The Third Wave

Edmonton’s independent coffee scene is brewing, but is there room to grow?

photography by Mitch Coulter

The world knows Canadians love their coffee – as long as it comes in a Tim Hortons cup. It’s a stereotype born out of long lineups and a cult following for the iconic Canadian chain. But despite the collection of Tim Hortons, Starbucks and Second Cup franchises on Edmonton streets, there’s an independent coffee scene percolating here, bringing the third-wave coffee trend to the masses.

Chances are, you’re familiar with third wave, but just didn’t know it. Peter West, co-owner of Coffee Bureau on Jasper Avenue, explains: “There’s your first wave, the schmucky diner ‘joe;’ the second wave, which is Second Cup and Starbucks, let people know that coffee could be more of a premium product; and then the third wave is appreciating coffee like someone appreciates a fine wine. And this is the flavour of the month in the industry.”

Simply put, it’s treating coffee with an artisanal culinary appreciation rather than like a commodity. This is the scene where terms such as “direct trade,” “micro-roasting” and “single origin” are bandied about to describe the processes and origins of the specialty coffees being prepared for your morning fix. Even if the beans are the same, the coffees are as different as the techniques used to make them – roasting, grinding and preparation. It is found in the places where latt art and alternative coffee preparation methods, such as pour-over or “slow coffee,” are commonplace. It is found where the barista likely knows as much about coffee as a micro-brewer would know about beer.

Given the surge in the popularity of artisanal and specialty coffees over the last decade, it’s no surprise Edmonton is seeing a growth in independent coffee shops like West’s.

Signs of the rise of third-wave coffee are most apparent downtown. Artisanal coffee bars such as Credo and Transcend Coffee Mercer on 104th Street are at the heart of what is now unofficially known as Edmonton’s coffee district. Remedy Cafe and two of Edmonton’s newest additions, Lock Stock Coffee and West’s Coffee Bureau, round out the district, firmly stationed along Jasper Avenue.

According to West, he chose to open his coffee bar along Jasper when he saw that offices and pedestrians in the immediate vicinity were vastly underserved. “Four years ago in Edmonton, it was only Elm [Caf] that had that third-wave-ish feeling. It was the only third-wave espresso in the city, really, other than Credo, obviously. It was very limited.”  When ACE Coffee Roasters, a local company, released beans that West helped develop, he saw the opportunity he was waiting for. He signed the lease for a small 10-seat place, and focused on “making coffee that tastes good – that’s it. Then we call it a day.”

Sal Di Maio, co-owner of Lock Stock Coffee, was inspired by the third-wave coffee culture he saw in Australia there last year. “I saw these really great coffee shops and they were closing at, like, 2 or 3 p.m. I saw that and wondered why we couldn’t do that here at home. I mean, so many people stop drinking coffee around one or two in the afternoon.”

Expanding Empires

Elm’s brand of cafes has expanded to include Burrow, District Coffee Co. and Little Brick, each with its own unique concept and coffee selections. The indie coffee shops spread further outward still, as Credo recently expanded to a 124th Street location, only a few blocks from a new Remedy location and Barking Buffalo Cafe. Meanwhile, Transcend is planning a fourth location in the Ritchie Market, slated to open next year.

Back on Jasper Avenue, both West and Di Maio maintain that there is no need to worry about saturation in the market, despite rumblings of another new coffee shop opening nearby. “Geoff [Linden] started this with Credo 104 six years ago. He’s like the godfather of coffee downtown,” says Di Maio. “But I think there’s room for all of us and that we all share that feeling. The more independents, the less chains, the better.” 

He adds that, since all the coffee shops do something a little different – whether it be Italian-style or European roasts, or using different roasters’ beans – it’s hard to view one another as competition. “Some are takeaway, some are cosier sit-ins, some are close to the market. So there’s not a lot of crossover,” says Di Maio. “And we all serve different coffee.”

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