos Horváth in 2013, Casino Mocca began after the three SCAE national and world competitors (Zoltán was the 2012 Cezve/Ibrik World Champion and Lajos was the 2013 World Cup Tasters Champion) decided to try their hand at roasting. With no business plan, their only agenda was to create extraordinary cups of coffee that they themselves enjoyed. Now, Casino Mocca is the first and only specialty roaster in Hungary to apply what Zoltán calls an “engineering mindset” to coffee: a system of meticulously polishing quality control to end up with an extremely consistent roast. This measured approach, combined with the roasters’ discerning palates and sensory skills, are key to Casino Mocca’s excellent coffees.
Zoltán was trained as, and still is, a UX engineer. His background as an engineer has factored into a deep understanding of the parameters of roasting, and has also helped Casino Mocca remain financially independent; while the audience for specialty coffee is small in Hungary, Casino Mocca can still pay premiums for coffees they believe in and that reflect their tastes. As Zoltán says, “We can do pretty much what we originally wanted to do, and I think this freedom is pretty special.”
Zoltán: There’s a funny story behind my entrance into coffee. I always brewed coffee at home (quite badly) and one year, as a Christmas gift, my brother gave me an application to the Nationals. For some reason, he thought it was a good idea to apply me to the competition. So I tried to figure out which category to compete in. I watched the barista competition on Youtube and I said to myself, “This is very hard to do and I have no experience handling such big machines.” I looked at Good Spirits, but I’m not interested in making cocktails, that’s not my style. I saw the Cup Tasters but I thought it would be very hard to tell the difference between the cups.
The only category left was the Cezve/Ibrik which is making coffee in small pots, so I applied to that category and I watched YouTube videos from some former competitors. I saw that for some reason, the achievements of the specialty coffee movement were not applied to this category – they don’t use scales, they don’t measure time, they don’t use specialty coffee at all, and the whole performance is very old school. And so I decided to use good specialty coffee with this traditional method. In the first year, 2011, I chose a Kenyan from the Coffee Collective, which helped me win the Nationals; the same year I finished second in the World Championship and the next year I managed to win the World Championship (SCAE World Cezve/Ibrik Championship, 2012). And, the best part about winning the world championship was that I had used my own coffee, roasted at home with a small roaster. I had managed to source some excellent green beans through Square Mile from Aida Battle.
Before I won, there was also another moment: I was in Melbourne and I went to Sensory Lab and asked for a siphon coffee which was made with a Kenyan. It was just shocking. And that was when I knew I wanted to roast coffee. Because what I had tasted was so unreal, so from another planet. Together with Lajos and Szabolcs, who also used to compete in cup tasting and barista championships, we decided to start roasting without any business plan and without knowing what it would mean. It’s been almost four years since our first meeting and I’m now just realizing what we started together – I can tell you that I had no idea when I started!
I believe in consistency. If consistency can be reached through autobrews, or automatic espresso machines, then great. Because I think baristas have a more important job than handling machines all day – they have to set up the machine and they are the only ones with the sensory skills required to set up a machine.
The goal of everyone is the same: to have a mind-blowing beverage in the cup. And we do everything that is required to achieve this. I think what motivates me most, and what is most rewarding, is when I get a better cup in the city than what I could make for myself in the lab. When our coffee tastes even better than I thought. With a great barista and great equipment, this is possible. And sometimes I’ve encountered this. But what makes me afraid is the opposite. When the coffee tastes good in the lab but for some reason, it just doesn’t shine outside of it.
This is a big issue and personally I don’t think there is a solution yet. I’m pretty much lost when I need to send out coffee to anyone in the country or in the world, because of the differences in taste profile created by differences in the water and grinders. I can’t see a way where we can solve or eliminate that gap between expectations – the taste customers get in the café and the taste we try to achieve in the roastery.
I think we’ve managed to achieve maximum consistency strictly in roasting. But other factors come into play, which are differences between bags of coffee, or differences within one bag of coffee. For example, the coffee at the top of the bag tastes differently from the coffee at the bottom. And you can tell your customers that you’re roasting perfectly consistently, but the green coffee is just not as consistent as you are. This is very frustrating.
I believe in consistency. If consistency can be reached through autobrews, or automatic espresso machines, then great. Because I think baristas have a more important job than handling machines all day – they have to se up the machine and they are the only ones with the sensory skills required to set up a machine. And I think they should spend more time developing sensory skills over developing technical skills, because you can develop technical skills in a very short time – in half a year you can use a refractometer, build a database, log every single shot you serve, and learn how to dial in a coffee – but without great sensory skills, you can’t do any of these things.
Most people are pretty geeky when it comes to spending money on better equipment and they spend hours discussing technical things. Like photographers who, instead of going out and shooting the real thing, end up sitting in front of an internet forum discussion on shutters and arguing with other nicknames. But this is not the point of a hobby or a profession. When I visited my girlfriend’s parents in the countryside, I needed to make coffee with their stovetop maker, and I actually got excellent results with their crappy equipment. I ask myself whether it’s worth it to spend hours on such minor technical points. Sometimes it’s not.
The goal of everyone is the same: to have a mind-blowing beverage in the cup. And we do everything that is required to achieve this.
We are people who like to stay in the background. Serving coffee and running a café is a totally different job with different skills. I don’t think I could run a café and deal with all of its particular issues, to stay kind with customers all day. I’m much more of an engineering guy, because that was my original job and this is my approach to everything in the world.
Of course, I would lie if I said I had no interest in running a café at all; our job is full of frustrations because of the lack of a café. With our setup we can’t show our customers how we originally imagined this coffee. But still, I couldn’t run an ideal café in Hungary because my café wouldn’t offer any milk. In my ideal café, we would just serve black coffee.