Coffee with a kick: Stronger, darker, with an edge. And the water’s not for sissies, either
Coffee with a kick: Stronger, darker, with an edge. And the water’s not for sissies, either

When Black Insomnia – officially the world’s strongest coffee – was launched on Amazon in the US in March this year, things went a little crazy. "Amazon sold out within 22 hours," recalls Michael van den Heerik, e-commerce operations director of the Black Insomnia Coffee Company.

With Amazon sold out, the traffic spilled over to the company’s own e-commerce site. "Our website crashed three times in two hours," Van den Heerik says.

The company ramped up production and set up servers all over the US to prevent further crashes so it could keep up with the skyrocketing demand. "We started flying in 2t of [green coffee beans] a day, seven days a week for just over a month," Van den Heerik recounts.

People are looking for something different, something with a bit more energy that is a bit more potent than other coffee

Now they have the logistics down to a fine art. "We’re looking at five to seven days door to door," he says.

From Black Insomnia’s roastery in Montague Gardens, Cape Town, it takes just three days to the Amazon warehouse, and another two to the doorsteps of caffeine fiends all over the US.

That’s right, the success of Black Insomnia Coffee is one of those strange SA stories in which something conceived of and made right here explodes overseas while SA remains largely oblivious of it.

Sean Kristafor: Crazy about coffee.
Sean Kristafor: Crazy about coffee.

Not that Black Insomnia did badly when it launched at the Coffee & Chocolate Expo in Johannesburg last year. Almost immediately orders started coming in at a steady rate of about 30 bags a day, which was more than any of the other online coffee brands were selling. "Of course, when things are online, there are no boundaries," says Van den Heerik, and the occasional order would come in from the US and Sydney, Europe and the Middle East. Though the company sent bags off, it wasn’t really a viable market – the firm didn’t have the logistics to support it.

"When a 16-year-old from Arizona contacted us and asked for stickers because of loving the brand so much," Van den Heerik recalls, "I said: ‘Sean, we might have something really good here.’" Sean is Sean Kristafor, a former general manager of GNC SA, part of the Clicks Group, who launched Black Insomnia Coffee after retiring from corporate life.

Van den Heerik and Kristafor took a leap of faith and got busy setting up a platform to make it possible to serve an international clientele. "On January 5 the incorporation of Black Insomnia in Delaware went through and on March 1, we started selling on Amazon," says Van den Heerik.

Next thing, the cast of the Today Show was tasting Black Insomnia on the show and articles about it appeared in everything from Grub Street to Time magazine and Esquire, and on Fox News. "We went from 30 orders a day in SA ... to 30 orders a minute in the States," says Van den Heerik.

Coffee trends are a little different in the US and Europe to what they are in SA. "We notice that at the moment there is a huge demand for coffees that ... give a bit more of a kick," says Van den Heerik. "People are looking for something different, something with a bit more energy that is a bit more potent than other coffee."

This can be seen in the craze for coffee variations like cold brew and nitro coffee (which is cold brew infused with nitrogen), which are still in their infancy here. Cold brew is made by steeping grounds in cold water for about 24 hours. "The advantage of using cold water is that there is no evaporation of any flavour," explains Van den Heerik. "So it’s a much stronger flavour, but you also pick up a lot more caffeine." Nitro coffee is a bit like draught beer. It looks like Guinness, too, but has a smoothness and a "beautiful round flavour" as Van den Heerik puts it.

Cold brew and nitro coffee are seen as healthy alternatives to energy drinks. Their sweetness means people don’t need to add sugar, and the energising kickstart they give comes without artificial additives or preservatives.

High caffeine content

Kristafor launched Black Insomnia in response to what he saw as a lack of differentiation in Cape Town’s proliferation of artisanal and craft roasteries. He was "crazy about coffee", Van den Heerik says, and his early research turned up some remarkable stats.

"Cape Town has over 135 craft coffee roasters," says Van den Heerik. In the whole of Paris there are only five, he says. And despite Sydney’s claim to be the coffee capital of the world, Kristafor found that Cape Town had a higher density of coffee roasters.

He decided that coffee in Cape Town needed to be "rebooted". One press release quotes him as saying: "It is time to offer something a little different – something stronger and darker, with an edge."

Kristafor approached Gerald Charles, who is seen as one of SA’s, and the world’s, best roasters — known in coffee circles as Dr G. Van den Heerik recalls Kristafor asking him: "Can we not make a much stronger coffee, but with a beautiful sweet kind of taste to it?"

Dr G set to work, and came up with a sweet, nutty concoction with a powerful caffeine kick. A sample was sent to Switzerland to be certified by SGS Laboratories, which calls itself "the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company". It discovered that Black Insomnia had a caffeine content of 17,524mg/kg, about a third higher than Death Wish coffee, then the strongest coffee in the world.

In practical terms, that means one cup of Black Insomnia is the equivalent of about four cups of ordinary coffee (and about as much as is considered safe for an adult in a day). And so another local legend was born.

Last weekend at the Good Food & Wine Show in Cape Town, Black Insomnia reintroduced the coffee to its home crowd. "In the past two or three months, we’ve got completely absorbed by the overwhelming demand from the US and Europe," says Van den Heerik. A new dedicated website for SA, was launched too, along with cold brew and souped-up nitro coffee Black Nitro. "It’s nine times stronger than Red Bull," says Van den Heerik.

Black Insomnia also premiered Black Hydro, its new caffeine-infused mineral water. "It’s a beautiful, clean mineral water with 100mg of caffeine infused into it," says Van den Heerik. It has an exceptionally low acidity of 7.5, which contributes to its clean flavour; and the caffeine is tasteless. It’s an energy-boosting alternative to coffee – what you’d have if you were going for a workout, for example. Van den Heerik says the Black Hydro pre-launch webpage instantly became the second-most visited page on their website.

Is SA ready for its own groundbreaking caffeine concoctions? When Black Insomnia launched in the US, Donald Trump had been that country’s president for less than six weeks. The company’s marketing campaign was based on the slogan: "Now is not the time to sleep!"

The website says: "With everything that is going on in the world around us, we want to make sure that we are awake!"

With the state of politics in SA, we’d better be.

The Good Food & Wine Show will be at Johannesburg’s Ticketpro Dome on July 28 to 30; in Durban at the Durban Exhibition Centre on October 27 to 29. The show also hosts the Scasa regional barista championships

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