JOHANNESBURG - A small bean with a big heart that’s what good coffee is all about. Liz Clarke spoke to two KZN baristas who have made coffee their lifetime passion
The colourful and quirky outdoor Flava Coffee Club in Kwa Mashu is always busy. It’s where people meet and chat and it’s where coffee ambience has become a way of life.
There you will meet head barista, 32-year-old Jabu Mbhelo and his team, who have been part of an educational and pioneering initiative to bring the rich flavours of roasted coffee beans to an ever increasing discerning township market.
Mbhelo still remembers the time when speciality coffees were unheard of in township communities like KwaMashu.
“Coffee was something that you took out of a tin and mixed with boiling water and added a bit of milk and sugar. It certainly wasn’t a big deal.”
But that has all changed.
Freshly ground and roasted coffee has become a must in this part of the world, he explains at a recent speciality coffee workshop in Durban hosted by The Coffee Magazine
“The younger generation knows about speciality coffees. And they definitely know when a cup of coffee is properly prepared.”
Mbhelo was a recipient of a barista scholarship that enabled him to study the deep complexities and technology behind a new era of speciality coffee which involves pulling the “shots” and preparing the coffee based on the guidelines of the roaster or the shop owner.
For the record the term “barista” refers to a preparer of coffee who is trained to operate and maintain an espresso machine and whose knowledge includes coffee grinding techniques and coffee plant cultivation, similar to how a ‘sommelier’ is familiar with the entire process of wine making and consumption.
“For me it has been an amazing experience ” says Mbhelo. “To think that this little bean has so much history behind it. I suppose in my dreams I never thought that coffee would open so many doors. And it doesn’t stop there. You never stop learning. At least now I can pass that knowledge on to other young people. It’s a new culture for many of us, but it is growing – and fast.”
Part of that knowledge, he says, is getting people to understand the difference between blended coffee and speciality coffee which comes from a single origin and
from one particular region.
“A good coffee” he explains “should be well-rounded and full-bodied with a smooth balance of flavour, aroma, body and acidity.”
Mbhelo says his passion is to develop and upskill young talent in the township of KwaMashu.
“I want young people to go on and share their love for coffee with others, and more importantly become employed by any one of the growing number of coffee shops in Durban.”
At the other end of the city, Christian Mxolise, 24, has also joined this new breed of qualified baristas. He agrees that enjoying a cup of coffee with friends and family is a totally different experience from what he remembers as a child.
“I can’t even remember drinking a cup of coffee. My family only like rooibos tea. I wouldn’t have even known what a coffee bean looked like.”
Stationed at the Durban North Columbo café, Mxolise says that coffee has literally transformed his life.
“My friend was working at a coffee bar, while I was still at school. He said that if I wanted to join him, I better work hard and get my matric. I hadn’t worried much before that but I realised that the only way to get ahead was to study hard. I passed my matric and was then offered a training job working in the café.”
But that was just the start of his journey with coffee. Last year Mxolise completed his training, which included the preparation of speciality coffees, the mechanics and structure and maintenance of a coffee machine and the iconic latte designs that give the froth such a distinctive look.
“Freshly ground beans are the beginning. The water you use has to be good quality and filtered correctly. And you have to know that coffee machine like your friend. And like your friend you have to know what it needs to keep it in perfect working order. I find that bit very interesting.”
His barista journey is still ongoing, he says.
“My dream is to one day run my own coffee shop in my own community and introduce young people to the way real coffee should be served.”
He is also on a mission to encourage his family to drink his own version of speciality coffee. “They’re getting there ” he says with an infectious grin. “At least they love the designs on the top!”