FOR many of us, having a cup of coffee is simply a daily ritual, or something we use as an excuse to catch up with a friend.
But for Nick Raven, coffee is a way of life.
The small business owner spends his days in the picturesque south coastal town of Denmark, roasting beans for his café, Ravens Coffee.
Mr Raven, who originally hails from Perth, began running the family business on the corner of South Coastal Highway and Hollings Road in the main townsite about 10 years ago.
But in 2011, when he and partner Leah Matek decided to rebrand and rename the café into its current form, he thought long and hard about how they could survive in a small town, and whether they could diversify their business to help this.
His focus settled on the coffee they were serving.
“We were buying in coffee and I thought we could do a better job ourselves,” the avid coffee drinker said.
“Being in a rural location we had to ship everything in, whether it was from Perth or the Eastern States.
“I thought we might be better to import green coffee beans ourselves and roast them to use in the café, and also sell them wholesale as an added bonus.
“That was when we decided to get a coffee roaster and tackle that side of the business.”
So Mr Raven decided to take the plunge at a time when the specialist coffee industry in Australia had yet to take off.
That foresight meant he was able to get in at what proved to be the right time, securing contracts with green bean suppliers before it was trendy to do so.
“We were lucky that we were a bit ahead of the wave,” he said.
When it came to sourcing the beans, Mr Raven said it was graded by defects – in a way similar to wine.
Commercial grade coffee was fairly generic, from unknown locations and suppliers, could be in a warehouse for up to two years, and generally scored between 70-80 points.
Green beans on the other hand, were a specialty grade scoring 85 or more points, and were priced accordingly.
“Our beans are at least two or four times the price of commercial-grade beans, but they have less or no defects,” Mr Raven said.
And to produce that level of quality, growers had to grow their plants well and ensure they were well maintained.
Mr Raven said he would know where the beans he was buying were from, right down to the block on the property, which meant there was good transparency in the supply chain.
He said there were only a handful of small boutique importers bringing that level of quality into Australia, which in turn accounted for a small percentage of the coffee roasting industry – most of which were micro roasters.
“But the flavour and quality is just outstanding – we’ll leave the commercial grades to the supermarkets,” he said.
Mr Raven said the micro roasting coffee industry was comparable to craft beer breweries and small vineyards.
His beans were sourced from a variety of countries, mainly Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya and central America.
Seasonal patterns dependent on the specific countries meant that the green beans were shipped throughout the year, and not all coffee was available at all times – for example, Columbia grew a couple of crops per year, whereas Kenya’s coffee bean crop was annual.
An extensive process was undertaken before the green beans could make their way to Denmark, half a world away.
Mr Raven said the coffee buyers from Melbourne Coffee Merchants would travel to each of the countries, and test the beans exhaustively prior to them being shipped, ensuring they met the strict quality control guidelines for the specialty grade.
They would then re-test the beans on arrival in Australia with their customers.
Like any agricultural crop, coffee buying was a season-by-season, origin-by-origin prospect which required a yearly buying plan.
There was never any guarantee with the quality that would be available each year.
For example, some growers had access to better water sources than others – or in the case of Brazil, had great variations in rainfall, while growers in Guatemala, Central America, had had to contend with a fungal coffee rust affecting their crops.
Mr Raven said it would be easy for him if he was just seeking lesser, commercial grades of beans as they were available any time, most often already warehoused in Australia from the year before.
But being in the specialty green beans market meant buying several tonne of each variety of the fresh, new crop each year.
“The quality of the bean starts to fade over time, so we try to purchase what we need for that year,” Mr Raven said.
They tried to work with producers that were in a great location, using sustainable farming methods with shade trees rather than a monocrop and if possible having access to irrigation to lessen the reliance on rainfall.
For every batch of beans that he buys, Mr Raven tests them with the importers.
He said the process was very much like sampling wine – it required getting as much air into the mouth as possible and running the coffee around the mouth, before spitting it out.
“You definitely have to spit it out, when you are testing the quantities we are dealing with – I wouldn’t be able to function if I drank each sample,” he joked.
The coffee roaster was imported by Mr Raven at great expense from the United States six years ago, and he admits having it installed in a rural area caused a few headaches.
“I had to fly industrial gas fitters down from Perth to fulfil the requirements for having it installed correctly,” he said.
As the industry was in its infancy in Australia, the opportunities for Mr Raven to learn the art of coffee roasting were limited.
He learnt basic roasting skills from green bean buyers in Melbourne, but other than that had to get started with a lot of trial and error.
He admitted to making a lot of mistakes while learning to use the machine but always made sure to taste everything and document how he had made it.
Even now, six years later, Mr Raven sees himself as fairly proficient in using the machine, yet is always learning.
“There is always something new that I want to add to the roasting – I’m always changing or adapting something, so it’s a never-ending process that is very hands-on,” he said.
“This is also necessary as each sack of coffee is different, let alone the beans from each origin.
“I have to adapt the roasting curve continually, even changing the roasting to reflect the ambient temperature in Denmark at the time.”
While Mr Raven was realistic about the fact it could take a long time to pay the roasting machine off when he bought it, he said good sales generally had helped to speed this up and vindicate his decision.
Customers had responded very positively to the locally-roasted beans, which were showcased at Ravens Coffee as their respective single origins.
For example, there may be a blend from a single farm in Kenya, or Ethiopia, and Mr Raven would highlight the different attributes of the bean, and whether they had been washed, or dried, in tasting notes.
At Ravens Coffee they had a main blend of natural Brazilian beans, as well as washed Columbian beans that had undergone a fermentation process before being milled and dried.
Some locals would come to the café to buy their weekly coffee stocks, which could be ground for them according to their requirements.
While there, they can enjoy a fresh coffee, along with items from the café menu which includes a variety of fresh and healthy options, including gluten-free, vegan and raw dishes, and old favourites such as egg and bacon breakfast dishes.
Ravens Coffee is also supplying wholesale beans to customers in Margaret River, Perth, Esperance, Denmark and in the Wheatbelt on a small scale.
Although Mr Raven said a bigger coffee roaster, along with new printed coffee bags, was on the horizon over the next 12 months to enable him to build on the wholesale side of the business.
He said he was very fortunate to have built a viable business in a small town, particularly one where he had dreamed of living one day.
“I guess coffee is just one of those things – for a lot of people it’s a daily purchase, and we like to think it’s a good one in our case,” Mr Raven said.