It is an unwritten rule that if you love Winter Garden, you love Axum Coffee. Most of us feel this way anyhow. It is "our little coffee shop" that has been with us for over a decade. When you walk into Axum, you smell the wonderful fragrances of freshly roasted and brewed coffee beans and get an instant feeling of welcome and comfort from the kind staff and the family-friendly atmosphere. However, who is behind this shop in our town? I spoke with two of the key people when trying to learn a little more about this gem in our community. Although they have an excellent team of many great people, including wonderful baristas who always greet us with a warm smile and a friendly hello, my goal was to turn to the person who founded the operation and the person who roasts the beans that fuel the operation.
In 2010 Axum opened its doors with a name that was, up until that point, very unfamiliar to most of us all. It is the name of an impoverished city in Ethiopia, and after an inspiring trip to the city, Renaut and Brooke van der Riet (soon-to-be co-founders of Axum Coffee) knew what they must name their long-envisioned coffee shop.
After its opening, Axum quickly gained success and in 2015, they decided the next step was to open their own roastery near the coffee shop in Downtown Winter Garden at the new Plant Street Market. This is where Neal Faul comes in. He is the head roaster of Axum Roastery and is the genius behind the delicious coffee we enjoy on a regular basis in Downtown Winter Garden and beyond.
Neal was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa and lived his days there until he finished high school, which is when he decided to move to Sydney, Australia. The purpose for his move was to pursue college in music. This is the career path he followed and still works in today as a music educator and performer. When he is not teaching or performing, he is at the Axum Roastery, brewing those wonderful coffee beans we all appreciate. In addition to being the sole roaster, he is also part of the Axum leadership team where he has a voice in the direction of the company. Neal is a lively, lighthearted, and fun personality; when discussing his exclusive roaster role, he proclaimed, "Currently, I am the only roaster. Let's hope I don't get run over by a bus."
Humor aside, he is also a very serious person who has become an expert in his trades, both in music and roasting. As one may imagine, roasting is a sort of art as well as a science that requires love and expertise. As a result, Neal has acquired many Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) roasting certifications that have only helped enhance his expert knowledge on roasting, which began as a hobby.
"I have always been attracted to the intersection of art and science that is involved in roasting. For the most part, you can develop a foundational understanding of roasting from reading books, watching videos and following other roasters' profiles. You can be a fairly competent roaster, but there is an intuition and art involved with fine-tuning a roast in order to help the coffee speak for itself," said Neal.
Their flagship varietal roast at Axum is their Sidamo beans, which are appropriately from Ethiopia.
Between their online sales and brick and mortar locations, they are roasting their beans, which start green and raw, about three times per week at the Plant Street Market, where you can watch it all occur live. Then, when Axum serves you their coffee, the beans are brewed within 14 days of being roasted, a very high standard that creates an exceptionally fresh and high-quality result.
Neal explained to me a bit of the art regarding roasting, "Each coffee is ever so slightly different, based on region, varietal, farm, etc., so you really have to treat every single batch of coffee as its own thing. It wants to be something, and it is your job as a roaster to figure out what that is and let it shine through."
Ever since Axum has opened its doors here in Winter Garden, there have always been whispers about what they do with the profits the coffee company generates. Many times, I have personally been told that the coffee shop donates all of its profits to charitable organizations and initiatives. However, upon a basic review of the for-profit company's literature online and otherwise, there is no solid mention of such a concept. Although their literature speaks in great pros about humanity and changing the world, there is little to no mention readily available about their initiatives and giving away of profits, if they exist.
After discussing with Neal the great roasting and brewing the shop delivers, I was still left wondering about the subject of giving and profit… were the rumors true? Or was the for-profit coffee shop just like any other, albeit with a global outreach style to the branding? Finally, I knew who I had to reach out to, the source itself, Axum co-founder and business owner, Pastor Renaut van der Riet of Mosaic Church in Winter Garden.
We jumped on a brief phone call, and he explained to me that he and his wife Brooke do indeed give away all of their profits which they would otherwise receive as business owners. The rumors were true. Axum coffee is on a mission to make a change in the world and they are making good progress. All the business owner profits go to various local, national, and international organizations and initiatives that are helping to make the world a better place. In part, these include organizations that help in the fight toward abolishing human trafficking, bringing clean water to places in the world that are without, helping abandoned and at-risk children, local to international food banks, local mentoring programs here in our community and other similar initiatives.
Upon my questioning, Pastor Renaut explained that the lack of emphasis on this mission-based giving was intentional.
"We have always wanted people to come to Axum because we have the best coffee and the best service. This is why we have not placed a focus on the missional aspect of the company in the past. We want people to love Axum and then have the wonderful surprise and delight when they learn about our profits. We are now stepping into a season where we feel we have earned that trust from the community, and we will begin the process of sharing our mission more openly," said the pastor.
I believe this sort of merit-based philosophy of earning the community's support by providing a "good product, good service, at a good price" is very telling. Rather than exploiting their giving to garner support, they have been giving mostly in their closet. I am excited to see Axum grow and begin to tell us more of all their good works, so we as a people can also be motivated by them, emulate them, and support them.
Between the great work done by Neal as their incredible roaster and the merit-based philosophy leadership by the giving pastor and his wife Brooke, this coffee shop is worthy of being known as "Winter Garden's Coffee Shop." Although their reach is worldwide and their shops are increasing in number, a little coffee shop opened here in our beautiful city to make a significant impact on the world.
Article by Austin Arthur
Photography by Austin Arthur
Originally published in Winter Garden City Lifestyle