As a freelance journalist and photographer, I find myself - okay, place myself - in interesting situations all the time just for my own amusement. I may not be planning a story out of it, and I may not even be getting paid, but I figure my work is nothing without life experience, right? Unburdened by the motivation of the (less and less mighty) dollar, then, I can focus on dedicating myself to the greater good. And if serving the greater good means doing as much footwork as I can in the interest of my own coffee enjoyment so that you, the reader, can benefit from the intimate knowledge of exactly where to find excellent espresso should you be scuttling across the Trans-Canada Highway in a minivan anytime soon - then indeed, I can now sleep well at night.
In May I tackled five Canadian provinces (plus Ontario, where I then lived) and one of the United States travelling from café to rock show to café again with my good pals Awesome Color, a heavy rock band from Michigan who were on the road with indie legends Dinosaur Jr. Something must have been wrong with me when I booked my plane ticket to Vancouver - it took me two whole days to realize, "Hey! If I go to Vancouver...I could probably drink some coffee while I'm there!" I mean - I could go to Vancouver just to drink coffee. So I started collecting tips from my ex-Vancouver barista pals in Toronto (the outspoken dwelltimer Nick Brown, and ex-Elysian man of mystery Matt Lee) and began composing emails. "Dear Lindsay Parker," I wrote, "Think you could show me around?"
By way of preface, I should quickly explain the true pleasure of coffee tourism. It's not just actually about drinking awesome coffee. Or being addicted to a mood-elevating substance. Or making friends. Or feeling the community of total geekdom. Though - really - those would be enough. The best thing I've found about these mini-adventures (and I've said it before) is the paths they encourage you to take through a foreign town, that arbitrary goal you're looking to achieve which takes you round and about and into neighbourhoods that have complementary and curious businesses, past sunny streets and peaceful rivers and hidden parks with miniature trains.
Like my friends who look for good skate spots whenever they're in a new town, the seemingly random quest to do what you like to do anyway in a new environment inevitably leads to some better, deeper connection with the town you're passing through. Plus all that community and new friends and tasty coffee stuff I mentioned? Yeah. Okay. That's pretty great too.
So it turns out it takes about 8 hours door to door from Mercury Espresso Bar in Toronto to Elysian Coffee in Vancouver, via subway, three buses, and WestJet. I'd seen pictures of Elysian before, and while it's not much to look at, it's neighbourhoody and tranquil - and drinking your espresso in full view of the mountains (well, over top of the BMW dealership...) is reasonably impressive to a flatlander like myself. Especially right after peeling oneself off a plane. I inconspicuously enjoyed my first macchiato as I perked back up from the long journey, and when I went back to the counter to ask for something off the Clover, something I asked the barista about the Ethiopian gave me away.
"You're here to meet up with Lindsay, aren't you?"
Ah, so it was going to be that kind of trip.
| Coming in for a landing in Vancouver. |
| Amazing coffee served by knowledgeable Elysians, who you can occasionally persuade to depart from the Clover. |
For all the reputation of the Pacific Northwest and all the anticipation I'd stored up, it was easy to come to the same conclusion all my pre-trip advisors had when they counseled me: really? Elysian is the only place you need to go in Vancouver. (And before Vince gets on my case - this trip was was taken before 49th Parallel opened a store, okay?) If you're downtown, the Artigianos can get you by - but if you want a seriously amazing coffee (and, yes, a fabulous view of a car dealership) served by knowledgeable, awesome people well into the evening: you're going to want to stop searching. 49th Parallel on the Synesso, a handsome menu of three rotating single origins to try on the Clover, friendly if guarded baristas who you can sweet talk into comparing a Clover cup of Aricha Selection Seven with a french press...what more could you want really?
In my multiple trips to Elysian I met super people - and mysteriously ran into someone I'd already met in Toronto (hi Les!) and drank an endless string of perfect macchiatos. Will I get in trouble if I say that the Aricha was not, however, all that? (It was, when Matt Lee brought it to Toronto and we had it on an Eva Solo...but it came off the Clover kinda flat, which is a shame for an expensive, theoretically amazing coffee that no one can stop babbling about because it partook of the miracle of air travel rather than a slow, stalemaking boat, but I digress.) The perfect place for coffee at the perfect quiet waypoint in a lovely city (that I hadn't been to for 21 years, my god). Thanks dudes!
After outing me at Elysian, Lindsay Parker - coffee queen of YVR - led me on a delightful stroll into downtown. We were going to check out the Hornby Street Artigiano - the one worth going to, apparently, or, well, supposedly, depending on how your drink comes out, I guess. Spacious and adult-looking. A big chalkboard describing a Cup of Excellence Colombian one might wish to sample off the Clover. And, is that a FIVE-group LaMarzocco? Too bad I couldn't get a good shot of espresso though.
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| Someone else's latte @ Caffe Artigiano (Hornby St.). |
| Lindsay Parker maintaining a positive attitude. |
Lindsay and I had a real nice walk along the waterfront, however - before returning to Elysian and making a plan for some touring about the next morning.
"Meet up at 6:30 at the corner of Broadway and Commercial?" she asked - and anyone who knows me will realize that's a completely psychotic proposition. But y'know what? Jet lag was on my side and I knew I was going to be up - plus, that'd give us more time to play around Lindsay's work - so why the hell not?
I was there on time, and we headed straight to...
| Prado. (Really, it was busier than this, I just wanted it to look minimal!) |
So white! So clean! So Euro! And yet, so strange that they thought the Ethiopian was a really "dark roast" and that they were so apprehensive to use the (beautiful, on loan from 49th Parallel) pourover station. I didn't try an espresso. I wouldn't mind hanging out here for an afternoon, but I'm not yet sure about what I would drink. Rumours on the street were that the baristas are inconsistent, but the snacks were sure good...something about the room reminded me a little bit of my home cafe, Mercury, if only it were really clean and white and run by all chicks.
First thing the barista says to Lindsay as we get to the counter is, "So, are you slumming it today, or what?" Once she'd been recognized it got a little subtly weird for everybody - my macchiato was pretty bitter, but everyone just really wanted to be nice here, so it didn't get sent back. The coffee bar itself looks like an espresso machine! And apparently they roast. Worth another try, but I won't go out of my way next time.
We skipped JJ Bean and whoever else on "The Drive" because it seemed about time to get to the money shot(s) - a little tour of Lindsay's work, 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, what's that you say? The best roaster in Canada? Mmm, let's hop the SkyTrain to Burnaby, shall we?
49th Parallel Coffee Roasters
Roasteries may not sound like much to look at ('cept for when those beans go shooting vertically up the vacuum tubes) but if you get off on big machinery and good smells, it's always totally fun to go check out the birthplace of a delicious coffee. Okay, not the birthplace really. Maybe the finishing school. (Though that bad metaphor conjures up the idea of a coffee bean balancing a book on its head...) I dug checking out all the different equipment because I am a nerd, and because I am an even bigger nerd, I was really happy to see all the boxes ready to get shipped to Cafe Grumpy in New York City. (Hi guys!)
Lots of fun toys here: overlord Vince Piccolo was busy playing around on a new lever machine they had in - busy enough that I didn't get to see anybody try out the Mistral. We had some shots of Epic (too fresh! oops, that's what you get inside the roastery...) and then Mike came in to tell us that a roast was about to drop.
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| Vince Piccolo preparing my morning coffee. |
| The Renegade @ 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters |
49th's big red Renegade roaster is pretty fun to watch - and after a little bean-swirling action, Lindsay and I returned to the coffee-drinking room to cup some Kenya AA Kihenia and something else that, for the love of god, tasted like pine and dirt, but I forget what it was, off of the Clover. The Kenya AA was super-lemony - delicious! And this is what I took home and drank on the porch for the next week after my return. Thanks so much for the petit tour and fun morning, Lindsay, Vince and Mike!
The next day would be my last in Vancouver, so on my way over to Elysian from my friends' house (hi new friends Mike and Andrea!) I intentionally took a route past...
| Arthur Wynne @ Wicked Cafe (pre-ponytail removal plan). |
How did I almost overlook Wicked? Admittedly (and this is weird to say since I am a Chicago girl and am always thrilled to drink Intelligentsia coffee at home) I found the prospect of visiting an Intelly cafe in the Pacific Northwest a little underwhelming. Until I went in and got kind of into the spirit of it - and then I placed my order with the friendly-looking tattooed dude behind the counter.
Liz: "Could I have a cappuccino please?"
Liz <while pulling out camera>: "And um, would it be possible to have that with Kid O?"
Barista: "Are you that girl from Toronto?"
Arthur Wynne, world fancypants barista/mixologist, totally caught me out. We talked about the Toronto coffee scene for a bit (oh, you were just emailing my dear friend Amber this morning about her plans for the latte art competition back home, were you?) and I watched him try to pour six or seven *inverse* rosettas...and come pretty close. Arthur took his lunch break to sit with me and jaw, and was one of the most gracious and friendly and knowledgeable people I'd encounter (a distinction tough to make on a tour of warm and enthusiastic coffee people). Upon hearing that my rock-and-roll-tagalong travels would take me through the Canadian Prairies, Arthur not only had recommendations for me - he immediately got on the phone and started making me coffee dates! Amazing.
Liz Clayton is a freelance writer and photographer who regularly writes about and shoots the coffee world (as well as film, local history, abandoned subway tunnels and rock music). Addicted to travel as much as good coffee, Liz has been to really rather a lot of coffee shops in North America in the past few years, probably even yours. Based in Brooklyn, New York, it is her goal to become an honourary regular at the best café in every town she visits. She blogs coffee at twitchy.org