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Foodie Friday: Tasting coffee for a living – an interview with Bridgehead’s Head Roaster

By Mike Szabo on June 23, 2017

“I taste coffee for a living.”

That’s what Cliff Hansen at Bridgehead told me when I first met him a friend’s birthday party a couple weeks back. I, at first, thought it was some tongue-in-cheek joke – maybe he was a PhD student at Carleton or, like many of us there that night, a civil servant.

Bridgehead's Cliff Hansen with farmer Ramon Pablo from a cooperative farm in Guatemala that Bridgehead works with. Photo provided by Cliff Hansen.

Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen with farmer Ramon Pablo from a cooperative farm in Guatemala that Bridgehead works with. Photo provided by Cliff Hansen.

So I asked again: “No, really – what’s brought you to Ottawa?” to which he responded, “I’m actually a coffee taster for Bridgehead.” Professional coffee taster, I thought? That was a new and awesome concept to me. I mean, I love tasting coffee, and in fact, I pay the many cafes around town plenty of money to do it. Having someone pay you to do it, however… That idea was awesome.

So I decided to sit down with Cliff at Bridgehead’s Roastery on Preston Street to chat about his job and Bridgehead as a uniquely Ottawa coffee company. I learnt pretty quickly into our conversation just how complex the world of coffee tasting is and just how much care Bridgehead puts into their products.

Cliff joined Bridgehead as a barista when he was 17. While he said the original plan was to go to law school, when Bridgehead gave him the opportunity to become a coffee roaster and, even further, go apprentice in Chicago to learn how to do it, he jumped at the opportunity. He’s been with Bridgehead ever since.

Now as Bridgehead’s “Head Roaster and Beverage Strategist,” Cliff gets to travel to places like Guatemala, Honduras, and most recently, Mexico, to find the best possible product. He explained to me that when he’s cupping – the technical term for tasting coffee – he’s looking for a naturally sweet coffee, carefully evaluating its acidity, and paying attention to its fruity notes. In fact, there’s a whole standardized coffee scoring grid that measures the quality of coffee on a 100 point scale. Bridgehead, Cliff said, strives to use only 84 point and above coffees – a score considerably higher than the industry standard.

However, for Cliff and the rest of Bridgehead, these trips and his job are about more than just tasting and finding good coffee. When travelling for work, he and Bridgehead are also working to contribute to the co-operative farm they’ve partnered with. Whether that means helping them buy a sample roaster or teaching them some of the concepts behind coffee tasting, developing sustainable and fair business partnerships that help the farms flourish are at the core of their work.

Bridgehead’s commitment to sustainable supply chains, as well as being a uniquely Ottawa-area sourced company was a theme that streamed throughout our entire conversation. For example, Bridgehead pulls the raw ingredients for much of their products from the National Capital Region. They bake all their bread and make all their chai in-house and use products from the Gatineau-based Olivia Chocolatiers for their chocolate syrup. They’ve even brought the universities into the fray and are currently working with Carleton on a research project on how coffee ages.

For the summer, Cliff told me to expect matcha and some tropical flavours to hit the menu, and possibly the return of their hopped kombucha on tap at select locations across the city – a personal favourite of mine. Much like Ottawa, Bridgehead continues to grow and find new tastes to bring to the capital and its staff, like Cliff, will continue to be the key components of its evolution. “We love Ottawa,” Cliff told me as we ended our conversation and I’m pretty sure much of Ottawa loves Bridgehead right back (I know that I do).