Aleš Pospíšil and Radek Nožička travel the world to find the very best specialty coffee
I’m stunned by what Aleš has just told me, and I ask him to repeat it in case I have misheard. “There’s not very much good coffee in Italy,” he says again. “They exported their coffee culture but the quality of the product is not that high. And it’s declined over the years but things are changing slowly now.”
Perhaps I am a coffee philistine – the cups I make from instant are closer to tar than a silky cappuccino – but this is the first time I have heard this news. However, Aleš Pospíšil should know. He travels Europe, and the world, with his business partner, Radek Nožička, hunting for the very best coffee they can find.
Together they run a blog and YouTube channel called European Coffee Trip which focuses on speciality coffee, as well as the baristas and roasters who produce it. I had asked them to recommend somewhere for a nice cup and now we are chatting in a booth of a cafe called Podnik, in Brno – lined with roughly hewn wood and whitewashed brick walls.
Aleš is a talker; he clearly loves to sell his work. Radek is quite happy to chat away until I turn the dictaphone on. Then he clams up – he is much happier looking through the viewfinder of a camera than being interviewed.
Their last adventure was to a farm in the mountains of Tanzania to make a short documentary about the process of growing coffee. They visited the Mondul Coffee Estates on the slopes of Mount Monduli where a range of arabica tree is grown. Radek says: “What’s really interesting is to see all the coffee trees on the slopes. It really reminds me of vineyards.”
“I never could have imagined there were so many steps involved in growing this plant and just how many people take part in each of them. We can’t see that here as consumers.”
The Mondul Estates are close to the Serengeti National Park and look out over the crater of Mount Meru. Kilimanjaro rises out of the plains nearby. Every morning Aleš and Radek had a view of Meru from their bedroom before it disappeared in the glare of the sun.
“It was beautiful,” Aleš says. “At first the land was really flat and dry – too dry, everything was eroded. As we went higher and higher and passed the town of Arusha it became really green. There were so many different flowers and trees.”
“Then we entered the farm area and it was all so fresh. People were taking care of everything, including irrigating the area. For the first time, we saw avocado trees and had the chance to eat the fruit fresh for breakfast in the morning.”
They were taken through the process of growing the trees from seedlings, which lasts five years. And it is only after the tree has been growing for seven that it is fully mature. Then the tree blooms white and releases a strong perfume. “It’s beautiful. It’s the most amazing part of the whole process – the blooming season,” Aleš says.
Starting the size of a pinhead, the coffee cherry grows into a green bean, and finally turns a deep, blood red. It is at this point that the cherry is ready to be harvested. Aleš and Radek got to taste this sweet, sticky and heavily caffeinated fruit that the local monkeys love. After the monkeys steal it off the branches they get their caffeine fix and wildly jump around the farm.
At Mondul the pickers are mostly from the Maasai tribe. The Maasai are nomadic hunters and not usually associated with farming. Aleš says the reason why they have adopted agriculture here is that “when it was built in 1936 the founders came together with the Maasai and they worked together on building the original farm.”
Like a vineyard, a coffee farm must be at the right altitude for the berries to grow and ripen properly, and the soil must be at the correct pH level. In this case, Mondul lies between 1,600 and 1,800 metres on volcanic earth. The conditions would be perfect if only there was more water for irrigation – climate change is affecting the seasons.
“They have two wet seasons,” Aleš says. “But the water has been the biggest issue. They depend on the rains, and now they are less regular than before. So it influences everything.”
“Back in the forties, the farm was responsible for building the pipes from the top of Mount Monduli – the whole community leans on this pipe system that they built. It’s enough for processing the coffee and the people living there but now it’s not sufficient for the field’s irrigation.”
“This is the most important thing they are trying to find – more water.”
After the cherries are picked the beans are removed and sorted. The blood red skin could be sold as cascara but there are high barriers to its import into Europe, so it is used as fertiliser. Then the beans are fermented, sun dried and milled to remove a final layer of pergamin. Once this is complete the beans are ready for export.
Aleš and Radek’s day job is to cover the European speciality coffee scene. It is when we are discussing this that I discover the bad news about the home of coffee – Italy. So where is the best coffee to be found in Europe?
“The Czech Republic is one of the places I believe,” Aleš says. “Of course we are biased but we do think we have a truly good coffee here. There are many, many experienced roasters and baristas.”
“Even here in Brno, we have the barista who was tenth at the world’s barista championship – Adam Neubauer who runs Monogram. We are really lucky when it comes to the quality and skills of the baristas we have. We are really at the high-end of the whole scene.”
“London is the leading player in the speciality coffee community. It was the first market that got developed. People from the US and Australia came and couldn’t find good a coffee there so they decided to give it a try and start a business. Then there is Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague following up.”
However, these are not necessarily their favourite places to visit to find the best coffee they can. In the leading cities, they know they are guaranteed to find excellent examples without difficulty. It is the small communities that excites them.
Radek says: “Kiev is great. We found the craziest coffee concepts, like a coffee shop that looks like the Apple Store that only sells the highest quality products. There was one that looked like a gallery on the top of a building. It appeared really fancy and beautiful – it’s called One Love.”
“I think that people should travel everywhere around Europe. The scene is fully developed in Berlin and London but the very exciting coffee scenes are in the east. There are places with only two or three coffee shops and roasteries that make speciality coffee. Everyone knows each other and you enjoy it much more than in a city like Berlin.”
On their quest to find excellent coffee, the next stop is a farm in the mountains near São Paulo, Brazil. There was one free spot for media on a visit to the Daterra Coffee farms – one of the most famous speciality coffee farms in the world. Radek snapped it up and will document the process of clients visiting the farms to see the miracle themselves.
“And it’s in the mountains,” Radek says. “So there’s all the scenery, all the nature – it’ll be pretty amazing.”