Opinion: Gayan Munaweera – A Journey in Coffee

19 January 2017

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s coffee growing regions, and the home of our Q grader and head of coffee Gayan Munaweera, UK Cup Tasting Champion 2016 and recent European Coffee Award winner.

We caught up with Gayan to find out a bit about his coffee journey, and how Sri Lankan coffee culture compares to that of the UK. 

“Growing up in Sri Lanka, a big tea drinking nation, I had nowhere near the exposure to coffee that people in the UK get every day. I had always associated coffee with funerals, where the five or six day grieving process would be full of visitors coming and going to the family home. Coffee would be served to stave off tiredness, but it just isn’t the part of everyday life it is in the UK and across Europe.

“In 2006 I travelled to the UK for the first time to further my education by studying maths, physics and chemistry. That was when I started my first job in coffee, as a barista at one of the largest coffee chains on the high street.  For the first six months it was just a job – I was yet to develop any passion for working with coffee. That took a bit of time. But straight away, I recognised that the contrast between the coffee in the two cultures was huge. This was as interesting as it was surprising.

“After a few months I began attending training sessions which, combined with my academic background, sparked a curiosity. My passion started to grow as I read about and explored coffee as a commodity, crop and learnt the science of it. And it was behind the coffee bar at Costa that I learnt how important the coffee industry is from a social perspective. The service and hospitality is as important as the product in the cup.

“When I left my first job at Costa, I moved to a simple independent café which was next door. As a business it was underperforming, with a large chain situated next door. The coffee was average at best and was a very cheap blend, but customers received great service. Gradually our Saturday takings began to creep up until they had almost quadrupled, while the chain next door’s was declining. For me, this goes to show that there is so much more to the coffee experience than simply what you’re drinking.

“Returning to Sri Lanka recently, after seven years, I saw many changes with a coffee culture starting to emerge. Until I came to the UK, I had never heard of a cappuccino, but in the last four to five years, coffee chains like Barista Lavazza have started to open across the country. People are becoming more aware of espresso culture, but coffee shops are still an occasional treat for the more affluent and not an everyday habit. While in the UK, coffee is an ‘affordable luxury’, in Sri Lanka the price of coffee acts as a barrier, stopping the working class from embracing coffee in the same way the UK consumer can. It’s definitely starting to develop but it’s a long way from being an ingrained coffee culture in the same way it is in Europe.

“It will be interesting to see what developments there are in Sri Lanka as a coffee producing nation. It has the soil and climate for growing high quality coffee but currently doesn’t produce much of a crop. I recently spent time with some Group representatives from UCC Japan, who told me they had tried Sri Lankan coffee. They were amazed by its quality but noted that it was just too expensive. It’s a lack of knowledge that is definitely limiting the potential of Sri Lankan coffee in favour of tea.

“The coffee available in the UK is good – better than good it’s great. And we’re seeing an almost sub-culture of specialty coffee shops and coffee ‘geeks’ emerging. It’s great that quality coffee and knowledgeable staff are becoming more common, however I think it’s important that the UK coffee industry doesn’t lose sight of the hospitality aspect of the coffee experience as artisan and specialty coffee shops become ever more present. Further, I think it’s important for the large chains to foster passion and interest in their baristas, as any disinterest or disengagement in what they’re doing is easily reflected in the customer service they provide.

“In a way, the coffee scene in Sri Lanka is refreshingly basic. The contrast made the UK market seem almost over complicated. One thing is for sure, it would be a shame to lose some of the hospitality and service that makes it so special.”