Melk Café has been on a mission to revolutionize coffee, offering specialty brews that go beyond the ordinary. But it wasn’t until their partnership with Gregory Kalinan, an advocate for sustainability and positive impact, that their vision took a transformative turn.
Dominique Jacques of Melk Café and Greogry have embarked together on a journey to introduce biodynamic coffee to the market, a unique and environmentally conscious approach to farming. I recently spoke with Dominique and Gregory to share their inspiring story detailing the birth of Holistic Roasters, the passion behind the brand, and their commitment to regenerative agriculture.
During our conversation, Dominique and Gregory shed light on Holistic Roasters’ eco-friendly practices that are sustainable and deliver a cleaner, better-for-you, premium cup of coffee. Through their commitment to holistic and regenerative practices, they are working to redefine the way we enjoy coffee while minimizing the impact on our planet, one cup at a time.
Christopher Marquis: Could you share some background on Holistic Roasters and the inspiration behind Melk Café?
Dominique Jacques: Well, it all started with a cup of coffee. I wasn’t even a coffee drinker, but one cup changed everything. I remember thinking this doesn’t even taste like coffee; it tastes like blueberries! That’s when I realized that coffee could be so much more than what it’s typically known for.
So, that was it. I decided I would work in coffee. I felt compelled to spread the good news! Coffee can taste great; it can offer a myriad of different flavors. My father and grandfather were entrepreneurs, so it always felt natural that I would follow in their footsteps. This was especially convenient considering my lack of success in school.
As soon as I mentioned the project to my partner, Myriam Asselin, her immediate response was, “I’ll take care of the pastries.” That took me by surprise. Myriam was the polar opposite of the ADHD high school dropout I was, daydreaming about owning a business. In fact, she was an exceptional student pursuing her master’s in art history with a minor in Chinese. It’s even more impressive considering she was already fluent in French, English, Spanish, and German. By the way, she would hate me for saying all this about her. I’ve always felt that she was the one who took the greatest risk, given she was on the brink of achieving great things in her field.
But I wasn’t about to turn down her help. Now, with someone so organized and thorough, I genuinely felt that we had formed a great team set for success.
We then embarked on a voyage to London to study under the guidance of Jeremy Challender and World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies at Prufrock Coffee. Armed with new knowledge and unwavering enthusiasm, we opened our first Melk Café in 2013. Fun fact, this week marks Melk’s 10th anniversary. The impressive part is that, after all these years in business together, we’re still a team and have even managed to have two kids along the way!
At first, it was just Myriam and me plus two part-time employees. That’s not many for a business that’s open twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Running a hospitality business is demanding and comes with its ups and downs, but things were going rather well. The cornerstone of our success was, and still is, our commitment to our product, our clients, and above all, our employees. Matisse Gill, the first full-time barista we hired at 21 years old, is now our Director of Coffee, Head Roaster, and green coffee buyer nine years later. He’s the one liaising with all the wonderful producers we now have the privilege to work with.
Melk is now a successful multi-location Café/Roaster that exclusively roasts organic coffee, with a significant focus on regenerative agriculture. Follow our journey at instagram.com/melk.cafe.
Regarding Holistic Roasters and Biodynamic Coffee? It all began when we met Greg, who was initially just a great client, amiable not only to us but also to all our staff. Even though I wasn’t quite sure what he did for a living, I found myself comfortable discussing ideas and business opportunities with him. Little did I know, he would end up significantly influencing the trajectory of our careers. He explained in really simple terms the issues with the current agricultural system and its lack of sustainability. According to him, the only viable alternative was a regenerative approach to farming, with biodynamic methods being the best way to achieve it. We were convinced.
If you delve into Greg’s career, you’ll see that my instincts were spot on. His achievements are quite remarkable. He doesn’t often discuss it, but his first company went public when he was just in his early 30s – and that’s only one example. Much like Myriam, he’d probably be quite annoyed by the praise I’m giving him. If he were to proofread this, he would likely downplay his achievements and shift the focus onto us, when it really isn’t all about us.
Having said all that, for that segment of the journey, his words would certainly be more illuminating than mine.
Gregory Kalinin: In 2013, Melk Café opened just around the corner from where I used to live, offering specialty coffee in an inviting and inclusive atmosphere. The response was overwhelming, with a burgeoning community of devoted patrons, of which I was privileged to be one.
Meanwhile, in 2016, an opportunity presented itself to support my children’s school fundraiser by sourcing and selling Biodynamic coffee at local events and farmer’s markets. Encouraged by the positive feedback and growing local demand for Biodynamic Coffee, I approached Dominique and Myriam about the prospect of incorporating coffee roasting into their business.
While initially uncertain about this new venture, as they delved deeper into the coffee world, Dominique and Myriam began to develop concerns about the impact of conventional agriculture on the environment and the nutritional quality of food. They recognized that the future of agriculture lay in regenerative growing practices and that it was a cause worth championing. This ignited their vision for change and the whole Melk team embraced the notion of going beyond a purely epicurean experience and began shifting their focus to the positive impact that regenerative farming can have on communities and the health of those who enjoy their coffee.
Fuelled by countless brainstorming sessions, Dominique and I embarked on a journey to Honduras, where we had the privilege of meeting a remarkable family of Biodynamic, regenerative coffee farmers. This firsthand encounter with their sustainable growing practices solidified our commitment to making a difference. Inspired and invigorated, we returned from our trip and wasted no time in launching Holistic Roasters.
Marquis: How did the team land on biodynamic coffee? Can you describe how the biodynamic coffee process is different from conventional coffee? Are there any taste differences?
Dominique Jacques: I will let Greg do the heavy lifting on this one. Because he’s the one who sold me to it.
Gregory Kalinin: The journey to Biodynamic coffee was driven by our commitment to sustainability, quality, and making a positive impact. When exploring different agricultural practices, we were captivated by the uniqueness of Biodynamic farming and its potential to revolutionize the coffee industry.
Unlike conventional coffee farms, a Biodynamic coffee farm doesn’t conform to conventional agriculture’s uniform rows of coffee trees. Instead, it integrates seamlessly into the environment, resembling a natural forest. This holistic approach to agriculture aims to create a diverse, self-sustaining ecosystem that nurtures the farm’s natural fertility. Through the use of natural compost, herbs, and minerals, the focus is on improving the soil’s microbiome. This process increases organic matter in the soil, facilitates better absorption of rainfall, and helps replenish aquifers. By adopting Biodynamic practices, farmers experience larger yields, enhanced independence, and improved livelihoods. We firmly believe that Biodynamic farming produces some of the cleanest and most delicious coffees on earth.
The journey from the farm to your morning cup of coffee involves numerous steps, with the foundation being the health and fertility of the soil. Just like harvesting grapes for wine, picking coffee cherries is a meticulous process that requires hand-selecting the fruit at optimal ripeness. However, unlike grapes, coffee cherries ripen at varying rates, even on the same branch, adding a layer of complexity. While hand-picking coffee is labor-intensive, it ensures that only the highest-quality fruit is selected – yes, coffee cherries are considered a fruit, and the “bean” inside is actually a seed.
One of the distinguishing factors of Biodynamic coffee is the stringent certification standards it adheres to. Biodynamic practices prohibit the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides (both natural and synthetic), herbicides, fungicides, and genetically modified organisms. The certification requires the cultivation of a healthy ecosystem through biodiversity and water conservation. Like with Biodynamic wines, the meticulous care that goes into every stage of growing, harvesting, processing, sorting, drying, and shipping results in exceptionally high-quality, specialty-grade coffee.
By embracing Biodynamic coffee, we not only champion sustainable farming practices but also provide coffee enthusiasts with an exceptional sensory experience. From the unique flavors and aromas derived from the healthy soil to the knowledge that each cup supports ethical and environmentally conscious farming, we believe that Biodynamic coffee offers a truly distinctive and rewarding coffee journey for all who appreciate the art of coffee.
Dominique Jacques: Regarding taste, I can confidently say that all the biodynamic coffee we buy surpasses its equivalent, even in organic. Just last week, I tasted two types of coffee from our partner in Honduras, side by side. They were from the same land, same varietal, same crop – the only difference being one was biodynamic and the other simply organic. It was clear that the biodynamic one was superior.
Marquis: What obstacles have you and the team faced with brewing, distribution, and educating consumers on biodynamic practices?
Gregory Kalinin: Distribution initially presented the biggest hurdle we had to navigate. Introducing Biodynamic coffee to the market required building a supply chain that could handle the unique sourcing, storage, and processing requirements to stay compliant with our Biodynamic certification. We sought out like-minded partners who shared our commitment to quality and sustainability. Partnering with companies like RGC Coffee, who have deep expertise in logistics and importation, allowed us to focus on seamless delivery from farm to consumer.
Educating consumers about Biodynamic practices poses another set of challenges. Biodynamic farming is still relatively unknown to many coffee enthusiasts, so we had to proactively communicate the principles and benefits of this holistic approach. Through various channels, such as our website, social media platforms, and in-store interactions, we’ve focused on providing accessible and engaging information about the positive environmental and social impacts of Biodynamic coffee. We’ve also conducted tasting events, workshops, and collaborations with sustainability organizations such as Kiss the Ground to raise awareness and foster a deeper understanding among our customers.
Despite the initial challenges, we have seen a growing interest and appreciation among consumers who value the sustainability, quality, and unique flavors that Biodynamic coffee offers. By working closely with our team, partners, and the coffee community, we aim to foster a greater understanding and appreciation for the transformative power of regenerative, Biodynamic practices in the coffee industry.
Dominique Jacques: For a consumer accustomed to buying regular, inexpensive coffee, stepping up to Biodynamic Coffee can be quite a leap in terms of price. This is largely because we also have to sell them on specialty coffee, which is exclusively what we offer. Higher-quality coffee from superior farms comes with a higher cost.
Marquis: How does conventional farming impact the environment compared to biodynamic farming?
Gregory Kalinin: Conventional farming practices significantly impact the environment compared to Biodynamic farming. The use of pesticides in conventional agriculture poses a threat to not only targeted pests but also beneficial insects, such as bees and butterflies, which are essential for pollination. These pesticides also harm the microbial life in the soil, disrupting the natural ecosystem that plants rely on for nutrition, resulting in soil degradation and loss of biodiversity.
In fact, the negative consequences of conventional farming extend beyond the farm boundaries. Pesticides can contaminate water sources, leading to water pollution and affecting aquatic life. They have also been linked to various health issues, including skin and eye irritation, headaches, and more severe cases of damage to the central nervous system and kidneys. Certain pesticides can also act as endocrine disruptors, potentially causing reproductive health issues and developmental problems, particularly in children.
In contrast, Biodynamic farming practices, particularly shade-grown coffee operations, offer a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative. By mimicking a forest structure, shade-grown coffee farms provide a biodiverse ecosystem that reduces the need for chemical inputs. The shade trees and diverse bird populations naturally control pests and improve soil fertility. Additionally, regenerative farming practices, such as composting and natural soil enrichment, further enhance the health and resilience of the ecosystem.
By choosing Biodynamic coffee, consumers can actively support a farming model that prioritizes environmental stewardship, biodiversity, their own health, the health of the ecosystem as well as the health of the communities involved in coffee production.
Marquis: What does third-party testing entail? And how do biodynamic and Demeter certifications play a role in this process?
Gregory Kalinin: As part of the Biodynamic certification process, Demeter tests for contaminants in the soil at the farm level. The lab tests that we do are not imposed by Demeter, but it’s something that we believe is important to ensure the quality of our coffee is beyond reproach. So, for each harvest, from each farm, we use 3rd party labs such as Eurofins and Actlabs to test for 3 categories of contaminants: 1) mold toxins such as mycotoxins and ochratoxins, 2) heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, and 3) biological contaminants such as salmonella and e coli.
Marquis: The coffee industry is often viewed as stagnant, in what ways have you experienced its expansion over the years?
Dominique Jacques: Answering that question is somewhat challenging for me because Myriam and I entered the coffee industry about 10 years ago, precisely when it seemed to be experiencing a significant shift. I believe the change started when individuals began to question everything we knew about coffee. The most exciting development for me has been the spotlight shifting to the producers. In the past, only the brand name seemed important, while the origin of the coffee was overlooked. Today, we understand that good coffee comes from good producers, not just good roasters. As roasters, we can’t create great coffee with inferior beans – it all starts on the farm. Our job is simply not to mess it up!
Gregory Kalinin: From my perspective, the coffee industry is undergoing a significant expansion and transformation. At Holistic Roasters, we’ve seen firsthand its dynamic nature and the exciting possibilities it brings.
For example, the demand for specialty coffee continues to grow. Many consumers are no longer satisfied with generic, mass-produced coffee; instead, they want unique and high-quality coffee experiences. This shift has created a vibrant market for specialty coffee roasters like us, who prioritize sourcing exceptional beans and employing artisanal roasting techniques to bring out the nuanced flavors and aromas that coffee can offer.
There has also been a growing appreciation for sustainability and ethical practices within the coffee industry. Conscious consumers are now actively seeking coffee that is not only delicious but also sourced responsibly. This trend has led to a surge in interest in certifications like Fair Trade, and, more recently, Biodynamic and Regenerative Organic. Our values are aligned with consumers who value the positive impact their coffee choices can have on the environment and the communities involved in its production.
E-commerce, social media platforms, and forward-thinking retailers such as Erewhon and Sprouts have also made specialty coffee more accessible to consumers, breaking down geographical barriers and expanding the reach of coffee roasters like us.
Overall, while the coffee industry may have been perceived as stagnant in the past, in recent years I’ve seen a remarkable expansion and rejuvenation. The increasing demand for specialty coffee, the focus on sustainability, and the flourishing coffee culture all contribute to an industry that is dynamic, innovative, and full of opportunities.
Marquis: What do the terms on a coffee label mean (organic, non-GMO, biodynamic, etc.), and what is actually important when selecting what coffee to buy?
The main things I look for when deciding on the quality of coffee are:
- Certified Organic (preferably regenerative or Biodynamic): Coffee is one of the world’s most heavily sprayed crops – I prefer to avoid these chemicals.
- Specialty grade: Coffee that has achieved a score of 80 or above by a licensed Q-grader or by the SCAA. It indicates that the coffee is of very high quality as measured by its taste and lack of defects.
- Whole bean coffee: Unless it’s freshly ground, pre-ground coffee will tend to be stale.
- Roast date on the bag: As long as it’s within a few months of the roast date, I think it’s fine but bags without the roast date typically means the coffee will be stale.
- Shade grown: Shade-grown coffee refers to beans cultivated under the canopy of diverse shade trees, mimicking a natural forest ecosystem. This traditional approach promotes biodiversity, provides habitat for birds, and helps conserve soil and water resources.
- Higher altitude: This one is pretty finicky but higher altitudes generally produce denser, better-quality beans. However, this has more to do with the temperature of the growing environment. For example, coffee grown at a lower altitude, but cooler temperatures may be superior to one that’s grown at a higher altitude but warmer temperature.
Marquis: What sparked your partnership with Gregory Kalinin? And how has it helped you evolve and expand the brand and its product offerings?
Dominique Jacques: From the day we opened the café, Greg became a regular customer. He was polite and pleasant with everyone. He would chat not only with us, the owners, but also with all our staff. Everyone felt great after talking to Greg. He never made the conversations about himself but always emphasized how great our work was, even though we were just a small neighborhood café. His curiosity shone through his questions and observations, which were often spot-on. However, most importantly, he loved being proved wrong.
There are countless reasons why anyone would love to be in business with Greg. His knowledge of the business side of things is impressive, but his curiosity is what really sets him apart. He has a knack for simplifying ideas and challenging common beliefs.
He deeply believes that by doing the right thing, we can shape the future for the better. All the while, he mentors each of us in the company, helping us to individually achieve our full potential.
And for the offering: If it wasn’t for Greg we would just sell coffee, but now we sell the best coffee imaginable for the health of the planet, the coffee farmers we work with, and the consumers we serve.