Speakeasy Coffee

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Stephen Armstrong of Speakeasy Roasteries answered a few of my questions about his connections to coffee in Hamilton. Stephen has a café in downtown Hamilton, a roastery in Kingsville (near Windsor) and a Hamilton-based roastery opening in January.

What made you interested in coffee?

“I am a classically trained Chef Du Cuisine (British Craft Guild of Chefs) and a recovering alcoholic; but I gave up alcohol and kitchens at around the same time (’95). My story is that I’m basically a foodie with OCD and addictions issues, so me and Specialty coffee were a natural pairing.”

You can see Stephen’s blog “Ten things I love about Specialty Coffee” on his blog. One reason he includes is: “Specialty coffee is a ‘culture’…a slow-food approach of sitting down with people and making connections over a cup of the world’s most complexly glorious beverage. This ain’t no ‘double-double to go.’”

What are Speakeasy’s personal values and goals for coffee roasting?

“[Our goals are to be] quality driven, environmentally conscious, ethically sourced, sustainably produced, transparently operated… I love that at least 80% of what I pay for green coffee is going directly to the farmer; I love that these coffees have personalities behind them…not faceless co-ops, but individuals and families that are invested in producing something ‘better.’ It’s also satisfying as a business to be able to offer world-class, world-exclusive coffees that really make a significant difference in the lives of their producers. These are the intangibles of what I do that I find the most satisfying.

[Additionally] all Speakeasy facilities try to be as close to zero emissions as possible so I am having an afterburner made for the Ferguson location. An afterburner is a Ministry of the Environment approved emissions incinerator that is fitted to the roaster.”

What do you see Hamilton’s role being in ethical coffee consumption?

“To my understanding, Speakeasy was the first coffee roastery in Hamilton’s recent history (est. 2004). It was certainly the first Fair Trade Certified roastery in Hamilton, so I’ve always felt Hamilton could play an essential role in the growth of the ethical purchasing movement. Hamilton offers a unique environment where the mainstream coffee consumer might also be labour-issues aware; given a push in the right direction. We access a unique urbanicity that’s surrounded by a wealth of local artisan food providers, vineyards, orchards, and family run farms.”

Why have you chosen to work with Cup of Excellence and Direct Trade?

“Cup of Excellence is a third party organization that conducts ‘competitions’ in coffee producing countries. Anyone with a crop can enter. [The Cup of Excellence] jury narrows this down to the best 20 – 25. Members…are then able to bid on these coffee lots via a live auction. In this auction year, Speakeasy has acquired two different 2010 Cup of Excellence coffees.

The Direct Trade model sees coffee as a ‘seed to cup’ product – everything along the chain of production has impact on quality in the cup. In this model of quality, if you can’t eliminate links in the process chain, then the strategy is to make those “relationship” links stronger. This model rely on the roaster to do the import, shipping, quality assessments etc. (and absorb the associated costs) These models are about purchasing directly from the farmer based on quality…and based on quality, my cheapest green coffee costs me 3 times the Fair Trade minimum of $1.25 USD / lb. I might not have a certification group behind me to logo my bags, but my money couldn’t possibly be doing more.

Cup of Excellence and Direct Trade coffees guarantee ethics, sustainability, and quality. I think what’s prohibitive about Direct Trade and Cup of Excellence for many small roasters is cost. Direct Trade is often an all-or-nothing way of sourcing coffee. Single lots of coffee may cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars…and that’s just for one new coffee addition. With Direct Trade, there’s no one-bag option…it’s the whole crop or nothing. Then there are the issues of traveling to ‘origin’ to source coffees, and having the skill set to assess whether prices are reflective of quality. [The next step] is getting your coffees out of origin and into Canada. Currently, Speakeasy warehouses over 20 different single-origin coffees that are direct trade, [Cup of Excellence], or microlot, with a value of well over $500k; significantly different from purchasing one or two bags at a time from an importer (at a cost of about $400 for a [Fair Trade certified] bag).”

How do you see Fair Trade in terms of ethical sourcing?

“Speakeasy spent it’s first 4 years are a purely Fair Trade roastery and I continue to maintain certification. Fair Trade is a global phenomenon and essential in providing market access to small-scale farmers (Direct Trade is small in comparison).

Contrary to the popular perception of ‘plantation’ grown coffee, about 90% of coffee is produced on small family owned plots of 5 hectares or less. If your farm only produces 5 bags of coffee every crop year then it’s very difficult to gain market access, and these farmers are open to exploitation. Fair Trade pools together the product of many farms and now the 5 bags is 500 and a more attractive volume to larger buyers. The flaw in the model is that one or two of those crop lots might be spectacularly high quality coffees that are being lost in the great blending pot of collectively milled coffee…good for market access, but not so good for quality.”

Do you have any future plans for Speakeasy that you’d like to share with us?

“I am working on creating ‘green’ buying co-ops (in Canada) that will make the issues of cost less prohibitive to artisan micro-roasters that may not have the pooled resources to engage direct trade on their own.

Speakeasy now works directly with an organization called NinetyPlus; they are aptly named because all of their coffees ‘cup’ (a set of protocols used to assess the quality of roasted coffee) at 90 points or higher. The members of this group work with farmers to improve all aspects of their coffee process. Speakeasy is taking on 4 hectares of land in Panama that will be managed (within my framework of growing, harvesting, processing) by NinetyPlus. What’s most interesting is that this group are not specifically coffee-based, but rather, specialists in the fields of agricultural micro-management, multi-culture crop environments, cross-strain varietals horticulture (i.e. agro-scientists).”

What’s your favourite Speakeasy coffee that you are currently offering?

“[My current favourite,] the Kenya Kagongo, tastes like freshly squeezed grapefruit… Speakeasy coffees try to offer experience…not coffees you would necessarily drink day after day… Because we generally buy small-lot coffees, it’s unlikely that we will even offer the same roster of beans 6 months from now. Love it or hate it, everyone who tries our coffees says ‘wow, I’ve never tasted anything like that in a cup of coffee before.’”

You can visit Speakeasy and drink some delicious coffee at the Speakeasy care at 445 Ferguson Avenue North.

Coffee Week continues with information about Speakeasy’s brew sessions tomorrow!

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