GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE ON JAVA
Venture North ~ Summer 2012 (V6I2)
Bean North prides itself on socially conscious coffee production
Michael King stands in the back room at Bean North Coffee Roasting Company Ltd., surrounded by burlap sacks filled with beans from around the globe, passionately gesturing as he tells stories of the places he and his family have been--places that have shaped their lives both personally and professionally.
"Our goal was always to start a small business, something we could actually see a positive effect of what we're trying to do in the world, so we approached it with that idea of trying to be sustainable," he explains
King moved to the Yukon from Ontario in 1988, while his wife Helen Voogd originally hails from B.C. The couple and two friends spawned the idea for Bean North in 1997. After travelling much of Latin and South America, he says they fell in love with the cultures, the people, and the coffee.
"We approached the coffee world very naive. We thought as a little coffee roaster in the North that we could just go buy this coffee and ship it up here and do all this ourselves," King says.
He and Voogd credit Linda Burnside as a mentor who shaped their coffee future. Burnside owns and operates Toronto’s Alternative Grounds, one of the first fair-trade roasters in Canada. After learning from her, King and Voogd worked their way into the industry purchasing fair-trade, organic coffee through Equal Exchange, a Massachusetts-based company. Eventually Bean North became the first Canadian roaster to join the Cooperative Coffee organization.
“We have 24 businesses. We do everything consensus. We’re high indebted, but we make it work. We’re changing the world,” King says of the green, coffee-importing collective.
“Fair trade is about the small producer. We’re fortunate with our group that we’re actually at the table, leading negotiations for the future of fair trade and where we want to see that for to the benefit of farmers, and that’s really empowering for us.”
Frame photographs hang throughout the Bean North Café at the company property, in Takhini Valley, outside of Whitehorse. The images portray memories from King and Voogd’s visits around the world with their son, Sasha.
One picture captures women sitting on either side of a table, meticulously sorting through coffee beans, while another shows Sasha inspecting a bean plucked from the ground at a processing plant in Nicaragua.
“It’s so empowering to have our son witness that and to have us witness that. To be described at points as through we are angles from heaven because of what we do in these communities--that just makes everything worth it,” King says.
Other photographs show King tasting from a row of freshly brewed coffees, and another depicts a young Guatemalan boy as he sips from a small white mug.
“It’s been really fun to see what has happened with our business here and what’s happened in the countries of origin,” Voogd says. “A lot of beautiful things have happened on both sides.”
Over a decade ago, the couple’s dream was simply to become a wholesaler, as they were driven by the desire to spend more time in coffee-growing regions.
“Quickly the realization was that that was going to be impossible. Down south there is a bigger market, but that’s not going to happen here,” King says. “We started the café after four years. That became a focus because it gave us a place to talk to people to explain more of what we were doing, and it have us an opportunity to showcase our coffees.”
As the business grew, seven different construction additions were made to the couple’s ever-changing property nestled in the boreal forest.
“I always say that’s it and there won’t be another one, and then all of sudden another wall comes down,” Voogd says with a laugh. “We’ve responded to the demand, and hopefully we’re on target.”
Bean North purchases from 17 different co-ops around the world in places like the Caribbean, Central America, Indonesia, and Africa. King says they have a deep respect for the product and make every effort to present it as it’s best--from the citrus notes of an Ethiopian brew, to the chocolate tones in a light roast from Chiapas, Mexico.
“Coffee is like a good Scotch. It actually improves with age,” King comments.
While already maintaining the highest standards in fair-trade and certified-organic products, lately Bean North’s focus has included its carbon footprint.
“Coffee is obviously coming from a long way away, King says. “I actually made the promise a long time ago--because we export a lot of coffee outside the territory--I would look into what our impact would be.”
Bean North connected with the Montreal-based company Taking Root, who have educated and inspired a greener way of doing business. Beyond that, Bean North has seen success after entering the social-media sphere and launching its new website earlier this year, with Internet sales doubling. Next steps include integrating produce grown on the property into menu items at the café and the addition of a pour-over bar, allowing customers the chance to try a fresh cup of whichever blend they like.
Voogd says back when the idea of venturing into the coffee world came up, the couple’s main goal was to do something different, something that fit with their values.
“Working for yourself and doing what you want--there’s a real freedom to it. You work really hard, and we have certainly put in the time and the sweat equity,” she says. “If you can do a fair-trade, certified-organic coffee roaster in the North, you should be able to do it anywhere.” Y