If you enjoy local coffee, then you probably know Firebean Coffee Roasters. The small-batch Yukon roaster is bringing old school techniques to the forefront of the northern coffee roasting scene.
Sole proprietor Michael Russo calls his small business a case of “accidental entrepreneurship”. What started out as a hobby has grown organically into a successful small business. Russo began fire-roasting coffee using a hand spinner, and soon recognized an opportunity to do more. It was on a visit to a museum in Parry Sound that he found the stationary bike that would take his hobby to the next level.
He brought the bike home and connected it to a repurposed pizza oven. He began churning out “pedal-powered” coffee and the business has been growing ever since. In the early days he and his partner Sarah were producing 10 lbs a week, now they’re producing 100.
Firebean’s bicycle roasting set-up next to some ready-to-roast beans. (Photo: Michael Russo)
“We value the old school art and the craft”, says Firebean’s website – “working with simple technologies towards a valuable end is fulfilling”.
In this day and age, where technology is becoming increasingly complex and resources must be extracted faster and faster to keep pace, this is just the type of system we need more of. Simple, low-impact, local enterprises are essential to build resilient, sustainable communities.
“The bike always works”, says Michael.
Whether it’s minus 30 or plus 30, there’s no worrying about power outages or mechanical issues that come with electric or gas roasting systems. This also means less waste as Russo doesn’t have to purchase gas or rely on electricity. Their system is simple and reliable. As long as he can pedal, he can roast, and because the set-up is wood-fired, the energy supply is 100% renewable.
Working with fire instead of gas or electricity requires more attention to keep the right temperature, but the energy source is 100% renewable. (Photo: Michael Russo)
Russo and family have been moving around a fair amount, so the bike’s portability is also an asset. He says that his relationship with the bike has become somewhat love-hate. He still enjoys the process, and it keeps him healthy. The bike-powered aspect of his business is also powerful marketing. On the flip side he says, “biking (for fun) has lost some of its appeal”.
“Lean and mean”
Working at such a small scale, the business is, in Michael’s words, “lean and mean”. This means they are able to do things that other businesses might not be able to, including testing out different ways of reducing waste in the business.
Producing small batches of coffee means they turn over their inventory faster than larger scale roasters. This has allowed Firebean to switch to using a lower barrier compostable coffee bag for some of their more frequently purchased bags and high frequency shop deliveries. These bags are actually cheaper than a conventional coffee bag, meaning the savings are financial as well as environmental. They also hand stamp their bags, saving costs and materials.
“Millennials read the packaging”, Russo says. He recognizes that customers are looking more and more at the environmental footprint of their products and packaging. “Years ago we probably wouldn’t be thinking as much about our environmental footprint, but I think everyone is recognizing that there’s responsibility involved in running a business”.
Firebean is using a compostable bag for some of its roasts, cutting down on materials and costs. (Photo: Michael Russo)
One way they’re cutting down waste is by selling coffee in bulk, and supplying it in reusable pails as well. This has presented challenges, as the pails are hard to keep track of, but currently they still bring their bulk beans to Riverside Grocery this way. Once empty they’re returned, washed and ready to transport another batch.
“We’re planning to bring bulk to the Fireweed Market this year”, Russo tells me. “I think it lines up with some of the values the market is trying to promote, and we really believe in putting stuff out there just to see what happens”.
Last Christmas, they found some antique canning jars at the Wish Factory in Whitehorse and put them to good use, selling coffee and gift cards in a container that could be reused again and again.
Russo dropping off fresh bulk at Riverside Grocery in Whitehorse. (Photo: Michael Russo)
Firebean really doesn’t produce much waste during production. Apart from a small bit of chaff left over from the roasting (this just ends up on the ground to decompose) and ash from the oven, it’s almost a Zero Waste affair.
Firebean is also helping grow a more local circular economy through collaborations with other Yukon businesses:
They’ve partnered with Bean North Coffee Roasters to do a roasting day, and teamed up with Winterlong Brewing to create a Rye Coffee Porter and “Divine,” a special edition barrel aged coffee and beer. They partnered with Deep Dark Wood Brewing Company on a Golden Sour beer. Their coffee has also been used in Yukon-made soaps, Yukon chocolate and Yukon salts from Axe and Crocus in Dawson City.
These partnerships are vital to building strong relationships with other local businesses and supporting a sustainable local economy.
Russo’s advice to other businesses?
“I’m reticent to preach to others”, he says. “What works for us might not necessarily work for others. I would say to test stuff out, see how it works. One of the benefits of being small is that we can fiddle around until things work”.
He encourages others to try any small step.
“No business is too big or too small, and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Small ideas are worth testing and no effort is too little to try if it means you’re moving closer to Zero Waste”.
This fiddling around seems to be paying off, and here’s hoping more exciting things are to come from Firebean Coffee Roasters.