Coffee and Coral Snakes: Batesian Mimicry at Work and Play

From Vancouver Magazine Fall Issue 2012

***

Note: I was inspired by the always-fascinating work of Eric Falkenstein (at Falkenblog) in my application of Batesian Mimicry to consumer behaviour.

***

It will have escaped nobody’s notice that Vancouver is a top-ranked city in at least three categories. We’re always high on those “liveable city” lists. We have the most expensive real estate on the continent. And, of course, we’re also among the urban zones most addicted to the roasted seeds of an epigynous berry found on Asian and African shrubs known as coffea Arabica.

Yeah, we love our joe in this town. We’re boffo for coffee. Two Starbucks per intersection never struck us as ridiculous. A friend from Montreal, visiting for the first time in the early 90’s, described his first experience of Robson and Thurlow. “There were a bunch of bikers at this one Starbucks when I entered. I saw them finish their coffees, get on their motorcycles, and then CROSS THE STREET and go into the other one.”
That’s Vancouver in a nutshell or, in this case, a roasted endosperm.
 
Of course, most residents also realize that our relationship with the brown bean hasn’t been static. We weren’t born this way. Don’t anybody try to claim that Jack Khatsahlano greeted our city forefathers with high-altitude, shade-grown juice served out of a Belgian gold plated vacuum coffee siphon. My point being that fine coffee isn’t in our blood. It’s is a choice we’ve made, socially and economically. And as such, it offers a portrait of, if not who we are, then at least who we think we are.
 
I found myself considering all this over the past month as I sampled my way through a list of cafes and fine bean roasters in Vancouver recommended to me by my most ardent coffee-loving friends. But I found it brought into absolutely crystal focus while sitting in boardroom of the Doi Chaang Coffee Company on West Hastings Street downtown. John Darch, the company’s founder and 50% owner (the other 50% is owned, notably, by the Akhi hill tribe in Thailand who farm the beans) had just served me up a cup of their single-estate espresso, which (not to give it away, but…) would prove to be best cup of coffee I drank during this whole experiment, and our conversation had turned to civet coffee.
 
You may have heard about this stuff already. The civet, a svelte mammal whose musky body scent is used in perfumery, also happens to be a bit of a coffee fiend. Only, they eat the fruit. The cherry, as it’s known. What emerges from the other end of the civet then, in due course, is the seed of this fruit – the coffee “bean” – neatly de-fruited by that point and (connoisseurs maintain) enhanced in flavor as only possible by exposure to the enzymes in a civet’s digestive tract. It’s coffee scat, essentially. But what Darch wanted me to understand that Doi Chaang’s particular brand of civet coffee scat was special. Sold at $55 for 50 grams, which works out to $1,100 a kilogram, and carried by both Harrod’s and Dean & DeLucca, Doi Chaang’s civet coffee isn’t made using farmed civets who are inhumanely force-fed coffee cherries and whose poop is then combed for seeds. It’s made by wild Thai civets who rove the coffee plantation nocturnally and voluntarily, eating in the manner and pace of their choosing.
 
“Garbage in, garbage out,” Darch says of other brands. “Our civets are choosing their own cherries. And of course that means they choose only the best!”
 
It’s a great story. (I’ve been telling it ever since.) And perhaps that is the key point here. Coffee these days is very much about having a great (and ideally heartwarming) story. Google up any of the major players in Canadian independent beans these days, in fact - Ethical Bean, Kicking Horse, Salt Spring Coffee, Doi Chaang – and you’ll find such consistency in the stories it’s hard to believe they weren’t centrally coordinated. No, nobody else boasts of having wild Thai civets custom processing beans for them. And I’m not talking about the product being “organic” or “fair trade”, either, which should be considered the bare minimum entry requirements in this field.
 
I’m talking instead about other initiatives intended to humanize these companies to the point that they don’t sound like corporations at all and more like non-profits. These are companies touting projects to build schools in Central America (Ethical Bean), or to recycle coffee grounds and bags (Salt Spring), or to funnel financial support to the Canadian Nature Conservancy and local food banks (Kicking Horse). Doi Chaang, whose founder gave half the company to the Thai tribe where he sources his beans is perhaps only pushing farther down the same virtuous avenue. Did he have to? Not legally. But to make a mark in coffee, it was a very savvy move.
 
“Of course people won’t buy crappy coffee,” he says. “But nobody has a story like ours.”
 
And as if to underscore that point, he describes how sales of Doi Chaang’s coffee “struggled” for the first two years. Not because of quality. Critic Ken Davis, whose ratings in Coffee Review have become the Parker Points™ for the beverage, tells me that Doi Chaang coffee is in the top 10% of coffees he has “cupped”, rating around 89-91, where your typical cup of Starbucks is 83-84, and Folgers instant crystals comes in around 60. No, the struggling was story-related, in the sense that not enough people knew about what Doi Chaang was doing. Sales only exploded following the airing of a Global TV documentary on the company’s “Beyond Fair Trade” partnership with Akhi peoples. In one year sales tripled and haven’t looked back.
 
Which is a curious market feature, when you think about it. We don’t refuse to use Hootsuite unless Ryan Holmes builds a school in Honduras. We don’t boycott Burrowing Owl if they neglect to build their brand around high profile environmental donations. Why then do coffee consumers demand that people in the coffee space go beyond making good juice – and here I mean both wholesalers and retail cafes – and also somehow commit to making the world a happier and more egalitarian place? What the hell is in this stuff other than caffeine, some kind of ethical, high-minded pixie-dust?
 
Doubtful. I think the answer is, in fact, a lot more scientific and less flattering to us individually. It’s Batesian Mimicry at work, folks. Species copy each other, mimicking high value features, like stripes and spots that signal venom and discourage predators. Perhaps the most famous example is the entirely harmless Scarlet King Snake who copies (not perfectly, but pretty well) the markings of the very-poisonous Eastern Coral Snake, securing for itself a protection that it didn’t actually earn.
Consumers do the same thing, in waves, mimicking high value ideas to secure the returns that they have observed other consumers earlier receive. So the first generation of Starbucks users were able to signal to the world a powerful knowledge, positioning them advantageously relative to coffee drinkers who’d come before. Starbucks consumption indicated that you didn’t drink the watery, flavorless, institutional coffee that had prevailed prior in North America. You’d travelled to Europe. You knew the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done.
 
As status accrued to those early adopters, a billion mimics followed, displaying the logo in obedience to the evolutionary code written within: signal what the successful species signals. The cups proliferated. Competitors to Starbucks responded by darkening their own roasts. Starbucks responded by growing, growing, growing. They became a mega-corporation. They started selling breakfast sandwiches and their “cafes” started smelling like cheese. The line-ups grew. And at some fateful tipping point, the exclusivity of the brand collapsed.
 
Which is exactly what happens to Coral Snake populations when too many Scarlet Kings mimic their markings and dilute the results.
 
Starbucks may still be profitable. (John Darch observes: “Starbucks changed people from being willing to spend 10 cents on coffee to being willing to spend $2 or $3.”) But they’ll never regain what was lost: exclusivity, the trust of consumers that a status message could be reliably communicated by the simple act of holding one of their cups. That business has now passed on to another wave of merchants and consumers who now position themselves advantageously relative to the Starbucks drinkers who’d come before, signalling that they know the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done. Only in this iteration of the story, importantly distinguished from the Starbucks version that preceded: humanized, small-scale, socially conscious, non-corporate.
 
And still expensive. $3 plus still prevails for an Americano, of which Lloyd Bernhardt of Ethical Bean assures me only $.25 or so is actually the cost of coffee. But for that $2.75, we’re getting back the story that we originally craved, the one that distinguishes people on both sides of the Clover.
 
Has Batesian Mimicry followed? Go read the websites of the major coffee wholesalers and most popular cafés decide for yourself. They all look like Coral Snakes and Scarlet Kings to me. Will there be another bursting of bubbles? A migration of opinion, perhaps very suddenly, away from that which grants status to geeky mustachioed guys in undershirts hunched over pour-over gear and the earnest customers who watch their every move?
 
Count on it.
 
In the meantime, sample yourself from what is on offer, and ask yourself how much of the brand promise is in the story told versus the coffee delivered. Highly subjective, of course. But I can start the ball rolling with my own informal survey. I made a short list of cafes to try based on beans served and recommendations from friends. I asked for small Americano in each case. (Except for the civet coffee, which I made myself at home.) Here are the results. I list them in the order sampled for you to dispute, dismiss, or to use in hand-crafting a coffee-story of your very own.
 
THE ROOMS AND THE BEANS:
 
Elyssian Room on 5th Avenue: A jazzy place with geek-chic baristas and dressy clientele. Seen: red lizard wedge hi-heels. Overheard: “What a beautiful necklace!” The Americano: $3.25. Toffee notes, not burnt or oily, but also not particularly rich. Rating: medium good.
 
Milano on 8th opposite Jonathan Rogers Park: roast their own beans. Spacious, modern room with superb outlook across the park to downtown. Lovely staff. Seen: software dudes. Overheard: “We have to strategize.” The Americano: $2.65. Blech. Watery, barely coffee-flavoured. A dumbfounding let-down given the room and service and number of recommendations. Rating: bad.
 
Kafkas on Main off Broadway: Herkimer beans from Seattle. Serious-coffee vibe: siphons available, tasting flights. Eclectic furniture and clientele. Seen: curated art work on the walls. Overheard: somebody growling over a plucked guitar. The Americano: $3.25. Deep molasses and chocolate-y notes, vegetables too. Rating: interesting juice, would try again.
 
W2: Salt Spring Coffee. Seen: women doing dance gymnastics dangling on bungee cords in the atrium under the Stan Douglas. Overheard: Metric. The Americano: $3.00. Smooth but not heavy or oily, distinct light choco-caramel/tobacco notes. Rating: superior, will return.
 
Nestors, Woodwards. Ethical Bean Coffee. Drip only available. I tried two: Rocket Fuel and Classic. $3.36 for two cups. Sipped standing outside on Abbot Street with the cups balanced on a newspaper box. Seen: ladies cooing over a Labrador puppy. Overheard: garbage truck backing into an alley. The coffee: hmmm. In a phrase: truck-stop two ways. Rocket Fuel burnt and Classic more or less tasteless. Not, one suspects, how Ethical Bean would want their stuff featured. Rating: bad coffee, though kind of right for the time and place.
 
Ethical Bean Express in the Granville Skytrain station: giving EB a second chance, I went to their own outlet. Seen: people in a rush. Overheard: the bowels of the city. The Americano: $2.41. Dark to tarry flavor, very intense. Rating: medium.
 
Matchstick Coffee Roasters at Fraser and Kingsway: roast their own. Aging Brooklyn hipster vibe. Seen: bike hats, grizzly beards, antlers on the wall, subway tiles. Overheard: “Skype me this afternoon.” The Americano: Veering to the black tar end of things, but balanced and rich. Rating: good.
 
Kranky Coffee on East 4th off Main: Kicking Horse beans. Eclectic east side vibe. Seen: old books, blue French country style painted counters, bead curtains. Overheard: Beth Orton. The Americano: $2.85. Some acids and fruit, but also deep oily notes. Rating: medium good.
 
49th Parallel 4th Avenue: roast their own. Seen: counter guy in dirty sleeveless undershirt out of which sprouts copious body hair. Brill cream. Siphon on display, seemingly never used. Overheard: EDM. The Americano: $3.00. Disgusting. Oily, burnt, bitter. Rating: threw it out.
 
Doi Chaang Civet Coffee: made this myself at home according to meticulous instructions found online: bodum, medium grind, 85 degree water. The first cup was weak, without much of a flavor profile. The second, ground finer, steeped longer before the plunge, much stronger. Interesting depth of flavor with no bitterness or oily notes. Way over-priced at $15 a cup for home use, but interesting juice.
 
Doi Chaang Single Estate Espresso: made for me at Doi Chaang’s office by Tanya Jacoboni, the company’s VP Business Development, served without pretense in a mug I think my grandmother used to own. The Americano: rich, balanced, fruit notes, no oiliness or bitterness. Rating: superior coffee.
Posted: Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012 8:48am