The Coffee Lab
The Coffee Lab might be the smallest coffee bar in the city. Occupying 52 square feet inside the Annex's Willow Books , it starts serving caffeine in the morning long before the bookstore even opens. This makes sense, as I'd hazard to guess most people just crave a cup of joe more than a book to read at 7:30 a.m.
Update: The Coffee Lab is now at 141 Spadina Avenue.
Owner Joshua Campos can be found meticulously crafting coffee here every day (except Sunday, when it's closed). He trained at The American Barista and Coffee School in Portland, Oregon and also honed his skills back here at Sense Appeal Coffee Roasters and Classic Gourmet's Rufino Espresso ; it's clear he has a passion for this.
Working behind a concrete coffee bar he built himself, Campos makes the best of a small space. It looks like a very compact chemistry lab, a reminder that good coffee is not only an art, but a precise science. Beakers are used to serve espresso and water, test tubes contain coffee beans and Erlenmeyer flasks are filled with loose leaf teas.
Campos notes with a smile that he originally encountered some difficulty purchasing this equipment because it was assumed he was trying to start a meth lab, but it all worked out when he eventually managed to convince his supplier otherwise.
A straightforward menu is written on the chalkboard wall, split into Black (espresso, $2.75; Americano, $3), White (latte, $3.75), Filter (pour-over, $3.50) and Other (batch brew coffee, $2; tea, $2.50; loose leaf, starting at 50 cents/10g). Of course, other drinks, like macchiatos, cappuccinos or cortados can also be made by request.
Espresso shots are pulled on a La Marzocco, and customers can choose which of the two to three single origin beans available that week appeals to them most by sniffing them in the test tubes on display and reading about their tasting notes.
The same goes for pour-overs, which use funky-looking kettles covered in Australian crocodile leather that match Campos' portafilter handles.
So far, Campos has featured local roaster Social Coffee as well as Dartmouth, Nova Scotia's Anchored Coffee and Parlor Coffee from Brooklyn, NY. He plans to change up the roaster every couple of weeks or so.
I decide to try an espresso using Social Coffee's medium-roast Karindundu AA beans from Kenya. It's served in an adorably small beaker accompanied by another beaker of sparkling water and a copper spoon on a silver tray.
There's a nice, rich crema and the espresso itself contains fruity notes of pink grapefruit, cherry and raspberry. Campos clearly knows what he's doing and this espresso is a pleasure to drink.
Sweet treats consist of "kitchen sink" magic bars ($3.25 each) that have - as one might guess - a ton of stuff in them, including chocolate chips, almonds, peanuts, shredded coconut, pretzels, Skor bits and graham cracker crust, along with M&M&O bars ($2.75 each), which are made of cookie dough with M&Ms on top and Oreos in the middle.
Campos' fiancĂŠe Daniela makes the bars herself. (She also helps out at the cafe on Saturdays.)
On the morning I visit, there's a steady stream of patrons, some of whom have obviously become regulars as Campos recognizes them and remembers their previous orders. In an effort to make those passing by on Bloor aware that the The Coffee Lab exists, Campos tells me he put signs on a hollow telephone booth outside advertising "Toronto's smallest cafe."
Comically, because there weren't any arrows pointing towards the bookstore, would-be customers were confusedly stepping into the empty, coffee-less phone booth looking for the cafe. That misunderstanding seems to have cleared up now, but if Campos could fit his entire operation inside that booth, he'd definitely go uncontested as the smallest cafe in the city.
Instead, Campos is hoping to expand if this place succeeds; he (jokingly?) suggests that maybe his next spot will be 60 square feet? Regardless, this current shop continues to prove that good things come in small packages.
Photos by Hector Vasquez.