Getting a meeting with Wayne Oberholzer is not an easy feat. This 31-year-old South African National Coffee Champion devotes a huge portion of his time to running his coffee business, The Portland Project, as a one-man show, leaving less time than he’d like for socializing. Oberholzer’s a big man, a passionate coffee advocate, and a lover of great beer. I was lucky enough to meet him for lunch (ok, a beer) so he could share his views on the coffee industry in South Africa, and of course, his coffee story.
It’s a similar journey shared by many in the SA coffee industry and it started in 2008. Oberholzer, 23 at the time, was paying his way through his commercial pilot’s license by working three jobs. He managed to lock down a position as a “strong sales guy” at Colombo Coffee & Tea, South Africa’s second oldest coffee roaster, who were going through a major rebrand at the time. At this point, he knew nothing about the industry but plunged head first into all things coffee, learning everything he could so that he could excel at his new job.
Let’s put this into perspective. The South African coffee industry was in its infancy with people only having just learned what a flat white was two years before. Coffee was simply a pre-ground substance, roasted within an inch of its life. And it was unthinkable to offer someone a coffee unaccompanied by sugar.
The change for Oberholzer came when his job that paid the bills turned into an obsession that paid the bills. This happened six months into his new job when he tasted a coffee at one of the first Southern Africa National Barista Championships which “smelled like strawberries and tasted like Cherry Fizz Pops.” Since then his coffee vocabulary has grown and so has his passion—“It’s eight years later,” he tells me, “and I’m loving life.”
In those eight years, Oberholzer has represented South Africa twice at the World Barista Championships (in 2012 and 2016) and once at the World Cup Tasters Championship. When asked about his thoughts on barista competitions, he shared the following:
“Leading up to the competition, I hate it. Afterwards, I love it. On a personal level it hones my skills. It shows me where I’m weak. I enjoyed the 500-plus hours in preparation because the purpose of the mind is to think and meditation is not about quieting the mind but about focusing it on one task. So competition for me is an aggressive form of meditation.”
He believes that even though competing can be infinitely exhausting, the championships are imperative as a means of growing the industry, and can wax passionately about corporate brands investing in their baristas to compete at the competitions.
The conversation turns to The Portland Project, his company which operates off of the insight that there is a huge gap between coffee companies and coffee consumers in South Africa. His services include supplying everything you might need to start a cafe, backed by a firm education in all things coffee.
“The South African coffee culture is still young. For us to be able to enjoy better coffee at your average cafe, it’s important to share our knowledge with the average Joe buying a cup. We grow an industry by being open with the public and sharing what we know.”
It’s getting late and Oberholzer has his busy schedule to get back to. We end our meeting with a truth bomb, which succinctly sums up the current plight of the South African coffee industry.
“Right now, coffee companies don’t make money in South Africa for one reason: Education. And it’s like that with anything. People don’t invest in what they don’t understand.”
Oberholzer makes it clear that the next step forward is to share what we know and love—with whoever is willing to listen.
Arno Els is a coffee professional and freelance writer based in South Africa. This is Arno Els’ first feature for Sprudge.
Photos courtesy the author, originally by Melanie Winter and Craig Kolesky for Coffee Magazine.