East Van Roasters is the clandestine, light-flooded space your mind summons when you daydream tender meetings— the bashful first date, the easy embrace from a friend you haven’t seen in ages, the place you take your mother to taste something sweet like the things from her childhood.
The coffee shop is sun-soaked to brightness, and even feels this way in Vancouver’s “winter,” which often only concludes after months of unrelenting rain. It is always easy to feel safe here, and like you belong.
A part of this is Shelley Bolton, who roves about the cafe in a chocolate-dappled chef’s coat, offering warm smiles and hugs to friends and strangers alike. Her partner in crime, Ann Hnatyshyn, can always be found poring over frothing coffee like a sorceress, teasing dark and delicate shapes to the surface of the brew.
“It is community crafted coffee and chocolate. The sourcing is done with a lot of intention,” begins Shelley, who has summoned Ann from behind the counter after she finishes the pours for a wave of delighted, noon-hour customers. She waves them goodbye over her shoulder before she joins us with a platter of warm, spiced drinking chocolate. The three of us crowd a grooved, dark wood table, cradling the drink in our hands. “For the coffee broker that we use, we went for a Canadian, family-owned importer the was in the industry for a couple generations and worked with farmers in origin countries to not only bring in amazing product, but also ensure sustainability in the origin country.”
The first sips of the Mayan Spiced Chocolate are amazing— it is a full-bodied chocolate blended through cream as thick and smooth as molasses. The most joyful part of it is how its thickness moves through your mouth, carrying with it a subdued pepper taste. It features Peruvian chocolate, and vanilla, cardamom and chilli, the notable star of the concoction.
Ann and Shelley share a vision for how they want people to experience the coffee and chocolate offered by East Van Roasters. “I want EVR coffee to be very accessible,” Ann offers. “I am trying to find that middle ground that is chocolatey and sweet and you can still distinguish each origin. It hurts my soul when people say they hate coffee! I think there is an opportunity there to expose people to the things we have here— a tasting flight of chocolate and a flight of coffee where you’ll still be able to pick up flavours from origins you may have never tried before all of it while being able to have a good pallet.”
Ann talks about making the precision and skill needed to make this drink with the reverence of an alchemist. “A bean from Ethiopia is going to be 1000 times different than from coffee from Brazil. You have to treat them all very differently when you’re roasting. Nothing is the same about any coffee and that’s what makes it interesting. I am constantly pushing myself and develop my craft.”
They have both had to travel and immerse themselves in different international communities to hone in on the inspiration that fuels East Van Roasters. They laugh with fondness at the memories they recount that led to their love of coffee and chocolate.
“I went travelling and working in kitchens, and would see baristas be creative with their hands doing latte art. I wanted to learn, and so I dived in,” Ann says plainly. “I volunteered my time with baristas in Australia and New Zealand. I started roasting when I lived in London. The more you learn about coffee, the more you realize there is to know about coffee.”
Shelley was introduced to different origins and getting a pound of coffee a week from single origin coffee from a friend who worked at Starbucks. “That’s when I started getting into coffee,” she admits. “When I had the opportunity to be involved in a social enterprise that was going to dive deeper into that, I was really excited about it. No one in Vancouver was making chocolate at the time. I had to find someone to teach me to roast and make chocolate. The closest I could find was Madre Chocolate in Hawaii.” Shelley went to the farm and learned the various complexities in working with coffee: how to harvest and grow cacao trees, the fermentation process, drying and grading and basics on grafting trees and different species of cacao. “I got to delve into the whole part of farming and learn why different beans taste differently and how they’re fermented. I made my own batch of chocolate in the week I spent staging in their chocolate shop.”
The founding executive team at PHS had hired Shelley in 2011 to start The Window and East Van Roasters, which is directly beneath the Rainier Hotel, a long-time fixture in the DTES for women who are grappling with mental illness, poverty and substance use. Many of the staff who work at EVR are women who access supports and services at the hotel. Liz and Mark, the founders of PHS, were becoming increasingly interested in expanding their community services to include a network of social enterprises that would offer a dignified type of employment, and they had the retail space that had come into their possession through managing the Rainier had already been negotiated as a coffee shop.
Dan Small worked with Shelley to get the program up and running. He had been inspired by cocoa farming communities he had met travelling through Vietnam and different sciences about what made chocolate delicious. He wanted this program to not only be socially responsible, but environmentally so as well. He came up with the idea for an environmentally responsible roaster.
“Before there was anything else sorted, there was this roaster sitting here,” Shelley recalls. “The guys that designed this machine came to Vancouver and stayed on their own dime and serviced the machine when we told them that we were planning to use this for a social enterprise. The fact that we were taking on this kind of undertaking, that we were to roast cocoa in their coffee roaster made them excited— no one else was doing anything like that at the time.”
The machine in question, a fluid airbed roaster, is a silvery titan of a thing, with a transparent cylinder where you can see the coffee surges along a column of air, tossed by some invisible, barely contained hurricane. The beans smell warm and ripe on the air to the point my hairs stand on end. The smell floods my head, banishing any sluggish lingerings of tiredness.
Most establishments typically use a drum roaster to heat beans to a point where the complexities of its flavours can emerge. This process involves a lot of contact with the beans, and there is a high risk of scorching them to inedibility. The team at EVR use the specially calibrated airbed roaster to roast in a process comparable to popping corn in a pop-corn machine. It requires a great deal of skill and precision— and the women who work alongside Anne and Shelley have this in spades.
“When you think of chocolatiers and coffee roasters you think of craftspeople. You develop more and more skill the more you do it,” Shelley explains. “It is something people can come into and feel like they are immersed in something outside of themselves, which is a great type of social enterprise to have. The intention is to be the best at what we do so the stigma associated with the people we work with would have no weight. People believe that people who use drugs or have mental illness cannot excel at something, and that is so not true.”
“When you think of chocolatiers and coffee roasters you think of craftspeople. You develop more and more skill the more you do it.”
Ann laughs, smiling conspiratorially. “There are ladies in here that have tidbits of information about chocolate and coffee beyond the knowledge of most people in Vancouver. And that’s the most satisfying thing— being able to pass on what I’ve learnt over the past ten years to women who might not have ever get the chance to learn that depth of coffee.”
“I like that we’re fine quality and accessible,” says Shelley, proudly. Beyond us, staff at the counter laughs gregariously with a customer before plating a thin wafer of chocolate so fine it could be a jewel. The customer makes off with the treasure, beaming. That is what is special about East Van Roasters— it makes that something special and dreamlike accessible for anyone who wants a taste.
Feature image photo by Ken Fox