Like many art students who eventually find themselves in the corporate world, Damien Steponavicius wanted to do something more in life.
Going back to university to become a literature and history professor at almost thirty years of age was not very pocket-friendly, so he picked up a job at Five Senses Coffee and is still there fifteen years later.
"The corporate world has incredible financial rewards, but I found it cold, unemotional, and detrimental to my mental health. Coffee has some similarly negative aspects but remains intrinsically a human industry," said Steponavicius, who finds roasting coffee an artistic process, somewhat like an author writing a book, waiting for it to be enjoyed by the world.
"The green we receive as roasters is not only an organic product but also the result of tough work by farmers, often half a world away. It is then physically consumed by our customers and hopefully enjoyed. This positive emotional response becomes the thread that links all hands in the chain."
Steponavicius finds that coffee roasting is also about doing justice to the hard work that comes before him. He wants to build a system that consistently delivers a great interpretation of any given origin.
Specialty coffee values the efforts of producers to harness their uniqueness and deliver incredible flavours in their coffees.
Unlike most coffee enthusiasts who want to travel to explore coffee, Steponavicius believes that gaining a better understanding of coffee roasting lies not in any one country but in all of them, and it is in a science lab that the best pathways will be revealed.
Science and data analysis play a crucial role in the future of coffee production. Understanding the origin and farm-level elements is essential, and visiting the country of origin can help the roaster gain valuable insight into their coffee's provenance and the people who cultivated it. However, data analysis is essential to determine the optimal thermal application for these coffees and extract the desired flavour profile from many possibilities.
"I know this is controversial, but I'm not sure others are as excited as I am about terms like data analysis or low code environment. In future, I'm hoping to build better, easier and more engaging means of telling the stories of our coffees as they are being enjoyed."
Engaging with a story is how we build meaning, and with meaning comes a growing sense of caring, understanding, and value. If the coffee industry is to remain sustainable, engaging our customers with a wealth of detail, nuance, and humanity is necessary.
"We need to make customers see how the extra bit they pay for their morning beverage is not simply driving 'profits', but genuinely and substantially helping those who contributed to it."
Over the years, Five Senses Coffee has refined its ways of quality checks, deciding on five categories: flavour, mouthfeel, acidity, body and balance. Each is qualitative as opposed to quantitative.
Their B Corp certification reflects their ideologies of 'Impacting People Positively' as they work directly with a range of incredible producers to ensure sustainability, transparency and traceability in the supply chain. They also work with local community initiatives, including CafeSmart, Scarf and Co-Ground.
Steponavicius advises upcoming roasters to bring their passions and interests along with their scientific mind and their mathematical brain.
Roasting is a simple thermal process that anyone can do. It can be dusty, hot, repetitive - and bloody hard work. For many, roasting could be nothing more than disappointing monotony, but it can also be so much more.