The first review on this blog was Sam James Coffee Bar. Since then, I have tasted and commented on many shots, along the way changing and developing my taste and palette. During this time, one thing that has remained, my consistently high opinion of SJCB and the newer smaller brother SJCP. Over the last year, I have had the pleasure of visiting the Pocket three times, and I have had very tasty, solid shots. After a visit a few weeks ago to SJCB, I thought I would share these long term impressions, as well as questions that remain in my mind.
For espresso, both SJ shops use the Espressone blend by Montreal’s Toi et Moi, a larger commercial roaster which also supplies Ottawa’s Bridgehead’s chain. The Espressone blend is a specialty grade espresso blend with a medium roast. The origin and composition of the blend is not promoted with the coffee, but rather the roaster, as Sam James, likes to discuss and promote the taste and nuances of the blend, although both are open to composition and origin. Further pushing my preconceptions, the coffee is aged 20 to 30 days in sealed flushed bags before they are used. Sam finds that the he can get “the best out of espresso once its rested”, while stressing the fact that the coffee is not oxidizing and not stale at this point. Although I am hesitant to believe this, I cannot argue that the many shots I had in the shop with the coffee tasted very nice with no attributes of staleness. I also brought some of these beans home, and after much adjustment, I was able to produce some nice tasting shots. Sam further suggested some experiments on which I will follow up, and post some comments.
Furthermore, SJCB offers other brew method which I haven’t explored featuring coffees from Detour Roasters. As I increase my understanding and taste for other brew methods, I will definitely be interested in further exploring this at SJCB given my impression of their high standards.
Preparation and Equipment
If there are two thing that characterizes SJ shops for me it is the dedication to consistent preparation and the attention to every detail of preparation through in depth analysis and testing. I say this not only because of my observations of the preparation, but also based on the email discussions that I had with Sam.
First, let’s talk about the preparation. I have had the chance to watch preparation a few times by a few different baristas, and I have always appreciated a visible intensity and care during preparation. This has been even more impressive in situations where the line was 3 or 4 people deep. Yet the technique was deliberate and unwavering for each drink. It started through measured dosing into a tamper, followed by careful grooming using an improvised Scottie Callahan dosing tool, followed by a carefully timed and watched extraction. I have seen shots tossed without hesitation during busy times.
Secondly, I also had the pleasure of asking a few things from Sam about getting a better cup at home over email. This discussion gave me a bit of an insight into the research and experimentation he does in getting the best possible preparation from both the equipment and technique. The basis of all the customizations are solid high-end equipment with 2- group La Marzoccos: a Linea at SJCB and a GB/5 at SJCP. For grinders, nothing beats the Mazzer Roburs large burrs with modded manual dosers. With this solid equipment, details are the focus, but beyond the basics of dry dose, wet dose, temperature, extraction time, and temperature, details like the VST basket, groups screen, and pump pressure are items that have been analyzed, tested, and adopted. I am sure that if this discussion was continued, many other elements would be included in this list.
A Different Type of Shop
Given all these positives, it is no wonder that I recommended SJCB to a friend of mine as a place to get a good espresso. He came back and commented how good the drinks were great, but how there wasn’t much of an ambiance to really sit around. I hadn’t really noticed this, or wasn’t at all concerned. For me, it was a place to go to where I could have a great drink consistently. The focus is on serving coffee. Exactly what I’m also concerned about. At SJCP where the space has been even more paired down, this concept is more apparent. The only other shop in Toronto that keeps to this formula is another favorite, Fahrenheit Coffee.
The nose was filled with inviting fruit sweetness and florals foreshadowing a shot that opened with some crispy citrus and plummy acidity. This quickly turned into stone fruit sweetness that quickly finishes with cherry sweetness on deep dark chocolate. The shot felt clean and crisp, with medium body.
Conclusion – Good Spot (Ratings Guide)
When I first chronicled my first visit almost two years ago, I enjoyed my shot, but didn’t really know how it faired among various shops in Toronto. After many shots around town, I keep on being impressed at the taste of shots that I consistently have at Sam James shops. Given the focus and deliberate scientific attention to process, it is not coincidence that I’ve had some great shots including one that placed on my 2011 memorable list. If I worked downtown, I would be counting down the days until number 3 opens up. I am sure that good espresso will arrive in downtown Toronto.
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