Quality brews: talking coffee with Toby Smith of Toby’s Estate

Toby’s Estate is a brand that is synonymous with quality in Australia’s coffee scene and now it’s cemented its place on the global coffee stage.

Starting out with humble beginnings in 1998, Toby’s Estate has grown to become a household name in the Nation’s speciality coffee market and more recently, has expanded overseas to the likes of Asia and the US.

Food Magazine recently caught up with Toby Smith, founder of the Toby’s Estate brand to talk coffee, farming and how he has managed to maintain an exceptional level of quality as the company has grown over the past 16 years.

Interestingly enough, Smith says that he was first introduced to the world of coffee – for better or worse – by his mother’s inability to make a quality brew.

“My mother had a café and used to make pretty bad coffee,” says Smith.

“It was then that someone taught me a few things about coffee and I started to get a bit more serious about it and thought wow, coffee is actually a really incredible product – this is for me’. So it was that, but to be honest, I was also desperate to get out of working and studying law.”

With the days of his mother’s bad coffee and law class well and truly behind him, Smith has successfully raised the stakes of quality coffee production by purchasing a farm in Panama where he says the best coffee in the world is produced.  

Panama is where it's at

“Geisha is the Grange of coffee,” says Smith. “And Panama is this little country with really small farms that is growing the world’s best coffee… Other countries are growing Geisha but they are struggling to sort of get that unique flavour that Panama has. It really is something special and there are some incredible families with a long history in coffee growing it.”

Smith says that he has been working with a particular farm in Panama for the past three years, so when the opportunity arose to the purchase it, he – together with his business partner Andre – didn’t hesitate.

“Andre is a finance legal guru so he tackled a lot of the issues relating to coming into Panama as a foreigner… There were some pretty involved documents that needed to go through so we could own the farm, but it was all very doable, it just required a lot of patience. So Andre looks after the legal stuff, and then I sort of look after the coffee side of the business – the growing and production.”

Smith said that he has already initiated a number of programs to ensure that the farm employs the best possible farming practices, together with significant upgrades to on-farm facilities.

“We have a little school on the farm which we are upgrading along with a number of roads. We have also upgraded the accommodation for the indigenous coffee pickers that come on mass every year for about four or five months at a time. We’re also mixing up and changing a few of the farming and processing methods, and the agronomist is always working on making the trees look amazing to produce high quality coffee.

“With growing and agriculture it’s not like ‘ok let’s change this’ and it happens within a week or within a year, it can take two, three, four or five years… so we’ve got a nice program in place for the next 3-5 years.”

Now in its 16th year, the Toby’s Estate brand has continued to go from strength to strength and now has a solid presence in New York together with a number of Asian countries. Smith credits this ongoing success to a number of factors, but primarily to the consistency of the product.

Quality is the key focus

“Our greatest focus as we grow larger and as we spread our coffee further is quality. We don’t make a move unless we know that we are on par with what we currently have as far as quality goes, or we’re improving it. That’s always been our philosophy. We’ve always been about sourcing quality beans, and roasting them to the best of our ability, so our growth path is determined upon our ability to uphold that level of quality.

“Obviously we are a big organisation but we actually say no a lot. We go to the extremes of quality assurance and control… we cup everything that comes out of the roasters before its released and we scrutinise and record everything to make sure that we get it right on the outset.”

In addition to maintaining a high level of quality and consistency, Smith says that logistical efficiencies and a highly dedicated team are key factors that have enabled the company to expand while remaining at the top of its game.

“The wholesaling speciality coffee market is often driven by price, and we have a great advantage in that shipping coffee in a container to Australia takes a long time and it costs a lot of money, but in the multiples and the volumes that we import, we get a better price for great quality coffee. So we feel that we are at a great advantage in that way,” he says.

“We also have fantastic equipment that gives us great consistency and we have an incredible team of really experienced guys who have been working with us for many years, and those that are new to the have been trained really well by those experienced ones around them.”


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