John Neate Jr opened JJ Bean Coffee's doors over 20 years ago. The family's history, however, reaches back into four generations of coffee exploration.
What's even more impressive is how they've managed to maintain exceptional quality and customer service while expanding to 20 locations across Canada.
We talk about the past, the present, brewing and the world's trickiest coffee to roast with Grady Buhler, Coffee Quality Leader at JJ Bean Coffee Roasters.
[Editor's note: What an awesome job title!]
How do you brew your own coffee in the morning and why?
At home I use either a Bonavita drip-brewer with a Baratza Encore grinder or a Bodum French Press with a Zassenhaus mill. Both are amazing and delicious but the former is convenient while the latter is ritualistic.
Are some coffees trickier to roast than others?
Coffees from Brazil are softer compared to most specialty coffees, so we have to be more careful controlling the heat and the timing. If not, then scorching can be a problem and ashy flavours develop even at lighter roasts. The Pacamara varietal is also tricky, owing to its large size and the porous structure of the beans. If you go too light you don’t get the creamy body it’s renowned for but go too dark and you lose the floral, fruity complexity.
JJ Bean in the field
You guys were presented to me as the instigators of specialty coffee roasting in Vancouver. Why so?
Simply because we were one of the firsts! We like to understand our place in the Vancouver coffee scene as taking the complex world of specialty coffee and making it accessible to everyone.
Every decision we make on roast colour, airflow, or anything else is still ultimately determined by taste.
How has coffee roasting evolved since 1996?
When JJ Bean started, Starbucks was the one to beat so we had countless secret blends of all descriptions and roast colors. Our goal was simply to roast coffee that was fresher and better tasting than Starbucks. Now there are a number of specialty roasters in Vancouver.
That competition has been really great. It prompted us to clarify who we are and what we’re about (honoring people through coffee). And that drives us to source and roast the best coffees we can get our hands on. Over the years we were able to focus in on what we’re really passionate about: serving people terroir-driven single origins and transparent espresso blends.
One thing that has never changed for us: we still make all of our roasting decisions based on how the coffee tastes in the cup. All our roasting theories, programs, profiling, charts, etc. are helpful but if it doesn’t taste right in the cup it doesn’t matter. Every decision we make on roast color, airflow, or anything else is still ultimately determined by taste.
JJ Bean now has over 20 locations, all of them with different designs. How do you ensure JJ Bean culture across all the cafes?
Maintaining our culture of honoring people through quality coffee is actually our top priority. We do a few things. The Senior Leadership Team (JJ, Jesse, and myself) spend most of our time in the cafes. When we open a new store, we like to have at least half of the staff be long-term employees who have been steeped in that culture for years. And we have an extensive and ongoing training program that helps to maintain our culture as well.
...we try to resist making changes based on what’s hot today because it won’t necessarily be hot tomorrow.
Who inspires you?
Lots of people inspire us! But the first thing that popped into my head was Le Crocodile, a French restaurant in downtown Vancouver. In an ever-changing, fad-driven restaurant industry, they continue to have customers and win awards because they know who they are and stick to their guns. They have simply been true to themselves through 30 years.
Specialty coffee is such a young industry and is very fad-driven. We’ve seen a lot of things come and go since 1996. The French press, for example, is the least cool way to brew coffee right now but we still use it because it’s essentially cupping on a larger scale. So we make sure that with every new development that comes along, we assess if it’s really good and only adopt it if it’s truly better. But we try to resist making changes based on what’s hot today because it won’t necessarily be hot tomorrow.
What are you thoughts on the future of coffee production and climate change? Has it already started to affect how you source coffee?
Coffee rust reaching plants at higher elevations over the last few years has been a little scary. It hasn’t significantly impacted our sourcing yet, in that we are still able to find many excellent coffees from every region but we’ll have to see what the future brings.
What is the hardest job in coffee?
The hardest job in coffee is customer service. Human relationships are everything in coffee, from farmer to exporter to us to customer. If the cup of coffee isn’t making a real person feel honoured or happy, what’s the point of all that work? There would be no coffee industry without our amazing customers and our incredible staff who serve them day in and day out.
Another peak inside the coffee
If you had to choose only one… which region would you source coffee from and why?
Guatemala. The incredible diversity of microclimates means diversity in cup profiles, all from just one country.
Thank you so much for doing this. Where can people learn more?
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