Durbanites can’t get enough coffee. Every day more people – from office workers to entrepreneurs to preening teens – conglomerate at coffee spots around the city.

With wireless Internet and co-work spaces booming, coffee is serving as a social stimulant and is oiling the wheels of the local economy as more deals are struck over cappuccinos.

If you want to see hipster in action, check out the bearded bros at Duke and Duchess in Umhlanga. Fancy hanging with the soul crowd, try Bean Green in Glenwood, and then there’s Colombo Coffee, Love Coffee, the Coffee Tree, I Want My Coffee, Savior Brands in Station Road… The list goes on and on.

It probably runs to 1000 outlets in Durban that sell coffee every day, according to local coffee authority, Iain Evans. That’s from the hip independents, to roasters, to the mainstream chains like Wimpy and Mugg & Bean to the more specialized Dulce and vida e franchises.

So, the offering is as diverse as the crowd. Duke and Duchess did a cracker “cold brew” to beat the heat wave over Christmas. They used 10 liters of water, 1 kg of coarse ground coffee and brewed it for 48 hours. Throw in sugar syrup, milk and ice and you’re cooler than the cool crowd at that groovy joint.

Surrounded by motor bike memorabilia and located across from a bike shop, Duke and Duchess was a recent winner of the best North Coast Coffee spot in the annual Illovo Cafe Society Awards, regarded as a mark of distinction in the industry. Hands-on owner and chef, Scott Bain, has a habit of changing the coffee menu every two weeks as new beans are sourced and new flavours concocted.

Coffee guru Evans owns True North Media that publishes the quarterly Coffee Magazine.  “In Durban the coffee culture has exploded. Coffee has unlocked some incredible spaces. There’s a big focus on the aesthetic, from jewelers to places with vinyl records, whatever is specific to the sub culture you are serving. Coffee is a stimulant, too, so people are quite animated when they meet over coffee.”

That excitement has raised the bar and increased the number of outlets. Evans did a quick sum to estimate how big coffee is in Durban. If 1000 outlets sell at least 100 cups a day for seven days a week, costing on average R20 a cup, that’s coffee worth R5, 6 million a month. That’s before a croissant, piece of toast, or a biscuit is sold.

“I think there is still a big growth phase ahead. In Australia and New Zealand the population is much smaller than in South Africa, where people are only beginning to move away from instant coffee. People have jumped on the bandwagon by opening coffee shops. But you have to be careful. There is a standard and in Durban the standard is high.”

Evans points to the number of independent roasters and Durban’s long list of barista champions.

Restaurateur Andre Schubert, who runs Market in Morningside and is one of the partners behind craft beer brand Poison City, believes that the proliferation of locally roasted coffee within the greater Durban area is actually driving growth. These include the Bean Green Coffee Roastery, The Coffee Merchant and Colombo.

He explains that when he started out over 20 years ago, he reverted to buying imported coffee simply because home-grown suppliers tended to be inconsistent with taste and flavour. That has been ironed out and local suppliers now match their international counterparts.

Personal back-up, pricing and quality have earned the unwavering support of the locals. “As an entrepreneur, you’re an absolute chop to use anything but locally roasted coffee,” he says. 

Peter Winter started Bean Green in 2009 in Glenwood and has regularly garnered awards for his coffee. “A lot of coffee shops in Durban and the handful of micro roasters have done great work, affording the public the opportunity to learn a whole lot more about our industry,” he says.

Bean Green has a relaxed vibe where they play records and patrons flop about on couches.

For Winter, serving a consistently good cuppa and the vibe are the key factors in coffee success. “I believe we’ve done that and hopefully continue to do so. The vinyls play a role in the vibe as well as the general banter between myself, my staff with all the visitors to the Bean Green. It’s a cross section of people who pitch up – from doctors to lawyers to adventurers and students, young and old. They have helped us and the coffee culture grow.”

Schubert adds that, in addition to more coffee shops, increased numbers of specialist coffee retailers and improved product for the caffeine fix, Durban has seen the coming of age of the skilled barista which has fuelled the growth in educated and demanding consumers.

It has also made owning a show a sexy business choice. But the hours are long and the barriers to entry are relatively high. A new coffee machine for a prospective café owner costs about R40 000 – and then you need other pieces like coffee grinders before you’ve paid the rent.

That, said, there have been some great Durban success stories. When Jooma Coffee owner Justin Vella began building his shop at the top of Fields Hill in Kloof, cynics said he wouldn’t last six weeks. More than three years later and Jooma is blossoming, serving about 250 regular customers who drop in a few times a week.

Jooma proved a magnet for reviving the hood. It transformed the area around the shop from a derelict pavement to a bustling hive that attracted a barber, a nail salon and a party shop. “Coffee brings people together,” Vella says.

Evans says the romance of coffee is alluring. It is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. On average, he says, 160 people produce a cup of coffee, from the farmers in Ethiopia, Brazil or other exotic locations, to the pickers, the shippers, packers and baristas.

“There’s craft and skill in this long coffee chain. There is so much to it, and you get hooked. Coffee combines science and art and it differs with the many variables, from the origin of the bean to the blend and the roast profile.”

Jeannie McCall runs Love Coffee, which includes a cute little outlet in Morningside and her mobile Coffee Kombi. “Coffee has become a social lubricant, bringing friends, families, colleagues and strangers together. We go to extreme measures to make it feel like a small coffee club, remembering regulars’ names, what brew customers like to drink and how many sugars. Our customers are like friends and family.”

Love Coffee is one of a new generation of coffee shops. Here the coffee is what draws people and not a cool meal with a good coffee to close.

“Until five years ago, people chose their café or coffee shop according to the quality of food and drinks. Now the choice is based on the standard of the coffee,” notes Schubert.

It is this food and beverage combo that drew the attention of the big franchises and created many believe has morphed into the over traded side of the market. Ironically, one of the big wigs in the franchising business, who is not out to shoot himself in the foot by commenting on record, is no longer convinced that coffee shops and franchising are a perfect fit. It takes out the quirkiness and the character that are primary draw cards.

A coffee shop owner who is in the throes of shutting down his franchised  outlet and is shouldering losses of close to half a million has mixed feelings. For the uninitiated, there’s an established brand and even a manual that not only covers the finer details of making coffee but also the business essentials like costing, cash flow and other have-to-haves. You also serve just that particular brand’s coffee.

What goes out the window is the creativity. “With a franchise, you become a food processor,” he says explaining how he has repeatedly butted heads with his bosses by serving homemade cakes and breads that were of a far higher standard than the standard fare.

“People have definitely become fussier. They know the difference between a good cappuccino and a bad one,” he adds, noting that coffee both in Durban and beyond is, in essence, a massively successful marketing escapade which was started by Starbucks in the UK and “spread like measles” across the world.

“Coffee is about fashion. It’s now as trendy as wine,” he says.