I am the Vancouver Mocha Snob
I grew up Canadian first, but Dutch second. I had an oma and a grandma. We made pannekoeken for breakfast, not flapjacks. We were frank to the point of bluntness (something I've had to smooth out over my years as an adult). I have hagelslag in my cupboard, I probably like the colour orange better than you do, and I definitely like haring better than you.
But in my hart of hearts, the thing that – somewhat bizarrely – feels like it defines me as Dutch, in a deeply primal sort of way, is MOCHA.
Growing up, at every birthday, there was a mocha cake. A wonderful, buttercream confection of coffee and just enough chocolate to be present without smothering the flavour of the former. The mocha cake, for us, was the One True Cake, and all other cakes were inferior. We never tired of mocha cakes. And at almost four decades of life, I still have not.
Just as I was becoming an adult, in the late 90's, Starbucks had begun their crusade for global domination, and coffee shops with espresso bars were the mainstream. So naturally, my coffee of choice is the mocha. But, as I have gotten older, and my tastes have become more discriminating, I've found that not all mochas are created equal. Order a "mocha" at a random coffee shop in Vancouver and the results will vary wildly. What's more, it feels like a lot of places ignore the subtlety required to make this drink well, and just phone it in. I can hear the naysayers: "It's the one for sweet tooths who don't truly appreciate coffee..."
So, when it comes to mochas, I've gotten opinionated... and picky.
I'm compiling an initial list here of my regular experiences, but I'm going to endeavour to keep the list updated as I try new coffee shops. Sadly, my experience may not be your experience. A different barista at the same location might have a different technique, and one in a rush probably won't produce a drink as well as one who can take their time. Nevertheless, I'm going to try my best to rank the places I have tried.
My Mocha Metrics (MMM)
Milk Texture: I find this very important. Nothing completes a good mocha like milk that has been properly textured, evoking the mouth-feel of that cake I love so fondly. Conversely, nothing makes a mocha fall flat like milk that's been burned or where the steaming seems to have done little but heat and water-down the milk. Texture! Temperature! Tenderness!
Chocolate: A mocha with great espresso is still a shitty mocha if the chocolate is cheap. I don't care what your particular chocolate philosophy is, just make the chocolate good, or your mocha will be crap.
Coffee Roast: A solid 15 years of coffee drinking has taught me that I'm partial towards medium to light roasts. I don't mind somewhat dark roasts, but when the taste of scorch starts to overpower the wonderful taste of coffee, I'm out. Sorry Italy...
So, let's talk about what Vancouver has to offer, shall we?
Starbucks - 2/10
Where else would we start? No matter where you go, the 'Bucks will always be there for you. Their product is nothing if not consistent, probably due to their highly-standardized training and equipment. Their milk texturing is generally pretty good, so no complaints there. Their roast is darker than I prefer, but not too burned, so... meh?
Let me be unequivocal though: the chocolate is TERRIBLE. I might as well order a latte and dump an entire shot glass of Nestlé Quik in it – I'd get the same results. When I have no alternative but the 'Bucks, I always order my mocha "half-sweet" (half the chocolate, in theory), lest it taste as if I'm drinking cheap hot chocolate. Even half-sweet, the chocolate flavour is strident and gross. If Starbucks invested in better chocolate (and used less by default), it would improve their standing in my eyes significantly, but I'm not holding my breath.
Sciué - 4/10
Here to remind you that there's a Romanized language that always pronounces every vowel individually, and that you're bad at it, Sciué (shoe-eh) is quintessentially Italian coffee run by quintessentially Italian people. That means that the roast is black as ash, and the milk scalding hot – like Mount Vesuvius in your cup. Sciué gets some points from me for being purists: they melt quality, solid chocolate in the bottom of the cup and build the drink over top of that.
The problem is, in a busy coffee shop in the morning, this never gets done properly. The vast majority of the chocolate sits on the bottom of the cup and never sufficiently intermingles with the beverage, leading to a scalding-hot, char-flavoured, "memories of mocha" latté with a puddle of chocolate on the bottom.
49th Parallel - 5/10
The local coffee shop that wants you to confuse their brand with a beer. Many years ago, I had a truly amazing mocha at the 49th Parallel in Kits. So when I heard that their third location was opening up right next to my work, I got excited. But sow too much anticipation, and you'll reap disappointment.
49th Parallel takes their craft and ingredients seriously (When I ordered a London Fog the other day, I was impressed to find that it contained real vanilla bean). Unfortunately, 49th Parallel utterly smothers their coffee in chocolate. Dark chocolate. Added to their darker roast, and even ordered half-sweet, the result tastes like a cup of mud. High-quality mud, to be sure, but mud nonetheless. If you have a hate-on for milk chocolate, you might like the darkness of this drink, but I do not.
Turks – 8/10
Oh Turks. The strange, hipstery/hippy-y hole in the wall on Commercial Drive has some grunge to it. But man oh man, whoever runs this place takes mochas seriously. Reasonably good texture, medium-dark roast, and delicious chocolate. They're a tinge heavy on that chocolate, in my personal opinion, but I hardly care. Add the fact that Turks makes three different kinds of mochas – including their divine hazelnut-tinged "Hedgehog Mocha" – and Turks need do nothing more to win my heart.
Shhh... You had me at "Hedgehog Mocha", you weird hippies.
Caffè Artigiano – 8/10
When Caffè Artigiano's mochas are good, they are amazing. Despite my wariness of Italian roasts, Artigiano seems to magically get their coffee as dark as possible without actually imparting any "burniness". The amount of chocolate is perfect, creating just the right blend of deep coffee flavour with notes of cocoa.
Indeed, Artigiano is an easy contender for the top spot. Unfortunately, they have a bit of a consistency problem. Sometimes the milk is just right, sometimes its scalding. Sometimes the texture is velvety and perfect, sometimes the milk tastes watery. Perhaps more standardized employee training is in order? Quibbles aside, do go to Artigiano and try a mocha with an apple crostata on the side.
Matchstick Coffee - 9/10
I tried Matchstick for the first time today, and it prompted me to finally sit down and write this article. I went in on a busy Saturday morning, and it took 10 minutes from ordering to get my drink, but with good reason. What I got was pretty much perfect, and I almost walked back into the shop to tell the barista how great a job he did (if he hadn't been so busy). Wonderfully textured milk, hot but not scalding, a flavourful medium-light roast, and the perfect, subtle amount of delicious chocolate.
I sincerely hope what I experienced wasn't a fluke, but since Matchstick's three locations aren't really in my usual haunts, it might be a while before I can go back to double-check.
JJ Bean - 9.5/10
In my mind, there is no closer template to the perfect, divine, One True Mocha than what you get at JJ Bean. JJ Bean has a solidly-medium roast that is full of flavour. While they use chocolate syrup, it's quality stuff, and they never overload the drink with it. The drink is always finished with a light dusting of cocoa powder.
But where JJ truly excels is their milk-texturing technique. JJ Bean's mochas and lattes have a thickness to them, a froth that is palpable but not airy. Moreso, this extends to beverages made with almond milk, which is notoriously hard to work with. This may be down to the fact that they don't skimp on ingredients, using the specialty "barista blends" of non-dairy milk products, formulated to stand up better to heat.
Add all this together and you get an amazing mocha. The only reason I can't give JJ a perfect score is that they have a bit of a consistency problem. The organization seems to suffer from frequent turnover, and I've discovered regularly that n00b baristas are likely to give you an overheated drink, particularly when it comes to non-dairy milks.
So there you have it! As I've said, I'll continue to refine this list and add entries. I plan on revisiting Cafe Artigiano, Trees, and other cafés. So stay tuned!