It was a number of weeks ago where I asked my followers over on Instagram what International coffee roasters that I should begin to put on my radar in 2022. There were a number of great recommendations (which only affirms my belief that the specialty coffee community is not just growing but thriving.)
Another aspect of my inquiry was to find some coffee roasters who were simply a one or two-person operation. Nothing against larger coffee roasters, but I really want to focus on smaller coffee roasters this year. And so one roaster that was suggested over and over was Sumo Coffee Roasters, from Dublin, Ireland.
And after a number of chats with Daniel Horbat, I was convinced Sumo was exactly what I was looking for to feature on this site. So, I am thrilled to be able to share the story of Sumo Coffee Roasters as our Coffee Roaster of the Month for March, 2022!
Hey Daniel, so great to get the chance to connect with you! So, tell us a little more about yourself, and tell us how did this all begin?
My coffee career started just after college when I needed money to pay for my day-to-day expenses. This was around 18 years ago. Back then, I was mainly working with commodity coffee and mixology, as I started as a bartender. Still, even though I didn’t have that much information about coffee, I was attracted to it from day one. I remember always trying to impress my boss (…and the ladies 😊 ) with my basic latte art that I was able to achieve at the beginning.
A few years later, in 2012, together with my fiancée Alexandra, we moved to Dublin, and this was the point when I discovered the beauty of specialty coffee. I will never forget the moment I tried something other than commodity coffee; I think it was Ethiopian. I remember being amazed. I couldn’t believe that you could find those floral and fruity notes in a cup. Suddenly everything changed, and it was more than just a job. I was excited. I had a passion. I was craving more. This was the moment I decided to go down the specialty road. I got my first job in a coffee shop and started learning and practicing as much as possible. In the next few years, I will win a few competitions and I experience my first trip to the origin in Colombia – a journey that changed my mindset forever and made me realize what matters in this industry: the producers! They are the foundation of the whole industry, and without the farmers, none of us will get to work with coffee and do what we love.
Sometimes they are not in the centre of the spotlight; when a consumer enjoys a cup of coffee, most of the time, they think about what a beautiful job the roaster did or what a great cup the barista brewed for them. With every coffee we have the honour to roast, we are trying to tell the story behind the bean and talk about the love, dedication, and hard work these people at the origin have to do because we believe that we wouldn’t be here without them.
In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I got again at a turning point in my career. After quitting the job I had at the time in one of the specialty cafes I was working in here in Dublin, so I could pursue something else focused more on education, I was forced to cancel my new adventure due to all the countries that I was supposed to travel for work to being in lockdowns.
And this is how Sumo Coffee Roasters came to life. Being left jobless, I decided to do something of my own, something that I will pour my heart into, something that doesn’t necessary brings me monetary rewards but satisfaction and fulfilment by knowing that I will be trying every day, with my small power, to make a better industry and to help people understand the story behind the bean because once you know how hard those people at the coffee origin work, the sweat, love and passion they are putting into their craft, you’ll never look the same at a cup of coffee.
Together with my fiancée, we took all our savings and decided to create a transparent and ethical business and celebrate the growers.
So tell us why the name Sumo Coffee Roasters?
Sumo Coffee Roasters’ is tied up to our childhood memories, making it special for us. It used to be part of our daily routine as kids; growing up in a communist country, Romania, television was only transmitted, on our black and white TVs, for a few hours each day with not much variety, only one or two channels available. After the [Romanian] revolution, my mum went abroad and brought back a colour TV and I remember being the first one among my friends to have one.
On one channel, they were showing wrestling shows, and I saw Akebono. Akebono was a big guy who dressed like a sumo. He was a champion, and I became a big fan; I spent most of my childhood watching wrestling instead of cartoons! Since then, it has been one of my favourites sports, and I became fascinated by its complexity and simplicity.
Being sumo isn’t just about being big or having strength – it’s about discipline, sacrifice, intelligence. To prepare for competitions, they have to follow a strict diet, show discipline and respect the tradition of the sport.
I found a connection with this and the way I prepared for the Cup Tasters Championship, the determination I had to succeed, the diet, the discipline. I always say that it was one of the things that helped me stay motivated during my competitions – eating plain chicken and rice, no alcoholic drinks at all, no smoking nor going out for six months and living a simple life, all to win a World Championship.
I also like that it celebrates another culture because coffee connects lots of cultures, traditions, and people in one cup. As I like to say it, I – a Romanian guy living in Ireland, roasting coffees from South America, with a roastery inspired by Japan, and our coffees being drunk worldwide. Coffee connects people, and that’s just beautiful!
So when it came to thinking of a name for our brand and finding something that had true meaning for us, Sumo (which I also liked because it’s short) was what we came up with.
Can you share more about what equipment you roast on, and tell us about your philosophy when it comes to roasting?
We started small and we roast on a Mill City 3 kg; I think the most important piece of equipment is my tasting buds 😊. The cupping and the sensory are vital in my daily work at the roastery. All coffees are roasted based on what I taste in the cup, and I change a profile multiple times until my taste buds are happy. Without sensory skills, it doesn’t matter how good you are at roasting, or even on what machine are you roasting, if you can’t recognize a few important things in the cup and how to adjust the roasting accordingly.
We roast light but at the same time developed enough to highlight the unique characteristics of the terroir.
Perhaps some of our readers are aware of your accomplishments, but for those who aren’t, can you share what it was like to compete and ultimately win the 2019 World Cup Tasters Championship!?
Had you competed in any competitions before this?
I went for my first competition, Latte Art, in 2015. After discovering my love for sensory, I started training and went for my first Irish Cup Taster Championship, which I won, in 2016. I went for my first World Cup Tasting Championship in Shanghai and placed 22nd.
In 2017 I took a year off and then came back in 2018. I won the national cup tasting again and represented Ireland in Brazil, placing 12th. I could have done better, but I changed my mind on a few cups instead of going with my first impression, my first choice.
2019 was my year! I won the nationals one more time, with a perfect score, every round 8/8 in a record time. Again had the opportunity to represent Ireland, this time in Berlin, in June 2019, and after so much hard work and dedication, I was fortunate enough to bring the trophy back home.
The beauty of the cup taster championship is that you don’t have to wait for the results; everything is happening in the moment, live; according to how many cups you missed or found correct, everybody knows who’s going further into the final.
I remember in the semi-final when I lifted the last cup and realized that I qualified into the final – something that I never managed to do before in a world cup tasters championship – I just burst into tears. Such an unexpected reaction, but in that moment, I knew that I could do it, and it helped me stay focused and not get nervous the next day into the final.
How does competing in coffee competitions like WCT help to grow & shape the specialty coffee industry?
By competing, not only that you specialize in specialty and improve your skills, but you also help to move coffee forward. It’s a circle, from the bean to cup; once we, the competitors (baristas, roasters, etc.) are improving our skills and tell the right story, everything will go up, the farmers will start getting paid a fairer price, living wages at both of the extremes of the industry, more transparent collaboration will be chased, and the coffee processing techniques will become more and more innovative, therefore resulting in a better industry and quality.
Are there any competitions you are looking to compete in going forward?
Next for me, I will probably try my luck in Coffee Masters again; the last time I finished third, in 2019 in London. I loved this competition; it is so fun and lively, and you genuinely have to have an all-around experience as it tests everything from latte art skills, sensory, speed, and mixology!
I am also thinking about the Irish Brewing and Barista championships, but I am undecided about this as few of my friends asked for my help in training, and I will honestly give them the chance to feel what I already experienced so many times on the stage: Nothing beats being able to be, for so many times, on the same stage with all these fantastic coffee professionals, building up new friendships and share among us all types of tricks and coffee secrets. During all these competitions, I have learned discipline, humility, and trust in myself. I love the adrenaline that stage gives you and the feeling you get when you’re finally handed the trophy that you always dreamt of holding.
In your opinion, what’s the specialty coffee community like in Ireland? What do you love?
When I moved to Ireland ten years ago, the coffee scene was still dominated by the big chains and dark roasts; people didn’t know much about speciality coffee, not many were drinking filter coffee or brews, everything was focused on the good looks of the cup, like latte art, rather than the taste and quality of it. Much has changed since then; customers are more educated. They want to know where and how the cup of coffee is coming from.
Today coffee in Ireland is not seen as a necessity but more like a luxury drink. It’s all about the experience. This experience is a combination of education, knowledge, and hospitality. It’s about customer service and making the consumer feel important. Coffee shops in Ireland are focused now more on the coffee quality, on the more direct trade – thanks to this, we are able to tell the story behind the beans, sustainability, lighter roast profiles, innovative brew methods that give us sweetness, complexity, and distinctiveness in our cups.
Nowadays, Dublin is blessed with so many specialty coffee shops and cafes, and it’s pretty amazing to experience the rapid growth of the coffee scene in recent years. The coffee community is pretty cool as well. Everybody is so lovely and friendly.
Also, this year SCA Ireland will organize the Coffee in Good Spirits Championship for the very first time. After all, the Irish did invent the Irish coffee, so excited to see those recipes!
I see on your site such an incredible variety when it comes to the coffees you offer. Why do you feel it is important to offer such a variety? How have your customers responded to this?
I think it’s essential to have a diversified offering so everyone can find something to their liking. It’s also fun, and people can’t get bored. Also, to be honest, the coffees we source are coffees that I like and are to my taste. This is why the diversity; I am not stuck on only one process, as naturals let’s say. I am a curious person, and I love discovering new things; for example, when I came across the Striped Bourbon from Finca Llamadas, that we had until recently available on the website, I was intrigued. I had never heard of the variety before, and once I cupped it, I was sold.
So speaking of coffee, what are you drinking/enjoying right now?
The last 15 grams from the most exclusive coffee we sourced so far, the 96 points Gesha Kule from the renowned Ninety Plus estate in Panama; the Gesha Marcela from our friends at El Vergel and also the most unique and spectacular Rwanda I have ever had, the Intego lot from our partners from Gasharu Farm.
Yes, three coffees one after another. I know; I drink lots of it every day.
Looking forward beyond COVID-19 what do you see as some of the emerging trends or new initiatives that will shape the future of specialty coffee?
During the Covid-19, we noticed a massive increase in website sales from home users coffee lovers. People got to experience delicious coffee in the comfort of their homes during the last months; they got curious, bought equipment and increased their skills, and some of them succeeded to brew coffees as good as what they used to get in the cafes.
So, I believe we will see more home brewers consumers in the future.
You have done much to help shape the specialty coffee culture. Is there anything you would love to see change as it pertains to specialty coffee?
I would love to see consumers making more informed choices and to see people in continuous pursuit of a higher standard of quality. Oh, and beside the obvious transparency and fair prices that should naturally happen at the origin, I would also like to see living wages being paid to the baristas in Ireland. We are still a bit behind with the wages here in Ireland. Working for so many years as a barista myself, I can say it’s not easy to maintain a passion for coffee especially since competing in coffee championships it’s pretty expensive.
But we are getting there; I have faith in the Irish Coffee community.
Find their beans: If you’re looking to get your hands on some beans then definitely check out their web-store for what they’re currently roasting!
If you live outside of Europe, and are looking to get your hands on some coffee from Sumo Coffee Roasters, get in touch with Daniel through email. When I was speaking with him, he mentioned that to incentivize international orders, Sumo Coffee lets customers buy their coffee at a reduced price from the wholesale list. They do this because they want to share coffee with as many beautiful people as possible.
I just want to say a huge thank you to Daniel for sharing more about Sumo Coffee Roasters and for being such a huge contributor to the coffee culture in the Dublin, Ireland. Check out their site, grab yourself some beans and enjoy!