After graduating from the University of Regina with a degree in history in 2004, Eric Galbraith didn’t settle into a job like many of his peers. Instead, he decided to take the road less travelled, making his way to Taiwan to teach English for about a year before heading back to the prairies and accepting a ground-crew position with Air Canada.
Working at the airline was a dream job for Galbraith in many ways because it enabled him to indulge his passion — trekking around the world to discover interesting places and cultures. During his jaunts to places like San Francisco, Portland, Scandinavia and Japan, he started to fall in love with the coffee in these locales, which he says was a cut above anything he was used to.
Follow your bliss
“Travelling has always been a huge passion for me, so whenever I had time off I went somewhere different. I was really enjoying the coffee I found in these places,” he says, describing the third-wave coffee movement, which produces a higher-quality product by improving all stages of production — from plant growing, harvesting and processing to building stronger relationships between coffee growers, traders and roasters.
There’s an art and a science to a great cup of coffee, says Galbraith, and even though side-by-side, two cups can look identical, there’s a world of difference between them. “Third wave coffee is more origin-focused,” he says. “It’s higher quality all around — from the care that goes into growing the bean right through to the roasting and brewing.”
Those experiences inspired Galbraith’s journey of learning everything he could about how coffee is grown, roasted and brewed, and ultimately led to the launch of his own coffee roasting business, 33 1/3 Coffee Roasters in 2016. But between his ‘a-ha’ moment and opening the café doors came a lot of hard work and years of experimentation, he says.
Grinding it out
“I bought an espresso machine and I did a lot of research,” Galbraith says. ”You have a dream but you don’t know the steps to make it reality, and you realize it’s a lot of work and a lot of money.”
Eventually, he invested in a better espresso machine, learning everything he could about its inner working in a quest to produce the ultimate cup of Joe.
“The first thing I did was take the whole machine apart to figure out how everything works. Then I bought some green coffee beans and started experimenting,” he says. Some of his early trials involved roasting green beans in a hot-air popcorn popper, a surprisingly effective method for small batches.
Bartering beans for beer
Galbraith amped up his roasting game after finding a perforated steel drum, which he mounted on a rotisserie stick on top of the BBQ — a process that worked well in the summer, but wasn’t quite as much fun in Regina’s harsh winter.
He honed his craft for several years, mostly producing for his own needs, and sometimes bartering beans for beer with his friends who were experimenting with craft brew in the early days of that movement.
“Every week or two, I’d drop off a bag of coffee and they’d give me a growler of beer. They had the idea of starting a brewery, and their beer was starting to get really good,” he says. “I did that for a couple of years and around 2013 I was working part-time at the local farmer’s market, so I pitched them to be a vendor with my coffee.
Fast forward to 2016 where Galbraith and his craft brew compadres opened the doors to their respective establishments —33 1/3 Coffee Roaster and Malty National Brewing — in a shared space bordering Regina’s downtown core.
Producing a better quality product costs more, Galbraith admits, but his customers appreciate the fact that he’s a fair-trade shop that compensates growers appropriately for the beans they produce. “Tim Horton’s buys coffee for about $1 a pound whereas ours costs $4 a pound,” he says, pointing out that while consumers pay roughly the same price for coffee drinks, the main difference lies in profit margins.
“As soon as you visit a coffee-producing country, you see how much work goes into growing beans. Sometimes you have to cut into the bottom line to provide a quality product,” Galbraith says. Today, his business employs 10 people who work between two cafés in the city. He still sets up a stall at the weekly farmer’s market and supplies beans to a number of restaurants in Saskatchewan.
Galbraith says his growth strategy has been less strategic and more a matter of simply following his instincts. “We grew basically by word of mouth. I didn’t really actively promote it. We had a good handle on social media and we started using Instagram as soon as it came out,” he says.
One of his ambitions is to have restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto serve his coffee, but he’s thrilled with how things have worked out so far. “Being successful to me is being able to do what I love: create a great product, employ people who feel the same way, have great customers who appreciate what we do and still pay the bills,” he says.