Australian Brewers Cup Champion Carlos Escobar of Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters discusses falling back in love with coffee and making specialty coffee more inclusive.
For someone who grew up on a coffee farm in Colombia and is now part of the leadership team of one of Australia’s most prominent specialty coffee roasters, one could assume they always intended to work in the industry. But for Carlos Escobar, National Sales Manager at Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“My family owned coffee plantations, but with problems like climate change and low prices, coffee stopped being viable for high-volume producers. You could make a livelihood but it wasn’t a business you could progress and succeed with at scale,” Carlos Escobar tells BeanScene.
“For that reason, I grew up thinking I had to do anything else but coffee. My father even told me, ‘don’t work in coffee. It’s not a sustainable product, there’s no future in it.’ That’s why I went to university and got an engineering degree.”
However, working as an industrial engineer in Colombia left Carlos feeling unfulfilled. Realising he would need to speak English to find engineering work in other countries, and wanting an excuse for a break, Carlos took flight to Australia to learn the language.
“Life is funny. I left for Australia trying to do something different with my life and once I was here, I ended up falling in love with coffee again,” he says.
Carlos’ first job in Australia was as a waiter in an Italian restaurant, where he watched the baristas and saw how different it was working behind a coffee machine to what he was used to.
“I didn’t know anything about espresso extraction. It’s not common in Colombia, where everyone drinks filter,” Carlos says. “I asked the manager if I could work behind the machine and he taught me what he knew. But when you fall in love with coffee, from the moment you start learning, it’s never enough. It’s a rabbit hole that doesn’t end, and I’m still learning every single day.”
From there, Carlos started exploring the variables of changing flavours, how coffee is roasted, where coffees come from, and the role of customer service.
“My interest and passion was not just in the product anymore but finding the area where I could most add value to the industry. For me, that was in service, contributing to how people experience coffee,” he says.
“There’s more to it than how good the coffee is itself. It’s how well it’s served, sold, explained, and educated. My focus now at Toby’s Estate is how we can get people to fall in love with coffee and understand the value of what we do.
As Carlos delved deeper into the coffee industry, he says it was impossible to not take note of the work being done at Toby’s Estate, even while working for a number of other notable coffee companies. When an opportunity came up to join the team in late-2020, he says connecting with General Manager Jody Leslie over shared values and vision convinced him to make the jump.
“The approach of a lot of companies is that, if someone isn’t already knowledgeable about specialty coffee, they aren’t the customer for them. I feel differently. I want to be inclusive and invite more people into that world and Toby’s Estate has a similar view,” Carlos says.
Since Carlos joined Toby’s Estate, the roaster has launched two new product series designed to make specialty coffee more accessible to the end consumer: Freezus and Flavour Savour.
Through Freezus, Toby’s Estate prepares, ages, and vacuum seals coffee before delivering it to the customer, who can freeze it themselves and start building their own coffee cellar.
“Freezing coffee is something the high-end specialty coffee professionals have been doing for a few years now, but it’s still a very unknown concept for the regular coffee consumer. Our challenge with Freezus was to make these products, trends, and knowledge more accessible for everyone,” Carlos says.
“We do all the hard work for the end consumer, so when they get the coffee, not only in the café but people at home, they can freeze it to enjoy later.”
Butterscotch Pudding was Toby’s Estate’s first foray into the Flavour Savour series, crafting milk-based coffee blends with unique and distinctive flavours that customers can relate to experiences they’re familiar with. Carlos says the Christmas-themed blend quickly sold out at the end of 2020, and the second Flavour Savour blend, Watermelon Cake, saw similar demand when released in April.
“The flavour focused blends are about exciting the market. Whether you’re a high-end barista or coffee professional, or an office worker going for your midmorning coffee run, the Watermelon Cake flavour profile is a fun experience and super easy to understand,” he says.
“People are starting to acknowledge you can find different flavours in coffee when black, but they’re still used to the typical chocolate and caramel notes in their flat whites and lattes. When they see it’s possible to create these distinctive flavours in a blend, it starts interesting conversations about what gives the coffee those flavours. That opens the door for our team or the barista to talk about single origins, Freezus, different roasting styles and processing methods, or direct trade and our work and relationships with farmers.”
But Freezus and Flavour Savour weren’t the sole idea of Carlos or any one Toby’s Estate team member for that matter. Carlos joined an elite leadership team of coffee professionals at Toby’s Estate, including Nich Rae as Head of Coffee, Charlotte Malaval as Green Bean Buyer, and Simon Gautherin as Head of Training. He says the skill and experience across the team allows them to easily collaborate, help each other, and become more than the sum or their parts.
“Beyond the professional expertise, Toby’s Estate wants to build a good culture or team and is very inclusive. We value each other’s differences and see how they contribute, rather than view them as roadblocks,” Carlos Escobar says. “The results speak for themselves when you work as a team, help each other, and let each person do what they do best.”
This was made obvious when the team at Toby’s Estate supported Carlos’ campaign in the 2020 Australian Brewers Cup, where he was crowned champion in March 2021. Carlos says he couldn’t have done it without Jody’s and Charlotte’s support, Nich’s roasting of the competition coffee, and Simon’s coaching and constant encouragement. Though the win ultimately comes down to Carlos and his deep knowledge and passion for coffee.
“My main purpose for competing was to inspire other baristas, especially the immigrants who came to this country and really want to work in the coffee industry. They learn about coffee and fall in love with specialty, but when it comes to competing, they get intimidated by the guys who’ve competed for a long time and always win,” Carlos says.
“I respected, followed, and admired all of my competitors, but they’re not the only ones who can do what they do, and I’m glad my win shows you don’t need to be the most experienced or speak perfect English to win.”
Through Toby’s Estate, Carlos hopes to send people a similar message, that specialty coffee is at its best when it’s not exclusive.
“We are not the new kid on the block or the little guy in your mum’s garage anymore. We respect those companies and what they do, but that’s not us, we don’t want to be like anyone else. We want to have our own identity and show the market you can be innovative and supportive, while also being a well-established beast,” Carlos Escobar says.
“Specialty coffee makes up at most 10 per cent of the wider coffee market. Rather than fighting with other companies to grow our share of that 10 per cent, Toby’s Estate is committed to growing the overall size of the specialty market by educating more consumers. If more people move from mainstream to specialty coffee, it creates space for all of us to shine.”
For more information, visit www.tobysestate.com.au