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Reflections on the Johannesburg Specialty Coffee Expo

Recently, I was lucky enough to travel with part of the Cape Coffee Beans team to the Johannesburg Specialty Coffee Expo (SCE). In its third year, the relatively young annual event had already received positive reviews from many of our partners in the industry, and we were keen to check it out, especially after the fun we had at the first Cape Town instalment of the SCE last year.

Specialty coffee expo logo

It was a wonderful experience and I left impressed with everything from the venue to the organisers, the exhibitors to the attendees. I know we’ll be back next year, but I felt compelled to document some of the impressions that this special event left on me. Here are some that I wanted to share, in no particular order of importance.

Cape Coffee Beans has friends in Gauteng, many of whom we’ve never met

Part of the fun for all of the team members that attended was the chance to interact with customers who we’d not yet had the chance to meet in person. Rather conspicuously branded in our CCB t-shirts, we all enjoyed being approached by people who recognised the Cape Coffee Beans logo.

Personally, I was thrilled not only by the number of customers that happened to be at the Expo, but also to hear first-hand how many of them had been shopping with us for years. It was a pleasant reminder of how many supporters we have in other parts of the country, including our metropolis. Serving them as well as we possibly can remotely is something that’s an extremely high priority for us. In this way the Expo served to reaffirm why we do what we do.

The specialty coffee industry has come leaps and bounds in recent years

The other thing that immediately struck me as I wandered around the Expo on the first day, taking in the brand names, many of which I hadn’t heard before, tasting the incredible coffees and soaking up the atmosphere, is just how far the specialty coffee industry in South Africa has come in the last decade. The Specialty Coffee Expo left no doubt about the growth in the space; from the thousands of attendees to the exceptional coffee being served, there were clear signs that there is in fact a strong specialty coffee community here in South Africa.

The sheer quality of the coffee on offer also struck me. I tried coffee from many roasters I’d never even heard of, and in almost all cases, I was thrilled with the flavour of what I was served. It wasn’t just the fact that there were so many high-quality coffees available; it was the realisation that many of the roasters had only been up and running for a couple of years, but were already sourcing and roasting such special lots. I feel compelled to mention that I always asked where roasters I hadn’t encountered before were based and invariably (with only a couple of exceptions), the answer was Pretoria. It seems that there’s something interesting happening in that part of the country!

I also think it’s worth acknowledging that one of the things that has allowed the industry to grow in the way it has is the availability of specialty green (unroasted) coffee in South Africa. Never before have small-scale roasters had access to such quality or variety. I know that a new generation of importers and distributors have played a big role in this, and their coffees featured at many of the stands I visited. I think Sabores, And Sons, and Zuka deserve special mention.

Last but not least, I was also pleasantly surprised to see the sheer appetite for premium specialty coffee among the visitors to the Johannesburg Specialty Coffee Expo. Nowhere was this more visible than around the cupping table, which featured a new session every hour. It also was made clear by the prices that many consumers were willing to pay for the very best and rarest lots available to taste at each stand. Clearly, there is a newfound understanding of the inherent value of top-end specialty coffee, and it seems that many Joburg coffee-lovers are willing to pay for it. I think that’s a great thing for everyone, all along the supply chain, from the roasters, all the way back to the farmers.

We work with some of the best roasters in the country

Having given some very deserved praise to a few of our new roasting friends, I should now mention that at the SCE I was also reminded of the fact that we’re lucky at CCB to already work with many of the best specialty roasters in the country, some of whom were in attendance with us or exhibiting at the Joburg Specialty Coffee Expo. Our partners include new brands making a splash, like Cedar, but also businesses that have been around for many years like Origin, Truth, Tribe & Bean There. These partners were there, and even if most of them are of an older generation than some of the up-and-coming roasters that I’ve mentioned, there was no doubt in my mind that the roasters we work with are still every bit as relevant as they ever were, and serving equally delicious coffees. More than that, it’s also worth acknowledging that they’ve paved the way for the newer generations.

Unfortunately, not all of our roasting partners were at this edition of the Joburg SCE, but I hope to see more of them at future events, including the Cape Town instalment. I firmly believe that they are all of national calibre.

There really is a specialty coffee community

I’ve already made passing reference to the South African specialty coffee community a few times in this post, but I think it’s a concept worth reflecting on in its own right. It’s somewhat ironic that I would be reminded about the importance of community when travelling far from our home base, and to an event I’d never attended before no less, but the weekend really did inspire an overwhelming sense of community in me.

Of course, part of this was shaking hands with and saying hello to industry professionals that I’ve been lucky to know for some time, but I also noticed how many of the people I met for the first time at the Expo were open and friendly in a way that one shouldn’t take for granted.

There seemed to be a recognition among all the participants in the Expo that, despite being competitors on-paper, everyone was participating in this blossoming of the South African specialty coffee space that I tried to describe above. There was a real, palpable sense of a common cause, or at least a common passion. I felt this from most of the exhibitors I spoke with, but also from many of the attendees. Yes, everyone had their own personal interests to advance (as we all do) but there was also a feeling of doing so arm-in-arm with the people around them. It’s a hard thing to really put into words, but I think it was an important part of what made the event special, at least for me.

It seems that there are great things ahead for this industry

Given everything that I’ve described above, it should be no surprise that I have high hopes for the future of the specialty coffee industry in South Africa. It’s not just that we have access to more and better specialty coffee than ever before; it’s not just that we have more and more talented entrepreneurs and artisans entering the space; it’s not even that there are more and more people ready to support this budding industry. It’s all those things combined with the real shared excitement and passion that I see in the community, and that was easy to spot at the Specialty Coffee Expo.

At the risk of employing a cliché, I have this sense that things are only just getting started, and that this industry is going to continue to grow leaps and bounds in the coming years.

We’re all excited for the next SCE

I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that the Specialty Coffee Expo itself is playing an important role in the current growth of the SA specialty coffee scene. The Joburg edition is now in its third instalment, and we’re looking forward to the second Cape Town edition coming up soon. I only met the organisers, Cezanne & Jason, recently, but I’m already so impressed with what they’ve done with this event in such a short time. Aside from their obvious talents for event-planning and organisation, I think it’s clear that they are very much part of the specialty coffee community and that they’ve found a way in which they can significantly contribute to it.

I’m excited about future South African Specialty Coffee Expos, and I am definitely planning to make Cape Coffee Beans part of them. I hope everyone who reads this will be part of them too.

About the author

Phaedon Brewing V60 Coffee

Phaedon is the founder of Cape Coffee Beans. He's a former strategy consultant turned eCommerce guy who came to South Africa for 6 months and wound up staying for more than a decade (and counting). Back in 2013, he decided to try to turn a budding interest in coffee into a business and so Cape Coffee Beans was born. These days he spends most of his time thinking about how to expand the reach of specialty coffee in South Africa.

Comments

Whilst in Johannesburg last month on business from Scotland I came across Bean There Rwanda Musasa…..unbelievable ! I only wish It was available here as I have now sadly,finshed my three packs.

Posted by William McIntosh on July 02, 2024

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