Interview with Axel Steenberg – King of Spices

In this post:

  • interview with spice, herb and tea specialist, Axel Steenberg
  • how and why he set up the company
  • the extensive range
  • controlling quality in spices and herbs
  • combating food fraud
  • nurturing and supporting suppliers
  • the direct route to market for rare or unusual spices
  • the importance of not cutting costs of packaging methods and materials
  • educating the market


“There’s not really much to see here” said Axel Steenberg when I asked him if I could drive over to ask a few questions about his very particular food business. “It’s just a warehouse”.

But it turned out to be not so much just a warehouse, but more what a warehouse. The industrial door to it clangs open and the musky, sensual smell of some 800 spices and herbs hangs evocatively in the still air. I felt like a child in a sweetshop as Axel reached up to pick out some Indonesian Andaliman pepper, or bent to look for their specially blended  Ras al Hanut.


Setting up Steenbergs

Originally trained as a microbiologist, and with a background in finance, Axel set up Steenbergs because he loved the challenge of sourcing elusive, hard-to-find spices, as well as discovering equally hard-to-find reliable suppliers, “Never trust a spice dealer”, he laughs, “… and especially not one dealing in saffron”. Most of Steenbergs’ spices come from Sri Lanka, India, Iran, The Lebanon, and from Spain; all countries where initially there was no supply chain. “It’s a bit more sophisticated now” Axel explains, “sometimes we prefer to buy via a trader in Switzerland or The Netherlands.”


The extensive stock

The extraordinarily wide range of items in Steenbergs’ stock (which also includes over a hundred different types of tea) has given the business its foundation. Steenbergs has become the first port of call for anyone searching for anything unusual, and, as foodie interest increases, demand from professional chefs and enthusiastic individuals increases too – becoming market leader in this niche market has proved to be clever positioning.


The importance of branding – customer trust and recognition

And Sophie and Axel Steenberg also understand the importance of branding. “Our customers need to be able to recognise a Steenbergs’ packet immediately – they know we will have put whatever they are seeking through our own quality controls. When you buy one of our spices or herbs you know you are getting what it says on the tin… or rather more usually the jar. At least when you’re testing for quality one of the things you can do is to taste…. “


rose petals
Steenbergs more often packs its herbs and spices in glass jars, labelled with its distinctive branding.

Combatting food fraud

Axel also points out that, as long as the product itself is good, “you can clean and filter out the dirt…. the serious problems occur when produce gets treated with chemicals, or is cut with something else. You need to know what’s happened to the produce, we do a lot of testing”

The testing process is useful not just for checking the integrity of the content but also for identifying allergens. “We can’t, obviously, make specific promises to customers, but behind the scenes we take every reasonable precaution,” says Axel.

People are becoming much more aware of food fraud these days since the horsemeat scandal. In the spice industry it is rife – there have been well-publicised cases relating to cumin and cinnamon, saffron and vanilla, and now oregano. In Canada some people were suffering an anaphylactic shock from eating curries – it was discovered that the cumin was cut with peanut shells. In 2015 the Institute of Global Food Security found that 25% of the samples supplied from supermarkets, online retailers and corner shops contained substances other than oregano – it could be olive, myrtle and hazelnut leaves.


Axel Steenberg
Myrtle leaves – often used to bulk out oregano


Nurturing good suppliers

But whereas fraudulent suppliers have to be identified and avoided, good suppliers, in particular farmers, need to be nurtured and protected. Steenbergs was a pioneer in developing standards for Fairtrade spices and was the first company to import them into the UK, subsequently importing the UK and Europe’s first organic Fairtrade Vanilla Extract and in 2013 the UK’s first Fairtrade Saffron.

Major difficulties are now developing in the supply of vanilla. As Axel explains, “effectively, there is very little good quality vanilla available at present because of the sourcing issues relating to poor harvests, climate change and so on; there is no organic or Fairtrade Madagascan vanilla available until March 2017 at earliest because the major buyers have taken everything out of the market.  This has meant a huge price spike which Steenbergs has absorbed on its products, meaning we actually are currently making a loss on all vanilla sales that are not direct to the customer.”


Fertilising the vanilla flowers
Fertilising the vanilla flowers.


The direct route to market for rare or unusual spices

Vanilla is well-known and universally used. For the more unusual spices and herbs (Penja pepper for example) route to market can present a problem. Supermarkets will not stock them, and, although some of Steenbergs’ spices are available on Amazon, the costs outweigh the profits on many. “We don’t put high margins onto our products” says Axel, “we believe in being fair to our customers. But that means there’s not so much scope for making payments to sites such as Amazon. A lot of our sales are made direct via the internet”.

We begin talking about pepper – “yes, I know Saucy Dressings uses a lot of Indonesian long pepper, but have you ever thought of trying this wild Assam pepper – it’s like stunted long pepper?” Axel asks. And then another question, “you’re writing a post on Sichuan pepper – you should also mention the Voatsiperifery and the Andaliman peppers – they are both interesting alternatives, did you know about those?” The answer was that I’d never heard of any of them – posts on those to come!


Some suppliers reduce quality by cutting packaging methods and material costs

Some suppliers cut costs – and quality – by using cheap packaging methods. Axel explains that in the case of paprika in particular it’s important to keep the packing runs short because paprika contains a lot of oils. “What companies selling large quantities tend to do is machine pack – the result is a loss of these oils and then, of course, the flavour suffers.”


interview with Axel Steenberg
It’s important to pack in small batches.


Educating the market

But whereas in some ways the market has become more discriminating, in others it is less knowledgeable, more naïve. ”People expect everything to look and taste the same year on year. They don’t understand that all these herbs and spices are natural product….and in the case of spice mixes there are different recipes – Steenbergs’ aforementioned, specially blended Garam Masala, for example, the middle eastern equivalent of herbes de Provence, or Chinese five-spice, isn’t the same as Waitrose’s.”

Axel shows me into Steenberg’s brand new facility. There’s a model kitchen there where he plans to shoot videos and informational slide shows, and he and Sophie have lots of other creative initiatives to help educate the market.


In the meantime, just a trawl through their extensive website,  will reap rich treasure for the curious and hungry information-hunter.


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