Nantucket Coffee Roasters Wakes up the Island -Fall 2008
by: Elizabeth Stanek
photography by: Jim Powers
Living in New York City, I seemingly have everything at my fingertips. The Allman Brothers played just a hop away at the Beacon Theater; I jog in Central Park near my apartment, and my favorite Thai delivery arrives in under 10 minutes. Yet some days, as I figuratively bushwhack through the urban jungle, there is one very imperative element of daily life that evades me: a great cup of coffee. There are chains on Columbus Avenue that serve the caffeine equivalent of jet fuel, with perhaps a cupcake or CD of mellow tracks on the side. Greek diners on the Upper East Side sell muffins half the size of my head and spoon into their coffee a proportionately large amount of sugar to mask the murky brew. Even the sleek midtown joints frequented by the well-heeled corporate types, and the downtown hipster hangouts, have failed to pour me an exemplary cup.
I have found that great cup of coffee. It is large – iced on summer days – and has such a bold, delicious flavor I barely add milk or sugar. There’s only one problem. It’s not in Manhattan, but instead on a similarly-sized island many miles and a quick ocean’s crossing away. Yes, Nantucket. And so, as yellow taxis flow in the ocean of gridlock, I reminisce about a slower day last summer . . .
Tucked in the little yellow house set back from Centre Street, the scene in The Bean is familiar to its regulars. The ceiling fan turns lazily, and abandoned Boston Globe pages are scattered on chairs. Rusted Root tunes set the laid back vibe, further perpetuated by laptop users’ ideal business attire, flip-flops and baseball caps.
It’s 10:30 on an August morning and I sip on my choice order, a large iced coffee. I’m waiting for Wes Van Cott, owner of The Bean, which since its opening in 2000 has become an island institution.
The line at the counter stretches to the back screen door as ladies in tennis whites, construction workers and a handful of islanders take a break from the blue-sky morning. They wait patiently amid the cocoa brown beadboard, everyone united by a common desire: a cup coffee.
In a minute Van Cott joins me on the corner window seat, below the shelf of antique coffee pots, enjoying a cup himself. His eyes alight – the way a surfer’s do out in Cisco, gazing at the waves before a storm – as he starts to speak about specialty coffee. “The world runs on oil and coffee!” he says. All engines are on.
Sure, many coffee drinkers are aiming for a boost, but Van Cott has a zeal for the good stuff, a specialty-coffee passion that spurred him to start Nantucket Coffee Roasters in 1993.
“I have always loved good coffee,” he says. So do many visitors to the island, who once they’ve picked up their morning cup of Van Cott’s specialty brew – served at such spots as The Summer House, Wauwinet Inn and Jared Coffin House – will phone in orders so that their vacation mornings can follow them home.
The scope of Nantucket Coffee Roasters, however, extends far beyond the island. Van Cott is a man of adventure and exploration who has traveled extensively, eager to fully immerse himself in the world and ritual of coffee.
Picture him on a recent trip to Israel, taking coffee in the tent of a Bedouin family. Carpets scattered on the dirt floor surrounded a fire pit where there stood a traditional Arabian coffee pot.
“Though unable to speak the language, my appreciation for coffee did not go unnoticed,” says Van Cott. “Hanging out is universal and in some cultures it seems to be the reason for being. Among Arabic men it is truly a cherished pastime. Sweet tea, coffee and tobacco provide a context for socializing.”
Or envision Van Cott on a Guatemalan excursion, as he perused in and around the ancient capital of Antigua, known for its famous beans.
“Surprisingly-fantastic coffee can be grown in many areas of Guatemala. Favorable conditions exist in microclimates throughout the mountainous country,” he says. “I’m partial to Central American coffee. I love Central America and its people. They’re family-oriented, solid workers and hospitable.”
Between sips, Van Cott excitedly describes his participation in the prestigious 2007 Guatemalan Cup of Excellence auction. In the offices of Royal Coffee in New York City he tasted the 19 finalists with other roasters. After sampling, scoring and bidding on expertly-roasted and prepared samples, Van Cott was pleased to score his first choice: beans from the El Porvenir farm in the village of El Durazno in Amatitlán, Guatemala. While the jury came up with myriad words to characterize the coffee – “creamy body,” “chocolate,” “sweet caramel,” “sugar cane,” and “sweet round bright acidity” – Van Cott has his own opinion about flavor descriptions.
“With coffee, like art, descriptive words can only suggest a direction on what is otherwise subjective. My initial impression centers on acidity, intensity and overall structure –mouth-feel, body and finish. This coffee has it all in balance,” he says.
Available at The Bean, the coffee is the Bourbon variety, a traditional shade-grown coffee brought to Martinique by the French. Growing the Bourbon and other shade-grown varieties fosters preservation and biodiversity in the coffee-growing world. It is actually responsible for the preservation of the only remaining contiguous corridor of natural habitat in the isthmus of the Americas.
“The Cup of Excellence auction is exciting because there are many coffees to be discovered,” says Van Cott. Individual farmers are rewarded directly for their careful management and husbandry, elevating both knowledge and coffee quality.”
This is crucial for many countries where coffee is the only export-the only real cash crop. “People don’t realize the effort that goes into a cup of quality coffee,” he says. “It directly relates to the agricultural and processing practices.”
Once the raw fruit of the coffee plant is selected and picked by hand, it is pulped out, meaning the fruit is removed from the seed pod. Afterward, it is fermented and then dried on patios in the sun, or in dryers.
I have trouble keeping up with Van Cott’s vast array of coffee knowledge, and start to wonder how he became such an aficionado and why Nantucket became this world traveler’s home. Many residents I’ve talked to describe themselves as “wash-ashores” – once they came to the island, they never left – and Van Cott’s story follows suit.
While Nantucket has been his home for the past 22 years, it was the food business – not beverages – that first brought him to the island. His father originally came to Nantucket at age 14, and fired ovens for a baker at the Cliffside Hotel. In the summer of 1974, while a chef at the Gordon Folger, he introduced his son to the Grey Lady – a fortuitous introduction indeed.
After high school Van Cott found himself returning in 1973 to work for Walter Beinecke, baking for hotels and resorts, and also dabbled as the breakfast sous chef at the India House in 1984.
“It’s been pivotal, a geographic location that I could quantify,” says Van Cott. “Nantucket was where I wanted to be.”
Once three children came into the picture, his long-time passion for coffee answered the call for the unique, viable business venture that he longed for. “My whole focus is specialty coffee,” he says. The privately-owned Green Mountain Coffee Roasters based in Vermont had gone public, and dealing with small lots of specialty coffee wasn’t useful to large roasters, due to the volume they produced.
Ironically, the biggest names in coffee – Starbucks and Folgers – have a Nantucket connection. Starbuck, an old Nantucket family name, was the first mate of the Pequod in “Moby-Dick.” Abiah Folger Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s mother, was born on the island. Once the whaling industry dropped off in the 1840s, the Folger family became involved in the business of provisioning Gold Rush miners with such goods as coffee.
“The root of coffee seems to spring from here,” says Van Cott. His words are tempered by noting that large producers find coffee for a certain price and see how they can make it most profitable. Dark-roasting hides subtle attributes and defects.
Nantucket Coffee Roasters, on the other hand, takes great care in its traditional, small-batch drum-roasting, which ensures desired quality control. Starting off green, the beans turn golden, and go through two cracking phases as a wonderful cookie-like aroma wafts through the air. Just a matter of a few seconds can significantly alter the flavor.
“All along, there’s the opportunity to mess it up,” Van Cott says. “Coffee is undervalued by the consumer who doesn’t mind dropping money on a Coca-Cola or a bottle of water. Good-quality coffee requires the efforts of countless people.”
The roastery at Teasdale Circle has seen Van Cott off since his start-up days in 1993, when like a modern-day Robin Hood for the sleepy, he gave away his coffee on the street.
His first wholesale customers were none other than Juice Guys Tom First and Tom Scott – the famed founders of Nantucket Nectars – who at the time ran the Allserve General Store.
“Fog Island Café has also been with me since the beginning,” says Van Cott. As I can attest, scrambled eggs and home fries are not complete without a cup of joe.
Though, calling Van Cott’s coffee “joe” is an understatement. He’s served unique Arabian Mochas as well as coffee from Yemen and Ethiopia, which are dry-processed, as were the coffees of antiquity. The latter two can be characterized by their distinctive winy and fragrant nose. They are spicy and intense, with an earthy palate and good acidity.
Yet, Van Cott’s success extends beyond producing high-quality coffee. By opening The Bean, he succeeded in creating for islanders and visitors alike a “third place,” a place of gathering between home and the beach to grab a latté, a game of chess, or a bit of island gossip.
The eclectic crowd is befitting of The Bean, which exudes character in an age where the majority of coffeeshops scream corporate sterility.
“I wanted to preserve the quality of the space and maintain a human kind of feeling,” Van Cott says of the building, which has seen a range of businesses from a health food store to a Chinese restaurant.
A Trivial Pursuit box sits in the corner near the chess set and a Nepalese teapot adds interest to the shelf. Some of the coffeepots displayed were acquired on his travels, while several had just been kicking around his whole life. His mother grew sweet potatoes in them. The chart on the wall created by George W. Eldridge, a famous chart-maker in the 1880s, was discovered by Van Cott in a chicken coop at a Maine flea market.
“The Bean serves an important social function,” says Van Cott. “There are few places on the island where for less than three bucks you can read the paper.”
It further caters to a variety of tastes – offering herbal-extract teas, lemonade, fresh-squeezed lime rickeys for those not needing a jolt – and appeals to a broad range of people across the island’s economic continuum.
“Though I enjoy the visitor from afar I am intrigued by the daily life of the year-rounder. These are the people I have come to know as my community and they are truly unique,” says Van Cott. “Their talents and contributions compose a spectrum of occupations and abilities and I am always delighted by the chance meeting.”
“I love being the owner of The Bean,” he adds as we finish up our coffee. “I appreciate all of the friends coffee has made me both in Nantucket and faraway.”
Van Cott even got a kick out of the New York City visitor who demonstrated his bumper-bashing, fender-denting parallel parking technique outside, especially when the man asked more than a dozen onlookers if they were all OK.
The things people will do to grab a good cup of coffee.
Elizabeth Stanek is a freelance writer living in Boston. She writes often for Nantucket Today.