Monogram Coffee's Jeremy Ho helps fuel Calgary's caffeine culture
From a biomedical degree to a champion barista: How the Monogram Coffee co-founder found his true passion
It was only a few years ago that Jeremy Ho was a University of Calgary student pursuing a career in medicine.
When his application to medical school was turned down, he found himself at a crossroads — but he was suddenly free to attend the regional barista championships.
He won and then moved on to nationals where he earned the title of Best Barista in Canada in 2012.
Jeremy says his fascination with coffee began at a young age.
"When I was a kid, my parents wouldn't allow me to have coffee," said the Calgarian who moved to the city before his first birthday. "But in elementary school my dad would have coffee at night, and when he wasn't looking I'd sneak sips of it.
"It was a forbidden thing. I associated it with dessert — I'd eat a bite of something sweet, and then take a swig of coffee. As a kid I was doing coffee pairings already."
In high school, Jeremy drank coffee loaded with tons of cream and sugar to stay awake.
First real taste
A trip to Vancouver to visit his sister changed everything.
She brought him to the hip new Caffè Artigiano — a coffee shop at its pinnacle doing things with roasted beans other cafes weren't venturing into yet.
"I went, and I saw tasting notes on the coffee menu," he said. "I was like, what? I didn't know coffee could be described with tasting notes! I had to try it."
Jeremy ordered an espresso and a brewed coffee and said he was blown away.
"My coffee tasted like fruits. It had a complexity to it. It wasn't bitter," he said. "I thought, 'This is what coffee can be like?' That was my spark. I started down the rabbit hole when I realized that coffee was more than a caffeine delivery vehicle."
A year later, Jeremy got a job at the University Café after learning new latte art techniques on YouTube.
He worked as a barista as he earned his degree in biomedical science, learning the ins and outs and helping to shape a fledgling coffee culture.
Around that time, Phil & Sebastian first opened up shop in the Calgary Farmers' Market in Currie Barracks.
"There was a great crew there — all the new baristas around the city who were just getting into it were there," he said. "Because the coffee was so much better, and it was a new wave that was happening in Calgary, we learned along with other people who were just as excited about learning."
Over the years, Jeremy got to know the larger coffee community by competing and attending national and international coffee events.
"You start seeing the differences in culture and geography," he said.
He won the national title in only his third year of competing. Jeremy said the year his life changed directions was one where doors close and doors open.
"I interviewed for medical school, which I was really grateful for, but I didn't get in. But if I had, I wouldn't have had time to do all the coffee stuff — and I won the nationals that year."
Jeremy said winning nationals raised his profile in the industry and many new opportunities began to present themselves.
"You start to see how interesting and awesome the industry is. I'm just so passionate about it. I love it so much," he said. "I realized there are so many parts of it that are so amazing. And so I pulled the trigger."
Jeremy earned his degree, then last fall then partnered with friends and fellow coffee enthusiasts Justin Eyford and Ben Put to launch Monogram Coffee Co. The company collaborates with Transcend Coffee in Edmonton to custom-roast beans for their coffee pop-ups and now a wee narrow bricks and mortar space in an underused strip mall in Altadore.
There's a lot of talent behind that little counter — Ben took home the grand prize at the 2014 Canadian Barista Championship in Toronto for the second year in a row and in 2013 represented Canada at the World Barista Championship in Rimini, Italy.
Their space came along organically, and the small group did all the work they could manage themselves, sourcing local suppliers and salvaging wood from the ceiling to use in the interior.
"There are so many facets involved in serving coffee," Jeremy told me over a latte and a thick slab of toast slathered with labneh, toasted hazelnuts and honey. "It's more than just handing a cup across the counter. And I love it all."