Pilot Coffee's Dedication to Innovation

"It’s rewarding to see consumers become more interested in supply chains in many industries, not just coffee."

Half Canadian and half New Zealander, Toronto's Pilot Coffee has been at the front of the emerging coffee scene in Canada. The young company has cafes, distributes premium specialty coffee and recently launched its branded cold brew. Even though they wear many hats and are constantly questioning, researching and changing how they work with coffee, they were still nice enough to answer a few questions and help me learn more about their brand and about coffee.

What is your caffeinated drink of choice?

We’re really spoiled by the fact that we have the Tasting Bar at our roasting facility, it makes the morning ritual pretty special. The first coffee of the day is typically a cappuccino. It’s always smart to let the barista choose the espresso, they’re calibrating the grinders and pressure profiles so they know what’s tasting the best. The texture and sweetness of a cappuccino makes it a great morning drink.

The second coffee of the day will be a pourover of a single origin coffee that’s exciting and complex. First thing in the morning it’s hard to taste nuances in the cup and most baristas will tell you that toothpaste and coffee don’t get along very well. The second coffee of the day is the perfect opportunity to appreciate the full identity of a coffee and really dive into the experience.

How are you guys different from all the other coffee roasters in Canada?

Within the specialty industry we’re all working towards a similar end: more people drinking better coffee, more often. We’re proud to be a part of that initiative and we work hard to make sure that we are always improving.

One of the ways we contribute to this goal that we are most proud of, is being involved in all areas of the supply chain. We travel to origin to meet with producers and understand their practices as well as the unique challenges they face. We roast coffees from different parts of the world, different varietals, processing methods, and taste profiles that highlight the rich diversity of approach and result in specialty coffee. Finally, we work collaboratively with our wholesale partners to support the development of their coffee programs and their customers’ experiences. It’s always inspiring to see the level of detail and the commitment to quality that individuals in our industry bring to their work.

When and why did Pilot Coffee start roasting coffee?

Pilot started back in 2009 at a cafe called Te Aro on Queen St E. in Leslieville. The mission has always been to roast great coffee and work with great people. It’s a simple concept and one that we have stayed true to.

Pilot is about developing the culture of specialty coffee. We want to inspire people who are new to our industry by challenging their expectations of coffee without alienating them. We also want to push the boundaries of our own understanding and engage with people who are already passionate about the industry by sourcing unique and diverse offerings, proposing new concepts, and keeping the conversation around specialty coffee dynamic and exciting.

You guys have someone that is named Head of Innovation as well as a testing lab. What is one thing that you’ve learnt through your own research on coffee?

The spirit of the innovation department at Pilot is that investigation always leads to improvement. That to never take anything at face value, to always keep digging into key concepts and pushing further, will only lead to a better end result. In the last two years alone this has led us to review calibration, beverage strength, distribution, pressure profiling, volumetrics, and quality control.

One example that stands out is the work we did investigating the effect of stratification in coffee beverages on the perception of flavours. Stirring an espresso before drinking in order to mix the dissolved coffee solids for a more harmonious drinking experience was a familiar concept. By investigating stratification in espresso, drip, and immersion brewing methods we found a new understanding of something as basic as drinking coffee.

What makes the Modbar Espresso machine unique?

Modbar as a company shares our key values of quality and innovation. The boilers and pump are housed in a module separated from the grouphead and connected by hose. This allows the module to be installed below the counter and the taps to be the only part of the machine between the barista and customer, allowing for greater interaction and customer service. Multiple groups and steam taps can be configured in different ways, customized to the workflow of the bar. This makes Modbar incredibly versatile.

On the technical side, unlike a traditional machine that delivers a stable pump pressure, modules are equipped with variable pressure pumps allowing the barista to use pressure profiling (increasing and/or decreasing the pressure at which water is pushed through coffee) to change the extraction and strength of the beverage. It is also possible to customize the brew water temperature. These settings are saved in up to 15 profiles per module. All this to say that Modbar gives the barista incredible flexibility and control.

Direct Trade is a term that is used a lot these days. How would you define Direct Trade for Pilot Coffee Roasting?

If we’re hearing the term direct trade more that’s pretty exciting. It’s rewarding to see consumers become more interested in supply chains in many industries, not just coffee.

Direct Trade to us is about developing relationships that ensure we are staying true to our values. Going straight to the producers lets us select the highest quality coffee and we see firsthand the growing and working conditions at each farm, so we know exactly who we're buying from, and can be sure we're supporting sustainable and ethical practices. These relationships open up the lines of communication, allowing both the buyer and seller to understand each other's costs and agree on a price that reflects those realities. That translates into better prices for producers, and higher quality coffee for roasters. These coffees come in at prices quite a bit higher than Fair Trade and they're totally worth it.

Pilot Coffee Roasters regularly hosts tasting and educational events. What is the first thing that you teach new coffee amateurs in order to introduce them to the finer intricacies of coffee?

We always start with new enthusiasts with “Coffee Knowledge”, focusing on the dedication throughout the supply chain from seed to cup and the responsibility of baristas to honour that work. That’s what inspires us and it’s always an excellent starting point.

To get the most out of the brewing process, consistency may be the most important element to get right. Setting up a system that is repeatable allows us to track our results, understand the impact of changes to our method, and learn. If we can achieve the same result every time, then as we learn new techniques, use better equipment and improve our skills, we will get consistently better results.

Who currently inspires you in the world of coffee?

Globally there is such an amazing community of coffee professionals. We read as much as we can, which stimulates a lot of internal questions and investigation. It would be hard to pick, although Matt Perger’s Barista Hustle and James Hoffman’s jimseven both do a great job of providing their own insights as well as referring readers to other sources of information. It’s building an exciting network of online resources for coffee professionals and enthusiasts.

What current trend are you seeing in North America’s coffee industry?

We’ve long been proponents of cold brew coffee as a category of brewing in its own right. This is an increasingly popular way of drinking coffee and we were excited to launch our nitro cold brew cans this season. Over the last few years we’ve been developing our approach to cold brew and finding success in maintaining the coffee’s inherent qualities. This opens up the ability to have cold brew coffees that are distinctly different from each other and reflect our values as a roaster as well as highlights the attributes that make great coffees unique.

Thank you so much for doing this. Where can people learn more about your guys?

Thanks for asking, it’s been fun! We’re always sharing new stuff so stay in touch.

Website: pilotcoffeeroasters.com

Instagram: @pilotcoffee

[Editor's note: If you're a coffee nerd and like to learn about the science behind coffee, check out their blog for in depth information about all sorts of coffee related questions]

Like this article? Like coffee? Check out our travel mugs! They help reduce waste by eliminating the need for waxed papers cups and we give back 10% of our sales to support the development of poor rural coffee communities of Latin America.

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