By BJ Oudman

Calgary cafe Baya Rica latte
A latte at Baya Rica Cafe in Bridgeland.
Photo by BJ Oudman

Canadians love their coffee. With Tim Hortons being one of our most recognized national brands, and the right to claim the third-most Starbucks stores per capita in the world (2017), we are a nation of java junkies. The more discerning drinkers are often dedicated to local, independent establishments. And then there are the truly obsessive: those who not only roast, but also cross borders to grow, their own beans.

Joan and Randy Coleman describe themselves as unconventional. Moving from Vancouver Island, where they lived a 100-metre lifestyle (they had a vast garden and a couple of cows), to Calgary and renovating a home that Joan wanted to “make feel like a comfortable place where the coffee was always on,” they were developing the blueprint for a life yet undefined. Randy headed to Costa Rica for a wedding in 2005 and fell in love, vowing to find a reason to someday return for good. After scouring online ads for three years, he took another field trip and returned with four options for Joan as places they could grow “something” to create some passive income for future retirement. Given the fact that the couple fell in love over coffee in Toronto years prior, the resulting decision seemed destined.

In 2012, they took the plunge and purchased 16 hectares of land on the slope of the highest mountain on the Nicoya peninsula. The land was already planted with Costa Rica 95, a bean that most locals grow in their garden, which have no export value. They ripped out all those plantings, met with local university and research groups and planted all the varieties that had great taste but, in theory, were not ideal  for that specific region. “When people ask ‘why?’ we say ‘why not’ – they call us visionaries,” chuckles Joan. In 2013, the couple opened Baya Rica Coffee in Bridgeland, where they use their own beans, as well as those purchased from farmers they know (all from Costa Rica, except for two Ethiopian beans). The neighbourhood cafe also sells snacks ranging from muffins to burritos, and is licensed, with a quiet, west-facing patio where you can enjoy a plantation-to-table brew.

So why go to the trouble of growing their own beans? Joan says the reasons are twofold. One was simple — to give them reason to eventually move to Costa Rica, with a source of income. The second is “to be involved in the kind of impact on the world you want, to control the watershed, protect disappearing species of flora and fauna and to just generally protect the environment.”

Calgary coffee cafe Phil & Sebastian survey their coffee plot in Honduras
Calgary coffee cafe owners Phil  Robertson and  Sebastian
Sztabzyb survey their coffee plot in Honduras
Photo courtesy of Phil & Sebastian

Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb followed the complete opposite route. Building up an established and popular brand name as an independent café, they expanded their coffee empire from the Calgary Farmers Market in 2007 into, currently, seven Phil & Sebastian locations throughout Calgary. Quality was important to them from the get-go, and they worked directly with farmers to control the beans they were importing. Their science backgrounds  pushed them to another level when they purchased four acres of land in Honduras in 2017, not for the bean supply itself (the land’s yield will be less than 1% of their stores’ annual rate of consumption), but for the purpose of R & D. The decision to get their hands dirty came down to affordability.

“It’s a two-step process. First, acquire the land and try things out on the agricultural side to understand the root cause of quality, what factors can we control in the field instead of just being reactive to nature. We can afford to fail at our own cost rather than having our farmers take those risks,” explains Sebastian. The second step is to set up their own processing, using science and technology not affordable to the average farmer. Their eye is on eventually forming larger partnerships and developing bigger projects. “We want to unite farmers in different countries to create a ‘super farm,’ sharing what we learn for the ultimate goal of consistent quality.”

Coffee farmers in rural nicaragua wrestle with a truck stuck in the mud

Coffee farmers in rural Nicaragua wrestle with a truck stuck in the mud. Photo courtesy of Rob Oudman

Rob and Leslee Oudman (full disclosure: Rob is my brother) grow beans in Nicaragua for a completely different reason.  Born and raised in Taber, Alberta, Rob took over the family farm in 1988. He replanted most of the land with potatoes and built up North Paddock Farms before handing those reigns to his daughter in 2013. He had been working with farmers in Nicaragua, teaching them methodology to grow viable bean and sorghum crops through an agricultural project called La Semilla (The Seed), when he recognized a greater need in the impoverished country. “I just love farming,” he says. “I use my common sense and the local agronomists fine- tune the details.”

Committed to being as self-sustaining as possible, Rob bought an abandoned coffee plantation in 2015, pruning to salvage what he could and planting an additional 8,500 plants over three years. The resulting coffee, called Casa De Mi Padre, is currently sold by pre-order on the couple’s Facebook page (RobLesleeOudman), but with Rob’s vision of expansion, he has sent samples to independent roasters with the goal of larger-scale export.  All proceeds go directly to a seniors care facility (El Dulce Refugio, or “sweet refuge”) and a community/child development centre that provides clean water, health services and education – all built and maintained by the Oudmans’ Casa de mi Padre Foundation.

All these Calgary coffee pioneers have followed their passion in the pursuit of something better: better product, better for the environment, better for the world…and a better cup of coffee.

SIDEBAR: Upping Your Coffee Game at Home

Savour Calgary supporters Cappuccino King and Eight Ounce Coffee both sell equipment to improve your home coffee experience, ranging from a variety of espresso machines and accessories to locally roasted coffee.

Eager to take it even further? Try roasting your own green beans at home. Start with simple frying pan or popcorn machine methods before graduating to a small home roasting device.

Instead of a wine tasting, organize a morning cupping party , giving your guests a variety of coffees to try and discuss. Brew small amounts of coffee using a cup or bowl, coarsely ground coffee, and hot water. There’s no filter and no device – just the coffee immersion brewing in a cup. The best part: you don’t need a designated driver!