I am what is called a coffee geek. As opposed to a coffee snob, who stubbornly refuses to suffer bad coffee, a coffee geek is out to positively influence the way the world appreciates coffee. As far as I’m concerned, educating people about coffee is a fundamental element of the command to love thy neighbor.
In good geek fashion, then, I have immersed myself in the existing Jo-burg coffee culture. South Africa has no Starbucks, or its equivalent. Its one or two coffee chains are only a nick above what you might sip in a middle-of-the road restaurant.
In the U.S., the Seattle icon has done quite a lot to educate the average American about what constitutes good coffee. Love them or hate them, it is largely because of Starbucks that you know what the word espresso means and can taste the difference between coffee and dirty brown water. In South Africa, there is no such institution. At least not yet.
Yesterday I met with Joe and Grant, the faces of iKhofi and Kaldi Coffee, respectively. Joe roasts green coffee beans in Johannesburg, and Grant is the man behind an emerging specialty coffee chain. Both men appreciate the historically African origin of their product, and are taking strides to revive a respectable African coffee industry.
A chemistry PhD—the coffee industry has a strange attraction for chemistry buffs—Joe has spent years roasting, tasting, and selling excellent fresh coffee. He gets virtually all of his beans from Ethiopia, the origin of the Coffea Arabica plant, because of the unique variety of flavors in the country’s different growing regions.
Ethiopia is also the home of Kaldi Coffee’s namesake. As the legend goes, an Ethiopian goatherd by the name of Kaldi discovered the energizing effects of coffee when he found his goats dancing frantically in the fields. Experimenting with the red berries he saw them eating, Kaldi discovered in roughly 600AD what was to become the second most traded commodity in the world.
Joe, the roaster, and Grant, the peddler, have teamed up to establish a legitimate specialty coffee source in Joburg. They make no bones about their effort to change the status of coffee in South Africa. But, they will admit, there are some serious challenges to face down before their dreams can come true.
Their biggest challenge at the moment is barista quality. Anyone who has been to Italy, or works in Starbucks management, will tell you that the barista—the person who prepares the coffee drink—can make or break the coffee experience. On the one hand, baristas are responsible for preparing delicious—and sometimes complicated—beverages. If they don’t have the skills to do so, then even the best-roasted coffee made with the best equipment can taste awful. On the other hand, the barista also serves as an educator for the consumer. There was a time, some of you might recall, when it was necessary to ask what a café latte actually was. We owe that bit of education to baristas throughout the U.S. The barista has got to know his stuff if the public is to be educated about good coffee, and there’s more to it than “espresso and a little milk.”
Unfortunately for Joe and Grant, hospitality workers of all stripes are looked down upon in South Africa as second, or even third-class workers. No pride is taken by baristas because no pride is afforded them by their customers. Nor is coffee the beverage of choice for most South Africans. It was part of the British, cup-o-tea-then, Empire, after all. So, baristas who might have the work ethic to get the job done, lack the identity and the education to excel.
Enter the geek.
Joe and Grant have asked me to train up their barista staff—12 in all. With the time they put into roasting and managing, they can’t afford to train baristas themselves, or to live with a less-than-perfect product. It befalls me, then, to usher Kaldi baristas into the magical world of coffee geekdom. And if all goes well, you just might hear about how specialty coffee has put down its first respectable roots on the continent where coffee began.
PS: Preparing Africa for good coffee, and good coffee for Africa, is only secondary to my work in the citizen sector, but that is still pending.