Matt Fehr of 49th Parallel. Coffee has been a big part of our culture here in Vancouver for many years. Starting with the mom and pop cafes on Commercial drive that have been around for decades and slowly moving west. Coffee has become a ritual in our lives. Chances are that if you have been enjoying coffee at some of the more reputable cafés around town, Matt has probably made you a coffee. It was probably one of those standout cups, perfect flavour, perfectly frothed milk and spectacular latte art.
In a city so rich with coffee culture it is hard to find a barista with as much finesse as Matt. He is one of those people who you can entrust your morning to. We would be remiss to say that we hadn't passed on the occasional coffee because Matt’s signature beard and bowler hat were not at the helm of the bar. Not only will his skills forever endear you to him but so will his personality. No sunny fake cheer here, Matt's ‘tell it like it is’ conversation and dark humour will win you over after just one sip. Matt never gives interviews, but after a little arm twisting and promise of beer, he caved and graciously invited us over for a cup of coffee. There was some shop talk, some life talk and all the while Matt shared with us his coffee rituals. We hope that our little chat with Matt will inspire you to share your own coffee rituals with us. Snap a photo, tag it #mycoffeeritual and post it on Instagram. Hit up the bottom of the page for full contest details.
Tell us a little about yourself? I’m a product of British Columbia. Born in Trail, raised first in Grand Forks, then Prince Rupert, and then a place called Okanagan Centre, a small part of Lake Country, a highway town just north of Kelowna, where I finished off my childhood. I eventually flowed seaward to Vancouver a couple years later to attend Capilano College and later SFU for a shiny literature/philosophy/miscellaneous degree. It was the pre-Olympic culture of East Van, the dreary climate, and above all the natural surround that convinced me to remain.
How long have you been working as a Barista? What draws you to being a barista and keeps you in the field? I’ve been making coffee roughly nine years accumulated. Personally, it’s not the coffee that primarily interests me. I like to misquote the movie You’ve Got Mail and say “Caffeine is a legal, addictive stimulant.” Of course, I am interested in the experience of its taste, as much as its effects. For the poisonous pit of a modest cherry, it is a dynamic and remarkable substance. But I became a barista because I was attracted to the culture in a part of the city I’d just moved to. It is the cafe, in my opinion, that is the important aspect of coffee. I have remained a barista so long because I enjoy the ritual of coffee-making, the synthesis of human and (espresso) machine, working in a small team of people, functioning as an aspect of a neighbourhood, conversing and perhaps knowing people, generally, individually, if only in limited, but recurrent, ways.
Is coffee fuel or social to you? Caffeine fuels both activity and sociality. It is that way for me, certainly. I think that, if we’re honest, we as an era owe a whole lot to coffee.
Approximately how many lattes have you poured in your 9 years? It unsettles me to think about it. If i estimate an average of 10 lattes an hour–which is probably pretty conservative–the figure is nearly 200,000. If we count mochas and cappuccinos, that number will likely double. No matter what, it is a harrowing number of lattes.
We hear you have a hashtag that some of your coworkers started for you, what is it? I’m very fortunate to work with a great crew. Having them designate me #lookforbeardman. It means they really care. I think. How long have you been growing your beard? I’ve been bearded for more than a decade. This current beard took eight months to grow out. Now it demands regular pruning and other fuss.
In the past 9 years, how has the coffee scene in Vancouver evolved? Where do you see it going? I was lucky to arrive on the scene just as things were flaring up. Vancouver was beginning its ramp-up to world-class status. Caffe Artigiano was just digging in downtown, standardizing competition-level extraction and latte art; JJBean was expanding out into East Vancouver, developing quality and culture. Barista competitions were beginning to be held and starting to matter to coffee drinkers. Back then, dark roast espressos were dominant, with bitter chocolates and downright charcoals. Over the years, the roasteries have multiplied, preferred roasts have steadily lightened in favour of fruity acidities and sugars. Whole-bean retail marketing has adopted the techniques and vernacular of the wine industry: aromas, hints, notes. Extraction protocols have become more complex, looking to exploit that extra five percent of quality, find a competitive edge in a very competitive industry. Neighbourhood cafes become empires and brands, new cafes stake out the emerging neighbourhoods. As for where coffee will go, I think it will mature in unsurprising cycles of taste and fad. It’s hit that critical mass, I think. Eventually, only coffee machines will make coffee and cafes will be merely wireless hubs, but maybe by then we’ll all have home roaster/extraction/culture machines hissing and glowing in the corners of our bedrooms.
What type of home brewing method do you think is best? People being people, each will find their own preference. I think the most important aspect of any brewing is the repetition, the ritual. For me, an old french press and a medium-dark espresso roast is as complicated as things need to be to achieve a really enjoyable cup of coffee. What is your idea of a perfect weekend/days off? Every day begins with coffee, whether at home or at a cafe. Beyond that, if I have the opportunity, I retreat to the forest. Hiking is ultimately my favorite way to spend any amount of time. If there’s no time to hike, a bike ride to a park with a book is the standard plan-b. Do you go to other cafes on your days off? If so, which ones? I like to frequent my neighbourhood cafes, to play the role on the opposite side of the counter. Baristas are typically good people to know. In my neighbourhood are Elysian Coffee at Broadway and Ash, Kafka’s on Main at Broadway, or Matchstick at Kingsway and Fraser.
What are you currently reading? Do you have a must read recommendation? I'm currently splitting my attention between Cannings & Nelson's The Geology of British Columbia, Nietzsche's The Gay Science, and a Soviet-era dystopia, The Final Circle of Paradise, by Arkady&Boris Strugastky. Only Nietzsche's a must-read. I'd recommend, nonetheless: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon; Super Cannes by JG Ballard; anything at all by Franz Kafka; Nabokov's Bend Sinister; The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin; Anathem by Neil Stephenson; Matter by Iain M. Banks; Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers; and, above all, Jorge-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature.
What is your favorite thing to do in Vancouver? I've alluded to it already, but my favorite thing to do in Vancouver is to leave. This city has an absolutely incredible surrounding wilderness. It is a special luxury to take public transit to forests and mountains as lush and beautiful as these stubbornly continue to be. These forests and mountains are my preferred environment, and I'm out there lost and happy whenever I'm able. What is one food that you can’t live without. This is the hardest question. Stew is my favourite meal, if it counts as cooking. But i wouldn't want to live too long without at least the occasional taste of honey.
We would love to see how you like your coffee, whether if it’s at home or out at a cafe. Post a photo of your ritual and tag #mycoffeeritual. We will repost photos throughout the month and send a bag of 49th parallel coffee beans to our favourite.