words by Cai Sepulis; photos by Chris Tiessen

As I turn the truck down Clinton Street in Hamilton’s Stipley neighbourhood, my TOQUE Partner Chris riding shotgun, I can’t help but feel as though we’ve been transported to another world – to another time. Rows of detached blue collar homes dot both sides of the narrow street – seemingly distinguished only by the colour of their horizontal siding. Mauve. Rose. Sky Blue. Pale yellow. As we crawl up the street, counting the house numbers as we go – 87, 89, 91, 93 – the dwellings suddenly give way to a patina’d blue industrial building with strong Brooklyn vibes. 99 Clinton. The new(ish) headquarters of Detour Coffee Roasters. We have arrived.

Detour has long held a special place in my heart. For the best part of the past decade, my wife Sonia and I have made its sweet Dundas café location (on King Street West) a regular stop any time we’re touring from our home in Guelph into Hamilton and then back out through Dundas. The café’s interior design is on point, its side patio is gorgeous, and the coffee is among the best in the entire region. What we’re visiting today, in Hamilton, is Detour’s roastery and head office – to chat with Detour’s directors and to check out the digs.

We park right outside the building and make our way toward a non-descript metal door that we can only assume is where we need to be. We’re ready to go in, but not before pausing to marvel at the building a bit. ‘Imagine this as a brewery,’ I exclaim to Chris, ‘or our TOQUE office.’ Indeed, we’ve been hunting for a space just like this (though not quite so big) for the past several years – but the crazy market has so far kept us locked out. We step inside, where we’re greeted by Detour’s Co-Director, Ryan McCabe, whom we recognize immediately from his tenure at Planet Bean Coffee Roasters in Guelph. After our happy reunion, Ryan guides us past a few offices and into a beautiful open concept area at the back of the place. Sleek white tables, a large island, comfortable couch, and coffee equipment (grinders, espresso makers, brewing apparatuses) are sprinkled about the room. This industrial space almost looks like it could be Detour’s next café – or at least a tasting room. 

‘Actually, that was the plan,’ Ryan tells me when I remark on the potential of this sweet interior landscape, ‘but the pandemic has put that scheme on hold – at least for now.’ While Chris takes his camera out of his bag – preparing to shoot for this story – I note an expansive interior wall of windows that divide the room we’re in from the roastery. When I walk over to take a closer look, I see about a half dozen people busy working on the other side of the glass – packing, labeling, shipping roasted beans. I’m taken by the massive scope of this warehouse space, at least a few thousand feet in size. The roaster itself presides over this expanse, towards the back. ‘Every day we’re performing about forty roasts on that machine,’ Ryan, who has joined me at the window, tells me. It’s a true workhorse, for sure. ‘Every month,’ Ryan adds, ‘we receive new pallets of fresh green beans from different origins.’ He points out the impressive shelving stacked with massive burlap sacs of fresh beans occupying a good bit of space, waiting their turn to be enlivened into the freshly roasted beans every coffee aficionado craves.

‘The beans come from various places around the world, but mainly Central and South America,’ Ryan tells me. ‘Emma [Emma Howarth-Withers, Detour’s Co-Director and main buyer] travels multiple times a year to meet with farmers to purchase beans.’ I’ve known Emma for years through the roller derby in Guelph and as a seasoned bass player in the Royal City’s music scene. As if on cue, she saunters into the room, suited in a denim jacket and band tee. Another happy reunion. What fun.

Emma pauses just long enough to begin to identify some of the vast array of beans she’s purchased for roasting. It’s quite an array – everything from single origin varietals like Gesha beans from Costa Rica to Caturra beans from Colombia to Heirloom beans from Ethiopia. As Ryan notes: ‘Ethiopian beans tend to possess more delicate flavours – with floral and citrus notes. Colombian beans, on the other hand, produce richer cola-like flavours.’ I’m busy scribbling notes. ‘What do you like to drink?’ he asks. I’m like a deer in the headlights, suddenly becoming acutely aware of the shallowness of my knowledge of this coveted constant companion to my day-to-day life. 

‘I guess I like my coffee the same way as I like my beer,’ I stammer. ‘Bold and dark – like a smoky stout.’

Ryan’s response makes me feel like I may have said something profound. ‘It’s interesting you say that’ he begins, ‘because coffee is at a similar stage to where craft brewing was a decade ago – there’s so much potential for growth.’ Aha. The wheels start turning; it is a comparison worth thinking about. I can see the similarity when considering all the roasts, regions, beans, blends. And yet millions of coffee drinkers are just up for a standard cup of joe. All sorts of things are coming into focus, including how ironic it is that the Tiger-cats home stadium, ‘Tim Hortons Field’, towers over this very neighbourhood just a few blocks away. 

But the operational parameter Ryan is invoking is craft beer, with the specific appeal of its huge range of options, each set apart by distinguishing brands and logos. The fact that coffee bag design has changed so markedly over the years takes on new meaning in this context. Unique labels and quirky names have become so much more important. While we explore the pros and cons of various trends in label design, Ryan lets us in on the fact that Detour is slowly revealing a rebrand. ‘We want it to represent us now,’ Ryan explains. ‘We’ve all been with the company for so long and we want more personality, we want it to feel approachable and, with all the heart we put into it, we want it to feel more like us.’ Warmer colours, a soft retro vibe, more playful. More fun. Chris and I are more than persuaded.

This little visit has become quite the adventure. While I take quiet pleasure in discovering some of the mysteries of my favourite liquid food provision, I hear a distinctive slurp. Slurp. Slurp. Our attention is quickly drawn to Detour head roaster, Dan Sherrington. ‘He’s cupping,’ Chris proudly recognizes. ‘I did that once with Diana Olsen, founder of Balzacs, who explained it to me then as a rhythmic movement of ‘breaking the crust’ to push aside the grains and release the aromatics to give them a whiff. You then slurp the coffee and spit it out.’ Our paradigms have now shifted from craft beer to wine (tasting). Slurp and spit. ‘Basically, I’m profiling and doing quality control,’ Dan explains. ‘This is how we go about comparing different roasts, checking for consistencies, things like that.’ Another bit of insight into coffee I’d never have guessed. I am quietly taken with not only the craft, but also the art of it all.

We linger in the back of this cavernous space just long enough to hear the satisfying sound of a sixty kilogram bag of coffee beans being poured out of the roaster. We’ve heard the beans popping as the machine whirred, as if proudly announcing its massive role in our daily pleasure. 

Ryan, Chris, and I eventually loop back to the tasting room, where the aroma of a fresh roast percolates in the air and Morrissey plays softly in the background. I find myself transported to the coffeehouses in the early twenty first century (before many craft breweries emerged in our regions) where we’d sit for hours, cup after cup, chatting away or reading paperbacks. Or, in my mind’s eye, even further back, to the age of the great coffee houses, when even so prodigious a spirit as Johann Sebastian Bach could be quoted as declaring: ‘Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried-up piece of roast goat.’ Even then people loved coffee, and enterprises like this. Down-to-earth. 

Yes, Detour’s rebranding makes sense. After all, when it comes to coffee, which is in the midst of a renaissance of sorts, we are talking not only about a vast range of taste, but also about artistry, skill, and even sound. It took a sweet tour like this one to reveal to me things that were perhaps always there but I never slowed down enough to look and listen.

For more, visit: detourcoffee.com