We are sat in an Aberdeen city centre cafe, three flat whites between us, as Ian Cukrowski, the owner of MacBeans coffee roasters for the past 33 years, tells the story of the best cup of coffee he’s ever had.
He was in El Salvador, in a house that South American revolutionary Che Guevara once spent the night in.
The owner was a local coffee producer and as part of his welcome offered Ian a cup of coffee. It tasted so good that even though Ian later tasted dozens of different coffees during his visit to the plantation, that first cup stayed with him.
Today, the blend is one of Ian’s biggest Christmas sellers, a festive edition of three different variants called Tres Reyes that comes out once year.
Ian holds up the logo for his Tres Reyes El Salvadorian coffee range.
“It’s a wonderful coffee,” Ian says.
Passing the torch to a new owner
It’s also a good story, one of many he tells in our interview. Ian has cultivated anecdotes over the years as assiduously as he has his coffee beans.
But the El Salvador one has a greater resonance today.
More than three decades after he opened MacBeans on Little Belmont Street – which moved to its current spot across the road five years later – Ian is selling the shop.
New owner Brian Milne, the third person sitting at our little table in the cafe, is taking over.
Brian’s promise to the many loyal MacBeans customers is business as usual at the shop that is known and loved for its old-time feel.
Plus, of course, the beans that come out six days a week from the on-site coffee roaster.
For Ian, retirement beckons. And though he remains part of the MacBeans sourcing team, no longer will he fly off to El Salvador.
Or Nicaragua, Brazil, Indonesia or any of the relatively small number of countries with the right conditions to grow coffee beans.
Much of the reason is health – at 65, Ian says he can’t cope as well as he used to with the rugged travel required to visit out-of-the-way plantations, many of them at altitude.
But I can tell part of him would still love to be out there, rattling around in the back of a 4×4, collecting a few more anecdotes.
“I could write a book with all the stories I have of these places,” he says.
There are other stories, too. Ones that come from his years running Aberdeen’s longest-running coffee roaster.
There are the famous customers such as Billy Connelly, who would buy a bag of Ian’s most expensive coffee every time Hollywood friends flew in for the Lonach Highland Gathering.
Elaine C Smith was also a regular visitor while performing panto at His Majesty’s Theatre.
“Every year she’d come in and buy a mug from us, and that would be the mug she used backstage at the panto,” Ian recalls.
Then there are the stories of the difficult times. Starting out in 1989 when most coffee drinkers in the city were hooked on instant. Or the ongoing fight against Union Street’s pedestrianisation, which Ian believed would sound the death knell for independent businesses such as his.
But his most astonishing story is the one about why he started MacBeans in the first place.
‘There’s been an explosion’
Originally from Dunfermline in Fife, Ian was drawn to Aberdeen, like many young men in the mid-1980s, by the oil boom.
Offered a new job as a lab tech on a rig, he decided to take a week’s holiday before starting the two-week-on, two-week-off rota.
The rig was the Piper Alpha and if Ian hadn’t taken that holiday it would have been his turn to work on the platform when it exploded on the night of July 6, 1988.
“I was in the pub,” he recalls of that night. “When I got home my father said, ‘There’s been an explosion on your platform.
Ian’s back-to-back – the person who did his job on the other shift – was killed in the blast, as were so many other people he knew.
“People I used to play pool with,” he says. “People I worked with, ate with. It was a real shock. It was a real, real shock.”
Just one week after the disaster, the still-shaken lab tech was sent out to another rig to start a new job. Back then, little support was offered to those that by sheer chance were not working on the Piper Alpha when it went up.
On the flight out, the helicopter flew directly over the burning wreckage of Ian’s former workplace. Later, after a (thankfully false) abandon platform alarm sounded, Ian said to himself: ‘I cannot live my life like this.’
So, when on a visit to Dundee, Ian was primed for the epiphany he had after visiting the city’s long-standing coffee and tea emporium, J. A Braithwaite.
Aberdeen needs something like this, he thought. So he started MacBeans.
‘You just think that could easily have been me’
It’s a story he has told before. But sitting drinking his flat white in the cafe as he contemplates the end of his time in the business, he allows himself to reflect more deeply on just how Piper Alpha shaped his life.
He admits to carrying a bit of survivor’s guilt, but that he goes every year to the disaster’s memorial service on July 6 where he can still hear the voices of the men who died.
“You just think that could easily have been me,” he adds. “That could have been my name written on the stone.”
I wonder if the memory of those colleagues drove him to make a success of the coffee shop he opened in the wake of the disaster. And if that is something he thinks about now that he has reached the end of that story.
“So much hurt came out of Piper Alpha,” Ian says. “I just hope that I can create a good story. And I think I have.”
MacBeans, at 2 Little Belmont St, Aberdeen, AB10 1JG, will continue with the same opening hours under its new management. For more information, click here.