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Interviewing Nolan Hirte, the Founder of Proud Mary Coffee Roaster

Updated on July 3, 2017
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Kuo Cheng Tseng loves to explore cities, looking for their unique cultural values.

Nolan Hirte Speaks About His Career

Nolan Hirte (left)
Nolan Hirte (left)

"I Believe Coffee Can Help the World Become a Better Place"

“I have to become very successful. I have to become famous, so that I can lead the industry in a positive direction to help these guys.” The man speaking is Nolan Hirte, owner of the Collingwood café, Proud Mary. The “guys” he is referring to are not from this hipster corner of town, but the people on the other side of the world who produce the coffee he serves.

In his search for green coffee beans, Hirte has travelled to places like Bali, where the coffee is grown. These trips turned out to have a strong influence on how he sees the world, and his determination to work in the coffee industry. Hirte now sees coffee making as his way to help the people he has met. “I can see the conditions they are living in and how hard they are working. The girls get one dollar for a day but boys get two dollars. Why? It’s inequality. It’s not fair.”

Hirte grew up in Pilbara in Western Australia but was first trained as a barista while first living in New Zealand. This was at a time where the coffee scene was trendsetting. “New Zealand was really leading the scene in the world with espresso coffee and latte art. It was good. We were doing good things. Back then [we had] double shots, we had good creamy milk. It was the beginning of latte art.”
Initially Hirte planned to go to an art school, but decided to learn some life lessons first. “I didn’t want to go straight from school into an art school,” he says. “Because I figured if I’m going to be a successful artist, I need to understand perspectives and life around the world.” Instead he opted for a hospitality course he could travel with. “I was sixteen at the time, I took the course very seriously. I had to wear a suit and tie.”

Hirte doesn't wear the suit and tie anymore but the hospitable attitude has remained. “One thing that stuck with me really well was to always not just meet customer’s expectations but to exceed them.” Hirte speaks from his second café Aunty Peg’s, not far from Proud Mary, This café operates more as a workshop and roaster room, where they usually do the cupping test for their coffee to find out some of the best ones to go on to the menu.

Aunty Peg’s is larger than Proud Mary, and most of the time the background accompaniment is the sound of roasting beans. It is Hirte’s desire to be an artist and it might be the reason he fell in love with coffee. And later he thought owning a café could feed the artistic side of him too. It did. He describes the first time when he first made a hot chocolate for a customer. As he walked to the table, he saw the way customer’s eyes rolled back with pleasure. Nolan was surprised and happy. “For me it was like ‘wow, I made that!’ The creative side of me felt satisfied, because I’d made something from my hand, and I like it. That made me happy, to be able to make someone happy.”

But later he realised he could do a lot more than improve his own life by making coffee. In 2007, Nolan’s hospitality career led him to Melbourne and the Liar Liar Café in Hawthorn. This is where he first got the chance to visit some farmers in Bali. There, he discovered the real faces behind the coffee bean plantations. During these trips, he saw how they plant coffee beans and how they process them. He also witnessed the condition they were living in, and how little they’d been paid. He was shocked. “Back here we complain about $3.50 for a latte? And there’re messes everywhere [in the third world], but no one cares. That really upset me, man,” says Nolan.

After seeing the massive differences between Melbourne latte lifestyles and the coffee farm far away in the third world, he set himself a goal: to help these people. “I’m like ‘Man! I found my life purpose. I am here so that I can make a difference with these people.’”

As part of his project, Nolan has embraced the third wave coffee movement. This is a new wave of brewing coffee where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, and roasters are set to reveal the real characteristics of beans from different farms- When asked what needs to be improved with this system, he replied without a thought. “Education. Third wave coffee is good as it is, but that doesn't mean anything without education.” He explains how a normal customer does not usually see the complex process behind every cup of coffee. “Why do all these things and not connect the final piece?”

This is precisely the purpose of Aunty Peg’s, to provide a bridge to connect knowledge from the beginning of producing coffee to the final consumers. “The final consumers need to spend more money on the quality, not on gimmicks. Without a doubt, we have to charge accordingly… because we want people to feel that the coffee is special. We want the end consumers to pay more money for quality so that other things, special [things] that came along can also stand out.”

And if Hirte’s customers are willing to pay for this quality they could also affect change for the farms all the way in the third world region. Starting from a hospitality student to a famous cafe owner of Melbourne, Nolan Hirte is using the experience of a decade-long career to help people in the little hidden corners in the world. Even with the limited ability he has to create change, he knows that as long as people appreciate the beauty of coffee, it is possible “I believe coffee can help the world become a better place.”

© 2017 Kuo Cheng Tseng

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