Café: Bridgehead

Location: 344 Slater Street, Ottawa, ON

Why Only One Ottawa Review?

It was a beautiful sunny Thanksgiving weekend, and I set out for a little coffee tour in Ottawa with my father-in-law. Although we are both previously from Ottawa, I have lived in Toronto for 8 years now. My father-in-law has lived in Vancouver for the last 4 years. My father-in-law considers himself to be espresso connoisseur, owns a high-end espresso machine and first introduced me to the world of well-pulled shots.

Our three planned destinations were Café Delices, Morning Owl, and Bridgehead. Although all three cafés are located in predominately office areas, we weren’t expecting them to be closed at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday. Anyhow, we got lucky with Bridgehead being open.

Background About Bridgehead

When I speak to friends in Ottawa about my coffee obsession, quite a few of them mention Bridgehead as the place that they head for a good cup of coffee. Clearly this top of mind presence shows how the company has been successful in building what is Eastern Canada’s largest independent coffee chain with over 10 shops. The Bridgehead brand is actually quite old as it was started as an importer of coffee beans from Nicaragua from small coffee farmers who were being threatened. Yes, this was far before the terms Fair Trade and Direct Trade entered our vocabularies.

After much growth through Oxfam ownership, diversification, and restructuring, the company went back to the coffee house routes in 2000 as it was purchased by a group of investors led by Tracy Clark. During the last decade, the chain has experienced much growth, as well as much transformation. Bridgehead is happy to now feature leading Synesso machines at all it’s locations, but 5 years ago automated Franke machines were used to make espresso drinks. Obviously, the necessary training has also been put in place which is no small task given over 10 stores. Many in the industry credit Ian Clark (no relation to Tracy) with much of this tremendous tranformation. Ian is very active in coffee circles as he attends forums and conferences to further the direct coffee trade, as well as being a WBC certified judge.

At the same time, Bridgehead has remained true to it’s activist roots by being at the forefront of the Fair Trade / Direct Trade movement, sourcing organic coffees when possible, and being active members of the Ottawa community. Of course, being in line with these social trends has contributed to that top-of-mind position that I mentioned earlier. I do appreciate these things, but when I drink coffee, my first care is always what is in the cup. I am sometimes weary that all these other things outside of the cup, lead to less attention to what is in the cup. Quality of coffee and roasting is always much more important for me.

I was happy to touch bases with Bridgehead’s Ian Clark before my visit, as I was interested in meeting one of the leaders in the Eastern Canadian coffee circles. Unfortunately Thanksgiving weekend was not a time during which he was available, but I did manage to have some great conversations with him over email. One of the misconceptions that I had was that Bridgehead is a sourcer and roaster of coffees. This was true at one point in the company’s past, but currently Café Mystique (sister company of Toi Et Moi) in Montreal does all the sourcing and roasting of Bridgehead coffee, although it is Bridgehead branded.

When I was emailing with Ian, I was eager to find out which location I should visit. Ian suggested that I visit the newest Bridgehead’s location in Minto Place on Slater Street. As the newest location, it has the newest of reverse osmosis and remineralization systems for its water which Ian believes has significantly improved the taste.

Review

As expected when we entered the coffee shop, the new Synesso machine was prominent in the café paired with a Mazzer Robur with electronic doser offering the Bridgehead espresso blend. Both my father-in-law and I ordered espressos, and the barista went into his preparation routine. My first shot was ground, tamped, and started with a timer. Meanwhile, the second shot was ground, tamped, and started. When the set time expired, the shots were then served in nice thick-walled, machiatto-sized glasses along side with glass of water on the neighbouring serving pedestal. I was curious that there was no preinfusion, but I later found that this new Sysnesso has the preinfusion programmed automatically.

In terms of the espresso blend, the roast level that was assessed by my inexperienced eye was a full city plus roast where the beans were just beginning to emit a bit of oil. In terms of components, the blend was composed of 50% Mexican, 18% Guatemalen, 16% East Timorese, and 16% Ecuadorian. Bridgehead intends to generally keep the same profile but makes changes due to changing availability of coffees or as it attempts to evolve the blend.

The first shot I had was a little on the thin, under extracted side. After I drank my shot, and revealed that I was a blogger, the barista asked me my thoughts. I mentioned this light critique, he admitted the shot as being a little fast, and I was immediately offered another shot. This is the shot I based my rating on, although I always recommend that coffee shops should encourage baristas to use the sink for off shots instead of serving them.

The Shot

My father-in-law summed his shot as “a shot that won’t offend anyone”. I have to agree with his summation. For me, on smelling the cup, I got some plum and floral notes. On first sip, the strong chocolate and vanilla notes started the shot and turned into mild wood, toast, and molasses flavours with medium body, and what seemed like low acidity and sweetness. It is true that the shot had smoothness and no harshness, but I missed surprises and some, fruity sweetness as well as a bit more acidity that I am usually a sucker for.

Conclusions: In a Pinch (Ratings Guide)

I may be a little harsh with this review as Bridgehead is doing many things right, but in the eyes of this this espresso drinker, it is missing a key component: the espresso blend. Sure this shot was not off-putting or bad, but it certainly didn’t cause us to say “Wow”.

Some may argue that this blend is easy to pull and you need that if you run 10 shops with baristas that are not coffee nuts, but rather trained servers. I say impassion your baristas to be coffee nuts.

Others may argue that this blend will be nice in milk and americanos. I say you can find nice espresso blends that are amazing espresso and also stand up well in milk. Surely a blend like 49th Parallel’s Epic is a good example.

Based on the dramatic changes and evolution over the years, Bridgehead has the ability to evolve. They have already made tremendous investment in equipment and are growing in sophistication with such things as using high-end filtration systems. I just wish that they take that important step of serving an exciting challenging espresso blend for us espresso nuts. Not something that will be noticed by 95% of customers who drink milk drinks and americanos, but something that will add Bridgehead as a destination for the espresso enthusiast. Possibly also bringing some more people to this espresso nut club along the way.

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