Written By Adam Cantor Coffee & Tea / Libations / Victoria Apr 27, 2015 Understanding Coffee: A Guide to Small and Local Roasters in Victoria SHARE VIA: Facebook Twitter PinterestCoffee roasting is the art of taking dried, raw coffee beans and applying heat until they turn from green to brown, and become drinkable. While the bulk of the roasted coffee consumed by the public still comes from major corporations like Tim Hortons and Nabob, or gets popped into Keurig machines in incredibly wasteful packets, there are other options. A number of small, independent roasters in Victoria are making and selling their coffee locally, and I’m here to give them their due. Some of these roasters sell their beans at their own cafes, and some sell wholesale to supermarkets, or to other cafes.The first thing to know about coffee roasters is that they are all philosophers. Each one has a very specific reason for why and how they choose to roast their beans. Each entered the roaster’s trade for reasons of love, rather than money. The diversity of opinion and approach provides an abundance of different coffee flavours; all are fresher because they are roasted here and can be put into the hands of the customer the same day. The interesting point is that in buying locally roasted coffee, one is paying very little more, and often the same amount, as one would for a corporately produced cup, yet drinking a much superior product.Terminology and Thoughts on Coffee Roasting:or jump right to the roastersLight Roast vs. Dark RoastTraditionally, the popular flavour of coffee was something known as a dark roast, a French roast, or an Italian roast. The heavy, nearly burnt flavour of coffee from the old days remains part of the popular perception of how a coffee ought to taste. Now, though, roasters have begun to adopt a more sophisticated approach to the roasting of beans. A light roast, where less heat is applied for less time, focuses on the natural flavour of the bean. Fruity and slightly more acidic flavours are evident. Dark roasts, meanwhile, are all about the flavour of the roast. The darkening of the bean produces chocolate flavours and caramelization. A medium roast attempts to create a perfect balance between the two. Most of the small roasters in town have strong positions on how to treat beans in their roasters. Personally, I say there is no right or wrong. Every style has its merits.Origins and ProfilesCoffee beans come from different mountainous regions around the world. Each area has its own varieties, soil particularities, and methods of drying beans. Crops can change from season to season, too. This means there is a vast range of possibilities in the way a bean can taste before it even reaches the roaster. The roasting profile, that is to say the time and technique a roaster uses to roast a batch of beans, only adds to the plethora of flavour varieties. The same bean roasted by two different people can produce a completely different cup of coffee. Note that a coffee could be single origin—meaning one type of bean from one place is in it; or it could be blended—meaning different beans from different places are put together to create complex flavours. If you are curious about the cups you are drinking, a number of the roasteries offer tasting sessions, and they are always happy to talk coffee philosophy with you (assuming it isn’t during an insane rush period).Hand Roasting vs. Computer RoastingAlthough this may not be a big deal for the average coffee drinker, there is an interesting debate going on behind the scenes about traditional/hand roasting and computer roasting. In a traditional roast, the roaster uses their senses; the smell of the bean as it heats, the sound of the bean cracking, etc., to know when the batch is done. With computer assistance, the roaster is made privy to advanced statistics about the process, and can then create programs that produce a consistent product. I find that the use of the computer versus the traditional style tends to fall along the same lines as the light roast versus dark roast split, but there is some degree of crossover.A Word About The RoastersThis may not be a comprehensive list. I found 11 roasters in my search, but some were flying quite far below the radar. If I have missed anyone, I invite readers to write in and let me know. We can keep the list updated as it develops. In addition, there are a number of roasters in the outlying regions around Victoria. I am leaving them off the list for now and focusing just on businesses inside the city limits. Roasting is a very long tradition in Victoria. We know that Innocente Ragazonni was running a roastery at the corner of Douglas and Yates as early as 1860, to satisfy the voracious coffee addictions of gold miners. There were others besides him, at the time, providing competition. The following list represents the scene in Victoria as it stands in 2015. I present these alphabetically, so as to suggest no favouritism. Victoria Coffee Roasters:Jumps to a specific roaster (shortened names used):Bean Around the World | Blackbear | Bows & Arrows | Discovery | Caffé Fantastico Fernwood | Mirage | Many Pink Feathers | Second Crack | 2% Jazz | YokaBean Around The WorldMichael from Bean Around the WorldThe Bean is part of a larger entity that has a significant street presence in Vancouver and around BC. The Victoria location has its own roaster, machine and roasting philosophy. Thus, and for all intents, it is acting as a local and independent roaster here. Chief roaster Michael Garnett has been in the roasting game since 1996. He roasts beans by hand and prefers medium and dark roasts to light ones. This produces coffees with earthy and caramel flavours. Michael prefers roasting by feel instead of by computer because he believes that crop variations and humidity variations can cause uneven results when the computerised roasting profile is too rigid. He roasts darker because, while a light roast might be suitable for testing a bean initially for its defects, it isn’t necessarily good to serve light roasts to customers. His customers generally prefer darker roasts, and find the flavours in the light roasts disappear when covered over by cream. Bean Around the World has a beautiful old Diedrich roaster in their back room.websiteBlackbear Artisan CoffeeNeil | Blackbear roastersFormally the owner and proprietor of the Willow’s Park Grocery (Victoria’s longest running general store); Neil McDonald now works exclusively as a roaster in Rock Bay. He still sells his beans out of Willow’s, as well as at a few restaurants and cafes. Because it is a small operation, Neil is able to not only roast, but also select every bean he roasts by hand. He tends to favour light roasts to medium roasts, but occasionally produces something slightly darker if a customer wants it. He actually roasted a pound of medium dark Ethiopian for me while I was talking to him, and I’ve been enjoying homemade espressos from it all week. The emphasis at Blackbear is on fair trade and organic products, but Neil points out that some uncertified beans can be organic and pesticide-free simply because the farms can’t afford the chemicals. The point is to know the people you are dealing with and build good relationships. Neil makes the point that freshness is key—a coffee bean’s ideal flavour has a window of seven days or less—and there is no telling how long a major company’s bag has been in storage. If you want good coffee, you have to go small scale. Blackbear is also involved in local fundraising for schools, non-profit organizations, and aboriginal youth circles.websiteBows & Arrows Coffee RoastersDrew at Bows & ArrowsDrew Johnson, owner and roaster at Bows & Arrows, sells coffee out of his own café and provides bags to Heist and Habit; two of the cafes patronized by the coffee cognoscenti here in Victoria. At Bows & Arrows, the light roast is dominant. They do not do dark roasts and don’t cater to people who crave them. Bows & Arrows does their own thing, and they don’t worry what anyone else is doing. While Bows & Arrows was hand roasting for most of its history, they have now begun to embrace computer roasting and Drew says he is impressed by the amount he has learned about roasting profiles since implementing the new technology. Factors like airflow, bean density, and other small details are logged down to the exact second as the bean changes under heat. Computers don’t take away the skill of a hand roaster, but rather provide more tools to make better and more sophisticated roasts. Light roasting is all about the flavour in the bean. The hints of fruit and other flavours that develop as a bean ages and dries are best represented when the bean has not been too burned. Thus, the roasted flavour itself doesn’t detract from the natural character of the bean. At Bows & Arrows, I tried a variety of different espressos and appreciated the array of flavours that could be achieved with light roasting of different beans. Their object is not only to provide great coffee, but also to turn the public onto to the possibilities of their roasting style. Bows & Arrows is the only place in town working on a Probat roaster. See here.websiteDiscovery CoffeeSmall roaster at DiscoveryDiscovery is now a bigger player in town. They have three café locations as well as a growing wholesale business. That said, they are a local business that is still concerned about the origins and quality of their product, and it is still easy to approach the owners and roasters about the business. Discovery roasts in the basement under their Discovery Street location in a room that is part roastery, and part martial arts training centre. Heavy bags and num-chucks lay about for the roasters to use when they are not occupied with producing coffee. I sit down and talk with Dave, who began as a barista at Discovery and now works full-time downstairs. At Discovery, the trend is definitely toward lighter roasts, although they do produce some dark roasts as well. The main point is to find the maximum flavour in the bean and to make sure that the public gets a fresh product. Dave and I had quite an interesting conversation about how much drying methods matter in coffee: the natural drying process, where beans are simply left in the sun and end up full of rich fruit flavours; the washed process where the cherry around the bean is removed by water and makes for a much less sweet coffee; and the honey wash, which is a combination of the two. Dave also tells me that Discovery has recently started using a computer process named Cropster, which helps them work on everything from roasting profiles to warehouse management. He considers it an excellent tool that adds to the hand roaster’s skillset.websiteCaffé FantasticoRyan and Derrick at Cafe FantasticoI visited Ryan (the original roaster) and Derrick (who is now taking over most of the roasting duties at Fantastico) and had an extensive tour and chat at their Quadra Village location. Fantastico does do dark roasts, but they are definitely fans of the light roast and put much of their energy into that. The emphasis is on high-end coffees, and the sources tend to change often, depending on where the best quality beans are coming from at any given time. They have put some time into travelling and developing relationships with their suppliers. Fantastico works to create cups with complex personalities. In this regard, and after much discussion, they switched from an old Diedrich roaster (on which they did everything by hand) over to a computerised Loring. For a time they ran the two concurrently to be sure there was no drop in quality and then, when they felt customers were happy, they made the switch complete. The computer, they tell me, helps them to sculpt their coffee, control heat much better and allows them to add depth and personality to their coffees because of the extended control they get. Fantastico also offers tastings as education is a big part of their mandate— they invite the public to come in and learn what makes coffee culture so special to them.websiteFernwood Coffee CompanyFernwood Coffee’s adrian white getting into the beansFernwood’s cold brew cansFernwood Coffee Company operates out of the back of the Parsonage Café on North Park Avenue. Again, I think of them largely as light roast champions, although they do offer dark roasts. I went in to speak with Adrian White, one of their roasters, and he explains the dark/light question as follows: coffee beans have natural oils in them. The darker a bean is roasted, and the longer it is allowed to sit, the more the oils come to the surface. This is why dark roasts have an almost shellac-like finish on them. As the oil ages, it spoils. The best and freshest beans are not shiny, but have a matte finish. They will be more flavourful, filled with pleasant acidity and the flavour of the bean. The darker the roast, the more evident the oil and the bitterness associated with it. One ought to detect the flavour of the bean, not the roast. In spite of this, I happen to have a bag of Fernwood dark roast in my kitchen right now and I’ve been enjoying it. Fernwood is also into computer technology to aid their roasting process, and they consider it a useful tool. In addition to their range of flavourful coffees, they are now offering cans of carbonated cold brew coffee—an interesting alternative to pop. The Parsonage offers coffee tastings, as well, and can provide details when you go in to visit.websiteMirage CoffeeTy from MirageDespite being in business for ten years, and having three locations in Victoria, Mirage seemed like it was off the map as a local roaster for a while. I sit down and talk with Ty, who has been their roaster for seven months, about how Mirage is back in the game. In part, their low profile was because they keep their roaster at a separate site on Sumas St., as opposed to on view as many roasters now do. Mirage was for a long time focused on traditional dark roasts and these have fallen somewhat out of vogue lately. Mirage is now moving into light roasts, while keeping the medium and dark roasts that have been their traditional fare. Not “cups of charcoal”, Ty is quick to point out, but tastefully roasted coffees that try to find the balance between the flavour of the bean and the caramel and chocolate tones brought out by roasting. Mirage is generally anti-computer and loves to roast using only the human senses. To Ty, this is the art of roasting. Every bean, he explains, has its own ideal point of maximum flavour. Some present themselves better as light and some better as dark. In addition, two different roasters could do very different things with the same bean and different machines create different flavours. Mirage’s Diedrich makes a mellower cup than the bright cups produced by a Probat or Loring. Overall, Mirage is on the comeback. They are working to get to know their farmers, sourcing single origin coffees, planning to do their deliveries with bike carts, and putting together a portable bar. Watch for them on the streets of Victoria.websitemanypinkfeathers @ Solstice Cafémanypinkfeathers operates as an extension of the Solstice Café. For David, roasting is a labour of love, which he took up because he wanted to provide the sort of coffee he liked at the Solstice Café. Now that the Solstice Cafe has been sold, the future of the coffee roasted there is uncertain; manypinkfeathers may or may not continue to exist as an entity…but I hope it does, because it is tasty coffee. David is generally a fan of the light roasts, but does darks because his customers demand them (I among them, because Solstice is right next to my woodshop). The objective is to get what he calls a typical “Canadian” roast: medium all the way. manypinkfeathers has its coffee in Caribbean Village on Quadra, as well as selling bags over the counter at Solstice.529 Pandora Ave.Second Crack Coffee LabAaron at Second CrackThe second crack refers to the moment in the roasting process when a bean opens for the second time and the sugars within begin to transform. The name is an integral part of proprietor and roaster Aaron’s philosophy of roasting. The trick, he explains, is to discover the perfect balance between the fruity flavours of a light roast and the caramelization and roast flavours of the dark. Second Crack tends to prefer dark medium profiles, but the particulars of the bean might require a roast pretty much anywhere on the map. Aaron is a new player in town, having learned his craft in Switzerland and settled here in Victoria recently, but he is already making a good impression in his neighbourhood. I’ve seen his coffee in Market on Yates, so it looks like he’s been doing some hustling. It is also possible to buy bags out of their café location, or to get them delivered. It’s a great space, and the espresso there is delicious. Beans are roasted by hand in small batches on a Diedrich.website2% Jazz CoffeeSam Jones and his roasting apprentice MarianneChecking the coffee beansIn the camp of balance between the light and dark roasts is Sam Jones at 2% Jazz. I sat down for some time with Sam, and Marianne (who is apprenticing on the roaster) to talk coffee philosophy at their roastery in the Hudson. Sam provides an interesting counterbalance to the light roasting school in that he considers the flavour of a coffee to be underdeveloped if it has not been roasted to a sufficient level. Under-roasted coffees can have a sour flavour, due to the accessibly acidic taste. The important thing, according to Sam, is not that the roaster or the barista should tell the customer what fruit undertones they should taste, but that a customer should come in and allow the cup of coffee to speak for itself. And overemphasis, moreover, on the flavour of the bean does not give proper due to the roaster as an artisan who can draw flavour out from the bean through the process of roasting. Like everyone in town working on this level, relationships with farmers and distributors matter at 2%. Because roasting is an art to these people, they are all concerned with the quality and ethical history of their beans. Sam has particularly interesting things to say about blending and single origins, and how each contributes to the complexity of flavour. The coffee is wonderful, and the pastries are good, too.websiteYoka’s Coffee, Tea & HoneyThe royal roaster at YokaYoka is an old school roaster who got her start in Victoria when she and her husband took over a Greek deli in 1983. At the time, they were in Vancouver on Broadway in Kitsilano, “long before Starbucks was in there”, Yoka says. Fifteen years ago, they relocated their business to Victoria and now run something of a general store that sells tea, coffee, and chocolate (which is all as fair trade as possible) and also sells fill-your-own-jar honey that comes from Yoka’s own bee hives. The showpiece of the store is the antique Royal roaster that has been in service since the 19th century and is still going strong. The roaster was apparently once in a Taster’s Choice… even though Taster’s Choice has surely not used a roaster like that ever. The coffee is hand roasted, obviously, and tends toward the darker side. This may be a hangover from the fact that the business was originally making Greek coffee, or it may be Yoka’s own style. Still, there are a wide variety of single origins and blends here, each with their own complex personalities. Yoka describes the place as “no-nonsense”, and it is a good description. The quality of everything here is excellent, and it is a fine place to sit down and have an espresso while looking out over the park.websiteMile Zero Coffee at The Niagara GroceryProprietors Ken and Jennifer have quite an operation going at the Niagara Grocery. They are wine distillers, brewers, have their own lasagna garden and vegetable stand, bake things, and make green smoothies. All this is happening in a grocery that has been continuously operating since 1909. In addition to all of this is the coffee roasting operation. The roaster is quite different from any other you will see in town. The Sona Fresco is an air roaster that looks more like an enormous popcorn popper than the heavy metal tank roaster we see around the rest of the city. It does the trick, though, and looks cool doing it. Mile Zero offers a wide variety of roasting types, right from light to dark, and also they look for interesting beans from all over the world. As Ken explains it, each sort of bean has its own flavour profile. Pacific beans can be earthy, African beans are more acidic, and Latin beans fall someplace in the middle. This place is an institution in James Bay, and you should get to know it, too.WebsiteKen Winchester and Jennifer McKimmieConclusion/ Final ThoughtsApparently, there is a big battle going on right now between Starbucks, Tim Horton’s, and McDonalds for the hearts and minds of coffee drinkers in Victoria, and in Canada in general. This involves the three big corporations coming up with new blends with fancy names in order to cash in on the developing public savvy for coffee and its flavours. This battle is irrelevant to me. Small roasters consistently deliver a fresher, tastier product. The quality and origin of their beans is a matter of concern to them, and they are always proud of the relationships they have with farmers and distributors. Not only that, but they are offering these better products for the same price, or close to it. Their cafes are all over town, and many independent cafes and restaurants that don’t roast have local roasters’ products in their coffee pots. Bags of local coffee can be found in every supermarket in town. My hope is that this article will get people interested in exploring this coffee option if they haven’t yet, and that it will get the roasters talking, so that we can have a roasters festival…which I will set up, if they call me. SHARE VIA: Facebook Twitter Pinterest Written By: Adam Cantor Born and raised in the mysterious East (by which I mean Ontario and Quebec, not Asia), Adam migrated out to British Columbia in search of adventure and fortune. He had been at different times a scholar, a musician, a poet and a ... 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