The Master – Tim Wendelboe
On a quiet corner on Grüners Gate in Oslo, Norway, a short distance from the city centre, Tim Wendelboe has his “espresso bar, school and roastery”, as can be seen from the sign next to the door. The space reminds one of a shop floor. There is a wooden bar with three chairs at one end, and a big noisy roaster dominates the room, in effect telling the guests that this is a working roastery. This morning, five people are roasting, packing beans and serving coffee to the guests. Wendelboe himself is dressed like his crew, in black pants and a white shirt. He apologizes for the noise and says that he will soon be separating the roastery from the coffee bar. When he launched this enterprise, he didn’t expect that a noisy, simple roastery that only served coffee, with no pastries, no newspapers and no jazz music on the side would attract large crowds. But it did, and now coffee lovers, not only from Oslo but from all over the world, are flocking to this modest shop.
Tim Wendelboe is a native Norwegian. He’s 37 years old, looks younger, but has the precise manners of an older well-trained waiter or sommelier. He works closely with members of both of these professions, as a purveyor of coffee to innovative restaurants all over the world — restaurants featuring coffee that strives to set new standards of quality. But apart from these ambitions, there is nothing pretentious about Tim Wendelboe’s business. In his typical modest style he explains, “My job is to improve the quality of our product, and coffee is a fun product to work with. I won’t say that we’re still in the Stone Age, but there is still a lot of development you can do in this field. You can actually make a big difference. You can improve every part of the process and do something better.” All of Tim Wendelboe’s coffees are carefully sourced from his favourite places of origin. His procurement process is based on a philosophy that primarily focuses on quality, traceability, innovation and social responsibility.
What makes a good coffee?
“First of all, good ingredients: soft water and good coffee beans. And you don’t need any fancy equipment. A kettle and a grinder are enough. You need soft water because calcium neutralizes the coffee acids,” Wendelboe explains.
How can you spot a good cup of coffee?
“Good coffee is best when it is served at body temperature. Bad coffee tastes worse and worse as it gets cold. It loses its sweetness and becomes bitter,” he says.
Wendelboe has worked his way back along the coffee chain, starting with the serving of coffee, and now he is focusing on the farming of coffee beans. At the age of 18, he had just finished high school. He needed work and found a job at Stockfleths, a traditional family-owned coffee business dating back to 1895. In the 1990s the company was moving along with what was then a brand-new trend: coffee bars that used espresso machines and served coffee specialities, lattes and so on. He started as a barista and showed a knack for the job. In 2001 he became the Norwegian Barista Champion, and he went on to become the World Barista Champion in 2004. He describes that experience as a turning point in his career: “That was when I got hooked. I recognized that I like to compete and win. I’ve got a competitive gene.”
From then on, he started planning and building his small coffee empire. He started doing freelance projects and consulting, and in 2007 he began to plan his new business, which he would call “Tim Wendelboe”. “I needed a space to do seminars, and I started to plan the project. The idea was to have a roasting space and a showroom, but things simply developed, and it also became popular as a coffee bar.” The business is still relatively small, compared to the big players. Tim Wendelboe sells 30 tons of coffee on the market every year. The biggest Norwegian producer sells 18,000 tons annually. But Wendelboe doesn’t care. “I wouldn’t have opened a coffee shop if I had simply wanted to make money,” he explains.
Is coffee culture a trend?
“It has been a trend for 30 years, so we have actually passed the trend phase. The taste for good coffee is here to stay. And the coffee that is available is getting better and better. Best of all, most people can afford it. And you don’t get drunk on it, either. It’s a bit like fine dining. The Internet has played a big role in this development. People are traveling, blogging, buying coffee online and so on.”
*_Is it a generational thing?*_
“Yes, it is. We grew up on everything being instant — instant food, instant soup, instant coffee — and we grew tired of it. So we started to want something better: food and beverages made from good raw ingredients that are locally produced.”
At about the same time as he started his business, Wendelboe also started travelling to Colombia in order to learn more about the secrets of the coffee bean. Here he met an aspiring local farmer named Don Elias. “He was an honest, hard-working man who wanted to do things differently,” Wendelboe recalls. He bought some land from Elias, formed a corporation with him, and started planting coffee trees on the land in 2015.
*_What was the idea behind the project?*_
“I want to use the biology of the soil to grow coffee organically. You don’t need fertilizer — you just need to understand the balance of the soil and have the right microorganisms. Mother Nature has been doing this for millions of years.”
Has this plan worked out?
“It takes two or three years before the trees produce a harvest. And then El Niño came and the drought killed all of our trees. It’s going to take some time before we have our production up and running again, but all the trouble will be worth it. Improving quality is a very simple matter. You just have to let the right coffee berries ripen and focus on quality instead of standardization. And as for the drying process, you can stretch it out over two weeks instead of six days. The longer timespan results in a more mature taste.”
Wendelboe regards his coffee farm as part of a movement that is doing research to find out how to save coffee growing from the devastation that has been caused by industrialization. Part of the solution is to revitalize the stock. “In Panama they have rediscovered the amazing Geisha coffee,” he says. “It does happen. New varieties are coming. The industrial growers have ruined their soil, so something new has to be done. We have got to find new varieties by means of crossbreeding, as well as new ways of making coffee.”
Where do the best beans come from?
“I think my favourite is Kenyan coffee, which is hand-picked and sorted during the picking process. They are very good at sorting out the good beans from the bad. But you can get good coffee all over the world. Even a good farm can produce bad coffee, and the other way around.”
What is the best cup of coffee in the world?
“That’s really a subjective judgment — but personally, I really enjoy drinking the coffee produced on the farm when I’m visiting the farm. It’s a sweet, well-made coffee and a good brew. The sweetness of the bean is more important than the aroma.”
Words: Nikolai Lang-Jensen
Photograhy: Benjamin A. Ward