Sam Keck: The Sprudge Twenty Interview

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Sam Keck (Photo by 3000 Thieves)

Welcome to The Sprudge Twenty Interviews presented by Pacific Barista Series. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring our 2019 featured class of Sprudge Twenty honorees, each one changing the coffee game worldwide. For a complete list of 2019 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty.

Sam Keck is an entrepreneur and founder of Commonfolk Coffee, located in the town of Mornington, on the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne. Keck has spun a successful roaster/retailer into a series of social enterprise efforts, including Zukuka Bora, a farmers initiative benefitting coffee growers in Uganda; and Home Ground, which is focused on providing training and job options in hospitality to unemployed youth on the Mornington Peninsula. By fusing the high demand for quality coffee with organized social enterprise, Keck’s work shows us how coffee can do more than just taste good—it can also do very serious good for communities at home and around the world.

Nominated by David Bishop

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What issue in coffee do you care about most?

Overall the sustainability of coffee as an industry. In particular the seemingly widening disconnect between producer and consumer. Too many “industry professionals” assume far too much and don’t actually bother to understand what a producer’s priorities are.

What cause or element in coffee drives you?

What started out as a cheap way to fuel my caffeine addiction has transformed into an insatiable desire to bridge the gap between my customers and my producers. I want to understand more about how coffee as an industry can continue to serve both our customers and provide meaningful and sustainable work for our producers.

What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?

The fact that many people on both ends of coffee production are suffering. Many producers/farmers are among the lowest paid people in the entire world. On the flip side, many cafe owners—especially in small business—are going out of business at a rate you wouldn’t believe. If the two ends of the chain can’t make a fair income our industry has serious issues. A lot of people talk about the issues producers and farmers have (not that much is done about it), but there isn’t too much conversation about the struggles of the cafe/coffee bar owner. In fact, you could argue that the responsibility and burden of equalizing our industry, making it fairer for farmers, is too often thrust upon the final part of the chain: the small business owner, many of whom are broke and not really in a position to make a big difference. We should be looking at adding value in other areas and ultimately placing the responsibility on the consumer who has had it too good for too long, at least here in Australia.

What is the quality you like best about coffee?

There is no greater sensory experience than the aroma of freshly ground coffee!

Did you experience a “god shot” or life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your career?

I was working as a barista in 2006 but I’d never really had “specialty” coffee and I visited St Ali, back when it was still owned by Mark Dundon, of later Seven Seeds and Paramount Coffee Project fame. I was lucky enough to order a natural Yirg as a filter coffee. I never believed that coffee could taste so extraordinary. Delicate aroma of bergamot and orange blossom, bright citrus acidity and a rich booziness—damn I was hooked. I haven’t looked back since!

What is your idea of coffee happiness?

Recreating some kind of rubbish Starbucks cocktail but with super high-quality ingredients, organic maple syrup, unpasteurized local dairy, and real vanilla beans. I love watching wanky baristas have meltdowns.

If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?

Probably the job I currently have.

Who are your coffee heroes?

James Hoffmann. In the early days he was one of the few people creating content online, so I felt like I wasn’t the only coffee crazy guy in the world. Also Alan Adler, the dude who invented the AeroPress. I bought my first AP in 2005 but I was so sketchy on it—any product that has to say “the best coffee maker in the world” on the box seems kind of suspicious—but I guess on this occasion they weren’t lying.

If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Tough question, but probably Sir David Attenborough. He’s a real hero of mine and I would love the chance to talk about his life and experiences, but also to pick his brain on the future of our planet and how he thinks we can turn things around.

If you didn’t get bit by the coffee bug, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Following on from the previous question—I actually have a degree in Zoology and I was planning on traveling the globe filming nature documentaries, a la Sir David.

Do you have any coffee mentors?

There’s always been a real coffee culture in Melbourne but the movement towards “specialty” really only kicked off in the early 2000s. I was lucky enough to befriend ex-head roaster of Five Senses and Ceremony Coffee, Caleb Podhaczky, and he was instrumental in my coffee journey early on. I was actually lucky enough to employ him for about a year when he returned to Australia and it was really fun to work with one of the people who inspired you to start in the industry. Another key figure that was instrumental in my coffee journey early days was Shannon Roche, a barista on the Mornington Peninsula where Commonfolk is located. They’re one of the first baristas I met who focused on preparing quality coffee and really opened my eyes to coffee’s potential.

Otherwise, I try and look outside the industry for inspiration because I find that coffee sometimes insulates itself from the outside world and really limits our opportunities to grow as an industry. I take a lot of inspiration from the craft beer and lofi wine industries. I have some great friends who are really pushing the boundaries on what is acceptable in those industries, from brands like Mr Banks, Chevre Wines, Mornington Brewery, and Jetty Road Brewery, and a lot of their ideas/philosophies can be transferred to coffee—especially at the producing end.

What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?

No one has a fucking clue what they’re doing. Don’t take anyone seriously.

Name three coffee apparatuses you’d take into space with you.

AeroPress, Ikawa sample roaster, and a stubby holder (to keep my coffee warm).

Best song to brew coffee to:

Shout out to the Commonfolk bar—definitely “September” by Earth Wind & Fire.

Look into the crystal ball—where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Retired or at least with enough time to study coffee science and agronomy.

What’d you eat for breakfast this morning?

Black coffee. I’m trying to intermittently fast because dad bod.

When did you last drink coffee?

At lunchtime.

What was it?

A cheeky batch brew of a washed Yirg from the Gedeo region of Ethiopia.

Thank you. 

The Sprudge Twenty is presented by Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2019 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty

Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge. 

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