Espresso machines and such caffeinated pleasures

2012-10-17b Let me preface this post by saying that I am not a coffee person. By “coffee person” I mean someone who acts like a zombie before they’ve had their morning cup of caffeine. I can go without coffee, tea or any such drink to kick start my day or keep me going, I know, lucky. Infact, caffeine has no effect on my system whatsoever; I can have a coffee and go to bed.

So since there was no need, I seldom went for a cup of coffee. Being a student on a budget didn’t help at all; I couldn’t justify spending $2 on a espresso or $4 on a latte.

From diner drinks to the real stuff

In India, I liked drinking the South Indian filter coffee, it’s very delicious and a perfect occasional treat. After moving to Canada, someone took me to this coffee shop chain called “Tim Hortons” which is a huge Canadian institution and has long lines any time of day. Sadly I hated their coffee, the toxic brown liquid made me nearly sick. The other place I drank coffee in Canada was in greasy diners. Their coffee is usually hot water with greenish-brown colour and a diluted coffee flavour. Needless to say the idea of drinking coffee was a huge turn off.

Despite being thoroughly disappointed by coffee in Canada, I didn’t give up trying a coffee every now and then. I figured after few dozen cups I’d start liking it, but that never happened. On the other hand, the number of coffee lovers around me never seemed to decline. Something wasn’t adding up.

It all changed not too long ago when I discovered a whole new genre of coffee shops: Independent cafés. I used to bike past one every day an the aroma of freshly ground coffee always made my head turn. One day I gave in to the temptation and stepped inside for a drink of their fair-trade organic coffee roasted right in front of me.

And I loved it.

That was when I decided to indulge and explore the world of coffee. There is only one way to become an amateur coffee connoisseur: sample hundreds of cups of different coffees from different places (that were not discount retail).

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The coffee shop ritual

Going to cafes and ordering a coffee is a generally predictable process. You are warmly greeted by the barista who, after the mandatory ‘Hi, how are you? Good thanks how are you?’ and other social niceties, will attempt to make a conversation depending on how busy the place is. Most people do not pass this stage but if you do, you’ll discover that the coffee bartender is a real person with some intelligent things to say. You are allowed to be forgetful, fumble around, talk gibberish but you’ll still get approving nods from other patrons as long as you mumble ‘I need my coffee’ or something to that extent.

If you are lucky enough, you’ll be there when the coffee beans go into a roaster. Last week I was chatting with a barista as he was roasting 500 grams of coffee which took 15-20 minutes. Occasionally he’d remove a sample, sniff it, pass it on to me and ask what I thought. Obviously I had no clue but each sample was more aromatic than the previous.

There are lots of ways to drink coffee but I’ve discovered a strong liking for espressos. I like how baristas make latte art using steamed milk and espresso crema. Last weekend I was visiting a friend in Montréal who owned an espresso machine and I went crazy trying to make perfect cups of cappuccino and latte full with artwork. It was very difficult but fun; and I was extremely caffeinated all weekend.

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The 2011 Queen street espresso project

Toronto’s Queen street with it’s own crowded streetcar passes through some of the most interesting areas of the city. From tall skyscrapers of downtown financial district to gentrified commercial and residential areas of Queen West to hipstery-bohemian-artsy transitioning neighbourhoods of Lesliville and Parkdale (where I live), Queen street has it all. Every week there is something new to discover, something new to experience.

Last summer I drew up a plan to discover some the cafés that were popping up all over Queen street but especially in the emerging neighbourhoods. As part of this project, I would visit different coffee shops on Queen street (I made a list of 20 shops), try one shot of espresso and blog about it. Sadly after checking out three or four stores I gave up.

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The 2012 Independent cafe project

Over the last five weeks or so I have been working on a new project and as part of that I’ve been to over ten new coffee shops around the city in a quest for:

  1. sampling different kinds of coffee drinks and finding a perfect cup for my taste, and
  2. discovering various neighbourhoods and cafes in Toronto by visiting independent coffee shops around the city and patronizing the local coffee culture.

Toronto Indie Coffee Passport is a program that lets you buy a cup of coffee (or tea or hot chocolate) at one of the 30 participating coffee shops around the city for a modest price of $25. It’s a great deal for someone who is willing to go around the city to different coffee shops and try a drink there. This program provided just the right framework for my project.

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Minor bourgeois pleasures

I’ve noticed that for the last year or two I’ve been living and consuming way more conspicuously, probably due to the visibility provided by social media and a whole virtual personality that you can build around it. Facebook, in particular, has provided a platform that has certainly triggered me to engage in social activities I would never have done otherwise; going around the city sampling coffee, for example. I visit new cafés and post about my drink on facebook. I enjoy this immensely.

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So much that I really want to buy an espresso machine and make a perfect cup of cappuccino with a funky design. Gift ideas anyone?

Enjoy your caffeine!

9 thoughts on “Espresso machines and such caffeinated pleasures

  1. I am also not a coffee person. I drink it because I have to drink something when I go in a coffee shop. I like hot chocolate though.
    Your project seems interesting but how do you differentiate between various coffee flavours? I cannot tell Expresso from Latte or from any other form for that matter.
    I guess its like wine. You have to taste it for years before you can understand the difference.

    • Hey Amit,
      Actually coffees are easy to distinguish compared to wines which take a longer time. Espresso (notice the spelling) is a shot of intense brew that comes from forcing boiling water through fine coffee ground. Latte is espresso + steamed milk. Then there are many other variations but you need to try it once to know the difference.

  2. I don’t usually drink coffee, I like tea best (I’m actually drinking some right now!). But I do enjoy “fancy coffees” once in a while: latte, expresso, etc. Plus the cake to go with the drink, of course, like in your pics!

    I avoid Tim Hortons (pastries are way too sweet and coffee tastes like shit, although it’s cheap). I’m okay with Starbucks (vanilla latte) and I know a few nice coffee shops in Ottawa. But I don’t have any coffee at home and don’t plan to, no need!

    • Hey Zhu, I was exclusively a tea person until recently I crossed over to the dark side. Bridgehead is a coffee chain shop in Ottawa.

  3. Interesting, fun project. I love your photos. Considering the number of coffee shops in Toronto, and the ever increasing lines of people waiting for their cups, I believe that the drink is now as much a social habit as an addiction. I’m very fussy about the tea that I drink but I’m indifferent about coffee. I just use instant coffee at home. Yet, I love meeting friends in coffee shops, and trying all the various tastes they offer, providing my drink is served in a mug. I can’t understand anyone accepting a hot beverage in a paper cup. There is a lovely place near home called “La Bohème”, where I think the coffee is out of this world. If you ever feel like coming in my direction, I would happily invite you to sample it. This would certainly make a great post for our Facebook page !

    • Thanks Claude! I will take up your invitation for sure! :)

      Most new cafes serve a peculiar type of clientele… artsy hipster liberal types and I quiteenjoy just sitting and chatting with people even if its a small talk. It gives a very good community feel.

  4. I am also not a coffee or a tea person for that matter. I believe that coffee/tea is more for socializing which I have been trying for a while now.

    BTW, You are leading quite an interesting life there. Someone once said, life doesn’t have meaning, you have to give it a meaning. Good going, buddy!
    Keep Posting! Its a welcome change

  5. Pingback: Technology upgrades and 'man-space' design: Édition premiere » Priyank.com

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