Interview with Spencer Viehweger

Spencer Viehweger - JJ Bean in Vancouver

JJ Bean | Vancouver

I sat in on a Coffee Cupping session with Spencer at JJ Bean recently and talked with him about coffee and cupping and his role in JJ Bean and the community.

What lead you to joining JJ Bean? And how long have you been a Barista there?

I had first been introduced to JJ Bean during my trips to Vancouver. I had my first well-made cappuccino and ristretto espresso here. I quickly became acquainted with their reputation for quality and integrity. My initial love affair with coffee originated in Calgary; but when I decided to move closer to the heartbeat of the coffee scene, Vancouver, JJ was an easy choice. It’s my fourth year working here.

How are you involved with JJ Bean?

I started with the company as a barista and have had the privilege of working in a few of our cafes including Main St, Park and Tilford, and Commercial Drive. My current role focuses heavily on cupping both for the quality control of our current offerings as well as seeking new coffees for our lineup. We make all of our purchase decisions as a cupping team, but my role is to facilitate the cuppings, source the green, and do the sample roasting. I also spend a good deal of time working with our baristas, teaching them about espresso: how to prepare it, how the taste it, and how the various factors contribute to the end result in the cup.

How long did you train for the Western Canadian Barista Championship?

It’s hard to divide the line between “training” and just digging into coffee itself. You might say my training began the first time I tasted that El Salvador on the cupping table. I knew right then that it was a special coffee. As far as bar training goes, that’s an ongoing process that has been over five years running now. Every experience of coffee deposits something into how you present at competition. As far as focused training specifically for the purpose of Competition? Last year took a lot longer to get all my ducks in a row, but I can put a presentation together in about a month now.

What inspired you to become a leader in the Canadian coffee industry as a Barista?

I don’t know that I ever sought out to become a leader specifically. Perhaps I might try to answer what inspired me to find the perfect cup of coffee; but even that is tricky. It’s a difficult task to adequately articulate the motivating force that drives us to the pursuit of excellence. I can’t quite explain what it is about coffee that makes some of us so obsessive over it. There is so much romance, mystery, culture, and history that is behind every espresso that is placed on its saucer. I’m very drawn to any arena that demands a great deal of artistic skill and refinement. I think what motivates me most is that there is so much untapped potential to create better coffee, and improve upon North American coffee culture. The majority of people don’t know what micro-foam or a macchiatto are, they don’t know the importance of freshly roasted coffee, some are still making their morning cup with a sub-par drip machine that costs five times more than a French press and a kettle, which would yield far superior results. Although I can’t expect people to love this stuff as much as some of us do, I do believe that there are those who genuinely want to find a better cup: they are the ones who inspire me.

What supplies and tools of the trade did you use in your presentation at the Championship?

Some can go a little over the top with mechanical mixers, halogen hot plates, molecular gastronomy-esque foaming agents and the like. I kept my tools and ingredients fairl simple and approachable. You need a tamper, cloths, milk, cups, tablecloth , etc. Depending on which colours and materials you choose for those things, you can really affect the ambient mood during your presentation. I view the whole set up as kind of creating your own cafe for the judges. The most important thing (apart from the coffee): the playlist.

Describe the drink you created as your “custom” drink in the 2009 Western Canadian Barista Championship & how long did it take to create your signature drink?

My drink was loosely based on the Old Fashioned cocktail. Basically, the goal is to use very few ingredients with the intention of letting the main spirit (or espresso) shine through. An Old Fashioned uses bitters, sugar, orange oil, and whiskey. I used steeped pipe tobacco, maple syrup, vanilla bean on the rim, and flamed orange oil over the drink. The tobacco and vanilla contributed an earthy, spicy sweetness, while the maple syrup served to balance out the spice of the nicotine. The orange oil contributes a lot of aromatics but very subtle flavor, which adds a very dynamic sensory experience by giving the drink multiple layers.

Do you have any mentors in the coffee industry, and if so who and why?

John Neate, my boss, has contributed to my development so much. He’s got a great way of holding things in tension. He’s shown me the importance of always pursuing the perfect cup, but not in spite of the customer, for the customer. That’s a pill that I think some of us young, idealistic, punks have a hard time swallowing.

He’s shown me that at the end of the day, we exist to provide a service to our customers even if we don’t always agree with their style of drinking coffee. (For instance, I prefer coffee sans cream or sugar; but it would be incredibly arrogant to refuse to put those offerings out for our customers. So many people drink their coffee that way!)

What is your own personal favorite coffee? and why?

That’s kind of like asking a parent who their favorite child is. It just can’t be done. I like to think that variances between coffees allow us to experience them as unique offerings, with different qualities, but perhaps almost equally enjoyable. I tend to favor clean coffees with a good amount of acidity. But even then, I might find a super sweet, chocolatey, heavy-bodied cup with hardly any acidity and still love it. That’s the beautiful thing about coffee: it’s so diverse, and there are so many things to love in each cup.

What did you do before becoming a Barista?

I was a student. Actually, I still am a student. I’m finishing up my philosophy degree at UBC.

What is your favorite dessert to have with an espresso?

I love single origin chocolate, straight up. There’s so many complimentary flavours between the two. I’d really like to see more chocolate in cafes.

What interests do you have outside of the coffee business?

I like to read. I love to eat. Lately I’ve been getting into cocktails and enjoying the wonderful scene that’s emerging in Vancouver; plus, it’s nice to balance the caffeine with a whiskey sour at the end of the day.