(Above: Owners Paul Melsness (left) and Paul Jay in front of the coffee roaster at Gaia Java. All photos on this page by Barry Gray.)
- The two owners, both named Paul, met as singers in a vocal jazz group
- They’ve developed an environmentally friendly system for roasting coffee beans that uses 25% of the energy of a typical system
- Tips and donations from customers have helped raise over $7,500 for an aid project in Uganda
EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five years since Gaia Java Coffee Company opened its doors on Stittsville Main Street. Time flies! The cozy coffee shop has become not only a favourite stop for coffee, but also a centre for arts and culture in the community. The shop is owned by two people named Paul: Paul Melsness and Paul Jay. Here’s an interview with the latter.
GG: Tell me where the idea for Gaia Java came from? How did you and Paul connect and why did you decide to start a coffee shop?
PJ: Both Pauls sang for many years in a vocal jazz group called Quintessence. (Our CD is on sale at the shop!) Over conversations at rehearsals I found out that Paul M. was doing coffee roasting at home, and when we tried some of his fresh roasted beans we realised what a world of difference in taste there is between real coffee and stale coffee!
So Paul and Paul discussed the fact that Stittsville didn’t have a real gourmet coffee shop, but that there would probably be an appetite for one in the right location. We bought a roaster and kept it in storage while we found a unit to lease. That was late 2010.
PJ: Firstly, because we roast all our own coffee it is always very fresh. We aim to serve only coffee roasted within the last month, since after about four weeks the oils that come out of roasted beans start to turn rancid and develop a bitter taste, masking some of the wonderful other flavours that distinguish beans from different parts of the world.
Secondly we recognize that the coffee industry is a very exploitative one, and not always kind to the environment, so we wanted to remedy that where possible. In terms of our roasting process we avoided the traditional way of ‘cleaning’ roasting fumes using an ‘afterburner’.
If roasters bother to clean their fumes at all (many just vent directly to the atmosphere, which is very pollutive) they often use a second very high temperature chamber after the roaster to break down the organic gases; this is called an afterburner. It typically uses 3-4 times more energy than the roaster itself, and delivers an output which is clear of visible smoke, but comprises mostly carbon monoxide and CO2, neither of which are great for the atmosphere.
So we researched and developed an alternative solution which allows us to use electronic air cleaning to capture the organic byproducts in the roasting fumes, and we trap them in filters which can be cleaned off periodically, with the accumulated buildup going to compost.
So our roasting system is cleaner and uses about 1/4 the energy of a normal system.
Also we know that many coffee producing countries employ very low-cost labour and so we have a system of collecting tips and donations from our customers, and instead of them going to the staff, we forward them to a project that helps a community centre in a village in Uganda.
Since opening the shop we have donated $7,500 to the ‘Canada Africa Community Health Alliance’ in aid of a project in Kamengo, Uganda. In December we joined forces with Stittsville Rotary to send $1200 to support a project to create a chicken-rearing facility in Kamengo, and I just got word that their first batch of chickens has arrived! Over a year this project will generate about twice the amount we gave them.
GG:Tell me about the roasting machine – that’s a unique ‘sculpture-like’ machine in the shop.
PJ: It is an Italian-made machine. Our maintenance engineer from Montreal says it is the “Rolls Royce of Roasters”! It’s very well made and provides very uniform heating so that the beans are all evenly roasted.
We buy green coffee beans from all over the world (South America, Africa, Indonesia, etc) and roast all the beans we use in house and sell to our customers. We roast in small batches so that we don’t have beans sitting around for more than a few weeks to maintain their freshness.
Most of the beans we buy are fair-trade organic, or produced under the jurisdiction of a similar movement (for example Rain Forest Alliance). But for some countries (likeTanzania ) we cannot get Fair Trade yet so we roast the beans that we can buy.
As well as supplying our in-house needs we supply to some other coffee shops and retail outlets. We also occasionally supply at near-trade prices to schools or churches for fund-raising programs.
Our roasting process one of the most environmentally-friendly methods around. This is part of the reason for our name – “Gaia” is the Greek goddess of the earth and represents harmony with the planet and a drive for sustainability, so our cups are all compostabe materials – even the cold drink cups.
GG. You run a lot of music events – why is that important for you?
PJ: The genesis of our idea was born out of a musical interest, and we love the idea of a community sharing music in a coffee shop. That’s something that has been happening since J.S. Bach used to take his sons and a couple of harpsichords to Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig, and entertain the locals. In London Handel used to sell tickets for his Messiah and other concerts through the local coffee shops.
One of the most rewarding aspects to us is to have the shop function as a community resource, whether for staging performances of aspiring or professional performers, or for hosting discussion meetings, book clubs, etcetera. It’s a place where people meet and get to know one another better.
So many of the performers who come in say how much they really appreciate the receptive atmosphere of the audiences at Gaia Java, and the people who come to listen also love the great variety of talent that comes in to sing and play.
GG: What are some of the challenges you have in running a small business in Stittsville?
PJ: Well at this time of year we notice that the coffee traffic is very weather dependent. It may also be credit-card bill shock dependent! We are very proud of our workforce of wonderful servers who keep the place running smoothly in spite of challenges like bad weather, very salty floors, occasional power cuts or internet shut-downs!
They also generously agree to forgo their tips in favour of the charitable donations we make as a shop, and which help young people in other countries make it through school and then university.
As mentioned we generate quite a bit of healthy compostable material from our roasting process as well as in terms of the cups, however the city will not collect the compost from a business in a mall like ours, so most of the time I have to lug the compost home and put it in my domestic green bin. That doesn’t seem to me like a best practice.
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