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Specialty coffee in Barbados. An account of finding the unexpected.

Specialty coffee in Barbados. An account of finding the unexpected.

The story behind Wyndham Coffee Roasters, the only specialty coffee roaster in Barbados who is doing things the Bajan way.

Just like brewing a fresh cup of coffee every morning is a ritual, conducting a thorough internet search for potential specialty coffee roasters and cafés at any of my upcoming holiday destination is a ritual too. For a seasoned traveller like me who has sipped on delicious cups of coffee in the most unexpected places, there is no better place to commence your exploration of a new city or country than a local specialty coffee business.

Last year, two dear friends announced they would be getting married in Barbados in 2022 and the excitement amongst our group of friends was real. Few of us had been to Barbados before, let alone for a wedding. And this particular one was gearing up to be THE wedding of the year.

A few weeks before our trip, I began my internet investigation into Barbados’ best restaurants, places to visit, beaches to relax on and the potential existence of any specialty coffee bars or roasters. My expectations were low, I might add. Barbados is a very small island that is known for its rum, but for coffee? Unlikely. The first signs were disappointing. A few blogs I found pointed me towards more Italian or Starbucks style coffee shops with lots of syrups and good wifi. That’s not what I was looking for, although good wifi is always handy.

But then, I found a lead. On Instagram. A roaster that goes by the name of Wyndhams. Could it be true? I sent them an email via the contact form letting them know that I was planning to visit (morning time in Europe) and hit ‘follow’ on Instagram. A few hours later, I got a very enthusiastic email from Dominic Wyndham-Gittens, co-founder of the modern roastery, asking me if I wanted to feature them in one of my Coffeevine boxes. This was not a response to my earlier email but it was a start!

Dominic, as it turned out, had not read my previous email when he saw that I began following them on Instagram and he got so excited that a major European coffee subscription gave Wydnhams some love that he immediately proposed working together. I then responded by saying: “I’ll be in Barbados next week. Why don’t I come by first and we have a coffee together and take things from there?” “You’re coming here? Wow! Absolutely. We’ll be waiting for you,” Dominic replied.

Admittedly, I was pretty chuffed about this. With a population of less than 300.000, Barbados is a small country and though it is is not that far from coffee growing nations like Venezuela, Colombia or the Dominican Republic, it doesn’t grow any of its own coffee. The island is rather flat with the highest point being only 340m above sea level. What kind of coffee culture would I find there? Would I be able to enjoy expertly brewed specialty coffee across the island other than what I was planning to brew myself at our Airbnb from the coffees I was taking just in case?

“We have to appreciate our history more and use what is already there and make it better.”

After we landed, picked up our car and checked into our lovely bungalow, the first thing we did was to go find some local food. Fried chicken, in particular. Fortunately, one of the island’s best food joints was just around the corner and famous for its fried chicken. As I sat at my table, I spied some 1kg espresso bags from Wyndhams on the shelves near the espresso machine and I thought to myself, this is not a bad start. In the end, I decided not to drink coffee there and save my first taste of locally roasted specialty coffee until I met Dominic at his roastery the following day. Wouldn’t want to spoil the excitement, or would I?

The next morning, we kicked off our Bajan adventure with a very local breakfast at De Breakfast Place, which happened to be around the corner from Wyndhams although Google Maps sent us to the wrong address. Fearing that Wyndhams might be a fake after all, I called Dominic and he kindly guided us to the right place; two inconspicuous buildings with a small sign outside. “No café?,” I asked Dominic after we got out of the car. “Nope, we closed it a while back. Our focus is now on roasting and training,” he explained and welcomed us inside.

The production space was the first part we saw. It featured a packing table, a La Marzocco Linea Mini, an EK43 and some other gear. Next door, stood a 12kg Diedrich coffee roaster operated by the nations’s first female head roaster, Jalisa Als. Jalisa had just come back from her first origin trip to Colombia and Dominic wasted no time to show off some samples he had recently received from there. “These are Chiroso. It’s a new varietal from Colombia that we just discovered and we had to have it.” Dominic stated with a smile.

Dominic began his tale of Barbados by saying that the island is often called ‘Little England’. “We have a bit of a chequered history. Barbados played a big role in Britain’s slave trade but we are also the birthplace of rum,” he elaborated. “Because we’re a bit further out than other Caribbean islands and we have strong wind, no one could find us. That’s why we stayed British for so long.” In an ironic twist, 55 years after gaining independence from the United Kingdom, on November 21st of 2021, Barbados became a republic.

His career in coffee was not without difficulties though, he continued. Many people didn’t believe he could succeed, especially after pivoting away from the first Italian style espresso bar, which he founded together with his wife Mandy, towards specialty coffee about ten years ago “We suffer from small-island syndrome,” he lamented. “If Jalisa told people what she does for a living, many wouldn’t understand. It’s as if some people don’t want you to succeed, you know?”

Looking beyond the island at its most immediate neighbours, the picture is also not so rosy. According to Dominic, Wyndhams can’t export any of its roasted coffees to nations like Trinidad & Tobago because of trade restrictions. Trinidad and Jamaica are extremely protective of their home-grown coffee industries and prevent businesses from other nearby islands from exporting their coffees there. If Dominic sent roasted coffee to Trinidad, for example, it would incur a 60% import duty.

“It’s cheaper for me to send coffee to the UK or Europe than to any other nation in the area, would you believe?” Dominic said with a healthy dose of sarcasm. And yet, there it is. Despite the road blocks, Wyndhams is thriving, not least because of its founder’s perseverance.

While we disclosed the reason for our visit and what got us in to specialty coffee, Dominic served up the Chiroso brewed with a Moccamaster. I was so glad we had found him because as it later turned out, there is not a single place on the island where you can order an expertly brewed cup of filter coffee. Dominic also mentioned that getting fresh full fat milk is surprisingly hard on Barbados, which is absurd because for many years, Barbados was a huge dairy producer. These days, most dairy farms only offer UHT milk. However, he said he knew a farmer who still produced fresh full fat milk and he’d make us some flat whites the next day if we wanted to come back. He didn’t have to ask twice.

Coming back to the Chiroso, he informed us that he wanted to brew this coffee in two ways. Both as a pourover and as an automatic brew. This way, he would know if his customers would also able to replicate a simple recipe without too much fuss.

What might not be immediately obvious but helps to explain part of the company’s success is that Wyndhams is part hardware distributor for La Marzocco and Rancillio, part distrbutor for the likes of Lavazza, part white label roaster for local brands and part specialty roaster for its own label. This also makes it a balancing act for Jalisa who needs to roast different kinds of coffees at different quality levels to satisfy different customers. She seemed unfazed and deft at her mastery of the machine.

As we sipped on the first batch, my friend Maxine, who is not usually a coffee drinker, confessed that she was starting to open her mind to coffee. And this despite more than a decade of friendship and repeated attempts from my side to convert her. She instantly related to Dominic’s account of one of the reaons why locals usually don’t like coffee too much. “Most of them were raised drinking terrible instant coffee. Of course, they don’t like coffee. How could they?” he complained. That’s why specialty coffee offers brand new opportunities for non-coffee drinkers to become fans. Maxine is a case in point.

Honestly speaking, this was one of the most beautiful spaces I had seen in a long time.

Then, we moved on to the Chiroso prepared as a handbrew. The first one was a bit too astringent for my personal taste and I was curious to taste the same coffee prepared differently. It was, indeed, sweeter and a lot better.

Listening to Dominic was both surprising and encouraging. Here was someone from a tiny island in the Caribbean who was putting Bajan specialty coffee on the map.  He repeatedly lamented that there is a certain arrogance amongst some of the industry’s most famous people who look down at the little guys and who seem to believe that things have to be done in a particular fashion that they approve of or they won’t give you the time of day.

In a way, I agree and disagree with him. Indeed, there is a sense of aloofness that has become entrenched amongst coffee’s celebrities but I also know a lot of others who are challenging the status quo by doing things their own way. And that has to be celebrated. Dominic is no exception.

It turned out that the building we were in had been in the Mandy’s family’s hands for a long time and was previously used as a bakery and office space. Once they had decided to buy their own roaster, they set up shop in one of the many rooms and gradually expanded. We said our goodbyes to Jalisa, finished the last sips of coffee and then Dominic guided us into the adjacent building that houses the showroom and training facilities.

Honestly speaking, this was one of the most beautiful spaces I had seen in a long time. It was clean and modern with many pieces of vintage furniture that Dominic got restored and custom items that were made in Barbados especially for this show room.

Though it is strictly not a public café, this was where we visited Dominic the follow morning to enjoy a nice flatty or two. There, you can also find a display of Wyndham’s current single origins coffees and core blends that include Dawn Patrol, a blend of Asian and Brazilian coffees and Soup Bowl. Notice the surf themed names, which are inspired by one of Dominic’s favourite pasttimes.

Nature plays a very important role in this business too. For instance, Wyndhams only uses fully electric vehicles to do its deliveries around the island and Dominic strongly believes in repurposing, reusing and recycling. “We have to appreciate our history more and use what is already there and make it better,” he said.

As our first visit came to a close, I couldn’t help but confess that I was impressed with what I had found. For a country with no noticable specialty coffee culture or coffee heritage for that matter, Barbados is nonetheless home to a forward-looking roaster who does not think that being on a remote island should be a reason not to try and make an impact. He is constantly looking for exciting coffees like the Ethiopian Wush Wush or the aforementioned Chiroso to show the world that ‘hey, we’re here and we’re doing things the Bajan way and that is great.’

If you happen to visit Barbados, make sure you pass by and say hello. Dominic is always keen to meet other specialty coffee professionals and lovers and to share his story with the wider world. We loved having had the opportunity to meet Jalisa and him and will remember this as a truly special part of our visit to Barbados for years to come.

To find out more about Wyndhams or to order some coffee from them, visit their website.

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Maxine Salmond
Maxine Salmond
1 month ago

How can I get hold of some of this coffee? 😃

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