THE ART OF COFFEE: BALZAC’S COFFEE ROASTERS
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘The story of my business is the story of coffee,’ notes Founder and President of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, Diana Olsen. We are sitting at a two-seater inside her Guelph location. It’s a favourite destination of mine: located at the foot of downtown Guelph just across from the farmers’ market to the east and Guelph’s landmark basilica, the Church of Our Lady, to the north. In the middle of it all. ‘Of course,’ I respond, while wondering how I’m going to focus this story on coffee when I’ve already planned to write about something else.
I know the coffee is great. Amazing, really. But I want to write about the posters – those distinct pieces of artwork created for each Balzac’s coffee shop, posters that help establish unique ‘identities’ for every location while allowing the company’s overall aesthetic brand to remain consistent. And identifiable. Invoking the coffeehouses of nineteenth-century Paris.
‘We’ll talk coffee, of course,’ I offer. ‘But first – tell me about the posters.’ I’m looking across the beautifully-appointed space with its massive wood counters, exquisitely-detailed floor, central harvest table, to the poster artwork created for this Guelph location. It’s been executed from the perspective of a Balzac’s customer (tourist? Guelph resident? university student?) writing a postcard to someone special. The cursive script on the poster reads: ‘With love, for coffee, from the Royal City.’ The poster features local landmarks. ‘I chose to include the Gryphon [a landmark sculpture located on the edge of campus at Gordon and Stone] because I absolutely adore it,’ Diana says. ‘And the beautiful church because it screams Guelph – and you can see it from this location.’
‘After completing the poster, we actually tried to figure out how to perfect a latte art icon for the Guelph location – as a sort of signature,’ Diana says. Before me, on the table, waiting to be enjoyed, is my freshly-brewed latte, inscribed in latte art with a crown representing Guelph – the Royal City.
Diana’s sense of history and place, along with her intricate attention to detail, runs through the Balzac’s business model. ‘I’ve always collected vintage coffee ephemera – tins, advertisements, old coffee posters,’ she says. (Indeed, all Balzac’s locations feature original vintage coffee collectibles.)
I turn our attention to the poster at Kitchener’s Tannery District location. It features a cow (ostensibly) sitting outside The Tannery, drinking a steaming coffee, reading the newspaper. And sporting a scarf, beret and shades. I see the connection between cow and tannery easily enough. ‘But what’s up with his get-up?’ I ask. Without skipping a beat, Diana replies: ‘It’s John Mookovich.’ Then she explains: ‘A number of years ago, actor John Malkovich was filming in Toronto. Each day he’d visit our Distillery location dressed in a scarf, beret and shades. And he’d sit outside, read the paper and enjoy a Balzac’s coffee. When we were opening in The Tannery,’ she adds, ‘this image of John kept coming back to me. After all, The Tannery is in a sense Kitchener’s version of Toronto’s Distillery District. And so we had to put John Malkovich – as Mookovich – on the poster.’
Local. Specific. Playful. Yorick’s skull, held by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, dominates the Stratford poster, for example. And Waterloo. Well, this one, at time of publication, has yet to be finished. ‘I’ve brought a preliminary sketch with me, though,’ Diana notes. A sketch by her. Then a draft of the poster for her new Balzac’s Kingston location by Alayna Paquette – the artist who has transformed all of Diana’s poster ideas, sketches, into final artwork.
I imagine gathering up these sketches to begin my own collection of coffee ephemera. But Diana changes the subject: ‘So let’s talk coffee.’
Talk turns to single origin beans as Balzac’s Director of Coffee, Will Thorburn, joins us. And blends. And experimenting with small quantities of fresh beans seasonally-sourced, from across the globe. And the business’s trademarked marble blend roasts, in which three different beans are roasted to three different darknesses and then blended together. Coffee and coffee lore. The fact that Balzac’s Blend was concocted based on the writings of Honore de Balzac, for example, who wrote down recipes reflecting his favourite – homemade – blends.
It’s fascinating stuff. A peek into another small universe. What Diana and Will accomplish with Balzac’s coffee is luscious and artful. Still my mind lingers on poster designs. And coffee ephemera. And other categories that lend a whole new meaning to ‘the art of coffee.’