In the upcoming months, Tasting Victoria will be profiling the local coffee industry.
For such a small city, Victoria is blessed with an abundance of excellent local coffee roasters. On a recent morning, Tasting Victoria toured Level Ground’s Tasting Room and roastery—and sampled their delicious Americano.
As a young man stationed in the Philippines, Level Ground co-founder Stacey Toews found himself moved by the daily evidence of poverty, child poverty in particular, and felt compelled to make a difference.
The question was how, and the answer was coffee—a commodity primarily consumed in the developed world but produced in the developing world.
So, he founded Level Ground in 1997, an era when organic and fairly traded coffee was still a relatively novel idea. As he explains it, “Our goals were to trade fair and direct with small-scale farmers. We focused on putting quality coffee into the local marketplace that would see poverty alleviated in the producer communities.”
Those goals continue to this day, as Level Ground continues to build new relationships in Latin America and East Africa. “Our tendency is to move into coffee sourcing relationships cautiously and then commit for the long-haul,” says Toews, “Our efforts are intended to make the most of the partnership as champions of our partners’ efforts and brighter future.”
The coffee roaster has also broken ground in the area of sustainability, a constant challenge in the coffee industry. Along with offering exclusively organic coffee, their new roastery uses a unique heat-capture system, cutting natural gas use by 43%.
Any small business owner will tell you that unexpected challenges are par for the course, and coffee businesses can face unique obstacles when dealing with governments and protocols in less stable regions of the world. Level Ground has been no exception.
Toews describes a few setbacks, but is quick to emphasize that they’ve emerged from each with more knowledge and resiliency. At one point, the Colombian co-op with which they formed their founding trade relationship went out of business. “We lost momentum and connection to fantastic coffee farmers.”
Later, the Tanzanian government made sweeping changes to how buyers sourced coffee, leading to supply interruptions. “We were unable to source from the same producers, and it had a big impact on our ability to satisfy customers who were madly in love with our Tanzanian coffee.”
And now, of course, there’s COVID-19. Says Toews, “COVID has had a significant impact on Level Ground. Adaptation has been constant as our team continues to improve and find ways to creatively source coffee and serve customers. For instance, we are not able to visit farmers, so we’ve had to adapt our communication with producer partners.”
Despite the trials of 2020, Level Ground has kept their Tasting Room up and running, a particularly impressive feat given that it’s located deep in the industrial region of Keating X Road.
In fact, last Thursday morning, it was as bustling as a socially distanced café could be—every six-feet-apart table was occupied. Toews explained that many of their customers are loyal regulars, and the baristas know many of their orders by heart.
The other key to their unconventional success is their coffee tasting flights, an experience well worth going out of your way for. For $10, you get three cups of coffee. You can choose between three different coffees prepared the same way or the same coffee prepared three different ways. It’s a fantastic way to learn more about coffee, and a wonderful experience to share with a friend.
In chatting with the barista, she explained that they’re happy to tailor the coffees and brewing methods to your established taste. Or they’ll help you push your boundaries with new suggestions.
Toews advocated for the latter, saying, “The journey to greater enjoyment of coffee starts when you hiccup your habits! Try multiple coffees side by side or experiment with new methods of preparation. It’s like opening up a whole new world of wonder.”
For the snacky among us, they’ve partnered with local bakeries like Mosi and Portofino to provide a rotating selection of fresh baked goods each morning. Last Thursday was donut day, courtesy of Empire Donuts.
The future looks bright for Level Ground. They fill a distinct niche in the local marketplace, bigger than a micro-roaster but small enough to maintain a community feel.
All the staff at the coffee roaster were refreshingly humble about coffee. In an era when third-wave coffee can feel a little exclusive or intimidating, it’s clear that Level Ground wants to stay approachable while still delivering the best quality. They offer a wide range of coffees, both blends and single origins, from a bright and juicy light roast to a dark and intense French roast.
And that’s liable to expand. Toews tells me that “in 2021, we’ll roast more than 1 million pounds of specialty coffee. This will be purchased from more than 5,000 small-scale farmers in eight nations in South America and East Africa.”
Want to try some Level Ground coffee for yourself? You’ll find it in all the major grocery stores, but our suggestion is to visit the Tasting Room and try a tasting flight. The coffee is fresh, the baristas are knowledgeable, and you might just discover a new favourite brew!