This week I wanted to write about Reg Barber, a coffee legend and a Penticton Local.
During Reg’s coffee career he revolutionized the espresso tamper – yes, he is famous… he has traveled the world attending the main coffee events and competitions for the last 25 years and has recently returned to semi-retire in Penticton.
When I came back to Penticton after living abroad for so long it felt strange and a bit uncomfortable. My experience of getting into the coffee industry was also uncomfortable. I have had a lot of support and help from strangers but not always and it hasn’t been easy – the same story I think for most entrepreneurs, but Reg has really become the fairy godfather of the coffee shop in Penticton and a real friend and mentor.
I sat down with Reg and asked him a few questions about the coffee industry, in particular, the recent closure of his 25-year business making espresso tampers.
Reg Barber Feature.
Reg thanks so much for agreeing to let me interview you. First of all, could you tell me how it all got started how you got into the coffee tamper business?
In 1995 I started making Tampers, I worked up until then 10 years in the government and I wanted to retire and open a coffee shop.
I wanted to open one because I was really sick and tired of working where I was working for the government. So when I went to the local place where they sell espresso machines and they said well you need training so I went for training in Seattle and because there was no formal training at the time anywhere I just went to coffee shops just learned and that’s when I discovered coffee tampers and no one really had fancy tampers – all the baristas just used little plastic things or a hunk of aluminum or whatever they used or even the one on the machine – well it would be nice to have one for myself … so I came back and a friend of mine had a machine shop and he made me a base and I made the wooden handle for it, which I still have and it never touched a cup of coffee – my first tamper.
So then I made a few of them because everybody wanted them and it was a hobby at first, I only made a few hundred per year or two. And then in 2003, I bought my big lathe and instead of just doing aluminum bases with wood hands it gave me the opportunity to do aluminum handles so I started powder coating them and anodizing them and making them all pretty colors and I also did my stainless steel bases on the big machine, so that is where it started it went from a couple hundred a year to ten thousand a year almost overnight so that was really hot, nobody else was ever making these. So, in 2008 I really had to convince the rest of the world that custom tampers were the way to go. They caught on, and I got really busy.
Over the last couple of years, China has made such cheap tampers and their shipping is subsidized by the government so they can get a $16 tamper with $3 or $4 shipping cost and I can’t compete with that… that is why I am sort of backing off and just making super custom with standard size bases. I will have someone else make my bases and I will just do the wood handles – sort of retiring.
In 2008 I started making trophies for the World Barista Championship. In 2007 I made the Canadian and the United States Championship trophy. Then I started on the World Barista Championship and it was in Bern, Switzerland, that was my first year, and I have been doing it ever since. I hope to continue doing it but it’s a little up in the air.
Recently we read on the internet (https://sprudge.com/tamper-and-trophy-maker-reg-barber-enterprises-announces-closure-152318.html) that you are retiring after 24 years of business, but maybe you are slowing down but not totally retiring?
No, I don’t think I will get out of it but I will slow down I won’t do big orders anymore – like large wholesale orders I will just do retail.
So a lot of these trophies and the events you attend, that’s just you supporting the coffee industry.
You just do it out of the kindness of your heart – like when I started here, you showed up and gave me some tips (laughing), and started me down the right path.
I read a lot of the twitter comments and best wishes when people found out you were retiring. It seems like you have definitely been around and helped a lot of young coffee professionals… I was going to ask you about that, why do you think helping people start out is so important?
It just gives them a good feeling about our industry it is like every industry if you start somebody outright with a good footing under them they turn out better.
You have helped me a lot with my nitro handles and custom tampers, and my grinder – some really nice little gifts.
I like giving stuff away – I try and make the big companies pay for stuff, then I can give things to the little people. Times have gotten pretty tough in the last three years and I haven’t made anything, just spent my savings away, and now I have nothing left.
Do you think a part of that is because of a change in the coffee industry?
Yes, I think it has… I hate to say Trump is right, but he is in that China is taking advantage of the rest of the world.
There needs to be something done about it because they can ship around the world for about a tenth of the price we can because their government subsidizing shipping. I can buy a $16 tamper that is a copy of mine with less than $5 shipping – It costs me $55 to send something to China
Do you think the people that are buying these tampers feel a difference when they buy something from you?
It comes from their knowledge… if you don’t know any better a $16 tamper is the way to go, but once you get knowledge and you try a really good tamper there is no comparison.
It is how you feel about yourself if you are going to buy something to put on your face you would want it to be a little better than the average thing.
I know the middle class in China loves their Gucci bags – they absolutely can’t get enough of them but they have to be real, they won’t buy knock offs. And it is really hard to convince the Chinese market that I am not a knockoff – they just don’t know any better. That is what I’ve been struggling with these years, is to figure out how to get the Chinese to know I am the original person, not a knockoff… that when they buy this Chinese stuff it’s a copy of mine.
I changed the industry into mm instead of inches the first one to manufacture stainless steel bases – they all used to be aluminum because it is easier I also did the C Flat C Ripple Tamper and I named all the us Curb Euro Curbed – all those names I was the one to come up with them. Except for the Flat tamper and the Curb tamper that was out there but I made my own curb – that’s the difference…
I am quite happy to retire in the mountains and do the odd tamper and not do huge amounts. In the future, I won’t need much.
What are some of the aspects of the coffee world you love and what would you like to change?
Most of the coffee shop life I love because it’s the people in the coffee industry I love… some aspects are a little hard to take – like in any organization you get people that kind of think they are better than everybody else because they have something or think they know something better than everyone else
Huge egos – and that is the only negative part in the whole business….
Let your work speak for you.
If you can’t let your work speak for you, why bother.
Do you have any idea of all the countries you have been too – how far and wide have you traveled for events, competitions, and coffee industry trips – do you have a number?
I have a map with pins I stick into it – it is one country in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, China, Russia Italy, Austria, Germany, England, Colombia and Brazil, pretty much all the States and Canada East and West Coast, i’ve been to Japan and Korea and that’s about it – but there are a whole bunch of places I would like to go to
Would you like to go to Honduras?
Yes, I do I want to do go to Honduras. I have been invited to a lot of Central American countries – but I really want to go back to Brazil.
The reason that we know each other is because I am from Penticton and you are from Penticton – did you grow up here?
I was born in Keremeos and moved to Penticton when I grew up a little, I worked at the sawmill in town until it died and then I moved down to the coast for a one month job at the department of national defense and ended up staying 10 years. That’s when I started the coffee tamper thing by accident really, I sort of slipped into it. That’s where I’ve spent the last 25 years, and I moved back here in 2015
This is where you want to retire?
Definitely. Yes, I have found a person in my life – haven’t had one for a while, and she has 90 acres in the middle of the wilderness.
And she loves horses.
And she loves horses, oh my god does she love horses and dogs, and she hates cats – she is weird she hates cats. She says she doesn’t hate cats but she hates cats.
Reg you are a Penticton Indian Band Member, how has that been being a leader in an industry and being Indigenous?
Do people even know?
I found when everybody found out that I was First Nations I actually had some negative impacts.
I had some companies that sort of didn’t want to deal with me anymore, and I had a real kick back with it with some of the companies from Italy and some from the United States.
I couldn’t believe what was going on because it was so subtle that it was really hard to actually put your finger on – that it was an actual “we don’t talk to you anymore”.
So they have some bad ideas?
Yeah, they just don’t know… its knowledge.
I find it funny that some companies call themselves friends to the indigenous people if they want something, but if they don’t want anything from you they can become prejudice.
Do you think it is changing? How indigenous people feel about their work? Do they have the ability to come out and say who they are and be proud without the risk of negative impacts?
Yes, but I think we need to brand ourselves better as indigenous entrepreneurs. We need to brand ourselves better then we have. I’m thinking of even starting a brand, like an actual logo that all indigenous companies can put on their products or windows or whatever they do saying I am first nations and I am proud to be first nations.
I love that idea, to highlight the entrepreneurs that are doing really great things in their industry.
Yes, but I don’t want to make it look too gaudy or too simple, it has to be done properly. It can’t just be you know, a power fist, because people will just look at that negatively. In fact, I am going to the Kewl group right now to get it going… (Laughing)
Ok, do it!
But first one last question. Why do you think people are so passionate about coffee?
Once you get into coffee you are passionate. If you’re not into coffee or aren’t in the industry, I don’t think you’ll get a passion for it. Unless you see the whole picture. If you meet the farmers, the importers, the roasters, the baristas, then you’ll get into coffee.
I don’t think people can really get into coffee unless you actually know all those things, and once you know all those things and can see all the wonderful people in coffee – then you get a love for coffee.
You don’t just get a love for coffee because you like coffee, that’s not the real true love of coffee.
You don’t just love coffee beans because of the beans, you fall in love with the farmers and the pickers, and what coffee does, and the people that actually sort the coffee that you can watch – then you get goosebumps and say ‘this is such a cool industry’ because it is so long. It’s not like fruit farmers, you know you get an apple and you pull it off the tree – there is no second step – in coffee, it’s a drawn-out process where you can fall in love anywhere along the way.
Yes, that is why I am involved in coffee – A large portion of the world depends on coffee and it holds great potential for making a change in the world.
It’s a huge commodity, but it isn’t just about how much money you can make – it has to be about a lifestyle and community – coffee is just a big vehicle for wonderful things – so many wonderful deals can be made around a cup of coffee – all the way back to the farm.
Reg is still selling his tampers through our local shop in Penticton BC, if you are interested come and check what supplies we have or browse on our site!