One of my first reviews on this blog was the Spadina location of Dark Horse. After almost 2 years of blogging, I’ve visited the Dark Horse location on Queen East probably half a dozen times, and a visit a few Sundays ago made me think that readers would enjoy some updated thoughts of my impressions over time. Although they are up to 3 locations, these impressions will be based on the Queen Street East location. In addition to some basics on equipment, I will mostly focus on coffee choice and preparation, along with some tasting notes.
Equipment and Coffee Choice
When Detour Coffee Roasters started up, Dark Horse was the first supporter, and a close relationship has remained for more than 2 years. The baseline Dark Horse Espresso Blend by Detour seems to almost always be present in one of the hoppers, and the other grinders are filled with a feature espresso, usually also from Detour, but sometimes also Epic Espresso from 49th Parallel Roasters makes an appearance. They are currently rotating through 6 to 8 different coffees, and I know that this is popular with the espresso drinkers like myself who like variety.
I usually go for this second hopper as the 2 or 3 shots of the Dark Horse Espresso have been prone to excessive acidity. On my particular visit last Sunday, the second grinder was filled with Train Wreck Espresso. It is a playfully named two bean blend featuring a more darkly roasted than usual roasted Brazilian and a lighter roasted Guatemalan.
About 3 years ago, I first had a chance to meet Deanna and Edward, the owners of the Dark Horse, at a brew methods tasting at Café Myriade in Montreal, along with star barista Momiji who has competed successfully in many barista competitions, winning the Eastern Regionals in 2010. Having met them, I have no doubt that they have lots of passion and knowledge for coffee, but I have not been convinced that many of their baristas have it or that strict procedures are in place for them. This observation comes from the shots that I’ve seen prepared and some conversations.
For example, during my latest visit, the Train Wreck Espresso shot I had was electronically dosed, and a peaked mound was tamped without any grooming. The shot was started with the button, and was pressed again at what looked at a time based on the baristas choosing without any measuring aid. Not sure if the pressing of the button actually stopped the water, or if the water cut off was automatic based on timing. When I asked the barista about dosing amount so that I can have a starting point at home, the response was that someone dials it in the morning based on taste and that she didn’t know. Compare this to preparation at Mercury where shots are timed and weighed, and the day’s parameters are noted on a clipboard near the espresso machine. For me, this shows a different standard.
After tasting the espresso, I didn’t think that it would be something that I would like for home, so I asked about the Dark Horse Blend since I hadn’t tried it in about 6 months. The response was that the blend wasn’t coming out well and was pulling too brightly imbalanced. I would generally anticipate that a barista should be able to tweak a shot to make it at least taste alright, otherwise why would the coffee even be in a hopper. I hoped not for milk drinks.
For this review, I will describe the shot of Train Wreck Espresso that I had. On the nose, the smell was slightly medicinal and rubbery which did not bode well for the shot. The shot began with bitter dark chocolate notes that continued strongly throughout the shot finishing in a short sweet aftertaste with hints of smokiness. The big body mouthfeel was nice and very creamy, but the lack of acidity gave me an impression of the shot being flat and boring, lacking complexity. In general, my impression was that the shot had a resemblance to traditional Italian profiles, but with bigger flavors because of the freshness.
This shot was not one I loved, but I wasn’t positive that if it was the blend or the technique that let me down. I base this comment on previous shots that I have had such as an Epic shot on a previous visit that was pulled too fast and thin based on my taste compared to other shots that I have had.
Conclusions: In a Pinch (Ratings Guide)
I just finished describing one of my visits where I got an unspectacular shot and the barista warned me that the other espresso option was worse. Out of all my previous visits, I can say they were not too different in terms of my feeling, except for one visit where I had a very nice shot pulled by the manager, Marcie, when they were featuring the single origin espresso that Momiji used in her 2010 competition from Detour. I remember it as a beautifully sweet natural coffee with great balance and strawberry notes. The details of the origin escape me.
In the case that you per chance have one of the experienced baristas at Dark Horse pulling you a shot, and you are there on a day that they are featuring an exciting coffee, you are most likely going to have one of the better shots of coffee in the city. Having said that, my regular visits have not had this luck, and the shots end up being just alright which happened to me during most visits. With this kind of inconsistency, I usually prefer visiting other shops.
Finally, in addition to my impressions, I also took a quick survey of a few readers who make more regular espresso visits to Dark Horse Espresso Bar. Without sharing my impressions, I was surprised that the general consensus was very similar to mine: can be great, but generally inconsistent and average.
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