I used to think of coffee as this amorphous, undifferentiated drink; fuel for staying awake, adulterated with heavy doses of milk and sugar. In fact it’s arguable that until Starbucks took off in the early ‘90s, many of us had never really considered ordering anything other than drip. However, over the past two decades, interest in high-quality food and where it comes from has brought coffee to the point where even our convenience options come in 21 encapsulated flavours.
Beyond those pod brewers is an even bigger ocean of coffee, hailing from farms all over the world, then selected, roasted and brewed by local connoisseurs like Ben Cram. Ben and his Fernwood Coffee Company are on the leading edge of North American roasters, having won numerous barista championships and collected a number of professional certifications along the way.
Ben is actually an experienced professional chef, but after buying the 20-year-old Parsonage Café in Victoria, he became fascinated with coffee and the production process. “When my wife and I bought the café eight years ago, there was a roaster right in the room,” he says. “We started putting a lot of care into how the coffee was roasted, I started traveling around doing apprenticeships and learning and we very quickly outgrew the space and opened Fernwood Coffee Company in the same building as a full, dedicated production roastery.”
Over those eight years, the growing demand for high-quality coffee has let him and roasters like him build closer relationships with coffee producers. “There used to be a bit of a gap,” he says. “You’d have a guy producing amazing quality coffee, but he didn’t know how it tasted as an end product because a lot of times they’re years and years behind on how they’re brewing their coffee at these origin countries.”
Now, heightened communication lets both parties make more nimble and granular changes to the way they grow and roast the beans, allowing more collaboration and creating brand new flavours. “You’re getting projects where a roaster is saying, this coffee is really good, can we try experimenting with how you’re drying the green coffee? The producer is saying yeah sure, they’re tasting it together and getting these amazing results. Then next year it might be the producer saying so we did that, but we also added this into the process! The boundaries are being pushed each year, it’s great.”
Just like gourmet chocolate, many of these boutique coffees are single-origin. This makes for more characteristic flavours, but also introduces seasonality to an industry that often aims to taste the same year-round. Plus, like a wine, a coffee crop may change dramatically from year to year. This has lead many roasters to offer a rotating list of coffees, even producing one-off versions for a particular year. “You’ll see a sort of four or five month window when certain coffees are at their prime, and then we’ll move into a new harvest season and you’ll see coffees from some other origins,” says Ben. “So it won’t be like a steady, ‘oh this is our Guatemalan’ and it’s just always that coffee, it’ll be year to year.”
These new options mean that coffees from different roasters can be completely different in flavour and texture, an exciting prospect for exploratory coffee drinkers. “At the end of the day you’re going to see a lot of influence from the quality control people on what they select,” says Ben. “If my tastes are different than one of the guys at Matchstick or Forty-Ninth Parallel it’s going to affect that, and it’s not just myself it’s my roastery staff as well.”
For example, Fernwood’s espresso is particularly known for being a slightly sweeter blend that pairs especially well with milk, thanks to the fruity notes of its naturally processed beans.
With the success of Ben’s recent visits to the Cookworks stores in Vancouver, we’re all very excited to share Fernwood coffees with Vancouverites and mix things up in the marketplace. “Vancouver is a very educated coffee community, so I think for them it might just be exciting to try a different roaster,” says Ben. “It’s definitely some variety you won’t see on every corner.” - Sol