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Coffee drinker at the Byward Market, Ottawa

Canadians like coffee: their annual consumption of java places them at the 10th position worldwide, in front of France and Italy, with an annual per capita consumption of coffee of 6.5 kg. It may have to do with the long harsh winters: Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark, all Nordic countries, have the biggest consumption of coffee. Seems that coffee is the drink of choice for us, snow-people.

However, Canadians don’t drink coffee like French or Italian do. You may be able to find “European-style” coffee shops in ethnic neighborhoods, such as Little Italy, but most of the time, you will be gulping down the beverage in one of the coffeehouse chains that dominate the market in Canada: Tim Hortons—the Canadian icon—, Second Cup, Starbucks, Timothy’s World Coffee or even McDonalds.

The difference between European coffee and North American coffee can be illustrated by the cup: in the old world, you sit down for hours sipping a concentrate of the precious beverage in a thimble-size cup, a small piece of sugar and a square of dark chocolate in the saucer. In the new world, you line-up for a mega-size of super-hot coffee served in a large disposable paper cup. You put the lid and the sleeve on the cup, grab a few packs of sugar and maybe a pastrie like a donut, and you head to the office. There isn’t a second to waste, time is money after all.

Coffee chains in Canada can be welcoming though. Sure, Tim Hortons prominently displays “no loitering” signs (who wants to linger at Timmies, anyway?) but Starbucks is often nested inside Chapters bookstores, where you can sit and browse books for hours with a coffee in hand. Most other chains offer free Wi-Fi, local newspapers, cheery background music and plenty of seating space.

Real caffeine-addicts can get a cup of java on-the-go pretty much anywhere, from convenience store to McDonalds—the famous fast food chain tries very hard to bring in customers through price cuts. Tim Hortons is still Canadians’ favourite stop and holds 62% of the Canadian coffee market. With over 3,000 restaurants in Canada, it’s no surprise that its annual marketing campaign is a much awaited event. Each March, millions of Canadians “Roll Up The Rim” (the name of the campaign) of their paper cup to see if they won anything, from millions of food prizes to a few cars.

But “specialty coffee” still has the lead in the coffee wars. Coffee shops, like Starbucks or Second Cup, whose perky baristas sell “premium” coffee with endless names, are seen as an affordable luxury. Such, most coffees such as latte and cappuccinos cost between $3 and $5 but everybody like a treat at these comfy and relaxing coffee shops. And yes, coffee can be pretty bad for both your wallet and your waistline. We are not talking a regular cup of black coffee here but fancy sweeten latte and indulgent summery frothy iced drinks. The fancier the drink, the fancier the calories—these rich and creamy treats are not exactly healthy, especially when whipped-cream is added on top!

And me? Well, I’m forever a green tea drinker, although I can be tempted by a latte once in a while. I used to miss France’s coffee culture. In between two protests, I spent most of my teenage years in smoky cafés arguing about politics. That said, I certainly don’t miss the mostly rude staff and the waiters’ general attitude.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Un petit noir Place du Commerce?
    What really surprised me in Italy was the way they queue at the bar, have their shot of coffee and leave!

  2. Great point about the difference between the functions of coffee on both sides of the Atlantic. I suppose in Europe, coffee is more of a social variable than a functional one, which is the case here in North America. Even I myself am guilty of that; I drink tea at home for breakfast, but I go to Starbucks to get a doppio at least once in a given week.

  3. Nice post! I looked over the stats from your link and was curious to see that per capita coffee consumption in Canada jumped up significantly from 2004. Wonder why.

    In Canada, people take their coffee in one of four main ways:

    1. with cream (milk) and sugar
    2. black
    3. with cream only
    4. with sugar only

    I’m curious to know if it’s the same in France / Europe. In China, people only drink it with cream and sugar, no other way. If I went to a Chinese cafe (as opposed to Starbucks, etc.), they wouldn’t even ask me how I took it or serve it black and point me in the direction of their sugar and milk condiments – they’d serve it with milk and sugar already added. Since I don’t take it that way, I wasn’t happy.

  4. Coffee at Tim Horton tastes like eau de vaiselle! I used to like Java U, they had nice sandwiches and cookies plus they were on the first floor of the university 🙂

  5. I’ve read about the European way of making a thimble of coffee last for hours. I guess that I just don’t get it. It must be powerful stuff. I would try it though.

    I love coffee, strong coffee, and lost of it. I have my own Keurig in my cubicle and I make and drink coffee all day long. When it runs out I’m going to get a Tassimo like my wife has.

  6. Maybe the difference in coffee consumption has to do with the size of the cup? I love all of those sugary drinks from Starbucks. I had to get used to black coffee in France, it really isn’t my thing!

  7. i humbly submit that i make the best coffee in the world.
    better than starbucks.
    not everything is right in the world until i’ve had my morning cup of coffee.
    the biggest diff between american and european coffee is in europe, you don’t get free refills.
    there’s one cafe that makes great waffles, but they charge $2.50 for coffee. and $2.50 for refills. and since i like to drink 2-3 cups of coffee, i don’t eat at that cafe because the coffee costs more than the waffles!
    and i drink tea at starbucks. horror!

  8. well actually in Italy we spend like 30 seconds to drink our coffee 😉 we don’t even sit in the bar, we stand while drinking our coffee to not waste time.

  9. I seldom drink coffee. Mostly tea, English black tea with lots of milk and no sugar!
    Ha ha… Cause I don’t really like hot tea.

    I drink Chinese tea too (with ice)!

    Something unique to Chinese Malaysian, I guess?

  10. @Em – Ah, Place du Commerce… toute mon adolescence! Et Bouffay…!

    @Jeruen – North America doesn’t have this “social” side to coffee. Although you see more and more people hanging out at Starbucks or Second Cup.

    @Shawn – French usually drink their coffee black or with one piece of sugar. You won’t find cream and sugar on the side, if you want cream in your coffee, you order a latte, period. I couldn’t believe how much milk and sugar Canadians put in their coffee when I first came…!

    @Sidney – But I guess N. American coffee can be pretty good too.

    @Cynthia – I could never drink Tim Hortons coffee! Even their hot chocolate tastes like crap. I don’t understand why Canadians like it so much!

    @Yogi – Coffee is usually very strong, think expresso. Plus most people don’t put cream nor sugar!

    @Soleil – It’s probably that! And did you know Starbucks came up with a “trenta”, which is a cup that can hold about a liter? That’s crazy!

    @shionge – I don’t think I had coffee in Singapore, but I did buy a lot of Latte in cans at 7/11 😉

    @Seraphine – You are absolutely right, I had never heard of free refills until I came to Canada. This doesn’t exist in France! One day I’ll taste your coffee 😉

    @Laura – That’s funny! So people just need their hit and they leave? French see coffee shops as social places and most seat down to drink.

    @London Caller – I’m a tea person too, although I don’t like English tea. I like Chinese tea and green tea best!

  11. Tim Hortons’ coffee is disgusting! And I don’t mean their “dessert type” beverages, I mean have you tried their regular coffee straight? Blech!

    The best places to get coffee in Ottawa are Second Cup, Timothy’s World Coffee and Bridgehead Coffee (Which is fair trade:))
    If there were more of these in my area, no way would I ever go to Tim Horton’s again!

  12. I know what you mean. I live in Germany now and totally got used to the coffee culture here. When I go to Canada, I really miss the civility of a decent café. When I am home and get dragged to Starbucks in Chapters, I order an espresso in a REAL cup and I get a lot of strange looks. I say that I want a porcelain cup on a saucer and not a disposable paper one. YUCK – espresso doesn’t taste good at all in paper!!

    But, if you look hard enough, you can find a good European-style café anywhere. They are mostly run by Italians.

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