In Search of a Great Cup o’ Joe -June 2014

by: Kimberly Nolan

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

From befriending Bedouins in the desert to securing armed bodyguard protection in El Salvador, nothing will stop Wes Van Cott from finding the perfect cup of coffee.

And the search is just the beginning.

Whether sun-dried under Ethiopian skies or handpicked in Kona, Hawaii, the best of the beans Van Cott tracks down are destined for island coffeedrinkers. Nantucket Coffee Roasters serves 50 local accounts, including a perennial favorite — The Bean on Centre Street – that Van Cott opened 15 years ago.

The Bean is an intimate space. The cozy seating lends itself to a friendly atmosphere where islanders and tourists are brought together over coffee, tea and other house specialties.

The Bean strikes a balance between informal and professional. A newly-acquired acoustic music license turns the coffee house into a music venue during the winter months. The Bean Unplugged features a weekly lineup of musicians spanning the genres of classical, folk and jazz.

When a poet scratches lines in a notebook or a guitarist plucks strings in the back corner, the coffee house is reminiscent of an expanded living room. Yet, the baristas maintain the professional knowledge that coffee connoisseurs rely upon.

The Bean features two distinct, high-quality coffee styles, Van Cott said.

“Beans that have been ‘washed’ produce a more refined cup of coffee,” he said. “ ‘Naturals’ are more wild in flavor. My favorite coffee can change with almost every delivery. The Kenya AA is bright and clean. It has hints of grapefruit in it. We are using a Uganda organic in some of our blends this season. It has a lot of body and fruitiness.”

The coffee beans of antiquity, called naturals, were picked when ripe and allowed to desiccate in the sun before milling, Van Cott said. Washed beans are also picked when ripened. After the pulping process the seeds are left with a thick, gooey substance called mucilage on the outside. From there, they are put into a holding tank of water. The naturally occurring enzymatic process allows the mucilage to slough off. They are then rinsed and dried.

The beans are graded on a system that varies by country, Van Cott said. They are packed into 60-kilogram and 70-kilogram bags, typically made of jute, hemp or other fibers indigenous to the country of origin. Once the beans clear customs, they are shipped. Prices can vary and variables such as the recent drought in Brazil cause the prices to fluctuate. For 17 years, Van Cott has been importing beans through the Royal Coffee Company.

The fair-trade movement helps coffee growers break out of the cycle of poverty, Van Cott said. The fairtrade movement began in the 1950s to promote grass-roots development through direct, equitable trade, according to the Global Exchange website, an international human-rights organization. Alternative trade organizations changed the business landscape for coffee growers. The producers sold directly to the alternative trade organizations, eliminating the middlemen and receiving a fair price in exchange for their beans.

“Our job as a specialty coffee roaster is to keep people exploring unique coffee,” Van Cott said. “Some of the farms we buy from only produce 40 or 50 bags or less. In the specialty business we are trying to reward growers for unique products, encourage them to do a better job and allow them to benefit from the higher prices.”

From farm to café, keeping Nantucket well supplied with quality coffee can be tricky.

“Bringing coffee to the island is expensive because we have to pay freight charges,” Van Cott said. “We buy all of our coffee for the season ahead of time to cover our needs. (Royal Coffee) holds it in a warehouse in Plainfield, N.J. and ships it to us, as needed.”

When Van Cott started Nantucket Coffee Roasters 21 years ago he had one small roaster. He now uses two 12-kilogram roasters capable of roasting 26 pounds of coffee per batch. The coffee is scooped into hoppers by hand, using a grain scoop.

Van Cott’s operation proves there is a science to good coffee. Each roast takes 14 minutes at 420 degrees Fahrenheit. Once cooled, the coffee beans are either packaged or blended by hand.

“The focus has always been on quality, which has kept me in business,” Van Cott said. “Nantucket is a high-end place. Locals and visitors alike want an exceptional experience. The perfect cup is so personal. This was a niche that I was lucky to be able to fill. Nantucket has been receptive to quality-roasted coffee.”
To recreate the perfect cup of coffee at home, Van Cott has several recommendations.

“Water quality and temperature are especially important,” he said. “Make sure the water is hot, just off the boil. The other factor is grind. The particle size is specific to the brewing method,” he said.

Water purity, brew temperature and choice in filter can affect the coffee’s flavor profile. Van Cott said brew methods are a personal preference but he has one overall recommendation for everyone.

“Throw away the Keurig machines before the cups clog the landfill,” he said. “The hot water in contact with the plastic (K-Cups) is questionable and there is evidence of endocrine interruption.” ///

Kimberly Nolan is a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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