Choosing my favorite local coffee houses in Vancouver was a difficult endeavor, there are so many great choices! People say I’m passionate about coffee. They know me well! Coupled with travel, I’ve taken to exploring and writing about the coffee scene wherever I roam. I have a passion for supporting local roasters and coffee houses. One city I go back to time and time again is Vancouver, Canada. It’s one of my favorite cities because it combines incredible nature with everything you’d expect from a city that’s fun to see and explore. Over the past few years, the local coffee has been developing at a rapid pace. Lots of choices and a vibrant coffee scene await when you spend time in Vancouver. When I’m there I always drink plenty of coffee, talk with baristas, and I’ve got lots to share with you. So let’s talk coffee, Vancouver style.
Who Are The Players On The Vancouver Coffee Scene?
When I travel, I only review and like to support coffee houses that roast their own beans or use locally roasted beans. This leads me to an interesting story about Vancouver. When I asked locals in Vancouver about the coffee scene and told them that I would be writing about it, the very first suggestion I received was, “You should try 49th Parallel.” I replied that I don’t care for 49th Parallel coffee. Surprisingly, they then tell me they don’t really like 49th Parallel coffee either! It’s odd and seems like people feel the need to tell me to try it because it’s local but it’s not really their first choice either. However, 49th Parallel coffee is carried by MANY cafes in Vancouver, so that eliminated many places that I didn’t need to review. I’m telling you this because you may want to try it for yourself and see what you think, and also so you’ll know none of the places I’m reviewing use 49th Parallel beans.
Another important point is that although many of the small roasters I’m reviewing do have more than one location, these days the hub for coffee is the Gastown area, with a few outliers in Chinatown and some just over the east side border of Vancouver.
I started by talking with Mark Neuman from Timbertrain Coffee. We talked and drank coffee for a long time. In general, I have somewhat of an idea of the places I want to check out, but often I’ll let the conversations I have with one manager or barista set the tone and flow to the next cafe, and that’s what happened in Vancouver.
Mark was great to talk with! Timbertrain has been around for 4 years. It’s generally acknowledged that Artigiano, a Vancouver based small chain of coffee shops I like, started the coffee scene maybe 10-11 years ago. For the Gastown area, Revolver (I don’t care for their space at all, too noisy and dark, and not much for their coffee, either) was early on the scene and for years there was no one else in the area.
Let’s start with Timbertrain’s space. I love it! As its name implies, it looks like a modern train car. It’s open and bright with many different configurations for seating. Timbertrain serves people who both live and work in this area, so while it had a nice buzz both times I was there, it never felt overly noisy or too crowded. It is close enough to the cruise ports so they do get some customers from the ships. Good to know if you’re cruising in or out of Vancouver.
I found it interesting that, as was the case in the San Francisco area, the roasters in Vancouver are not sharing roasting space. They’re all on their own. Mark said the cortado and flat white are both very popular, so I opted for a flat white. The beans they use are a combination of Ethiopian, Columbian, and Brazilian. Though I’m not a huge fan of Brazilian beans, this flat white had more of a Colombian bean influence, making it perfect for me. Mark and I talked about the concept of a developed bean and how you create a roasting profile. Timbertrain does a medium roast, so their beans are a bit on the sweeter side and less acidic. I’d say this is a good place to start if you go into a coffee shop and want to know about the bean profile. Sweeter and less acidic beans really do create a great beverage.
Timbertrain has pastries and does their own baking, which seems to be the Vancouver style in coffee houses. Mark and I talked about this and he told me that Vancouver coffee places are very much under the influence of the Australian scene. He felt the Australian influence of restaurant and coffee combined was because of minimum wages being so high in Australia. In order to afford this overhead, a coffee house needs to sell food. Mark thinks this concept is the future in Vancouver, too. And indeed, all the local roasters do sell either pastries or a combo of pastries and food, much more so than in other cities I’ve visited and reviewed.
Of course, like many local roasters, Timbertrain has a healthy wholesale business and supplies over fifty restaurants with their beans. When I asked Mark where he would like to travel and sample coffee, he didn’t need to think long about his answer… Scandinavia!
Then I asked Mark if he couldn’t drink coffee at Timbertrain, where would he go. He told me about Nemesis Coffee, so that became my next stop!
Mark mentioned Michelle who works at Nemesis Coffee and sure enough, Michelle was there as I walked in. Nemesis Coffee has been there for 8 months. Interestingly enough, and on purpose, there are no outlets for plugs. I found that in Vancouver coffee houses, the idea is NOT that you sit there all day and use free WiFi. Even the places that do have plugs tend to have some limitations placed on usage. A refreshing point of view!
As for local roasters at Nemesis Coffee, Pilot is the only Canadian coffee beans they use. They use other roasters from around the world, Scandinavia mostly. So this would be a great place to sample some beans from high end international roasters. They do their own baking, and like most of the coffee spaces I visited, the baking area is visible through glass windows. I enjoy watching bakers, so I found this particularly fun. Though I didn’t sample the coffee here, it’s a great space. It’s big and bright, mostly decorated in whites and light browns. They did, as many of the shops in Vancouver do, have pour-over coffee, though it didn’t seem to be the big deal that it is in San Francisco.
I asked Michelle where she would drink coffee if not at Nemesis Coffee and she mentioned Propaganda Coffee. Mark at Timbertrain had also mentioned them, so going with the flow, I went to Propaganda Coffee next. Propaganda Coffee is just east of Main Street, which is the street that divides east and west Vancouver, so it may be off the beaten path for tourists but again, Vancouver is so walkable, it’s really not out of your way.
At Propaganda Coffee, I spoke with Lauren. The shop has been there 2 1/2 years. They use only Canadian beans. I noticed they used Pilot and Phil and Sebastian from Calgary. They seem to have more of a pour-over crowd and Lauren mentioned that 15-20% of their business is pour-over business. Their bakery is on site, as well. If I hadn’t had a scone from my favorite bakery, I would have tried a pastry here. The space itself was low-key, nothing fancy, but creatively designed and well laid out for working or talking with friends. And bright! You might notice a theme here. The week I was there reviewing coffee houses, Vancouver had brilliantly sunny and unseasonably warm weather, but we all know it’s not like that year round. Bright big spaces are so welcoming when the typical Vancouver weather comes along, so I really appreciated how all the cafes take this into account when designing their spaces. Lauren hasn’t been to Australia, so as someone who works with coffee, it seemed like a natural choice for where she’d go to drink coffee!
I also ventured to Matchstick Coffee on East Georgia, and I’m very glad I did! They’ve been in business 7 years and opened this space 3 years ago. I spent a lot of time talking with Matthew, who’s originally from Perth, Australia. They have an extensive bakery selection and some food items as well. They serve alcohol, too. They use a single origin espresso and of course, roast their own beans. It’s a huge space. The front of the cafe was bright, but the back is much darker. Matthew also likes Nemesis Coffee and, unlike me, he does like Revolver Coffee. We talked about developing a bean profile and creating a certain taste. He felt balance is the key. He pulled me a shot of espresso. Delicious!
I asked Matthew how people in Vancouver choose where to go for coffee. He thinks people in Vancouver have a coffee shop they go to in each area of the city. Wow, how lucky can you get? No wonder Vancouver and I get along so well and I never pass up an opportunity to visit.
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Speaking of getting along so well, I have to say that in Vancouver, there is a sense of barista community and they are all VERY congenial. It’s great to see and experience because after all, they benefit, and we, the local roaster coffee addict drinkers benefit too.
There are a few other popular coffee houses to mention. I stopped in but didn’t get a chance to sample coffee or speak with anyone. The Birds & The Beets is popular for their coffee, but their food gets rave reviews too. Bows & Arrows on Fraser and 26th street is another place locals enjoy. They’ve been a popular coffee and dessert spot and just expanded to now offering full meals. Bump N Grind Cafe on Granville and 16th is the one place I wanted to get to but didn’t have time to try. It’s on the list for next time! Fernwood Coffee Company from Victoria, Canada, gets high praise, so if you see their beans offered at a cafe, you’d do well sampling it. Elysian Coffee Roasters is still one of my favorite coffees, and I’m starting to see their coffee in other cafes. And here’s a weird one for you. Honolulu Coffee Company has a big shop in downtown Vancouver. I stopped in to take a look. Yup, looks just like the spaces in Hawaii.
So there you have it. My very own caffeinated take on the current Vancouver coffee scene. To say it’s a vibrant scene would be an understatement. It is a city that’s passionate about coffee and shows tremendous support for its local roasters and purveyors of beans from around Canada and, in a few instances, the best beans from around the world.
Shelli Stein is a health and fitness entrepreneur who travels the world in search of culture, food, and fun! Besides contributing to PointMeToThePlane, you can find her at Joy in Movement
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