“It was the really boring things like the fact that there was really good insulation and you could walk around indoors in your underwear even though it’s minus 20 outside that got me,” he tells The Local, laughing.
“So when people ask me if I’m a love refugee I say no… it’s insulation. And the other thing is I like the fact that there are seasons here. Ireland has not so much variation between winter and summer. I enjoy the seasons we have here that are very different.”
Ryan was working for Greenpeace when he first came to Sweden as part of a six month project in 2007, and indeed has spent most of his adult life working NGOs. Though he had long wanted to go out on his own and run a business, he always found the prospect of compromising his morals to be tricky:
“The only thing I could think of is that it’d be interesting to start a business that could use some of the ethical principles of non-profit, and in a way that both the consumer, the supplier and the business owner could benefit. I had lots of ideas but when I thought them through I would see that someone, somewhere would get screwed so it wasn’t the thing for me”.
READ ALSO: Here's where to get Sweden's best coffee
That changed when he had the idea for his startup, Muttley & Jack's Coffee Roasters, which buys high quality coffee from growers at a fair price then delivers it to the doorstep of its members. The concept was inspired by his travels back home: though Ireland is not traditionally known as a nation of coffee specialists, the downturn of the Celtic Tiger years started to changed that.
“Ireland has been a tea drinker's haven for centuries. I travel back there four to six times year and have done ever since I moved here, and I just noticed that there was something exciting happening in the whole food scene in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger collapse. Cheaper spaces were allowing people to come in and set up businesses they couldn’t afford before. People started focusing much more on delivering a quality product because the population was more discerning in what they would do with their now much more limited capital,” he recalls.
“So I noticed there were more and more great coffee shops popping up all over the place, and serving things that tasted of more than just roasted coffee beans. You could taste different elements. So because of that I started to get into coffee.”
The roasting process. Photo: Muttley & Jack's Coffee Roasters
Sweden by contrast is a nation of coffee drinkers, but not necessarily a nation that drinks high quality coffee across the board. Ryan saw an opportunity to join the fledgling specialty coffee scene in the Scandinavian country however, using a model where customers pay for a membership and have beans delivered straight to them, rather than the more standard practice of selling the product in cafés or stores.
“We’re only two months into the venture and I think people are surprised in some way that coffee can have such a wide variety of tastes. Swedes drink a lot of coffee but most of it has been roasted to death,” he points out.
“There’s about 50 speciality coffee roasters all over Sweden and every year a couple more join them. It’s growing. I think it’s a bit like wine was maybe 20 years ago, when people had a choice between ‘red’ and ‘white’ and didn’t know much about the origin and how it would taste different from different countries. Nowadays people have favourite countries, regions, grapes, they’re much more discerning and can talk about what they like. I think coffee is on the same path, that in maybe five or 10 years more than half of people will have a favourite country for their coffee’s origin.”
Ryan thinks customers will soon be better informed about the coffee they buy, and he wants to help. Photo: Muttley & Jack's Coffee Roasters
The focus on high quality coffee is combined with focusing on giving a fair deal to the farmers themselves, which isn’t always the case with more popular mass-produced coffee:
“Most of the commodity coffee you get in normal chain stores is bought and sold on the stock exchange either in New York in London. Speciality coffee skips over that and buys directly from the growers, and generally pays 200 to 400 percent more than what they’d get if they sold it on the market.”
“We work very closely with the producers to give them feedback on what we think is good, and what they could do better, and that we’d be willing to pay more if they’re able to produce a consistent level of quality year after years. So they get paid two to four times as much as they would otherwise and invest in working sustainably and delivering ever increasing quality,” he adds.
The ethical focus is an easy sell in Sweden where those issues are given greater attention than in some other countries. But that can also be a double edged sword when it comes to trying to help small scale coffee producers, the entrepreneur argues.
“A lot of the growers we work with are very small growers. Even if they’re part of a cooperative, if that cooperative is going to be certified as organic, every member has to be certified as organic, and it’s quite expensive to get certified as both Fairtrade and organic. A lot of the farmers we work with simply don’t have the money to prioritise that. Even though, in 99.9 percent of cases, they’re actually practising organic farming.”
“We go and see if the farms are organic in practice if not in certification. That’s still a business we want to support and product we want to deliver, but it creates a challenge here in the marketplace to communicate why organic isn’t on every single bag. That’s a good chance to engage people though, and if they have an open mind they can understand a bit more about some of the shortcomings about the labelling and certification game,” he elaborates.
How the coffee looks when it reaches members. Photo: Muttley & Jack's Coffee Roasters
Another of the company’s goals is to try and reach people who are not already coffee experts, and perhaps feel intimidated by the sometimes elitist specialist coffee world, then try to make it accessible to them and provide knowledge in a manageable way.
“Speciality coffee is still mostly consumed by coffee nerds – and what can you teach them? But there are lots of people who have heard about speciality coffee then maybe gone into a coffee shop and felt intimidated. What we’re trying to do is take speciality coffee, make it approachable, and answer questions that maybe I was curious about a couple of years ago but didn’t have answers for.”
As such, each delivery of beans comes with an info card containing a small piece of information about coffee, with the idea being that customers build up their knowledge over the long term by reading small nuggets of information each month.
Workshops are also offered three times a year, teaching members skills like how to brew coffee at home and how to roast beans. For the die-hards meanwhile, there is even the opportunity to join Ryan on a trip to visit his coffee growers – provided they can make their way there.
“People will get themselves to the meeting place, it could be an airport in Kenya for example, and the next five days we’ll have everything organized: we’ll take them to coffee farms to see the coffee growing, meet the people who grow it and the communities that benefit from it, and I guess this is the one thing for the coffee nerds. But it’s the kind of thing that’s only open to people in the trade at the moment.”
“But again, like wine, people go on vineyard tours, so I think there’s a possibility people will want to do that as well,” he predicts.
The company is currently based in Hammarby Sjöstad south of central Stockholm. Photo: Muttley & Jack's Coffee Roasters
Though it’s still early days, one thing the startup owner has noticed after a few months in business in Sweden is that people in the country’s specialist coffee scene are surprisingly helpful towards their competitors.
“It surprised me at first because I thought going from the non-profit world where people help each other a lot between different companies, to the commercial world, would be so different. But the speciality coffee market is very much like the non-profit world in my experience, people do help each other. One guy who was coaching me for a while explained that a rising tide floats all boats: so if you can lift the overall quality of coffee in the country, you don’t have to squabble over the pie, you can just make the pie larger.”
It only felt right to tap into the coffee expert’s knowledge while we had him at our disposal, so we asked Ryan a question that will likely be one plenty of people have pondered: with so many different ways to make coffee now offered these days, which method is the best?
“I think the old school method of a hand pourover brewing is best. You have total control, and if you do it in the morning it can be a moment to slowly have this meditative practice. It takes three or four minutes.”
“The main thing I would say though is invest in a grinder at home. If there’s one thing you can do to improve the taste experience it’s to grind the beans before you brew them. It’s a bit like if you buy a loaf of bread and cut it all up into slices then use it for the rest of the week, the bread’s going to taste worse and worse. It’s the same with beans,” he concludes.