Small coffee roasters face numerous challenges, but Turkish roasters face a bigger obstacle: access to quality green coffee. Most coffee in Turkey is imported twice: first by an European or American importer, that by a roaster in Turkey. Martell Mason, an American expat based in Istanbul, is trying to change that. Arabica Trading House is one of the first specialty coffee importing companies to import coffee directly from origin into Turkey. We met up with Mason at ATH’s office in Çukurcuma to find out what inspired him to move from Oslo to Istanbul.
As a fellow expat working in the Istanbul coffee scene, I have to ask, what inspired you to move to Istanbul?
I was continuing with grad work [in East Africa] but also seeing where I could fit in in the greens industry. I had befriended a lot of people who were importing in Europe. I thought, ‘where I could be of best use?’. [I wanted to go] somewhere I knew there was still room for growth.
Fast forward and I’m working for an importer in Oslo, and I’m seeing there’s a lot of inquiries coming from this part of the world. Why are they coming all the way to Oslo and these other places to import coffee? Understanding that, logistically, it’s a nightmare, and there’s a lot of cost involved.
I started making trips here to investigate the market, and that’s when things really took off. I knew there was great potential. At first I thought I would travel back and forth between Europe, but I quickly realized you have to be on the ground and work directly with the roasters here.
If there’s a career path in coffee, I think of it as barista, roaster, greens buyers, and then, maybe, importing. You came at it from the international development side. How does that affect your perspective?
In 2014, I spent about 2-3 months living on a coffee farm in Tanzania. That was my first take on production, understanding the challenges that farmers face- trying to get a better understanding of the supply chain and the value chain and how that’s all interconnected. For me it’s always been a mission to try to bridge the gap between the farmers and the roasters and consumers. I felt more connected with farmers, in some ways, than I did with roasters.
Even my mindset, when we present coffees here. What point score you give this coffee is great, but at the end of the day we want to ensure the farmers can actually sell that coffee and have decent livelihoods.
What are the challenges of importing coffee for such a boutique market?
I call Turkey an emerging market for coffee. You find a lot of shops that are mimicking what they see on the outside, but when it comes to the actual coffee, the bean, you see commercial to premium range. The difficulty for Arabica Trading House is that we have to condition the market. What we’re doing is trying to provide them with specialty coffee, our 84+ coffees. Unfortunately most Turkish roasters have been used to buying spot coffee, from some warehouse in Hamburg, Antwerp, Amsterdam, wherever. They’ve been sitting there and some are a reduced price.
For us to introduce amazing coffees, but see that the price point is a dollar, maybe two dollars more, we have to explain the reason why it is. This coffee is coming direct from origin. What we’re providing for the Turkish market is something they’ve never had, which is the ability to choose. Right now we’re going through Kenya, there are 15-20 offerings that we’ve been able to size down to present to the market. Will all of these lots be imported through Arabica Trading House? No. We’re offering roasters who want something that is unique and special the ability to choose those lots. This is new. This type of service is added value.
But the bottom line is important. Our producers still produce 80-84 point coffees. Those price points are available. We just need to make sure we can secure that before it’s sold.
It’s almost been a year since we’ve been open and I think a lot of the roasters are on board. Overall, I think people understand this is what we have to do to get the best coffee that we can.
Obviously you taste a lot of coffee for your job. Do you find it difficult to just sit down and enjoy a cup?
It most cases I can separate those roles, but I will say I don’t drink coffee at home. You go through so much during the day, I think the liquid of the night is probably wine! But I can go out and drink whatever. I’m not a snob. It’s always good to try something different.
Entrepreneurs don’t always get a day off, but when you do get some time, what do you like to do in Istanbul?
It’s been rare. Lately I’ve been trying to walk as much as possible. It’s very easy to get stuck in your bubble. Being in Beyoğlu, you can go days without even seeing the see. When I feel like I need to get out of it, I’ll take the ferry to Moda. I like to be on the sea, and look out, and it’s 30 minutes of silence.