By Gemma Kavanagh
“The first time I tasted coffee I was 17 years old, it was my first day working in Bewley’s and I was dying with a hangover, I thought it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted.” Dave Mc Kernan is the creator and chief executive of the coffee brand Java Republic.
Dave has devoted his life to coffee and to sourcing it ethically, describing the industry as one of the most exploitative industry in the world. “I was very lucky to have gotten into Bewley’s, once you get into coffee you never want to leave, very few people do.”
The name Java was still synonymous with World War II, when they called the coffee Java. Undecided whether to call the company Java Bay or Java Republic, Dave saw there was a more negative reaction to the word ‘republic’ because of the troubles in Northern Ireland at that time. “It was for this reason that I stuck with the name Java Republic, it stood out and caused a stir. I do believe that we wouldn’t be here if I had called it Java Bay.”
Explaining how the industry works, he said: “If a coffee shop charges €2.80 for a cup, a farmer gets 2 c, it’s very unequal. In September 1999 we started off with 7 bags of coffee and paid 50 pence for them … I didn’t know how bad it was, and that was the truth and now there’s no excuse.”
Origin trips are when Dave learnt how hard the industry was on the farmers. A huge amount of the children in the coffee industry are family members, and if they work the land they can’t go to school. “It was then I decided to declare the price of the coffee on the internet because I was angry at how rotten the system was. We should all be paying a lot more for coffee including the consumer, which will be the trickiest part.
“For the first 12 years I was in the industry nobody knew how much coffee cost. Nobody knew the hardship on the families. In 1994, I went out to India and it was the greatest shock of my life. We went to Java in 2001 and was appalled by what I saw going on in the coffee world. We buy coffee for as little as possible and nature allows it to be transported out of these countries and we roast it and make good money in Ireland. We are the most unethical group of people in the world; we make retailers look like saints. It’s a dreadful supply chain and they’ve been kept in constant poverty for hundreds of years, they’re as good as slaves. The children in these countries have no future, only one in six will get the chance to go to school.”
On his latest last coffee trip, Dave visited Columbia and for the first time he saw the coffee farmers making between 7 and 8,000 dollars a year.
I asked Dave what is the worst thing to ever happen to coffee and he replied with ‘capsules’. “It has been incredible for the industry but I hate capsules. You can’t get the freshness of coffee into a capsule. It’s the biggest growth area and we might have to go into it someday. They have totally ruined the consumer’s perception of coffee. It’ll be very hard to get the Java quality into a capsule, to me coffee should be treated like milk and bread. The freshness is a huge issue. It’s convenient but it has totally destroyed the culture and soul of coffee.”
Java Republic have recently brought out 26 new herbal teas, the biggest range of specialty teas in the world and have gone into five markets as a result. Java Republic’s story is inspiring because they could have sourced their coffee and continued to take advantage of the farmers but they chose not to, their brand is clean organic coffee and they’re a leading example as a result.