One of the most exciting things to come out of 2017 was how a select few Vancouver coffee veterans broke out into creating their own companies and started roasting. Today we chat to Matt from Prototype Coffee who did exactly that. He tells us about his bean choosing process, what he likes about the Vancouver coffee scene and gives us some home roasting tips.
Who are you and where are you from?
My name is Matt Johnson, and I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. I came to Canada for school and married a Canadian, so I’m here to stay.
Prototype is a crazy idea that I had about how to source and roast the coffees that got me really excited without having to open a large-scale roastery. I use the Aillio Bullet R1, which is a 1kg capacity drum roaster. It’s a pretty new machine, and I feel like it’s cutting edge in a lot of ways. It gives me pretty incredible control, which allows for consistency roast to roast. The Bullet also gives me a lot of flexibility to roast even single bags to order with plenty of control. So Prototype is an alternative approach to coffee roasting where I try to maximize both quality and flexibility. It’s a bit selfish, too, because it’s an excuse to get to work with the coffees that I’m most excited about.
Really it depends on who you ask. To me, though, what I look for in a coffee is expressiveness—I’m most drawn to coffees that have something to say to you when you drink it. More specifically, I like coffees that are sweet, vibrant, and flavourful, and I shoot for balance when I roast. Sometimes “balance” can sound like a synonym for “boring”, but I think it’s exactly the opposite. When the sweetness and acidity are brought into a perfect balance, that’s when the flavour really pops. It’s like when you add salt to your food, and all the flavours come alive. I think maximum balance = maximum flavour.
How do you choose what coffee you’re going to roast?
I choose coffees that I feel bring something uniquely delicious to the table. There’s such a variety of flavour in the world of specialty coffee, and I think there are so many flavours that deserve to be showcased. Sometimes origins and flavours will come in and out of fashion even though the quality stays really high, so I do my best to choose coffees based on their own merits, not on current trends.
Another consideration when sourcing my coffee is the time of year—what’s fresh crop right now? I find that sometimes (but not always) the most expressive coffees are the ones that are most recently harvested, so I take this into consideration when I choose my coffees as well.
As a general rule, I value flavour and quality above price when I source my coffees, so that’s why there’s often such a range in price on my menu. I find that price doesn’t always equal quality, but occasionally it does. So sometimes I think it’s worth sourcing coffees that cost a bit more just because they have something unique or special to offer.
What kind of coffee can we expect from you in the future?
I like to bring in a pretty wide variety of coffees. I’ll always have some really quality offerings that I think everyone will like, but I like to bring in surprising ones too. You can expect to see coffees from producers who are experimenting with new ways of harvesting and processing, top quality coffees from under-represented origins, or some coffees that are just a little bit harder come by in larger quantities.
Home roasting is becoming more and more popular these days. What are your top tips for someone getting started on this adventure?
Go for it! I caught the coffee roasting bug back in 2006 when I learned to roast at a cafe in my hometown. Since then I’ve always been roasting on something. I’ve tried roasting coffee in all sorts of things—in a pot on the stove, over the campfire, in the oven, in the popcorn popper. As you might expect, some of these hacks work better than others. My recommendation for those who want to get started is to pick up an air popper from the Salvation Army and throw in 100g or so at a time. In my years of home roasting, I had considerable success using a popcorn popper from the Salvation Army.
If you want to use real home roasting equipment instead of trying out a weird life hack, there are some really good and affordable options out there now. But I hate to say it—now that I’ve upgraded to a professional roaster with this amount of control, I don’t think I can ever go back to the air popper.
What Vancouver coffee shop would you go out of your way to visit and why?
Revolver. Maybe it’s a bit of a conflict of interest because I used to work there, but they consistently offer an incredible selection of some of the best coffees in the world. They work with world-class roasters, and they really care about the coffee that they bring in. Most of all, though, I think they do a really good job of offering something really special, both in terms of products and vibe, without being pretentious or intimidating. Great people, great coffee.
If I can sneak in another recommendation, I love Moving Coffee as well. I’ve only ever had amazing coffees from them, and I admire their approach to roasting. I think they source great coffees and do them justice how they roast. They also seem very excited to share their coffee, and their excitement is infectious. Again, great people, great coffee.
Is there anything in the Vancouver coffee scene that you feel needs improving?
I’m grateful to be a part of such a thriving coffee scene here in Vancouver. I think there’s a lot of innovation happening, and a lot of really cool ideas and flavours emerging. I have a lot of hesitations about pointing out general weaknesses in the coffee scene because I think there is room for a lot of variety, and everyone will have a slightly different idea of what an “ideal” coffee scene will look like. To me, the parts of Vancouver’s coffee scene what excite me the most and that I would love to see grow are the places and people that emphasize equally (1) offering delicious quality coffees prepared well and (2) warm, thoughtful, and unpretentious hospitality.
If you could have a coffee beer with someone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Hannah Arendt. She has such insight into what it means to be human, the good and the bad, that I think I could sit and listen to her talk for a long time. Sometimes there’s this chilling clarity in the way she critiques society and politics, but even so, she seems to maintain a surprising amount of optimism. I think she would be a wonderful person with a lot of brilliant things to say.