Montreal wakes up and smells a new kind of coffee

Photo by Angela Mackenzie
Photo by Angela Mackenzie

During the first big snowfall of the year, the atmosphere inside a local cafe is warm and cozy. As people walk through the door, dusting snow from their coats, Jordan Crosthwaite smiles and greets them with a genuinely friendly hello. He seems to recognize nearly everyone who walks in the door, making small talk with ease. Crosthwaite is a barista at Odessa, one of Montreal’s newest specialty coffee shops.

Cafés like Odessa specialize in third wave coffee and have been popping up all over the city in recent years. They provide an experience that feels very different from what you would get in a Starbucks or Second Cup.

The decor in Odessa is modern and minimal but still feels homey. The bar, tables and stools are fashioned from dark wood with black trim. The white walls feature vintage photographs of ships and miniature models of boats. Soft music plays over the speakers as Crosthwaite gently wipes down the counter and begins to prepare a customer’s order.

If you’ve never thought of coffee as more than your morning caffeine fix to get through the day, then the concept of Third Wave might seem excessive. The term ‘third wave’ was coined more than a decade ago by food writers who needed to distinguish specialty coffee from the Starbucks craze, which focused on creating a European-inspired coffee culture. (The first wave, if you’re wondering, was the rise of mass coffee brands like Folgers and Maxwell House).

Third wave is recognized as being more about the coffee than the beverage. In other words, it’s more about the beans and the roast than whether it’s a latte or cappuccino. Popular American roasters and brewers such as Stumptown and Counter Culture have been credited with raising the profile of third wave coffee, with similar places taking off in Canada.

Crosthwaite’s passion for coffee is apparent. Leaning against the bar, he pauses for a moment when asked to summarize what this movement towards specialty coffee really means.

“Third wave coffee is about recognizing that coffee can taste really great,” he says. “It’s about bringing out all of the unique characteristics within different kinds of coffee, in ways that are respectful to all parts of the process: farming, roasting and brewing.”

Third wave cafés primarily focus on espresso, pour-over filter methods, and the siphon or vacuum pot method. Some dabble in cold brew — coffee brewed over ice or using a cold brew dripper, which is a fancy glass contraption that looks like something from a high-school chemistry lab. Myriade, one of the most well-known specialty cafés here in Montreal, invests a lot in their equipment which some say results in a better brew. Other cafés keep it simple; Falco in Montreal’s Mile-End, for example, uses only the siphon method.

Though third wave coffee places importance on growers and the relationship with those producers, Crosthwaite says the micro roasters are important too.

On the other side of town, Café Saint-Henri micro-torréfacteur (or micro-roaster) is the only third wave café in Montreal that roasts their beans in-house. The roasting machine is a big black contraption with a funnel at the top and a spinning cooling tray at the base. It is loud but even though the low hum reverberates throughout the cafe, none of the patrons seem to mind.

Simon St-Pierre is a roaster at the cafe. He explains that they work directly with the same small farmers from around the world, year after year.The farmers provide them with raw beans, which are essentially the seed from a cherry that has been dried out. In its raw form it is hard, acidic, bitter, and not usable. The roasting process dries moisture from the bean, causing chemical reactions that completely change the flavour. This way, farmers know they’re getting a good price. By getting their beans from small lots they also ensure that the coffee is as fresh as possible instead of sitting in a warehouse for many months. St. Pierre believes this is key for coffee to taste as good as it possibly can.

Back at Odessa, Crosthwaite makes a cup of coffee using the pour-over method. He sets a simple V60 cone over a mason jar and inserts a Japanese paper filter, wetting the filter first to avoid a paper taste in the coffee. He then picks up a round, silver canister filled with 22 grams of roasted Costa Rican coffee beans and grinds them to a fine sand.

Everything is done on a scale. Crosthwaite explains that he always works with the same ratio by weight — one part coffee to 16 parts water, which is gradually added in a specific amount to achieve an ideal extraction. He uses a goose-neck kettle and takes care to move in a circular motion to ensure an even and slow pour over the coffee bed. This kind of attention to detail is meant to ensure a better tasting brew.

But are quality and taste the real reason this trend in coffee culture is continuing to grow? David Szanto, a PhD candidate in gastronomy at Concordia, has been teaching a course called Encultured Eating since 2009. He thinks the appeal of third wave coffee might be more about self-branding and patterns of individual identity making, something that is happening across many consumer categories and through social media.

For some, it could be more about buying into the conversation around coffee than actually understanding what is happening in the mouth when they taste it.

“Some people pay attention to taste, some are paying attention to economics and social questions, some people are paying attention to the design or the built environment of the coffee places, but maybe it’s the overlap of all those things that allow something like third wave coffee to emerge,” he said.

Crosthwaite believes that what is happening with coffee is happening with just about everything we consume. People are paying more attention to where things come from and are having more conversations about why it is unique when it comes from a certain place.

He lights up when asked about the community growing around specialty coffee.

“I think we’ve got some fantastic baristas in Montreal who have invested in a local coffee scene here. There’s a pretty ingrained tradition of coffee culture in Montreal that is not third wave, but I think that’s changing now.”


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