When Sam Young, who co-founded Obadiah Coffee Roasters with his wife Alice, was young, he used to visit a bunch of different cafés in his native Perth (Australia) where he first became acquainted with specialty coffee. A few years later, after he successfully set up what has become one of Edinburgh’s finest specialty coffee roasters, he supplied some of these cafés with his own coffees.
For Sam, it was a strange but also incredibly sastisfying feeling. You might call this coincidence. I call this fate. Perth, after all, is named after the original Scottish county and town by the same name and Sam, an Aussie, is based in Scotland. There you have it.
Ahead of the second Obadiah feature in a Coffeevine box, I re-connected with Sam through video call to catch up on what has happened since our first collaboration in June of 2020 when his roastery was still pretty fresh on the scene and coming to terms with the devastating effects of the first lockdowns that had brought Europe and the world to a standstill.
Having braved the pandemic like the rest of us, Obadiah emerged stronger and more focused, with a small team of passionate coffee professionals who are helping Sam and Alice to source and roast extraordinary coffees from some pretty curious origins, such as the sweet and jammy natural processed coffee from Raimutin in Timor Leste that is the first coffee from this origin to ever make our selection.
The Coffeevine (TC): “Sam, we meet again after what can only be described as two pretty extraordinary years. Can you tell me what were some of the most defining experiences for you during these times?”
Sam Young (SY): “In mid-2020, we had just moved into our railway arches, which are quite central. Before, we used to be outside of the city in a small industrial unit. Basically, overnight, our capacity increased massively. Prior to this move, we only had access to a roaster two days a week.
We purchased our own Diedrich IR 12 and suddenly had all of this extra room to grow. Of course, this came around the same time as the lockdowns came and went and we had these expectactions to start working with various new accounts, which ended up falling through. That was a bitter pill to swallow.
“We want to partner with people who share the same values and priorities that we have, especially around transparency.”
Luckily, we had already partnered with some really great local cafés that were very innovative in the way they did their takeaway coffee service. They really kept us going and then the retail side of the business also started growing quite a bit.
I think, in hindsight, moving into the roastery at that time was pretty perfect because it allowed us to settle in and define our new workflows without being overwhelmed by new orders.”
TC: “Do you have a tasting room at the roastery? Can customers come visit you there?”
SY: “No, we don’t serve any coffee to people who come unannounced but if you want to make an appointment, we can definitely taste some coffees together.”
TC: “Okay. So it’s not like I can pop by to buy some bags of coffee and grab a flat white while I’m there?”
SY: “We have two railway arches here. One is purely a production space and the other a QC lab. We do have a single group Slayer espresso machine here, we’re partnered with Slayer, which we use for tasting our espressos but it’s not intended for preparing takeaway coffee.
We do have a great courtyard out front, which is a really nice space. So there is potential. The next eight railway arches are still derilict and they’re getting done up in the coming years, which will hopefully invite more exciting independent businesses to set up shop here.”
TC: “We’re now, hopefully, out of the pandemic for good but looking back, what have you observed as the biggest change to your business since the last lockdowns?”
SY: “I think, for us, the consistency of our local partnerships has really been a gamechanger. Also, in 2021, we saw the biggest business growth in any one year since 2017, more than 110%. We’re so grateful to have such a solid network of partners who order every week. That, in turn, has allowed us to also be quite selective about who we want to work with.
We want to partner with people who share the same values and priorities that we have, especially around transparency. If people reach out and want to taste our coffees, we have the ability to take things slowly and make sure that we choose the right customers who will represent our coffees very well.
In addition, our small team has grown quite a bit. Apart from Alice and I, there are six others currently working with us, which has given me more time to step back from production and work more closely with our head of coffee on sourcing and visiting some of our partners.”
TC: “Are you seeing a change in consumer spending too? For instance, are people spending more money on more expensive coffees?”
SY: “We recently started releasing some limited lots in our monthly subscription. For the past six months, we’ve been working on being a lot more consistent with regards to offering more extraordinary coffees once a month. So far, we’ve only had four of these rare lots and yes, we have seen an increase in retail sales because of them. People are keen to spend money on more unusual coffees and these lots have boosted our subscriber numbers.
It’s nice to see that these coffees are getting such a positive response. I think people like the idea that they get access to something super exclusive that you can’t get anywhere else. And for us, it’s good because these coffees are generally harder to find and more complicated to get right.”
TC: “Let’s talk about the coffee that we picked for our September box. It’s our first-ever lot from Timor Leste, which is double exciting for us because it’s a really small country and one of the youngest in the world. Being so close to Indonesia, you might expect to find some similar characteristics but it’s actually quite different. What made you choose this coffee for your seasonal offering?”
SY: “It definitely stood out for us because it’s a young coffee producing country and it’s not easy getting hold of very good quality lots. We wanted to give people an opportunity to try something really interesting from Timor Leste. This is actually the third year that we’re working with this very producer but the first two years we only bought a very small amount.
Our partner for sourcing this coffee was Raw Materials who we also work with to source some other origins such as some really beautiful coffee from Burundi. They have been working with the Raimutin village for some years now and we notice that every year, the quality increases.
“We don’t like to be a part of the hype. We like to tread our own path.”
This coffee has a super lovely cup profile with delicate notes of stone fruits and a nice sweetness. It really lends itself to milk-based drinks and it is very layered. The body helps to push the acidity through the milk.”
TC: “Is this something you like doing? Sourcing coffees from more unusual origins? Because of the two coffees that you sent us for our cupping, one was from China and the other from Timor Leste. Not exactly the most common producing countries.”
SY: “Yes, it’s definitely important to us. Of course, on the one hand, we love working with very renowned producers who have a bit of hype behind them, while on the other hand, we also really like working with new producers who are doing exciting things and really need more exposure. Hopefully, we can help change the perception that people have of some of these young coffee producing countries.
Like the Chinese coffees that we work with. People seem to have this predisposion about coffees from China that they might not be so good but actually, we’ve gotten a really good response for our recent Chinese lots. People tend to be really surprised and that’s wonderful because we can help to broaden their horizons.”
TC: “Is there any particular origin that you’re excited about right now?”
SY: “I think coffees from Malawi have been kind of interesting but they’re really hard to find. We’ve tasted different samples for the past three years but have not yet purchased any of them. Every year, we do see some improvements there though.
It would definitely be very exciting for us to find a great coffee from Malawi and add this to our offerings but they’ve still got a long way to go before they reach the quality we’re expecting.
We don’t just want to be the firsts to purchase any of these coffees simply for the sake of it but it’s great to keep an eye on what these producers are doing and then get on board as soon as they’re ready. We don’t like to be a part of the hype. We like to tread our own path.”
TC: “Let’s talk about your packaging for a minute. When we first featured you, you had these very colourful sleeves that have since been replaced by a sort of off-white uniform look for all of your coffees. What was the thinking behind this?”
SY: “Well, it could just be because I am such a purist, ha ha. In my mind, everything being very consistent is very important. I like the use of colour and we have certainly used it in the past. At the same time, we wanted strip away some of the visual and verbal cues that might influence a customer’s perception of what a coffee will taste like. We’ve also stripped back our use of tasting notes to include just one or two of the most prominent characteristics.
Sometimes, we don’t add any tasting notes at all when a coffee is so layered that every person will get a different flavour experience based on how they are brewing it. Instead, we might just talk about its acidity or its structure rather than its tasting notes. That is also the reason why we took away the colour from the packaging.
That is not to say we won’t use any colour in the future. Our limited lots have some colourful calligraphy on them. Having said that, we also recognize that it might make it harder for people to distinguish our coffees on the shelves. How do they differ from each other? It’s like we’re being pulled at both ends.”
TC: “Interesting. I know that tasting notes are somewhat of a hot topic because many customers who buy a certain coffee simply cannot recreate the tasting notes that the roaster puts on the bags for various reasons, be it water quality, recipe, altitude, time since the roast etc. Having so many tasting notes can sometimes be really overwhelming.”
TC: “Having learned so much from the past two years, how do you prepare your business for any potential future shocks? I sincerely hope that there won’t be another pandemic coming our way any time soon but you simply never know, do you?”
SY: “Definitely. It’s frustrating that we really don’t have much of a say in what happens in the grander scheme of things. Covid definitely taught us to be more focused on our retail offerings and some of the changes that would have happened anyway we just brought forward slightly.
With regards to our wholesale business, we definitely don’t want to depend on one or two huge companies that order a ton of coffee from us every week. It’s much better to diversity as much as possible. Of course, we have also thought about having a café or something of that nature where we can represent our coffees the way we intended but most likely it would only be something like a brew bar that is open for a limited time every week where we would be super selective about which coffees we brew and how.
But in the end, we want to focus on strengthening our relationships with cafés and producers so we can all be loyal to each other. Diversifying our business in that way is definitely the way forward for Obadiah in the next couple of years.”
TC: “Thank you, Sam. I am excited to have you guys back on board for this upcoming Coffeevine box.”
This coffee is part of our upcoming September 2022 Coffeevine box that also features other delicious coffees from Right Side and Sweet Beans. To choose your ideal box and get in on the fun, just pop over to our shop now.