Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“High, higher than the sun.”
-U2 (from “Elevation”)
On Stop 81 of our weekly Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, we’re at Milano Coffee Roasters in Mount Pleasant. Milano is a veteran of the coffee scene – with four cafes in B.C. and one in Toronto – and there are many things I admire about this company.
For one, in a city full of stylish people, Milano cafés stand out in my mind as not trendy but timeless; a casual luxe that’s never stuffy. And visiting this particular café is special since it’s also the home of their famed roastery. You might say this is the eastside laboratory where some of Vancouver’s favourite coffees were developed.
While single origin coffees are hip, we prefer blends. And master roaster Brian Turko is unmatched at innovating blends, many that contain up to a whopping 13 single origins. To date, seven of their critically-acclaimed blends have earned gold medals by the Italian-based International Institute of Coffee Tasters.
What’s also great about this flagship location is its big space. Walk upstairs, like climbing a tree house, to arrive at a second level with a breezy bonus patio. It leans over a massive green space (Jonathan Rogers Park) and leafy views of the downtown skyline.
It’s made more intimate by being set in a slightly hidden location is on quiet West 8th. Mike’s comments on the lovely ambiance: “It’s like hanging out at a friend’s house – a very nice house.”
Also special, is that you get the luxury of choices here. It’s a clever business decision to give customers the opportunity to taste a range of their coffees. I know that if we discover a coffee we like, we’re hooked.
One of the choices you get: if you order espresso, you get your pick of six profiles. That day, it’s La Futura, Calabreze, Conco D’Oro, Harmony Decaf, Frank’s and Velvet. I want a latte ($3.75 medium) with a bean I haven’t tried before – the Calabreze (bold, chocolate, licorice). I also recommend mine and Mike’s running favourite: La Futura (vanilla, floral, bright).
By the way, they’re known for making their own nut mylk (almond) in-house, if you’re looking for alternatives to dairy.
And if you prefer a pour over (Hario V60), there’s a choice of three profiles: Blue Milano, Black Jam and Ethiopia. Pour over may seem a bit of an oddity here, in that it’s not exactly Italian, which is their inspiration.
But we can hardly complain, as we love seeing more than one brewing method. Some other options available: French Press and stove top (ie. Moka Pot). Someday when we have more time, we’ll to have to do the espresso flight ($7.50).
Mike decides a pour over ($3.50 large – great value). It’s actually his first time ordering one here since he always has their espresso-based drinks. Who can blame him? Espresso is clearly king at Milano, evident in their two espresso machines, a Conti and Canada’s first Sanremo Opera.
The staffer asks if he prefers a medium or dark roast. He says medium so she recommends the Blue Milano (sweet, mellow, low acidity) and he agrees.
Our impression is that staff here are knowledgeable. We overhear a customer asking questions about their coffees, and the staffer’s response is a very detailed explanation.
It’s a quiet Saturday morning and a sparse crowd at first. But once the clock’s hand hits 10, we realize this is the unofficial hour that locals show up. A lineup builds quickly behind us.
We take a look at their food and there’s carrot cake, lemon loaf, biscotti, cookies, macarons, breakfast sandwiches. There’s also some vegan/gluten free muffins and bars. We order a Ham & Egg Sandwich and Apple Crostata.
We’re asked if we’d like whipped cream with our pastry, and we do. It’s a generous portion: a tall and elegant glass of fresh cream sprinkled with cinnamon.
Another staffer begins my latte at the Sanremo Opera, pulling the shot, steaming the milk, pouring a heart design. She’s efficient and it’s done in a smooth motion.
The other staffer makes Mike’s coffee at a clear acrylic pour over stand. The way they do pour over here is unconventional.
She begins by rinsing the dripper with hot water from the kettle, discards the water, pours in freshly ground coffee, pours a round with the kettle.
She disappears to do some other duties, then comes come back to do another round of the kettle. Unless we missed something, we didn’t see a timer used. This technique surprised us. Just because V60 is one of the more technical pour overs that is easy to screw up.
At other cafes, we’ve seen pour overs done where the barista stood back and chatted with other staff – something which struck us as strikingly rude. In this case, the barista is rushing around to get other tasks done, in between pours, before returning to make the coffee.
Because we came at a high traffic period, we wouldn’t say our barista was being rude, or that the service was awful. That is, she wasn’t ignoring us, as much as she had duties to do; and the simple nature of her job dictates that takes priority here.
So our thoughts are the demanding busyness of this cafe may not give you the most attentive pour over. There are other cafes that will give you a better experience through the barista’s conversation with you and a stricter brewing technique.
But should we really be surprised, when Milano’s glory lies in their espresso drinks?
We take a seat at the banquet by the window. Looking out to the park across the street, there’s kids playing soccer. Around us, the crowd ranges from a construction worker, to some young women having espresso, to a young family eating breakfast, to couples meeting up with friends, people on laptops.
Brian Turko is said to be a big music fan, and it comes across in the eclectic mix here. Music can say a lot about a coffee shop. There’s tunes from Coldplay, then to a new rapper with a different style. If you’re lucky, you’ll also catch some live acts here, performing occasionally.
The Apple Crostada is very good, stuffed with apples and a biscuit texture to a sweet pastry. The big serving of real whipped cream on the side is a nice touch. The Ham & Egg Sandwich is also not bad, heated in the panini press. Not every place has hot, savoury breakfast options, so this is a plus.
I like my latte a lot. Everyone has a preference for coffee. In my opinion, Milano’s blends make pleasantly distinct lattes; they never taste burnt or harsh – usually pretty mellow.
And despite the unconventional pour, Mike finds his coffee is very good. He thinks it could be even better, with improved technique. But the result is still a notch higher than many coffees out there; because as Mike puts it, that’s what great beans can do. Maybe other customers would agree, because V60 seems popular here.
The thing about Milano is that they are all about espresso. They don’t try to be super fancy, or to complicate. People basically come here because they enjoy their coffees and maybe want to meet up with friends.
I’m spending a morning, the coffee’s good, a view of this city lies ahead, hours are stretching, we’ve got nowhere else we need to be. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be much more.
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Name of coffee: Milano Coffee Roasters’ Blue Milano
Origin: various (blend)
Location of roaster: Vancouver, B.C.
Price: $3.50 (large)
Brewing method: Hario V60 pour over
Roaster’s tasting notes: “Medium, full bodied roast with a beautiful balance. A full spectrum of coffee characteristics, rich, mellow, cocoa, fruitiness—an amazing cup! Think Blue Mountain at a fraction of the price.”
Mike’s comments: Bittersweet chocolate, low acidity. Pleasant dry bitter long lasting aftertaste. Nice dark burgundy red colour. It was very good; but I think it would have tasted slightly better if the barista had been more technical on the V60 brewing.
- Generous variety of coffees served here, which separates them from other coffee shops, and even many local roasters.
- Diverse brewing options make a luxurious experience.
- Elegant and comfortable interior. Lots of seating and beautiful views. Feels like a secret, locals-in-the-know location away from busy Broadway.
- Upbeat diverse crowd makes this a quintessential East Van hangout.
- Pour over technique was unconventional. If they stuck to a more technical method, we would have preferred it. Still, great quality beans speak for themselves.
Seating availability: 5/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 4.69/5
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156 West 8th Avenue
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