Which café makes the best coffee in Vancouver?
Here we go again. This is a question I'm often asked and one that drives me crazy because, well, it's akin to asking which British Columbia winery makes the best wine. Hmm, let's see. Do you prefer white or red; an obscure ehrenfelser or a bodacious Bordeaux; barrel aging in new French oak or new– age cellaring in sacred pyramids?
Modern coffee culture is becoming just as complex and arcane. Forget drip versus espresso. To appreciate the new bean scene fully, you have to know a caturra and from a maragogype – two of several natural heirloom descendents from the ancient typica and bourbon varietals of the original coffee Arabica species.
Slow coffee is the new foodie fetish. It's bigger in Portland and San Francisco than it is in Vancouver or Victoria. But we're slowly picking up on the trend. In the past few months, numerous articles have been written, awards granted and attention lavished on our growing indie scene. Yet the mainstream klatches are still nattering on about the cozy chairs, buttery croissants, sexy baristas and free WiFi at their favourite cafes, without paying much (if any) attention to the artisanal beverages in their cups.
Sure, some may prefer the organic single-varietal Bolivian pour-over at X Café to the top-secret, award-winning 10-bean espresso blend at Café Z. But do they have any idea why these two coffees taste so different?
I admire those that do, because I've spent about six months cupping and slurping my way through the widely divergent, sharply divisive, largely undocumented new world of coffee, and I'm still confused. But I've tasted enough to know that some cafés are not at all like the others. So before we start comparing cabernets to chardonnays, may I offer this admittedly imprecise yet studiously caffeinated guide to the exemplars of coffee houses among us?
Old World Italian Roaster Retailer
Prototype: Milano Coffee (156 W 8th Ave., 604-879-4468; 36 Powell St., 604-558-0999)
Kindred companies: Caffe Umbria, Caffe Artigiano, Shatterbox Coffee Bar (Victoria)
Brian Turko bought his East End coffee company from Italian master roaster Francesco Curatolo in 2002, but it's probably more accurate to say he inherited it from a mentor on the promise to honour the torrefazioni tradition of crafting dark, full-bodied, smoothly rounded, secret blends that are passed down from generation to generation. Like a conductor leading a symphony, Mr. Turko strives to create bold, consistent arrangements that are greater than the sum of their individual beans. "I can make flavours that don't actually exist – a perfect bean that is more round and balanced than any single varietal." La Futura, his custom toffee and cocoa-flavoured espresso blend of 10 premium varietals (which took three years and 1,500 combinations to perfect) earned a gold medal at this year's International Coffee Tasting Competition in Italy. Yet it still tastes bitter to his new-world peers (more on them later), who prefer the purity of an acoustic fiddle to a string orchestra. To those who say blends are a cheap method of hiding imperfections, Mr. Turko retorts: "Single varietals are fine for chefs who are just starting out and don't know what do with their ingredients. The Italians figured that out 100 years ago. There's nothing innovative about going backward. Mark my words, in three years they'll all be blending."
New World Seed-to-Cup Roaster Retailer
Prototype: 49th Parallel Coffee (2902 Main St., 604-872-4901; 2152 W. 4th Ave., 604-420-4901)
Kindred Companies: Stumptown (Portland), Intelligentsia (Los Angeles)
Transparency is the name of the game for this large "progressive" Canadian roaster, which also supplies many independent cafés here and in the United States. Rather than sourcing from mysterious farms and blurring his beans into enigmatic blends, owner-roaster Vince Piccolo is proudly upfront and open about his direct trade with farmers – so much so that the producer or co-operative is stamped on each label, alongside the location and altitude of the micro lots from which the beans were picked. Mr. Piccolo says he doesn't limit himself to a particular style of roast. He offers Old School espresso for palates that are stuck in the past. But he does favour a high acidity profile that showcases a bean's natural terroir or origins. Achieved through lighter roasting, it's an acquired taste that he describes as sweet and clean and sparkling (although others might call it sour). "People, over time, once they start getting into coffee, tend to gravitate to higher acidity, cleaner coffees," he explains. "There's a reason these are the most sought-after coffees in the world. The higher the acidity, the higher the demand, the higher the price."
Micro Roaster Retailers
Prototype: Bows and Arrows Coffee Roasters (483 Garbally Rd., Victoria, 250-590-7792)
Kindred Companies: Matchstick Coffee Roasters (Vancouver)
Employing a similar seed-to-cup philosophy as 49th Parallel, Bows and Arrows operates on a smaller scale but still trades directly with small producers, visiting far-flung plantations to source their desired row of beans. They roast lightly (the aim being never actually to taste the roast, only the bean and its natural characteristics), follow the seasons, prize single varietals over blends (their espresso blends never comprise more than three beans) and recommend a slow pour-over for home brewers using a paper-filtered cone for the cleanest tasting cup. A rarity in Canada (although common in Portland and Seattle), the company roasts its own coffee in house, at a trendy industrial warehouse equipped with a walk-up coffee bar.
Multi Roaster Café
Prototype: Revolver Coffee (325 Cambie St., 604-558-4444)
Kindred companies: Heist (Victoria), Milstead & Co. (Seattle)
Time and time again I've heard that this beautiful Gastown brick and wood café makes the best espresso. What's interesting, and perhaps what some its fans don't realize, is their coffee is never (or rarely) the same. Traditionally, independent cafés that don't roast their own beans have aligned themselves with a single supplier. But the new up-and-coming trend among coffee houses is to offer multiple roasters. If the espresso at Revolver always tastes great to some, that's probably because owner George Giannakos diligently sources from a revolving list of "progressive" seed-to-cup small-scale roasters (including Bows & Arrows and Matchstick), which share similar philosophies about direct trade and transparency. The espresso here is very good, but Revolver's single-cup flights are what really stand out. You can order three featured coffees all manually brewed the same way (siphon, Aeropress, French press or Clever) or a brew flight with a single coffee brewed three different ways.
There's no better way to taste the true terroir of an organic Bolivian caturra, hand-selected from a specific tree-shaded micro lot on the Eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains, gently roasted until first crack and freshly ground to order. Just don't compare it to short-shot, darkly roasted 10-bean espresso blend. They're apples and oranges.