In the fall of 2017 a new coffee roasting company emerged from the west coast of Canada bringing with it a fresh, colorful approach and inviting us to relax, enjoy, and take more pleasure in the coffee we are drinking. Although Vancouver-based Lüna Coffee is still very young, their single origin roasts are appearing on cafe menus, being mailed out with subscription programs, and landing spots on retail shelves with ever-increasing frequency. As with all seeming overnight success stories, Lüna Coffee is in fact rooted in and resting upon two decades of combined coffee industry experience from co-founders Laura Perry and Nathan Welland. Together they launched a roasting business with a shared vision of providing, "light, bright and delightful coffees [to] everyone."
I had the opportunity to connect with Laura and Nate at the SCA Expo in Seattle this past April and learn a little bit more about Lüna Coffee while capturing a few of the photos you see here. In today's interview we uncover how Laura and Nate got into coffee, the philosophies behind their green sourcing and roasting programs, the impetuous for their package design, the inspiration behind their unique coffee names, what their packaging is made of, the challenges (and excitements!) of running a small business, and what's next on the horizon for their burgeoning coffee company. I hope you enjoy learning from Laura and Nate's experience as much as I have. They are wealths of knowledge and absolutely delightful!
tLBCC: How did you get into specialty coffee?
Laura: I started working in cafes when I was 18, but I wasn’t down the coffee rabbit hole until a couple years later, when I started working at Bridgehead and competed in an Eastern Regional Barista competition (way back!) in 2008. I placed 1st and thought, “ok, that was a terrifying experience.” From there, I became Bridgehead's lead trainer and helped form the curriculum for their 300+ baristas, and coached competitors. In that time I became a Q grader as well.
All the while, I was transfixed with coffee’s provenance and flavour. I wanted to see that side of the industry. In Ottawa (or Canada, tbh), there weren’t many opportunities to work in that field directly, so I decided to hold a bake sale (...lol, yes, really). I made dozens of French Macarons with the goal of paying for my flight to Guatemala to participate on the International Jury of the Cup of Excellence in 2012. Cupping top lots alongside Tim Wendelboe, Ryan Brown (Stumptown/ Tonx/ Yes Plz), Colby Barr (Verve), Bjørnar Hafslund (Collaborative Coffee Source) and other talented folks that week in Guatemala sealed the deal. Coffee had me for life.
From that year onward, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in coffee where I’d be evaluating coffee, and finding beautiful examples of what coffee can taste like. So, I decided to move from Ottawa to Vancouver, to work with 49th Parallel on their sourcing program. I happily built and maintained that beautiful, ambitious program for half a decade—making many good friends around the world along the way.
Nate: I started working in coffee as a barista at Starbucks—like many coffee professionals this was my gateway to working in the industry. I was living in Vancouver and had completed my first year at University of British Columbia, when I decided not to return and instead focus on working in coffee. I was very interested in coffee, and eager to learn more, but I quickly hit a plateau at Starbucks. I began searching the internet for more progressive and independent coffee shops that I could apply to and came across an article describing the Elysian Room.
*note: If you want a blast from the past you can check it out HERE.
Checking out the Elysian Room for the first time had a profound impact on me—I recall it fondly. I remember walking up to the counter and (almost nervously) asking for a 6 oz. cappuccino (at the time specialty coffee shops referred to these as trad capps, though I didn’t know this yet). The barista told me I could take a seat and he’d bring my order over when it was ready. As I sat down to wait for my cappuccino, he’d already followed me from around the counter with a glass of water to drink. I was so impressed and primed to have an incredible coffee experience when the cappuccino arrived at my table shortly thereafter. I hadn’t had a cappuccino like this before—light roasted espresso (for the time), with silky micro-foam, and beautiful latte art. I could die. I HAD to work here.
And, I’m thankful I had the opportunity to. I worked with Elysian Coffee Roasters for 4 years, helping them open a second location. After moving on to experience how other coffee companies worked, I returned and worked with Elysian for another 3 years helping to develop their roasting and cold brew beverage programs simultaneously.
tLBCC: What compelled you to launch your own roasting company?
Laura: Partially, we were both craving full autonomy in what we were doing for a living. As well, we both feel strongly that we have a unique perspective in the industry and are ready to make our own contribution.
Nate: From the sourcing sensibility to brand vision and identity, as well as roasting style, we’ve wanted to see something like Lüna for a long time. Ultimately, we realized that if we wanted to see it, it was up to us to create it.
tLBCC: What does the name Lüna mean to you?
Laura: Lüna (without the stylistic umlaut) means moon. Moon cycles are pervasive and act as an anchor in agricultural cultures around the world and through history. The name sort of stuck when I met with a farmer in El Salvador—Emilio Lopez. He explained how pruning coffee trees (and other crops) on descending moons was commonplace. That sensibility—to listen, and be guided by external forces (rather than force things yourself) is a value that both of us have.
Nate: I think coffee is intrinsically linked to the idea of cycles, not just the cycles of the season, the harvest, etc., but also to how coffee is consumed in the everyday—the ritual and repetition, a daily cycle. When studying art at Emily Carr, I realized what I was looking for in art (making) was what I found so enthralling about coffee. It’s all about how the differences between otherwise like things become heightened when all else is perceptively equal. We see this in coffee through tweaking grind or ratio, etc. The activity we perform is otherwise the same which allows the subtlety of changes to become profound.
Laura: In a sense you’re chasing the impossible, you will never be finished, but there are little accomplishments that keep you satisfied and motivated to continue searching.
Nate: We actually wanted to name our dog Luna, lol. We ended up with a company first so we’ll come up with something else for our future pup.
tLBCC: How did you two meet?
Laura: I remember when Elysian coffee began finishing their flagship roasting space around 6 years ago (I had just moved to Vancouver), and they had just received an old UG22 Probat that looked like it had a long way to go before it could be used. I was invited over to see it one evening, and I met Nate there for the first time. We were just passing through each other’s lives for a couple years after that. Eventually, Nate asked me over for dinner one evening in December right around Christmas. I had to go to Ethiopia for a month immediately after that, but when I came back that was it—we’ve been together ever since :)
tLBCC: You have chosen to give your coffees unique names—Jelly donut, Lemon Tea Daydream, Disco Marmalade—to name a few. On top of communicating flavour, these names also communicate a sense of place, mood or feeling. What compelled you to make these language choices in reference to your coffees?
Laura: Ok, that’s a big one! Its perhaps the most controversial thing we’ve done with Lüna—and the consequences have been fascinating to watch unfold.
What would you say is the number one reason why people go for the blend, or a barista steers a customer to a ‘safer’ more approachable option when buying coffee for home?
We don't think it’s because people want darker coffee or more, “coffee tasting coffee.” We think it’s because people simply don’t have a lot of time, and they feel intimidated by the lists of seemingly irrelevant facts on the bags. That’s it. Simple as that.
When brainstorming ways to make those people feel delighted, those who want tasty things, but are on the periphery of our subculture of high end coffee, we asked ourselves, "What is the most relevant thing to them?" Most often, it’s flavour.
So, the naming structure and the visual design has the flavour and feeling of each individual coffee as the anchoring point. It has meant that the most amazing people have found and embraced us. We’re so happy we took that risk.
tLBCC: Do you have a roasting style or philosophy? What drives your coffee menu?
Nate: The main thing about our roasting philosophy is, what matters most is what we experience on the cupping table, and in our cups everyday at home. We want to offer the coffees that we find most enjoyable. Coffees with a soft, open mouthfeel, clean, clear, articulate flavours, high acidity, jammy sweetness, and without 'roasted notes' from the burning of sugars. What this means is, we roast small batches, fairly quickly, with enough development to accentuate the fruit flavours, and keep them in the forefront. We have an affinity toward the coffees being roasted in the Nordic countries, and feel a strong kinship with them in taste preference. Our menu is driven by looking for coffees that are exciting to us, that have clear articulate flavours, that express their provenance, variety, etc.
tLBCC: Your coffee package design was selected to be featured in the Design Lab at SCA Expo this past April. Can you tell us a little bit about your design and process? What inspires the colors and imagery you are using?
Nate: The main reason for our package design is to communicate what someone can expect from the coffee inside—and furthermore to show there are different coffees available. Too often, I have seen baristas and customers struggle to communicate or to identify the differences between coffees offered by a particular roaster. We hope to, in some small way, mitigate this communication problem through our packaging. At the core of designing each coffee label is the coffee itself. It begins with the coffee—how it tastes—and from there we try to come up with a way to communicate that taste experience through colour, imagery, and words (naming). We want to communicate taste by evoking a flavour and a feeling.
tLBCC: Can you share a little bit about the packaging you chose to source for your coffees? And why?
Laura: We researched for months to get a good handle on all the options for bag and label material. Many options made use of PLA corn, which, to be honest, was difficult for us to say yes to, especially when it’s undeniable that we are in an industrial agricultural dilemma, with glyphosate at every turn. As well, these products were most often only compostable under the right conditions in a composting facility.
Nate: So we kept looking.
Laura: Eventually we realized that there is really no perfect solution, all we can do is choose the best and most responsible of what’s available. We are proud of the materials we decided to use. Our labels are made of Calcium Carbonate (the brand of this material is called BioStone) and our stand-up pouch bags are from TekPak Solutions. The bags are treated with an enzyme that is activated when in contact with soil. It only made sense to pursue a bag and label that are compatible in that they can go into a home compost—label, valve, zipper and all—with minimal effort from the customer, and it will all return to the earth.
Nate: We love the texture of these labels. They are matte and smooth, not unlike some craft beer labels we’ve seen locally in Vancouver, and the print quality is absolutely beautiful.
Laura: It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best we could find right now. The idea is to continue to keep our eyes open for new solutions.
tLBCC: Each of your coffees comes with a story that highlights the farmer. Why is it important for you to share about where the coffees you are roasting are grown and who is growing them? And, why do you hope to make the origin story captivating for people?
Nate: When describing a coffee, to us it’s a disservice to distill it down to an arbitrary list of facts. Laura takes time with each release to write original content with a goal of bringing people closer to the coffee they’ve decided to buy and enjoy.
Laura: There is humanity in each story of a coffee’s provenance, and the reason each coffee tastes the way it does has every bit to do with the cultivar as it does the pride in the work of the one growing it. For example, Nariño is a part of Colombia that has had its struggles, with land restitution laws coming into effect, allowing families to return to their villages and begin to grow coffee and other crops again now that rebel groups and Coca production has less of a hold on the area. The coffees coming out of Nariño are incredible. The acid profiles are structured and vibrant, and it’s among our favourite places where coffee is growing. Translating that information into a narrative that someone will stop and read is a challenge worth pursuing. It’s easy enough to go to a farmer’s market and hear from the producer in person, but with coffee, there usually has to be an interpreter, or storyteller to help close the gap.
In the future, when we’re travelling for Lüna, we refuse to simply wiz around, snap photos of people and leave. What a waste of time. We’d like to spend an afternoon with a family we buy from at the very least. We’ve come all that way, so there’s a benefit in holding space to get to know each other and have a better sense of how we’re impacting and partnering with their business. Slowing down and holding space for others is something we typically lack in our lives—it’s our conviction that that’s precisely what we must do if we’re to responsibly run a coffee company in 2018 and onward.
tLBCC: Both of the coffees you sent me to try—Jelly Donut & Lemon-Tea Daydream—were grown in the Nariño region of Colombia. You partnered up with Olam and Azahar to source them. Why did you choose to work with these importers/exporters?
Laura: In a sourcing landscape that values “discovering”, patriarchal tendencies to “help” the farmer produce better coffee, Azahar is a breath of fresh air. These folks have been around for only a few years, but they’ve made a huge splash in the coffee industry in Colombia. There are lots of intangibles that make them special, but the reason I began working with them is their willingness to dive into the more difficult issues with the economics of coffee growing.
When I began buying green coffee, one of the first questions I asked my peers in the industry was something along the lines of, “Is there a set of best practices for buying coffee in any given country so you know beyond a doubt that the producer will be compensated properly for their coffee? Can we be sure they are getting a proper margin?”
Invariably I got a response of, “ Oh, that’s pretty complicated—to begin to unpack that would be a big undertaking”. Unsatisfied with that answer, and willing to do the work, I started searching for like-minded people, who weren’t intimidated and genuinely wanted to unpack that question.
Azahar works within a pricing structure that takes into account cost of production. I can’t stress how frustratingly rare that is. Yes, it’s true that there are prices flying around in specialty that are high, but it's important to consider how that price breaks down and how much actually goes to the producer. Often the price is arbitrary and is not actually negotiated with the producer.
The cost to produce is inevitably going to be different depending on amount of land, amount and yield of trees planted, and then there’s a sheer reality that producing coffee with a focus on the high end market is going to cost more. If, for example, a producer’s average cost is 600,000 COP (Colombian Pesos) per 125 kilos of parchment (unmilled coffee), then it wouldn’t be a stretch to say with the extra labour to pick ripe, and the extra care to process the coffee for the Specialty market, that the cost would look closer to 800,000 COP per 125kg of parchment. At 800,000 COP, that is, at times, ABOVE the base price that parchment coffee would be purchased at, leaving the producer at a loss.
Nate: For Amparo (Lemon-Tea Daydream) and Luis (Jelly Donut) prices are well above that, closer to 1,200,000 COP per 125kg of parchment. There are other things as well that Azahar have negotiated with the bank so producers they work with have ability to participate in market upswings, mitigating the downside of participating in a system where they receive upfront pricing for their coffee.
Laura: That side of coffee, the pricing, NEEDS to be both addressed and understood by roasters, producers, all players in the supply chain. We are all still participating in a very patriarchal system where buyers still have disproportionate power. Azahar is among the most progressive exporters in Coffee right now from what I can see. They’re a joy to work with and they are only getting started.
tLBCC: Although Lüna Coffee is young, the two of you have been in the coffee industry for some time. What has been the most surprising or unexpected thing you have learned since launching your own coffee roasting business?
Laura: What’s been most surprising is the sheer amount of work. It’s all up to us—the bookkeeping, building, launching and managing an online store, sourcing, roasting, quality control, taking care of our customers, social media, label design—all of it. For now it’s a beautiful mess, and we are holding each other tight through this first stage of our business.
Nate: We’ve also learned just how rare it is to be launching a coffee company the way we are—that is, without anything to lean on but the entirety of our skill sets, and a youth government mini-loan to buy the green coffee. We have no investors or family money. We’re just two passionate people who have a vision of a new kind of coffee company.
Laura: Various people have made assumptions about us—they assumed we were bigger, or have more resources than we do. It’s flattering—it means we’re pulling it off!
tLBCC: Do you have any words of advice or wisdom you’d be willing to pass along to anyone interested in building a career in coffee?
Laura: The first bit of advice would be to look for a company that has a culture of hiring from within, and for nurturing growth. A word of caution: you might have to leave your city or country to find that company. Once you find a good fit, stay there! Not forever, but give it a few years. See how you can contribute to the success of that business, so in turn, the company will be happy to reinvest in you. Both of us spent many years in each of the companies we worked for. That time afforded us the ability to learn, (and eventually) the autonomy to stretch, have failures and successes, and become the professionals we are today.
Nate: Secondly, if you sense you’ve got a habit of asking to be spoon-fed knowledge (#LetMeGoogleThatForYou), try to take a step back and focus on self directed learning. It’s amazing what resources are out there. Sharing and discussing what you’re learning with a coffee focussed community is easier than ever. If you don’t have a community in your city, Barista Hustle is a nice online community to be a part of, wherever you might be living.
tLBCC: How would you like to see Lüna grow in the future?
Nate: Roasting in our own space to start! We also have dreams of a coffee tasting space more akin to a tea bar. A local tea house called O5 is a place we’ve always admired for its ability to provide a space built for learning something new and diving into sensory experience. When we think about a typical coffee focused space, usually there is more of a fast food focus. We’d like to shake up that model.
Laura: For the more immediate future, we are launching a subscription program. The idea is to make it really lovely—something to delight and nurture those who love brewing coffee at home. Each month, subscribers get two light, bright, delightful coffees to enjoy, and a mini zine to read alongside. It’s going to be a special experience. We’re looking at July or August launch.
tLBCC: When you are not working on Lüna, where are we most likely to find you?
Laura: Lately, LÜNA has been like a newborn… so it’s taken up most of our time to be honest!
Nate: But when we sneak a moment, we’re taking care of our garden (we always plant too many mustard greens) or having beer in the park (To Øl from Denmark has a wicked delightful one called Sur Amarillo—dry hopped over and over with Amarillo hops… it tastes like wild honey. It’s ridiculous). x