How unlikely is this − the best coffee in the world comes from Estonia! The specialty roaster just outside Tallinn, Coffee People has been searching for the best bean on the planet for a decade now by bringing coffee farmers, roasters and drinkers together into one big coffee tribe. Founded by internationally acclaimed coffee judges Annar Alas and Heili Politanov, Coffee People value most of all a personal connection with the farmers, who deserve a fair share of the price, unlike when selling to the coffee commodity market.
Coffee People were already selected as the world’s best new coffee business in 2010 and nominated for the European Excellence Award in 2017. Among the flagship customers are some of the top restaurants and cafés in Copenhagen, such as Europa 1989, Kødbyens Fiskebar or Musling Bistro.
The most remarkable story is the journey that started in 2014 when Annar was exploring coffee farms in Colombia and ended up discovering the Inga Aponte tribe almost by accident … changing the lives of a whole community.
“I got very good coffee samples from some farms in Colombia − one from the Caldas region and one in the Nariño region from Hacienda el Obraje, so I bought the lots without having visited the farms. When we started roasting this coffee and discovered that it was really outstanding I decided to go and visit the farms, as this is what we usually do to get in contact with the farmers. When I was traveling around Colombia I met José who was running a small cooperative of local farmers. I asked him to take me to some other farms. So one day José told me “It hasn’t been raining for three days, so we can go to a very special place”. We were driving for a whole day. The region is of outstanding natural beauty and very remote, most people have never left it. When we got out of the car, we were suddenly surrounded by a tribe of Indians. They started dancing and singing and making smoke and this all went on for a few hours. I got impatient and asked if we can talk about coffee. José asked one of the elders but he told us, we need to establish the right energy before we can talk. After that I relaxed and let things happen. Later we talked about coffee and I was one of the first ones to buy the specialty lot, which came with the next harvest.”
An amazing transition
In a meeting of the whole community only a short time earlier the Inga Aponte village had decided to resist the pressure of the drug lords and guerillas and to break free from drug farming. Instead they decided to rely their livelihood on coffee and other agricultural products.
Annar was impressed with the quality of their coffee: “What they have there are virgin soils. They are very high up in the mountains − 2200 meters above sea level. This is way higher than where coffee usually grows. So the soils have not been exploited, they are volcanic, virgin. The taste that coffee gets there is just incredible.”
For Annar it has been very rewarding and a big honour to be part of this journey: “I’ve visited the tribe three times now and they have been here in Estonia once. Being able to witness this change is quite a huge experience. I have also met their elders and been part of their rituals. The energies there are really strong. The Inga Aponte tribe is part of the Coffee People family now. When they were in Estonia they made a ritual for this roaster. Last July I was invited to the tribal gathering of three tribes − there were 280 Indians, who went through two days of rituals. An incredibly humbling and honourable experience. The success we will have will be a joint one.”
The tribe has also assured that it is important for them to sell their specialty coffee to a customer rather than a stock exchange. They can sell their quality for a much higher price.
What makes a great cup?
A great story and high quality beans alone are not enough for an excellent cup of coffee. The Coffee People tribe also includes a professional biochemist − the roast master who combines science and artisanship to create an individual roasting profile for each coffee.
Annar explains: “We do the roasting profiles and we analyse the effect of every second and every degree on the taste of each coffee to create a specific roasting profile for that coffee. This is the scientific part. The artisanship is − as the product is actually alive − we have to change it all the time. Nothing stays constant.”
And then the barista steps in. The recipe for an ideal coffee drink according to Annar Alas is “300 ml water, 20 grams of coffee”. The only machine you need at home is the grinder − because with the grind level you can adjust and play with the result. “Coffee needs time and space to brew, similar to tea. The best preparation is Chemex, which looks like a wine decanter. Brewing takes place within 3.5 minutes, this is a good time for coffee, if it’s less it gets worse and worse because it’s not extracted. To brew faster you need a darker roast and finer grind to get something out from the coffee. So the automatic espresso machines are just a compromise. The best option is still in the cup, filter coffee, French press or Chemex.”
“If you don’t want to put your Oolong tea in a capsule and brew it in 8 seconds then you don’t want to do it with your coffee either.”
A challenge for the taste buds
Annar says that coffee has about 1200 taste molecules − twice as many as wine. Coffee is much more complex than wine. The alcohol disturbs the senses and tastes in wine. In coffee one can distinguish tastes much better. At the coffee cuppings (tastings) there is always a surprise moment for the first-timers. Everyone thinks: how big can the differences be; surely as a non-expert I won’t even be able to tell. Afterwards, everyone is really astonished about how big the differences are.
“Some of our best coffees that might cost about 100 euros, like the award winning Geisha from El Salvador, taste better cooler. They start to taste like blackberry or strawberry juice. In case of bad coffee, with lots of Robusta inside, you also start to perceive the taste more clearly when it cools down, it gets worse and worse. A good test − make a jug of filter coffee, let it cool down half an hour and if it tastes good, it’s good coffee.”
Most of the farmers have actually never tasted their own coffee. The farmers don’t usually have a roasting machine or the dry mill, so they cannot process the coffee beans and send them directly to the anonymous coffee market. “The farmer doesn’t even know what good coffee tastes like; he goes to the local store and buys Nescafe 3 in 1. Therefore, breaking the anonymity in the chain is crucial to achieving better quality and eventually a better livelihood for the farmers. Actually, the farmer needs a better understanding of what varieties to grow, how to pick the type of fermentation for the coffee and so on. After that he can ask for double, triple or even more in price, not just a few cents. This changes everything,” explains Annar.
And finally, do Annar’s friends ever dare to offer him a cup of coffee when visiting? “I often ask them to do just as they usually do it, not to worry. I’ll enjoy it anyway. Very often I take the barista role on that occasion and am happy to prepare coffee for everyone. I don’t want coffee to be a luxury. It’s part of our daily life just like bread. It’s still ok to have a mug of latte in the morning with your omelette.”