An Interview with Matchstick Coffee Roasters

We at the Facing Page are passionate about our coffee and in our celebration of Vancouver’s emergence as a serious player in world’s coffee culture scene. To continue our look at Vancouver’s best coffee shops, we’ve chosen to highlight the cafe/roastery Matchstick. Matchstick started roasting their own coffee in order to to serve the best possible coffee – a goal they’re constantly striving for. A cafe with a strong sense community, they’re approachable and knowledgable and are willing to share a great deal with those who are interested and passionate. While a little off the beaten path up at Fraser and Kingsway, Matchstick is one of Vancouver’s finest coffee destinations, and we were lucky enough to have a chance to head out and have a chat with them over an excellent cup of one of their more recent roasting runs.

So just to start can you give a little bit of background on Matchstick?

Aaron: We all have a background in coffee. Myself, Spencer and Annie have all worked in coffee shops. Spencer for a long time, myself and Annie for a while as well. We just started chatting – we’ve worked together before in various capacities – about what our perfect coffee company would look like. So we just started scheming ways to maybe start making that a reality. Maybe we’ll get there one day.

Spencer: We all wanted to make a go of it, wanted to make it a career, and there weren’t a ton of different avenues. We wanted to dive in both feet first and with coffee that means starting your own thing. There’ve been some shifts in the coffee world that we wanted to be a part of that weren’t yet in Vancouver. The idea of really getting back to the coffee and less of the extras like flavouring, extra sizes, was really driving us and is the story we want to tell.

Did Matchstick start with the idea of wanting to open a roastery as well, or was it just the cafe at first?

A: When we first started talking about it, it was more just having a drink and having a theoretical conversations

S: Wouldn’t it be nice one day if…

A: Like would you do this, or would you do this? It started initially as conversations about a cafe.

S: But it didn’t take too long to get to the idea of the roastery.

A: I think all of us, especially Spencer and myself, are very much perfectionists. Annie is the hospitable one, the one that manages to keep us loveable. But we couldn’t really fathom doing this without doing the roasting as well. It’s part of what interests us and excites us and pushes our vision of coffee.

It’s interesting to see you actually taking that step. A lot of coffee shops that have similar mindsets seem to never have the extra drive to go that extra step.

A: Looking back from where we are now you can see why. It’s a tricky process. It costs a lot more to get into it and start it up. And it adds huge logistical issues and stress as well. We have really high expectations of ourselves and we really want our coffee to be the best it can be. So that’s a whole other side of things we have to obsess about. We had seen it, in Vancouver there isn’t a ton of it, but in other cities like Portland, San Francisco. I was in San Francisco when I started to really see the roaster/cafe concept and thought about how it could maybe work in Vancouver.

S: Yeah, and I saw the same sort of thing in Portland. It’s similar I guess to beer – you can’t really conceive of a great craft beer without a ton of people brewing. Even though they’re all committed to the craft they all have different interpretations. And there’s always that push to keep being better. We don’t really see as much of that in Vancouver. There are a few bigger places and bigger cafes that have been doing a good job, but they didn’t really gain the same momentum as we’ve seen in other places. I think it really does something for the culture as well. We wanted to come in and say look what coffee can do, and look what we can bring to it. We try to do it the best that we can, we just offer up what we see to be the best.

Where there any other places that gave much inspiration for this?

A: Concept wise, it came from the micro-roaster scene from the West-Cost states. There are so many great little roasters in that area. Design wise we have some specific design inspiration but also had to make-do with the space around us. Having a giant concrete wall in the middle of the space was just part of the cards we were dealt.

How did you come to choose this particular space? It does seem a little out-of-the-way.

A: We looked hard for a long time, Spencer in particular was looking really hard for a long time. Pounded a lot of pavement. We looked at a number of neighbourhoods, we certainly don’t think this couldn’t exist in a ton of other places in the city. At the end of the day though, we all live in East Van, I actually used to live literally 10 meters away, just a stones throw. There’s a real gap on Fraser for good coffee. There’s no real coffee between Commercial Drive and Main Street and there are a ton of really neat interesting people around here. It’s one where people have real imagination and creativity. Rather than knock an old house down they’ll fix them up and do cool stuff with them. We really like the neighbourhood as a place. This street here is one of the most unique in the city. It’s such a unique urban environment. The little park there, it kinda creates this slowed down space within a really busy intersection. It’s unique. We saw a gap here, we wanted to fill it. And the right space eventually came up.

As the conversation turns to the particular coffees we’re drinking, the sourcing of the beans seems to be an appropriate question.

How do you go about choosing which regions and particular farms you’ll get your beans from?

S: Flip a coin..

So just close your eyes and pin the tail on the roaster?

A: Yeah, exactly. No – the global network for discovering and maintaining small lots of coffee has really exploded over the last ten years. Before the conventional way of doing it was really tough: the small producers would deliver their coffee to one mill which would put it all in one big pot before grading it for size and density and then it would be sent out to big bulk lots. This happened all over the place in all sorts of different countries. It’s come down to a much more minute level now to keep batches separated. We’re just getting to the point now where we can offer a small level of selections of different counties and different coffee. It wouldn’t make a ton of sense for us to be travelling though, but there’s a few different places that do a really good job helping small roasters like us develop connections. We’re so small to start that we don’t really have a ton of connections with individual roasters.

S: We just send in an idea of what we’re looking for and we’re sent back a bunch of samples, but at the end of the day we’re just sticking with what tastes the best. Coffee can come from somewhere very famous, a spot or producer, but at the end of the day if it doesn’t taste awesome it’s not worth carrying.

A: We’re building some relationships now, but those relationships change and grow as we do or as the roasters do. We’re interested in doing the best job with the roastery as we can. What that means to us is that we’re going to be pushing ourselves to achieve a higher level of quality. If it gets to the point that we need to take another step in our relationship with a roaster to improve quality then we’ll take it. That’s the stage we’re at.

S: We don’t totally need that yet. One of the biggest advantages of dealing with smaller quantities is that you really get to pick and choose everything. With the lots we buy, we can buy three bags of coffee and that’s fine but with most roasters that won’t even be one full roast. By necessity that might one day have to grow for us, but at this scale we’re really able to be picky with what we’re choosing. That’s part of why we want to work with a smaller roastery. It’s a sort of purchasing power.

A: It’s kinda the opposite of purchasing power. It’s a different kind of purchasing power. We can say no to pretty well anything.

S: There has to be a good name for that…

A: The ability to not purchase? Non purchasing power?

Can you give us a bit of background about the story behind opening up a roastery, how many hoops do you have to get through to get to this point?

S: Blood sweat and tears. Lots of concrete saws. Band-aids.

A: I think at the heart of it, just wanting it so badly you’re willing to take on so much and push through. There’s no real guarantees at all here, there’s no knowing if this is going to succeed or if things will work out. You just do your best to make everything line up the best it can. And it doesn’t, but you try anyway. I think the passion for coffee informed the way we build and designed this space, it’s set out for that. We spent hours and hours putting together equipment lists and floor plans. It’s just all because we care about coffee – that’s the heartbeat. The story behind it is really just why we got into it. We wanted to create the best coffee environment, the best roastery that we possibly could, and what would that look like? What’s stopping us? Get that out of the way and then do it?

Is there anything in particular that really sets Matchstick apart among roasters?

A: Unique is interesting in this industry because there are lots of people in the industry that really care. At the end of the day, we kinda tear the whole thing down each week and then try to re-build it. Constant roast profiling is I guess what sets us apart from most roasters.

Can you quickly explain what roast profiling is?

A: Essentially it’s the premise that no two coffees are the same and each require a unique temperature and time profile for roasting. Different airflow and various other things. Roasting, tasting, evaluating, then making adjustments to those profiles, to then accentuate or highlight different parts of the coffee and to find the way that the coffee tastes best. Once we’ve continually refined that process for the bean, or at least continually getting better and better, that’s the roast profiling.

S: When we have a brand new coffee we can maybe hit 95% of the potential. For most that’s great, or that’s good enough. But it’s willing to care for that next 5%, or 4%, or 2% or even that last 1% to make it better. That takes a ton of extra time and effort and even capital, but we think that’s worth it. For most it’s too much hassle. To say what sets us apart, I think that there aren’t that many that are willing to push and push until you feel the coffee is 100% – which you can never really reach, is what is important. You can never get there, but it keeps you pushing.

In terms of customer education and explaining a little more about the different coffees, is there anything Matchstick tries to do?

S: The way we’ve designed the space and the way we’ve structured the company, it kind of speaks to that. We opened a roastery in a cafe that has no doors. So you can come and see and watch it happening. With our bakery you can see our bakers baking the food right in front of you. There’s no display case with refrigerated saran wrapped paninis from a few days ago. We wanted to tell people where their food was coming from and involve them in the process. The coffee is the culminating point of that. In my opinion the way we brew coffee here, with a Chemex filter, is the best way of doing it. It’s what I do at home, I think it’s what tastes best, that’s what we do. Again, we’re showing that right in front of you. You can see our dose, you can see our technique, you can see everything. That’s something we want to share with people.

A: I think we all have a bit of an educator in us. But the idea is mostly just to remove the veil. We’ve build an environment where hopefully it’s ok for people to ask questions. People will sometimes ask ‘is that a heating plate the Chemex is on?” “No, it’s actually a scale.” “Why would you need a scale?” And then you have a conversation about the coffee. Same with the roastery: “Is that a big coffee grinder?” “No, that’s actually the coffee roaster. These are green coffee beans, this is coffee.” Removing the veil and taking away the blinders, that’s our form of education.

S: Also just expecting more from coffee and trying to show people that it’s okay to expect more from your coffee. It opens up those questions. Rather than treating coffee as something that tastes bad and should be fixed with flavorings, when you move beyond that you open up the prospect of discussion.

Recently you’ve started to sell your coffee a bit more around Vancouver, how do you choose and vet the places you’re selling in?

S: In a sentence, we want to work with people that do things really well.

A: Sometimes it’s a cafe, sometimes its’ a restaurant. Care and passion for quality translate into everything else. People who do coffee well are people we want to participate with. We’re always looking for those sort of opportunities. We don’t want to try to sit all high and mighty, it’s nice when people want to work with us and use us as a resource and want to make better coffee. We’re so lucky in Vancouver that there are so many places like that. Across Canada too even.

In terms of Vancouver coffee culture, it’s moving away a bit from the Starbucks culture to more of an educated customer base. Is that something you’ve seen?

A: We have an amazing coffee culture in this city. We’re not surprised at all when someone comes in and really cares about what’s going into their cup of coffee. We certainly still see people who are taken aback by this sort of cafe, but they’re not really scared, I guess they’re ready for it. I mean sometimes people will try it and it’s just not for them, they’d rather something simpler or easier – but most of our customers are really engaged and excited. We’re a culture that are pretty thoughtful and want to know whats going into our bodies.

S: Coffee is a great entry point to that too. It’s sort of the most affordable luxury. So anyone who wants to kinda be a foodie – coffee makes a great starting point. You might as well learn about it. The price you can get some of the best coffees in the world for is amazing. That low barrier to entry gets people quite excited about it too. Our premium coffee would still cost less than a venti drink at Starbucks, and has the same amount of caffeine. It’s just about what you care about? Do you really want to drink a half litre of whatever that’ll last three hours, or do you want to get into the coffee. Coffee is actually pretty healthy when you’re not adding in all kinds of crap.

You’ve built all this up in a very short amount of time, are there any plans for expansion here? Can you see Matchstick growing or is this more what you want?

S: Kinda both. We don’t have plans to take over the world, but if we can move forward while keeping quality at the forefront there’s no philosophical barriers to expanding.

A: At the end of the day we just want things to be really good. We could open another cafe, or two cafes, and maintain that philosophy, there’d be no reason why we wouldn’t.

Right – so if I were to ask where you’d see Matchstick in 5 years?

S: Definitely another cafe into the mix.

In Vancouver?

S: Unless we can go to Mars by then. Probably, keep it close to home. This is where our lives are. I think we’d rather work with new cafes starting out in other cities and supply them rather than move to other places ourselves. That’s a great way for us to move around and have a bit of diversity. Supplying other cafes is a nice way to do that. Thus far we’ve started supplying a couple of cafes in Kamloops and Kelowna. Still pretty close to home, nothing in Korea yet, but we’ll see.

Stock question – if you were stuck in Vancouver outside Matchstick where would you go for a coffee?

A: On Commercial Drive, probably Bump-N-Grind. Along Broadway probably Elysian Coffee, if I’m downtown probably Revolver. Those would be my three. If I’m stuck in Gibsons.. TIm Hortons. I think this coffee really does have some great cafes, so it’s not set to those few. We’d try new places too.

Perfect – thanks very much guys. We look forward to seeing where things go from here.

– CK | AP

Matchstick Cafe and Roastery |639 E 15 Avewww.matchstickcoffee.com

7am – 6pm Daily

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One thought on “An Interview with Matchstick Coffee Roasters

  1. Pingback: Eight Things You May Have Missed This Week: | the facing page

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