So it’s come to this—heirloom beans. Long-forgotten breeds are showing up in tortillas, soups, and Instagram posts across the country. They’ve achieved the coveted trifecta of cool: celebrity endorsements, podcast mentions, and celebrity chef endorsements.
But can you actually taste the difference between a dried heritage bean and the kind you buy in bulk at the grocery store?
Steve Sando says you can. He’s the president and founder of California-based Rancho Gordo, one of the leading purveyors of heirloom beans. Sando, who sold crops for years at farmers markets “got serious about heirloom beans” in 2012. (Heirloom beans are the legume equivalent of other heirloom crops; they’re interesting-looking, lesser-known varieties that are allegedly more flavorful, but not as easy to farm as their cousins, which have been bred and specialized for mass production and global shipping.)
“I grew them because they were pretty,” Sando says. “But then I ate them.”
Thomas Keller, the chef behind The French Laundry and Per Se, also ate Sando’s beans. He liked them, word spread, and Rancho Gordo took off. The company’s sales have been growing 15 to 20 percent a year. Rancho Gordo beans are sold in stores across the country and online (Sando says sales are split between web and brick and mortar).
Sando says Rancho Gordo does especially well in high-end cheese shops, where customers are already willing to go out of their way to get a better version of something they could get for less money at the grocery store.
But beans? Beans: a side dish in America, where the average person eats eight times as much beef or chicken than they do beans in a year. Beans: something many of us only think about when the clerk at Chipotle asks “black or pinto?” Beans: hard morsels you buy in health food stores and have to soak for hours before cooking into something that might end up a starchy mess. Beans: the food cowboys and hobos eat in Looney Tunes shorts and hippies eat in reality. Beans: the subject of the unsavory schoolyard rhyme about “musical fruit.”
Beans are not cool.
But people should eat beans. As anyone who has spent time preparing them knows, they’re healthy little blank canvases for whatever seasonings you can find. This year, the United Nations is trying to raise awareness of the benefits of eating beans, lentils, chickpeas, and dry peas—which are collectively called pulses—by declaring this the International Year of Pulses.
Pulses are hearty to grow and hearty to eat. But they’re not cool. Any food the UN has to remind you about isn’t cool. But Rancho Gordo beans are cool.
Maybe the fact they’re presented as high-end, luxurious beans is behind Rancho Gordo’s appeal. Maybe it’s the stylish (but not quite Mast Brothers-level) packaging. Maybe it’s the price. The beans cost six dollars a pound, roughly three times their commodity counterparts. Maybe heirloom beans are the gustatory equivalent of a $600 denim workshirt—an item that conveys counterintuitive proletarian taste while eschewing the necessary proletarian thrift—more image than flavor.
But Sando rejects that. “I’m focusing on the people who already get it,” Sando says. And “it,” is that beans are more than a stereotype, and good ones are worth money. (The major cause for the price difference is the increased difficulty in growing heirloom beans, he says.)
“I think this country’s changing. We’d rather have a lot less of something great than a lot of something that’s bland and mediocre,” Sando says.
“Younger people don’t have the Depression-era association [with beans], and they’re learning to cook,” Sando says. Rancho Gordo beans aren’t sold on any claims of being better for the environment than monoculture bulk beans. And they aren’t sold as health food. It’s purely taste. “People don’t buy moral food in the end. You have to focus on flavor,” Sando says (which is pretty much the same argument the big food companies make when asked to make reduced sodium this and less-fattening that).
So I set up a few taste tests.
First, on New Years Day, lacking the traditional black eyed peas for Hoppin’ John, I opened a bag of Rancho Gordo Eye of the Goat (Rancho Gordo provided beans for taste comparisons). The first thing I noticed when I put them in a bowl to soak was the way they seemed shiny. Dry commodity beans often look a bit dull. When I covered them with water, they looked heavy, sort of like tiny brownish marbles. But these beans tasted better than marbles. They took a bit longer to cook and soften, but the heirlooms came out more al dente than standard beans, which can fall apart and peel when cooked (but still taste good). The flavor was rich. There weren’t any notes of other flavors I picked up, just a heavy taste of bean. They were rich.
A few days later, with some leftover ground beef sitting in the refrigerator, I tried to make a fast chili. I reached for Rio Zape beans, which Sando said could compare to pintos. Again, they took a bit longer to soften, but gave a heartier taste than the standard bulk beans I typically use. This was only the second or third time I’d ever attempted chili, but I found the meatiness of the beans eliminated hte need for meat entirely. The ground beef felt a bit weak when compared to its counterparts.
But these comparisons were all based on memories of commodity beans. For the real test, I needed a side-by-side tasting. At home, I cooked a bag of Rancho Gordo royal corona beans and a bag of off-the-shelf dried navy beans (which Sando said were comparable) using the same method (soak, boil in lightly-salted water). I set a few of each aside, then flavored the rest with a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. I brought each batch to National Geographic headquarters, and invited colleagues to taste and compare.
Most people guessed the giant Rancho Gordo beans were the heirloom breed based on appearance alone. After tasting them, however, opinions were mixed. Half of the tasters preferred the smaller beans, saying the extra surface area gave them a better bean-to-seasoning ratio, and adding that the Rancho Gordos were a bit starchy. The other half of tasters, though, liked the beefiness of the Gordos. And almost everyone said the heirlooms had a richer, beanier flavor.
Several people asked how much more the Rancho Gordo beans cost, and it’s definitely a calculation, whether a slightly richer taste and firmer texture are worth the extra four dollars a pound. As we debated, someone at the edge of the table said something that had crossed my mind before. “If I were having people over, I’d spring for the heirloom beans.”
And maybe that’s the turning point. It’s not that they want to show off their disposable income by putting expensive beans in front of guests, it’s that they’d have beans at the table at all.
Beans can be cool.
Gabe Bullard is a senior producer at National Geographic. He’s non-pulsed by legumes. You can find him on Twitter.