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Bridgehead’s New Roastery: Willy Wonka for the Coffee Geek

By Jared Davidson on July 12, 2012

During my extensive research for this article, I stumbled upon this clip from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In the clip, the children are welcomed into the factory by a strange and rather morally ambiguous Gene Wilder. Now, I would contend, and I think anyone who has toured any candy factory, that this scene is somewhat removed from reality. I once toured the now-no-more Hershey’s factory in Smiths Falls, and at the time I was struck by the lack of whimsy, majesty and creepy men singing “come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination!” But maybe it was just because I’m really not that obsessed with chocolate.

Coffee, on the other hand, is a different story. And it’s there that the Charlie Bucket in me starts to peek out from behind my drab exterior, wide-eyed and astonished.

Last week, I got to tour the facilities at Bridgehead’s new roastery on Preston. The lack of oompa-loompah’s aside, I must admit that I felt a definite sense of wonder from the moment I entered the building. Located in what was once a stables for Bell Canada, the roastery looks something like a craft beer brewery. In the middle of its huge, open floor sits a massive roasting machine. All of Bridgehead’s coffee now moves through this one machine. If you drank a cup of Bridgehead coffee this week, there’s a fairly good chance that I was there when the beans were roasted. For me, this was like visiting the epicenter of my coffee addiction: inspiring and terrifying. The roaster sits like a mythical creature in the middle of the facility, at all times emitting a loud whirring noise, which can be a little difficult to talk over.

Luckily Ian Clark, Bridgehead’s Director of Coffee, was there to guide me through the process. He showed me the huge barrels where they keep the green, unroasted beans, labeled by type and overwhelmingly plentiful. Then he let me watch a batch being roasted, and explained a lot of technical things about coffee. If you ever wanted to know everything about coffee roasting, I’m told Bridgehead gives free tours of their facility on weekends. It’s a very complex process, it seems—one that requires careful control of temperatures and so forth. And it’s clear that quite a bit of the science of coffee happens long before a barista brews a cup.

But the brewing is a big part of it as well. The Bridgehead roastery is actually half roastery, half coffee house. It’s a place where you can see the nearly complete story of your cup of coffee unfold. As well as putting the roasting process on display, the facility sports another attraction for coffee geeks: multiple brewing methods. By my count, there were four specialty brewing methods to choose from. Ian Clark showed me the difference between two of them: the clever and the syphon.

Both methods are spectator sports, with the barista obsessively checking the temperature and weight and stirring the coffee. In the end, the results of both methods were vastly different. Ian Clark explained that they suggest different brewing methods for different strains of coffee. Coffee is like wine, it seems, and much attention should be paid to every step in the process from bean to cup. Coffee geeks could spend hours in a place like this, trying different brewing combinations with different beans.

The roastery also appeals to lovers of design. Tracey Clark, Managing Director of Bridgehead and one of the minds behind the roastery project, told me that the structural design and location of the facility was extremely important. When they were first offered the building in 2008, she tells me, the place was a bit of a mess. “At that time there was a back part that was sort of a warehouse, self-storage area, and it was packed to the rafters and there was a middle part that was full of old glass making equipment and a lot of porn on the walls,” she says. It was segmented, something they weren’t looking for, but when they brought in a structural engineer, they were told that it was originally open and the dividing walls could go. And so they did.

Open as anything, the room is mostly lit by a huge skylight in the middle of the building. “It was built before electricity,” Clark says, “so it was daylight that they relied upon.” This is a perfect example of one of the main themes of the design, the blending of the original structural design with a more “Bridgehead” aesthetic. “From an architectural point of view it would be called ‘transitional’ in the sense that it tries to highlight some of the old and yet with the new,” says Clark.

As well as the building itself, the location was also a big draw. Fairly central, the roastery is right across the street from Plant Recreation Centre on the edge of Chinatown. It would have been cheaper, and probably easier to put the roastery somewhere on the outskirts of town, but for Clark and the rest of the Bridgehead team, that didn’t feel right. “It was important that it be an urban, pedestrian oriented place,” says Clark. “What we wanted to do with roasting was to put it in a place where our values of openness and transparency would be visible.”

Clark also felt it was important to maintain Bridgehead as a member of and a contributor to Ottawa on a community level. “I want to allocate a certain number of days and parts of days throughout the year that could be given over to community events, where the space is either offered at a nominal rate or for free for various kinds of community events,” says Clark. At the back of the roastery is a space specifically set aside for events of this kind, complete with tables, a whiteboard, and Beau’s beer on tap. Oh, by the way, the roastery is licensed. Clark has plans for pop up galleries and cafes that could take over the back of the building.

Clark also told me that the wood paneling that lines the inside of the building contains a coded message courtesy of Architect Michael Kilpatrick. I’m told he has, in his playful way, inscribed a message in Morse code. She was guarded about what it said, hinting that people would have to come out to the roastery to find out. As if we needed another reason to go.

All photos courtesy of Joelle Guédon.