365 Days of Coffee

This is an essay I was asked to write to accompany Monique Martin’s art exhibition entitled ‘365 Days of Coffee’, which will tour Saskatchewan art galleries later this year with the OSAC. For more details, see Monique’s site:

Monique Martin’s exhibition explores our daily rituals of coffee drinking and how coffee travels with us as an otherwise unremarked on part of everyday life. We clutch our travel mugs and make sure we have enough caffeine to face the day, but few of us truly consider the process involved in getting us our daily fix. Also unnoticed is the epic journey the little beans take before we even see it. Coffee beans travel from remote mountainous regions and tropical cloudforest along the equator, during which it is stripped of its fruit, dried in the sun for days, hand-sorted by meticulous plantation workers, measured, weighed, graded, bagged and transported around the globe, roasted in giant fiery ovens by expert artisans then moving off again to meet their fate in coffee shops before finally making it into our mugs. The coffee production process employs over 125 million people across the world, and this often brutal journey means that over 2.25 billion cups of coffee can be enjoyed each day.

Tasting gourmet coffee can transport you from your daily routine and familiar surroundings into a whole other world of exotic flavours and aromas. The old but favoured mug you grab from the kitchen each morning looks and feels familiar, but its contents can be evocative of strange and faraway places well beyond the daily grind. Every cup tells a story; fragrant coffee in souvenir mugs from tropical holidays may allow you to relive past adventures (such as in Martin’s piece “Mexico”) or you might find that coffee tastes so much sweeter in a cup that was a gift from a loved one (“Sweetheart”).

Presenting coffee to gourmet standards has become an art form in its own right. There are baristas who swear you can only get ‘a perfect pour’ in ceramic mugs (much like Martin’s piece entitled “Froth”), The skills required by the barista to pour milk onto espresso just so, to create intricate patterns as ‘latte art’ has become a global phenomenon. Latte art is visually beautiful, but so too is what it represents: the culmination of so many artisans – farmers, quality graders, roasters, baristas – all connected by the little beans that are so well-travelled already. It’s no wonder that taking a few moments out of a busy day to enjoy this little luxury in a cup is so welcomed by so many people.

But we don’t just drink it for the taste. Coffee also connects people. The Fair Trade movement and trends towards ethical consumerism have made coffee drinkers more aware of coffee farmers. The turn towards quality over convenience coupled with people’s increasing knowledge and appreciation for coffee has meant that coffee lovers are now more likely to know of the local small business who roasts their beans. Early morning conversations with your friendly barista can start the day in a positive and sociable way. And then there’s the discussions to be had on ‘coffee row’, or in the line-up as you wait, or
between office colleagues taking as much time away from their desks as possible while on the morning coffee run. Coffee is as much a small break from routine as it is a routine in itself.

The caffeine in your drink is not physically addictive, but its effects can be psychologically so, and the daily coffee ritual is certainly habit-forming. Monique Martin’s work on the ‘365 Days of Coffee’ explores just how deeply entrenched our coffee rituals are in our everyday lives. We go out for coffee as a break from work. We arrange dates with friends around it, or we feel compelled to make it in the mornings as preparation before leaving the house. We carry it around with us constantly– and as the exhibition shows, the receptacles that we do this in are very significant. Our mugs are a little piece of personal identity in a corporate work environment, they can evoke the familiar comfort of home, or act as the catalyst for daydreaming and escapism. They are decorated, well-worn and well-loved, almost fetishized objects, always comfortingly by our side as our precious coffee accompanies us through life, every day, the whole world over.

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Posted by on August 23, 2016 in Uncategorized


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This was very nearly an extremely sad post. But it isn’t!

I was genuinely a few days away from having to close up Dr. Coffee’s Cafe for good, which was heartbreaking. As always, it came down to money, and I hate that. Money always spoils everything!!! In simple terms, the cafe wasn’t making enough of it. It was deathly quiet over the winter (but probably would have been fatal then if we’d had a “normal” Saskatchewan winter actually), but I tried to stay confident, and it did eventually start to pick up again. But not fast enough for me.

Baby Theia turned one year old last week. That in itself is incredible, but most significantly for the cafe, it spells the end of my very generous maternity leave. Right now, my fellow Mums are all facing the horrible prospect of having to go back to work, and all scrabbling around frantically trying to find childcare for one-year-old infants. This is no easy feat. It is also incredibly expensive. If I “went back to work” properly in the cafe, I would not only have to pay myself a living wage, my salary would have to be enough to cover childcare costs as well – and the business just couldn’t afford it. It only just covered the low wage I pay the part-time baristas (though I prided myself on paying above minimum wage, it wasn’t much above!). Without affordable daycare, I couldn’t work any more. Theia is now walking and it wouldn’t be fair or practical for anyone if I took her to work with me. Her coming with me was fine when she was a newborn because she just slept through most of it, but nowadays she’d be climbing the walls quite literally. So, me returning to full time cafe work was not an option. Neither did I seriously consider the idea of finding another high-paying job elsewhere to support the cafe – even if I found one (unlikely), it would mean I had no time to run the business which is entirely self-defeating. All was looking very, very gloomy indeed and it feels SO UNFAIR.

I tried to sell the business, but that was nearly impossible with so little profits. I did have several meetings with a guy who initially sounded really positive. He put in a reasonable offer thhat I would have accepted, and it got to the point where he was 3 days away from taking the keys and opening up by himself – but then he just stopped talking to me. No response to emails or phone calls,didn’t show up for a meeting, nothing. Then I got a random message from him, asking about my dog…? Obviously sent to the wrong person, but interestingly, it said “Sent from my iphone, Brandon MB” on the bottom of the email. So he wasn’t even in the province any more. Terry Gillespie, you are a timewasting arsehole.

I think I was fairly close to a nervous breakdown by that point, but mercifully my parents were here to look after me and we had a mini holiday in Calgary and I got to ignore it all for a few days. And when I got back…
Don’t you just love those random late night conversations with strangers? A while back we hosted a wedding reception in the cafe for one of our regulars, and afterwards while rather tipsy she declared that she and new husband wanted to get into business and *obviously* I should be their business mentor…. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but when I sent out the sad little “We’re closing” email, she jumped on it and said she could help. They aren’t in a position to buy the business unfortunately, but we managed to figure out an arrangement whereby they are taking over running the place for 6 months with the option to buy in the new year. So I am still the owner and I’m effectively training the others, but it’s way less demanding time-wise and emotionally! She’s renamed it Noni’s after her daughter (and really, Dr. Coffee’s doesn’t make much sense without me!), and the place has a bit of a new look – that I love because if anything, it is even MORE colourful now. There’s also an expanded menu, and even a bike rack in there! I think we share a vision for the place which (so far) we’ve been able to communicate to each other very well indeed, and that is incredibly reassuring given how crushing the idea of closing was to me. I really am incredibly lucky sometimes.

So, thanks to an amazing saviour at the final hour, all is wonderful again. Go visit Noni’s!!

We're evolving

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Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Uncategorized


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SCAA Scientific Poster presentation – The Costs of Quality

In 2010, I met Kate at the World Coffee Conference in Guatemala City. At the time, we promised to keep in touch with the view of writing a paper together, “probably about quality”. It took us 6 years, 2 PhDs, multiple trips to Costa Rica and 2 babies,  but we finally did it!

The annual SCAA Expo was in Atlanta this year, and we submitted our proposal for the scientific poster session and got approved quite quickly. So then we actually had to write the thing. Unfortunately time and money (or rather, lack of) meant I couldn’t make it to Atlanta to present it, so poor Kate had to go alone, but by the sounds of it she did it wonderfully!

Here’s the abstract we submitted:


Specialty coffee is, by definition, concerned with quality. But how that quality is determined, and by whom, is not the wholly objective process many would like to think of it as. Moreover, the details that are so important to SCAA members are often received very differently at either end of the coffee chain. Not only are many of these details misunderstood by, or irrelevant to the consumers and producers,  the focus on quality at all costs may be detrimental to both farmers and consumers.


Drawing on research at origin (in Costa Rica and Honduras) and consumption (in Northern England and Saskatchewan) as well as at previous SCAA events, we use qualitative, social scientific methods to answer a) how ideas about quality are understood and evaluated and b) how the focus on quality impacts consumers and producers.


We argue that the focus on quality to the exclusion of all other considerations is a problematic path. At origin, many farmers are not interested in meeting buyer requirements that can feel arbitrary and which seem to fluctuate daily. Others are not able to access the higher end specialty markets, and so end up selling very good coffee on the conventional market. In Costa Rica in particular the price is far too low for the efforts demanded by specialty buyers, so that many who would prefer to grow coffee have left the industry.

Consumers in Saskatchewan and northern England likewise feel excluded from, or overwhelmed by, the specialty industry’s idea of what coffee should be. In the majority of coffee shops in these areas, coffee is rarely even labelled by origin, and certainly not by SCAA cupping scale scores. Consumers are more heavily influenced by individual taste preference and by price, as well as the vendors’ marketing. With so many factors contributing to the consumers’ idea of ‘Quality’ coffee, it is difficult to determine whether  the demand for very high quality is driven by the consumers at all.

Importance and Interest:

The results of our work and of that of other social scientists indicate that the SCAA focuses only on quality at its peril. There is good reason to distinguish specialty from conventional, and of course there must be a way to indicate that distinction. To insist on only one idea of coffee is, however, to risk alienating both potential customers and current or future farmers. The SCAA does not need to embrace instant coffee to recognize that there is room to consider other factors in the determination of quality, nor are we arguing that a drive to improve growing, processing, shipping and preparation is unwarranted: rather the opposite. Indeed, the story of coffee as one of the humble, hardworking farmer who transmits love and care  through the coffee chain to the tattooed, bearded barista who then prepares your beverage with that same love and care is a compelling one. We suggest, however, that particularly in light of the coffee rust crisis and the success of ‘basic’ coffee brands using lower quality beans, there is room for more nuance and complexity in that story. This would benefit farmers who are marginalized by low prices and unrealistic expectations as well as shop owners who want their customers to love coffee as much as they do, if not in the same way.

Scientific posters are HUGE:



Here is the full thing, if I can upload it:


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Posted by on June 23, 2016 in Uncategorized


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One year in…

Howard Schultz called his second biography of Starbucks, “Onward”. I wanted to borrow that, except mine would be Onwards and Upwards!

We have reached a significant but fairly arbitrary milestone – the cafe has been open for a whole year now. (although of course, I could have celebrated the ‘year since I quit my job’ in February, or the anniversary of incorporating the company in December, or a year since signing the lease in November, etc etc.)


What a helluva year it’s been! Six baristas have been and gone already and number 7 still appears enthusiastic despite the 6.30am starts. BabyCoffee joined us and brings a whole new element of chaos to the place. We’ve had reviews in the paper, random interviews on the radio, a spot on early morning TV, paid advertising with Coffee Party competitions, a very strange podcast session in which I was pronounced an ‘Improvement Vector’ and even a TV crew appearing on our doorstep unannounced and getting our customers to recite poems. Novels have been written in here, books and other businesses launched, crafts have been sold, art has been auctioned and charity funds have been raised.  And this weekend we even hosted a wedding reception!

Coffee has been bought, sold, won, given out for free, exchanged, spilled, burnt, roasted, ground, brewed, poured over, filtered, tamped, pressed, decaffeinated, bagged, instagrammed, stepped on, sworn at, written about, accidentally consumed by BabyCoffee, studied academically, posted, supped, slurped, swigged, enjoyed, cupped, sampled, iced, flavoured, baked into cake, composted, scrubbed into bath salts, and cycled around the city.

My sleep-deprivation levels are at an all-time high, mainly due to BabyCoffee but also because my brain is in permanent business-mode and seemingly goes out of its way to find me things to worry about at 3am, even when they aren’t immediately obvious. It has not been easy. I was extremely relieved to find that the world/business didn’t totally implode while I took some time off as “maternity leave” – but I was answering my work email after 3 days of being home from hospital, and I showed off BabyCoffee at the cafe when she was just 6 days old. I couldn’t stay away.


Of course, the major worry is Money, or at least, lack of it. I am sad to report I am not a millionaire yet.  The real reason we celebrate being one year in is because statistically, over 2/3rds of businesses fail in the first year. The first year is the hardest in terms of establishing cashflow and dealing with humungous start up costs, while still developing the business and the customer base. Well, we have been down, but we are not out. So obviously year 2 is going to be a breeze! Onwards and upwards, my friends!

P.S., We were nominated in 4 categories in the Prairie Dog Best of Food Awards. Pleeeeeease go vote for us. It would be a nice birthday present. Thanks!!

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Posted by on April 19, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Cafe (owners) Culture

No doubt the most fun part of my Phd to me was the ethnography. I may have graduated from the Geography department, but I was, and still am an anthropologist at heart. People fascinate me, and investigating my imagined/constructed “coffee cultures” around the little brown beans was amazingly interesting. Much has been written about ‘cafe culture’, particularly European cafe culture, and also the atmosphere and environments which coffee shops attempt to create for their customers. There are also the stereotypes: the hipster barista in various guises, the underemployed arts graduates in green aprons or the old men on ‘coffee row’ in Saskatchewan for instance. I concentrated on producer ethnographies and the cultures that grew up around the less visible parts of the coffee production process – the farmers, cuppers and roasters.

What I neglected during my fieldwork was Cafe Owners Culture – what sort of people open coffee shops? What motivates them? Now I have joined the ranks of Coffee Shop Owners properly, I hope I am more qualified to answer that. In my experience so far, coffee shop owners seem to fall into four rough categories:

  1. Corporate investors who acquire coffee shops as little piggy banks and let someone else do the hard graft in the actual cafes,
  2. Passionate coffee connoisseurs and geeks who want a place to showcase their knowledge and skills and maybe educate the consumers,
  3. Fired up entrepreneurs who think that coffee shops represent a low risk, easy start up opportunity, or
  4. Lifestylers who want an idyllic, fun little business that gives them freedom and a more healthy work-life balance

For the record, since this post is now getting rather judgemental, I think I fall somewhere between the second and fourth types. I am rapidly learning the hard way that none of these types seem to really succeed. Just because I know a lot about coffee and how to make it, doesn’t mean I necessarily know how to make it make money. Conversely, in such a crowded market, passion, personality and knowledge are essential to make your coffee shop stand out. Coffee shops are not ‘easy money’ for the investors either because although profit margins on lattes are eye-wateringly high, so too are the overheads on the perfect location and the wage bill for passionate, talented staff.

As for the Lifestylers… well, if I am honest, the yearning for something that’s *mine*, that I am free to try out my own ideas in, being my own boss, and wanting a business that I can fit around my family are my main motivations. Since the PhD I have swapped tedious Theories of Human Geography journals for insipid entrepreneurial books and How To guides about setting up coffee shops. A worrying number of them are written by people who haven’t actually done it themselves. Of those who have – and there are some great, inspirational examples out there amongst the tripe – all warn against doing it for ‘the lifestyle’. I wholeheartedly agree. I am my own boss, and I wouldn’t want it any other way but it comes at a huge price. I have been able to engineer my business around my family to some extent, but that just involves bringing my kids to work, not lessening my work load to spend time with my kids. The old and now internet-famous quote about entrepreneurship is very true; that entrepreneurs work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours for someone else. Making a living from a start-up coffee shop business is a hugely difficult, exhausting and stressful challenge, mistakes are inevitable and incredibly easy to make, and the failure rate is frighteningly high. Far from giving you a comfortable life, it takes over your life entirely!

Every single coffee entrepreneur book that I’ve come across so far has been written by someone who has succeeded. My cafe owning journey is not over yet, and I may still succeed, but I am writing my own entrepreneurs’ book already. It’s called “It seemed a good idea at the time” and it is “inspirational” only in that I am still standing and for the most part, still sane and smiling. It is what *not* to do when starting a coffee business, and those stories need to be told, from every part of the cafe owners culture.


Posted by on January 14, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Always plan 15 seconds ahead…

I think that is good advice for life in general actually, but especially for my current project, coffee roasting!
I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but roasting is the part of the coffee process that I know least about. I have seen it done hundreds of times, attended pretty high level workshops on it and hung out in roasting companies for the PhD, but knowing what to do is definitely NOT the same as knowing how to do it. As with barista skills, it all comes with practice, but to learn properly, you have to Do, not just Watch. The reason I never got much hands on experience during my research was just that it is very difficult, and can go wrong so easily and when it does it is very expensive (in terms of wasted coffee beans) and potentially dangerous (fires).

Home roasting is possible with minimal equipment and some common sense (herein lies the rub). You can roast coffee badly and unevenly in a frying pan with a wooden spoon (except in addition to burnt beans, you also ruin the pan and fill the kitchen with smoke, fyi). The most effective way is using a air popcorn maker, but that restricts your roast capacity to about 50grams at a time. Roasting a standard sized bag of coffee with a popcorn machine takes nearly 2 hours and even if you acheive it, you might find you’ve burnt out the motor on the popcorn machine. I speak from experience on both these counts.


Now my cafe is up and running nicely and we have a lot of space in it, I bit the bullet and invested in a proper coffee roaster.  It is lovely. And complicated. And programmable. I am so in love with it, I even did the unthinkable and read the manual first! Despite this vague preparation and along with some tips from friends who roast and my notes from the roasting workshops at Cafe Culture, my first few attempts were so good the fire alarm started cheering me on!! Cinnamon/light roast is relatively easy, Charbucks style oily blackness is very easy, tasty medium to dark roast is pretty damn difficult, and a bit scary.

But practice makes perfect, and after playing with the machine for a month (and wasting a huge amount of green coffee beans, unfortunately) I have got to the point where the coffee I roast is good enough to go in the cafe (in bags for home use, I couldn’t keep up with the amount needed for drinks in the cafe). Here is what I’ve learned so far:

1. Always plan 15 seconds ahead.
This is the length of time for the machine to go from heating to cooling. So even after you hit stop, it will carry on roasting for 15 seconds longer. 15 seconds is a long time for coffee. Not even Starbucks Bold roast (ie, black) goes beyond 10 seconds past the 2nd crack. I’ve found the difference between delicious and burnt is 3 seconds.

2. This. This is bollocks.

There is always smoke.

3. Roasting is an inexact science and a precise art.
As complex as my programming and roast profiles may be, no matter how precisely i set the time and temperatures, the vast majority of the time I am relying on what it looks like and what I can hear. Each type of coffee behaves differently (ie: coffee beans from Brazil are different from SHG Nicaraguan etc) and so you set the profile with an educated guess, listen out for the cracks, then watch it like a hawk until it looks right – or rather, until about 15 seconds before it looks right.

4. Unless you can compare, you turn towards the light.
Partly as a result of the Fear of Fire Alarm (for the record, there have been no actual fires, just enough smoke to trigger the alarm), my roasts have tended to get lighter and lighter the more I do. It’s strange, but it seems my version of what “looks right” is less and less brave every time. So, it’s best to have a sample of a good batch next to you to compare!

5. Consistency is king, but beans are variable.
Following on from the last points, I think to call yourself a good roaster, you must be able to produce the same results over and over. I am getting there, but it is not as easy as it sounds. Even after I carefully write down the exact formula and roast profile and repeat the roast to the exact second, I still occasionally get ‘anomalous’ results. Sometimes, the beans just misbehave. At the moment, I can’t figure out any reason for it, but this is something I hope to learn as I continue!

Experiments will continue, and I am now confident enough to try roasting blends too (a whole other kettle of fish). Watch this space! And of course, if you are local, pick up a bag of beans in Dr. Coffee’s Cafe and let me know what you think!

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Posted by on October 6, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Slinging the shots – babies, beans and business

I am officially on maternity leave from the cafe. So far, this hasn’t really made much of a difference!

I ‘gracefully’ retired from actually being a barista a few weeks before New Daughter was born, mainly because I physically couldn’t stand behind the bar for long any more, and suddenly realised that everything useful was on the bottom shelf in there! I have a renewed appreciation for how physically demanding the workload of a barista is.

This is how I expected my perfect, peaceful, instagrammable maternity leave to look:


NB: That is not my child, and those are not my legs.

This is the reality:
matleave2Aah… the joys of entrepreneurship. Even if I am not actually pulling espresso shots, there are always at least a dozen emails waiting for me, or the website needs updating, or Facebook needs to take its daily slice of my soul, or its time for pay roll…Daughterling will gradually learn to fall asleep to the sound of me typing over her head, I’m sure.

I am not really complaining; I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. We opened Doctor Coffee’s Cafe #1 when our first daughter was just 5 months old; she grew up in a coffee shop, and if anything, it has only served to make her exceedingly sociable and confident. No one can ever accuse her of being the shy, clingy type of child and I do think being in a cafe environment with lots of strangers admiring her when she was tiny may have had a lot to do with it. Being self-employed like this and having the freedom to take my baby to work with me allows me all sorts of benefits which few parents with conventional jobs can afford.

Recently, Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) announced that she would be taking just two weeks off to give birth to her twin girls. (see the article, here) Of course this caused uproar – that’s a terrible role-model for other women etc, it gives out the message that work is more important than her family.. yada yada yada. Mayer is a multimillionaire, so of course she can afford to pay someone to look after newborns for her. And the very fact that she is, and remains a millionaire CEO is because presumably she works her arse off and probably can’t engineer a way to take any longer away from work anyway. Going back to work in an office – sitting behind a desk in fact, is not too strenuous on a post-partum body either. She is in a position to make that work, but she is NOT in the same position most women find themselves in and therefore shouldn’t be treated as a role model.

In some ways, I consider myself luckier than Marissa Mayer.  In my own way, I am a COO of a company too – chief operations officer rather than chief executive officer, (though I’d never use that title at the moment and expect to be taken seriously!) and I’m a proud Mum to an adorable newborn baby girl. Whereas I am envious of Mayer’s success and certainly of her millions, I NEVER have to sit in an office any more, never have to wear a power suit, I have caffeine on tap to cope with 4am feeds, and most importantly I get to run my business AND take care of my wonderful girls at the same time, and really, I can’t ask for any more than that.


BabyCoffee comes to work with me in her sling (which I actually bought while at the coffee conference in Guatemala). Slings are so useful – I can carry her hands free and make lattes at the same time!

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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Uncategorized


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