Café: Illume Espresso Bar
Location: 1433 Wellington St W, Ottawa, ON K1Y 2X2
As I traveled to Ottawa over the holidays, Illume Espresso Bar was one of the new coffee shop openings that I was excited about as they opened a few weeks before Christmas. My early research indicated that this shop had been in the works for a while by a well-trained barista, Fadi and some partners. As for roasters, it would have 49th Parallel and Phil & Sebastian coffees on the menu. Certainly something that set my expectations higher, but unfortunately this story does not end happily.
The Brew Bar for the First Visit
When I walked in, I saw the single cup brew bar with four brew methods available: Chemex, Siphon, Clever, and Walkure Bayreuth. As I interrogated the barista about the brew methods and the available Phil and Sebastian coffees, some Bridgehead baristas were doing a tasting together and were seated on the side of the brew bar. A couple of them recognized me, and re-introduced themselves as my memory is not so good. (We also had a great conversation throughout my visit) My expectations about Illume improved again.
For my first cup I decided to go with the Walkure Beyreuth brewer which is a ceramic pour over brewer invented by the German ceramics company, dubbed the Karlsbad method. Something that I have not yet encountered which made me all the more curious. This ceramic pour over vessel has a top and bottom that is separated by a ceramic filter. I was immediately concerned about sediment, but the barista assured me that the technique and brewer resulted in very limited sediment and that the cup would still have good clarity. For the coffee, I chose one of three Phil and Sebastian coffees that were available, the Guzman Brothers Columbian. Indeed as I tasted the cup, the barista had set my expectations correctly as a very nice cup was produced. The nose that was produced had a relatively light caramel vanilla nose that preceded a cup that had a nice rounded chocolate caramel body with light sweet orange acidity. The cup and the after taste were clean with no bitterness. Overall the taste felt a touch on the light side of extraction, giving me an impression that the coffee was even more delicate. In any case, the cup was something I would be happy serving.
The First Shot
Next I turned my focus to the espresso bar which is equipped with a Kees van der Westen Mirage and a Franken-dosered Robur. The coffee being offered was the Holiday Blend from Social Coffee which was surprising as I didn’t realize that roasters were being rotated so liberally. As well, this was coffee was not very impressive when I had previously tasted in Toronto at Capital Espresso. Fadi, a part owner and second barista on duty pulled me a shot by carefully dosing and then using a knife as the dosing tool to carefully distribute. He quickly saw the first shot was off, and said that he would pour a second shot. I persuaded him to let me taste both. He was definitely right about the better shot.
The better of the shots was pulled at about a 60% ratio and had a mellow dark chocolate nose with touches of earthiness. The first sip revealed quite little acidity with body on the lighter side. The limited orange acidity gave a flatter taste to the cup that was dominated by dark chocolate, slightly astringent burnt caramel, and some earthiness that flowed into a short dry finish. I felt the shot was well pulled, but it wasn’t a coffee that I thought was well selected.
The Second Shot Visit and the Second Shot
Towards the end of my stay in Ottawa, right after New Year’s, I was in the Westboro neighborhood, and I dropped in again. The coffee on the retail shelf was the same as my pre-Christmas visit, now surpassing 3 weeks post roast. The only new thing to appear was a bag of JJ Bean Eastside blend with the descriptor of earthy on the bag. When I stepped up to the bar, unfortunately this was what they had been pulling for the week as they awaited new coffee to arrive. I asked the barista if he had tried it, but he said no since they were trying to make the coffee last until their new coffee arrived.
I should have gone for the brew bar, but part of me wanted to see how the quality was compromised. Indeed I should have not been curious as the coffee was flat, earthy, woody, ashy, and flat with lots of creamy body. Certainly something that should have been passed up.
Conclusions – In a Pinch (Ratings Guide)
I was initially conflicted on the rating as I felt a lot of things were done right in this shop. I had a great cup on the Walkure Breyuth and felt that the barista knowledge and training was very good while showing care and passion for the coffee. On the other hand, I was served two espresso blends that were lacking flavor with earthiness and astringency. Neither being something that I would select. A compromise on coffee quality which throws into questions the dedication and quality consistency at this shop.
Based on a reliable industry sources, it seems like there were internal conflicts within the shop partners, causing the Fadi to leave, who was the driving force behind the training and quality at this shop. In the long-term, the prediction is that Illume will be just another independent shop with variable quality serving economically selected coffees. Hopefully, this prediction is wrong, but based on what I saw over the holidays, it seems headed that way.
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