In this final installment of our three-part interview with the legendary Nolan Hirte of Proud Mary Coffee, we hit on the bits and bobs: the Aunty Peg’s concept, Proud Mary’s admirable pivot during COVID-19, Nolan’s wild fascination with freezing roasted coffee, and his love of exotic teas.
BY SARAH ALLEN
Photos courtesy of Nolan and Shari Hirte
Nolan Hirte of Proud Mary Coffee—which has locations in Melbourne, Australia, and in the U.S. in Portland, Ore., and soon in Austin, Texas—isn’t one to shy away from risks, whether it’s revolutionizing what breakfast service combined with great coffee can be in Melbourne and now in Portland; launching a concept like Aunty Peg’s, which is an educational geek-out space in Melbourne, and will soon open in Portland, as well; creating a unique way of getting food to customers during the pandemic shutdown; and … freezing roasted coffee? We’ll let Nolan tell you about these happenings and exciting developments himself.
If you missed part one or part two of our interview with Nolan this week at Barista Magazine Online, we encourage you to check them out, as they go into depth in explaining how Nolan and his wife and business partner, Shari, broke countless rules to realize their dreams—among them introducing high-end filter coffee to the Australian market, championing lesser-known producers, and breaking into the American market with a brunch-and-specialty-coffee scene the likes of which the United States had yet to experience.
Sarah Allen: Like many coffee companies, Proud Mary made lots of changes during the pandemic, but what were some of the most significant ones? Which ones will stay when the pandemic is finally over?
Nolan Hirte: Yes, we made so many changes, what a tough time to navigate. It started with a “temporary” move to put our two-group training machine onto a table under our roll-up garage door where the window seats used to be [at the Portland Proud Mary]. Our little takeout window at the front of the shop, like so many other things post-COVID, is now here to stay, right there with the covered, heated patio and online ordering [and] delivery. This is something that now makes some really meaningful contributions to the shop and gives us the opportunity to quickly pivot to takeout only, or whatever the world has in store, if necessary again. Not to mention we have gotten really good at making epic brews, Geshas, and the like, even in a to-go format. It’s been really fun to see that take shape.
Proud Mary Coffee USA has experienced a lot of growth during COVID—the roastery in Portland and the Austin build-out especially. Please tell us about both.
The growth we were lucky enough to experience during COVID really came from selling coffee online. Like a lot of people during the pandemic, we had very little support from our landlord and we needed some more space to roast coffee from, so we moved to a bigger space on North Williams Avenue [in Portland] for almost the same price in rent. That decision was a no-brainer. Austin, Texas, was always on the cards—our plan was always Portland and then Austin. We had been scouring Austin for sites for years and had finally got all the things we needed in place to make that move, when COVID hit. This put a halt to all of our plans and has essentially meant starting all over again to get the Portland store firing again. By the end of 2020, we decided we should just go for it in Austin anyway. It just feels so electric in Austin, so much activity and life happening there—we just can’t wait to be a part of it all.
When did you start Aunty Peg’s in Melbourne, and please describe what Aunty Peg’s is for those who don’t know.
We opened Aunty Peg’s in January of 2015. Aunty Peg’s is our cellar door experience to our coffee roastery. Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but for coffee. Maybe even our version of “fine dining”? It only has 12 seats at the bar, only serves black coffee, no milk, no sugar. The idea was to show Melbourne that Proud Mary was more than just another café—at our core we had some incredible stories to excite the customer. We needed a place we could really bring the customer in to share those stories, and to create really one-on-one intimate moments over the bar, where the drinks could be made right in front of you, all while taking in the romance of the busy working environment of a coffee factory.
It really is a special place to us. Aunty Peg’s was named after my grandmother Peg—Aunty Peg was her nickname. She was an incredibly warm and loving Scottish lady. She really knew how to cook and loved to share food and drinks with everyone in the community.
Tell us about your method of freezing roasted coffee. How did that come about, what do you think it does for the flavor profile, and how do you actually do it?
I have always been a big fan of temperature control and trying to find ways to store coffee better. Back in the days of Liar Liar, my first café in Hawthorne, we stored all our roasted coffee in wine fridges. When we first built Proud Mary, I made a custom three-door wine fridge behind the bar just for roasted coffee.
The frozen coffee thing I had been keeping an eye on for a while but wasn’t really convinced. When I attended Cup of Excellence in Burundi and was on the panel with Rachel Apple, who at the time was George Howell’s QC (staffer), I had my eyes opened. We hit it off and Rachel made it crystal clear just how good freezing coffee was. Needless to say I was convinced and jumped head first into making some changes so we could integrate these new ideas into all of our retail locations.
In terms of flavor profile, if you get it right I think there is actually an improvement in the cup: Not only can you keep coffee in its peak for longer but something strange can happen and there is a noticeable improvement in the cup. I have heard George Howell talk about seeing green coffee improve after six months in the freezer.
Flávio Borém is the other person I really got a lot of these ideas from. Flavio is a professor at the University of Lavras in Brazil and has spent over 25 years researching storage of coffee. We built a green room in our Portland roastery based off his findings.
The grinder set up for the Proud Mary Austin café is still a secret! We can’t wait to show you but you’ll have to be patient—it will be worth it I promise!
You and Shari are big into tea! How did that all begin, why is it important, and what do you enjoy about tea that is distinctly different from coffee?
Ha ha yes! Tea is so important to us! We love it. It is such a strong part of our daily rituals these days. First of all, my wife Shari does not drink coffee! I know, but I’ve always thought that is probably a good thing. When we first started hanging out I would drag Shari around Melbourne to visit all the best specialty-coffee shops. It was always so disappointing for her. I was having these epic coffee experiences and meanwhile Shari was being offered tea in a stainless teapot with a tea bag in it—so lame. Therefore it was another part of our mission: to make that piece right. If it is going to be on the menu it has to be as good as it can be.
The distinct difference with tea that we both really enjoy so much is the different feelings it can create. Tea that will wake you up and get you going, tea that will calm and soothe and make everything feel OK again. Shari and I always start our day with a black tea and end our day with a GABA Oolong tea at night. I even drink a cup of tea before I have my morning coffee. We have a long-standing working relationship with Somage, and more recently we have included Spirit Tea and Kuura (on Proud Mary’s menus).