Father Coffee: A Spectrum of Flavour

Friday, 10 September, 2021

It’s been a banner year  and a half for this Johannesburg coffee institution. With ‘Fresh to Death’ as their mantra, you know you’re going to get the goods from the ambitious crew at Father Coffee. Now as they open a world class new roastery and training facility (more on that soon!), we highlight how they got to where they are on the eve of them having to relinquish their A Shot in the Dark title. The 2021 Champion will be crowned next week at Creative Coffee Week!

Originally Published in Issue 33 of The Coffee Magazine

Interview By: Lebo Matshego

Walking into Father Coffee is a sensory overload. In the best possible way. The design elements of wood, pops of colour and walls of coffee and equipment make you wonder for a second if you’ve stepped through a wormhole from The Zone in Johannesburg to a street cafe in Copenhagen. The roaster churning perfectly roasted specialty beans. The espresso machine whirring gently as the cups of coffee fly out, each as perfect as the one before. The smell of the coffee being ground through top notch equipment. The cool cats behind the bar chatting with the regulars. All of this gives you the distinct impression that they take their coffee VERY seriously. And they make it look good, damn good. We have been lucky enough to watch the brand grow over the years and in their own quirky way become more and more accessible. So we sent journalist, Lebo Matshego, with only a touch of coffee knowledge to see if she could scratch the surface of the very pretty exterior and gain some insight into what makes Father Coffee tick.

Coffee is more than just a liquid in a cup - it’s the experience of it, the mood that a cafe sets and of course, the delectable taste. If there’s one thing I can’t go without, it is an excellent cup of coffee. So you can imagine the distress I went through when cafes were closed, with no way of having that great pick-me-up (I exaggerate, but seriously, I struggled). 

I hadn’t been to Rosebank, Johannesburg in a while (ah lockdown life!), so what a delight to have a mission to investigate the recently awarded Roastery of the Year, Father Coffee. Located just outside the Rosebank Gautrain station, Father has all the components of a roastery that could be anywhere in one of the coffee capitals of the world. As a relative coffee newbie, what I found particularly interesting about Father Coffee is their cupping sessions. 

Ok, so what is a ‘Cupping Session’? This is the process whereby roasters taste and select their best roasts by tasting them next to each other. It’s a quality control method that ensures only the best gets to your bag of beans. These guys have trained their palates to identify defects, whether it be in the green bean (i.e. before they’re roasted) or whether there’s something slightly off in the roasting process. It also helps to identify the delicious flavour notes they put on their bags which help you to make your choice from their wide range of available coffees.

The team cups literally every single day, but public cupping sessions were also a regular weekly occurrence. So during lockdown, a plan had to be made! The team hosted their cupping sessions via Instagram Live by encouraging their regulars to purchase what was dubbed the ‘Slurpy Set’ so they could cup from the comfort of their own homes. I had the pleasure of attending my first cupping session, and the first one held at the cafe since lockdown started with Chad Goddard, one of the owners, as part of my interview. It was an eye-opening experience tasting the different individual characteristics and flavour notes of each coffee, breaking the mental barrier I had that coffees all taste the same. My favourite coffee was the Konga Natural from Ethiopia which just jumped out at me in a fruity explosion on the table of incredible flavours.

Of course, I had to enjoy a coffee while chatting with Chad, so I had the Jamison Savage Jasper Geisha, a super special coffee which retails for a small fortune (R449/100g). And let me tell you, it’s totally worth it. 

Let’s go back to the beginning - how was Father Coffee born?

Father Coffee was born from equal parts dissatisfaction and optimistic desire. My business partners and I really just wanted really good coffee in Jo’burg, but, in 2012, we couldn’t find it. We loved the coffee scene in Cape Town and abroad, where you could get great coffee in a lot of cafes and felt like Joburg was missing the same vibe. So, we set out to try change that. 

We knew we had to roast because that would give us control over the kind of coffees we wanted to serve, it also meant we’d be able to support other brands with a desire to serve better coffee too. So, with not much of a market for specialty coffee we opened up our first roastery and cafe in  Braamfontein in 2013 when our roaster arrived. 

What makes Father Coffee different from other coffee brands and cafes? And how do you see yourself in the national and global coffee community? 

We've never really set out to be different - we just aimed to do our absolute best in everything. I think sometimes that does make you different. As a roastery and a coffee shop and the way we approach things is that we try do things that keep us excited and intrigued, so we source and serve coffees that do this.

Coffee is a global product, so when we set the bar for ourselves there’s no excuse not to do it against the global context. We love learning new things so the range of inputs we look to for inspiration is really wide. Going back to our original goal to make really great coffee more accessible in more places, I think the range of coffees we serve is up there with many of the best roasteries around the world.

You roast and release around 30 specialty grade coffees a year. Tell us more about that and the choices you make with the different roasts. 

We have a blanket policy that we only buy specialty grade coffee, generally that means a cup score of 80 points and above, though for single estate and microlot releases we have a minimum of 85 points. When it comes to roasting these different coffees however, there’s no single approach. Our roast philosophy is never about adding flavour to the coffee – everything it can ever be is already within the green seeds. Rather, we work to expose the inherent character, flavour, and complexity a coffee has to offer. 

At my last count in the last 12 months, we’d released 32 new single estate coffees. We realise that specialty coffee has got a lot to offer in terms of its flavour spectrum. And I think the most important thing, or rather the argument for specialty coffee, is that you're trying to highlight the individual uniqueness of the coffee. You're trying to help people appreciate what each coffee can do, and trying to move their perceptions away from the idea that coffee is a flavour, but rather a vessel for flavour

So, we release a lot of different coffees because we want to keep educating palates. We want to show that a natural process from one farm won't necessarily taste the same as a natural at the farm next door. I think when you create such a contrast in your offer list, you help to break the consumer's mental barrier that says all coffee is the same. 

When you break this barrier, it helps to motivate for higher pricing, and not just for the sake of higher pricing. Rather, because the reality is that to offer something of high quality, you need high-quality staff, high-quality equipment, high-quality ingredients, and a high-quality venue. To sustain this, we need to make sure the market of coffee consumers understands what they need to pay for that experience

You walked away as the champions of this year’s A Shot in the Dark competition, with one of your roasters, Tapuwa, playing a role in the winning entry. Tell us a bit more about Tapuwa’s journey with Father Coffee and the overall team culture. 

Tapuwa started his journey with us about two years ago as an apprentice. Over time, we taught him how to follow and manage curves on Cropster (profiling software for roasting coffee) and he graduated into the production roaster role he has today. He's got a real energy for coffee, and he constantly updates his social media with content of him roasting, which is fantastic to see. I love it when people have pride in coffee. 

We work as a team so we like to offer opportunities to be part of the whole process to everyone in the roastery. For A Shot in the Dark, we roasted about four or five batches of the final round coffee. We were in a good place, but wanted to try squeeze a little more sweetness, so we set a target and then Tapuwa took a shot at the last batch – and we’re really glad he did, it was the one we submitted for judging. 

The win though, goes back to the value of working as a team and of cupping everything you roast. I think it's really easy to be biased when you're alone with a cup of coffee. It's easy to be looking out for problems or looking out for things that you think are right. But in a team, with everyone cupping blind you’re able to look at the numbers and fine tune until you find the best result. 

At Father Coffee, when we get green samples from a particular origin, we flip all the sample bags upside down so we can't see where they're from or what they cost. We'll all cup them and mark them with a pen. In the end, the coffees with the most number of ticks on them are usually the coffees we go with. We're all trying to sense check each other through numbers by just making sure there's enough volume of inputs. 

2020 has been an eventful year so far. Tell us more about how Father Coffee weathered the Covid-19 and national lockdown storm. 

The year started with a bang for us. But, after the high of roasting and coaching for Winston and Stevo who took first and second place at Nationals, we were plunged into the alternate reality of Covid.

When Covid-19 and the national lockdown hit, like every business owner, we panicked and had moments of real denial and doubt. But, it might’ve just been the kick we needed to finally launch the online store we’d been threatening to do for years. It took one weekend of no sleep to get it off the ground. The feedback has been amazing, and we recently hit the 1000 order mark, which I think is fantastic for a small roastery. 

We also launched an idea called Medical Aid. We had 60 or 70 kilos of coffee that we were not going to sell before shutting down, so we offered it for free to hospitals and clinics via our online store. Coffee can’t really save lives, but some good coffee can definitely lift spirits – and being able to show some gratitude to all those incredible healthcare workers certainly lifted ours.

I got through lockdown by making coffee with my business partner Barry (Weedon) for people living in my building. We live in the same building, and one of our neighbours owns a home espresso machine, so we brewed coffee for the tenants, and in exchange, we asked them to donate to a virtual tip jar for our baristas. Fortunately, we covered everyone's salaries, but we just knew baristas would be losing out on tip money.

Social media helped us to connect with many people. We used Instagram Live, something we'd never done before, and it was loads of fun. Our wholesale manager, Rudo started making coffee cocktails on our Live broadcasts. We also did a thing called the Slurpy Set, which was like the public cupping sessions that we used to host at our roastery before lockdown, but instead everyone cupped along with a set of samples and mineralised water in their own homes.

What do you think makes a great cup of coffee? 

Objectively, having good coffee starts with having great green that gets handled well from source to the cup. Subjectively, a good cup of coffee is the product of an actual good cup of coffee, as well as time and place. So if you're in the right mood or have the right company, or you've got the right barista serving you, that interaction will make the cup tastier, and hopefully even memorable.

What is your favourite coffee quote? 

It’s not necessarily a coffee quote, but more a life quote from Father’s old wholesale manager, Jesse Dodkins. We were having one of our usual spirited debates about coffee, and I scolded him, “good is the enemy of great.” Cheekily, he responded with, “but perfect is the enemy of good.” I enjoyed that moment of being reminded that while you have to aim for the stars, you also get nowhere if you try and make everything perfect in isolation. 

We’ve taken risks on a few coffees and ideas where we didn’t know whether people were going to be into what we were doing, but we tried anyway. So I think taking a chance and taking a bit of a risk is always worth it – as someone probably once said, “fail fast.”

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