Cafe Crawlin’

This post was a long time in the making…!

 About 10 days ago, Kyle (new General Manager of Kerrisdale — congrats!!!) and I went on a cafe crawl in Vancouver… I wanted to post up some comments and insights right away but never found the time to do it.  Good thing I have my little black book of coffee, because now I can go back and look up my notes.

Disclaimer:  If you continue reading this post, please understand that my own reflections on the following shops and coffees are purely my own point of view.  I know I didn’t have any “bad” coffees but I also understand the pitfalls of judging a retail location or its coffee from just one visit.  This exercise was done mainly for myself, so that I can push my own ability to taste different kinds of coffee and critique what I taste so that whatever I learn may be helpful down the road in my own time as a barista.  I share these notes because I know first-hand that it was useful for me to talk with others while I tasted coffee.  Likewise, letting others read about my experiences may push them to try something a little different as well.  I’ll try to keep things generally positive (they mostly were all positive experiences!) and refrain from making broader judgements based on one visit.  Thank you for your understanding…!

We decided to hit four cafes on Sunday, October 14.  It had been a while since we drank anything other than 49th Parallel espresso (Epic and Artigiano’s Private Reserve and Organic lines), and we wanted to put our coincidental day off together to good use.  The method of the day that we ended up deciding on was simple: one cappuccino and one espresso from each cafe, prepared however the cafe usually presents the drinks (we won’t specify a single or a double, etc.).  Our basis for judging would be driven by the WBC judges’ sheet, although I point out right away that we are not even close to being a WBC judge.  We started at, where else, 49th Parallel Cafe.  I like to think of this decision as our way of “calibrating,” due to the fact that we know the blend that they use so well that it’s easy to point out flaws and decide on scoring.  Of course, when we walked in, we realized that it was Vince who was on the bar…

Fortunately or unfortunately, (or for others — it shouldn’t matter!!!), Vince didn’t pull our shots.  My cappuccino was creamy, sweet, and at the perfect temperature.  Because it was a single, the milk’s sweetness really shone through (3.9 percent fat does this quite well).  The double espresso was very syrupy sweet, with a nice hint of acidity in the finish.  Great way to start the day!

Down the street we went, to the Elysian Room where I was ready to try the new blend that they’re using.  60% Brazil Fazenda Cachoeira (not the CoE lot) mixed with 40% El Salvador Finca Monterey.  I was surprised how the citrus from the El Salvador announced its presence in the cappuccino, picking up the spotlight from the sweet milk and round chocolatey body of the Brazil.  This was made even more evident in the espresso, which made me think of lemons and spice.  As always, service was top-notch and the ambience of the cafe couldn’t be beat.  Definately something important in the search for the perfect coffee shop.

Onwards to Wicked Cafe, Vancouver’s endless and abundant source of all things Intelly.  It was a busy time in the shop (whenever I walk it it’s tough to find a place to sit down — that’s how full they always are!), but we managed to scrounge two seats at the wall counter by the bar.  The Black Cat cappuccino was probably one of the most balanced capps that I’ve had, with a nice acidic-chocolate two-punch combo, althought the milk was on the hot side in comparison to the two shops we came from.  The espresso had excellent crema colour and consistency, with a smooth taste and a lasting citrus finish.  I don’t know how but I walked away thinking to myself, that tasted a bit like grapefruit!  And to answer the question before you ask, no, Cady wasn’t in the shop when we went 🙂

Next up: Artigiano!  We decided to sneak in a stop at Kerrisdale’s Caffe Artigiano to see how things were going “back home.”  A mix-up during our ordering saw both our capps and our espressos come up at the bar at the same time.  Oops!  The capps had huge body, a hint of bittersweet chocolate, and really dense foam.  The double espresso was very smooth, with a fruity finish.  Unfortunately the crema was dissipating while I tried the capp, so it might not have been as sweet as it should have been.

The last stop of the day was Cafe In, a small neighbourhood shop in Kerrisdale that proudly serves up Intelligentisa Coffee.  The cappuccino came in traddy form (big foam), but the milk’s sweetness was spot-on.  Lemony finish in the espresso dominated the taste profile from the Swift-pulled double espresso.  I’m not sure where I stand in terms of the Swift automatic grinder, after working with it for almost two years I can definately see its usefullness, but in terms of a straight shot because you don’t have complete control over the variables of dose, grind, and tamp, the adjustments must be made to taste and to time continually to ensure a servable product.  I’ve seen some baristas tamp or polish the pucks that come out of a Swift and don’t really see why.  I’ve tried this before and haven’t noticed any substantial differences in taste…  anyways!

The next day, I checked out two other cafes on my way home from work.  Cafe Crema in Ambleside, West Vancouver serves JJBean in an attractive retail location.  The capp was sweet with perfectly foamed milk, but the espresso was on the bright side.    Mink Chocolate Cafe served up a cappuccino that was a tad too hot, lacking in sweetness and ended up on the bitter side.  I didn’t have a chance to try their espresso before I had to leave.

View photos from the Vancouver Cafe Crawl:

So why am I writing about these cafe experiences tonight?  Well, today was my day off from work, and I had a chance to take a trip down to Seattle… so here’s part two!

I decided to start off my day at the original Zoka in Greenlake.  It was my first time there (all my previous visits were to the University Zoka in the U of W campus), and I had high hopes of finding some Panama Esmeralda.  No such luck, so I settled on a Clover cup of the Brazil Santa Inez Cup of Excellence.  Full-bodied, caramelly-brown sugar notes came flying out of the cup, followed by a more subtle apple finish. 

Next: STUMPTOWN!  They don’t do drip at Stumptown Seattle, it was French Press coffee kept in an airpot.  Fine by me, as the sign said “Colombia La Esperanza Cup of Excellence”!  Two CoE’s to start my day!  This one was intensely buttery, almost peanutty, with a light but distinct acidity that came out stronger as the cup cooled.  The Hairbender espresso that I had was sweet but on the citrus-fruity side, and pulled really short.  I have to take a moment to say how I love Stumptown Coffee’s cafes.  Each one has a distinct personality (Annex, Ace are my favourites) while at the same time they tie together a similar atmosphere so you know you’re definately in a Stumptown when you walk in.  No different with their new Seattle location.  The stools and long sofas are gorgeous.

After lunch at Salumi’s in Pioneer Square, I walked over to the newest location of Trabant Coffee and Chai, only to find a very friendly and familiar face behind the bar — Philip Search!  We were both all smiles when he handed me a little demitasse of home — 49th Parallel’s Epic Espresso, pulled off a Synesso Cyncra with wooden (!) portafilter handles!  The smooth dark crema gave way to a very sweet, syurpy espresso that had tons of body.  I am more than likely biased because this is the stuff that I “grew up on,” so excuse me while I gush about this shot.  Fair credit goes to the barista too!

On Philip’s reccomendation, I headed over to Ballard (Where’s Ballard? Past Clover!  Oh!) and found myself at Caffe Fiore, Caffe Vita’s organic operation.  Wow.  It was a pretty little set-up.  Since they didn’t have any traditional-sized cappuccinos (10-ounces was their smallest), I went with a macchiato that ended up around 4-ounces.  The crema was dark and had a caramelly armoa to it.  Big body shone through right away, with a sweet orange-y finish.

Back over to Capitol Hill, I skipped Vivace and headed over to Vita, where I haven’t been for almost a year.  Nothing really has changed with their espresso — still dark and chocolatey, like I remembered.  Drank it at the bar, forgot to photo it.  Oops.  Same at Victrola (V2) — the Ethiopian Harrar that they had on Press (in an airpot) was on the smoky side and lacked the bright blueberries that everyone looks for, but still had a nice sweetness and a hint of something spicy in the finish.

That’s a lot of coffee in one day, huh?  Well, there was some free cupping thing at Stumptown at 3pm, so I decided that I just HAD to return… I was in the neighbourhood anyways, right?  Right?  Matt Lee you would have been proud of me!

My host at Stumptown was called Mike as well.  A cupping for two Mikes, how nice.  Here are all the coffees we tried with some of my notes:

Costa Rica Finca La Pira (caturra, catuai) – Aromatic, sweet, citrus, milk chocoaltey.
Panama Carmen Estate (caturra, typica) – Orange-y, darker chocolate, tobacco.
Costa Rica Finca Salaca Villalobos (typica) – Roasty, tons of body, dry.
Costa Rica El Quemado (geisha) – Sparkling acidity, sweet fruit.
Panama Don Pachi (geisha) – sweet, fruit loops-y, muted acidity.
Panama Esmeralda Special (Non-auction lot) (geisha) – floral, sweet, grapes.

Wow… the basement of Stumptown Seattle was huge!  And the training room!  I want one of those in my basement!

View photos from the Seattle Cafe Crawl:

Anyways… I had a great time trying all these coffees over the last week and a bit… thank you to every barista who shared their craft and passion with me!  I hope I can return the favour to you soon!



Thinking about the VacuVins that are available on the market… and if they are worth the price (almost $30?).  For me, because I can get great coffee at work, I don’t always make coffee at home… especially if I’m opening (why bother at 4:30am — I’d rather sleep ten more minutes and make a press pot in the cafe).  So that means that whatever beans I buy end up sitting for a while unless I share them with others.  Even so, half a pound of coffee means 12 or so vac pots of coffee for me… pushing three weeks at my current schedule.  And I love trying different coffees, so I often have more than 2 or 3 on-hand.  Maybe therein lies the advantage to the VacuVins… I can keep older roast dates longer (in between brews) as long as I don’t keep opening and closing the container?  Definately something to try.  Maybe I’ll pick up a couple on my way to work tomorrow!

$5 Esmeralda?

No kidding… get it while it lasts (there are only 3 bags left I heard) at Vince’s new 49th Parallel Cafe… a 12-ounce serving of Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Especiale off the Clover for only $5 plus tax…!  Today was my first time trying the Esmeralda on the Clover.  Interestingly enough, I found the Clover to offer a more fuller-bodied experience compared to my usual press pot at Park Royal (isn’t it usually the opposite case?).  Fruits and flavours still shone through… I got a ton of yuzu (Japanses citrus fruit) lingering in the aftertaste.  A tremendous coffee experience!


I’m still in shock.  Thank you, thank you THANK YOU to EVERY person who helped me!!! I really couldn’t have done it without you!!! 

The BIG Day!

Finals round of the Canadian National Barista Championship goes underweigh in less than three hours… I’m competitor number 4.  I’m so excited to make it into the finals with my first ever competition preformance..!  Congrats to all the other competitors who made an awesome showing for Canada’s coffee culture.  Bravo!

The night before…

It’s not unlike Christmas eve when I was a child.  This feeling of anticipation, building up to a point sometime tomorrow where I can (hopefully) shine… I’m excited.  There’s no doubt about it, I’m very, very excited.  A quick practice session tonight kinda threw me into the last-minute mindset, “I can’t believe that it’s gonna happen tomorrow!”  I’m just hoping now that my skillset and nerves will carry me through my fifteen minutes of fame.  There’s nothing more to worry about.  You never really know what will happen your first time out in competition, but I’m confident that no matter what happens, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something. 

It was really nice to see old friends and familiar faces during the last couple days.  Matt Lee’s space looks amazing.  I think it will do much by way of opening the eyes of Torontonians to what true specialty coffee can mean.  It’s great to see James, Annette, and the ever-so-amiable Stephen (is that his name???) again.  Park Royal is truly well-represented by former and current workers Nick, Anthony, Colter, and myself.  Thank you to all who have lended a hand or whispered some measure of advice.  No matter how small or large your contributions to my efforts tomorrow, I thank you with my whole heart.  This has truly been a wild ride for the last month… And I can only hope that it’s a beginning; rather than an end.

See you tomorrow!

Catching up.

I can hardly believe it, but the Nationals are just around the corner!  I’m finally out of the store full-time now, with one full day’s worth of practise tomorrow before I board a 6am flight to Toronto!  Everyone talks when you tell them you’re planning on competing in the barista championships, and I’ve learned as much as I can, as fast as I can, in the last 30 days. 

Since returning from Tokyo, it’s been a steep learning curve, both in Park Royal and at 49th Parallel.  Finally managing a store on my own is completely akin to, pardon the cliche, the first time you ride a bike on your own, without training wheels or dad’s hand on the back.  I know what I’m supposed to do, I know what I want done, and I know what I have to use in order the accomplish it, but the pieces of the puzzel just don’t always seem to fit together.  Eight hour shifts quickly turn into 14-hour marathons on the bar, on the till, and on the grill.  I’ve heard it many times before, but for the first time in my life (I don’t have school anymore) I completely understand when they say: the first three weeks of September in the service industry just kill you.  There’s so much that I want to accomplish in Park Royal, which came from me feeding off the energy that I had when I left Kerrisdale. 

At Kerrisdale, Kyle and I had fostered from the initial training onwards a dedication to coffee and service excellence that not only taught the employees what was great coffee, but instilled in them a desire to push themselves to look for the “next step,” so to speak.  Monthly coffee-knowledge nights were always extremely well-attended and lasted long into the night.  Weekly French Press coffee tastings were mandatory for all staff.  You know things are going well when your newbie baristas are asking you why a 25-gram dose is so different from a 28-gram dose and why the “rules” that we set are meant to be broken.  “Taste the coffee!” we always say.  Maybe today’s 25-gram dose will turn into a 27- or 28-gram dose next week, if that’s what tastes best.  When your till people are asking you complicated questions about espresso extration techniques in order to sell a ristretto instead of the customer-requested double-lungo, it can’t help but bring a smile to my face.  “Baby steps,” is what I find that I’m telling myself lately.  I know that there are miles to go before I sleep… and one more hurdle to jump through first!

I can’t say that I’m completely prepared to compete in this weekend’s barista championships, but I know that I’ve got the desire and hope that somehow the knowledge and skillset will come through.  I’m completely indebted to several key individuals who have been nothing but encoraging and helpful to me throughout the last three weeks.  I’ve had late-night practise sessions and early-morning shopping trips, all in the name of a perfect routine.  But in the end, does a routine have to be perfect in order to score perfectly?  I believe that the the product is more important than the process, and that the process takes precedence over the package.  Goofs are natural, nerves are too.  It doesn’t help that the vast majority of the people who will watch the competition will already pre-judge me, based on what they know about the company that I represent.  I hope that I can break free of any such moulds.  My signature drink speaks clearly on that I hope.  While by no means will I use anything like kangaroo meat in my drink, I hope to change some opinions on espress-based beverages when I arrive in Toronto.  I’ve had a very precise idea of what I’ve wanted to accomplish with my drink from the month before, and I believe that the finishing touches that Mike Piccolo and I added today will make my drink incredibly memorable for those who have a chance to taste it.

CNBC Practice Rounds

I depart Vancouver at 6:00 am local time on Thursday morning.  I’m still debating whether or not to take my laptop with me; in any case, I’m sure you will all find out the results from other various fora before I have a chance to update my own little blog.  I can’t wait to see you all in Toronto!

Currently Sipping

10/07/07: 12 oz. Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Especiale @ 49th Parallel Cafe, prepared on Clover. Barista: Vince Piccolo. Aroma: Lush citrus and floral notes. Taste: Smooth body, intense grapefruit/yuzu (citrus fruit, Japanese origin) sweetness. Hightened acidity as the cup cools. Finish: Lingering sweetness and more yuzu.


February 2019
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