by Lauren Mote
Do all paths really lead to Starbucks? Some would think that especially if they live in beautiful downtown Vancouver. A Starbucks on every corner becomes as exciting as gift returns on Boxing Day. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Starbucks fan – it’s fast, reasonable and consistent – not to mention downstairs from my apartment, and across the street from my work, but when I want something, a destination, a creation, something truly unique, or even a milestone in coffee production, where would I go?
Commercial Drive, also known as “The Drive”, is located way down in the east side of Vancouver – past the scary part of course. This neighbourhood, or “stretch” is well known for its sense of community, great shopping, unique restaurants, and even better coffee shops. Basically it’s where the avid caffeine junkie finally has a heart-attack.
One blindingly snow-white afternoon in Vancouver, I decided to create a coffee tour of my own. What better person to take than my father, the hot chocolate lover. Like coffee, hot chocolate is the most popular hot beverage consumed at a coffee shop for those that “just aren’t into coffee”. The only thing that could possibly stand in our way was the 2 feet of snow on the roads and sidewalks…
As we set out from Yaletown, were realized that neither one of us really knew how far Commercial Drive really was. Through Chinatown, through neighbourhoods off Pender, across Venables – low and behold, one hour of walking later, stood our destination. To our advantage, right at the corner was our first stop, “Uprising Breads Bakery”. Inside, the happy shop-keep brew an espresso for me, and a hot chocolate for my father. Delightful, we sat, ate a chocolate croissant and morning glory muffin (all made on premises) and started writing notes. The bakery itself, bright yellow and red, was a bit of a dump. But the satisfying snack made up for the appearance. At the cashier station, a sign reads, “we use only organically grown fairly traded locally roasted coffee”. Amiel, the barista, gave me his top 5 coffee shops on Commercial Drive – I happily accepted!
We pass by Bump and Grind, Cafe Nepoli, and several Starbucks.
Next, at Charles and Commercial, is “Turk’s”. Outside, a congregation of new age hippies, and cigarette smoking students over populate the patio tables, and block the doorway. Upon entering, I am immediately taken back to a memory from the Grasshopper in Amsterdam – well known for it’s solicitation and consumption of weed – fun times. However, I was on the official pursuit of caffeine, not THC. It was dark, dingy and reeked of weed. Blasting in the background was the course line to Bob Dylan’s ultimate – “Everybody must get stoned” – seriously? Not today. With a pivot in our steps, we exit Turk’s without liquids, but head up the street.
Next, at the corner of Commercial and E 2nd St we find Continental Coffee. This shop was recommended by Amiel, but more importantly, it was recommended by my coffee enthusiast colleague, Rob Kent as having the best espresso. Tart, mouth-coating espresso – that’s what I got – it was well made, and you could really tell the quality of the beans. My accomplice was overly satisfied with his second HC of the day as well. The shop itself does not play music, only the sounds of grinders, talking, and “hub-bub”; it was kinda nice. A large mural depicting people and “donkeys” working on a plantation cover the walls. The staff was passionate, and sold me on a 100g of Organic Peruvian Dark Roast – “so strong it’s like alcohol” remarks one of the baristas; Johnny will enjoy this tomorrow morning in place of his Cafe Verona. I take notice of their signature bean-blend, Champagne Blend – fair trade, organic, medium roast – I will come back another time for this.
Lastly, we reach JJ Bean’s. It’s rustic, with a huge line up. At this point, I am shaking, and Dad has consumed too much milk. We move through the line fast. We are able to stand at the coffee bar and chat with our barista – lively and energetic – about their coffee company. Graciously, the barista offers a glass of water with my espresso. He tells me a little about the company – they’re very passionate. The espresso is the best one I have had so far – in my life. Wow. I have had a lot of espresso too. This had the perfect amount of crèma, nuttiness, it was rich and velvety – no bitterness – just natural sweetness. Our barista also told us that he came in 3rd place at the Vancouver Coffee Arts competition – where skilled baristas compete with one another – accuracy, speed, quality, and my favourite – latte art. Well, he did provide my father with a well illustrated feather on the top of his hot chocolate made entirely from foamed milk.
A day fit for a sleepy, nocturnal worker – ended at the skytrain, a chair, and a nap.