Like every other industry, specialty coffee has its fair share of icons, influencers and super stars. Whether they are the winners of global competitions or creators of hugely popular podcasts, there’s someone to represent and inspire everyone.
Yet, much of the groundwork for the specialty coffee industry as we know it was laid in the early 2000’s when some visionary entrepreneurs, baristas and coffee growers began to set the scene for what was to come. For me, personally, one person who I’ve looked up to for many years is Stephen Leighton, the illustrious founder of HasBean and someone who embraced the power of communication very early on and basically created the original specialty coffee subscription. His ‘In My Mug’ videos and ‘Tamper Tantrum’ podcast and live shows were hugely influential and turned Stephen into a force to be reckoned with.
During the two decades that he spent building HasBean into the European powerhouse that it eventually became, he fostered incredibly close relationships with some of the most visionary coffee producers, created one of specialty coffee’s most instantly recognisable brands and played a vital role in helping Dale Harris win the World Barista Championships in 2017.
In 2018, Stephen sold the brand to Ozone and has since focused on the two other companies that he’s had a stake in for years; 3FE from Ireland and Drop Coffee from Sweden, another Coffeevine favourite who we’ve been working with for many many years.
As it turned out, his investment in Drop Coffee was not meant to be purely professional either. Eventually, he and Drop Coffee co-founder Joanna Alm fell in love and the coffee power couple recently welcomed their first son Quinn into the world.
Joanna is a multi-award winning coffee roaster and a close friend of The Coffeevine who was also a guest speaker at our Virtual Coffee Festival in 2020 and is widely regarded to be one of the best in her field.
While Joanna is on maternity leave, Stephen is covering for her at Drop, making sure this iconic Swedish roaster is ready to take on the challenges of the future.
I had the immense pleasure to speak with Stephen at length today during a video call in which I asked him some burning questions about his life, what he learned over the past few years, Drop Coffee and the exquisite Honduran coffee from the Mierisch family that Drop will roast for the upcoming May 2022 Coffeevine box.
The Coffeevine (TC): It’s such a pleasure to have you here Stephen. You’ve been such an inspiration to me for so many years. Tell me. When did you have you ‘a-ha’ moment with specialty coffee? When did you realise that coffee would be your life?
Stephen Leighton (SL): “For sure. I’ve always been interested in coffee and when I say always I mean since I was 7 years old. I grew up in a single-parent household and my mum and I used to go ice skating in Wolverhampton once a month. They had this shop called Snapes and they had a roaster in their basement. They would sell coffee and tea and the like and wrap everything in brown paper.
I used to pester my mum to go there eventhough she was never much of a coffee drinker and still isn’t. They didn’t have specialty coffee then but things like Brazil Santos or Colombian Excelso. I mean, this was 41 years ago! But they did have different origins and different profiles and it really hit me like a bug. I had this little filter coffee maker at home that I used up until I was around 12 years old when I started to forget about coffee while living my teenage years, you know?
Later, as I started working nights, the coffee bug got me again and it came back into my life and started bringing me friends and a real community. It was then that I decided that one day I would make this my living and it has been ever since.”
TC: And it wasn’t just the brand [HasBean] that you built. You also created, very early on, super fun and informative videos for your ‘In my mug’ series and you had your podcast [Tamper Tantrum] with Colin. How was it to not just be part of a community but to actually build one yourself?
SL: “When you’re at the very beginning of the journey, the only way to grow this wave is to provide as much information as possible. People want to know stuff, they want to understand. ‘In my mug’ was really aimed at consumers where I talked about this coffee coming from this country or having this process and so on.
Tamper Tantrum, on the other hand, was for the young, energetic community of coffee professionals who were also craving knowledge. It gave me an opportunity to share my knowledge somewhere else. We had super successful events all over the world and it was really exciting. The problem with the coffee industry is that it is a lot about pocketbook knowledge. About things that people summised or guessed. We brought on real scientists and experts to professionalise this a bit more. For a young industry such as this, it’s really important.
“For me, sustainability also goes beyond what we do planet-wise. It’s about how sustainable our business models are too.”
And look, I was not the only person out there doing something like this. James Hoffmann is still a huge inspiration to me and I could listen to Peter Giuliano read the phone book. I was just one person trying to chime in with a bit of fun. That’s what it’s about for me. Community and fun.
The wine industy is a good example. They produce great products that people love and get them drunk and all that but it’s dead serious. Whereas if you make it a bit more accessible, people will come along with you.”
TC: It’s funny you bring this up because a lot of people make the connection between wine and specialty coffee to explain why specialty coffee is worth the price but if you look at wine and craft beer especially, they have, for a long time, been very playful with their labels. And I think now, specialty coffee, which has also been very serious, is starting to adopt this playfulness more and more. You see this in branding and packaging especially.
SL: “Yeah. And especially Malt Whiskey. If you look at the descriptors that the distilleries use, they’re very similar to coffee. They’ve got a very good way of communicating. It’s simple language. And we should look at all of these industries, wine, beer, gourmet foods etcetera and use the elements that work and leave out the elements that don’t work.
And listen. Not all consumers are the same. Some people really love their plain coffee bags and there are lots of people out there to fulfill those needs but I’ve always believed that you can do this better and different. When I consume any product, I want to know who the producer is. That’s really important to me and something I have really tried to champion during my career in coffee because not me, not the barista are the super stars, the producers are. They come in first, second and third place.”
TC: I totally agree with you. Without them, we wouldn’t have any coffee to start with. But at the same time, I’ve noticed more of a shift away from always focusing on the story of the producer and instead, providing the customer with easier navigation to make their coffees more accessible. I think this is also a by-product of making packging less information heavy and more colourful. Do you see the same trend?
SL: “Yes and I strongly believe that this has something to do with the fact that we’ve not been able to travel to origin as much over the past few years. When you visit producers and grab a beer with them at the end of the day, you get so excited about being there and their products that you simply want to tell your customers all about it.
The other issue I see is that as a whole, we often think that we’ve told everyone every story before but that’s simply not true. We have to keep repeating the message over and over again because there are so many new people coming in. There are others who look at the product different than they did a few years ago. And for someone like me who spent most of 2019 on origin trips, this change has been profound.
I strongly believe that we need to make some significant changes to how we do origin trips. Up until covid, it really was a bit of a frivolous ritual that was really not very sustainable because when we talk about sustainability in coffee, we rarely mention the millions of airmiles that we were racking up to go to the same thing in the same places over and over again. I’ve got some ideas for how we at 3FE and Drop Coffee are going to do things going forward.”
TC: Can you share some of your ideas?
SL: “I want to make sure that every minute we spend out there counts. Going forward, instead of shaking nine different coffee farmer hands a day, our itineraries will be more curated and focused. I want to be sure that we have a clear objective such as ‘what do I want to learn this time?’. Getting your picture taken with the farmer is great marketing but do you always come away with the feeling that you actually learned something new? No.
For me, sustainability also goes beyond what we do planet-wise. It’s about how sustainable our business models are too. As a young industry, we built on top of the commodity market without ever full getting away from it. You don’t see McDonalds compete with a Michelin star restaurant right? We need to differentiate ourselves fully and we have the ability to do so because we can charge more for our product.”
TC: And not just that. Because you’re more agile, you can respond to changes like Covid or other shocks much faster than the big corporate giants who are often very slow.
SL: “We actually did a very interesting experiment at Drop Coffee a few years ago with one of our Ethiopian coffees. We had the same coffee on at two prices. You could choose to either pay the regular price or a higher price. And it was very surprising that around 40% of people actually wanted to pay more and the extra earnings we made went to a school project in Sidamo that we were supporting at the time. The money bought books and desks and other items that the pupils needed. It wasn’t like we were charging more to keep the money. It was directly funnelled back to origin. As an industry we’ve always shied away from charging more.
If we want to keep this industry sustainable, we ultimately have to charge more to support the varietal separation, the processing and the livelihoods of these people because all of these things need more investment.”
TC: The whole conversation about sustainbility is very important because many people who have little knowledge about coffee, demand that you have all kinds of certifications or that you’re 100% sustainible without addressing their own shortcomings and we as an industry can actually do a lot to reduce our own CO2 emissions by being more responsible.
SL: “100%. Look, if the pandemic had one good thing about it then it’s the fact that it made everyone stop and realise that ok, we can’t continue to do business this way. Climate change is very real. We see this in our producers’ yields, increases in pests and disease. We really don’t need any more evidence. And despite that, I’ve kept in touch with all of our producers from my little home office here in Stockholm and talked to them probably more than before especially given the effects of the pandemic.
Not to mention the horrendous shipping issues. I’ve had a container sitting in Antwerp for six week and I simply cannot move it Ireland. It’s crazy!”
TC: In a way, we need to be grateful for Zoom to have allowed us to keep up all these relationships that would have been very hard to maintain in the same way if the pandemic had hit us ten years ago. Now, let’s move towards your involvement in Drop. You’ve been a co-owner of Drop for a number of years and I’d love to know what attracted you to Drop in the first place?
SL: *laughs sheepishly*
TC: Ok. Ok. I am sure Joanna was a big draw card but apart from her, what made you want to get involved in a Swedish coffee roastery?
SL: “Joanna and I were great friends before we became partners and then eventually, life partners. We share a lot of the same values. For example, we don’t believe in roasting for brew method. We believe in roasting for each individual coffee and then it’s up to the person brewing it to find the right preparation method.
We actually had a chat at a trade show in 2015 and she mentioned that she really admired what I had done with HasBean and asked if I could give some advice to her and her team. So I flew out there and looked at the business and saw what they were doing. Growing any business is difficult. Erik [Rosendahl] who was co-owner with Joanna at the time told me he wanted to do something else with his life and offered me his part. And I was like ‘god no. I’m not buying into another coffee business.’
But the idea kept nagging me and eventually, I understood that it was a great opportunity. There are so many things I love about Drop. Its uniqueness, the relationships it has with producers. And I thought I could add something to this but I very much didn’t want to be at the front of the business. That is Joanna’s job.
So eventually, I took Erik’s share and it’s been really fun. I haven’t owned a café since 2001 and it just gave me a different perspective. And honestly, I love Stockholm.”
TC: Which is, of course, where you live now together with Joanna and your newborn son Quinn.
SL: “Yes. Quinn is my second son, actually. I waited 25 years between my two sons. Funny, right?
Drop has a very different feel to it. We are a small, family run business now and we came through the pandemic relatively well. Sadly, that’s not something that every other business can say. It might sound corny but we have some very strong ethics in the business that cannot be bent.”
TC: What are your thoughts on branding? With HasBean, you built such an iconic brand that was instantly recognisable. I actually remember sitting at Tamp & Pull in Budapest many years ago and drinking your coffee there and just thinking ‘wow. This brand has such a huge reach and character.’ Drop is also very iconic. Any specialty coffee lover will know that these boxes stand for quality. Where do you see the brand go in the future?
SL: “Branding is a very funny thing, you know? When you hit on something that’s good, there is an urge to keep developing and sometimes an even to rip it up and start again because you’re getting frustrated. My ethos has always been evolution, not revolution. We’re actually going through a bit of a logo update at Drop but I’d be surprised if anyone notices it.
“What we need to do is some consolidation. We’ve changed and changed for the past 25 years and tried to reinvent the wheel but actually, we now have a very strong and differentiated product that has totally unique characteristics.”
The truth is, I am not a big fan of the boxes because they add an extra layer of complexity and waste but at the same time, they are also very strongly linked with our brand. Drop is a premium product and I go back to Malt Whiskey. Their bottles also come nicely boxed or packaged and give you that sense that what you’re buying is really special. That’s what I want our customers to think too.”
TC: What’s been your and Joanna’s biggest takeouts from the pandemic in terms of how the business needs to move forward? And I’m not talking about the sourcing part, which we already discussed.
SL: “I think you always have to be aware that you need to make money to spend money and I think many companies forgot this. I just finished watching this We …”
TC: [WeCrashed by Apple TV+] … oh my god, I loved that show!
SL: “That’s the one. That was a classic example where money didn’t matter. But it does! We have always been really careful to make sure every dime we spend is justified and we know where the money came from. We can’t just spend and worry about it later. We were debt-free going into the pandemic and that put us in a very strong position. No one saw the pandemic coming and we had our finanicals sorted out, largely thanks to our brilliant CFO.”
TC: Let’s talk about your joint coffee sourcing now. Obviously, you’ve had many strong partnerships with producers around the world and so has Joanna. Are you bringing a lot of new options to to the table or are you sticking with old relationships like with the Mierisch family? [who produced the natural Java that Drop will roast for our May box]
SL: “Actually, I introduced Joanna to the Mierisch family. I’ve known them since 2007. Up until the pandemic, we did all of our origin trips together and there were so many economies of scale because we could source coffee for Drop and 3FE as well. We’ve been able to pick and choose the relationships that were strong and went from there.
The worst thing that you could do is to spend all this time travelling around origin and then buying 10 bags of one coffee. My goal is to fill boxes. Two boxes, three boxes, however many we can do. And by having the combined power of Drop and 3FE we have been able to grow those relationships even more.”
TC: What can you tell me about the Mierisch family?
SL: “I feel like I’ve know this family forever. The first origin trip I ever did was in 2004 for a Cup of Excellence judging in Nicaragua and the first coffee producer I ever met in a coffee producing country was Erwin Mierisch. Erwin is the eldest son of Dr. Mierisch who is also Erwin but to me will always remain Dr. Mierisch, you know?
What he’s done with the help of his family is phenomenal. His daughter Eleane is a Cup of Excellence judge and an incredible cupper and a super inspirational person because being a woman in a coffee producing country is so hard but people just see her as Eleane. And then there is Erwin III, Erwin’s son and the grandson of Dr. Mierisch who is now very involved in the business. They own eight farms and one being the one that you have there. Nicaraguans in Honduras. It’s funny.
I never used to buy Honduran coffees because they are really problematic. When you cup them at origin, they are phenomenal but within 3-4 months, the coffee tastes old and baggy and this has something to do with processing and the high humidity in the port.
At harvest time, the port is really congested and it takes ages to get a box out. Humidity plus green beans is not a good mix.
The Mierisch family brought their Nicaraguan knowhow to Honduras and managed to make this work, which means I can now safely buy Honduran coffees. And this one is the extraordinary Java varietal, which is basically the Longberry. It’s an Ethiopian varietal that was taken from a seed station and they took it to Honduras and it’s a very interesting varietal because it has a lot of those Ethiopian characteristics with Honduran qualities. It’s just layer upon layer of delicousness.”
TC: Indeed, this is such an incredibly sweet and rich coffee. I feel priviledged to have it in my box this month. As a final thought, what do you think is the next big change that specialty coffee needs to go through on its way towards maturity, if any?
SL: “To be honest, I don’t think we need any more change. What we need to do is some consolidation. We’ve changed and changed for the past 25 years and tried to reinvent the wheel but actually, we now have a very strong and differentiated product that has totally unique characteristics.
We have so much knowledge about the farms, processing, lots etcetera and now, how do we communicate to the customer that this is worth more than what’s on the supermarket shelf? We also need to hone our presentation skills of the final product and make sure that the message is clean and that we move away from this nonsense about Fair Trade and so on.”
TC: Thank you so much for this illuminating conversation. It’s really been a pleasure.
You can now pre-order or subscribe to our upcoming May 2022 Coffeevine box featuring this beauty of a coffee from Drop Coffee as well as two other exotic picks from Hard Lines and A Matter Of Concrete. Visit our shop to choose your ideal box.