West coast city the mecca of Canadian bean business

(This story originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Airlines Magazine)

By John Geary

“I love coffee, I love tea, I love the Java Jive, and it loves me …” 

If you find that line in the Ink Spots’ old salute to bean juice stirs you, there’s probably no better Canadian city to be in than Vancouver. While strolling down a city street, you cannot help but be struck by the frequency of coffee bars, cafés, and java shops that proliferate everywhere. It seems you cannot walk more than one block without encountering at least one coffee house. Even in the residential areas, you are often within a five or 10-minute walk of a café. 

While Vancouver boasts the usual mega-chains like Starbuck's or Seattle's Best, as well as a scattering of Second Cups, the city is also home to an incredible number of smaller local chains and independent coffee bars. 

Talk to anyone running a Vancouver café and most agree one of the main reasons for the large number of coffee bars in the city is its close proximity to Seattle. Many consider Seattle the coffee capital of North America, or even the world. 

If that’s the case, Vancouver is certainly Canada’s coffee capital. 

Starbucks moved north to establish itself in Vancouver 15 years ago, and that led to a rapid growth of smaller local coffee businesses to fill the market demand. As with any chicken-egg question, it’s difficult to say which came first - the building of coffee bars or the need for more cafés. However, one cannot exist without the other. The desire to go out for coffee is a decade-long social trend that continues to rise. 

“It seems a lot of people don’t drink coffee at home any more,” says Ron Geller, owner of the Blue Parrot Coffee Bar on West 4 Ave, in Kitsilano. “For example, in the morning, many people get up, shower and get dressed, then come down here for coffee, rather than drink it at home.” 

He also points out most people who want specialty coffees like espressos or cappuccinos can’t or won’t make them at home, so they go to coffee bars. These days, coffee drinkers usually want more than just a “cup of Joe,” although that is still in demand. The demand for straight bean juice without all the extra frills varies from café to café. 

The Blue Parrot owner says his sales of specialty coffees like cappuccinos or lattes and the sales of regular coffee are pretty much equal. 

That’s not quite the case at Delany’s, where owner Robin Delany says the majority of the sales at their downtown, West Van and North Van locations are specialty coffees, although they still serve a fair amount of regular brew. 

With nine outlets in the Vancouver area, it’s harder for the Java Hut Espresso Company to track that kind of data. However, Judy Davis, president of the family-owned business, says regular drip coffee still represents a large percentage of sales. 

Coffee culture is certainly a significant part of the west coast lifestyle, and climate does play an important role in determining that lifestyle. The vast majority of coffee bars offer inside and outside seating. Because there is no real winter in Vancouver, people can sip outside all year long, not just for five or six months. 

“Our outside seating is a big part of our business, 12 months of the year,” says Delany, “The number of people sitting outside does drop off a little in rainy weather, but even if it’s really inclement, people still like to be outside, if they’re under an awning.” 

Access to the outside allows locals to include their dogs in their daily coffee ritual; they can sit outside with their canine companions, sip their java and read a paper, engage in a conversation, or just watch the world walk by. Some cafés, like the Blue Parrot, go out of their way to be “doggie-friendly,” offering free dog biscuits to their coffee-sipping clientele. 

“That’s one of the things I love about the Blue Parrot,” says manager Susan Van Allen, a dog lover herself. “It’s very dog-friendly.” 

That friendly, neighborhood type of atmosphere has helped cafés take the place of bars in Vancouver. 

“We’re like the ‘Cheers’ of the coffee scene,” says Delany. “It’s a very social, friendly place, where we get to know our customers by name, just like Sam Malone would in his bar.” 

Patrick Barrett, a regular at Delany’s Denman outlet, agrees it really fills the role once filled by bars. 

“It’s like the British neighbourhood pubs, where you go to socialize with friends,” he says. 

Another regular, Michelle McLean confirms that. “I like hanging out with the regulars, here,” she says. 

Davis echoes the importance of making regular clients feel their favorite café is an extension of their home. 

“In today’s world, we’re recognized so much as numbers, if we can remember a customer’s name or favourite drink, that makes such a difference, and it gives them a reason to return.” 

Geller points out many people find cafés to be more comfortable than bars – and they are more family-oriented. 

“Bars have a bad reputation, whereas coffee bars are safe,” says Geller. “You can meet people here in a safe atmosphere. It’s a good place for a first date, to meet and get to know someone. You can bring kids in here.” 

While that neighbourly feeling can be crucial to a café’s success, not all rely on neighbourhood regulars. For example, the “regulars” at the Blue Parrot in Granville Island (originally a “sister-café” of the one on 4, now owned separately) consist more of the people who work down there, as that destination location tends to draw more tourists than the café in Kitsilano. 

Safety and neighbourly feelings notwithstanding, given the stiff competition for customers, cafés still have to offer a good product. Most serve food as well as coffee. While their menus don’t rival most restaurants’, most successful cafés provide more than donuts or muffins. 

“It’s important our food compliments coffee and that different foods are available for different times of day,” says Delaney. 

“At 11 in the morning, or noon, people want more than just coffee or muffins,” Davis echoes. “We offer that, and we do all our own baking right on site.” 

Java Hut bakers use natural ingredients without preservatives, an important factor in Vancouver, known for providing a lifestyle that is healthy to both the environment and individuals. The coffee culture follows that beat, as many cafés offer shade-grown, eco-friendly coffee. The availability of organic coffee not only meets the needs of concerned environmentalists, it also addresses the concerns of coffee drinkers with allergies or other chemical sensitivities. 

“I’ve had one lady tell me if she drinks non-organic coffee she could have a reaction,” says Geller. 

When it comes right down to it, whether you favour organic cappuccino over non-organic latte, or whether you’d rather have it iced than hot, and no matter where you choose to drink it, in Vancouver, an old quote, modified by some unknown wit, certainly holds true: 

“To drink is human, to drink coffee is divine!”

SIDEBARS:

COFFEE TRIVIA

Did you know that …

… In the ancient Arab world, coffee became such a staple in family life that one of the causes allowed by law for marital separation was a husband's refusal to produce coffee for his wife.

… The world’s most expensive coffee is kopi luwak, selling for $425 (Cdn) a pound. (no typo!) The reason? The luwak, or palm civet, digests the coffee berry fruit but passes the beans through its digestive system, which are then harvested and processed. It is described as “chocolaty and full-bodied with a touch of gaminess.”

… Bach wrote a coffee cantata in 1732.

… Coffee is the most popular drink in the world, as more than 400 billion cups are consumed each year.

… Flavoured coffee beans are roasted, then partially cooled, at which point the flavour is applied, when the beans' pores are open and therefore more receptive to flavour absorption.

… Cappuccino is named because the drink's peak of foam resembles the color of the robes worn by the Cappuicine Monks.

TYPES OF BREWING

Filter Drip: A machine heats then delivers measured water into a filter containing ground coffee. The resulting liquid drips into the carafe. About 70 per cent of North American coffee is brewed this way.

Percolation: A pumping percolator uses the power of boiling water to force water up a tube then filters it down over a bed of ground coffee. Purists claim boiling water through percolation takes away from the flavour.

French press or plunger pot: The coffee grounds are “steeped” in hot water, like tea, then separated from the liquid by pressing them to the bottom of the brewing receptacle with a mesh plunger. This coffee is stronger than drip brews.

Cowboy or Campfire Coffee (a.k.a. open pot brewing): Boil a pot of water, throw the grounds in, then after a period of time, the grounds will sink to the bottom, and the coffee is done.

Espresso: A brewing method as well as type of coffee, it forces hot water under pressure through tightly packed coffee, one or two servings at a time. The coffee itself is a darker roast and a finer grind than standard North American coffee.

TYPES OF BEANS:

Coffee grows all over the world, and each area produces beans with distinct but often subtle differences in flavour, aroma and texture.

COLUMBIAN: heavily bodied, rich

COSTA RICAN: full-bodied, robust, rich, hearth

ETHIOPIAN: Light-bodied, fairly acidic

GUATEMALAN: Rich spicy or smoky flavoured, medium bodied

JAMAICAN: Rich, full-bodied

JAVA: Full-bodied, rich, spicy, a little acidic

KENYAN: full-bodied, rich

KONA: Medium-bodied, aromatic, rich, fairly acidic

MEXICAN: Brisk, dry, delicate body, with an acidic nature

ARABIAN: chocolate-like flavour, rich

SUMATRAN: rich, full-bodied, acidic

TANZANIAN: sharp, winey and rich.