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Just off Queen East, at Davies and Matilda is where you'll find Merchant's of Green Coffee, one of Toronto's preeminent coffee roaster, cafes. Since opening it's doors in 1995, Merchants has grown into a neighborhood institution, based on a couple of simple principals: fresh roasted coffee and sustainable beans.
Formerly home to a Shirriff jam factory, the Merchant’s main floor space has a real NYC, East Village feel, with it's open concept room, wood floors, exposed brick, and hefty wood beams. Lots of rustic character here, along with a choice of comfy old sofas to lounge on or numerous tables to pull out a laptop and take advantage of the free WiFi...
Merchant’s co-owner Derek Zavislake, a long time advocate for local roasters and home roasting, maintains that 'coffee should be consumed within 5 days of it’s roast date. If the coffee you're buying isn’t roast dated, how can you trust it's fresh?’
Given that I recently purchased coffee with a best before date 11 months into the future, Merchant’s policy of providing a roast date on all coffee sold is both innovative and impressive.
Multi-nationals like Nestlés, Kraft, and Sara Lee staked out the coffee game early on, selling consumers a product that they had no idea was perishable. The story of fresh coffee became at best, a marketing gimmick. The reality is centrally roasted coffee, shipped around the world, trucked across country, sitting on grocery shelves for some unknown period of time, until purchased and finally consumed. Hence the need to load up on milk and sugar to mask the taste.
In Zavislake's world, fresh roasted beans are supplied by local roasters, on a daily basis. Local cafés selling fresh roasted coffee would be found in every neighborhood, next to say, the local bakery where you pick up your fresh bread. Having a roast date printed on each bag, leaves the fresh or not decision in the hands of the consumer. And no, Starbucks doesn't use local roasters. Starbucks roasts it's coffee in places like South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Nevada and then trucks it around the country just like it's multi-national rivals.
The Zavislake brothers, Brad and Derek, have spent a great deal of energy trying to educate people about quality coffee. And as someone who grew up drinking appalling, multi-national grocery store brew, I can appreciate their work and the ongoing courses they offer.
Throughout the year, beans from as many 150 different coffee growing regions will pass through the café with a selection of 15 to 30 available on any given day. It’s Flagship coffee is it’s Solar dried, Costa Rican. It’s development coffee is from Haiti and it’s surprise coffee of the year, for 2011, hails from East Timor.
In 1999, after numerous trips to origin to work with local farmers and co-operatives, Merchants teamed up with the Government of Canada to create the Sustainable Coffee Program. The SCP is a comprehensive label that ensures at a minimum, fair trade prices are paid to farmers, in return for the highest standard of bean, grown in a bird friendly, pesticide free environment, and processed in an eco-friendly manner that preserves the rainforest.
In 2009 the expansion bell tolled as members of Merchants of Green, The Fresh Coffee Network and Dark City Coffee teamed up with James Fortier, as partners in I Deal Coffee. The goal being to unite a group of local roasters and cafes with the same values and principals, all working together to chip away at an entrenched multi-national market.
Saturday is a great day to visit Merchants when Zavislake brews up a free cup of his best coffee for anyone willing to drink it without adding milk or sugar and to listen to him speak about coffee and pay tribute to it's birthplace with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
Beginning with the burning of Frankincense, Zavislake roasts up some Ethiopian beans between a couple of old flat pans, over a burner. Yes, roasting coffee can be just this easy. Before long the beans are crackling away like a batch of Jiffy Pop, popping up on the stove. The coffee I sampled was great, with a sweet aroma and a taste of roasted nuts. The finish was consistent with no bitterness or after taste.
Merchant’s signature brew uses precisely under boiled water poured over freshly ground coffee, in an organic, cotton hemp filter. After sitting for 3 to 4 minutes the coffee is then served in a karaff with a mug for $3. The whole process can take a bit of time, especially if there’s a line up, but the results are worth the wait.
Expect to pay $3 or $4 for a Latte, depending on the size with no extra charge for soy or almond milk. Espressos are $2.50 for a double shot. Cappucinos cost $3.50 and Americanos an even $3.00.
All of the baristas I spoke with were friendly and knowledgeable and I concluded my day with an espresso, made from a fresh roasted Nicaraguan bean, that was yummy and would keep me coming back for more. All baked goods are from OMG Bakery and include cookies for $2., savory pastries, muffins, scones and vegan cupcakes on the weekend, all for $3. each.
Hours of operation: M-F 9-6 & S-S 10-6