Profile: The Origin Coffee Story

Wednesday, 28 June, 2017
Having just won another National Barista Championship with Winston Thomas, we thought it a good time to reflect on the Origin team...

Origin Coffee Roasting
The people behind the magic

Images by Craig Kolesky

Origin. In a coffee context this word conjures up images of travelling to beautiful countries in between the tropics to discover coffee farms and the amazing people who nurture these magical cherries to their juiciest potential. In a South African context when someone mentions the word Origin, it can only mean Origin Coffee Roasting, still a fixture on Hudson Street and spreading throughout the country. They’ve bred an outrageous FOUR National Barista Champions and continue their pursuit of amazing coffee everyday. Winston Thomas is the current SA AeroPress Champion and will travel to Dublin to compete. The thing this team values more than anything, is the people behind the coffee and in that spirit, it is fitting that their story is told by the people themselves.
We shall begin at the beginning…

Joel Singer
Founder and Owner, The Boss Man

How the heck did you end up in South Africa starting one of the first artisan coffee roasteries in the country in South Africa?

How did I end up in South Africa? There was a terrorist incident in Egypt so my holiday plans got changed at the last minute. Then there was a South African woman. And my plans for the two of us to travel through Central and South America - with our 1 year old son and German Shepherd – were derailed by my father’s unfortunate, sudden passing away.
A coffee roastery? Well I was frustrated with the lack of good coffee here from when I arrived in late ’97. Sometime in 2003 or so I had my first good cup of coffee ever here – at the Post House in Greyton (at the time David Donde and his wife’s hotel). One straw bale, mud and lime house and one very ill baby daughter later, and I ended up back in Cape Town full time. An artisan bakery project got derailed, but the people I was speaking to wanted us to roast coffee for them. Origin began…in a way by complete accident.
Who were your first employees and how did you choose them?

We really wanted to find unique individuals, we wanted to give people opportunities and I love diversity. Montreal where I am from (and Canada) is extremely multi-ethnic. I love that vibe and wanted to have people from all SA cultures, from all over Africa and the rest of the word working with us. Different cultures. Speaking different languages. We have had people from all over SA and also from Angola, Congo, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana, Canada and so many other places.  

Willem Pienaar installed our alarm system – No shopfitting had been done yet. The floor had bits of underfelt stuck to it. We gave him a little packet of coffee and he came back to buy more with his spare change. He was supposed to move to the UK, but ended up asking to work with us. He became our first barista, our 2nd roaster (I was the first), and SA’s first barista champion. He still works with me, but now up in Gauteng.

Jorge Alberto became my friend from when I first arrived in Cape Town and lived in Devil’s Peak. He worked at our neighbourhood Spar – when I met him he was buying and packing fruit & veg on the shelves. He was clearly special… he was friends with our family and all the regulars. I called him as soon as we opened Origin, but he was in Outdshoorn and I had to wait for about a year until he could join us. He was a barista, café manager, head roaster and now heads up coffee quality for us here in the Cape. Only recently did I found out that his grandfather grew coffee in Angola…

Jose Vilande came to us via a contact at Iziko I found who worked with refugees (my grandparents and father and uncles were refugees in Russia in WW 2).  He became SA’s 2nd barista champ, later a barista trainer, and he now works at Truth.

Sandy Mgedezi was sent to us as part of an initiative by the Pick n Pay Foundation. She impressed us, we offered her a job, and she has been one of the anchors of our barista team ever since.

So many others over the years…
How do you feel the industry around you changed?

Well, we were perhaps the first of the new wave “artisan” roasteries in Cape Town. Now there are 13 (?) and counting in Central Cape Town alone! It was lonely at first. Now it’s feeling a bit crowded in these parts!
When we started and I called us “The Artisan Roasters of Africa,” I was told not to use “artisan” as in SA that meant a bricklayer, plumber or plasterer. HA!
When we started there was no recognition that there was such a thing as a professional barista. There were no barista championships. Since then we have trained over 2,000 baristas including 4 SA champions. SA baristas can now count themselves among the best in the world.
Also people didn‘t used to know what a good cup of coffee was. How much coffee has grown… How many great cafes are there in Cape Town now?
The people we have spoken to all say the same thing - that Origin is a place to learn and experiment with coffee, how do you remain inspired after all these years in the industry?

It’s all about people. Seeing people’s faces light up when they taste the best cup of coffee they have ever had, or taste an amazing coffee from a new origin that gives them a new idea of what is possible in coffee…
It’s about pushing boundaries – in coffee and café experience.  
It’s about the ongoing growth in café culture, and how it contributes to a greater urban culture in our cities. Cape Town has always been great. Coffee and café culture make it even better.
It’s also about our growing team. Learning to be a better leader of my company and my team, which is hugely challenging. And helping each of them, to the degree that we as a coffee company can, to grow and live up to their potential.
You have always encouraged your baristas and trainers to compete in the SCASA competitions, and Origin has always represented strongly, why do you think it's important to compete?

Preparing for competition creates a sense of pride for baristas in their profession. It helps them to develop discipline and technical mastery, which then improves customer experience in our cafes.
It can lead to wonderful opportunities – look how it’s helped (ex) Origin people like Wayne and Lovejoy in their careers, or others like Ishan who is now at Starbucks SA.  
What inspired the move to JHB, and how has it impacted on the team and the brand?

Our mission has always been to change the world of SA coffee and to bring them to the level of the best in the world.
In order to do that we need to engage with customers face-to-face and show them how good coffee can really be. While Cape Town has been a coffee leader, the big market and most of SA’s consumers, are in Gauteng.
We have been in Gauteng for many years already. We were invited to be part of the launch of the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein (we are still there), and shortly thereafter opened our roastery-café in Maboneng at Arts-on-Main.
What are the plans for the future of Origin Coffee Roasters?

As a roastery, we want to continue to find and roast the best speciality coffees in the world. We want to continue to deepen our learning and expertise at getting the best out of what farmers around the world can produce. We want to travel to many more origins worldwide, meet many more producers and find better ways to tell their stories and connect consumers to the deeper story and appreciation of the effort that went into the cups of coffee they love.
For SA coffee culture – The next level is about getting people to go from recognizing a good cup of coffee, to demanding the best cup of coffee possible. The best green (FARMER), the best roasting (ROASTER), and the best equipment and cup (BARISTA). We will do this by supplying more great venues with our coffee and training. We also need to pour more of our own coffee ourselves for more people in SA – it remains to be seen how we can best do that.
For baristas – To train better and better baristas, and hopefully contribute to a South African winning the World Barista Championship as soon as possible.
For our team – To grow the team and ourselves. To deepen our skills and knowledge. To push each other and work together for many years to come.
Can you tell us about one of your best moments on this journey?

10 years later… what can I say. So many great moments.
Winning those SA barista championships and other competition awards stand out – we were so proud of each of them.
My journeys to Bolivia and Rwanda to participate in Cup of Excellence, and other visits to producers in Brazil, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, but maybe even more so, the amazing experience Jorge had last year when he finally got to go to Brazil to visit and connect with many of the great farmers we buy from.

We asked some of the Origin family, past and present, to share their memories and experiences, they each interpreted this challenge in their own wonderful style.

Jorge Alberto
Product Quality Manager, all around legend

It all started with a daily routine at the local supermarket that added life to our neighborhood, back then year 2000/01, Joel and his family would stop by to buy the bread and the asparagus ha ha ha! He would spend about twenty minutes talking to this young immigrant with a few words of Portuguese in between. Through the art of capoeira and mutual relation of our exposure to Brazilian and other cultures, a bond was formed.

On the 5 January 2007, I joined Joel Singer at Origin Coffee Roasting. I honestly had no idea of the depths or nature of the business, neither was Joel Singer aware that my grandfather was a coffee grower. I walked into Origin and the aroma of roasted coffee and all the memories of my childhood the songs of hope and undying spirit came alive in me. I pictured an African woman in the field and I knew then that I would have no regrets in investing my life in this business and the culture of coffee.
It is now ten years later. I started pouring coffee shots, moved on to be a Barista, Café manager, Roaster, Head Roaster and now a Product Quality Manager. On my recent trip to Brazil, I experienced harvesting in 13 different farms! ORIGIN is COFFEE: A place of vibe, coffee connoisseurs, learners, aficionados, consumers, ARTISANS who care about the quality of coffee in the cup. Care is carried from the Farm to the Roastery to the Café to the end consumer.
I am honored to call myself an ORIGIN ORIGINAL.

Lovejoy Chirambasukwa
The Champion Barista

I joined Origin beginning of July in 2009 and I worked there for 6 years. My first day at work was scary as this was all new to me. I started as the guy who mopped the floors, moved on to be the sculler runner and perfected the art of cleaning bathrooms. A very curious king of guy. I got a chance to make my first cup of coffee and I never looked back. I enjoyed working with everyone there but Jorge always wanted to put me in the spotlight to prove my worth, which I am grateful for. Joel Singer was also influential. I had the chance to work with Wayne Oberholzer (current SA Champ) and he helped me get involved with the coffee competitions. It was a rollercoaster ride in 2012 as I came second in the Regionals, got carried away and flopped at Nationals. After my first experience I had to regroup and promised myself that I was a champ and I did prove that in 2013. It was such an amazing experience and again thanks to Wayne for the sleepless nights we had. The trip to Australia was so amazing as it was my first time to fly internationally and make an AeroPress 36 000 feet up.

Mike MacDonald
Head Roaster, the passionate scientist

Entering the buzzing cafe with CV in hand, and not knowing at all what I was getting myself into, I first noticed upbeat and progressive social interactions. Grinder noises and the thick smell of coffee hung in the background. I remember people talking about the science of coffee. This was very unusual to me at the time and grabbed my attention. Like an organism destined for greatness via evolution, Origin appeared to me as a large celestial object, which I inevitably started orbiting.

What I will never forget is having the opportunity and privilege of working with the champions and legends- Lovejoy Chirambasukwa and Wayne Oberholzer. These 'masters of extraction' have an unparalleled attention to detail and I would recommend to any young coffee professional to follow in their lead. I remember roasting their competition coffees like it was yesterday.

Over the last few years I have visited farms in Rwanda and Tanzania. I was an Observer judge in Rwanda in 2012 for the Cup of Excellence competition and by physically tasting all the coffees entered, was better able to help choose CoE coffees for Origin for that year. I also helped with selection of various lots from my trip to Tanzania in 2014. It was an invaluable experience and undoubtedly deepened my appreciation for coffee.

The ethos of Origin is one of seriousness and passion on all things coffee, from day one. The customers and staff alike were indeed discerned individuals, looking for something magical.
Supporting high quality producers helps enforce the progression and availability of high quality coffee. In my early days with Origin, this was quite clear.

I am the Head Roaster for Origin. I coordinate roastery operations;lead quality control sessions; Develop roast profiles and blends; help with the decision making process on green coffee purchases; Create and compile cup profiles for our selection of coffees and create the bag labels for them; I also do some staff trainings, public cuppings, blogging etc.

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