In the opening pages of Jordan Michelman and Zachary Carlsen’s The New Rules of Coffee, the cofounders of Sprudge write, “Drinking coffee is one of the most global things you do each day.”
The coffee plant, though exceptionally finicky and difficult to work with, grows across four continents, in at least 70 countries. After farming, harvesting and processing the bean, which is really a fruit, it’s bagged and sent to roasters around the world.
Still in their more natural greenish-grey hue, these beans arrive to roasters who take the seed of a cherry and turn it into one of the most-consumed beverages in the world. All carrying the official designation of specialty coffee roaster, the best of these roasters bring out of the bean few others can, and push coffee further for it.
Hailing from traditional coffee nations like Italy, New Zealand and Spain and the coffee world’s newer frontiers like Japan, South Korea and the UK, these are the places where the best bags of coffee are made.
Located: Berlin, Germany
Coffee to Try: Gitwe
The Barn’s MO is fairly simple: source, roast and brew stupidly good coffee. Its dedication building bridges between the holy trinity of coffee is where it shines. Ralf Rüller’s four cafés and roastery are monuments to this.
The first step is acquiring the best beans possible; this means beans that they are of the highest quality (The Barn regularly sources from farms and farmers that have won the Cup of Excellence) and are grown using sustainable methods. The Barn also pays high prices for premium beans, which sounds like an obvious thing to do, but is rather rare in the coffee world at large (specialty coffee’s battle with the commodity coffee market is telling of this). It also “slow roasts” the beans it purveys, a practice that results in a bean that’s lightly roasted and carries as much of the bean’s terroir as possible.
Unlike most roasters and coffee makers, The Barn even goes as far as training its baristas in the vocabulary and methods of roasting as a means to better communicate with the roasting team. There’s a reason every interview Rüller has ever given contains at least one use of the word “uncompromising.”
Located: Wellington, New Zealand
Coffee to Try: Brazil Fazenda Capadocia
Carriers of the New Zealand specialty coffee flame, Coffee Supreme might be the most charming coffee company out there. It regularly wins awards for bag design, store design and is generally excellent at presenting its coffee. Then you drink the coffee.
Coffee Supreme is decades ahead of most roasters in the coffee world. Its been roasting beans since the ’90s, and it sources those beans from virtually every specialty region and sub-region out there. It’s also on the bleeding edge of coffee sustainability, a movement born out of a closer potential doomsday.
Its ever-rotating collection of coffees contains blends, single origins and a few season-specific Coffee Supreme exclusive limited roasts. The company even opened up a semi-concept shop that acts as the most well-curated coffee gear store on the planet. Coffee Supreme is the complete package.
Located: Shanghai, China
Just about every industry that makes things to be sold has, at some point, considered the idea of breaking into China and its unfathomably large potential. Coffee is no different. Rumblings from in-the-know coffee people like James Hoffmann and green-coffee buyers from all over have been talking about it for a while now, but the great Chinese coffee boom may finally be happening.
If specialty coffee adoption continues on a large-ish scale, China could become something of a unicorn in specialty coffee — a country that has the means to produce, roast, brew and consume great coffee, something few (if any) others can truly claim. Seesaw coffee is the foremost domestic buyer of specialty-grade coffee in China, as well as the biggest buyer of Yunnan-grown specialty-grade beans (the most specialty-focused growing region in the country). It has not yet sent its roasters or baristas to the world stage to compete, but its stature as one of the first truly good coffee companies in the biggest market in the world is a big deal. Seesaw’s coffee is currently available only in its cafés — Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Suzhou or Hangzhou.
Located: Tokyo, Japan
Coffee to Try: Gathaithi
Switch Coffee is an unlikely addition to the list. It’s not a large-scale roaster, it operates out of a single café with a single Probat roaster and is headed by a single person. But Masahiro Onishi’s shop size belies its goodness.
Onishi studied roasting under Toshiyuki Ishiwata of Market Lane Coffee (another great Aussie roastery) and sourcing under Katsuhide Izaki of fellow Japanese specialty roaster Honey Coffee (who also happens to be a certified Cup of Excellence judge). René Redzepi himself adorned the wall of the shop with his signature as a stamp of excellence. All the technical merits and accolades utilized in the making of Switch’s Coffee are only half of what makes it one of the best, because it’s also one of the most relaxed, unabrasize high-end coffee roasters in the world.
A trip to the Meguro neighborhood’s prized roastery includes tasting each of Onishi’s roasts for the day before ordering, chatting with Onishi (it’s a fairly residential neighborhood, so no raised voices or blaring music) and enjoying a drink. And while Japan is home to a mountain of incredible roasters and coffee shops — the legendary Bear Pond, literally world-beating Tokado Coffee, the ones we’ve already named and a hundred more — few provide excellence in way this casual.
Located: Seoul, South Korea
Coffee to Try: Signature Blend
South Korea went from a country drinking primarily instant coffee to one craving the best specialty coffee there is in just a few years. Put another way, the number of cafés in South Korea has grown nearly three times over in the last five years alone. This makes it one of, if not the, fastest emerging market in specialty coffee and coffee at large.
180 Coffee is the most lauded coffee roaster in a country without a great deal of coffee history, but its beans stack up with the best in the world. It is the only Korean roaster with two Korean coffee roasting titles (its founder, Lee Seung-jin was the first winner) and its placed highly on the world stage to boot.
Right Side Coffee
Located: Castelldefels, Spain
Coffee to Try: Mensur's Natural
Spain is and has been drenched in coffee for some time, just not much of it very good. Joaquín Parra’s Spanish coffee roasting instituion is named for the side of the brain that dictates “creativity and passion,” and Right Side Coffee’s beans exude that. Sourced and roasted by a coffee lifer, Parra is the son of green coffee importers, is a Spanish Roasting Championship winner and a frequent high-placer at the World Coffee Roasting Championships.
And though accolades and winning trophies is nice, what elevates Right Side is taking transparency in coffee sourcing to a new level. Under every bag of beans it sells on its site there’s an “information” tab. When opened, small essays on the specific farmers, lot features and lot history are doled out.
Weirdly, Right Side doesn’t have any cafés of its own, but it stocks plenty of specialty spots all over Spain.
Gardelli Specialty Coffees
Located: Forlì, Italy
Coffee to Try: El Mirador Terra Nova
If there were a Michael Jordan of the coffee world, it would be Rubens Gardelli. By accolades, he’s the most successful competition roaster ever. He’s qualified for the most World Coffee Roasting Championships (four of five times), won the most recent one, won the Italian Coffee Roasting Championship four years running and somehow has also won multiple Brewer’s Cups in Italy and a World Brewer’s Cup. No roaster comes close to these achievements.
The coffees from Gardelli Specialty Coffees are all lightly roasted to allow the bean’s flavor to be determined more by the bean than the roast, and a rotating stock of bags are available for purchase online.
Solberg & Hansen
Hometown: Oslo, Norway
Year Founded: 1879
Coffee to Try: Rwanda Tumba
In a world of youth, Solberg & Hansen is old. Founded 140 years ago, it is Norway’s first coffee roasting company and could very well be its best. Its roasting team is headed up by Simo Christidi, who’s one of five ever winners of the World Coffee Roasting Championship (2012) and holder of a slew of Norwegian and Nordic coffee roasting titles.
Its concept store in Oslo’s Mathallen specialty food court is a testament to this ethos. It is a coffee purist’s coffee shop — that is to say it’s a shop dedicated to showing off the power of coffee in its base form, so no milk or sweeteners are found on the premises. Its beans can be bought online as well (with the help of Google translate). (For what its worth, Solberg & Hansen is also affiliated with another legendary Norwegian coffee roaster, Tim Wendelboe.)
Located: Stockholm, Sweden
Coffee to Try: Los Andes
Joanna Alm and Stephen Leighton’s coffee company started as a small café that didn’t roast its own beans. A few years later it was a bonafide leader in the third wave coffee movement in Europe. Today, it’s regarded as one of the best coffee roasters in the world (only Gardelli Specialty Coffees has finished in the top five of the World Coffee Roasting Championships more often). Alm, the roasting arm of the team, has been named Sweden’s best coffee roasters four of the last five years. Its baristas have claimed several Swedish Barista Championship titles, there’s only one tiny café and yet the whole operation feels unnaturally welcoming.
Scrolling through Drop’s webshop feels more like flipping through a family photo album than shopping for coffee, and co-founder Joanna Alm’s kindness in interviews is pervasive. Refreshingly, Drop Coffee is as close to the top of the coffee world as anybody, and yet there isn’t a hint of classic coffee snootiness.
Square Mile Coffee Roasters
Located: London, England
Coffee to Try: El Diamante
Square Mile was founded by specialty coffee veterans Anette Moldvaer and James Hoffmann with a singular goal: make London famous for coffee.
Among exacting execution, sustainable practices, various awards and titles and a staff that’s basically the UK coffee all-star team, Square Mile is especially remarkable in an area that others aren’t always so great at: sourcing specialty beans from up-and-coming regions. In the span of a week at the end of October 2018, the East London outpost debuted specialty-grade beans from China and Myanmar, both origins you won’t find on the menu at more than a few roasters worldwide.
The company’s bags are available online and rotated very quickly.