Emma and Dion Cohen have always gone against the grind. When the landscape was occupied with blends, Single O championed single origins. Instead of slapping logos on every bag of coffee, they collaborated with local artists.

Rather than stocking the café’s fridges with bottles of milk, they designed a system that reduced plastic waste by up to 80 per cent and made it available to the rest of the industry.

But there’s something else worth a mention — Single O’s 20th birthday. The Sydney-based roastery and café has been roasting and pouring for two decades, cementing its reputation as a disruptor, an innovator, and an inspiration along the way.

Hospitality speaks to the Cohens about the many milestones the business has achieved over the years, how the coffee sector has developed since they started out, and why the hospo industry is the heart and soul of Single O.

Single O’s name really does say it all. Emma and Dion Cohen cofounded the brand back in 2003, opening a Surry Hills café that’s still serving many of the same customers it did 20 years ago. Single Origin Roasters (before the name change) opened at a time when there wasn’t a place to talk about a new Geisha or the grower behind it. But none of that mattered to the Cohens, who just wanted to do things their way — which was differently.

“We found out early on that we had a sustainability bent in our DNA, and we also wanted to put single origins front and centre,” says Emma. “It was really hard to get green beans and line up five or six to taste.

“Everyone was creating blends, but it was super cool to taste them individually, experience the profiles, and understand we could talk about terroir and the producers. We were part of a movement and the third wave of coffee, and we didn’t even know about it. The fact we did it and people seemed to get it was a milestone.”

The bent Emma mentions is at the core of the brand. It’s something Single O doesn’t just talk about, but puts into practice. “I would say sustainability has been a big part of our business from day dot,” says Dion. “We put solar panels on our roastery’s roof in 2013, we offset our grounds in Melbourne and Sydney, donate to OzHarvest, and we take all our cooking oils to biofuels.”

New products also play by the book when it comes to environmental impact. Single O launched Parachutes after spending two years perfecting the compostable drip bags. “They come from Asia, but most countries didn’t put great coffee in them, so we spearheaded the start of drip filter bags in Australia,” says Dion.

“It’s good to bring a new product to the marketplace and they’re fully home compostable, too.” They’re also ultra-convenient. “You don’t need anything except hot water,” adds Emma.

The Juggler milk system and the introduction of self-serve batch taps at the café are two more examples of efficiency meets environmental consciousness. “We thought about finding a way to give coffee to people that was quick and pay as you go,” says Dion. “It led to black coffee going from 2 per cent [of sales] to about 28 per cent.”

While Single O is a carbon-neutral business, the Cohens say there’s plenty more to be done, from continuing to work with farms that shade-grow beans and manage water waste to partnering with local ceramicist Malcolm Greenwood, who made Sludgies — cups crafted from ceramic waste and porcelain offcuts.

“Whether it’s big or small, we’re trying to initiate as many projects as we can,” says Emma. “While we can’t deliver in electric vans yet (we’re still waiting for that to come), we’re doing our bit in the meantime.

“Like everyone else, we have been banging our heads against a wall with packaging and waste, and we can reduce our footprint there. We also have an internal project called Missions Against Emissions that covers everything from our training programs to streamlining our visits, and we will be doing a solar upgrade at our roastery.”

Single O have witnessed the evolution of the coffee palate, which has gone from being largely dairy-oriented to plant-based; milk to black; and hot to cold to name a few of the current trends. “We do about 50 per cent cow’s milk products and the rest is soy and oat,” says Emma. “There was a strong appreciation when coffee moved to a more balanced coffee to milk ratio, so we see more regular orders rather than large now.”

Coffee chains have also played a role in shaping consumer habits, with iced beverages rising in popularity. “We have a batch brew oat latte on tap called Oasis which has a bit of a cult following in Surry Hills,” says Emma. “The younger generation is definitely trending towards milky, cold drinks,” adds Dion. “We’ve also seen the infiltration of batch and American filter coffee made with quality coffee — that’s seen a large increase.”

Single O is a force of a brand in its own right, but its presence is far reaching, with the roastery supplying beans to cafés and restaurants across the country. “25 per cent of the Good Food Guide is our client base, which is a milestone knowing the customers you support are successful and that we’re a part of it,” says Dion.

The community feel prompted the launch of Supercafes, inspired by the accessibility of supermarkets, which encourages at-home coffee drinkers to buy Single O beans from a small business.

“People have started to think about bean purchases differently, and we love the idea of going to your local café if you want a nice bag of coffee,” says Emma. “It’s about helping our clients generate revenue,” adds Dion. “Our heart and soul is community cafés, so people can buy retail coffee and know it’s going to be fresh.”

Collaborations aside, a business is only as good as its people, and Single O’s non-hierarchical management structure has enabled the roastery to remain agile and progressive at its core.

“We’re an authentic brand known for providing super-good service, quality coffee, and doing things a bit differently to normal coffee companies,” says Dion. “We supply some of the greatest chefs in the country with coffee, and we have always been an industry brand, not a commercial brand, which has given us a network and the stamp of approval from people who know quality and craft.”

20 years is a feat for any business, and Single O are doing it big with celebrations spanning from the Festival of Twenty Birthday Blend (Cima yeast immersion and natural process) and a 20-origin menu at Surry Hills to a staff party.

But in amongst the festivities, the wheels continue to turn. Single O will soon launch a Brisbane location that will encompass training and distribution as well as an espresso bar. The brand will also expand its presence in Tokyo with a second café set to open in the next 12 months.

“When we do something, we try and do it with purpose,” says Dion. “We like to nudge things. If you do something, it has to be better than how it’s already been done. We don’t like to sit around and rest much.”