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Espresso Magic

Special to the Globe and Mail, April 25, 2014

It’s a wintry Tuesday afternoon, and the Faema café is hopping with customers. People come, people go, most with cell phones or Bluetooth tucked to their ears, talking with their hands, or talking to their table mate. There’s an amiable din, for sure. With its high ceilings and wraparound windows, polished ebony bar with brass hand and foot rails, honed marble floors, gleaming chrome espresso machines and grinders, chalkboard specials, and giant Nutella jar resting atop glass dessert cases filled with profiteroles and zeppoles, this could just as easily be a café bar in Milano. Instead, it’s at the corner of Christie and Dupont where the 20,000 sq ft Faema showroom and café has expanded to the point of almost filling the entirety of the historic Ford motor plant.

The barrista, dressed in traditional black pants, shirt and apron, his hair tied back in a neat ponytail, quickly produces a latte with an art topping — lacy swirls of frothy milk etched into the dark espresso.

Rocco Di Donato, one of four brothers who run the Faema operation with their father, leads the way out of the café, across the courtyard to the showroom, explaining how his 82-year-old father, Mike, still works from the original location on St Clair. When he first came to Canada from Italy in the 1950s, a cup of coffee ordered at the Eaton’s lunch counter led him to realize there was a large gap in Toronto’s understanding of what coffee could be. So he called his mother, who ran a caffe in San Nicola, Italy for the name of the espresso machine she used and ordered one – a Faema naturally – so he could open a caffe here. He also started distributing espresso machines out of his garage. Each son started working nights and weekends by the time they got to high school.

Although the company grew steadily – each son started working there nights and weekends during high school — it was the explosion in North American coffee drinking habits that catapulted it into expansion mode. There are now five locations around the GTA, with showrooms, cafes, and training/tasting/demonstration facilities.

Just inside the showroom doors are floor to ceiling glass shelving units meticulously stacked with row upon row of one-kilo bags of coffee beans – Trucillo, Segafreda, Caffe Mike, Caffe Incas, and Faema Premium. Priced in the $25-30 range, each bag provides about 142 cups each, which works out to about $.14 a cup. Compare that to the $.65 a cup for the capsule coffees, or doing a coffee run — even the priciest espresso machines end up saving enough money, especially in an office setting, they can pay for themselves in a year or two.

It’s clear the brothers — Pat, Lorenzo, Rocco and Joe — are a little fanatical about their coffee, having read just about every study going that demonstrates the benefits of espresso, and Italian espresso in particular. They talk about using the best coffee beans – made in Italy – in a blend of 90/10 or 80/20 Arabica and Robusta. They have strong opinions about the very dark, very oily beans that competitors use. “The longer the bean is roasted, the more the oil oozes out, so you get a dark, oily bean,” Pat explains, holding out their beans in his palm — a paler, medium brown, with no oil. “These make good coffee,” he says.

The showroom is immaculate, not a fingerprint on any of the machines, most of which are either chrome or stainless, though two vintage-style – one in baby blue enamel the other cherry red — punctuate an otherwise monochromatic landscape.

The two brothers weave in and out of each other’s conversation as they demonstrate various machines and produce cup after cup for sampling – latte, hot chocolate, with and without a shot of espresso, macchiato, espresso from a cold cup, espresso from a warm one.

It’s heaven for a caffeine junkie.

Basically, espresso machines these days come in two main categories: traditional and super automatic. Mostly for coffee purists who want control in extracting the ultimate cup of coffee, the traditional machines come either as steam-operated (less expensive, heats water which is pressed through the coffee like a stovetop pot) or pump driven. Machines with pumps have either a boiler or thermal block, which is a dry heating system. The bigger ones, Pat explains, have a heat exchanger which has a copper line in it, keeping the water which heats the machine separate from the water that makes the coffee that goes into your cup.

Of these traditional machines there’s the Italian-made chrome Faemas and die-cast aluminum Rockets, the Spanish-made Ascasos in baby blue and cherry red enamel which create the only visual punctuation in an otherwise monochromatic showroom. There are also less expensive Portuguese-made Capresso machines. Usually, cups are warmed by the heat that comes from the top of the machine. Most are heavy and solid, but the external body isn’t as important in making good coffee as the internal equipment is.

The Rocket, which Lorenzo calls the “rolls-royce” of espresso machines ($1800 to $3000), is the exact same as a commercial machine only smaller, and elicits rave reviews from customers. It has a double boiler, or heat exchanger, one for producing steam, the other for making coffee, so steamed milk and coffee can be made simultaneously. In addition to a water reservoir, there’s a connection underneath for hooking up to sink/plumbing water.

For those who want the ultimate coffee experience, but without the effort, there’s the super-automatic bean-to-cup machines, Swiss-made by Jura, these grind the beans, dispense correct doses, self-clean, and can make anything from espresso to hot chocolate and everything in between. It even produces boiling water for tea plus a recipe and ingredients for Mango Lassi.

“The way of the coffee world is these super automatics,” says Lorenzo. “Coffee is such a big thing now most people want to make it themselves. And once they try out the Jura, they’re hooked.”

Ranging from $900 to $3000 (plus one with double capacity for $6000), the machines are so programmed they let you know when it’s time to de-scale, when it’s ready for cleaning (and then self-cleans), and lets you know when you run out of beans, or water (although it also has a plumbing hookup). There’s a manual override for the times you want more grams of coffee for more intense flavour. They come with large water reservoirs but also valves for hook-up to a water source. All come with an internal water softener that filters and de-calcifies on demand. Soft water produces better crema (the foam on top of the espresso), the coffee tastes better and there’s less calcium build-up. And they’re super-fast – 30 seconds from start to finish.

Lodged between every two or three machines are accessories – cup warmers and grinders. A warm cup doesn’t let the espresso cool too fast, and grinders can make a huge difference in the quality of coffee. There’s manual — a box with crank to hand-turn the burr wheel inside – and blade which turns and crushes the beans (the longer you grind the finer the coffee, but it doesn’t give a uniform grind). There are electric burr grinders which grind using wheels, and the closer the wheels the finer the grind, and there are dosers which use burr wheels to grind precise cup dosages.

Although tamping the coffee down is important, it’s the grind that determines the best coffee, says Pat. “If the coffee is too fine, it comes out too slow, if it’s too coarse it flushes out. You want a smooth, golden flow that’s rich looking.” The best extraction is often described as a “mouse’s tail” – wider at the top than bottom – and extraction time should be about 20-25 seconds, he adds.

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