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COFFEE PLANT: Turning a blog into a successful specialty coffee roaster

COFFEE PLANT: Turning a blog into a successful specialty coffee roaster

How the small team behind a specialty coffee blog and organisers of regular blind cuppings became one of Warsaw's hottest roasters

When I learned that Polish specialty roaster COFFEE PLANT originally began as a blog not unlike The Coffeevine, I felt an instant connection. After all, that is also how this business began. At a time when specialty coffee was growing in popularity in Poland, Szymon Juszczyk decided to start writing down his thoughts, experiences and recipes and share them online.

Fast forward a few years and COFFEE PLANT has morphed into one of Warsaw’s leading roasters, focusing on sourcing extraordinary coffees and offering these in both bean and capsule form. While they might not have their own flagship café, they have worked hard at building a strong network of customers and are now making their Coffeevine debut in November with a juicy and fruity anaerobic natural-processed coffee from Bensa in Ethiopia.

I recently had the pleasure to meet Szymon and his fellow co-founder Tomasz Goljan for a more in-depth interview where I got under the skin of who COFFEE PLANT is.

THE COFFEEVINE (CV): “Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Szymon and Tomasz, if you could both tell me, how did you end up in coffee?”

Szymon Juszczyk (SJ): “The idea behind the COFFEE PLANT blog was mainly mine. I started it in 2018 with the intention to write about coffee in general but and to share some knowledge with a long term vision for COFFEE PLANT to become a fully fledged roastery one day.

We published around 60 to 70 articles about coffee and Nespresso capsules, in particular, with the aim to build some good search engine rankings for our new domain coffeeplant.pl.

TC: “Why were Nespresso capsules so important for this?”

SJ: “We always said that one of our key products as a future roaster would be Nespresso compatible capsules filled with specialty coffee and as you can see on our website, we managed to do that with fully compostible capsules. However, the road to getting there was not easy. These capsules are actually the fourth type that we’re working with.

The first batch were made of a PLA, which is a sort of bio-degradable plastic but in Poland, we were not really able to process the waste.”

TC: “Why is that?”

SJ: “For this kind of material to be broken down, you need a special processing plant, which we didn’t have in Poland. Then, we decided to go with regular plastic capsules for a while with the hope that we could soon use a compostible option instead. Two years ago, we introduced our first compostible capsules but again, these were only compostible in industrial composting plants. Unfortunately for us, the Austrian company that supplied these capsules stopped making them shortly after we launched our new line of capsules, which left us in a tight spot.

The most recent drop of capsules is made from a different material, which is now fully home-compostible. I really hope that this is our final product.” (laughs)

TC: “And Tomasz, what’s your story then? How did you end up in specialty coffee?”

Tomasz Goljan (TG): “Kind of by accident, actually. I was not at all intrested in specialty coffee until I ran into Szymon at a restaurant in Warsaw one day. We used to go to the same high school, you see. Szymon and his business partner and now wife Dagmara really dragged me into this world and following a bunch of cuppings with Polish roasters and other events, we decided to start this company together.

Initially, it was run out of a garage and our apartments but now, we’re looking to move from our current two locations to one big location with around 500m² where we can grow the business further.”

TC: “I also started The Coffeevine as a blog back in 2012 when the third wave movement was only just taking off. I remember coming to Warsaw on a business trip in the winter of 2013 with my then employer and spending some time wandering around the city and discovering a bunch of really exciting coffee shops. It almost felt like Warsaw was even further ahead in some ways than Amsterdam was then. When you started your blog in 2018, where did you fit in? Were you able to build a community quickly or was it a slow process?”

SJ: “It was actually quite slow. The main reason behind the blog was to teach myself about specialty coffee first and to then share my experiences with others. I think many people can relate when I say that I used to drink my espressos with lots of milk and other stuff mixed in. It wasn’t until 2016 that I had my first cup of filter coffee, which ultimately marked the beginning of my journey in specialty coffee.

“If we write on the bag that the coffee tastes like strawberry jam, that is what they [customers] want to taste, especially if they’re not so experienced.”

I must mention though that the blog had one very important componant, cuppings. In 2018, there were already a lot of specialty coffee roasters in Poland but the quality differed greatly. So, we organised blind cuppings and invited seven to eight roasters to send us coffees, usually grouped by origin, say Ethiopia. We would then invite members of the public to attend and tell us in the straightest form which ones they liked the most.

The most surprising thing was that our first cuppings were attended by approximately 80 people, which felt like a lot. The cuppings helped us to raise our profile. Funnily enough, when it came to picking the best-tasting coffees, the results were often unexpected, meaning that these regularly came from the lesser known roasters rather than the more famous ones.”

TC: “Did any of the roasters ever attend these cuppings to get direct feedback? I sometimes invite roasters to join our own monthly cuppings to see whether they recognize their own coffees or if they even rate them highly or not.”

SJ: “Definitely. Mostly because these cuppings took place in Warsaw and most roasters are in Warsaw. But I remember that only one roaster ever recognized his own coffee.”

TC: “Tomasz, tell me a bit about the early days of COFFEE PLANT as a roastery in its own right. How did you aim to differentiate yourselves from other established brands?”

TG: “In the beginning, it was quite hard to establish the Nespresso capsules that we had wanted to have from the start but as Szymon already explained, we have finally found the right kind of material for us, which can now be purchased from our shop. After the Nespresso capsules, we launched an espresso line, which was then followed by a filter line approximately one to one and half years later.

What was quite surprising for us to learn was that the people following our blog did not really convert into paying customers. We really had to start from scratch. Initially, while we worked to establish our brand, we focused mainly on office clients and just as the business started to grow, covid changed everything. Suddenly, our business collapsed basically overnight. It has taken us a good year and half to recover and set up our own production space. Before, we were roasting at our friend’s place where we could use the roaster but we still had to do everything else ourselves including the sourcing and profiling.”

TC: “How did you acquire the skills to run your own roastery? I mean, it’s quite a differerent kettle of fish compared to just running a blog.”

TG: “No, indeed. We do not actually roast ourselves. It’s safe to say that we have two or even three people capable enough of roasting our coffees but our head roaster, Kir Lebedzeu, is Belarussian and he left his country following the unrest in 2020 and recently came to Poland from Ukraine. In the latest Polish Brewers Cup he came in second place, losing to Agnieszka Rojewska (of World Barista Championship fame) by 0 points basically.

My role is focused on growing the business while Szymon takes care of sourcing and profiling.”

TC: “Tell me something about your sourcing practices. This coffee here, for example, is a stunning anaerobic natural-processed Ethiopian, which you will be roasting for our upcoming November box. Do you source based on your own personal preferences or do you go by what your customers want the most?”

SJ: “Actually, what we found is that customers don’t really care if a coffee is super balanced although this is a crucial component of the SCA cupping score sheet. What they want is to recreate the flavour notes that we put on the bags. If we write on the bag that the coffee tastes like strawberry jam, that is what they want to taste, especially if they’re not so experienced. Of course, the coffee has to be sweet, clean and balanced but when it comes to filter coffees, people are steered by the intensity of the notes.

That is also why we often choose coffees that are sweeter and less acidic.

The other thing is that we source 70% of our coffees from Colombia and Africa. Colombia is particularly interesting because of its unique micro-climates, which allow us to have various fresh crops throughout the year that all taste completely different. When it comes to Africa, we like to source coffees from Kenya and Ethiopia but also from countries like Rwanda and Tanzania, which is less popular.”

TC: “I saw on your website that you have a separate product line called ‘Flow’. Is this one really built primarily around flavour notes to help customers find the taste profiles that they love while the other single origins are producer focused?”

SJ: “Almost. The Flow line is supposed to contain slightly more affordable coffees but with very high quality still. For example, in our Very Berry line, we now have a blend of natural Rwanda and natural Ethiopia with both coffees scoring 87 points. We make slightly lower margins on this because we want these coffees to be really accessible. Therefore, whether you’re using a Moccamaster or an Aeropress, your coffee should always taste delicious.”

TC: “I see. The coffee inside changes according to the seasons but the flavour notes roughly remain the same.”

SJ: “That’s right. With coffee prices being what they are right now, we noticed that for many Polish customers, our single origin coffees are simply too expensive. The difference in price between our single origins and our Flow coffees is relatively big and we see that these are selling really well because they are so accessible.

With regards to our regular single origins, I can say that we really like experiments like the Bensa anaerobic natural you have there. As you know, 99% or so of all Ethiopian coffee is either washed or natural and experimental processing methods like this one are only slowly starting to take a hold there. One of our other current coffees is a carbonic macerated Ethiopian and we also have a super fruity Colombian coffee, which is both anaerobic and honey.

“Colombia is particularly interesting because of its unique micro-climates, which allow us to have various fresh crops throughout the year that all taste completely different.”

Specialty coffee is definitely changing quite a lot, especially with regards to the use of fermentation methods. We don’t just want to offer our customers coffees that are washed, natural or honey-processed from Ethiopia, which are more common. Last year, for example, we had a natural-processed coffee from Kenya, which was just so sweet and jammy.”

TC: “Are you planning to open your own café any time soon or do you want to remain a wholesale roaster for now?”

SJ: “A traditional café, no. But we’re looking at potentially opening a sort of multi-use space with breakfast, pizza, cocktails and of course, specialty coffee.”

TC: “Finally, Tomasz, I see you guys also have a really beautiful line of ceramics. How did this come about and is this a permanent offering?”

TG: “Indeed, we have some really nice ceramics from Hadaki Studio made in Poznan. Their products sell really well. We also tried to bring in some other ceramicists but their prices were really high and this made their products difficult to sell in Poland.

Ceramics are something we’ve always wanted to sell as part of our permanent offer. For this, we are driven by what we think our customers will like and what we personally like. We always try to find producers who can produce beautiful products that can be made at scale so we always have enough stock.”

TC: “Thank you, gentlemen. I think I’ve heard enough. I really look forward to having you on board in November.”

This coffee is part of our upcoming November 2022 Coffeevine box that also features other delicious coffees from Placid and Mabó. To choose your ideal box and get in on the fun, just pop over to our shop now.

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