Should roasters freeze their coffee? That's the quick turn that our conversation took as I started to chat with Phil from Phil & Sebastian.
According to Phil, there's one big elephant in the room that every roaster is ignoring: the quality of the coffee that roasters are receiving is almost always inferior to the coffee they cup on location. In addition to the time and shipping, the poor processing techniques tend to fade the quality of coffee quickly.
It's something that everybody knows, yet no one seems to be addressing the problem. It has simply been accepted by the industry. Phil & Sebastian, however, are not interested in letting this pass.
Over the past two years, they’ve invested in several farms to help producers improve their green coffee processing and they’ve been particularly focused on helping them dry and protect the coffee beans. They’ve even invested in temperature-controlled containers to manage and monitor the environment of the green coffee while they travel across the globe.
Recently, Phil & Sebastian has taken their efforts one step further. They’ve started to freeze the coffee beans. Now, before certain batches of their coffee is roasted, they rest in a freezer instead of in a warehouse. The increase in quality and longevity has been substantial.
It does require additional investment from the roaster but according to Phil, the cost is worth it for Phil & Sebastian. When customers are paying top dollar to buy specialty grade coffee, it’s only natural that the coffee is as good as it can be.
To Phil’s knowledge, almost no other roaster has followed this path. Specialty-coffee pioneer George Howell is one of the few exceptions. It really does feels like the coffee gatekeepers have accepted this conundrum.
Phil and Sebastian at their Simmons Location
With such a strong start to our discussion, I knew I was in for a treat for this interview. Phil did not disappoint or shy away from the difficult questions.
Phil, why are you guys moving to a new location?
We’ve recently moved into our Simmons Location. It is now home to our headquarters, roaster and one of our state-of-the-art cafés.
One of the main features at this place is getting our roastery out and into the view of the public. We wanted people to be able to watch the roasting process and follow the journey from beans to coffee.
How do you brew your coffee at home? Do you even brew your coffee at home or do you simply have coffee once you arrive at work?
I definitely have coffee at home, almost every day. I’m an Aeropress guy. I also use my home water filtration system (which is something I strongly believe in for quality coffee) and a Baratza Virtuoso.
Why the Aeropress specifically?
Pour overs are beholden to gravity. The Aeropress starts with the full immersion of the coffee grounds. This way, you can really control the extraction. I like that control.
Pour overs are still loved though!
What are Phidgets and how do they help you roast better beans?
Phidget is a Calgary based company with international reach. They’re cool guys.
Phidgets are customizable blocks of hardware that help us measure and capture data. They’re the backbone of our new roaster. Among (many) other things, we measure airflow and temperature. The Phidgets allow us to record profiles and to reproduce the exact same settings again and again.
What is your favorite brewing or roasting equipment?
Well, it’s the roasting machine that I have been building for the last several years. It has the chassis of a 1961 G45 Probat. It’s heavily modified. The combustion chamber is new and so is the electrical system. It’s kind of my baby.
Who drinks more coffee, you or Sebastian?
Probably me but we’re pretty close.
Do any coffee roasters or coffee shops inspire you?
Back in the day, I would have to say, Geoff Watts. I’ve actually had the chance to hang out with him recently too. He’s the green coffee buyer and one of the co-owners at Intelligentsia Coffee.
Today, from a business point of view, I would have to say the Coffee Collective Co from Denmark. I love their approach and the care they take to building a responsible business. One glimpse at their website and you know without a doubt that: a) They’re actually out there on the field, testing, sourcing and working with farmers and b) They know coffee.
Now, from a coffee quality point of view, I’d have to say Tim Wendelboe from Oslo, Norway. He’s an experimenter. And similar to us, when he sees a problem he doesn’t accept it, he tries to solve it. He recently bought a farm and is learning to grow organic coffee from scratch in order to further understand everything he can about coffee.
If a coffee aficionado wants to purchase coffee responsibly, how would you propose they navigate the market, especially with all the different certifications and “Direct Trade?”
It's become tricky. Part of the problem is that Direct Trade is undefined. There are definitely roasters doing eco-tourism and calling it Direct Trade. Is visiting the roster one time or two times to examine the farmer’s work really helping anyone? Do these people understand farming before providing their input?
What farmers need are support and stability. We've been working with farmers through multi-year contracts and we’ve had the opportunity to get to know the farmers, their families, their communities and their farms. Through this relationship, we've really raised the quality of the coffee together.
By sticking with our farmers, we're truly working towards a mutually beneficial long-term goal. Truth is, the quality of our coffee might have suffered a few times because of this engagement. But we don’t ditch our partners if one batch isn’t perfect. Instead, we figure out the problem, fix it and move forward. It’s been a big time and financial investment but today we can proudly say that we have the best coffee we’ve ever had.
Returning to the questions. The short answer: there is not an easy way. You need to read about the company. You need to send them an e-mail. Did they invest? Do they repeat their purchases? You need to do some homework.
How do you see the future of coffee in regards to climate change?
There’s no question that climate change is affecting coffee. Many coffee regions need specific weather patterns to harvest their plants. When that weather changes, even by one or two degrees, the consequences can be disastrous. The increase of coffee leaf rust occurrences is a great example.
What is coffee leaf rust?
Coffee leaf rust is a fungus that looks like rust and that covers the coffee plants. Once the plants are covered, they don’t receive enough sun to properly activate photosynthesis. In the end, it doesn't grow as well, it’s not as healthy and it doesn’t ripen as much. Widespread coffee leaf rust can lead to farmers having to cut their plants off at the stem. It can take up to four years for the plants to get back to a harvestable size.
But this, for now, is mostly preventable. I believe the key to the future of quality coffee lies in the genetics, along with good farming practices and good control.
Thank you so much for your time. Where can people learn more about Phil & Sebastian?
At any of our locations or
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/philsebastiancoffee/
On Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/philandseb/
On our website: https://www.philsebastian.com/
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