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Spotlight: David Veal's 35 years in speciality coffee

Few in the industry can claim a career spanning all 5 coffee waves, but with 35 years under his belt that’s exactly what the SCA’s David Veal has achieved. He talks to World Coffee Portal about his remarkable journey in speciality coffee. By Tobias Pearce 

It’s 1983 – the A-Team is making its TV debut TV, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ is released to widespread acclaim and Howard Schultz unveils a revolutionary vision to bring Italy’s coffeehouse tradition to the US. In the UK, tea is still very much the nation’s favourite beverage, Nescafé launches its ‘Coffee at its Best’ ad campaign and the SCA’s David Veal is taking his first steps into a new career.

“It was a complete accident,” he says, recalling events that would spur a lifelong passion for speciality coffee. “I was working for Automatic Catering Supplies (ACS) supplying catering and hospitality disposables and beverages when they started an office coffee service. They offered me the position of Regional Manager for the North of England, which I took up,” he explains.

“I clearly remember trying my first really good coffee – a cup of Rombouts Original Blend and a Douwe Egberts Traditional Blend – fantastic quality at the time and I was hooked from that moment!” The rest, as they say, is history – and the speciality scene has come a long, long way since then.

“In modern coffee terms it’s almost prehistoric,” reflects Veal, who in 2017 took up the role of Executive Ambassador for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) following the merger between the US and European organisations.

I only asked people to do things I was willing to do – it’s one of the oldest lessons in the book really – lead by example, go out and meet people

Fifteen years before the arrival of Starbucks in Europe, David says ‘free-on-loan’ and ‘pour-and serve’ coffee machine services adopted from the US were already revolutionising the UK’s out-of-home coffee market. UK businesses now had affordable access to professional coffee equipment with a supply of quality roast and ground coffee to boot.

“Most coffee was brewed in old-fashioned bulk-brew machines with not particularly good quality coffee,” he says. “This new system completely opened up the market for fresh ground coffee service in pubs, restaurants and offices. A few companies led the growth of that market, such as ARA from the US, and my own company, ACS Coffee Service. Our USP was importing what back then seemed like really exotic continental brands such as Douwe Egberts, Melitta, Rombouts and Van Nelle. It was cutting edge at the time!”

Making waves in coffee

With consumers in the 1990s rapidly adopting café culture and more sophisticated brews, coffee retailers needed to adopt more advanced equipment – and the barista skills to operate and maintain their new kit.

“Things really started changing – Seattle Coffee Company were bought out by Starbucks, who came into the UK market in 1998. The initial impact was the introduction of modern café culture based on espresso-based drinks as opposed to filter coffee – this started the next wave of the revolution, which moved completely away from filter to espresso.

“This had massive implications in terms of higher costs, machine maintenance and staff training – issues we now recognise as incredibly important. There was a really steep learning curve.”

Enter the SCAE

Aspiring to emulate the success of SCAA in the US, the SCAE was founded in 1998 to promote speciality coffee in Europe. Early successes included the first World of Coffee event, the development of the nascent coffee education programme and the first ever World Barista Championship, held in Monte Carlo in 2000.

But as the success of the founder members grew the organisation’s ranks began to swell, the SCAE’s volunteer model began to creak under the weight of its success. It became clear that the association needed to professionalise with a full-time executive based at their HQ in Chelmsford.

After being appointed the SCAE’s Executive Director in 2011, David did just that. Bringing his ‘hands on’ approach, 18-years’ business experience and passion for coffee, David played a key role in building the SCA into the global organisation it is today.

David Veal speaking at the World of Coffee Leaders' Forum in 2013

“I’m a doer, I am happy to roll my sleeves up and engage with people at all levels. I led the SCAE as if it was my own business, being really careful financially, employing basic business principles and building a really focussed team around me. I only asked people to do things I was willing to do – it’s one of the oldest lessons in the book really – lead by example, go out and meet people. Engagement is key.”

The success of David’s leadership speaks for itself. In 2010 the SCAE had a turnover of around £600,000, by the time the SCA was formed in 2017 it was up to £4m. Membership rose fivefold from just under 1,000 to 5,000 and from the few hundred coffee diploma certificates issued annually in the early years, 2017 saw the association ink its 100,000th Coffee Diploma.

The biggest challenges facing speciality coffee

Today, the SCA is still at the forefront providing recognised coffee qualifications, but its reach extends far beyond the coffee shop. “It’s been incredible watching 20 years of sustained growth, but the biggest challenges facing the industry today are all at production,” David explains.

“Climate change is critical,” he says, citing a recent Kew Gardens study on Ethiopian coffee. Worst-case climate models show 60% of the country’s current coffee-growing area becoming unsuitable for cultivation by the end of the century. The African nation’s native wild Arabica could also become extinct by 2080. This isn't just bad news for the world’s fifth largest coffee producer, the Arabica crops that produce most of the world’s speciality coffee are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures and reduced rainfall.

Either we’ll have to produce more coffee – with places like China growing as well as consuming – or prices will go up

Global price fluctuations are also a huge challenge threatening the viability of many producers. Coffee is still the second largest commodity traded globally after oil and prices are subject to fluctuations – not only in terms of supply and demand but also from speculation.

“We always encourage farmers to grow speciality because we say they will get a premium price, but it doesn’t always work,” explains David. “In many countries the cost of production isn’t even covered by coffee prices and for lower-income farmers this can be critical.

“On top of that, demand for top-grade commercial is growing – especially in fast-growing Asian markets, particularly China and Korea, but also in coffee producing countries like Brazil, Indonesia and India. Unless things change, demand will outstrip supply. Either we’ll have to produce more coffee – with places like China growing as well as consuming – or prices will go up.”

It’s sobering a sobering assessment, and part of the reason why the SCA’s International Development Committee has been actively supporting coffee growing communities. “We wanted to do more rather just talking about issues,” David says.

Among the projects David has become involved with over the last five years is a partnership with non-profit ‘Grounds for Health’, which screens for cervical cancer in African communities. “It’s the largest premature killer of women in rural communities and we’re working with them in Kenya’s Nyanza Province,” he says.


David has also worked with the International Women's Coffee Alliance (IWCA) to construct a model coffee farm in Rwanda. “We helped the local chapter buy three hectares of land near Byumba. The farm aims to be a sustainable producer of speciality coffee with education and research facilities built-in for both workers and visitors.”

What makes speciality coffee special

Despite the very real challenges facing coffee producers globally, the coffee veteran is upbeat that the speciality narrative continues to generate opportunities at both ends of the coffee supply chain. An advocate of pursuing quality at a premium rather than cutting costs, David believes that a new wave of hyper-professional, artisan cafés show great potential in an increasingly competitive coffee shop market.

Cafés should invest, not just in better coffee, but getting to know farmers so they’re telling the speciality coffee story

“There’s some really encouraging signs,” he says. “Many cafes have improved their coffee, but we’re now seeing better quality across food, entertainment and hospitality. A new breed of café is coming through, with an obvious example being Caravan in London. In Moscow, there’s a fantastic chain of cafés called Coffeemania doing great food and wine, but they’re marketing the coffee shop experience.

“We all know if you can tell a good story about a product, you increase the chance of getting a better price for it. Cafés should invest, not just in better coffee, but getting know farmers so they’re telling the speciality coffee story.”

But how do we define what is ‘speciality’ to provide an effective narrative?

“There are many definitions,” says David. “The SCAA always talked about market share and cupping scores, the SCAE focused on specific coffees from specific origins – topography, soil. Both are correct, but I’d say ‘speciality’ should be freshly brewed, correctly ground and roasted to the correct profile.

“The SCA is working on a single definition to accurately measure the market. While US says it’s 25-30%, in the UK we conservatively estimate 7-8%. It’s still a very small market share, but our influence goes far beyond that.”

Coffee career highlights  

With a career spanning more than three decades, David has witnessed the beginnings of the speciality movement travelled the world to work with producers and supported countless careers in coffee over the years – so what have been the highlights so far?  

“It’s all been a highlight,” he reflects. “I’m privileged to be part of a fantastic community of volunteers, directors, board and committee members, those working at World of Coffee – it’s been a great journey.”

“Travelling to Brazil in 2005 to see coffee growing for the first time was one highlight. Getting that fresh perspective and being exposed to the whole value chain was life changing.

“Becoming a judge on the World Barista Championship (WBC) and witnessing the first UK champions take the title – first James Hoffman in 2007, then Gwilym Davies in 2009.

“When we did our 1,000th SCA coffee certificate, that was a big day – then getting to 50,000, they were all milestones.

“Refurbishing the training room at my Café Sienna business, bringing in our first pressure-controlled Dalla Corte espresso machine and a Mahlkonig on-demand grinder. Learning that half-a-degree in temperature can either ruin or make the perfect espresso!

“Seeing the 2017 World of Coffee launch successfully in Budapest. There was some hesitation about holding the event in the relatively under-developed Eastern European market, but the whole thing was really well received.”

Roasting at origin, batch brewing and more balanced espresso

With all his coffee wisdom, it’d be criminal not to ask David to share his predictions with us – so what does future hold for speciality coffee? One idea on the horizon is roasting at origin and exporting directly.

“I’ve had more and more conversations about it – obviously with a view for producers to take a percentage of the added value rather than consumer countries. It’s an interesting concept but it’s never quite taken off because there are many barriers to overcome – ensuring roasting is done to the right quality, ensuring there’s a market, and crucially, a route to market. I think the interest in origin is there and its happening in a few producing countries, but the market is still very small.”

On batch brewing, David harks back to the 1990s, when the coffee trend pendulum swung heavily in favour of filter before pivoting sharply towards espresso. “I think the needle is about to back a little further,” he says.

Not that batch is without its challenges, he explains. "There are sometimes temperature issues and some in the community still see batch as inferior. Pragmatically, you can batch brew around three litres without compromising quality, as long is its drunk straight away and not left to stew. I think we’ll probably see a bit more of that.

“One change I hope to see fairly soon is the disappearance of the highly acidic espresso coffee and getting back to a more balanced espresso. It might be a bit an old-fashioned, but I hope it will go the other way. That’s just my personal view, I’m wondering if there’s a bit of emperor’s clothes about it!”

David Veal is Executive Ambassador for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)

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