JAVA BLEND - The Story of Halifax’s Original Coffee Roasters
If you’ve never been to Java Blend Coffee Roasters on North Street, you need to know that they serve up perfect espresso but that the café is so popular with both been-there-forever north enders and hipsters alike that you can’t always get a table (but the wait for a seat is worth it).
Regulars know that when you need the washroom, you have to go out back, walking through the area where they roast the beans. The second you open the door that separates the café and roastery, your olfactory receptors get slapped hard by rich coffee aroma so strong it makes your brain buzz. Then you see the beans roasting, the sacks of coffee piled up everywhere and you know that these guys are the real deal. This is coffee at its freshest and best, and you can’t get enough of it.
This year, the north end fixture celebrates seventy-five years in business. These days the place is run by Jim Dikaios, and it is as artisan an operation as you’d find in any major city in Canada. Dikaios has accompanied suppliers on trips to meet farmers in Ethiopia, Guatamala and Costa Rica; choosing which coffees to feature is a process akin to that used by distillers of fine whiskies. Before Dikaios took an interest in the family business, operations were functional but you wouldn’t exactly call them artisanal.
Getting a Taste for It All
Dikaios was eleven years old when his father bought the business from Mr. Sedaris in 1971, and he just carried on running things the way they’d been going since the business started in 1938. “Mr. Sedaris taught my father how to roast, and he showed me how to roast and I thought that’s the way we roasted,” says Dikaios. “My father dealt with one broker in Montreal that supplied coffee. He would call and say, ‘I need five bags of Colombian, a couple of bags of Brazilian and a bag of Mexican.’ The coffee would arrive, we’d fire it in the roaster and sell it. That was it.”
With no interest whatsoever in following in his father’s footsteps, Dikaios studied marine biology at Dalhousie University but says he was fortunate to get a job with the Department of Fisheries during his first summer at university that changed his mind. “I was doing lobster research on fishing boats,” he says, “and after two summers I said, ‘I don’t think this is the way I want to spend my life.’ But I still didn’t have any intention of getting into the business.” He switched his major to business, then went to Europe for six months, came home not knowing what to do, then started working at Java Blend with no intention of really getting into the family business.
Dikaios admits to knowing very little about coffee back then and says his education came when the internet became popular. But the real eye-opener happened at a Specialty Coffee Association of America trade show sixteen years ago in Boston. “I met a bunch of other roasters, importers and even producers,” he says. “I’d never met a producer before. It just grew from there.”
These days Dikaios deals with eight different importers, each of whom specializes in a different geographic area. And although he uses those suppliers because they only offer him high quality beans, each coffee is blind taste-tested by Dikaios and his staff before he actually buys it. At any time, you’ll only find seven or eight single origin coffees for sale at Java Blend, but each has been carefully selected from the dozens of samples Dikaios receives from suppliers every time he expresses an interest in buying beans from a region.
“We’ll tell a couple of our suppliers that we are looking for a certain coffee, then they’ll send as many as twelve different types to test,” he says. “We sample-roast the beans, smell the grounds first to evaluate, then add hot water. And usually three of us will go down the line tasting the coffees, giving it points for body, acidity, aftertaste and score up to 100. Lots of times now I can taste a coffee and say, ‘This is an 85 point coffee or this is a 90 point coffee.’ It took me a long time to get to that point, though.”
The sampling is a ritual Dikaios enjoys, no matter how many times he does it. “We put it in a cupping bowl, let it steep for about four minutes, you sip it, slurp it inside your mouth to get the flavours all over your tongue and the back of your mouth, then spit it out. Cupping is great because you’re always looking for a real gem.”
Many of the samples are rejected, and not because they are bad, but because Java Blend only stocks what Dikaios considers to be spectacular. He explains that there is a coffee for every market, and recalls a conversation he had at a trade show with someone regarding the many shipping containers of coffee that were submerged during Hurricane Katrina.
“I said, ‘What happened to it?’ He said, ‘There’s a market for every kind of coffee. Prisoners need to drink coffee too.’ There is a market—it’s just not our market.”
Building Relationships for Better Coffee
Although the majority of the coffee at Java Blend comes through an importer, that is usually the only person between the coffee producer and roaster. So by maintaining good relationships and having a keen and genuine interest in what they do, Dikaios gets to have more control over the coffee he buys.
He has been on several trips with his importers, “tagging along” to Ethiopia and Coast Rica last year, where he toured farms and met with producers. Different regions produce coffee at different levels, and these trips have shown Dikaios how much variance there is in the industry.
“I had this image in my head of a coffee producer that was based on Juan Valdez, a farmer with his mule whose image was on every bag of Colombian coffee,” says Dikaios. “He was a marketing campaign from the Colombian Coffee Federation, and that was my image of a coffee farmer and producer. My travelling to these places wasn’t about going to find the best coffee that nobody else has; it was about meeting the farmers and seeing how the coffee was grown and having a better understanding. It was all about relationships.”
In Ethiopia, he toured small farms that might only produce between one and three 150-pound bags of coffee a year, which they then sell to the local mill. He’s also visited plantations in Guatemala that are so big they have a church and school for the community of farmers who work there. Interestingly, when Dikaios bought coffee from that plantation in Guatemala he found out that one of the producers studied in Ontario and had a school teacher friend there. “When we got the first batch of coffee and roasted a bunch, we sent it over to her friend’s school to sell as a fundraiser,” he says. “The money raised went to help run the school for the coffee farmers’ children.”
Another close relationship was formed when Dikaios was contacted by Andreas, who lives in Ontario but whose family has a coffee farm in Colombia. “He contacted us directly and I got him to send us a sample, and we liked it. The price he asked was so cheap we offered him ten cents a pound more, and I still thought we were getting a good deal. He was over the moon.” Since then Andreas started supplying another roaster and ships the coffee directly, getting a better price for his family than if he’d gone through the Colombian Coffee Federation.
These close connections mean that Dikaios can get exactly what he wants by communicating with his suppliers who relay his requests to the producers, such as only picking the ripe cherries (as the coffee beans are called) and packaging them in ways that ensure the beans stay fresh despite the various changes in temperature and humidity while being imported.
Of course it isn’t just about pure single origin coffees—they are named Java Blend after all. Blending coffees is something that Dikaios and his team has fun with, experimenting with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. “We play with it,” he says, “roast a little lighter or darker and see how it goes.” They sell a couple of espresso blends, their ever-popular North Ender blend and other changing blends. Every year they’ll do a holiday blend. “Last year’s blend, ‘Lump of Coal,’ proved so popular,” he says, “that we decided to keep it going and rename it ‘Thirty-Eight’ in honor of the year the company was founded.”
For a long time, the main thrust of Java Blend’s business was supplying beans to local restaurants and cafés, but as more people started moving into the north end, the café side of the operation became increasingly busier. “It’s been good because the retail side only serves to boost the wholesale, especially with social media,” says Dikaios. “Someone will tweet that they’ve had a great latté here, and then when a new café or restaurant opens up they call us and say they want to use our beans.”
Of course it isn’t just about the beans, or the way the shots are poured. Some credit must go to the fact that Dikaios and the crew he employs are sound people who actually give a damn about what they do. They love coffee, and they get obvious pleasure from sharing that love with others.
Java Blend is a north end fixture that is here to stay, and by evolving to match modern tastes it will continue to thrive no matter how the neighbourhood around it changes.