Elysian Coffee brews connections closer to the source

Coffee-shop-turned-roaster raises a cup to new Mount Pleasant digs

The skinny wooden table is laid with clusters of glasses, each one numbered. After 30 minutes of mute tasting punctuated by slurping, the conversation starts.

“I’m getting a syrupy, tea-like note to number two.”

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“Yeah, and it’s more expressive than number three, which seems more introverted in comparison.”

“Cool, yeah. What did you think about number four? I thought it had good body but a slight chemical note.”

I’ve crashed the staff tasting at Elysian Coffee. That’s right, coffee. For many, coffee is a useful drink that kick-starts mornings. But to the team at Elysian, coffee is about flavour, quality and pleasure.

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In a city flush with frappuccinos, Elysian Coffee has quietly expanded to three locations. The original cafe opened in 2000. Tucked just off Burrard at Fifth Avenue, it’s still one of the city’s best-kept secrets for great coffee and baked-in-house goodies. In 2008, a second location opened at West Broadway and Ash, and is steadily busy with a stream of office workers and Macbook-clutching hipsters.

On the surface, Elysian looked like any number of bespoke cafes in Vancouver. They bought excellent coffee, brewed it to perfection and sold it with a smile. But in the background, owner Alistair Durie had other plans.

“All coffee comes from somewhere else,” he says. “It doesn’t grow anywhere near here, and so there’s a disconnection between drinking coffee and how it gets to us.”

In 2005, Durie started visiting coffee farms in Africa and South America with the idea that Elysian might start roasting their own coffee. That meant building relationships with producers and exporters, learning how to evaluate green (unroasted) coffee and finding a space in which to do it. In 2012, Elysian switched to using its own coffee, with Durie working in a space on Granville Island.

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But while Elysian had made closer connections to their coffee, there was still work to be done. “A coffee shop couldn’t be more removed from the production of coffee,” says Durie. And that’s where his newest location (2301 Ontario St.) comes in.  

At 1,000 square feet, the newest Elysian is bigger than my apartment. There’s your typical coffee bar and the aforementioned baked goods — the little oat is my favourite. Off to one side, there’s a rainbow of brightly labeled bags of coffee. Adan Silva, Kigeyo, Chelelektu, the labels say. Colombia, Rwanda, Ethiopia.  

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And beyond that, there are the glass windows that show off Elysian’s roasting facility. Green coffee beans are stacked on a pallet and a 25-pound capacity black coffee roaster hunches in the middle of the room. The mere sight of the roaster prompts questions: What is green coffee? How much do you roast at a time? How long does it take?

I ask Durie why he made the jump from cafe owner to coffee roaster. “The boring answer is that you want to be in control of your product from start to finish,” he says. “The more interesting answer is that it’s a hell of a lot more inspiring to be closer to what you love. [At Elysian] we all love coffee and roasting is about the closest we can get to it other than being on a coffee farm.”

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At the other end of the café, there are windows into a narrow room. This is where I joined the Elysian staff to taste coffee, a process called cupping. They gather weekly to train their palates, while the Elysian roasters use it almost daily to evaluate different roasting profiles. While it’s still early days, Durie hopes to offer public cuppings at some point — another step to bring people closer to their coffee.

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