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Posts Tagged ‘Cup of Excellence’

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.”


The Way of the Dodo?

In Coffee Education, Coffee Projects on January 26, 2011 at 11:38 am

There’s more to roasting than the pounds produced every hour

There’s more to blending than filling out price points with cheaper stock

There’s more to brewing than the number of cups yield in a pound

There’s more to blogging than generating content for search engines

I was recently skimming the CoffeeGeek site and came across an interesting opinion piece by Mark Prince about the “state of espresso” at the end of 2010.

As both a coffee roaster and Chef de Cuisine, one key point caught my attention and really set me to thinking:

“Single origin espresso is hurting “the art of the blend”, leading some major specialty coffee roasters to put less focus on one of the most difficult things about roasting (finding the perfect blend) and thus not developing that skill as much.”

No other area of culinary production would support such a thing…a chef who can cook pasta to perfection (al dente) but lacks the basic skills to prepare a sauce won’t stay a chef for very long. Taking core components, and blending them together in different ways to produce something that’s more than the sum of it’s parts, is an essential skill in any food craft – in fact, it is the craft;  one that needs to be practiced and honed on a regular basis.

I admit my own participation in the singular fixation and pursuit of quality single-origin coffees…I mean, who doesn’t want to associate themselves with some of the best quality beans on the planet? However, it occurred to me that this might be at a cost: to the clients in higher priced “prestige” single origins; a loss to my skill as a so-called artisan roaster; and to the detriment of the Specialty coffee industry generally.

As a relative novice to roastery (with only 6 years in coffee, compared to more than 15 years experience in professional kitchens) single origin coffees can be beguiling to both the roaster and barista for a few reasons: 

  • Coffees with an identifiable personality behind them
  • Single-origins are generally easier to roast than blends
  • Single-origins can be more consistent in the brewed cup
  • Single-origins are more forgiving in the espresso shot
  • It’s easier to replicate roast & brew profiles with a single-origin

Simply put, blends demand more skill on the part of both barista and roaster…not just dark roasting out any uniqueness a coffee has to offer in the name of consistency (an approach employed too frequently); but rather the roaster, who year after year, manages to replicate blend flavour nuance regardless of season, bean availability, or origins profile.

Particular brew method can be essential to the cup flavour profile of many single-origins. For example, Cuban Serrano makes for a fantastically spicy and long-finished single-origin espresso, but nothing (no matter how hard I try) brings out its overwhelming toffee note like the Aeropress can. Consequently, single origins might also trend more Baristas away from less forgiving espresso preparation…espresso tends to accentuate the most prominent notes, losing the subtleties and delicacies…espresso doesn’t always do justice to the flavours discovered in the “cupping.” I understand the appeal in this as someone who makes no illusion of being a highly skilled barista; quality single origins are consistent in the brewed cup and often reveal the nuances that espresso won’t, making it easier for the likes of me to opt for alternate and more consumer friendly “to-the-cup” brew methods.

I’m not suggesting that roasters should spend more time cloistered away tweaking, profiling, cupping, then tweaking some more in the name of perfecting the blend…there’s already been enough of that in the name of perfecting the single-origin roast.

Specialty coffees’ tenants of quality, ethics, sustainability, and transparency are best served (in the consumer market) by more of us getting out there and selling the stuff. I believe the way to do this (partly) is with the re-emergence of well crafted (drip, not espresso) blends. In my very limited experience, I’ve found that mainstream institutions and larger buyers go for blends over single origins…the cup that keeps the most number of palates happy. I think one of the best things anyone can do to broaden their coffee business is to introduce a consistent lineup of quality blends that are directly translatable to the home brewer.  Single-origins will come and go, but a solid blend will weather any taste trend….and unfortunately, espresso isn’t most peoples’ day-to-day coffee drinking reality.

Think what could be achieved in the furthering of the “art of the blend,” if quality driven single-origin roasters everywhere realized they’ve got some of the world’s best “blending-blocks” in their very own roasteries.

If in 2010, I spent too much time in the pursuit of the single-origin, let 2011 be remembered as the year that blends re-established themselves as front-and-centre….and if not in the industry, then at least at Speakeasy.

Single-origin coffees invite an understanding of our “likes” and “dislikes”…it’s in the absence (or abundance) of particular flavours and experiences that we appreciate the single-origin.

A great blend satisfies, without ever having to ask the question “why?”

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Grapevine Radio

In Coffee Projects, In the news on January 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Transcription taken from

Stephen Armstrong of Speakeasy Roasteries answered a few of my questions about his connections to coffee in Hamilton. Stephen has a café in downtown Hamilton, a roastery in Kingsville (near Windsor) and a Hamilton-based roastery opening in January.

What made you interested in coffee?

“I am a classically trained Chef De Cuisine (British Craft Guild of Chefs) and a recovering alcoholic; but I gave up alcohol and kitchens at around the same time (’95). My story is that I’m basically a foodie with OCD and addictions issues, so me and Specialty coffee were a natural pairing.”

You can see Stephen’s blog “Ten things I love about Specialty Coffee” on his blog. One reason he includes is: “Specialty coffee is a ‘culture’…a slow-food approach of sitting down with people and making connections over a cup of the world’s most complexly glorious beverage. This ain’t no ‘double-double to go.’”

What are Speakeasy’s personal values and goals for coffee roasting?

“[Our goals are to be] quality driven, environmentally conscious, ethically sourced, sustainably produced, transparently operated… I love that at least 80% of what I pay for green coffee is going directly to the farmer; I love that these coffees have personalities behind them…not faceless co-ops, but individuals and families that are invested in producing something ‘better.’ It’s also satisfying as a business to be able to offer world-class, world-exclusive coffees that really make a significant difference in the lives of their producers. These are the intangibles of what I do that I find the most satisfying.

[Additionally] all Speakeasy facilities try to be as close to zero emissions as possible so I am having an afterburner made for the Ferguson location. An afterburner is a Ministry of the Environment approved emissions incinerator that is fitted to the roaster.”

What do you see Hamilton’s role being in ethical coffee consumption?

“To my understanding, Speakeasy was the first coffee roastery in Hamilton’s recent history (est. 2004). It was certainly the first Fair Trade Certified roastery in Hamilton, so I’ve always felt Hamilton could play an essential role in the growth of the ethical purchasing movement. Hamilton offers a unique environment where the mainstream coffee consumer might also be labour-issues aware; given a push in the right direction. We access a unique urbanicity that’s surrounded by a wealth of local artisan food providers, vineyards, orchards, and family run farms.”

Why have you chosen to work with Cup of Excellence and Direct Trade?

“Cup of Excellence is a third party organization that conducts ‘competitions’ in coffee producing countries. Anyone with a crop can enter. [The Cup of Excellence] jury narrows this down to the best 20 – 25. Members…are then able to bid on these coffee lots via a live auction. In this auction year, Speakeasy has acquired two different 2010 Cup of Excellence coffees.

The Direct Trade model sees coffee as a ‘seed to cup’ product – everything along the chain of production has impact on quality in the cup. In this model of quality, if you can’t eliminate links in the process chain, then the strategy is to make those “relationship” links stronger. This model rely on the roaster to do the import, shipping, quality assessments etc. (and absorb the associated costs) These models are about purchasing directly from the farmer based on quality…and based on quality, my cheapest green coffee costs me 3 times the Fair Trade minimum of $1.25 USD / lb. I might not have a certification group behind me to logo my bags, but my money couldn’t possibly be doing more.

Cup of Excellence and Direct Trade coffees guarantee ethics, sustainability, and quality. I think what’s prohibitive about Direct Trade and Cup of Excellence for many small roasters is cost. Direct Trade is often an all-or-nothing way of sourcing coffee. Single lots of coffee may cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars…and that’s just for one new coffee addition. With Direct Trade, there’s no one-bag option…it’s the whole crop or nothing. Then there are the issues of traveling to ‘origin’ to source coffees, and having the skill set to assess whether prices are reflective of quality. [The next step] is getting your coffees out of origin and into Canada. Currently, Speakeasy warehouses over 20 different single-origin coffees that are direct trade, Cup of Excellence, or microlot, with a value of well over $300k; significantly different from purchasing one or two bags at a time from an importer (at a cost of about $400 for a [Fair Trade certified] bag).”

How do you see Fair Trade in terms of ethical sourcing?

“Speakeasy spent it’s first 4 years are a purely Fair Trade roastery and I continue to maintain certification. Fair Trade is a global phenomenon and essential in providing market access to small-scale farmers (Direct Trade is small in comparison).

Contrary to the popular perception of ‘plantation’ grown coffee, about 90% of coffee is produced on small family owned plots of 5 hectares or less. If your farm only produces 5 bags of coffee every crop year then it’s very difficult to gain market access, and these farmers are open to exploitation. Fair Trade pools together the product of many farms and now the 5 bags is 500 and a more attractive volume to larger buyers. The flaw in the model is that one or two of those crop lots might be spectacularly high quality coffees that are being lost in the great blending pot of collectively milled coffee…good for market access, but not so good for quality.”

Do you have any future plans for Speakeasy that you’d like to share with us?

“I am working on creating ‘green’ buying co-ops (in Canada) that will make the issues of cost less prohibitive to artisan micro-roasters that may not have the pooled resources to engage direct trade on their own.

Speakeasy now works directly with an organization called NinetyPlus; they are aptly named because all of their coffees ‘cup’ (a set of protocols used to assess the quality of roasted coffee) at 90 points or higher. The members of this group work with farmers to improve all aspects of their coffee process. Speakeasy is discussing the possibility of taking on land in Panama that will be managed by NinetyPlus. What’s most interesting is that this group are not specifically coffee-based, but rather, specialists in the fields of agricultural micro-management, multi-culture crop environments, cross-strain varietals horticulture (i.e. agro-scientists).”

What’s your favourite Speakeasy coffee that you are currently offering?

“[My current favourite,] the Kenya Kagongo, tastes like freshly squeezed grapefruit… Speakeasy coffees try to offer experience…not coffees you would necessarily drink day after day… Because we generally buy small-lot coffees, it’s unlikely that we will even offer the same roster of beans 6 months from now. Love it or hate it, everyone who tries our coffees says ‘wow, I’ve never tasted anything like that in a cup of coffee before.’”

You can visit Speakeasy and drink some delicious coffee at the Speakeasy care at 445 Ferguson Avenue North.

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Colombia “Finca La Ceiba”

In New Products on August 18, 2010 at 5:18 pm


Past Awards:
2005 Cup of Excellence
8th Place / 86.39 points
100% Typica
Wet milling
Jury Descriptions:
Cherry candy, grape, almond, plum, balanced, vibrant, elegant, crisp, creamy
Adriano is the representative of a group of three coffee growers: Adriano Delgado, Jose Vargas and Ignacio Delgado. They are small producers of shade grown coffee. All the families live on the farms, and also produce sugar cane and citrus fruits. They practice ecological wet milling, shade grow crops, and use organic fertilizers.
Annual Production: 30 bags
Soil Type: Franco Arcilloso
Precipitation: 1,300 millimeters
Elevation: 1700 meters
Certifications: Shade Grown & Organic
Main Crop: October to January
Colombia Finca La Ceiba

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Business Scene: Speakeasy Roasteries

In Coffee Links, Coffee Projects on July 9, 2010 at 12:16 pm

by Dave Hall for CanWest Global Media

A local micro-roaster recently became the only Canadian roaster to acquire a prestigious Cup of Excellence coffee crop from Nicaragua and is now the worldwide exclusive supplier of Linda Vista coffee.

Speakeasy Coffee, which was established in Hamilton four years ago and has operated from Kingsville for the past year, is also rated as one of the top micro-roasteries in North America.

Owner Stephen Armstrong, a Londonderry, Northern Ireland-trained chef, first opened a fair trade store in Hamilton but quickly realized there was money in coffee beans, especially fair trade, direct trade, organic and specialty coffees.

“I knew I wanted to do something ethical and sustainable and it’s become very exciting,” said Armstrong.

“For someone with a social conscience, this was a match made in heaven.”

Once a roaster becomes involved in the direct trade market, the investment skyrockets because, as Armstrong says, “you can’t buy by the bag, you have to buy the entire crop which means needing $15,000-$20,000 up front so you can buy it when it comes up for auction.”

The Cup of Excellence is a competition conducted in nine coffee-producing nations with the winners chosen by a select group of judges who assess the coffees at least five times during the competition. Only those which score consistently high are allowed to continue.

Armstrong was the winning bidder for Linda Vista, a coffee produced in the region of Nueva Segovia in Nicaragua. Judged in a similar fashion to fine wines, Linda Vista is said to have the characteristics of chocolate, honey, apricot, vanilla, butter and raisin with a creamy feel on the palate.

Armstrong said that 80-90 per cent of what he pays for unroasted beans goes directly to the grower and “I’m paying between four and seven times the fair trade floor price for beans, which is $1.25 USD.”

Speakeasy coffees include Linda Vista from Nicaragua, Amaro Gayo and Longberry Harar from Ethiopia, Espiritu Santo from Costa Rica, San Julian from Guatemala, Altamira from El Salvador, Serrano Superior from Cuba, Mandheling Gayo from Sumatra and Purosa from Papua New Guinea, as well as a selection from Bolivia, Rwanda, Mexico and Brazil.

Speakeasy’s coffees are available online at

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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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