Through Hazel de los Reyes’ eyes

There’s something special about childhood memories, the way they retrace forgotten parts of your upbringing and create feelings of nostalgia. For Hazel de los Reyes, memories of school holidays spent at her grandmother’s house in Batangas in the Philippines became the catalyst for a career she’s obsessed with. 

Hazel’s grandmother would make her six-year-old granddaughter a morning coffee straight from the wild Coffea liberica growing in the backyard. To sweeten it, she’d add condensed milk.

“Right from the beginning I’ve associated coffee as a positive thing in my life because it’s attached to happy memories,” Hazel says.

“Your sense of smell goes through the olfactory bulb, which is connected to the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for memory and emotion, so it’s logical that I associate coffee with everything good: swinging on thick vines of wild coffee trees, and us kids getting up to mischief in the forest all day until we were called in for dinner.”

A few times a year, Hazel’s family would get together to pick the red cherries and lay them out to dry on the driveway. The men of the family would hull the beans with a giant pestle and mortar, the women would de-husk the beans, and her grandmother would roast the coffee until it turned black.

“That’s when you knew it was done,” Hazel says.

Growing up, roasting coffee was just a family tradition. When Hazel migrated with her family to Australia in 1989, she recalls seeing cafés spread throughout the  suburbs and being “totally fascinated” by these so-called coffee shops serving the very thing her grandmother grew in her backyard.

“I remember having a cappuccino from a café in Fairfield where we lived. It was a different level of strength and mouthfeel than I was used too. It was strong but it wasn’t aggressive, and I thought it was such a novel way to drink coffee,” Hazel says. “I started getting cappuccinos from other cafés and realised that the flavour was different from place to place.”

For Christmas one year, Hazel went to buy an espresso machine for her sister, and walked away with one for herself too. Her curiosity had finally taken over. Hazel started to research espresso extraction, temperature stability, pressure, how to grind coffee fresh, and how to extract at a particular rate.

“What I discovered was out of this world in terms of what I could sink my teeth into,” Hazel says.

Then came roasting. The process was familiar to Hazel but she knew unlike her grandmother’s style of roasting, black beans weren’t going to cut it in Australia.

“I turned to the internet and learnt that roasting was a craft, and how thermodynamics in roasting are different with every set up. I liked that roasting has endless possibilities because that’s what makes it a craft,” Hazel says. “Although, I had to roast in mum’s backyard because my neighbours in Newtown started to complain about the smell.”

She would roast coffee for her friends on an ImexC100 120-gram air roaster. When someone requested 9 kilograms of roasted beans for Christmas, that’s when she knew it was time to consider turning her hobby into a profession – or “obsession”, as she puts it.

“I was determined to figure out how to make coffee better through different processes and tools, and then implement them using sample roasters,” she says.

In 2003 Hazel opened her first café, Coffee Alchemy in Dulwich Hill, but all she really wanted was to roast and make great coffee. So, a year and a half later, she sold the café and opened a roastery under the same name in Addison Road, Marrickville in 2005. Hazel’s roasting equipment has grown substantially from the C100 she first started with. Her repertoire includes a 30-kilogram Probat roaster, a 15-kilogram Giesen, a 5-kilogram Joper, and an array of sample roasters.”

To build a profile in the industry, Hazel says word of mouth back then was more powerful than Twitter. To help build the roaster’s reputation and challenge herself, Hazel registered for her first Australian Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA) barista competition.

“I wanted to give people confidence that our coffee was good. Back then, people associated good roasting if it was made by an Italian guy, not a tiny Asian woman,” she says.

Hazel went on to win her first New South Wales Barista Championship, followed by the 2005 Australian title using her own roasted coffee. The next year she won the inaugural Australian Cup Tasting Championship, and returned to the competition stage in 2013 to win the NSW Barista Championship title.

It was through her competition experience that Hazel met Chris Short, Founder of Cafetto espresso machine cleaners, descalers and milk line cleaners.

“Competition is self indulgent and an expensive undertaking. You don’t earn an income. I went to compete in the 2005 World Barista Championship in Seattle, and with the US dollar as horrible as it was, I sought sponsorship,” Hazel recalls. “Out of nowhere, Chris, who I’d never met before, offered to sponsor me. I met him for the first time at Los Angeles airport. Chris is one of the true gentlemen of the industry, and now a good friend. We went through milestone moments together, and I’ll always be grateful for his support.”

While Hazel was busy competing on the world stage, she still managed to grow her business pursuits back in Sydney, opening Coffee Alchemy to the public in 2008, Gumption by Coffee Alchemy in 2013 in The Strand Arcade, and Micro Coffee in Barangaroo in 2015.

Hazel’s competition wins helped develop credibility for Coffee Alchemy, but it was an interview for the Good Food Guide in 2010 she says made the brand an overnight success.

“I went to a local service station to pick up a copy of the newspaper with the so-called small article in it, but was amazed to see an image of myself sitting in front of Coffee Alchemy on the front page of the then-broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald,” Hazel says. “It was an iconic moment for us. The next day we were busy, and we were the day after that and the day after that.”

Outside of the office walls, Hazel continues her dedication to the “constant pursuit of better-tasting coffee”. Each year she travels to origin to foster relationships with producers and buy exceptional coffee.

“Coffee is a never-ending chain of collaborations and potential excitement,” Hazel says. “Consumer awareness is so different now that when I’m sourcing new coffee I’ll find myself thinking about the coffee certain customers would like.”

As for what she likes, Hazel notes her favourite cups from the year came from Rwanda, Ecuador, and Mexico single estates.

“One particular Mexican single estate coffee was an absolute discovery for me, a revelation and a very under-valued coffee,” Hazel says.

The next stage in Hazel’s journey with Coffee Alchemy is about to undergo an exciting new direction in 2018. What that is exactly remains under wraps for now, but she hints it’s a way to “introduce a greater portion of people to Coffee Alchemy”.

“To us, growth means an alliance with the consumer. When you grow it’s an indication the consumer is aligned with what you do and what you believe in,” Hazel says.

She says her late grandmother would be proud of her roasting career, although somewhat confused as to why people pay so much for a cup of coffee.

“I’m just glad I found coffee,” Hazel says. “It’s provided me with endless fascination for something I’m obsessed with, and there’s still so much to learn. The undiscovered potential keeps me going.”

For more information about Cafetto, its support of industry members and latest product range, visit www.cafetto.com

This article features in the February 2018 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here today: www.beanscenemag.com.au/subscribe