Carbon-negative coffee roasting: Cleaner coffee through community

Paul Clearfire
October 24, 2023
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Around the world, specialty coffee producers, traders, and buyers alike are all looking for ways to minimise their carbon footprint. As a result, Alex Shaw, the founder of Kickback Coffee in the UK, is blazing a path towards carbon-negative coffee roasting. 

The foundational philosophy that drives Kickback’s value proposition lies in relationships, service, and coffee. The brand blossomed from an experiment with a popcorn machine, and now, it boasts an inspiring portfolio of sustainable projects, community engagement, and great coffee.

With even more breakthrough innovations in the hopper, the promise of carbon-negative coffee roasting may just be the beginning. I spoke with Alex, the founder and director of the brand, to learn more. 

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An interesting approach to sustainability: The theory of 45 folds

“There is a theory of 45 folds,” explains Alex, who has 10 years of experience in the specialty coffee industry. “The theory states that if you take a sheet of paper and fold it in half, then repeat that 45 times, you’ll get a stack that will reach the height of the moon.” 

While each one of those 45 folds is not that difficult, they add up to profound change. 

“My approach to sustainability is something like that,” he says. “Don’t try to solve the world’s biggest problem with sustainability. Look for those small, simple changes that you can actively make. 

“Especially as an SME, I think sometimes the narrative of sustainability is that it has to be about big businesses,” Alex adds. “They’re the ones that make the change, and you can only do it if you have resources, be it people or finances. But there are so many small things that you can do, and they all add up.”

Kickback’s roastery is located in the heart of the Cheshire Peak District. More conveniently, it sits squarely on one of the region’s most popular cycling routes – which is no accident. “We enjoy where we roast our coffee, which is outdoors,” Alex says. 

“This is because we’re a team that very much appreciates the Cheshire Peak district. We want to grow the community who want to be outdoors: those who look outside when it’s raining, get on their waterproofs, make themselves a coffee and head off.” 

One way the brand fosters this community is through regular group cycling adventures and hikes. Notably, Kickback Coffee Roasters hosts a monthly ‘ramble’ through the district. These events unite staff and consumers in a shared love of coffee and the great outdoors. 

In March 2022, Kickback Coffee Roasters went one step further and began using an e-cargo bike for local coffee deliveries. “We still hand deliver our wholesale orders in reusable tubs in the Greater Manchester area, using either of our two electric vehicles or our e-cargo bike,” Alex explains. 

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1% For The Planet: Securing a future for specialty coffee

“Because we’re so fond of where we are, we protect what we enjoy,” Alex says. As part of the brand’s commitment to 1% For The Planet, it has teamed up with Trash Free Trails. This partnership has allowed Kickback Coffee to turn some of its ramble events into cleanup efforts to collect trash from trails as they hike. 

More so, the team behind KickBack Coffee Roasters is personally involved in the brand’s sustainability efforts. Recently, team members donned their own waterproofs in partnership with the City of Trees to help plant trees throughout the greater Manchester area. 

“Our approach has always been more hands-on rather than just offset,” Alex explains. “To truly be a company that cares about sustainability, you have to do more than pay a tax.” 

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Carbon-negative coffee roasting: How is Kickback getting it done? 

Kickback Coffee Roasters first learned about circular economies while participating in a programme with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), which supports SMEs in reducing their carbon footprint. 

The brand soon found several innovative ways to put the waste products of its café to use. Kickback Coffee began to work with Lavelle Waste, which collects the brand’s spent pucks and hands them to BioBean.  

The used coffee grounds are then converted into Coffee Logs: an environmentally friendly renewable bio-fuel. Kickback Coffee has also partnered with local mushroom farmer, Do Good Mushrooms, who use spent coffee grounds to make mushroom starter kits.

That said, the brand’s work with café waste is just the tip of the iceberg. “Any roaster out there will have endless amounts of chaff, and there are a lot of options for what you can do with it. For us, it’s this cyclical economy process, building communities, and finding ways to solve a problem. We partner with Hopewall Farm and Dairy in Cheshire, who beds their calves with our chaff,” Alex says. 

He explains that the team roasts its coffee in Geisen roasters that are hooked up to propane. “Cows produce a lot of methane, and capturing methane through manure is relatively straightforward through anaerobic digestion,” Alex says. 

“Giesen has already demonstrated that their roasters can run on methane. Part of this project with MMU is to find out if we can partner with a local dairy farmer to install an anaerobic digester to scrub the methane from the bio-waste and repurpose it to use on our roasters.”

Spent coffee grounds are also a significant source of methane. So a further step in this process would be to channel that waste into methane for the roaster as well, creating a truly circular process. Combined with so many other small steps Kickback is taking, the brand’s methane capture and reuse efforts could achieve carbon-negative coffee roasting.

“We’re very fortunate to have an incredible roaster and an incredible Q-Grader who put great coffee to our name,” Alex adds. Kickback Coffee sources from Honduran smallholders and maintains a relatively modest offer sheet of up to six unique coffees at any given time.

“One of the things we talk about is ‘Relationship, Service, Coffee’, and we put them in that order,” Alex says. “It’s not that we care about the coffee last, it’s that we appreciate so many other things before we get to the coffee. Our customers know our coffee is good, and they enjoy this other narrative that we’re taking them on.”

He adds that customers buy from a story, a brand. “f you can do these things and tell a good story around it, you will generate sales. Sustainability can lead to a marketing programme and that can lead to greenwashing. But being genuine will inevitably shine through.

“Our team standing in a field when it’s going to be chucking down rain and digging for trees – that’s us being genuine and not just paying a tax. I think that’s going back to small choices, positive choices. If you promote them in the right way, it will genuinely benefit your business on the bottom line.” 

Read our exclusive interview with Calgary Heritage Roasting Company (CHRC), the brand that plants a tree for every bag of specialty coffee sold and has committed to planting 1 million trees by 2030. 

Images by Kickback Coffe Roasters

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