Detour: The Canadian coffee roasters inspired by Josef Albers’ colour theory

Tori Taylor
July 8, 2021
We spoke with Detour Coffee Roasters about their company and branding.

Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories, from what drove them to open a roastery to the challenges they’ve faced along the way. This week, we talk to Detour Coffee Roasters, a roastery and coffee chain based in Ontario, Canada that’s on a mission to break down the barriers of specialty coffee.

When Kaelin McCowan was in Australia, he fell in love with coffee. Not just with the taste but everything around it – the culture, the people, the style.

When he returned to Ontario, Canada, Kaelin realised, to his dismay, that a coffee scene similar to Australia’s didn’t exist. Not even close. It was 2009 and the word “specialty” had little meaning to the average Canadian. So he decided to do something about it.

“In Canada, we didn’t really have much of a specialty scene back then – it was a very closed, tight-knit community,” says Ryan McCabe, head of sales and marketing at Detour. “Kaelin didn’t have a coffee background – he worked in movies as a camera operator. But he had this plan that he was going to start making really high-quality coffee.

“He travelled across North America to Seattle and bought a roaster, which he drove all the way back to Hamilton in a rented truck. Then he just started roasting.”

“We had an amazing team that was really passionate about what we were doing.”

Along with his co-partner Jeff, Kaelin set up Detour’s first café in Dundas, a small town on the western edge of Lake Ontario, and started entering their coffees into national competitions. Detour won several years in a row, despite roasting from just a tiny garage space.

“It helped put us on the map,” Ryan tells me. “We had an amazing team that was really passionate about what we were doing – and Kaelin and Jeff were the sort of nucleus of it all.” 

But then, in 2017, Kaelin decided to sell the business. 

“He loved Detour, but he wanted to move back to New Zealand with his family,” Ryan explains. “So he approached a good friend of his called Scott, who had experience buying and selling companies in the food and beverage industry.

“Scott bought the company and we all helped move it into the next chapter.”

canada cafe
Detour’s new ownership coincided with changes to Canada’s specialty coffee scene

The next chapter

The change of ownership coincided with some significant changes to Canada’s specialty coffee scene. What had once been a fairly exclusive product had started to enter people’s homes and become much more mainstream than it had been in 2009.

As a result, Detour decided to switch its focus from wholesale to retail, opening new cafés and setting up its own ecommerce site. They also poured their efforts into giving specialty coffee a friendly face.

“A big part of what we want to do is to become part of the community,” says Kim Barrington, general manager at Detour. “Our focus is still very much on quality and partnerships, but we don’t want to intimidate.

“I think Emma (our green coffee buyer) put it best the other day when she said, ‘You shouldn’t have to be a barista to enjoy our coffees’. That captures the direction we’re heading.”

As part of this, Detour has collaborated with a number of businesses around Hamilton, from local craft beer breweries to other specialty coffee roasteries. Before the pandemic hit, they were about to start working with one of the city’s youth centres to offer free barista training for anyone looking to jumpstart a career in coffee.

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The Detour team saw a connection between coffee and Josef Albers’ colour theory

Josef Albers’ colour theory

According to German artist and colour theorist Josef Albers, colours continually deceive and are almost never seen as they really are. Specifically, he believed that what we perceive to be one colour can change when placed next to another

Ryan explains that when it comes to coffee, Detour adopts a similar approach.

“Coffee is very subjective, it’s a bit like art,” he says. “We saw alignment between Albers’ colour theory and the way we taste coffees.

“For example, on a tasting table you might try a load of Brazilian coffees, which all have a different taste. But when you taste a Brazilian coffee beside a Colombian, beside an Ethiopian, and go back to that Brazilian, it can bring out different nuances in the cup that you might not have noticed before.”

“When you think of acidity, you definitely feel more peaks, more sharpness.”

Inspired by this connection, the team at Detour decided to base its branding around a combination of colours and shapes that tell customers what to expect from the coffee.

“Every time we taste a coffee, we pick out the tasting notes or the style it portrays and we develop a few colour ideas from that,” Ryan explains. “So berries would be red, tropical might be yellow, chocolatey might be darker blues or browns.

“Then when we talk about balance or acidity, we think of shapes. When you think of acidity, you definitely feel more peaks, more sharpness. Whereas subtle, elegant coffees are more like circles.”

The result is an assortment of colourful, unique, and eye-catching labels that have come to define Detour as a brand. And while they have a page dedicated to explaining the inspiration behind the art on their website, it’s by no means something that needs to be understood to be enjoyed.

“I relate it to concept bands of the 70s,” Ryan tells me. “You can love the music, but there’s also a storyline behind it. With our coffees, you can love the colour schemes on the packaging, but you don’t necessarily have to know why we use them.”

Detour Coffee Club: Bringing the barista experience home

detour coffee roasters
The Coffee Club has been a hit since launching in September last year

Like most countries around the world, the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 forced coffee shops across Canada to close their doors, with no promise of when they would reopen.

Grabbing a coffee en route to the office or dashing out for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up was suddenly no longer a possibility. As a result, many started to bring the coffee shop experience inside their homes.

In response, Detour developed its very own Coffee Club, a monthly subscription box including handpicked coffees, video tutorials, exclusive access to products, and a zine written by in-house staff. Since launching in September last year, it’s been a hit.

“It’s all about sharing the same experience that we’ve had with the coffees,” Kim says. “But it’s been good for us too. Everytime we have a new box, it brings the whole team together.”

Their latest box will include two Ethiopian coffees that they hope will “wow” customers and change their perception of what coffee can be. The zine and video (recorded by head roaster Dan) will then provide the “barista experience”, explaining everything they need to know about the beans and their story.

All of this ties into what Detour are trying to achieve: a friendly, inclusive community that’s accessible and free of pretension.

“There’s no reason to be snobby about coffee,” Ryan says. “It’s the most approachable, everyday thing. I always say that the best coffee is literally the coffee you like best – it doesn’t matter what it is, how it’s processed, how you brew it. It’s the best because it makes you feel good.

“Basically, we’re trying to help people find those coffees.”

Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? Next time, we’ll be speaking to Gringo Nordic Coffee Roasters.

For information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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