When Kelowna’s Al Lang heads to Seattle next month to compete in the Latte Art World Championships, he won’t just be going as a competitor.
Lang, who is relatively new to the world of coffee, will also be there as a judge.
But he won’t be judging other baristas’ art in a cup. He will be judging the coffee itself in an associated competition for coffee bean roasters.
The operator of Kelowna’s Bean Scene Coffee Works near Landmark Square has been asked to judge in the espresso category, adjudicating the quality of the beans used to make the rich, small, dark drink that is so popular around the world.
And to hear Lang talk about what he looks for in a good espresso, he sounds like a judge in competitions dealing with that other popular Okanagan product—wine.
“I’ll be looking for aroma, body, as well the fruity notes from the bean itself,” says Lang.
The 44-year-old, who used to be a hotel manager before getting into the coffee business just over a year ago, admits he was surprised to be asked to judge at the annual CoffeeFest.
The competition will draw hundreds of competitors from all over western North America, as many as 10,000 attendees, and will include a large trade show.
Later in the month, the Canadian equivalent, the Brewers Cup, will take place in Vancouver.
While Seattle and the Pacific Northwest have become coffee central over the last 20 years, coffee culture has grown elsewhere, as demonstrated by the huge popularity of coffee shop chains such as Starbucks and Tim Hortons.
But it’s the mushrooming growth of independent coffee shops that’s really helping to fuel the growing popularity of coffee bean roasting and the seemingly simple, yet complex espresso.
And with it, the popularity of the roasters who bring the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, flavours out of the beans they roast.
“I think of us (at the Bean Scene) as being in the business of educating people’s palettes,” says Lang.
When it comes to roasting coffee beans, just about anyone can do it, Lang says. But not everyone can do it well.
Similar to popping corn, coffee beans are heated until they crack and release oils and sugars. And that’s what give them their taste.
“You could roast beans in a popcorn maker,” says Lang. “It’s the same process but they would come out tasting like crap.”
Typically a coffee bean cracks twice when being roasted. Taken out after the first crack gives a lighter roast and after the second, a darker roast.
But, depending on the beans used, their origin, the ability of the roaster and a myriad of other, more subtle factors such as the amount of air used, the temperature, and attributes of the roasting machine itself, many different tasting notes can be brought out.
At Kelowna’s Cherry Hill Coffee, a larger wholesale producer as well as selling to individual buyers, creating a wide selection of coffees is an everyday occurrence.
James Calder, Cherry Hill’s director of marketing, says like grapes used for wine making, the origin of coffee beans will influence the flavour notes in the final product because of the earth they are grown in and the weather conditions.
Also like wine-making, Calder says coffee aficionados have their own tasting wheels that describe those flavour notes using descriptions one may not readily think of when speaking about coffee.
Citrus, for instance, is not something one necessarily thinks of when drinking coffee according to roasters its a well-known flavour note.
In fact, Ethiopian coffee beans are known to have more citrus flavour than beans from other parts of the world.
“Different beans are also handled differently because of the flavours that can be brought out of them,” says Calder.
Unlike the micro-roastery at the Bean Scene, Cherry Hill creates much larger volumes. But both rely on the expertise of the roaster to create the finished product.
Just as a wine-maker creates a given vintage using his or her know-how, a roaster does the same.
At Cherry Hill, it’s a family affair. The business owners, brothers David and Jeff Biglow and David’s stepson Tim, serve as the roasters.
The company was started by their father 25 years ago. All three have many years experience working with the beans.
“Here it’s old school,” said Calder, noting that despite its commercial size, roasting is still done by hand, there are no computer controllers.
The large roasting machine the company uses dates back to the 1950s.
Over at the Bean Scene, owner John Anderson also serves as the roaster. And while he admits he has to think like a businessman, his passion really comes across when he talks about roasting the beans.
For me, it’s a visual experience,” he says. “I visualize taste.”
Working on a taste spectrum that he describes as lemon on one end and charcoal on the other, he says he strives to find flavours in between, preferring to work with lighter roasts.
But, he is quick to admit that if he did not create dark roasts as well, he would go out of business.
“That’s what a lot of people want, so I have to do it,” he says.
“But, if I could just get people to tinker with no cream and no sugar (in their coffee), I’d be through the roof.”
While he admits the popularity of lattes has driven coffee culture to the heights it is today, he sees change coming but maybe not in smaller communities like Kelowna.
“If I was doing what I do here in somewhere like Seattle, Portland or Vancouver, I would have line-ups out the door,” says Anderson.
But, he said, the population base is just not here for that.
Undeterred, he plugs on.
Unlike the larger commercial operations, Anderson’s Bean Scene roastery is much smaller in scale.
It supplies the coffee for the handful of Bean Scene coffee shops and a few others but it does not wholesale its products.
Despite that, there is a similarity when you talk to both Anderson and Calder about the creative process used for roasting beans.
Neither company uses computers to set times or control the roasting process. They both rely on the knowledge and experience of the person operating the roasting
In Anderson’s case, he learned his craft from a man whose name Anderson uses as his personal roasting method.
Espresso Graf, as it is know, is what Anderson describes as his “baby.”
“I believe you learn from people who are better than you and then you honour them by trying to make it better.”
In doing so, he has been gradually making his roasts lighter but has had to do it slowly because of the reigning popularity of the dark roast.
At Cherry Hill, dark roast is also king but because theirs is a larger operation, it has the luxury of providing a range of roasts for its customers, both individual and corporate.
Using only organic beans, Cherry Hill, like the Bean Scene, seeks out single source beans only, meaning each batch comes from a single farm and are not mixed with beans from other farms.
And, like other commodities, coffee beans are traded on the market at prices that fluctuate. That can mean sources can differ from time to time.
Calder says currently there is a blight affecting beans in Central America, and that will likely mean a shortage next year from that part of the world.
Beans from different areas are also handled differently because they produce different flavours, he says.
But despite all the variances, in the end, it is the roaster who brings out the flavour in the bean and that is what makes that perfect cup of coffee.
For Al Lang, finding the perfect espresso will be his job next month in Seattle. And he’s looking forward to the task.
“I taste coffee all day here as part of my job, so I think I’m up to it.”