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Geeking out on coffee with ecologyst's Ben Royles

Clothing store formerly known as Sitka now features coffee and toast bar
COFFEE and toast ecologyst on the Village Stroll serves coffee from Bows and Arrows as well as a selection of toast creations made from Ed Tatton's otherwordly organic sourdough. Photo by teresa marshall

In the frenetically paced world of a coffee shop, barista Ben Royles finds his peace in in the precision and craft of latte art.

"Doing the latte art is my little bit of zen," he said. "There are orders going on everywhere, people shouting and you're just there staring into a cup, drawing, and serving the next one and the next one. You just get into a rhythm."

Royles is the head barista at ecologyst, the ethically minded clothing retailer formerly known as Sitka, which recently moved into its permanent digs on the Village Stroll in the former location of David's Tea.

Coinciding with the move is the addition of a coffee and toast bar, serving Bows & Arrows Coffee alongside a selection of gourmet toast made from fluffy, organic sourdough made by baking wizard Ed Tatton at Creekside's BReD shop.

A coffee nerd through and through, Royles cut his teeth at a shop in New Zealand, a country that takes its java seriously.

"Obviously they're the home of the flat white, they love strong coffee, they love good coffee. They don't even consider drip as an option—it doesn't really exist," he said.

Whistler has a ways to go to catch up to Kiwi coffee lovers, or even Vancouver, according to Royles, who said that local coffee drinkers generally hew to two basic styles: a lighter, fruitier roast, or a boldly flavoured dark roast.

"Most people only like one or the other unless they're an espresso connoisseur," he noted.

Even with the so-called "Third Wave" of coffee moving towards a higher-quality product, Royles thinks that, generally speaking, the average consumer doesn't always grasp "how much stuff happens on this side of the counter before they get their latte or flat white."

Coffee-making being more science than art, it's the minute details that turn a good shot of espresso into a great one. Sure, the fancy espresso machines—and ecologyst is armed with one of the best, an Italian-made La Marzocco—eliminate the room for error to a degree, but that's only part of the battle.

"It just lessens the strain on the barista," Royles said of a quality espresso machine. "You still have to know what you're doing, you still have to pay attention to everything. The timing of the individual elements is what makes a big difference, as well as the weight. We use a very accurate grinder that grinds to the nearest hundredth of a second. You program it to grind to that degree of accuracy. But even so, the amount of output you get will vary within about half a gram up or down, because nothing is perfect. So if you're not paying attention to those, even with all this good kit, you can still end up getting an espresso that's not quite right."

Royles teaches his team to eyeball a proper espresso shot before relying too heavily on the machine.

"You get a lot of people who press a button and then turn around to do something else because they assume that all this wonderful, shiny equipment is going to make it perfect. And it will most of the time, but there are times when it slips up," he says. "Humidity, temperature, age of the beans, when they were roasted, everything can change throughout the day, and if you're not paying attention, that's when it can go from perfect to OK to not very good in quite a short amount of time."

ecologyst's move into food and beverage came after it served a more traditional restaurant menu at its Victoria location. Founder Rene Gauthier said he "loved what it brought to the space" and decided on offering two great unifying products at its Whistler shop.

"Bread, similar to coffee, really brings people together and that's been a tradition for hundreds of years," Gauthier said.

The store is using the same approach to its food and beverage offerings as its clothing, working with ethical suppliers like Bows & Arrows out of Victoria, who have made it a point of investing in the coffee bean growers it sources from and getting to know them firsthand.

"They buy the same amount of coffee year in and year out regardless of how good the harvest is. They're actually trying to be a constant in what is increasingly a volatile market," Royles said. "It's this big shift that's happening in the world now where everybody has to be aware of what they're doing and take a bit of consideration into their actions. It's just nice to be a part of a company that puts that first rather than just buying the cheap ingredients, pumping the highest volume and getting the cash in the drawer."

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