Sacred Grounds: The rise of Toronto's third-wave craft coffee scene
We chronicle the history of craft coffee while exploring its future in the city
Ask Graham Braun what did it for him, what got him obsessed, and he remembers instantly: it was a cup of Ethiopian pour-over from Detour Coffee Roasters. He’d tasted good coffee before, but not that good. Next thing he knew he was going all Breaking Bad in his basement at home, bags of coffee beans strewn about, playing around with flavour profiles on a small-batch Huky 500 roaster from Taiwan.
It wasn’t long before he left his job in IT, opening Monigram Coffee Roasters in 2012 with his wife Monica in downtown Cambridge. There the obsession continues. Obsession with heirloom coffee varietals, with roasting them so their sugars fully develop but their bitterness doesn’t. With extraction durations, with coffee grind fineness, with pre-infusion times. Even with tap water, which he tweaks to a minerality content of 120 parts per million.
“The number of variables and permutations with coffee are infinite,” says Braun, a mechanical engineer by trade. “So you’ve got to play. And you never stop.”
His goal is a clear, if difficult, one to achieve. He wants to produce a memorable coffee – an espresso, say, with the texture of velvet, sweet and acidic, with just a touch of bitterness. Such perfectionism might be expected of a young, tattooed barista in some formerly sketchy Toronto neighbourhood – an acolyte of “third wave” coffee, as this reverential approach has come to be known.
But this is Cambridge, the epitome of white-collar suburban Ontario. When craft coffee has permeated this deeply, you know it’s for real. It is quickly becoming the new standard for coffee everywhere.
To piece together how exactly coffee got to this point in Toronto and beyond, we could go back a long way – hundreds of years maybe, to Ethiopia where according to legend a goat herder discovered that his animals seemed to frolic with added determination after consuming the fruit of a certain red-berried plant. Or we could go back to 16th century Malta when Turkish prisoners were thought to have introduced coffee to Europe.
Or we could consult Coffee: A Companion to the Bean, the Beverage and the Industry to follow the origin of espresso in Italy perhaps looking to 1905, when entrepreneur Desiderio Pavoni began producing the Ideale (the first commercial espresso machine), which catered to busy Italians who wanted their coffee made with both speed and quality.
We could take note of another key era, the 1940s, when Achille Gaggia, also from Italy, began manufacturing espresso machines that generated water pressure high enough to create crema, the thick, mousse-like substance widely believed to be the foremost sign of a good shot of espresso.
Sure, it might be wise to begin here with the development of modern espresso because while there are many, many extraction methods for coffee (baristas love their pour-overs and French presses), nothing has inspired such widespread devotion, such caffeinated fanaticism, as espresso and its derivatives: Americanos, lattes, macchiatos and cappuccinos. A viable explanation for espresso’s dominance can be found in the groundbreaking book Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques, regarded by many to be the preeminent barista bible written by the singularly important David Schomer, who is the founder of Seattle’s Espresso Vivace.
“Espresso has the potential to be the pinnacle of all coffee-making methods,” Schomer writes, “because of its unique ability to extract the maximum flavour from coffee and leave behind excess acids and caffeine.”
If third-wave coffee has a messiah, it is Schomer. To fully grasp his influence, one needs only to look at his black-and-white portrait on the back of his book. With his spectacles, moustache, bolo tie and haircut, Schomer in 1996 looked every bit a modern-day hipster. He was a proto-hipster, and it could be said he is one of the main reasons why a huge number of North Americans have become religious about their coffee.
We also owe a begrudging debt of gratitude to Starbucks, which brought espresso to the North American masses. As recounted in Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, it was largely due to the efforts of one man: marketing genius Howard Schultz.
Now executive chairman of Starbucks, Schultz witnessed espresso culture in Italy in 1983 and brought it to Seattle three years later in the form of Il Giornale, an Italian-inspired espresso bar. Il Giornale eventually became the model for future Starbucks locations and inspired a slew of espresso carts and cafés across Seattle. North American cafés catering to European immigrants have been around for decades, but Starbucks sold espresso to the philistines of America by using arabica beans that were roasted to a char, the French way, for a supremely bitter coffee capable of standing up to copious amounts of milk and sugar.
He took classic Italian methods and honed them, developing or popularizing techniques that have now become second nature to discerning baristas everywhere: artfully building a puck of coffee within a portafilter by applying 30 pounds of pressure with a tamper; continually adjusting fineness of grind so that pressurized water takes no less than 25 seconds to pass through the coffee; prioritizing moderately roasted arabica beans over darkly roasted, oily robusta beans commonly seen in Italy; and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring a precise stable extraction temperature of 203.5 F.
“He delved into the science of coffee and extraction in a way unlike anyone else was doing,” Kenneth Nye, owner of Manhattan’s Ninth Street Espresso, told the Seattle Times in 2015. “He was light-years ahead of the conversation at the time.”
Many coffee producers in the U.S., including Chicago’s Intelligentsia and Portland’s Sumptown, owe Schomer at least a small debt of gratitude.
His influence on Toronto, though, is pervasive. To understand why, we’ll go back to 2004 when a Torontonian named Stuart Ross made a leisure trip to Seattle. A burgeoning barista who had opened Bulldog Coffee near Church and Granby streets a year prior, Ross made his way to Schomer’s Espresso Vivace curious to see what the big deal was in Seattle. He ordered a coffee, took a sip and experienced somewhat of a revelation.
“I wasn’t going to drink anything else again,” Ross says. “It was unbelievable to me how amazing coffee could taste. I had to learn how to make it.”
And that’s precisely what Ross did. He took one of Schomer’s coffee-making classes and learned, among other things, the mother lode of new school barista techniques: latte art. Because in addition to Schomer’s other pioneering methods, he was also known for steaming milk to such a consistency that he could create designs with it.
Equipped with his newfound knowledge, Ross returned to Toronto and Bulldog became ground zero for craft coffee in the area. It was the first café in the city to do latte art, which changed everything. “When you have latte art, it means you have textured that milk properly. Also, you have a nearly perfect – or perfect – shot of espresso,” Ross says.
While Jet Fuel, which opened in the 1990s, is widely cited as the city’s first truly indie café (even today it remains the sort of place where young revolutionaries might sit around discussing how they will take down the system one day), its approach to coffee has been more practical than reverential.
In 2003, owner John Englar told the Globe and Mail that his secret was using “twice as much (coffee) as everybody else.”
At Bulldog, baristas went beyond the realm of utilitarianism. They became craftspeople, steaming their milk with the adeptness required to create microfoam; tamping with precision and topping their lattes with hearts or rosettas, all while taking orders and engaging with the clientele.
This is when the boom began. At least two Toronto baristas of significance cut their teeth at Bulldog: Matt Taylor, who in 2006 went on to open the highly influential Mercury Espresso Bar in the east end, and Ed Lynds, who now owns six locations of Dark Horse Espresso Bar with his wife Deanna Zunde.
After Bulldog opened, other third-wave cafés began to spread across the city: Cherry Bomb in 2005; Manic in 2007; Lit in 2008; and Sam James Coffee Bar in 2009, all shops characterized by a continual effort toward coffee perfection. (Bulldog eventually spawned multiple locations that have since closed, although Ross says he has something new in the works.)
Third wave had percolated from the West Coast to Toronto in full force.
For Sam James, whose eponymous coffee bar now has five locations citywide, third-wave coffee is reaching its peak. The way forward is about minutia. One day, he says, he’d like to figure out a way to extract 100 per cent of the soluble parts of a coffee bean to capture the full flavour spectrum it has to offer. But the next major phase of coffee might not be about the dogged pursuit of coffee quality, but exploring the realm of social justice, he says. We might see a full-integration approach, where a producer is involved in every step of the coffee-making process, from planting to roasting to selling.
“The progress of third-wave coffee has been self-serving,” James says. “We should get more connected to the producer and eliminate exploitation at the farm level. That’s a huge area where exploitation still exists.”
Still, he continues to seek out new methods and new technology to ratchet up the quality of his coffee one tick at a time. When he found laser-cut portafilters, which allow for more even extraction, he felt victorious; so too when he began using a refractometer, a device that measures total dissolved solids in a coffee allowing for even more precision.
At Boxcar Social, co-owner and resident coffee guru Alex Castellani is looking to take cues from the wine world. He says there is vast territory to explore in origin expression, extracting coffee in such a way that its terroir is unveiled in the cup. “When people talk about coffee, they don’t often talk about regionality,” he says. “There are aspects of wine we can borrow or use to influence how we treat coffee.”
Castellani has moved away from the Schomer-inspired method of set recipes and techniques, instead using a customized approach for each type of coffee he serves, continually adjusting variables such as water temperature and extraction time.
To better showcase coffee’s versatility, Boxcar Social serves tasting flights in which a customer can experience one variety of bean prepared three ways: as espresso, macchiato and pour-over, for example.
“Coffee origin isn’t just about soil,” Castellani says. “It’s about which variety was planted, it’s how the weather was that year, it’s the drying process. It’s all of these things. So being able to taste all of that is absolutely key.”
Recently, new trailblazers have been experimenting with coffee fermentation, which is a universe on its own, and in Massachusetts, George Howell has been known to freeze green beans to create a library of coffee vintages.
What we’re really looking at, though, when we put a scope on the past, present and future of Toronto’s coffee is a study of the fuel of humanity. Coffee is the most common psychoactive drug in the world; it should be treated with reverence and our dosages should be taken seriously.
Coffee spawns conversation, ideas, debate. We drink it and we write articles and read books. We drink it and we get to know each other a little better. So get ready, Toronto. The future of coffee is looking very promising