What’s special about Hamilton’s coffee scene? An in-depth look at the Hamilton Coffee Festival and the cafes it celebrates

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Wes Griffin and Josh Southern’s friendship began over coffee.

Griffin, a local barista, and Southern, a programmer, discussed their common interests in their shared professions and passions while seated next to each other at The Cannon Coffee Company.

Fast forward through many café conversations later and the pair began to discuss how to bring their love for the local coffee industry to more people.

On March 5 their months of planning were realized.

Over 1,000 people crowded the Spice Factory for the inaugural Hamilton Coffee Fair, where they were treated to a latte art competition, brewing demos, workshops and free drinks from 14 local coffee vendors.

IMG_9904The event showcased specialty coffee, which is distinct from its larger, corporate counterpart in that it sources and roasts its beans from small batch farms and roasters.

Direct trade and sustainable farming practices are standard, and while it is a more expensive product, it also produces a richer, complex drinking experience that contrasts the fast food, utilitarian reputation that the beverage has been more commonly associated with in North American markets.

After his introduction to local offerings, Southern was hooked.

He wanted to share the experience with more people, and so he and Griffin designed the event to dismantle some of the elusiveness of the local industry with a free entry event.

“That’s always been my long term goal. It’s to grow this [coffee market], because I think it is a better value proposition overall versus the commodity coffee market… I’m completely convinced that as soon as people become aware, they know, they taste, and they experience a coffee shop… they will [immediately] understand how valuable it is,” said Southern.

Griffin has a personal stake in promoting local coffee culture. While he is currently behind the bar at Finch on Locke, he has aspirations to propel his career deeper into the café scene: barista competitions, Aeropress Coffee Maker championships and maybe, someday, a café of his own.

“It’s kind of hard to leave Hamilton. I just love this city. I guess it depends on at what point I decide to do my own thing and whether Hamilton will be the right place to do it at that time,” he said.

The surprise festival attendance numbers prove that a significant number of Hamiltonians are willing to support their favourite cafés and try out new places. Moreover, the event’s latte art competition piqued the interest of baristas from Toronto, Niagara and Vancouver.

People are looking to create a coffee scene in Hamilton that can rival any other major Canadian city, but with its own communal twist.

Smalls Coffee hosted latte art and home brewing classes. Durand Coffee has hosted a coffee documentary screening and tasting session. Café Oranje participated in a Victorian Christmas evening. Mulberry Street Coffeehouse hosted hundreds of live music nights.

Cafés thrive on their ability to transform into an open, integrated space in their neighbourhood.

As Ark + Anchor Espresso Bar owner and former Toronto barista Patrick Guilbault sees it, this malleability has been a significant part of his content with his new home and business.

Why Hamilton?

Guilbault has now been employed in the coffee industry for 12 years, starting at a Mississauga Starbucks and eventually making his way to Ezra’s Pound in Toronto. After running training and protocol for five and a half years, Guilbault could not realistically ask for higher wages from his employer. The only way to make more money in the coffee industry was to either to take another job in late night food and beverage or to open a place with his partner Yigi Chang.

IMG_9902 copyThey initially looked in Toronto, but as many other young people have discovered, they would have to take on another business partner if they could afford viable real estate in the city.

“Friends of ours moved to Hamilton in late 2013 early 2014… We knew we would be comfortable in a city they chose to live in. Every time we came to visit they really curated the experience,” explained Guilbault. “The quhttps://www.thesil.ca/wp-admin/upload.phpality of the real estate compared to what we could get in Toronto for the same price was, you know, it wasn’t comparable. It didn’t make any sense to stay in Toronto when this was available.”

In the months leading to Ark + Anchor’s October 2015 open, Guilbault noted that there was a lot of local interest in every new business that was popping up.

“There was a lot of excitement about new places in Hamilton. Not to say that there still isn’t, but it felt like everyone was paying attention to what was opening and who was opening. Everyone would be talking to each other on Twitter and Instagram, asking how renovations [were] going… It feels like we hit a point sometime last year where everyone accepted the boom was happening.”

The enthusiasm for a new spot for specialty coffee was there, but what Guilbault and Chang found even more notable was their ability to open up their space for local hobbyists.

“It’s kind of hard to leave Hamilton. I just love this city. I guess it depends on at what point I decide to do my own thing and whether Hamilton will be the right place to do it at the time”
Wes Griffin
Barista, Finch on Locke

After their opening, they quickly got to know regulars with common interests in science fiction novels and tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder.

By Jan. 2016, they had launched the Ship’s Log science fiction book club, followed by Drop n’ Dice in May and a community library in June.

“Coffee shops, especially in Hamilton, seem to foster a certain amount of getting to know each other so that customers don’t feel like they have to wait for us to suggest ideas for events or put on things,” said Guilbault.

“At Ezra’s, because we were so close to the subway station, it really did feel like we were just part two of three of getting to work for people. Here… we get to interact with at the very least dozens if not close to hundreds of people a day who all have roots here, or have moved here and are settling down roots, it feels more interactive and communal than just the mechanical process of coming and getting coffee.”

The future of coffee and local business

The Hamilton Coffee Fair put a spotlight on not only local businesses, but the many familiar faces that fuel the city each day. While the communal aspect was emphasized, it is unclear whether or not Hamilton’s coffee industry can maintain that communal appeal as more residents move to new downtown apartments and condos.

“We’re extremely lucky in that Yigi and I are able to be behind the counter every day. I think our biggest challenge is going to be maintaining that over time because I really do feel like… part of the success we’ve had is every regular knowing that they’re going to see at least one of us. We’re going to make your coffee, we’re going to chat, and then you get to carry on with your day,” said Guilbault.

Ark + Anchor’s location was chosen because it sits right across from an apartment tower development on the corner of King and Queen Streets. Guilbault estimates that the new building could bring up to 300 people to their front door.

“The question is do we stay what we are now for the people who have already come here, or do we start to make more concessions for a large group of people who are going be moving in? Deciding where we want to be on that line is going be the next big thing for us.”

For coffee enthusiasts like Southern, and for potential business owners like Griffin, the promise of a bigger consumer base for a young speciality industry brings promise.

For business owners, it means a potential change in strategy.

The success of Hamilton Coffee Fair wasn’t just in the number of attendees after all. Over 100 “coffee passports” were sold which give customers 14 free drinks of their choosing from each of the sponsored coffee shops.

“Here… we get to interact with at the very least dozens if not close to hundreds of people a day who all have roots here”
Patrick Gullnault
Owner, Ark+Anchor Espresso Bar 

A larger number of customers will inevitably demand some revisions to the close-knit appearance of these locales, and a potential life style change for those who have opted to run café’s by themselves.

But there is still opportunity for Hamilton cafés to maintain their unique, communal vibe even as they face inevitable changes.

The Hamilton Coffee Fair can hopefully evolve into an annual event that not only outdoes the success of its first year, but also can transition into an annual celebration of local coffee shops, and the communities they fuel.

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Author: Daniel Arauz

Daniel Arauz is a fourth year philosophy student, connoisseur of Hamilton’s food scene and avid napper. Daniel has made many contributions to the Silhouette as News Staff Reporter, Features Reporter and two time Arts & Culture Editor. He has introduced Culinary Class Acts and Power Hour, where he plays cliché 80s music that starts and ends with "Total Eclipse of the Heart."