It’s an unseasonably warm winter day in Istanbul when I get off the metro at the Sanayi Mahallesi station. Sanayi Mahallesi means “industrial neighborhood” in Turkish, a name whose accuracy makes up for what it might lack in creativity. The district is home to a somewhat grungy assortment of garages and warehouses, with the occasional office park that’s crept in from the neighboring financial district in search of lower rents.
I follow a zig-zagging street downhill—one is always either walking uphill or downhill in Istanbul—past the Kağıthane State Hospital, before spotting a triangle-shaped logo in front of an otherwise unmarked storefront. I ring the bell and am soon greeted by one of the best coffee brewers in the world, Aslı Yaman, who welcomes me into Kimma Coffee Roasters' new roastery and training lab.
Aslı Yaman is tall with cropped hair. She speaks English—and Turkish—in a distinctive soprano with a certain musical quality. She’s upbeat and cheerful, despite being tired from a busy few days in Madrid—her first board meeting as a trustee of the Specialty Coffee Association.
Ushering me into Kimma’s training lab, Yaman offers to brew me a coffee, recommending a natural process Costa Rica. She asks my preferred brew method, but I opt to have Yaman choose. She selects a Chemex, the method she used to earn third place in the 2014 World Brewers Cup in Rimini.
As Yaman carefully folds a Chemex filter origami-style, making four distinct triangles to evenly distribute the thicker parts of the filter, we chat about the new space.
Although Kimma Coffee Roasters is about to turn three, it’s the first private space for the wholesale coffee roaster. In addition to being home to their coffee roasting operations, Kimma’s headquarters hosts a steady stream of courses in the Specialty Coffee Association’s Coffee Skills program. Yaman served as the education coordinator for the SCA’s Turkey chapter before being elected to the SCA board of directors. The space has barely been open for a month, but it’s already welcomed a carousel of aspiring baristas.
We sit down with our coffee at the conference table and are soon joined by Yaman’s business partner, Hanife Özyurt, who begins to tell me the story of their company.
“We’re very close friends, like sisters,” says Özyurt. The relationship, which precedes and transcends their coffee careers, provided the inspiration for Kimma’s name, which they discovered on a road trip from Istanbul to Ankara, Turkey’s capital.
“While Aslı drove I looked up “sisters” in different languages,” says Özyurt. They thought the Finnish word “Kimma” had a nice ring to it.
“We asked our Finnish friends, and they liked it,” says Yaman.
In addition to being short and memorable, the name projects a strong, feminine brand in a male-dominated coffee industry. Although it’s traditionally women who make coffee in the home in Turkey, the business side of things, whether importing or roasting, remains a man’s world. But Yaman and Özyurt aren’t afraid of the challenge.
“We’re not just brewing coffee, we’re trading. And the business side of things is really tricky,” says Yaman. “Sometimes they don’t want to do a project with a woman.”
Despite the obstacles, Özyurt and Yaman retain a positive outlook.
“It’s about professionalism. They see our passion and sincerity,” says Yaman. “We don’t believe in boundaries or borders. “
But beyond passion, Yaman and Özyurt both have serious business chops. Yaman earned an MBA at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, with her dissertation focusing on Starbucks expansion in the Turkish market. Her research led her to a job at Istanbul’s John’s Coffee before taking a position at Soyuz Coffee in Kaliningrad, Russia, where she worked for five years.
Özyurt followed a more conventional career path in business.
“I was in a corporate life. I was a communication manager for a big company, but I was not happy,” says Özyurt.
During her international business trips, she would often visit coffee shops that Yaman would recommend. During a trip to San Francisco, one shot of espresso particularly stood out. “I said, ‘If this is a coffee, what are we drinking?’” says Özyurt. “I told my husband, ‘I’ll leave my corporate life and start a coffee business.’”
Özyurt’s growing interest in coffee coincided with Yaman’s desire to move home, a decision more personal than professional.
“I came back to Turkey because I really missed my family and friends,” says Yaman.
Yaman realized she could take her expertise and experience and use it to help guide the nascent Turkish coffee community. When she had left Turkey in 2010, Istanbul’s specialty coffee scene was practically nonexistent, but by 2015 the city was on its way to becoming one of the fastest growing markets in Europe.
“I wanted to show how we could succeed. I wanted to share all of this knowledge with the community here,” says Yaman. Her experience working for a large roaster, going to origin, and excelling on the world competition stage made Yaman a valuable commodity in Istanbul. As soon as she moved back she took on a variety of consulting jobs.
“I had a network I could bring to my country,” says Yaman. That network includes current World Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska, who will be leading SCA coffee skills programs in the facility.
For Kimma’s first two years, they rented time in Delfiano Coffee’s roastery. But as Kimma grew, Özyurt and Yaman knew they needed their own space. And a new partnership with local chain Cup of Joy made that possible. The founders of Cup of Joy made an investment in Kimma, which in turn roasts the coffee for Cup of Joy’s three Istanbul locations. Cup of Joy is also a woman-owned business, and by all accounts a pioneer in specialty coffee retail in Istanbul.
Özyurt and Yaman have big plans for the space. In addition to a 10-kilo Probat coffee roaster, and designated packaging area, the lab space is home to three espresso machines which allow them to maximize hands-on time in training sessions. A sponsorship from Turkish milk-giant Sek is allowing them to provide free courses to a wide variety of baristas, many at conventional cafes, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford training. Their goal is to train 1,000 baristas in 2019. This is on top of pro bono projects in Ethiopia and Rwanda, focusing on women producers. The work in East Africa is close to the heart of both Özyurt and Yaman.
“We’re going to farms,” says Özyurt, “We’re trying to support the farmers.”
“We want to give back,” says Yaman.
In all, it’s an impressive work schedule, especially in an emerging market like Turkey. But Özyurt downplays their accomplishments.
“We’re not saving the world,” she says. “We’re just making coffee.”
Michael Butterworth is the publisher of Pilgrimaged, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Read more Michael Butterworth for Sprudge.