London-based Difference Coffee Company creates high-grade coffee from some of the finest beans in the world, and is served at the likes of Gstaad Palace, Harry’s Bar, Mark’s Club, Marina Bay Sands and The Wellesley. Founder Amir Gehl explains how he came to be involved in the industry, and how he’s trying to change it.
When did you fall in love with coffee? What do you personally find ‘magic’ about the beverage?
My love affair with coffee began quite recently, maybe four years ago. I’ve always found coffee to be quite burnt-tasting, often really bitter. So, when given the option, I would normally order tea. It was actually my wife who first got me into coffee — she made us buy a Nespresso machine for home. After tasting their full range of capsules, I started to wonder, ‘Where’s the best in the world?’ If you think about it, there’s always a next level up, always a craftsman somewhere who does something better. I was really keen to explore this territory, as coffee was not my cup of tea. It’s been downhill ever since!
What inspired you to get into this business, when I imagine you could’ve chosen from myriad entrepreneurial pursuits?
I guess it was personal indulgence. I love food, wine and cigars, I eat out regularly in Michelin restaurants, and I love reading about artisan growers, be it wine or food. I guess it’s not so different when it comes to coffee. Ultimately it’s down to terroir and care and attention of the farmers, across all these categories. So I guess I got hit with the bug — once you try a delicious fruity coffee it’s really hard to go back to commercial-grade stuff. When I discovered the world of coffee, the grading system that allows me to source the world’s highest-graded coffees, and so forth, I just wanted it for myself. The business was really secondary. It’s really down to passion, and I think that the commercial aspect is something that comes as a result of making people happy by producing something that delivers pleasure to them.
How do you go about sourcing such exclusive and rare coffees? It must be a battle to get your hands on some of these recherché, small-batch beans.
Coffee, like wine, is graded using a 100-point system which was created by the Specialty Coffee Association. Beans are graded according to both visual and sensory aspects and any coffee that has less than five defects per 350g of green beans on the one hand, and over 80 points on sensory evaluation on the other, can be classified as Specialty Grade — as opposed to commercial grade coffee which can be full of defects, with very poor flavour and taste characteristics. Specialty coffee accounts for about one percent of the world’s best coffees, and what Difference Coffee is committing to sourcing is the top one percent of that one percent. Ultimately, it’s down to price — who is prepared to spend the most at auctions? It’s really as simple as that. I guess I’m prepared to pay more than anyone else in the world. If you think about it, we are actually also the highest-paying coffee company in the world to farmers in the third world, so there’s a lot of satisfaction as well in knowing that what we pay is not only delivering a lot of pleasure to our clients, but also making a huge difference to the lives of the farmers who often get paid hundreds of times more than what the average farm would earn for coffee.
What sets you apart from competitors?
Of late, the market for coffee pods has really opened up, and competition is quite fierce. It’s really three things. One, we source the highest-graded coffees in the world. Two, we roast it better than most — this is because we work with a Master Roaster, Jonny England, who is not only one of four fully-licensed Coffee Quality Graders in the world, he is also head judge for the World Barista Championship and World Brewers Cup. Finally, our coffees will typically arrive fresher to our customers — we roast every month and our coffees don’t stay on shelves for long; they are, in fact, pretty much roasted to order.
Your family is in the tobacco business. What do you see as the parallels between coffee and cigars? And what’s your advice for enjoying coffee with a cigar?
There’s a saying in the industry: ‘If it didn’t happen in the field, it won’t happen in your cup.’ I think the same applies to both products. Ultimately coffee is the roasted bean of a coffee cherry that grows on trees. Cigar leaves are also grown in a similar manner, so farming is a major aspect of that. With cigars you need a great blender, in coffee you need a great roaster — the parallels are there. In terms of how to enjoy coffee with a cigar, it’s really down to personal taste. My advice is always this: experiment. Try different coffees and different cigars, and see what you enjoy the most. At the end of the day, the best coffee in the world is the one you love best. If you love milky coffees, add milk. A good coffee will cut through the milk and let the fat in the milk transport the flavours and deliver something really magical. You’ll never be able to enjoy a burnt coffee, no matter how much milk you put into it.