Subtext Coffee was launched in 2020 by Alex Castellani, co-owner of Boxcar Social in Toronto. The cafe chain has a reputation for pushing the envelope of specialty coffee and providing an exceptional sensory experience. 

We chatted with Castellani to learn about what they’re attempting to do with Subtext and with Jamal Ali, Subtext’s Green Buyer, to learn about their approach to sourcing coffee.

- What would you say is the ethos of Subtext Coffee? 

Castellani: Coffee is labour and agriculture; the byproduct is a barely explored bounty of diversity in expression.  

Like many of our respected colleagues, we believe in purposefully transcending coffees’ commodified, homogenizing, and exploitative colonial past.  

 We believe some steps in this direction are the proactive equitable treatment of producers, redefining market value, transparency in sourcing, and a larger approach to evaluating the sustainability of our projects.  

- How do you guys decide which coffees to source?

Castellani: Seasonality, regional typicity, and innovation drive our buying practices.  

We seek coffee that can tell its own story through an expressive profile. Sometimes that means we seek the paragon of a washed Ethiopian landrace from Gedeb, other times we're showcasing the delicious but anomalous fringe expression of an anaerobically processed coffee from the West Valley in Costa Rica. This is all to say we embrace divergence, diversity, difference, and place. 

Ali: We want to push the boundaries of coffee quality. We believe engaging with high-quality coffee shows an alternative to how coffee has been traded throughout history. Historically, it has been anonymous; you don’t know who the producers are, and it has been commodified on the C Market.

When we source coffee, we want it to be of high quality. We want to showcase biodiversity and highlight the fact that coffee is agriculture; it is a plant grown by people that are tending to their land and care about their craft and communities. We are trying to show the coffee itself—we don’t roast it dark and we don’t blend it– we want to show the work that came before us.

- What are you excited about when thinking about the future of coffee?

Ali: We see many coffee-producing regions and countries producing higher and higher quality coffee. As well as more and more small producers being introduced into the specialty market. For example, we are seeing some amazing coffee coming out of Colombia; we are buying from 30 different lots this year.

The thing that excites us the most is being able to share these amazing coffees. The quality keeps going up and so do the prices—which is a good thing—though they are not always passed on to producers as they should be. But we are seeing more and more small producers being introduced to the specialty market, which is great.

March 06, 2023 — Zara Snitman

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