Peter and Penny Wolff have mastered their craft, pioneered the Brisbane specialty coffee scene, and taken their customers on a journey over the past 36 years.
Penny and Peter Wolff’s relationship resembles the plot of a romance novel. There’s the initial moment of electricity, a chase, a rekindling, and a happy ending.
They met in 1995 at the opening of Brisbane’s International Airport. Peter was helping establish Aromas’ terminal café and Penny emerged fresh off the plane from a 12-month gap year in Canada.
“There was a definite connection. It was electric when we met. The coffee shop manager was interviewing for staff and Penny walked by. In that moment I said: ‘You hire that girl’,” Peter recalls. “We got to know each other but the timing wasn’t right. We each had partners.”
Penny says she loved her time working at the international terminal while studying her first university degree.
“The people, culture, and energy were intense, the busiest venue I’ve worked at,” she says. “I would start on the espresso machine at 4am, being the only coffee outlet open. We would easily do 30 kilograms of coffee a day. That’s with no volumetrics.”
Fast forward 13 years, and Peter and Penny reconnected. This time, the timing was right in more ways than one. Penny had been teaching for more than 10 years in the university and school sectors. She had recently completed her Masters in Education when she decided to leave her education career and join Peter in starting their first café together, Dandelion & Driftwood.
“At that time, there wasn’t much happening in the Brisbane specialty scene. It hadn’t taken hold yet, but we were determined to try. We wanted to focus on offering a specialty product and experience, and create a place where anyone felt comfortable. So, we opened the café in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, and it became an institution,” Peter says.
Concurrently, Peter started getting attention for his roasting prowess. He would receive phone calls from the world over asking him how to roast coffee – one even offered to name their first child after Peter if he shared his wisdom.
“Thanks to Penny’s creative mind and persistence, she encouraged me to write the curriculum for a beginner’s roasting class. We launched the first one for 13 people and it sold out in two hours,” Peter says.
That was the birth of the Wolff College of Coffee, which over time, has developed into a range of courses including barista, sensory, and roasting development. Penny and Peter estimate the College to have nearly 15000 alumni and 80,000 followers on YouTube around the world.
Peter has been roasting since 1984. He credits his roasting skills to fifth generation coffee merchant Chris Bryant and Robyn Horley, who in their generation were considered pioneers of the Brisbane café scene. Peter says their business, Aromas Tea and Coffee, became a juggernaut, and at the height of its success had 14 cafés.
“Chris was my mentor. When I left high-school, I studied law at the University of Queensland and my part-time job was at Aromas on Hale Street in Paddington. This place was an odyssey,” he says. “It had 96 different teas and 28 different single origin coffees.”
Peter started working at Aromas as the human dishwasher. It was only when Chris asked Peter to help in the roastery that it opened his eyes to a career in roasting.
“After my first day I knew it was what I wanted to do. The only thing I was worried about was how I would tell my parents I wasn’t going to be a lawyer,” he says.
It didn’t take long before Pete, aged 19, was travelling to origin three times a year and being mentored by Chris on buying coffee.
Over his career, Peter has observed the rise in technology and respect for those who pursued a coffee profession. While many would credit the rise in volumetrics and automation as the biggest developments, Peter says the humble fax machine helped forge the time gap between producers and roasters, enabling direct communication in light speed.
“The day we decided to stick a probe in the beans instead of the top of the roaster was also impressive, and we moved to computer profiling and monitoring. At that stage I was in my 30s,” Peter says.
“People had the attitude that they didn’t need a computer to tell them what to do, but I thought ‘what an amazing thing if it can make me better at my craft’. That’s when ‘consistency’ became a bad word for a while. But I challenged this because, at the end of the day, that’s what the customer wants: awesome consistent coffee.”
As the specialty industry started to grow rapidly, consumers became hungry for information at the same time roasters relentlessly chased cupping scores. But what was forgotten along the way, Peter says, is that people were offered a first-class experience for the price of an economy seat.
“We’ve never seen a dramatic price increase in the cup price of coffee here in Australia. What held that in check was the growth of our industry, and I’m partly responsible for that because I was training everybody. I was selling machinery too [first for Giesen then Probat]. As more competition entered the marked, it became more competitive and everyone was less reluctant to talk price or move price,” Peter says.
“When I think about the industry’s current position, we sit at a unique point in history with COVID-19 that allows us an opportunity to recalibrate the entire industry.”
Dandelion & Driftwood closed in March as the pandemic hit, but Penny and Peter also have Wolff Coffee Roasters, Queen of Pops and Big Bad Wolff Espresso Bar to manage. Penny says much of their businesses’ success is reliant on their ability to pivot and respond to ever-changing situations.
“[The coronavirus outbreak] has rippled across every industry. I think, inevitably, we will see consolidation from restaurants to bars to cafés,” Penny says.
“It also means that if we want to provide a higher-level coffee experience for people, then we have to match what we charge. As much as customers don’t want to hear that now in this environment, pricing needs to go up. The industry is too fragile. The advent of GST was the last and largest singular retail increase of coffee.”
For Peter, the industry has given him too many highlights to recall. He says going to Africa for the first time is a memory he’ll never forget, as was being involved in David Makin’s World Barista Championship (WBC) campaign.
Penny, on the other hand, fondly recalls winning the 1996 Australian Barista Championship with Pete as her trainer, then taking her love for coffee to the other side of the table. Penny became the first person to represent Queensland as a certified WBC Sensory Judge, and continues to dabble in teaching and judging.
Penny and Peter say the biggest highlight and enjoyment is providing leadership, coaching and mentoring to others across the hospitality and coffee industry.
“I’ve made a life and career out of coffee, and that’s what we want others to know. When you have a career in coffee, you become part a wider community. You’re in the people’s business, and how you treat people in terms of integrity is very important. That permeates through your business and brand,” Peter says.
“The key thing is to clearly articulate what coffee business you want to be. Everyone is different. Some want to be the biggest and best. For others, it’s about the craft and the artisan, and that’s fine. You’ve got to own your laneway. You can’t be everything to everyone. You need to find your audience, keep putting yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to do so.”
Wolff Coffee Roasters coffee is available in 150 venues throughout Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Its mission statement is to be “the world’s most respected specialty coffee brand”, and many would argue it is.
While that legacy alone is powerful, at the heart of Wolff Coffee Rosters is its philanthropic work.
Last year, Penny raised just over $52,000 for Women’s Legal Services Queensland, and percentages of their profit each year are allocated to local schools or projects at origin, such as infrastructure needs in Mexico or water tanks in Kenya.
After 36 years, Wolff Coffee Roasters is still a family business and at the heart of it are two people who still look across the room at each other with the same respect for each other’s unique qualities since the day they met – Penny with her creativity and focus, and Peter with his relaxed nature and eccentricity.
“We’re focused on resetting and recalibrating Wolff Coffee Roasters so we have a business for the next 20 years, and we get to do that together,” Peter says.
This article appears in the June 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.
For more information, visit www.wolffcoffeeroasters.com.au