On Monday our coffee team will embark on the start of this year’s sourcing trips. First off will be a week in El Salvador meeting with two of our long-term producing partners, followed by a week in Kenya.
Heading off on these first trips will be our Quality and Production Manager and recently qualified Q grader, Simon Humes. Here we chat to Simon about his coffee career so far and what these trips mean to him.
Origin's 2018 Panamanian sourcing trip. Simon featured far right.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from and how did your coffee career start?
I was born in England and then moved to Northern Ireland when I was one. When I was 18 I headed to university in Leeds and then Birmingham, where I studied music composition. Whilst I was at uni I worked as a part-time barista. This is where it all began. I soon decided that the life of a composer wasn’t for me – I was keen to travel and realised this wasn’t the vehicle to do it. I also wanted to pursue another one of my loves, outdoor climbing. This then took me to Australia, where I started working as a barista to fund my travels. The transition from a coffee shop in Birmingham at that time to Sydney was a baptism of fire. The volume of coffee I was expected to brew, as well as the quality of it was unbelievable. The coffee shop I was working in in Sydney was getting through 15-20kg of coffee a day. They had two separate bars: one for black coffee and one for white due to the sheer volumes. To add to this my boss was a World Latte Art Judge and had to approve every single coffee brewed for dine ins.
After Sydney I barista’d in New Zealand, where I was privileged to work at Flight Coffee. It continued to showcase the impressive nature of the coffee industry in Australia – everything was amplified – volume, quality, service style. Away from coffee I also did a stint at an industrial abseiler in the construction industry.
"My experience of Australia transformed my view of coffee and food and drink generally. It went from being a trade to something I was really passionate about."
After Australia and New Zealand I returned to London where I was keen to pursue a coffee role closer to the producer end of the chain, so started work at a coffee importer, Mercanta, where I worked for nearly 18 months. It was a great learning experience, during which time I also wrote their Home Enthusiast Program [Mercanta also own London School of Coffee].
What brought you here, to Origin?
I’d applied for a few jobs and accepted the role as Production Assistant as was impressed with Tom [Tom Sobey, Owner & Founder] and Andy’s [Andy Phillips, Operations Director] manner during my Skype interview. Origin was also already known to me – its reputation had reached me. During my time barista’ing in Birmingham I’d also met Dan Fellows [Origin’s Head of Wholesale] in the coffee shop I worked in, which later became one of Origin’s customers, Urban Coffee. Movin to Origin was a professional one, which I knew would enable career progression.
The 1st April 2017 saw me embark on an epic 14 hour journey from Northern Ireland to Cornwall. After a ferry crossing and drive down from Liverpool I reached the Roastery at 4.15pm to be greeted by the entire wholesale team who happened to be there for a meeting. It was fortuitous but full on, as I was taken out for dinner in Falmouth by the entire team still in my road trip gear.
How’s your role changed since starting here?
I started as a Production Assistant to learn the ropes of the roastery as it’s the first time I’ve worked in a high volume production setting. I struck up a relationship with Joshua [Origin’s then Head of Coffee] and he learnt to trust me and my palate. In the last 18 months my knowledge about what we do, our stance and what “Origin in a cup” tastes like has grown. During this time I’ve also gained a new professional qualification and am now a Q grader.
What exactly is a Q grader and why is it such an important qualification?
It ensures that every person across the world who has taken the exams is calibrated on all of the parameters by which we judge speciality coffee, such a flavour, aroma and degree of roast. All these things enable you to make an accurate judgement of the quality score of the cup based on the SCA scale. In practise, every Q grader who tastes the same coffee, roasted in the same way, will score it within two points of each other, whether they’re in the UK, Indonesia or Australia.
"This is really important as the speciality coffee industry functions on trust and relationships."
For example, when we purchase a lot of Los Altos (we’ve just placed an order for 750 sacks of green coffee), we do this based on a 100g sample. So when we’re talking to producers about their coffees, what quality they’re delivering and what they’re expressing, we have to trust ourselves and each other.
Cupping in Panama
And what did it take to achieve this qualification?
The qualification itself consists of 19 exams taken over three days (in quite a high pressured environment). The preparation for it – in my case – was my experience within the speciality coffee industry and having been fortunate enough to have worked with some of the best and most diverse range of coffees throughout this seven year period. Having worked at Mercanta was a huge advantage too as they employ everyone to be part of the tasting panel there.
You’re about to embark on a sourcing trip to El Salvador & Kenya, how will it help you there
Apart from having confidence in my judgement, it’ll enable me to more rapidly diagnose coffee in component parts. To quickly and accurately assess quality and whether what we’re cupping is the right match for us.
Wet drying tables, Kenya.
Farmer at work, El Salvador.
What are you most excited about as you head off?
Meeting the producers. As soon as I realised I was interested in coffee, it became all about the people who produce it. When I went to Panama last year, it was the first time I’d met and discussed coffee in person with producers. It was incredible, particularly our trip to Esmeralda. When I first started in coffee, Esmeralda Geisha first ‘broke’ and started to permeate the industry in the UK – this incredible coffee, which was more expensive in weight than gold became the stuff of legends. When we went to Panama last year, Esmeralda’s harvest had been terribly affected by high winds and achieved only 40% of their normal yield. However, despite this we were invited on a private trip to the farm where they laid on three tables worth of cups to get our opinion on it, despite knowing we wouldn’t be able to buy it. It was a real full circle moment... I was totally star struck.
In El Salvador I’ll get the chance to meet both Fernando Lima of Santa Elena and Carlos Pola, two of our longest standing direct trade partners. Both of these men are renowned in the industry and have incredible approaches to producing exceptional coffee. I’m looking forward to talking to them about our plans for the future.
Simon will head of to El Salvador along with Production Assistant Tom Ballinger on Monday 4 February. We look forward to sharing the pictures and stories of this journey and the adventures that they have along the way.