Photo Credit Shannon Korta

Relevant Coffee Wants to Put Vancouver on the Map

2019-08-13 | 3 min. read

Mitch Montgomery is so absorbed in telling me all about how he makes his coffee that it isn’t until the end of our conversation that he asks me how I liked my cup of it. Not that the co-owner of Relevant Coffee in Vancouver, Wash. is inconsiderate—far from it—it’s just a long and often technical process that covers everything from where he gets his coffee beans to how he likes to roast them, and he wants to get the details just right. Even if his customers can’t taste every nuance of the care he puts into his craft, it’s important to him that the end result is something they enjoy.

Photo Credit Shannon Korta

Speaking of customers, Montgomery’s coffee is reaching more of them than ever before. Had our conversation taken place three weeks earlier, we would have met at Relevant’s former location, which was just two blocks north but had “only enough room for, like, three people around a table,” he said. The new space can seat four dozen people, and was designed by Montgomery and his wife, Kelly, who he called “a driving force for the design of this café.” The renovation process included replacing the aluminum panels on the storefront with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and after removing the old carpeting and some layers of glue, they uncovered a beautiful hardwood floor.

“We wanted it to be warm and bright in our space,” Kelly said, joking that the space used to be “a really dark cubicle land.”

Sporting a well-trimmed beard and a bright plaid button-up with short sleeves that reveal the ROAST OR DIE tattoo on his right forearm, Montgomery certainly looks like someone who has spent the last 11 years roasting specialty coffee. He grew up in Issaquah, Wash.—less than 20 miles outside Seattle, Wash., the coffee capital of the United States—and since 2012, he’s been here, right across the river from Portland, Ore., arguably the nation’s second coffee capital.

Photo Credit Shannon Korta

“[Vancouver] reminds me of what Seattle used to be, back when I was growing up,” Montgomery said. “I immediately felt comfortable when I moved here.”

Yet his coffee roasting career began, of all places, in Arizona. After two years of making, in his words, “that ubiquitous dark roast coffee that you see everywhere” for another Phoenix-based roaster, Montgomery began his specialty coffee career at Press Coffee Roasters in 2010. When he returned to Washington in late 2012, he took what he learned with him; he started Relevant Coffee in 2014 and sold his beans at farmers’ markets, New Seasons and Chuck’s Produce before opening his own café in 2017.

If large coffee companies like Starbucks and Dunkin’ are Hollywood studios, then specialty coffee roasters are indies: much smaller but putting a greater emphasis on personality and community. Two of the most important concepts in the production of specialty coffee are profile roasting and green buying. Montgomery explained the former as a function of “time versus temperature.”

“By manipulating time and temperature in a roast, you can highlight or subdue flavors,” Montgomery said. “I like to think that I have a very balanced approach. I don’t like to have things that have super high acidity or are super deep in body.”

Photo Credit Shannon Korta

Green buying, meanwhile, refers not to eco-friendly practices—though that matters to Montgomery—but to the process of purchasing unroasted coffee beans. Montgomery works with multiple importers to acquire beans from all over the world, from South America to South Asia, sometimes visiting coffee farms for himself. The process also includes roasting and sampling, or “cupping,” the coffee to determine if it meets Montgomery’s standards.

“There’s a lot that goes into getting the coffee green before we even roast it,” Montgomery said. “And the reason I’m talking about all this is that it ties in with our new space.”

The cornerstone of the new space will be the in-house roasting facility that the Montgomerys recently installed. The idea to include the roastery came from a photograph they saw of a coffee house in Germany where the café space and roastery were separated by a large window; the couple added the photo to a Pinterest board alongside other elements that they wanted to include in Relevant’s design.

Photo Credit Shannon Korta

“I think we had a pretty good vision in our head of what we wanted, and I would say that it exceeded what we originally envisioned,” Kelly said.

Other coffee houses typically hide their roasteries, Montgomery noted—“you’ve got to be very clean, and roasting coffee’s not the cleanest”—but he and Kelly wanted Relevant’s customers to be able to see the roasting process for themselves. They also plan to use their roastery space to hold public cuppings and educational classes.

“I think that being that really accessible place [...] will help put Vancouver on the map for a good cup of coffee,” Montgomery said.

The prospect of putting Vancouver on the map wasn’t something that occurred to Montgomery until he opened the first Relevant location, although shortly after arriving, he found himself wondering why Vancouver’s coffee culture was much smaller than that of Portland—and why, for that matter, no Portland roasters had tried to plant a flag across the river. It wasn’t until he was about to open the first Relevant location that Montgomery realized how much his work matters to others.

“If we were going to open a café, I would call up Mitch,” said Joey Chmiko, co-owner of Nonavo Pizza—and, he added, weekly patron of Relevant. “He has a really good product, and people can latch onto that.”

Nonavo is just one of several small businesses that Relevant sells coffee beans to. Montgomery’s list of collaborators also includes Little Conejo, The Grocery Cocktail & Social and Ice Cream Renaissance, and he’s always on the lookout for more “little makers,” as he calls them, to work with.

“You can just keep doing interesting things, forging ahead, and building those relationships,” he added. “For us, it’s been a winning combination, and not something we’re going to stop doing.”

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