Northern Echo Feature
A former Teesside chemical engineer has launched a business that is helping farmers he befriended in the Sumatran jungle. Emily Flanagan reports
DAVID Beattie had been working as a Teesside chemical engineer when he decided to take a train from the Middlesbrough and travel around the world on the Trans-Siberian railway. He travelled across Europe, Hong Kong, Russia, Mongolia and China. But it was in the Sumatran jungle that he met a group of coffee famers which altered the course of his life.
While travelling around Sumatra on a moped, David decided to visit a place that sold civet coffee, also known as kopi luwak or “cat poo coffee” created from coffee berries which have been first eaten by the civet cat and then…you can guess the rest.
The coffee’s superior taste is supposed to arise from the cats selecting the best beans and then partly digesting them. But David discovered the slightly mythical process had become a sad and inhumane business, finding wild cats caged and force fed.
“In Indonesia they get a good price for kopi luwak but I didn’t realise how cruel it was,” he explained.
“So I drove around on a moped and I ended up spending three weeks at a coffee place somewhere called Lake Toba. I ended up befriending the guys round there and they pointed me in the direction of the coffee farmers.”
He spent the time learning the art of coffee roasting and his respect for the farmers grew, along with his concern at the pittance many were earning for the long, back-breaking work they did. It was barely enough for them to survive.
“I tried to help them by selling their crop – I wanted people to buy their coffee – but the cost and risk was too great,” he said.
But he soon discovered the cost and risk in selling the crop produced by the farmers’ cooperative directly was too great to surmount and hit upon the idea of creating his own coffee roastery back home in the UK.
With the help of a Harrogate-based speciality coffee importer, he is able to help coffee farmers by paying a sustainable wage for good quality coffee from the North Yorkshire village of East Rounton.
With his partner Tracy Lee, they began work on their business in September last year. About six months ago they began working full time with the business.
The coffee is bought at 140 per cent the commercial market price – to ensure a sustainable price from the farmers. The coffee can be traced right back virtually to the plant the beans were picked from, as they work directly with farmers’ co-operatives in Ethiopia, Columbia, Sumatra and Kenya.
They started off producing speciality coffee in small batches, roasted on demand for retailers, restaurants and other suppliers and also sold at farmers’ markets.
Curious customers are often invited to visit the coffee roastery to try the different varieties.
Rounton Coffee is based in an old, brick granary. The building’s grain mill still stands in the building, among cafetieres, old leather sofas and coffee bean sacks which hang as curtains from the low windows.
At the heart of the operation is an elegant, Victorian-looking coffee roaster, full of polished funnels, dials and gleaming back metal.
David says his new job has many parallels with his background in chemical engineering, when he worked as operations manager at industrial gas suppliers BOC.
“I was a chemical engineer in Teesside and the whole production of process of roasting coffee and the different methods relate to engineering.
“When you go to the processing plant in Teesside it’s got exactly the same components, just on a smaller scale. You have a part that does heat transfer cooling…all of it is a chemical process.”
But there is still no replacement for human judgement.
Once the beans are dried and roasted, the final stage is the development phase, when the flavour develops and it becomes drinkable. It requires some hovering over the coffee roaster to make sure this is done just right – whether it’s strong, dark Sumatran beans, which need to be roasted for longer, or lighter African coffee.
Despite the distance this tea-drinking nation has come in embracing coffee, David thinks we still have relatively conservative tastes when it comes to coffee.
“There are some really wacky coffees out there, really fruity coffees. Whilst we love them, it’s still a bit of a battle introducing them to the wider public.
“For instance, there’s an Ethiopian coffee which smells like Skittles sweets and when you concentrate that in coffee it tastes really fruity. But people have an expectation of how a coffee will taste and they often think something is wrong if it tastes different from that.”
He believes the UK coffee market still has some catching up to do with ones in Australia and New Zealand, despite the plethora of coffee shops now on every high street.
“Costa and Starbucks have not been bad for coffee,” he says.
“They’ve introduced barista-prepared coffee to an instant coffee drinking nation and they spend all the money on marketing coffee.
“But in places like New Zealand and Australia the quality control is a lot higher. In New Zealand to serve coffee you can’t just be let loose on a machine, there’s much more training. They treat coffee differently.
“It takes around 2,000 man hours to produce coffee but it can be ruined in a second by a bad barista.”
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