The training room at Coffee By Design has a more businesslike air than the busy bar out front, where coffee fiends sip their favorite brews over a laptop or animated conversation with a friend.

This room, where coffeemakers big and small line the back wall, is where your favorite barista learns about a new bean or perfects his latte art, drawing hearts and tulips in milk foam over and over again until they’re perfect. Last week, it was more like a laboratory, the site of a taste test to create just the right coffee blend to serve at the Portland restaurant Bolster, Snow & Co. and its adjoining hotel, The Francis.

At a marathon tasting session, the staff at Coffee by Design in Portland worked with staff from Bolster, Snow and Co. to develop a signature coffee for the restaurant and The Francis Hotel.

Laid out on a big table covered with a coffee-colored tablecloth were eight Chemex carafes partially filled with different coffees, roasted in varying ways, that could become part of the new proprietary blend. Dylan Hardman, Coffee By Design’s head roaster, pointed out the spittoon at one corner of the table where the tasters could pour – or spit – out a coffee after they tried it. For purists, there was a pitcher of water to rinse out the glass cups before pouring the next sample.

“We’ll know how seriously you’re taking this by whether you rinse it,” Hardman joked.

First up was a coffee from Papua New Guinea with notes of black cherry and plum, a “really clean” coffee that has the sweetness and body of a Sumatran, Hardman said, but also some of the “dynamic fruit notes” found in African coffees.

“It’s really smooth for how bold it is,” observed Nick Verdisco, executive chef at Bolster, Snow & Co., who was sampling with Benkei O’Sullivan, the restaurant’s general manager.

At least a dozen Portland-area restaurants have worked with local roasters to create their own coffee blends. Coming up with a custom blend is a little tricky, a mash-up of marketing and making something delicious. Restaurateurs want something complex and memorable that will make their brands linger in the minds of diners, yet the blend also must appeal to a variety of palates.

“There’s nothing more memorable than having a good cup of coffee and dessert,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s the end of your meal.”

COFFEE SHOPPING

As a chef, Verdisco was looking for a balanced blend, neither bitter nor heavy, with layers of flavor that would go well with the light desserts served at Bolster Snow.

The restaurant’s search began with a survey of coffees from many roasters. O’Sullivan, a former New York chef, brought in some Joe Coffee from New York City to start. He and the staff also drank their way through a few coffees from Tandem Coffee Roasters and Speckled Ax, both right here in Portland.

Tandem might have seemed an obvious choice, since it has a coffee shop and bakery literally just across the street from Bolster Snow, and a national reputation. The Francis sends guests to Tandem, and even has a Breakfast in Bed package that features Tandem coffee and treats.

Tandem also has recent experience creating custom coffee blends. Will Pratt, co-owner of Tandem, says he isn’t often asked to develop blends because the company focuses on single-origin coffees. But a few months ago, he helped the owners of Palace Diner in Biddeford create “Ladies Invited,” a 50-50 blend of Brazilian and Colombian beans.

Greg Mitchell, co-owner of the diner, said they had been serving Tandem’s Time and Temperature, but “we started feeling like we would prefer a slightly less bright-feeling coffee.”

Pratt and Mitchell did a blind tasting at the diner, sampling multiple batches of coffee brewed with different beans, and trying them with cream and without. They solicited staff opinions, and the vote was unanimous for the half-Brazilian, half-Colombian combination that contains “slightly lower, richer, deeper notes,” Mitchell said. In addition to serving the new coffee at the diner, they sell it in 12-ounce bags.

“We don’t sell many, so it was never looked at as this is going to be hugely profitable,” Mitchell said. “It was a way to get our brand and our name out there, and it’s a fun memento to take home.”

A HILL OF BEANS

O’Sullivan was still searching for direction when one day he walked into Coffee By Design on Washington Avenue to grab a quick cup of coffee.

“I don’t even remember what it was,” he said. “I just randomly stopped there on my way home.” But he does remember how much he loved the coffee, “probably the best I’ve had in Portland.”

O’Sullivan, Verdisco and Tony DeLois, co-owner of Bolster Snow and The Francis, visited Coffee By Design to observe how they roast beans and learn more about their sourcing. Then they started tasting. One by one, they’d bring different coffees back to Bolster Snow and brew them. They needed something distinctive, but also a coffee that would have wide appeal.

“Tony, Nick and I, we all are very, very different,” O’Sullivan said. “Tony, he’s a black coffee kind of guy. I’m a cream kind of guy, and I think Nick is a cream and sugar kind of guy.” The staff weighed in. Everyone loved Black and Tan, made with one bean that’s roasted two ways – dark and light.

Benkei O’Sullivan, general manager of Bolster, Snow and Co., tastes a coffee blend while working with the staff at Coffee by Design to develop a signature coffee for the restaurant and The Francis Hotel.

“Because it’s a light roast and a dark roast mixed together, you find a perfect medium of coffee,” O’Sullivan said. “I think when you do a traditional medium roast, it’s one-noted. This actually has those flavors of a light roast that are a little bit softer and delicate and a little bit floral, and it has those darker notes that are from a darker roast, and you get both those flavors in one cup.”

On the day of their tasting at Diamond Street, O’Sullivan was excited about the possibility of mixing the beans with Coffee By Design’s Earth Day blend, or perhaps one of their single origin coffees.

Coffee By Design made its first custom restaurant blend about 20 years ago, for its first wholesale client, Fore Street. Back then, CBD co-owner Alan Spear did the presentation himself, serving restaurateurs Sam Hayward and Dana Street six blends he’d created. He spent four hours explaining why he did what he did with each blend, and Hayward and Street tasted everything.

“I didn’t feel like I nailed what they were looking for, and I went back and created more,” Spear said.

In all, Spear went through 25 different blends. Ultimately, Fore Street Blend was made with French-, Italian- and light-roasted beans from Asia, South America and Africa. Ordinarily, a proprietary blend belongs to the business that ordered it, but Spear got so many requests for Fore Street Blend he asked for Hayward and Street’s permission to sell it to the public, and they agreed.

Coffee By Design has also made special blends for, among other places, Street & Co., Scales and Grace – all restaurants in Portland – and Sea Glass, the restaurant at the Inn By the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, where the coffee is provided in guest’s rooms. Depending on the restaurant, they go through 10 to 40 pounds of their signature blend in a week, Spear said.

“Sometimes the most beautiful blends can be just two coffees,” he said. “We have some blends that are up to five coffees.”

BOLSTER BLEND

At the Bolster Snow tasting, O’Sullivan and Verdisco worked their way around the table of coffees, lighter roasts first, rinsing out their cups between tastes. After the Papua New Guinea beans, Hardman told them the next coffees would be “a little punchier.” First up was an Ethiopian coffee that smelled like blueberries and hinted of the woods. Next came a Costa Rican coffee with a citrus kick that had the complexity of the Ethiopian but left little aftertaste. They also tried three darker roasts, two from Colombia and one from Brazil.

O’Sullivan said he loved the Ethiopian, as well as a Brazilian espresso roast. Verdisco agreed.

Alan Spear, left, co-owner of Coffee by Design, discusses coffee blends with Dylan Hardman, roastery manager at CBD, and Benkei O’Sullivan, general manager of Bolster, Snow and Co.

“And obviously the Black and Tan,” Verdisco said. “Those three. They just stand out. They’re very smooth, but you’re still getting depth of flavor.”

O’Sullivan added: “It would be interesting to see the Ethiopian and mix in some of the espresso roast, and maybe a darker roast to give it that kind of final, darker flavor. So maybe a 20-40-40 kind of thing.”

They decided on a ratio of 20 percent Ethiopian, 40 percent Brazilian espresso, and 40 percent Colombian French roast to add smokiness at the finish. Hardman adjourned to an adjacent room to mix and grind the beans, but not before entertaining the group with a story about the farmer who grew the Brazilian beans. The farmer said he had been kidnapped seven times in the last 10 years, “and each time he managed to escape in some ridiculous way.” (Hardman refers to him as “the Brazilian Chuck Norris.”)

Coffee blends can go through a lot of tweaking, but this one needed just one more change: They decided to try the beans in even thirds, because they felt the fruitiness of the Ethiopian coffee was being overwhelmed. This mix was a slam dunk.

“I like the fruity notes, I like the chocolate notes,” Verdisco said. “I like it being nice and round. It finishes strong, but not overly harsh. It’s a lot like what my food is. What we’re doing here is providing layers of flavor, but we’re doing it through coffee.”

Hardman brought over a cup of fresh grounds for Verdisco to sniff. “That’s crazy,” the chef said. “That’s amazing. Even the color of that is great.”

Bolster Snow will probably start serving the coffee this week, O’Sullivan said, before it even has a name. Choosing a name for a custom blend can be straightforward – Fore Street Blend, for example – or a fun and whimsical task. Ladies Invited is named after a sign on the outside of the Palace Diner, a relic of the time when most of the diner’s customers were male mill workers. “We have always taken a liking to that because it’s kind of a funny statement,” Mitchell said. “It’s a little politically incorrect.”

Perhaps they’ll name the new Bolster Snow blend after the building’s architect, O’Sullivan mused, or somehow use the name Francis.

Dylan couldn’t help himself and jumped in with a funny suggestion: “So the history is it was a funeral home? Call it embalming fluid.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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