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Interview: Jo Howie, co-founder of Sacred Bean

06 December 2019

‘The coffee-roasting business really started off just as a hobby’

Sacred Bean Coffee is a social enterprise. We mentor and train ex-offenders and those recovering from substance misuse in the art of roasting, brewing, and selling ethically sourced artisan coffee. We provide training and employment opportunities for people coming out of the criminal justice system, or breaking free from substance-abuse issues.

It’s also about producing quality, speciality coffee beans.

We didn’t intend to start a coffee-roasting business. It really started off just as my husband, Darren’s, hobby. We both love good coffee, but he’s somewhat fanatical about it. He started roasting coffee at home in our kitchen, and then with others, as part of the mentoring that he was doing with ex-offenders.

The coffee they were producing was really good, and people started asking about buying it. So we thought that it could be a way to nurture people and to help them move forward in their lives. We set up as a community-interest company. We got two other directors on board, Chandra and Tim, both of whom are passionate about coffee and about supporting those we work with.

No, it doesn’t pay the bills, but it was never our intention that Sacred Bean would become a source of income. In the new year, though, we’ll employ our first person: someone who’s been roasting alongside Darren for a little while and doing really well. And we’re hoping to move into our own premises. Long term, we want the people we’re training and mentoring to run Sacred Bean.

The surprising thing is just how quickly it’s growing. People love the coffee and the ethos behind it, and there’s a real demand.

Now, churches are beginning to buy it. We’ve recently launched a church blend — Rainforest Alliance, fair-trade, ground or whole-bean — and we’ve set up a subscription service for people who want to order coffee monthly, and want it posted out to them.

Darren and I run Sacred Bean alongside our job-share. We’re employed by Derby Methodist Circuit as pioneer missioners to the city. As part of this, we run Susanna Wesley House, a mission initiative on a new housing estate in the centre of Derby, where we roast the coffee.

I’m a pioneer student at Church Mission Society, working towards my BA. It’s practical theology, related to what you’re doing in your context. My studies have been really useful, particularly a module called “Make Good”, which is about setting up a social enterprise, writing a business plan, and the things that you have to think about when you’re starting a business.

I’m passionate about business as mission, and actually pitched a different business idea, but then Sacred Bean emerged, and I was able to use some of what I learnt to set it up.

Also, I’ve recently done a module on leading worship. As part of that, I created a Sacred Bean Coffee “eucharist”, an agape which relates the potential of the coffee bean, or seed, to the potential of the people there. We use it every Friday (roast day) when lots of people who are linked to Sacred Bean gather for lunch. It’s become an integral part of who we are and what we do.

What makes Sacred Bean so special is the people. They need a second chance, and they have so much to offer. It is great seeing people’s lives being turned around. It’s not just about teaching people to roast coffee: it’s about community and fellowship. Obviously, though, we think the coffee is pretty special, too.

I’m not very keen on coffee from a lot of the chain coffee shops. It’s so strong and so bitter, I find it unpalatable. I like a subtle, mellow coffee. Different beans work well with different roast profiles, but most chains don’t offer much other than a dark roast. We do different types of roast, depending on what suits the bean best. And it’s seasonal; so we don’t offer the same type of coffee all the year round.

We only source coffee that is certified and is traceable, preferably Rain Forest Alliance and fair-trade. We’ve just received our first ten-kilogramme sample bag of Direct Trade, a Rwandan coffee from Sholi Coffee Co-operative. This is the way forward for us as a social enterprise, because it’s a much more relational approach to sourcing, cutting out the larger corporations.

This first Direct Trade bean from Rwanda is like nothing I’ve ever tasted: quite a fruity flavour, not overly strong, quite mellow. It’s my favourite.

We offer a Swiss freshwater decaf. Ordinary decaf processing is really bad for the environment, and not very good for us, either, in terms of health; but this is a good process, using organic methods.

I love our team of directors. It’s such a fun team to be a part of. I also like the creative side of things. This week, we’ve been working on our Christmas gift boxes, and that’s been great. I also love seeing those that we’re working with really thriving. That’s very special to see.

I grew up in Birmingham with my parents, who were both teachers, and my older brother. I went to church from an early age with my mum. Darren and I got married in 2010, and we have three children: Annie, who’s eight, and 20-month-old twin boys, Angus and Hugo. Life is pretty chaotic at times, but we enjoy it.

I can’t remember ever not being aware of God. Growing up, I never questioned God’s existence, but I would say that I began to experience God on a more personal level in my early teens, and was baptised when I was 14.

After walking away from the Church later on in my teens, I really felt God was on my case in my mid-twenties, when I was going through a difficult time. I then really committed to intentionally following Jesus, and now my faith is integral to who I am.

In 2016, I suffered an ectopic pregnancy, and then, a few weeks later, Darren got hit by a car. Thankfully, he wasn’t badly hurt, but he suffered a breakdown. Just trying to keep going, particularly for the sake of my daughter, while dealing with my own grief, was the hardest time of my life.

The business idea I pitched on the CMS course was an arts venue with a coffee shop. It’s something that God has placed on my heart, but until now the timing hasn’t been right. Perhaps the time is right now? We’re looking at a building, and it could work well with the Sacred Bean; but we’re still exploring.

I hate injustice. In particular, when the systems in this country that should be helping people are actually setting them up to fail. It feels like the divide between rich and poor is getting bigger all the time, and the introduction of Universal Credit is not helping at all.

I love spending time outdoors with my family, seeing my children playing in nature, running round, getting dirty. It makes my heart very happy. The best sound is my children laughing.

Young people like Greta Thunberg, willing to stand up and take action to make the world a better place, give me hope for the future. I wish I’d had half the courage that Greta has at her age. I really see the Kingdom in what she’s doing.

In addition to my children, I think that I pray most for the city I live in, Derby. It’s a great little city, and there’s so much unity between the churches who serve the city so well. But there’s so much addiction and homelessness, and, at times, it can feel overwhelming.

I’d choose Susanna Wesley if I was locked in a church with anyone. She’s known as the Mother of Methodism, and Charles and John attributed their faith to her. She was a theologian, teacher, and writer in her own right. Charles and John both went on to do amazing things, and that was the result of her nurture and encouragement. That’s the kind of mother I’d like to be: to create an environment where my children can become the people who God intends them to be.

Jo Howie was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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