BeanScene talks to Mecca Coffee Founder Paul Geshos about farmer relationships, growth, and the continued importance of transparency in the supply chain.
In 2005, Paul Geshos realised most of Australia’s coffee roasters had very limited access to transparency at the farm and origin level, despite a mature and booming café culture.
When questions surfaced like ‘who grew this coffee, how much do the farmers get paid, and why does this lot taste so different to that one?’, Paul found the answers unclear. Determined to discover them for himself, Paul founded Mecca Coffee with the aim of recognising those at the start of the supply chain.
“In the beginning, getting access to coffee was the biggest hurdle. When we started out, we were a small company, and it didn’t make sense to just hop on a plane and start buying coffee, so we had to go through the process of dealing with the local supply chain, and it was really hard. We didn’t really like anything they had to offer. There was the occasional coffee that slipped through the cracks, like a nice Ethiopian Sidamo, but the brokers probably had no idea of its provenance,” Paul says.
At the time, Paul says the people who were bringing coffee to Sydney were relying solely on existing supply chains, second- generation traders who were in a bubble with their existing supply chains.
“That’s how they built their business, and unless those guys were getting pushed, they weren’t going to change. To try and find those big specialty coffees requires a lot of work. It requires having someone travelling and on-the-ground at origin. It means cupping a lot, it means investing more money, and it just didn’t make sense for those guys,” he says.
As Paul eloquently puts it, “you can’t access quality unless you seek it out”.
After a couple of years, Mecca Coffee was in a position to buy its own green coffee, and Paul went to El Salvador and Colombia to buy direct from farmers.
“Back then, nobody really gave you a map how to do it, whereas nowadays it’s a different story. It’s very easy to share information. At the time you pretty much had to go and figure it out for yourself,” he says.
“When I did my first buying trip I think I bought about 10 bags of coffee each from a lot that the producer had prepared specifically for me. Having coffee that we had hand-selected, but not only that, it was prepared for us, that’s kind of how it all started.”
Visiting origin is a commitment Paul has continued. He travelled to Mexico in January with Head Roaster Dan May, the first time out of the country since the pandemic and, most importantly, the first visit for Mecca Coffee.
Paul says green bean coffee suppliers Caravela Coffee and Azahar Coffee introduced him to the dynamic and evolving coffee scene in the two prolific regions where its coffee is grown, Eastern Sierra Madre and the Southern Sierra Madre Mountain in Oaxaca, and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas in Chiapas.
“Travelling to Mexico, or any coffee- producing countries we work with, has always been about broadening our understanding of the culture, and strengthening our relationship with the people we work with. Each country is different, each has its own level of difficulty in crossing the country, and mountain ranges where the producers and coffee are located,” he says.
Paul says it’s easy to talk about the impact of the soil, altitude, and variety on flavour quality. It’s much harder to recognise the effort and work that goes into creating the infrastructure of mountainous regions, or the difficulties of navigating shipping lanes.
“We always try to keep in mind the many hands that have touched our coffee before us. Those who have taken so much care and pride in their work before it arrives at our door. We really believe that we are a small piece of the puzzle, so we do our best to honour the efforts of the full community of people working together to bring you delicious coffees every day,” he says.
Thanks to prioritising transparency since its inception in 2005, Mecca Coffee has transitioned from a compact café in Sydney’s CBD to one of Australia’s most respected roasters, with a second café in Ultimo and a large roastery and headquarters in Alexandria.
Today, the Australian roaster supplies coffee to many cafés along the east coast, including its own flagship outlets. But beyond its growth, has been a commitment to quality since day one.
“We started this place as an outlet for really great coffee. We have spent many long flights, road trips, Skype sessions and coffee dates asking how we can do better for our planet, and for the people who deserve more recognition for producing good quality coffee,” Paul says.
“We haven’t compromised on our standards since day one, and that’s the reason we’re still here so many years later.” Mecca Coffee has been roasting at the Alexandria site for 12 years, but the chance to take over and expand into the front of the space in 2015 came at the ideal time.
To commemorate 10 years in the industry, Paul unveiled the updated Alexandria space with upgrades that tie together the roastery, new-look café, and workshop.
“It’s been a long arc to the story,” says Paul. “It’s funny that it’s intersected with our 10-year anniversary, because this kind of space is what we wanted to do originally.”
“The proportions are generous, which is what we really wanted,” says Paul. “There are offices upstairs, a room for cupping and training and an expanded kitchen. It’s a chance to extend the menu, too, with all food made on-site apart from the bread and pastries.”
Celebrating 18 years this year, Paul says the roastery still feels like a start-up, filled with as much enthusiasm and fresh ideas as the day he started the company.
“While we’ve been around for some time, there’s still a young and vibrant energy here at Mecca Coffee. As a business owner, my problem isn’t finding new ideas, it’s just prioritising which ones to purse right now. Our history and experience only make us more excitable,” he says.
“As one of the pioneers of specialty coffee in Sydney, we’re quite proud of our history and our impact over the years. We’re proud of Australian coffee in general. Our collaborative approach to business has stood the test of time and solidified our success in the Australian coffee industry.”
Paul says his hands-on approach to business has been the most rewarding part of his journey. He is eager for Mecca Coffee to create continual and consistent changes in order to improve everyday lives through the relationships it creates, products it develops, and knowledge it shares.
“The last few years, it’s actually reached the point where we feel like we’re involved in the coffee community in a really positive way, and we’re at the stage where we’re having a positive effect,” he says.
Paul says the potential for development and growth is a large part of why he’s stayed in the specialty coffee industry for so long.
“Every year, the quality is getting better, people are understanding more, and I feel like there’s a lot more to do. You point yourself in a certain direction and you don’t know where that will take you, coffee is very much like that. Everyone is still learning so much and people are branching off into different areas of coffee that weren’t really an option even five years ago,” he says.
“All I can say is, I’m excited about the future of coffee, I think that there is still a lot for us to learn.”
This article appears in the April 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.