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KAWA: The French specialty roaster making a splash on the European stage

KAWA: The French specialty roaster making a splash on the European stage

Meet KAWA from Paris who has become synonymous with the fast-changing third wave coffee culture in the French capital

There is no doubt that London is Europe’s capital of specialty coffee. It may not have been instrumental in defining certain characteristics like the Nordic roasting style but the British capital has done the European coffee community a lot of other services. For example, it was the place where many leading roasters and baristas got their first taste of specialty coffee, many of them later moving back to their home cities to set up highly successful businesses.

It also helped to establish the idea that specialty coffee and great food can go together. While living in London, KAWA co-founder Alexis Gagnaire got acquainted with specialty coffee and realised that in his native Paris, there was shockingly little choice at the time. This was in 2016. Of course, much has changed in Paris and France at large since then and the roasting business that Alexis co-founded after moving back has been at the forefront of putting specialty coffee into French mugs.

Lately, KAWA has become a more regular sight in cafés across Europe and ever since its first Coffeevine feature in December of 2020, we’ve kept a close eye on KAWA’s evolution. They are known for sourcing a great deal of super diverse coffees and roasting them on a 7kg Loring, resulting in clean and delicious cups of coffee.

We invited Alex and co to join Kiss The Hippo and Brander in our upcoming January 2023 Coffeevine box with a super tasty washed Kenyan Kii AB coffee from Kirinyaga and a few days ago, I interviewed Alexis and his head roaster Thomas Clement to get an update on what’s been happening at this exciting French roaster lately.

KAWA team with Alexis Gagnaire second from right

THE COFFEEVINE (TC): “Hey you guys. It’s so nice to see you both. Thomas, I’ve not met you yet. Why don’t you do a quick introduction?”

Thomas Clement (TCL): “My name is Thomas and I’ve been working for KAWA for about three years, mostly profiling the various gems that we work with like the delicious Kenyan coffee that you picked for your box. We were looking for a coffee like that for at least two years.

Apart from that, I’ve also been taking part in some competitions like the Brewer’s Cup and the Roasting Championships. Ususally though, I am much better as a coach than as a competitor, unlike Alexis. I trained some people this year for the Aeropress Championships and we came in second place. Not so bad really.”

TC: “Wow, that’s cool. Alexis, we know each other, of course. I gave you a big hug when I saw you at the Paris Coffee Festival earlier this year but maybe for the readers, can you also just briefly introduce yourself?”

Alexis Gagnaire (AG): “Yeah, so I am Alexis, one of the co-founders of KAWA and actually, when we worked with Coffeevine two years ago, Thomas roasted the coffee for you. Together, we have been working on all of the different coffees that we source and we really like to have a bit of everything in our seasonal offerings. Some washed coffees, some naturals and some exotic fermentations.

Our goal at KAWA is to show to people the variety and breath of coffee. We want to have coffees that speak to everyone and I know you really love super clean coffees like this Kii. They produce some amazing coffees there and this year was no different.”

TC: “I am always interested in learning what Parisian or French roasters think about their country’s relation to specialty coffee. A few years ago, there were not that many good roasters who were known internationally but now you have people like yourselves and Joachim Morceau and others who are really pushing at the top level. How would you describe the contemporary coffee scene in France?”

AG: “Oh the scene has changed a lot. First of all, I think we, the French roasters, improved a lot after COVID. We are using way better coffees and we are gaining a lot more recognition internationally. You have people like Joachim who have created destination cafés for people from other cities like London and these people love to come to Paris to discover what is happening here.

“The great thing is that France has a lot regional differences in its food and drinks culture and everyone brings their own background to the table.”

Whether you are looking for competition level coffee, a special V60 or an outstanding espresso, you’ll find all of that here. After many years, people are actually using the learnings they got from other industries like wine and they’re translating them into the coffee industry.

People are now finally taking the time to enjoy coffee and coffee professionals are about creating experiences. Maybe our scene is not quite as big as that of London or Berlin but it’s interesting.”

TC: “If I recall, many of the earliest specialty coffee businesses in France were co-owned by foreigners but now, of course, the majority is French owned. Is there something in particular that French people can bring to the table that you wouldn’t necessarily find in other countries?”

AG: “I think we have a great palate for things like wine and food but we lacked experience in coffee. This is something that takes years. Every year, when a new harvest arrives, we have to completely rethink everything we know.

We like to look at this like geeks. We take the data and use our experience to approach new coffees and we continuously learn. We simply don’t know the answers to everything and that’s part of the fun.”

TC: “And how about you, Thomas? You’re the head roaster. What do you think?”

TCL: “I would actually like to answer your first question. Historically, France was always an espresso drinking nation. We were quite big on having long espressos and now, more and more, people are discovering and enjoying filter coffee. It kind of started about five years ago when I was still a barista.

It kicked off in Paris and a little bit in Lyon and now, you can find specialty coffee in almost every city. The great thing is that France has a lot regional differences in its food and drinks culture and everyone brings their own background to the table.

When it comes to roasting, I don’t erase my memory every time a new harvest arrives. I do actually look at the hard data, the density and the humidity, for example, and then the region etc. I look at what we did before and then I try and build a profile based on that. Once I have a first profile, I share it with the team and we take it from there. If it doesn’t fit our vision here at KAWA, we go back to the drawing board.”

TC: “Are there any particular coffees that you like to work with? I don’t mean origins but rather types of beans. For instance, very dense coffees or very large beans?”

TCL: “That is a very tricky question. I actually would have to say Colombian coffees in general because it produces a lot of very interesting coffees. There’s lots of humidity there, which makes those coffees very challenging to dry but the variety is huge.”

TC: “Yes, a lot of people are saying that. I have tasted a lot of incredibly coffees from Colombia and many super progressive producers like Nestor Lasso or Diego Bermudez are based there. What about your thoughts on this Alexis?”

AG: “I like working with Pacamaras, Geshas and so on. I look at it like a problem you need to solve. If you don’t have the right approach, the coffee is not going to taste good. And if you do have the right approach, it’s going to taste amazing.”

TC: “In the beginning, you mentioned that people used to drink a lot of espressos and now they are slowly but surely discovering filter coffees too. What kind of talk do you overhear in your cafés? What are people asking for? Do they want more exotic cup profiles or do they prefer the more classic stuff like a nice pulped natural from Brazil?”

TCL: “Some of our regular customers ask for those exotic coffees but it’s mostly coffee professionals. But the thing is that we change nearly 80% of our offerings almost every two weeks. We have four espressos and four filters. The idea is to offer something at every level. From easy entry level espressos to super exotic processing methods. It’s really the job of the barista to have this conversation with people when they come in and ask ‘what’s new?’

We had a Colombian coffee that was processed with some mandarin and some people went crazy for it so we had to put it back on the menu.”

TC: “I’ve had some similar stuff sent to me in the past with passion fruit and strawberry rinds. Tasted very interesting but definitely not your every day kinda coffee.”

AG: “I think these kind of coffees are the ones you want to experience in a café. There are a lot of different opinions about this sort of coffees. Some people love them, some people hate them. As Thomas said, it’s important to have the barista there to advise people on what they might like.

And to help people later, we also changed the navigation of our website into three different parts so that our customer can better find the kind of coffees they might like. We have a terroir section with super clean and some natural coffees.

“When we look for Kenyan coffees, we always want something super clean and this coffee has all of those qualities we love.”

Then we have a funky category where you can find the naturals and anaerobic coffees, and last but not least, we have the supernatural range with crazy experimental stuff and super limited micro lots. This way we can make sure that people really buy the stuff they really like.”

TC: “I see you even have a coffee called Lord Voldemort. Do you turn into a wizard after drinking it?”

AG: “Haha. That’s a good one! It’s a super funky Ethiopian Sidra that tastes incredible!”

TC: “I love it! Since the beginning, you’ve also had a very solid B2B offering for offices and hotels and so on. What do you see in that field? What are those customers looking for?”

AG: “Oh, B2B customer are definitely just looking for something consistent and not too expensive. If you were to give them the Kenya or a natural Ethiopia, they might like those kinds of coffees as a one-off but not on a regular basis. Here, the key is consistent quality at a good price.”

TCL: “Exactly. They might want to try all of our light-roasted coffees but in the end, they won’t find them suitable so they won’t buy them. However, they do ask a lot of questions about the coffees in general. Things like: ‘Is it organic? Where is it from?’ They want to be informed.”

TC: “Now, let’s talk about this lovely Kenyan coffee from Kii that you will be roasting for our January box. I love Kenyan coffees and we haven’t had one in our box in well over a year. Tell me why this coffee spoke to you?”

TCL: “This coffee is just so incredibly delicious. I tried it again this morning and it gave me some rhubarb and strawberry jam. As it cools, it moves towards caramel and it’s super clean and well balanced. It’s everything you want from a Kenyan coffee.”

AG: “We really wanted to have this coffee. When we look for Kenyan coffees, we always want something super clean and this coffee has all of those qualities we love. We want fruitness, we want flavour, we want structure. Kenyans evolve a lot. Their flavours are not set in stone. That’s really exciting.”

TC: “What are you most excited about for the new year?”

AG: “We want to push our roasting further. And we want to get more involved on the competition side and show that France can do well on the global stage. Last year, our friends from Moklair did really well, first in France and then in the world and that is very encouraging.”

TC: “Are you working with anyone who is competiting?”

AG: “Yes! I am going to compete in the Barista Championships and Thomas will be competing in the Brewer’s Cup. In addition to that, we have a new partnership with a new producer in Colombia whose coffees we’re still sampling but they are very promising. There’s some exciting nitrogen anaerobic fermentation stuff as well as some super lovely washed Geishas and some really exciting stuff that’s been dried in a wine barrell.

We’re currently waiting to receive those lots and we’re going to be the only ones in Europe to have them”

TC: “WOW! That’s sounds so exciting! Do you want to offer more super exclusive lots that only you have access to?”

AG: “Well, we would love to but we do also want to share them with others. We are totally fine with other French roasters or other people around the world having access to them. I think in order to respect the hard work of the producer, it’s important that their output is shared.”

TC: “Finally, Thomas are there any places around France where you see some exciting developments in the local coffee scenes?”

TCL: “It would be my wish to see more happening outside of Paris. I think Marseille is quite exciting right now because they have some cool and interesting projects going on there. And, of course, there is Bordeaux, which is already quite well established.”

TC: “Thanks for your time guys and I look forward to sharing your lovely Kenyan coffee with our customers in January!”

To order this lovely coffee alongside exquisite picks from Kiss The Hippo and Brander, just pop over to our shop. There, you can find our different coffee boxes and choose the one that best fits your needs.


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