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Kalve Coffee Roasters: Raising Latvia’s specialty coffee flag

Kalve Coffee Roasters: Raising Latvia’s specialty coffee flag

Based in Riga, Kalve Coffee Roasters is one of the Baltic state's leading roasters and now making its Coffeevine debut in April

The Coffeevine has always been about showcasing the full spectrum of the vibrant specialty coffee scene in Europe. From Portugal to Finland and from Greece to Iceland. With so many countries crammed into a relatively small space, Europe is an incredibly diverse and exciting place for coffee.

Lately, I’ve enjoyed training my eyes on the Baltic states and teaming up with the most exciting roasters in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. What began with Paper Mill from Tallinn in February and continued with Crooked Nose from Vilnius in March will, for now, conclude with Kalve Coffee Roasters from Riga this month.

Over the years, I’ve only ever featured one Latvian roaster in any of my boxes and that is far in the past now. It was high time to change that.

I first came across Kalve Coffee Roasters thanks to a tip from one of our local subscribers who said Kalve was ‘the finest our country has to offer, in my humble opinion’. My initial outreach was then promplty replied to by co-founder Raimonds Selgas who was rather excited by the opportunity to potentially have one of his coffees featured in a Coffeevine box.

My curiousity was tickled and I was excited to get a taste of the two coffees that Raimonds promptly sent to me to be included in my public cupping in Milan earlier in March where 20 local coffee enthusiasts and I tasted our way through a total of 10 delicious coffees to choose our favourite ones. To my great delight, Kalve’s gorgeous red-honey Pacamara from Los Pirineos in El Salvador was resoundingly voted into the top three.

I recently caught up with Raimonds while he was at the London Coffee Festival to get a bit more background on his personal journey, how Kalve was founded and what his ambitions are for the future.

The Coffeevine: “How did you get started in coffee?”

Raimonds Selga: “I started in coffee about ten years ago. Actually, it was the result of a happy accident because I didn’t drink any coffee until I was at university unlike many of my friends who claimed they were drinking coffee since age twelve or something. I never really liked the taste to be honest but when you live in dorms with three other guys who all drink coffee, you eventually get pressured into it. But being a student, I only drank the cheapest stuff I could get. You can imagine the rest.”

TC: “What did you study? I’m always curious to know what people did in their previous lives.”

RS: “I studied languages and translation. Basically Russian and English into Latvian and vice versa.”

TC: “Indeed, nothing at all to do with coffee.”

RS: “Nope. But it was actually during my time as a student that my then girlfriend and now wife and I went to Lithuania on a short break and ended up drinking coffee at a local chain called Caffeine where I had my first Caffè Latte and it blew my mind. That was my first-ever coffee that was not made with instant coffee. And I thought, ‘wow, coffee can be this delicious?’ It sparked somewhat of an obsession in me, in part because I was really unhappy with my degree. I am a very social person and doing translations mostly involves sitting behind a computer, alone. Coffee was the perfect exit for me.”

TC: “What happened then? Did you give up your career in translation for a life in coffee?”

RS: “Yes, basically. I started ordering coffee samples from different roasters, I bought a cheap espresso machine and a grinder so I could experiment and drew up a business plan. I applied to this business incubator and we got a grant worth something like €1.400 in today’s money to bascially take our coffee on the road. My girlfriend and I went to events to make coffee out of the back of the car and I thought I knew everything despite never attending a barista course in my life. So, things were great until they weren’t because we were not making any money.”

TC: “It sounds like things could have almost ended there but they didn’t, did they? You now run a pretty sizeable roastery. How did you get to that point and who is your co-founder Gatis Zēmanis?”

RS: “Indeed. Actually, I met Gatis because while I was making coffee out of the back of my car, I needed milk pitchers and there was basically only one company that was selling those and he was working in sales there. That’s also where I saw, for the first time, a La Marzocco and I was like ‘wow’. In the end, our small business didn’t work out but we moved to Riga and Gatis asked me if I wanted to join his company as a sales rep. Suddenly my world of coffee became a lot bigger.

“We buy profiles, not origins. We look for higher solubility so it’s easier to work with, for instance.”

I spent the next four years there working as a sales rep but also as a coffee trainer and ultimately, I was responsible for the coffee quality. And I really loved coffee but I felt like specialty coffee, in particular, could be done better. So, a few months after Gatis left the company, I also decided to quit and I reached out to him to see if we could do something together.”

TC: “And that is when you decided to hatch the plan for Kalve?”

RS: “That’s right. He had all this sales experience and I really wanted to develop my coffee skills further, which led us to setting up a roastery together. We wanted to elevate Latvia’s international profile and do things the way other leading European roasters were doing at the time. This was in 2017. Back then there were only two roasters. Now, there are more, of course.

We basically started roasting on an Ikawa roaster in Gatis’ kitchen and then put a small 2kg roaster in his garage while we waited for our space to be renovated. We wanted to use this time to experiment, make mistakes and learn as much as possible. We had a few customers who helped to sustain us until we properly launched our business in January 2019 with that 2kg roaster, a 15kg roaster and roasting around 400kg of coffee a month.”

TC: “In your bio it says that you built your company around a set of values rather than definining your target audience first and then determining how to go after them. Can you tell me a bit more about this approach?”

RS: “Absolutely. You know, as an ex-Soviet country, Latvia had a lot of catching up to do. We’ve only had 30 years or so to fully develop our hospitality sector and we’re a small country. Only 2 million people or so. The coffee industry was not very exciting and most coffee sold in supermarkets was preground or instant. That’s why Gatis and I, together with Jānis Andersons, our third partner, figured that we needed to have strong values to connect with the end-consumer on a very human level and to distinguish ourselves a bit more to be able to compete with roasters in neighbouring countries.”

TC: “But what exactly makes you different then? For me, using refillable packaging alone is not enough of a unique selling point. Or is it?”

RS: “I think it’s best if I explain this from the perspective of the Latvian market because that’s where most of our business is. Back in the day you basically only had two types of coffee to choose from. A very dark-roasted Italian blend and light roasted Ethiopian coffees. Now, imagine the difference between these two. We wanted to bridge this huge gap and to make it easier for people to get into specialty coffee by offering them more options. That became one of our core values.

Then, there is our green buying policy, which also helps to strengthen our brand compared to say, Polish roasters. We buy profiles, not origins. We look for higher solubility so it’s easier to work with, for instance. At the end of the day, we wanted to make specialty coffee less niche and have a delicious coffee for anyone, whether you’re a student, a person of age or a business man.”

TC: “Before we finish, tell me a bit about the exquisite red-honey Pacamara from Los Pirineos in El Salvador that you will be roasting for our April 2022 box. What made this coffee unique to you and how would you describe it?”

RS: “He he. As I said. I have a romantic side for buying coffee and a practical side for buying coffee. And in this case, these two collided. I was really curious about the farm’s history and to understand how the family has developed such a strong reputation for doing what they do. Diego [Baraona] is a 5th generation coffee farmer who is a bit of an idol for me. He’s continuing his late father’s great work and I want to do the same with Kalve. To build a business that maybe my own children can take over one day.

Now, this is a deliciously sweet coffee with a high solubility, which allows for a great omniroast without sactificing the taste balance and that means that whoever ends up working with this coffee will have a lot of fun with it. It’s got caramel characteristics, red fruit and lots of sweetness.

TC: “Thank you Raimonds.”

You can still order our upcoming April 2022 Coffeevine box featuring this lovely coffee from Kalve as well as two other delicous coffees from Hidden Coffee Roasters and 19 Grams. Visit our shop to choose your ideal box.

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