How hard is it to make a decent coffee? A Herculean task, apparently. Since I arrived in Toronto I’ve been eagerly checking out cafe after cafe in order to build a network of quality caffeine all around the city. My goal is to be no more than five minutes away from a quality espresso drink whenever I step off the subway. There has been both trial and error. Then more error and occasional spots of success. It’s a work in progress, or an eternal side quest. A waste of time to some, but frankly I’m cursed with too much spare time and a skewed collection of priorities. The thing is, at some point I found a job as a barista. My latte art looked akin to a preschooler’s crayon drawings, but at least I could make a good tasting coffee. While that’s behind me, at when I get a ratshit coffee, I know that I could do better.
My favourite drink is a mocha. It’s coffee’s gateway drug. It’s warm, milky, a smooth consistency and the sweetness offsets the natural bitterness of espresso coffee beautifully. Since I want to holding them to the same standards (and since it’s pretty hard to fuck up a mocha) the mocha is my go-to barometer of judgement. I’ve found there are a few qualities I look for when judging a coffee:
- Beans: Balance is the name of the game. Slightly bitter, acidic, sweet and aromatic, but not too much of any one thing that it throws the taste out of alignment. A pleasant aftertaste really helps it go down.
- Heat: As hot as you can drink without burning your mouth. This one’s tricky to get, but I’d rather my drink was closer to warm than scalding. I’m a fast drinker, so notching it up a few degrees does force me to slow down, but if my taste buds are singed it’s not like I’d taste the coffee anyway.
- Milk: Anyone can heat milk, but getting the texture right is key. New baristas will always stretch the milk too much, which makes it super frothy. Elsewise they’ll heat it so much I think they’re trying to Spicoli me. A mocha’s a latte, so you want to stretch the milk just slightly, then rest the steam wand underneath the surface and spin the milk without plunging it too deep. It should be thicker than normal, but not gluggy. Smooth is the name of the game.
- Chocolate: Sweet without being cloying. I’ve seen a variety of techniques work here. Ghirardelli does great chocolate syrup. Chocolate milk is naturally a treat (especially the Harmony stuff). Chocolate powder works fine too, brand pending. That Chocosol Mexican style chocolate is amazing, but rare to find in espresso drinks. I’ve had some baristas just put in baking cocoa, which is way too bitter. Cut that with something or just bite the bullet and get a better option.
So I’ve wandered around and tried a ton of coffee. Sometimes the coffee itself will be fine, but a shitty barista will ruin it. Everyone has to start somewhere, I guess. Once or twice I’ve asked for a redo, if I’ve just paid $5 for a subpar mocha. I feel shitty asking for it, but I also feel shitty paying $5 for something that’s actively disappointing. Seriously, getting a poorly made coffee can really throw a wrench in my mood. If that makes no sense to you, think about frequently ordering your favourite dish and regularly being dissatisfied with it. It’s something that’s meant to make you happy, but so often you try a new restaurant that just can’t do it right.
Anyway, I thought I’d try and crowdsource some suggestions. I’ve put together a coffee map of Toronto. If you’ve got a great local spot that does an awesome cup, let me know: