That bearded, tattooed hipster barista at your local cafe who takes his coffee so seriously? There’s a good chance he learned everything he knows from Master Roaster Peter Wolff. Skilled at flying under the radar when it comes to the hype of the coffee scene, this connoisseur has not only been instrumental in the evolution of coffee drinking in Brisbane, but he was there for its very inception almost 30 years ago – before the city had even heard of espresso. Now at the helm of Wolff Coffee Roasters, Peter (also an international coffee competition judge) is passing on all he knows about roasting, cupping, green-coffee purchasing and plantation management to the aspiring young roasters of Australia.
Peace comes for Peter Wolff in the form of a good cup of tea. Surprising, perhaps, for a man who has spent the last three decades indulging his healthy obsession for all things coffee. But similar to a chef who can’t bear to cook a single dish at home, Peter likes nothing better than to relax on the couch with his wife and daughter – and a cup of tea. That’s not to say his love for coffee has cooled at all. It’s not only as ardent as ever; it’s also inspiring him to share his knowledge with others. Peter got his first taste of the hospitality trade growing up in Wynnum, working alongside his siblings in his mother’s hair salon. “Our Saturday mornings were spent sweeping up hair, handing rollers to the hairdressers, and making tea and coffee and biscuits for the ladies there,” he recalls. A child of German immigrants, Peter developed an early taste for coffee. “It was part of our fabric,” he says. “I remember drinking my first cup of coffee when I was about eight. It was very heavily roasted, black, heavy-flavoured coffee and we used to drink it with a little bit of pouring cream in it.”
He admits that he fell into the coffee industry by accident. In 1984, after high school, he was on the path to study law, but to earn some extra money he took a part-time job as a dishwasher at the original Aromas store on Hale Street. It was there that his world changed forever. “Chris Bryant and Robyn Horley, who were the owners at Aromas, were always getting me to try different coffees, and my mind was exploded by the different flavours that coffee had that I never expected,” he says. “Two or three months after I started, they were getting quite busy and Chris asked if I could give them a hand in the roastery.
For me it was just a good excuse not to keep washing dishes, but I remember that first day in the roast house with Chris, and going home on the train with the coffee smell on me. Something just clicked in me and I realised that coffee was what I wanted to do with my life.” Chris quickly became Peter’s mentor, passing on all that he knew to his young protege. “Chris’s family was four generations of tea and coffee merchants,” Peter explains. “He was born in Uganda and went back there to do his apprenticeship through the Tea and Coffee Board, and then travelled the world buying and growing coffee. And he passed all of that knowledge on to me during the 13 years that I worked with Aromas. It was a tremendous partnership and I’m still thankful to that man today for that knowledge.” The coffee scene back in the 1980s in Brisbane certainly wasn’t what it is today. “Part of what Aromas did back then was that it sold 28 different single-origin coffees and nearly 90 different types of tea.
Originally it was just a place where you could buy your tea and coffee for home, but we were serving pourover, brewed or filter coffee – espresso hadn’t really started yet – and were giving it to people to try. As their palates expanded they were asking to sit and have a piece of cake with it, and so we bought our first espresso machine. And that’s how Aromas really came to pioneer the cafe scene in Brisbane and get people started drinking Italian-style coffee.” After more than a decade working for Aromas and helping forge the scene alongside Chris and Robyn, Peter decided to move to Melbourne to try his hand in a much larger – and more coffee-savvy – market.
“At the time I moved, there were only three people roasting coffee in Brisbane,” he explains of the impetus for his move. “I wanted to be somewhere where there was a roasting community where I could test and grow my knowledge in a bigger market.” Once down in Melbourne, Peter set up his own roasting and wholesale business,Veneziano, right amidst what was known as the ‘Third Wave’ coffee movement. “It was a time when people started asking what was in their coffee and when it was roasted. And we were making a product that was fresh, and roasted to make the most of the flavour from the origin – you knew when it was roasted and what was in it. Melbourne is a highly sophisticated and super-competitive market, but because we were satisfying that need, we grew very quickly.” Several years later, Peter saw an opportunity to return to Brisbane to capitalise on the rapidly growing market here, as well as to be closer to family.
He opened up a Veneziano roastery on Montague Road in West End, but soon realised that it was perhaps time for him to take a different step in his journey. “People were coming to me and asking where they could go to learn how to roast coffee, and if they could learn from me. I kept saying no, but my wife Penny, who’s an educator, basically told me that I should start a roasting course. She said she would help me write the curriculum, so that I could share my experiences with the next generation of roasters coming through. And that’s when I left Veneziano.”
Word quickly spread, and many of Brisbane’s brightest young roasters flocked to Wolff Coffee Roasters in hope of learning their art from one of its masters. But Peter and Penny wanted to find a way to get face to face with the consumer again, and so they also founded the Hendra-based cafe, Dandelion & Driftwood. “There was such a vacuum of quality espresso on the Northside at the time and we knew there was an opportunity to fill that void. But it was partly born of an observation we made one day in the cupping room where we taste coffee. We were doing a blind cupping of samples and noticed that, very consistently, men were choosing certain types of coffee and women were choosing other types of coffee. There really seemed to be a very gender-specific type of flavour profile. That piqued our interest and inspired us to make two blends – one for the feminine palate and one for the masculine palate – named Dandelion and Driftwood.”
Being able to create Dandelion & Driftwood and Wolff Coffee Roasters alongside the woman he loves is undoubtedly Peter’s proudest achievement. “Working with her on a daily basis is awesome because we get to spend twice as much time together,” he gushes. The couple’s daughter, Xanthe, has also played a role in the business from day one, at first by peddling her own lolly trolley in the cafe and now as a barista. She also travels regularly with her parents to visit the coffee at its origins. The fact that his business is a family affair is key for Peter. “I stand outside the shop some days and just think to myself how much I have to be thankful for.” Peter’s advice for young aspiring roasters is something passed down to him by his grandparents.“Water finds its own level,” he shares. “Anything you do in life, you’ll find your place. Things will work themselves out – just have faith and be calm and the water will find its own level.”