Monday, January 08, 2007

Espresso Toronto

Spent the waning hours of 2006 in Toronto, Canada where Barista Matt took me on an espresso tour of the city.

Like most East Coast cities, Toronto is plagued by generally poor coffee quality. There are the big chains (like Tim Horton's) and the specialty chains (like Starbucks and local grown Second Cup), all which serve the usual suspect coffee. However, like it's U.S. counterpart, Toronto's coffee scene is starting to rumble like New York Citys'.

Located at 682 Queen Street East, Dark Horse is the newcomer to the Toronto scene. It's a hip and fashionable place, nicely done up with a very large community table forcing normally introverted Torontonians to get to know each other. There's a big Elektra espresso machine which will, no doubt, force ghasts amongst the La Marzocco/Synesso elitists of the Third Wave.

The espresso was nice. Rich, dark, slightly astringent but relatively pleasant.

Just down the street a few blocks at 915 Queen Street East is Mercury Organic. These guys are pretty serious about their coffee and their commitment to sustainability and all things organic - to the point of re-using the materials left over from the previous tenant to create their new interior. However, that same commitment to all things green stumbles a bit when you hear their tale about why they cannot choose alternative roasters: because of the petroleum impact on the environment caused by shipping roasted coffee.

But Odd Things Green are not what we're interested in talking about. We're interested in coffee and the espresso was quite enjoyable. Dark, mysterious and quite bright. So bright that it reminded me of Stumptown's Hairbender. While I'm not a fan of bright espresso, I found Mercurys' shot to be quite tasty - and with good mouthfeel.

Like I've discussed in previous posts, I prefer to remain relatively incognito when visiting coffee shops where I don't know the people. Same went during this trip. I'm just another average customer coming in for a shot of espresso and a little chit-chat. Alex, the owner, was very friendly and open to discussing all things coffee and all things Mercury. It's nice to meet passionate people in our industry.

An odd thing happened during our discussion. Alex mentioned that he really wanted to try this drink he had read about in Barista Magazine. A drink where the barista mixed coffee and tobacco...

To be honest, I didn't have the heart to tell him that it was my drink he was talking about. I just didn't know how without it coming off as braggadocio. I just made some soft suggestions on preparation, recalling what I had read in the article. It was a funny, humorous and humbling experience, especially since I find it an honor that anyone would want to recreate one of our drinks.

A short distance from the East Side, where the Third Wave is taking root in Toronto, to 89 Granby Street is Bulldog Espresso. Bulldog is the home of Ross, the Central Region Canadian Barista Champion 2005. It's a cool little shop that's nicely decorated and features a large gold tone espresso machine that dominates the room. Things look well thought out and remind me of Espresso Vivace in Seattle. The bulldog, of course, is the central theme and I loved the logo and wanted one of their t-shirts to send to my brother in L.A. (they've got two bulldogs). Unfortunately, Bulldog doesn't accept credit cards so I was unable to purchase a t-shirt.

This was New Year's Eve and while I hate to make excuses, it was just about closing time for Bulldog when we rolled in so perhaps they were tearing things down and the espresso-making wasn't at their 100% game. That said, I found the espresso to be definitely sour and astringent, to the point that it was almost undrinkable but I consumed it anyway. Of the three, it was the toughest to drink and I certainly look forward to going back on another trip to Toronto when they're at the peak of their day to get a proper espresso.

Barista Matt is a hardcore kind of chap. To the point that he's got a Clover 1s set up in his condo. That's right, children, I said "in his condo." Not satisfied with something as pedestrian as a French Press, aeropress, or God Forbid, a drip brewer, Matt's got the Real Deal Clover 1s with 220volts of power and a Ditting grinder to match.

Veterans of the Podcast. and The Forum Which Shall Not Be Named know that I'm kinda skeptical about the Clover replacing drip in a busy cafe environment. It's considerably expensive (about US$11,000) and slow (when compared to drip speed), which makes it a hard choice and I'm looking forward to how the twin Clover setup at Cafe Grumpy's Chelsea location performs.

I had the opportunity to sample the original Clover 1 during its' debut at CoffeeFest Seattle 2005. The coffee it produced was remarkable but it's that price point that always makes me pause. But here was the chance to see the 1s up close and personal with someone who has been on the leading edge of Clover brewing since it's release (Matt previously worked as a barista at Elysian Room in Vancouver, BC - a major promoter of Clover).

We spent a few hours just making cup after cup, with a variety of techniques and comparing Clover brewed coffee to that of pressed (the method we use at Spro Coffee). Compared the same coffee at different parameters (i.e. brew temps, brew times, etc) and I have to report (although it may seem late in the game to some) that the Clover is very impressive. I'm tempted to go out and buy one straight away. Unfortunately, that desire is quelled by the Clover's price tag.

So there it is, I'm a Clover fan. I dig what it can do. I dig the coffee it can produce. I love the ability to control the parameters for the coffee. But I'm no fan of the US$11,000 price tag. At $4,000 it would be nearly a no-brainer and I'd have sold one of my La Marzoccos to finance a Clover, but alas it will have to wait until another day.

Ce la vie...

In closing, I found the coffee scene in Toronto to be very promising. But about the espresso...

I found the espresso scene to still be in its' infancy stage. While the espressos I tried were decent, none of them were stellar and I think this has to do with blend of coffees that they're using in Toronto. Like the rest of the East Coast, the scene and development of coffee is about ten years behind Seattle. They're working hard and trying but it's going to take some time for things to develop and mature. When it comes to espresso, I prefer rich body, complexity, chocolate, fruits and a bit of nuttiness - a deep, complex coffee to appreciate. Their time will come.

Another interesting thing I found was the dominance of Elektra espresso machines. They're heat exchangers and can pull some tasty espresso. Alex remarked that he's looking forward to jumping on the Synesso bandwagon but I'm not sure if that's absolutely necessary.

Overall, I had a great trip to Toronto. Got to see some old friends. Hung out with passionate coffee people. Visited the distillery tourist district, saw a very wild-looking BMW dealership, drove 140kph on the 401 and ate Douglas Fir truffles (very tasty, but don't ask). Thanks to Barista Matt, Alex, Deanna and Michael Empacher for giving me a tour of the Fresh Coffee Network and Merchants of Green Coffee. A good trip and I look forward to returning.