Not Your Average Joe
Bleary-eyed, I’m hanging out with the birds on the patio waiting for the coffee maker to finish brewing my first cup of hot, black coffee. It’s 5 am. Oh yes, the life of a writer, awake at any hour waiting for an idea to strike. At this ungodly hour, a good gulp of caffeine feels like Zumba for the brain. A dark roast tasting of chocolate and burnt sugar will fill my cup this morning. There’s something that’s just so sweet about coffee. It’s not simply the taste or the opportunity of sharing a pot with friends. It’s that the story of coffee is the story of people.
Jon McKittrick is an independent roaster and owner of Syndicate Coffee. Estate Club is the name of his monthly coffee delivery service. McKittrick recounts his own coffee discovery moment. “I fell in love with the idea of coffee long before embracing the actual drink. The times having a coffee break with my Grandfather, working on his farm as a teenager, left an indelible mark. They were moments of happiness and good, thoughtful conversation. The coffee was instant and horrible. But so many good memories centred on having a cup of coffee that I embarked on a journey to find a cup that I actually could stomach and enjoy.”He eventually got what he was looking for.
McKittrick says that a great roast, “is all about experimenting and discovering what tastes great and what gets thrown out the window into the garden. I’ll roast each new batch of beans to my standard light, medium and dark roasts to ‘feel’ them out and go from there. That’s the fun part: trying combinations, tweaking, adding, subtracting. I’m like the mad coffee scientist.” McKittrick works with the Organic Products Trading Company to source the best beans because “they’ve developed relationships and work collaboratively with farmers and cooperatives on everything from growing practices to community projects to gender equality initiatives.”
Suneal Pabari and Adam Frank founded The Roasters Pack with the goal of helping more people have that moment when they say “coffee can taste like this?!” The Roasters Pack is a monthly delivery system that sources its coffee from independent roasters all over Canada. “We donate a portion of our profits to CoffeeKids.org,” Pabari explains, “which helps farmers and their communities thrive not only with their coffee farming but with their education, health care, food security and more.” As for choosing which roasters to feature, he says, “I love how diverse each one and their roasts can be. I love how great a lot of their stories and backgrounds are. Most of the ones we work with are small so they simply focus on making great coffee. I want to try and help them get their great product into the hands of coffee drinkers.”
Joe Harrison operates Grizzly Bear Coffee, where he, too, offers a monthly coffee delivery service called the Coffeeshare Club. “I loved that smell of coffee [growing up],” Harrison tells me. “I love the way coffee is associated with conversation, creativity and comfort. I love that coffee is a simple drink while at the same time there are complexities and variations based on the beans, brewing methods and culture.”
With so much freshly roasted coffee in reach of almost every Canadian neighbourhood, it’s time to push the Nespresso aside and try something entirely different. I asked Pabari what impact the prevalence of convenience coffee (like Keurig) has on the roasters he’s met. “It’s tough,” he admits. “That would be one of the most discouraging things about this venture. For many customers convenience is trumping taste. The encouraging thing is that we know that we’re providing consumers with an amazing cup of coffee, and it creates even more of a taste gap between the k-cup coffees and ours. Great coffee isn’t very accessible to Canadians as Tim Horton’s and Starbucks practically dominate the market and are the accepted cup of coffee. Luckily, on a trip to Costa Rica in my late teens I had an incredibly vibrant and complex coffee that changed everything. It didn’t taste like anything I had tried before.” Now, doesn’t that sound like something that would get you out of bed every day?
Despite the challenges, Harrison feels that “the world of coffee drinkers is large, and there is room for all sorts of drinkers. It’s very similar to the beer industry,” he argues. “There are the major players, like Molson and Labatt, but there is also a strong independent micro brewing culture that thrives.”
Drink with the pros
As for which beans and roast to buy, there seem to be so many choices that navigating the cafés and coffee bean aisles can seem a little daunting.
“There are two varieties of coffee beans,” Harrison begins, “Arabica, which has a cleaner and brighter taste, and Robusta, which has a darker and muddier taste.” Pabari continues, “The flavour profile can vary depending on the farm, the soil, the elevation, how the coffee was converted from the coffee cherry to the green coffee bean and more. It can even change from year to year. But it’s one of the reasons that coffee is so diverse (and interesting)!
“For roast levels, it’s easier to understand. One general rule of thumb is that the lighter the roast, the more acidic it will be. You’ll probably be able to taste fruitier elements or floral elements. The lightest roasts will even have tea-like characteristics! When you get into darker roasts, you’ll pick up more of the roasting characteristics, and it’ll have less prominent acidic flavours. There will actually be less flavour from the bean itself when you drink the darkest roasts, and more flavours that have been roasted in.” McKittrick adds, “It can be confusing because each brand has its own marketing terms, like Full City, Cinnamon and Italian. I stick to the basic light, medium, dark and blends.”
I asked Pabari to let us in on his favourite coffee. “It’s pretty difficult for me [to choose]. All of the ones that we use in the The Roasters Pack have a unique flavour profile and texture, which is why they were chosen. Luckily, I generally have a ridiculous amount of coffee available to choose from; so, I can satisfy my specific appetite. I am currently enjoying the Ethiopian Sidama roasted by Bean North. The strawberry/cherry flavours are so prominent. It’s an amazingly bright, clean and vibrant cup of coffee.”
For McKittrick, Ethiopian beans, particularly those from the Eastern Harar region are truly awesome. “Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of Arabica coffee and is home to some of the oldest strains of Arabica still in cultivation. The Harar bean is complex in flavour and is a challenge to roast. ”
Harrison prefers beans from South America, specifically Honduras and Peru. “I usually roast them to a medium or medium dark depending on the bean,” he says.
Now you have your hands on fresh, locally-roasted coffee beans. How do you get the most from them? Invest in the right grinder. Sure, blade grinders are available in practically every store that sells household appliances. But, take heed of this advice: just don’t go there. Those spinning blades make uneven mincemeat of the beans resulting in a less flavourful brew. Stick to a burr grinder. They’re more expensive, but the action of two abrasive plates crushing the beans does a better job at maximizing the flavour.
Now, go buy a good coffee maker. A quick look through my kitchen revealed four different types — an automatic drip, an espresso/cappuccino maker, a moka and a French press. Which one I use depends entirely on the day of the week, the roast and my mood. But, geekiness aside, the key to great-tasting coffee is learning how to get the most from whatever coffee maker you own. Coffee experts will tell you that the best coffee is made with a manual pour-over style, like a Hario or Chemex. Some will also insist that the beans be freshly ground, the coffee pushed to the side of the filter to form a divot, the water poured in a clockwise direction, the bloom stirred six times with a bamboo paddle and the coffee steeped for precisely four minutes. Got that?
That little ritual does produce a tasty cup, but if you’re not yet ready for that level of commitment, here are some useful tips:
- Water temperature should be about 200°F because if it’s too hot, the brew will be bitter.
- Buy freshly roasted coffee in small batches. Gabriel de Carvalho Dias, head roaster at Carvalho Coffee, explains that “coffee is like cake — you would not like to eat a two month old cake.” Over time, coffee oxidizes and loses its flavours.
- Grind the beans right before you brew.
“There exists,” McKittrick suggests, “an entire world of fantastic flavour out there for coffee drinkers, if they can get beyond fast-food, grocery store coffee. Find a small, local roaster. There are more and more of us. Let them know what you currently drink, and ask them to take you on a coffee journey. Any small roaster would be overjoyed with working through all the varieties with you until you have experienced a nice sampling of coffees from light to dark roasts and beans from around the world.”
Now it’s your turn to go on a tasting adventure.
Jon McKittrick; Brampton, Ontario
The Roasters Pack
Grizzly Bear Coffee
Bean North Coffee Roasting Co. Ltd