Stephen Armstrong simply doesn’t accept that some people don’t like coffee.
He can’t relate to it. It’s incomprehensible.
He’ll find them the right coffee.
It’s only a couple of minutes into an interview with a coffee non-convert when he declares that java has 800 flavour compounds, compared to wine with 250.
What’s not to like?
“Coffee is, hands down, the most complex beverage on the planet, ” says Armstrong, 42, a man with a variety of careers in his past, who’s decided that coffee is the way he can make the world a better place through his company Speakeasy.
Armstrong is a direct trade coffee importer, roaster, wholesaler and retailer.
Armstrong operates the Speakeasy Café on Ferguson Avenue North on weekends. In the small art deco space painted mauve outside, customers can buy coffee by the pound (prices ranging from $20 to $70) or the cup, sample new beans or take part in tastings (cuppings in the coffee world) or learn the right way to brew the perfect cup. More on that later.
His business is in growth mode. Armstrong has just opened a new micro-roastery in a former industrial site on Sherman Avenue North, that will join a roastery he owns in Kingville, Ont. He’s also this week closed a deal to buy The Ultimate Bean, a fair trade and organic coffee company out of Georgetown.
That acquisition will give him a client roster buying 4,000 pounds of coffee each week, roasting equipment, grinders, an invoice and accounting infrastructure and a developed brand. He will run The Ultimate Bean as a fair trade organic company and Speakeasy as a direct trader.
Armstrong works directly with coffee bean growers, helping them improve their crops and, if satisfied with the quality, buying the entire harvest. He calls it sustainable direct trade, pointing out that 90 per cent of the world’s coffee is grown on farms of three hectares or less.
While he supports fair trade, where growers pool together in a co-op to have some power in the market, he says that model isn’t about quality.
“When you work directly with the farmers, the ethics and sustainability is built in. I’m not selling politics without the quality to back it.”
So, Armstrong travels to coffee farms in Mexico, Kenya, Colombia and elsewhere to offer advice and direction to growers. His training allows him to detect problems and identify where they’ve happened in the production chain.
He is one of only 14 Q-Graders in Canada. It’s a licence earned through the Coffee Quality Institute after five days of rigorous exams. Armstrong is also a member of the Roasters Guild and teaches roasting classes for Toper North America.
Of his current offerings, Armstrong is excited about a Blue Mountain bean grown in Mexico, the only crop of the variety grown outside Jamaica. He has bought all 13 bags of this crop (152 pounds each). Where other Blue Mountain coffee sells for $60 or $65 a pound, Armstrong sells his Mexican beans for $25 a pound.
Armstrong was also the winning bidder for a Nicaraguan coffee deemed a Cup of Excellence. Those 17 bags of beans are considered among the top in the world.
This year, he added award-winning coffee creator to his list of accomplishments. Armstrong’s blend of Ethiopian coffee beans, called Kochere Gayo, was the Gold Bean java at the prestigious SIAL competition in Toronto. Based in Paris, SIAL is one of the world’s biggest food expositions.
For Armstrong, coffee is a niche business.
About 90 per cent of the coffee market is covered by corporate sellers, but Armstrong says there is plenty of room for small, independent roasteries selling interesting coffees.
“This couldn’t be more different from the double-double to go.”
Armstrong markets his world exclusives to coffee aficionados around the world. For instance, he has Japanese clients who pay $55 just in shipping every two weeks for four pounds of his Cup of Excellence coffee, which costs $30 a pound.
He is particularly proud of the world exclusive on his Kenyan Othaya coffee. With undertones of lychee fruit and red currants, it’s the most expensive green bean he’s ever bought at $9 a pound. To put that in perspective, he could buy a quality fair trade organic green coffee from an importer at $4.
Armstrong bought all 750 pounds of Othaya from its grower and was offered world exclusivity for future crops.
“If I can’t sell that, I’m in the wrong business. I should be selling blister packs to food service industry.”
Speakeasy supplies to restaurants and cafés and has recently signed a deal to provide some of the coffee services to the University of Windsor. Armstrong says he can offer better coffee at the same as the current supplier to the university. He hopes to work out similar deals with other campuses, including McMaster.
Armstrong is a father of five, ranging from 2 to 15, who landed in Hamilton when his partner Andrea Robertson came to McMaster for the midwifery program. She is now a professor at Ryerson and is working on a PhD from the University of Western Ontario.
The son of oil industry employees, Armstrong was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Thailand, Saudi Arabia, East Germany and Portugal. His career path has been just as varied. He’s a journalism graduate from Concordia and has worked as a freelance writer, a music producer, a DJ and a chef.
Armstrong is fascinated both by the science of coffee growing and roasting and the sensory experience of enjoying it.
He brews a cup of coffee with the care of an artist. He weighs the water and the freshly ground beans.
“What you don’t measure, you can’t make better, ” he explains.
He puts the grounds in a heavy, waxy-looking filter balanced in the opening of an hour-glass-shaped glass vessel called a Chemex coffee maker. He pours a small amount of hot water (he lets boiled water sit 45 seconds first) over the grinds.
He calls this blooming, and says it allows carbon dioxide to blow off and aids with flavour extraction. Finally, he pours the water through the filter, carefully watching the digital scale.
He has a probe that measures the total dissolved solids in the liquid. The ideal is 1.25, he says. If it’s not there, you have to look at the variables like whether the water was too hot or the grind too fine.
The difference between experiencing his coffee and that sold in tins in grocery store, is something like the difference between a frozen dinner and a gourmet meal, he says. Store-bought coffee is stale, he says. It has to be because fresh-roasted coffee gives off carbon dioxide and would blow up its packaging.
“I want to sell coffee that is remarkable, spectacular and unusual. My real objective is to do that with world exclusives.”