A coffee nerd’s guide to Sam James Coffee Bar, and how its espresso is even better now than when it first opened
By Jon Sufrin
The Harbord Street storefront (Image: Jon Sufrin)
When Sam James Coffee Bar first opened on Harbord Street nearly two years ago, people weren’t exactly complaining about the coffee. In fact, owner Sam James is pretty much universally credited with upping the ante for coffee shops around the city. Still, he’s relentless in his search for the perfect cup, and has implemented several improvements to his shop.
SJCB’s second anniversary is this Sunday, Aug. 28 — that means free Americanos, lattes and cappuccinos all day — so we thought it would be a good time to take a look at how James has managed to make a great product even better.
1. He tweaks his tap water. Water is a crucial factor with espresso, so using plain old tap water isn’t going to cut it. Recently, James installed a reverse osmosis filtration system to purify the water that courses through his coffee beans. The system allows him to dial in exactly how many minerals he wants going through: too much minerality results in an over-concentrated flavour and messes with the machine; too little minerality means the water can’t properly bind to the coffee. How does he determine the proper setting? Lots and lots of tasting, of course.
2. He’s got a pimped out espresso machine. Espresso is made, essentially, by a high-pressure shower of water from the machine that pours over ground coffee beans. A perfect shot, as one would expect, needs a perfectly consistent shower of water. James is in love with the espresso machine at SJCB — says it’s the best machine he’s ever used, bar none — but most machines, including this one, come with rather flimsy, mesh “shower heads.” They are prone to warping and don’t provide a perfectly consistent stream of water every time. So James got a hold of better ones: sturdy, stainless steel screens that provide a perfect “shower head” effect. “The difference is like night and day,” James says.
3. He’s got a Franken-grinder. When James first opened his shop, he used a mid-level grinder. Eventually, he upgraded to a higher model, but missed some of the features from his trusty old one. In particular, he missed being able to manually dictate how many grams of coffee he used for each shot (the process is known as “dosing.”) His new grinder has some sweet features like fan-cooling, more consistent grinding and an auto shutoff timer, but it came with an automatic dosing mechanism for the sake of convenience. Anyone who’s seen 2001: A Space Odyssey knows that robots shouldn’t be in control of everything, so James took the manual doser from his old machine and tacked it on to the new one. He can now hand-craft his doses every time while retaining the benefits of a having a top-of-the-line grinder. Usually, he doses 18 grams of coffee for a shot (yeah, that whole thing about seven grams for a perfect espresso shot? It’s an old wives tale, James says).
4. He’s harnessed the power of laser. You’ve seen baristas do it hundreds of times: before pulling your shot, they pack ground coffee into a portafilter that’s lined with a metal filter basket. Those baskets are crucial: they direct the flow of water and prevent grinds from falling through to the glass. But James says almost all of the baskets on the market today are flawed. The holes in them are haphazardly machine-pressed, resulting in rampant inconsistencies. It’s impossible to adequately predict how water will flow through them because they’re all different. After searching far and wide, James found laser-cut baskets that have identical hole patterns from one to the next. The baskets he found are also tapered, helping direct water towards the coffee grinds on the bottom (which often go under-extracted). The result is a more even extraction. James went through five different types of laser-cut baskets before settling on the type he uses now.
5. He’s undergoing sommelier training. James still has a good amount of time to go before he’s a certified sommelier, but his introduction to sommelier training has already helped him articulate and remember tastes better. “It’s helped me realize my potential for tasting coffee,” he says, and the coffee has been better for it.
Sam James Coffee Bar, 297 Harbord St., 647-341-2572