34 Countries, 20,000 Kilometers, One Bicycle: An Interview with Barista Gavyn Stroh

We love hearing from our readers, especially if they’re passing through one of the cities where our blogging team is based (Louisville, San Francisco, and Istanbul). It was in the latter we met up with Canadian barista Gavyn Stroh, sharing a pour-over at Coffee Department in Balat. Istanbul is one of the world’s great travel hubs, so it’s not uncommon to meet visiting coffee professionals. But what made our visit with Gavyn exceptional was his mode of transportation. Turkey is one of 34 countries Gavyn cycled through over the last 12 months. We’ve been following his journey since that delicious, naturally-processed El Salvador we shared, and we’ve been taken by its breath-taking panoramas, ever-increasing tan lines, and of course, the many cups of coffee along the way. Now that his journey is coming to a close, we caught up with him to learn about coffee on the open road.

How did you decide to leave your native Canada and travel the world by bicycle?

In February of 2016 I was in the midst of the final semester of my Bachelor’s degree. Procrastination led me to YouTube where I stumbled upon a set of videos made by a Bulgarian-Canadian man named Iohan that chronicles his journey from the Arctic Ocean to Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America. I really latched onto the idea of traveling at a human pace and traveling in a way that isn’t carbon emission intensive. I graduated in the spring of 2016 then used the following year and four months to save up money and plan the trip. This trip is something of a transition period for me. After spending the better part of five years in Winnipeg for work and school, I was missing being in proximity to my family in Squamish, British Columbia. Two weeks before leaving on this trip my parents helped me move my things back to BC, now I can get a fresh start when I return back home to Canada.

Tell us about your background in the coffee industry.

I got my foot in the door of the coffee industry when my university opened up a cafe in their brand new library building. I worked there for the first three months of 2015 before I found my way into another start-up. One of my professors was one of five owners in the process of building out a new cafe in Winnipeg’s downtown core. Before Fools & Horses’ opening in May of 2015, I secured part-time employment in addition to part-time work in a practicum/co-op capacity. I spent half my time behind the bar making coffee and the other half of my time helping the business set up a compost program, waste tracking, and carbon emissions accounting.

Do you ever miss working bar while on the open road?

Absolutely. Two main reasons stick out to me. One, I miss the routine. Being on the road doesn’t really let you settle into a groove in the same way. Two, I miss the people. My coworkers and my regulars! There’s something truly unique about the relationships that form between coworkers and between employee and customer. I miss that continuity of relationship – while on the road you’re barely able to scratch the surface before you’re in a new place with new people. In the cafe you see people daily, they’re part of your life, and you’re part of theirs. Over time you actually get to know these people, and some of them reciprocate and get to know you too.

It seems you do a pretty thorough cafe crawl in every city you visit. What cafes have been highlights?

I do my best! I would likely go to more if I wasn’t constrained by my caffeine tolerance, or my budget! I would have not found half of these shops if it weren’t for Ales and Radic of European Coffee Trip and their efforts in the greater European coffee community.

Naturally different cafes stand out for different reasons. I was starstruck by the opportunity to visit Tim Wendelboe in Oslo (even got the chance to chat with him before he had to run off to the airport). Gardelli Specialty Coffee in Forli was another cafe that I have admired from afar for some time and was able to incorporate into the route of my trip.

Mame in Zurich and Dabov Specialty Coffee in Sofia stand out for really great service. I’ve seen my own preferences shift from just finding really good coffee in a pretty space to prioritizing the service experience. Making good coffee is easy, offering really good service while juggling a half dozen other things behind the bar, is not.

It has been really interesting to visit all these European cafes and contrast the experiences with those I’ve had in Canada. One very notable difference I’ve noticed has been the European trend of table service vs. the North American culture of calling out drinks from the bar. Not that one is better than the other, just different.

Do you tour with any brewing gear? What’s your coffee routine look like when you’re out in the countryside?

I’m not sure I would’ve been able to make it this far or this long if I didn’t have coffee with me! And, after working in coffee for three years I was vehemently against subjecting myself to gas station coffee or, worse yet, instant coffee. I am touring with an Aeropress, a Porlex mini handgrinder, a 2000g pocket scale, and a 0.8L stove-top kettle.

I have spent over 80 nights camped out on the side of the road on my way to the next major destination while on this trip. The coffee routine starts in the afternoon before I make my coffee by ensuring I have enough water to last me through the night and into the morning. Water becomes a really interesting brewing variable when you never have the same water source. I’ve used water from gas stations, mosques, cemeteries, mountain springs, and, when desperate, lake water with purification tablets mixed in.

I’ll make my first cup after having a bite to eat for breakfast. I’ve had as many as seven different whole bean options to choose from while on this trip. I’m not terribly good at impulse control when I see a coffee I think I might enjoy! I’ll drink my first cup while double-checking my route plan for the day, and I usually make a second cup after finishing packing up my tent and loading up my bike for another day in the saddle. I have a bag mounted to my handlebars that fits my Keep Cup perfectly, so I’m able to enjoy that second coffee while pedaling those first few kilometers of the day.

I may actually be the only touring cyclist out there with two brewing devices and two coffee grinders. When I passed through Istanbul in December I picked up a cezve/ibrik made by Soy and a grinder made by Hon. It’s been cool to play around with a new brewing device — despite the fact that it adds an extra pound or so to my packed weight.

A grand bicycle tour seems so romantic, but I’m sure there’s been some hard days along the way. Any close calls stick out to you?

My threshold for what makes a close call or what makes for a hard day has changed a little over time. Back at the beginning of the trip I was scared off the narrow secondary highway to Paris by close passing cars and trucks. In Bulgaria I became unsettlingly comfortable with two cars charging down the two-lane highways with me in the oncoming lane.

I did have a pretty close call in Montenegro, but that was mostly my own fault. I was descending down the twenty-six hairpin corners that led back to Kotor when the Austrian couple driving in front of me braked to let a car coming the opposite direction come up the hill. I locked up both brakes before careening into the back of their SUV. I managed to come to a stop as I was nearly in-line with the passenger side window, and inches from tumbling off the road entirely.

I had a second notable close call on my first attempt at cycling a century (100mi/161km) in one day. I was coming down a hill into Bodrum when a car door flung open. I was fortunately able do throw the bike to the left and avoid being sent flying over the handlebars!

Rain days are always hard. They’re bound to happen eventually, so you often just have to push through them. I had a really bad rain day on the final day of three on the way from Fethiye to Antalya. My shoes and socks and gloves were all soaked through and I managed to get a flat tire in the middle of the downpour. On my first day cycling from Pisa to Rome in mid-November I encountered much more rain than I had expected. I found myself caught on a highway as the rain started – unable to put on my rain gear before getting wet. The rest of the day alternated between 1.5 hours of rain, to 1.5 hours of no rain. After I had found a suitable spot for camping overnight on the side of the road, the skies opened up for another bout of rain. Not wanting to try to set up my tent and get the inside completely soaked, I stood there in my wet shoes with my arms at my side and I waited for the rain to pass over, or at least let up enough for me to set up my tent.

I’m sure you’re tired of being asked this by now, but how many kilometers have you logged? Countries passed through?

I don’t get tired of people asking how far I’ve traveled. I always get a bit of a laugh from the reactions of the people who ask! I have cycled 19,422 kilometers over the last 11.5 months! I’m currently in Glasgow, but will be flying home from London in three weeks. Three weeks should be plenty of time to push myself over the 20,000 kilometer mark – that’s halfway around the world at the equator.

This trip has allowed me to visit 34 countries! The United Kingdom, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Italy, Vatican City, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Ireland.

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