Bernard Smith is New Zealand’s long­est serv­ing cof­fee bean roaster. His Christchurch café Vivace Espresso is a lo­cal le­gend and his roasted beans in de­mand na­tion­wide.

I n his 30-plus years serv­ing New Ze Zealand’s cof­fee in­dus­try Bernard Smith has wit­nessed a mas­sive ma trans­for­ma­tion. His pas­sion for roast­ing cof­fee has been bee at the fore­front of the in­dus­try’s de­vel­op­ment over re­cent years.

Bernard’s roast­ing lin­eage ex­tends back three gen­er­a­tions and his knowl­edge of roast­ing the revered ‘green bean’ is sec­ond to none. In the 1940s there were only a hand­ful of cof­fee roast­ers in New Zealand. Browne and Heaton in Christchurch was one of them. Bernard’s grand­fa­ther worked for the com­pany, and af­ter its owner suf­fered a fa­tal heart at­tack one day while talk­ing on the phone, he pur­chased the busi­ness. Sub­se­quently Bernard’s fa­ther also joined the busi­ness – which was even­tu­ally sold to Robert Har­ris in the 1980s.

For young Bernard, cof­fee has al­ways been in his veins. “I grew up im­mersed in cof­fee from a young age,” he re­calls. “I re­mem­ber jump­ing and play­ing on the cof­fee sacks in the week­end as a young boy. “I tried my first cof­fee when I was ten and liked it – but prob­a­bly more the idea of drink­ing it! It was fil­ter cof­fee back then.”

He went on to open his own café, Vivace Espresso, in Here­ford Street in 1997, im­port­ing a roaster from Turkey to roast specif­i­cally for the café, and it is still in the roast­ery to­day.

“It can roast 5kgs at a time, but now we have ma­chines that roast ap­prox­i­mately 60kgs!”

Bernard re­mem­bers the first year in busi­ness be­ing ex­tremely hard – by the end of the year the bal­ance sheet was $35,000 in the neg­a­tive. There was no so­cial me­dia in 1997 – it took time, money and a con­certed ef­fort to build up a client base.

Back then any café that roasted its own beans stood out – es­pe­cially if it pro­duced mem­o­rable blends. Word got around – the café be­came re­ally busy.

But for Bernard Vivace Espresso was al­ways a front for his true pas­sion – roast­ing cof­fee. It meant that at one stage he worked 90hour weeks, but did be­come “quite a good barista”.

Af­ter 12 months he was able to hire more staff and fo­cus on the whole­sale roast­ing side of the busi­ness. Word of mouth, the orig­i­nal so­cial me­dia, proved to be the key to grow­ing the busi­ness.

“I re­mem­ber three women one day walked into the café and or­dered cof­fee,” he says. “They liked it so much they asked if they could stock my cof­fee in their busi­ness Straw­berry Fare. That’s [the way] the busi­ness grew.

The thing about cof­fee is you're aim­ing at a mov­ing tar­get all the time – beans change from sea­son to sea­son, crop to crop.”

“A com­peti­tor of ours at the time was go­ing through a tran­si­tion stage and a lot of their cus­tomers weren’t happy with the qual­ity of ser­vice,” he adds. “So we ended up tak­ing some of their clients.

“A lot of the [early roast­ing] busi­nesses have now been bought by in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies.”

A fine art

Change has been a con­stant in the cof­fee in­dus­try, and in his time Bernard has seen it all. In the 70s cafés were called tea-rooms, and most res­tau­rants were lo­cated in ho­tels.

With the huge growth in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try this cen­tury and the amount of cof­fee beans avail­able the mar­ket has changed dra­mat­i­cally, Bernard re­ports.

“When I first started roast­ing we sourced beans mostly from Papa New Guinea, the clos­est source to us, but now there’re hun­dreds of ori­gins from all over the world – Brazil, Su­ma­tra, In­done­sia, Africa, Cen­tral and South Amer­ica – and mi­cro lots: specif­i­cally around what al­ti­tude the beans are grown in.

“It’s now more of a science, ex­per­i­ment­ing with how to process cof­fee beans to get more flavour and va­ri­etals of cof­fee plants. Cof­fee ma­chin­ery has also im­proved from stag­nant ma­chin­ery to high-tech espresso ma­chines.”

So has Bernard got roast­ing ab­so­lutely per­fected yet? Is it even pos­si­ble?

“The thing about cof­fee is you're aim­ing at a mov­ing tar­get all the time – beans change from sea­son to sea­son, crop to crop,” he ex­plains. “So just when you might think you’ve nailed some­thing the beans change. It’s a con­tin­ued process; just be­cause the cof­fee is good one year doesn’t mean it’s go­ing to be the same the fol­low­ing year. It de­pends on cli­mate – such as sun­shine and rain­fall. And even if you get the tech­nique right you’re still hav­ing to deal with dif­fer­ent qual­ity beans.”

Am­bi­tions and ad­vice

Of­ten fast-grow­ing bou­tique cof­fee roast­ers get bought out by in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies that treat ev­ery­thing as a spread­sheet bal­anc­ing ex­er­cise, but Bernard is hav­ing too much fun and still learn­ing so much to go down that road.

There is al­ways that de­mand for qual­ity too, he says. “If com­pa­nies start slack­ing off on ser­vice, train­ing or the qual­ity of cof­fee, it sim­ply cre­ates more op­por­tu­ni­ties for us – the smaller play­ers.”

Look­ing ahead, Bernard’s plan is to con­tinue the steady growth of the busi­ness – es­pe­cially in the North Is­land. “But we don’t want to grow at a rate that would cause any prob­lems for our cus­tomers,” he says.

And su­per­mar­ket sales aren’t the an­swer ei­ther, he says, be­cause of brand­ing and qual­ity is­sues.

“It’s hard to have that qual­ity in the su­per­mar­ket as [the prod­uct] sits on the shelf and can be­come stale over time.”

To­day the busi­ness turns over around $300k per month. Staff num­bers are now 20 and whole­sale clients num­ber more than 200. The whole­sale busi­ness has also grown by ten per­cent over the past year.

In light of such suc­cess, would Bernard en­cour­age oth­ers to get into the roast­ing in­dus­try?

“You’d have to ask your­self first why you want to do it. It’s not easy now to break into the in­dus­try; there are so many of us now so it’s not so easy to build up a client base.

“It’s very com­pet­i­tive, most cafés re­quire ma­chin­ery - $12k to $15k per ma­chine - so you need a lot of cap­i­tal to start with.

“You also need to con­sider your points of dif­fer­ence. Where are your cus­tomers go­ing to come from and how are you go­ing to ac­quire them?”

With the fo­cus on growth, Bernard’s only fear is of be­com­ing too large to care for the end user.

But on his watch that’s sim­ply never go­ing to hap­pen – he’s too busy chas­ing that evere­lu­sive roast­ing per­fec­tion.

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