The natural processing of the Peruvian gives the blend a 'juicy fruit gum' sweetness with the Honduran laying down the milk chocolate notes. Somehow the combination made me think of red velvet cake!
-Linda Burnside, Owner/Roaster
"To provide a welcoming space, and to bring fair trade to our neighbourhood." Those were the goals of Alternative Grounds Owner/Roaster Linda Burnside when she started her business 19 years ago. At the time, fair trade coffees had not yet made their way into the Canadian consciousness. "If you got fair trade, it came from the states. People would say 'You're doing what?' 'Fair what?'."
"It's important to recognize people as our neighbours, and not by a label."
Burnside, who spent much of her time in social justice and working with marginalized members of society, remembers that, "It's important to recognize people as our neighbours, and not by a label." Still east of High park just off Bloor St. in Toronto, Alternative Grounds is run by Linda with help from her husband Kevin and her two beautiful dogs and remains a fixture in the community. To Linda, that community stretches far beyond Toronto to the very farmers from whom she buys her beans.
"Fair trade is important because it recognizes the farmer. It's about establishing a relationship, establishing a base price", says Linda. "In this business we impact a lot of people and we ought not to forget that." Fair trade allows farmers to plan their businesses around the assurance that they have relationships with buyers. It also allows them to form communities that have more political clout and to steward the land with the goal of long-term sustainability.
Relationships are what ultimately drew Linda to begin roasting. "Coffee was a medium to really begin a conversation", says Linda. "Whether it was a conversation about fair trade, or disability, or 'who's your neighbour'... it didn't matter." That social lubrication became the start of her education in coffee... and then it really took off. "It was a whole big world out there."
"There's this perception that, 'Oh it's fair trade; it's not good coffee'"
"There's this perception that, 'Oh it's fair trade; it's not good coffee'", says Linda. However, their roasts are indeed sophisticated and technical as any. "We have a cupping lab; we work directly with farmers to improve quality and help them know exactly what we're looking for." Her 19 years of success isn't attributed to her fair trade stance. "People will buy something to do the right thing...once. But we have really great coffee, and it stands whether its fair trade or not fair trade."
Alternative Grounds is a strictly roast-to-order roaster. Linda cups at least twice a week and, based on a lot of things including those cuppings, determines what to roast each day. She even sends cupping notes and booklets along with their orders to their cafe customers.
When asked about her dream situation for her business: "My situation's mighty fine. I can walk to my roastery, I have a co-op behind me that sources and cups where I can go to learn more and source and cup, I have great people that I work with, great coffee... hmm... I think I'm pretty much there!"