I meet Joel in his office, which is upstairs at Origin. Much is happening. While we chat his chef is bringing him new versions of flapjacks to try and comment on. I get to try a bit too – ricotta with honeycomb and mango – delicious. This is followed by dish after dish. Joel is having fun, but he takes it all very seriously too. Getting it right is how he came to be the granddaddy of coffee in Cape Town.
Joel was born in Montreal, which was very cosmopolitan at the time (probably still is), but he wasn’t into coffee yet. While studying engineering at Waterloo University he did a year’s exchange to France. On campus there was a café where Joel fell in love: with café culture, coffee and a French girl. He returned to his studies at Waterloo, where there was still no European coffee culture and was then offered a job with Microsoft in Seattle. His friends warned him against the move to America – no good food; he would be shot; the bread would be terrible; the beer would taste like piss. With great good fortune, he hit Seattle as the foodie, micro-brewery and coffee scene exploded. Seattle was the place to be with markets, emphasis on good produce, and well-prepared and sourced food.
When he first came to Cape Town, he could find no decent coffee. After returning for a second time, he and his wife considered a move to the countryside. There, in Greyton Joel finally found some great coffee – at the Post House then run by David Donnelly and his wife. The couples became friends and planned to set up and produce excellent coffee in Greyton. Circumstances meant that both David and Joel ended up back in Cape Town. Their idea now was that David would produce the coffee and Joel would go to Italy to learn how to become a baker. One day he was chatting with Maranda Engelbrecht of Manna’s to see if they could set up an adjacent bakery, when she said what she really needed was decent coffee and a roaster. The three chatted and Origin was born.
Joel loves the café culture as much as he loves coffee. At one stage he considered leaving Cape Town, but realised that in 2005 it was on the brink of a similar explosion to the one in Seattle in 1995 and he wanted to be a part of that. True to its name, Origin was the first roaster in Cape Town, now there are at least 15 roasters just in the City Bowl. The environment has become more competitive. In the beginning it was about convincing the consumer to change from indifferent coffee to good coffee, now he sees his challenge as getting the consumer to truly appreciate great coffee.
He also feels strongly about training and paying baristas properly. He buys only from Mercanta of the UK, with whom they have a privileged and exclusive relationship. It is reciprocal – Mercanta will regularly bring him samples of new things to try and he can be fairly specific with his orders.
Having a cup of coffee and/or a meal at Origin is always a great experience and that is what Joel’s mission is all about.