Roasting hot: Toby Smith now has his own plantation in Panama.
Toby Smith, the man who puts the Toby in Toby's Estate, is taking on the world and winning. There are now flagship Toby's Estate cafes in New York, Singapore and the Philippines (as well as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane). New York and Singapore even have their own roasteries. All this from a man who started with one 5-kilogram roaster in his mum's garage.
Smith - last week inducted into the SMH Good Cafe Guide Hall of Fame - wasn't always a fan of the black stuff. "Mum had a cafe when I was growing up and we served that horrible pre-ground coffee." he says. "I couldn't drink it. I remember trying No-Doz, thinking caffeine must be a great drug if everyone's drinking this coffee s---".
How did things go from this to founding a coffee mini-empire? Smith started to have some good coffee experiences while he was studying languages and law. "It seemed that everywhere I went I'd run into a coffee roaster. I also knew that I didn't want to be a lawyer after working for two or three years in the city. Plus I was into food and cooking and generally tasting things."
In 1997 Smith farewelled his law degree, packed his pith helmet and set off to explore the world's coffee-growing regions. His plan was to absorb everything he could about growing, roasting, and cupping coffee at the source. Smith returned home the next year and began a long trial-and-error process to master the art of specialty coffee roasting.
"I just started roasting with a little roaster in Mum's Woolloomooloo garage on William Lane. Low overheads, really low-key. I had no licensing and was billowing smoke everywhere. A cop rocked over a couple of times and I just said to him, 'Mate, you've got drug addicts and alcoholics pissing outside my door and you're worried about the smell of smoke? Give me a break.' He said: 'You're right' and walked away."
Smith first unveiled his coffee at the Pyrmont Growers Market in 2000. At that time the coffee palate of Sydneysiders was far removed from the highly informed one of bean-hunters today. Smith can be credited as being one of the first roasters to showcase specialty coffee in Australia. "I did coffee tasting and appreciation brunches in the courtyard next to Mum's garage … educating people about this exciting new concept of 'fresh coffee'. It was always the smell that got everyone excited."
Over the next decade, Toby's Estate went nuts in popularity, opening roasteries and espresso schools across the country. In 2011 Smith opened the first Singapore cafe and roastery to much success. If Singapore worked, then why not take on the United States?
New Yorkers quickly took to Toby's Estate cawffee (especially in a flat white, which is really just a cappuccino without the funny business) and crazy foreign food such as Tim Tams and lamingtons.
There are now Toby's Estate stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan; gorgeous spaces with pressed tin ceilings, marble counter-tops and exposed timbers.
Is coffee in the US as horrible as everyone (outside the US says) says it is? "It's a big country and as a generalisation, yes." Smith says. "But there's a lot of really good coffee out there, too."
In 2013, Smith did what all coffee producers dream to do. He bought his own coffee plantation in Panama.
"Panama's a great, peaceful country, and they're very happy to invite foreign investment … it's about having that control so we can experiment with processes building coffees, and throwing some different varieties of trees on there as well."
Smith is proud of the quality assurance that goes into sourcing, roasting, and distributing Toby's Estate Beans. However, the quality of the bean never compromises Smith's philosophy that social, environmental and ethical factors are of the greatest importance in coffee production.
Toby's Estate might not be as trendy as the new wave of highly designed, boutique roasters overtaking our city. But, Smith began his career in laneways, too, and that grass-roots integrity is still there.
His success has simply given him the ability to have more control over the quality and distribution of his coffee.