Travels in Canada - the Crows Nest Highway

If a crow could fly and count it would tally up 777 kilometre between Hope, British Columbia, and Medicine Hat, Alberta. And the most direct route on the ground is the Crowsnest Highway, the No.3, which, by its shortest configuration, uncurls 1167 kilometres (730 miles) across the varied topography of south-western Canada, using the storied Crowsnest Pass to breach the blue Rocky Mountains between Alberta’s high plains and the mountains and lakes of British Columbia’s “Interior.” By its longest configuration it meanders more than 1300 historic, scenic and culturally diverse kilometres. Known also as the Southern Inter-Provincial Route, the Crowsnest Highway is Western Canada’s old road to The Coast. It is a traveller’s delight. -- www.crowsnest-highway.ca


My wife and I walk the streets of a small mountain town looking for a hidden meaning. In the mountain community of Nelson, British Columbia, Coffee roaster Oso Negro partner-owner Jon Meyer puts it all in perspective with a wave of his hand. "With a population of 9000, Nelson has enough stuff going on to suit its inhabitants and the transient population."
Transient population. Tourists. Itinerant coffee travelers. That would be my wife and I. Ok, so she is a tea drinker!

Although Nelson, British Columbia is sort of off the beaten track (the coast to coast freeway that is) it is at the center of a variety of activities:

  • Education. Selkirk College and several successful art schools are here.
  • Spiritual. In addition to all the regular Christian congregations, there is a strong contingency of Eastern spiritualism.
  • Resources. Mines, minerals and forestry round out some of the more common employers.
  • High-tech. Pacific Insight Electronics employs around 260 people.
  • Tourism. There is no question that Nelson caters to the outdoor as well as the indoor enthusiasts. There is skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer aplenty.
  • Food and Drink. There are some fine restaurants in Nelson.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to visit the Oso Negro cafe 3 or 4 times and having chatted up a few of the baristas, were directed to the roasting facility up a very steep hill.

As we stood in the doorway of a rather faceless industrial facility (on a very hot day) we were greeted by a young shirtless man working in an even hotter roasting room. Amidst bag after bag of green coffee a large Probat roaster ejaculated its load of (very)dark roast coffee. I explained that we have come from Victoria B.C. to check out the coffee scene in Nelson.

Pointing to another shirtless man in a room (of shirtless men), one of the young guys offered: "You want to talk to Shirtless-Man number three! Jon. He is one of the senior roasters here..."

In moments, Jon Meyer appears. A very youthful and athletic fellow, Jon greets us cautiously.
"I have a coffee website", I offer. "I do some roasting and consulting out of Victoria... we travel around the country sampling coffee... visiting cafes..." - I continue.

"What kind of roasting have you done? What kind of roasters have you used? Jon asks.
Understandably, I could be anybody leading up to some spiel or another. But after I pass the Nelson authentication process, Jon opens up with a flood of useful information. More on the Nelson conversations later...

My wife and I have just come from the Osoyoos (Wine growing) region of Southern British Columbia.

And if I was a wine blogger you would be reading page after page of astonished observations. The road between Penticton-Naramata and Osoyoos is dotted with one estate winery after another - all of them open 6 to 7 days a week. Stand-outs included The Burrowing Owl estate winery. We had a fabulous meal there as well - and if you are hockey fan, you will be pleased that we sat next to Trevor Linden (of the Vancouver Canucks), his wife and friends.

But this is not a wine blog.

On the road between Vancouver and Nelson (on the Crows Nest) highway, we kind of had some odd expectations:
Like Tim Horton's doughnut shops every 5 miles or so. Not to be. What we did see surprised us.

There is way more originality out on the Crow's Nest highway between Hope B.C. and the Alberta border. And not surprising - it has very little corporate incursion. That is right. Nary a Tim Horton's or Starbucks to be seen. In fact, there were none. And that, my friends, is a reason to rejoice. Because out here, as it were, is where we want to be - as far away from corporate culture as possible.

Take Rock Creek for instance. There is more hidden history in this little town on Highway 3 that you can collect by driving through. So stop. Not enough incentive? Consider the Rock Creek Trading Post and coffee roaster. Denise and Kent Blaker operate this coffee stop just off the highway. They have two I-Rost single pound convection roasters - and they operate them outside! Rain or shine, hot or freezing and any time of the year, Denise and Kent are roasting coffee outdoors. Denise and Kent have more than a casual relationship with the coffee bean. They have traveled a lot in coffee growing regions in Central America. They have spent time on the farms with the farmers and know exactly what is at stake for the people who toil in this industry. Their coffee is great and they are also known for some of the best sausage rolls and cinnamon buns in the region.

In Greenwood, British Columbia on the Crows nest highway there is coffee nirvana on the main street through town - which happens to be the highway! The Copper Eagle Cappuccino bar and bakery awaits those who have been on the road a while and are looking for some good home made food, great baked things and good coffee. The Copper Eagle is immediately recognizable by the 1956 Bel Air station wagon parked out front.

In Grand Forks, British Columbia we were astounded at the diversity. Grand Forks is a recreational destination and appears to be a bustling and successful community on top of that. On our way through we stopped at the Grand Forks Station Pub & Columbia Grill at 7654 Donaldson Drive. It is a former CPR Train station from 1899. The food and drink (typical pub grub) was wonderful! We actually visited twice - on the way to the Kootenays on the Crows Nest and on the way back.

Jon Meyer of Nelson's Oso Negro Coffee roasters gestures towards the downtown area and the scenic Nelson waterfront. "This is a small community with a big spirit. It has a little of everything. It serves the community well and serves the many, many visitors that Nelson sees every year."

I ask Jon about the roll of Oso Negro in the community - a community that is very eco-friendly and green.

"We pride ourselves on our carbon foot-print here in Nelson. We run an after-burner on the roaster but we are not stopping there. Our desire is to have a water mist scrubber at some point."

To be honest, I have not met a more gentle and more dedicated coffee roaster than Jon (and his crew). There was a very special vibe about Nelson. The people... and its coffee.
If you come to Nelson make sure you visit Oso Negro Coffee. Make darn sure you make a reservation at the "All Seasons Cafe" - The food there was incredible! Stop in at Max and Irma's restaurant too!


Colin Newell is a Victoria resident and coffee expert. His travel has taken him from Honolulu Hawaii to New York and Halifax, Canada and all points in between. He prides himself on having a clear understanding of cafe culture in North America.