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Espresso yourself

Who raises the bar on espresso in Halifax? Liz Feltham judges as part of the KRUPS Kup of Excellence contest.


High-end coffee-machine giant KRUPScaught the steam coming off our bustling coffee culture. This year, Halifax became the fifth city to join the KRUPS Kup of Excellence, an annual contest to find the best espresso in independent coffee houses.

The competition works like this: Coffee fans select their top five cafes in an online vote, then KRUPS assembles a local seven-member jury in each city.

Our panel assembles at the Prince George hotel to meet our guides, Natalie Bibeau and Raffi Kouyoumdjian, for an espresso primer.

Java Blend (6027 North)

Java Blend, on North Street started roasting coffee in 1938, with owner Jim Dikaios holding the reins since 1971. Cups of espresso pass around and we're soon putting our knowledge and skills to work. This brew is complex, with citrus notes not typically found in espresso.

After our tasting, Jim takes us to see his roasting machine and shares part of his vast reservoir of knowledge. I could have listened to him talk coffee for hours.

Uncommon Grounds (Various locations)

I've always liked the industrial feel of Uncommon Grounds but after coziness of Java Blend it seems cold. The coffee is served in plastic glasses (strike one). It is horribly bitter and quite thin. I don't finish mine.

Smiling Goat (1551 South Park)

A new entry to the local coffee scene, this organic espresso bar on South Park just turned one. It is tiny, decorated in rich coffee tones with a beautiful green subway tile along the back wall. Very chic. They use a special kind of portafilter without spigots, which allows for a thicker, denser crema. At least, that's the theory. Our espressos are practically foam-free and very bitter.

Interestingly, they've chosen to serve us a double shot; I sip mine and promptly end up with black lips and tongue. We aren't offered water on the side, a must when drinking espresso to cleanse the palate and prevent dry mouth. I desperately want to wash away the taste.

Steve-O-Reno's (1536 Brunswick and 2854 Robie)

On Brunswick, the granddaddy of coffee culture is here. Greeted by barista Zane, self-professed "coffee nerd," we hear of varietals, blends, finish and all kinds of terms typically associated with wine tasting. Zane's passion is infectious and we're confident our coffee will be great. This is our second favourite: It lacks the complexity of Java Blend and it's not hot enough. The taste is not too bitter nor too watery. We leave Zane for our final stop.

Just Us! (5896 Spring Garden, 1678 Barrington).

This Wolfville-based company is all about fair trade. There is a lot of fair trade merchandise for sale here. The shop is comfy, with little secluded spaces for long, lingering cuppas. Sadly, there is nothing long and lingering about their espresso---watery is the nicest thing I can think of to say.

Even though espresso has less caffeine than most coffees, we're nicely caffeinated and giggling like prom kids in the limo on the way back.

Natalie and Raffi leave the jury to its decision. We deliberate. Next year, we hope more cafes will make it to the finals---Trident is a major omission, I feel. We part with an appreciation for the folks who make our daily brew a labour of love.

Halifax's winner of the KRUPS Kup of Excellence? To none of our surprises, Java Blend takes home the inaugural honours.

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