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Halifax coffee gets Weird – and offers plenty of choices

Weird Harbour, Pavia Gallery join the downtown coffee scene

4 min read
Allie Graham
Weir serves a returning customer. Weird Harbour opened its doors on Oct. 18.
caption Weird Harbour owner Dan Weir serves a customer at his espresso bar, which opened in mid-October.
Allie Graham

There’s something brewing in Halifax’s coffee scene, as new cafes distinguish themselves from the city’s coffee heavyweights.

The city’s newest coffee spot, Weird Harbour Espresso Bar, opened its doors in mid-October.

“It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do,” says owner Dan Weir. “I tried to get other jobs, but all I wanted to do was listen to music, hang out and make coffee.”

So far Weir is the only full-time barista. The cafe is two doors down from Starbucks Coffee, which has been on the block for years, but Weir says he’s not worried there’s enough coffee love to go around.

Weird Harbour Espresso Bar is located a few doors down from Starbucks on Barrington St.
caption Weird Harbour Espresso Bar is a few doors down from Starbucks on Barrington Street.
Allie Graham

There are more than 40 cafes throughout the downtown district, according to the Downtown Halifax Business Commission‘s annual 2016-17 report.

Downtown is home to established cafes including Steve O Reno’s Cappuccino, Cabin Coffee, Two If By Sea, Smiling Goat Organic Espresso Bar and Trident Booksellers & Cafe, which has been around since the early 1990s and is a fixture in the city’s coffee community.

With local roasters like Java Blend, Anchored Coffee and North Mountain Fine Coffees, most independent cafes opt to use their coffees.

“In this market ‘buy local’ has taken hold and there’s a strong attachment to it here in Nova Scotia,” says Paul MacKinnon, the business commission’s executive director.

“But at the same time, it would make no sense to have them all selling the exact same product.”

An out-of-province experience

Weird Harbour does not use beans from a local roaster. Weir serves Detour coffee, from a popular Toronto roaster he’s worked with for years.

Outside at Weird Harbour Espresso Bar on Barrington St.
caption Outside at Weird Harbour Espresso Bar on Barrington St.
Allie Graham

“There’s such a good community of folks around here and, of course, you want to support them as much as possible. My only thing is, because there are only a few roasters around town, I (thought), ‘do I want to offer something local or do I want to offer something that’s a little different,’” says Weir.

And while Pavia Gallery Espresso Bar and Cafe’s drip coffee is roasted by Nova Coffee, which has been operating since 1973 and is based in Lower Sackville, its espresso roast is imported from Italy.

“When it comes to our espresso, we tried to mimic what they had in Italy and we couldn’t,” says Pavia’s co-owner, Christopher Webb.

Blending all over Halifax

Pavia began with Webb and Victoria Foulger, with Webb’s mother doing all of the baking. Once they became more established in Herring Cove, Webb says they decided to submit their proposal to become the new Halifax Central Library’s cafe.

They won that tender and in December 2014 opened two locations, on the first and fifth floors of the Spring Garden Road library.

Pavia's fourth location opened up in April at the art gallery of Nova Scotia.
caption Pavia’s fourth location opened up in April at the art gallery of Nova Scotia.

Last October they won the tender to be the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s cafe and opened a fourth location this summer.

“We’re a proud and independent local business,” says Webb.

Webb says that there were some hard times, but it’s proved worth the risk five years later.

“We thought, we should at least do it the way we want, so we didn’t open up a place called the ‘Herring Cove Cafe.’ We opened up a contemporary art gallery. The first six months people didn’t even know we sold coffee,” says Webb with a laugh.

Since 2011, their full-time staff has grown from six people working at their original Herring Cove location to a total of 35 at the four locations.

MacKinnon says independent businesses are thriving and there are more independent coffee shops in the downtown core than there are chains, such as Tim Hortons and Starbucks, in the city.

“It’s like the craft beer scene. That’s a very lively industry and it speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the city.”

In addition to cafes, MacKinnon thinks Halifax will begin to see more independent roasters, citing the success of Dartmouth’s Anchored Coffee and Lunenburg’s Laughing Whale Coffee.

Here are some of the  Halifax coffee scene’s newest editions:

  • Lucky Penny Coffee Co. opened in September and Dilly Dally in June. Both are located on Quinpool Road.
  • The Cortado Tasting Room in Bedford opened in September.
  • Pavia Gallery Espresso Bar and Cafe opened its fourth location at the art gallery in May.

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