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In the converted garage of his South Cambie home, Mark Prince is making espresso. “I actually consulted on the design of this machine,” he says, standing in front of a model known as the GS/3, one of 10 espresso makers within arm’s reach. He cranks up one of his grinders, and with each pull of a lever powdery espresso comes tumbling out, filling the basket of a portafilter, which he sets on a digital scale. “I’m going to aim for around 19 grams,” he says. “I’m not clinically OCD, but I’m very, very obsessive-compulsive.”
Prince, who has dark hair flecked with silver and wears black-framed glasses, is better known to coffee enthusiasts in Vancouver and around the world as the CoffeeGeek. And this is his laboratory, 500 square feet dedicated to testing, tasting, and talking about coffee and espresso. The lab has every piece of gear a coffee geek needs: water heaters, French presses, flute thermometers, books and magazines, prototypes of tampers for testing, and an impressive collection of siphon coffee makers. On the glass-topped cupping table in one corner are bags of beans sent from roasters around the world—up to 10 pounds a week.
After tamping, Prince sets a porcelain cup on the scale and runs the machine, thick espresso beading out. When the scale reads 19 grams, equal to the weight of the coffee he just ground, he turns the machine off. “When I’m evaluating espresso for a roaster, or when we’re doing reviews, this is the starting point for testing,” he explains.
Those reviews appear on Coffeegeek.com. Launched by Prince in 2001, the site has almost 45,000 members, who gather on the site’s forums to discuss and debate all things caffeinated. Members also visit him in the CoffeeGeek Lab, which is Prince’s latest endeavour to connect with the local coffee community and improve the quality of espresso and coffee in Vancouver. He hosts cuppings at the Lab two to four times a week with local baristas, bloggers, and friends, and teaches classes for all levels of coffee fans, from restaurateurs to regular Joes. Prince, who used to run a web design company and now makes his living as a photographer, issues invitations via Twitter—he has Tweeted 10,000 times—or through the CoffeeGeek Facebook fan page. He launched Coffeegeek.com because, by the late ’90s, he was frustrated that he was making better espresso at home than he could find in any café or restaurant.
“I estimated I had a 1 in 20 chance of getting a decent shot of espresso in Vancouver,” he says. “And trust me, I tried a lot.”
Coffee is part of Vancouver’s DNA. Within 10 kilometres of City Hall are 146 Starbucks outlets, 33 Blenz, 30 Tim Hortons, 11 Waves, 10 Caffè Artigianos, nine JJ Beans, six Take 5 Cafés, and hundreds more places to get your fix. The strip of Commercial Drive between 12th and Venables has over 50 spots. According to the Coffee Association of Canada, coffee is a daily habit for 61 percent of B.C. residents, who drink an average of 2.6 cups each—that means nearly a million cups a day in Vancouver. With all these options, you’d think it would be easy to track down a decent espresso.
Not necessarily, says Prince. “Coffee is tough—every stage of coffee is tough, from seed to cup. It’s a message I really try to get across to our community in CoffeeGeek, that every single stage in the process is equally important.”
He offers a few cues to help determine if a café is worth a shot. First, look for espresso- and cappuccino-sized porcelain cups on the espresso machine. Second, watch to see if the barista is grinding beans to order, not just dosing out pre-ground espresso, which goes stale in minutes. Most encouraging is a barista who tastes the espresso occasionally. “That’s very rare in Vancouver, unfortunately,” he says. “The places I can think of where they do that are Bump n Grind, Elysian Coffee, 49th…JJ too, but specific locations.”
Alistair Durie, who runs the two Elysian Coffee locations, agrees that Vancouver’s opinion of itself may be overstated. “I think that our city considers itself a coffee city because of quantity, not quality,” he writes in an email. “There are a lot of great cafés that deliver on every level yet are terribly disappointing in the cup.” Durie serves a blend of beans roasted for Elysian by local favourite 49th Parallel, whom Prince considers “the best roaster in Canada.” Vince Piccolo, co-owner of 49th, supports Durie’s assessment that truly exceptional coffee and espresso are still elusive. “Out of about 100 specialty cafés in Vancouver,” he says, “I could only go to three or four and consistently get a good espresso shot.”
Back in the CoffeeGeek Lab, Mark Prince is doing his part to bring better coffee to Vancouver. After making a seemingly insignificant adjustment to the amount of ground espresso in the basket, he pulls another shot.
“If anything, this is actually what I wanted from my previous one,” he says, handing the cup to a taster. “You’re going to get a better extraction than I did. Just by the half-gram extra—that’s how tight it is. That’s why espresso’s bloody difficult to pull off.”