After the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s no wonder most of us begin the New Year looking for ways to slow down and relax.
Flat white, macchiato, ristretto – and they say if your cappuccino is spooned rather than free-poured, find another coffee shop.
Coffee is hot, there’s no two ways about it. If there is a foodstuff that has captured the popular imagination and soared to venti heights unimaginable to anyone who asks for a double-double, it must be coffee. The beverage and its aficionados have evolved through a series of phases almost as fast as the exponential growth of technology – but with a lot more pleasure.
In the first phase or wave, the industry a couple of hundred years ago moved beyond the freeze-dried crystals and the uniformly blasé beverage that, due to its efficient and economical mass production in factories, allowed the drink to experience wider growth and popularity.
Next, like many of our food revolutions, we have California to thank, at least in the North American perspective (just think about what Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower did for dining with their cooking at Chez Panisse). That can only mean Starbucks in the early 1970s and the interest in specialty coffees that they helped to initiate.
The third phase of coffee has seen a refined appreciation of the second wave’s specialty coffee: coffee aficionados look for the terroir of coffee, artisanal roasting, single-origin coffee beans, fair-trade and sustainability practices – all coalescing in a heightened attention to the nuance and subtlety of fine coffee without the overwhelming corporate and commercial aspect to the brew.
Are we in yet another phase? Maybe these baristas have something to say about that.
Settlement Co., Kitchener
Best coffee drink at Settlement Co. at the corner of King and Victoria streets? Any sort of espresso-based beverage, according to Elly Cortez.
“We have a slightly sweeter version of espresso shot,” says Cortez who has worked in coffee shops for what she describes as her whole life. That slight sweet is a differentiator, she might say.
And, apparently, Settlement Co. has formed a nexus of coffee, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. “Regardless of whether it is a coffee or an herbal drink, customers today tend to follow social media closely, and they will drink what we have featured, whether they have tried it before or not.”
Their customers – Settlement also has a location in Uptown Waterloo – range from nearby tech-community patrons to students in the evening and groups and families on the weekend. “We have fairly large tables that work well for that.”
Settlement cappuccino is a total of eight ounces including two ounces of espresso. “The milk is incorporated with a little bit more air than typical to get a really frothy texture,” Cortez says. “We use whole milk rather than two percent or skim milk for a creamier and naturally sweeter drink. I think that makes a big, big difference. Then, there’s nothing on top but our latte art.”
Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, Kitchener
The roast is the thing, according to Mel Stanford, manager at Balzac’s Kitchener. What they do best is right in the company’s name.
“A coffee roasting company: that’s who we are first and foremost,” says Stanford. “We’re really good at sourcing a wide variety of beans from different regions of the world and offering a coffee that everyone will love.”
Currently, Stanford says that Balzac’s staff is excited about the “Winter Blend” that is featured this season. “It’s probably the coffee we look forward to the most when it arrives,” she says. But regardless of what coffee you drink, she says that Balzac’s baristas strive for careful and proper preparation, especially with espresso drinks that need an experienced hand. “That is critical. It ensures that the flavours come through the way they are supposed to.”
And more than ever, people know coffee flavours and latte art, she agrees. “It has forced us to become better and better as baristas,” Stanford says. “We like to be able to educate customers about how coffee-making can be as fresh as possible using ingredients that have the best quality. In the past few years, people have come to know so much about crafting espresso, steaming milk and even latte art.”
When she drinks coffee in her reflective moments, Stanford says that she’s “partial to a mocha,” the chocolatey cousin of caffé latte.
“I really like how chocolate and coffee mix together,” she says, pointing out that Balzac’s uses the well-respected Harmony organic chocolate milk to prepare the drink. “Rich, creamy and delicious, it makes a really nice treat.”
Eco Café, St. Jacobs
Attention to detail is something of which Eco Café in St. Jacobs is proud. Located in a century-old former flour mill, a legacy of craftsmanship remains: there’s love in the roasting, according to head barista and café manager Miki Szinegh.
“As cliché as it sounds, it really does start with very good ingredients,” Szinegh says. “The fact is that we’re a roaster, and we know exactly what the main ingredient is in any drink we serve. It all starts there.”
As for what is hot right now, he sees the traditional drinks re-emerging in popularity. “We’ve had a lot more customers asking for straight espresso. More so than ever,” he says. Would he describe it as a “backlash” against the corporate coffee entities as coffee lovers look for more crafted and refined beverages? Perhaps, to a degree.
“It’s similar to the craft beer industry in how it has blossomed,” Szinegh says. “People are looking for something better to spend their money on. We’ve been at this location since June, and the amount of roasted coffee beans we sell has increased significantly. A lot of people are willing to spend a bit of a premium for well-roasted coffee.”
Matter of Taste, Waterloo
Jose Castillo is a roaster at Matter of Taste’s new location on Phillip Street in Waterloo. He says the approach at the café and roaster is simply to focus on the essence of coffee.
“Mostly the idea is to focus on the quality of the coffee as opposed to what makes the coffee,” according to Castillo, who says the roaster’s and barista’s skill are key. “There’s all this talk of micro-lots (a very small harvest of beans from very small areas of a single farm) and are the beans fair trade and organic? That doesn’t always translate into a good cup of coffee.”
Matter of Taste seeks and prepares something that Castillo says is “wholly our own.” More than just a coffee shop, the new location has a slow-bar where patrons can sit and observe the coffee process. “It fosters a knowledge of coffee. The idea is to open up discussion because coffee is so diverse.”
He spends much of his day around beans, coffee and roasting, and he says simple is best whether it is solo or doppio. “I’m just fine with an espresso. That might make me a bit of a boring guy in that respect, but there’s no mix that needs to go into it. No nothing. The coffee is good on its own.”
He also believes that coffee needs more than the corporate identity – and that slowly that is evolving. “I’d like to think that the corporate side is starting to fall away with the more people know about coffee. We want to encourage that here.”
The cool though improbably (and magically) named Death Valley’s Little Brother is an original when it comes to urban coffee houses in Waterloo Region. Featuring a trifecta of fermented deliciousness – coffee, whisky, bread – DVLB is a casual and quiet venue for enjoying your favourite brew.
Kylie Benham is the DVLB manager. She says the coffee shop is distinguished by some niche products but coffee rules and comes down to what she defines as really good coffee thoughtfully sourced and thoughtfully delivered each time and from each barista.
“I think the coffee itself has always been above standard. Previous to using Smile Tiger Coffee, we used Detour. There is a lot of quality there before it goes into your cup,” according to Benham.
She adds that the quality is something that many corporate operations like to market, but she’s quick to point out the difference. “There are places that have a nice atmosphere and a cool design, but the product just isn’t like what we strive for here.”
Benham describes the process of producing a great cup of coffee as “meticulous” and focused on detail. “When the baristas come in to work, they have to adjust the equipment to make sure that each drink is consistent, no matter what barista makes it.”
Coffee quality counts for a lot, she says. She picks out an Americano as a favourite coffee beverage. “You can’t hide with an Americano. It has to be excellent with a beautiful crema. If you haven’t been to DVLB and you ask for a standard black coffee, typically I’m going to suggest it.”
Grand Café, Cambridge
With a view of the arches of the Main Street bridge, the 30-seat Grand Café serves patrons near the Grand River in downtown Galt. It’s a vantage point from which barista and nine-year industry veteran Kyle Waddington observes Cambridge coffee consumption
Waddington says the Ottawa-based Bridgehead Coffee they use is “earthy with excellent coffee quality and flavour,” adding that it’s a collaboration of ethically sourced beans. They have seven or so coffee beverages, and with other non-coffee drinks the total comes to about 15.
“We do a lot of drip coffee but have a high-quality espresso machine here. With it, we make a lot of latte and the art that comes with it,” according to Waddington.
While people have strayed from the “common coffee standards,” they have moved toward Americano coffee and pour-overs. “Ahead, I think we’ll see more and different brewing styles like AeroPress that extract totally different tastes in coffee.”
Waddington answers that latte at Grand Café “is on point,” when asked what their top coffee drink is, though he adds that one regular customer has given them continental kudos too.
“We have an elderly gentleman who comes here and says the cappuccino is the best in North America,” Waddington says, recognizing the hyperbole. “That’s a pretty bold statement.”
But Grand Café is happy to take it.
What are your favourite cafes in Waterloo Region? Let us know in the comments below!