Coffee Culture in Toronto – 5 questions with Brett Johnston at Pilot Coffee Roasters

By: Jim Bamboulis

Coffee is a BIG deal. How big? Here are a few quick facts:

*Coffee is roughly a $100 billion industry worldwide.
*Globally, over 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily!
*The USA is the leading consumer of coffee in the world (146 billion cups every year).
*Finland drinks the most coffee per capita in the world.
*After crude oil, coffee is the second most traded commodity on the planet. 
*Around 14 billion espressos are consumed in Italy each year.
*Originally discovered in Ethiopia by a goat herder.
*Top coffee producer in the world is Brazil.
*Coffee stores are one of the fastest growing niches in the restaurant biz – Starbucks is the 3rd largest restaurant chain in the US.


The most expensive coffee on the planet is kopi luwak. It’s method of production is the reason why it’s so pricy. It’s made from beans that have been partially digested by the Asian palm civet (see below). You got it…it’s often called “cat poop coffee”. Although there’s a general consensus that it tastes bad, a cup can sell for as much as $80 in the US.


Although there aren’t many who clamour for kopi luwak to help them get up in the morning, there are thousands who crave a cup of java throughout the day. And with the recent explosion of independent coffee shops in Toronto, I thought that this would be the perfect time to ask a coffee expert about what the coffee culture is like in this part of the world.

That’s Brett Johnston. He’s the Head of Development at Pilot Roasters in Toronto. Who better to ask questions about coffee than a coffee connoisseur. Here we go!

What is Pilot Coffee Roasters about and what makes you/your coffee unique in what seems to be a massive coffee playing field?

Brett: The coffee playing field is definitely a vast landscape and after working for Pilot for 5 years I have felt that what sets us apart is the sense of community we’ve built amongst those serving and experiencing our coffee, as well as the strides we take to offer unique coffee experiences to that community.


Describe the Toronto indie coffee culture scene

Brett: The indie coffee culture scene here in Toronto has exploded in the past 5-10 years and we can now boast experiences that are on par with some of the best cafes in the world.  The rapid growth we’ve experienced and healthy sense of ambition is also accompanied by a lot of heart and warmth. That combination of ambition and sincerity is something that I feel throughout the coffee culture here and as a customer in many of these types of cafes I enjoy being a part of something so dynamic and alive.


Why are indie coffee shops so popular in Toronto?

Brett: I think they are popular for the amount of engagement and specialized experience they can offer an individual. There are contemporary values of inclusivity, sustainability, and craft built into our coffee culture that moves more people towards it and away from more commodity coffees/shops.  Alongside that is just the desire to have a new experience within coffee which I feel Toronto does well.


Why are indie coffee shops important and what value do they have in a community?

Brett: Quality shops can strengthen a sense of community and offer a hub to engage with people in a way that is disarming and positive. Sometimes in a way that is less possible at a bar or restaurant. Being able to quickly grab a coffee and spot to sit down can subtly facilitate a lot of positive interaction, which is always something to seek out and support when it’s available.

In your opinion, is Toronto a coffee snob city?

Brett: I really don’t feel like Toronto is a coffee snob city. I think we are very discerning about our tastes and have really made it known we like our food and drink but all of that is possible, and I feel happening, without snobbery or being elitist.
The indie coffee shop scene is elegantly taking on consumer education, which is necessary to increase the value of the experience and have those enjoying some of the best coffee in the world support it adequately so we can continue to have coffee producers in sustainable careers.


What’s the current role that coffee plays in our society? Is it still one of the only face-to-face social lubricants we have left? The coffee shop is still a place to come and actually enjoy the experience of drinking a cup of coffee and engaging conversation… or is coffee simply a way to start the day and a needed boost to get things done?

Brett: Knowing many people who have made coffee their primary focus interactions over and about coffee, I feel that it is much more than a morning boost.
Currently, specialty coffee shops strengthen communities, offer new taste experiences, and promote sustainable practices when sourcing green coffee that enable us to continue to enjoy it at the caliber we have now.
I do feel that the coffee shop is one of those places that offer a more engaging face-to-face interaction, but if that aspect of it resonates with you, there are also many great places in this city where that can be found.


I heard once that the more attitude a barista has, the better the coffee. Any truth to that?

Brett: The environment of coffee shop can be it’s primary draw for me but I feel the more humble, generous, and knowledgeable a barista is the better the coffee experience.
There are a lot of talented baristas and roasters here and great coffee being made everyday. Choosing the most inviting experience along with it will offer a more enriching experience for everyone.

Have thoughts about coffee? Drop us a line and tell us what you think about the whole coffee scene in your part of the world. Thanks all!


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