Travel is essential

With all our talk of reciprocity and all our concerns like choosing the right kind of packaging so we impact the planet a little less, we have to confess, this indulgence is pretty much essential to what we do.

I’m talking about travel. And the reasons for it.

Steven travels a lot. Mauricio does some, too. I will soon join in. We travel, not only to spend time with the people we buy coffee from, but to experience coffee in other places. And most importantly, to listen to the stories. That context, that framework, is essential to what we do. The way people enjoy coffee in Beaumont, Alberta is vastly different from how people enjoy it in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It’s important for us to understand that. The more we get to know about the lives and habits of the people we do business with, ie. their stories, the more we can be of service to you. Steven is not new to this. He’s been involved in and with coffee his whole life. But there is always more to learn. Always more to taste. Always more people to meet.

I joke that I was born with a suitcase heart. I feel most at home when I’m away from home. Travel is my religion and airports are my sanctuaries. I’m stoked to be getting ready to visit the places we get our coffee from. I will be visiting the origins but for different reasons than most. A lot of people in the coffee business – especially those behind the counters – dream of visiting origin, but most do so to complete an equation. To check off a list. “Dude, that Panama you’re pulling… I’ve been there.” But, there’s not much after the flood of Instagram photos. That’s a story. But where’s the reciprocity?

I spent the winter testing audio and video gear, playing with different combinations of cameras and cages, microphones and modifiers, software and systems, tripods and techniques. I’ve tried to figure out the best way to work independently, travel lightly and avoid bringing attention to myself. I don’t necessarily want to make documentaries. I want to cross-pollinate narratives. I want to show you their stories. And show them yours.

Why? Because sharing our stories helps us move toward understanding. Toward contribution. Toward action. Toward reciprocity.

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
~Dan

Those who cannot do

They say, ‘those who cannot do, teach.’

That may be true, but it’s not what this post is about. This post is about people who do both. Teach, and do.

I qualify this by saying that I am more of a doer. I can teach, but I’m kinda lousy at it. I try hard. But I present out of order. Leave my students behind. Forget to mention key fundamentals. I’m just not that good in a classroom. I know. I spent a year in front of a whiteboard.

But I work with two individuals who are both skilled practitioners, dedicated to their craft, and really good in the classroom. Especially when the subject is coffee.

Steven Battle is like the Indiana Jones of coffee. His first hand knowledge of this entire planet along with all its fauna and flora, including people, is beyond impressive. His knowledge of coffee isn’t just encyclopedic, it’s alive. Ask him any question on the topic and he’ll answer you in a way you’ll understand, and in a way that will empower you to answer it for others. But it’s not just the knowledge. Or the DNA. It’s the doing. Constantly trying, testing, thinking. Trying again. Manipulating the science of ingredients and conditions, over and over, with the goal of reproducing a taste snapshot from his mind, in that cup, in your hand. Does he know it all? No. Will he one day? Probably not. But wherever he is on his journey, right this minute, he’ll be someplace new the next.

Mauricio Perez plays espresso machines like violins. And he plays them like he makes them. A little more of this note. A little less of that. And Maestro Mauricio can teach you how to pull a shot like Angelo Moriondo is hovering over your shoulder. He’s a champion barista. Now he judges them. But it’s never about him. Or even the student. It’s always about the coffee. It’s an unselfish path presented to anyone interested and all are welcome.

Next time you meet someone, anyone, who practices their craft with virtuosity, and can show you exactly how they do it, with pleasure… pay close attention. It’s a gift. And then think about how lucky you are if you choose to receive it.

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
~Dan

Reciprocity is the means…

This is this. That is that. When things are clearly defined, everyone knows where they stand. And the more subtle the situation, the greater the importance of definition. Differentiation is big to us.

Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. Battle Grounds is built on a model of reciprocity. For me, for years, the word ‘reciprocity’ lived in a dusty memory of boring history lessons, and an essay-test on the Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty of 1854. Yuk. But even back then I liked the way the word sounded.

When Steven told me Battle Grounds’ parent company’s name was, Coffea Reciproca, I did not, curiously enough, jump back in time to that classroom, but forward to the thought of what a business practice of reciprocity would mean. To me. To you. To us. But, here’s the thing: reciprocity itself is just a means, not an end. It’s a fine way to travel, a noble way to pack, but it’s not a place you can ever reach. What is the end, then, I had to ask? The end is equilibrium.

“Reciprocity is the means; equilibrium is the end.”

This whole point of all of this, this business, this coffee company, this supply chain wizardry, these relationships, this historicity of coffee generations, this demystifying process, this encouraging of ideas and doing and being, is, of course, to bring equilibrium to the market. The end, and the means, both justify each other. When everybody is #winning, we will have achieved our end.

#reciprocitywins

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
~Dan

What the heck are you doing here?

Last week, we asked and answered the question, “what the heck are we doing here?”

This week, we turn it around. What the heck are you doing here?

Here… literally, as in reading this blog post.

Are you in the coffee business? Are you a voluminous coffee consumer? Do you have trouble imagining life without coffee? Do you need coffee to function? Can you drink four cups of coffee right before bed and have zero trouble falling asleep? Have you recently tried specialty coffee and now you feel your life is ruined because you can’t drink mass commercial coffee anymore? Do you personally know Steven, Mauricio or me? I could type enough questions to turn this paragraph into an essay. The second most traded commodity in the world, justifiably, has a whole world of stories to share. But right now, I’m interested in just yours.

Are you old enough to remember when coffee shops became a thing? Do you remember the older generation scoffing at it. ‘Why would anyone pay money for a cup of coffee and sit in some little restaurant?’ they’d ask, “especially when you can make coffee at home.” (They usually meant instant coffee.) But I got it back then. Maybe you got it, too? Today, the coffee shop is one of the most ubiquitous fixtures of our modern landscape. I found myself driving not long ago and being aware that I had traveled far enough without seeing a coffee shop, that I became aware that I had not seen a coffee shop in quite some time. How strange is that? I’m guessing you may have experienced this, too.

So, basically, today, coffee is everywhere. The product and the market are mature. Which means enough time has passed to develop groups and sub-groups and, yes, even sub-sub-groups. Like in music. You might be part of one of these. Whatever kind of coffee you’re in to, you can probably find it and, if you’re inclined, order the right equipment to make it any way you please. In the comfort of your own home.

Or you can’t.

Maybe you’ve discovered this third wave trend and have recently tasted, nay, experienced, coffee prepared how it’s meant to be, and you’re no longer satisfied with what’s on the shelves of your local grocer. Maybe you’re part of the growing trend of home roasters. Heck, maybe you’ve gone out and purchased a small roaster, yourself. Maybe you’ve been roasting for some time and you’re thinking about roasting a little more and starting a small business. Maybe you’re now looking for green coffee from different parts of the world. Wherever you are, here you go.

Here you go with this coffee. Here you go with this blog. Here you go with the community you’re already, or going to be, part of. You are now the other side of this equation. The fact that you are reading this means you’ve been made aware of coffee in its many forms. A signature roast to compliment your favourite tastes? Green coffee that you can roast yourself? A list of coffee destinations worthy of a visit? Some think this coffee thing is over. I think it’s just getting started. And now it can be pretty much anything you want it to be.

What will it be? Answering that question… is what the heck you’re doing here.

(Comments are open on this one.)

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
~Dan

What the heck are we doing here?

Everybody told us, “coffee? isn’t that over? isn’t everyone doing coffee now-a-days?” and we said, “well, yes. but not how we’re going to do it.”

What were we even talking about?

As we dig into the world of importing and roasting coffee in small, sustainable amounts, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of players, large and small, and are forced, daily, to bend to the bullies of the marketplace. Not bullies by malice, bullies by sheer size. Because everyone needs to make margin. What does that mean? It means the cost of doing what we do will be exponentially higher because the margins within which we have to play are so narrow no mistakes can be made. So be it.

In this quickly maturing third wave coffee trend, in which we find ourselves, there’s still a place to belong. There’s still a way to enjoy coffee that does not come from a tattoo’d hipster with eyes the colour of the sea who just returned from a three-month shirtless hike through the Himalayas, and prepared in a café that costs more per square foot than the people who produce the coffee earn in a year. There’s no way this can continue. While there’s nothing wrong with the achievements of either the jetsetting hipster, nor the owners who built the fine cafe, how is this not just another unobtainable goal the market has dangled in front of us, our entire first world lives? Mark my words. We will see the eventual decline of this kind of consumerism. But what will arrive in its wake?

People have been cultivating, harvesting, preparing, drinking, and in some cases, enjoying coffee for centuries. But, if the fancy cafés disappear, coffee won’t. In that thought, is where we live.

Coffee without community, coffee without purpose, is as empty and shallow as a Louis Vuitton handbag you can’t afford to use lest it become damaged. But, coffee with community, coffee with a greater purpose, is like the very sacks it ships in – simple, utilitarian, perfectly designed for their purpose. Coffee needs to do its job just like coffee sacks do theirs. And coffee’s job is not to separate us, to make us feel small. it is to keep us together, safely transport us, and get us where we’re going in whatever form that takes.

In Ethiopia, coffee is consumed largely because it staves off appetite and helps people deal with their hunger. Coffee in Ethiopia is shared and prepared like life depends on it. And in a way it does. Likewise, here in the first world, when there is a community event, sporting event, wedding, business convention, coffee is always there. Without thought. To enjoy. To keep people awake, to caffeinate the stories we tell one another, when we reunite. And to go down one floor further, coffee can bring us together – even in Tim Horton’s universe. It’s a medium for sharing and caring and helping each other through this often confusing life. Who hasn’t smiled at the gesture of someone bringing them a cup of coffee? Even if it is from Timmy’s?

So… to do this with conscience, with conscientiousness, with respect, with attention to detail, with awareness, and yes, with love… that’s what the heck we’re doing here.

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
~Dan

The Roaster

Ken, Kerri & Steven

Part two.

So, this was the point of the whole trip: to pick up our little coffee roaster.

Steven had been telling me about this Artisan 6M fluid bed roaster from a company called Coffee Crafters in Liberty Lake, Washington for some time. I had imagined it like one of those big, gas monsters that look more like nineteenth century steam locomotives than appliances. “You mean it’ll fit in the back of la Bestia?” I asked. “It will,” Steven replied. We decided to break even on the shipping and pick it up in person, meet the owners of the company, and receive a little hands-on training. Glad we did. It’s a touchy little thing. And watching Kerri capably roast six pounds of coffee in under twelve minutes answered a thousand questions. They have some really good videos on their website, but when you can look over someone’s shoulder while they’re working, and they can explain things to you,  you can’t beat that. Before the batch was finished, Steven was on the dials.

This is where things became entertaining for me. Back in February I posted a meme on Instagram about how a seasoned practitioner with a lifetime of knowledge should be able to step up to a new tool and make beautiful things. Let me put this into perspective. The loft control is so sensitive that if you grip it too tight and breath wrong, you’ll send those hot little beans straight up through the exhaust. It’s a little like balancing a pencil vertically on the tip of your index finger.  Yeah. Like that.

Now, let me say, the 6M is a mighty little wonder. Capable of doing small batches for testing and profiling and once you get the hang of the manual controls, you can do things on it you can’t do by any other means. The level of control is so granular. Pair this puppy with a bluetooth thermometer and a program like this and you can make any kind of profile graph you can imagine. A little more loft at six minutes, hold for four then let them fall a bit and lower the heat. It’s insane. So simple it takes less than ten minutes to learn how to use it, yet a lifetime to master. So our hats are off to Ken Lathrop who invented this thing and to his major credit, used as many off-the-shelf parts as he could for all us DIY’ers and hackers. It was a pleasure to meet him in person. Thanks, also to the fabulous Kerri and the delightfully helpful, Anick. You guys and your little company rock.

It starts to snow. But, good, another coffee shack.

Who would buy a coffee shack sticker for $5 USD?

One more before we go.

Love these things.

We’re on our way home now. The snow starts to get heavier as we climb in elevation up and into the mountains and then back into Canada. By now it’s dark and the snow is coming down, wet and heavy, but the wiper blades are doing their job, and we brave companions of the road are keeping it under 60km and all is good. There’s a couple of cars ahead of us and a semi ahead of them. Then, about thirty outside of Fernie, we all come to an abrupt stop. Red tail lights for as far as we can see. We sit. We wait. Ten. Fifteen minutes. Then Steven gets out to see what’s happened. He comes back a few minutes later, climbs back into the truck. I wait for the story. There is none. I interrupt the rhythm of the wipers. “Bad?” I ask. Steven turns to me and nods. “Yes. It’s bad.”  I look in the side mirror. A young French-Canadian couple from the car behind us pass the time by building a 3-foot snowman. “Bonhomme de neige,” they say. We won’t ever know what happened that night, but it involved two people and it’s nearly two hours before we start moving again.

I add this detail because I think it’s important to always remember that while some are having moments of triumph, or success, or peace, or have just received good news, there are also some who are not. To be sensitive to and aware of how life, and in fact circumstances themselves, can at any time, turn on a dime, is to be fully alive in that moment.

Steven puts on some music.

We drive to Pincher Creek, buy some snacks, use the washroom and switch seats. Steven and I are the same height, so I don’t have to adjust anything. I bought one of those tall ice cold coffee energy drinks which tastes pretty good but it’s way too creamy and I’m going to be thirsty as soon as it’s done. I start telling stories. I have a lot of time so I get intricate with the details. The snow lightens up around Calgary. We refuel, use the washroom again, buy more snacks and a couple of hot coffee beverages from one of those fancy new machines in a Shell convenience store and try to make conversation with the clerk, who is about as responsive as an old diesel with burned out glow plugs in the middle of January in Winnipeg. Enough of that. We’re on our way. The trip from Calgary to Edmonton is both familiar and comforting. The snow has stopped. The highway is bare and dry. Steven grabs some zees. I ponder Battle Grounds as deep into the future as I can. And try to remember everything I have seen and learned this weekend.

We have our roaster.

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
2017.03.25
~Dan

Seattle

Never been.

So, the idea of a road trip from Edmonton to Seattle was right up my alley. Through the mountains. Across the border. Out to the coast. Coffee along the way. Coffee at the destination. Coffee as the purpose of the trip. You wouldn’t have to ask me twice.

Part 1, the trip.

It’s late February. Saturday. 4:00am comes early for most. Even earlier when your sleep is restless with excitement.

Steven picks me up in la Bestia. It’s too early for coffee shops, so we purchase our petrol, grab a couple of vanilla lattes from you know where and head west toward Jasper. Side note: Apart from a just-for-fun birthday lunch last year with two very dear friends, I hadn’t eaten or even been inside a McDonald’s since June of 1986. That’s thirty years. It still feels a bit strange to roll through the drive-thru, but I’m getting used to it. The lattes are okay because it’s five in the morning.

The road is a perfect place for conversation. It’s a type of sanctuary. No music for the first leg. By the time we reach Valemount, BC, we’re ready for a short stop. Steven once visited a gem of a little place, there. He wanted to introduce me to it. The Gathering Tree Eatery & Gift Shop is just off the beaten path, meaning mostly locals go there. My kind of place. A man brings in his daughter and 5 of her friends for some home-made hot chocolate. A couple of old men one table over make a joke about kids and sugar. Two women dressed like it’s Halloween, or like they play in a band – not sure which – sit near the front of the room, next to the windows. The light makes them look younger. Somebody puts on some music. Lively. Acoustic Folk. We order a couple of coffees. Steven has a breakfast burrito. I have a muffin. Everything smells wonderful. Then, over the course of our next 20 minutes, a whole cast of characters come and go. This is a treasure that’s all but gone now. I hold nothing against Tim Horton’s but the mass commercialization of our coffee and conversation – oh – never mind, let’s just say I get a little nostalgic for the luxury of the local.

Back to the road.

I have a digital recorder I take with me nearly everywhere I go. I have it running off to the side, and once everyone forgets about it, and gives up guarding their words, it captures every wonderful, candid line. Road conversations can be the best. Momentum frees the soul. You come up with the most amazing stuff, seemingly out of nowhere. Without distraction, these modern minds of ours can drift and tango, routine free.
I have the files to prove it.

More miles.

Merritt, BC has petrol and a Mary Brown’s Chicken franchise I’d always wanted to try. I find chicken can make a pretty good road food if you’re in for a bit of protein. The restaurant is clean and completely empty apart from the two benign zombies who mustered enough enthusiasm to tap the POS to start our order. Dipping sauce was good. Chicken actually not bad. We learned Mary is not a real person.

More coffee and convo and before you know it – how does 8 hours solid pass so quickly – we cross the border into the United States. I’ve noticed my whole life, crossing that border, anywhere along it, once you’re in the States, everything just looks and feels different. Flags on every dormer and gable. A heightened sense of place on every porch. Roads are better. Speed signs are imperial. Same language and similar ethnicities, but it feels like a completely different country. We drive. The scenery is comforting. And before we know it, we’re in Sammamish, Washington, a couple hours after dark.
It’s raining.
Of course, it’s raining.
Seattle.

Next day…

Coffee shacks. We were all about coffee shacks this trip, and the first one we visited was a winner! Sammamish Point Espresso. As typical as it gets for a coffee shack. If you’ve never seen one of these little wooden wonders, they’re basically slightly over-sized garden sheds, like you’d see behind the chain-link at a Home Depot, outfitted with an espresso machine and all the toys. Straight up drip, pour-overs, or coffee beverages, and if you’re lucky, a great barista, like Parker. She told us about the history of the place (26 years), where they bought their beans (Cafe Vida), other good coffee shops we should check out, pulled some espresso, made us some lattes, and then, with a big smile, told us to see what was in the passenger seat of her Jeep out back (a Pomeranian, of course). The coffee was fine but the experience was superb. (As a side note, together we came up with an XYZ graph to rate coffee experiences, where X-axis is coffee, Y-axis is conversation. Then, Parker suggested adding a Z-axis which would be the hotness of the barista, gender aside. We laughed.)

River Trail Roasters is one of the active entities we follow on social and we had to visit.

As soon as we walk in the door, we’re greeted by a wall of glass, behind which stands a lovely Diedrich roaster and a playful, impossibly clean, 1950’s blue, coffee bar.

We are treated to some Ethiopian pour-overs and while we enjoy the blueberry notes Steven chats up the roast master and manager, Ryan. They use Atlas coffee.

“Customer service is performance art.”

Steven explains the roasting process.

Driving in to Seattle.

It’s windy. The air smells like the sea. Seattle is everything everyone told me it would be, and then some. We make our way downtown, toward the Public Market and as we get closer, Steven says, “take a picture of that sign.” I do. He tells me it’ll mean something later. I get the shot.

Then, it finally hits me – I don’t know why it took me so long – Pike Place = Starbucks.  Of course! This is it. We’re here. The ground zero of third wave coffee. It’s no longer just the name on a bag of beans, I was about to see where it all began.

Now, say what you will about Starbucks – and believe me, I have – but, one day, do yourself a coffee-lovin’ favour and take a walk up Pike Place to Minor Avenue and find yourself in the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room. As grand as it gets in smiles and scale, the place is huge and the smell inside, utterly intoxicating.

  

You could spend a day, a week, a month in here, just trying different drinks and talking to baristas and watching roasters and every single employee in the place knows their stuff. So much coffee. So much care.

Salud!

All right! Think we were all coffee’d out? Nowhere close, mi amigos y amigas. Across the street we walk, to check out yet another swoony place. Victrola Roasters sits humbly to the east and offers a completely different vibe.

Kombucha on tap! Are you kidding? Two glasses, please!

Now, here’s where s**t gets strange, but strange in a good way. Steven and I are sitting at one of the community tables in the place, enjoying our kombucha and coffee when he shows me a photo on his phone. Then he nods in the direction behind me. I turn around and see a young woman who looks like the same person in the photo. Steven asks the young woman if he can show her the picture. She says, ‘yes’. Then smiles. The young woman is a relative of Steven’s. The young woman sitting across from us is named Lubo. A doppelganger for sure, but it turns out Lubo was just back from Costa Rica where she was doing some mission work and was staying in places familiar to Steven. I’m sure if they kept going, they would have won 6-degrees of Kevin Bacon. For those new to this site, Costa Rica is ground zero for Steven, Mauricio and most of the coffee we import. I love when the universe throws a hacky-sack of synchronicity into your circle.

One more coffee stop for the day, then back to our lovely hosts’ place for supper. Another well known entity: Slate Coffee Roasters.

Steven decides on a cafe de olla and I choose an iced coffee. Both are fantastic. The thing that strikes me in Seattle is how many of the places we visited have game. Serious game. The knowledge. The details. The coffee in the cup. So many different ways to do it right. How exciting?

Okay… stay tuned for Part 2 of this story… the roaster!

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
2017.03.18
~Dan

Here… is where we start

Okay… in a way… we’re starting this story half way in.

Here. Now. Take a snapshot: Steven Battle is driving a black, Chevy Suburban, affectionately known as ‘la bestia negra’ through the mountains on a snowy night with a six-pound fluid bed coffee roaster in the back, its glossy, red paint covered in old coffee sacks. I’m riding shotgun telling nonsensical stories while at the same time helping to keep an eye on the road. Our soundtrack is a playlist of Latino hits he knows by heart.

The trip to Seattle was taken, in part, to pick up the Artisan 6M roaster we bought from Coffee Crafters in Washington State’s Liberty Lake, and in part, to introduce me to the ground zero world of third wave coffee. What an introduction. Over the course of a long weekend, we had seen, smelled, talked and tasted coffee with an incredible cast of practitioners. Bliss. And here, now, we are driving back to Canada with our very own, very overdue, coffee roaster, ready to finally put down the last piece of a puzzle that has taken over forty years to complete.

In the great spirit of story-telling, we will use this blog to move the narrative timeline forward and back as it suits our purpose. We will document a journey, which will, hopefully, not end soon. We will share from where we’ve come, all that we’ve learned, what we know to be true, and whatever we happen to find, with the sole motivation of demystifying the second most traded commodity in the world. We will quietly wage a war against the ego, elitism, untruth and inequality of the business and attempt, with each step along the way, to restore dignity, inclusiveness, community and truth to this thing we hold so dearly in our cups.

Battle Grounds Coffee Co & Roastery
2017.02.27
~Dan