A true appreciation of speciality coffee requires a combination of factors, from the bean origin and quality, to the precision of the roasting process. Martin Richards, the 41-year-old co-founder of Blackstar Coffee Roasters, also places emphasis on another important element – humanity. Through his six-year-old coffee roastery and cafe on Thomas Street in West End, Martin not only seeks to improve the lives of coffee farmers in places such as Indonesia and the Horn of Africa by supporting their co-ops, but he also hopes to provide a new chance at life for the locally disenfranchised.
Martin Richards’ only reference to coffee as a child growing up in suburban Melbourne in the seventies and eighties was the instant variety. Even into his twenties, his relationship with coffee remained only cursory, until a trip to visit Peoples Coffee – his friend Matthew Lamason’s boutique roastery in Wellington, New Zealand. “I tasted the coffee there and was immediately in shock,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe the flavours they were getting out of the beans and how different it was to the coffee I was drinking, which was milky flat whites with a bit of sugar to dull the bitter flavour. They were getting this strong but really sweet flavour with a lot of body that didn’t need sugar.”
Intending to spend only two weeks at Matthew’s roastery to do some training, Martin ended up temporarily taking on the role of roast master. Spending the next two months building his craft as a roaster, he immersed himself in the art, pulling 14-hour roasting sessions up to seven days a week. Inspired, he soon let his entrepreneurial spirit take hold and decided to embark on his own coffee journey in Brisbane. “It seemed to me that even though coffee was such a big industry in Brisbane, there wasn’t that same flavour that I’d tasted in Wellington,” he says. “It was quite a surprise to me that there was a big missing element here in terms of experience, so if I could just emulate that flavour and bring it to Brisbane, I felt there would be a market for it.”
His idea took the form of Blackstar Coffee Roasters, which Martin and his then-wife turned into bricks and mortar in a small locale on Thomas Street in West End. Their roasting efforts began in July 2007 with a fully restored 50-year-old roasting machine they had sourced from Europe. Working off the memory of the flavour he had come to know so well in Wellington, Martin began roasting his own signature beans.
In the six years since, Blackstar has endeared itself to the coffee cognoscenti of Brisbane, through its passion for crafting exquisite specialty coffee, as well as its dedication to supporting coffee co-ops around the world. This human element is a source of particular pride for Martin, whose background in community development prior to Blackstar fuelled his desire to give a hand-up to those in need of it. And it extends not only to the farmers who grow Blackstar’s beans, but also to the staff who pull the coffee in the cafe.
“We really try to include people from diverse backgrounds in our work mix,” he says. “We’ve had people from refugee backgrounds work with us and people who have been long-term unemployed, and other types of people who might not normally be included in a workplace. One girl was coming off drugs and was living on the street but she had a background in making coffee, so we were able to support her and help her get back on her feet.”
Martin is particularly energised by seeing these people who have been given a chance really prove themselves and step up to the challenge. “Some of the crew who started with us when they were 16 could barely engage comfortably with other staff, let alone customers. Now they are 19 and are pretty much the life of the party and are making great coffees and loving it. I love seeing that happen, the kind of process of transformation.”
As for the coffee itself, Blackstar sources its beans from the world’s most outstanding growing regions, selecting
co-ops that produce consistently high-grade coffee. Determining the quality of the high-altitude-grown Arabica green beans by ‘cupping’ each origin, Martin and his crew strive for a flavour that mirrors the smell of freshly ground coffee.
One of the challenges of being so particular about the roasting and extraction process, Martin says, is maintaining a flexibility and open mind to try new things. “We’ve tried to balance what we think is important from a values perspective with remaining open-minded and not burying our heads in the ground and thinking there’s only one way to do something,” he explains. “With coffee, it’s very easy to think there’s a right way to make it and a right way to buy it. But if you remain too closed in your thinking, you don’t grow and learn, so it’s about always questioning and trying to remain open and improve things.”
When Blackstar began, it explicitly roasted fairtrade beans, but Martin and his team soon shifted their perspective. “We realised what we really liked about fairtrade was working with co-ops. We like the idea of being independent and not being subservient to a particular certification system, so that we can explore and grow as our thoughts on the matter change. So for now, we are investing in the support of co-ops and helping them where we can by buying consistently from them.”
Being able to combine his passion for coffee with his affinity for community development is where Martin finds his inspiration. “Beauty and integrity inspire me, both when I think about people and of the finer things. When I see people treating each other well, or treating others with compassion, and bringing their best energy and character to the table, that inspires me a lot. And when I see people growing and learning, that’s a beautiful thing. But then I also love the beauty in handcrafted things that have integrity and that people have thought about. Coffee is like that for me. When I see it or taste it, I’m compelled to want to understand it and pursue it.”
With a new “city expression” of Blackstar opening up on Roma Street in October to share its coffee with the CBD crowd, Martin’s dream now is to keep doing what he is doing, growing it and loving it. Peace for him, he says, is multidimensional. “It could be really enjoying the latest Ethiopian coffee we’re drinking in pour-over with my roaster Jade. But then it could be a conversation with someone about co-op coffee and how there was never any co-op coffee being roasted in Brisbane and now there’s quite a lot. Or it could be when I’m just sitting with my kids in the afternoon after school knowing that a lot of dads can’t be with their kids for those moments because they’re tied into jobs. I feel peace with the fact that I’ve been able to create a context where I can be a dad who’s present and has time for them.”
And no doubt his kids will also benefit from their dad’s sage take on living life well. “Know yourself and know your boundaries. Learn from your life experiences and expand your sense of self and understanding,” he says. “And always do it from a place of humility and passion.”