As planned and promised, I went to MacBeans for a chat over coffee with its owner to find out a bit more about this single local bean provider and roaster in Aberdeen. A short reconnoissance visit turned into a four hour stay, which engaged all of my senses in what turned out to be a captivating insight into the ‘behind the scenes’ of a wholehearted coffee shop. Within these few hours I got to feel like a part of the MacBeans family, which as a package includes a good dose of caffeine – and coffee education. This sure was an intense learning session…
Predisposed for success
Ian Cukrowski has just the right name for the job, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first glance. When we happened to digress in our conversation from coffee to tea, he knew I must be taking mine with lemon; although born and raised in Dunfermline, his dad was Polish, so he knows our ways. Despite that commerce is in his blood – his grandfather used to own some ‘kiosk’s’ before the War – the only retail-inheritance Ian got from his dad was the last name, which in Polish loosely translates as “sugary”.
This seeming predisposition did not, however, affect Ian’s choice of career in the first place. Having studied Biology at Dundee, Ian moved to Aberdeen where he initially worked as a Waste Water Laboratory Technician with Aberdeen Council, later becoming an Offshore Chemist within the Oil industry where after 2 years fate had it that two vacancies for permanent positions on Piper Alpha became available of which Ian was given one… and later fate saved his life.
“I was working a two-on two-off shift pattern, and it was during one of my two weeks off when the disaster struck. 167 fellow workers including my back–to-back were killed that night.
“It got to me quite badly. After what had happened, I decided I couldn’t stay in the industry and I knew I’d never continue indefinitely. I continued for about 6 months as the mortgage still had to be paid, but I had lost all my confidence in the industry. I needed to find something new to do in life.
“In the years before, whenever I went to see my parents in Dunfermline for Christmas, I’d take a detour via Dundee to visit ‘Braithwaites’, a very old coffee shop, to buy the Earl Grey tea that they loved.
“One day after Piper Alpha I was returning from Dunfermline to Aberdeen by train and got off at Dundee just to buy some of that tea for myself . On leaving Dundee and just as the train was entering the long tunnel before Broughty Ferry, I thought to myself: <<Why is it that I had to make that stop? Why can’t I get that tea in Aberdeen?>> As the train emerged from the tunnel, I knew what I would do next with my life.
” Suddenly, as if a light had just come on in my head, I saw the hole in the market I’d been looking for and thought <<If I can’t buy this quality of tea in Aberdeen then why don’t I do it myself!>>”
With this new drive Ian commenced his research into what it would have taken to set up a business. He was advised that to hope for any profit he would have to also be selling coffee, and best if he could roast it himself. Although he was told it would take him years to gain the right experience of the roasting and blending processes, unfazed he took up the idea and rented a shop on Little Belmont Street in 1989 .
“We would have been far ahead of Starbucks if the council was a bit more open-minded in those days. The place was deemed too small and lacking the facilities to turn it into a cafe, which then would have been considered a restaurant and would have to fall under appropriate regulations.”
After a difficult first year, the recorded losses discouraged his business partner from hanging on, so Ian tightened his belt and bought his share to become a sole owner. Five years later he sold his house to buy the new build across the road, where MacBeans still operates today.
Man of own Principles
“Some people ask if we have Fairtrade Coffee, and I tend to get into a discussion with them then: <<Why do you want Fairtrade?>> Some say the taste is different, but mainly it’s because they feel like they’re doing a good deed. When I say we have Rainforest Alliance coffees, that’s usually good enough for them.
“I do have a few Fairtrade coffees,” Ian said as he showed me a bag with a printed certification, “but I can’t sell it as such, because I don’t have a licence. I used to have it, but what it came down to was a lot of paper work and bureaucracy that seemed to end up funding Fairtrade offices in London.”
The collection of green coffees Ian has in his cellar is impressive, to say the least. Behind the barrels of single-origin beans from across the world, and those with mixed coffees, ready for roasting as a blend, there are 60kg bags of fresh supply, awaiting their turn to be opened and roasted.
“I have visited numerous plantations in Kenya, Guatemala, Costa Rica Brazil, Colombia and Sumatra, and have seen with my own eyes how the coffee is cultivated, and in what conditions the farmers work and live. Take the example of the Daterra plantation – set up by a Brazilian billionaire, it is the most impressive plantation I have ever seen – with the most advanced environmental practices. Yet, because they are not a co-op, they cannot fit under the Fairtrade label.
“Fairtrade can significantly reduce your chances of getting a special, unprecedented product; the methods of cultivation used by some of the non-affiliated plantations produce the most memorable coffee, and a highly unique product. Several times I had to bid for a batch that was still being dried – take Toraja as an example, of which the whole crop from one of the ‘micro lots’ was mine, and the next buyer was bidding for the cherries still on the trees. A few times I have been the sole or one of two exclusive buyers of a batch of coffee in the whole of UK.
“If I didn’t know how the coffee was being produced, or if I didn’t approve of the methods, I simply wouldn’t buy it. People tend to be adverse to Kopi Luwak, because of the concerns that have been raised over the treatment of the animals. But when I visited the Wahanna Plantation in Sumatra in 2001 I saw the Lewaks [Indonesian Civet cat] myself; one of them followed its keeper around the plantation like some small dog, so obviously, they didn’t feel maltreated. Because of that I know that the Kopi Luwak I get and then roast is all but a treat.”
The Pleasure in the Business
As we were standing in the coffee cellar chatting, the warmth from the oven felt very comforting and the smell of the roasting beans was simply mesmerising – I finally discovered how accurate the comparison to popping corn was, especially when the beans were released from the oven and created a symphony of popping sound and smell.
To compliment that, Ian showed me his aroma tool: a set of over 40 aroma bottles with descriptions, such as “rubber”, “butter” and “toast” – smells that can be identified in different coffee roasts; but he didn’t stop there. I was invited to undertake a blind cupping test, where, together with the staff present, I had to identify the four coffees he brewed, just by using my nose and the sip-and-spit technique you might know from performing wine tasting. It was a tricky task, but the major differences between the brews were quite noticeable.
“I tend to get customers who come in and ask: <<Do you have something new?>> I’m tempted to reply: <<Have you tried all the coffees available?>> I try to stock exclusives or special coffees every now and again, but there is so much to choose from already – some people just don’t know what they like. A tasting like this can give you a general idea of the variety of coffees and how they differ.
“That’s why I put out a coffee of the month – it helps people make their choice, especially that it’s slightly discounted. At the same time, it gives them the opportunity to try something new every month.
“Of course, coffee is a commodity and it’s there to be enjoyed. I have customers who come in only once a year. It is an expensive treat – because, it is true, £4.50 for a small bag is not a small spend – but it cannot be fully enjoyed if you don’t have a comparison with anything else for the rest of the year. On the other extreme, there are customers who are not afraid to spend regularly £20 on their favourite coffee, because they believe they deserved it.
“Either way, the business is going well. Also, we will soon be launching an e-commerce website, on top of our established mail service, so that will boost the sales a bit. Because I source and roast my own coffee on the premisses, I dictate the prices – they could be higher, but there’s no need for that, and so I can cater for all types of customers.”
Apart from stocking up their own shelves, MacBeans also supply coffee to local offices, restaurants and coffee shops, one of which is Kilau Coffee situated at the University of Aberdeen campus. In the time that I spent at the shop, four roasting cycles took place – most of which was Kilau’s exclusive blend of ‘K2’ which was specially created by Ian to meet the spec given by the owners of Kilau. It seemed to me that the only thing really missing at MacBeans was a cafe service.
“If I opened a cafe, I would probably lose my trade customers with whom I would then be competing. I believe that everyone should focus on what they specialise in and for me that is the roasting and blending of coffee and not being a Barista.
“I have been running this business for over 20 years, and have developed great knowledge on how the business works. Not just of coffee, but also of the market and the needs of my customers. We do get busy periods, but we try and chat with our customers as much as possible and hope that this creates a sense of service and community that the Supermarkets cannot offer. And that’s a great aspect of this job.”
As another wave of customers flooded the small store, I took my leave, but not without some new supplies – this time the Mountain Blend, which captivated me with its sweet nutty smell and dark roast. First thing I did upon returning home was to switch the Espresso machine on and brew a double shot: it was smooth, with a syrupy texture and a sweet mellow finish… and as I was sipping on it I could still hear the beans popping somewhere in the background…
MacBeans Coffee & Tea 2 Little Belmont Street, Aberdeen, AB10 1JG tel: 01224 624757