Monday, September 12, 2011

Mercury Espresso Bar

“We wanted to open a coffee shop that played kick-ass music and served kick-ass coffee; a shop that we’d want to hang out in ourselves,’ echo Matthew Taylor and Douglas Tiller, partners in Mercury Espresso Bar. It’s a great point and perhaps the real secret to growing their successful Leslieville café even as Starbucks moved in up the street.

No doubt, Starbucks are masters at providing a consistent quality of coffee in a bland, homogeneous, cookie cutter space where everyone feels welcome but nobody feels quite at home, with an exception of course for those people who really feel a connection with bland and homogeneous.

Mercury Espresso Bar is everything that Starbucks isn’t. The baristas are passionate about what they’re doing and know more about coffee than their customers. A lot more… Go figure.

Mathew is a musician and plays in a couple bands, drums and guitar, meaning music is very important around this joint. Beyond a couple house rules which ban playing classical or jazz music or wearing a beret, the baristas play whatever they like. The music is diverse and sometimes loud. It’s definitely not for all of the people all of the time, and this is a very good thing.

Starbucks consistent quality of coffee, doesn’t mean that it’s good. It simply means that it’s dependable, that no matter what country you’re in, or what planet you’re on, there will be a Starbucks, and they will serve you the same cup of coffee. What separates Mercury Espresso Bar from Starbucks more than anything else?  It’s that Mercury actually serves great coffee!... even kick-ass coffee. Of late, this is thanks to an important figure behind the rise of the specialty coffee movement, George Howell.

After drinking a lot of Peet’s Coffee in Berkley California back in the late ‘60s Howell moved to Boston where he has described the coffee he found as ‘vile,’ and set about to change things. Some 20 years later, in 1994, Howell sold out his Boston area chain ‘Coffee Connection’ to Starbucks for a ton of Starbuck’s stock. (Worth about ½ billion today!)

Extensive travel throughout the coffee growing regions, including working with the United Nations on sustainability issues, eventually led Howell to help found ‘Cup Of Excellence,’ an important series of competitions that sees farmers growing the best coffee, receive maximum remuneration for their efforts.

Today, Howell is back in the roasting business with his Terroir Coffee Company. No fan of ‘Charbucks,’ Howell focuses much of his time on light roasts and Single Origin beans: single origin, as in from one area or maybe even one farm but not blended with beans from another area or country. As of last November Mercury began testing out Howell’s coffee and now brew it exclusively. Beans are delivered fresh weekly from Howell’s roasting facility just outside of Boston.

The espresso currently being served at Mercury is called Alchemy and is a seasonal Costa Rican, Brazilian blend along with a single origin from El Salvador. (I’m told an Ethiopian, Yirgacheffe is also coming soon!)

The daily brew is currently from Burudi. If you have a little extra time on your hands one afternoon, treat yourself to a Chemex or Siphon pour. It costs a little more, but not more than say, a glass of wine. For coffee lovers the Chemex cuts bitterness while enhancing flavor. The Burundi I drank, black, was clean, lightly sweet and delicious. I’d also recommend the Chemex as an excellent brewing method for anyone trying to kick the milk and sugar habit.

While I would drive across town to try a cup of Howell’s coffee, my ideal shop would also provide options for locally roasted coffee, and there are many great choices available. But that’s just me and Mathew and Douglas are clear in their understanding that you can’t please everyone. As one of the first excellent, and longest standing neighborhood joints on the now thriving Queen East café strip, who’s to argue.

Scones and cookies are from Circles and Squares. Croissants are from Le Matine…

Mon.-Fri. 6:30 a.m.- 8:00 p.m.,  Sat. – 7-8,   and Sun. 8-8

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Plan B

“We’ve tried to create a space that’s bright and cheery; that’s eternally summer, even in the middle of winter,” says manager and partner, Kate Hardy. And in Toronto, where winter does frequently drag on, it makes good sense.  While not your traditional coffee shop, Plan B, is a fun addition to the neighborhood and worth the short meander up from the bustle of the Queen East cafes.

Not familiar with Plan B?  It’s that shop at the corner of Dundas East and Logan with the bright pink Vespa, the hot lime green, lounge chairs and the great name; at least for anyone who has apprenticed in the arts and then found themselves rather broke around the first of every month. The whole enterprise was dreamed up by Chris Willets, whose ‘T-ShirtGuys’ has been holding down the same corner for the last 8 years.

With Kate, formerly of Red Rocket Coffee, on board, Plan B now manages to offer coffee, flowers, baked goods, candy and T-shirts and actually make it all work. It’s less a stop for the coffee purist, and more a great place to chill over a latte or cappuccino, meet a friend and maybe learn a thing or two about fresh cut flowers. Even if you’re just browsing, Kate is sure to have a good tip for you, like “if your tulips are drooping, drop a couple pennies into the vase and they’ll stand up straight.”

The design of  Plan B is eclectic, with lots of bright, 60’s pop influences, a couple antiques mixed in, some rustic country silver birch and run of white picket fencing bordering the flowers. There’s also an excellent community board loaded with notes, numbers and pics from various folks in the neighborhood. An ipod mix of great late 70s classics via the Clash and the Buzzcocks played in the background during my visit; tracks like... ‘Lost in the Supermarket’ and ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.’

Plan B’s coffee is procured from an excellent local roaster, Mountain View Estates Coffee and is %100  organic and fair trade. Their Espresso, $1.25/$1.99, is a Peruvian, Nicaraguan blend. Their drip, $1.50/$1.70 is a Peruvian, Honduran medium roast... No extra charge for soy.

There is a selection of loose leaf tea, $2.19, from Metropolitan Tea Company. Baked goods are  from Desmond & Beatrice and include scones, cup cakes and cookies. Try the all day breakfast sandwich; ham and a poached egg, oozing with cheddar, on a scone. It’s tasty and filling and only $5. or $6 with a small coffee…

As they head into their second summer, Kate’s aim to provide a great environment with great service is humming along smoothly. Plan B is pet friendly and frequented by Chris and Kate’s affectionately, extroverted, 11 month old Golden Doodle, Ben. The staff is super friendly, the patio is quiet and relaxing, and the café is a feast for the senses. Drop by and enjoy!

Summer Hours – Mon.-Wed. 8 a.m.- 6 p.m.,  Tues.-Sat. – 8-8,   and Sun. 9-5

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Classic Gourmet Coffee

In an infamous 1950s Folgers commercial a young man sips from his cup and then crying out ‘Oh, this coffee is criminal,’ tosses it over the flower bed as his wife shrieks, ‘Honey, you’ll kill the petunias.’ In order to save her  marriage and the defenseless petunias her grocer, Papa Eddie recommends she switch to mountain grown Folgers. 

But the race to maximize profits while selling the cheapest coffee, meant using inferior beans, and selling stale product. As the 60s arrived, corporate coffee was so bad not even marketing could save it. Coffee sales were plummeting. Fortunately, as consumers were beginning to wise up, a new breed of entrepreneur was emerging to serve them.

In 1964 Luigi Russignan opened a small cafe, roastery, Barzula Coffee, on College St. in downtown Toronto and began selling old world coffee to the locals. Alfred Peet, the son of a Dutch coffee roaster, couldn’t understand why people in as rich a country as the United States, drank such horrible coffee. Peet’s Coffee & Tea opened in Berkley, California in 1966, and became the original inspiration for Starbucks.

In 1971 John Rufino, an energetic, young man with  a passion for coffee, arrived in Canada eager to make a name for himself. Back home in Calabria, Italy, where John grew up, espresso bars were everywhere. 'They were a way of life.' Local roasters would blend beans from Africa with beans from Brazil to achieve the darker roast and complexity that Southern Italian espresso is noted for.

Barely 20 and still learning the language, Rufino opened a bakery in the Scarlett Rd., Eglinton area, and began roasting and selling his own coffee. His business grew rapidly to meet the overwhelming demand from his customers and eventually led to an exclusive focus on roasting.

Rufino acknowledges modestly, that he was blessed with an excellent palate. From the beginning he would spend long hours religiously cupping samples from importers, and then mixing roasted coffee in an obsessive search to re-create the rich espresso blend he remembered from his youth.

Over time, Rufino also realized that in order to produce a more consistent coffee he would need to reconsider the entire roasting process. Drawing on his background in electrical engineering, Rufino spent the better part of a decade researching and building his own roaster. The result, in 2002, was one of the most advanced systems in North America.

Profile roasting is key to the system, using technology to precisely control each step of the process. Once the ideal conditions for roasting a specific bean are determined, the exact parameters are locked in and can be meticulously repeated over and over, ensuring not only high quality but a consistent product where guess work has been eliminated.

Not only does the system offer precise roasting controls, it cut his gas consumption and therefore C02 emissions by 59%. The end result being a dramatic reduction in the company’s environmental impact. Further, the entire facility runs on renewable energy from Bullfrog Power.

Anyone in the GTA who has frequented a local café for an espresso has likely tasted Classic Gourmet Coffee, as their client base, including local restaurants and small grocers, numbers around 1000. But Classic does little in the way marketing with John and his son Pat relying on the quality of their product and word of mouth to grow their business.

Now one of the largest Specialty roasters in the country, Classic Gourmet Coffee offers it’s wholesale customers a choice of 7 different espresso blends under it's Rufino label, and a full selection of single origin coffee from around the world, including fair trade, organic and Rainforest Alliance.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Voulez-Vous Cafe

 Why are so many people from the film community opening up cafes? 'Because we're used to working brutally long hours, with little sleep, and it's great preparation for running your own business,' says Voulez-Vous Café owner, Sean Lacey.

With Sean at the helm, Voulez-Vous opened it’s doors in February, 2010 with a mission to serve great coffee  and create a community hub. Located at 1560 Queen St. East, just before Coxwell, it’s a welcome addition to a rapidly changing neighborhood.

The previous tenant, I Deal Coffee, closed at this location, when it’s mammoth roasting operation became an issue with neighbors. Lacy soon found himself working on designs for a friend, with an eye towards opening a restaurant in the space, but when it didn’t materialize, Sean pounced. Negotiating a long term lease with the landlord, he set about realizing a life long dream and opened his own café.

Growing up in Little Italy, Lacy began drinking espresso at an early age, and was lucky to live in one of the few places in Toronto where great coffee could be found and where a passionate coffee culture existed. Old World Coffee was readily available from local Italian grocers, who imported their coffee from back home in Italy, the birthplace of espresso. There were no percolators in little Italy. There were some early espresso machines, and lots of Bialettis but nobody was drinking Folgers, or Sanka, like in my neighborhood. The Italians knew better.

For Sean, the local café was always a place for making a community. ‘I would get together with friends and we would talk for hours over 3, 4 or 5 espressos. But outside of Little Italy nobody knew what an espresso was.’ Lacey reminisces, ‘It wasn’t until Graziano Marchese opened Dooney’s Cafe, on Bloor St. in the late 80’s that Toronto got it’s first Café, espresso bar.’

No wonder Dooney’s became such a local institution, and a second home for writers, film makers, artists and even local celebrities like Margaret Atwood and Jane Jacobs. The arts community was discovering espresso. Others would follow. By 1996, Starbucks opened it’s first stores in Toronto and specialty coffee would never look back.

Following in the family tradition, Lacey’s café journey began with two years of cooking school at George Brown followed by  nearly a decade  of work in film, mostly as a set decorator, or designer.  

Now a days a vibrant café culture is bursting out all over Toronto and one really pleasant aspect about many of these spaces, is the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. Grab a coffee, get comfortable, read the paper. This is Voulez-Vous. The Café is surrounded by large glass windows, giving it big, open feel and also boasts a rare side patio to take in a few rays as you sip your latte.

In the front window, there are stools and a bar, and a long communal table by the side window, to spread out a little. Comfy arm chairs flank a gas fireplace. Do take note of the main bar, designed and built by one of Sean’s film pals. It’s made from old wooden doors and it’s quite amazing but easy to miss with your attention focused on the coffee and baked goods.

A big part of getting any new café right is getting the coffee right. Choosing a Roaster like Classic Gourmet Coffee, guarantees that the product being served is among the best available. John Rufino, at Classic, has been roasting coffee since the mid ‘70s and has earned a reputation for consistency and quality. Fresh roasted coffee is delivered from Classic’s Concorde facility every other day. Voulez-Vous espressos ($2/3) really show off the rich character of Classic’s espresso roast. My double was nice jolt of flavor, followed by a delicious, frothy Latte, which was also excellent.

Baked goods, cookies, muffins, scones are from Circles & Squares Bakery. Chicken, prosciutto, and zucchini paninis are also available.

Adjoining the café, and taking over the former I Deal Coffee roasting space is an exciting new bakery, Le Matin, which provides Voulez-Vous with its baguettes ($2.50) and croissants ($2.25). The bakery is the latest venture of chef Jean-Pierre Challet, formerly of  Auberge  du Pommier and Le Select Bistro, and whose Ici Bistro is packing them in across town on Manning St.

If you ever needed a sign that a neighborhood is moving on up in a big way, Voulez-Vous and La Matin would be it!

Hours of Operation – M-F 7a.m.- 6 p.m., Sat. 9-6 and Sun. 10-5

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Merchants of Green Coffee

Just off Queen East, at Davies and Matilda St., is where you'll find Merchant's of Green Coffee, one of Toronto's preeminent coffee roaster, cafes. Since opening it's doors in 1995, Merchants has grown into a neighborhood institution, based on a couple of simple principals: fresh roasted coffee and sustainable beans.  

Formerly home to a Shirriff jam factory, the Merchant’s main floor space has a real NYC, East Village feel, with it's open concept room, wood floors, exposed brick, and hefty wood beams. Lots of  rustic character here, along with a choice of comfy old sofas to lounge on or numerous tables to pull out a laptop and take advantage of the free WiFi... 

Merchant’s co-owner Derek Zavislake, a long time advocate for local roasters and home roasting, maintains that 'coffee should be consumed within 5 days of it’s roast date. If the coffee you're buying isn’t roast dated, how can you trust it's fresh?’ Best before dates are equally suspect. Given that I recently purchased coffee with a best before date 11 months into the future, Merchant’s policy of providing a roast date on all coffee sold is both innovative and impressive. 

Multi-nationals like Nestlés, Kraft, and Sara Lee staked out the coffee game early on, selling consumers a product that they had no idea was perishable. The story of fresh coffee became at best, a marketing gimmick. The reality is centrally roasted coffee, shipped around the world, trucked across country, sitting on grocery shelves for some unknown period of time, until purchased and finally consumed. Hence the need to  load up on milk and sugar to mask the taste.

In Zavislake's world, fresh roasted beans are supplied by local roasters, on a daily basis. Local cafés selling fresh roasted coffee would be found in every neighborhood, next to say, the local bakery where you pick up your fresh bread. Having a roast date printed on each bag, leaves the fresh or not decision in the hands of the consumer. And no, Starbucks doesn't use local roasters. Starbucks roasts it's coffee in places like South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Nevada and then trucks it around the country just like it's multi-national rivals.  

The Zavislake brothers, Brad and Derek, have spent a great deal of energy trying to educate people about quality coffee. And as someone who grew up drinking appalling, multi-national grocery store brew, I can appreciate their work and the ongoing courses they offer. 

Throughout the year, beans from as many 150 different coffee growing regions will pass through the café with a selection of 15 to 30 available on any given day. It’s Flagship coffee is it’s Solar dried, Costa Rican. It’s development coffee is from Haiti and it’s surprise coffee of the year, for 2011, hails from East Timor.

in 1999, after numerous trips to origin to work with local farmers and co-operatives, Merchants teamed up with the Government of Canada to create the Sustainable Coffee Program. The SCP is a comprehensive label that ensures at a minimum, fair trade prices are paid to farmers, in return for the highest standard of  bean, grown in a bird friendly, pesticide free environment, and processed in an eco-friendly manner that preserves the rainforest.

In 2009 the expansion bell tolled as members of Merchants of Green, The Fresh Coffee Network and Dark City Coffee teamed up with James Fortier, as partners in I Deal Coffee. The goal being to unite a group of local roasters and cafes with the same values and principals, all working together to chip away at an entrenched multi-national market.

Saturday is a great day to visit Merchants when Zavislake brews up a free cup of his best coffee for anyone willing to drink it without adding milk or sugar and to listen to him speak about coffee and pay tribute to it's birthplace with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. 

Beginning with the burning of Frankincense,  Zavislake roasts up some Ethiopian beans between a couple of old flat pans, over a burner. Yes, roasting coffee can be just this easy. Before long the beans are crackling away like a batch of Jiffy Pop, popping up on the stove. The coffee I sampled was great, with a sweet aroma and a taste of roasted nuts. The finish was consistent with no bitterness or after taste.

Merchant’s signature brew uses precisely under boiled water poured over  freshly ground coffee, in an organic, cotton hemp filter. After sitting for 3 to 4 minutes the coffee is then served in a karaff with a mug for $3. The whole process can take a bit of time, especially if there’s a line up, but the results are worth it.

 Expect to pay $3 or $4 for a Latte, depending on the size with no extra charge for soy or almond milk. Espressos are $2.50 for a double shot. Cappucinos cost $3.50 and Americanos an even $3.00.

All of the baristas I spoke with were friendly and knowledgeable and I concluded my day with an espresso, made from a fresh roasted Nicaraguan bean, that was yummy and would keep me coming back for more.

All baked goods are from OMG Bakery and include cookies for $2., savory pastries, muffins, scones and vegan cupcakes on the weekend, all for $3. each.

Hours of operation: M-F 9-6  &  S-S 10-6

Saturday, April 9, 2011

MonteVerde - Costa Rica

Near Santa Elena

The bus from San Jose was a great ride until the especially jarring last leg up to Santa Elena.  'Los caminos son muy rota,' 'the roads are very broken,' I commented to a local, who smiled with pride. He explained that community members blocked the roads from being paved back in the day, to curb the tourist flow. No problem. The cloud forests near Santa Elena and Monteverde are marvelous and inspiring, a piece of heaven on earth. They can also be very wet, so if you happen by, bring a poncho.

Nestor & Reiman

With Reiman Porras from Cafe Monteverde I visited one of the farms in the Coopesanta Elena Cooperative. The co-op is made up of 40 or so, small coffee producers and was formed in 1988. In 1989 a partnership was established with Montana Coffee Traders, an early, trail blazing, specialty coffee roaster...

One of the Nestor's biggest worries was the recent unpredictability of the weather, which was dramatically affecting his crops; rainy seasons that didn't end when they were supposed to, and dry seasons that had become dryer than ever before. 'Coffee is an exacting crop that requires an ideal mix of rain and temperature and climate change is damaging that balance.'

Coffee plants

 While he was concerned that there was more to be done, Fair Trade had delivered for Nestor and, over the years he was able to save enough to send both of his sons to study in San Jose. I wondered aloud, who would carry on the coffee growing as they pursued their careers, upon graduation. After a moment of nervous hesitation he shared his plan to build a couple more homes on the hill side for his sons to return to.

 Despite having a bad hair day I agreed to the obligatory tourist pose with a coffee picking basket. But Nestor, with his piercing eyes, rolled up sleeves and chiseled features, makes this photo. Surely, you would rather this fine fellow receive a fair slice of your coffee dollars than contributing to the profits of some faceless, planet marauding, multinational like, say, Nestlés. And their coffee sucks to boot...

Around the farm, an assortment of pets and animals roamed. The setting was a magnificent low lying area surrounded by hills, lots of tree cover,  and a random mix of coffee plants, banana plants, sugar cane and other tropical vegetation. This is what a pesticide free, organic, coffee farm looks like.

Fair Trade ensures that Nestor is paid even double, the meager amount multinationals would pay. This helps keep him in business and investing in his farm in a sustainable way. If we don't support small farmers like this, all that will be left is a cup of Maxwell House to start the day... something akin to a tragedy piled on top of a catastrophe!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The MesoAmerican Development Institute (MDI)

The MesoAmerican Development Institute (MDI) - develops and manufacturers sustainable technologies for processing coffee.

 Historically coffee was sun dried on large patios in a kind of 'Rake & Bake' process. Unfortunately, rainy weather could prolong this process, inviting mold infestation. Coffee drying equipment, using a rotating drum and hot air helped but introduced a more serious problem. The cheapest source of energy for the new drying equipment? Firewood, courtesy of the surrounding Rainforest.

According to MDI, the coffee business employs nearly 1 million farmers in Latin America and generates in excess of $10 billion annually. The loss of native habitat due to the burning of wood for energy represents a serious ecological threat and is one of the areas MDI, is working in. By incorporating modern engineering with solar energy, drying times are reduced to one day, burning firewood is eliminated, and vast tracts of forest preserved. Coffee quality is also improved as beans are dried at lower temperatures, preserving more coffee flavor.

From This

To This

Firewood used to fuel conventional coffee dryers.

Solar Drying Towers at Cooperative Montes de Oro.

To This

 In the coffee growing regions of Central America an estimated 6,000 hectares of forest go up in smoke as fuel for coffee dryers, each year—'roughly equivalent of three square centimeters of forest for each cup of coffee we consume.'

Choosing environmentally sustainable coffee is essential to drive investment by farmers in modern drying technologies and other sustainable coffee production processes.

The MesoAmerican Development Institute is on the leading edge of this and other work and you can support their great efforts and great coffee with purchases from Cafe Solar.