Since 1840, Bewley’s has helped grow Ireland’s coffee culture and is sharing it with the rest of the world.
Celebrating its 180th anniversary in 2020, Bewley’s has had a profound impact on the Irish coffee scene. Managing Director Jason Doyle tells Global Coffee Report that the company owes its longevity to the strength of the ties it has built in the Irish community.
“The Bewley’s brand has one of the highest recognition rates among consumers in Ireland. When they speak about coffee, they speak about Bewley’s, and vice versa,” Doyle says.
“People and consumers are at the centre of everything we do, from coffee farmers and brokers to people we employ and families we support.”
Samuel Bewley and his son Charles first imported tea into Ireland in 1835. Five years later, Charles’ brother Joshua turned their operation into the full-fledged business that still exists today.
The Bewley family were all practicing Quakers, and made their values of community and equality core pillars of the brand. Doyle says Bewley’s continues to embody these traits.
“To me, the Quakers are all about giving back and being sustainable, and that’s how we continue to act to this day,” he says. “To reach 180 and still be doing what our founders intended is a big milestone for us and for the Irish coffee industry.”
Bewley’s opened its first café in 1894, the first in Ireland to roast coffee in-store. Joshua’s son Ernest took over the business in the early 1900s and imported the first Jersey cows into Ireland to supply the growing demand for good quality milk and cream for his cafés.
In 1927, Ernest opened Bewley’s Oriental Café, a flagship for Bewley’s that serves coffee and represents the best of the brand to this day.
“The beating heart for our business is Grafton Street. It’s where we bring to life experiences, escapism, and the coffee journey for our consumers,” Doyle says.
“When our master roasters bring in coffee from far origins, it’s the job of our baristas to present that work and what our brand represents to the customer.”
Ernest’s son Victor became Managing Director of Bewley’s in 1932 and spent the next 40 or so years turning it into an Irish institution. By the 1980s, the Bewley’s brand had changed hands several times before the Campbell family stepped up to the plate.
“The business has passed through various generations and families over the years. Patrick and Veronica Campbell bought Bewley’s and elevated the business, opening it to new business channels and expanding into new markets like the United Kingdom and United States,” Doyle says.
With numerous business channels including foodservice, retail, and private label in a number of countries, Bewley’s has reached an annual turnover of €200 million (about US$240 million). Doyle says the brand’s success comes from its ability to evolve, innovate, and achieve many firsts in the Irish market.
“Bewley’s has always been first. For instance, we were the first coffee business in Ireland to offer barista education to all of our customers,” he says.
“Going back to our Quaker origins, giving back is crucial to us and education is a big part of that. We’ve trained numerous World, Irish, and British Barista champions. At last count, we had trained more than 2000 baristas in Ireland across various different customers.”
Despite the longevity of the Bewley’s brand, there was little that could have prepared the roaster for what was to come in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses, industries, and countries to adapt quickly. Doyle says supporting Bewley’s customers and employees was its key priority through the pandemic.
“We employ just under 200 people in the Irish market, and when our flagship is at full capacity, it’s also employing about 140 people between full- and part-time staff. For us, the focus in the short term is on protecting our people and the businesses we’ve grown to love,” he says.
“We’ve never been so nimble or quick to innovate and change. As we move out of this pandemic, we will evolve all of the solutions we’d brought to the market over the last 12 months.”
First in sustainability
Bewley’s was also the first brand in Ireland to import Fairtrade certified coffee in 1996. Twenty years later, it announced that all Bewley’s branded coffee going forward would be Fairtrade certified.
Dave Jameson, Head of Coffee and Sustainability at Bewley’s, says there is a strong sustainability ethos and structure in Bewley’s that comes from the top down.
“Bewley’s is such a significant contributor to Fairtrade in Ireland that one out of every two Fairtrade coffees sold in Ireland is a Bewley’s coffee,” Jameson says.
“When you boil it down and look into the details, Bewley’s contributes 1.5 per cent of all Fairtrade premiums paid to coffee farmers globally. It’s incredible when you think about the scale of some of the operators in the market.”
Working with Fairtrade has allowed Bewley’s to build strong networks with its producers. Jameson says buying Fairtrade Organic coffees, with an additional premium, on top of a cooperative’s larger crop of Fairtrade coffees, creates a ‘Fairtrade pyramid’ that secures producers a meaningful income.
“Fairtrade goes beyond the premium, it’s about the relationships and knowing the people we work with. We don’t go out and say ‘we need a Fairtrade Honduras or Fairtrade Colombia’, we say ‘we need this coffee from these groups’,” Jameson says.
“What brings me the most satisfaction is talking to these producers on a daily basis. It’s not uncommon for me to get a WhatsApp from a producer in Honduras at 10pm at night, fed through Google Translate, that lets me see what’s going on there with my own eyes.”
In Colombia, Bewley’s has contributed to a coffee academy – joint funded with a UK customer, Olam Specialty Coffee, and the Fairtrade Foundation – that provides training and education to a community that missed out on traditional schooling.
“It’s in the town of Planadas, a post-conflict zone, where there are many people in their mid-20s working on coffee farms that hadn’t been able to go to high school because it was just too dangerous to leave the farm at the time,” Jameson says.
“These young people are dependent on the coffee industry in that area to earn a living. If coffee ceases to be viable they have no other options. The aim of this academy is to provide agricultural training so they can produce better quality and yields and improve the quality of life these younger coffee farmers can achieve.”
In Honduras, Bewley’s has a longstanding partnership with Comisuyl, a cooperative that, several years ago, saw its production plummet due to coffee leaf rust. Bewley’s continued buying what it could from the cooperative until they were back in the black. Jameson says the cooperative was eventually receiving enough income to improve its processes.
“One of the things they did with the Fairtrade premium was invest in solar powered milling facilities at the cooperative,” he says. “That inspired us to buy carbon credits to offset our CO2 emissions from that group, honouring their commitment to the environment with one of our own.”
Bewley’s headquarters in Dublin has been carbon neutral since 2008, and from the following year, has offset all of its Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions in Ireland and the UK to become Ireland’s first fully carbon neutral coffee brand.
Since 2010, the company has also dropped the waste it sends to landfill by 84 per cent and reduced its CO2 emissions per tonne of manufactured coffee by 62 per cent.
“Sustainability is not something where you reach a finish line. It’s continually evolving and there’s always something you need to do next,” Jameson says.
“We have plans in place to continue our work in Honduras, Colombia, and Nicaragua. There, we recently managed to move contracts around to purchase an extra container of coffee, worth US$100,000, from a farm which saw a devasting landslide last year and needed the extra income. One of the levers we can pull is aid through trade – the biggest impact you can have on the environment as a coffee business is through the coffee you’re buying.”
On the consumption side of the industry, Bewley’s has stayed on top of new trends that emerge in the market. One of the largest shifts in recent years – according to Sheila Dowling, Sales Director at Bewley’s – is the newfound popularity of plant-based alternatives to dairy milk.
“This trend started in the retail sector, with people buying plant-based milks to drink at home. It then became common to expect it as an option in cafés and now it’s seen through restaurants and foodservice,” Dowling says.
“It offers choice. People aren’t only drinking it because it’s vegan or healthier. Even some dairy drinkers want it because they actually prefer the flavour. We’ve done a lot of work with our coffee blends and plant-based alternatives to make sure we’re suiting the right coffee to the right milk.”
Another emerging trend Bewley’s sees is increasing automation. In cafés, Dowling says this is seen in automated grinders, Puqpress tampers, pre-programmed espresso machines, and automatic milk steamers. In other sectors, she says there has been a dramatic rise in the last few years of the quality level a fully automatic machine is able to produce.
“When you look at the convenience sector, the coffee experience used to be considered ‘standard’, somewhere you only go if you can’t go anywhere else. But over the past five years, the machines and the technology inside them have evolved, allowing operators to serve a much more premium coffee offering,” she says.
“Because these types of stores were retail environments and could stay open through COVID while others had to close, they got new customers. People who wouldn’t usually go to that location for coffee realised the quality they could get and became more comfortable with it.”
Bewley’s was the first coffee company in Ireland to introduce fully automatic machines, and was again the first to offer a plant-based milk solution through one.
Dowling expects these trends to continue to grow in the future, particularly automation. She also sees functionality playing a bigger role, as well as a focus on sustainability and traceability.
“People are now interested in the health benefits of coffee and how it can be a positive part of their lifestyle. Functional coffees will probably explode in the next few years, and as time goes on, it wouldn’t surprise me to see vitamins incorporated into the roasting of coffee,” Dowling says.
“Something else Bewley’s has started work on is blockchain technology. We use 100 per cent Fairtrade coffee, so there’s transparency and traceability there we could share from crop to cup.”
While Bewley’s will continue to lead Ireland as these new trends emerge, Dowling says the brand will maintain and champion the values it and the country are known for.
“We deliver great customer service in Ireland. We may not always appreciate it while we’re here, but we miss it when we go overseas,” Dowling says.
“Ireland was a little late to become part of the coffee scene in Europe. When we did, however, we jumped into a more developed industry, which meant we could focus on education and taking it further.”