Cole Torode has been in coffee since he was a teenager. Today, he's a co-owner of Calgary's Rosso Coffee Roasters, reigning Barista Champion of Canada, and an advocate of quality coffee in all its forms—both with and without caffeine. We've seen a lot of Cole lately, both up in Vancouver and competing in the Coffee Masters competition at the New York Coffee Festival. In between his adventures, we pinned him down to get his thoughts about decaf.
You've been in coffee since you were quite young. Has your personal perspective on decaf changed?
Yeah, I would say so. I went from somewhere that served decaf but didn't put any focus on decaf—the very first place I worked serving coffee was a restaurant in a hotel with a brunch service, and I was the guy that would make the coffee. The coffee that I was making was Illy, it was in pods, the red tin was the regular and the green tin was the decaf. At that stage in my career I can't say I respected decaf anymore than I respected espresso—I was probably sixteen or so. I knew all the death before decaf slogans and all that sort of nonsense.
I think it changed when I joined Rosso, 8.5 years ago now. When I first moved over there my brother [Rosso founder David Crosby] was also using Illy when he started the cafe, but he had just transitioned over to George Howell. He had a decaf, which I assume was a Swiss Water or mountain water or of a higher quality than one that was chemically derived. Logistics did not benefit us getting coffee from George Howell all the way from Boston, so we moved to Phil & Sebastian, who were selling us some nice decaf as well. When we started roasting, we rotated through three decaf options but the one we landed on is a Costa Rica Tarrazu cooperative and it's super nice and approachable and the type of decaf that I thik people taste and are like, s---, that's really good!
Photo by Jeff Hann for World Coffee Events
Has the perspective changed at Rosso in the many years it's been in business?
It's funny, there's a food critic here in Calgary whose name is John Gilchrist, and he's the guy if you will, if your restaurant opens and John likes you, you're good. He only drinks decaf, and the first time he ever came in the cafe, he's a very recognizable gentleman, I'm thinking oh s--- that's John Gilchrist and I'm about to make this guy a coffee. He orders a shot of espresso and the chit comes to me and i'm thinking espresso-decaf. I'm thinking it's got to be a typo. He wants a decaf espresso? I don't think anybody'd ever ordered a decaf espresso. That probably had a lot to do with my mindset, as goofy as that sounds. To have a very highly regarded food critic in this city order a decaf coffee, that showed me that you can like coffee for more than just the caffeine.
Do you drink decaf? When?
Honestly, I rarely ever drink decaf and that's really just because caffeine doesn't really bother me. I can have a coffee at 9pm and go to bed at 9:30. But I have just recently taken over our training at Rosso, and in one of the training sessions I was in yesterday I dialed in the first espresso so we could all walk through it together, and I didn't tell them but I was dialing in our decaf. Both of the baristas I was working with were like wow, that's really nice! by the time we got it dialed in they said this is really good, really balanced, nice acidity, pleasant finish to it, nice creamy body to it. And then I told them it was decaf and these two up and coming baristas were looking at me like oh, that's really good, I would't have tried that otherwise.
What do you think a coffee roaster should consider in terms of their decaf offerings? Both from a customer demand perspective and your own perspective of what you're hoping to guide people towards?
I think the way we are currently working with our decaf is towards something that's super approachable, that will kind of appeal to the masses, you can serve it to my friend, you can serve it to my grandma, you can serve it to anybody and they would drink it and be like oh this is a really nice coffee. But after being at Swiss Water and learning the ins and outs of what's going on there, I think exploring the decaf menu into 2019 and bringing in something that's weird and wacky that will have people kind of talking and all of a sudden realizing that it's decaf will trigger that conversation more—or even for us to have a coffee that is both decaf and non-decaf. But right now it's our goal to have an easygoing decaf that you could easily mix up with a regular coffee.