In the fall of 2014, the Québec City coffee scene was slowly finding its groove. In a town where civil servants still form a large part of the population, old traditions are tough to battle and only a few “coffee mavericks” were ready to gamble on a market for quality independent cafes in Québec. This spring, our last visit showed that many of them are winning their wagers and that a few more have joined what's become a complete makeover of the city’s coffee map—although you have to get away from the cobblestone streets of Old Town to find the best spots.
Assembled around the massive Château Frontenac (a Fairmont Hotel), Old Québec was built in the 17th century on a rocky cape that dominates the St. Lawrence River. As the city grew, working families settled below the cape in poorer neighborhoods such as Saint-Roch and Limoilou. In recent years, an urban renewal of that part of downtown Quebec has been fueled by the arrival of a younger crowd who has transformed the city from a “living museum” to a vibrant working and living place. Those same people have been the perfect clientele for the recent coffee revolution.
Café Saint-Henri micro-torréfacteur has been a mainstay of the Montréal coffee scene for more than five years now with its “atelier de torréfaction” and four cafes. Their main locale, in the Saint-Henri neighborhood, will soon move a couple of blocks away, but it will still be the workshop where owner Jean-François Leduc and his team roast their micro-lots of quality coffee beans.
Always an entrepreneur, Leduc had been looking at ways to grow the reach of Café Saint-Henri outside of Montréal and the recent opening of a “flagship-store” in Québec City is a big part of that strategy. Situated in a new building at the end of Saint-Joseph street in Saint-Roch, the new venture opened in February after months of extended renovations.
As Leduc explains: “It is more than a cafe. There is also a roasting workshop, run by Nicholas Ladouceur (who previously worked at Bridgehead in Ottawa), that will produce our coffees for the local customers and other commercial clients in Québec and the region.” Leduc explains he also incorporated what he calls an “in-house-micro-pop-up” called SUMO, which provides artisanal doughnuts under the leadership of Geniviève Casaubon, former pastry chef at Vancouver's Elysian Room.
For the coffee, Leduc has given the reins to Julie Audet. “She has been with us for more than a year, also working on the launch of our cafe at Marché Jean-Talon in Montréal,” explains Leduc, “Her local knowledge (she is from Québec City) and great skills made her the perfect candidate to run our cafe.” A winner of an important latte art competition in Montréal last fall, Audet will go to Japan this summer for a training session with 2014 World Barista Champion Hidenori Izaki.
In a city where many trendy spots occupy old historic buildings, the new cafe Saint-Henri sets itself apart with glass/steel exterior walls and a natural wood counter and furnishings. Bright and airy, the space is highlighted by a Kees Van der Westen Spirit espresso machine, the first of its kind in Québec City. Like its counterpart in Montréal, the “workshop” will host tastings, training sessions, and other activities.
Jean-Daniel Lajoie has long been recognized as one of the best baristas in Quebec City. After working at Brulerie de café de Québec (now known as Cantook), he took some time off last year to work and launch a bottled cold brew, Maelstrøm Café Infusé a Froid. The next obvious step was to create his own space, and he found willing partners in the city's bar and pub scene.
Last fall, Lajoie and three co-owners launched their new Café Maelstrøm at the edge of Saint-Roch, close enough to the action, but still in a quiet sector of the neighborhood. Taking inspiration from all the owners’ backgrounds, the business is a “hybrid”: café during the day, bar at night. “The coffee scene is very lively in Québec and I feel we all have our space, as long as we work hard to make quality products and set ourselves apart,” tells Lajoie. “It is also important not to get stuck in a ‘stereotype' of what a coffee shop is supposed to be. That’s what we are trying to do here and the response has been very good up to now.”
Marie-Ève Leclerc, one of the co-owners, is involved in Mouvement Raize, a group that promotes social and responsible consuming, and business. “There are a lot of things going on in Quebec City right now and a place like this cafe/bar is a great example of the creativity of your young ‘entrepreneurs’.”
Café Maelstrøm is located in an old stone and brick building. The light wood coffee bar is relatively small, with a shiny La Marzocco Strada EE coffee machine taking up most of the space. There is a small selection of breakfast pastries and lunch items, but most of the customers come in to have a drink and the coffees are always made with care. At the end of the day, the action moves to the cocktail bar where you can even order some caffeinated drinks prepared with Maelstrøm cold brew.
The cafe has quickly become a meeting place for the city’s coffee community. There was an AeroPress competition and tasting here recently, and other activities are regularly organized, including a monthly “drink and draw” evening. All in all, Maelstrøm is the kind of cafe that we will probably see more often, not only in Québec.
Since 2009, Nektar Caféologue has been the go-to place in Québec City for quality specialty coffees. The main locale, on Saint-Joseph street in Saint-Roch, is busy from early in the morning and many customers come here to buy from the outstanding selection of roasted coffees from many United States roasters: Intelligentsia Coffee and George Howell Coffee, as well as Canada’s own 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, Pilot Coffee Roasters, and Social Coffee and Tea Company, to name a few. The staff is knowledgable—thanks to a great training program—and they take pride in what they serve.
Guillaume Michaud, one of the three co-owners, lives with his family in nearby Limoilou and he decided to take Nektar’s winning formula to that up-and-coming sector of town. A second cafe was launched last fall on a relatively busy part of Third Avenue, close to other interesting shops. “We feel here the same spirit, the same vitality, that we felt in Saint-Roch when we started Nektar a few years ago,” explains Guillaume, “and we think we can contribute to the growth of Limoilou.”
Nektar Limoilou occupies the ground floor of a nice corner building, formerly a specialty chocolate shop. The owners have completely redone the interior, taking advantage of the bare locale to created an updated version of their Saint-Roch cafe. There are large wood counters and tables, metal stools and large bay windows, which create a very bright space even though the coffee counter is painted black.
Espresso drinks are prepared with a Nuova Simonelli Appia and there are various choices of filter brew methods. Like in the original Nektar cafe, the coffee selection is outstanding, with top products from quality Canadian and American roasters. And the staff members know their coffees. This is a good place to go if you want to see more of Québec City.
With additional photography by Jeff Frenette.