Asmara, Eritrea, 1995. One year before the Ethiopian air force would resume bombing the city, leading to the evacuation of all foreign embassy personnel and their families, a 7-year-old Will Scholl, completely oblivious to the growing tension, was having his first ever cup of coffee.
Now, of course I don’t truly remember what it tasted like, but I remember the experience of my first coffee. It was brewed in the most traditional of ways possible; roasted in a skillet over a fire pit, ground by hand, brewed in a clay jug, filtered through a wad of horse hair. It may very well have tasted horrible. It might have tasted amazing. It doesn’t matter what it tasted like for 7-year-old me, because the coffee ceremony in Eritrea is so much more than just making a coffee, and it set me up for a lifelong obsession with the stuff.
I had a very interesting life at that time. We had been posted to a country in North-Eastern Africa that most people had never heard of. A country that had spent the last 35 years engaged in revolutionary war. A war that had killed off 90% of the animal population, destroyed most of the border villages, and had left behind so many landmines that it was unsafe to walk anywhere that was not a paved road. A war that shaped the culture of the people by producing a generation that only ever knew
conflict and yet formed some of the most resilient, most accepting, and beautiful people I had ever met. I was in a school where there were a whopping 4 kids in my entire year (including me) and just one teacher. My only friends were the other diplomat’s children and the Eritrean kids that didn’t mind complete non-verbal communication, they just wanted to play cricket in the street outside of our house.
On one of our few trips outside of the city (remember, they were not encouraged because of the landmines that were everywhere… Yes, everywhere. I can’t tell you how many times we would see the effect those nasty things have on every part of daily life in Eritrea) we had a chance to visit the homes of an Eritrean family that worked with the embassy. They invited us to join them in a coffee ceremony which we were more than happy to be a part of. The actual ceremony is more about community than anything else. Folks from Eritrea and some surrounding areas take a lot of time out of their days to come together to talk and make connection around this coffee experience. I remember it as being an almost surreal experience, but everyone was so casual. This is their time of day to relax and engage. It kind of makes you wonder if this element of coffee is something we are missing in Australian culture. We have put the most emphasis on quick, takeaway, something-to-start-your-day coffees, and don’t really use it as a social device except on the weekends, and only, it seems, to catch up with a friend who you don’t get to see enough of. I make no claims to be anything near an expert on cultural psychology or sociology, but if you will allow my personal take on things… Looking back it really did seem like the groups of people who engage in this daily ritual of drinking coffee and taking an hour or more, several times a day, to connect and talk and laugh, were all much happier, despite living in conditions (war, climate, infrastructure) that many of us would consider appalling.
I guess what I am trying to say is: If we drank coffee in a way where we took the time to talk and enjoy the company of others, meet someone new and to decompress, I think we would all benefit from it.
How did this become a career in coffee you ask? I had originally decided to go back to university after my time in the military, but I was a family man at that point and knew I needed to work while studying. I thought that working as a barista would work well with timing, allowing me to work weekend shifts. So I walked straight into the best café
I could find and asked for a job. Looking back, I don’t really know how that worked… I had no experience in coffee or hospitality, but I guess the boss saw – ahem – potential in me.
I got on the tools and was opening and closing the shop by myself within about a month. All this while I am researching courses and starting to draft up applications to universities in Sydney. After a while, as I became more confident working the espresso machine, I had the opportunity to play around with some single origin coffees after hours, before we served them in the bar the next day.
One day, I was playing around with some coffees when I came across a natural processed Ethiopian coffee. Dialling it in and tasting it for the first time, I had two tremendous sensations simultaneously . One was a profound realisation that this coffee, being so very different from any other coffee that we had served in the café so far, was a shining example of the sheer variety that can exist in the flavour of coffee. The second was a huge hit of nostalgia; a sensory memory recall that was so powerful I had to sit down until it passed. I was instantly transported back to Eritrea and my childhood tastes. I later identified this as the typical flavour you can expect in many natural processed African coffees.
This feeling was so profound that I am positive that very evening, during a frantic brainstorm, I decided to commit to coffee as a profession.
I wanted to learn everything I could about coffee now that I had the smallest glimpse into what coffee could taste like. I knew that it can be, and will be, so much more than just a bitter beverage you use to kickstart your day. That idea, coupled with a now rekindled personal connection with coffee, drove me to learn as much as I could about this amazing stuff.
So. Here I am, having the chance to work with some of the most respected coffee professionals in Australia from different roasters and different parts of the coffee chain, all with the common goal to improve the way the world drinks coffee…
I couldn’t be happier.