Growing green, with Kōkako

In the second instalment of our series on New Zealand’s coffee roasting industry, we chat to Sam McTavish, Head Roaster of Auckland’s Kōkako Organic Coffee Roasters in Mount Eden.

Kōkako was founded by Helen Ollivier and Christian Lamdin in 2005, and was the first roastery in New Zealand to sell and serve organic coffee. The opening of their Parnell micro-roastery coincided with the release of the first eight kōkako birds on Tirtiri Matangi Island, hence the name. It’s now in the ownership of Mike Murphy, who took over proceedings in 2007. “Mike has been conscious of continuing the good work of the brand founders,” Head Roaster Sam McTavish told Restaurant & Café Magazine, “ensuring that the values of quality, sustainability and innovation have been continually reinforced.”

Growing excellent coffee is a challenging and time-consuming effort; growing excellent organic coffee is nothing short of a miracle. By removing insecticides, artificial fertilisers, and other high-intensity farming methods from the production cycle, farmers face a decreased yield compared with their non-organic competitors. But McTavish doesn’t allow the challenge to overpower the business’s commitment to quality. “Kōkako has always focused on building its reputation on the basis of the quality of the coffee we roast, not the fact that we are organic,” he said, “We develop blends and search for single origins with different customers in mind, and sometimes just to suit our own palate!”

So how does one go about sourcing the best organic coffee? “Over the years we've developed a strong relationship with several coffee cooperatives in Papua New Guinea, one of our longest standing origins,” said McTavish. “We’ve travelled to work alongside them every year for the past 4 years.” Developing a working relationship with suppliers is key to maintaining the kind of transparency that consumers have come to demand – especially when it comes to organic produce. “When looking for something new we are always on the lookout for interesting, quality beans farmed by progressive cooperatives that align with our values and certifications.”

More recently, Kōkako has made the bold decision to bring an end to the ‘death before decaf’ attitude held by many coffee fanatics, with the introduction of its single origin Peruvian decaf, one of a handful of single origin decafs on the market. “The Peruvian has been incredible,” McTavish told us, “and we’re launching our second single decaf in the coming months.” Balancing such innovation with the demands of the average customer is a challenge. “Sometimes we get it wrong and sometimes we get it right but we like to be light on our feet and are always looking for something new and interesting to release.” In contrast to the business’s more unusual roasts, Kōkako’s Mahana blend was designed to work well as a milk-based coffee to keep the masses happy.

Looking forward, McTavish is optimistic about the long-standing roastery’s future. Plans are in place to open an espresso and brew bar in the Commercial Bay development in downtown Auckland. “One half of the site will be a speedy espresso bar and the other will host just 10 guests at a time at an intimate bar where we'll serve signature drinks, pour-overs and experimental coffee-infused desserts.” The new site will open in March 2020. Alongside this exciting new venture for the business, Kōkako is looking to expand its wholesale customers into the untapped waters of the lower North Island and the South Island.

Kōkako is a business which likes to do things its own way. In the 14 years since its founding, it has stuck to its principles of sourcing and serving only the best quality, organic coffee to its customers. The roastery’s next big step is to open up its retail sales to international shipping. McTavish sees this not only as a business opportunity, but a social enterprise as well. “The more we are able to grow the more Fairtrade premiums are paid back to farmers in the regions we source from - making coffee a viable income source for them.” We’ll drink to that!