A Morning at Home with Canyon Coffee’s Newest Ethiopian CoffeeJuly 7th, 2021
For some people, coffee is something of a necessity, simply as a means to a caffeinated end; for others, it’s almost scientific, filled with complex machinery and heady vocabulary that often excludes the more casual home brewer.
Ally Walsh and Casey Wojtalewicz, the founders of Canyon Coffee, look at coffee in a different way—and from their hilltop home in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, it feels like a really good vantage point. The couple approaches that morning cup of coffee as a shared ritual, a slow way of appreciating coffee that feels refreshing and almost elemental.
We visited Ally and Casey on a recent weekday for a morning coffee, slowly prepared in a Chemex, poured into ceramic mugs, and sipped while talking about the day ahead—essentially, the antidote to the grab-and-go takeout latte. Along with this close-up view of their morning ritual, we got a lesson in sourcing coffee sustainably and a taste of their newest Ethiopian coffee, which comes from the area where coffee, as we know it today, was born.
Building Canyon Coffee from a Love of Home Brewing
When they first started dating, Ally and Casey worked as a model and musician, respectively, which often took them away from each other for weeks at a time. A shared love of coffee helped them stay connected; independently, they discovered new coffee shops in places like Nashville, New York, and Philadelphia, reporting back to each other with notes about new coffees they’d tried, occasionally even mailing each other new favorite coffees from the road.
Back together in Los Angeles, they developed a routine of preparing coffee for each other each morning, a slow and deliberate practice that allowed them to spend time together before the day began. Soon, Casey started working as a barista at a nearby coffee shop, where the couple met coffee roaster and now business partner, James. As a team, the three were able to bring to life a long-held vision for a coffee brand that would encapsulate Ally and Casey’s at-home ritual, using the notes they’d collected through their travels and a shared affinity for high quality, highly drinkable coffee.
Canyon Coffee feels more intimate than many other coffee brands because, from the beginning, Ally and Casey have been joyously open about sharing their own life as it relates to coffee. They often post photos and videos of each other making their morning pour-over, washed by the morning sun in their home; on the road, boiling water over an open flame for camp coffee; or in far-flung European cities, bringing along their own coffee and a pared-down brewing setup. “Being that we loved making coffee at home, we wanted to make coffee for people to make at home,” Casey explains, hinting at the fact that, to many people, brewing great coffee seems like something complicated and best left to the professionals.
There’s an ease about their routine that comes with deep appreciation for and understanding of coffee, but it also feels approachable and open to the individual’s interpretation, whether that means making a pour-over, using your tried-and-true electric coffee pot, or even adding milk and sugar to your coffee (something Casey says he’s okay with, “If that’s what makes you happy.”) Ally and Casey slow down their days to enjoy the ancient ritual of making coffee, and they want others to find that same kind of beauty and enjoyment in learning to make a proper cup of coffee at home.
Sourcing Coffee Ethically by Building Relationships
From day one, Ally and Casey had a clear vision for how they wanted to source their coffees: by building relationships with farmers, visiting their farms, and using primarily organic practices, from growing to roasting. These high quality standards and ethics created a firm starting point for the rest of their business. “If you have economic sustainability for farmers and the whole supply chain as a core of your business, that’s going to dictate how you grow,” Casey says about those early days. “The livelihoods of farmers is a part of sustainability, so we’re never going to pay bottom-of-the-barrel prices for coffee. From the beginning, we wanted to know that we were making a positive impact on our supply chain.”
While some new coffee brands sample coffees domestically when they’re first starting out, placing orders from faraway places without seeing much of the process, Ally and Casey made the decision to get as close to the source as possible. “It’s been our goal from the beginning to work with the same farmers year after year, building those relationships,” Casey explains.
Perhaps most uniquely, Ally and Casey are transparent about how much Canyon Coffee’s sourcing process hinges on the intermediaries between the brand and the farmers, which they say makes all the difference in securing a fair price for farmers and a high-quality product for themselves. “We always try to give credit to the import companies that we work with,” Casey says. “Too often, they’re sort of cast as ‘middlemen’, as if it’s a bad thing. Part of the way that we talk about coffee is kind of dispelling that myth.”
A big reason why import companies are so important is the physical distance between coffee brands and farmers, who often live continents apart. “Importers have offices in all of these countries in a way that Canyon Coffee doesn’t,” Casey explains. “Often, when they meet new farmers, they’re instantly tripling—at least—the amount that they’re making for their coffee. And not only that, they’re actually helping build infrastructure for a lot of farmers.”
While Casey has gone to Guatemala to visit one of the farms Canyon Coffee sources from, in earlier years, it was difficult to swing such costly travel while building their business. Ally and Casey both believe strongly that there is much to gain from seeing these farms up close, though; for a team that values fair pay, organic farming practices, and the knowledge there is to gain from understanding the way coffee is sourced, being able to visit the farms they source from remains one of their steadfast goals. “We would like to meet personally with everyone we buy coffee from, and as we grow, that becomes more and more possible.”
Back to the Source: Exploring the Ancient History of Ethiopian Coffee
Up until this point, Ally and Casey have sourced nearly all of their coffees from Latin America, primarily because of their own taste preferences and the signature flavor they wanted for their brand. “There’s a flavor profile that’s kind of consistent,” Casey explains. “We always want the coffees to be caramelly and sweet, balanced and smooth. They’re never bitter, never too acidic.” This caramel flavor is commonly found in coffee sourced from Latin American countries, so the area made a natural first stop on Canyon Coffee’s sourcing journey.
Last year, however—two years into their business and their education in coffee sourcing—they felt a pull to branch out to a place they’d always been fascinated by: Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee.
“We didn’t introduce an Ethiopian coffee for the first two years of our business because we wanted it to [have that caramel flavor] that is really typical with Latin American coffees. Ethiopian coffees are distinct because they’re usually a lot more floral,” Casey says. In their search, they landed on the town of Gedeb, because they quickly fell in love with what Casey describes as the “jasmine notes and lime-like acidity” they tasted in its coffee.
Aside from the coffee’s uniquely floral taste, Ally and Casey were also drawn to Ethiopia because of its rich coffee history. There are legends that an Ethiopian shepherd first discovered coffee when his goats ate the berries and became strangely energetic. The more certain facts point to coffee’s origins in Kaffa, a particular Ethiopian plateau where the plant flourishes. “For everyone who works in coffee, if Ethiopia isn’t their favorite, they have a period where Ethiopia is their favorite,” Casey laughs. “It’s funny how everyone goes back to the source.”
Sourcing Canyon Coffee’s Halo Hartume Coffee
After securing a supplier in Ethiopia, the Canyon team roasted the coffee with the signature style they use in their other coffees to achieve the same smooth, balanced flavor, but also bring out those floral, fruity notes. “We really agreed on that,” Casey says of the partnership between himself and Ally and their roaster, James, and their shared desire to roast the coffee for its “terroir-driven flavors.”
Terroir is the type of complex-sounding word of French origin that often makes people a little nervous when discussing coffee. It’s quite a simple concept, though: it refers to the fact that the soil influences the flavor of the coffee (which is what makes coffee taste different in different areas of the world). Of course, terroir refers to quite a bit more than just the soil itself; it also encapsulates the climate, the procedures used in local agriculture, and even the farmers themselves—essentially, anything and anyone that touches the soil.
Canyon Coffee’s Ethiopian coffee is made from coffee cherries (commonly—and mistakenly—called “beans”) harvested by different communities in the Gedeb region, an increasingly popular area for sourcing coffee thanks to its distinct terroir. Canyon Coffee typically names each coffee after the community around which it was harvested, including Worka Chelbesa and, most recently, Halo Hartume. Casey and Negusse Debela, the manager of the processing site in Gedeb where Canyon’s cherries are processed, even share a coincidental crossover in their coffee stories: Negusse became interested in coffee after having a particularly excellent pour-over while visiting Minnesota, Casey’s home state. He brought his newfound passion back to his home country of Ethiopia, found a partner, and opened a coffee processing facility.
The communities they source the coffee from in Gedeb use organic farming practices, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, when growing their coffee. After harvesting, the coffee is sent to washing stations that utilize a traditional “underwater fermentation” process. The cherries are fermented underwater for up to 48 hours, then washed and allowed to dry for 10 to 14 days. This is unique to areas like Ethiopia because it involves soaking the coffee in water to achieve the chemical reaction; in other parts of the world, coffee cherries are allowed to sit in a temperature-controlled tank to achieve fermentation through oxygen.
Coffee processors ferment the coffee cherries to achieve a certain flavor, but if performed incorrectly, it can have the opposite effect—an unpleasant, chemical-like flavor. This is why it was so important for Canyon Coffee to get to know the people on the ground in Gedeb, to ensure mutual trust in the process and its eventual product.
What Goes Into Sourcing Organic Coffee?
The Halo Hartume coffee is certified organic, but Ally and Casey are quick to explain that sourcing organic coffee, like many things, is not as straightforward as it may appear. While they prioritize both buying organic food for themselves and sourcing organic coffee for their business, they’re passionate about doing the research into coffee farms that may not have organic certification, though they still use organic or regenerative farming practices.
There’s a fine balance between wanting to know where your coffee comes from and wanting to pay farmers for their work, even if they aren’t able to obtain the organic certification. “There’s also good coffee that’s not organic,” Ally explains. “It’s like when you go to the farmer’s market—many of those farmers just don’t have the certificate because it’s so expensive for them.”
Casey quickly jumps in to agree with her, emphasizing that it often has to do with bureaucracy and cost. “Getting certified organic can be difficult based on what country you’re in,” he explains. “I’ve met farmers that want to get certified organic because they can get a higher premium for their coffee, so we support those farmers, but we also support farmers who are trying to get certified, because they’re also doing the work.”
There are many identifiers on coffee these days, though organic and fair trade are two of the most common. Coffees that are certified fair trade ensure that farmers are paid a minimum fair price for their crops, while certified organic coffees are grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Certified organic coffees go far beyond just the farming practices, though; in order for a batch of coffee to be certified organic, it also must adhere to organic practices in each additional step of the way. “When you’re not organic, you can just roast the coffee and sell it,” Casey explains. “When you’re organic, there are way more levels of bookkeeping. Legally, you need to be able to prove full traceability all the way back to the farm—not only what day it was roasted, but what batch it was roasted in, then connect that to cleaning protocols, which green bag it came in from, which ship, then which farm.”
Canyon Coffee adheres to organic standards in its own facilities, but if a certain bag of coffee can’t be labeled organic simply because the farmers don’t have the funds to achieve certification, Ally and Casey still find it worthwhile to support those farmers—even without the label. By doing the work to go through trusted import companies, pay ethical prices, and even go so far as to visit the farms where they source their coffees, Canyon Coffee is able to vet their suppliers and ensure that their coffees adhere to those standards they set in place when starting their company.
A Sustainable Future for Canyon Coffee
There was one major unknown that Ally and Casey couldn’t have predicted when growing their business: the COVID-19 pandemic. With people suddenly forced to stay home (and, for many, to slow down), Canyon Coffee saw a huge swell of new customers ordering coffee online to brew at home. This growth allowed them to hire a few employees and expand their operations in LA, moving out of a shared roasting space and into their own roasting facility.
Instead of hoping for continued expansion, though, the future of Canyon Coffee looks more like thoughtful growth and, often, simply staying the course. For Ally, she’s excited to be able to roast coffee every day (a luxury they didn’t have when sharing a roastery with other coffee brands), which would allow them to place larger orders and have an even more substantial impact on the farmers they source their coffee from.
Closer to home, they’re excited to be able to support themselves and their growing team. They even recently signed a lease to open a coffee shop in their neighborhood—their first, since the couple always hoped to perfect their coffees and establish their brand before opening a physical shop. “The idea of infinite growth is a fallacy,” Casey says of Canyon Coffee’s future. “We would love to reach a certain size where we feel that we’re good. [We admire businesses that] set growth ceilings, where we’re taking care of our people, we’re contributing to the community, so we’re just going to sustain here and limit our growth.”
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