Edmonton roasters lead coffee's fourth wave

By Michelle Ferguson January 18, 2019

Drew McIntosh loves coffee — from diner joe to single-origin, honey-processed pour-overs. He’s been to every café in town in search of the good stuff. While the coffee always satisfies, he’s never quite felt at home in any of these java joints.

Drew McIntosh opened Grizzlar Coffee & Records in fall 2018 with a focus on community involvement (Chris Onciul/EEDC)

In fall 2018, the artist-turned-roaster opened Grizzlar Coffee & Records. Located behind MacEwan University along 109 Street, the café is unlike any in the city. The stickered fridge, mismatched furniture, and accompanying punk tracks (played on an antique Rock-Ola Mystic 478) have more in common with a college dorm than a specialty coffee shop. Hand-drawn posters line the walls of this distinctly punk café, which caters to those who, like McIntosh, have a penchant for independent art and music.

“Coffee needs to be more attached to communities,” McIntosh says. “If everybody can have a roaster and buy coffee and pour latte art, then what actually separates anybody? It’s the style you embody and the community that you represent.”

Some call this community-minded approach the fourth wave of coffee; McIntosh calls it no wave — a riff on the musical genre that followed punk. Just as punk music rejected the perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock, Grizzlar brings a striped-down, no-BS approach to high-quality, fair-trade coffee.

“Making coffee culture punk is about deconstructing the artifice,” McIntosh says in his Ginsberg-like drawl.

(April MacDonald Killins/Supplied)

North American coffee culture has evolved in waves. The first, in the 60s, introduced coffee into the homes and offices of consumers; the second, spurred by companies like Starbucks, brought higher quality coffee and espresso drinks to the masses; the third treats coffee less like a commodity and more like wine — uncovering unique tasting notes through a variety of brewing, roasting and processing methods.

Along with a focus on serving delicious coffee (that needs not be drowned in milk and sugar to become palatable), came a commitment to improve socio-economic and environmental conditions down the supply chain. With third wave, the terms fair trade and direct trade became part of the collective coffee consciousness. Unfortunately, so did hipster baristas obsessed with shot times, tamp dialing and shaming you for adding creamer.

“As the focus on quality ramped up, [third wave] lost that customer service aspect,” Transcend Coffee founder Poul Mark says. “We’ve been accused of it a lot: Transcend is this hipster, snobbish … place — where they tell you how to drink your coffee and if you’re drinking [it] wrong.”

While he admits the criticism was fair a decade ago, Mark and other independent roasters have been working hard to overcome this reputation, so that specialty coffee can gain a larger foothold in the Edmonton market.

Coffee is big business; in Canada alone, the industry is worth $6.2 billion. Two thirds of Canadian adults enjoy at least one cup of coffee a day, and more and more are turning to specialty brews prepared out of home for their fix.

According to Silver Chef’s State of the Coffee Industry Report 2017, the growth in the value of the Canadian coffee market — up 17 per cent in 2015, despite only a five per cent increase in volume — is due to the shift to premium coffee.

It would be better for the industry if we all acted as a bridge between the regular consumer and specialty coffee,

Santiago Lopez, The Colombian Coffee and Roastery

The biggest thing standing in specialty coffee’s way? Itself. The same report indicated that hospitality remained the industry’s biggest challenge, stating that customer service was “perhaps the most important way to create relevance for all companies in 2017.”

Santiago Lopez and Kristin Panylyk de Lopez, of The Colombian Coffee and Roastery, certainly believe this is the way forward. Their goal is to be “the friendliest coffee shop” in town.

“I tell everybody here that the best coffee is the way [the customer] likes it,” Santiago says.

The way he sees it, conversations about tasting notes or the crop-to-cup process can happen later — once a relationship has been built.

“It would be better for the industry if we all acted as a bridge between the regular consumer and specialty coffee,” Santiago says. “Then we’re slowly converting more people into the specialty industry and, in turn, growing our sales and the industry as well.”

Mark couldn’t agree more. A decade since introducing Edmonton to single-origin coffee, he’s overhauling his approach to consumer education. “We made the assumption we had to educate the marketplace,” he says. “That often comes across as being pushy and snobbish.” The plan is to convert the Ritchie Market roasting room into a slow bar where consumers can learn more about different preparation methods — if they so choose.

“It’s not about education, but about providing access and opportunities to experience coffee in a different way,” Mark says of the concept.

“That’s the challenge,” he adds. “There isn’t enough opportunity in Edmonton to experience something different.”

One needs only look at the growth of independent roasters like The Colombian and Rogue Wave Coffee Co. to see Edmontonians are thirsty for these opportunities. Santiago and Kristin sped up their five-year plan and opened a café in Glenora in spring 2018 (only a year after they began roasting.) Dave Laville and Dave Walsh, meanwhile, had no intention of growing their nano-roaster, Rogue Wave — more interested in craftsmanship than the business side of things. Four years later, the pair owns a café near the aviation museum and has partnered with the newly minted Drunken Ox Sober Cat to develop its coffee program.

When we thought about opening a [roasting] business 20 years ago, people would always say ‘What about Starbucks?’” Laville says. “Now, people are much more willing to take a chance and try something local or interesting.”

(Chris Onciul/EEDC)

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