Coffee, everyone has their own take on what makes a perfect coffee, some people like a simple spoon of dehydrated coffee with milk and sugar, for me it has to be real coffee – freshly ground beans, using a proper espresso machine and unadulterated, just a simple, rich double-shot long black.
In Nelson we are lucky to have a number of coffee roasters and some wonderful baristas who know how to make coffee the way you like it, one of those producers is Sublime Coffee.
I first met Dan Hennah when he was looking for a property to set up a coffee roasting business in 2005 and have watched the development of Sublime over the years, but I was surprised to find out just how big this coffee roasting business has become.
When he set up the small roasting business in an old cottage on Haven Road he had a coffee roaster that could handle five kilograms of beans at a time, the roaster was in part of the front room of the cottage with a coffee machine and a couple of tables on the veranda, Dan’s brother-in-law used a room as a gallery while Dan lived in the back of the building.
When I dropped in to see Dan and Emma Hennah last week we sat in the office, which used to be a bedroom, and talked all things coffee and growing a business based on sticking to personal philosophies.
Why coffee? Dan says “I always loved it, I spent a little bit of time around Havana Coffee Roasters in Wellington as I was trying to leave the film industry and just wanted to start a business, I wasn’t sure if it would be successful.
“I liked the idea of coffee as a product because it is straightforward, it is 100% natural, you don’t add anything you just apply your roasting process, whatever that may be.
“The country of origin, plantation the beans come from, the variety and how the beans are roasted create the differences in flavour, it isn’t adulterated it in any way.
“Coffee is also something you don’t need a qualification to do, you just need to learn about it, in fact it is less about the science of roasting coffee and more about the dark arts, when you roast coffee you rely a lot on gut feel and intuition.
“It is quite tricky to pick up any information about hand crafting a coffee roast and blend, people don’t tell you much, they like to keep their successful processes secret.”
Emma says “It is very much like baking a cake, you have your own recipes and a coffee roaster across the road using the same beans will have a product quite different to ours, it is all about the roasting and blending processes.”
Dan and friend Chris Webby designed and built their own equipment, why?
“Partly because it is crazy money for big commercial coffee roasting equipment and partly because we wanted to have some individuality; when an equipment manufacturer designs something they guarantee minimum quality levels and that makes some of the products a little sanitised.
“They are creating equipment to get an exact result, you know it is going to provide a consistent product – press a button and wait 20 minutes and get a similar result to many other coffee roasters, our systems require a lot more operator input, more manual input so we control the roast at every stage rather than a machine.”
Both Dan and Emma grew up in households that were immersed in the arts, in Dan’s case it was a house full of design creatives and for Emma it was a house with lots of art and art appreciation, “art feeds the soul and is seen in many things but especially in creating things.”
Dan worked in the film industry, “did my first movie job when I was about five and grew up on movie sets”, he ended up working in physical effects or “special effects without a computer – things like creating fire, smoke and water effects” he says.
“From there it was a graduation to what we have done with coffee roasting, in the film industry we couldn’t just go and buy what we needed, we had to make it.
“We made wind machines waterfalls, dams that had to collapse during filming, even fire to create smoke from a chimney on a film set can be a challenge and having to create these effects has helped a lot with this business.
“Some of the science behind the coffee roasting came from building things from scratch, learning from your mistakes very quickly, having to think outside the square while needing to understand things like heat and air flow when creating smoke helps understand coffee roasting.”
Emma was a primary teacher when she met Dan and had a time when she was teaching fulltime and helping Dan at Sublime, then in the second year of the business was working full-time at Sublime, “it was great to work on a project together and we have been working together full-time for 10 years now.”
“It was a little frightening giving up teaching but Dan is an amazing believer and said let’s do it, we have complimentary skills and work on different parts of the business.
“While I wasn’t sure there would be enough work for me it didn’t take long to have more than I could handle in a day, and now we have an amazing team of 15 staff.”
They told me something I hear from many business owners, the hardest piece of the puzzle is finding the people that have the same skill, passion and attitude they have for their product but they have got a team who all love working at Sublime and love the coffee.
Dan says “we want our staff to go away and follow their dreams and then come back when they are ready, Jack started with us when he was 15, went away and worked in the film industry and other things then came back while another of our other barista, Ben, went off and did world vision photography before coming back, they bring so much passion for life and a sense of fun when they return and people come in just to talk and laugh with them.”
Sublime’s master roaster, Mike Kolff, with help from the roastery team, does nothing but roast coffee, and Sublime has recently opened an espresso bar in Palmerston North, choosing that city for its central location as it also acts as a distribution and support centre for their North Island wholesale sales.
“We don’t just sell stuff, we help train our clients staff and service their coffee making equipment.”
The latest move for this expanding business is exporting, one of their former baristas is living in Adelaide so they are setting him up with roasting equipment along with a road map of how Sublime coffee is roasted and blended so he can get the same results.
“He worked for us here for two years and is part of what we call the Sublime family so he understands our ethos and has a passion for the product that fits with us, we will send him equipment, beans and recipes so he will effectively be a Sublime partner.”
At Sublime Coffee Dan and Emma use about ten different bean origins to give lots of flexibility when it comes to creating blends, “we love to keep playing and learning, there are lots of new beans available now and we can buy beans from single farms where they have been doing different things in the plantation and we totally support ethical production, we try and be as ethical as we can when we source beans so love finding small new growers”, says Dan.
The perfect coffee means something different to each person and at Sublime they produce a handmade product made for every individual, “it is a special thing to be able to make a coffee exactly as the customer wants it, to build you a beverage just as you want it to be is a very cool thing – served with a smile and entertaining chat of course” says Emma.