Ever wonder why Tim Hortons coffee tastes like that? A behind-the-scenes tour of their roasting plant

Ever wonder why Tim Hortons coffee tastes like that? A behind-the-scenes tour of their roasting plant

(Images: Karolyne Ellacott)

We’re under no illusions that most Dish readers would rate Tim Hortons coffee up there with what one might expect from, say, a Sam James or Te Aro establishment. But when we were offered the chance to check out their previously closed-to-the-public Ancaster coffee plant, we simply couldn’t resist peeking inside the belly of the beast. The journey, last week, got off to a swanky start as a clutch of writers piled into a limo and, Timbits in hand, were whisked off to a factory tour and tasting.

The tour began only after we suited up. White lab coats were donned, hands were washed, and hair was tucked beneath oh-so-flattering blue caps. We were then led through the facility in a How It’s Made–style walk, passing through the various stages, starting with the green beans and ending with the ground goods. Thousands of bags of green beans arrive at the plant daily from the Southern Hemisphere, and every week up to 10,000 bags are processed into the brand’s love-it-or-loathe-it signature blend (the espresso beans are roasted elsewhere).

Check out our behind-the-scenes photos from our tour »

After we sussed out the lay of the land, it was time to taste—or, more accurately, cup—the freshly ground goods. Seated at a round table that resembled a giant lazy Susan, each cupper was presented with coffee made from Brazilian, Guatemalan, Kenyan, Indonesian and El Salvadorian beans, and from the top-secret Tim Hortons blend. The magic formula is hidden in the depths of their computer system, and officially only three people know the exact recipe—though our guide admitted that a couple others, including the CEO, are also in the know. Not all of the beans that arrive at the plant are destined for the blend, but the team of five tasters, led by Kevin West, need to keep their palates “calibrated” and remain aware of what’s on the market.

When the coffee was ready (205°F, five minutes), we were instructed to break the crust that had formed on the top, and take whiffs from each cup, noting the various aromas. The crust was then scooped right off, and it was tasting time. While the pros were able to viciously slurp the stuff with the fury of a thousand winds—they do cup over 75,000 brews a year—most of us were unable to muster up such strength. Like with wine tasting, the intent is to aerate the coffee, bringing out its flavour. A stale El Salvadorian Arabica had notes of, um, wood, while the Balinese brew was earthy and strong (the latter got our vote over the Timmies special blend). And with that, the peek behind the curtain was over. Back to Toronto we went with, if nothing else, this year’s Halloween coffee lab costume ready to go.