The first thing I see is the plaque. Shiny faux gold with "The San Franciscan" etched in old-fashioned circus script. The kind you might have seen over a saloon door back in the day. Only it's affixed to a black machine whose central feature is a drum. It looks like a piece of American heritage and it is — a coffee roaster from the eponymous company out of Carson, Nevada, known for solid craftsmanship and reliability.
"They have good customer support and you can get parts quickly. Plus it's a bit of a trend in roasters to go for older, more solid styles" advises Mat Peake.
Chrissy Hay, Mat's partner in Whistler's latest craft-food upstart, Hammer Coffee Roasting, insists that such machines also bring a unique physics to the task. "Construction affects the roasting chemistry," she says, and I know I'm in for a lesson.
I've met the pair in a Function Junction kitchen lined with stainless steel stoves and fridges, where the San Franciscan stands out like an iron thumb. The space is a co-commissary where Whistler Farmers' Market vendors like Hammer can prepare and store things. Mat and Chrissy have scheduled themselves in to roast coffee here weekly since wintertime, when they'd huddled in down coats, adjusting roast temperatures to compensate for the lack of heating.
"Temperature affects chemistry, too," says Chrissy.
Indeed coffee roasting is about knowing how to push and pull each different bean's specific chemistry in certain directions. Like wine, you're dealing with acid and sugar profiles, with amino acids and flavour compounds thrown in — some 500 of them. You might learn this through apprenticing. Maybe from a textbook. Ultimately there'll be voodoo involved. Certainly a laptop, like the one where a graph plots the course through heat conduction, convection and cooling that the beans will follow.
"Two major reactions happen in roasting," Chrissy notes. "Light- to medium-styles take the beans to the first one. Dark roasts go to the second; the trick is to maintain the sugar and sweetness in a full-bodied coffee without burning it. A lot of people who come to our market stall say they only drink medium-roast coffees, but I tell them they've probably been put off by carbon left in the bean and get them to try our dark roast. They're usually pleasantly surprised."
Chrissy was a dental assistant looking for a career change. Living in the Kootenays she stumbled across Nelson's Oso Negro Coffee, impressed with what Jon Meyer was doing and the growing B.C. coffee culture. "When I was younger, the one thing I always got to do with my mom was have coffee. I always loved that coffee is a time for people to visit, relax, connect."
She started roasting on a Whirley Pop — a stovetop popcorn maker — to learn the process. Friends gave feedback.
Mat is from Australia, and so they spent some time Down Under before returning to B.C. and moving back to Whistler in 2013, where they'd first met in 1999.
Renting in Alpine, Chrissy roasted small batches on the deck, launching a coffee club for friends and family. "It was intense. I'd roast from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and have all these yogurt tubs full of different beans. But a pound took two hours to produce, and sometimes it caught fire... the economics weren't great."
When they bought into WHA housing, it was either stop or buy a real roaster to keep their coffee club going. Enter the San Franciscan. It was Hammer time. "It's a very iterative business where no two weeks are the same," notes Mat of their small-scale approach. "We want it to be a sustainable, long-play thing, not a rocket ship."
"We're happy just selling to locals. People working hard to stay here deserve yummy coffee in their home at an affordable price," says Chrissy, adding that their beans come from West Coast Coffee Traders, who carry only ethically sourced products. "We roast and pack on Fridays, people order on our Facebook page, and we deliver that night."
Having tasted a coffee porter of near perfection under the Hammer label the day before at Coast Mountain Brewing, I had to stop at Chrissy's market stall and say, "So you're that coffee!"
Chrissy filled me in on the collaboration. "After roasting we'd go have a beer. We'd be going over our roasting profiles on the computer and (owner) Kevin would look in, and we'd talk to his wife Ange at the bar about coffee. One day she said, 'You know, we're looking for a local coffee roaster to make a beer with'... So we brought over a pound of single-origin Brazil and said, 'Let's do it!'"
They found themselves standing atop of one of CMB's 1,700-litre tanks pouring in cold-brewed coffee. Their taste buds were shot so they had to rely on the tastes of CMB staff, who urged them to keep pouring. In the end, 95 litres of Hammer's best went into the brew.
In chemistry, I've learned, this is known as titration.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.