A rejuvenation of high-end, direct trade, single-origin coffee is gaining momentum these days, propelled in part by some smaller-scale Canadian roasters who are focused on quality and forging connections from bean to brew.
By Lawrence Herzog
“This is a business built on relationships,” says Russ Prefontaine, one of two brothers behind Calgary’s Fratello Coffee Roasters.
Their father Cam began selling coffee and other hot beverages in 1974, and the boys grew up with coffee in their blood. They purchased the business in 1997, and eight years ago, decided the time was right to scale back, rebrand and focus on high-end coffee and exceptional levels of training and support with like-minded wholesale customers.
They began working directly with producers in Central America. “Everyone has their own idea of what direct trade is, and for us it means working directly with the growers, building long-term relationships, committing to them and them committing to us. If they know they can rely on us year over year, then they can do their forecasting properly and they can get financing from lenders. On the flip side, and especially in the past couple of years when yields have been very low, we can rely on them for the quantity of coffee that we require.”
For those Canadian roasters who invest the time and resources to nurture their supply chain relationships, the results are evident from the bean to the brew. “What we’re seeing in the cup is just getting better and better, each year sparkling a little bit more as the quality improves with more refined acidity, deeper sweetness and more complex flavours. Some Canadian roasters have invested considerable time in the science of processing and drying; we’re better at tasting, picking, and rewarding the farmers for what they’ve done.”
Four years ago, Fratello opened Analog Coffee, its first café location, at the Calgary Farmers’ Market – a stage to showcase their elite coffees. “It gives us a way to show our wholesale accounts that you can serve coffee of this quality, you can charge more for a premium cup, serve single-origin espressos, and do very well,” he says. “Now in the industry, we are seeing Canadian restaurants serving higher quality coffee, espresso and French press, and you can see just how far it has come.”
At Victoria’s Bows & Arrows Coffee Roasters, the seed-to-cup focus is “on doing right by and for the people who permit our livelihood,” as owner and roaster Drew Johnson puts it. As it is, the vast majority of the coffee trade is unsustainable, he notes. “So we want to engage ethically and in a conscientious way in a changing physical climate and troubled political landscape.”
Three years in, Johnson, his wife Leesha Sabine and their small team have been working to build closer ties with small producers and to strengthen their supply chain from Central America, South America and East Africa. “Quality, transparency and service at every step of the way,” he says. Bows & Arrows sources their desired beans from family-run farms, they emphasize single varietals over blends and roast lightly to taste the bean – not the roast.
Operating from an industrial warehouse in Rock Bay, just north of downtown, their roastery and walk-up coffee bar have cultivated an enthusiastic local following, and a growing roster of wholesale partners and customers, both consumers and foodservice. “There are so many crossovers with how people are sourcing food and consumer concern about what they are eating and how it impacts the planet,” Johnson says.
For producers in coffee-growing regions, climate change is creating challenges, with reduced yields and diseases like leaf rust. “Climate change is what producers are talking about because they are seeing the effects every day,” he says. “They are living with the frustrations of what the changes are doing to their crops and their livelihoods, with yields that are reduced by nearly half.”
Shane Devereaux of Victoria’s Habit Coffee has been a Bows & Arrows customer since they started roasting and has travelled with Johnson to visit producers in Brazil and Honduras. “We share a lot of the same values around quality at every step, and the coffee is fantastic. What a change in this industry in the last 10 years. As there is more great coffee, that means the need to source more quality beans, and that means that the hard-working producers are getting better rewarded. It’s a win all the way from the plantation to the café.”