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Whistler’s coffee culture: a glass half full?

Spilling the beans on the local caffeine scene

Whistler, as a collective, multicultural rendezvous of worldly pilgrims, offers a unique, yet highly dynamic ebb and flow of people. Historically, the area has been a place of meeting since the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations gathered together to celebrate and share their cultures. To this day, Whistler continues to offer a special place of gathering, shared territory, and global connection. And what better place to come together and collaborate than the gratifying space of a local coffee shop?

This comforting coffee shop camaraderie was what I searched for as I first meandered around Whistler’s Village Stroll. In a disorderly state of traveller’s nirvana after nearly 20 hours of international travel, coffee was the only thing that felt rightly ritualistic. As a seemingly comforting adventure, coffee allows the adventurer to search for a cup of familiarity in a place unfamiliar to them. The search for a good coffee shop in an unknown locale can be an exciting (yet sometimes disappointing) venture. 

Coming from the Australasian biographical realm of strong, archetypal, predictable coffee, my first sip of Canadian coffee evoked many nuanced flavour profiles and questions. What kind of coffee language did they speak here? What characteristics constituted the perfect cup of Canadian coffee? 

As I continued to ponder over my morning cup, I had to ask myself—was Whistler’s coffee culture a cup half full, or half empty? Does the resort boast a culture all its own? Or is indicative of the broader Canadian coffee conundrum? Although these questions may seem attenuated, they are overly ambiguous, as coffee is much more than just a cup of caffeine—it is a cup full of political, social, environmental, and cultural matters. 

Coffee culture here in British Columbia

For many, coffee is an almost religious practice—a habitual, communal, eternal love. Today, in the 21st century, you could say coffee has become almost primal; a means to adequate functioning in an overbearingly stimulated, rambunctious world. Here in the mountainous geographical landscape of beautiful British Columbia, coffee is a means to a day of multitudinous activities. Whether it is in between runs in the bike park, on hiking trails, or ski runs, coffee continues to be a proximate cause for vivid connections here in Whistler, as coffee communicates an underlying sense of correspondence, of unspoken understanding in a town full of different dialects and cultures. Although coffee is a universal language, it carries its own peculiarities, eccentricities, and idiosyncrasies. These subtle differences—whether the coffee is served black or with milk or called a latte or flat white—not only range from city to city around the world, but from one coffee shop to the next here in Whistler.  

Whistler, in all its grandiosity, prioritizes the big, which is why it sometimes lacks the small, meticulously crafted coffee culture—at least on the surface. This apparent lack of crafted coffee is what Mat Peake and Chrissy Hay, owners of Hammer Coffee Roasting, saw almost 10 years ago when they first started to roast their own coffee in Whistler. 

“We started roasting back in Australia about 15 years ago… then when we moved to Whistler we were dying for a great cup of coffee, and we couldn’t find one,” says Peake. “And so we started a little coffee club in Alpine, roasting in the backyard and facilitating the five customers we had at the time.”

Unconsciously influenced by their coffee experiences in Melbourne, Peake and Hay acknowledge that the Australian coffee culture is particularly special to them, and has been incorporated into the chosen caramel and chocolate notes they roast into their own coffee. “In terms of roasting, the industry standard in North America is to roast light, bright, acidic coffee. Whereas we try to roast more of an Italian-style coffee—which is a more common style here in British Columbia,” explains Hay. 

Although the Hammer Roasting duo focus on a specific roast that is bold—a medium to dark style—Peake and Hay like to be creative when it comes to crafting a colourful coffee palate. “When you remain playful within your own coffee experience, it can be really rewarding after a long time,” says Peake. “However, consistency is important, as coffee drinkers are pretty habitual. We have had people who have been buying the same coffee off us for six years. They buy it week in and week out—and they love it!” 

Operating with a fundamentally bespoke approach to coffee roasting, Peake and Hay roast to order. “We don’t want any waste. And so I wait for all the orders to come in and then I roast like a mad woman,” says Hay. “Anything extra we give to the food bank.” 

For the two Whistler-based coffee roasters, opening a café in Whistler was not in their vision, as the ever-changing staff would affect the consistency, taste, and precision of their coffee. “Instead, we chose to deliver our freshly roasted coffee right to people’s doors and let them have good quality coffee at home,” says Peake. 

Both lovers of the outdoors and mad mountain bikers, Peake and Hay believe in creating a supportive, community-centric coffee when it comes to Hammer—offering locals discounts and backing local organizations like the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association. “Our biggest mission with Hammer is to make sure those who have lived in Whistler for a long time and have made Whistler what it is today have continual access to good-quality, locally roasted coffee that is delicious,” says Hay. “Coffee is a daily ritual that I think everyone should have. It is this mysterious drink that makes everyone want to sit around and talk about things. It makes people stop.” 

Despite the sometimes-difficult operating environment, the two feel extremely privileged to have Whistler right outside their window. In their sun-lit space located in Function Junction, Peake and Hay roast with sparks of optimism. “Every time we turn the roaster on, we are slowly but surely changing the coffee culture in Whistler. It is all about slow growth,” says Peake. 

“The coffee industry is massive, and so there is always something to learn. There is always a different region to roast, always something new on the market… but at the end of the day, it comes down to that cup; trying to operate outside of the fads and come down to that great cup of coffee in the morning. I think if you keep going back to that, you will be fine.”

Slowing down the Canadian coffee culture 

Although Canadian coffee culture lacks the coffee-drinking effervescence that many other countries seem to encompass, the average Canadian coffee drinker consumes about 14 pounds of coffee per year, according to various websites, like coffeeaffection.com—good enough for 10th place in the world’s top-10 list of coffee-drinking nations. Essentially, coffee in Canada is often about quantity over quality, as mega-franchised coffee drinking remains a fundamental way of life for many Canadians. Currently, there are about 4,000 Tim Hortons restaurants in Canada—nearly one for every 10,000 Canadians. According to statistics, the majority of Canadians drink their coffee in the comfort of their homes, with Tim Hortons being the most popular brand to brew. 

For the smaller, crafted coffee shops here in Whistler, making the effort to resist these North American superfluities and instead handle coffee with care is what it is all about. Over a lovely cup of hand-crafted coffee, Dakota MacDonald, manager and barista at Whistler’s ecologyst Café, expresses how she sees a certain Canadian coffee culture that prioritizes a quick caffeine fix, rather than a slow-paced, catch-up culture. 

“A lot of people are in a rush and want things fast, so not a lot of care goes into things—unfortunately, coffee is one of those things,” says MacDonald. 

“But coffee needs to be careful and patient, as precision is what makes coffee taste that much better.” 

At ecologyst, MacDonald manages a range of baristas who come from all kinds of continents and coffee understandings. “Whether you are training someone from Ontario or training someone from Australia—their perspective on coffee is completely different,” she explains. “Here in Canada, it feels as though the perspective on coffee is that as long as there is caffeine in it, it is good. But coffee is far more complicated than that. You need to make sure it is at the right temperature and the right pressure so you can get the emulsified oils out. You also need to be careful not to over-extract or under-extract it.” 

In contrast to Canada, in places like Sweden and other Nordic countries, coffee exists more as a concept, rather than a caffeinated drink. Fika, in Swedish custom, translates roughly as a “break from activity in which people drink coffee, eat sweet treats, and relax with others.” The slow-paced coffee culture that inhabits countries beyond Canada seems to grasp the value of coffee-drinking in its simplest form—a culture in which coffee is viewed as essential and habitual, yet careful and conscientious. There is a quote by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish that beautifully articulates the art of coffee drinking: “Coffee should not be drunk in a hurry. It is the sister of time and should be sipped slowly, slowly. Coffee is the sound of taste, a sound for the aroma. It is the meditation and a plunge into memories and the soul.” 

For MacDonald, coffee represents a feeling of comfort. “Especially when you move to a different country, the first thing you gravitate towards is something mundane—something normal and routine, something that reminds you of home. For many, that something is coffee,” she says. When asked what she believes goes into making the perfect cup of coffee, MacDonald’s answer is simple: “love and care.” 

“As a barista, it is important to understand the weight of a cup of coffee, as you are gifting someone their favourite part of the day or a little piece of home,” she says. 

In terms of the barriers she faces as a coffee shop manager here in Whistler, MacDonald feels transiency is at the forefront. Although being able to make connections from all over the world has its blessings, MacDonald points out that “when the baristas change, or we get new staff, the coffee changes with it. But transiency is just a part of Whistler and is something business owners must grow accustomed to.” 

The trade of transiency 

Alternatively to MacDonald, Chris Ankeny, owner and founder of Mount Currie Coffee Company, views Whistler’s ever-changing diversity in a positive light, as he describes Whistler as “a melting pot of a melting pot of people from all over the world seeking adventure.” Ankeny believes the different cultural backgrounds of the baristas at Mount Currie Coffee to be a huge benefit to the overall charisma of the café, as “all employees bring little bits of their culture and share their perspective on coffee making and good coffee service.” 

Although Whistler is known as a town of vivid tourism, Ankeny takes pride in the idea of “small-town spirit,” and operates both his Pemberton and Whistler stores on the basis of community and meaningful connection. Mount Currie Coffee Co. makes the regular effort to support initiatives and programs around Whistler that combine both the love of mountain biking and winter adventures. “That connection of community and adventure is what attracts people to the livelihood of the town and keeps them stoked,” says Ankeny. Although described by Ankeny as a “simple pleasure” and “a little cup of happiness,” he believes many things go into making a great cup of coffee. “From sourcing the right beans, to grinding them correctly, paying close attention to your extractions, and steaming the milk… it is a whole art form that is hard to nail. But when a barista can execute all of this with a smile—it is really a thing of beauty,” he says.

Since Mount Currie Coffee Co. first established itself back in 2007, Ankeny has seen continual growth in craft coffee and quality cafés in Whistler. “I feel that the more quality coffee, the better, as it raises everyone’s standards and forces us all to try harder and execute good coffee,” says Ankeny. “In terms of ethics, there has been a big shift to a much more sustainable future. Here at MCCC, we are continuing to use ethically sourced coffee that supports farmers who are putting a ton of effort into growing the best-tasting coffee.” Ankeny adds that he “hopes to see a shift away from single-use paper cups. That is definitely a habit that we need to change as a culture. It’s all more expensive, but it’s the right thing to do.” 

In terms of Whistler’s coffee evolution, Ankeny hopes the future looks like “one in which craft coffee culture continues to blossom and where smaller, independent cafés outnumber the big chains.” 

The harmony between coffee and climate crisis 

According to the British Coffee Association, humanity consumes about 2 billion cups  worldwide every day. Just like many other forms of modern consumerism, coffee production and consumption have had to attune to the climate crisis at hand. Arabica—the world’s favourite coffee plant variety, as an essentially cool, flowering plant—is currently suffering under today’s accelerated climate change. And so, as we approach the middle of the century, world coffee specialists are looking into alternative coffee plant species that can withstand higher temperatures and lower rainfall, but also still provide the consumer the experience they expect from coffee. This balance between climate consciousness and consumer satisfaction is what many Whistler and wider B.C. coffee roasters are trying to execute, including Tyler McNeil, local owner and roaster at Slopeside Coffee Roasting Company. 

Under a rain-drenched marquee set up at the Whistler Farmers’ Market, McNeil explains how he works to form a reciprocal relationship when it comes to coffee—roasting to order in small batches to harmoniously reduce waste and allow for prime freshness. “I sell my coffee online and do free delivery within Whistler. Sometimes it takes a few extra days because I want it to be fresh as possible,” he says. Unlike most coffee roasting machines that require gas or propane, McNeil uses a fluid bed roasting process that requires only electricity and air to roast the coffee. “The roaster I use is electric—which in British Columbia, is almost entirely renewable,” he says.

With the third-wave coffee evolution bringing swells of execution and sourcing transparency, the modern world of craft coffee requires a certain level of camaraderie between growers, producers, and consumers. Right now, McNeil works with an importer down in Delta, where they manage the sourcing of the beans. “In terms of sourcing, ideally the best way to get ethical beans is to order directly from the farmers. But being so small I just can’t do that yet,” McNeil explains. “Eventually, I would love to get to a level where I can go straight to the farm, meet the farmers, see their farming practices and develop a one-on-one relationship.”

McNeil had a humble coffee upbringing, specialty coffee being something he has only gotten into in the past four years. “Coming from a small town in Ontario, you either had Tim Hortons or McDonald’s,” he explains. “So when I went to Australia, I remember they asked me what kind of coffee I wanted… and I was like, ‘Oh, there are different types of coffee?’ I didn’t know there was anything more than drip!” 

McNeil was impressed by the Australian coffee culture, and felt as though that culture was slowly starting to pick up back home. When asked what coffee represents to him here in Whistler, McNeil paints a rather encapsulated picture: “I imagine it being 5:30 a.m. on a cold powder day… you go get a hot coffee and wait in line for two hours to get fresh tracks.” 

Unfortunately, the business matrix for many Whistler coffee crafters appears to operate on the common basis of conflict; the fight against big investors coming in and buying up real estate to create more homogenous hospitality. Due to not being able to find an affordable place to roast here in Whistler, McNeil continues to roast out of a communal kitchen in Squamish. “It is a lot of driving… but I make the most of the space and time. I drive down to Squamish and I roast till I pass out,” he says.

Coming back to community 

After these open-ended discussions with Whistler’s local coffee connoisseurs, it appeared that the unique operating environment here in Whistler meant the navigation of common coffee barriers—affordability, transiency, and a decent space to operate. As Whistler remains an abundant outdoor enterprise; a place where everyone has a PhD in adventure and activities, it renders an enigmatic coffee culture. But despite its grandiosity, it is these local coffee vanguards—roasters, baristas, and shop owners—who remind us that it is the smaller-scale mechanisms that give Whistler its livelihood. 

Evidentially, the variables that constitute a great cup of coffee are endless. Although a small measurement of liquid, a cup of coffee requires a massive amount of global, domestic, and community-based coordination. This community-based collaboration is what is set to help Whistler nourish a much more vibrant coffee culture—one in which the glass is always half full! 

Whether a destination or a vacation, Whistler will always be a place of inherent connection. Coffee, alongside it, will always be a form of communion and togetherness. As winter is upon us, it is the time to come together over coffee, to pause in between life’s constant doings and relish in nature’s surroundings.  

As Mahmoud Darwish puts into poetry: “Coffee is the morning silence, early and unhurried, the only silence in which you can be at peace with self and things… therefore, coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul. And it is the enchantress that reveals whatever secrets the day will bring.”

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