Back in Ireland in the 80s, everyone drank tea. Men, women, children, all drank tea. Mostly, it was called ‘tae’, stewed over turf embers in the darkest corner of shebeens, until strong enough to trot a mouse on. If you didn’t live in a shebeen or have a turf fire, you stewed it on the cooker. People drank it from dawn til dusk and sometimes even got up in the middle of the night for a cup of tea. Statistics and facts were regularly brandished, noting the world-beating, tae-drinking antics of the Gael, more tea put away per capita than anywhere else in the world, or something to that nature. I’m pretty sure people also drank tea after they died.
Certain cafes and tea houses served “cappuccinos” but this was mostly instant coffee topped with foamed milk, unless you went to Bewley’s, in Dublin. In those days, all Cork people needed when they went to Dublin was another All-Ireland trophy.
What has taken place in the intervening years is nothing short of a caffeinated revolution. Of all the sea changes in Irish food and beverages, it is one of the most profound. Most other evolutionary developments in Irish food have grown from either a logical starting point or the revival of a lost tradition: the dots between making sausages, black pudding and salting hams, to making Gubbeen salamis and pepperoni, to air drying Connemara Lamb are easily joined; and the Irish farmhouse cheese movement was essentially the resurrection of a tradition lost centuries ago, before the arrival of the potato, when “bia bán” (literally, “white food”, dairy produce) was at the heart of the Irish diet. Tea is not a native product but we’ve been guzzling it since the 18th century, whereas the now thriving coffee culture in Ireland appears to have emerged from cosmic space dust.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. As part of the British Empire, coffee houses were to be found in Ireland for a spell in the 17th and 18th centuries and Bewley’s, which began importing tea to Ireland in 1835, opened its first in-cafe coffee roastery in 1894. However, it was tea sales that backboned its business and tea remained the national (non-alcoholic, non-dairy) beverage of choice for near enough the next 100 years. But, as William Butler Yeats wrote, while sipping coffee in Bewley’s, in 1916, All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born. He wasn’t talking specifically about coffee and, indeed, this writer accepts also that Yeats may not have written referenced poem, Easter 1916, in Bewley’s, but contemporary Bewley’s research from 2021 noted that 78% of Irish adults now drink coffee every day, an average of three cups per day. Research conducted by coffee website Brew Smartly in March rated Dublin the second most “coffee-obsessed capital city in the world”, just after Amsterdam. In Ireland, it is possible to get a decent coffee in all manner of quare places and excellent coffees are readily accessible with a little judicious research.
And it’s not just coffee drinking that has changed. In the 90s, more and more people were beginning to drink “real coffee”, even at home, but using pre-ground beans. The roasting scene, may have begun with Bewley’s in 1894, but I only first encountered fledgling new independent Irish roasting operations in the early 90s, though they are generally ground at source and sold to trade or hospitality. To the best of my knowledge, Cork Coffee Roasters was one of the first to sell its own whole, unground Irish-roasted beans whole as a retail product, in the early years of this century. Though I bought, ground, and brewed them with relish, it seemed such a commercially outré move at the time, I seriously wondered would it last. Marc Kingston began to work with and learn from Cork Coffee Roasters’ supremo John Gowan and Kingston would go on to establish Golden Bean, one of the first roasters of specialty single-origin coffees in the country, still one of my most favourite Irish roasters to this day.
Twenty years and more since Gowan first started, Cork Coffee Roasters is now an iconic institution on Leeside, Kingston roasts from a unit behind Ballymaloe House, and the revered Irish country home’s own in-house coffee is Golden Bean, yet these are now just two of over 200 independent Irish coffee roasters on the island. Yes, 200.
That’s not to say all 200 are exceptional. Any trend, as it gathers momentum, will always generate inferior imitations but, just as happens when it is poured into coffee (a very old-school way of imbibing the venerable beverage), cream rises, and the following three roasters represent the very best of what is happening in Irish coffee today.
These three roasters will never become major household brands — they are too focused on maintaining a standard that would only be compromised by over-expansion — and some of their (justifiable) prices may put them beyond the range of certain pockets but their work with single origin beans is yielding superb innovative roasts offering a complexity of flavours and tastes that brings them into wine territory. All three are highly committed to ethical sourcing and direct support of farmers who produce the beans they grow and all invest heavily in sustainability. Such is their commitment to high quality, all three turn down more commercial customers than they accept, if those potential customers are not able to match the standards they expect when serving up their coffees.
And while you may love your semi-skimmed flat white mocha cappu-latte-ccino with extra syrup, very often, the most pleasurable way to drink of the output of this caffeinated trinity is as a simple pour-over filter coffee, unadorned, unfettered, allowing the fullest expression of real single-origin coffee’s innate rich, fruity, chocolate notes, a million miles from good old Maxwell House.
Tony Speight was brought up in, Ballyphehane in Cork City, and studied electrical engineering in University Ollege Cor. While travelling with his now-wife Leona, a year spent living in Melbourne, Australia, introduced him to specialty coffee. They returned to Ireland in 2006, marrying and moving to Bandon, where they still live with their four young children. He set up West Cork Coffee, in 2015. In 2021, he opened the WCC Brew Bar & Barista Training School, in Bandon.
“The Gingerbread House [in Cork’s Huguenot Quarter] served coffee in a French press, that was unheard of in Cork in the late 90s. I used to go in get my one cup, ground fresh, and that became my coffee experience going through school and college and school, my first realisation that there was more than instant coffee.
“I began roasting as a hobby, built my own first roaster myself and began supplying friends and family. Another Corkman, Marc Kingston, was my big inspiration, he used to have a stall in the market in Bandon, buy the beans for home consumption I took the plunge in 2015. I wanted to produce a coffee in West Cork that was the equal of all the other good produce that comes from here. My first customer was Diana Dodog (Ireland’s first Masterchef winner, who had a food truck in Courtmacsherry).
“Business has gone good since we started, growing organically, I’m very happy with that. I don’t go banging on doors, year in year out, I want it to grow in a sustainable way so I can spend time with the kids without stretching the business, it’s all about work-life balance. I don’t want to drop standards.
“I work with two of the four Michelin-star restaurants in Cork, Ichigo Ichie and Restaurant Chesntut; for a roaster to have a coffee in a Michelin-star restaurant is a big achievement so I’m very happy to have two.
“I think I am unique in Ireland in that I source and I customise single-origin coffee for every single customer I have. We source numerous beans, taste with the staff and owners and we select an exclusive single-origin roast for each cafe or restaurant.
“It’s a lot of work for me but if I hear someone that say they had a great coffee from, say O’Neills (in Skibbereen) then I can link that to the farmer in a linear way.
“The best coffee I ever produced was a Brazilian hydro, using the geisha variety which was very unusual for Brazil. The profile was fermented strawberries, chocolate, vanilla, an amazing cup.
“I try to find coffees from areas outside the norm, I source one from Vietnam for Chestnut. My favourite at the moment is from Yemen, a variety called Jaadi, dark chocolate, cinnamon and papaya flavours. It blew my mind.”
Brian O Briain was born and raised in Shannon, Co Clare, and, after university, worked abroad in senior management in the aviation industry for many years before returning home to set up Anam Coffee in 2015 with his husband and business partner, Alan Coleman. Anam Coffee works exclusively with organic, ethically sourced beans.
“My dad (a Dubliner) would have always gone to Bewley’s for his beans. There was Maxwell House, but that was served to the neighbours.
“The death of my father brought me home from London and, that was it, I wasn’t going back. I knew I wanted to do something in food and was lucky enough to get a Bord Bia fellowship, through the Smurfit Business School and went and worked in Stockholm for a year promoting Irish food.
“In 2013 to 2014, I think I was having my mid-life crisis and we’ve loads of family in Australia so I went out to visit, to Perth and Melbourne and there’s a huge coffee scene there; a huge food culture. I went to a roastery for the first time, I’d never seen anything like it in Ireland and thought there could be an opportunity here.
“It was called Five Senses, in Perth, it was 40°C outside and I was served an Ethiopian Guji as a pour-over over ice and it blew my mind, so much so, that it completely redefined my idea of what coffee was, such sweetness, such complexity. I came home determined to start a roastery.
“Me and Alan had bought this amazing house in the Burren with mad notions of living here, but no idea of how we’d make it work. He was in London, he was paying the mortgage. I knew nothing about roasting or speciality coffee, so I went on an intensive course in the London School of Coffee, led by a Danish coffee chemist, Morten Münchow — he now has a coffee consultancy business, Coffee Mind.
“My style of roasting would be very influenced by the Nordic style: very much an ethical-sourcing platform but producing incredible flavour, highlighting sweetness, balanced, always sourcing seasonally so you never had the same coffee all year round.
“The market here was very small, very basic back then, very homogenous and we launched in 2015 and were able to sit down and draw out our ideal company, our core values, we wanted it to express everything we believed in as individuals. But, we wanted — living in such an incredible part of the world — we wanted a sense of place screaming from the coffee, we wanted to appeal to our neighbours in the Burren, we weren’t that concerned about Dublin.
“From very early on, it was obvious we needed to educate the people buying it and as we grow, we’re concentrating more and more on the quality of what we are producing and so we spend and more and more time with the cafes we are working with to ensure the baristas know how to froth the milk; how to grind; temperatures; how to tell our story.
“We decided this year, not to take any more customers on board to concentrate on maintaining quality. We have a 50km limit on commercial customers, in Clare, Galway, Limerick.
“Speciality coffee, by its very nature, is a higher grade than normal; roasting different from normal coffee — lighter, sweet, less soluble, it’s more difficult for a barista to extract, and unless you have the skill level, you are not going to be able to reproduce the right flavour I want in the cup. We had customers in the early days, making a balls of the coffee, ruining my reputation, so we are always educating our customer base.
“We’re not cheap, we’re probably the only 100% organic roasters in the country, there is no one doing it exclusively the way we are. It’s important to remember when you’re buying a coffee for a euro in a garage or fast-food place, someone is getting screwed over somewhere along that supply chain.”
Imbibe founder Gary Grant grew up in Raheny, Co Dublin, going on to work in financial services. He now lives in Portobello, with his wife, Susan, and their two children. He owns Imbibe, located at Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin, which began serving top-quality coffee and evolved to incorporate a roastery too.
“I started drinking coffee around the time Colin Harmon started 3FE (in 2009), I didn’t even realise I was buying specialty coffee.
“I worked in financial services for a long time, until the recession. I saw a documentary, Black Gold, about Ethiopian coffee farmers and unions [fighting to get the farmers a living wage] and I was really inspired by it. So, I just had to do something. I had a very good job and had some money put aside, but I realised the money would run out, so I said I’d start selling coffee. But I knew absolutely nothing about coffee.
“I started bringing in a couple of pallets of roasted beans, not even realising that I had a small enough window to sell it, I got lucky.
“The first coffee that blew my mind I can still clearly recall. It was Hacienda La Esmeralda, from Panama, they were the first to harvest Geisha coffee and to popularise it and that completely blew my mind. At that stage I’d started using a V60 (pour-over filter) at home and I’ve never stopped, and it’s a coffee paradox that the best coffees in the world are served on the cheapest brewer you can buy.
“Panama, for me, still produces the best coffee on the planet. It taught me coffee could be something that I never thought it could be, this didn’t taste like coffee, it was like a tropical fruit juice, it was like finding a whole new drink.
“We were always going to roast eventually but we decided to start when we did purely because of Brexit, the day of the Brexit vote, I decided to do it.
“We were fortunate. We were able to establish good [flavour] profiles, where it becomes tricky is when you start buying single origin coffees and realise that it is not just a question of just throwing them into the roaster.
“Monica is our head of quality and samples roasts all of our single origin beans and creates maybe three profiles. Then we cup everything and decide on one. No beans are the same, it makes it interesting but it makes it more challenging.
“Panama is still for me the best, but Colombia has caught up with the holy trinity — Kenya, Panama, Ethiopia — but I think Colombia has gatecrashed that group. In our [monthly subscription service] coffee club over the last three months, we’ve offered a Colombian because this was the best of all we had available.
“Some of the prices we have to charge — because we source some very exceptional beans — are far higher than some people are willing to pay and I have no problem with that. Like a Michelin-star restaurant, you can only get to a certain size, and after that it gets harder to guarantee and protect the quality.”
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