Coffee with Kelvin
What does a chemical engineer do when he resigns from an industry he has spent 20 yrs in? He follows his passion for coffee and opens a game-changing café in the heart of the Garden Route.
In 2007, I returned from six years abroad, tired of an industry fraught with corporate politics, hierarchical challenges and decided to work on a dream of opening my own coffee shop. My work in the engineering industry was far from all bad, and to this day one of the best things about working in the Gulf, was the means it gave me to travel, both regionally and more remotely. Exposure to the international coffee culture is eye-opening in its variety and woven through the very fabric of its history. Coffee is not tacked on to the day to day routines of people in these regions, it is an integral part of their lifestyle.
During my travels, I sought out new experiences, not just in the drinking of coffee and its own particular uniqueness but with the variety and artistry of venue and decor. Both offered some incredibly modern aspects and others, housed in ancient monuments with the quality of coffee varying just as much but the experience.
When I left South Africa in 1999 and headed to Bahrain, top of my things to do was experience coffee the way Arabs did it. The allure of brass equipment and warmth of hand woven carpets sparked my imaginations as I romanticised my first experience well ahead of time. Sadly, as with many expectations, it was far removed from reality and I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a good coffee house with old world charm. In fact when I did find something that looked the part I was horrified to be served instant coffee. When I asked the waiter if the coffee was freshly made, he must have meant fresh out of the can! It took me some time to acquaint myself with the local hotspots of coffee culture and it only came with becoming friends with folks who knew where to go. It was certainly not as obvious as I had imagined.
It came as some disappointment to find that in many cases, the Arab world had embraced Western commercialism, with all the big franchises very well represented, and frequented. At that time, my palette was very much less discerning than it is now and I too was captivated by the modern vibe of Starbucks, it was hip, happening and certainly the place to meet. Their carefully considered locations, vibrantly branded decor and efficient product delivery was as ubiquitous as palm trees, and although I am loathed to admit it, I became a regular. In saying that, my go to places were more often the smaller independents, seeking out their uniqueness. Tucked away in back streets, they often wore nondescript exteriors, yet revealed the pleasantness of surprise, as if entering a lost world. Here was the charm I was drawn to, and in that dichotomy of difference, I came to realise that the space for coffee held ample opportunity for incredible variety.
With expat life came the ability to spread my wings & travelling became my new adventure. I revelled in the idea of seeing the sites of ancient cultures and experiencing traditional Middle Eastern food in its home region. When I travel, I walk a lot and take turns down narrow alleys, looking for small out of the way eating spots with character. I have also taken guided tours and enjoyed meeting some amazing folks whilst travelling this way. Jordan still ranks as one of my all-time favourites, it is my opinion, a top 20 country to visit.
As small cafés go, we sat inside a singularly amazing spot perched on the slopes of a steep hill, resplendent with archaeological digs amongst ancient Roman buildings. As we contemplated the huge glass walls, set between colossal stone pillars, our guide pointed out the hills some distant opposite us – the infamous Golan Heights. We enjoyed the strong Turkish coffee traditionally made in a copper ibrik, amazed at the incongruous scene in front of us. Coffee to me started being more than a beverage, it became associated with new life experiences.
While the café culture is relatively new in South Africa, it is generations old elsewhere in the world. Coffee houses are literally cultural hotspots, both for social catch-ups and neutral grounds for relaxed business meetings. In my childhood, growing up in Bulawayo, tea rooms were common, throwbacks to a bygone colonial era. Their style was different but they served culturally similar basis as gathering spots. My mom instilled in me a love of people watching, and as much as it frustrated us as kids, she would be content to sit in the tea room for ages just enjoying the opportunity to watch the comings and goings. I can now relate to that penchant.
Six years abroad gave me ample opportunity to frequent many of the big name brands, as well as experience small and unique owner, operated independents, from which I drew my inspiration. Early morning walks in Italy offered me a glimpse into café & espresso bar culture, owners sweeping the sidewalk before carrying out the table & chairs, and I admired this. Fresh baked goods have a special allure and combined with a good coffee, is an unparalleled pleasure, made more so by timeless locations. On the island of Ibiza, I came across an amazing patisserie on the outskirts of the old castle city, just before the wooden draw-bridge. In London, a city famed for pubs, I descended into the catacombs of St Mary-le-Bow, to have coffee and a light lunch. To be born within earshot of the Bow Bells accords you, by tradition, is a true Cockney. Yet the eerie sense of being beneath the great church starkly contrasted with the lively atmosphere of patrons. Café culture is multicultural and revels in sublime character.
When I left South Africa in 1999, the coffee shop industry was nowhere near its prime. Offering mostly consumer recognised local brands, with some pretenders to exclusivity, using imported big names, such as Illy and Lavazza. Coffee shops emulated a pseudo-Italian style, (much like the spate of Irish kitsch that hit pubs). Nearly a decade later a new wave of specialist coffee houses heralded the third wave of coffee enthusiasm in South Africa. I arrived back home met by a wave of “Rainbow Nation” enthusiasm and was delighted to find a spearhead of coffee fervour in that very multicultural of cities, Cape Town. Not surprisingly, the heartbeat murmur of coffee was brewing into a caffeinated rush of so-called single origin varieties. In a pronounced move away from archaic and traditional blends (we knew them very well as Mocha Java, Weiner Mischung, etc), an exciting prospect of artisanal roasting began to develop an avid following of coffee connoisseurs. It did not take long for wine to have a strongly competing case of beverage snobbery in the form of coffee. Local coffee drinkers could start experiencing what coffee offers as a beverage and there appeared to be no shortage of demand for this seemingly endless variety of regional distinction amongst different beans.
This was the great appeal to me, the experience I wanted to recreate in George and offer the Garden Route. Soon after arriving back in the country I started planning to open my own shop. I still had no name and no real identity in mind, just the intention to introduce cosmopolitan coffee culture into the heart of the Garden Route.