Having a wood-fired coffee roaster is more than just a gimmick—it’s good business sense for Philippe and Leandra Brient, co-owners of Atlin Mountain Coffee Roasters. Sure, it fits with the idea people have of Northerners, all woodstoves and plaid lumberjackets, and it fits with the personal ethos of the couple, who try to limit the footprint they leave on the Earth, but it’s more than that. Despite the learning curve that came with the machine, it’s just more reliable for the Brients than the alternative.
Because the couple’s home and roastery is located 12 kilometers outside of Atlin, they didn’t want to deal with a propane-powered roaster and the associated running back and forth to town for more fuel. Because they’re off-grid (while talking to What’s Up Yukon for this story, their phone dropped the connection a couple times), they didn’t want to rely on anything electric. When they started researching wood-burning options, they found one in Italy.
They knew it would be a change from what they’d learned on.
The Brients are self-taught. Six years ago, while running a coffee shop in Atlin, the hunt for fresher and fresher beans led them to try roasting themselves.
“We enjoyed that so much we closed our doors and went for the roasting part,” said Leandra.
They worked for a year with a small machine, until they outgrew it and ordered the 750 kg wood-burner they have now—the only one in Canada and one of only two in North America, they said. Leandra said they had to re-learn everything about their craft when the heat source was wood. They were initially worried about efficiency, but found the roaster burns two pounds of wood per 22 pounds of roasted beans. They also wondered about the beans potentially taking on a smoky flavour, but the roaster protects against that. After that, they worked to figure out how to bring forward the flavours they wanted to focus on.
“There was some trial and error,” said Philippe.
“You (already) have to think about the origin of the beans, the temperature in the drum and then, roasting with wood heat, there’s how pitchy the wood is,” said Leandra, noting they mostly use dead stand wood. “We had to learn through experimentation. The propane makes instant changes to heat input. With this, we always have to think a step ahead because it’s not instant. This is a different type of heat that’s applied too. It’s a dry heat.”
So far, they seem to have a handle on it. Philippe works part-time on the business in the winter and full-time in the summer. Leandra is full-time year-round, roasting a couple times a week. In addition to selling at various events around the Yukon and B.C. each summer (if you’ve been to Atlin Music Festival they’ve likely helped you wake up after at least one poor night’s sleep in a tent), they sell through grocery and specialty stores as far south as Kelowna. Leandra credits word of mouth for their popularity.
They get their beans (there are 12 varieties) from Peru, Nicaragua, Columbia, Sumatra and Ethiopia. All are certified organic, fair-trade and come with rainforest alliance certifications. They say their personal favourites change all the time. So do their techniques. They’re constantly experimenting, trying to have fun and find new flavours.
“You can really be in tune with the coffee beans,” said Leandra. “It’s complex. A lot of things affect the roast of the bean.”
One of those things is how the beans are stored, They recently started aging them beans in whisky barrels, something that doesn’t result in whisky-flavoured coffee, said Leandra.
“They take the oak and vanilla notes from the whisky … it adds a lot of character.”
They‘re curious to see what happens when they start doing the same with wine barrels later this year.