Dustin Ryan Yu is a ceramicist and coffee aficionado, who combines his two passions to make thoughtful, custom pieces designed to enhance the drinking experience. His latest creation is an espresso cup and saucer set for Mount Pleasant’s Coffee Roastery Modus – their third collaboration.
The collab will be hitting shelves the week of December 5th (aka next week!) You can preorder your Dustin Ryan Yu x Modus cup and saucer set ($95) in one of three colours (opus green, bare yellow, or latif pink) here. Get to know more about the maker below…
Clearly, you care about what goes into your vessels at least as much as the vessels themselves… Please elaborate more on what this relationship means to you.
Drinking out of a vessel specifically designed for the beverage really changes the experience. Working in the coffee industry has made me so aware of the sensory experience of food and beverage. Having the right glassware – like having wine in wine glasses – alters and improves our taste perception. Putting care and thought into these moments, big or small, has made me more appreciative of these details over the years.
I imagine that you must have quite a collection of ceramics at home. If you had to pick just one piece as your “favourite”, what would it be and why? Please describe it to me!
It’s probably a piece I made when I first moved here about six years ago. I made it at a drop-in studio when I was still on the hunt for a studio space. The piece is a bowl-like cup (more wide than tall), and was one of the first vessels I made that looks similar to the shape I currently make. It has a stunning off-white glaze that interacts gently with the iron-rich, red clay body underneath, where the white glaze breaks so beautifully over the rim with a blueish hue. Although it has thicker walls than the vessels I make now, and I don’t always enjoy working with red or darker clay, it still holds a special place in my heart. It marks the point in time when I started to think more intentionally about design and having a standardized shape. I honestly don’t drink out of it enough, but it still stands as my favourite to this day.
When did you become aware of the correlation between cup and coffee/tea? Was there a specific experience and, if so, what was it?
I first became aware of this about six years ago, when I started renting a space in Vancouver while also starting to work in coffee tasting and quality control. I had been interested in coffee for some years before this, but just learned that the vessel form itself can change what you taste. Inspired by the collaboration between Tim Wendelboe (a coffee roastery in Norway) and Kristen Hærnes Ihlen at Figgjo Oslo (a porcelain manufacturer), I began to combine coffee and ceramics, and design a shape that paired well with coffee. It’s really mind-blowing that shape alone can change the perceived acidity, sweetness, and floral notes in coffee. A simple experiment I like to share is: brew a coffee and drink it out of a vessel that is more “A” shaped, and one that is more “V” shaped. You may notice more pronounced acidity in “A”, and more roundness or sweetness in “V”. After some design iterations, I landed on one form: a straight-walled vessel with a slightly elevated foot to look and feel lighter, as a sort of neutral starting point for flavour. From then on, I began doing small runs for friends and cafes. Now, five years later, I’ve seen my techniques and consistency improve, and have been working on larger production orders for cafes.
What’s your coffee and brewing method of choice?
I find that I gravitate towards specific types of coffees – usually washed Colombian, Ethiopian, or Kenyan coffees, typically light to light-medium roast, with notes that remind me of citrus or tropical fruit, and occasionally intense floral notes. A pour over with a paper filter is definitely my favourite brewing method, but the specific dripper or device depends on the coffee and my mood.
How about tea?
I think I lean towards Chinese teas; usually clean, delicate, floral, and sweet ones. I’m not an expert by any means, but I do really enjoy brewing with a Gaiwan [traditional Chinese vessel including a lid, bowl, and saucer. I enjoy tasting how the tea changes over multiple infusions, a little bit at a time. No specific teas come to mind, but everything I’ve had from Cultivate Tea has been very delicious.
It’s apparent from your website that you are very dialled in to the technicalities of your process, yet ceramics is also a very intuitive and creative thing. What does it mean to you, personally? What initially appealed to you about ceramics that inspired you to try it for yourself, and how has that relationship evolved to what it is currently?
I grew up marking art, and was encouraged by my grandmother to make art since I was seven or eight years old. I learned 2D media exclusively (painting, drawing), and took my first ceramics wheel throwing class at 23 years old! Around that time, I grew aware of some of my anxiety, and realized that the cold, muddy, earthy clay was so grounding and relaxing. It was a good way to just focus on myself and my thoughts. I still get this feeling every time I’m throwing, and am so happy to have found this outlet.
Over the years, you’ve worked with a lot of different coffee roasters/cafes to create custom ceramics for them, including a few with Modus. Your third collaboration is an espresso cup and saucer set, thoughtfully designed to accommodate smokers, “wake and bakers” and those who enjoy a biscotti with their morning cuppa alike… What was the conversation like for this particular collaboration? How/why did you come to the final decision?
Modus has been great to work with over the years. I also worked there as a barista between 2018 and 2020, and am still quite close to the team! I find that Sharif, Jess and I think similarly in the sense that we are all picky people (in the best ways possible). We have a similar eye for things, so our conversation about the concept was straightforward. We wanted to create collaborative merch, and also have pieces to be used at the shop. From then on, it was smooth sailing with specifying design and shape, and prototyping began in September of this year. After we decided and settled on quantities, pricing, and timeline, we began production and finalized the colours afterwards. Throughout the process, we worked well together. The pieces were finally glazed and fired in November, and are now available for pre-order on Modus’ website!
Any plans to venture beyond coffee/tea vessels and into another realm of ceramics?
No solidified plans, so far! I tend to prefer functional and production ceramics overall, so I think that based on my interest in food, it would be great to venture into restaurant dinnerware, and at some point exclusively supply all their ceramics.
If you could design and create a piece for any purpose, for anyone, what would it be and why?
There are too many people to list! I really value creating and designing pieces for people who have clear goals and an amazing palate for flavour, and I want to support those who are close and local. My ceramics don’t necessarily have to take the main stage – I simply want them to complement their creations and be a perfect match. If you haven’t already checked out Daniel Munoz’s project, Toña Chocolates, or Steven Che’s current restaurant, Wild Flour Pizza Co., these are the folks I would love to collaborate and work closely with.
Why should more people care and pay attention to what they’re drinking out of? Give me your pitch.
Just as we eat with our eyes, we also drink with our eyes. I don’t enjoy telling people what’s right or wrong, and I’ve found that trying things out for yourself is the best way to convince somebody. Inspired by the work of Fabiana Carvalho (aka The Coffee Sensorium), here are two things you can try at home, as well: drink the same coffee while touching sandpaper or something rough, and compare the texture of the coffee to when you’re touching silk or something soft. The other one: serve a coffee in two transparent glasses, one with a red piece of paper underneath and one with a brown piece. Spoiler: you’ll find that the “sandpaper coffee” will taste rougher than the “silk coffee”, and the “red coffee” will taste fruitier, whereas the “brown coffee” will be more chocolatey or roast-forward. It’s a great feeling to understand a little more about yourself and your preferences, as well as how your brain works; then in turn be able to choose what you drink out of to customize your experience.