Nich Rae of Toby’s Estate goes behind the scenes of one of Australia’s leading specialty coffee roasters

nich rae toby's estate

Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters Head of Coffee, Nich Rae, goes behind the scenes on how one of Australia’s leading specialty roasters stays on top of trends and remains at the forefront of the industry.

A lot of work goes into making a cup of coffee, but not even Nich Rae, Head of Coffee at Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters, realised how much until his first trip to origin.

“It’s really the last piece of the puzzle to truly understand coffee. It’s like when you read about something your whole life and then try to put it into practice – in our case at a café – but then, when you actually get to go and experience it for yourself, it brings everything together,” Nich says. “Visiting origin brings meaning to why we do what we’re doing. When you come back from origin, you value the coffee more because you’ve seen how difficult it is to make it.”

Nich’s first exposure to the intricacies of coffee came while working in the bar and nightclub scene in Sydney. Like many venues, the club Nich worked at also offered coffee and he set himself the challenge of becoming its best barista.

“I’m a pretty competitive person and when you’re a bartender, you want to be the one that people come and ask for specifically. I worked hard to make sure things like my milk texturing were good, so when people wanted a coffee, they wanted it from me,” he says. “It was the same with the staff. My co-workers would always ask me to make their coffees.”

Taking note of Nich’s coffee making prowess, when the club’s chef set out to open his own café in 2010, he asked Nich to join him as a barista. He jumped at the chance and says his fondest memories from My Caffeine Romance in Kirrawee were building a rapport with customers and “the thrill of the rush”.

“It was a really busy café – we were doing between 90 and 110 kilograms of coffee a week. When you’re in that environment, you get to work, dial in the machine, get yourself ready, and then it’s go time,” Nich says. “It was a combination of the technical job of making coffee, having your head up and talking to customers, all while making sure the café is running smoothly. That really excited me.

“It makes you want to push yourself, so every day is a chance to see how well service could run. If you did a good job, the customers were happy and the café stayed busy.”

The café used coffee from Toby’s Estate, which served as Nich’s introduction to the specialty coffee brand. As the café grew in volume, Nich saw more and more visitors from Toby’s Estate, getting to know the team quite well.

“I remember the first time Toby Smith came into our café. As a young barista, when the founder of this iconic roaster comes in to drink your coffee, you’re a bit starstruck,” Nich says.

“Working closely with a roaster builds a connection to the company. I remember going on a roastery tour, visiting the flagship, and thinking ‘wow, this is the pinnacle of making coffee’.”

In 2013, a barista position opened up at Toby’s Estate’s café in Chippendale and Nich joined the team. After about a year, Nich applied for a back-of-house roasting apprenticeship and dove even deeper into the world of coffee. 

“One of the good things about the coffee industry is that it’s built for people to progress down whatever path they want to follow. You can go from head barista to café manager or owner, but the more you get into it, the more you realise how much coffee can give,” Nich says. “That’s where roasting, training, quality assurance, and green bean buying come in. That’s just the coffee focused roles too. You can work for all different kinds of companies and people.

“There’s a huge range of opportunities that don’t require a university degree. It’s probably one of the last avenues in hospitality where, if you’re not doing a trade, there’s potential to have a really good career.”

Over the past seven years, Nich has risen through the ranks at Toby’s Estate, becoming Assistant Head Roaster in 2016 and Head Roaster in 2018, before earning his current title in February 2020.

“The Head of Coffee role is really determined by where you work and the size and scale of the company. For me, there’s four main drivers: procurement, innovation, training, and our roasting quality and philosophy,” Nich explains.

Toby’s Estate’s single origin program covers upwards of 90 different coffees per year, offering a diversity of origins and processing methods. Nich says being able to deliver this program year-round, consistently, and at a high level of quality sets Toby’s Estate a part.

“I work with an amazing procurement team, with Charlotte Malaval directing the green bean program and our relationships with producers making sure the coffees we select are of the highest quality,” he says.

“There’s a lot of forecasting and planning which is headed up by the amazing Angela Green, making sure we’re always getting fresh coffee, and worrying about the AUD compared to the USD – all of this has probably been the biggest learning curve for me. It’s been a fun and interesting challenge working with these guys so far.” 

While COVID-19 restrictions presented roadblocks when it came to onsite training in 2020, Toby’s Estate did not slow down. The team reassessed how it could make complex topics like coffee tasting more approachable to new baristas.

“We’re lucky enough to have a sizeable roasting team and that allows us to deliver innovations, like recipe cards, tasting grids, and tools to help our customers deliver consistency at their cafés,” Nich says.

“We’re always striving to deliver the best coffees available. We’re at an interesting point in the industry with so many smaller roasters and people breaking out on their own and it’s pushed us to make sure we don’t sit back. You have to be proactive and we’re pushing ourselves to set the standard of coffee within the industry.”

Toby’s Estate also used 2020 to experiment with the ways it can offer people coffee. Towards the start of the year, the roaster released its single serve coffee bags, a project Nich worked on with Steeped Coffee in the United States. This was good timing for Toby’s Estate, with the bags releasing just before COVID-19 restrictions saw many office workers getting their coffee fix at home. Nich says this shift resulted in a huge breakout in “instant style” offerings from coffee roasters, but it’s not the only trend Toby’s Estate has evolved.

“We’ve seen a bit of a spike in popularity around freezing coffee. A few companies have been doing it for a while, but for us, the gap in the market was how to deliver it not only to our wholesale customers, but retail too,” he says. “We want everyone to be a part of the frozen coffee movement and can use the size and scale of Toby’s Estate to help drive these new trends and initiatives. If we can put things in place that help everyone freeze coffee, it helps the whole industry move forward and creates a new part of the market.”

Toby’s Estate made its first foray into the world of frozen coffee with Freezus in late-2020. The box included two 50-gram bags of fresh coffee to enjoy immediately and five 20-gram bags of vacuum-sealed coffee to pop in the freezer for later.

“We launched Freezus for the Christmas period and the take-up and feedback was really positive. There were a few hurdles figuring out the process of selling frozen coffee at home, but we worked through it, doing things like ageing the coffee ourselves so the customer can put it straight in the freezer,” Nich says.

He adds that freezing coffee is going to be an important part of specialty coffee moving forward.

“It’s a way people can create their own ‘wine cellar’ in their homes or cafés. We’re reaching a point where, if you really like a coffee but it’s soon going to finish its rotation, you can buy it, freeze it, and enjoy it for the rest of the year or even later,” Nich says. “We’re working on a few things in the background to make freezing coffee more accessible to our wholesale partners too because we want to make sure they’re a part of this movement as well.”

In 2021, another focus of Toby’s Estate will be exploring new coffee processing methods, with conversations underway with many of its producing partners. Nich says this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the relationships Toby’s Estate has built, or the work its team has put in over the years to push coffee forward.

“For me, my best times with Toby’s Estate come at the end of the year around review time, when we look back at what the team has been able to create, accomplish, and deliver,” Nich says. “A lot of the time, people walk into a café, buy a really good coffee, have a great start to the day, and then go on their day without much thought. But the amount of time and work – not only from roasting and sourcing but the whole team – that goes into creating that cup and experience, is extraordinary.”

This article appears in the April 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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