Benjamin Pozsgai is a veteran of coffee roasting competitions. With four championships under his belt, placing among the top 3 on all of them, he is preparing to go to this year’s World Coffee Roasting Championship in Taipei, Taiwan. Benjamin, a former carpenter, and musician doesn’t consider his approach to coffee as nerdy or fancy. He also doesn’t like to talk about transparency, an overused word in today’s coffee debate, and urges roasters to go beyond the specialty bubble to engage supermarket buyers in fair trade.
Algrano and Honduran cooperative COMSA (Cafe Organico Marcala) are supporting Benjamin this year with a bag of green coffee to help him prepare for the competition taking place from 15th to 18th November. “For organic coffee in Honduras they are the address to go to,” he says during an interview from his house in Cologne. Read below about his trajectory, experience and learn what makes a coffee champion tick.
Algrano: Let’s start with the basics. How come a musician ended up roasting coffee?
Benjamin: When you work professionally as a musician, recording albums and touring, you have to learn how to deal with being tired. I started drinking coffee so I could be productive late at night. But it was bad. Really bad. Same as what most people drink. It was a long process from that to specialty. Before moving to Cologne in 2012 I worked with very fast and very heavy music, like Heavy Metal and Hard Core. There were good record labels and radio stations here, so I thought it would be easy to get a job in the area. I found out I could easily get internships, but nothing proper. I’m also a carpenter, so I decided to work in a furniture store - it was a better way of making a living. When my daughter was born I thought maybe it wasn’t such a good occupation anymore. I needed something more stable, something I could happily do for the next 10 years. That is when coffee popped up in my mind. By then I already knew about specialty and that there were differences between roasters. I was fascinated by the learning process but knew I didn’t want to be a barista or have my own cafe. So I went to Moxxa Caffè and introduced myself. It worked. I started working part-time and soon moved into full-time.
Algrano: Music and coffee: are there similarities between the two?
Benjamin: Yeah, I think so. When I taste coffee I describe it to myself. It’s the same when you are in the process of recording an album. You sit there with yourself for days working on how it sounds. You can also think about adjusting roasts as equalizing in music. Is there too much pace? Is it too high pitched? You have to figure out how to fine-tune it and find a balance, like in coffee. I would say a good cup of coffee is like a good band or a great sounding record. There is harmony. Every component works together.
Algrano: When you are choosing coffees to work with, which are the most important aspects to consider?
Benjamin: There are three main aspects: first the coffee has to be tasty, second the price has to be in a range I can afford, and third, I want to know where it comes from. The more directly that coffee was traded the more I like it. I always ask myself, “Is this a coffee I can sell to my customers?”. Plus people love to hear stories. They are willing to pay a bit more if you tell them about it; if you have a relationship. I prefer buying coffees from the same farms every year because knowing where it is coming from is more important than the score. It is not very romantic, but then I am not very fancy about coffee… Even if a lot that cupped an 85 last year cups an 84 this year, I’m happy to buy if I know who is behind it. I normally don’t talk about it that much though. In fact, I get really annoyed really fast when people start talking about transparency. Everyone is talking about it all the time now! It would be better if, instead of talking about it, we just did it. Anyway, in Germany, the amount of coffee small businesses roast per day is peanuts compared to the big ones. Why don’t we talk more about that? Turn the discussion around and point the unfair coffees.
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Algrano: What is the plan for Benson Coffee, your consulting business? What do you want to achieve?
Benjamin: Good question. It is still a work in progress. I am focusing on my brand and consulting business, Benson Coffee, but I skipped all consulting requests I had to make time for the World Championship in Taipei. January and February will be busy months for me. I came up with it because after the World Championship in China I was asked to consult for the competitions. I consulted two guys: the Swiss came first and the French, second. I helped them with the rules and regulations then we roasted coffees on different profiles, cupped, and talked about them. I have been roasting for 7 years now. I started roasting manually, logging everything by hand, and then began using software.
Algrano: You went to El Salvador in 2018. Did it change anything for you?
Benjamin: My first trip to origin was Costa Rica in 2016, paid from my own pocket. Then I was invited to go to Brazil and also visited El Salvador with Algrano in 2018. I already had bought Salvadoran coffee for Neues Schwarz, one of the roasteries I was working for at the time, and we met the producer of one of our coffees. It was very nice to get some insights into what producers have to deal with. This producer was making naturals and honeys. She didn’t know how many bags of each process were being asked for. She produced more naturals, but the honeys ended up selling better. It is a simple thing, but I had never thought about that. She also taught herself how to produce honeys because she wasn’t satisfied with the work the mill was doing. It wasn’t very transparent. She was improving on selective picking and cleaning, but cup quality didn’t change. “How do you know these 10 bags came from me?”, she asked them. The answer wasn’t very clear. She went to Nicaragua to learn, started doing it herself and realized the coffees were tasting better than before. I also learned the measurements they work with in origin are very different. They don’t count coffee in dollars per kilo. You have to make an effort to translate the numbers they give you.
Algrano: What's your approach to roasting, your signature?
Benjamin: I often see people buying different coffees and roasting them all the same. That doesn’t make any sense. I strive to get the characteristics of each coffee in the cup. Maybe gentle is a good word to describe my roasts. The coffee speaks to your nose, eyes, and ears. I listen to it carefully on my first roasts to figure out where to go. I usually aim for a middle ground, for sweetness and balance. We came from an era when people were roasting very dark, and then people changed to roasting very light and fast. Some coffees don’t taste very nice like that, they end up baked or underdeveloped. You have to really think about the beans you choose. If you have a high altitude Ethiopian coffee that reminds you of black tea you should go for a faster roast, but if you have a low grown big screen size Sumatra you shouldn’t do that.
Algrano: Why do you compete?
Benjamin: I first found out about roasting championships in 2014, when I was volunteering at the World of Coffee in Italy. It was a surprise! I remember seeing people green grading and thinking “What the heck are they doing?” And then “Why don’t we have this in Germany?” I started writing to the SCA about it. Actually, I spammed them. One year later we had our first championship. I wanted to compete to know where I stood as a roaster. When you roast you have an idea that the coffee is good, but you don’t really know because there is not a lot of feedback. I didn’t really prepare for that year, so placing 3rd was a big surprise. Next year I was like “Let’s try this again”, prepared for it and won! For the World Championship in China, in 2017, I had a coach which was really good because I had someone that could act as a sounding board. I went there, did my thing and then: 3rd. Wow! Roasters I really respected won that year: Rubens Gardelli was first and Jack Allisey came second. That’s when I started thinking “Okay. I guess it’s fair to say I am a very good roaster.”
Algrano: What’s your secret?
Benjamin: I think I am good at staying cool during competition. A lot of people are good roasters, but they are not good at staying cool. And when you get nervous you get things wrong. Because of my background in music I am used to being on stage and having people watching what I do. So that is not a problem for me.
Algrano: How you are preparing?
Benjamin: I have a friend coaching me. It is a bit random and disorganized at the moment, to be honest. The idea is to roast several coffees on a Giesen 6kg, the competition roaster, and measure everything. Cup the different roasts, compare them and come up with a map of very nice profiles that work for, let’s say, a low grown pulp natural from Brazil or a really dense Kenya. You don’t know what you are going to get at the competition, but when you think about the variables in green coffee you can break them down to 5 or 6 main ones, like moisture content, density, screen size…
Algrano: Can you talk about your relationship with COMSA?
Benjamin: I have worked with COMSA for several years. For organic coffee in Honduras, they are the address to go to. They are a big cooperative that is doing a good job. Some of them came to Hamburg to visit three years ago. I would like to go to Honduras myself to visit them and really appreciate having the support algrano is giving me and having Mauricio's HN-53 Natural from La Innovación/COMSA coffee to practice with.
Algrano: What are you excited about in coffee right now?
Benjamin: I am not too nerdy about coffees or machines. What I think would excite me is if the community started looking for a way to communicate outside our bubble. We need to be aware that we don’t live in a specialty coffee roasters bubble and we need to open a dialogue with the people buying coffee from the supermarket. They still think just because they buy Fairtrade they don’t have to do anything else. That upsets me. As long as people think suppliers are getting paid they don’t think they need to change. Look at Fridays for Future, for example. It’s crazy that kids started it, but initiatives like that are long overdue. We need more of that.