Keen Coffee was founded in 2016 by two baristas with the idea of “keenly learning about coffee.” We can see a glimpse of Keen Coffee’s commitment when the founder, Bonne says, “We are not just roasters.” We spoke with Bonne, who has been exploring the world of specialty coffee for over a decade.
Welcome to the world of specialty coffee!
Keen Coffee clearly shows its stance on selling two types of coffee, Natural Anaerobic from El Diamante Maria in Costa Rica and Jaguara Estate in Brazil in their online store. The “El Diamante Maria” roasted by Keen Coffee is also the coffee beans used by the barista who was ranked third at the 2018 World Barista Championship (WBC).
Bonne states, “If you’re a reasonably experienced barista, you wouldn’t even look at Jaguara from Brazil but Jaguara, which goes well with cappuccino and espresso, is a popular product and it’s appreciated by people who are not familiar with specialty coffee. On the other hand, those people find it hard to understand why coffee from El Diamante Maria is so expensive. In other words, we are targeting a wide range of people, from professionals to beginners of specialty coffee.”
Keen Coffee, whose main business was wholesaling to restaurants, started to focus on selling coffee through online store out of necessity due to the Covid circumstance. One of the most popular products that has been selling well is a ‘Tasting Box’ that allows customers to enjoy several types of coffee.
“I think people are intrigued by the differences in taste and aroma and noticed that the differences in each coffee open the door to a world of coffee. Part of me doesn’t want to go back to the pre-Covid time in the sense that Covid-19 provided us such an opportunity to realize it.”
However, there is no balance of profits and losses in there. The name of the company comes from “keenly” which confirms Bonne’s statement, “We are not just roasters that sell roasted coffee beans.”
“To devote ourselves to the study of coffee, to educate people about it, and to spread the voices of the coffee producers to people, these are the DNAs of Keen Coffee, and they are an important part of our identity.”
The world of specialty coffee is full of adventure.
The co-founders of Keen Coffee, Bonne and Rob, became baristas around 2008. Bonne, who is now fully immersed in the world of coffee, started working as a barista at a cafe because he wanted to earn money to travel the world.
“I thought it would be just a job to serve customers, but it was a place with very enthusiastic people, and I had to come to the store on Tuesdays even when the store was closed because I had to take barista training. I don’t know how long it took me to lose the sense of obligation in participating in the training thinking that it was part of my job, but I started participating in it with a positive attitude. At the café, which was a pioneer in latte art, I began to enjoy doing things that I could not do at other cafes. As a barista, not only did I enjoy serving customers a good cup of coffee, but I also loved talking to them about coffee and getting their feedback.”
Participating in workshops and training to learn more about the world of specialty coffee and how the industry works have changed Bonne’s way of life. He started to think he wanted to pass on the knowledge he had gained and began organizing the events and created places for people to learn.
Bonne states, “As I researched specialty coffees, brewed, and drank different kinds of coffee, I kept discovering new things. Rob, a co-founder used to say, ‘The world of specialty coffee is like Indiana Jones and it’s full of adventure.’ ”
This interest led to his participation in the World Brewers Cup (WBrC) later on.
“I learned basic knowledge and skills about coffee through the competition as well as tips on how to try new methods and bring out innovation. I was also able to connect with the global coffee community. Without the many encounters I had through the competition, Keen Coffee would not have been born.”
Completely fascinated by the world of coffee, Bonne was no longer satisfied with just working as a barista.
“Baristas are inevitably dependent on the quality of the coffee beans provided by roasters. I was always interested in becoming a roaster, which is a very important position between producers and consumers.”
This is how Bonne founded Keen Coffee together with Rob, which roasts its own coffee. They had built a network of bars and restaurants when they were baristas and have learned from their experience how to run a bar and brew high-quality coffee, and it was not too difficult for them to become roasters.
“It’s our job to maximize the potential of coffee, which was produced in pursuit of quality. I have always wondered why the roasters are in the spotlight sometimes. This is because we can’t add new flavors, create something new through roasting. In this sense, I believe that the most important part of the coffee distribution is the producers.”
In search of sustainable relationships
Having studied coffee intensively and enthusiastically and visited the coffee-producing regions many times, Bonne has never forgotten the spirit of respect for producers.
“When I go to a friend’s house in the Netherlands, the first thing they would ask me is, ‘Would you like coffee?’ They always have coffee in the house. People have coffee at home all the time, which seems to be a normal thing, but this is a luxury. It takes enormous efforts from the time producers plant coffee seeds to the time we get to enjoy coffee.”
“I think the mission of specialty coffee is to inform people about the diversity of coffee types, flavors, and roasting methods by the experts in the field. If people have this information and get to know about the taste, they will be grateful to the producers and see the value in it.”
Many of the world’s coffee producers are not financially affluent but Bonne has never heard of a request from producers to buy their coffees at a special price or higher price.
“They say, ‘We want you to come back next year,’ or ‘We want you to continue buying from us next year.’ I think that’s totally right and it applies to us, too and the key to stability in the business is the ability to secure and build continuous business relationships.”
However, in the world of specialty coffee, some people are trying to get only the best quality coffee beans. Since their goal is only to get the best quality beans, they will not look at other high-quality coffee beans. Also, some other people want only new things and new flavors in specialty coffee, which puts a lot of pressure on producers.
“This is why learning is very important. Learning about specialty coffee will give us an option of choosing specialty coffee, which can make a sustainable relationship possible. If we can achieve sustainable relationships where producers are paid fairly, then they have a chance to escape from economic hardships.”
Teaching is also about learning.
Bonne, who has been on a journey to explore coffee from becoming a barista to a roaster, is planning to open “an espresso bar” where people can taste a variety of coffees so that they can realize the ideal of “doing everything from roasting to brewing by ourselves.”
“I think there is a kind of ‘magic’ in a bar that allows us to create a new moment with the people who visit the bar. In a bar, where it is an actual physical space, we can hear what the customers are thinking, and even if they don’t tell us what they think, we can see their reactions and we can understand what they are thinking by looking at their eyes. I love these kinds of face-to-face interactions, which create connections with people, and where a new story begins.”
The reason why Bonne continues to hold workshops and trainings where he teaches is that there are relationships with real people. In the past, Bonne has made “mistakes” of answering participants’ questions with “I don’t know,” or pretending to be a know-it-all to makeshift the situation on the spot.
Bonne states, “I realized that the best thing to do was be honest and say, ‘I don’t know the answer, so let’s figure it out together.’ In the world of specialty coffee, where new producers appear one after another and new processing methods emerge, you never feel like you have learned everything. That’s why we want to continue to be ‘students.’ I enjoy teaching so much because I can learn so much through teaching.”
Bonne says, “Our journey to explore coffee has no end,” with his eyes shining. The love for coffee that exudes from his way of life will continue to light a fire in people’s hearts.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
“A new coffee that makes me realize again, “I really think I love coffee.” In my coffee life, there have been several moments when I took a sip and thought, “This is why I love this job.” I don’t know if such feelings come from the taste of the coffee itself, its environments, or its circumstances, but it has come to me in completely different ways.”