Café culture jolts the North

🕔Dec 04, 2006

Coffee is not new to the North. This stimulating drink fueled the railroad crews that laid the ties for the Grand Trunk Railroad, hand-loggers who felled trees for the local mills, and the deck hands on board the paddle-wheelers that made their way up the Skeena and the Fraser.

But while northerners have long been imbibing the bitter brew, cafe culture is a relatively new phenomenon.

We’re not talking here about the big coffee chains, such as Tim’s and Starbucks—which, admittedly, support a culture of sorts. Nor are we talking about the diner-style, mom-and-pop café where you can get a cheap cup of coffee with unlimited refills thrown in for free (not to mention the obligatory slice of pie).

We’re talking about the coffee emporium. The place in which one finds people obsessed with the art of creating both great coffee and the ultimate atmosphere for brooding over a steaming mug for hours on end. It’s a café culture imported from Europe, where they’ve had enough centuries of so-called civilization to learn how to sit back and just chill.

Word has it that this brand of café culture has found its way to northern BC. We recently set out on a tour by car, train and telephone to root out the best of the North’s budding café culture.

Here’s what we found.

Prince George

We begin our coffee journey in Prince George, BC’s self-proclaimed “Capital of the North.” With three pulp-mills to its name, and Ford F350s outnumbering Honda Civics five to one, it’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find an artsy little coffee spot.

So you might be surprised to stumble upon Café Voltaire. Located in a brightly painted building on Third Avenue, Voltaire shares space with Books and Company, the city’s largest independent bookstore. Think of a smaller, friendlier version of the Chapters-Starbucks phenomenon that put the bookstore-café combo on the map, and you’ll get the idea.

Books and Co.’s coffee shop boasts great coffee and some good food to boot. The décor at Voltaire is bright and lively and interspersed among the scattered café tables are some provocative metal sculptures by a local artist.

Voltaire, the philosopher (1694-1778), was known for his witty defense of civil liberties.
It’s something to think about when you buy your Saturday Globe and Mail—or a book about building rock gardens—a mere 20 feet from the spot where you pick up your macchiato. Now that’s a liberty worth defending.

Friday nights, Voltaire is open late and, with a small stage and a piano on the floor, often hosts local musical acts.

While you’re in Prince George, also check out Kizmet Café on South Tabor Plaza, and Zoe’s Java House on 4th Avenue.


As one would expect from a little blue-collar mountain ski town, Smithers has more than its share of coffee spots. Kokopelli’s, Java’s, the Iron Horse Café, and Schimmels Bakery all offer caffeinated fare within walking distance of pretty much anywhere in Smithers’ quaint downtown.

Of these, the most venerable is Schimmels, on Main Street, which recently received a facelift thanks to new owner Lisa Brackenhofer. When she took over, Brackenhofer switched the house coffee to Hazelton-roasted Mercedes Beans (see below). She still brews a pot of more traditional bean for those seeking economy and the ability to drink upwards of 10 cups per sitting. Besides coffee, one can also choose from the wide assortment of famous baked goods—from lemon bars to vanilla slices and strawberry tarts. Yum!

There’s some fine bean at Schimmels, but some locals argue the best espresso drips from the machine at Mountain Eagle Books on Third Avenue, where Janet Walford and company pump out the brew for an eclectic tribe of regulars.

“She uses Italian coffee called Lavazza,” gushes Facundo Gastiazoro, originally from Argentina and a regular of Janet’s. “Lavazza is a big company, but the taste of the coffee is nice, creamy. You can actually ask how you like your coffee and Janet will remember. Coffee is not just a press-a-button kind of thing – it needs good water, and someone who knows how to press the coffee.”

While at Mountain Eagle, you can browse new and second-hand books (“we are no longer accepting books,” proclaims a sign when the shelves are over-full). The small store also carries imported jewelry, CDs from the folk circuit, and a variety of exotic gifts. Janet doubles as the den-mother of the Bulkley Valley’s vibrant folk-music scene; she knows most of what’s going on locally, and if there’s a show coming up in Smithers you can buy your tickets here.

The Hazeltons

A 45-minute drive from Smithers, Old Hazelton is the next stop on our caffeinated pilgrimage. Here, on Old Hazelton’s historic Omineca Street, nestled in amongst the colorful restored buildings, we find Mercedes Beans and Model Teas, a five-year-old “micro custom roaster” owned and operated by Belinda Steinbeisser.

You may not find any German mechanics, but as Mercedes’ pun-packed moniker suggests, this place is serious about quality.

“Our philosophy is to bring quality products to northerners. Why should we settle for second best when we can have as many wonderful things as cosmopolitan people?” Steinbeisser asks, rhetorically.

Mercedes uses a fluid air roaster, a type of electric roaster that is more expensive than gas-fired drum roasters but produces better coffee. Steinbeisser explains that this is because the beans’ chaff (skins) are removed from the roasting environment, instead of burning up and infusing the beans with a burnt flavour.

Her “quality first” philosophy seems to be working. “When we started this up, people from around here always brought coffee home from their travels,” she says. “Now they take our coffee away with them when they travel.”

Mercedes roasts beans from all over the world, specializing in organic and fair-trade varieties. Its Hazelton store also sells what Steinbeisser claims is the best tea selection north of Vancouver, including 20 flavours of rooibos tea. In the summer you can enjoy your roobios, or freshly roasted coffee, in Mercedes’ outdoor tea garden.


What do you do when you have a penchant for big-city coffee culture and find yourself transplanted to Terrace? Erin Griffiths bought a coffee shop named Hava Java and turned it into The Artful Cup—an oasis of urban coffee culture in downtown Terrace that wouldn’t be out of place in Vancouver or Seattle.

“We’re trying to reach out to the artistic community that’s here,” says Artful’s Victoria-born manager Chris Parent, who adds, “We’re kinda’ the lefty coffee shop.”

A year ago, the Artful Cup moved four doors down from its former, smaller location on Lakelse Avenue. The larger venue makes it better suited to the open-mic nights, bands, and poetry readings that are the backbone of Artful’s effort to help kick-start the Terrace arts community.

The Artful Cup carries the distinction of being the only coffee shop in the North that uses Illy—an Italian brand of premium coffee known both for its taste and its association with modern art and design (Fernando Illy invented the automatic espresso machine in 1904).

“We have Italian fishermen come in and say ‘when you come to Terrace to fish, you come to Artful Cup for coffee,’” boasts Parent.

While Artful’s patrons are listening to Arcade Fire on their ipods, a slightly different crowd is talking about last night’s episode of CBC Radio’s Ideas while sipping their freshly roasted brew at Cafenara. (In fact, Cafenara is so popular with the CBC crowd that Daybreak North once broadcast live from within its walls.)

Located on Lazelle Avenue, this cozy spot’s claim to fame is fresh, fair-trade, organic bean roasted on-site by owner Sonny Yoo.

“When you roast your own coffee, it’s very different,” said Yoo in a recent telephone conversation. “Some people may not like it at first, but that’s because they are used to coffee that is not so fresh.”

Cafenara’s other claim to fame is its tasty lunch, which features sushi, sandwiches and baked desserts, all made on site daily. You can find it in the Lakelse mini-mall, close to Northern Credit Savings.

Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert’s coffee culture epicenter is Cowpuccinos. It’s located in a funky, red-roofed building in the heart of Cow Bay, the city’s tourist quarter named after a historic waterfront slaughterhouse.

Cow Bay has been transformed in the black and white pattern of its eponymous bovine, and Cowpuccinos is its piece de resistance. The black-on-white cow spots are everywhere—on the garbage cans, on the signs—and even on the light posts.

When we visited, it was October and the last cruise ship had left Rupert’s port several weeks previous. During cruise ship season, Cow Bay is reportedly packed with people (each ship holds up to 3,000 travelers), but in the off-season it’s mostly locals and a handful of hardy travelers.

Inside, Cowpuccinos has a laid-back atmosphere. There are two couches in the corner, a rough wood-plank floor, and a collage of cow postcards adorning the walls. The door opens and closes regularly, giving way to a stream of locals dressed in Helly Hansen raingear. The baristi pour some pretty decent bean, and its legendary muffins are huge and tasty.

If you have something against cows, or desperately need to check your email, head up-town to JavaDotCup on Third Avenue, which bills itself as Prince Rupert’s “only true Internet café.” (This begs the question of what an Internet café imposter would look like….but I digress).

JavaDotCup is a bigger venue than Cowpuccinos, but still retains a casual and comfortable atmosphere. This place is open until 10pm and, with more than a dozen computer terminals, a good selection of food and (of course) coffee, it is a good choice for all-day or late-night web and caffeine binges.

More to discover

Of course, the North has many more coffee shops worth discovering. In McBride there is the Beanery 2, an eclectic café in the town’s renovated train station. Houston is home to Brewsters, another great coffee stop between Prince George and Smithers. If your travels take you to Kitimat, you can enjoy Doch’s Coffee Bar. On Haida Gwaii, Massett is home to Haida Bucks Lounge, the small coffee stop made famous by its legal battle with a certain global coffee giant over trademark infringement.

From Cowpuccinos to the Artful Cup, coffee culture in the North has come a long way. It may not yet be as slick as the big-city purveyors, but perhaps that’s for the better. What it does promise is great coffee, great people, and great atmosphere. Once you’ve drained your latte, you can get outside and explore Northwest BC’s spectacular landscape. What Vancouver café offers that?

Contact info

Mercedes Beans and Model Teas
1625 Omineca St., Hazelton
phone: 1-877-848-6667

Cowpuccino’s Coffee House
25 Cow Bay Road, Prince Rupert
(250) 627-1395

516 3rd Ave West, Prince Rupert
Telephone: (250) 622-2822

Cafenara Coffee House
108-4716 Lazelle Avenue, Terrace
(250) 638-1662

Café Voltaire
1685 3rd Avenue, Prince George
Phone: 250-563-6637

Schimmels Bakery
1172 Main Street, Smithers
Phone: (250) 847-9044

Mountain Eagle Books
3775 3rd Ave, Smithers
Phone: (250)847-5245