From left: Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson and Diana Olsen on Pelee Island
Balzac’s Coffee Roasters teams up with
legendary author and environmentalist
Margaret Atwood to protect migratory birds
By Gail Gordon Oliver
Photography by Shane H. O’Neill
Coffee aficionados and birds alike are chirping, thanks to a local coffee company offering something different from the usual grind. Diana Olsen, founder and co-owner of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, one of Ontario’s original microroasters and independent coffee companies, has collaborated with celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood in creating the Bird Friendly® Atwood Blend. Their goal is to help promote the protection and conservation of bird populations in coffee-growing regions worldwide, as well as to raise funds to support a locally grown initiative, Canada’s Pelee Island Bird Observatory.
Bird Friendly® coffee is certified through the efforts of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), based in Washington, DC. These 100-percent-organic Arabica coffee beans are grown in the shade of canopied forests, which provide a natural sanctuary and habitat for migratory birds while also allowing the coffee beans to ripen more slowly, resulting in richer flavour. The forests also provide mulch and nutrients for the coffee plants, rendering chemical fertilizers and herbicides unnecessary.
Though coffee shrubs thrive under such conditions, faster-growing clearcut plantations – which produce what is known as sun-grown, or Robusta, coffee – have flourished since the 1950s, in part to keep up with the world’s thirst for the caffeinated beverage. Swaths of forests have been razed to make room for those varieties of coffee beans that need direct sunlight to survive, taking with them critical bird and animal habitat. Clearcutting also leads to soil erosion and the increased use of chemicals to help the coffee through its growing season.
The proliferation of sun-grown coffee for large commercial coffee and beverage brands has taken a toll on the same bird populations that once nested in shade-grown coffee shrubs. Olsen is quick to point out, however, that “it is important to emphasize that the high quality Arabica beans offered in local coffee houses are not sun-grown and that the absence of Bird Friendly® certification does not in itself indicate that a given bean is non-shade-grown (or ‘unfriendly’ to birds).”
The Pelee Island Bird Observatory (PIBO) was established in 2003 on Pelee Island, Ontario, situated in Lake Erie’s western basin, on Canada’s most southerly stretch of land. The not-for-profit organization is near and dear to the hearts of Margaret Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson, who is Chair of the Board of Directors and whose son, also named Graeme, is the Managing Director. PIBO’s mandate is to collect and disseminate data that help to understand the changes taking place in the populations of migratory birds. More than 315 species have been recorded on the island, which also hosts a diverse selection of plants and animals, including thirty-six federally listed species at risk.
On a recent visit to Pelee Island, Olsen spent time with Atwood and both Graeme Gibsons, learning about the importance of studying migratory birds and the role they play as harbingers of stress and changes in the complex network of global ecosystems. Atwood has referred to birds as Earth’s “canary in the coal mine” with respect to their capacity for signalling the effects of climate change.
At first sip, one can’t help but wonder just how Atwood’s name wound up on the uniquely mild blend with its distinct notes of caramel and cocoa. It turns out that Atwood and Olsen have a mutual friend, filmmaker Ron Mann, who followed the author with his camera on her 2009 book tour to promote The Year of the Flood, which chronicles a group of survivors of a man-made environmental catastrophe. (Atwood’s fictional Happicuppa Corp in this book and its predecessor, Oryx and Crake, eerily resembles some of the larger coffee corporations of today.) The ensuing documentary, In the Wake of the Flood, captures Atwood’s penchant for protecting the planet and, thanks to her connection to Mann, Olsen was asked to come up with a brew that percolates with the same good will.
“We wanted it to be a coffee she loved,” Olsen recalls. “She knows her coffee and was very specific about her preferences. She favours our Amber roast, which is medium to light, as opposed to our Stout, or dark roast. She sent it back a couple of times for tweaking and, based on the popularity and repeat orders, I think she nailed it.
To date more than $5,000 have been raised for PIBO with the Bird Friendly® Atwood Blend initiative, which is just now finding its wings with Indigo Books and Whole Foods having recently come on board. “We wanted to keep this initiative simple and sustainable,” Olsen relates. “It is important to us that the cost of the donation come from our profits and is not merely passed on to our customers; so even though our cost is much higher on these beans, we have kept the price the same as our other Fair Trade organic offerings and we donate one dollar of every pound sold to PIBO.” In addition, Balzac’s pays a 25-cent-per-pound certification fee to the SMBC, which helps to support their work. “I believe that the fundraising model we have come up with,” Olsen continues, “is very effective as it allows all parties – including our customers – to benefit, thereby allowing it to be ongoing and limitless in its potential.”
Olsen’s business mantra has always been “local, natural, sustainable and artisanal,” so offering a tip of the hat to a beloved Canadian author and environmental activist isn’t just a pile of beans to attract more customers; it’s in keeping with Olsen’s approach to running her Parisian-inspired cafés named after Honoré de Balzac, the early-nineteenth- century French novelist whose nocturnal writing habit, fuelled by endless cups of coffee, is legendary. “This initiative is very personal to me as it brings together my love for coffee, literature and the environment in such a succinct and beautiful little package,” Olsen relates as she sits in her Niagara-on-the-Lake shop that is filled with friends catching up, laptop-toting types sipping Balzac’s brews as their muse, and the sounds of a steady stream of orders to go.
A Chestnut-sided Warbler at the Pelee Island Bird Observatory
The secret to successfully slugging pots of coffee goes beyond mastering the perfect brew and providing a comfortable spot in which to enjoy it. Though Balzac’s beans come from abroad, Olsen pledges to source locally produced products whenever possible. This includes using maple syrup from White Meadows Farms in Niagara and filling cups of apple cider with the pressings of Filsinger’s Organic in Ayton. Cream and milk come by way of Organic Meadow in Guelph, and bakeries located in the vicinity of each Balzac’s café supply fresh pastries. The Pie Plate in Virgil supplies the Niagara-on-the-Lake café.
A sense of social responsibility doesn’t stop with the use of Fair Trade, organic, or Bird Friendly® beans. Balzac’s holds the bragging rights to being the first coffee company in Canada to earn LEAF (Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice) certification, the highest green rating for eateries.
Olsen has approached coffee roasting and sales with a blend of business savvy and a passion to serve up something different to Canadian coffee drinkers, who are accustomed to being relentlessly wooed by those promising a better cup. With Canada being a home front for coffee wars as the big chains and independent coffee houses clamour for their share of the customer pot, Olsen isn’t one to doubt what she, and Balzac’s, can achieve. As numerous other coffee-loving entrepreneurs take their cues from a java veteran like Olsen and pour their hearts into their own roasting and café businesses, her plan is to continue with a slow and measured growth that will not compromise the quality or integrity of the Balzac’s brand that she started in 1993. She recently opened a sixth café, at Ryerson University, and is currently finishing construction on a seventh, in the Toronto Reference Library. Olsen explains that, “We don’t do what we do in order to grow as a business; nonetheless, the business seems to grow because of what we do.”
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center:
Pelee Island Bird Observatory: www.pibo.ca
Balzac’s Coffee Roasters: www.balzacs.com
Balzac’s Atwood Blend: www.atwoodblend.com
Gail Gordon Oliver is the publisher and editor of Edible Toronto. Two years ago, she gave permission for the barn swallows that nest in the century-old barn on her Wellington County farm to be included in a study on the migratory patterns of southern Ontario barn swallows that aims to determine why their populations have been drastically declining.