Recently I was invited to tour the Aroma Coffee roastery. Since 1965, the brand has been built up to become an institution; a name synonymous with outstanding coffee and deep roots within the villages and countries that work to supply the beans.
Gavin Gam started working at Aroma in 1998 and in 2001 took over as General Manager. Within that time, the roastery moved locations to Marrickville. Two tons of coffee is processed on these premises every week thanks in part to Aroma Coffee’s award winning espresso and filter roast “No. 1 Ruby Street” and the title of Champion Australian Roaster at the Rural Agricultural Society of Victoria’s Australian International Coffee Awards.
Gavin has been buying beans from Ethiopia since 2005 (before then and to this day he also sources from Brazil) but he first visited and fell in love with the country in 2011.
Ethiopia is known as the birthplace of coffee. As the legend goes, a goatherd named Kaldi discovered the properties of the coffee bean when he noticed his goats begin to jump and dance after eating red berries from a tree. He took the berries back to the village where they roasted them firstly with fat and sugar and then later just the berry itself.
“Something produced with love tastes better,” Gavin says and regular readers will know that I agree with this. “Most producing countries don’t know what they’re producing,” he continues, “Ethiopia’s not like that at all. This is native bush food, it grows wild”.
It’s no secret that the commodity that workers are picking (be it cocoa or coffee) is a world away from the end result however to Ethiopians, coffee is a part of their homeland & culture and their plants are as important as their own children.
Gavin has experienced first hand, the roadside coffee ceremonies that are so popular in Ethiopia. They “bring the whole neighbourhood together”, something communal and shared.
At these ceremonies, popcorn and coffee go hand in hand which is not as odd as it may first sound. Popcorn was historically discovered around the same time as coffee, also in Ethiopia. The process of converting a tasteless, hard grain into something eatable and drinkable links the two.
Enthralled by the coffee culture that he had discovered in Ethiopia, Gavin now beams with pride as he describes the positive effect of the mutually beneficial relationship with the Ethiopians who work to bring the beans to him.
“The areas that we get coffee from have taken the money that we’ve spent with them and built wells in the washing stations. One of the washing stations that we work with have taken a pipe off their well, run it outside the village and during working hours they turn the pump on and they have fresh running water… it’s unbelievable you see 5, 6, 7 year old kids filling their jugs to take fresh water home. Money that we’ve spent has actually gone to helping people get fresh water.”
As a filtered coffee drinker myself, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to try some cups of precisely measured coffee. Brew ratios are extremely important here and Gavin proceeded to boil the water to 95°c, measure 16 grams of ground coffee (this cup was slightly under-dosed compared to the ‘usual’ 18 grams), pour the water through a spout that allowed him to aim it accurately enough to saturate all of the coffee and then pour again to reach 300 grams of water.
It was enthralling to watch the beans which are a result of such community engagement and traditional ceremonies being combined with scientific precision. Gavin and Aroma Coffee’s Q Grader, James Craig explained that they try to control and acknowledge all components of the entire process from beginning to end right down to the materials of the containers that hold the coffee or water. Recently they have conducted taste tests comparing bottled water, alkaline water and filtered tap water. While the alkaline water tampered with the acidity of the coffee itself, their preference every time was for filtered tap water.
James Craig is a Q Grader (one of forty nine in Australia), a qualified taster and the perfect example of someone who loves his job. Sensory analysis is his game and he has certainly found his home ground here. It was very uncommon during our discussions not to see James with his nose deep within a cup, inhaling, eyes closed and savouring every scent. It was then a matter of seconds before his eyes opened and shone with brilliance as an exhuberant smile overcame him and he proceeded to impart on us the aromas he had just discovered within.
Between James and Gavin and the decades of coffee tasting between them, they have an extremely precise calibration of their taste and olfactory senses.
Drinking with these two, you can actually appreciate and (for once, in my case) understand what someone is detecting when they say “it’s so floral” or “you can smell the apricots” or the strawberries. The sweetness and aroma permeated the cups and your senses so much more in my opinion from a cup of brewed filtered coffee than the espresso varieties.
Where do these flavours come from? “Think of the equator as the ‘coffee belt’ around the world” James explained. The closer you can grow to the equator, the better. As long as frost does not affect the crop higher up the mountain slopes, altitude plays the most important part, determining density and malic acidity formation (which is associated with the citric flavours of some fruits). High altitude crops do take longer to grow but “the bean is denser and a higher rated organic convertible compound”.
Gavin has gradually started the shift of Aroma Coffee toward a greener and community beneficial company. Eventually he and James foresee Aroma Coffee becoming completely carbon neutral. The majority of cooling and lighting is natural, the sacks which store the beans are used for compost & mulch and any plastic bags used are recycled by Reverse Garbage.
Solar panels are in the works but it was refreshing to hear from Gavin that the green theme is not just evident at the very end of the production but also in Ethiopia itself.
If you would like to sample some of Aroma Coffee’s wares, some of Gavin’s recommended locations are Bernasconi’s Cafe in Rose Bay, Pasta Pantry in Bellevue or Ungaro Raw in Rozelle.