Blue Collar Coffee in Sparwood is the definition of a hobby-business. Two friends with day jobs in the mining industry keep their colleagues fuelled with coffee made from beans they roast in a shipping container.
Steve Benoy and James Hillman of Blue Collar Coffee met while playing indoor soccer in Sparwood.
“We got on really well,” said Benoy. “And then I found out that James had been roasting coffee at home.”
Hillman began roasting coffee in a modified Mr. Popper popcorn popper that his brother-in-law had sent him with a bag of green beans.
From there the two men started having more and more conversations about roasting coffee.
“I’m prone to cooking up ideas,” said Hillman. “I don’t always act on them but when there’s a partner in crime, it changes the game.”
Hillman had worked in the restaurant industry, and the beer and wine industries before moving to the Elk Valley, but he felt that coffee offered something that wine and beer don’t.
“Coffee symbolizes hard work,” he said. “It’s hard work to get. Those people work really grueling, tough days to get the beans to us. And we, in amongst our jobs, roast it.
“And the finished product isn’t like pop or wine which are leisure products. Coffee keeps people working hard. I like that, I find it endearing. And that’s why it’s called Blue Collar, because it’s keeping people at their jobs.”
Blue Collar Coffee was born on New Years Eve 2009. Benoy and Hillman sat around a computer in Benoy’s basement filling out forms for GST and business licences.
“What a way to celebrate New Years,” said Benoy, laughing.
The new company was on a strict budget with the help of Hillman’s restaurant experience.
For Benoy and Hillman, Blue Collar is a hobby.
“We don’t rely on it to pay our bills,” said Hillman. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to do this full time, but we have families to feed.”
Hillman is an account manager for P&H MinePro and Benoy is a mechanic for Cummings.
Even though they both do the roasting, their wives are both involved in the company.
“They said, ‘If it’s your dream then we’ll support you.’ And they have,” said Benoy. “They are both involved in the company, both deliver coffee.”
At this year’s Griz Days, Benoy’s wife helped serve coffee to cold spectators near the stage on Friday night.
“My wife helps me bag the coffee. My parents live across the creek, and they put up with the smell,” said Hillman.
Blue Collar Coffee is roasted in a red shipping container in Hillman’s yard off Highway 43.
“We were storing my mother-in-law’s furniture in here because she was planning on moving out here, and then she changed her mind,” said Hillman.
When they found a used Diedrich coffee roaster for sale outside of Victoria, Hillman made a deal with his step-father-in-law who was planning on driving out to pick up the furniture.
“We asked if he’d drive out the roaster and then we’d give him the furniture,” said Hillman.
The roaster cost the new company $16,000.
“It was a sizable commitment,” said Hillman. “We kept saying, ‘We’re buying a mini van together.’”
Eager to try out their new roaster, Hillman and Benoy fired it up in an attempt to roast their first batch of coffee.
“It seized up on us,” said Hillman. “We spent six hours fixing it. It was a nightmare. It’s a good thing we are both mechanics.”
Benoy said, “It was March, and there was no heat in there. We could see our breath.”
At 10:55 p.m. the first batch of Blue Collar Coffee came out of the roaster.
“It wasn’t bad,” said Hillman.
The man who sold them the roaster had sent a half bag of green beans with the machine.
“We did three runs that night. Some roasts took 20 minutes, some took six. It was good to learn on the practice beans,” said Hillman.
Because the pair are self-taught roasters, they wanted to focus on finding the best beans they could get and to use consistent roasting patterns.
“We didn’t want to mess with the beans too much,” said Hillman.
On the side of the roaster, they have taped charts and tables where they track the roasts.
“Our roasting philosophy was that we didn’t want to get super dark. Everyone can get a Starbucks coffee. We wanted to do a lighter-style roast that brings out the flavour of the beans,” he said. “But a lot of people like a bold taste and that’s when you go to Africa.”
Blue Collar used to offer a Kenyan coffee, and currently are roasting an Ethiopian bean.
“We’re trying to do more organic and fair trade. The Guatemala is direct trade,” said Benoy. “Our goal is that we could be big enough to go direct to the farms.”
“Maybe go somewhere warm for a change,” said Hillman.
Blue Collar Coffee is available at Middletown Café in Sparwood and at the Cincott Organic Market in Fernie, but if you’re looking for a more personal touch, contact Blue Collar Coffee directly and you may be able to get a delivery straight to your home.
Benoy’s truck is stocked with coffee and he even has a grinder and an extension cord in the back to grind your coffee to your preference.
“He’s like the milk man but better,” said Hillman.
For more information on Blue Collar Coffee visit www.bluecollarcoffee.com