Wake up and smell the Durban coffee
From a small KZN roastery to the international world of coffee and one of the few print publications not just surviving, but thriving. Think coffee obsessions and love of the bean.
The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.
Isn’t it the truth that the most interesting success stories are strongly spiced with serendipity, blended with chance and flavoured with more than a few robust dollops of risk. Culinary analogies deemed appropriate, this being TGIFood.
Serendipity. Chance. Risk. Cool beans! The key elements when tracing the caffeine-infused journey-to-date of Peter Winter, Mel Winter and Iain Evans, the crew at the high-octane heart of this Durban story that is also an African story and a global story, the universe of coffee being at its core.
Let’s start with Peter Winter.
We are to meet at Bean Green in Glenwood, the coffee roastery and café he opened in 2009. Not alone, but we’ll get back to that.
On this particular morning, last week, I make my way through the cluster of pre-work regulars, standing and sitting outside the front entrance, sipping on whatever is their caffeine bev of choice while animatedly exercising their vocal chords. Peter, who more often than not would be among them, is waiting for me inside, by the red and silver hopper, among bulging hessian bags of beans and beneath some scenic and peopled photos of coffee in Ethiopia that look like they’ve had a wash of coffee-sepia.
Back to him shortly. Because I’m also meeting Mel Winter here. His daughter. She who, back in 2009, suggested they open not just a coffee roastery, but a café within the roastery.
At the time she was about to graduate from UKZN, Howard College campus, with an honours degree in media and communications.
She had no idea what she was going to do with this degree, but for three or four years had been paying her way by selling beans, imported by her dad, green, from Ethiopia. Roasted for them at Beaver Creek near Port Edward. Selling the beans alongside him, on Saturday mornings under the trees at Essenwood Market. While also waitressing at erstwhile Hemingway restaurant about four doors down from where Bean Green would open.
“We saw this spot. It has been a hair salon. It had purple walls.” Rather dreadful, but “we knew it was the right space”.
To sidetrack to the present I am also meeting up with Iain Evans who in 2012, drawing on his skills and experience publishing an upscale surfing magazine and his masters degree in media and communications, committed to nurturing a growing coffee community and culture: if Mel could “give me 84 pages of content”. And so, Coffee Magazine was launched: a two-person team, putting out four magazines a year for 10 years to date. Now celebrating their 35th issue.
Returning to Peter.
A circuitous career track had taken him into the footwear industry. Back then he was bringing in shoes to South Africa from Portugal and leather from Ethiopia (where, he explains, they have abundant goats and cows).
“I went there with a client to visit tanneries outside Addis. It must have been 2001. While on a drive of about 160km to the tanneries, they took us to all these odds-and-sods places. A dried fruit plant. Flower plantations. (Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest flower exporter after Kenya.) And I was introduced by my host to a gentleman from their coffee institute.”
The gent subsequently came to South Africa. Peter went back to Ethiopia the following year. “One thing led to another. In for a penny, in for a pound. I got chatting at the bar at the Hilton Hotel to a guy who said, if I was interested in coffee beans from Ethiopia… I brought back samples. Then did a recce to all the coffee roasteries in South Africa.”
A couple of years later, he started importing and distributing green beans from Limu, Sidamo, Yirgachefe – he points to Ethiopia’s famed coffee regions on a map, a feature among Bean Green’s eclectic decor – to roasteries dotted around South Africa. Not many back then. And having some of them roasted, as we’ve said, to sell himself.
“It was a client in Cape Town who suggested I start roasting the beans. Told me I had to do it. There was only Colombo (South Africa’s second oldest roastery; Mastertons in Port Elizabeth is the oldest) roasting at the time in Durban.”
This client owned and ran a roastery. He gave Peter some tips and offered to procure for him a Turkish-made roaster. The same one I find him waiting to load and switch on to show me what he does, and how. This, after he has scooped two small samples of beans from bags, put each on a separate sheet of paper. And used these to show-and-tell me the difference between washed coffee beans, where water is used to remove the skin and pulp while the coffee fruit is still fresh – how most of the world’s coffees are processed – and the sun-dried process, used when water is scarce and there are no washing facilities.
They signed a lease with their current landlord and bought a 65-year-old turntable from him to play Peter’s favourite vinyls, worked with an architect to transform the place into what Bean Green would become – not too different from how it is now – then, “we had to wait. Pay rent for the eight months it took before the roaster arrived”, Mel tells me.
They were on survival tenterhooks.
They would be the first Durban café roasting in-house. “I thought it would be a good idea to have the café so people could taste the coffee they were purchasing.”
Watching from the wings, she got some insights into the art of coffee-making from a US couple, Ben and Kristy Carlson, who had a coffee shop where Glenwood Bakery now is.
The Carlsons would leave Durban and move to Burundi in 2011. There, seeing both injustice and poor farming practices, they launched their successful Long Miles Coffee Project, initially to help micro bean farmers and others set up coffee washing stations. “Our first coffee season we worked with just 50 coffee farmers, we now work with over 5,500 coffee farming families on 11 unique hills within Burundi, with expansion efforts under way into Uganda and Kenya,” their website, worth a read, notes.
“When they closed their Durban coffee shop, we bought their espresso machine,” says Mel. “I learned from them, from experience, from scouring the internet. I spoke to as many people as I could.” Sort of by default, she became a barista.
“There was a couple from Australia, working for Oxfam, who came in every morning. They were my guinea pigs. I tested my cappuccino and flat white skills on them. Got feedback.”
It was a hectic time. “Anyone who came in, I needed for them to have the best time so that they’d come back.” She laughs. As she does. A lot.
“I was in the kitchen making muffins, milk tart, quiches at 5am. My dad and I did the roasting, served the food, made the coffee, served the coffee.”
Ben Carlson twisted her arm hard – “forced me” – to enter the SCASA (Speciality Coffee Association of SA) barista competition in 2009. He was involved with the association. “I’d been making coffee for just four months.” Not enough time to know much about what she was doing. “But it was worthwhile. I learned so much and got to know so many cool people. You sometimes just have to put yourself through things.”
So, Bean Green was up and running. Things were hectic. And they were wondering how to get more people through the doors.
Then the first edition of the (now defunct) Café Society Awards contest was launched, which judged and named the top coffee shops and baristas in greater Durban. “We’d been open five months.” Bean Green was named the winner. Mel won the “Barista Personality” award.
“It was fantastic, a huge deal. We were so surprised and delighted.
“We won the next two years in a row. And were among the top five for the next 10 years.” Twice she was KZN barista of the year.
“It was a great platform to get the word out. After we won the second time, we were able to hire a dedicated barista.” That was Rory Rosenberg, who now has a successful coffee company in Norway and was Norway’s 2017 barista champion.
Back then, around 2011, when getting a good cappie in Durban was still hit and miss but your chances were beginning to improve, two guys putting out an upscale surfing magazine took to working on their mag at Bean Green. One of them was its coffee-loving publisher, Iain Evans.
“They surfed, then worked on the mag here. They heard I had a media degree and drew me in. I started copy editing for them. They bought me a surfboard to teach me how to surf. I taught them how to make coffee.”
“Working on our surfing magazine, we were visiting surf spots all around South Africa. Coffee shops were always our offices. We knew where to find a cold beer and good coffee at every coastal town in the country,” says Evans.
Chatting one day, Mel noted the gap in the market for a coffee magazine. “I was seeing coffee culture growing. Bean sales were going up exponentially,” she says.
“Mel convinced me we should go for it,” says Evans.
“His brother lent him seed money,” she shares. “And we hit the road to try and sell advertising in a non-existent magazine. Thanks to Iain’s publishing skills we got Woolworths and Clover; so many great supporters.” Enough advertising to go to print with their first issue in October 2012 with Iain as publisher and Mel as editor.
They had a strategy. For the first three years the magazine was free “to get our footprint out and make it worthwhile for advertisers. You could subscribe online and pick up your magazine from your favourite coffee shop”.
This way they started to build up their network of 150 coffee shops. “From the beginning we knew a hybrid media strategy and having an online presence was very important. We send a weekly newsletter. In the magazine we focus on story longevity so people can pick it up a couple of years later and find things to read.”
Their offices are in a charming house across from the KZNSA gallery about five minutes’ walk from the roastery. There’s a shared conference room and a kitchen guaranteed to bowl over any coffee addict. It is where they test equipment that comes their way. Where people who sublet can go make coffee anytime.
Out back in the yard is a prefab structure. Their office.
“Working on laptops and for the most part in coffee shops, all we need is a base to plan and schedule,” says Mel. For Iain to Prestik up a special card made for him by one of his two young children.
The dynamics of the magazine have taken them far and wide. Mel has been to five international coffee competitions. There’s been Korea, the US, the UK, Italy, a “very emotional” trip to Ethiopia to visit the home of the beans she’s known and worked with for so long. Recently Mozambique. Japan, where in Tokyo she had what she rates as the best coffee of her life. Made in a plunger with beans from Yemen. “Japanese culture is about honouring, respecting. I think that is what was coming through in the coffee.” Warsaw is on the cards. Rwanda.
“We have become the official media partner for many coffee festivals,” says Iain. “So we are truly able to roll out South Africa at an international level.”
They recently launched a barista wage calculator for staff and bosses, to encourage and give guidelines for the payment of a living wage. They run competitions. Give prizes.
During Covid-19 with coffee shops and some of their other distribution outlets closed their distributors, Isizwe, “were fantastic. They got us into Spar and other places. And website visits went through the roof.”
And Iain’s early barista lessons stood them both in good stead during heavy lockdown when, as an essential service, there were just the two of them making coffee at the roastery: in early days mainly for other essential service workers.
At the end of 2018 “our business bought out my dad who was keen to sell and felt he needed a change”.
“So now I’m her lackey,” says Peter, with a hint of satisfaction. “I bitch and moan sometimes. But it’s theirs now. I park off here. Work as a consultant. Do the roasting. The local deliveries.” He has a few aces up his sleeve. “I was 49 when I started. I’m 62 now. I’m confident I can do something during the next 10 years. Coffee is a versatile business to be in.”
He medium-roasts his beans, except if a specific client asks for a dark roast and for his “African Espress…oh” beans.
“My belief as to why dark roasts were once so popular is that it is possible to use inferior beans when roasting dark because the flavour is hidden behind the bitterness.
“I made a conscious decision from the start to do all medium roasts. I know some are doing lighter roasts now but once you offer more options, things become complicated.” His signature blend – what they serve at Bean Green – is his three-bean “Bluff Bru”, the Bluff being where he’s lived since he moved as a child from Zambia.
I recount a story a friend told me about early days at Bean Green. “It was a chilly winter day, the doors were shut against the cold and suddenly the place was filled with acrid smoke. We were coughing. Eyes burning. Someone fanning the door open and shut to try to get air in.”
Peter laughs. “That was how it was sometimes when I was learning.” They’ve all come a long way. Think coffee obsession and love of the bean. DM/TGIFood