To look at Alex and Michel, you may get a preconceived notion of who they are and what they’re about. As with most preconceived notions however, you’d be almost entirely wrong. The old adage of never judging a book rings truer than ever in regards to Alex and Michel, owners of Back Road Coffee in Port Credit.
Living up to the name, Back Road Coffee can be found at 133 Queen Street East, which is, for all intents and purposes, a back road of Port Credit, right by the train tracks. For one, you might think a coffee shop run by two bearded, tattooed motorcyclists would be right at home next to the fabled railroad tracks, but in reality, it’s also right by an elementary school. And that’s what Alex and Michel are all about: smashing perceptions.
I took a quick trip to Back Road Coffee on a damp autumn morning, where I found Alex and Michel serving a few customers some of their unique coffee and conversation. I waited while they did their thing, giving me a good opportunity to stake-out the decor, which is certainly the most chic coffee shop I’ve been to in Mississauga; with its design 1 part urban to 1 part rural. From there, Alex and Michel joined me for a lengthy conversation about motorbikes, video games, hunting, and, of course, coffee.
On The Road Again
Around the age of 20, friends Alex from southern Ontario and Michel, northern Quebec, got themselves a pair of motorcycles, along with two buddies, and set out on the open road. Sure, it may have been against their families best wishes, but these boys wanted to see what North America had to offer and on the back of choppers seemed the best way to find out.
The boys have taken their bikes all over for the better of a decade, from North Quebec and B.C, to Vermont and Virginia in the States, and everywhere in between. Over time, the crew grew from four to twenty, and the long haul trips through the beautiful North American countryside became something of a lifestyle. And, as is often the case, one passion breeds another.
The notion of a group of leather-clad bikers often pits them outside of some dive bar that upstanding folk wouldn’t dare enter. That is just another one of those preconceptions that rings hollow these days. “You don’t go to bars anymore, because you don’t want to drink and ride,” says Michel, as he and Alex sit with me at a simple white table, adorned with a flower pot and a lightbulb lighting fixture, in the main seating area of the roastery. “You’re already assuming so much risk, being on a bike to begin with,” replied Alex. “Exactly. So now you go to coffee bars,” said Michel, but it was at this point Alex had to bounce to go serve some eager customers, so Michel carried on solo.
“So by going to coffee bars it just brought that whole awareness to us of ‘y’know what, we love bikes, we love coffee, we have the space, this warehouse,'” said Michel, gesturing to the space behind him that houses the impressive bikes and roasting equipment, a space they’ve had for over seven years. Michel then mentioned that the family’s history in manufacturing and how that helped them turn their love of coffee and bikes into a thriving business.
Michel jokingly stated that he and Alex started with a little roaster, just having fun between themselves about what they could produce, and the fact that it didn’t taste too good. Slowly though, they began getting joy out of the random concoctions they could produce, and from there it quickly grew and grew until they were ready to make the leap into manufacturing.
Where Passion Meets Innovation
Later on, after out conversation, Michel took me out back to the garage area that houses some of their bikes, a gorgeous black ’67 Mustang, the roaster, and an assortment of bean sacks. These beans, the secret recipe if you will, hail from across the globe; Colombian, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Peru, and Uganda. Michel describes their desire to eliminate the middle man, and go direct to these farmers, which “…allows the farmer to reinvest the money into his farm, for benefits for his employees, and the growth of the local community.” They’re not quite there yet, but that is the “ultimate goal.” Instead, the boys sought reputable importers, who pay farmers more than any others, and the outcome is almost the same.
There was also a sack of decaf from British Columbia – which is a natural process of decaffination, instead of chemical. And that’s where you’ll see the first glimpses of Alex and Michel’s desire to keep everything on the up and up, and as natural as possible. They get the beans straight from their reputable importers, then do all of the profiling, extracting, and roasting themselves – which is why, for now, the store is only open from 7:30-Noon, Monday through Friday.
“We draw more of the sweetness out of the bean. So you get a lot more sugars. We actually roast a caramelization of the bean, we don’t over-roast our beans.” Michel says of their process, and if that may sound confusing to the non-coffee experts, basically most other coffee stores, whether it’s Starbucks, Tim Hortons, or wherever, tend to roast the beans until they’re very dark and bitter. Needless to say that’s proven quite a popular method, and one Michel does not contest. However the Back Road Coffee Roasters, found more unique flavours and a lot less bitterness, by extracting quicker.
Michel further breaks down their roasting method, albeit with the caveat that he knows it sounds a tad odd. “It sounds really stupid and out there, but you actually listen to your bean, the way it develops. On the program, you see the way the heat develops through your bean, and, as it’s developing, you kind of react to the way to the way it reacts to the heat.” And this is where you start to see just how passionate these guys are about their craft, as Michel goes on to say, “…some may say ‘that’s the way I do it, and that’s it.’, but no, because every bean develops differently. So you really have to listen.”
Keeping It Local
There’s no elitist attitude at play here though, as the brother-in-laws have no desire to become a giant chain store and compete with the likes of Starbucks or Tim Hortons. It’s more about offering an alternative; “It’s not about re-inventing the wheel,” said Michel, now rejoined by Alex, “it’s about extending it.”
They cite Toronto as a place of inspiration, as there are dozens of great independent coffee stores there trying different things and yielding greater results. Although he concedes that Canada is a few years behind Europe and Australia, in regards to the coffee game, they are two of the many seeking to bring the country up to speed.
Speaking of Toronto, Back Road Coffee Roasters actually work in tandem with a bakery located in the heart of the city. Some years ago, a friend who is a pastry chef partnered up with the Back Road team with a vision for a bakery offering high quality pastries, and thus Yummy Stuff was born. The popular bakery can be found at 1660 Queen Street West in Toronto, or you can simply try some of their delectable treats at Back Road Coffee in Port Credit, which are brought-in fresh every other day.
Alex and Michel are excited about working with businesses like Yummy Stuff, and look to bring many more into the fold – in their downtime the duo actually deliver their bagged blends to local businesses and customers. If you yourself want to buy some blends, brewers, kettles, grinders, or even some merch, head on over to the website.
And that brings us back to their desire to not compete with giant coffee conglomerates, but to elevate the overall palette. Alex and Michel seek to educate restaurants, hotels, and bars that coffee shouldn’t be an afterthought. Indeed, how many times have you been to such an establishment and had the burnt coffee from a pot and simply accepted it? Well how much more would a hotel or Denny’s stand out, if it offered incredible java? As Alex aptly puts it, coffee “is the last impression you leave”, when a customer is leaving your hotel or restaurant. “It might cost a little more but it will make a world of difference.” The duo aim to elevate coffee to a similar status as wine, with servers able to talk knowledgeably about the brews available to customers. And to do so, they’d like to do some pop-up shows at restaurants and hotels, with samples of their blends. So if you’re a local business owner, you might want to take them up on that offer and improve your coffee game!
Back Road Coffee Roasters is already working with some local businesses though, such as S.W.A.T Health, and Mississauga’s most popular restaurant, Nomad’s. And you can expect to find their unique brews popping-up across Mississauga in the near future.
As for now though, Alex and Michel are excited to be operating their stylish new coffee store out of Port Credit. It’s a store that may be a little out of the way, but that’s indicative of the journey it took to get to this point. It’s evocative of Alex and Michel’s non-direct approach to coffee-making, with the idea that the longer route will taste so much better when you reach your destination.
It’s perfect for moms dropping their kids off at the nearby school. Alex and Michel seek to attract all walks of life, from the aforementioned soccer mom to the punk rockers. As mentioned in the opening, the duo may be part of a literal biker crew, albeit a friendly one, but it’s just one part of the decor at Back Road Coffee Roasters that shows the multi-faceted appeal.
Yeah there’s an old motorcycle stood-up by the wall when you enter, but there’s also a little wooden bench with some faux grass beneath it. Yes there’s an industrial look to the space with its brick walls and garage door, but there’s hanging fairy lights and Home Alone playing on a television. Their passion for motorcycles is just one interesting facet of a fantastic coffee store that has more in common with an art gallery than a tattoo parlour. It’s charming with an underbelly of grunge, and I for one think Port Credit could always do with a few more oil stains for character. And character, is something the Back Road Coffee Roasters has in spades.