Jasper Coffee discusses the brand’s evolution

Jasper Coffee

A conduit between opposite ends of the supply chains, Jasper Coffee has led a 34-year career shaped by sustainability and the power of people.

Jasper Parker Trenfield grew up in his parents’ coffee store lying on coffee sacks in Smith Street, Collingwood. There, his parents owned two venues: one, a warehouse and office; the other, a shop with a smorgasbord of origin coffees, chocolates, lollies, umbrellas, and tin toys with a subterfuge coffee machine for only those “in the know”.

“We didn’t have a license to sell cup coffee,” says Jasper Coffee Co-Director Merilyn Parker. “In the old days, around 1990, the old Collingwood Council had imposed a rule to regulate the mix of businesses. They controlled how many cafés, bars and restaurants were in the Melbourne city of Yarra, Fitzroy, and Collingwood. You couldn’t necessarily get a permit to run a café, but we could do coffee tastings, which we did with the coffee machine hidden behind a wall until the licence lifted.”

Co-Founders Merilyn and Wells Trenfield entered the world of coffee with zero industry knowledge. They bought the business with a friend in 1989, first based in the Victorian suburb of Thomastown. While the partnership didn’t last, the business did, aptly named after their son Jasper who recalls being dropped at school in the company delivery van, and assuming his surname was Coffee for a long time.

“We had to reinvent the business. We had always come from a background where sustainability mattered. Wells grew biodynamic vegetables in Alexandra in the country in the early 70s and would bring them down to sell to organic shops in Melbourne. The whole premise was sustainability and our interest in organic food naturally extended into coffee,” Merilyn says.

“We wanted to know what organic coffee tasted like, who were the people that grow it, and how it’s grown. It led us to ask a lot of questions of Scott Bennett [Director of H.A. Bennett & Sons] who has been our broker the whole way through. Once we understood that organic coffee is grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides, we started selling it as such. There was quite a big market for it. We sold it all over New South Wales, Victoria, and even Darwin. It was a little niche that was natural to us.”

In the early 1990s, Wells and Merilyn sent their coffee to Giancarlo Giusti, Founder of Grinders Coffee, to contract roast to their preferred profile. Merilyn ran the Smith Street shop and Wells knocked on any door. He went to cafés, delis, wineries, and restaurants in search of customers, with Australian chef Stephanie Alexander an early supporter.

“It was the boost of confidence we needed. It was about finding a niche of credibility in who we were selling to, and then getting our product into people’s homes. We were also in Myers and David Jones retailers for a while,” Merilyn says, remembering how Wells would handwrite the coffee descriptions on a blank label with a fountain pen.

“In those days our packaging was cellophane because it was biodegradable, made from cellulose and seaweed,” Wells says.

The material was later found to not be impervious for coffee, so the company moved to lined Kraft bags, and later to compostable packaging.

Wells say the key to education and adapting new concepts over the years, has been the curiosity he and Merilyn have shared. It’s what led them to attend industry conferences around the world.

“We didn’t know enough in the beginning. That’s why we kept going to Re:Co Symposium and expos like the Specialty Coffee Expo. It’s enriched us to see that there’s a much bigger world that’s not just coffee in a cup,” Wells says.

A natural evolution

Over time, Jasper Coffee has tried to keep the sustainable and ethical ethos it started with and has adapted new initiatives as they become available and relative. This includes Fairtrade and Organic Certification in 2003, Carbon Neutral certification in 2009, and B-Corp Certification in 2015.

For years, Jasper Coffee has sponsored non-profit marine conservation activism organisation Sea Shepherd, and empowered a group of young people in Cambodia to set up a café. After the devastation of two cyclones in Honduras in 2022, it established a GoFundMe campaign to support its cooperative coffee farmers, and paid out a cooperative’s bank loan after it had a container of green beans stolen. Wells says their sustainable relationships help to keep farmers growing coffee and maintain livelihoods.

“Sustainability has always shaped how we do business. It also extends to how people can sustain their livelihood,” Wells says.

Merilyn recalls a Smith Street customer who once inquired about one of their coffees for sale, considered of the most sustainable and organic coffees in the world because it grew wild in a remote forest near Lae in Papua New Guinea.

Its remote location made hard work for pickers, who would crush the cherries using jam tin cans, then roll the pulp over bark. They had no other equipment.

“It was their only source of income. It made us really aware of how people were living in the origin countries we were buying and selling coffee from. So when Fairtrade came along, it was like a relief because it was a vehicle to really assist, and over our 30-odd years we’ve been to lots of places where we’ve seen incredible change as a result of Organic certification and Fairtrade. They really do make a huge difference to communities,” Merilyn says.

She adds that the reason she and Wells have committed to travelling the world over to origin countries is simply to verify the impact of such certifications.

“We wanted to see what people are doing with their Fairtrade Premiums. We wanted to hear what they say and hear how their lives have changed. We’ve been to remarkable places because of that connection with coffee. Coffee has taken us everywhere. But when we come home, it’s so important for us to represent the growers.”

For Wells, travelling to origin was also to ensure a reciprocal understanding and respect for the coffee they served. He would always take a packet of their roasted coffee for farmers to see.

“A lot of the time we would knock on the door of strangers and leave as friends, and in some cases, it’s been lifelong friendships. They really do appreciate our efforts and our friendship,” Wells says.

“The premise of our purpose is to be a conduit between the growers and the customers. It’s important that the growers hear and understand what happens at our end: to learn what we do, what the customer expects, even to the point about prices and costs where they learn that it sells for an extraordinary exorbitant price in Australia. Many don’t understand why it’s so expensive. But when you break it down to the cost of labour and the cost of living, they get a more rounded picture.”

When the La Roya disaster hit Honduras in 2011, decimating 80 per cent of crops, Jasper Coffee still bought a container of green bean from their regular farmers. And throughout the global pandemic, Wells made it a personal responsibility to connect with as many cooperatives as he could to understand how they were coping.

This level of care extends to Jasper Coffee’s support of a World Vision coffee cooperative, and an Indigenous group of coffee growers in Santa Marta, northern Colombia, both of which have become self-sufficient through their use of Certified Fairtrade and Fairtrade Premiums, and Organic coffee. It also works closely with Outback Academy Australia, a not-for- profit majority Aboriginal-led organisation of which it partners to roast its First Nations coffee, and supports its Follow the Flowers alliance-based regenerative farming business movement based on Fairtrade business principles.

“It’s a rewarding project to see how the profits of this coffee help Indigenous people gain a connection back to the land they once lost, and help empower and develop a sense of community,” Merilyn says.

That sense of community is the one thing Wells and Merilyn treasure most about the coffee industry. They see it in the cafés they serve, the loyal customers of their coffee, and the people they meet at origin.

“Coffee is just a vehicle to start talking,” Wells says. “For us, it’s always been about connecting with people – from the growers to the customers – and always will be. But the best part – we dared to go on an adventure and take our customers along for the ride.”

This article appears in the June 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

Send this to a friend