As some readers may know, when I make periodic trips to Montreal, I try to squeeze in some cafe visits. My curiosity to explore the new is always conflicted with my desire to visit Café Myriade which remains at the top of my list of favorite cafes. My appetite to explore the new was further excited by the Gazette article describing new Montreal shops. In preparation for my trip, I booked a hotel near Myriade, and I emailed Anthony Benda, an owner at Myriade, for some recommendations. He responded incredibly generously, and offered to take me for a walking tour of some Montreal cafes. The six cafe visit was a little crazy, as can be attested when I was still wide awake 16 hours after the tour, but it made for a very memorable trip, and I could have not had a better guide and more interesting conversation.
Some Overall Impressions
From this tour, my first impression was about the growth of the Montreal coffee scene as well as the diversity both in cafe style as well as roaster selection. Even though I only visited about half the shops that have recently opened, I was amazed at the number of represented roasters including 49th Parallel, Handsome, Heart, Phil and Sebastian, Verve, Metropolis and Detour. I know we can add another half dozen easily after visiting some more shops.
This is happening, although local Montreal specialty roasters have recently opened. The low penetration among coffee shops seems to suggest that the Montreal roasters are still in the development stage as they work through the many challenges of developing roast profiles, relationships to source top green bean, and develop processes for consistency. Contrast this with Toronto where local roasters came on the scene a year or two earlier and have penetrated the market more strongly, and perhaps have aspirations of becoming larger brands outside the local market.
My second general impression was that the Montreal shot extraction style is generally longer than typical Toronto style. Over the last two years, shot extraction style in specialty coffee in Toronto has generally moved from ristretto under extracted style to more evenly extracted shot. Where 100% ratios were not uncommon a few years ago in Toronto, this is now dipping to the 75% range now, while Montreal is closer to the 50 to 60% ratio. I find that the shorter style tends to emphasize certain qualities including sweetness and mouthfeel, at the expense of clarity, complexity, and balance. Given a full proper extraction and great beans, that is a big condition, my general preference is towards the longer style.
Although this blog is very espresso heavy, I have been very much tasting and getting to understand other brew methods and tastes during the last year. Given my increased interest and confidence in this area, I also had the pleasure of trying some drip coffees during this tour for which I am looking to add more content on Coffeestork.
Before going in details of my visits, I will preface my comments with some warnings. Single cafe visits are always challenging as they provide a single data point and impressions that may not be representative of the average. Additionally, judgement becomes much more difficult in a tour as the palette becomes saturated and less objective. Nonetheless, such a walking tour makes comparisons easier in some ways as the tastings are done closely together and contrasts appear more easily as one must battle palette fatigue.
Stop 1 : Café Myriade
It was a pleasure meeting Anthony at Myriade as I was greeted with an espresso of Handsome Roaster’s Scout Honor, which was the alternative to Epic from 49th Parallel Roasters. I have been to Myriade enough to expect a unique and challenging cup. I had high expectations envisioning a clean, crisp, complex cup, and it delivered. In fact, both of my Myriade visits suggest that they are even more at the top of their game then before. On this particular shot of Handsome Roasters, most interesting was the nose which had floral honey notes combined with wisps of citrus. Although it was an excellent shot, my full appreciation of the balance, fullness, and the many levels of nuances was even more appreciated after putting it in context with other shots that day, and after I tried pulling many shots at home of the coffee.
My second drink was drip coffee of Los Naranjos Colombian, also from Handsome Roasters. It took me quite a bit of the cup to adjust from the espresso, but my appreciation of the cup increased as I drank more of it. As with the espresso the fullness, balance and breadth of the flavors through the extraction made it a memorable cup that was overall very comforting with caramel richness combining with a light fruity acidity and some cherry sweetness.
Stop 2 Pikolo Espresso
After a short walk to the McGill area, we walked into Pikolo Espresso on Parc Avenue. One of the first things I see is a barista weighing a filled portafilter with its dry dose. The equipment is the Kees Van der Westen Mirage with some Anfim grinds, and the bean choice is Phil and Sebastian and Heart Roasters. The espresso ends up being a Colombian from Phil and Sebastian which is well balanced with lots of caramel notes, but there seems to be a bit of under extraction producing a bit of hollowness lacking a large mouth presence. The drip coffee ends up being an Ethiopian from Heart, and my general impression is that the extraction is on the weaker side featuring predominately tea-like notes. Given the care and reputation that I heard from others, I feel that this is a place I need to return to, although the coffee wasn’t the star of the day. Myriade is a tough act to follow.
Stop 3 Entre Le Café et La Plume
A walk up across the park, and we arrive in the Plateau area where we will visit many cafes. It will be my first time trying coffee from Verve, and I am excited as I walk into La Plume and see a La Marzocco FB70 paired with some Mazzers. I start off with an impressive shot of Street Level Espresso which strikes me as a well balanced extraction dominated by more a more classic dark chocolate notes with hints of light tropical fruit acidity. Mouthfeel is big creaminess and the flavors appear big in the mouth, but this shot is far different in style from the clean crisp style that I had been drinking. The drip coffee ends up being a huge surprise, as an Ethiopian Natural from Verve (Worka) is featured. The wine-like berry notes are huge and dominate distracting me from the other elements of the cup. Given the dominant factor of processing that produces such a flavorful cup, it is easy to see how you can fall easily for this coffee, but I am hesitant fan these days. Anyhow, I remain impressed with La Plume for featuring something different and the quality of the espresso, and I put it at the top of the list for cafes to revisit in Montreal.
Stop 4 The Knife / Le Couteau
A short walk onto St Denis, and we arrive at the Knife. Anthony mentions that this cafe reminds him of Myriade a few years ago. Additionally, given that the fact that the owner, Chris Cappell used to work at Cafe Myriade, the similarities are more explainable and were indeed quite numerous beginning with 49th Parallel as the roasters and the Kees Van der Westen Mirage machine, but I noticed that the grinders were modded Compak K10, not something I regularly see in shops. The similarities continued with the variety of brew methods offered including siphon. The shot of Epic that we have is very nice, and pulled longer than Epic shots in Toronto resulting in more complexity and clarity, without as much sweetness. In comparison with the Handsome shot, I feel it has less clarity and crispness, but is overall it is in the general same profile category. I also feel like a tad more extraction would benefit the shot, but I realize that my judgment is becoming more challenged given the amount of coffee. We finish off the visit by sharing one of the carefully chosen delicate washed Ethiopians from 49th Parallel on the siphon. The cup ends up being on the under extracted side for my taste, although I still do find some light tea notes. Overall, this is yet another place that I add to my list to revisit.
Stop 5 La Distributrice
A short walk away on the way to the subway, we stop at the neatest format cafe that I have seen. The shop is in a space under a staircase next to the street. It is about 2 espresso machines wide with enough room inside for a barista, serving takeout coffee from Detour through the window. Inside, it is equipped with with a Nuovo Simonelli Aurellia and some Mythos grinders. We order a takeout espresso of Punch Buggy Espresso. To the nose it smells a little earthy and smoky, and the first sip disappoints as it is very hot and the shot is bitter with some tar like notes. Love the shop concept, but I am a little disappointed with the espresso.
Stop 6 Flocon Espresso
Our last stop was a little further down Mont Royal on the other side of the subway stop. With a La Marzocco Linea paired with some Roburs, preparation looked attentive and a nice shot of Metropolis Redline was served to us. At this point, it was a bit of a chore drinking more coffee, so my impressions are a little sparse, but my general sense was that it was very much a classically profiled shot with dark bitter chocolate, low acidity, with hints of wine notes. I need
to visit in a less caffeinated state next time, and pay more attention by writing down notes.
The tour was a lot of fun and had some great conversations along the way. I also got a broad sampling fast, but I also learnt quite a lot of things that I would have done differently like always tasting the drip before the espresso, taking more copious notes according to predetermined factors so I can do better write-ups, and drinking less of each sample so I don’t go crazy. Anyhow, I hope that this provided an interesting read of some of coffee shops, and I am thinking of doing similar tours in Toronto.
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