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Raising the Bar on the Coffee Bean

In Coffee Education, Coffee Projects, In the news, Product Reviews on December 5, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Reprint courtesy of THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR

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.”


Kenya AA Othaya Microlot

In Coffee Projects, New Products, Product Reviews on June 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

Othaya originated from the words “on their own” which came about as the indigenous people were trying to defend their land, “on their own.”

The heart of the Aberdare National Park is home to numerous species, including the rarely seen Bongo Antelope. Other wildlife includes the endangered black rhino, elephants, leopards, bushbucks and many others. It’s also famous for safari lodges Aberdare Country Club, The Ark, and Outspan Hotel; a tree-top hotel famous for housing Queen Elizabeth II on the night of her coronation.

We are pleased to have aquired this spectacular Kenya microlot which is expected in the roastery mid-July (flavour notes of lychee fruit and blackcurrent acidity) Even better, Speakeasy will have a first access “relationship” opportunity on future lots.

Location: Nyeri district and on the western side of Mt.Kenya

Othaya co-operative society constitutes several factories

e.g. Kagere factory, Iriaini factory, Kagonye factory

Altitude: 1700 – 1800 metres

Nearest town:  5Km from Nyeri Town

Soil: Rich Volcanic Sandy Soil

Coffee Variety: SL 34 and SL 28

Flowering season: Between March and April

Harvesting Time: Between November and December

Fermentation: Fresh River Water from Mumwe River.

Drying method: Sun Dried

Organization: Small-scale farmers in well-managed central pulverises

Growing area: Central highlands mainly at high altitude

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2010 in review

In Product Reviews on January 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

  1. 10 things I love about Specialty Coffee…

  2. Business Scene: Speakeasy Roasteries

  3. Toper Roasting School

  4. 2010 Cup of Excellence “Linda Vista”

  5. Support Canada’s Artisan Roaster

 Featured image

Crunchy numbers

A Boeing 747 can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 12,100 times in 2010. That’s about 30 full 747s.

The busiest day of the year was March 3rd. The most popular post that day was 10 things I love about Specialty Coffee….

Where were they from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for speakeasy coffee, speakeasy roasteriesspeakeasy roasters, and toper roasting school.

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Everything you wanted to know about Cuban coffee (but were afraid to ask)

In New Products, Product Reviews on September 17, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Our Serrano is a rich, full bodied, well-balanced spicy-cup (black pepper, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon), with an incredibly long finish; making for a great single origin espresso.

Location: Cuba

District: Sierra Maestra

Varietal: 100% Typica

Certifications: Organic

Altitude: + 1,100 masl

Average temp: 24-26C

Relative humidity: 76-90%

Yearly rainfall: + 1,900 mm

Process: washed & sun dried

It is believed that coffee found a home in Cuba thanks to a man named Jose Antonio Gelabert; who introduced the plant to the island in 1748.

By 1790, Cuba was a one of the primary exporters of coffee to Spain. Not long after, French coffee farmers fleeing the Haitian revolution established themselves in Cuba.

By the 1820s, coffee was one of the largest industries in Cuba’s growing economy. Prior to the revolution in 1956, Cuba was exporting 20,000 metric tons of coffee and producing a yield of over 300 pounds per acre.

Following 1956, migration into the cities weakened the labour force available to coffee growers. In an effort to strengthen the industry, the government attempted to develop a coffee growing belt outside of Havana using a volunteer labor force. The replacement of skilled coffee farmers with volunteers (who knew nothing about coffee) aversely affected the industry. Production levels during the late 60s and 70s dropped. In the early 80s, the industry saw some recovery, only to be hit again  by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Cuba continues to struggle to maintain coffee production as a viable industry; environmental disaster, outdated technology, and massive rural-urban migration have all contributed to its ongoing problems.

Ironically, Miami-based Café Pilon generates more than $70 million in annual sales, selling their version of Cuban coffee in the US as “the one to use when you want authentic Cuban coffee.” However, due to legal restrictions, Cuban coffee consumed in the U.S. is made of beans from everywhere but Cuba.

Today, Japan and France account for 70-80 percent of Cuban coffee exports. Italy, Spain, Germany, UK, Canada, Switzerland and Netherlands are also sizeable importers.

Traditional Cuban Coffee Drinks

Café Cubano…one teaspoon of demerara sugar moistened with coffee into a sugar paste. Pull an espresso volume shot of Speakeasy Cuban Serrano into the sugar and whisk during the pour

Cafe con Leche…two parts Cubano, one part steamed milk

Cafe Cortadito…Café Cubano with a tablespoon of steamed milk

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Ethiopian “Amaro Gayo”

In New Products, Product Reviews on June 26, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Our newest coffee addition at Speakeasy Roasteries  is the Ethiopian Amaro Gayo. We will be offereing the Amaro Gayo in both Washed / Sun-dried or Natural / Sun-dried process options.


A thick bodied coffee, with predominant notes of chocolate, dried banana & blackberry. This clean and consistent cup has a sweet rich chocolate aftertaste and finish.
Asnakech Thomas is the only female coffee producer and exporter in Ethiopia. Asnakech is the head of Amaro Gayo Mill in the Amaro region in Ethiopia within the boundaries of the Nechisar National Park. She inspects her drying tables and leads with a fervor never before seen in southern Ethiopia. She pays great prices for the ripest of cherry from surrounding smallholders and employs the best techniques in selecting and drying her coffee cherry.
 Growing area: 800 Hectares
Variety: Ethiopica
Processing: Natural & Sun Dried
Drying method: Raised drying tables
Certifications: Organic natural canopy
Altitude: 1800-2000 meters
Average temperature: C: 26 (F: 75)
Annual rainfall: 2400 mm
Type of soil: volcanic rich loamy-sand

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2010 Cup of Excellence “Linda Vista”

In New Products, Product Reviews on June 15, 2010 at 11:14 pm


Coffee Variety

100% Caturra

Processing System

Washed & Sun-dried @ Las Segovias

Top Jury Descriptions

Flavour: milk chocolate, honey, apricot, vanilla, butter, raisin, cherry

Acidity: sweet citric, juicy, lemon

Other: Creamy mouth-feel 

Speakeasy Roasteries is very pleased to announce that we are one of the auction lot winners at the 2010 Cup of Excellence Nicaragua competition.    

We are honoured to represent Cup of Excellence and the extraordinary coffee Linda Vista as exclusive roaster / supplier.    

This was our first experience with the Cup of Excellence judging / cupping / auction process; it was thoroughly exciting and gratifying from start to finish.    

Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity….quantities are limited. Visit  for more information.    

Managed by Francisco González Avilez, his wife and their four children, “Linda Vista” is located in the community Las Nubes, municipality of Dipilto, department of Nueva Segovia, Nicaragua.    

This 7-hectare farm is 1386m above sea level and has an average rainfall of 1650 mm / year. The average temperature is between 18ºC – 27ºC.  The farm’s coffee output is about 83% Caturra, 17% Bourbon; but also produces a variety of citrus fruits, musacia (a type of banana palm) cheyas (a leafy perennial that’s cooked  and eaten like spinach)  and malangas (a tropical tuber that is eaten like potatoes)    

Linda Vista has arrived at the roastery and is ready to be roasted & shipped! Contact to place your order today.

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