From the ground up

Shirin Moayyad has been in the coffee trade all her working life and has recently opened her own roasterie in Switzerland. I asked her to tell us a little bit about herself and how she got into coffee.

I studied anthropology as an undergraduate and then began a master’s programme in development studies. For that I needed to do a practicum and I somehow found a position in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, working with an anthropologist. I quickly realized it wasn’t for me, so I took a job with a local trading company that owned coffee plantations, along with their other businesses.

As I spoke the local language, they put me in charge of the 100-acre coffee plantation that I lived on. So, I literally learned coffee from the ground up – from the farm angle.

At the time there were only two tiny coffee roasteries in Papua New Guinea.  My company purchased one of them and tasked me with its management. I was instructed to modernise it and develop an export market. Our coffee ended up in supermarkets all over the South Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand. It was quite a success as a model for value-adding in-country, and a wonderful project to be involved in.

After 11 years in Papua New Guinea I moved to Singapore, where I was hired to set up the roasting plant for a chain of coffee shops. I commissioned the roastery and was both the roaster and green coffee buyer for them.

My next move was to Peet’s, as their green coffee buyer and often storyteller. Based in Oakland, I travelled the world looking for specialty coffees for them. It was a magic job, working with some of the most amazing people in the industry, who have remained friends to this day.

From Peet’s you were recruited to Nespresso in Switzerland?

I moved here in January 2013. I landed in a snowstorm and it carried on snowing for the next 10 days. I had never seen anything so beautiful. If Disneyland did Switzerland, I thought, this is what it would look like.

At Nespresso, alongside my job as Coffee Expertise Leverage Manager, I was on the small panel of cuppers who were qualified to taste and evaluate the coffees they bought. I loved that, but we were in a large, rather industrial setting where we didn’t have our hands on coffee the way I did in previous jobs. I missed that. Then, in August 2018 personal losses and home stresses caused me to resign from Nespresso. A year later, in August of 2019, I finally decided to take the plunge and start my own little roasting company: Sweet Bean Coffee.

Going into roasting has been an opportunity for me to get my hands back onto the primary material that I love. I love coffee, I absolutely adore coffee, and I realized I need to be around the raw stuff.

Where do you buy your green coffee?

I buy from different origins. From the Americas we have Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala. My absolute favourite is Guatemala. From Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia. From Indonesia, Sumatra and Sulawesi, and then of course Papua New Guinea. I couldn’t imagine having a coffee business without Papua New Guinea!

Is it a gift to be able to taste coffee or is it something you can learn?

For me, it’s about discipline and training. I’m half German and grew up with a huge amount of discipline in the household. I attack any work project with this same discipline and concentration. If you’ve cupped coffees as many thousands of times as I have, your palate becomes trained, disciplined and discerning.

I’m not a super taster (people with more taste buds than on average), but I am what’s called a Q grader, qualified for both arabica and robusta. The robusta certification is rare, new and extremely difficult to pass. But then both qualifications are insanely difficult with 22 exams based on tasting, smelling and coffee knowledge.

I’m also on the Board of Trustees for the Coffee Quality Institute that created the certification. I didn’t pass the exams because of that though; I became a trustee after I passed!

What qualities do you need as a roaster?

To roast you need the ability to concentrate intensively for short periods of time. You have to be able to concentrate to the exclusion of everything else because you’re roasting with your senses: your eyes, your nose and your ears. You’re looking for colour. You’re looking for expansion on the beans, you listen to the sounds that the beans make, you feel the beans. Mr. Peet famously said: “the beans tell me how they want to be roasted” and I adhere to that school of craft.

What qualities do you look for in a green coffee?

It depends on the way the coffee will be prepared. Having said that, when I am offered coffees and something exceptional comes along, I buy it anyway, because I’ll figure out later what to do with it.

So, in a Papua New Guinea, I’m looking for a particular flavour profile that has something almost akin to a ripe mango, breadfruit, or jackfruit – tropical fruit notes at their very ripest level. That’s what you can find in a washed arabica from Papua New Guinea.

In a Sumatra by contrast, I look for huge body and cured tobacco leaf aromatics that are particular to the terroir and processing method of Sumatra.

Which are better: blends or single origin?

Blends can bring complexity, but a pure origin can really give you the spirit of the country.

Smell is a powerful memory stimulant. When I roast coffee from Papua New Guinea, it takes me back to walking the streams of the Southern Highlands Province, going trout fishing in the remote bush a day’s walk away from the nearest roads. I am smelling my memories in the bush, going through the coffee rows, the fresh milled crop being bagged for export and so many other memories. That’s the beauty of a single origin; it really transports you to that place.

Which is your favourite coffee and how do you brew it?

PNG is my favourite coffee and I brew it in a French press.

Lastly, where can I buy your coffee?

Normally we are on the market in Carouge in Geneva every Saturday, but since the coronavirus lockdown our website is our main outlet, as well as the VitaVerDura local food home delivery service.  You’ll find a few smaller outlets listed on the website as well. We mainly roast to order, and we deliver.

Thank you, Shirin for your time and input.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2020

This is a short extract of a full interview that will be published in my upcoming book Merchants & Roasters – Conversations over Coffee

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