In search of the perfect cup of coffee

Matt Lee, owner of Manic Coffee
Matt Lee, owner of Manic Coffee, swears by his Clover.

In 2005 Matt Lee experienced a coffee epiphany.

A part-time job at a coffee shop in Vancouver had given him his first chance to drink a cup from what coffee lovers call the best beans in the world, the Hacienda de la Esmeralda. Since then, his life has changed.

“I couldn’t go back,” Lee says.

While Toronto is full of enthusiasts of all kinds, you might be surprised to know there are some who take coffee very seriously. Sure, the average person can tell the difference between a good cup and a bad one, but how much further can it really go?

If you ask Lee, owner of Manic Coffee at Bathurst and College, he’ll tell you coffee in fact has more subtleties than wine. The average cup of coffee will have about twice as many chemical compounds as an average glass of wine.

To appreciate these subtleties, though, Lee says you have to develop a palate just like any wine-lover. It took Lee, who used to settle for a daily Tim Hortons, over a year of training and practice under the guidance of his mentor, Alistair Durie of Vancouver’s Elysian Coffee.

Even today, nearly three years after tasting his first great cup of coffee, as he puts it, he is still in the process of refining his taste buds.

Don’t be intimidated, though. For the amateur, learning to appreciate a fine cup of coffee just got a little easier. To the rescue is the Clover, developed by the Seattle company of the same name. The small stainless steel machine can be programmed to control the exact amount of water, precise temperature, and extraction time per brew to create the perfect cup. But think twice before picking one up for your kitchen. Despite the fact the machine will only make one cup of coffee at a time, its $11, 000 price tag suggests it is still only meant for commercial use.

Its claim to have perfected the art of the French press, though, has customers at Manic Coffee, the only location in Toronto to carry a machine of this kind, gladly waiting the 40-second brewing time per cup. This may not sound like much, but according to Lee, 40 seconds will often transform into 20-minute waits as the lines build up and tie up the register – a phenomenon Lee and the baristas refer to as “Clover jail.”

So what has customers exercising such unusual patience?

“A full-bodied, rich, almost thick flavour,” Edward Shim said, as he sipped his first-ever cup from the Clover. “You can definitely taste the difference.”

Though Shim would hardly describe himself as a coffee-connoisseur, he is certain that the Clover makes a real difference.

Even Caitlin Brown, who has been working at Manic Coffee as a barista since its opening last October, says the Clover has changed how she feels about coffee. Though she is primarily a tea drinker, she says she has been “spoilt” with good coffee, and can appreciate the quality that the Clover produces.

What makes a good cup?

Though Lee will admit that a cup of coffee can be greatly influenced by atmosphere, he is steady on his priorities.

“First and foremost it’s the quality of the coffee that has to stand head and shoulders above everything else,” he says matter-of-factly. “You can always overcome everything else if you have quality first.”

And what changes the quality between cups of coffee is ultimately in the grounds. According to Lee, roasting times vary per batch, and can produce anything from a light, warm, creamy flavour, to a dark, toasted essence. Aging the grinds can also produce varying effects. From Lee’s private collection, he has found that letting ground Esmeralda beans breathe for up to seven days can produce an even headier and bolder flavour.

For the standard cup, though, beans are weighed and ground on the spot just moments before the coffee is brewed for maximum freshness.

The machine also plays a key role in drawing out each flavour from the grinds. While the traditional plunger-driven French press had been considered the best way to get the most out of the grinds, the Clover opens up a whole new level of flavour. The machine gives the barista greater control as water temperature and percolation time can be set to match each type of bean.

Believe it or not, geographic location will also influence the final product. Altitude and the mineral content in the water will all change how the coffee should be brewed and its ultimate flavour. Thanks to the Clover’s short percolation time, though, less caffeine is extracted from the grounds. This lets the machine’s operator taste and experiment with multiple cups at a time to find the right combination without fear of a caffeine rush. Lee says the secret to a great cup, as with anything, is finding the perfect balance.

Coffee as a concept

What makes Manic Coffee stand out goes further than just the Clover. Though apparently unintentional, Lee looks to have built his shop around the idea of having a pure and organic experience.

The beans, which he buys from a Chicago-based company called Intelligentsia, are bought Direct Trade. This means Intelligentsia will buy directly from crop owners to assure quality, and pay at least 25% over the Fair Trade price. Though this almost certainly means each cup will cost more than the average Starbucks cup, you can take comfort in having taken one step closer to drinking guilt-free coffee. Lee says it was critical for him to be working with a socially conscious company such as Intelligentsia, which works to create a “whole new relationship with farmers.”

The beans he buys are primarily single-origin, which means each batch was formed from only the best crops of a single plantation or growing region within a country. While coffee chains most often sell blends, it was important to Lee that he be able to offer as pure a coffee experience as possible in order to let the flavours of each coffee “stand on their own.”

Lee has also been experimenting with the shop itself in an attempt to mould an atmosphere around the coffee. He has encouraged his baristas to wait for the customers to engage them first before greeting them. Though he admits the practice may be a little confusing at first, he wants the customers to become interested in crafting a relationship with their baristas.

“This person’s going to put your drink together,” he says. “It has to have that organic flow.”

The absence of wifi has also set Manic Coffee apart from most other coffee shops. Though he admits he occasionally has the odd complaint, in general he is happy to have not followed the plugged-in route of most other coffee shops.

“What we found was that by not offering wifi, people would actually engage in conversation here,” Lee says. “When you come here, I want people to experience the coffee.”

And, if the throngs of coffee drinkers reading or deep in conversation are any indication, Lee is onto something.