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Stephen Leighton, Coffee Adventurer: “The world is diverse and amazing”

Stephen Leighton holding his new book, Coffeeography

We caught up with the eminent Stephen Leighton (of Has Bean) on his travels, fresh from watching his friend and colleague become World Barista Champion and promoting his new book Coffeeography. He had lots to say!

So Steve, you’ve just been in Seoul, South Korea at the halfway stage of your Coffeeography book promotion tour, the stopover neatly dovetailing with the World Barista Championships where one of your team Dale Harris just became World Barista Champion 2017. Your emotions must have been running high, talk us through the evening's drama.

Yes, it’s been a crazy few weeks, launching the book at Manchester Coffee Festival, a four-day tour of Ireland with three events and many coffee shop visits with one of our coffee producers from El Salvador. It’s certainly been busy!

Seoul was very special though. Dale has worked with me for the last 8 years and is integral to the business. I was incredibly proud to be able to announce him at the semi-finals and later announce him progressing to finals. But getting the chance to announce one of your closest friends as the World Barista Champion is a once in a lifetime thing and I’m forever grateful to WCE (World Coffee Events) to allow me to emcee.

Wow well this happened ! Who knew

A post shared by Stephen Leighton (@hasbean) on

It was weird as I was super professional, even when I knew I didn’t change anything that I would have normally done. It wasn’t until it was done that it kind of hit me. The Australia tour has been the cherry on top. Going to Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne has been a real treat with over 300 people coming to all three events.

The excitement doesn’t stop there, you’ve got a few more countries to visit. Tell us briefly where the Coffeeography tour takes you; it's clearly a lot more involved than pitching up at a few Waterstones branches!

So as I mentioned I started in Manchester, then Ennis in Southern Ireland, then up to Belfast, finishing in Dublin. Then South Korea where I had two book signings, with thanks to Marco and to WCE and their merchandise store.

Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne with the team from Toby’s Estate was super cool. After this, I’m off to Stockholm and Prague, and in the new year Budapest. Also, I’m hoping to do some UK dates with a London venue nearly confirmed.

“People are awesome, and coffee people seem to be even more so.”

Steve, from what I've seen and heard your passion for speciality coffee is only surpassed by your desire to foster your relationships with the growers behind all those wonderful flavours. I guess your new book Coffeeography is a wonderful way to celebrate all those relationships born out of several decades of travel. Why are those relationships so important to you?

People are awesome, and coffee people seem to be even more so. I’m lucky to have made friends all over the world, and I get to hang out with them regularly. It’s amazing to learn how they work and live and play, and I feel blessed to have travelled as much as I have. The world is diverse and amazing and so are my producer friends.

Coffeeography leans heavily on your huge library of evocative photos tracing your travels and experiences; how did you manage to narrow down your selection for the book from your catalogue of 32,000 photos?

It has grown so much since I decided on them, and I don’t think I even found the best ones. But there are some you take that stand out as, "that’s special". Israel’s (from Ethiopia) are something amazing, and there is one of Ale (from Gina Argentina in El Salvador) in his cowboy hat that is super special. I caught him perfectly and every time I look at it I smile.

“I wished coffee enthusiasts could sit there and hear the stories and be alongside me when I’m learning about the person and not just the tasting notes.”

Did you ever plan to write a book? Tell us about the moment you decided to take the plunge.

Never! My spelling and grammar are the worst. Also, it’s heaps of work and I’m busy enough. But I was in Nicaragua January this year, talking to Eleane about how she used to be a nurse, and she felt that those skills made her a good coffee processor because of her attention to detail. I wished coffee enthusiasts could sit there and hear the stories and be alongside me when I’m learning about the person and not just the tasting notes. So, I decided there and then to get on with it. Before I was home I had four of the chapters done and it just flowed from there.

I approached a publisher with the sample chapters and they liked what I'd written but wanted to change some of the focus, so I made the call to self-publish and do it my way. I had the help of an amazing editor who is someone I’ve worked with on smaller projects before, and I had an amazing artist do the flags and the maps of the countries.

But the content and layout and design are pretty much mine, which makes me very proud.

Coffeeography is available at for £19.99 and makes an excellent Christmas present for the coffee passionista in your life.