Feature Friday: Wake up and smell Kelowna’s emerging coffee scene

The further into the region you travel the more interesting things you find. Coffee is one of them.

The coffee shop is packed with patrons and baristas, friends and travellers.

Coffee folk from around the Okanagan Valley are here for a coffee war, a latte art competition, a gathering in a cool room where the smell of roasted beans is strong and good and a coffee showdown is set to go down.

This kind of scene regularly plays out in larger coffee-mad centres like Vancouver or Seattle but on this night it’s in Kelowna. The Bean Scream Latte Art Throwdown was a gathering where baristas from around the Okanagan were invited to put their finest creations forward in a latte art competition.

“These events are very popular in large urban centres but no so much in the Okanagan,” said Al Lang, organizer and owner of Bean Scene Coffee Works. “It’s not uncommon in Seattle or Vancouver to have coffee crawls not unlike pub crawls where people go from coffee shop to coffee shop, then hit some brew pubs in the afternoon. The Okanagan has never had that before.”

Around 100 people dropped in during the event including representatives from about a dozen coffee shops from Kelowna, Vernon, Kamloops and other areas. Baristas were from different shops and when the bell tolled, they throw-down in a free-pour competition where the results can be like a fine meal, prepared to perfection.

“You have to produce espresso and milk to perfection in order to do the art so if the art is good, the drink is going to be good,” said Lang.

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“We’ve had very low attendance in the past, primarily because there hadn’t been enough coffee shops in the Okanagan that felt comfortable coming to a competition. But now the Okanagan is starting to sprout very beautiful little coffee shops and micro roasters. I think right now the environment is prime to start promoting it as part of an eco-tourism movement.”

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Tourists flock to Kelowna for several reasons, the obvious ones being wine, beaches, golf and skiing. But the further into the creases of the region you travel the more interesting things you find. Coffee is one of them. Good coffee. Not your standard drive-thru fare, double-doubled to death. We’re talking gooooood coffee.

Tourism Kelowna works with tourism operators and related businesses to promote travel to Kelowna. The group’s golf partnership with more than a dozen courses is what you might call a big ticket promotion. However the city’s more quaint and hard to find areas are also part of the plan.

Coffee and other smaller industries make up an important part of the attraction to Kelowna, said Chris Shauf, director of marketing at Tourism Kelowna. Shauf said interest among travellers to find unique shops is on the rise and Kelowna’s many unique, independent operations are an excellent attraction.

“Visitors love checking out coffee shops, bakeries, chocolate shops, and other tasting rooms for interesting items and experiences as they explore Kelowna and area,” he said. “These spaces offer a local flavour and character and are growing in popularity. We often feature these unique spaces, menu items and events in our marketing programs to draw people here, and visitors are coming with a list of items they want to eat, drink or try for themselves when they arrive.”

While coffee doesn’t have a unique partnership like the golf industry or the draw of the wine industry, it does add to the experience in Kelowna. The Bean Scene’s Lang says coffee is well-suited as a complement to wine tourism.

“The beautiful thing about having coffee in such a prominent wine region is that people’s palates are already primed to test the nuances of coffee because it is quite similar to wine,” he said. “We’ve long considered being put on wine tour marketing materials because if people are heading off on a wine tour in the morning, why not start the day with a great coffee tour?

Lang sees even more parallels between wine and coffee. As grapes are to wine, beans are to coffee and how a coffee bean grows affects the quality and the taste.

“With coffee, legend has it that it is 10 times more complex than wine,” said Lang. “It is an amazingly casual, yet complex culture.”

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At the Bean Scene, every day is a chance for baristas to work on their craft and for people to experience the coffee shop scene. Baristas are regularly trying to make the best art and if you happen to be in the shop when the right song comes on the playlist, you’re in for a treat.

“Every day there is a competition here,” said Lang. “We have Eye of the Tiger on our play list when it comes on it’s a throw down.”

As far as the competition, all registration fees were awarded to winner Lisa Thomson and a matched amount was to be donated to the Kelowna food bank courtesy of the Bean Scene.

Tree Brewing donated beer and Dukes Cider to help get rid of the jittery hands of nervous baristas. One Big Table, and chef Giulio Piccioli provided some snacks at very reduced prices.

Lang is planning a barista jam and latte art event in early March. For information go to www.beanscene.ca.