Interview with Brew Coffee Better’s Josh Cook

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The Lovely Josh Cook from Brew Coffee Better reached out for an interview. It is reposted below but be sure to check out all the great work he does on this blog: here!

My first guest is from a roaster that has been around for about one year and has quickly jumped up to the top of my list of favourite Canadian roasters. He produces some of the most interesting and enjoyable coffees I have ever brewed. Roasting coffee to bring out flavours such as refined sugars, creamy textures, fruity vibes, baked goods and many more! I’m going to let him introduce himself, but here is my interview with the personality behind Quietly Coffee.

Quietly Coffee – Lee (Photo Credit: Brandon Canning)

BCB: Can you briefly introduce yourself to us?

Lee: My name is Lee Knuttila. I am the owner & operator of Quietly Coffee out here in the Ontario countryside.

BCB: What is your first memory of specialty coffee?

Lee: I moved to Toronto in 2006 and while exploring the new neighborhood, I had an americano from Manic. They pulled a shot of Intelligentsia (Black Cat, I am guessing?) and it was the best coffee I had ever tasted. Balanced, not bitter at all and it legitimately tasted special.

BCB: What did you do before you started roasting at Quietly?

Lee: The short answer is head roaster and green buyer for Cut Coffee (which has shifted to Sam James Coffee since I left). The long answer is likely a better response to…

BCB: How did you get into roasting coffee?

Lee: Before Cut Coffee, I was a barista at Sam James Coffee Bar. I ended up there in a somewhat round about way thanks to grad school and Sam’s kindness. When I moved from Saskatchewan to Ontario, it was to go to York University. I finished a masters in spring of 2008 and then started my PhD later that Fall. I was lucky enough to teach some courses in digital media but then received a writing award in 2012 which meant no more teaching: only sitting at home all day … writing … all day.

I started making daily trips to the SJCB on Bloor (now the Coffee Pocket) for espresso. It is hard not to get interested in the craft and expertise of coffee when it tastes good and brightens your day. I had met Sam through my friend Mark and one day after listening to me complain about writing all day in my basement, he said he needed someone for one shift a week and I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about coffee.

That one day turned into two and as I began applying for teaching jobs all over the USA I hit a bit of a crossroad. I was publishing a fair bit and ended up one night in an argument with an editor about interpretations of interpretations of French philosopher Deleuze. My amazing wife, Laine (also known as @mildredhandmade) pointed out: you come home very happy after bar shifts, worth thinking about. So, I messaged Sam, we meet up for a beer walk and explained that I wanted to go the coffee route. He let me manage my favourite location on Harbord and then when a spot opened at the roaster, I moved there!

Quietly Coffee Roastery (Photo Credit: Quietly Coffee)

BCB: What are you passionate about outside of coffee?

Lee: While I might have left the academy behind when I finished my PhD, I still love reading and writing. I have a way too long blog and way too full book shelves but it has been hard to pare down when the best possible Sunday is reading in the shade behind the farmhouse we are currently renting.

BCB: If you could change one thing in the specialty coffee industry, what would it be?

Lee: Is it cheating if I say the entire systems of visibility, inclusion, and voice? A philosopher that I returned to countless times in school was Jacques Rancière. For him, politics are not pundits arguing federal platforms or policy but rather how the ability to speak and be heard is established and maintained. This dovetails with his argument for radical equality, making the real project of politics shifting our sense (culture, ideas, common sense) and senses (how we engage with the world) in ways that ensure equality. 

All of this is my long-winded way of saying: the history of coffee is based in exploitation and inequality. While the quality in our cups might be steadily improving, little has been done from origin to cafes in terms of visibility and voice. Cis-white dudes’ continue to dominant ownership and management positions in coffee (a privilege that has certainly benefited my career), feeding into a system in which their voices are continually amplified (I think we have heard enough from a small set of famous ‘consultants’). If I could make coffee better, it would be shifting the entire structures which leave no space for marginalized producers, exporters, baristas, and coffee professionals.

To take from Rancière, we require a ‘redistribution of the sensible’ with new perceptions and new visibilities reliant on those whose equality has historically been erased.

BCB: What is one of your favorite things about the specialty coffee industry?

Lee: The community. Coffee is a daily act of joy. It is an aesthetic experience: the smell of the grounds, the sweet bounty of flavours in a cup, the sight of a bloom, the sound of a percolator, and the feeling of a warm mug in our hands. While it certainly brings personal pleasure, it is infinitely improved when we share that aesthetic experience with someone. To bridge these otherwise private sensory worlds, we built shared moments and amazing communities. Especially compared to my previous life in academia, the world of coffee is an amazing collective of colleagues, collaborators, and true friends!

BCB: Who is one person in the coffee industry that inspires you?

Lee: There are so many: when it comes to running roasters, I have always admired Drew Johnson at Bows & Arrows, Lauri Pipinen at Good Life Coffee, and the crew at Coffee Collectif. In the world of Green Importers, I am a huge fan of Aleco at Red Fox Merchants; having a beer with him basically made me rethink all my assumptions about coffee. But one of my biggest inspirations is producer Katia Duke. I met her through my friend Mark at Souvenir, as he lives in her hometown. She took over from her Father and turned her San Isidro farm from commodity to specialty in a few short years. She matches an endless drive to grow better coffee with a impulse to help those around her (with projects like schools). Please follow her instagram and seek out her coffees: she embodies the change that will make coffee better. 

BCB: How do you choose the coffees that you want to roast?

At Cut, there was a lot of budgeting and balancing those coffees that I found interesting with what would sell. When I started Quietly I made a firm choice to only buy coffees I want to drink. The idea was simple: move to the countryside, buy a probat and block everything else out. Source beautiful coffees, roast for sweetness, highlight the unique and then see what happens. If it fails, I at least tried and I know that my roast approach is not for everyone. If it works, that’s amazing because people want those same cups that I want in the morning!

Photo Credit: Brandon Canning

BCB: What brewed/cupped coffee stands out to you most?

Lee: I always look for sweetness. In coffee sour and bitter tend toward the one-dimensional and universal, while sweetness indicates the unique. You can take any coffee from any farm and underdevelop the roast, resulting in grass/herb notes (sour/bitter) or pithy citrus (sour). Equally, push too far and you will have the char and burn (bitter) from the process itself. Sweetness however opens up juicy berry or sticky stonefruit or the delicate sugars of candy, chocolate bars and baked goods. When brewing or cupping, I look for sweetness because that is the key to terroir. 

BCB: Do you have a favorite coffee origin?

Lee: Kenya. Always Kenya. 

BCB: How do you brew your coffee at home on your days off?

Lee: I have a slightly re-engineered Technivorm Moccamaster at the farmhouse. I used to be much more varied in pour-overs, areopresses, cold brews, etc but now nothing beats brewing a pot and heading for a walk in the woods with my dog. 

BCB: If you could sit down for a cup of coffee with any one person, alive or deceased, who would it be?

Lee: Tough one, but I would say Virginia Woolf. Of all the authors I have read, no one has made me reconsider the world (in her words, experience moments of being) more than her. We could riff on her “Distorted realities have always been my cup of tea” line given I am brewing coffee for a dead person. 

BCB: Do you listen to anything while roasting, music, podcasts, etc?

Lee: I do lots of audiobooks and podcasts while weighing and sealing bags. I am listening to Floodlines right now which is incredible. My all time favourite podcast is The Best Show and I will always recommend Finding Chloe. Roasting is different, it is always music and mostly always electronica. I have 5 playlists for each weekday that I have built over the years. To put one on shuffle right now … here is what comes up: Melissa Juice by Boards of Canada, Flatiron by Suzanne Kraft, Xtal by Aphex Twin, and Love On A Real Train by Tangerine Dream. If you want to hear Quietly that is a pretty revealing cross-section. 

BCB: Anything on the horizon for Quietly that we should keep an eye out for?

Lee: I am not making too big of plans since I’m barely a year-old business but down the line would love to be able to build a Quietly HQ from the ground up.