- Josh Tuck
- Josh Tuck
After years of drinking coffee, and talking to people in the industry, I’ve come to a realization; drinking coffee is almost always a one way street. If you start drinking McDonald’s McCafes and then switch to Starbucks, you don’t often go back to McCafes. When you graduate from drinking Starbucks to the crafted lattes of Old Crown, Firefly, or Higher Grounds, you probably only go back to Starbucks when there is no other alternative. It’s not to say that one of these options is inherently better than another; it just seems to be the trend. Once people try something better, they rarely go back to what they used to drink.
When a compulsively nerdy coffee fanatic like myself craves something special or unique, getting a fix can mean a trip to Chicago… or New York… or Italy if the craving is particularly bad. These larger markets have specialty coffee bars where baristas, even more consumed with espresso then their customers, hone the craft of coffee making with pathological intensity. They work tirelessly at blending different ratios of coffee beans, making tiny adjustments to the roast, and fine tuning their espresso extraction methods. The result is espresso that is constantly evolving in new and exciting ways.
Luckily, Fort Wayne’s coffee obsessed no longer need to travel hundreds of miles to sate their desire for peerless espresso. Sean Wang has opened Trionfale, a new coffee bar on the north side of Fort Wayne specializing in the grand Italian tradition of espresso-based drinks with a strong focus on craftsmanship. Trionfale, Italian for “triumphal”, is unlike any other coffee house in Fort Wayne, and Sean and his team hope to show people that cappuccinos, macchiatos, and lattes don’t need sweeteners when every step in the process is done to perfection.
From Bubble Tea to Coffee Beans
Sean’s family moved to America from Taiwan when he was eleven. His mother, father, aunt, and uncle opened a little sushi place called Asakusa, and when he was old enough, Sean went to work there. Finding “modest” success (i.e., a legion of devoted fans), his parents decided to retire early and Sean began thinking about opening his own place. Bubble tea, a sweetened tea drink mixed with tapioca balls, was gaining popularity in America. Seeing this as a possible business opportunity, Sean returned to Taiwan to learn how to make the drinks at a school that offered bubble tea courses in addition to bar tending and coffee making classes. Coffee, specifically espresso and latte art, were also a growing trend in America, so he signed up for those classes as well.
“It turns out that coffee is a lot more interesting then tea,” says Sean. In 2009, back in America, he heard the World Barista Championships were going to be held in Atlanta. He connected with members of the Taiwan team he had met while in Taipei, and arranged to hang out with them while they were here. In Atlanta he was introduced to Silence Huang. No, not the comic book super villain, the world renowned coffee roaster from Cuvée Coffee in Austin, Texas.
Sean was invited to Austin by Silence for a weekend crash-course in espresso making and latte art at Cuvée. After this trip, he knew this was what he wanted to do for a living. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he bought himself a professional grade espresso machine (which is currently in service at Trionfale) to practice his craft on. Later that year, Sean returned to Taiwan for a few months to train with Silence at his newly opened coffee school.
Sean almost certainly has more professional espresso making training than anyone else I am aware of in Fort Wayne. In spite of this, he says, “A few hours in the classroom and you learn all the steps, but without practice you’ll never get good.” To perfect his craft, he set up his espresso machine in his basement and threw coffee parties for his friends. Those hours of practice can be seen in the perfectly balanced espresso shots and delicately drawn latte art he serves everyday at Trionfale.
A Different Kind of Coffee House
The primary difference between Trionfale and other coffee houses, is that it’s not actually a coffee house; it’s a coffee bar. Sean intentionally designed Trionfale to have a long bar so customers can watch their drinks being made by him and his staff. This is the tradition in Italy and why “baristas” are so named. It is also how coffee shops in Taipei are set up.
In a nod to American expectations, they have modern couches and small tables to sit at. There is also a large dining room-style table perfect for working on your laptop, or gathering with a group. Trionfale is open, bright, and modern; a refreshing alternative to other coffee houses. It’s a great place to hang out for a while, pop in for a quick espresso, or geek out on coffee talk with Sean and the regulars.
Focused on Great Coffee
Another important deviation from the norm is that Trionfale does not have a wall of flavored syrups for mixing with their drinks. Initially, Sean wanted Trionfale to be completely authentic to the Italian coffee bar experience. No tea, smoothies, or even brewed coffee; just espresso based drinks. Smart business man that he is, he backed off on that idea in the spirit of being realistic about customer expectations. Even though they aren’t prominently displayed, basic flavors like chocolate, vanilla, and caramel are available as well as brewed coffee and a selection of teas.
Sean is keeping it traditional because he wants his customers to try his coffees without the flavorings they are used to. Most people automatically think coffee is bitter and immediately pour in cream or sugar to take the edge off. While everyone’s personal tastes are valid, Sean says, “Coffee is more then that.” In a well made espresso-based drink, there are an amazing mix of flavors in play which are lost when artificial flavors are added.
Different beans, from different regions, roasted differently, all bring something special to the cup. “We had some Rwandan in and if you drink it right after it’s brewed, you taste some bitterness,” says Sean, “If you let it cool down, all the sweetness starts to come out.” Furthermore, great espresso is a constantly moving target. Beans brewed on a different day, with the same amount of water, will vary in flavor due to changes in temperature, humidity, or whether it is sunny or raining. “Coffee houses that focus on handcrafting will be adjusting their grind two or three times a day,” says Sean.
The last part of the equation, latte art, isn't just a visually pleasing top to your coffee. Sean says that good latte art shows that the barista has steamed and frothed the milk properly. At the right consistency you should be able to pull crisp edges and form distinct shapes. It is also a good indicator the milk wasn’t overheated, or scorched, which adds bitterness to cappuccinos and lattes.
Even though he puts all this knowledge and skill into each drink he makes, Sean will never deny his customers what they want. His only hope is to gradually educate them on how good traditional lattes and cappuccinos can be. If, one day, a customer decides to try one when they are ready for a change, so much the better. He also encourages people to try a plain latte or cappuccino from the other coffee houses in Fort Wayne. Since no two coffee shops will ever make the exact same latte, he is certain everyone will discover one that fits their tastes and doesn’t require the added sugar and calories of chocolate syrup and whipped cream.
Not Completely Local… Yet.
The Final difference between Trionfale and their competition is that they do not yet feature beans roasted locally. “My original intent,” says Sean, “was to support someone from Fort Wayne since we have so many roasters here.” He realized using Old Crown or Crazy Sisters’ beans would mean his coffee would taste similar to that of Old Crown or Firefly. He wanted his coffee to be something you couldn’t ordinarily buy, so he began to look at other roasters with good reputations.
He considered using beans from Intelligentsia out of Chicago, whom he modeled Trionfale after, but in the Great Lakes area, a lot of people are already using them. He chose North Carolina’s Counter Culture after tasting and loving their coffee. It didn’t hurt that they had also just opened a training center in Chicago where he and his staff could be trained on how to brew their beans.
Winning Hearts & Changing Minds
Even though Trionfale is only about six months old, Sean is optimistic about the future. “Fort Wayne people… we’re not dumb,” he says knowingly, “We know how to appreciate things.” He is confident that while the luxury espresso trend hasn’t hit Fort Wayne full-force yet, it’s coming. In addition to using great beans from national roasters he hopes to eventually work with local roasters to develop his own signature blends. He wants to be sure that when people come back, they won't have to get exactly the same thing every time.
Trionfale, in this coffee addict’s opinion, is a long overdue addition to the Fort Wayne coffee landscape. Sean and his team are making some of the finest espresso I have ever sampled anywhere. It’s smooth, balanced, and richly flavorful. Best of all, it is served without a hint of pretension. Trionfale is for the dedicated espresso aficionado and the curious Starbucks regular alike. Don’t forget though, coffee is almost always a one way street. Should you drop into Trionfale for a cappuccino, you might wonder why you’ve needed all the extra sugar and calories in your coffee for so many years.