Behind the Roaster: Rabbit Hole Roasters

For our next interview we find ourselves in the Eastern region of Canada. Rabbit Hole Roasters is located in Montreal, QC which has more coffee roasters per capita than any other city or province in the country. There are some amazing coffees coming out of Montreal and Rabbit Hole is not excluded from that list! Rabbit hole is making waves of change in the specialty coffee industry. Not only that but also making changes for the planet. For every order they receive, they plant a tree through the One Tree Planted program. Read the interview below to find out more!

Rabbit Hole Roasters David and Sophie (Photo Credit: Rabbit Hole Roasters)

BCB: Can you briefly introduce yourself to us?

David: For sure! I’m David Lalonde, co-founder of Rabbit Hole Roasters, based in Montreal. We are only 2 employees, so I wear many hats, but let’s say that my expertise lies in green buying and roasting.

BCB: What is your first memory of specialty coffee?

David: It’s a vague one at best. The day before I left for a 6 months trip (ha! I remember when we could travel :/ ) the first ‘’real’’ specialty shop opened in the city, Café Myriade. A friend brought me there. I can’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember the latte art as it was my first time seeing a rosetta being poured in front of me. (pretty crazy that 10 years later, they are now selling my coffee!)

BCB: What did you do before you started roasting at Rabbit Hole?

David: Lots and lots of things. Finding my calling was no easy task. I’ve been in and out (mostly in though) the restaurant and bar industry for around 10 years. I was also a poker player for a year (what?).

Coffee wise, I started as a barista, and I’ve been working for different roasters both in Montreal and Toronto as well. In between all that, I co-founded the Montreal Coffee Academy, where I was training mostly home baristas with my business partner.

BCB: How did you come upon the name Rabbit Hole for your company?

David: Like anyone who speaks English on a daily basis, it’s inevitable to hear the expression ‘’going down the rabbit hole’’ at some point. English is not my first language, and it was very interesting to me that this expression can’t really be translated without messing up the meaning.

While working with different roasters, and dealing in some others as a barista, I kept thinking ‘’what would I like my own company to look like if I ever start something’’?

I am not the best at following the crowd. I am easily bored and I need to experience crazy things. It was clear to me that Rabbit Hole needed to be vastly different, but still maintain a sense of reality. Isn’t that what the rabbit hole in Alice leads to? Wonderland is a place where everything is weird, yet you can still know what’s going on.

My wife and I where thinking out loud at night. She knows me well and Alice in Wonderland kept popping up. We said the craziest names, most of which didn’t make sense, before she called out Rabbit Hole Roasters. Et voilà!

BCB: How did you get into roasting coffee?

David: Working for 2 different roasters was enlightening for me. I was trusted with some pretty cool tasks with both and I could always pitch my ideas. One thing I remember though, is that it was kind of always the same thing.

Then while doing some consulting work for a third roaster, I saw, again, that everything was kind of always the same: same vibe, same origins, etc.

When I look at an average specialty coffee menu, it’s often similar: Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil. It’s hard not to find three of those on most menus.

I mean no offense by that by the way. If I could drink only one origin for the rest of my life it would be Colombia. Huehuetenango in Guatemala is in my top 3 coffee regions, and a black current tasting Kenyan is a thing of beauty.

I just don’t see the point of buying all those origins when there are multiple, lesser known origins out there. Those farmers also need access to the specialty market, and if we buy only from a few origins, diversity will eventually suffer.

I am not against having those on Rabbit Hole’s menu from time to time, but if we do buy from Colombia or Brazil, it’ll be to showcase a social or environmental aspect, or a profile that is not usually know from this country.

So the tl;dr version: I always look at new ways to work within an industry. Working with emerging origins is fun, and it was something that I felt lack in our industry, so I took a chance and here we are.

I also love cupping coffee. It’s my favourite activity in our industry. So where else could I taste so much coffee than in my own roasting company?

BCB: What are you passionate about outside of coffee?

David: I am kind of obsessed with language in general. I speak 3 languages frequently and my Spanish ain’t so bad either.

I am a big poetry, stand up comedy, literature and battle rap fan. Words matter. You can always find a thousand ways of saying something, but finding that special way of saying what you really want makes all the difference.

When I was reading a book called ‘’A house for Mr. Biswas’’, the author could have said ‘’as we rested under the refreshing shade of the coconut tree’’ and it would have been alright. But I remember the context very well, and he used ‘’dangerous’’ instead of ‘’refreshing’’, and it made all the difference.

I’m probably being weird right, but hey, this is my interview.

BCB: If you could change one thing in the specialty coffee industry, what would it be?

David: Half truths. Meaning we have to talk more, or talk differently about a lot of aspects of our industry.

I have green washing, green buying, and colonization in mind when I say this.

When it comes to green washing, I become so annoyed: just tell things as they are and stop misleading consumers.

There is no way around it: if you own a coffee business, you will take more from the Earth then you give back, period. The first step is to make decisions to lessen our impacts, but we then have to talk about those decisions openly, without grey areas. For example, some bags are advertised as compostable when they are not and should be advertised as biodegradable, etc.

Secondly, we all have to do better with our green buying. We need to ask more questions and make sure that we know as best as possible where our money goes when working with our importers. We also can’t use an origin story to make the public fantasize if the story is embellished or brings no value to the supply chain.

Lastly, and it’s connected to my last point: we need to talk more about the fact that we benefit from the land and the work of BIPoc people daily with our brews and have been since day one.

Coffee was stolen by white spies. They used enslaved people or forced labour as part of the colonial system to reap all the monetary benefits of what was back then a luxury product.

This system laid the blueprint of today’s coffee producing conditions around the world; producers are still being exploited to produce the beverage we love so much.

We need to acknowledge our privilege and use our position to make our industry better, starting at origin.

No half truths; we have do to the work. It’s ok to say ‘’I don’t know let me research that’’ or ‘’I didn’t know that thanks for telling me’’ and ‘’Ok, that was not the best move but I’ll work hard and do better next time’’. As long as we keep acknowledging and learning, we will do better.

BCB: Is there something that we can do as consumers to positively impact the sustainability of the coffee industry?

David: This is a tough one as coffee is still seen as a commodity that has to be cheap. I think consumers need to ask more questions, even if it's uncomfortable. If the barista or the roasters can't really answer, it doesn't mean it all bad, it means there is a lack of communication in their chain, or simply a lack of motivation from the café/roasters part to learn more, ignorance is bliss, but it can't stay that way.

Secondly consumers should consider not thinking about coffee as a cheap commodity and pay more for coffee. Most of them will pay $5 for a beer but wouldn't buy a bag of coffee at $50 for a half pound because that's crazy, but assuming 20g/coffee, the ''crazy expensive coffee'' is still cheaper than a $5 beer.

BCB: What is one of your favorite things about the specialty coffee industry?

David: Probably the fact that coffee is so global. Coffee is produced in so many countries, in so many different cultures.

We can learn so much from working in coffee. If we use our businesses for the greater good, we really have a chance to make people at origin our equals. We are a long way to go, but coffee at least gives us that chance.

In my mid twenties, I travelled for almost 3 years straight, in about 30 countries, and coffee reminds me of that big, vast world that’s out there. It gives you perspective that if you mess up a roast, it’s not the end of the world ;-)

It’s also fun to see how the café shop culture is different from country to country.

BCB: How would you compare the North American cafe culture to cafe cultures in other countries that you've seen?

David: To be honest, I haven't noticed many big differences, but small ones. There seems to be more table service in Europe than in Canada and even though it's been a couple of years, I remember that there was less laptop in Europe and more conversations.

The name of the drinks are also different and that can be a bigger problem. But you know what? It's even a problem within Montreal only quite often!

BCB: Who is one person in the coffee industry that inspires you?

David: There are a couple, but I’ll say Umeko Motoyoshi. I always admire people who can do multiple things well, and she can do a lot. She is an excellent barista, a QGrader, she writes articles on various subjects, she wrote a book, she has her own cupping spoon company and does social media marketing/consulting.

But one of the things that strikes me the most is how authentic she is. No BS, no half truths. She wants to use her platform for the greater good, even when it costs her. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, multiple situations surfaced, and a lot from big coffee companies. She pulled her spoon out of Counter Culture's webshop because she was not satisfied with how they handled the situation, and that’s commendable as hell.

BCB: How do you choose the coffees that you want to roast?

David: First of all, I will look for origins I am interested in and that could be fun for the public. I will then seek who offer those coffees, and I will research them as much as I can to see what kind of work they are doing at origin and if I am satisfied with how they operate, I will ask for samples.

I roast everything with an Ikawa, and I find it does a great job at not only showing the potential, but also highlights the faults and defects.

Then I like to build a menu that is varied in origins, but also in profiles. You can have coffees from Colombia, Uganda and Guatemala that will taste similar. I know they are from 3 different origins but it’s not just about that.

When I cup coffees for buying purposes, I like to find crazy notes from time to time, but mostly I am looking at clean and sweet notes, with an extra differentiator that could fill a gap in my menu.

Also, one myth that people mention often is that ‘’oh you must just buy all the best coffees’’ and the answer to that is no! If I want to have an original, tasty and varied menu, I won’t buy only the top scoring lots.

It’s all about balance for me, about finding what will keep it interesting. I feel you can have a 5 coffee menu that’s boring and a 15 coffee menu that is not redundant, or vice versa!

The most recent example of that is when I was looking for a second decaf (I LOVE DECAF!) to add to our menu. One lot scored a bit better than the other, but it was so similar to the one already on our menu. I chose the other because we will soon have two very distinct offerings.

BCB: What brewed/cupped coffee stands out to you most?

David: Yemen is an interesting origin for me. There are some notes that I rarely find in other origins and it’s so interesting to me. Not all Yemeni coffees are special, but the ones I am talking about are inimitable.

I also have a soft spot for Yunnan coffee. The coffee is very good and improving fast. Is it the best region in the world in terms of quality? No. But the specialty industry is so young there that every harvest (we will soon receive our third harvest from the region) and you can see the evolution. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

BCB: Do you have a favorite coffee origin?

David: Like I said in the last question, Yunnan is one of my favourite origins.

But I also love coffee from Huehuetenango in Guatemala. The acidity is so perfect to me.

BCB: How do you brew your coffee at home on your days off?

David: Days off or not, I’ll be brewing in the morning. And I don’t test often at home. I have a very solid 25g Chemex recipe that I just love. I use the 6 cup Chemex with a dose that can fit in a V60 because I like the brewer (is there a more aesthetically pleasing one?) and I love how the filter makes the coffee taste.

I found the recipe when I realized that my hand grinder at home was creating lots of fines. I realized I had to grind coarser to have good brews, so I grab my Chemex and started at 32g, and used less and less so that I now make one big cup. The recipe is less interesting below 25g with my equipment.

BCB: Do you mind sharing the recipe with us?

David: 25 g of coffee for 400g of water (1:16) water temp depends on the coffee, but the average is 93/94C 

Rinse the filter, but I am sure your audience has been instructed to do this by you many times ;-) 

I dig a small hole in the grounds to help saturate the coffee faster, meaning I can often use a smaller bloom with good results and increase extraction, sweetness. I bloom about 2.5:1

I swirl the chemex after the bloom, quite vigorously, and wait around 50 seconds. Honestly, 50 seconds is random and not scientific. I am too eager to drink it to wait longer but i felt that 40-45 seconds was too short with fresh coffee

I then pour once only, in circular motion, faster at first, and slower in the end. I usually finish pouring around 1:45-50 total brew time.

Small swirl after the pour. Average brew time 3:45

BCB: You heard it here friends; pre-wet your filters!

BCB: If you could sit down for a cup of coffee with any one person, alive or deceased, who would it be?

David: That’s a crazy question. Been thinking about it for a while hehe.

If I think only with my coffee mind, I would have to have coffee with Grant Achatz. A very famous chef, he creates food experiences that are so unique and crazy, exactly my style!

The name of his restaurant group is Alinea, a Greek symbol that means ‘’the beginning of a new train of thoughts’’. If I could have called my company that, I would have used it. It basically means that if you think you have something figured out, you are on the wrong path and should start seeking ways of being more original.

When his restaurant was the best in the United States, he thought he was becoming less creative. So he did something normal for him: he shut down the restaurant for a couple of months and reopened with a crazy new concept.

If I take the non coffee side of myself, I would love to sit down with Dave Chappelle. The way he creates is unlike any artist I know. You can never know where his content leads until the end. I don’t agree with all he says, but seeing him perform is one of the most amazing things there is.

He is brilliant and always says what needs to be said to move things forward.

I also wanna drink a coffee with David Blaine because what he does is just too crazy and I have to meet him!

BCB: Do you listen to anything while roasting, music, podcasts, etc?

David: I listen to hip hop and jazz pretty much all the time while working. Noise cancelling headphones, let’s get the groove on and roast!

BCB: What are your favorite hip hop and jazz artists or playlists to groove out to?

David: I love music but don't know that many artists. I love Miles Davis and Sonny Boy Williamson, but I am willing to listen to anything. I prefer older jazz in general though (Thanks grand pop :-) )

Hip hop wise I mix it up a lot. I am listening to a lot to what Bartholomew Jones is putting out these days, He runs Cxffee Black in Memphis, 100% go check them out. I love Dead Prez and their ''Let's free album''. SO so relevant today. I was introduced to the Originals by Tobe Nwigwe recently and the album is so cool.

Lastly, I love A Tribe Called Red a lot.

BCB: Anything on the horizon for Rabbit Hole that we should keep an eye out for?

David: We are now the proud owner of our own roaster, a Loring 7kg. We are now 100% roasting in our new space. Having my own place was always a dream of mine, and is now a dream Sophie and I will share while building this business that we hope will appeal to a lot of people.

David and Sophie with their brand new Loring roaster! (Photo Credit: Rabbit Hole Roasters)

I want to extend a huge thank you to David over at Rabbit Hole for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule (especially while moving in a new roaster) to sit down and have this conversation with us! If you haven't already, go check out there website and grab a bag or two of coffee. Also head over to their Instagram and give them a follow!

As an EXTRA BONUS and a way to say thank you for reading through this interview, David has been so kind to supply anyone 15% off their next order from Rabbit Hole (valid until August 30th). Follow this link to get 15% off your next order!

Be sure to stay tuned for our next interview!