While, until recently, Tim Varney was known as ‘the other Tim’ at Tim Wendelboe in Oslo, Norway, his beginnings in coffee 15 years ago weren’t nearly as specialised.
He started out at Il Fornaio in St Kilda, Melbourne, where he “learnt how to make coffee really quickly”, later moving to London, where he quickly got a job as a ‘quality auditor’ for Illy for three years before taking on the role as the Tate Modern’s coffee manager.
“That was where I heard that Tim Wendelboe was opening in Oslo, so I caught the next flight over because I wanted to meet him straight away. I thought it was going to just be a sit down and a chat, but it ended up being an interview… then he offered me the position of bar manager. So that was my start, where I began really learning, and realised just how little I knew.”
Back when he started in Melbourne, making coffee was more about the final product’s appearance than the process, “At that time nobody knew what was in the blend, changing the grind was only done by the coffee company’s representatives, and the concept of adjusting the temperature of the espresso machine was just unheard of… I mean, short blacks back then would have been pretty foul. They looked ok, and that’s what you went for – you’d taste it and pretend you knew what you were doing, but you didn’t at all.”
“Even back then, Melbourne thought they were so crash-hot with coffee, but it was so far removed from any of the stuff that’s happening today... It’s a very different picture.”
When he moved to Wendelboe, Varney realised how little he knew about black coffee, “As an Aussie, I didn’t drink much filter coffee… I’d tasted it plenty of times before but didn’t really appreciate it, so when I first got there and Tim served me a filter coffee, I responded ‘I don’t really like it, is that bad?’, and it is. It’s crazy to think that for somebody who really wanted to work with coffee, the idea of filter was foreign to me.”
“For me now, I think that’s how coffee should be drunk, completely as filter. I sometimes enjoy espresso, and every now and then I’ll have a cappuccino, but for me they’re secondary to the clarity that you can get with filter coffee.”
By travelling back and forth between Australia and Norway, Tim has had a unique view on the industry’s progression over the last six years, “I think we’d like to think that it has changed… there’s obviously been a lot of little trends that seep through and become very popular, and I think that the online community has helped a lot of those things happen. Whether they’re right or wrong, or whether we’re being distracted by the wrong things is up for argument I guess… but I think more and more I’ve realised that the differences with coffee are really at origin, and the work that needs to happen is at origin.”
“It’s not necessarily about miniscule changes of temperature on a coffee machine, or even grinder burrs, or the length of espresso… we’re so focused on extraction, it’s definitely important, but we’re never going to get anywhere if people aren’t working more at the farm level. I think it was probably someone like James [Hoffmann] who said that green quality always trumps brew parameters, which is such a simple statement but it’s so true.”
For Tim, the exciting part about working in coffee these days is learning about how we can improve the green coffee side, and he believes that a lot of pointers can be taken from the wine world in making an effort to improve coffee’s processing techniques.
“Just to see the progress that wine production has made in a whole lot more time than we’ve had in coffee… seeing the importance of drying coffee, processing coffee, picking times, varietals, terroir, the whole lot... it’s so in it’s infancy as an industry. These days, the wine industry is dealing with temperature controlled environments, steel tanks, advanced weather prediction, while in coffee we’re still drying on concrete – it’s crazy. The day that we stop using tiled fermentation tanks and start using cleaner and more focused equipment is an exciting prospect.”
However, as with any industry, there are financial constraints on developing, and this couldn’t be truer for a lot of coffee producers.
“We have screwed them over for years and years, so of course they’re not able to develop as they’d probably like to, and as a result they’re heavily reliant on the traditions passed down for generations – though a lot of it is right of course. But now there are countries like Brazil that are really getting into the science of it all and are making great advances at origin because of it, but there are also still countries like Ethiopia and Kenya who are dealing with ancient washing stations and some really old school methods of coffee production.”
“Whenever I go to Kenya I’m always intrigued as to how they work and where they’re recording the information. There’s always these really broad parameters, like asking how long a coffee has been fermenting for – and the answer seems random or the official textbook answer of ‘12 to 24 hours’. I’d like to see the simplest of improvements like better recording of data. Maybe then they can progress and you can refer back and get a better picture of what’s working and what isn’t, what’s important and what’s not. I guess it’s all about resources available.”
“At Tim Wendelboe, we made a huge effort to work closely with the producers, and over the years we started working with less and less farms to try and hone their focus. He [TW] has been trying to do little experiments at origin – committing to buy all of them of course - and trying to build real relationships with these producers. It’s quite weird to think that a lot of specialty coffee buyers purchase a few little bits of a lot of different coffees for one or two years, and that’s the end of the relationship. We’ve been working with a couple of farms for two or three years now, and we’re starting to see results slowly, which is really great to see. They’re really small changes, but we’re learning what’s important with coffee production, what varietals work, and a range of other things.”
Varney has a lot of ideas about where the industry could head, and how we can make sure it fulfills the huge potential that specialty coffee has for good across the whole coffee production chain.
“I’d like to see the quality of green coffee and roasting improve. I’d like to think that we could get to a point where distinguishing between origins will be much easier for the average customer, which is definitely down, in part, to roasting – going for more clarity of flavour by not over or under-roasting coffee.”
“Seasonality has also been something that people have been focusing on, and I think it needs to happen even more, with people getting better at buying at the right time, and coffees arriving a bit sooner - especially in Australia. That said, it shouldn’t be such an issue, it should be a case of coffee lasting longer; why does Kenyan coffee clearly last longer than a lot of Central American coffees, and why can’t they have the same life span? In five years time it would be great to see that window for seasonality of coffee to be a little wider… knowing more about processing would help us know how we can make sure it tastes better for longer.”
“It would be great to see us spend more money on sourcing coffee, investing in processing techniques at farm level, figuring out which coffee varietals are better for which area, and then getting a product in the end that is more indicative of that particular region.”
This sort of development at origin has the potential to help specialty coffee’s agricultural biodiversity – which could be hugely beneficial to the leaf rust issue currently sweeping Central America. The leaf rust outbreak has been caused, in part, by the creation of monocultures, where there’s one particular varietal that everyone wants and, as a result, that varietal eventually makes up the majority of the crop planted – often making it susceptible to diseases which have the potential to wipe out a farm’s entire crop.
Tim believes that this development could be aided by a more open-minded approach to different varietals, “There’s this awful trend from coffee people who are writing off varietals well before they’ve really given them a shot. In Kenya, people will say they want SL28 but not Batian, but SL28 was once the Batian and came about because it was specifically developed, so I’m sure this rejection of varietals conversation has happened before”
“We need to develop varietals that are resistant to all these problems that we have, and I think we’re only going to get better at figuring out which strains are resistant and which are susceptible, and also the flavour profile that we want. So people just need to ease up a bit on writing off varietals - a lot of work goes into developing them, it’s something like 7 or 8 years before a coffee becomes it’s own cultivar or strain. Once we get to a point where all coffees are, in a perfect world, really well-produced and there’s a really clear distinction between coffees, it’s going to be more a case of ‘I’m not into that heavy style of coffee, I prefer this more delicate style’ … and without that diversity it’d be a really boring place.”
To gain this clarity and control over the final coffee product, more work and care needs to be taken at the processing stage. A lot of good could potentially be done by gaining more control over how coffee is processed by fermenting in steel tanks, drying as fast or as slow as desired in perfect conditions, and a whole range of other possible developments. “Maybe one day all naturals will be lovely and clean, and not so process-heavy in flavour.”
People seem to shun this sort of thing because it’s not as rustic or as ‘handmade’, but sometimes you need to put mechanization into a process to create a more consistent product and to create more of a guarantee that the coffee harvest will be successful from start to finish, which, in turn, could create a far more sustainable industry for all involved.
“I’d love to see coffee dried in perfect conditions. If we invented wine today there’s no way in the world we’d use cork to close the bottles, and if we discovered coffee today, there’s no way we’d dry it on filthy patios.... it’s mental.”
Varney has stayed in coffee because “It’s a young exciting industry to be in… we’re in a time where we can actually see improvements to coffee and that’s an exciting prospect. I love coffee. I don’t rely on coffee, which is really nice as well, but I love to drink it and I enjoy the café experience… it’s something that Melbourne and Sydney do really well, it’s part of being in that social atmosphere.”
“Whenever I visit Melbourne I’m always so interested in how the general public approach coffee, and how we’re dealing with it – I know that Melbourne roasters and baristas are eager for people to taste filter coffee, but I just don’t think it’s been executed that well.”
“It would be nice to have the confidence to have a business that drives what’s happening in coffee, and not let the customers solely dictate what’s going on. You talk to a lot of specialty coffee people in Melbourne and Sydney and they all wish that they didn’t have soy milk, or skinny milk on the menu, or they wish they could get takeaway espressos off the menus, but they rarely have the guts to do it which is a real pity, because you get this monotonous, homogenised experience, and it’d be nice to see people move away from that.”
“Market Lane Coffee, perfect example, they started with soy milk and then cut it off the menu, and I think that’s great. Speaking to Jenni [Bryant] and a few of the baristas it’s been a lot easier than they expected, which is really encouraging. It’s great to know that there are customers out there who are willing to have their habits challenged a little bit and try something new, because that’s really important to me too… not forcing people, offering top service and really encouraging people to step out of their comfort zone and to have new experiences.”
“A better trend, I guess, is that more people are starting to—or at least appear to—care about how their coffee is sourced, and are willing to pay a little bit more for their green or roasted coffee. More people are also travelling to origin and becoming aware of the problems and difficulties of growing coffee which is great, and hopefully that information then trickles down onto everybody else.”
A huge part of bringing new experiences to customers and also communicating the complexity of the coffee production process is how the industry interacts with the media, as Varney knows all too well, “Most places have a real problem with the media, which we tried to tackle a little bit by having Oliver Strand (from the New York Times) speak at the Nordic Barista Cup, but it was a bit of a shock to us, because he was saying that the coffee industry are doing just as much of a shitty job as the media. The same goes for our lack of engagement in the dire state of restaurant coffee – it’s a two way street, we need to open the conversation with sommeliers and chefs and lead them in the right direction, not sit on our arses and complain about it.”
“I think it would be really great to see tougher appraisals and reviews of coffee shops in Melbourne especially. There’s been a lot of kudos and praise given to places that I don’t think deserve any of it… they just fit the criteria of using single origin beans or they’re using three grinders. I’d like to see competent journalists giving really tough reviews, I want to see people get slammed for using past crop coffees while parading them as seasonal, and people to be more on their toes about what they’re doing: restaurants don’t get away with it. We portray ourselves to be amazingly good at coffee in Melbourne, but you speak to the average coffee drinker here and they’re talking rubbish a lot of the time, which may have a lot to do with what they read in the media, and what they hear from the misleading coffee shops that they go to. All that said, there are places doing a great job and producing beautiful coffees, so there’s hope yet.”
All photography and articles © Eileen P Kenny