In Edmonton, the most northern major center in North America, a good cup of coffee is an important thing to be able to hunt down. The city is young, working-class, and entrepreneurial, with close ties to the oil industry and the longest average work week in Canada. In winter, the temperature rarely gets above freezing, and in the summer, the daylight feels endless—both perfect environments for coffee. Ideally, it tastes good too.
In recent years, Edmonton has experienced a boom in its food and drink scene. Coffee has moved beyond the ubiquitous Tim Hortons “double-double” and the number of quality-driven cafes now in operation makes it easy to find great coffee all over the city. These shops serve a wide range of Canadian and international roasters, but Edmonton is also home to several roasteries of its own. Working at one of these roastery-cafes myself (shoutout to Iconoclast Coffee!), I’ve had the privilege of seeing small business owners, rig workers, artists, young parents, municipal politicians, students, construction workers, clergy, and professionals of all kinds engaging with each other over espresso and vanilla lattes.
As in most cities, coffee in Edmonton plays an important role in community development and interaction, and good coffee seems to bring good people together. These local cafes not only serve up delicious brews, they serve as lively meeting places. Here’s some of my favorites.
Transcend was probably Edmonton’s first taste of Third Wave coffee, and today it’s still a staple of the cafe circuit. The company operates a roastery which produces lighter roasts of single-origin coffee for wholesale as well as for use in its three cafes. Transcend is home of former Canadian Barista Champion Josh Hockin and also roasted the competition coffee for reigning champion Ben Put.
In typical Edmonton fashion, its original shop is on an industrial strip in the Argyll area; in this cozy cafe, you can talk to your barista from just about any seat, though it’s a lifesaver if you find yourself far from one of the artsier cafe districts and need coffee to go.
Transcend also has a cafe in Garneau, a few blocks from the University of Alberta. Naturally, you’ll usually find it full of students camping out with their books and laptops. It’s also a good place to meet for coffee after a run in the river valley or before catching a show at the Metro Cinema next door, and there’s a significant contingent who work it into their Saturday morning farmers market routine.
You’ll find the downtown location in the basement of the historic Mercer building, which also houses a barber across the hallway, and a florist, tavern, and bistro upstairs.
All three locations serve espresso drinks and coffee brewed on Clover machines—the only Clovers in the city, and some of very few in use in Canada. If you’re not in the mood for brewed coffee, get a “comp capp” (competition cappuccino): a single espresso and a single cappuccino served together. It was a Transcend institution even before Hockin won the 2011 Canadian Barista Championship, and it’s one of the best ways to appreciate an espresso’s unique profile.
Though technically a sandwich shop, Farrow is the only cafe in Edmonton dedicated to pour-over coffee—and they do it right. Just a few blocks down from Transcend Garneau, the tiny space serves a rotating selection of up to ten different roasters, which on a recent visit included Heart, Parlor, Stumptown, Madcap, Flat Track, Kuma, Bows & Arrows, Matchstick, and Anchored. Curating this selection is serious business, according to manager Justin Benson, who tells me, “We will not offer a coffee for retail sale or have it on the pour-over bar unless our entire coffee staff (four people) agree it deserves to be there.” Farrow brews their “slow coffee” using a variety of methods—V60, Chemex, syphon, AeroPress—and they also offer “fast coffee,” batch brewed in a FETCO. It’s hard to go wrong with any of the pour-over options, but during the summer, the sweet, molasses-y cold brew on tap is almost impossible to resist. (And if you’re hungry, Avenue Magazine recently declared that the best thing to eat in the city is the shop’s “grick middle,” featuring a perfect runny egg, arugula, and whatever complementary ingredients strike the sandwich artists’ fancy.) Farrow has limited seating (four stools at a counter, to be exact), but picnic tables outside are colonized all year round.
Speaking of sandwich shops, Elm Café in the Oliver area north of downtown is another local destination for espresso and batch-brewed coffee, as well as fresh muffins, scones, and sandwiches. It’s a small shop, too—Elm occupies a modest storefront on the street level of a professional building, and you might miss it if not for the lineup which frequently spills out the door and onto the patio. Elm and its younger sibling cafes, District Coffee Company, Burrow Central Station, and Little Brick, all owned and operated by Nate Box, serve and retail coffee from a variety of roasters. According to manager Mike Forgie, “Each cafe showcases a primary roaster that they 90% of the time pull in the espresso machine.” At Elm that means espresso from Victoria, BC roaster Bows & Arrows.
District serves mainly Calgary’s Phil & Sebastian, and caters to the business crowd on the south edge of downtown. It’s only open weekdays during office hours, but if you’re on your lunch break, District makes it convenient to enjoy an americano to-go in the park surrounding the Alberta legislature building a couple blocks away. District also serves house pastries, sandwiches, and a light lunch and breakfast menu—including homemade granola and local cheese.
Also downtown, Burrow Central Station is the only cafe located underground on the Light Rail Transit line. If you order a drink here, it’ll probably be made with beans roasted by San Francisco’s Four Barrel Coffee.
Little Brick, the Elm family’s newest cafe, inhabits a restored house in Riverdale, a residential neighborhood on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River. Built in 1903 and recently restored, the house contains not only a cafe serving espresso, pour-over coffee, and small meals, but also the original kitchen, a garden, sitting room, and dining room which are open to the public—and a general store. It’s a lovely space to sit on the deck and chat, either over coffee (they rotate roasters, including Four Barrel’s boutique brand, De La Paz) or house-made chai. You can enjoy it all with a salad, a sandwich, or, in the summer, even a picnic-in-a-box.
Coffee Bureau is one of several new cafes to open downtown over the past year, and one of the first cafes serving coffee from ACE, Edmonton’s newest roastery. Daniel Lodewyk, a roaster for ACE, says that unlike Third Wave roasters such as Transcend, the company aims to produce “locally roasted Italian styled espresso”. Coffee Bureau combines that traditional roast profile with a somewhat more modern North American style of serving coffee, though their incredible cappuccinos are smaller and denser than many you’ll find in the city. The bright, white-tiled space includes bar seating as well as a few small tables with an excellent view of both the gleaming lever machine and the busy street outside. Coffee Bureau’s customer base seems to be mostly business people and shoppers, though unlike many businesses in the downtown core, it is open on Saturdays.
Close to Coffee Bureau in the downtown core, Credo Coffee’s original location is a well-established destination for coffee drinkers from all over Edmonton. It’s within easy walking distance to condos, office towers, and MacEwan University, and it’s a popular spot for both coffee breaks and meetings. On Saturdays in the summer, the outdoor market set up on 104th Street guarantees a line up that reaches the door, but Credo’s business is brisk in more ways than one; two or more baristas working on two espresso bars make for impressively short waiting times.
Credo recently expanded, opening a second shop and contributing another independent business to the burgeoning scene on 124th Street in North-Central Edmonton. The new, surprisingly airy space, located below street level is (for the moment) quieter than its downtown counterpart. From the stunning concrete ceiling to the expansive island bar and lantern lighting, its peacefully modern atmosphere makes Credo 124 Street an ideal place to relax in the middle of a window shopping excursion or to meet with a business partner.
Both cafes retail and serve Intelligentsia coffee, and Credo is by far the best Intelligentsia experience in town. If you’re looking for traditional matcha or a matcha latte, Credo is the place to go. It’s also a vendor for Jacek chocolate, a local maker of incredibly beautiful truffles—the perfect complement to a Credo macchiato.
Lizzie Derksen is a writer, zine publisher, and coffee professional living in Edmonton, Alberta. Read more Lizzie Derksen on Sprudge.