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Coffee’s Third Wave comes to Halifax

Local-roasted coffee is the latest step in the city’s local-food movement

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Zane Kelsall

With a bunch of new roasters in the city, the local-food movement has grown to include coffee.

Zane Kelsall first tried roasting coffee in his own kitchen, using decidedly low-tech equipment. “I would get green beans from a roaster, and roast them at home in the hot-air popcorn popper. It annoyed the hell out of my wife.”

Kelsall has come a long way since then. He’s now the proud owner of a gleaming German-made coffee roasting machine that stands in a stripped-down space beside the Two if by Sea café in downtown Dartmouth. Kelsall and business partner Tara MacDonald (who co-own Two if by Sea) are behind the latest entry into the Halifax region’s growing coffee roasting scene. Their new venture, Anchored Coffee, launched in February after Kelsall won a $100,000 young entrepreneurs award that would cover most of the startup costs.

It’s not enough to just serve up lattés and espressos—now, many cafés are starting to roast as well.

Kelsall, with his German-made coffee roasting machine, roasts in eight-kilogram batches. He speaks passionately about his single origin coffees, each of which features beans that come exclusively from a specific farm. “I view my job as not getting in the way of the coffee,” he says. “I want to taste the coffee, not the roast. That’s why we take everything to a medium level instead of a dark roast.”

Joey Pittoello is director of coffee for the Just Us co-op, which operates two cafés in downtown Halifax. He says Just Us produces a variety of blends, but is also increasing its single origin coffees. And, Pittoello—who has a background in astrophysics—says over the past year and a half he has transitioned from using a fully computer controlled roasting system to controlling the roasters manually. The results may be less consistent, but Pittoello says that’s part of a growing trend towards seeing coffee as an agricultural product that doesn’t have to taste the same every time.

He describes it as coffee’s third wave. “Coffee’s been trying to move in this direction for 20 years,” Pittoello says. “The first wave was Maxwell House-style coffee: the cheaper you can get it, the better. The second wave was the dark roast phenomenon, that was largely started by Starbucks on the West Coast. And the third wave is lighter roasting that has elevated coffee roasting to a craftsman’s domain.”

Asked if he thinks there’s a danger of glutting the market, Kelsall says, “I think there are a lot of roasters servicing a small community, but I don’t think it’s disproportionate.”

Last year, Pittoello attended the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference in Portland. “I remember someone saying there are over 800 coffee shops in Portland,” he says, “which is not a large city by any means, and most of them are small, specialty shops. We don’t have the same kind of density of folks in Halifax, but as is generally the case, things kind of wash from west to east, and I would say we’re moving in that direction.”

He points to Anchored Coffee: “You walk into Zane’s and he’s got the record player and vinyl there. Every individual café/microroaster is setting up the feel they think relates to their community. Coffee is a community building beverage—and it has been from the French cafes of the Renaissance until now.”

Pittoello sees the boom in coffee roasting as part of the broader local food movement. “We’re at a key moment in the food movement in Nova Scotia, and coffee is part of that,” he says. “We’re drinking more locally produced wine, and our tasting vocabulary as a province is expanding vastly. I think the wine industry has kick-started that for Nova Scotia. It’s really cool that now you’re getting all these tiny vineyards, breweries and coffee roasters.”

Kelsall also links the evolution of coffee consumption to the wine industry. He says, “There’s been this wine and food renaissance in Nova Scotia in the last five to 10 years, and I think our palates are becoming more acute. At the same time, this is an area that staunchly supports local, so that’s why you see the micro-roaster revolution that’s happening in this province.”

Still, Kelsall says it’s important to not get too caught up in over-thinking coffee. “You don’t want to be pretentious,” he says. “You need to engage customers at their level. Sometimes I consult with other café owners, and I tell them that if they can serve a good cup of coffee quickly, they should do fine.”

Coffee roasting: the basics

Roasting is the process that makes green coffee beans suitable for brewing your morning beverage.

At Anchored, Kelsall says the roaster is heated to 400°F. The temperature drops when the beans go in, and then it has to be brought back up to 380°F within a minute and a half.

The next key moment is called first crack: that’s when the beans make a sound like popcorn popping. Once that happens, temperature has to come back down for what’s called the development stage. This is when a process called a Maillard reaction develops flavour compounds, as amino acids react with sugars in the beans. Development may only take a few minutes, but Kelsall says it’s critical that the temperature not drop too fast, because the resulting coffee “will taste like baked beans.”

Roasters can tweak flavours by playing with the length of time and temperature of the roast, as well as airflow inside the drum. Kelsall hooks up a Mac laptop to his roasting machine, and uses software called Cropster to monitor the roast, and make sure it conforms to the roast profile Anchored has developed for each bean.

Once the beans come out, they are quickly cooled before being bagged.

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