A New Phase in an Unpredictable Writing Career

My writing career started an unbelievable 25 years ago in an unbelievable place: banking. I can't say it was by accident either. I started university as cluelessly as many (most?) students, thinking only that I was suited for the corporate life and with hardly a thought for what the content of a satisfying work day might be. During my undergraduate days, at the University of Alberta, I ended up focussing on economics, which genuinely engaged me. But I wasn't mathematically inclined enough to really advance far past intuitive concepts.

At the end of three years, I knew my undergrad (without econometrics) wasn't going to mean much. Looking to decorate my intensely modest CV with some more letters, I applied to MBA schools. I was accepted at Queens and decided to go there.

I remember my time at Queens with mixed feelings, honestly. I loved the place, and enjoyed much of the program. But something was seeping from my subconscious to the more interruptive frontal parts of my brain. My desk in my apartment (North of Princess, the down-market significance of which won't be lost on Queens students or alum) was stacked with non-business reading. Some reading choices I'm proud of, some make me cringe. I remember reading the Richler canon, which really shaped what I thought was a worthwhile endeavour in literary writing. But then, I also slogged through piles of Auden, which seems a bit histrionic in hindsight.

By graduation from B-school, I had myself a fairly entrenched set of career conflicts going on. I wanted to write, but I'd been shaped enough by a practical upbringing and (let's be honest) by the mimetic inspiration of six years of econ/MBA studies, to think that making money was also a solid idea. I went into banking and tried to do that. I'm not going to say I loved my time at the Toronto Dominion, but it'd be disingenuous to I didn't benefit from that experience either. Years later, interviewing famed Canadian literary ex-pat Mavis Gallant, she'd tell me that her early job as a reporter still fueled her writing by throwing off memories of character types, snips of dialogue, physical mannerism and narrative ideas. I feel that way now about my banking days, which involved me in the lives of dozens (if not hundreds) of small to medium sized business people. These were folks running hard to make things work, giving themselves to a whole range of worthy (and sometimes less worthy) projects. People in that position, people with real skin in the game, tend to show you themselves, tend to show you character, one way or the other. No surprise the first short stories I started to write during this period involved people at their places of work. Work shaped people, I understood. And even as I failed to do the work I wanted to do in any consistent way - write, publish etc. - I could see that my own work was shaping me. I'm grateful to this day to some inspiring bosses from that period, hard-asses all of them: Arnold Fenrick, Mike Lefevre, Breen Egan.

All that said
, me and the TD wasn't a relationship with legs. Year four, just as I was being offered a promotion that would have meant a move and more responsibility, I quit. I recall being summoned to the SVP Pacific's office and asked politely what the hell I was up to. I didn't even really have an answer. I was quitting to do something creative. I actually said that, which was a bit naive because it was so nebulous but because it probably also diminished the creativity in business work, of which there is plenty. In any case, the veep was a gentleman about it, the head of HR a bit less so. "Is your wife quitting her job too?" he asked, clearly thinking I was off to join a cult.

I won't go through the gory details of starting a writing career, only distill it to the following. I wrote constantly and submitted stories everywhere. I pinned rejection slips to my cork board. I celebrated when a rejection slip had a hand written comment on it. I did all the typical stuff, in other words. And I benefited greatly from what had come before. I used my experiences prior to inform my fiction (see above, characters, situations, personalities). I also used the ethic of the business world to inspire my overall approach. That doesn't mean I made much money. I didn't! But I kept writing (production) and read a lot (product development) and talked endlessly to people (marketing and pre-social media social media).

As for the holy grail - publication - it started slowly and picked up only slightly after five years (five years! I kept the rent paid with consulting work.) I placed two short stories in the first 3 years (thank you endlessly Grain and Canadian Fiction). I published a few more over the next couple years, then as these things go, a single editor (Allen Hepburn then at Descant) took an interest. The first phone call I ever received from anybody in publishing was from Allen in 1998, I think. He put me on to my agent and from there, a new kind of energy was in the works.

Still, it took 10 full years from quitting my job, and 14 years leaving university with the vague itch to write, to see my first book in print: Stanley Park. But that's also where the second big break point comes in this crazy career. With Stanley Park, I could call on magazine editors and actually pitch them with credibility. I'm not saying this credibility was earned, only they gave it because *I had a book*. So I started getting gigs. In 2000, enRoute Magazine send me to Korea on the first assignment of what would be a long and continuing relationship (I think the enRoute article count is now at something like 26 pieces?). But there were other great client relationships formed during this period. I loved working with Toro and Saturday Night and Vancouver Review. And I'm proud to continue work with the best magazine editors out there, those at Harpers, Walrus, Eighteen Bridges, Cooking Light, Vancouver Magazine and a whole range of others.

After 13 years of that model - writing book length fiction and hundreds of magazine length nonfiction pieces - I took up teaching. I got into it by plugging into an SFU workshop on behalf of my friend, the writer Shaena Lambert. In those workshops, part of the SFU Writer's Studio program, I discovered something I couldn't have known about myself: I enjoyed that time with aspiring writings. I enjoyed the give and take of ideas (freelancing is like soloing a sailboat around the world at times, rewarding but... well, solo). I also benefited greatly I think from the critical process, listening to others critique work, improving my own critical skills such that they might be applied to my own work. When a full time position was advertised at the UBC Creative Writing Program in early 2013, I found myself considering a position for which even three years prior I'd have thought myself completely unsuited.

I'm thrilled to have been accepted by the team of writers at the UBC Creative Writing Program, along with fellow new hire Nancy Lee. But I also feel a very distinct feeling, unlike anything I've felt other than that moment quitting my banking job and that later moment when Stanley Park helped me turn another corner. The career has changed it's course, however slightly. It's shifted on its track and taken more wind. I'm looking forward to the Fall with real anticipation: to enagaging with students at various stages of their own writing projects, to working with the others here in the program, to bringing what I've done to this point to bear on the future, which is what I've somehow been lucky enough to do all along.

Here's my UBC contact page. Thanks everyone at Creative Writing for the chance and here's to the future.


Posted: Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 12:49pm

Zahed Haftlang's Big Idea

The first time I met Zahed Haftlang was over two years ago, in connection with an article I wrote for Vancouver Magazine called Blood Brothers. That story was one of hope and determination. An Iranian boy soldier during the Iran-Iraq War, Haftlang saved the life of an Iraqi soldier, Nadjah Aboud, on the battlefield. Twenty years later (begging language like "miraculous" and "only in the movies") Haftlang and Aboud met again in Vancouver. They'd both endured years of war, imprisonment, torture, and abuse. And that moment of recognition – both men waiting for counselling at the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture, no less – became a friendship that lasts to this day.

As I wrote in Vancouver Magazine more recently, the double helix of the story is endlessly compelling. And the story has touched many, many people. I’ve been contacted countless times by people wanting to know more. And Haftlang himself has told me that people showed up at his place of work after the first article was published just to pose for pictures with him.  

But it hasn’t all been sunshine and happiness. It perhaps never is for refugees and survivors of torture. Both Haftlang and Aboud carry haunting memories. And Haftlang has struggled to stay employed. He lost his auto-mechanics business in 2012, and is still looking for a job at the moment I’m writing this post.

All that said, Haftlang also isn’t a guy to give up easily. He’s written a memoir with journalist Robert Matas that's looking for a publisher. He’s also planning an incredible walk to the United Nations (yes, from Vancouver to New York City, by foot) to raise awareness of both his story and the world's urgent need to set aside war.

Some would say the idea is quixotic, romantic, idealistic. And it would certainly be easy to dismiss it in that fashion. Only it’s worth bearing in mind that this is a man who has walked exceedingly long distances before. He crossed a good part of Northern Iraq by foot as a boy soldier. And after his release from Iraqi POW camp in 1990, he walked across Iran on his return home. He doesn’t boast about any of this. In fact, when he tells me about those long walks, he shrugs and notes that the weather was good.

Walking to the UN would take over 100 days, and he’s solicited the help of various people to help him. He has a website up now, called Step For Peace, although the donation parts of the site were still under construction at the time of writing. He’s looking for sponsors now to help him finish these things and begin preparing. But he remains determined. And the last time I saw him, on Upper Lonsdale after lunch at a Persian restaurant there, he shook hands with a firmness that speaks to his commitment.

My hope for his future is that there are more “only in the movies” moments.And if you're reading this and can think of a way to help... please visit Step For Peace.

Posted: Friday, May. 3, 2013 9:15am

Global Civic Public Salon Address

Address to the Global Civic Public Salon 3 April 2013

My mother passed away seven years ago this past Sunday. And I was having lunch with Sam and Lynn a couple weeks back and told them a bit about her and my father, and the crazy, unlikely story of how they met. And Sam said: you know, you should tell that story at the salon. You’re passionate about it.
Which I had to think about, but then decided he was right. The story of how a half-Jewish refugee from Europe and a nomad Torontonian of seemingly no fixed address managed to meet in Guayaquil Ecuador is a critically important story to me because I can see now how it’s shaped my thoughts about home, my affection for Vancouver and for traveling… even my writing. Maybe especially my writing.
When I published Stanley Park – which is about a young locavore chef and his at-times complicated relationship with his anthropologist father, the Professor as he’s known, who’s living in Stanley Park and researching a community of homeless people living there – well only one person read that book and asked if the professor was inspired by my father. That one person was my brother, so he had an inside track. What my brother didn’t catch was that the professor – this man so consumed with both roots and rootlessness – was also very much inspired by my mother.

My dad was what you might call a classic nomad. He’s in Toronto in this picture, but he's not long for that town. What I see is a mixture of restlessness and ambition in this photo. He’s about to go to the Mediterranean and hunt German U-boats. But there’s tens of thousands of pre-airliner travel ahead of him after that. Back to Toronto, then to the Philippines and then, all the way around – Manila, and then stops in Vietnam, Sri Lanka then Ceylon, the Suez, the Med again, various cities in Europe and then back to Toronto. And still restless when he returns. Sitting at his desk, in what’s supposed to be his home town, I imagine him thinking one day and realizing he'd never been to South America and deciding he had to go. And in the movie version this is the moment we see him mounting a gangplank with a duffel bag, the knife of a ship’s bow cutting the waves, my father on the fo’c’sle, all anxieties sliding away in the salty air.
Prisoners becoming nomads. Refugees becoming settlers. That’s what this story is all about.


My mother wasn't restless, like my father. She arguably had more serious problems. Born in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could say, that is: born half Jewish three years before Hitler took the Reichstag. She spent the last years of the war in hiding and by the time it was over everything conceivable about the concept of “home” had been destroyed. Burnt down. Bombed. Taken away. Her old house flattened. Her family scattered or dead. She and her sister and her mother made their way to Paris via the International Refugee Organization. Spent three months living in an apartment above a brothel in the fifth where the madam fed them baguettes and fresh tomatoes. Sailed across to her new home in 1948 on ship called the Marco Polo. In the movie version she isn’t on the fo’c’sle, I imagine her sitting at the stern instead watching her life disappear with the wake. Caracas, where the air smelled like flowers. Baranquia, where it didn’t, where the shacks stretched up the hill. Through Panama and down past La Isla Puna into Guayaquil harbor, Ecuador where she was reunited after 8 years with her father, who wrote in his diary that day: They’re here. All is well. But to the 18 year old girl working in a bookstore, the sentiment might have been more complicated. I think I know what she was thinking because she spoke of that time. I think it was something like: what in the world will become of me?

I once traced my parents' twin journeys on the family globe when I was a kid and determined that at one point in 1948 they were on almost exact opposite sides of the globe. My mother in the bookstore where she was manager, and my father…. 12 and a half thousand miles distant in the China Sea running a surplus minesweeper down from Subic, crawling into Manila late at night through the submerged wreckage that threatened to sink them. He was on the fo’c’sle again this time, only on his stomach with a flashlight shining it across the water, calling directions back to the bridge. Port. Starboard. Full astern. OK forward. Making his slow way through.

How do these things work? How could these people meet? Something makes it possible for the nomad and the refugee, so far apart that they almost literally couldn’t be further away from one another without leaving the planet… something makes it possible for one of them to be sitting in a house party in Guayaquil Ecuador wondering where all the pretty girls are, and for this one to walk in.
The prisoner wants to be free, and so he roams.
The refugee wants to settle, and so she seeks her home.
There are twin freedoms to be had which they demonstrated to me: the freedom that puts roots under our feet, and the other one that puts wind in our hair.

We finally settled down. 1965. My father and mother have finally, finally took a shot at something like roots. West Vancouver. We’d lived in Venezuela up to that point where I’d been born in the town of San Tome, the last of five kids.
And what a move. Five kids aged 1 to 8. 13 pieces of luggage. We had stopovers in Washington and Toronto. My mother gave my two older brothers a sedative, 60’s era best wisdom on how to travel with feisty boys. The doctor didn’t mention these sometimes work to opposite effect. So it was 20 hours in planes with 5 and 7 year old boys wandering up and down the aisles acting like the town drunks. And even arriving in Vancouver, the move wasn’t over. We stayed first in a motel under the Lions Gate Bridge, then in rented digs in Burnaby where the whole lot of us came down with the mumps.
All told, it was 217 days after leaving Venezuela and the nomad/refugee life behind, that the family Volkswagen Beetle finally pulled into the driveway of our new house in West Van and disgorged the lot of us to the amusement of curious neighbors. Tucking us all into our beds and cribs that night, I can only imagine how fatigued my parents must have been, how existentially relieved to have that permanent roof over their heads.
However they felt, I apparently didn’t. That night, having kept my peace throughout the long move, I started wailing. And I kept wailing. All night. And the next night. And the next night. I took breaks during the day to eat, apparently. Otherwise, I kept it up for a week, sitting on the end of my parents’ bed. The eighth night I stopped wailing and fell asleep, my point seemingly made.

Well, as you can see from my final picture here, I was no worse for the wear. But when I look at this last picture, I know I’m stamped somehow: it took some tears, but here is the settler/nomad in the making. Vancouver is my town and I hold to it with a tight grip, only letting go …. every chance I get. Dubai, Igloolik, Trancoso, Xishaungbanna, Shangri-La. I’m leaving for Los Angeles tomorrow and how do I feel about that? Well I have to. I have stories to write. And I want to be there, just as much as I want to return.
I guess you could say: I’ve never met a place I didn’t like to come home from.
Of course I’m just waiting here. Waiting for all that to happen. All those experiences, all those words in potential, all queued up and ready to live. Thanks to my father. And thanks to my mother.
Thank you all for listening. Enjoy the rest of the evening.
Posted: Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013 7:43am

The Nomad and the Refugee: a trip home in 70,000 kilometers, 18 years and 217 days

My mother passed away Mar 31, 2006, almost exactly seven years ago at the time of writing. Memories of her are still with me powerfully. And the story of how she met my father is one of those genesis-legends that I now understand to have shaped me crucially: my love of Vancouver, my affinity for travel, and maybe most of all, my writing.

On April 3, 2013, I'll be speaking at Sam Sullivan's Public Salon and talking a bit about my mother's life as a refugee and afterwards, also about the remarkable, unlikely way in which she ended up meeting my nomad father. Between the refugee and the nomad, they had tens of thousands of miles of travel under their heels at that moment of their first dance at a house party in Guayaquil, Ecuador. And they weren't quite done yet.

Sam Sullivan's Public Salon, 7:30PM to 9:00PM, April 3, 2013

Vancouver Playhouse, 600 Hamilton (at Dunsmuir)


Posted: Friday, Mar. 29, 2013 9:39am

1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes: Outtakes from a week in the culinary trenches

My article about cooking incredibly difficult food from the most insane cookbooks of the year is running over at Cooking Light.

1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes ("Can a home cook learn anything from the supercompmlicated cookbooks of the world's most celebrated chefs? We asked Timothy Taylor to dive into the deep end and throw some dinner parties for friends.") Marina Dodis shot the pictures for the magazine. Here are some outtakes I shot myself. Random preparations and plates.

11 Madison Park Radicchio and Mango Salad with Basil Gel

Blanched basil leaves

Juiced basil
Set up with agar-agar
Assembly, note re-pureed basil to make gel
A pretty plate. Basil gel necessary? YMMV

NOMA Dinner with Heston Blumenthal dessert, by far the most massive undertaking I've ever attemped in any kitchen, anywhere.

Obsessive planning paid off, in the end. Couldn't have done it by memory.

Beets and blood oranges for the jellieParsley OilApple gel for discsShallots marinating in blueberry juice24 hour oxtail reductionImprovised "dirt" for the NOMA vegetable fieldShocking veggiesPlating the app: Blueberries and OnionsSpectacular dish. Amazing flavours.Plating the vegetable field: mashed potatoes, shocked veggies, top with dirt and carrot greens.Et voila. Oh man. Goo-ood.A hit.Apple discs for the mainApple *gel* discsOxtail, oxtail reduction with verbana leaves, apple garnishOxtail with reduction, apple, sunchokes and crisp verbana leavesBlumenthalian Jelly.



Posted: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 12:12pm

Happy Hunting

Buster, Buster.

A lot of people have been through the loss of a pet. I’ve been through it before. Now, as of this past Tuesday January 29th, I’m going through it again.
His name was Buster. He was a Chocolate Labrador. In just under 12 years, he became so involved in the life of my family, that we’re grieving him as if a person had died. How did we get to love this animal so much?
You could argue it’s irrational. That it makes no sense to bring these animals into your life knowing they won’t live much past a decade and will break your heart on leaving. You could argue it’s insanity to embed a pet into your daily routine – bringing him with me to work every day, for example, spending almost every hour together when I wasn’t travelling – only to have that routine, that grooved in set of habits, blown apart at the seams when they die.
It was cancer. Being a Lab, he didn’t say anything about it, despite what must have been mounting discomfort. He was happy, happy, happy. Then he dropped without saying as much as “ouch”. Into Emerg. Bleeding profusely internally. We could have gone into surgery, removed the offending spleen, which had by that point ruptured. But given how the cancer had spread already inside him, we’d be buying him days or weeks. Win the lottery and he’d live a couple of months.
Maybe he would even have been happy for some of that time. But we would have been waiting for the axe of cancer to fall. We would have been waiting for him to go through the whole ordeal again only this time knowing it was the end.
We walked around the park outside Animal Emerg. Buses were passing. Routines in progress, unaltered by the implosion of our own.
A Lab is a Sporting Breed and Buster was from a sporting line. We never hunted him. We never had him compete at retrieving events. A whole part of his genetics was either wasted or suppressed, depending how you look at it. But he ended up with a job, nevertheless. And after a few years of maybe wondering if he’d gotten into the right family – these were the bouncing-off-the-wall years, from 4 weeks to about 4 years – Buster settled into his job and then never stopped getting better at it.
His job was to inspire kindness. I watched him do it, over and over again. On the street. In the park. People would get down into a crouch in front of him and cup his head, look into his eyes. It used to annoy me when strange men kissed him (hey, that’s where I kiss him). But I knew what was going on. He was doing it in our house, 24/7.
Buster enacted a Kantian imperative (I suspect he was unaware of this). He inspired kindness in people with whom he came in contact, by merely being who he was.
Can we be kind without pets? I’d like to say: of course! Though I’m careful to be so sure. All I’m sure of is that animals give us a chance to practice.
You left us far too soon, pal. But you were great at what you did. We let you go now for your good service, with respect and memories. And yes, no question: love.
Happy hunting.
Posted: Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 10:35am

The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

First published in Canadian Art Winter 2013

By Timothy Taylor

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

We’re in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, just east of the downtown core...

To continue reading, please

visit Canadian Art


Posted: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 9:35am

Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jog

I set out to find wild elephants. That was my big idea. I pitched the story that way. I left on the plane with only that in mind.

I got much more.

In a couple months, the article about my trip to the Yunnan Province in southern China will run in EnRoute Magazine. I don't want to give anything away. But let me quickly hit a few of the highlights.

We started in Lijiang, in the long cool shadow of Jade Dragon Snowy Mountain, holy peak of the Naxi people. Yulong, as it's locally known, has never been climbed to its summit, though legend has it that many star-crossed young lovers have lept together to their deaths from its cliffs, diving into the third kingdom to gain acceptance for the love forbidden them in this world.

In Lijiang there are roof cats, who draw wealth and fortune into their mouths.

There's gorgeous food:

And then there are these, which are marble and expensive, or I might have taken some home.

From Lijiang we moved on to Shangrila, where a Tibetan woman named Sanam showed us around. She brought us to the Songzanlin Lamastery.

To the market.

She took us to the house of friends of hers, who sat us down around the blackened stove and gave us fresh yak's milk cheese, yak butter tea and tsampa.

We sat in their living room under amazing carvings.

We said goodbye to Sanam and travelled down into Xishuangbanna. We went to the Mekong, where a woman with a pink umbrella sang by the shoreline.

We went up the river, past a large pagoda on the far shore.

We went into the jungle.

We saw gibbons and hiked past tea terraces.

Later, in town, we ate 1,000 year old eggs and roast chicken at a restaurant where they played MahJong for what appeared to be large amounts of money.

And the elephants. Did I see any?

The whole story runs in EnRoute early next year. Let's just say for now that it ended up being bigger than the animal, that story.

Bigger, and weirdly better, than I could have expected.


Posted: Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 1:18pm

Pilgrimage Redux

Gone for a few weeks to China on a gig for EnRoute Magazine. Spotty to nonexistent internet while I'm gone.

Taking: 2 blank notebooks, 5 pens, a knapsack, and zero preparation.

Returning with: 2 full notebooks, a crucially necessary new attitude, and photos of elephants.

Enlightenment is an outside possibility.

Posted: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 11:21am

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.
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
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