Hamilton Economic Development

Every bean counts in Ancaster

Chief taste master Kevin West slurps a sample of coffee at Tim Hortons' roasting plant in Ancaster.At the Tim Hortons coffee roasting plant in Ancaster, they like to say they produce the coffee just as fast as Canadians drink it.

The shiny burgundy pouches containing the precisely 2.5 ounces of coffee that make a pot in a Tim Hortons are a blur of motion inside a packaging machine.

They are filled and sealed at a rate of 1,025 packages a minute.

This 75,000-square-foot plant, which opened in 2009, produces almost all the coffee served in the 3,300 Tim Hortons locations in Canada. That’s about 10,000 132-pound bags a week.

They’re stacked a couple of storeys high in this spotless plant. Tim Hortons gave the media a peek Tuesday into the process behind the cup of joe millions of Canadians rely on each day. The country’s biggest restaurant chain is in the middle of a coffee war, battling with both premium and low-priced rivals.

And coffee is critical to the Hamilton-born chain, accounting for about 40 per cent of its annual revenue.

The first noticeable thing about the spotless plant is that it’s highly automated. Each pallet is marked with a bar code that indicates the country and grower of origin, along with a series of unique tracking numbers. It’s so sophisticated that the beans in a pouch at a store in Winnipeg can be traced back to the farms they came from.

Once a batch is sampled and determined to be good enough to be roasted, human hands never touch the beans, says plant manager Lyle Fleetham.

The batch number is inputted throughout blending, roasting, grinding and packaging. If there is a problem anywhere along the line, the plant’s employees can track its origins and make corrections.

“We will stop, debrief on the problem and will discard anything that isn’t up to our specifications,” explains Fleetham. “We’ll work back through the system until the point at which it was clear.”

The coffee is roasted in 13,000-pound batches in one of two giant roasters. The beans are funneled into bunkers that mix the correct proportion of beans from each region used in the top-secret Tim Hortons blend.

The second thing to know is that quality control is strict here. Beans are sampled twice before they even make it to the Ancaster roastery, beginning with a small sample sent just after harvest. They are sampled no fewer than five times during the roasting and grinding process, about every 20 minutes.

The beans are roasted for about 12 minutes at 420 F. Once the desired colour is reached, the roast is quenched with water and cold air is used to cool the beans.

The beans are then tempered to allow the moisture collected on the outside to migrate throughout the now-dark bean. Then it’s off to grinding and degassing to allow carbon dioxide buildup to dissipate over 10 to 13 hours.

Finally, the ground coffee is packaged in pouches and then 144 of them go into a box for shipping. Each box is weighed and it must come within a few ounces of its 10 kg target or it’s thrown off the line.

The third thing to know is that Tim Hortons takes its top-secret coffee blend very seriously.

There are four to six types of beans in the blend and company tasters work diligently to make sure the coffee tastes the same batch after batch and year after year and in every Tim Hortons in the chain.

Company officials do reveal that beans are used from Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, Kenya, El Salvador and other South and Central American countries. Tim Hortons buys from different regions and different vendors to capture the taste profiles it wants in its blend.

That means constant readjustment to account for crop quality, the impacts of weather, and changing growing techniques. About 10 to 15 per cent of the coffee shipped to the plant is rejected for its quality.

Kevin West, senior director of coffee operations, says a recent batch of green beans had a “mouldy or bleachy smell to it.” Unroasted beans should have no smell at all, he says.

The company is taking an ever-more active role in dealing directly with vendors and growers. That includes a partnership program that coaches farmers on growing techniques and quality control. West travels to coffee-growing regions a few times a year to meet with growers.

That relationship is key, he says, because the competition for quality coffee beans is fierce.

As the chain plans for strong growth, the $30-million Ancaster plant has been designed with that in mind. There is room on the shop floor for more roasters and grinders and the company owns the vacant property next door.

Neil Everson, the city’s director of economic development, is eager to see Tim Hortons grow in Hamilton. He says attracting the plant opened up a new phase of the Ancaster business park that is rapidly filling. It’s also got the attention of other developers in the food and beverage segment, he says.

It’s a sector the city is targeting for growth beyond the 50 processors that already call Hamilton home.

And for Everson, the roasting plant is symbolic, too.

“With the company starting on Ottawa Street, I can’t think of a better place for the (roastery) to go than the place it all started.”

The coffee tester

Kevin West says he has the best job in the world, at least for a coffee lover.

Officially Tim Hortons director of coffee operations, West is also the chief taste master in a coffee chain that closely guards its blend secret.

Only three people in the world know the proportions of beans from different countries and how the recipe is roasted. West is one of them.

He tastes about 300 cups of coffee a day in a sleek lab and tasting room at the company’s Ancaster roastery.

Yes, that’s right, 300. (He says he doesn’t sleep well, but doesn’t think it has anything to do with the coffee).

He doesn’t drink that many cups. Instead, West and his team of four tasters smell and sample a spoonful before spitting it out in what looks like a spittoon in a dentist’s office. In coffee parlance, it’s called cupping.

First they “break the crust” by poking through the thick layer of floating grounds in the five-minute steeped cup. His nose is in danger of touching the hot water, he gets so close to the cup. Smelling is critical and that first burst of aroma in the newly stirred cup says it all, he says.

From here, this is a noisy process. Producing the kind of slurping sound that would earn a stern look from any mother, West sucks in the brew and a healthy dose of oxygen and swishes the liquid around his palate. During a tour of the plant Tuesday, he talks about citrus overtones and hints of chocolate. He mentions nuttiness but says peanutiness indicates the beans were unripe when picked.

Most of this is likely lost on the average Tim Hortons drinker, but West is in charge of making sure the chain’s blend tastes like Tim Hortons every time.

“Tim Hortons is an easy-drinking coffee. We call it an everyday, full city medium roast.”

It is apparently very easy to drink. About eight out of 10 cups of coffee sold in Canada are poured in Tim Hortons. More than 40 per cent of its customers visit a store four or more times a week.

All the company reps have heard it before: Tim Hortons puts something extra addictive in its brew.

“I think people are just addicted to consistency,” says plant manager Lyle Fleetham.

Even West finds himself at his local Tim Hortons a few times a day on the weekends.

“I only get it at the store. They know what they’re doing there and they do it better than I could ever do it at home.”

Article courtesy of The Hamilton Spectator





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