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Ch-ch-ch-chaaaanges….

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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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.)

BIRTHDAY CAKE

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.

entrepreneur-advantage-disadvantage

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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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.

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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.
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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.
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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!
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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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In love with the Pour Over

Time for an actual COFFEE post!

I started playing around with pour over coffee when we were setting up my Wheelie Good Coffee cart – it is simple, it makes one cup at a time, and it’s about the freshest way to make a great coffee outside without much in the way of equipment. It proved extremely popular on the market, and so we introduced the pour over stand to Dr. Coffee’s Cafe as well. As far as we know, we are currently the only cafe in Regina to offer this brew style!

Pour Over coffee on the Wheelie Good Coffee cart.

Pour Over coffee on the Wheelie Good Coffee cart.

Pour over in our funky mugs at Dr. Coffee’s Cafe

But what is all the fuss about, really? This is not new technology. Several customers have commented that they/their Mums/Nans used to make coffee like this, usually with Melitta drippers. I found very similar pour over stands in Costa Rica, where that is the “traditional” brew method. Someone else told me it was an Indian custom. The appeal comes from its simplicity: If you have a kettle and some sort of filter, you can make it. Nowadays I use Hario drippers and paper filters, and we even have a very fancy goose neck kettle to ensure a slow, even pour, but in principle, you can use any boiling water receptacle and any filter – even a sock! (for the record, the Costa Rican one below isn’t actually a sock, it’s a tube of cheese cloth fabric!). These filters are a lot finer and more robust than the equivalent in a French press/cafetiere, and so you end up with a very smooth, clean cup with no sludge at the bottom.

Costa Rican pour over stand and grinder.

Costa Rican pour over stand and grinder.

I like to use distinctive, single origin coffees in the pour over, because the brew method can highlight subtleties in the coffee that other methods tend to hide. it is also particularly good for lighter roasts. My favourites are Indian Monsooned Malabar, or fruity Nicaraguan roasts. Due to the longer brewing time, pour over coffee does tend to come out much stronger than standard drip coffee or even French press, so very dark roasts or espresso blends tend to be ‘over kill!’

How to brew with a Pour Over or Chemex

The Pour Over Brewer is quick, simple, cheap and effective – perfect for home use. They are usually ceramic drippers that look like a little cup with holes in the bottom, with a saucer attached. This sits on top of your mug, and you pour the coffee straight through it. A Chemex (pronounced “Kemex”) is a glass pot with a neck allowing you to pour hot water through coffee in a filter paper held in the neck. Chemex pots are usually handblown glass and are very attractive, artistic objects, but the principle is the same.

Chemex and Pour Over brewers make very smooth, mild coffee, in between a percolator and a French Press. Besides the brewer itself, you will also need the correct size filter papers (usually conical or wedge-shaped ones, rather than round ones – Chemex even make their own) – and a kettle. You can buy specialist goose-neck kettles that are designed for pour over coffee – the long, thin neck gives you excellent control over how you pour it.

First, boil the kettle. The water needs to be just off the boil so it doesn’t scorch the coffee.

Grind up your coffee to a medium-fine level – coarser than for an Aeropress but finer than for normal drip. You need around a heaped tablespoon per 12oz cup (the Chemex holds about 6 cups, so you would need 6-7tbsp to fill it.)

Put the filter paper in the dripper, and dampen the paper with a splash of hot water (this allows coffee to pass through the paper more easily). Spoon in the coffee grounds, and make a small dent in the mound of coffee. If using a Chemex, stand it on a heat proof mat. It is not hot enough to damage your tabletop if you don’t, but marble or granite surfaces can cool the pot too quickly you end up with cold coffee! Pour over drippers either have their own stand, or can sit on top of your mug.

Gently pour the boiled water into the centre of the coffee grounds in a circular motion, very slowly, little and often. The trick is to get the water on to the coffee without spreading it up the sides of the filter paper, so the coffee shouldn’t float. The water then drips through the paper into either the glass dome of the Chemex, or straight into your mug if you’re using a standard Pour Over brewer.

The coffee should “bloom” – as in, the mound of grounds should swell up and bubble nicely into a thick “slurry”when water is poured on it. If the coffee isn’t fresh, you will get less of a bloom effect. Let it dribble through over the space of about 3 minutes, and voila! The smoothest, freshest coffee you can produce!

Our fancy goose neck kettle and glass Hario dripper.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Doctor Coffee’s Cafe, Darlington

Posting these old ones, because a few Canadian coffee folk have been asking!

My first cafe, Darlington, UK, 2009-2011

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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My Life in Coffee

Time for some pretty pictures.
It occurs to me that I’ve been messing around in the coffee industry for six years now. I’ve had a lot of adventures and learned a huge amount. Coffee has taken me all over the place, from the Voodoo Cafe in Darlington in 2006 (where it all began in earnest), Durham for Caffe Nero in 2007, to Sheffield for the PhD for the next four and a half years, London for Caffe Culture and other research gigs on numerous occasions, then Ohio, and Guatemala City for conferences in 2010, six months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica for fieldwork in 2008-9, back to Darlington for my coffee van in 2009, Afternoon Tease in 2010, my first ever North East Coffee Festival and Doctor Coffee’s Cafe in 2011, and finally to Regina, Saskatchewan for 13th Ave Coffee House in 2012. Oh and my book is being published by a German publisher. It’s been quite a journey!

Here’s some highlights! These are in no particular order and there are a lot of them!

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Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Plans for 2011

First of all, I hope my dear reader(s) had a good Christmas and happy new year to all!
Second, apologies for the state of this post. I am trying to type it on my phone, that is, my brand new nokia E90. I know that this phone is at least 3 years old now, but it is still the best phone Nokia have ever made and I love it, and darling hubby has bought me a new one for christmas to replace the one that died a nasty death last summer. We are currently driving back from Shrewsbury to Darlington, Miranda is wailing, i am bored but it is dark and I can barely see the keyboard to type, and WordPress Mobile in all its infinite wisdom has rendered the New Post screen a whole 4cm wide for no fathomable reason.
But i digress.

I had a nice message from Simon at Pollards coffee roasters, saying “2011 will be the year of Afternoon Tease”. It kinda has to be really, but also it should be the year I really become an actual doctor of coffee. This means finishing the thesis, which in turn, means a helluva lot of work over the next few months. Intense planning is required.

One possible plan for the thesis is to build up a reputation in Afternoon Tease for good coffee to the extent the Coffee Geeks or glitterati or whatever they should be named; the barista champions, and gourmets and so on start visiting from afar. I could run off a few copies of the thesis with a vanity publisher and try and flog them in the cafe – I’d just need some major geeks and/or academics to come in because I’m sure no one else would be remotely interested!

In this spirit of all good research, I have adapted Gwilym Davies’  (Flat-cap-wearing 2009 World Barista champion, part of the aforementioned coffee glitteratti) idea of the ‘Disloyalty card’ – encouraging people to try out other *good* coffee venues in London on his list, just to get people experiencing excellent coffee. Darlington, in my opinion, does not have enough good coffee venues for this to work here, so instead I am introducing a Coffee Adventurer card – to get people to try drinks they wouldn’t normally have. I am going to do a Tea one too. After the customer tries all the different drinks, they get their favourite free. A bit like Bingo!

I feel pretty strongly that the thesis should not be the be-all and end-all of this PhD. I have absorbed so much, often trivial, information about coffee that it seems a waste (geddit?) not to use this knowledge. Some is being employed in the day to day running of the cafe (embodied knowledge) but I want to expand on that. I think, with a bit more practice, I could do barista training in the cafe. (knowledge sharing?) I know a few people (who I’ve met through my research) who do very well out of teaching people how to make coffee… May need to improve my latte art though.

A long term project is also to roast my own in there. Despite all my efforts, roasting is still the area of coffee I know least about. Off the top of my head, I’ve met and interviewed at least ten roasters, and I’ve seen it done all over the world. However, it is the sort of thing that can go wrong very easily and expensively, and no amount of sweet-talking “helpless-student” begging has resulted in me being let loose to play on the machines. This I see as a distinct deficiency; I need to learn. I was offered a very, very small shiny coffee roasting machine to borrow when we opened the cafe, just enough to fill the place with that fantastic aroma in the mornings. I had to turn it down at the time because we had no air vents to let smoke out of the back! But with a bit of forethought and the potential use of the empty rooms above the cafe, and some ducting, I reckon I could set it all up there eventually and roast my own Miranda blend!

Speaking of Miranda, the final plan, which is both long time and on-going is to set up her own little Penny University within Afternoon Tease. If all this goes well, Miri will effectively grow up in the place, and we were planning on home-schooling her for at least a year. In the cafe, she has Aunty Jo to teach her singing and writing, Aunty Tattoo.Jo to teach her to dance, me to teach her barista skills (needing a basic level of physics and chemistry to understand how the espresso machine works), cooking and baking, we can do coffee origin trips for geography and learning Spanish, she can learn IT through updating our website, her Daddy can teach her enough maths to do my accounts(!) and maybe even some physics and technology if we get the roasting machine up and running! Sorted. she’ll be fine. obviously.

Now all I’ve got to is get going with it all! Oh, and make some money in the process.

Happy 2011 peoples!

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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