Coffee Talk Cape Town – baseline coffee, because bad coffee shouldn’t happen to good people

After spending a few months in Spanish speaking countries it was nice to return to Cape Town for my second time. Not only was it nice to be back in a surrounding where it was easy to understand and be understood, but also being back in a more familiar food and drink scene was comforting. For me this especially means being able to order a flat white or a cappuccino without being too concerned that I get something completely unexpected, as well as even if I have to go out of my way for it, being able to get some more than decent gelato.

As previously posted, for me, Moro Gelato was THE place to go, to get my regular gelato fix. At first this was the only reason for me to cycle, mini bus or uber it to the Mason’s Press in Woodstock. With baseline coffee being practically next to Moro Gelato I had passed it and acknowledged it, but at the same time I was usually on a gelato mission so it took me a while and multiple reminders from both Stefano and Heine from Moro Gelato until I finally stopped by baseline coffee. Since my first visit I haven’t looked back, and Mason’s Press became a perfect balls’n’beans destination, allowing me to kill two birds with one stone, getting both a gelato and coffee fix.

baseline coffee became one of my regular Cape Town spots, not just because of the great coffee, but also because I felt at “home”, both Stacy and Deon are very welcoming and friendly, the music’s good, it’s not too big, loud or crowded, so also very well suited for a coffice location, which I took full advantage of. I’d like to share baseline coffee with you, even if you’re not in Cape Town. So read below to find out about the baseline story and see what the camera shy baseline coffee team have to say about giving back to the community and coffee in SA.

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First of all, how did your coffee career begin and how did the idea for baseline coffee come about? What’s your actual background if you haven’t always worked in the coffee industry?

Deon first became interested in coffee when he lived in the US – although not the speciality coffee scene (Starbucks right?!), the love of this liquid that helps all of us “non-morning people” operate was real. On returning to SA in about 2007 it didn’t take long to see that there was a real gap in the market when it came to really great, locally roasted coffee that South Africans could connect with. And so, the journey began with a goal of not only making great coffee, but also giving back. The brand was originally launched as Kupa Coffee (pronounced “koopah”, Swahili meaning “to give”) with the idea of involving local community members in the process & using an eCommerce store to sell to consumers. Unfortunately the idea was a little ahead of its time, with the average coffee drinker not yet ready to embrace online shopping & the expensive logistics costs involved. So Deon continued to run the business on the side whilst he worked in a full-time job (Digital Marketing) and instead of involving the community directly, he began working with a few select foundations to donate and channel the business’ giving. Deon took up the reins full-time with coffee roughly 4 years ago and I (Stacy) joined him 2 years later. The business was re-branded in early 2014 to the brand it is today: baseline coffee. The idea came about after a long discussion between Deon and myself about where coffee in South Africa was and where our coffee stands. A “baseline” represents both a unit of measurement and a level to strive for, and this is what we are about: our mission is to raise the bar when it comes to quality, consistency and flavour in coffee. We pride ourselves in bringing our customers the absolute best with green beans carefully selected and imported from around the world, and crafted to perfection with care right here in Cape Town.

But you can only fly under the radar for so long, so in early 2015 our Espresso Bar and roasting operations were opened to the public in Woodstock in the new Mason’s Press building, so here we are…

What made you decide to open up your own coffee shop/roaster? What challenges have you faced with owning your own business?

The growth of our business has been more organic than aggressive over the years (we don’t see ourselves as typical “sales people” and self-admittedly, are pretty bad at “sales pitches”), and because of this we flew under the radar for quite some time. When the coffee scene really started exploding in Cape Town we were encountering more and more people who didn’t know who we were. It helped that we were already partnered with a number of well-known restaurants & coffee shops, so the coffee could stand on its own, but we eventually decided that we needed to stick our heads (and our brand) above the fray. Thus, the decision to open an Espresso Bar. We searched for the right premises for about a year and a half and eventually found the space we’re in now. We were so incredibly keen to start that we began trading when the building was still a hard-hat zone and we were the only shop-fitted space, with our main customers being the construction guys!
Setting up and running the Espresso Bar, which operates like a café-style establishment, has of course not been without its challenges. With us being situated in a more industrial-type location one of the major challenges has been getting our name out there – you wouldn’t expect to turn up off of Woodstock Main Road and, amidst a number of business parks, find a Coffee Roastery & Espresso Bar! Even after we’ve been here for a solid year we still regularly meet people working/living in the area who didn’t know we were here. We love it – it’s like making new friends every day! The other major challenge is one which is shared by all operating in the hospitality industry: staffing. Finding and keeping the right staff is a challenge, especially when you’re looking for skilled staff of a higher than typical calibre. Oh, and finding time to take a break – your business is very much a part of your everyday and doesn’t always keep office hours!

How does it feel to have your own coffee shop and what do you like most about your job?

Some days we get that “aha” moment: you look around the space and all the seats are full, there’s a queue at the bar, the music is jamming and you get this big, stupid kid-grin on your face because “Hey, this is OURS”. Owning the Espresso Bar has been different from operating our wholesale business because we spend so much more time interacting face-to-face with our customers. I think that’s one of the things we love most about it – the interactions we have every day with our community of coffee lovers.

What’s the soundtrack in the coffee shop, if you have one?

Hmmm, it’s pretty hard to narrow it down as we play a wide variety of music. It depends on the time of day, how full the shop is, who is in the shop at the time and what kind of a mood we’re in. It can be anything from liquid drum-and-base to Blink 182, to deep house. We have been known to throw it back too, and love a little Dire Straits and The Police in the early morning. If we can get our hands on good local music, we give that a spin as well, and we have some customers who occasionally bring us some cool mixes to play too.

Is there any advice you can give to people who might want to follow your foot steps and also open their own coffee shop or also start roasting coffee?

Do your research. There is a big difference between the idea of owing your own coffee shop or roastery, and the reality of owning it. Some of the things they don’t tell you when you start your own business is that you don’t get “off” days (at least not for a long time into it); no matter how you feel, you have to show up, always. One of the greatest rewards about doing your own thing is effort in = rewards out, but this is also one of the biggest challenges. Oh, and be prepared to say goodbye to your weekends J

Some people see roasting coffee as an art or a science. Is there a philosophy behind your coffee?  

We like to think that artistry is one of the by-products of great passion. Think about something you’re passionate about – let’s say photography, or writing – when it’s driven by passion you endeavour to add your own mark, flair, make it your own. So, you’re an artist too in the love you take in weaving your craft.
Our philosophy, something we firmly believe, is that life is filled with moments. We fill our everyday with all of these moments, and most of them just pass by, so if we can “make” a moment for one of our customers – make it great, make it memorable, make it easy, make it an escape – then that’s our job done. And also, really great coffee should be accessible to all coffee lovers, from the “aficionado” to the “instant convert”… Because bad coffee shouldn’t happen to good people…

Is there anything in particular which you think makes your roasted coffee stand out from others in Cape Town?

You tell me 🙂 To be honest, we’ve just tried to stay focussed and real. Coffee without the pretention. We’ve stuck to a few coffees and made sure that we do them well. We’ve played a bit more over the last year and will continue to do so, especially with single origins. When we hit on something that we think is special we release it out to our Espresso Bar customers… but generally you won’t find us standing on hilltops yelling that our coffee is the greatest. Taste is so subjective – we love the way our coffee tastes and to us it’s very distinctive, but everyone is in a different space in their coffee journey and has different preferences, so all we can do is encourage people to try our coffee and decide for themselves.

How do you brew your coffee at home? Why?

Until recently we had one of our spare 2-group Wegas on the kitchen counter (which was great for the coffee, not so great for the electricity bill!). Why? Because it’s awesome 🙂
At the moment we have an old school La Pavoni that we use to extract espresso for our Americanos, mostly because bigger equipment doesn’t last long until we put it to more serious work somewhere else. Otherwise we’re still fans of the good ol French Press, especially for testing our single origins.

What about coffee inspires you? Where does your passion come from and what keeps it going?

Probably the fact that it’s always changing: new trends, new ways of roasting and brewing, new crops… We love the fact that we haven’t “arrived”. So, as long as we have more to learn, experience and experiment with, we’ll continue to be inspired!

Thanks baseline coffee team, for your time answering my questions as well as providing me with a coffice whilst I was in Cape Town. 

Bad coffee shouldn’t happen to good people… So if you’re visiting Cape Town, make sure you take some time to venture off the beaten path, get to Woodstock and visit the Mason’s Press, for a coffee break at baseline coffee followed by a delicious gelato a few steps further at Moro Gelato, or a gelato first followed by a great coffee!

baseline coffee (homepage)

baseline coffee (instagram)

baseline coffee (Facebook)


Coffee Talk “pura vida” – meet Juan Carlos, barista at Cafeoteca (San Jose)

Having crossed the border from Panama, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side was my first stop in Costa Rica. Following the same route of many fellow travellers I then spent some time on the Pacific coast, after heading up North first. I’m very happy I decided to not listen to many of those travellers I spoke to along the way, who recommended to avoid San Jose. If I had followed these people’s advice I would have completely missed out on one of my trip’s coffee highlights, being Cafeoteca, a lovely coffee shop situated in a more residential area of San Jose. I actually have to thank the barista of Emilios Cafe in Manuel Antonio, who told me that Cafeoteca is a must visit for coffee lovers in Costa Rica.

Having originally just stopped by for a coffee, I ended up spending an entire rainy afternoon at Cafeoteca, enjoying Tico hospitality, tasting coffee from the different coffee regions of Costa Rica, as well as talking coffee with both baristas, Juan Carlos and Remy. Both are very down to earth (unlike plenty of baristas out there) and were extremely passionate when it comes to coffee. Luckily Juan Carlos was also very patient and was happy to be my next coffee talk guest. Along with being thankful to Juan Carlos, I’m also grateful to William Viquez for sharing some photos of my coffee talk guest.

Juan Carlos, going by the full name of Juan Carlos Vargas Soto, comes from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The 22 year old has spent the last four years working in restaurants and cafes, and while he and his brothers didn’t care for coffee whilst growing up, remembers how his mother dipped pieces of cheese in her coffee while his father dipped pieces of buttered bread in his cup of coffee. Since then things have changed and Juan Carlos’ passion for coffee is second to noone’s. He tells me of his fascination for the stories behind each grain of coffee and how he loves the experience of meeting people all along the bean to cup journey. As a barista he has met the families growing coffee whilst visiting coffee farms, learning from their spirit and passion for coffee, and passing this passion on to customers buying and drinking coffee. Working at Cafeoteca he has also been impressed by the increasing number of people who want to know more about the background of what they eat and drink.

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 Juan Carlos, how did your career coffee begin and what made you become a barista? Why at Cafeoteca?
At the age of 20 I started working as a baker at a very successful bakery in San Jose, which had the best baked goods in the area. The coffee we had however, was of very low quality, so we had many unsatisfied customers complaining. My question was: Why does one even have bad coffee in Costa Rica? Seeing several clients get to the bakery for breakfast with a thermos of hot coffee in hand, I gave myself the task to thoroughly research and learn how to prepare a good coffee and that’s how my adventure began. Arriving at my first barista class and trying for the first time a cup of specialty coffee increased my desire to investigate why coffee has that particular taste and how the difference in flavours relates to the country or region of origin. The fragrance and the aroma of coffee got me and made me enjoy every day. In Costa Rica coffee has a very important value in the country’s history, which fuelled my interest to further explore the world of coffee. In 2014 I became a certified barista of Costa Rica for the ICAFE (Costa Rican Coffee Institute) which was one of my best experiences. After being a certified barista I chose to work at Cafeoteca as this cafe is also a small coffee museum, with a focus on helping and teaching more about the culture of coffee. At Cafeoteca you can taste over 20 varieties of coffee, using various different preparation methods. It is a place where baristas give personalised customer service, and do the most they can to satisfy their guests with different coffee-based drinks. We are always looking to innovate and create new coffee products. Here everything revolves around coffee.
What do you like most about your job? What do you dislike?
With my job I enjoy having contact with people from all around the world, educating and teaching people to appreciate Costa Rican coffee. I like to innovate and create new dishes and drinks using coffee. Every day I am in search of new things. To be honest there’s nothing about my job that I dislike, but it does upset me that industrial coffee companies are gradually swallowing up the smaller businesses. I also find it depressing that a lot of coffee producing families are working so hard, yet they are earning very little. And know that coffee producing families are working harder and are earning less.

At Cafeoteca, what kind of coffee beans do you usually have, which regions do the beans come from and from which roaster/s? Which espresso machine and brew methods do you use?

At Cafeoteca we work with 23 different coffee varieties produced in Costa Rica. We buy 17 different kinds of beans directly from the farms, some using the honey and others the dry process. They all are distinctly characterised by their height, climate and soil. Mario Salas, our roaster, is well known in the industry, used to be a professor for coffee roasting, and now has his own company. At Cafeoteca we prepair coffee using 14 different methods. My favourite methods are Chemex, Kalita and fabric filters (blasting), and for our espresso based drinks we use a Rancillio Epoca machine.

What are the most popular coffee drinks at your coffee shop and what’s your favourite?

The most popular are the coffee drips, (Natural and honey process) espresso, cappuccino and cold beer. My favorite drink is cold beer on the rocks, and my favorite coffeehouse is the Geisha Bat Coffee, a coffee produced in southern Costa Rica, which is that bats a national park area feed the mucilage of geisha coffee fruit farm (Coffea Diversa) which limit the interesting thing is that the fruits are dried on the ground and fermented with the animal’s saliva, which creates a very unique and delicious flavor.

What are your impressions of Costa Rica’s coffee scene, a country known globally for producing some of the best coffee (beans)?

The coffee has evolved throughout the history of Costa Rica and we have very good specialty coffee, but the coffee culture is very poor in which large companies often use sugar to hide the poor quality coffees. The good news is that more and more families are producing more specialty coffees and are preferring quality over quantity. In Costa Rica 98% of quality coffee is exported, and 50% of low-quality coffee is imported for domestic consumption (blends), which is an alarming figure. It’s very positive for Costa Rica as a whole that the specialty coffee culture is growing, and increasingly more international companies visit the country in search of the best coffee.

What kind of customers visit your shop, who are your favourite customers and who (celebrity, e.g. Madonna) would you most like to serve a coffee to?

At Cafeoteca we welcome people from all over the world, tourists as well as many people involved in the coffee industry. A lot of locals also really enjoy specialty coffees at Cafeoteca. My favourite customers are those who really appreciate specialty coffee and customers who always carry a new bag of coffee to share with friends. I would be very happy if I could serve my mother a coffee soon. It’s been a long time that I haven’t seen see her. She is my celebrity and the person who supports me every day.

What advice can you give to people who want to follow your path and also become a barista?

I would advise people to never think they know everything, people learn every day, if you do not know, learn, and if you know, teach others. If you like a coffee, investigate why it has that flavour and welcome to this wonderful world of coffee. Humility is the most important of all, it always helps people who need it most. Never believe that you can’t, knocks down walls, don’t get stuck, and always enjoy what you do

Do you have any exciting plans of your own regarding coffee? Is there anything in particular you would like to do if you had the time and/or resources?

I’m currently finishing my coffee cupping classes, in order to further extend my coffee knowledge. In the future I plan to go to study in Austalia to improve my English, and of course also to work in the Australian coffee industry, to gain more experience. While I’m still young I hope to travel, see new places and cultures and meet people from all over. Further down the road, together with my family, I expect to have our own business.

Juan Carlos, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and teaching anyone who visits Cafeoteca about coffee, especially about Costa Rican coffee. With being so humble and keen to also listen to what others have to say about coffee, I’m sure you’ll go your way successfully in the world of coffee. I hope our paths will cross again, where ever that may be, and that we can share some more interesting coffee stories again.

If you’re visiting Costa Rica and even just vaguely interested in coffee, don’t make the mistake of skipping San Jose and make sure you visit the “coffee museum” Cafeoteca. Whilst enjoying one of the numerous different kinds of coffees on offer, prepared using your chosen brewing method, feel free to be lectured about Costa Rican coffee or share your own coffee knowledge/experiences.

Cafeoteca (homepage)

Juan Carlos Vargas Soto, barista (instagram)

WillPhoto – photographer (instagram)


What makes coffee good coffee?

Without recapping the history of coffee and boring you with too many numbers, coffee is the world’s most consumed beverage and hence pretty important for a fair number of people. An estimate of about 1.4 billion cups of coffee are drunk every single day. Based on the assumption that plenty of people drink more than one cup per day, there are still a fair few who drink coffee daily. If all of them were asked for their definition of good coffee, we would have millions of different definitions. Of course we could group some definitions together, but nonetheless, what makes a good coffee for one person can be something completely different for another. Despite all coffee critics, the cup of excellence etc., good coffee is subjective.  Hence, everything I write about coffee here can be taken with a pinch of salt, as a lot of it will be based on what I personally perceive as good coffee, which could be completely different to what you or anyone else thinks.

Especially over the last six months, I’ve been able to immerse myself into the world of coffee, focussing mainly on the third wave coffee movement. This has included visiting numerous coffee shops in Europe, the U.S., Colombia, Central America and South Africa, going to coffee roasters, taking part in cupping sessions, visiting coffee farms and also attending Zurich’s first coffee festival. I had the chance to deepen my knowledge about coffee and the “bean to cup” journey by talking to some very knowledgeable and passionate people along the way, including baristas, coffee shop owners, roasters, fellow coffee bloggers, coffee farmers… All of this has helped me identify my personal “good coffee”.
With the third wave coffee movement, particularly with the rise of the so-called specialty coffee roasters, the “bean to cup” journey is of great significance. A roaster or coffee shop, which is serious about their product, will take pride in the “journey” of their coffee. Where the beans are sourced, is it single origin or a blend, what’s the roasting technique, is it a fine or coarser grind, what are the extraction methods, these are all variables which need to be considered by places serving coffee. On top of that, coffee machine, grinder, temperature, pressure, moisture, milk, and many more, are further variables, needed to be addressed.

img_0753I didn’t start to drink coffee until I was in my early 20s, at first only espresso, which I started drinking in Italy, before also including cappuccinos. At the time I found it pretty easy to get a decent coffee pretty much anywhere I went in Italy. Every place had a proper machine, La Marzocco, Wega, La Cimbali or similar and were able to make a nice crema and good foam for an Italian style cappuccino. I drank both drinks adding plenty of sugar, especially my espressi were saturated with sugar. Only when I was back in Germany and ordered my first cappuccino there, did I notice that I wasn’t able to get a cappuccino to my liking everywhere I went. Nonetheless at the time I didn’t really start paying too much attention to coffee yet.

Nowadays my personal “good coffee” still tends to be coffee with milk, a flat white, a cappuccino, a cortado or a macchiato, no lattes – too much milk, not enough coffee. If it’s super hot, then also different kinds of iced coffee, especially inspired by my time in Athens where after being reluctant at first I got used to drinking a freddo cappuccino. I also still love drinking a “good” espresso! For me personally, two key factors are temperature and consistency. I don’t want to burn my tongue and nor do I want to have to wait half an hour for my coffee to cool down so that I can drink it. For espresso as well as the milk-based drinks, flat white, cappuccino and cortado consistency is key for me, I like them more viscous, more thick and creamy. With the milky drinks the coffee should kind of blend in with the milk, especially for a flat white, if it’s made the way I love it, creating a sweetness so that even I don’t need to add sugar anymore. My espresso taste hasn’t changed much. The espresso (crema) I like most is a classic Italian espresso, so thick that one can almost stand a spoon up in it. I do appreciate and also drink the third wave movement espresso where you can taste different fruits, vegetables, chocolate, nuts and what ever else, but personally still prefer a good Italian style crema, and should I dare admit it, with sugar.
Dear third wave coffee shops, please don’t hide the sugar, I do try all or at least most of my coffees without adding sugar immediately…

In whichever way you prefer to drink your coffee, do you really think that you will stumble upon your perfect coffee simply based on the quality of the coffee itself? In most cases I would have my doubts, as I believe that it doesn’t simply depend on the “bean to cup” journey. As we know good coffee is very subjective but there are other factors than just the quality of the roasted beans and the skill of the barista and his tools preparing your coffee drink of choice. It’s about the entire package, including the interaction you have with your chosen location, the atmosphere of where you choose to enjoy your coffee along with the experience of ordering and drinking it, and sometimes also your company.

p1020203To now not completely downplay the importance of the coffee itself, let’s kick things off with the taste or flavour of coffee. After all it still is the key ingredient and if the coffee isn’t up to scratch, it’s pointless to go any further. Apart from the coffee needing to have a certain quality, for me drinking espresso based drinks, there also needs to be a decent coffee machine present for me to even enter the coffee shop. Not that I don’t think that Nespresso, WMF, Jura or similar haven’t developed a decent product, but I don’t believe that I will ever be fully satisfied by a coffee which is prepared by the push of one button. If I see one of these machines in a coffee shop I tend to do a 180 and head back out the door.
Back to the taste of coffee.. Despite occasionally referring to myself as a coffee snob, and people asking me for my opinion on coffee, I’m not a critique and don’t even believe I’m that great at tasting the nuances of different coffee beans. I have been to a couple of cuppings and will probably go to some more, but I’ll leave the grading to the experts who do this for a living at competitions like the Cup of Excellence or at coffee auctions. Similar to wine, I mainly just judge if I like or dislike a certain coffee. Like with wine, with coffee often judges also contradict each other, again highlighting how subjective good coffee is.

With coffee some prefer a lighter roast, while others prefer darker ones. Some are on the filter coffee bandwagon with increasingly more jumping on it. Others swear by their espresso, some straight, some with milk, some with sugar and again others with both. There are even some who like their instant coffee, i.e. Nescafe. I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong, what ever floats your boat… However having visited some coffee farms and talked to a number of people in the industry, when it comes to the quality of coffee beans there is definitely a better and a worse selection, e.g. for instant coffee versus what you might find at your chosen specialty roaster.

p1020509Having immersed myself into the coffee scene a while ago now, and having visited more coffee shops and roasters than I can remember, hanging out at many with friends or family, with a book or my laptop, or to further my coffee education, it got me thinking. I’ve visited many exceptional and memorable coffee locations, but some I also almost forget as soon as I exit the door, even if the coffee might have been decent enough. For me to “favourite” a place, of course I must have been served a great cup of coffee, but that’s not enough. I believe the x factor is in large part the coffee shop or roaster itself. Similar to with meeting your soul mate, it’s about the first impression, about chemistry, the communication with staff. It’s always nice to come across people who are very passionate about coffee and interested in their customers and their coffee preferences. At the same time it’s nice to see when people take pride in their “art”, are consistent at serving a great cup of coffee, and might not even serve a cup of coffee until they are happy with their work. Regarding this aspect, I believe it’s quite a difficult step for people who started their own coffee shop to take a step back and let others run the show once it’s time to employ staff. Maybe more than in a lot of other industries, it’s about the fit, not only does a barista need to consistently produce a great cup of coffee. As the face of a coffee shop a barista ought to demonstrate a passion for what he or she does and be approachable. They don’t have to be everybody’s darling but should be able to relate to the majority of the clientele the coffee shop would like to attract. Some of the less pleasant experiences are when baristas or coffee shop owners don’t seem welcoming, aren’t interested in their clients or their coffee preferences, or have a bad attitude. With the whole third wave coffee and hipster movement, I feel that some baristas seem to have forgotten that they rely on their customers. With starting this blog, it’s obvious that I appreciate the science and art behind a good cup of coffee and I am always happy when a barista convinces me to try something else than what I actually ordered. It’s a shame when some baristas don’t realise that “serving” a good cup of coffee isn’t quite rocket science, so you guys please step of your high horse… Nothing ruins the coffee experience more than a hipster barista with a patronising, arrogant or snobbish attitude.

I like hearing the stories of the people ensuring I am served the best possible coffee, and the ones I often find the most interesting are when people landed in the coffee industry by accident or quit their 60h work week or 9-5 day job to do something they are really passionate about.

What makes coffee good coffee, for you?