In most commercial kitchens, chefs earn their stripes by working their way up the ladder of authority. You might be preternaturally talented, but that won’t stop you from having to chop vegetables and sweep the floors for your first few years in the business.
According to Tim Williams, the same is true in coffee roasting. Williams has roasted, brewed, imported and experimented with coffee around the world. In London he worked for Workshop Coffee (the company that Melbourne’s St. Ali had, at the time, licensed its name to) and cult roaster Square Mile Coffee, as well as Intelligentsia Coffee in Los Angeles.
“Everyone had to feed through this really old-school, hierarchical system,” says Williams. “There were a lot of people with really good ideas who wanted to be involved [in the upper echelons], but you can only have one roaster, you can only have one green buyer.” (A green buyer is someone who chooses which coffee a company buys for roasting and selects the beans – it’s a venerated position in the industry, and due to the industry’s structure, coffee companies need to get very, very large before requiring more than one roaster and green buyer.)
“Typically those ideas either go unheard – the employees go looking for a company with a shorter ladder to climb, or they leave the industry,” he explains.
While Williams was in London, fellow Melbourne expat Tim Varney was working at Tim Wendelboe’s roastery and espresso bar (it’s also a coffee school) in Oslo. Varney had also done a stint in London with Italian coffee giant Illy, but it was in Norway that Varney and Williams met.
“I was behind the bar. An Australian walks in, his name was Tim as well, we fell in love,” jokes Varney. “We were both in the industry, both learning the ropes, and had a lot to share.”
That was 10 years ago, and though the pair already had frustrations with the strictures of the roasting industry, it was more recently that the idea for their current venture, a collaborative roasting space called Bureaux Collective, began percolating.
“We wanted to build a platform where people bring their ideas and cut out that ten years of scooping coffee into a bag, or sweeping coffee beans off the floor,” Williams says. Those ideas might be as complex and long-term as developing initiatives to build relationships with farmers, to singular concepts around blending and packaging, to focusing on a rare flavour profile. They envisioned a model that provided would-be roasters with access to equipment, training and support – something that seemed like it should exist, but didn’t.
“The hard thing is financing a roastery, and all of the maintenance and back-of-house stuff,” Williams says. “We’re pretty experienced in that – we can provide that.
“We say bring your ideas. We’ll show you the basic skills, the safety, and the techniques to help you achieve them. We’ll let you test them out through a weekly membership, rather than building your own roastery to start.”
Opened last year, Bureaux is as much about equality as it is about innovation. Any cafe owner, barista or coffee fanatic can sign up to be a ‘member’ of the collective, which gives them access to the Bureaux facility, housed in a vast grey warehouse in Cremorne.
Bureaux occupies the ground floor of the building, which it shares with an interior design firm and Top Paddock’s roasting company, Square One.
Behind two glass doors sits the hulking black Probat P12 roasting machine. The sterile quality of the warehouse is counteracted by the warm, comforting smell of cooking coffee beans.
To the right of the machine is a “cupping” table, where people are busy taste-testing beans they’ve just roasted. A packaging section – useful for small-batch producers – is located at the back, as is a devoted table where members can sample the espresso extracted from their product.
Melbourne roaster Wood & Co. was one of Bureaux’s first members. Owner Aaron Wood already knew how to roast his own beans and was saving for a roastery of his own. In the meantime, Varney and Williams gave him access to the equipment at Bureaux.
“These opportunities simply didn’t exist before,” Williams says. “If you wanted to roast for yourself you could approach a friend who had a roastery, but you are crashing on their sofa.”
Bureaux’s members come in all shapes, sizes and experience levels. Membership buys admission to Bureaux’s state-of-the-art facility, and just as important, access to Varney and Williams’ tutelage for as long as it is needed, as well as to Jo Watson, the company’s community coordinator, who previously worked with Workshop Coffee, Paramount and Higher Ground.
The pair has also created learning modules for debut roasters – they say that in 12 to 16 weeks, a member becomes self-sufficient.
“Assembly was a pioneer of a new model,” Varney explains. “Traditionally, a cafe would be married to one roaster, who locked you in with a ‘free’ espresso machine and grinders that you paid for through the coffee you bought. Assembly broke the mould by owning all their own equipment, which allowed them to buy coffee from a range of different roasters – cherry-picking from the best beans.”
Assembly has now gone one step further, selecting raw coffee from around the world, and taking charge of the roasting process themselves.
Everyday Coffee’s Aaron Maxwell knew Varney from the Melbourne coffee scene and was one of the first to join the collective. (Varney approached him about the concept before he had secured the Cremorne space or bought a roaster.) All of Everyday’s single origin espresso and filter coffees are roasted in Cremorne.
Both the quality and quantity of cafes and coffee specialists that have turned to Bureaux in its short life is testament to the need for the service. After less than a year in the shared space, there is already talk of expansion.
“We’d like to do more of these,” says Williams, though there’s no concrete timeline for additional locations. “It’s very geographically limited [now]. If you’re roasting coffee here, you can’t really be driving for more than half an hour. That’s not really a convenient model.”
Other plans include facilitating more interaction between members and tackling gender diversity in coffee roasting through the creation of a scholarship. “It’s just so ‘bro’, you know?” says Williams.
Although plans for Bureaux are diverse and far-reaching, at the end of the day, the goal is “to see cafes, baristas, managers [and] owners who have really great ideas, see those ideas come to fruition”, Williams says.
“This is a whole new market of roasters that is being established – who never would have roasted otherwise, who never would have had the chance to buy raw coffee.”
“We’re just so hell-bent on making it accessible, and easy, and not making it a giant headache,” Varney adds. “We have people walk away being like, ‘What’s the catch? There’s some catch here’.”
He laughs, but neither one is joking. There’s no catch, and their aim is nothing short of revolution.
Bureaux Collective is located at 29a Gwynne Street, Cremorne. Visits by appointment only.