Yesterday I visited Colombo Tea and Coffee Co. on Gale/Magwaza Maphalala Street in my beloved hometown of Durban. Having only recently passing my driver’s test, I got very lost and very anxious while traversing downtown and almost threw up on the pavement after I parked my car. More than once did a man with tinted windows and fake M3 stickers try to kill me.
But it was going to be worth the trip. I had come to Colombo not because I am especially interested in coffee - even though I do like it - but because I wanted to speak to an erudite man named Kyle Fraser, Marketing Director of Colombo, to talk about a coffee beer they’re making with Robson’s brewery from Empangeni.
Being quite familiar with the beer side of things, I wondered about what their half of the process looked like. Happily, Kyle invited me to have a look at their place. He’s a very friendly and very knowledgeable guy, and noticeably passionate about coffee and what his team does to create great roasts. I must say that his enthusiasm rubbed off on me in a big way.
Colombo is a beautiful space. The factory floor and café are one and the same, with coffee lovers sipping (very inexpensive) cappuccinos on one side, and men roasting single origin beans from all around the world on the other. The atmosphere is laid-back, and the company’s more than ninety years of existence is distilled into a beautiful selection of cabinets and antiques that litter the place. I was once here for a Pecha Kucha night a few months back and was impressed with the beauty of the building; during the day it’s another thing entirely.
Colombo only do small batch coffee, which means, obviously, that bean roasting is done in small amounts and, perhaps less obviously, each selection of coffee beans is roasted with care and expertise. A wasted batch of coffee is not only a waste of money, but it is also a waste of the more than 160 steps in planting, harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting that it takes to get a bean from, say, Costa Rica to Durban. It should go without saying that everything is done with the utmost care and pride.
"But the beer?", I hear you ask. Well, I’m getting to that.
Robson’s and Colombo are busy in the process of launching a beer that is, essentially, craft ale laced with craft coffee. Colombo makes cold-pressed coffee (that is, coffee cold-infused into water for 16 hours) that is then mixed into kegs of Robson’s West Coast Ale. It’s not ordinary cold-pressed coffee, though: it’s a specific blend of beans cold-pressed in a specific way. So, if you’re a brewer or roaster who want to steal this idea, you’ve been warned. It simply won’t work with the normal methods.
The result is a brew that is mellow and sweet with a kicking coffee aftertaste. Although the West Coast Ale is quite bitter, the sweetness of the cold-pressed coffee balances out the palate, creating a beer that has gone down a treat whenever it has been sold.
Colombo is looking to get a tap into their factory café once certain other engagements and projects have been dealt with, and, I imagine, once a steady supply of the coffee brew can be ensured. Until then, we can only hope that its wide release is fast in coming.
If you’re into your coffee, though, you should check out Colombo’s stuff in the meantime. They roast excellent beans with great attention, train baristas to the highest standards, and effectively are the bastions of café culture on the East Coast. Even better, their focus on their craft - instead of their brand and their marketing, a la Origin or Truth - means that their products are affordable, as well as being some of the most extraordinary coffee I’ve ever had.
Their coffee (and teas, both Ceylon and speciality) are available to buy from their apothecary at the Gale Street factory (at which my buddy Dayle works), or, if you’re not inclined to drive out, their coffee can be enjoyed at many locations across the city, including Corner Cafe, Freedom Cafe, Larnies, Craft Trattoria and, well, anyplace that’s owned by Neil Roake.
In the end it’s encouraging that brewers, whatever their beverage may be, are continuing along a path of innovation and craftsmanship. Sometimes inspiration and brilliance come from the unlikeliest of sources, and a coffee beer catalysed by a ninety-year-old coffee company in old town Durban might just be testament to that rule.
The beer will see a wide, outside-of-food-festival release in the near future, and you’ll (hopefully) first hear about it here.