Comparing Vancouver’s Coffee Beans

October 10, 2012

It will have escaped nobody's notice that Vancouver is a top-ranked city in at least three categories. We're always high on those "livable city" lists. We have the most expensive real estate on the continent. And, of course, we're also among the urban zones most addicted to the roasted seeds of an epigynous berry found on Asian and African shrubs known as Coffea arabica.

Yeah, we love our joe in this town. We're boffo for coffee. Two Starbucks per intersection never struck us as ridiculous. That's Vancouver in a nutshell or, in this case, a roasted endosperm.

Of course, most of us also realize that our relationship with coffee hasn't been static. We weren't born this way. Don't anybody try to claim that Jack Khatsahlano greeted our city forefathers with high-altitude, shade-grown juice served out of a gold-plated Belgian vacuum coffee siphon. My point being that fine coffee isn't in our blood. It's a choice we've made, socially and economically. And as such, it offers a portrait of, if not who we are, then at least who we think we are.

I found myself considering all this over the past month as I sampled my way through a list of cafés and fine bean roasters recommended by my most ardent coffee-loving friends. But I found it brought into crystal focus while sitting in the boardroom of the Doi Chaang Coffee Company on W. Hastings Street. John Darch, the company's founder and 50 percent owner (the other 50 percent is owned, notably, by the Akha hill tribe in Thailand who farm the beans) had just served me up a cup of their single-estate espresso, and our conversation had turned to civet coffee.

You may have heard about this stuff already. The civet, a svelte mammal whose musky body scent is used in perfumery, also happens to be a bit of a coffee fiend. Only, they eat the fruit. The cherry, as it's known. What emerges from the other end of the civet then, in due course, is the seed of this fruit-the coffee "bean"-neatly de-fruited by that point and (connoisseurs maintain) enhanced in flavour as is only possible by exposure to the enzymes in a civet's digestive tract. It's coffee scat, essentially. But what Darch wanted me to understand was that Doi Chaang's particular brand of civet coffee scat was special. Sold at $55 for 50 grams, which works out to $1,100 a kilogram, and carried by both Harrod's and Dean & DeLuca, Doi Chaang's civet coffee isn't made using farmed civets who are force-fed coffee cherries and whose poop is then combed for seeds. It's made by wild Thai civets who rove the coffee plantation nocturnally and voluntarily, eating in the manner and pace of their choosing.

"Garbage in, garbage out," Darch says of other brands. "Our civets are choosing their own cherries. And of course that means they choose only the best!"

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It's a great story. (I've been telling it ever since.) And perhaps that is the key point here. Coffee these days is very much about having a great (and, ideally, heartwarming) story. Google any of the major players in Canadian independent beans these days-Kicking Horse, Salt Spring Coffee, Ethical Bean, Doi Chaang-and you'll find such consistent language it's hard to believe they weren't centrally coordinated. And I'm not talking about the product being just "organic" or "fair trade," either, which should be considered the bare minimum to enter this field.

I'm talking instead about other initiatives intended to humanize these companies to the point that they don't sound like corporations at all. More like nonprofits. These are companies touting projects to build schools in Central America (Ethical Bean), or to recycle coffee grounds and bags (Salt Spring), or to funnel financial support to the Canadian Nature Conservancy and local food banks (Kicking Horse). Doi Chaang, whose founder gave half the company to the Thai tribe where he sources his beans, is perhaps only pushing farther down the same virtuous avenue. Did they have to? Not legally. But to make a mark in coffee, it was a very savvy move.

"Of course people won't buy crappy coffee," Darch says. "But nobody has a story like ours."

And as if to underscore that point, he describes how sales of Doi Chaang's coffee "struggled" for the first two years. Not because of quality. Critic Ken Davids, whose ratings in Coffee Review have become the Parker Points for the beverage, tells me that Doi Chaang coffee is in the top 10 percent of coffees he has "cupped," rating around 89-91, where your typical cup of Starbucks is 83 to 84, and Folgers instant crystals come in around 60. No, the struggling was story-related, in the sense that not enough people knew about what Doi Chaang was doing. Sales only exploded following the airing of a Global TV documentary on the company's "Beyond Fair Trade" partnership with the Akha. In one year sales tripled and the company hasn't looked back.

Which is a curious market feature, when you think about it. We don't refuse to use Hootsuite unless Ryan Holmes builds a school in Honduras. We don't boycott Burrowing Owl if they neglect to build their brand around high-profile environmental donations. Why, then, do consumers demand that people in the coffee industry-both wholesalers and retailers-commit to making the world a happier and more egalitarian place? What the hell is in this stuff other than caffeine, some kind of ethical, high-minded pixie-dust?

Doubtful. I think the answer is, in fact, more scientific and less flattering to us individually. It's Batesian mimicry.

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Stay with me. Species copy each other, mimicking high-value features like stripes and spots that signal venom and discourage predators. Perhaps the most famous example is the entirely harmless Scarlet King snake, which copies (not perfectly, but pretty well) the markings of the very poisonous Eastern Coral snake, securing for itself a protection that it didn't actually earn.

Consumers do the same thing, mimicking high-value ideas to secure the returns that they have observed other consumers receive. So the first generation of Starbucks customers were able to signal to the world a powerful knowledge, positioning them advantageously relative to coffee drinkers who'd come before. Starbucks consumption indicated that you didn't drink the watery, flavourless, institutional coffee that had prevailed prior in North America. You'd travelled to Europe. You knew the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done.

As status accrued to those early adopters, a billion mimics followed, displaying the logo in obedience to the evolution code written within: signal what the successful species signals. Competitors to Starbucks responded by darkening their own roasts. Starbucks responded by growing, growing, growing. They became a mega-corporation. Their "cafés" started smelling like cheese. The lineups grew. And at some fateful tipping point, the exclusivity of the brand collapsed.

Which is exactly what happens to Eastern Coral snake populations when too many Scarlet Kings mimic their markings and dilute the results.

Starbucks may still be profitable. (John Darch observes: "Starbucks changed people from being willing to spend 10 cents on coffee to being willing to spend $2 or $3.") But they'll never regain what was lost: exclusivity, and a status message that could be reliably communicated by the simple act of holding one of their cups. That business has passed on to merchants and consumers who position themselves advantageously relative to the Starbucks drinkers who'd come before, signalling that they know the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done. Most importantly, in a humanized, small-scale, socially conscious, non-corporate way.

And still expensive. $3 plus still prevails for an Americano, of which Lloyd Bernhardt of Ethical Bean assures me only 25 cents or so is actually the cost of coffee. But for that $2.75, we're getting back the story that we originally craved, the one that distinguishes people on both sides of the Clover.

Has Batesian mimicry followed? Go read the websites of the major coffee wholesalers and most popular cafés and decide for yourself. They all look like Eastern Corals and Scarlet Kings to me. Will there be another bursting of bubbles? A migration of opinion, perhaps very suddenly, away from that which grants status to geeky moustachioed guys in undershirts hunched over pour-over gear?

Count on it.

In the meantime, ask yourself how much of the brand promise is in the story told versus the coffee delivered. Highly subjective, of course. I made a short list of cafés to try based on beans served and recommendations from friends. I asked for a small Americano in each case (except for the civet coffee, which I made myself at home). Here are the results: THE BEANS & THE ROOMS

The Beans & The Rooms

 

Elysian Room

1778 W. Fifth Ave., 604-734-1778. Elysiancoffee.com

A jazzy place with geek-chic baristas and dressy clientele. Seen: red lizard wedge high heels.
Overheard: "What a beautiful necklace!" The Americano: $3.25. Toffee notes, not burnt or oily, but also not particularly rich. Rating: medium good.

 

Milano

156 W. Eighth Ave., 604-879-4468. Milanocoffee.ca

Roast their own beans. Spacious, modern room with superb outlook across the park to downtown. Lovely staff. Seen: software dudes. Overheard: "We have to strategize." The Americano: $2.65. Blech. Watery, barely
coffee-flavoured. A dumbfounding letdown given the room
and service and number of recommendations. Rating: bad.

 

Kafka's

2525 Main St., 604-569-2967. Kafkascoffee.ca

Herkimer beans from Seattle. Serious-coffee vibe: siphons available, tasting flights. Eclectic furniture and clientele. Seen: curated artwork on the walls. Overheard: somebody growling over a plucked guitar. The Americano: $3.25. Deep molasses and chocolate-y notes, vegetables too. Rating: interesting juice, would try again.

 

W2: Salt Spring Coffee

111 W. Hastings St., 604-689-9896. Creativetechnology.org

Seen: women doing dance gymnastics dangling on bungee cords in the atrium under the Stan Douglas installation. Overheard: Metric. The Americano: $3. Smooth but not heavy or oily, distinct light choco-caramel/tobacco notes. Rating: superior, will return.

 

Nesters in Woodwards

333 Abbott St., 604-688-7550. Nestersmarket.com

Ethical Bean drip exclusively. I tried two: Rocket Fuel and Classic. $3.36 for two cups. Seen: ladies cooing over a Labrador puppy. Overheard: garbage truck backing into an alley. The Brew: hmmm. In a phrase: truck-stop two ways. Rocket Fuel burnt and Classic more or less tasteless. Not, one suspects, how Ethical Bean would want their stuff featured. Rating: bad coffee, though kind of right for the time and place.

 

Ethical Bean Express

Granville SkyTrain Station. Ethicalbeanxpress.com

Giving EB a second chance, I went to their own outlet. Seen: people in a rush. Overheard: the bowels of the city. The Americano: $2.41. Dark to tarry flavour, very intense. Rating: medium.

 

Matchstick Coffee Roasters

639 E. 15th Ave., 604-558-0639. Matchstickcoffee.com

Roast their own. Aging Brooklyn hipster vibe. Seen: bike hats, grizzly beards, antlers on the wall, subway tiles. Overheard: "Skype me this afternoon." The Americano: $2.41. Veering to the black tar end of things, but
balanced and rich. Rating: good.

 

Kranky Coffee

228 E. Fourth Ave., 604-568-4272. Krankycafe.ca

Kicking Horse beans. Eclectic East Side vibe. Seen: old books, blue French country style painted counters, bead curtains. Overheard: Beth Orton. The Americano: $2.85. Some acids and fruit, but also deep oily notes. Rating: medium good.

 

49th Parallel

2152 W. Fourth Ave., 604-420-4901. 49thparallelroasters.com

Roast their own. Seen: counter guy in dirty sleeveless undershirt out of which sprouts copious body hair. Brill cream. Siphon on display, seemingly never used. Overheard: EDM. The Americano: $3. Disgusting. Oily, burnt, bitter.
Rating: threw it out.

 

Doi Chaang Civet Coffee

Made at home according to meticulous instructions found online: Bodum, medium grind, 85-degree water. The Brew: The first cup was weak, without much of a flavour profile. The second, ground finer, steeped longer before the plunge, much stronger. Interesting depth of flavour with no bitterness or oily notes. Rating: Way overpriced at $15 a cup for home use, but interesting.

 

Doi Chaang Single Estate Espresso

Made for me at Doi Chaang's office by Tanya Jacoboni, the company's VP of business development, served without pretence in a mug I think my grandmother used to own. The Brew: rich, balanced, fruit notes, no oiliness or bitterness. Rating: superior coffee.

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