Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we speak to the CEO of Rocket Bean Roastery, Ancis Romanovskis, who has been at the forefront of Latvia’s coffee scene for more than 15 years.
When the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1991, state-controlled industries, from energy to pharmaceuticals, re-entered the free market where they had to start from the ground up.
In Latvia, at the forefront of a coffee sector revamp, was Ancis Romanovskis, an energetic young entrepreneur who had travelled extensively abroad. During this time, he had experienced a flourishing takeaway coffee scene in cities like London, Amsterdam, and Berlin, which was conspicuously absent in his native country.
A chain of Latvian convenience stores offered low-quality coffee in polystyrene cups; but it was nowhere near what he’d observed in the West. So he decided to do something about it.
“In post-Soviet countries, walking around with a takeaway coffee was not even acceptable, it was rude,” he explains.
“There were a few of us who had worked for big corporations and had seen Western-style coffee shops, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we use our knowledge and do things better?’”
Ancis and his co-partners approached the convenience stores with a proposal and told them they wanted to supply them with better-quality coffee machines. It was 2006, and they had little experience of the industry – but they had the right attitude and they were brimming with ambition.
“The deal happened and it was only then that we started to learn more about the industry,” Ancis says. “In a month’s time, we’d installed 150 coffee machines, which was a big jump from zero. In the first year, we managed to reach a million in turnover.”
The machines opened the door to the coffee world and encouraged Ancis to explore new areas. After spending time in Dubai working alongside Union Coffee’s then head roaster, Matthew Wade, the next step was obvious: roasting.
“My partners had already started to build the structure of Rocket Bean while I was in Dubai,” he says. “The ambition was not only to supply the local market with the best coffees we could find, but to strive for the highest targets.
“This is where the name comes from. We were not going to be afraid to set our ambitions high.”
Coffee for everyone
One of the criticisms often levelled at the specialty coffee sector is that it’s elitist and all too ready to cut out those who don’t share the same values. Not only does this intimidate anyone relatively new to coffee, it creates a toxic atmosphere of exclusivity that goes against everything coffee should be.
In Latvia’s fledgling specialty coffee scene, Ancis saw a way in which he could grow Rocket Bean without falling into the same trap.
“From the beginning, we’ve divided our coffees into three ranges,” he says. “Silver, gold, and ruby. They are three different philosophies.
“Silver, like in jewellery, is accessible, safe, and reasonable. It’s really nice and you won’t be disappointed by it. But at the same time, you can’t be expecting that ‘wow’ moment you get from other coffees.
“The gold range is what we call ‘drop-the-mic’ coffees – ones that stand out on a cupping table and, in a blind tasting, pique our interest. They usually have lots of character and a distinctive taste.
“With the ruby range, it’s something cool, high scoring, and experimental – nano lots, micro lots, maybe some new varieties. The coffees are usually around 90 or 90+, but not always. The ruby range contains coffees that blow you away and where the farmers have put their creativity into it.”
By dividing their coffees into these three categories, Rocket Bean has been able to tap into far-reaching corners of the market, while including those who may otherwise feel left out of the specialty coffee scene.
It also adheres to Ancis’ belief that roasters shouldn’t compete on price, but instead focus on their approach.
“If it’s a price fight, you’re never going to win unless you’re some roasting monster,” he says. “But where you can compete is with your philosophy. Many people just need their coffee drink; they don’t want the funkiness, or anything crazy. For us, we clearly distinguish it by these three product ranges.”
Substance over style
By now, Ancis has worked in coffee long enough to see beyond many of the industry’s buzzwords and trends. Over the years he’s visited all the major origins, from Colombia to Vietnam, while also observing the development of coffee shops in Europe’s capitals.
This has made him more discerning than most when it comes to the way he runs Rocket Bean Roastery and its two cafés in Riga. One thing in particular that he’s noticed is that specialty coffee shops have a tendency to sacrifice quality over style.
“You have a lot of nice places that do freshly roasted coffee,” he says. “Places where you might have a particular style: cool haircuts, a nice interior. It’s a lifestyle, a trend. But unfortunately, in many cases, the charm or the magic of coffee is not there.
“With Rocket Bean, we make sure the coffee shops are cool, but we also focus on making our coffees special. A lot of people tell us that when they come to Riga, they know that they can come straight to us and get a really nice coffee. That’s what you want to hear.”
As well as learning about the consumer-facing side of business, Ancis also appreciates the prevailing systems when it comes to sourcing. Rather than direct trade, he’s a believer in what he calls “logical buying”.
“I trust traders and suppliers,” he explains. “They will make the most logical route for the coffee and most likely the most sustainable with bulk orders. We’re not such a large roaster that we can fill whole container loads from each origin. So it makes no sense for direct trade on many occasions.
“From the roastery, it’s a lot of time from both sides involved. It costs money for the farmer and trader to ship the coffee backwards and forwards, and requires a lot of communication.”
This deep understanding of the sector, developed over the years, has helped Ancis move Rocket Bean forward efficiently, while keeping the business agile enough to respond to changing demands. During the outbreak of Covid-19, for example, they quickly revamped their website and increased online orders, both locally and abroad.
But it’s not just experience that guides Rocket Bean.
Ancis continues to be driven by the same unwavering belief in what he’s doing as he was back in 2006 when his coffee journey began. It’s a belief that enables him and his team to bring better coffee to the market and strive for great heights – where only the sky is the limit.
Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? Next time, we’ll be speaking to Girls Who Grind Coffee, a UK roastery empowering women in the coffee sector.