Proud Mary Coffee

Written for Foro, Published December 2016

Proud Mary Coffee is recognised as producers of some of Melbourne’s best coffee. From talking to founder Nolan Hirte, we discover that it’s not just about taste; but ethics, discovery, and putting yourself out there.

Proud Mary started seven years ago as a Melbourne cafe. Once they opened up their wholesale business 18 months later, they were able to supply to coffee-conscious Melbourne cafes—and there was a lot of interest. Almost two years ago now, Aunty Peg’s opened up in Collingwood, expanding the Proud Mary roasting space. The two-story generous warehouse hosts a bakery, a cellar door, temperature controlled storage rooms, and even a training school to educate the masses about coffee culture. The element that brings in Melbourne’s coffee-fanatics though? Is the sleek, intimate, and first of its kind; black-coffee bar.

At Aunty Peg’s, coffee is served black—whether it’s hot, cold, carbonated, brewed, dripped, or pressed. ‘We’ve always been pushing the boundaries of what we buy and where it comes from, the quality of it.’ Nolan Hirte tells us. He’s not against milk by any means, and gladly serves it in the Proud Mary café, explaining that different beans should be treated in different ways. ‘If it’s going to end up in a latte, my approach to it’s totally different. I would prefer to buy green beans that were low in acidity, really fat, creamy, rounded to add a bit of punch to the milk, and I would roast more out of it. I would roast it darker to make it work with milk.’ He says.

Whereas a really unique, high altitude coffee, that evokes flavours of mango, peaches and tropical fruit, Nolan tells us you wouldn’t add milk to it, or roast it dark either as it would mask and contradict the natural bean. He explains that there are 220 chemical compounds in a glass of wine, but over 800 for coffee. ‘It’s potentially far more complex than wine could ever be, but we don’t give it a chance. We roast it dark, we add sugar to it, we throw milk all over it, and then we kinda go; “Well, it’s just coffee”. Yeah okay, it is just coffee, but it can be more, and it can be really special.’ The Aunty Peg’s offering is designed to showcase the product, and the stories from the farmers that grew it.

Nolan humbly admits that he thinks it’s a general failing of baristas (including himself in the category), that they think they are the most important step. However he claims there is almost nine times the amount of work at the farm level, and the work there is intricate and complicated. ‘The way I look at it, we have incredible equipment at our fingertips as roasters and baristas. Technology has come a long way.’ He says. However he believes the value of focusing on what happens at the farm level in terms of technology, information and implementing positive improvements; ‘would far outweigh anything we’re throwing at this end.’ Nolan tells us.

With most widely consumed coffee, you can’t trace where it’s from. ‘Most likely it will be from a bunch of different producers from all over, blended into one, mixed up together, called a name and sold at commodity prices’, Nolan tells us. ‘It has no relationship to a face.’ The difference with specialty coffee is transparency and traceability. ‘We can pinpoint to the farmer, to the section on the farm, to the varietal. We can tell you a story about it, and we can tell you the price we paid for it—and what they got for it.’ Says Nolan. ‘There are no veils in between. To me that’s specialty coffee, knowing your product.’

‘There are no veils in between. To me that’s specialty coffee, knowing your product.’ – Nolan Hirte

Foro has spoken to other specialty producers in food and beverage, and found it’s a common trend to have an initial struggle with sourcing farmers. When things like organic certification muddy the water, Nolan impresses the need to ‘Get on a plane’.

His initial global trip to discover producers was thoroughly planned and structured around itineraries and tours. This didn’t go according to plan, however simply being there (in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), enabled Nolan to establish connections and continue to travel solo, in turn discovering some fantastic producers with which to work with. ‘The point being if you put yourself out there, you actually go and start looking: You may not find it straight away, but if you keep looking hard enough you will find places, and there are plenty of people out there willing to help. But unfortunately if you sit back on your couch here—Googling for answers—you may not find what you want. And you will get taken advantage of, because you’re leaving yourself wide open.’

Proud Mary work with a range of producers, every single one of which Nolan has met personally. The current farmers are from Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Brazil, Panama, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Colombia and Guatemala. ‘Last five years we’ve been going back every year and we’re really close friends. We get incredible coffee because of that relationship.’ Says Nolan, a trick of the trade that not many coffee suppliers are willing or interested to do.

The best bit about getting to know the families behind the farms is seeing them develop, and succeed along the coffee production path, Nolan tells us. ‘I like to think we create a platform for them to become known and popular through our brand, and then other people will buy their coffee.’ He says. ‘The idea is to try to make it a sustainable solution for everyone.’

He claims to not be a farmer or producer, however admits to picking up a lot of knowledge during his travels. He uses this to impart advice, or simpler ways of doing things that will add perceived value to the farmers’role. In a lot of instances, it’s finding ways in which he can pay more for their product. Seem like a backwards way of doing business? Being a decent human being isn’t so bad for the coffee trade, as Nolan tells us an example of how it panned out well: He asked a farmer to try growing a crop a unique way, and committed to buying the yield. ‘The experiment came out really freaking good, and we paid a higher price for it. Suddenly he’s able to see opportunities to get a better price for his coffee by making points of difference for us. Then I can sell that to my customers as a point of difference: you could try this one, it’s more expensive, but f***, it’s pretty special for this reason.’

And there’s the rub (or grind, if you wish): Most Melburnians aren’t prepared to pay top dollar for their morning caffeine ritual. Why not? Nolan tells us 19 years ago he worked in a café that charged $3 for a cup of coffee, while he was paying $30 rent a week. ‘Now my rent is well over ten times that, yet coffee hasn’t even doubled in price… It should have been $7 a cup a long time ago.’ He says. So do coffee drinkers simply feel entitled, because nice tasting coffee is easily accessible? Should we perhaps be more worried about where it comes from, rather than how much it costs?

‘The idea is to try to make it a sustainable solution for everyone.’ – Nolan Hirte

This is where the education piece comes in, an area Nolan is trying to foster through his Collingwood Coffee College. Because while he’s a massive fan of drinking, smelling, roasting and pretty much living coffee, the most important component is its origins from an ethical, sustainable and informative point of view. He explains that once he’d experienced that education first hand, he knew what the Proud Mary vision was. ‘Once we visited some farms, that really took that fire to a whole new level and it consumed me. There were some things that I saw that I didn’t like—that upset me—that made it clear what we need to do, and how we can make things better. Definitely being an influence in the industry, and disrupting the industry, and changing the way people think, is what we’re trying to do.’

Nolan tells us that knowing where you’re buying the product from and the people who are selling it, gives you an insight and allows you to make educated decisions. ‘I’m definitely not saying we’re changing the world, we are trying to help people by making the right decisions about where we buy our product from, and who we support.’ Being the pioneer not only for education, but flavour too; Aunty Peg’s have a ripper cold brew on tap, and espresso machines quite literally built into the concrete bar top. ‘The brand has a name for doing something niche, different and exciting.’ Says Nolan.

So next time you’re in Collingwood, swing by Proud Mary and try one of their seasonal blends, they usually have around four at a time. Or if you’re after something really unique and different, maybe an eye opening experience, visit Aunty Peg’s and prepare to taste some pretty amazing coffee, at its best.

Onwards and upwards, Proud Mary are opening up in Portland Oregon, and we can’t wait to see how they and their vision grows from there.