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Indie cafés perfectly poised to quench coffee aficionados' palates

There was a time when independent cafés were on life-support. One by one, as the mighty coffee chains spread, small mom-and-pop coffee houses withered, unable to compete with the snazzy branding, sophisticated décor and huge selections proffered by Starbucks, Blenz and Second Cup.

But the tables are turning. Indie cafés have returned to Vancouver's streets and they're not just tucked in out-of-the-way neighbourhoods. Many, such as Wicked, Elysian and 49th Parallel, are plunked on busy streets, brazenly taking on the big-chain competition.

Many are thriving.

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"People who come here are interested in coffee taste," said Emilie Nagahama, a manager at Wicked on Hornby Street, a few doors from a Starbucks outlet.

Wicked's décor is comfortable but spare. There is no simulated living room here, no couches or puffy arm chairs, just rows of tables and a selection of individually brewed coffees, lattes, cappuccinos and espressos.

And there is no coffee to go. In fact, there are no paper cups. At Wicked, the managers want you to sit down, order a cup and drink it there.

Wicked and its indie cousins are part of what coffee aficionados refer to as coffee's third wave.

The first was the widespread introduction of coffee to household kitchens in the 19th century.

The second began with the increased consumption by the mid-20th century, ending with the proliferation of coffee chains with their espresso-based coffee and their sugary, frothy iterations; caramel macchiatos and mocha frappuccinos.

The third wave is a return to a focus on coffee itself, where the beans come from, attention to the roasting process and, finally, the coffee presentation itself.

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Ms. Nagahama compared it to the slow-food movement, with its emphasis on savouring flavours - and the moment.

"People should stop and sit down to drink coffee," she said. "It's a five-minute thing. I like what you can talk about over coffee."

Mike Piccolo, who opened a coffee-roasting plant in Burnaby four years ago, supplies coffee to independent cafés across the country and is branching into U.S. markets. His Fourth Avenue café, 49th Parallel, is a showcase for his locally roasted coffee.

Mr. Piccolo said customers' coffee palates have come a long way in the past two decades. The big café chains nurtured that sophistication, feeding the demand for richer coffee flavours. There is a whole generation of people who can't remember when lattes and cappuccinos weren't available on nearly every urban street corner.

Today, customers are more demanding than ever, Mr. Piccolo said.

Not only do they want rich, flavourful coffee, they want to know where the coffee came from, how much the farmer was paid and if the beans were locally roasted. Independent cafés are perfectly poised to deliver that kind of individualized service, he said.

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In Vancouver, many small cafés are opening shops within striking distance of the big outfits, he noted. "I say: 'Let's take them on.'"

David Eade, a part owner of the newly opened Momento Coffee House in Kitsilano, once worked for Starbucks. Mr. Eade, who praised the company for elevating coffee standards, said the Seattle-based chain introduced a soothing consistency to the hit-and-miss café sector. Uniformity in coffee drinks and customer service was the rule of thumb.

But the pendulum inevitably swung the other way and customers began to crave individuality over uniformity, Mr. Eade said, hence the new-found attraction of small cafés.

At Momento Coffee House, the décor is a monument to the return of individuality. A large mural in swirling reds and blues is mounted on the wall, a gift from a local painter.

The furniture and dishes are all used or made from recycled materials, the paper cups are compostable and the light bulbs are low-emission LEDs.

They hope customers not only love their coffee, but feel comfortable enough to stay a while.

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