The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
With firm roots in history, Canary Girl Coffee Company is based not only on good coffee but also on promoting the contributions of women who played an important role in roasting coffee. Through the colourful brand, coffees named after women, and the stories of those women featured on the Canary Girl website, this roaster stands out from so many with whom I have spoken.
I reached out to the founder of Canary Girl, Robbie, and he kindly answered a few questions about his business and how he prepares blends at the roastery. The interview is below.
For my readers, could you tell us a bit about what the Canary Girl Coffee Company is? What was your inspiration behind starting the company?
Since I was 16 I have always worked in coffee. I started as a barista with Costa, a role I desired in a teenage attempt to be like my idol Rachel Green from Friends. For me coffee culture has always been about social interactions and building relationships under the roof of a quirky cafe.
Nine years later at age 25 I was still working as a barista and coffee roaster, but for other people. I guess it might have had something to do with approaching my tenth year in the industry, whatever it was it lit a fire under me and before I knew what I was doing I was coming up with concepts and filtering through almost a decade of experience to build and design my creation. Thankfully I was able to do this alongside my best friend, Illustrator Alice Brown, the magician behind all things that make my brand beautiful.
When I was growing up I honestly never understood the concept that women were lesser than men. The women in my family are fierce defenders of their integrity, each other and champions of strength and determination. The eldest and one of my absolute favorite people of all time was my great granny Georgina Gray. As a little kid she was a wonder to me. She served as a Canary Girl (munitionatte) in the weapons factories of Glasgow during WW2. Being born in 1923 she had an insight into a world so vastly removed from the one I grew up in, in the late ’90s.
My great granny was diagnosed with dementia and eventually passed away in 2017. At the time I knew I one day wanted my own roastery and I guess her death made me realise just how much she had impacted my life, how much of myself came directly from her.
Once I came up with Canary Girl Coffee Co., taking my name from my granny’s job title during the war, I then discovered that munitionettes have never really formally been recognised or celebrated. This was due to the secrecy of their work at the time, which was done without the glamorisation of propaganda which was common in other areas of the Home Front such as the Womans Land Army. For me this realisation was a definitive point in the creation of Canary Girl. I would honour my granny (and all other munitionettes) with my company name, and my coffees would all honor individual women of history who never got the recognition they deserved.
So really it’s a celebration of the underdog, the women who stepped up and out of line and the impact their actions have had for all of us in our shared human history - featuring the best goddamn transparently traded Guatemalan Coffee this side of Antiga.
On your website, you prominently display that you sell blended coffees. Can you walk me through the process you went through to develop your blends?
I do business organically. Because of the often murky coffee industry chain, it was important to me that I only do business with people I know and have met in real life, so really the first stage was finding an exporter who lived in Glasgow… Enter Javier. Javier is the owner of Carribean Goods, a Guatemalan who not only knows the land the beans come from, but the people who farm it. He even played high school football with the farm owner who I get my Radio Made the Video Star bean from.
Now that I had a supplier, I needed beans. Upon his recommendation I started with two beans, enough for me to get two single origins and one blend to get me started.
Next is my favourite stage: experimentation. I took my new beans and roasted them various different ways, to different profiles. I then do a cupping (tasting) to determine which method produces the best flavour profile for each bean. Once a prime profile has been established, I play around with blend mixes to see which percentage of each bean gives the best tasting blend.
This is the most time consuming part, as I cup the coffees using various percentages of different beans to establish which tastes the best. I also factor in which percentages give the most different taste to the single origin beans in order to have a diverse range. Even though I have worked with coffee for a long time, until I developed my own signature blend, I had no idea how drastically a coffee can change in flavour with marginal changes to each percentage, this is why it’s such a time consuming stage. The possibilities are endless!
Now that a blueprint of blend has been created, I then think about the women I would like to honor on the coffee packaging. Usually whilst drinking a cup of my new creation, I work out which woman of history best fits the flavour profile of the coffee.
How do your blends change as components go in and out of season?
Having access to an importer as fabulous as Javier allows me to navigate seasonal change with ease. If one bean runs out, I can talk with Javier, who then suggests a similar bean he has in stock that will work as a replacement until next harvest. Although the flavours stay true to their original, there can be some differences, however I don’t see this as a negative.
Because of Costa and Starbucks we have this wrong idea that coffee should always taste the same, but it shouldn’t - coffee like wine is complex, and the regional characteristics each bean / grape picks up from the soil it’s grown in should be celebrated, not muted. Moving away from this idea was difficult because like everyone else, I was pre programmed to believe that any changes in my coffees would be viewed as a negative. Funnily, in reality I have found this seasonality a real benefit to my business, I think because people can see how natural, organic and sustainably my trade works.
For the consumer, what is the advantage of drinking a blended coffee versus a single origin?
I suppose on a very scientific level there shouldn’t be a difference as essentially we are dealing with taste and as more and more excellent coffee roasteries pop up, nowadays we have the resources to find an excellent flavour regardless of single origin or blend. However, humans are strange creatures with strange habits so science only takes you so far with individual men and women.
I think people can shy away from single origins because they seem to have definitive characteristics with less scope for diversity. People assume single origin = one place, one bean, one taste, so the risk of the consumer not liking the flavour seems high. Blending coffees gives the flavour more to work with, essentially two taste profiles bringing different goody bags to the party. They seem a ‘safer’ bet because you have multiple tastes, making it more appealing to the consumer and less risky.
How do you assure the quality of your blends before they are sold to customers?
I really like to take advantage of the fact that my roastery is right in the heart of Govanhill. The way I rotate the beans in my hopper in store allows me to dial in and try each new batch in store before the beans hit the retail shelf. I know a lot of roasters swear by conventional cuppings of batches, I prefer seeing how the customer wants the coffee most regularly first - using an espresso machine that generates instant feedback. Then I go to how they prefer it next - at home. I’ll grind some of the batch up for stove top and French press and enjoy it how it is intended. I find that this is a far more reliable way of ensuring the quality of batches, putting human experience first.
I know a lot of great baristas and roasters who are so caught up in the science of specialty coffee that they forget to enjoy it! Roasting is alchemy, that’s basically magic and magic takes focus and hands on interaction. I guess I’m a bit of a Victorian trapped in a Millennial’s body as a lot of my practice is very raw and organic. I even roast like they did back in the day, I use my ears, eyes and nose when I roast coffee, no computers. Coffee to me is like this extension of myself, I do use a timer to keep me centred but honestly most of the time I just know when my beans are ready, it’s a feeling. I digress! Once the batch successfully makes it through the coffee machine and at home brew tests, it’s time for the coffee to hit the shelf! 10s 10s 10s across the board!
What is the first thing you do when you arrive in the roastery in the morning?
I immediately set up everything as soon as I can, my coffee machine takes about 15 minutes to heat up, so I give myself that time to put cakes out in the coffee bar, fire up the roaster if it’s a roast day. It sounds like this is good practice but honestly it’s only so I can sit down and enjoy a coffee to myself before the doors open for service. I have to have this little ritualistic coffee date with myself to get centred for the day.
On your site, you note that Scotland has a view that hospitality jobs are “something you do when you’re trying to make it in something else.” What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career in the coffee industry?
Firstly I would say value yourself and what you do. Hospitality is service and to serve anything is to answer a call and that’s exactly what we do. We go to work to do things for other people, all day, with a smile on our faces come rain or shine! “Hospo” staff are fierce and we deserve to take up the space we do. Before I went to Australia (where they heavily value their hospitality industry) I honestly hated that the thing I was best at was making coffee. After Melbourne I felt like my skill was equatable to headlining a Vegas show!
Funnily enough once I started valuing my skills and my ability things started taking off for me. Even when Canary Girl was just a sketch and an idea I became Robbie of Canary Girl Coffee and from the minute I picked up that persona I knew it would work. Some might say that’s blind confidence, I would argue that all of us are capable of achieving whatever we want, the hardest part is knowing and backing ourselves.
And let your freak flag fly, every opportunity that has led me down the best route, I got from being the lovable weirdo I am. Basically celebrate your skills, own your right to slay in whatever role you excel in, be authentic and let them eat it!
What roaster do you use at the Canary Girl Coffee Company?
A Topper Cafemino. She’s called the Notorious Tripple G after my granny and I bought her off of my friend who owns Southside’s favourite Cafe Strange Brew .
What is your favourite method of brewing coffee?
Give me Espresso - Machine or Stove Top, Steampunk technology makes everything better.
What type of espresso machine do you have in the cafe?
She’s a new Rancillio, currently unnamed as it hasn’t hit me yet / I’m still mourning the loss of our retired coffee machine queen Big Bertha - she was loud, ancient and held together with duct tape and Jesus but honestly I loved her!
You can find out more about Canary Girl Coffee Company on their Instagram page @canarygirlcoffee or on their website at www.canarygirlcoffee.com.