Q&A: The magic of beans Samuel Foot and Jason Brown

Exactly one year after swapping web consultancy for coffee beans, Samuel Foot and Jason Brown, the founders of Sawbwa Coffee, talk speciality coffee, the many nuances of small-batch roasting and satisfying the caffeine cravings.

How did you begin Sawbwa Coffee?

In February 2018 we took over from a small specialty coffee start-up called BurmaRoad. At the time we were running a marketing web consultancy. Sharky’s were considering whether they take it or not, but coffee’s a big product to perfect and it has a lot of nuances. We had more bandwidth, so we decided to buy BurmaRoad, rebrand and grow it properly.

What was your knowledge of the coffee industry before then?

Let’s just say, this year has been a massive learning curve for us. For almost nine months all we did was we eat, sleep, and breathe coffee before we even put out products for sale.

What are the ideal conditions for growing coffee?

Generally coffee farms tend to lie in spots with higher altitudes and warmer climates. But coffee plants also need shade so ours are grown alongside protective bushes. The acidity of the soil is important too, if there’s too much acid plants won’t grow, but if there isn’t enough then you don’t get interesting flavours.

Where does your coffee come from?

We buy most of our coffee directly from farmers in Southern Shan State which is important because we don’t use middlemen. We were introduced to these farmers through Winrock International, an American program which helps these particular farms to grow and process extremely high quality coffee called ‘specialty coffee’. This means that it has ranked over 80/100 by the American Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA). This year we will buy from about 11 farms.

How does “From Poppy to Coffee” work?

One group of farmers that we buy from in Southern Shan State used to grow poppies for opium. But the climate, topology and the altitude there means it is an ideal position for growing really good quality coffee. The farmers learnt the skills for how to grow and process coffee in line with specialty coffee standards. It recently scored around 88/100 with the ASCA, which is up there with the best. So now they get such high prices for their coffee; it makes sense over growing opium. It allows the farmers to have a legitimate source of income as, before, they were getting methamphetamine in exchange for their crop, no cash. This year, our investment will allow six new villages to come on board.

How does the roasting process work?

It’s a bit of an art and a bit of a science; there are lots of variables. Every single coffee has a different chemical composition, a different moisture level and a different density. At the moment we roast 1kg at a time as we have a very small roaster, but we we’re getting a bigger one. Roasting coffee in small batches allows you to better control what’s happening to the bean, such as the caramelization, the maillard effect and the development of the inside of the bean.

Companies like Starbucks, who want to make their coffee consistent, roast their beans dark to create a bitter flavour – and people have got used to that. Increasingly, people want more interesting flavours and in order to taste them you have to roast a lot lighter. But this creates risk, as it’s not a uniform batch.

What is the range of products that you have?

We have three single origins which we roasted slightly lighter to play with the different flavour profiles. Then we have a few coffees that we roast darker – classic filter blends and an espresso blend – and a cold brew and nitro range. By blending beans you are trying to achieve a certain flavour, so you might have 90% dark roasted beans to give it a body, and then 10% lighter roaster beans, which have characteristics like a berry flavour.

Your coffee is considerably more expensive than other coffee on sale in Myanmar. What is the reason for this?

Our coffees are amongst the highest graded specialty coffees in the country – all other speciality coffees in Myanmar have a similar price. We use arabica beans and we buy at $9 per kg, straight from the farmer. With cheaper brands, their beans will be generally roasted in massive roasters, holding 30 to 100 kg, so they will likely have a burnt or bitter taste. Many brands also use robusta coffee, which has a distinctively less interesting taste than arabica. They’re also buying their beans at around $1 per kg from a commodity exchange.

What is the story behind the artwork on your packaging?

We wanted our coffee to celebrate the vibrancy and richness of Myanmar so Samuel came up the idea of using illustrations of Myanmar fables to describe the coffee. For example, with our coffee Harp, we chose a fable called The Harp Master, which describes these bright notes of music coming from a harp with no strings, which helps to explain that this dark coffee has colourful, floral notes.

Your coffee is available in places like Sharky’s as well as Pun + Projects and 57Below’s restaurants – do you prefer selling to businesses?

We’re supplying the institutions that we think will really show off the coffee in the best possible ways. But we’re also doing a lot with retail; we’re now selling at Sharky’s, the airport and at ProMart, and more retailers are coming onboard in the future. There’s no preference for us with how to sell it. We try to keep a middle ground between being coffee snobs but also bring speciality coffee to the market and helping people to appreciate it.

What’s on the agenda for 2019?

Ensuring that we maintain quality as we grow. We’re already seeing a huge increase in sales and even just to keep up with that we’re going to need to be very focused on our new roasting facility. There are many things coming up that we can’t mention, but the next few months will be exciting for sure.

How much coffee are you drinking day to day?

Insane amounts! Today we’ve been visiting venues in Yangon, tweaking espresso machines to get them perfect; tweaking and tasting, tweaking and tasting. Barristering is an art; we’ve got so much respect for baristas and latte art too – we can’t stop watching videos of the competitions! We never drank Red Bull before running a coffee company but now we have to – we need the caffeine to keep our levels up!

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