Home Contact Us Subscription

Quick Search:
Advanced Search

The Bean Counters

Embracing the fair trade practices of the Third Wave of Coffee is good business for local coffee roasters

By Brent van Staalduinen

  • Rachel and Jason Hofing enjoy a cup by the roaster at their red hill coffee trade establishment in Hamilton.
  • Reunion island's Adam Pesce gets to the root of coffee farming during a may visit to Papua, New Guinea.
  • Raising environmental awareness for her trade led Diana Olsen of Stoney Creek's Balzac's coffee roasters to create a blend for Margaret Atwood
  • For Crystal and Kaelin Mccowan of detour coffee in Dundas, sustainability and quality are intertwined.

Jason Hofing thinks coffee is a pretty big deal. Judging by the innumerable coffee shops in Hofing's native Hamilton, it might be easy to assume that he's merely a product of his environment. Ask a Hamiltonian if coffee's a big deal and you can count on a loud and proud love song about "a Tim Hortons on every corner!" followed immediately by an ode to the hugely successful chain's Steeltown roots.

However, Hofing who, along with his wife Rachel owns and runs Hamilton's Red Hill Coffee Trade, knows that coffee's impact extends well beyond your morning double-double. The humble coffee bean, he knows all too well, can sway markets and affect global economies on a scale few other commodities can. And that scale is increasing. The International Coffee Organization reported an export demand of 9.18 million bags in August 2012, a marked increase over the 7.83 million bags tracked a year ago. Most of that volume is directed, of course, to the largest players in the game, such as one of McDonald's 33,500 restaurants, or Starbucks, which in 2011 ground and steamed its way to a worldwide revenue of $11.7 billion.

We do love our coffee. But most of us don't think about its global trade as we sip our cup of joe. Despite its humble origins—whether or not the story of Kaldi, the Ethiopian goatherder, is to be believed or not—coffee has become, thanks to commercial efforts in the 1960s by giants such as Folger's Maxwell House and Taster's Choice, a staple in Western homes and diets. This "First Wave of Coffee" brought a stimulating little bean—something that in the West had previously been the domain of the wealthy and elite— into all of our homes and morning routines. Businesses were created, empires thrived and a commodity was born.

The Second Wave took place in the 1990s, moving beyond convenience and mass availability and towards coffee for the individual taste. Terms like latte and cappuccino and macchiato entered our lexicon as espresso-based drinks were crafted for individual customers. Starbucks was at the vanguard of this movement, where coffee slingers became baristas, and coffee became something more than just a hot drink slopped into a mug or foam takeout cup. We became comfortable with paying a little more to drink better coffee.

Hofing, along with a number of other entrepreneurs in southwest Ontario, is helping mount the Third Wave, where product quality and sustainability and the customer relationship takes the spotlight. As with other industries and commodities, prior to the current age of eco-awareness, the mass commercialization of the coffee industry resulted in large organizations and unwieldy supply chains along with the inevitably detrimental impact on the environment, coffee farmers and producers, as well as the squeezing out of small cafés and coffee businesses.

The concept of sustainability, where fair wages and process is enjoyed by each contributing member of the market economy, isn't a new one. Many of the largest of chains, enjoying the financial boon brought about by Second Wave success, have also increased the visibility of fair trade practices and locally grown movements. Green is a very marketable colour and is exploited fully, from Starbucks' "Shared Planet" to Tim Hortons' "Making a True Difference" initiatives.

However, coffee, according to Adam Pesce of Oakville's Reunion Island Coffee Ltd., "is probably the most involved, labourintensive agricultural product in the world, and first-world consumers tend to take it for granted." The largest of companies, in their worthwhile efforts to "go green and sustainable" often find their messages lost in the machine. Smaller businesses can worry less than what Diana Olsen, owner of Stoney Creek's Balzac's Coffee Roasters, calls "shortcuts and efficiencies" and move more towards the ideal business-customer relationship— something driven by "quality and respect for producers" and the consumer, according to Kaelin McCowan, co-owner of Detour Coffee in Dundas. The Third Wave is, therefore, far more than just a further refining of the cup the customer pays for and receives, but a transformation of the entire process.

That process extends from farm to cup. Over the past few years, the terms "organic" and "local" has been thrown around so carelessly that they have either lost all meaning or, perhaps more tragically, become watered down to where the average person cannot assess whether a product truly meets what should be clear and stringent requirements. It takes designations such as "certified organic" to ensure that the producers—but also the consumer—are protected. Plus, Hofing says, truly organic coffee, cultivated without pesticides in its natural environments, is really the only way for coffee to live up to its "full potential of flavours and nuances."

Full potential would seem to be a noble goal for anyone, much less an enthusiastic group of Third Wave entrepreneurs. Hofing and his fellow roasters, a number of which ply their trade in the region, believe that their approach makes for a better experience for everyone involved. "I'm proud to be part of an industry that looks to improve the lives of global communities," Hofing says. And it does. Refocusing a society's awareness of the cups of coffee it consumes and extra attention to quality along the way equals more opportunity to enjoy coffee and feel better about its contribution to the process. Hofing is convinced that the Third- Wave approach "adds to our community's quality of life."

Adam Pesce, owner of roaster and wholesaler Reunion Island, agrees. "We've worked really hard to turn the company into an instrument for doing good in the world." In 1995, Adam's father Peter decided to shift his focus and sold his company, Bourbon Coffee, to bring the ideals of the Third Wave closer to home. Reunion Island could now be considered the largest of the Third Wave roasters in the area, a testament to how good business and responsible practices can—in addition to making a profit—continue to benefit neighbourhoods and communities. Peter's focus was "quality, quality, quality," and he instilled in Adam a desire to return to the roots of his original business, to "think small again."

Consider Hofing's Red Hill Coffee Trade as an example of that "think small, think local" philosophy. Hofing's business, he says, is first "a proud Hamilton roastery of fair trade and organic coffee." For four years, his brand has tried to help his city's coffee drinkers move beyond the double-doubles and Pike Places of the mass operations and to give some back to the city that supports him and his aspirations. For his efforts to bring increased knowledge of the coffee supply chain, variety of origins, varied roasting profiles and alternative brewing techniques, Red Hill Coffee Trade achieved the "1Award" for emerging Hamilton businesses in a contest sponsored by FirstOntario Credit Union and the Hamilton Spectator. "Our focus," Hofing says, "is strong communities, quality coffee and a coffee experience" by roasting only fair-trade beans, introducing the aspect of sustainability into the local Hamilton scene.

Doing so will mean a better beverage. To most, because it still falls into the realm of the abstract, it can be easy to gloss over the art and science of ensuring a sustainable model, but the evidence is in the coffee itself. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, there are some 36 aromatic profiles that can be attributed to coffee. Larger processes tend to homogenize the product— which is why we can count on our Tim's to taste the same from coast to coast—but smaller, more process-focused businesses can shape and produce different tastes much more easily, responding to contextual demands, such as local seasons and flavours, or the preferences of local consumers. "The fact that there is so much diversity," notes Balzac's' Olsen, "allows customers to select a company that resonates with their own tastes and preferences."

For Detour Coffee Roasters, this diverse focus has paid off. Kaelin McCowan is the kind of entrepreneur who will go to great lengths—in his case, driving across Canada to pick up and bring back his first coffee roaster—to answer his calling. His epiphany came while he was living in the Hamilton area and commuting into Toronto for his work in the film industry. He wanted to come home and spend more time with his family—"I would only see my kids on weekends," he says—and bring the personal coffee experience home as well. As a result, his coffee is in demand, and he encourages his customers to experiment with their own personal approaches. "One of my greatest joys is when I visit a wholesale customer and they get our coffees tasting even better than what we taste at our roastery."

It's as though good roasters and responsible business owners can almost infuse their responsibility into the varied coffees they create. Olsen identifi es "from tree to cup" the "thousands of possible options and techniques" a good roaster can bring out. Mc- Cowan, too, roasts his beans lighter "to let each nuance come through, instead of letting roast character dominate the cup," an approach that has had success in his Dundas café but also found devotees in espresso bars in Toronto. The complexity that can be achieved makes your beverage far more than just that brown liquid in your cup in the morning," according to Pesce.

What is most satisfying to these coffee crafters is that success in business does not come at the expense of values and a commitment to community. Olsen aims to provide Balzac's Coffee Roasters with whole, natural, authentic and "lovingly prepared" products. Her model has received much attention, and now, with numerous locations from Stratford to Toronto to Niagara-onthe- Lake, Balzac's carries its high-profi le and notable presence into newer, unexpected, benefi cial areas. Her collaboration, for example, with celebrated CanLit matriarch Margaret Atwood in the creation of the "Atwood Blend" has not only raised funds and awareness for the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, but also for her efforts towards sustainable and locally-focused craft coffee.

Raising the profi le of the Third Wave approach has also become its own art form and science. Third Wave roasters must balance on the paradoxical tightrope that stretches between looking in towards their own neighbourhoods and fi nding as many ways to spread the message as far and wide as possible. Pesce recalls how his earliest partnerships were well beyond his own locality, focusing on development projects and working for and with the "great NGOs that work in the communities" from which his roastery sources his coffee. Competitions, such as Hofi ng's 1Award or Pesce's fi nalist placing in Roast Magazine's Roaster of the Year Award, help raise the profi le of local roasters. When community members visit Detour in Dundas and enjoy a cappuccino served by Geoff Woodley, the 2011 and 2012 winner of the Central Barista Competition, or a Rwandan brew that was served at the 2012 TED conference, they can't help but think bigger than village cafés and small towns.

And, like all dedicated small business owners, Hamilton's roasters work hard to achieve excellence in approach and product. Hofi ng strives for "perfect balance" in his production of small batches of his product. When the goal is excellence or, in the words of Balzac's' Olsen, to provide "an exceptional product in an exceptional environment," long hours and painstaking attention to detail are the norm. Whole batches can be ruined by mere moments of over- or under-roasting.

Sourcing ethical beans, meanwhile, can be an exercise in juggling between distributors. Constantly producing new and exciting experiences for customers is a time-demanding dance of "experiment, experiment, experiment," or what Pesce calls a "constant state of adaptation."

The hard work of fair trade and sustainability would be lost, though, if no one knew about them. Unsurprisingly, local roasters believe that those responsible values are something that need to be celebrated locally, but also spread and embraced by as many people as possible. Education then becomes a key tenet of the Third Wave. Sustainability, says Pesce, can be viewed as a "gimmicky term," but he wants his customers to see that "sustainability and quality are uniquely intertwined." McCowan goes further, educating his customers about the need to ensure fairness right back to the farmers, whom he calls producers, putting the "farm name front and centre, instead of being anonymous."

The efforts that go into crafting a responsible product demand a unique kind of passion. That passion has rubbed off on many coffee drinkers, who are eager to sample something new, particularly once they understand its origins. In the midst of toiling and evangelizing about the ideals of sustainability and responsibility, Hofi ng and his comrades-in-roasting take time to gush about what they do. "I love the adventure of coffee. I love the differences in coffees," Hofi ng says. Olsen talks about there being "no right or wrong way of doing coffee," industry diversity and the celebration of differences. Pesce looks forward to his business "innovating, improving, pushing the envelope." McCowan, meanwhile, encourages coffee drinkers to get back to purity, to sample new fl avours like he does in their purest form: "You can drink our coffee black!"

For the scores of us who love coffee—the "2010 Coffee Drinking Study" tells us that Canadians enjoy an average of 2.8 cups per day—opportunities to embrace the Third Wave abound, from Detour in Dundas to Reunion Island in Oakville to Red Hill Coffee Trade in the Hamilton Core to Balzac's roasting its beans in Stoney Creek. The success of these establishments suggest that both roasters and consumers know a thing or two about good taste.