JJ Bean Coffee Quality Taster and staff-betokened 'renaissance' man, Grady Buhler on the importance of variety, terroir, & processing in getting their espresso just right.

Tracy: So starting out, I would love to know how one becomes a coffee quality taster, and if you can go into a bit of personal history on that? 


Grady: Um, batteries of sensory tests. No, but for me I didn't start out wanting to be a coffee taster - that came later. I started out just working in one of our cafes as a barista, and wasn't really into coffee. Back then we had three stores and now we have sixteen; that was twelve years ago. I started working behind the counter and I remember very clearly my first time tasting espresso. It was in a coffee training by the guy who had my job at the time, who now works at Ethical Bean. I had never tasted espresso before so I had my first shot of espresso and I was just floored. Absolutely floored by the complexity - that it didn't just taste like coffee, it had all kinds of complex aromas and flavours. 


And you could tell right then? 


Well I knew that I was interested in it. I didn't know where it was going to take me, but I knew that I was fascinated by it. And then from there I just continued to work hard at my job and they finally let me touch the espresso machine and I started making drinks. I then made a number of trips to Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco - you know, ten years ago Seattle was like a Mecca for coffee,  so you know you would go down there just to check out what they were doing. And then a couple years ago JJ (the boss here) said: "You should go for your Q grader." This is kind of the tasting certification that allows one to give coffee a grade or a score. So I went out for that in Montreal and took the tests, and fortunately passed. 


So why in Montreal? 


Well you can take it in Vermont and a handful of other places in the States, but in Canada, Montreal is the only place you can go for it. 


So, I mean obviously I love the coffee here more than most places (Starbucks or Allegro for example) because it's just so rich with flavour. But I could never single out specific notes or flavours in my espresso. Is it similar to wine in that you can taste essences of dark cherry, or you can taste oak? And is that a development or would you need to have that ability from the beginning?


Well I think it's certainly a learned skill. And it has to do with tasting as many different types of coffee as you can. So you're kind of building up a flavour library -- an aroma library in your brain. And your brain starts to recognize certain things. So when you taste, for example, in certain Kenyan coffees there's a black currant flavour that often appears. So you know if you've tasted 30 Kenyan coffees, you begin to recognize: "Oh this has that black currant flavour." But yes, it's about exposure really. And then there are different ways, I mean during the Q grader test there are aroma vials and you have to, kind of memorize the difference between caramel and vanilla - things that are very close to one another, you have to learn how to differentiate between those two. But it's - I think anyone that has an interest in it and who's willing to, you know, experience as much coffee (or wine) as possible, it's kind of a learned skill. 


And so does it have a whole lot to do with the roasting process or - as you mentioned with the Kenyan beans - more so the region? 


That's a huge question, and people will debate on it. There are three major factors at origin - I would say - before the coffee gets to us. Before we roast, before we see it, there are three kind of major factors that contribute to the inherent flavour of the coffee. So one is the variety - or the varietal - of the plant. So just like with wine, when you buy wine you're usually buying grape varieties right? You're buying chardonnay, you're buying pinot noir. But with coffee there are coffee varieties. Bourbon, or Typica, or Caturra - there are a number of different varieties. And they all have unique flavour characteristics, but they express themselves differently depending on where they are grown. So that second factor is terroir. You know, we've borrowed that term from French wine culture and anglicized it. But that just means anything to do with a sense of place. So the soil type, the elevation, the amount of rain, the amount of sun, the humidity, the temperature of the air; anything to do with a sense of place. So that variety of coffee is expressing itself uniquely in a very unique environment. So that's another factor - for example, a Bourbon variety that's grown in Huehuetenango in Guatemala is going to taste different than a Bourbon that's grown in Rwanda. But they're going to share certain characteristics because they're the same variety, does that make sense? 


For sure. 


It's like a Pinot Noir grown in Oregon versus Burgundy. So you've got the variety, you've got the terroir, and then there's the processing. Processing is how you go from a fruit to a dried seed that's ready for roasting. That whole process is called, well, processing. There are number of different ways that that can happen and each of those methods produce different flavours in the cup. So before the coffee even gets to us, it's loaded with inherent flavour. And we see our job as a roaster to basically uncover those flavours. So that's our primary job - to uncover origin characteristics, and then to also make the coffee balanced and drinkable. Those are the two things we're trying to do.


And trying not to burn the beans might be the obvious other one - So how would you find that balance? Preserving the inherent qualities and not roasting them out?


Lots of tasting! Each coffee has kind of a magic point where it shines the best. If you go a little bit too light you're going to miss it and you're going to have, kind of astringent, grassy, very sour flavours. And if you go just a hair too dark, you're going to introduce this kind of carbon, over-roasting of the flavours. So it's a lot of trial and error to get it right. 


Which of course makes sense when testing the quality of anything. So you go around to all of the JJ cafes to test the baristas' coffee knowledge at varying degrees throughout their time here, and I notice you're always on the other side of the counter, interacting also with the customers. Is that sort of community aspect of your job very important to you? 


Oh I love it. Absolutely. I mean what I'm doing is - when you see me in the different cafes - is usually training or evaluating the staff. So we have four different levels of training that our staff go through. When I'm in the stores I'm usually doing an evaluation. If we're just sitting and chatting it's usually just the first level where I'm asking them questions about the company: how many stores we have, how long we've been around; that kind of thing. But that's my favourite part of the job. 

Yes, I see why. Community and connection are very important to me; as a political writer first learning about the problems in the world, and then later trying to understand how best to solve them, it increasingly seems to be an answer of trust, connection, and community that combats a lot of injustice. So going into the more political nature of coffee, do you often go down to South America or other coffee regions to meet bean farmers?


Yeah certainly - every couple years we go down to meet as many producers as we can. So I was there last March - we went to Guatemala. Mostly Guatemala because there are a number of farms that we buy from: Finca El Injerto, Finca La Providencia, and there's an organic co-op that we work with as well, yeah. 


That comes up often when talking coffee - for the farmers to feel connected to the actual people in North America that are buying from them. And so obviously that must be important to you? And do you see that they really value that? To meet you and have you come down?


Yeah they value that a great deal, and we, I mean we feel very honoured that we get to be at the actual spot where the coffee is being produced. So it's kind of a two-way thing. They want to show us what they do, and we really want to see it. But I want to be careful not to claim too much that we work with farmers to produce this coffee, because we really don't work with the farmers. They know what they're doing. And a lot of times I find, you know - I don't want to criticize anybody else - but just to be very clear that we're not saving anyone and we're not teaching anyone. I'm not an agronomist, I'm not a farmer, I'm a roaster. See, the producers would never, ever assume to tell me how to roast the coffee. So I'm not going to tell them how to grow it. So - you know? - so the relationship is very important. But we're careful to honour the farmers and give them credit for what they do - because they're doing it. 


Yes, just to do down there - as a roaster and a taster - you would want to know how it's grown, just to view it and see the process -- 


-- Oh yeah, yeah definitely. It's important in the sense that you want to communicate that with others: why the coffee tastes the way it does. And it's important to understand, say, that denser beans are gown at higher elevations and so are more concentrated and have more acidity. That's important for me to know, but ultimately it's important to know because we want to pass that information along to our customers so that they have more of a connection to the place where the coffee is grown. Coffee is one of those very special things that you can taste a place in a flavour you know - wine's like that too. So when you're tasting, for example coffee from Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia, no other coffee in the world tastes like that. You're tasting an origin. So that's what we want to communicate and we want to honour that. We want to honour the producers by, first of all, roasting the coffee in the best way that we know how, and then also to give them credit for the work that they're doing. And telling their story, you know - that Arturo grew this, or that Tulio grew this coffee, and giving them credit because they're working really hard to produce the coffee that we're roasting. The really quality producers, they are very proud of their work, and I think just like anyone - they want to be recognized for their work and we want to make sure that they're recognized too. 


And very glad that they do. So do you get into wines much? 




So are you a sommelier as well?


I'm not a -- well I'm a certified French wine scholar [laughs]. So that's not even close to being a sommelier but yes I do love wine as well, yeah.


And food - do you cook much? 


Yeah I love food, but you know, people ask me if I'm a foodie and that's a very complex question for me, and it has a lot to do with JJ bean. I mean we're very careful as a company, and this holds true to me personally as well, that our reason for existing is to honour people. And we use coffee as a means to that end. So we don't see it as an end-goal in itself, as if coffee is something to be worshiped, you know - to us that's kind of idolatry. So we're very passionate about coffee but we're always conscious of the fact that people are more important than coffee and that we're willing to sacrifice our standards of coffee in order to honour someone, to make someone happy. So for example if -- one of our standards is we don't - well we're very exacting in terms of the volume of our espresso - never, ever over two ounces. But if one of our customers asks for a four ounce espresso, or a double, or a long espresso, we'll do that for them. Because it's not about us, it's about them, right? Or about cream in their coffee - we don't look down on people if they want to put cream in their coffee. Because it's not my coffee - I'm not the one who's going to be drinking it, they're going to be drinking it. So if they - it's like asking for salt at a restaurant and the restaurant saying no. 


I see what you mean, you can't get offended --


-- Right yeah. So why we exist is to honour people and we do that through the best possible coffee, nice spaces, good food, and the service. And that's the way I feel about everything in my life is that, you know I love food, but I don't like eating alone. If I'm not sharing it with someone then it's kind of, well it's not as special. I feel the same way about wine, you know I love French wine especially. But to me the most exciting part of it is having a bottle with my wife and talking about the day. That's what's special.

And that's what food should be about. I find in North America we've, you know, in the last ten or so years, we've really sped it up. And I do like this movement - this cultural swing of going back. Going back to the farms, going back to cooking from the most basic of ingredients - really slowing it down again. I'm reading this wonderful book called The Third Plate by Dan Barber - hugely popular voice on organic farming - and he talks about that idea. It should be making a night of the meal rather than a side to the TV episode - you know, the concept of getting back to the table. 

Yeah, yeah that's awesome stuff. I think we tend to isolate things a lot in our culture. So we look at an item of food isolated and we say, okay look at this foie gras and we objectively look at it and rate it to see: Is this thing good? But then that way it's not in its intended context. And I think we do the same thing with coffee - we'll judge a coffee on if it's good or if it's bad. But what about how coffee fits into our lifestyle - is it for the morning or for after dinner? What's its purpose - what's its intended purpose? And again we see coffee as a means to an end, and we use it for a greater purpose other than just itself. It points to - it's almost like a sacrament - it points to something greater than itself. And that's how I feel about coffee here. Yes we strive for the best quality, but recognizing that if we don't always get it perfect, then that's ok. Because its about so much more than getting that one thing perfect. It's about how people are treated; it's about our staff and our farmers, the whole thing - even how we treat our competitors. You know, are we fair with our competitors? Do we speak well of them instead of criticizing them? That's all part of it.


Using each other to learn from - to grow the coffee culture along side of, rather than compete against, one another?




I was going to ask you this too - likely because I'm reading that book on farming practices - but do you really value the organic process? Do you value not using pesticides, and not using genetically modified seeds and what have you. Is that something you want to see in the world having met so many farmers? And what might the farmers you've met think about it if you feel you can comment on their behalf.. 


Um, yes. But I say that with hesitation because it can be a much more complicated question. You know -- well there's a problem right now especially in Central America with leaf rust which is devastating coffee plants and it doesn't respond to - I mean there's copper sulphate - but a lot of times a producer will be faced with the choice of: Do I want to continue farming organic and loose my farm, my livelihood, and my family? Or do I want to start using some pesticides and keep my farm. So that's a much more difficult decision when it comes down to time pressures. And there's organic which is great, but there are also other certifications like Rainforest Alliance which tries to use, you know, the pesticides and fertilizers that are the best for the land and for the environment. And using practices like using worms to break down the cherry to use as fertilizer. So it's more complex than just saying organic or non-organic. 


Yes - it's misleading to put all the focus on the certification. USDA approved or not. When it really comes down to farmers simply caring about their land - understanding the soil composition and the microorganisms within that soil that are helpful to the plant - not just spraying away thoughtlessly with no imminent problem. As you mentioned, there are other ways to solve the smaller-scale problem which still respect the land.


Yeah, absolutely. I mean most of the farms that I've been to, they make sure that they're planting trees, they use shade in a very specific way. They're planting macadamia nuts and other things in the farm to add to the success of the plant but it's less of either strictly certified organic, or conventional. It's more of a question of how do I keep my farm and not have it decimated by leaf rust. But also honouring the environment at the same time. And they have to navigate a way through that, that is best for what they do. So it gets more complex than the organic certification, that's right. 


So what is leaf rust?


It's a disease that attacks the roots and it turns the trees into skeletons - just destroys them. Just kills the trees. So if you're in Guatemala on one side of the road there might be a farmer that's - or in El Salvador for example - that's fought the leaf rust and they'll have a lush green farm, and on the other side the farmer has said: Oh it'll be fine, and they haven't done anything and all their trees are dead. So you know, yes organic is important, but if I was a producer I think I'd have -- well they're just faced with tougher questions than our consumer choices, you know? As consumers we think we can just go to Whole Foods and buy organic - but for them it's just a bigger issue. 


I think the people who do really care about the idea behind this term "organic", is less so for themselves, and more because of the respect to the eco-systems and microorganisms within the soil that are vital to the health and nutrient density of it to farm with - and you know, the run-off of pesticides into the water sources affecting the quality of the groundwater, and the process of vapour drift that can harm volatile species in the area. And in respect to the farmers not having these powerful entities, you know, big agro, coming in and saying "you have to spray our chemicals". But I see what you mean with understanding the problem from an income mindset, of that being all they have to provide for their family.. and the vulnerability of that position. 


Yeah totally - agreed. But yeah it's their life. I mean in terms of certifications - "Fair Trade" is one of those complex questions that is just part of the answer. Certified Fair Trade represents kind of the minimum. It's not the final solution - it's important but its ..


I've heard of Fair Trade, but I've also heard of Direct Trade. What do they each mean from your standpoint?


Well Direct Trade - there's no official definition of what Direct Trade is. But when a roaster says Direct Trade, they're implying that there's some kind of relationship with the farmer. We don't use the term Direct Trade because even though we do buy from a number of farmers direct (we negotiate the price with them, and we buy directly from them) there are still so many hands in the process, in the journey. You know we're not an exporter, and neither is the producer, so we have to use an exporter. Everyone does. We have to move the coffee, and I mean there's a whole bunch of -- it has to go to the dry mill - there are so many steps from the seed to the cup and I guess we just don't want to make it sound like --


-- like you're literally carrying home the coffee in a sac over your shoulder..


Yeah I'm not handing the farmer a wad of cash and he's not handing me the sacs of coffee, and I'm not putting it on my own ship. It just doesn't work that way. It's the same way with - there's a lot of romancing around "finding" the best coffee. Sometimes that sounds like, you know, people are in the jungle with a machete, just happening upon these farms, and it's just not like that. It's more like: "Hey Ricardo, can I get that sample?" - we're sending an email. [laughs] And yes it's important to go and see it and upkeep that relationship, but it's .. yeah.


You're not getting every bean in the palm of your hand. 


No, no [laughs] 


So will you normally do some research on a company in, say, a specific region then call them up and they kind of go: "Hey we'd love to work with you", or .. ? 


Well at this stage, most of the time people want to sell us coffee, so we get sent samples every week from producers, and from green coffee buyers, and from all kinds of people. And we don't just have one buying model. We have a number of different buying models and they all work really well for all of us. So sometimes there are fewer steps and sometimes there are more steps, but they all work, you know?


Do you get to choose who does the importing or drying, or some of the other steps? 


Sometimes, but not all of the time. There's no way that we can have complete control over all of that. I mean the top thing for us is the quality of the coffee. If the quality is there in the cup, we're willing to pay a lot of money for it, and that's really what it comes down to. And then, if one year we're noticing: "Wow this farmer is producing exceptional coffee year after year," we'll make an effort to, you know, make the relationship closer and maybe do a three year contract instead of just basing it on once a year, or whatever. So there are ongoing longer term relationships, but those things take time. And it's -- you can't just land on the farm and tell the farmer: "This is the way it's going to be". They don't know us from Adam, right? So it needs to be a relationship of trust that builds up over a number of years. So I guess you have to be careful not to market based on being the saviours of the world. We do the best we can, but we're not saving the world - we're a coffee roaster. We try to do the best we can in all of our dealings, we try to honour people, from the producer to the customer, and at the end of the day, the best cup wins.


Absolutely. Some of my close friends went down to South America and they found this tiny little coffee shop that didn't have to-go cups. Their motto was that you have to take time and truly sit and enjoy the coffee there, in a mug. What I like about JJ Bean is that very often I hear "Do you want it for here or to-go?" They don't just habitually make every single person's coffee in a paper cup thoughtlessly. They ask. Because it's horrendous to see a whole coffee shop filled with people sitting inside, all with to-go cups, and then the garbage filled to the brim with to-go cups. The cups didn't even go anywhere, so why not let them use a mug if they're staying?


Yeah it's important to us. And yeah we want to make coffee an event as much as possible, not just, you know, gulping it down in your car on your way to work. It should be an event in itself - if the customer wants that. If they don't, we're not going to force them to have an experience on our terms, right? Which is the other side of it.


Definitely. Not everyone has the time. I forget that if you can work from a coffee shop, you must remember not everyone else can. Well I'll end our conversation here, so thank you for your time Grady, and I'm glad we got to chat - I've learned a lot about coffee!


Yes thank you, likewise.

Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.