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Michael Allpress. Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

Global coffee entrepreneur Michael Allpress on the perfect brew

Michael Allpress has some advice for drinkers of the brew who want to help save the planet.

In 1986, Michael Allpress fired up an expensive, shiny, handmade Italian espresso machine and set about, one cup at a time, converting Aucklanders to freshly ground and brewed coffee. It was a gamble for the 26-year-old, freshly returned from his OE in North America. He’d saved just enough while working in hospitality in the US and Canada to buy the coffee machine and cart on which his future plans depended.

Saturday shoppers at Victoria Park Market voted with their taste buds: after three years, and with a trio of financial backers, Allpress upgraded to a La Marzocco, the Ferrari of coffee makers, found a permanent base and established what is now Allpress Espresso. The business, in an old flour mill behind the iconic market, is now 30 years old and a growing worldwide enterprise employing nearly 300 people.

It’s an impressive achievement for the dyslexic high-school dropout who, most days, drives himself by amphibious Sealegs craft between his home on Waiheke Island and the city.

As well as overseeing the coffee empire, Allpress is directing the company’s philanthropic efforts aimed at cleaning up the planet’s oceans.

Allpress Espresso Tokyo. Photo/Supplied

 Allpress has five siblings and a half brother. His mother, Barbara, and father, Bruce, married young and, after moving from Dunedin to Auckland, had five children in quick succession. They separated while the children were young. Bruce Allpress would go on to become a well-known actor and later an antiques dealer, while Barbara turned her attention to raising the children, protesting against the Vietnam War and welcoming a who’s who of arts and culture into their home.

Michael Allpress spent much of his childhood in the lively company of adults enjoying the family’s hospitality, and coffee gradually became part of his DNA.

 Was your upbringing as stimulating as it sounds?

My mother raised five kids under five, but there were always interesting people and food and music in the house. My grandmother passed on a real interest in food and culinary things. She had raised seven daughters in Invercargill. So, while my friends were eating white Tip Top bread and drinking instant coffee or tea, we had roasted and ground coffee. I’m not sure why, because it was more expensive and we didn’t have a lot of money, but Mum thought it was a necessary luxury. When the relationship with Dad broke down, Mum did the best she could. It was the 1970s – the Vietnam War was on, Woodstock was happening and there was a bit of consumption of marijuana in the house, but it was all manageable. We were raised on good values.

Allpress this year. Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

And good coffee – what do you remember about coffee that might have pushed you along this career path?

One of my friends’ parents had a mah-jong set and I borrowed it and learnt how to play it. I introduced Mum to it and then suddenly there was a group of mah-jong players meeting at home. They were in their twenties and thirties and I was just a 10-year-old kid. In the breaks, I would go and make the coffee – it was very rudimentary. I would simmer some milk and throw coarsely ground coffee into the milk, let it steep and then sieve it.

Your father worked in Japan before he became known as an actor. What was he doing there?

Bruce travelled to Japan during the 1970s as a textile merchant. Sometimes, he would bring home his Japanese clients and Mum would try to cook some Japanese food. I was fascinated by Japanese culture. That is partly why Allpress operates in Tokyo. They’re known for their love of tea, but the Japanese have also always appreciated good coffee.

You’ve built a successful business despite your formal education being limited due to dyslexia.

For a long time I didn’t really dwell on it, but I did have problems with numbers, reading, letters. I still have some issues with that stuff. My brain was wired differently, but it wasn’t recognised and I was labelled as a bit slow. I was held back a class, so by the time I got to the third form [Year 9], I was 15. I was wagging and going surfing, so I left school at 15 and got a job making surfboards. That didn’t last long because it’s a seriously toxic environment and wasn’t conducive to a healthy life, so I moved to Whangamatā and went surfing. I had a job later at a Turkish Arabic restaurant in Auckland where we had about 12 different coffees. That led to working for a hotel chain in Canada, and then a spell in coffee-loving Seattle, before coming home and setting up in the coffee business.

A surf board designed by Allpress. Photo/Supplied

How far afield do you operate?

We have roasteries in Dunedin, Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney, East Tokyo and London. Coffee is a perishable product and should be roasted in the country of consumption. We supply 1000 independent cafes around the world.

How do you distinguish yourselves given all the competition in the international market?

After 30 years, we’ve got some significant institutional memory and some great people who know what they’re doing. Early on, when I was younger and travelling, working as a ski bum in North America and living out of a suitcase, I would occasionally drink an amazing cup of coffee. I would always enquire about the brand and would find out what roasting equipment they used. Every time it was the same – hot air fluid bed roasting. It makes a significant difference to flavour and flavour development. You need to start with a great product, but you can enhance it with the right roasting technique. Allpress has always been in pursuit of flavour. We are renowned for being reliable and getting a great cup of coffee.

Which is?

Great flavour, length of flavour, a rounded balanced flavour. Some of the new kids on the block are roasting very light – so light that the coffee is sour and not very palatable. You want to be producing a good cup of coffee so people will go, “That was good. I’ll have another one.” 

Beans going into a grinder. Photo/Supplied

How does a cup of coffee end up costing about $5 for a flat white?

There is a lot of hype and headlines about the cost of a cup of coffee. When you look at the price per pound that it trades at on the New York exchange, that is a long way from the cost of shipping it, roasting it, shrinkage, packaging and advertising. And then it gets into a cafe and there is GST and tax. Rents are steep. Margins might look high but the cost of getting coffee to the table is extraordinary.

You can pluck at the heart strings of consumers and say, “You are paying too much for your coffee”, and in some cases you are, because it is not worth drinking. The sooner the consumer distinguishes between a good cup of coffee and a bad cup and votes with their feet, the better. There is a difference between the McCafés and the independent cafes that care about their coffee, have well-trained people, use the right milk and give some service. But everyone is charging about $5.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends moving from meat and dairy to more plant-based foods. What are the implications for coffee drinkers who like their coffee with cows’ milk?

Look, I’ll go to dinner with people, have a meal and when it’s 8.30pm and we’re offered a coffee, they’ll say, “I’ll have a latte”. How can you drink a latte after you’ve just had a meal? It’s not right. The consumption of these large-volume dairy drinks is unconscious, it’s habitual. In Europe, if people are young enough to tolerate milk in any quantity, they will have one café au lait or a latte or a cortado in the morning and, if they want coffee in the afternoon, they drink it black. It makes sense; it becomes a smart drink that gives you a lift rather than being food.

With friend Charlotte Long and his Sealegs boat. Photo/Supplied

Where are your beans from and are they ethically sourced?

They’re from Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala and Indonesia. Ethical sourcing is a massive subject. What precisely does it mean and whose ethics? We deal with very reputable exporters – we go to Bogotá, for example, and deal with people we trust and whose values we share. People need to trust us and believe in what we do. We created our own [ethical] mark – we don’t want a third-party endorsement. We go to the plantations, check the picking regulations, how they look after any migrant workers, whether doctors and dentists are provided on site, whether there is good housing – we do our own assessment. Ethical trading doesn’t stop at source; it’s also about how you treat your employees and it must run through the whole organisation. We have 1000 relationships with 1000 businesses. Our ethical trading is not third party – we know these people.

Have we reached peak coffee?

We’re innovating and have a couple of new products in development – a ready-to-drink can and a convenient roast and ground pour-over sachet. We’re going to explore different ideas around an espresso tincture that you could split with sparkling water or gin, or make an espresso martini with.

What’s the connection between Allpress Gallery in Auckland and the coffee business?

The gallery is a little bit self-serving. We had this space and we wanted to attract different tribes, and support the arts as well, so we make that space available free of charge to young emerging artists and some well-established artists, such as Lisa Reihana, Grace Bader, Ben Young and Ken Griffen and to Auckland Studio Potters and Monmouth Glass Studio.

Allpress this year. Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

What’s your philanthropic focus beyond the gallery?

We’ve become conscious of our ability to influence. Our reusable replica of an Allpress takeaway coffee cup is an alternative to the typical single-serve paper cup. It’s made with plant-based plastics, not petroleum. We are redesigning our packaging, conscious of the materials we want to use yet still needing to protect our fresh product. Allpress can’t do everything so, with me having been a surfer and a sailor and coming from New Zealand, the ocean is our philanthropic focus. We are backing one or two big global initiatives rather than doing a bunch of random stuff.

A final word on coffee – what’s your favourite brew?

I built this company on espresso. At home I grind the coffee just before I brew it, using a filter cone. I make quite a large, strong pot that I drink while I read the paper and clear the emails. That’s my morning ritual.

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.