By Shelley Boettcher
Behind every great cup of coffee, there are dedicated coffee lovers—the roasters, baristas and buyers. They find us the world’s best beans. They keep us caffeinated. And if we want to learn more, they answer our questions.
With that in mind, meet four rising stars in Alberta, Canada’s burgeoning third-wave coffee crowd.
Alexis De Villa, Barista, Transcend Coffee and Roastery, Edmonton
Alexis Da Villa, 25, loves coffee so much, she’s even developed her own special water recipe, with just the right alkaline levels to maximize how good her brew tastes.
“It sounds dorky,” she says with a laugh. “But it allows me to have that perfect balance of sweet and bitter.”
To achieve her ideal blend, she adds a bit of epsom salts and baking soda to distilled water. The science is complex, but the result? “It’s amazing,” she says.
She’s come a long way, considering that when she started at Transcend Coffee in Edmonton five years ago, she wasn’t even much of a coffee drinker. A student at the time, she needed a job. Being a barista sounded fun. “Coffee was just a means to caffeine to get through mid-terms for me,” she says.
Transcend, however, changed her approach to the humble bean. “It opened the floodgates of coffee culture for me.”
These days, her favourite brew method depends on what she’s in the mood to drink. “I have a few pour-over methods: the Kalita, the V60, and I use an AeroPress, too,” she says. “And if I’m at work, I get espresso there.”
No matter what she drinks, she’s always considering the farmers behind her brew. “It’s about making sure coffee growers, people in these less affluent countries are still paid and can do well.”
Karine Ng, Quality Director, Phil & Sebastian, Calgary
Karine Ng was studying kinesiology and biomechanics at the University of Calgary when she realized she wanted to make coffee a career.
She had been working as a barista part-time for years, but her primary gig was the world of sports analysis research. It was a fine job, and connected to her degree. “But at the end of the day, there’s something about coffee that’s more appealing,” she says.
These days, she handles quality control at Phil & Sebastian. She creates seasonal drinks and tests new equipment.
“And I bounce around to all the cafes,” she says. “My job is to be sure that what we’re tasting at the roastery is translated at each cafe.”
Yes, of course, she tastes coffee. Every day. “I taste our espressos just to be sure they’re still tasting good,” she says.
By early 2020, she’ll be preparing for the Western Qualifier Barista Competition, a lead-up to the Canadian Barista Competition.
A third-place winner in 2018, Ng, 34, is planning to compete, but she’s also helping teach a free seminar for first-time competitors. She’ll be learning as much as they are, she says. “There’s always, always more to learn,” she says. “That’s what inspires me to continue in speciality coffee—this industry is still growing and defining what it wants to be.”
David Kim, Roaster, David Kim Coffee, Calgary
Born in South Korea, David Kim, 29, didn’t drink coffee until a decade ago. At the time, he was studying astronomy, but he couldn’t see a future as an astronomer. He liked the idea of a beverage industry career, so he considered bartending and wine. Neither seemed right. “Those industries are already well-developed,” he says.
“I wanted something that wasn’t so established, and speciality coffee was relatively new in Korea.”
He hired on at Angel-in-Us, a popular coffee franchise in South Korea, where he worked until 2013. There, he learned about Marone, a Seoul cafe that offers weekly tastings for local baristas. “That’s how I really learned how to taste coffee,” he says. “I learned so much.”
He learned about the Coffee Quality Institute, a non-profit that seeks to improve global coffee knowledge. He became a certified coffee taster in 2012 and, that same year, he moved to Vancouver to become a roaster. “But I couldn’t get a job, because I had no career history in Canada,” he says.
However, Phil & Sebastian needed a barista in Calgary. He was hired and soon became a roaster. In 2019, he won the National Brewer’s Cup.
Then, in August 2019, he launched his own business, David Kim Coffee. He has six labels; each is based on a taste profile, not regionality.
He sells primarily online as he builds up the business. “But I want to have a cafe,” he says. “It’s important for people to taste my coffee.”
Plus, he says, he loves the cafe atmosphere—as many of us do. “A cafe is that third space between work and home,” he says. “Coffee is good for conversations. It brings people together.”
Jill Hoff, Manager of Quality Control and Training, Monogram Coffee Co., Calgary
Five years ago, Jill Hoff went from being a church music director to making coffee. “I was looking for something different and I love speciality coffee,” she says. “I decided to join the crew at Monogram. I was their very first employee.”
She hasn’t looked back. And why would she? For a coffee lover, Hoff’s job sounds magical. “I go to each cafe and make sure the coffees all taste good,” she says. “Sometimes I’m at one cafe in a day. Sometimes I’m at all three.”
She’s always tasting, tasting, tasting. “It adds up to a lot of coffee in a day,” she says. “I start my day with coffee before work, too.”
Born in Edmonton, Hoff, now 38, says a food and beverage-related career seemed right from childhood. “My brother was an athlete and got good grades,” she says. “Me, I’d come home after school and watch the Food Network. I love everything culinary: wine, eating out, coffee.”
Competing, too. Hoff is a regional barista competition winner and a former Canadian AeroPress competition winner. And like other Alberta baristas, she is considering the next western barista competition, too.
Just don’t expect to see her roasting beans any time soon. “I have zero interest in roasting,” she says. “I really like what I do now.”
(This article first appeared in Culinaire.)