Fiona Grant - Glen Lyon

Photo: Jess Shurte
Next woman in coffee >>

Owner and founder of Glen Lyon Coffee Roasters - Aberfeldy

What got you into coffee?

Fiona used to be a journalist in South America and in the late 90s she was commissioned to write a story on a Bolivian coffee buyer. “I went with him in his Landcruiser, at high speed, on an incredibly dangerous road from La Paz to where he bought the coffee, complete with a suitcase of dollars on the back seat and a gun in the glove compartment. It was a bit crazy but we got out to the coffee farms and I basically became fascinated with this whole world of coffee production.”

She continued working as a journalist and gradually did less news journalism and more travel writing, ending up writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet. “I thought I would be able to continue after having a baby but it wasn’t that easy!”

Fiona met her husband Jamie in South America where they were both journalists. They’d been there for some time and wanted to come back to Scotland and put roots down somewhere. “We felt that if we didn’t come back to the UK then, we’d be expats forever. So, we thought we’d try coming back and being in one place for a while. Jamie got a job with WWF Scotland based in Aberfeldy at that time and one of only cottages we could find to rent was in Glen Lyon.”

A few years later they travelled to the US on a camping trip through Washington State, Oregon and California, visiting plenty of roasteries and cafes on the way. “We got excited about the prospect of setting up a roasting business, at an artisan level, in a remote glen in Scotland. It didn’t need to be a big business, we could start small.”

In early 2011 Fiona did a London School of Coffee three-day roasting course, found an old Turkish Garanti 5kg roaster on eBay and set up her roastery for less than£5k. “I plumbed the machine in myself in our bothy. I bought my first pallet of green coffee (you couldn’t buy smaller quantities back then) and started experimenting and roasting through trial and error. I found on online guide to the machine in Turkish, but that was about all the guidance I had.”

Fiona started by selling her coffee through farmers markets and local delis and increasingly as wholesale espresso to cafes and restaurants. “As my business grew, the ‘remote glen in Scotland’ was a bit of a challenge. We were struggling with the single-track road for deliveries, rubbish broadband and the weather made access tricky sometimes.”

In 2013 Fiona took a commercial site in Aberfeldy and bought a 12kg Probat. Being in Aberfeldy was great for business as they can supply the highlands, Glasgow and Edinburgh easily. “I now have the most amazing team of five that have helped me take Glen Lyon to the next level.”

What do you love about being in speciality coffee?

Fiona describes speciality as “a very friendly lovely place”. She values the relationships she has with everyone in the supply chain – “I feel like I have all these coffee friends around the world. It’s an adventurous career – one that involves amazing people and amazing places.”

Apart from loving coffee, Fiona enjoys seeing coffee at origin, meeting producers and green coffee buying. “I’m fascinated by different varieties, the farmers’ stories, traceability - really knowing where our coffees come from.”

Fiona went to Rwanda three years ago with Mercanta - who Glen Lyon buy much of their coffee through. She has got to know Sam who has Buf Café and the people at Musasa  Co-operative - who’s coffee she has been buying and roasting since 2011.

“I was in Antioquia Colombia in January last year - which was amazing. Then Jamie and I travelled back to Bolivia and bought a late, high harvest – Villa Tunari- our first direct trade. 

We’ve just been in Costa Rica where we have a great connection with Diego Robelo of Aquiares Estate. We had been wanting to visit him for a while. He’s turned one of the oldest coffee farms in the country, originally built by the British back in 1890s, into the first carbon neutral coffee farm in Costa Rica and is continually experimenting with different varietals and processes.”

Fiona set up The Scottish Roasters Retreat, an every-two-years event held in the Cairngorms that gets other Scottish roasters together for a long weekend of cuppings, talks and workshops. “The Scottish coffee roasting community is close and I really value my female friendships with Cath from Steampunk and Lisa Lawson of Dear Green among others.”

“Seven years on I still get so excited about roasting and cupping coffees. When a pallet of exciting single origins arrive at the Roastery it feels like Christmas for me. I continue to write and really enjoy updating the Glen Lyon blog. It’s great that coffee is so social – so much of what we do involves simply standing around a cupping table and talking about the coffee.

The countries that grow coffee are the most amazing countries in the world. I love the fact that you can be What’s apping a coffee producer in Colombia one minute and chatting with someone else at the same time, putting them in touch with a Bolivian coffee exporter for a film they’re making.

The speciality coffee scene is at a really exciting time in Scotland right now before it gets bigger and more competitive. I like to think that we don’t try and poach each other’s customers in Scotland. It’s a special industry and supporting each other is a big part of it.”

What would tell someone who was considering a career in coffee?

 “Throw yourself into it. Cup as much coffee as you can. Buy different varietals and processes from all the origins. Try lots of coffee. This is an absolutely great business to be in. It’s a friendly scene. When we first set up we were breaking the speciality coffee ground and it was a very exciting time. I’d say you’re making a great choice. You can’t really get bored of it. There’s so much to learn – the sensory side is fantastic. You can go so many different ways.”

What’s it like being a woman in the coffee industry?

Fiona’s immediate reaction is that we’re so lucky in Scotland because there are so many female roasters owning their own companies and roasting, so it doesn’t feel too different. 

That said, she cites her London cupping experiences where “I might be one of two women in a room of 20 guys”. But she doesn’t see any disadvantage at all and thinks there’s a lot of respect in coffee.
As a woman travelling to coffee growing countries, Fiona also feels comfortable. “I speak Spanish well and I know the culture in Latin America having lived and worked there for so many years. My grannie lived in Zimbabwe so I also feel very at home in Africa.”

“I have a young family so I’m not going to be at the latest latte art throw-down every night. I’d prefer to be at home talking with importers about coffee, visiting our wholesale customers or out walking in the hills and showing off this beautiful part of Scotland to visiting coffee friends.”

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