Superlatives: Manhattan Coffee Roasters
June’s Superlatives is brought to you by Manhattan Coffee Roasters, from Rotterdam in the Netherlands — a fresh-crop Kenyan from Kirinyaga. Esther Maasdam and Ben Morrow, the team behind Manhattan Coffee Roasters, have repeatedly shown their skills on the competition circuit. They’re now placing that same competitive spirit and drive for excellence into their new roasting venture. We had an opportunity to sit down for a chat and find out a little more about them.
Esther officially started working in coffee in 2005, but her passion began earlier. The eldest of three, Esther often hiked with her family in the Pyrenees and she spent much of her youth involved with scouting. It was on one of those trips — a survival hike — that Esther decided to give this coffee thing a go.
Her family wasn’t into coffee much (“my mum never drank coffee and my dad was all about instant cappuccinos”) but after a long hike the previous day, an evening cooking on an open fire, and sleeping in a self-made treehouse, Esther wanted coffee. “The organisers had provided us with coffee beans only — no equipment or filters — so everyone bailed. But I'm always up for a challenge, so I took it upon myself to get a brew.” Esther made a fire and boiled water in a tin she brought with her. She then found an empty plastic coke bottle, cut off the top section, took the cap off, and placed the top back in the bottle upside down — creating a kind of Chemex-style coke bottle. She used toilet paper for a filter and ground the beans using the back of an axe. “That doesn't provide the best particle size distribution, but hey, it was ground nonetheless,” she said. So after the water boiled, she brewed her first cup of coffee. “To this day, it remains the best cup I’ve ever made.”
Ben’s love for all things coffee took a different path. “I was studying music and needed money,” Ben said. A friend worked for a small company which made artisanal breads and they roasted coffee for themselves. “They gave me a job and I got interested in the coffee side, wanting to know more about how it could taste, where it came from, and so on.”
The game changer was at the (then) East Brunswick Project (now Padre) — where Ben drank a milk coffee that tasted like toffee.
“I’d never had that level or natural sweetness in coffee before, and it spurred me on. His search for more knowledge landed him a job with Sensory Lab/St. Ali group. “Without a doubt, I learnt more there than anywhere else.”
Entering the professional world of coffee followed a similar route for Esther. “While studying, I looked for a specific job — I wanted to learn a craft, be hands on, and work with quality products in a nice environment. I wanted it to be something I could do to make people happy.”
Esther found coffee. She worked for two years as a barista in the Netherlands at exhibitions, festivals and parties. Moving into a barista co-ordinator role for the company, she was in charge of hiring, training and guiding the barista team for six years.
Esther and Ben both found success in their jobs, but it was on the competition stage they excelled, nationally and internationally. In her first year of competition, Esther was 3rd in the Dutch Latte Art Championships in 2009, motivating her to do better. She was then Dutch Latte Art Champion in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014; and was 5th in the World Latte Art Championships in 2013. Ben, aka the #latteartcowboy, won the New York Coffee Masters in 2015; while in 2016, he won the London Coffee Masters and was the Australian Latte Art Champion.
The competition successes have helped push Esther to do more. “I bought my own machine, put many hours in creating the patterns, practicing the routine, and perfecting my pouring.”
This investment in time, resources, and finances has led to a nuanced view on competitions.
“When I first started, I was super exited and passionate,” Esther said. “But I lost that a bit when I moved into the organisational side of the coffee company.” She then met Rahwa who, although new to coffee, wanted to be a world barista champion, which in turn, (as her mentor) ignited Esther’s passion for coffee again. “So for me, coffee competitions are a way of keeping the passion alive.”
But the financial strain is very real. “After buying a Linea and spending a crazy amount on electricity bills as I built a competition setup in my home, I couldn’t afford rent, so I had to move to an anti-squad house. It has been completely nuts at times, but I do not regret it. I see it as an investment you make in yourself and in your career. I was not rich, I didn't have backing from a company; I just took all my holiday days, emptied the bank account, and went in head first. And it has brought me to where I am today. Being in the midst of a wonderful international coffee community, getting great business opportunities and lots of travel — it’s made it all worthwhile.”
Ben lays out the finances required rather bluntly: “If you haven’t got money… well, you’re very, very unlikely to win,” Ben said. “The entry in the Australian competition alone is pretty outrageous at $420 plus for a solo entry, not to mention equipment, mise en place, the coffee itself (which ridiculously and more recently somehow requires an origin trip to have more impact with the judges) and the sheer amount of time and effort. (#notgettingpaid)
“I feel like the WCE coffee competitions do serve a purpose: they push the industry in a direction that ideally would make coffee better everywhere, and that’s noble. But, well, let me start with the WBC. That competition is not built for a barista in any way. The service is absolutely not anything like what role a barista actually does, nor is it a test of whether you can make coffee well — and therefore is not a barista competition.
“All of which for most people leads up to a fairly dissatisfying outcome, with judges simply disagreeing with you in their scores in the briefing at the end. Now with that in mind, yes — you really do learn a lot about a subject you probably wouldn't otherwise research. But let’s be serious, if you had the lump sum of what you would spend in a year (let alone several years) of competition, you could simply fund any type of research you would privately desire.”
Esther offers a different view on competitions: “I think some people trying their luck at competing and not getting these same end results have a bit of a misjudged idea that it will come easy and quick. Most coffee professionals taking something away from these competitions have also been giving things up: time, money, social life, relationships, to name a few. When I hear that I’m just ‘talented’, I show them my 2009 competition pours — they sucked. I have no talent, it has been only hard work. When you realise this and you're up for it, these competitions can really move you places. On that same note, it has really pushed me to improve myself and question everything I thought I knew or did. I would have never made the steps in my knowledge, experience and career without the competitions.”
And where can it take you? Well for Esther and Ben, it’s Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and a new joint venture: Manhattan Coffee Roasters.
“It’s always been in the plans to start up a roaster,” Ben said. “Getting onto the roaster was pretty interesting. We came into a great opportunity which got us access to a Giesen coffee roaster and we kicked it off from there. A lot of probe installation and drilling, working hard to get the upgrades we wanted and Cropster. Getting on top of logistics was somewhat difficult. Building a strong network in Europe, with as many people in coffee as I could to get us the kind of green coffee we wanted was a fair bit of hard work, but worthwhile. I’ve met so many great humans working in the trade here.”
A “cool thing” that has happened is a win at the Dutch Barista Championship but it wasn’t without hard work and sweating it out on the roaster. “I don’t think I’ve actually been nervous before I had to roast a charge of top-end Geisha — the sweats were real,” Ben said.
Ben and Esther keep the general philosophy behind Manhattan Coffee Roasters simple.
“Both of us just want to make delicious coffees,” Esther said. “We definitely don't wanna make any concessions in the quality and flavour profiles of the coffees we want to put out there. We don't want to price fight anyone and don't need to be in every corner cafe. We want to work with people and companies that also want deliciousness.
“We have a worldwide view that we would rather have our coffee in 10 different cities than in 10 cafes in the same city.”
For Ben, it’s “about coffee that’s sweet and tastes of where it’s from. I really just want to bring coffee in that I can honestly say ‘that tastes like here’. I truly believe you can internalize that taste memory; coffee growers already do it and I’m endeavouring to get that kind of attitude out there.”
As for the name? “At first, we couldn’t come up with anything we both agreed on,” Ben said. “Then I recalled the Hotel New York in the Rotterdam Harbour. It got me thinking about the rich history of the port (being one of the largest European import and export zones for the last 200 years) and how it would be great to play on Rotterdam and Holland's long history in coffee. We also wanted to come up with something that was global. ‘Manhattan’ is, and it’s also something that appeals to locals. Our logo is based on the Erasmusbrug bridge which also known as the ‘swan’. It’s one of my favourite modern bridges, named after a humanitarian philosopher. It’s a symbol that to me represents the city of Rotterdam and the future too.”
Describing her professional achievements, Esther says those are the facts. But in her heart, she has simply fallen in love with coffee — the product, the process, the people. “My main drive is to learn more, but my main goal is to spread and pass on the knowledge and passion. It’s also what keeps me going. I love giving courses, but will always help starting baristas in either finding a good place to work and learn, or coach them in competing. With this objective in mind I would like to build our company bigger so I can have my own place to take baristas in while also expand the courses I give.
“When I began, I never thought it was possible to do any of the things I have done in coffee,” Ben said. “I never expected to travel the world bringing coffee to people or be someone’s ‘hero’ — but I’ve really felt that in recent times and appreciate I every minute.”
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