It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.
This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.
Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.
But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.
Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)
A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.
When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.
One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.
They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.
The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.
Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.
Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.
Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.
This spacious café opened in the Fall of 2010. Located not far from the David Ave. border with Monterey, it’s a few blocks from the famed aquarium and can practically pass for Monterey. Out front along Central Ave. is a wooden parklet with a few café tables and two larger shared tables. The whole streetside parklet vibe should seem familiar to anyone from San Francisco.
Inside, along sherbet green walls, there’s a longer bench with a few café tables and two larger shared tables. There are shelves and shelves and tables of merchandising for sale: primarily jams, pickles, and baked goods. And yet most of the floorspace is dominated by the working bakery in the rear half of the shop (complete with mirrored disco ball). There’s a real vegetarian vibe to the place — down to the homemade kombucha for those who love sour tea made from soiled diapers.
But the coffee service — which runs later in the day than the 3pm food service hours — isn’t bad here. They use an orange, two-group manual lever La San Marco machine, Mazzer grinders, and Blue Bottle coffee to pull modestly sized shots with an even, medium brown crema of little distinction.
It’s light on the aroma, and the flavor seems a little brighter than a typical Blue Bottle cup: some spice, some sharpness, some apple acidity. There’s a decent flavor balance, but it lacks exceptionalism at just about every dimension. While Blue Bottle service is a find this far south, it’s off the standards of most of their purveyors. But the espresso sameness problem of SF doesn’t exist here (yet). Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.
For pour-over service they feature a stand with four Blue-Bottle-branded Bonmac drippers. For milk-frothing, they use Clover milk and employ decorative rosettas in their latte art (albeit a bit on the early practice end). They seem much better at milk-based drinks than the straight espresso here, as it is not too milky and exhibits good balance. Hence the generous correction score in their rating.
As we mentioned in our last review of a remote Martinez, CA coffee house: good coffee is everywhere. In fact, the modern boom in good coffee purveyors is akin to the boom of mom & pop video rental stores in the 1980s and ’90s. And as some of these small businesses grow a little larger to form local chains, they’ve become a little like the current surge in home solar installation businesses. The local demand is there and the barriers to entry are generally low.
While the ubiquity of good coffee has its obvious benefits for coffee lovers, it also raises the spectre of market saturation and business sustainability. As good coffee houses open everywhere, they’re no longer rare nor special.
SFist is probably being a little alarmist before we have to worry about carpet-bombing-levels of good coffee in the neighborhood. Verve would have something a little different to say than the others already there, but the nagging old question of espresso sameness comes up. I would be particularly concerned if someone was planning to open yet another coffee shop serving Blue Bottle from La Marzocco machines just like the seven others within a three-block radius.
But in such a saturated environment, discovering a new coffee house with something a little different to offer can be a draw. Sometimes you have to go as far out as Martinez to find something that unique.
Mountain Grounds + Revel Coffee = Something Different
Opening in the latter half of 2013, Mountain Grounds is in the middle of nowhere but is unique enough, and has high enough quality standards, to make it well worth a visit. If nothing else for the uniqueness of its coffee sourcing.
Located in a Martinez strip mall of four stores (what else are you going to find outside of old downtown Martinez?), it’s a tight space inside with window counter seating in front and hardly a few seats next to the service counter. Outside there are a few café tables along the sidewalk under the strip mall porticos — along with a couple of lounging chairs and a heat lamp.
Owner John Cassidy and his wife, Danielle, gregariously operate this shop. One of John’s longtime friends is Gary Theisen of Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings, Montana. Revel ships in the coffee from Montana every Monday. (The shop’s working business phone number also betrays John’s Montana roots.)
Mountain Grounds follows some creative small-town practices, such as accepting orders via SMS text in advance. (Easier to handle with low volumes.) They also offer a variety of specialty coffee drinks, including crème brûlée lattes (set aflame before being served for the crispy top) and the S’more. At one side of the cramped shop is a menu on the wall titled “A Taste of 3rd Wave Coffee Shops”, which features a double ristretto, a 1 ‘N 1, a macchiato, a cortado, a cappuccino, and a con panna.
They pull espresso shots from a newer two-group Nuova Simonelli with a modest layer of even, medium brown crema with good coagulation. There’s a fruity brightness in the cup of cherry and berry, but a lack of the apple-like acidity that you might find with typical coffee from newer Cali roasters (e.g., Sightglass). This makes it a unique and rather balanced cup.
Milk-frothing here is pretty even. They offer weight-measured Chemex and pour-over coffee. The shop’s loyal following includes those who also take home Revel beans, which are packaged in clear plastic drinking cups with lids. With no real sink in this tiny shop, coffee drinks are served in paper only except for large ceramic logo cups for the bigger milk-based drinks.
If you are a coffee lover, you’re probably already well aware of the online coffee courses offered by Seattle’s ChefSteps. That is, unless you’ve been holed up in Guantanamo or you avoid most social media like the time-sucking plague that it is (though I do, and yet I couldn’t avoid the subject).
This week coffee legend James Hoffman blogged about the latest ChefSteps course he’s involved with, and today we’ve already witnessed the promotional marketing for it bleeding out to publications such as Eater and Food & Wine — complete with obligatory use of the word “perfect” in their article titles.
To read the general press and discussion about publishers like ChefSteps, you’d think we were entering a revolutionary era of coffee education. But having taken ChefSteps’ free Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, and having a lot invested in the subject of how online education works (and does not work), I’m just not feeling the love. At least yet.
Of computer mice and men
Let me explain. To begin with, I also need to start with a little about my “day job”. For over the past three years, I’ve been the co-founder and president of an online education start-up. We raised several million dollars from Khosla Ventures, a heavy investor in education technology, where Vinod Khosla himself sat on my board of directors. The only other board he served on was Square, so we were fortunate to have so much of his attention. (Side note: Khosla Ventures has more recently purchased the start-up outright for integration within its educational portfolio that includes the CK-12 Foundation, etc.)
Now the mission of this start-up may have been teaching users to program rather than to make latte art, but many of the frameworks and principles apply regardless: delivering educational content online, complementing lessons with resources such as online video, embedding discussions and interactions with the faculty and other students throughout the course, etc. Thus, over some years of experience, I’ve learned a few things about what’s good, what works, what’s revolutionary, and what’s — well — not so much in online education.
Back to that latte art
First: ChefSteps’ content. Taking their Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, I didn’t come away learning anything I didn’t already know. But as an introductory course, that’s to be expected. The videos, hosted on YouTube, are slickly produced and include legit instructors: Charles Babinksi, of G&B Coffee (he’s the ‘B’) and a former USBC finalist, and Scott Callender of La MarzoccoHome.
The chief questions I struggled with as I took the course: was the material any better than any book or series of online articles I’ve read before? Same question for the videos. And did all of that help me learn something? My answer was generally “no”, or at least “not really”.
CoffeeGeek legend Mark Prince chimed in last week on a little of his mixed experiences with ChefSteps — at least regarding the “Espresso Myths” videos in the course. So let’s take the video on crema myths:
Now ChefSteps’ byline is “cook smarter”, but being “smarter” usually involves a more thorough effort of evaluating multiple perspectives, checking out references, and maybe performing a little analysis on all that before drawing hard conclusions. What we have instead in this “crema myths” segment (at 1’11’) is Scott Callender saying this:
“I think one of the best examples of that is Italian roasters include robusta into their blends simply to add this really thick, dark crema on top of their shots so it looks beautiful. But if you ever just taste a single origin robusta, most people would not tell you that tastes like a very good espresso.”
— Scott Callender, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
I can almost get past the fact that Scott has essentially stereotyped an entire coffee culture by suggesting that Italian roasters blindly add robusta to blends for the sole purpose of enhanced visuals. But what really makes my eyes roll is that Scott dismisses the idea that anyone might add a robusta component to a blend for something as insane as flavor balance or complexity.
Scott’s attitude is also rooted in the Puritanical myth — common to many myopic self-described Third Wavers — that the ultimate expression of coffee can only be found in a coffee bean’s genetically and geographically isolated single-origin, single-farm, single-row-of-shrubs heritage, unadulterated by external contaminants. This is essentially a lite version of Adolf Hitler’s purified master race doctrine as applied to coffee. And yet some of the greatest pleasures of coffee today come from an incestuously muddled history of genetic and geographic mash-ups; mash-ups that have given birth to everything from Bourbons to Catuais to Caturras to SL28s to SL34s to Typicas to even prized Gieshas transplanted to Panama as recently as 2000.
Charles Babinksi (who later uses big words like “quotidian”) then adds to this deconstructionist nonsense at 3’40” in the video:
“Also, it should be noted that crema tastes terrible. It’s one of the least enjoyable parts of drinking coffee. And more crema is not necessarily going to mean a tastier shot.”
— Charles Babinksi, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
While Charles is factually correct, what he says reflects a deconstructionist and non-integrative approach to thinking — i.e., that any component that isn’t good individually in isolation is therefore potentially negative, detrimental to quality, and/or not important. This line of thinking borders on implying that nothing can be better than the individual sum of its parts, which is just plain wrong.
As Charles points out later in the course, in Taste the Extraction, progressively tasting an espresso extraction highlights how it transforms from sour-through-bitter notes and yet they all balance out in the end. That balance is arguably one of the most critical elements to a quality espresso and coffee in general: sour is important, sweet is important, salty is important, even bitter is important, and the balance between them all is what makes the beverage we obsess over.
I’m all for dismissing unnecessary espresso myths, but in the process you shouldn’t be creating new ones in their place.
Where ChefSteps succeeds
Where the course excels is in introducing the “three legs of the espresso stool”: brew ratio, brew time, and brew temperature. Again it’s nothing that hasn’t been repeated before dozens of times elsewhere on the Internet (despite many student comments in the course to the contrary), but it’s summarized well in a concise place and format.
Overall the course is a bit short and superficial (hey, it’s free), serving mostly to improve general awareness rather than to teach any skill, method, or technique. Segments such as Pulling a Great Shot, for example, do very little towards the mission of actually teaching. Instead, it repeats a lot of minimalist common knowledge to a soundtrack of lounge music more suitable for getting a hot stone massage at a spa:
But is it an actual “course”?
Last, we come to ChefSteps as a concept and overall learning format. Here’s where that rubbish about the day job kicks in. Is what ChefSteps offers any different or more effective than a book with a supplemental DVD of videos?
The threaded comment section to engage with the instructors and fellow students is helpful, but it feels a little wonky in the context of a course. It’s optimized more for commenting on Facebook posts than to facilitate any actual learning exchange, but it’s the easiest and most obvious thing to do in the early stages of any start-up learning platform. There are also Quartz-style contextual comments, but they barely get used.
The support component of any course — where students have questions or challenges that veer from the linear narrative of the program — is essential to its effectiveness. It is a core differentiator from merely reading a book or watching a video. One of my most critical insights was that many learning platforms are designed primarily as modified content delivery platforms, and support is often bolted on as an afterthought. My start-up’s platform was initially built around content delivery rather than support delivery, and effective learning platforms often require the reverse.
In other words: it’s the support, not the content, that’s often the primary driver of learning value. We choose university courses more for the professors and TAs than we do for the textbooks they use.
However, the primary glaring omission from ChefSteps as an effective learning platform is its complete lack of assessment or evaluation capabilities. A few years ago the Gates Foundation developed a compelling universal data model to represent learning systems and environments. While not yet made public, it was extensively shared among many tech-minded educators as a potential learning blueprint. In this fundamental data model, learning resources are paired with assessment or validation resources, and the pairs are typically combined in a sequential series. That much is so fundamental to the human learning model that the Gates Foundation proposed it as a standard.
And it makes obvious sense when you think about it. What education is there without quizzes or tests, midterms and finals? The human brain simply does not learn in the absence of useful feedback, without tightly integrating the practice of the very things you are supposedly learning.
You can only go so far learning to play a piano just by reading a book and watching videos. Hearing how you actually sound playing a piano — or better: having your piano teacher assess your performance — is the only way to know if you’re really progressing.
Hence why Charles Babinksi wisely suggested that ChefSteps streamline, if not eliminate, the course’s latte art section: teaching such a skill with the platform would be something of an abject failure. But without any assessment in the mix, you might make the same case for the entire course overall.
So it remains that ChefSteps is a nice reading resource, but it offers nothing you couldn’t recreate on Facebook other than its paywall. Accept it now for what limited reference value it provides. Any actual online education is a long, long ways off still.
“You can find good coffee just about anywhere these days.” That’s been something of a mantra of ours over the past few years — whether it’s to question the point of archaic-yet-always-cited “America’s Best Coffee Cities” surveys in popular media or the need for coffee travel kits. Yet another case in point is my brother’s longtime home town… the Contra Costa County outpost of Martinez, CA.
I’ve found at least two notable places to get coffee in Martinez in recent months. The first, Barrelista, was formerly a coffeeshop named Legal Grounds. This downtown Martinez corner coffee house was opened in February 2014 by the owners of the popular Barrel Aged bar/restaurant across the street.
The place has a funky, independent coffeeshop vibe — but without being run-down, cheap, and skanky as is the case with many less-than-urban independent coffee shops. (And many in cities for that matter.) There are a couple of benches for seating outside in front on a Main St. parklet. Otherwise, inside it’s a cozy spot with a lot of decorative, unique tables and chairs.
It’s not as stuffy as a stereotypical downtown Martinez antiques shop, but it’s much nicer than your typical thrift store. There are mirrored walls, there’s an old bicycle on the wall, and there’s even a shiny metal National cash register at the service counter. A collection of board games keeps some of the locals occupied.
They sell panini, pastries, and sweets in addition to their coffee, which comes from Four Barrel (they also sell their beans retail). Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the side of the service area, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema of little detailed texture but yet good thickness.
It’s a modest pour, and it has some of the characteristic Four Barrel brightness but without it being overwhelming. There’s a pleasant roundness to the cup — a fuller mouthfeel accompanied by a decent blend of flavors from herbal pungency to mild spices and cinnamon to some apple-like acidity on the finish. Served in multi-colored Cost Plus World Market cups and saucers. The milk-frothing here is a bit wet and restrained, and yet their cappuccino runs very milky here — like a latte. They also do a decent job of trying their hand at latte art.
A solid espresso that would be worthy most anywhere. But there’s another notable Martinez coffee shop review to come…
One of Blue Bottle Coffee‘s great challenges today is to continue growing with the success of their coffee and café operations while avoiding becoming a commodity: a boilerplate coffee shop with a flavor profile so consistent that it becomes a little monotonous and boring, despite its obvious quality. Back in 2007 we wrote about Blue Bottle’s role in the Bay Area’s budding espresso sameness fatigue.
Coincidentally, that reference was in an article about Piccino Cafe — which has since closed, reopened to a larger restaurant space, and switched from Blue Bottle to Sightglass roasting. Sightglass has also since opened a second roasting operation in the Mission District where they immediately addressed the sameness concern by roasting and offering select coffees that aren’t available at their other locations.
Just a few blocks from the second Sightglass roastery is this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet located inside the garage door of a Heath Ceramics production and retail warehouse. The location suits Blue Bottle’s alliance with Heath, and it also offers another unique space for them to operate. Even if Blue Bottle has yet to diversify their coffee offerings as much as the smaller-scale Sightglass.
Off to the left in this space is the in-house Blue Bottle retail café, with a decent-sized service counter, a lot of shelf space dedicated to whole bean sales, and a rear shelf of merchandising. To the center is the café seating area, adorned with the warm colors of wooden benches and chairs for seating inbetween the café and Heath’s production plant residing behind glass windows.
The area is decorated with succulents and tall white ceilings with a lot of exposed pipes. At the service counter they employ a two-group La MarzoccoStrada machine. Going just a little off what was expected at the visit, they served espresso using their Colombia Las Margaritas Red Bourbon Honey single origin roast instead of their traditional three-bean blends. This gave the cup a bright fruitiness that shown throughout the cup — or disrupted the balance, however you perceive it.
The flavor is sharp: mace, cloves, and bright spices. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and is served with a small glass of sparkling water on the side in a Heath Ceramic cup (of course).
While it’s a very astringent cup, at least they are experimenting beyond the expected at some of their cafés. Even if we had to deduct a few points for the annoying hipster barista who insisted on calling our shot a “spro”. (The groan-worthy “spro” being the #yolo of coffee vernacular.)
This renowned pie bar (/bakery) and ice cream shop opened in May 2014 to a lot of wine country accolades. And although coffee isn’t in their name, they also give a significant nod to their coffee service.
It’s a simplistic storefront off of the historic Healdsburg Town Square. Everything is covered in white-painted wood — or at least so it seems — giving it a turn-of-the-20th-century medical office feel. Or something from the set of The Knick.
They have a few metal stools and chairs with window counter seating and a couple of café tables. There are pies, there is ice cream, there’s merchandising on two wall shelves, and there’s the coffee service.
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots of Stumptown with a modestly thin, even brown crema. It has a flavor of simple spices with a more balanced finish of some light pepper and chocolatey notes. Even so, it’s a little bit of an underachiever for its pedigree. And yet it works anyway. Served in black Espresso Parts cups.
Their macchiato runs a bit creamy without a clear milk-to-espresso definition in the cup. The milk-frothing runs a bit dry and not well integrated into their drinks.
Overall, it’s a viable alternative to The Goat: even if the quality isn’t quite there, the Stumptown beans give it something of an alternative flavor profile for the town.
It has been over 20 years since I last spent real time in Arizona. And back then it was either the Flagstaff or Tucson areas — deliberately not Phoenix, with its then-legendary saturation of Denny’s-per-square-mile, above-ground cemetery lifestyle, all the bad things about Los Angeles (smog, traffic) and none of the good (beaches, movie stars), and in-state locals who frequently tried to extricate those they felt were trapped in Phoenix itself.
Did I unfairly give Phoenix a bad rap without spending any first-hand time there? Absolutely. Is it for me? Phoenix can be very scenic and pretty, despite traffic landmarks like The Stack, and the people are outwardly nice in a way that would make any Bay Area resident suspicious. However, it’s probably a place I’ll visit but keep in the arm’s-length acquaintance category, even if I know and met a number of locals who love it there. One of my Über drivers raved about the area, but then he grew up in Sudan.
No matter — much like the rest of America these days, there’s good coffee to be had in town.
Sola Coffee Bar previously stood on this Old Town Scottsdale location, until the owners wanted out of the business in 2011. (Scottsdale sits as a large suburb on the northeast of the Phoenix border.) Jason Silberschlag, owner of the Cartel Coffee Lab chain, loved the location and moved in immediately.
It’s a relatively modest space with exposed wooden panels and fans on the ceiling, a number of exposed supporting posts, and an open art-gallery like space. Outside there’s a sidewalk bench. Inside there is stool seating along the street windows in front and some long, cushioned seating along internal glass walls with small café tables designed like small, squat sections of tree stumps. The few real tables inside are the size of picnic benches with various red and white colored metal chairs about.
Off to one side they serve multiple microbrews on tap along with wines. At the back is their coffee service bar. It covers brewing using anything from Aeropress, V60, Clever, and Chemex, and they offer drinks in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 20oz sizes — a dimensioning of their coffee service that I haven’t quite exactly seen before.
Part of their bar surface is covered with these brewing devices in a sort of Noah’s-Ark-like 2×2 formation. A wall of mounted crates offers their merchandise, from roasted coffee to the devices behind any of their various brewing methods. Except one…
Using a two-group La MarzoccoStrada behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a little light on thickness. It has a sharp acidity with a flavor of citris and some cedar, though it seems a little light on body and lacks much of any rich, body-forward flavor notes. Served in a shotglass with water on the side.
Overall, it’s a good espresso that tastes inspired by many West Coast roasting stereotypes, but it has enough of its own personality to not taste like a San Francisco or Portland knock-off.
illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).
However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.
Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.
It’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.
Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.
Blind spots in our perceived history of quality coffee
There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.
Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.
Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.
As another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.
Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.
Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)
Illy was also pioneering coffee subscription models as early as 2004, years before the Third Wavynew coffee middlemen injected themselves into the supply chain.
Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.
But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.
Review of illy caffè
Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!
This café is located at the edge of the former Metro Theater, which has since been converted into an insipidly boring and culturally irrelevant Equinox gym.
There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.
Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.
The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.
Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.
Taking its name from the 2013 hit single by Miley Cyrus…
OK, no, seriously.
While the dynamic duo of Trish Rothgeb’s roasting combined with Nick Cho’s barista and service know-how (and hopefully someone else’s tax accounting) has been in the Bay Area for quite a few years, tracking their coffee house openings and closings has been a bit like playing Whac-A-Mole. Seemingly married to the disposable, throwaway culture of pop-ups, you could be excused for mistaking Wrecking Ball for a roving coffee art exhibit meant to simulate the transience and vagrancy of America’s foster care system.
This latest location opened in August 2014 in a former That Takes the Cake. It appears as a converted in-law unit at the base of a Victorian home (or law office). In front there is some quaint yard furniture with miniature table and chair seating along the sidewalk — along with a sign to notify the staff for clean-up when you’re done.
Inside everything seems whitewashed as was vogue with San Francisco home interiors of the 1950s — save for the blue pineapple wallpaper at the entrance and black wood flooring. There are three chairs sitting at their Kalita pour over bar and long bench seating along the entryway.
They offer baked goods from Marla, they sport some antique brewing equipment along their shelves, and during the day they seem to be frequented by a disproportionate number of snobby expat Europeans wearing designer jeans and sportcoats that work in the neighborhood.
Using a white, two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the small counter, they pull shots of their 1UP blend with an even but richly textured medium brown crema. It has a balanced flavor of spices of cinnamon, a little allspice, some sharp acidity, and the suggestion — but not implementation — of deeper, richer body notes. As such, the flavor profile seemed a touch incomplete relative to the last pop-up shop that served us. However, it’s still distinctive as far as San Francisco espresso styles go. Served in a white Inker demitasse.