SoCo Roasters: A society of coffee

SoCo Roasters

SoCo Roasters talks to BeanScene about connecting with origin, developing a unique blend, and building a community around coffee.

At less than a century old, Zambia’s coffee producing industry is one of the youngest in the world. With its first coffee trees planted in the 1940s, local farmers are happy to share with visitors the folklore of how coffee was introduced to the country.

“The unofficial story of coffee in Zambia, as told by locals, is that a British explorer crashed his plane in Zambia and was nursed back to health by a local nurse. They fell in love and he ended up staying, started a coffee farm, and never left,” says Jonathan Goldthorpe, Coffee Specialist at SoCo Roasters. “Google has different ideas, but I’m more inclined to trust the locals.”

SoCo Roasters, which made its public debut at the 2019 Melbourne International Coffee Expo, uses a Zambian coffee – sourced through trader FTA Coffee – as the basis of its Society house blend. SoCo Roasters Marketing Manager Steven Commerford says through this partnership, the specialty roaster is able to contribute to those who provide its coffee.

“There are some really strong community projects on the ground in Zambia. An 800-student school and medical clinic were built for the local community in the last few years, and the farmers we buy from have employed the first female tractor drivers in Zambia,” Steven says.

“There are not many opportunities for women to work in Zambia. They’re often left at home to take care of the family, and that’s their only option. This project allows the women to gain agricultural knowledge, be hands on in the producing process, and build their skillsets.

“All of the development and work being done there is only the beginning. We can be directly involved and actually see the impact and change these projects are making.”

SoCo Roasters
SoCo Coffee Roasters’ Society Blend contains tasting notes of dark chocolate and juicy cherries.

As well as an opportunity to contribute to the local coffee producing community, Jonathan says working with FTA Coffee in Zambia has provided SoCo with access to unique and exceptional coffees.

“The coffee from Zambia has an interesting tasting profile, with a big body, bright acidity, juiciness, and slightly spicy taste. We just found it really different,” he says.

“The farms are fairly young as well. They only produced their first fruit in 2015. It’s exciting to see their potential to produce even better coffee.”

Zambian Catimor contributes to 50 per cent of the Society Blend and is paired with a Colombian Dulima blend of Typica and Caturra.

“Quite a bit of development went into the blend. We made more than 20 different combinations, experimenting with roast profile, blend ratio, and different coffees. We narrowed it down to three coffees we really thought were fantastic,” Jonathan says.

“We then had people throughout the industry independently and blindly cup several coffees, including our’s, to make sure we were putting out the best tasting coffee we could.”

He adds that involving people from outside SoCo Roasters in the research and development phase ensured they were not only appealing to their own taste preferences.

“A lot of small roasters create coffees they like, but no-one else does. Having other knowledgeable people in the room with you is often good. That way you’re not just stabbing in the dark until you find something only you like,” Jonathan says.

The Society Blend contains tasting notes of dark chocolate and juicy cherries. Steven says in Australia’s current coffee climate, it’s important to offer something memorable as well as high-quality.

“You can absolutely taste those flavours – it’s obvious and distinctive. The best and most popular coffees in Australia are those that you can recognise with one sip. That’s what we were after, something that would really stand out,” he says.

Jonathan adds that the real challenge is finding this type of quality coffee for use in a house blend.

“When you’re trying to find something unique, with some kind of connection to the farm, it’s tough to source it in a large quantity. A lot of people forget that when they begin roasting,” he says.

SoCo Roasters
SoCo Coffee Specialist Alec Zeta was the barista behind the BeanScene August 2019 covershoot.

Since the blend made its debut, Steven says it has been well received, with SoCo’s wholesale customers experimenting with different ways to serve the coffee.

“I was visiting a customer who was trying different shot times to get the best out of the coffee,” he says. “They found if they extract it for longer, it will taste more chocolatey, and a shorter yield draws out more acidity.”

Jonathan agrees that people enjoy the versatility of the blend. 

“Some blends are hard to manage, whereas this is quite flexible and easy to use. It can behave differently depending on how it’s treated,” he says. 

“Most coffees use a standard two-to-one water-to-coffee ratio, but we’re pouring it with a short yield and it’s tasting great, really highlighting the nice juicy acidity of the Zambian coffee.”

Alongside the Society Blend, SoCo Roasters has introduced a single origin program to its offering. Jonathan says so far, the standout of the program has been a Sidamo Guji from Ethiopia.

“I think it’s the best single origin we’ve ever made,” Jonathan says. “It has an amazing, really strong strawberry flavour in the grind and as a piccolo, it cuts through like a strawberry milkshake.”

Jonathan assists master roasters with procuring coffees like this from origins around the world, as well as quality control and research and development with a team of Coffee Specialists across Australia. He brings with him a decade of experience as a barista and seniority as the Chairperson of the Australian Specialty Coffee Association Central Region.

“We meet on a fortnightly basis and work with roasters to tweak the roast profiles and make sure we have best tasting coffee we can put on the market,” Jonathan says. 

“We also communicate internally about what the brand is about and sharestories from origin. SoCo Roasters is built on the stories of where we get our coffee.”

As well as communicating these stories, Steven felt it was important the look of SoCo Roaster stood out in the marketplace. He says SoCo’s brighter colours contrast with the darker packaging that was popular at the time.

“We wanted something to reflect a clean, fresh palate that was easily recognisable,” Steven says. “The star in our logo, between ‘So’ and ‘Co’, reflects the acronym of society and coffee. It brings the two idea together.”

Much of the other imagery SoCo uses connects to the folklore of the British pilot and projects carried out at origin. Steven says this represents the importance of Zambian coffee to SoCo Roasters.

SoCo Roasters
SoCo has spread to New South Wales and the Northern Territory since launching in Melbourne last February.

“People in the industry want to know every detail they can about the coffee they sell and consume. Café owners and baristas want to hear the story of where that coffee came from and how it’s changed over the years,” he says.

“Promoting our connection to Zambia and these stories provides a richness to the brand while raising awareness of the country’s coffee industry.”

Like Zambian coffee production, SoCo Roasters is still relatively young, but at less than a year old, its retail operations have extended outside of Melbourne to New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

“There’re only a few specialty cafés around Darwin and we were lucky enough to find a particular owner that absolutely loved the coffee and said that’s what he wanted for his café,” Steven says. “He even named it Society Café and for its backdrop, he painted a cool mural of a skeleton preparing an inverted AeroPress from a pre-launch Halloween event we ran last year.

“Our goal is to build an ecosystem which is the ‘Society of Coffee’. We want our customers to be online, connected, and understanding what we’re trying to do with our coffee.”

In July, SoCo partnered with the Delaware Group to open a venue at Melbourne Airport, an opportunity Steven says will help increase the brand’s visability to a broader audience.

“Melbourne Airport is becoming a hub for coffee and SoCo will be right there,” Steven says. “It’s good exposure, but it’s also the right exposure. Our objective is to build this in the right way. We don’t want to partner with people not committed to the quality in the cup.”

Steven says to continue growing, it is important SoCo offers something new to the Australian coffee scene.

“Coffee is all about the society around it. We want to be everything a society, culture, or subculture could want around coffee,” he says.

“SoCo is about doing things in a different way. It’s more than just a supply type arrangement. We offer a personal service, connection with the best people in the coffee industry, and celebrate everything great about coffee culture.”

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This article appears in the August edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe HERE.

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