Sue Harper: The Art of the Bean
Move over wine. You may be the taste that made the Okanagan famous but you're not the only beverage on the block. Coffee. It's the most popular drink in the valley.
The "sommeliers" of coffee drinkers can smell and taste the difference between the sweet bright profile of a Guatemalan and the brisk delicate profile of a Mexican. To them, the words "light" and "dark" mean more than what happens when you flick a light switch.
One aficionado who is trying to educate our taste buds "one palate at a time" is John Anderson, co-owner of The Bean Scene and Belgo House Coffee Company.
When John and wife, Deborah Synnot moved to Kelowna from Vancouver 5 years ago, they knew they wanted to buy and operate their own coffee shop. They bought the downtown Bean Scene. But with so many other coffee shops within walking distance of their location, they knew, John says, "that we had to take our operation in a different direction."
Even though they had never before run a coffee business, they had spent a great deal of time in Vancouver's most avante-guard coffee shops. And they believed they could bring some of that edgy urban chic to Kelowna. With 1 year and a lot of hard work under their coffee aprons, Deborah and John thought they had achieved their goal. They entered their shop's team into the Canadian Barista Championships. In this competition, baristas serve 12 drinks: 4 espresso, 4 cappuccinos and 4 "signature" drinks drinks their coffee shops have created. Both the preparation and taste of the beverages are judged. "The Bean Scene team," John laughs as he looks back on it, "came last and second last!"
Rather than discouraging John and Deborah, this poor showing left them asking what made the top teams "top." They narrowed it down to three things: preparing a small selection of beverages really well (which also meant learning how to use and maintain their equipment to a higher standard), perfecting latte art, and roasting their own beans. While Deborah took care of the first two, John plunged headlong into the last one. Welcome Belgo House Coffee Company.
When John talks about those early days, his eyes light up. He says, "The internet is great. You can learn a lot about roasting coffee by reading about it. But it wasn't enough. I wanted to do it 'old school.' I didn't want to buy a roaster that did it all electronically. So I asked myself, who is the best roaster out there?" His answer was Patrick Graf. Patrick had had years of roasting experience as Vancouver's "original coffee roaster" and as a consultant, and now lived in the Okanagan. John spent two months with Patrick setting up the roastery in the garage of his Belgo Road house and learning everything he could about beans (the Bean Scene's 'Espresso Graf' is named for Patrick.)
Roasting coffee is an art much like making pottery. The kiln is the place where things can go terribly wrong. If you roast beans too quickly, the coffee tastes burnt (although that's not a word most roasters like to use.) Roast beans too long and they lose their body.
Like most kilns, the roaster has limited space. John roasts 12 kg of coffee at a time. Each batch takes 18 to 20 minutes at a maximum temperature of 450 degrees. With roasting, beans lose approximately 20% in weight. John may start with 25 pounds of beans, but after a dark roast, he'll have 20.
When I visit the roastery, John shows me bins of green coffee beans. He regularly buys beans from eight origins Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Sumatra, Mexico and Ethiopia. For Christmas 2007, he tried a new origin, El Salvador. Some beans, he explains, are dry processed dried naturally on concrete pads. Some are 'washed' or wet processed that is put through a pulper to remove the outer layers and then fermented in silos to get rid of the silver skin. Still others are 'semi-washed' put through a pulper but then spread on concrete pads to dry. He points out the smooth sheen of the washed beans compared to the soft coarseness of the dry beans and explains that dry processed beans produce the best crema, the lovely golden foam that covers the top of a shot of espresso.
When both buying and roasting beans, John says he has to be conscious of what his customers like. But he also wants to keep pushing their tastes. He may not provide as many choices as some other shops but, he says, "I want to limit what I prepare so I can make the very best quality coffee. I want people to feel they can trust that the shop has done its homework." This means he will serve single origin coffees (coffee from one particular country or region) and blends that he has created in his roastery. He believes Kelowna coffee drinkers are ready to refine their taste buds and to learn about the subtle differences between origins and roasts. After all, look how we've refined our taste for wine!