Stephen Armstrong and his sons have made coffee a family business — aiming to support other families around the world
By Saira Peesker, The Hamilton Spectator
Stephen Armstrong knows coffee. He also knows electronic music, food and fair trade — and is keen to chat about topics as far-ranging as women’s health and colonialism — but he really knows coffee.
The owner of Speakeasy Roasteries, located in a warehouse in east-end Hamilton, Armstrong is part of an exclusive club of coffee-tasting experts. As one of 32 people in Canada with Q-grader certification, he can tell good beans from great beans and reliably detect hundreds of potential tasting notes in a cup of coffee.
In coffee circles, it’s kind of a big deal.
“I’m like a master sommelier of coffee,” explained Armstrong, a mile-a-minute talker with ideas on just about everything. “I’m licensed by the industry to publicly speak about that coffee. There’s a whole bunch of strict protocols that I follow. I can make an assessment and, plus or minus half a point, every Q-grader in the world would agree.”
Armstrong appears to be putting his expertise to good use. Speakeasy has been sourcing and roasting specialty coffee for nearly a decade, and has expanded its reach significantly within that time.
“In that eight years, Speakeasy purchased (ethical coffee company) Ultimate Bean, owns 20 per cent in (coffee delivery company) Coffeecology, another company called Villa Corta in El Salvador and Ethical Coffee out of Brantford,” said Armstrong. “I don’t do live entertainment, I don’t even do soy milk. I just do coffee.”
Armstrong says a good chunk of the city’s specialty cafés are brewing some form of his coffee, including My Dog Joe, Democracy, Café Oranje and Mulberry Street Coffeehouse.
Speakeasy has another roastery in the Windsor area, where the family used to live, and sells to clients as far away as Japan. Armstrong’s job takes him throughout the coffee-growing world, where he meets with farmers, helps them improve their product and contributes to charities that assist people living in those regions.
In 2011, his Kochere Gayo blend won a prestigious international prize for best coffee blend, the Golden Bean. He says he gave 50 per cent of the profits from that coffee to charity Grounds for Health, which conducts cervical cancer screening in coffee-growing countries.
“(My interests are in) social justice and they tend to be mostly women-based stuff,” said Armstrong, adding, “My partner is a midwife.”
Not far from the tree
The couple has five children, two of whom have already taken up the coffee business in their own way. Aidan and Caelan Armstrong, 18 and 16 respectively, run the Speakeasy Café out of a storefront attached to the family’s home in the North End.
The café, located in a purple building at Picton Street and Ferguson Avenue North, is open only on weekends. On a recent visit, Caelan told the Spec that people come from far and wide to buy $3 lattes and Speakeasy beans.
Stephen says he’s pleased to be able to share his love for coffee with his sons and is thankful his passion allows him to support farmers and charities at the same time.
“We’re not looking to be … a corporation,” he said. “As a company, I’m just looking to feed my family.”
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