Coffee's In His Blood
His grandpa sold java to diners; now John Neate satisfies the coffee "geeks"
If you think you’ve seen the end of the coffee wars in Vancouver, think again. At least that’s the word from John Neate, a guy who knows his coffee.
He sent an e-mail, along with dozens of others from readers responding to my recent call for Metro Vancouver’s best greasy spoons, part of which said:
“Greasy spoons are very dear to my heart. In your column you mentioned the ‘tiny diners and cafes with vinyl banquettes and Neate’s coffee machines.’ My name is John Neate Jr. and I grew up supplying these diners with coffee with my dad (John Neate), who grew up doing this with his dad (Frank Neate).”
He signed it “John Neate (JJ)” and when I called him to reminisce about the old days and the venerable greasy spoons of yore, he said that while those old Neates coffee machines, introduced locally in 1945, may still be pumping out the java in some of the old haunts, the company was sold in 1990 to Nestle.
But coffee was clearly in his blood, so he took all that roasting (and marketing) experinece — he also worked for Nabob and Nestle — and 12 years ago bought a small company on Granville Island called The Coffee Roaster.
Neate changed the name of the firm to JJ Bean and today operates seven local locations with 150 employees, supplying coffee to about 300 cafes and fine-dining establishments.
He says Vancouver’s coffee history can be defined in waves, with the nostalgia-inducing diners and their jolting java, along with Commercial Drive and its European espresso, representing the old-school choices of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
The first modern coffee wave, he says, came in the 1980s, hot on the heels of the explosion of fine-dining establishments all over the Lower Mainland, and its name, if you haven’t already guessed, was Starbucks.
The Seattle-based chain and its ubiquitous automated espresso machine launched a North American trend in which coffee and its consumption became a mark of status.
Then came the second wave, when Starbucks and its baristas began facing competition from the semi-automatic machine stylings of award-winning retailers like Caffè Artigiano, where everything from the imported beans to the sophisticated swirls in the thick foam began to attract those coffee snobs constantly on the hunt for the best of the best.
These days, says Neate, the third wave of coffee us upon us, as tastes and demand for a better cup of coffee become even more sophisticated.
It’s all part and parcel, he says, of “the geek side” of the coffee business.
And by that he means real coffee snobs are getting excited about commercial coffee-making equipment, like the PID (proportional, integral and derivative) controller for espresso machines, technology that amps up the ability for better control over temperature and coffee stability.
There’s excitement, too, he says, about “sourcing great beans from great sources.”
His firm now gets its green (unroasted) beans from three reserves, in Kenya and Ethiopia, and where once beans were delivered in 132-pound sacks by boats, and then by trailer, 200 bags at a time, that, too, is changing.
Neate currently has an Ethiopian bean on the way, air-freighted in five-pound vacuum-packed bags, that will be roasted to order, at $24 for half a pound.
“And that,” says Neate, “is the third wave in a nutshell.”
Neate will tell you he's not really a coffee geek, and you almost believe him until you ask how much coffee he actually drinks in a day.
On the weekday we chat, at about 3 in the afternoon, the 51-year-old has already put away three espressos, including a double-shot for breakfast, three cappuccinos and a few other “tastings” for good measure.
“I live for great espresso. I’m like a drug addict,” says Neate, “but it doesn’t affect me until about the 10th cup.”