Toronto’s espresso experts tell us of coffee’s second coming, what makes a good cup and why Starbucks isn’t all bad

Toronto’s espresso experts tell us of coffee’s second coming, what makes a good cup and why Starbucks isn’t all bad

Irregular joe: Chris Tellez pours his way to first place at the Regional Barista Championships (Photo by Cristene) 

The atmosphere may have been frothy at the Seventh Annual Regional Barista Championships at the Gladstone Hotel last Sunday, but the competition was no cake walk. Fourteen coffee aficionados had 15 minutes to impress six judges (two technical and four sensory) with 12 cups each (four espresso, four cappuccino and four signature). Marks were docked for such Emily Post–like infractions as improper spoon positioning and more than half a finger nail’s worth of waste. We caught up with the top five winners and asked them about the second coming of coffee, what makes a good cup, latte art backlash and why Starbucks isn’t all that bad.

Like beer, which has been catapulted to celebrity status with the craft brewing movement, coffee has been gaining ground. The Toronto bean renaissance continues with a slew of new cafés, including an new eponymous joint from this year’s second-place champ Sam James, coming August 8.

“This is the evolution of espresso,” says Adam Vrankulj, who took fifth place for Grinder, the recently re-named second location of Mercury Espresso Bar, where thoughtful touches includes seasonal bean picks like the fruity Ethiopian Yirgarcheffe for summer. “Tea is ancient,” he says, “but coffee is young.” For third-place brewer Momiji Kishi of Dark Horse, the competitions are part of the renaissance: they raise coffee to foodie status and brewers to chef status. “Coffee-making is really a science,” says Dolce Gelato’s Ivonne Ramirez, with proportions, timing and temperature all essential to success. Though she was bumped out of the top three when her grinder seized mid-competition, her signature Espressado—avocado, vanilla bean, condensed milk and espresso blended with ice—has already got a fan base that’s boosting business.

“There are hundreds of different factors that go into what you’re tasting in the cup,” says Mark Karause of Collingwood’s Espresso Post. “It’s as complex as wine.” His team’s Chris Tellez (who first competed at 16) took first place this year. Runner up Sam James starts with taste. “A lot of people don’t want coffee to taste like coffee—they want it to taste like milk and sugar with a bit of coffee aftertaste,” says the java-hound, who has worked at Cherry Bomb, Hank’s and Manic Coffee since he left a desk job in 2006. He looks for aroma, natural sweetness and body that’s about 20 per cent thicker than water. Of course, these principles are more important than milk stencilled leaves and flowers, which he acknowledges sometimes inspire sneers. “I remember reading blogs and thinking ‘why would anyone be against latte art’? It’s so fun!”

When we asked the champs if Starbucks makes a good cup of joe, we got a unanimous “not my style.” But the brew behemoth got props for bringing the latte to the masses. “Starbucks has given us the business that we have. Without it, we wouldn’t have all the cafés we do,” says Vrankulj. There’s just one problem: “I can’t taste the bean.”

Check out Toronto Life’s picks for the best brew masters in Toronto>>