Release Date: Jun 3, 2016
Vaughan catches up with Colby Barr, the man behind Verve Coffee Roasters, which has just opened smack bang in the newly renovated Shinjuku station in Tokyo.
Vaughan: Colby Barr, you’re co-founder and green coffee buyer of Verve Coffee Roasters. You’ve been in the industry for about a decade. You’ve got 7 stores in the States, and this is your first store overseas. Welcome to Tokyo! And Congratulations! How does it feel?
Colby Barr: Thanks Vaughan! It’s amazing! It’s the Cinderella story in a way… you know, Japan has been on my radar in a dream state forever, and now not only am I getting to spend time in Tokyo, but also now to be a part of the fabric of Tokyo… it’s just really surreal.
V: Tokyo welcomes you with open arms… Has it been a long time coming?
C: We did a pop-up in NY a few years back with the brand Poler… It was really amazing, but at one point I said to someone – the next time I get on a plane I have to fly more than a couple of hours to a Verve store. I said something like “I’d rather keep flying west… to Japan”. Since then I just kept the fire stirred, not really knowing whether it was ever going to happen, but yeah… here we are…
V: Can you tell us about a day in the life of Colby Barr, if there is such a thing?
C: Yeah, my days swing wildly. If I’m in Santa Cruz, I’ll check the surf on the way in to work, come to the roastery, grab my ritual cappuccino or Gibraltar.. and then head to our cupping lab and check in with the coffee department to see if there are any samples we’ll be cupping that morning. Then I usually check in with marketing and find out what’s happening there. Then I just “dig into the stuff”, as they say.
V: Dig into the waves and the surf???
C: Yeah, I wish.
V: “Verve”. I love the name. How did you come up it? Did you name it after the band and the bitter sweet symphony of coffee!?
C: Hahaha. Actually, we got it from the jazz label ‘Verve records’ originally. And after looking at how the word verve means “excitement and enthusiasm in the expression of art”, I just thought we have to use that name, cause THAT is our brand.
V: I must admit, I’d never been to a Verve before last Saturday when I popped in to buy some beans, but from what I’ve read online it seems like you’re all about “bridging farm level and street level”. Can you speak to us about this?
C: It’s the concept of a supply chain in the logistical framework. We’re sourcing coffee as directly as possible from farmers, and we also have our own cafes with customers. So we connect all way through that supply chain. The farmers and the customers are the two most important people in this whole coffee experience. Without the farmer there’s no great coffee, and without customers that want great coffee and who are willing to pay for great coffee, there’d be no great coffee… So, our role is to be that connection and to carry that experience and tell the story behind the coffee…. It’s also about taking street level back to farm level, by giving farmers the feedback about what we hear from our customers. We’re kind of ambassadors, I guess!
V: What was it like setting up “Direct Trade” with farmers 10 years ago at the beginning of your journey? I’m sure a lot of roasters don’t have the capital or the network to be able to do it.
C: Yeah, we didn’t either when we started. I slept on my business partner’s couch for a year! We did everything ourselves. We just did things that way, because at that time we looked at our peer group and that’s what they were doing. We had no money in the bank, but I bought a plane ticket to Costa Rico and Panama, which isn’t that much money, especially from the States. But it was a pivotal and significant moment in my life and in the Verve brand… because when I went to “origin” I realized that this is where I needed to be. You know, you can’t make coffee better than it already is. You can only try not to make it worse. The moment it’s picked and processed – its fate has been sealed, in regards to how good it can be. So the discovery of the best coffee around the world is a big part of what we do.
V: Do you talk about “Fair Trade” a lot?
C: Not really. I mean, we buy coffee that’s “Fair Trade” because it happens to be “Fair Trade”. But Fair Trade is an international organization that basically was developed to protect individual farmers within cooperatives and to guarantee a minimum payment. It’s like a safety net. So if the coffee market goes up, fair trade goes with it, and the same vice versa. But we pay on average over two and half times fair trade. So we don’t market ‘fair trade’, and we’ve got nothing against it, but we work with so many farmers outside of cooperatives, and we’re already paying such a premium that we figure it’s better to try to tell our story through the farm level direct trade. Our farm level motto is “Ethics and Excellence” – those two words describe our entire buying initiative.
V: How can Japanese guests “on the street level” feel or learn more about this and what Verve is all about?
C: It’s something we’re working on telling better. Telling the story of where coffee comes from in a way that is captivating is one of the most difficult things for our entire industry. At Verve, we do a lot of visual story telling… we have a farm level video on our website about Kenya, and we’re making another one right now, our instagram has a lot of information on it, and we just made our first ever book “Farm Level Digest – Volume 1 Honduras”. It’s about our project in Honduras; a story about the founders, and my cupping notes are there throughout it. I hope people can pick up the book, catch a sense of place, and get a feeling of what we’re doing, and then taste the coffee and get this level of trust in what we’re doing. Here, let me grab a copy for you…
V: Wow… the photos are beautiful… it reminds me a little bit of Kinfolk.
C: It’s actually printed by the same people who do Kinfolk…
V: Yeah, nice.
C: If nothing else, you can just trip out looking at the photos! hahaha. Anyway, I want you to have this..
V: Oh wow, thanks so much… I’m going to spend the rest of the week tripping out!
C: hahaha, sure!
V: Speaking of the discovery of great coffee, a big part of that is obviously cupping. Can you tell us about the whole idea of “cupping blind”. I’d never heard of it before I started reading up on Verve, but it makes perfect sense.
C: “Cupping Blind” is like a policy at Verve. You don’t know what you’re tasting, and then you reveal. We only taste blind, because I want to remain as objective as possible, and I want to be the first person to critique my coffee. I also love more than anything being surprised – like ohh, I thought that was this… that’s this coffee! It’s about freeing your mind, and being as truthful as possible when it comes to our coffee, or anyone’s coffees. And we have the same policy when we talk with our producers. You know, your best friends are the one’s telling you the truth, and I think that’s an important part of relationships. When tasting blind, sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t, but the goal is to have a very high batting average.
V: Do you wear a balaclava over your head…?
C: hahahha. yeah I go blindfolded!.. no, we just have the coffees set up, and the labels will have a cover on them…
V: Oh, now I get it!
C: A funny anecdote- in Ethiopia a couple of years ago, I was at one of the largest coffee cooperative mills there, and we were in their cupping lab, and the guy was excited, and he’s like: “Are you ready to cup?” And all of a sudden the lights went out… and I thought it was a power failure, but he said that we were going to taste these not only blind, but in the dark! Because it’s objective and it helped heightened your senses…Yeah, that was truly cupping blind!
V: And you did it like that?!
C: With a few adjustments.. but yeah, that’s what happened!
V: Funny! Colby, I can tell that coffee runs deep in your veins. Besides the taste of coffee, what’s so fascinating about coffee for you?
C: For me, I always feel intrigued and excited to discover more through brewing techniques, and discovering coffees that are out there…
V: Hahaha. … you’re talking about the tastes again!
C: Yeah I guess so! But also, what am I trying to say, it’s just the idea of endless discovery. I always have an appetite for learning in general. I like adventure. I wanted to be an explorer when I was a kid. And coffee seems to allow me to live the life where there is no end.
V: Nice… Let’s now talk about your new Shinjuku store. First off, it’s right in the middle of the biggest station in the world. I read an article the other day about this guy that spent 78 days looking for Shinjuku station exit 27K… Did you have any trouble finding your own store!?!?
C: Hahaha.. I had no trouble, believe it or not! I think we’re in a really accessible position here, unlike 27K!
V: What type of cafe/shop did you want to create in Tokyo?
C: By US standards, the shop is medium/small. So, we wanted to make something efficient in this space, but also figure out how to convey our brand aesthetic. We wanted to cater to the neighborhood, which in this instance is usually people in a hurry. We’re actually a lifestyle coffee brand so we worked hard planning a way to balance the two. I think we’ve accomplished the feeling of Verve here.
V: Were you involved in the training of staff?
C: Yeah, 6 of our Japanese staff flew out to California for 2 weeks and went through our 3 day orientation programme. Then there’s a 3 day barista class and then they made coffees in our stores back home. So we’re administering the exact same training and education programme like we always do.
V: How many people have you hired, and what type of people were you looking for over here?
C: We’ve got 25 now! The most important thing for us in all of our hiring is personality and character. Like, you can teach people to make coffee, but you can’t teach people to be genuinely nice or outgoing. We don’t micromanage at Verve – we really want to empower our staff to just be themselves.
V: How has your experience been with Japanese baristas so far?
C: Amazing. I mean, like everything you see in Japan, there’s this care taken in everything, there’s this attention to detail, and they’re very quick learners. We’ve only been open 3 days but their coffee making is at a high level already. It’s a real pleasure to be working with this crew.
V: And are you roasting over here too?
C: Not yet, but we’re talking about it.
V: So, you’re flying the beans over?
C: Yeah, we’re so close to San Francisco airport back home, and then we’re here in Tokyo – the coffee gets here in two days.
V: And will people outside of Tokyo get the chance to visit a Verve store in the near future? Can you let us know your expansion plans?
C: We’re unraveling it right now.. We have plans to do additional cafes! In the next store, we’re looking at going into a neighborhood, to give us a little more room to convey the Verve brand and lifestyle…
V: Nothing you can let us know…?
V: We’ll keep pestering your PR team then!
V: What’s your impression been so far of coffee in Japan? Have you visited any stores yet?
C: I’ve done a huge coffee crawl, visiting probably 30 stores or more. I had to buy a full giant second bag just to be able to take all the coffee I have bought home with me. The attention to detail and craftsmanship regarding coffee is very high. The service has been amazing. There’s some really good vibes at specialty coffee shops…
V: Finally, talking about the specialty coffee scene, the scene itself has undergone an astonishing transformation in the last 10-15 years. Probably only in the last 5 years in Japan… What do you imagine the next 10-15 years looking like?
C: I think more people will be willing to pay more for good coffee. Which you know, doesn’t translate to profit, it really enables us to source premium coffee, and to pay producers for the things that need to happen at farm level to increase quality – like only picking ripe cherries, five passes instead of two passes which is all labor, producers being more willing to grow heirloom varieties instead of commercial varieties… It will just continue to give us the ability to break free from the stigma of coffee as this inexpensive product.
V: Thanks so much for giving us your time, Colby! We look forward to many more coffees at Verve, and reporting on future shops!
C: Cheers Vaughan!
VERVE COFFEE ROASTERS SHINJUKU STATION
Translation by Kana Murakoshi (@bx000p)
Photography by Takahiro Takeuchi (@goodcoffeeme)