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Toby Smith is a bean hunter
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Toby Smith is a bean hunter
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"There’s a new breed of people opening cafés and they’ve really wised up that fresh, good coffee made well makes a difference."
Conversations
1 July 2005

Toby Smith is a bean hunter

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Brett Stevens

Kate Bezar on Toby Smith

Way back in 2005, before coffee and Melbourne had consummated its passionate love affair, Dumbo Feather spoke with Toby Smith from Toby’s Estate.

Toby Smith’s cafés and his coffee wholesaling business, Toby’s Estate, have revolutionised the way coffee is bought, sold and consumed. Rather than ply cafés with branded paraphernalia in order to obtain their business, his approach is quite different and simple: provide the best coffee, and train baristas to make it well. Not only that, but Toby’s Estate’s dedication to promoting Fairtrade and organic coffee is having a positive impact on some of the poorest regions of the world.

This story originally ran in issue #6 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

TOBY SMITH: We went to Timor recently… You’re making your business out of a product, and it’s great to see where it comes from. We’re one of the very few groups of people in the world who have a very fortunate life, and having spent a lot of time on coffee plantations I probably see coffee in a different way to most people.

We want to let people understand – without ruining their experience of the romantic ideal of coffee – that it comes from really unfortunate parts of the world where they’re not so prosperous and their conditions aren’t great. We live a pretty sheltered little life down here and our closest neighbour – which is not that far from Darwin, and only broke away a couple of thousand years ago – is East Timor. They have had a really crap time. Then you hear that we’re being a bit unfair taking their oil as well. If they had a million bucks a day, they could rebuild their country and educate and look after themselves medically and it’s just, oh all wrong.

KATE BEZAR: Australia is the “lucky country”, it’s already got extensive oil reserves, incredible natural resources and it has to bicker over that…

The lucky country, the fucking greedy country now, isn’t it? Timor’s a small place, there’s not a lot of people, it wouldn’t take much to help get it back off the ground.

A start would be to let them have what’s actually rightfully theirs.

Yeah, which is rightfully theirs and they have a right to live in a more humanitarian way. So that boils me up and pisses me off, situations like that, especially when you are an Australian and what are you doing about it? I felt embarrassed being over in Timor. So Jo [Toby’s sister and business partner] and I went over there with a team and a photographer to take lots of photos [see images accompanying this story], not just about coffee, but also about the people. Jo’s just been selecting a few with the photographer that we’re going to blow-up, print, frame and hang in all the cafés. Let’s push East Timor coffee, let’s buy it, sell it, let’s put our tips into Timor. Let’s find a way of helping them out. We’re going to exhibit and sell these photos and put the money towards some of these organisations in Timor. The UN is slowly moving out and there’s all the usual stuff of the aftermath of the civil problems. The Timorese must be just so stoic and just brave people and their life must be in a bit of shock. Everything they’ve built over the years of their life, and even the old people, has been destroyed continually, you wonder where they get their hope back.

And a whole generation has been wiped out.

Yeah, and they’re just around the corner. I mean, from a high point in a mountain in Timor you can see Australia, so it’s scarily close. Sure, not to Sydney but I think if we can open people’s eyes to that, and actually make people see that they are close and that they are our neighbours and we have a responsibility because we are the lucky ones down here. Recently John Newton (a freelance writer) had to do this “Sustainable Week” where he ate just sustainable food in his area, and he tried our East Timor Fair Trade organic coffee, which he loved.

This story originally ran in issue #6 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #6 of Dumbo Feather

Do you get many people specifying that they want your Fair Trade coffee?

We’ve got a Sumatran Fair Trade, we’ve got a Brazilian Detera Rainforest Alliance coffee. They’re aligned with the rainforest. They’re doing business for the rain forest and ecosystem, so it’s eco-friendly coffee and there’s also bird-friendly coffee. If the birds are okay, everything’s okay, so it would seem. If the soil’s good and the trees are good and there are no chemicals, then the birds aren’t going to eat them and get sick. Because if the birds are sick and something eats the bird, they’ll get sick and the whole eco-chain breaks down. The birds also eat the worms which are in the soil, and they’ll pick up anything that goes into the soil. So if the birds are good everything’s good. We have those as our conscience range.

“Conscience range”. Do you get many people with a conscience requesting them?

We do actually, they’re quite popular, that mentality’s started to develop. Like when organic started and we were doing organic coffee, people were like, “Oh, organic, it’s more expensive,” and we’d go, “No,” and they’d say, “It’s not as good then,” and we say, “No, it’s just the same.” In fact, 80 percent of our coffee is organic, it’s just that not all of it’s certified. That mentality changed, and now people just go for organic, you know? It’s like Macro [Wholefoods] is commercialising organic, in a way. And the same thing is happening with Fair Trade in England. In shopping centres, they dedicate whole aisles to Fair Trade products. We’re a little bit behind down here with Fair Trade, people still call it ‘Free Trade’ coffee.

So do you think that it’s a real point of difference for you, the “Conscience Range”?

Yeah. I guess my sister Jo and I want to see if we can build the business and do a few good things. It’s a high growth agriculture product – coffee is second to oil as a commodity. And the whole band between the Tropic of Capricorn is third world basically and they rely on coffee. It is a point of difference. Apart from the fact that we try and make the best coffee we can, we also try and provide a little bit of an edge to it. We don’t buy irresponsible coffee like some plantation coffees, we’ve got more organic teas now and they’re not necessarily more expensive. Fair Trade is of course more expensive, because money’s going back and coffee prices have gone up, which is a good thing.

So we should be expecting to pay $3.50 now for a coffee?

Yeah, well this is the thing… When I’m saying to my sister Jo, in a business sense, “Coffee prices are going up, shit,” and she’s going “Oh, that’s so good, isn’t it?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, I suppose it is, yeah.” It’s so good for the farmers.

Did you and Jo start the business together?

I started it, and then Jo joined later on. She was living up in Queensland and you know when you’re running a one-man band, like you are, and you’re running round and you think, hey, it’d probably be good if I had some help. And unpaid help preferably. So Jo joined a year or so later, she’s a partner now and very much a big part of it. The business is seven years old this month.

I’d really love to hear more about how you got there, and I want the long version.

You want the long version. All right. Well, I guess I started off with an interest in coffee. My mother had a café. I was studying law at the time and was really more interested in food, wine, coffee, tea…

So why were you studying law?

Who knows? Like everyone else who studies law, I don’t know. But I was quite interested in the agricultural side of coffee. I was quite interested in getting a coffee plantation going here or helping someone else with their plantation, and I thought

the best way out of studying and getting trapped into law would be to run away to Brazil and learn more about coffee.

So I went to Brazil thinking I might stay a couple of months and see what happened. I had a contact over there who had friends in a small town who grew coffee and they said, “Yeah, yeah, Toby can come over, we can show him around.” I don’t think they knew what I was going to do or whatever. So I got over there and he used to pick me up at 6:30 in the morning on the way to work, and I’d just go into his farm, and then I’d head off to the manager, and then I met the guys down at the co-operative and the Doctor of Coffee down there took me around and the next minute you’re just on a learning… a little adventure.

Had you finished studying by this stage?

No. I was only about three subjects off so it was totally irresponsible and everyone was throwing up their arms, particularly, I think, my parents were probably thinking what is he doing. My father’s quite entrepreneurial and adventurous so he was involved and also supported me in going over there. I guess when I got back and friends were going, “You should finish your degree because it’s something good to fall back on if nothing works”. But I was like, “I don’t want to fall back on it.”

If I’ve got that safety net I might use it.

Yeah, that’s right. This will force me not to, it has to work. Anyway, so I spent a lot of time on plantations in the co-operative. They are like local town coffee brokers and they cup and they grade the coffee. So I did a couple of months doing a few courses in there that they were holding and I did a cupping course with a private broker.

What’s ‘cupping’?

A cupping course is where you learn how to basically taste coffee to pick up defects and also the quality of the coffee and you score it for market. And that’s what counts, you know, visual defects for beans and flavour and aromatic defects. And they said, “Oh, you’re good at this, you have a good palette.” And I thought, “Oh, wow, I have a good palette. That’s cool”, and I got into that.

I guess when you think you might be good at something you should probably do it.

And then once in Brazil, I realised what a big thing coffee is. It’s not just a cup of coffee and an espresso machine and a little roaster, it’s a huge, big industry and Brazil’s the largest grower [in the world] so there’s a lot going on there. So, yeah, there was a lot to learn in Brazil and Brazilians are very hospitable, and friendly, and warm and charming. It was a fantastic time culturally and then learning a new language…

How long were you there?

I was there for over a year all up. It was one of those times in your life when you’re on a learning curve and having a cultural experience – you’re learning a new language, you’re learning about coffee, and that’s all you’re doing. It was great.

And you just knew that this was something that you could be completely passionate about?

When I was over there the whole experience was fantastic and I really didn’t know where it was leading me to. I didn’t have a plan at that stage that I was going to come back and start Toby’s Estate Coffee. I was just over there still thinking about maybe being a consultant to the Australian coffee industry, or to growers, or staying in Brazil and getting enough experience to get myself a job. I suppose also having a university education helped, and having a language and English. So I didn’t know where it was leading to, but I was good at picking up jobs here and there to keep me going and actually the thought of coming back to Australia was a bit dull – it was all just too good over there. I had this beautiful place and I was living in the country and I thought, “I could handle staying here”. I came back for Christmas and I was really thinking, “What the hell have I come back for?” Anyway, I started talking to Dad and he was saying, “You know, you’re getting on now and what have you got, and what are you doing?”

How old were you?

27 or 28. You know, like, “What are you doing? I think you really should stay here and start a little business.” And so Dad got me quite enthusiastic about the idea of roasting, and also that he was going to be my partner so he invested some money into a roaster for me and I started roasting and putting it in bags.

Where were you getting the beans from?

Coffee comes in 60 kilo Hessian sacks and they’re $600 about, and I couldn’t afford that, so I used to go to another roaster and buy five kilo bags off him of a variety and roast them up in my little roaster in my mother’s place in the garage. I turned it into the factory and Dad and I remodelled the garden into a nice setting under a tree. That’s where I started doing coffee tasting quite regularly which was a good income for me, and coffee training. I had the machine outside, and the little roaster…

Your mum must have been thrilled!

Yeah, she wondered what was going on, and what was my father, her ex-husband Roger, up to, “What are they doing? This is crazy. Where’s the rent? He’s taking over my garden, my house”. Then I think she came around in the end because she realised that I was getting busy and things were looking good.

Just word of mouth?

Yeah, total word of mouth. I had a couple of friends in hospitality so there were a few pubs, a few cafés, a few restaurants… It started slowly and I’d talk to people and say, you know, my coffee is the best and everything else in Sydney is really bad.

Did you believe that?

Yeah, for the most part. I came back from Brazil and I didn’t want to really go back and roast in Australia because I thought, you know, the coffee scene in Sydney is really pretty bad, there’s not much happening so, you know, what for? Then I came back and realised actually it was good market to start a business.

There was a huge hole in the market for some great coffee.

And there still is. There’s a whole lot of ordinary coffee around and there’s no real training and no one’s really taught how to make it correctly. You know, everyone’s after the [free] cups and the umbrellas and there was no core product involvement from cafés.

So it wasn’t about the café wanting the best coffee, it was more, “Who’s going to give me the free espresso machine and the umbrellas?”

I think Sydney and Australian coffee has come a long way in seven years. I’m also very fortunate that in the year after I got back there was the first Aroma Coffee Festival which is now a big thing and the food growers’ markets – the Pyrmont Good Living Growers’ market, the Northside Produce Market, Fox Studios market – all started. I was just wholesaling, so the markets gave me a little bit of a retail front and good exposure.

And how many cafés do you supply to now?

About 200 – mostly in New South Wales, mostly Sydney. We are stretching into the country. The country’s really a great market for us now – country New South Wales is just fantastic. It’s not a backwater anymore, especially when it comes to food and produce. Farms are diversifying, they’ve got their own produce, they’re into food, they have time to be into food, and more and more young chefs, or retired chefs are moving out there from the city. Yeah, that’s it. So there’s a fair bit in New South Wales. We’ve got a distributor in Perth, WA. That’s developing quite well. Brisbane, Noosa, not much in Victoria, a bit in country Victoria, not much in Melbourne yet but we’re heading down there soon.

That’s got to be the natural place for you to go.

You know, the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne with coffee… I get the feeling that Melbourne definitely has the upper hand, just with the fantastic café scene they’ve always had. Sydney’s still probably not as great a café scene, but I think definitely Sydney’s coffee is better.

For one reason only and that’s because Toby’s Estate’s here. Even being a barista now has become quite an art form, which I think is fantastic.

There’s a lot more respect. It’s actually like a proper job now. You’re not just someone who’s just going to jump on the machine and, you know, it’s different to pouring beer. It’s a skill and it’s an art and there are some good baristas around. And apart from making coffee, you’re in a certain place where you’ve got to make a lot of it, and people stand in front of you going, “If I don’t get my coffee soon, I’ll rip your head off.” And the menu goes on forever, and it’s soy or… There’s value in it so they pick up some good money, and of course Paul Bassett winning the World Barista Championships a couple of years ago, he’s a great ambassador for the country and he’s really made everyone more interested. The National Barista competition was just on, and the whole competition is fierce now.

Are you a judge?

I used to judge. That’s where I met Paul, judging him. I used to judge instead of compete because I got involved helping develop the competition and get it all going.

Is training baristas still a big part of what you do?

We’ve just opened our new training facility. Whereas before we were training at night in the café when it closed up, now we’ve got a daytime facility with more espresso machines. We have four levels, we put people on programs – they can do intensive courses, or young kids can call up and say, “I want a job but I can’t get a job because I haven’t got any experience”. It’s like, where do you get experience? Who’s going to give you the lucky break? So the machines will also be there so people can practice and clock how many hours they’ve done and use that on their CV. It makes a huge difference.

There’s a new breed of people opening cafés and they’ve really wised up that fresh, good coffee made well makes a difference.

It isn’t the marketing of the coffee company, it isn’t the colour of the cups, the style of the machine… And they’re a lot more savvy, because at the end of the day if a cup of coffee tastes good someone’s going to have a second cup. So the café owners are wising up

A café can use great beans, but if the barista’s doing a bad job, what’s the point?

We select from the raw product before it’s roasted. We cup it and go through that selection process, and decide on which is a good bean and have our blends. Our Single Origin coffees are state grown which we sell retail and also more cafés are taking these Single Origin coffees, and grinding them separate to the main blend, they’re something different. So there’s a lot of time involved in that, and then the care in roasting, and the quality of our bags that we put it in, and how soon we put it in the bag so it doesn’t oxidise and lose any aromatics because coffee’s a fresh product, it can break down quite easily in the air, and then making sure the barista’s are trained. If any one of those steps in the chain isn’t their beans it’s like they’re going to stand there until we’ve roasted them.

There are guys in science labs blending up their own coffee and sending us notes. And people with their machines, they’re upgrading their machine in their home, and they’ve done all the courses. Really the consumer, at the end of the day, makes the product because then the café has to deliver what the consumer has a better understanding of. I think me doing a lot of those tastings taught people a bit more about it, or I hope it did.

You just raised the bar.

Yeah, and it’s still shooting up. I mean, you talk to the baristas in the barista competition and they’re like… I was talking to one guy who was the gun of the last couple of years and he’s just scratching his head now going, “I’m surrounded by these guys and it’s just like, who’s the lucky one at the end of the day? They’re all such good baristas. Where do you go from here?” And they’re competitive. They dedicate a lot of time to training to win the World Barista Championships. There’s quite a lot to it, and it’s tight, you’re under the clock as well. They’re coming out shaking all the cups, it’s the most harrowing thing and you just ask what are people putting themselves through it for?

So what’s Paul Bassett doing now?

Paul’s an incredible success story because he has put together a six-part TV series on the Lifestyle Channel on coffee in Australia, he’s got some contracts working for milk and coffee machine companies and he does private consultation.

Like an elite athlete.

He’s got managers and I’m sure he’s got psychologists as well… He’s on the speaking circuit. How’s that? So it’s nuts.

And you’re never tempted to enter yourself?

I’ve been tempted, yeah, but I’m not that competitive really. I guess my ambition lies in Toby’s Estate, and I probably concentrated my energy into Paul in his early days…

It’s nice nurturing people who are coming through. Is Jo more of the activist, she’s more the…

Yeah. As my focus is really more coffee product and stuff, Jo has a rounder focus, which is a great thing that I believe in, but she puts a lot more of her energy towards the charity side and I sometimes have to remind her that we’re here to sell coffee not give it away! She’s got a great natural feeling for that sort of thing which is great and we have a mutual understanding, that that’s where we want to take it as far as it works within the means of the business.

What are some of the core fundamentals in the way you live your life? What makes you grateful?

I like people who are into things for the right reasons. People with a bit of spirit, who give life a go and also have some concern about people around them. I also like footy and cricket. That’s something I try to do – not take it all too seriously but there are some serious elements to business and people, you know, the Timor thing and everything but also just, have a laugh about it all and enjoy it. And yeah, my parents, my mum, my dad, they’re both good people. I’ve got some good friends, I’m very lucky, and a good wife. She’s a good-spirited person. God, I rely on my wife.

I know I’ve read somewhere that you spent time in France when you were young and then again – was that after Brazil, when you said you went to Europe?

I went to France for awhile, helped out with some roasting in France. You know, it’s like as you go along you pick out more what you don’t want to do, which makes you do what you do.

In my experience, and this is a generalisation of course, France traditionally roasts coffee quite dark. This guy I used to help roast in France would roast it dark to the point where I would’ve thrown it away, but they like it. The darker you roast it the more bitter it gets, and the more you cook away flavours. You’re not actually allowing the natural flavours in the beans, fruitiness and all the done correctly, then it just ruins the whole product. So all those little steps just to get to the final great cup of coffee.

Would you like to have Toby’s involved in more steps back down the chain? Is the dream of having the coffee plantation still alive?

Yeah. I’d like to sit around on a coffee plantation one day! The state it’s in at the moment, it’s moving ahead and it needs a lot of attention so I think that’s what I should focus on and I’m enjoying it.

You’ve now got three cafés?

Yeah, we’ve got three cafés. One in Woolloomooloo, which we opened four years ago, that’s where the espresso school is. There’s a roaster there and an espresso bar and the main office. And then a little hole-in-the-wall café in Potts Point, and a new café and our new production warehouse in Chippendale. There we have a much larger space and it’s quite a good showroom for the wholesale customers to come and see our product and what we do. We’ve put a tea emporium in there. We’ve always had teas alongside the coffee, but the tea we import direct from the farm and pack it.

Is that enough shops for now?

That’s it, yeah. No more.

How much does the espresso school rely on you?

I guess I’ve got an incredible staff, they’re very knowledgeable and they’re very capable in their roles. So if I disappeared to Brazil again, I don’t think it would be the end of Toby’s Estate. In saying that, I guess I have a role in which direction and what it is to be, and what it is to become – that’s what I want to be doing. When I started it, in the first couple of years I was roasting, and packing, and delivering, and training, and doing tastings, and doing everything I really enjoyed about the coffee, but then it’s become a business and then you’re developing a business which is exciting and great.

Do you think you’re a natural businessman? Do you enjoy that side of it?

I guess… We’ve got this far, so I must be doing something right! But, I don’t know, the expanse of skills needed to run a business and a growing business, you need other people to help you. I’ve got some strengths but I’m not really good at a lot of other things.

What do you think are some of the smarter decisions you made along the way?

I think the decision just to stay true to coffee and keep the focus on the product… You know, in the early days people would go, “You’ll never make it in the business because you don’t give [espresso] machines away”, but I guess by sticking to the belief that no, it is the product, and finally breaking through that, it proves that there is another way. Marketing in coffee is huge, there’s a lot of advertising, and there’s a lot at point of sale and there’s a lot of money going into that, into the cost of the coffee. We had to convince people that nothing’s for free, you pay for it in coffee so why don’t you just pay for better coffee? I think that the school, concentrating on the education and spending time with the public doing a tasting, you’re letting people understand what coffee is, demystifying it to cafés and getting them in control of the product. We’ve stuck to the idea that if we have a school then café owners will come because the results will show and they will have a small successful business themselves. Sure, early on you’re just doing it because that’s what you love doing. You’re passionate about it, and you want to share your passion, and people like passion. It’s attractive and it’s fun and it’s great to hear people be passionate about something. So then to other people it becomes addictive as well.

You are very passionate about coffee.

People are passionate about coffee. Seriously. Some of our customers are so passionate about it that if we don’t have other flavours to develop through the roasting practice. I felt most people I was roasting with weren’t really focussing on that at all.

Can you blind taste the difference between a bean from Timor and a bean from Brazil?

Yeah. I guess. Your brain’s an amazing thing and you learn a huge amount of flavours, and they’re stored somewhere in your brain and identifying certain coffees… If I was to drink 20 of these coffees every day for a week, at the end of the week, sure, I’d be able to recognise them, if they were being brewed and roasted in the same way. There are certain flavours in certain coffees in certain regions you can identify quite easily, and even to a point where you know how something’s been roasted and if it’s roasted too light or needs more this, or more that. Your brain works in a funny way and it really is quite clever at picking up those things straight away.

It’s only your brain, my brain wouldn’t.

Everyone can taste. Sure, some people might have a little bit of a genetic disadvantage. We’ve got the largest range of coffee beans in the country, I’d say. We’ve got a ridiculous amount, it’s silly. You can end up telling the difference by the look of them, you know, when they’re green – the bean starts green – to then when it’s roasted. And people go, “God, you can tell just by looking at it that it’s…” Well, if you have your head stuck in beans for that long you tend to work out what it is, you know.

How do you have your coffee?

Funnily enough, I don’t have an espresso machine at home. If I didn’t have cafés and I didn’t visit cafés that much I would have an espresso machine at home. I do like my espresso and I don’t drink a lot of milk. Probably the most milk in a coffee I’d have would be a piccolo latte, which is a mini-latte, or a macchiato. I just prefer it black – that’s the way I look at coffee. So when I get to work the staff usually throw me a double ristretto macchiato.

Ristretto?

An espresso shot is 30ml, and a ristretto is the first 15 to 20ml, so it’s two of those. It’s really intense, and toffee thick, and sweet if it’s made well and with a little speck of milk. I love those and, yeah, sometimes I have a few too many – three or four of those in a day – but there’s not too much caffeine in the first part of coffee, you see. The longer you brew the more caffeine comes out. So ristretto, the first part of coffee, has a lot less caffeine in it. And we only use Arabica, there’s Arabica and Robusta. Robusta has a lot more caffeine in it. We use the finest Arabica coffee, of course, which has all the beautiful flavours and it’s lovely coffee. Arabica is a variety, Café Arabica, is the botanical name. Robusta’s the lower-grown, more hardy, robust plant and more disease-resistant as caffeine is an insect repellent type of thing. It’s its own protection. Coffee’s easy to grow, and all this stuff about selling bloody fertilisers… I went to this conference and all these farmers in Brazil were into the latest and best fertiliser that’s going to yield you more coffee and all this bullshit and it’s just some fucking chemical that they’re trying to sell and it’s terrible and they don’t need it at all. You go and visit an organic farm down the road where this guy goes, “What a lot of crap,” and he’s grown fantastic coffee. That used to piss me off, it used to boil me up. Australia has very mildly caffeinated coffee because we don’t have any diseases, touch wood, as yet because there’s such little coffee in the country. So a couple of shots of double ristretto is nothing really.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Brett Stevens

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