Managing Director of Has Bean Coffee Stephen Leighton lives out of a suitcase. He talks to BeanScene about why he’s devoted to producer relationships and the Australian city on his bucket list.
There are some voices more iconic than others. Actor Morgan Freeman falls into that category, as does Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett, announcer Craig Willis, and Has Bean Coffee Managing Director Stephen Leighton.
Since 2012, Stephen has become synonymous with the World Barista Championship (WBC) – not for his coffee-making prowess, but for his ability to make each barista name sound as important and as elongated as announcing Floyd Mayweather to the boxing ring.
Stephen has emceed every WBC since 2012, including Vienna, Melbourne, Seattle, and Rimini. Whether you see “the ginger from the Midlands” in a live stage arena or via Livestream, his voice is a familiar comfort.
“Emceeing the 2013 WBC final in Melbourne was the most crazy day of my life,” Stephen recalls. “I never had a crowd quite like Melbourne and it was the first time I’d emceed an entire WBC by myself. It was a dream come true. [St Ali’s]
Matt Perger was the local chance. I was instructed to announce the finalists in the order written on my piece of paper, but when I saw Matt’s name in the mix I knew I had to leave him last. I had to build the anticipation. That’s the job of an emcee. Matt didn’t thank me for that, but the crowd went nuts.”
In honour of the finale, Stephen dressed for the occasion. He wore a bright red suit with matching bowler hat and cane. That outfit translated into as many if not more selfies than that year’s WBC winner, Pete Licata of the US, who pipped Matt at the post.
“I’ve even had baristas ask me to record their voicemails,” Stephen says.
The 2013 WBC remains one of Stephen’s career highlights, but off stage for the past five years he’s been dedicated to supporting the people who rarely receive an arena welcome, yet are the reason we have coffee to celebrate in the first place – the producers.
Stephen is the green bean buyer for Has Bean Coffee in the United Kingdom, his business partner Colin Harmon and their 3fe café and roastery in Ireland, and Drop Coffee in Sweden. Has Bean Coffee sources more than 300 coffee and conducts up to 70 roasts a day.
“I’m proud of embracing different varietals and coffees that have been through different processing methods and come from different origins,” Stephen says.
In order to accumulate the vast range of coffees, Stephen lives out of a suitcase. In 2016, he took 127 flights, many of them to origin, but also to Sweden and Ireland. This year he’s accumulated “only” 65, but attests “the year’s not over yet.
“I could just sit at home and buy lots online and cup coffee from a lab, but I choose to travel because of the relationships I’ve formed with producers and because I get to have an understanding of the real problems at origin,” he says. “Producers are more than colleagues, they’re friends.”
In 2012, after presenting the WBC winning trophy to Raul Rodas of El Salvador, Stephen went to his wedding. He also names Alejandro Martínez from El Salvador as his “best friend in the world.”
“I love coffee as much as the next professional, but I don’t like coffee for coffee,” he says. “I love it for the relationships. I can turn up to any city in any country and find someone to have a beer with, purely through my work in coffee.”
Because of his close-knit relationships with producers, Stephen has decided to put their untold stories into words.
“I want to educate people about what producers really do,” he says. “They each have a story and it needs to be shared. I want people to know that producers are real people before coffee. I hate that consumers are only driven by the image of one type of producer, a Juan Valdez cookie-cutter stereotype with a hat and no shoes. That’s not a true representation of the producers I know.”
Stephen says many are women, some are former acquisition bankers, others own 20 washing stations, and one even has his own pen factory and slaughterhouse.
“Producers are normal people growing coffee,” Stephen says. “They come in all different shapes and sizes. We are quick to profile baristas and roasters but most people don’t know Farmer Joe’s background and why he does what he does.”
Stephen spent seven months collating interviews from 40 different producers in 10 countries. He sifted through more than 40,000 photos to bring the book to life, and took himself off to a deserted cottage to piece it all together.
The original book title was Coffee Heroes. Stephen bought the domain name for the website, and just one day before announcing the project discovered he had spelt hero wrong. To cover the mishap, he changed the book name to Coffeeography, and it will launch on 5 November.
“I am well aware that [3fe’s] Colin has also released a book – I thought if he could write one then I could become a published author too,” he jokes. “We’ve always had a competitive partnership. He might have raised the bar at Toby’s Estate’s Knowledge Talks, but I’ll leave the lasting impression.”
Stephen will touch down in Australia for the Knowledge Talks series in November. This will be the first time Stephen has been back to Oz since the WBC, and he is dying to visit one city in particular.
“Sydney has been on my bucket list ever since I saw a stitched picture of the Sydney Opera House in my nan’s living room,” he says. “My mother and nan emigrated to Australia for 19 months before moving back to the UK and that image of the Opera House in her house has stayed in my mind.”
Stephen is also looking forward to exploring Australia’s café culture, catching up with friends and sharing “the truth” about origin with audience members.
“I see the real origin and it’s not always about a beautiful, picturesque landscape producing delectable coffee cherries,” he says. “Origin is tinged with faults. To be honest, the coffee landscape at the moment is really upsetting and depressing. When I ask coffee producers what their biggest concern is, 95 per cent say climate change. It impacts on yield and quality, and crops are failing as a result. The words ‘climate change’ used to be thrown around almost as a scare tactic, but we’re seeing the effects already. It can’t be ignored.”
This article features in the October 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine.
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