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Sam James makes good joe

November 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Sam James' self-titled coffee shop has been brewing up good business. Matt James/Gleaner News

By Karen Bliss

The lattes at Sam James Coffee Bar (297 Harbord St.) are a work of art and it has little to do with the carefully poured rosetta design that decorates each cup.

The staff that make the coffee are trained on the bean, the temperature, and the method, making each sip something to be savoured, like a rich dessert. “You have to have passion for it and care about what you serve,” says owner and namesake Sam James. “For me, the coffee I make is an expression of how I feel about it. I couldn’t live with putting out poor-grade coffee.”

Besides lattes, the small menu offers other espresso-based drinks and the pure Siphon coffee, a fun and informative vacuum process involving an open flame, narrow tube and upper and lower glass vessels.

There are also teas, cold drinks, plus an assortment of pastries he gets fresh daily from J.P. Challet at Ici Bistro (538 Manning Ave.).

The tiny coffee shop, with just four stools at a window counter and one small bench (plus four stools, outside weather permitting), is widely considered to be one of the best in the city. There is a constant flow of customers.

“When you integrate as part of a community, rather than just another brick in the wall on a commercial strip, you get recognized as for the neighbourhood,” says James. “So people that live around here really take possession of it—‘This is my local.’”

James, who has lived in the area for seven years since moving to Toronto, tried his first coffee at age 5, “terrible instant coffee” of his dad’s. “I didn’t like coffee again until I was 19,” he says.

James “fell into” the coffee business. He needed a job and a friend hooked him up at Cherry Bomb on Roncesvalles, but there’s something quite impressive about James: no matter what the job, he wants to do it exceptionally well.

“I sought out people who were really knowledgeable or well-reputed in the coffee business and picked their brains,” James recounts. “I realized there was a lot more depth to it than just making it and serving it. There’s a science behind it and there’s an art of doing business really well.”

At home, he also experimented, buying a cheap grinder and French press, trying different coffees and playing around with ratios and temperatures and brew time to see which worked best. “It’s a very low tech and simple approach. You can control all the variables that way by doing it manually,” he explains.

From Cherry Bomb, he honed his barista skills at other notable shops, Dark Horse and Manic, before deciding to open the Sam James Coffee Bar in 2009. He now has one full-time barista and four part-time, all fully trained and as expert and enthusiastic as himself.

“For me, a coffee shop should be about quality and service and it should be very utilitarian,” says James. “I had enough experience going into this that I knew exactly what I want to serve — and that’s serving a product really well.

“The nature of doing one thing really well is you gain an appreciative market, especially if you’re off the beaten path. People go out of the way and want to go out of their way to get something good and the majority of our customers are very educated about the product and that’s why they come back every day.”

Visit to view James’ guide to brewing the perfect cup of coffee at home.

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