From dalgona and CBD-laced lattes to protein-infused java 'proffee' and cold brews, the coffee world’s trends are constantly evolving.
Questionable beverages can catch the algorithm waves, vying for likes. We love to spend our disposable income on getting caffeinated, using viral recipes and celebs like Emma Chamberlain to shape our tastes.New roasters are cropping up almost weekly. The industry is exploding right now.
But if we zoom in further, we see how relatively young it is compared to, say, the wine industry. Even Starbucks is only around 50 years old, and many local specialty roasters in the city are considered “old” with seven, maybe ten years in the game. The scene is still in its infancy.
This isn’t the case for Cafe Union. An elder statesman by Montreal standards, Union has been around for over a century, and it’s what you’d call a staple in the city. We rang up James Kouri, the current vice-president, to understand where he sees himself in a sea of trends, and how Union’s history defines their business.
I was probably 10 or 11 when I started drinking coffee. I wasn’t an early riser, so my mom would give me a cup of filter coffee in a Garfield cup.
The Beginnings of Montreal’s Oldest Established Roaster
“I was probably 10 or 11 when I started drinking coffee. I wasn’t an early riser, so my mom would give me a cup of filter coffee in a Garfield cup,” Kouri says with a laugh. “Pretty young.”
His early memories of coffee are inextricably linked to Union, which has been in his family for three generations.
The company predates his family’s involvement, though. As the oldest established roaster in the city, founded in 1910 by Allan Dowbiggin and Albert Lisbona, they catered to European immigrants who had a taste for robust beans.
My father shaped the company into what it is today. It was all by feel, and by listening to his customers. He kind of learned on the fly.
In those early years, the business changed hands and moved around quite a bit, from Saint-Denis to Sainte- Catherine Street. In 1928, Kouri’s grandfather Nassif became involved as a delivery driver. Fast forward to 1964, he worked his way up to eventually buying the company, later moving it to Montreal’s Mile-Ex neighborhood. This was a new and important chapter.
“Before we started roasting in 1970 on Jean-Talon, we were mixing and blending,” Kouri says.
His father, Eric, was forced to take the helm with his grandfather’s passing.
“My father shaped the company into what it is today,” he says. Without formal roasting training, Kouri’s father was forced to learn the craft fast. “It was all by feel, and by listening to his customers. He kind of learned on the fly.”
But the focus went beyond just coffee beans. In 1972, Kouri’s father went to Italy on his honeymoon, and brought back two lines of home espresso machines, Rancilio and Gaggia, filling a hole in the home equipment market.
“So he falls in love with my mom, and he ends up carrying these two lines that he’s also married to,” Kouri jokes.
“There were no home machines before that,” he says, as moka pots and percolators dominated most kitchen counters. “The baby Gaggia machine was something he brought in, and it was a bloody hit. That was pretty cool.”
We’ve evolved, we’re always trying to improve. We want to learn, we want to always offer a better product.
New School Education
Kouri and his older brother Stefan were destined to take over the family’s business. They began working at the Jean-Talon boutique as kids. “I was probably making coffee by the time I was 11 or 12. I could pull espresso shots and work the cash, probably giving the wrong change,” Kouri laughs.
He officially became involved in 2001, while his brother had been involved in operations since the mid-90’s, gravitating toward marketing and admin. Kouri was more hands-on, becoming interested in roasting and repairing espresso machines, later becoming head of sales and business development. Today, Kouri serves as president.
Now, Union offers 16 different coffees on their menu. Known as stalwarts of a more old school roasting style—pushing the beans to a dark color, imparting rich caramel and smoky notes—it’s part of their identity, but they’re also trying to appeal to younger generations who prefer gentler roasts.
When asked how Union sees itself in the industry and how they managed to survive so long, Kouri’s humble and honest. “We’ve evolved, we’re always trying to improve. We want to learn, we want to always offer a better product,” he says.
This led to the 2020 project called Microlots, Union’s entry into specialty coffee born out of pandemic lockdowns and an exploding specialty market. The Microlots line uses a small lot of coffee from a single farmer, which is then roasted light to showcase the terroir, acidity, and inherent cup qualities—something that can get lost in darker roasts.
With a new line of coffees, a collaboration with Joe Beef, and a newly renovated Jean-Talon cafe and showroom, things are looking up.
Drama, Reinvention, and a Human Touch
Shortly after Kouri’s father took over, there were roastery fires that destroyed inventory, and wholesale partner departures.
“We lost a major account, St-Hubert,” Kouri laments, which informed how his father subsequently conducted business.
He had to get creative with in-kind exchanges and securing accounts by loaning machines.
“That’s how he got people’s respect. He was very shrewd with how he went about it, and that’s what saved the business.”
More than 50 years later, Union is roasting over 100 batches of coffee per week, serving between 500 to 600 wholesale partners across Quebec with two shops and an online store.
I think we can improve the approach towards roasting coffee. Rather than saying we can roast super dark or super light, we’re going to roast it right.
But they haven’t lost touch with their core retail customers, as Mr. Kouri (Eric), now in his 80’s, still works the odd shift, and can be seen walking his dog down Jean-Talon on weekends, greeting customers. He’s a fixture not only to the company, but the neighborhood itself.
“It’s very special, it’s old school,” Kouri says.
When asked about Union’s 2024 goals, Kouri doubled down on their commitment to quality and evolution.
“I think we can improve the approach towards roasting coffee. Rather than saying we can roast super dark or super light, we’re going to roast it right.”
Café Union is still up and running to this day at 148 Rue Jean-Talon Ouest.