High on the list of Ernie Whalley’s ‘Liquid Assets’, coffee takes centre stage this month. Over a fragrant filtered Panama single origin, he talks to coffee roaster Gary Grant of Imbibe, an Irish company dedicated to “making a difference.”
EW: You got into coffee via financial services?
GG: I stopped liking what I was doing. I came home one evening and my wife said, “Look, you’ll just have to stop doing this” and I resigned, still not knowing what I wanted to do. One night, I watched a documentary on coffee and I made a snap decision. In retrospect, I think I was incredibly lucky; my timing was bang on. If I tried to do today, what I did ten years ago, I’d be gone in six months. At the time, coffee had just started to take off. Few knew anything about speciality coffee. I didn’t know much, but just sort of persisted. It was difficult at first. I didn’t have any background. I rang friends to see if they knew anyone involved with coffee, maybe a roaster or someone who worked in a coffee shop. Elementary networking.
EW: What made you make the jump into roasting?
GG: Brexit. I was always going to do it, but Brexit forced me into it. The day after the Brexit vote, I rang a friend of mine, Vincent Cahill from (speciality food suppliers) Lilliput Trading Company and said, “Do you fancy coming on board in some respect and helping me out?” and he said yes. That was nearly three years ago. I had a massive fear that if I continued to bring in coffee from the UK, it would be stuck down the docks for who knows how long. Coffee has to be fresh. I wouldn’t give coffee to any of my customers that is more than 10 days from roast. There was also the fear of running out, being unable to get fresh stocks and losing business.
EW: How do you choose what to roast?
GG: Along the way, I’d met a guy called Damian Blackburn who has been roasting for over 20 years in the UK. Damian helped us to select coffee. He found us a superb coffee from Panama, one of the most exclusive coffee regions on the planet. I think we are the only company in Ireland with a Panamanian coffee in their portfolio.
EW: What makes Panama so special?
GG: It’s like wine. The soil, the microclimate. There’s an element of exclusivity because yields are moderate.
EW: And now you are into retailing?
GG: We’ve come a long way considering we only started roasting in May. One thing in our favour is 90% of the coffee we roast is organic and we are zero waste advocates.
EW: You see the term ‘speciality coffee’ quite a lot. How would you define it?
GG: I think maybe the term is losing its meaning, a bit like ‘boutique’ or ‘gourmet’ but it did originally have a specific meaning – beans that had achieved a minimum 80 point score in SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America) tests. Nowadays, on menus, you see “We serve Speciality Coffee,” meaning the restaurant has an espresso machine and serves cappuccinos.
EW: Tell me about your involvement with Women’s Aid?
GG: I said to Vincent that we had to do something more than just sell coffee. We looked for someone out there who was doing some good and came across Women’s Aid. You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about a woman getting beaten, battered, or murdered. We made a decision to give Women’s Aid 1% of our turnover – works out about 10% of my net income. Our accountant was a bit aghast, said, “Why not link it to profit?” But I didn’t want to do that because if we didn’t make any money, the statement would just become a marketing scam.
We also wanted to give a fair deal to coffee producers and, in the course of our researches, we came across Café Feminino, which started as an ethical sourcing project and developed into a model committed to ending the cycle of poverty afflicting women coffee farmers across the world. Look, I know we are a tiny business and anything we do will only have a small impact, but I do have a hope that bigger companies will take a look at what we are doing and take a leaf out of our book. Just imagine, if a bank, mobile phone company, or other big Irish business, devoted 1% of their income to 'making a difference’?
EW Footnote: It's hard to find a coffee blend that works across the whole spectrum of brewing techniques. So far I’ve brewed Imbibe’s Certified Organic Kaleidoscope in a French press (cafetière), a Clever Dripper pour-over, and as espresso and cappuccino, with equal satisfaction. One of the best all-rounders I’ve come across. List of stockists on imbibe.ie.
Fado, fado, wine writers would often play the gender card when it came to talking about wines. I was guilty as anyone – on record as describing Chapoutier’s impressive La Bernadine Chateauneuf du Pape as “feminine and floral” and someone else’s Barossa Shiraz as “an aggressive macho man.” Taught the error of my ways by two feisty daughters, I gave up using those descriptors.
I thought of this only the other day, given the chance to road test two superlative, but very different, Irish single malts, ‘occasion whiskeys’, both. One was the soft, delicate, beguiling Tullamore D.E.W. 18-year old, the other The Fercullen 14, crafted by Noel Sweeney at The Powerscourt Distillery, a dram that announces itself with robust aromatics and a buzz on the palate before resolving into a harmonious meld of malt and fruit. Curiously, of friends whom I asked to sample, the girls plumped en masse for the D.E.W. Just saying.
Not much is known about Chinese wine hereabouts. Mention the subject and it’s odds on that someone will say, “You can buy it in the Asian market, we use it in cooking” or “China? That’s where they dump Coke in Château Lafite.“ A Chinese chardonnay did make a brief appearance here in the early 1990s. Marketed by Tsingdao, better known for beer, it was actually fairly decent, probably because Tsingdao had enlisted the help of vignerons and winemakers from Australia’s Rosemount. Janet Z. Wang, a contributor to Decanter and a member of the Circle of Wine Writers has published a book, The Chinese Wine Renaissance that will demystify the subject once and for all. A fascinating read, it embraces all aspects from history, lore and culture to “where it’s at” in a nation that is one of the largest producers and consumers of wine.
Author: Ernie Whalley
Ernie Whalley, Restaurant Critic for The Sunday Times and former editor of Food & Wine Magazine, grew up working in his aunts’ hotel kitchens. He wrote on food, wine and travel in the UK before settling in Ireland in 1987. In the 1990s, he ran his own Dublin café before joining Food & Wine in 1999. In 2002, he launched www.forkncork.com, Ireland’s first food and drink website.
In a long career, Ernie has given cookery lessons as “One Man & his Hob”; written for innumerable publications worldwide and appeared on radio and TV food & drink programmes. Judging stints include The Cordon Bleu World Food and Drink Media Awards, the Bocuse d’Or and wine competitions in five countries. In 2018, he was inducted into the Food & Wine Magazine Hall of Fame.
When not writing on food and drink Ernie cooks, makes sausages, roasts coffee and, in another life, is the singer/songwriter 'Spike Lancaster'.