Coffee People: Interview with Piia Võrk

Coffee People are one of the pillars of the Estonian coffee scene. They are well known for their beans, and not just in Estonia. Their reputation is international. Yet they agreed to this interview without any issue. Imagine my surprise. 

Who are Coffee People?

Coffee People is an Estonian roastery with a bold goal – making the best coffee in the world, right here, in Estonia. How did they get that idea? Who are Coffee People, and what’s the secret to their success? We will find out. 

But first, official info. Coffee People roastery is located in Sära tee 9/1, Peetri. For non-Estonians, just a bit southwest of the Tallinn airport. You will find the roastery, coffee shop, and office, all in the same place. You can even book the whole tour to see where the magic happens. Coffee People don’t hide anything from their customers.

Coffee People - picture from Tallinn Coffee Fest 2021
Coffee People – picture from Tallinn Coffee Fest 2021

History

Coffee People started as a dream of two people, Annar Alas and Heili Politanov. Both coffee judges and dedicated to finding the best coffee beans and bringing them to Estonian coffee aficionados. When Johan Rohtla joined Coffee People as the new roaster (2015), the company gained a valuable step up. Johan Rohtla is their chief roaster, quality manager, and specialist in biochemistry and molecular biology. Also, Johan is the name behind KOHE Coffee, but more on that on the next occasion.

The company started as a Gourmet Coffee in 2007. They were pioneers of speciality coffee on the Estonian market. Gourmet Coffee is also the name of the cafe near Kadriorg, owned by the same people. It was the first cafe in Tallinn that popularised new coffee trends. We are talking about drip coffee, AeroPress, Chemex, and other previously unseen methods on the Estonian coffee scene. A valuable step forward from the traditional espresso culture.

Later, the roastery started doing business under a new name – Coffee People. They decided they wanted to distinguish their roastery business from their cafe. 

Coffee People online

If you want to find the Coffee People, it would be impolite to just barge in, especially in these pandemic times. Visit their official page. The homepage design is quite unusual, but you will find all the necessary info and links there, including:

  • Barista training
  • Blog section
  • Contact 
  • E-shop offer of beans, accessories, machines and much more
  • Test – what coffee beans will suit you the most
  • Subscription plans

As Coffee People strives to be a modern company, they are active on Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin. Also, you can contact any member of their team personally, on a phone number provided in the Contact section.

The Contact section amazed me. You can find the contact info for all the members of the Coffee People team, from CEOs to roastmasters, production managers, and service technicians. 

Our goal was to find someone who we can talk to in a relaxed yet professional manner. We contacted Piia Võrk, the person in charge of barista training and HoReCa sales. Perfect. A few emails later, we had a Zoom interview agreement. Here is the transcription.

“We are always on the market to find even better beans than we had on the table before. We don’t want any mediocre beans”

Piia Võrk

Estonia Coffee: the Coffee People interview

Interviewer: Jozo Salmanic, writer for Estonia Coffee

Interviewee: Piia Võrk, Barista Trainer and HoReCa Sales for Coffee People

Date: Friday, November 2021.

Meeting place: Zoom meeting. Pandemic times.

The polite start

EC: I am Jozo, and I write for Estonia Coffee. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell me more about yourself and your job?

Piia: Hi, I’m Piia. Currently, I work as an HoReCa sales manager in Coffee People. I used to work in Gourmet Coffee Kadriorg which is owned by Coffee People as well. I was a barista for almost six years, and now I’m on the production side. Currently, I do seminars, marketing, and taking care of small details that help this company run smoother. Descriptions, website, sales, you name it. I also train the baristas. 

EC: So you do almost everything?

Piia: Almost everything, but not quite everything.

The bold claim

EC: Coffee People’s LinkedIn profile says that you guys have the best coffee in the world. How can you prove that?

Piia: Well, it varies on different specifications. Also, it depends on what do people think, what is the best coffee? It all depends on the taste flavour as well. We have been working really well on the Estonian coffee market, as well as the Baltics. Also, some of our coffees have travelled all the way to Australia and USA. We are on the market around the globe, not just in Estonia. We strive to have the best coffee in the world, and the feedback has always been positive.

EC: So, no complaints?

Piia: Some people might see the acidity side as a bit too harsh, but that is the beauty of specialty coffee.

EC: Your coffee comes from micro-lots?

Piia: Yes. We like micro-lots. They are our passion, and those people have an exceptional knowledge about growing coffee. They know what standards we have. We are always on the market to find even better beans than we had on the table before. We don’t want any mediocre beans. That’s not how we do it.

Coffee People farm in Colombia - pic from their Facebook page
Coffee People farm in Colombia – pic from their Facebook page

Webpage and e-shop

EC: We noticed your webpage has some minor issues.

Piia: We are in the final stage of creating our new webpage. The old one has been working, but not how we want to. Our new web page should be launched by the end of this year (2021.) if everything goes as planned. All of the issues that we have currently on the web page will be resolved. The new one will be, of course, better. It just needs some time.

EC: We also noticed some big players from the coffee industry there in your Partners section. 

Piia: Yes. For instance, Ronnefeldt. We are the only Estonian company that has Ronnefeldt products in our standard offer. The same thing with Fellow. And that’s just the small part of our offer.

The personal touch

EC: Any plans of making your beans available on Amazon or some other large platform?

Piia: We are still a small roastery. If we put our coffee on Amazon or eBay, we can’t guarantee those quantities. The same thing goes on with our micro-lots. We can’t replace our micro-batches that easily, once they ran out.  That’s why our main focus is on our web page. You have all of the latest information up there, the newest coffees, our brand-new products. Also, people can get to know our story there. For instance, our CEO Annar has visited most of the farms that we have on the shelves in the store right now, so we have this personal connection. We don’t want to be just another Amazon link. We want that people feel our relationship with the coffee farms.

EC: But what if somebody wants more info about your beans?

Piia: You can always write us an email or call us and get more information. Our sales assistant always gets some sort of email from people asking for information or our recommendation. If we put our coffees on Amazon store, we would lose the meaning of the direct trade. We always buy our coffee directly from the farmers. Then we get the coffees shipped here, and then it’s all a see-through process. There are no additional channels in between. This is why we try to keep it simple. We are slowly growing, but we still have a personal touch.

Coffee connections in Estonia

EC: Do you still have contacts with your former colleagues? We see that some of them left the Coffee People and started their own companies, like Rocket Bean or The Brick.

Piia: Yeah, of course. I can mostly tell you about The Brick Coffee and Henry Politanov. I used to work in the Gourmet Coffee Kadriorg, as I told you. Heili Politanov runs the cafe, and Henry is her son. When I go to Telliskivi to meet up with our clients, I always pop by his place. Henry is an awesome guy. For the Rocket Bean, they are in Latvia, so we don’t see each other that often. But yeah, we do keep in contact with our old colleagues. We had one old colleague popped by today to buy coffee, so we still know what they are doing. Estonian coffee family is small, and everyone knows everyone.

EC: What’s the story with Villa Casdagli Coffee?

Piia: One of our long-time business partners opened a cigar place here in Old Town. He likes Coffee People coffee, so we did branding for him. He selected the shade-grown Guatemala beans. When buying that coffee, you can pick between light and medium roast. This coffee is chocolaty and very smooth. It has been chosen to pair the Casdagli cigars perfectly.

Coffee People barista training

EC: About barista training. How does it go with Coffee People? 

Piia: Usually, around seven to eight hours long barista training. It starts with the basics. We do a quick tour of our warehouse. You can see the production of the coffee, how it is being roasted, from getting the green beans to the labelling and packaging. So you can see firsthand that we don’t have anything like fishy behind closed doors. Then we’re going to go to the second floor. This is where we have the barista training room. We have espresso machines there, grinders, and the rest of the equipment. 

We can talk about safety, how to change the coarseness and such. Of course, we talk about the history of coffee and all of the basic facts. We even do a quick quiz to double-check if you listened to me. Then we go to making espressos, then steaming milk, latte art… Then we go to machine maintenance. You learn what processes every barista has to do at the end of his shift. Then same throughout the day, once a week, and some things like that. The basic training lasts around seven to eight hours.

The bilingual barista course

EC: Of course, the course is available in English, too? It’s not limited to Estonian speakers.

Piia: Yeah. Well, you can hear me. I speak English very well. So yeah, I do the barista training in Estonian and in English. 

We have three levels of barista training. The first level is basic barista skills. The second one is learning about filter coffee. I am going to talk about all of the recipes of Chemex, V60, AeroPress, syphon. And then we have pour-over coffees and recipes for them, too. The third level we have is the cupping process and the types of coffee that end on the market. They will learn all the differences. If you have all levels from one, two, to three, I can retire.

Coffee People certificate

EC: What is the value of the Coffee People barista certificate? How does it differ from the other barista certificates in Estonia?

Piia: We have been doing barista training since 2014. We have had baristas with Coffee People certificates go and get a job as a barista in, for instance, Australia. Our branding and certificates are well known in Estonia. When people see the Coffee People logo, then they automatically connect it with high-quality standards. They know they can trust the baristas. They know that they will get a good cup of coffee.

Coffee People certificate – pic from their Facebook page

Roastery tour 

EC: Is there an option of a group tour throughout your facility? I have a small inner circle of Latin American guys and girls wanting to know more about coffee. We would like to visit your roastery.

Piia: Yeah. Yeah, we do group tours. We do the regular group tours that start with the production side and end with a cupping table. So we have all of our Coffee People coffees, and I explain the difference between them. For instance, there are 100+ different Arabica species out there. The smaller tours usually last an hour and a half or two. It depends on how many questions do I get asked and how much information the people can take. I could talk about coffee for hours. 

Coffee drinking habits in Estonia

EC: Specialty coffee means changing the old fashioned way of drinking coffee in Estonia. How do you fight old fashion coffee-drinking habits?

Piia: We have been not fighting it but trying to teach more people. For instance, the difference between mass-produced coffee and quality speciality coffee? It takes a lot of time, and we usually rely on word of mouth. You talk to your friends, they talk to their friends… And then you have this new community of people who understand the same principle. There is not just one way to drink your coffee, black, milk and sugar. There are many different coffees. All of the coffees taste different. We are not that vocal about it. Everyone has their right or opinion on how they want to drink coffee. Some people want a black filter coffee, or only drink long Americanos or use their Jura machines.  We just try to get people to be aware of the difference. More coffees exist, not just one big coffee brand that you buy from a store shelf. There are small producers here in Estonia as well. 

“People know what they get when they buy a coffee from us, and they will never settle for anything less.”

Piia Võrk

Starting a coffee business

EC: Can you tell me more about Estonian small roasteries?

Piia: For the past five years, a lot of top-notch roasters have opened up their places. Most of them have been connected or have worked here in Coffee People as well. The awareness takes a little bit of time, but this new generation is growing up. They want to know where their coffee comes from. They are willing to learn or investigate more, and we feel so good about it. We don’t have anything to hide. We are more than willing to talk more and explain the stories, again and again, and always. It is an amazing feeling when people come here to visit us. If you are here in the warehouse, you can see what’s happening. There are no grey areas. You see the green coffee going in and all of the process details. From the packaging and then actually try out the coffee on the cupping table. So it’s all very transparent.

Starting a cafe with the help of Coffee People

EC: If someone wants to start his business, from scratch to a fully functioning cafe, can Coffee People offer all the necessities?

Piia: Yes. I do HoReCa sales. If a person walks in and wants to open up their cafe, we can do it. We have the technician, machines, grinders, filter systems, coffees, cacao, sugars, takeaway cups, training…  Everything can be combined.

Coffee People cup - from their e-shop
Coffee People cup – from their e-shop

EC: One more question. I have seen you sell ceramic cups for €30 per piece. What are those cups? Why that price?

Piia: Yes, those are Fellow cups. The Fellow is a USA company that produces coffee equipment. The design of their Monty cups has won some prestigious awards. They are made from double-wall ceramics with a copper or granite bottom. They keep your coffee hot for a longer time. Also, they are stackable, durable and perfect for latte art. You can even customize them for branding.

Small company with big goals and great marketing

EC: How many people work at the Coffee People?

Piia: Twelve.

EC: I expected at least 50.

Piia: No, no. This is a small company. We’re slowly expanding, but our main focus is roasting the coffee and strengthening the relationships with the small coffee farmers. 

EC: Did you know that Coffee People is the second most Googled coffee-related term in Estonia? The first one is, of course, coffee.

Piia: Yes, yes, I do. And it has taken a lot of time. We have to say big thanks to our previous marketing person, she did a fantastic job. But yeah, it has taken time. Over the last 10+ years, we have made a mark on the coffee industry, at least here in Estonia. People know what they get when they buy a coffee from us, and they will never settle for anything less.

EC: To wrap this up. It has been a pleasure. Thank you very much for your time. 

Piia: Yes. Ok, well, have a good weekend. Thank you. Bye.

Conclusion

This was the most comfortable Zoom interview I had in a while. Thank you, Piia, for this opportunity. We learned so much about Coffee People, and we can’t wait for the roastery tour. We’ll post all the pictures here, we promise.

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