Ottawa-born Dan Orr oversees coffee-roasting duties at St. Jacobs’ ECOCafe. The Stratford Chefs School graduate has spent most of his adult life working with food in one capacity or another. He intended on taking a bit a sabbatical at one point in his career, but he soon was drawn back in.
“I’d been cooking since I was 17 years old, but I left once I learned I was going to be a father. Literally the first day I was off, I responded to an ad for a part-time position at ECOCafe. I had always wanted to get into coffee, so I jumped at the chance,” says Orr.
Becoming a Coffee Roaster
Soon after, he took over the role of coffee roaster and has made it his own. “We just kept changing and modifying things and experimenting. I’m a self-taught coffee-roaster,” he says. As a cook, he had imagined himself opening a breakfast or brunch venue with a special focus on coffee. “That was popular when I was cooking in Ottawa and Montreal. It had a lot of appeal for me.”
He notes that even over the few years, things have changed rapidly at ECOCafe. “It was once more of a wholesale production facility, and then we expanded into the café. I interact with retail customers a lot more.”
In the beginning of the café, ECOCafe was less concerned with the science behind roasting, but Orr and café owner Ed Denyer have introduced that into their coffee production in a significant way. “We record a lot of data and we purchased a moisture analyzer. So we’re a lot more scientific with how we roast as well as having implemented cupping and coffee evaluations.”
Creating New Brews and New Partnerships
ECOCafe also has a strong relationship with Block 3 Brewing across the street. “We partnered with them and did a coffee porter called ‘Guy on a Buffalo.’ It was really good,” he says. They also send cold brew coffee to Block Three where it is kegged and put on tap at the café as carbonated cold brew coffee. We’re also looking at doing bottled nitro coffee, so there’s a lot of interesting things in the works.”
The popular café is something of a coffee Mecca for the tourists that are such a significant part of the local community, according to Orr. “We get a lot of tourists through who are very interested in coffee, and many are surprised that we roast on-site. I talked to some roasters from Germany, and it was interesting to discuss the different approaches to roasting.”
Orr is surprised by how much he’s learned about the his new craft in a few short years—especially when you consider Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,000 hours is required for “mastery”—but his culinary background emerges in his day-to-day tasks in a more noticeable way than even he expected.
“I more surprised by how much my palate comes into play,” says Orr. “We’re evaluating and doing a lot of coffee assessment and building blends based on taste. It’s just amazing how varied coffees can be just given their geographic location, how they were processed, what kind soil they’re grown in and at what elevation. That can be blueberry, peanut, hazel nut, caramel and floral notes. It’s all over the spectrum and similar to wine tasting. It’s uncanny.”
ECOCafe in St. Jacobs
And for a man who spends a good portion of his day around coffee and roasting coffee beans, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that his favourite coffee drink is the simplest one.
“My preferred way of drinking coffee is a pour-over,” he says. “It allows you to taste every aspect of a single-origin coffee. It’s a more concentrated cup of coffee than what you would get in a carafe. And it’s very easy to do.”
Rapid-fire round with Dan Orr
Waterloo Region Tourism: Best thing you’ve ever eaten?
Dan Orr: At Stratford Chefs School, a French chef visited from Toronto, Didier Leroy. He did a lamb shank wrapped in puff pastry, the most classic French dish you could imagine. It was insane and has stuck with me.
Other career you could have pursued?
Orr: I have a fine art background and I’m passionate for music. So with culinary and coffee, I think I’m good for careers!
Chef you’d most like to meet?
Orr: Probably Thomas Keller. Just because he’s so iconic.
Best footwear (for the roasting coffee or otherwise)?
Orr: Skecher slip-ons.
Favourite international food in Waterloo Region?
Orr: I really like the Owl of Minerva in Waterloo and Kinkaku in Kitchener.
What scares you in a kitchen?
Greatest failed recipe?
Orr: I tried to make a tonkatsu ramen broth. Didn’t work.
Do you ride a bike?
Orr: I used to, but I’ve been hit by a car three times so not any more.
A moment in your life you’d like to have back?
Orr: All the free time I wasted in my youth.
Who would you like to cook for or serve a nice pour-over to?
Orr: I’d like to cook for Brandon and Jess from the Belmont Bistro.
Go-to late-night snack?
Orr: Probably soppressato, cheese, crackers.
Best thing about being a chef—or a coffee roaster?
Orr: As a coffee roaster, I’m learning something every day. And the hours are better than being a chef.
Dumbest purchase you’ve made?
Orr: My wife could list a million I’ve made, but probably books on physics, linguistics and the theory of relativity. I can’t comprehend those at all.
What do you wish for Waterloo Region?
Orr: Better public transport and less construction.
Orr: Halifax and Ottawa. Two very enjoyable cities.
TV chefs who annoy you?
Orr: Everyone. Except for Matty Matheson. But I do like Gordon Ramsay, outside of the television stuff.
Would you describe yourself as sweet or savoury?
Orr: Savoury. I don’t have a sweet-tooth, although my best marks in chef school were in pastry.
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