Coffee Culture, Lesson #3: Glen Surtees, Co-Founder of Blackwood Baristi

This week’s Coffee Culture post comes to us in the form of tale of enlightenment. The road from Ricoffy-drinking novice to gourmet coffee specialist.

Glen Surtees, together with Glenn Harpur, is behind the new coffee consultancy in town, Blackwood Baristi… and this is his story with the black gold we have come to religiously mine everyday of our lives.

Glen, in action

My journey of coffee discovery

I had no choice really, my two best friends were into coffee and so it was inevitable that I would follow suit. Those early days were filled with somewhat misguided attempts to appear erudite and saw us frequenting a certain chain of green and yellow themed ‘purveyors of premium quality coffee’ or something to that effect, starting a coffee club at university which sampled some of the Eastern Cape’s finest artificially-flavoured offerings and the crowning turd in the water pipe: late night coffee from the garage machine which nearly got the three of us arrested – but that is a story for another time.

After university I disappeared off to Asia and foreswore coffee for about a year and a half because it was as bitterer than Zuma is about the lack wedding reception invites. The Taiwanese, bless their souls, have a nasty habit of char-grilling the coffee beans.  I’m assured that this has since changed. I drank green and Oolong teas, many of them good quality, for the caffeine instead and I have to say that I didn’t miss coffee all that much.

Hells yeah! I'll take two of those.. actually, here's my 1L survival flask.

When I returned, several things were happening that meant that Durban was just waking up and beginning to, um, smell the coffee. Judd had just opened the Corner Café and was serving a decent Illy. Mark Gold and Vida e were up and running in Morningside and although the coffee may have been of secondary importance for the latter, it was still better than most. More importantly for my coffee journey, two young women, Christy Carlson and Lusanda Mgugudo, had just opened a small café on the corner of Ayott and Frere road in Glenwood. Simultaneously and just as importantly, Victor Richardson and Kyle Fraser were in the process of turning Colombo Tea and Coffee Co. into a quality micro-roastery. The third wave had hit Durban.

Urban Grounds, as Kristy and Lulu’s coffee shop was known, was an unprecedented move. It was a coffee shop that served no food and was completely focused on great coffee.  It was near my place of work and so I found myself there on most afternoons doing admin and generally sipping away at a coffee. Ben Carlson, Kristy’s husband, happened to have worked closely with Origin Roasters in Cape Town and was, among other things, a Barista trainer.  Ben took my business partner, Glenn Harpur, and I under his wing and gave us an education in specialty coffee.

Glen Surtees at Origin Coffee Roasting Co. in Cape Town

I made the most of a recent trip to Cape Town.

By tasting and listening, we learned, among other things, what a good espresso was, we learned about micro-foam, we were told that a milky, airy, hot cappuccino was unacceptable and that sugar in coffee was a complete no-no because at 65 – 70 degrees Celsius, the milk forms it’s own sugars thus eliminating the need for extra sugar. Similarly, Espresso, when pulled correctly, is rich and is extremely sweet.  I owe much of what I know to Ben.

In June 2010 I met Kyle Fraser whilst I was on the judging panel for the Café Society competition run by Independent Newspapers.  Kyle’s passion and knowledge of specialty coffee immediately impressed me and continues to do so to this day. I can honestly say that I have not met a person that is more passionate and dedicated to his job.  It was a combination of these things that led Glenn and I, who had just formed a fledgling barista training company called Blackwood Baristi, to begin to form a solid friendship with the guys at Colombo. They gave us invaluable advice and trained us in advanced Barista techniques.  Colombo’s excellent training center and the opportunity for us to train three teams of coffee guys at our church have both played a significant role in allowing both Glenn and I to develop and mature as baristas and trainers.

Coffee machine at Corner Cafe

My precious. Corner Cafe's coffee machine.. she's seeing me on the side.

I still feel like I have only scratched the surface of what there is to know about coffee and that there is so much more that needs to be learnt and tasted but on the other hand, that’s probably a good thing. I never want to feel like I have arrived, that I am right and that I cannot learn any more. One can and should always be learning, experimenting and growing.  Times change, tastes, trends and brewing equipment change and if you have the wrong mindset you will be left behind.  So I guess that my journey will carry on for the rest of my life but that’s ok with me because, in my humble opinion, the fun is as much in the journey as in the final destination.

Glen Surtees
Co-founder of Blackwood Baristi

Espresso partners... Glenn Harpur and Glen Surtees make up Blackwood Baristi.

Blackwood Baristi specialise in coffee consultancy and mobile coffee solutions (think parties or functions). Look them up on their blog for extra pearls of coffee wisdom too. You can also follow Glen’s day-to-day musings on Twitter.

Love you all,
TwoSlice Dré