Havana Coffee Works, based in Wellington, started up back in 1990 with Geoff Marsland and Tim Rose and since then has become a bit of an institution which has inspired a loyal following. You can find their headquarters in an avocado green 1959 art deco building on Tory St. It’s hard to miss with its colourful and eclectic style reminiscent of the streets of Havana – it’s definitely worth a stop in.
They’ve been operating as Fairtrade since 1997, and since then, they’ve decided to take it a step further and create a model that better reflects their relationship and commitment to their suppliers. This new model, which pays over and above Fairtrade prices, is called REALTRADE. We caught up with their master roaster, Joe Stoddart to get the scoop on the roastery, their values and the coffee we’ll be drinking this month.
To get the REALTRADE experience Joe has recommended the Vanuatu origin coffee which is currently having a real positive impact on the lives of our Pacific neighbours. That’s one of the reasons – other than it being an epic espresso – that we’re teaming up with our friends at Havana Coffee Works to feature it this September.
So to start off, tell us a little about the Vanuatu origin coffee. What flavour notes can we expect?
Roasted cocoa nibs, vanilla and brown sugar – sweet with a slight hint of herbs and a soft finish.
What’s the recommended espresso recipe for these beans?
Time: 30 Sec
This coffee comes from Tanna Island where five years ago they were devastated by cyclone Pam. Were you working with these coffee farmers at the time and were you able to assist them in any way during the process of rebuilding?
When cyclone Pam devastated Tanna island, Havana Coffee Works’ sister company Coffee Imports, also founded by Geoffrey Marsland, had already invested heavily in sustainable consolidation of the plantations and farmers we are purchasing coffee from. Rather than turning our backs on our brothers and sisters on Tanna island, we sent them aid in the form of physical things-wheelbarrows, chainsaws, tarpaulins, food, building materials, and cash for coffee seedlings – for us, this is a time to double down on our long-term sustainable support for the farmers, and we weren’t the only ones in the coffee community to help out. It took a couple of seasons before we saw a rebound of substantial amounts of coffee from the island again. Financially for us, it was the major backward step but in the long term, the only thing that could be done.
Do you think that being grown on an island with an active volcano effects the flavour of the coffee?
Most definitely – Mount Yasur in the south-east is one of the most active accessible volcanoes on the planet- the soil on Tanna island is incredibly fertile and the fruit and vegetables, even meat, has a very distinctive flavour to it – the roast cacao and Vanilla that is dominant in the taste of this coffee comes forth. The topography in prevailing winds on the island also mimics a high altitude, bringing the complexity of flavour.
We touched a little bit on REALTRADE before, but what makes it so different from other Fairtrade coffees?
When we talk about the farmers being our brothers and sisters, they are coffee growers at the closest proximity to us here in New Zealand. We deal with them directly, with reciprocal respect – Geoffrey is a chief on the island. We make sure that we pay considerably more than the market price for coffee direct to the farmer; it is about asking what they need, what they want and respecting custom and tradition. For the farmers on Tanna Island, coffee is an extra income; they live a subsistence lifestyle, but for them, it’s more than just an income – we are in a respectful relationship.
You guys make frequent visits to origin – or at least you have in the past, back when we were all able travel before COVID. What is one of the best experiences you’ve had at the origin with the farmers and their families?
Last year in October, I had taken a pocket full of green coffee from the crop that had been recently harvested on Tanna island. So I showed them how to roast their own coffee and a pot over a fire – this was the 1st time anyone had shown them, coffee growers, how to roast coffee. The whole village, including the children, sat around drinking coffee for the 1st time. It’s important to understand that right now, Vanuatu has no cases of COVID 19, and I hope that COVID never gets there. With tourism on the island as their main export, as soon as the world locked down, Geoffrey called our brothers on Tanna island and said “ it’s okay we will support you, we will buy as much as you can grow.”
Do you think these meaningful connections contribute to the quality of your coffee?
Since coffee was discovered, the beverage has always been a connection of culture.
It is imperative to understand that coffee farmers are the experts, and they do the lion’s share of the work in the supply chain. Making sure that they know that we appreciate and respect what they do for us as a coffee community is paramount. The worst thing you can do when you go to the coffee origin is to swan around taking photos telling them what they should do. Instead, it is crucial to get to know them on a personal level and understand where things in their lives could improve.
Why is it important that people know where their coffee comes from?
Interestingly, I don’t think the majority of people really care that much where coffee comes from, although more and more people do now. Most of the coffee drinkers in New Zealand and Australia want to know that the farmers are paid fairly and that it is of good quality.
It’s clear that the question of sustainability is carefully considered by Havana on the coffee farms at origin, but how do you bring these values into the way you operate as roaster here in New Zealand day-to-day?
We roast on a Loring system which is one of the most eco-friendly roasters on the planet today. The decision to go with the Loring system is critical for driving down a carbon footprint.
Sustainability is about more than just being good to the environment. It’s about the ability to respectfully and fairly trade with a long-term outlook, without compromise on quality and fairness. Cost is secondary to people, their well-being, and the environment
You guys are known around Wellington and throughout New Zealand as “Coffee for the People”. What does that title mean to you?
A market demographic is vast, from the rich to the poor, from the punk to the politician, and everyone in between! Our coffee is for everyone regardless of their socio-economical or religious backgrounds. Coffee is culture – I believe it is the true elixir of life, and the connector of people.
La Marzocco had heaps of fun creating a custom KB90 espresso machine for the Havana Coffee Works café in Wellington. You guys have a really funky, eclectic vibe. Was the inspiration mostly drawn from the vibrant cafés of Cuba? What’s the story behind the name of the roastery?
That’s explained really well in the book COFFEEUFEEL , co-written by Geoffrey Marsland with Tom Scott.
Here’s a quote from the book .
“Up high, looking north of the Caribbean, I asked,” what’s up there?” “Cuba mon“ was the reply. The germ of the idea was sown. Back in Wellington I started thinking and plotting – hey, if they grow the best coffee in the world in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, what about Cuba, right next door, give or take 90 miles, why wouldn’t it be just as good?”
Geoffrey Marsland with Tom Scott from COFFEEUFEEL.
And lastly what do you love most about the Wellington coffee scene?
Wellington City is the little coffee capital of the world, there are more café’s per capita than New York City, and if you aren’t any good you won’t last long – the two café’s that Havana Coffee Works was founded on are still running strong. If you want to get a good cup of coffee in this town, all you need to do is find a place where the cacophony of laughter and joy is as loud as the music pumping out of it. Look for smiles on faces and people spending too long on their coffee break. And more often than not, you’ll find the COFFEEUFEEL!