Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow.”
-The Beach Boys (from “Kokomo”)
Make no mistake: if you’re heading to downtown Vancouver’s new Honolulu Coffee, you just gotta pull out all stops. Take a cue from Mike, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops for this special occasion.
It just goes to show that Hawaiians and Vancouverites share a similar idealist, hippy philosophy. We savour the simple things in life – and that includes enjoying damn good coffee.
So it’s not hard to see why our city was this Hawaiian company’s top choice as their very first location in North America. (Honolulu Coffee also boasts locations in Hawaii, Guam, Japan and China.)
On Stop 75 of our weekly Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, the dust has barely settled on the grand opening of Honolulu Coffee – that was last Thursday – and there’s already plans to open a second location on Broadway very shortly.
We went to Hawaii years ago. And I must admit, entering this large café inspires some of the same tropical, dreamy spirit. It’s breezy, laid back and happy-go-lucky. People, the only thing missing here is ukulele-strumming by an Elvis impersonator.
But the most surprising thing? We feel like we’ve transported to another place that’s not Vancouver at all. No question, Honolulu Coffee is one of the loveliest vistas – stylized perfectly in that you feel like you’re on holiday. It’s a fine line they ride; but the result is tasteful, sophisticated and fun.
Back in the day, Mike was hanging out here when it was the Urban Well. As he tells it, it was a huge space with two lounges.
Today, it’s pale and painted wood (horizontal bead board wrapping the walls), light green hues (wowed by the Matcha-coloured Victoria Arduino espresso machine) and beachy images (oversized in wallpaper, miniaturized on silkscreened cushions and framed in photos). It all adds up to an atmosphere that will sweep you far away from those rainy West Coast days.
The variety of seating available is huge and well considered. There’s comfy cushioned bench seating that snakes and disappears to a private nook, a big communal table, stools by the window and Mad Men inspired lounge chairs by the door.
The most genius element by Honolulu Coffee? Barstool seating in front of a barista pour over station – more on that later.
Upon entering, we take a look at their selection of bagged coffee beans in a wall display. We’re greeted by a smiling staffer named Alex. There’s three staff working behind the counter that morning. She comes over, welcomes us and says if we have any questions, to let her know.
The biggest question in our mind: where are their beans roasted? She tells us they’re roasted in Hawaii, but are fresh since they were just roasted and flown in yesterday.
She gives an overview of Honolulu Coffee’s farm-to-cup philosophy: they have their own Kona coffee farm, on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano, located in the Captain Cook District on the Big Island of Hawaii.
In fact, in order for a coffee to be called Kona, it must be grown in either the North and South Kona Districts of the Big Island of Hawaii. The warm, wet and mild weather – combined with volcanic soil rich in minerals – make an ideal coffee crop.
The biggest hurdle caffeinated Vancouverites will need to wrap their head around? Understanding that 100% Kona coffee is one of the rarest, most expensive, coffees in the world. For a reality check, read the luxury price tag for 16 oz of 100% Kona beans: $88.95.
To make coffees more price-accessible, companies make “Kona blends” which include Kona beans plus other imported beans (ie. Colombia, Guatemala). But to be called a Kona blend, it must contain at least 10% Kona coffee.
Lesson here: the coffee you’re being served at Honolulu Coffee is not the same inexpensive, scarily stale, pre-ground sawdust on the shelves at your big box grocery. But you will pay a premium for the quality you get.
If you’re interested in teas, they have an extensive selection here too. A barista shows us their Firepot Nomadic Tea station. But frankly, this place is about coffee and the Hawaiian experience.
So it’s neat to see some unique items outside of the usual croissants and café options. Vancouver’s Faubourg makes a Kona Coffee Éclair ($6) using the Lokahi coffee blend. Also consider the Kona White BBQ Turkey ($8) made with Kona White BBQ Sauce.
We also spot a gorgeous Pineapple Coconut Croissant ($4) and Ham & Cheese Quiche ($8) that we decide to order. The staffer asks if we’d like the croissant heated: that’s proactive service that anticipates customer needs before you ask. They definitely go the extra mile.
Mike opts for a pour over. There’s a detailed clipboard menu that describes a choice of two different coffees: 100% Kona (strawberry, lime, juicy) or Wai’Ono Meadows Estate which is also made of 100% Kona (Meyer lemon, orange, milk chocolate).
He decides on the 100% Kona which will be brewed as a Kalita Wave. There’s photos online of Chemex brew being made at this café. So we think that if you select Wai’Ono Meadows Estate, that will be served as a Chemex.
I choose the Hawaiian Latte ($5 for medium) which I’ve heard is one of their signature drinks. The staffer tells me it’s made of their Lokahi espresso (I’m told this blend might include Colombian and Brazilian beans), coconut syrup, Macadamia nut syrup and whipped cream. Tasting notes for Lokahi: balanced, marmalade, milk chocolate.
The staffer immediately starts making the espresso for my latte. Then she carefully steams the milk and pours a nice design into a sweet looking green cup. She shakes a giant metal whipped cream dispenser and asks if I’d like some in my drink.
It’s nice of her to ask, as I can imagine some people would prefer not to have it. I hesitate and she grins, saying I’ve got to “go for it”. So, I do as the Hawaiians do, and she tops it with an enthusiastic flourish.
She’s cheerful and tells me to enjoy my drink.
Mike’s already perched at the pour over station in the corner, so I head over for a seat. Alex, our barista, fills the Hario Buono kettle with hot water from a spout high up on the wall.
Then she rinses the paper filter and discards the water. She does a few careful, unhurried rounds with the kettle, paying close attention to the scale.
She talks in detail about the coffees they carry. This is important because it’s unlikely coffee drinkers around here will be familiar with their lineup. It’s an education process that can only be executed successfully through their staff, and word of mouth.
I comment that she must have gone through some thorough training on their coffees and she says they definitely have.
When she’s finished making the pour over, she pours a serving in the green cup, placing it on a little tray next to the Hario carafe. She shakes our hands when we thank her and says it was great meeting us.
Mike sips his coffee and says it’s very good – fresh, sweet and mild with berry flavours. This is on a different plane from any inexpensive, pre-ground Hawaiian coffees he’s tried before.
My Hawaiian Latte is delicious. It’s sweet with coconut flavour and has a creamy texture. The whipped cream is a fun feature but I think it would be just as good without.
We really enjoy the hefty Pineapple Coconut Croissant, which looks more like a Danish. It’s flaky and topped with shredded coconut. Inside, there’s a smooth pastry cream and chunks of tangy pineapple. The Ham & Cheese Quiche also looks appetizing, with a handmade crust. It’s a nice salty contrast to the sweetness of this meal.
Later, I ask another staffer a question about their coffees – they’re wiping a table nearby – this is what I get. An answer that’s confident, friendly and with the information I need. If this is the new take on “island time”, I say bring it on.
Aloha Vancouver, are you ready for this?
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Name of coffee: Honolulu Coffee’s 100% Kona
Location of roaster: Honolulu
Brewing method: Kalita Wave
Roaster’s tasting notes: “Strawberry, lime and juicy.”
Mike’s comments: Fruity berry sweetness. Floral with short after taste. Enjoyable with a fresh flavour.
- Very distinct personality from any other Vancouver café. Unique design and well thought out. Favourite surprise? A slow bar with ringside seating.
- Great, detailed menus. Special in that they only offer Hawaiian coffee, and it’s even featured in some of their food items.
- Impeccable staff training: strong technical knowledge of coffee, proactive, friendly and attentive.
- Good location. Tucked away from the street so you don’t get the noise and distraction of traffic.
- Necessary to educate yourself that 100% Kona is different from other coffees. It’s pricey – quite the luxury – but worth the experience. We do think Vancouver will embrace this café.
Seating availability: 5/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 4.9/5
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