In 2015, Amir Gehl launched the Difference Coffee Company, with the unique idea to bring the world’s finest coffee to those who truly appreciate quality. Coming from a long line of tobacco experts, Gehl has spent a lifetime developing an appreciation for the finer things, from cigars to wine, and now he is taking on the challenge of sharing the joys of speciality coffee with the world.
So, for those who don’t know, what exactly is “speciality coffee”?
Speciality coffee is – quite simply – the best coffee in the world. Made only from Arabica beans (rather than Robusta), it is very rare
– making up just 1% of the world’s coffee production. The term “speciality” is a grade awarded by expert coffee testers known as Quality (or Q) Graders. These experts test each batch of beans and score it according to a 100-point system. Only coffees rating 80 points or more can be labelled “speciality”. These are the only coffees we sell.
You claim to have entered the world of first-class coffee “by mistake” – how did this come about?
I have a sincere appreciation for high quality – from food and wine to fine cigars – and up until a few years ago I would have considered myself a non-coffee-lover, simply because the quality was often so poor. Too often, I would enjoy a wonderful dinner, only to be disappointed at the end of the meal by a mediocre cup of coffee. I started Difference Coffee after I discovered what amazing coffees there are out there which could be fantastic alternatives.
You come from a family of tobacco experts – what similarities are there between the world of luxury tobacco and that of speciality coffee?
There are lots! As with fine wine – or any other product which you grow – terroir has a lot to do with it (soil and climate and such), but there is more to it than that – you get both good and bad Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, for example. To grow truly excellent tobacco, grapes, or coffee – it all has to start with a great seed. Then, after this, the natural quality can be nurtured and encouraged with expert care and attention at every stage of production.
How is the speciality coffee industry affecting the coffee world as a whole?
To start, it is doing wonders for pickers’ wages! In commercial coffee production, pickers are paid by the kilo, leading to a foreseeable mix of good and bad coffee cherries. In speciality production, farmers wait and harvest in multiple pickings, paying their pickers by the hour, resulting in higher-quality coffee and better wages for everyone.
Many people interested in the luxury Food and Drink world will understand paying £2000 for a bottle of world-class wine – what is it about speciality coffee which leads to it fetching a similar price per kilo?
The high level of care and attention I mentioned has a lot to do with it. With non-speciality coffee, there are several steps of the process (picking the beans, sorting them, etc.) where quality control can fall by the wayside – this never happens with speciality coffee. There is also a great deal of expert quality analysis throughout the process. Once beans are dried, a selection is given to a “cupper” – a tasting expert – who will roast and grind them, before brewing and tasting. Only if the beans pass this test will the rest be sent off for roasting.
The most important factor when it comes to price, however, is rarity. As I mentioned before, speciality makes up just 1% of all the coffee in the world – but some is even rarer than that. I have recently bought an extremely precious Arabica coffee called “Bourbon Pointu”, which was one of the winners at the Best of Panama Competition. It is made at a fantastic estate called Hacienda La Esmeralda, and only 130lbs of it exist in the world.
And how important are competitions like the Best of Panama for sourcing your coffee?
Extremely! We are the proud owners of the best coffee from Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala and, for us, these international competitions are the way we find them. We buy from Best of Panama, the Hawaii Kona Cupping Competition and – perhaps the most famous of all – the Cup of Excellence. This competition was founded in the nineties by coffee experts Susie Spindler and George Howell. And today, out of our range of ten coffees, five are Cup of Excellence winners.
But these competitions are also about giving back. Spindler and Howell wanted their competition to stimulate speciality coffee production, so the winning beans are scored and auctioned off, often at 100 times the price farmers would get from commercial – or even Fair Trade – producers.
Darrin Daniel, the Executive Director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, has praised Difference for always going for the best of the best – how do you make sure that you do this?
Quite simply – we follow the Cup of Excellence’s example! We go from country to country, buying the finest we find in each. We work with licensed Q Grader, Jonny England, to make sure the beans we buy really are the best. A true coffee expert, Jonny is a certified judge for both the World Barista Championship and the World Brewers’ Cup, and as well as testing the quality of the beans we buy, he also perfects the roast for each, unlocking its full potential.
You decided to make these first-class coffees available as Nespresso pods – weren’t you anxious that such an easy system might compromise the perception of the coffee’s quality?
On the contrary! The choice to turn our coffee into Nespresso pods had three very
clear benefits for us: first, greater freshness. Post-roasting, coffee begins to lose its aroma almost immediately, and sealing it in capsules halts this process. Secondly, it guarantees an excellent cup of coffee. Most of us don’t really know how long you should brew coffee for, how fine to grind the beans, how hot the water should be etc. A Nespresso machine takes out all of the guesswork. Thirdly – and most importantly – speciality coffee is very rare and difficult to find, and using Nespresso enables anyone to try these coffees from the comfort of their own home.
Find more information about Difference Coffee: www.differencecoffee.com