Let's Eat

Coffee Story

A trip to Ethiopia changed Josh Holt's career path


When Josh Holt went on his Birthright Israel tour, it changed his life. Not because he found spiritual meaning, nor because it provoked a burning urge to make aliyah.

Although 25 year old Holt did leave that trip convinced he would move to Israel, the life-changing moment was meeting Arielle Kanzen. His relationship with Arielle (now his fiancée) was to set off a chain of events that led to his setting up his business, Coffee Story.

Before the trip, Holt, a former Yavneh College pupil, had been on a path to a career in politics.

“I’d been very involved with my J-Soc at Nottingham Uni and had also interned at the Board of Deputies. It was during the Gaza war, so I became interested in Israeli politics.

“I’d wanted to work for the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) after I graduated, and chose to stand for president, as that post was only one year and would allow me to go to Israel sooner.”

He was elected UJS president in 2017 and also served on the board of the European Union of Jewish Students. However, during his year in office, Holt realised that politics was not for him.

“I’d started dating Arielle, who is Ethiopian, and we went to see her family in Addis Ababa. We visited the offices of friends of her family, who were coffee importers. While we were there we took part in a coffee cupping (tasting). There were eight or nine coffees and they were all so different. I found it really exciting and knew there would be a market for this range of products in the UK.”

He’d saved as much of his salary as he could while at UJS and when he arrived home, invested some in a four day coffee roasting camp in Portugal. “I wanted to find out if I could make a living out of this. When I got back I bought a coffee roaster.”

He meant business — instead of buying a machine that could roast 1-2kg of coffee beans and which he says would mean he’d spend all day roasting, he went straight for a machine that could roast 12kg.

“I used all of my savings and took out a start-up loan. My parents allowed me to install the roaster in their home in Welwyn Garden City — they even let me make a hole in their wall for the ventilation.”

But there was only ever to be one roast there. “The neighbours — who we’d kept informed throughout — went nuts. To be fair, there was a lot of noise, smell and smoke. I hadn’t realised how much there would be!”

So Holt was forced to find a new home for his kit and, in August 2019, moved it to an industrial unit in a converted stable in Rickmansworth. And so began the only kosher coffee roastery in the UK — supervised by the SKA.

He started cold-calling cafés with his bags of beans. “I quickly saw that it wasn’t so simple for a café to grind them as they’d have to empty their grinder, so now I carry a grinder too.” His first contract came quickly, with a chain of two Welwyn Garden City-based cafés. “I didn’t realise how lucky I’d been, as it then took a while before I got more clients.”

He did start to grow the business, but with 80 to 85 per cent of it being wholesale — to cafés and restaurants — life got a lot harder with lockdown. “I did sell some coffee through my website, and roasted a kosher for Pesach batch which I sold in kosher supermarkets.”

How did Holt know where to start with making coffee blends? He started with the same beans he’d enjoyed on the coffee roasting course. Over time he broadened his range to beans from a variety of countries. “For a good espresso blend I use Brazilian beans as they have a nice, strong, chocolatey, smooth taste. The longer you roast them, the more bitter the coffee will be. Colombian coffee has a more complex flavour with a variety of notes and Ugandan coffee is the most fruity.”

He explains that he makes coffee with a range of flavour profiles. “It depends on whether I’m looking for a more traditional taste or a more modern option. The ideal is to offer fancy, fruity, speciality coffees, but I also need to produce the stronger, more traditional coffees, the market is used to.”

From the start his aim has always been to create an ethical business. He gives ten per cent of his profits to farmers, and to support industry-led schemes that improve the lives of coffee producers and their families.

“I was naïve when I went into this as it wasn’t easy at first to get directly to the farmers. Coffee brokers have spent years building relationships with farmers, so why would they give that contact to a nobody like me?”

Over time though, and with a change in the market, it has become possible to buy directly from smaller farmers, who send their green beans for Holt to roast and assess. He buys only from farmers with environmental and social commitments: “Sustainability is really important to me. We also support a school in Uganda that’s run by the man in charge of the coffee for the whole area. He teaches the children that it’s important to respect the environment.”

Coming out of lockdown, he now divides his time between roasting and pitching for business. His coffee is already in a variety of kosher cafés including Head Room and The District in Golders Green as well as Mill Hill’s Ananas. He retails directly from his website and through, the online kosher supermarket.

I ask him the age old question of coffee drinkers — how to store ground coffee.

“It’s a myth you should store it in the fridge or freezer — that will introduce moisture. Keep it away from heat and light, in a sealed bag in a cupboard. It should last about a month, and if it doesn’t smell fresh any more, like it does when you first open it, then it is past its prime.”

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