Writer Robert Young was hard at work earlier this year on his latest novel, a 1930s murder mystery set in Wolseley starring a strict Catholic detective forced to work with a tarot reader to solve the case.
But the story didn’t just write itself, and Young — author of six books of fiction and non-fiction, including biographies of Lyle Bauer and Dieter Brock of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — came up against a familiar foe: writer’s block.
That’s when he turned to what he considers a writer’s best friend: coffee.
Needing an excuse to avoid work, Young began researching how to get into the bean business. In a bit of hobby polyamory, he decided to marry three of his loves — writing, music and coffee — into a single endeavour. And after consulting with roasters from across the country, Young got started on his own company, which he called Writers & Rockers Coffee Company.
Young, who admittedly drinks a lot of coffee, believes the drink can be a useful performance enhancer for a writer’s mind.
"I’ve come to realize it’s a part of our toolbox," he says, like a pencil or a notepad. In an Instagram post, he quotes Honoré de Balzac, the 19th-century French writer who allegedly drank 50 cups of coffee each day: "Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle."
During the writing of each of his books, Young says coffee was a constant. He started writing in the late 1990s, when he moved to Mississippi. In 2004, Young wrote Three Days With Mary, a Christian fiction book that became a regional and topical bestseller, with coffee as his fuel.
At a stop on his book tour in Natchez, Miss., southern thriller writer and novelist John Grisham showed up and asked Young for a signed copy; Grisham later introduced him to author Greg Iles, who plays in a garage rock band with Stephen King.
"Most of my characters drink a lot of coffee too," he says. Write what you know.
Taking inspiration from the creative process of the written word and music, he started to come up with names for different blends, which he conscripted a roastery in Ontario to develop.
On the literary side, there’s the Chapter One blend, a combination of Colombian, Guatemalan and Ethiopian varieties. Writer’s Unblock is a strong Ethiopian dark roast. Tiffany’s Breakfast, based on the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, is a medium blend, while -30-, named after the symbol marking the end of a submitted piece of journalism or writing, is a dark roast.
On the rock side, Young took inspiration from Santana’s Black Magic Woman for a dark roast with hints of cinnamon, and Bob Seger’s Night Moves for another dark blend. He also has Distortion, a strong Colombian espresso.
But for Young — who as a young man got to the door for an audition to join local band Streetheart as a guitarist before walking away — Canadian musicians have always had a sweet spot in his heart. So he came up with a trio of Canadian Classic Rock blends, with the bands getting small royalties off each $17/12-ounce bag’s sale.
There’s Raise a Little Hell, inspired by the band Trooper’s hit track. Then, Coffee with the Queen, named after a song by local act the Pumps, later known as Orphan; that blend features beans from commonwealth countries, in a blend requested by Queen Elizabeth II during her 1984 tour. (Not associated with the band Queen.) And finally, Sweet Things in Life, a dark roast with bourbon-infused vanilla bean, inspired by the track off the 1979 album by Winnipeg band Harlequin.
"(This coffee) came out of nowhere for me," says George Belanger, Harlequin’s lead singer, whom Young suspects made a deal with the devil to retain his vocal range over 40 years after Sweet Things in Life was released.
Belanger himself has a strange relationship with coffee. Growing up in St. Boniface, he and his family lived downwind of local roaster Melrose Coffee. "It would drift across the river, and we’d get a whiff," he recalls. "It was either that or the mushroom plant, and I preferred the coffee to the mushrooms."
The aroma intrigued him, and for years, young Belanger begged his mother to let him have a taste of joe. At 11 or 12, she obliged, twisting the lid off a can of Maxwell House and fixing him a cup. "Oh god, it was awful," Belanger says with a laugh.
So for years, he didn’t drink coffee, until he went to South America. It was 1981 or 1982. He came across a place where locals were roasting, and drinking what looked like a thick paste out of tiny wax cups, "the kind they put pills in in hospitals."
"I tried it and said, ‘My goodness,’ and I ended up walking around Caracas buzzed out of my mind," he says.
An impressed Belanger got more discerning, becoming an avid coffee drinker. He was surprised to find his band’s music inspired a blend of what’s become a favourite beverage.
When Young approached him about it, Belanger said sure. "Not having worked for two-and-a-half years, you have to make money where you can," he says.
The timing was great: Harlequin plays Club Regent tonight for its first local show since before the pandemic.
"At the merch table, we’ll have T-shirts and raglans and photos, plus CDs," Belanger said a few days earlier.
They'll also sell bags of coffee.
That was a Harlequin first.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.