Like most Vancouverites, Theresa McNicholl and Kathy O’Sullivan are into their coffee.
They want to know where the beans come from, they want some effort put into the presentation of their drinks and they want an ambience that makes the experience of getting coffee about more than just the caffeine.
But unlike most Vancouverites, McNicholl and O’Sullivan — both retired teachers — also love recording, critiquing and grading their experiences. The duo has visited more than 380 coffee shops, all in the city, since 2003. They meet up once a week, schedule permitting, usually on Saturday mornings.
McNicholl, who retired eight years ago, taught information technology to elementary school students. O’Sullivan retired a few years later and was a principal at a Vancouver school.
The pair’s caffeinated efforts aren’t a first in the city. The internet is home to several blogs and websites dedicated to Vancouver coffee shop reviews — websites with names like Vancouver Barista and Vancouver Coffee Snob. What sets McNicholl and O’Sullivan apart is how long they’ve been at it.
In 2017, at the insistence of her son, McNicholl converted a decade-and-a-half’s worth of records into a website, ranking the venues visited on five criteria: coffee, tea, baked goods, ambience and service.
The website, vancouvercoffeereview.com, went live in August 2017.
The reviews come in short paragraphs, similar in style to a school report card — you half expect to see a terse “must do better” scrawled at the bottom of the more critical reviews.
“It’s a work-in-progress, but we’re having fun,” McNicholl said in a phone call with the Courier. “The joy for us is that we go to places we normally would never have gone.”
Neighbours at the time, McNicholl and O’Sullivan started their coffee shop critiques 16 years ago while searching for some “uninterrupted time together” amidst the bustle of family life.
From initial thoughts scribbled in a notebook, McNicholl and O’Sullivan eventually developed metrics and a process for marking their visits.
In that time, they’ve seen the tremendous growth of Vancouver coffee shops.
“It’s exploded,” McNicholl said. “There are lots of really cool coffee shops now. But to find the ones that are really interesting and characteristic is a little more challenging. There’s a lot of them that are sort of run of the mill.”
While some of their friends have asked them why they don’t go out further into areas such as Richmond and Burnaby, McNicholl and O’Sullivan feel spoiled for choice in Vancouver and see no need to expand for now.
“There’s more and more in Vancouver all the time.” McNicholl said. “We’re finding little coffee shops in really cool little places that you’d never expect.”
Among their favourites — detailed under the “Best of the Best” section on their website — are Café Lokal on West Fourth Avenue, Milano on Columbia and West Eighth and Small Victory on Homer Street.
While McNicholl enjoys the taste of coffee, her go-to drink is actually tea, which she finds less tough on her stomach. O’Sullivan tends to be the one to taste the coffee, and her go-to is a latte. McNicholl’s taste for tea, which has taken her to plantations and tea houses as far away as Uganda, is the reason they include a tea rating in every coffee shop they visit.
McNicholl feels like what drove the partnership — namely the mutual bonding over family and private life — is just as important as the actual coffee itself, despite the growing audience for their reviews. According to her, all the metrics — from views to comments — are slowly rising.
“I can’t say one has magnified over the other,” she said. “When we go, we go to have a good experience, not just to have coffee or tea. To me, it’s the whole procedure of being comfortable, being in a nice place, having a good conversation, plus having a good coffee or tea.”
McNicholl and O’Sullivan’s reviews can be found on their website, vancouvercoffeereview.com.