Trip Report: Sightglass (SFMOMA)

Posted by on 16 Jul 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine

This Sightglass location was announced in 2015, in the middle of SFMOMA’s three-year hiatus while being expanded into the largest modern art museum in America.

It opened with the museum in May 2016, inhabiting a modern, open air space among photography and interactive exhibits on the third floor. The space employs blonde wood and a sleek, minimalist design and is surrounded by modern sofas, small café tables, and video art installations.

Approaching the service counter at SFMOMA's Sightglass Service bay, roasted Sightglass coffee, and a Kees van der Westen Spirit machine

Stairwell to SFMOMA's 6th floorThis is the new coffee stop in the expanded museum. Cafe 5 on the fifth floor is where the former Blue Bottle Coffee at the Rooftop Garden used to be (with its three-group, manual Kees van der Westen Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette espresso machine relocating to the Outer Sunset‘s Andytown Coffee Roasters during the hiatus). Cafe 5 now serves illy coffee, and they’ve added two more floors to what was once the museum rooftop.

This was the third incarnation of SFMOMA I’ve visited — the first being at the cramped and dated War Memorial on Van Ness, where the collections were more heavily weighted towards interactive and video arts. Some of these installations have returned on the 7th floor of the new building.

Despite my inability to relate to much of the new Fisher Collection on the 5th and 6th floors, overall the new museum is quite impressive — including the extensive outdoor space. Of the new things on exhibit there, I was perhaps most drawn in by Wayne Thiebaud’s Canyon Mountains, excerpts from Jim Goldberg’s poignant Rich and Poor photography/essay series, and the gravity-bending Sequence from Outer Sunset mega-sculptor Richard Serra. Nina Katchadourian’s Under Pressure was also rather comical, but you need to put on the headphones.

Café seating among art installations at the SFMOMA Sightglass Café seating and video installations at the SFMOMA Sightglass

A line forms away from the Sightglass service counter to allow pedestrians to pass through, and behind the counter there are dueling two-group Kees van der Westen Spirit machines and bags and bags of Sightglass coffee. For retail sale they also sell their roasted coffee, over-packaged and in a reduced-size (8-oz).

Other than some pastries, it’s largely about the coffee service here. They pull shots with a complex medium-brown mottled crema of lighter thickness. It has the flavor of mild spices, some acidic brightness of lemon peel, wood, and some limited cherry fruit but yet it’s not the stereotypical Sightglass brightness bomb you’d expect. Served two-sips short in logo porcelain cups with a glass of sparkling water on the side.

About as serious an espresso shot as you will find in an American art museum.

Read the review of Sightglass at SFMOMA.

Café seating outside the service area of SFMOMA's Sightglass The SFMOMA Sightglass espresso

Trip Report: Octane Coffee / Bar (Buckhead, Atlanta, GA)

Posted by on 19 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

In the greater Mylanta area, Octane frequently ranks as one of the preeminent quality coffee chains. As an example, in December 2014 Atlanta Magazine named it the city’s best coffee chain.

This location of the seven-store, three-state chain — in Atlanta’s trendy Buckhead district — seems wedged in a building that looks like what Georgians think is the norm for Silicon Valley. Imagine if a bunch of ex-Yahoo! employees on H1-B visas decided to open a Georgia-themed biscuits and gravy shop in Sunnyvale. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

Entrance to Octane Coffee / Bar in the Atlanta Tech Village Razor scooter parking at the entrance of the Atlanta Tech Village

Coffee menu at Octane Coffee / Bar Octane Coffee's cold brew

Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village, or ATV, comes complete with airy glass-and-steel construction and designated Razor scooter parking in front (no, seriously, I am not making this up): surely 33% more startupy than the leading brand. Octane’s role here is to fit the tech worker coffee stereotype: chug coffee, write code.

Outdoors there’s patio seating in front under parasols — which don’t offer much help when Atlanta is hot enough to melt your face. (It was 100°F out, and “feels like 105°F” per my weather app, on my visit.) Inside the space curves around the outside contour of the building, with a service counter (and a King of Pops popsicle case) in front and several tables and a long, shared wooden bench towards the back. Along the glass windows there is a series of white modern stools.

They offer Japanese cold drip, a nitro-brewed iced coffee (which is rather tepid, btw), three pour-over coffee options, and espresso. Their standard blend is the Gravy Espresso.

Entering Octane Coffee / Bar in Buckhead Roasted coffee for sale at Octane Coffee / Bar

Inside the curved seating at Octane Coffee /  Bar Octane Coffee / Bar's La Marzocco Linea

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a healthy, evenly shaded medium brown crema. It has a good mouthfeel and density and exhibits excellent flavor balance in the cup: an even blend of mild spices, some wood, and some fruit. A friend who lives in the neighborhood told me that it can run a bit green-plant bitter, but I quite liked it and thought it showed great balance and restraint while still having a thick consistency.

If there’s any complaint, it’s that it’s too smooth and lacking strongly distinctive characteristics — making this more of a multiple-times-per-day Italian style espresso. Served with sparkling water on the side in Cuisinox cups by a cringe-worthy barista who calls it “spro”.

For their cappuccino they employ detailed Rosetta latte art with restricted, overly gentle milk-foam: it’s more liquid milk blended in the body and is thus too runny or liquidy. My friend also complained about the cortado here running a bit lukewarm on the serving temperature, which could be explained by their generous use of tepid milk. But despite the sterile office park location, it’s one of the better espresso bars in town.

Read the review of Octane Coffee / Bar in Atlanta’s Buckhead District.

The Octane Coffee / Bar espresso The Octane Coffee / Bar cappuccino

Trip Report: illy Caffè (Sansome St., Financial District)

Posted by on 18 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

I hadn’t seen the illy caffè North America crew since attending Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone. I’ve long admired them as a privately-owned company: run by cool people, with an attention to coffee quality and investments in coffee science long before anybody thought that made any sense, and even being named a world’s most ethical company for four years running now. So when they invited me to another San Francisco illy caffè opening last month, of course I accepted.

This is another illy Caffè in SF (and not another Espressamente) — this one located in the eastern shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, in the heart of the Financial District. Like the other illy caffè on Union St. that predated it, the food menu is a bit more involved and the service levels are just a touch higher than you’d get at an Espressamente.

Entrance to illy Caffè on Sansome St. in SF's Financial Distrcit The illy chandelier at 505 Sansome

Tricked out illy mobile cart and too many models in black at the illy opening Pastry counter at illy's 505 Sansome location

It’s a 1352 square-foot space capable of seating 32 patrons, and there’s the requisite illy Art Collection chandelier made of their designer cups as you walk in. Tall windows overlook the modern SF firehouse across the street with various café tables spread about for lingering.

Behind a large pastry counter (from City Bakery and Tout Sweet Patisserie) they operate a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. With it they’ve pulled shots with a picture-perfect, medium brown tiger-striped crema of modest thickness. The flavor profile is classic illy: mild spices, wood, and a broader flavor profile. Served in designer IPA logo cups.

Inside, the illy caffè NA crew showcase the company and menu Master Barista, Giorgio Milos, looks on at the event

illy caffè NA's Mark Romano explains their coffee sourcing illy's affogato specialty drink

Milk-frothing here is good: it may not be the prettiest, but it has a good texture and density. As illy has gotten into signature drinks lately, upon visit they were featuring their summer-ready illy Espressoda and a dessert-worthy illy Cinnamon Vanilla Affogato. For those bored with good coffee.

Read the review of illy caffè on Sansome St. in San Francisco’s Financial District.

illy Caffè's La Marzocco Strada The illy Caffè espresso

Cappuccino served at illy Caffè's 505 Sansome location

Trip Report: Cafe Virtuoso (San Diego, CA)

Posted by on 11 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

This coffee shop opened in early 2009 in San Diego’s transitional Barrio Logan. This neglected industrial and shipbuilding neighborhood, located in the shadow of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, is home to a few thousand mostly Latino residents. But that mix, and the mix of local businesses, is gradually changing with the winds of gentrification: alongside Latino murals, welding and machine shops, recycling centers, car repair joints, and grittier homes now stand microbreweries, cross-fit gyms, and hipster coffee shops.

Unlike San Francisco, where many see the arrival of an upscale coffee shop as the death of culture as we know it, in Barrio Logan most of the neighborhood friction concerns its mixed-use zoning where toxic chemicals, residents, and art studios struggle to co-exist side-by-side. A coffee shop/roaster such as Cafe Virtuoso is still industrial enough to blend in with its neighbors.

Entrance and sidewalk seating at San Diego's Cafe Virtuoso Seating just inside Cafe Virtuoso's entrance

Over the years, as San Diego laggardly opted to get serious about coffee, Cafe Virtuoso has slowly earned something of a loyal following among locals in-the-know.

There’s outdoor sidewalk seating in front with three metal tables and a parasol. Just inside the front door there’s a small room with three tables and artwork made of burlap coffee sacks on the walls. Past that is the main bay: a large industrial space with slab concrete floors that hosts coffee serving, roasting, and retail space.

In the main bay there are three additional metal tables with steel stools for seating. A baker’s rack of roasted coffee, brewing equipment, and tea dominates a section parallel to the service counter. A yellow Diedrich roaster draws attention at the center of the space (they’re San Diego’s only 100% certified organic roaster). Parked in back, when not out on the road at events, is a UNIC mobile cart.

Cafe Virtuoso's wall o' mersh Cafe Virtuoso's wall o' mersh, part 2

Cafe Virtuoso's Diedrich roaster and mobile UNIC cart at the back Roasted and packaged Cafe Virtuoso coffee

The comparatively small service area features a menu split between regular and premium espresso shot options, served from a two-group La Marzocco Strada, in addition to pour-over coffee and (nitro) cold brew.

Using their House Espresso, they pulled a shot with an event medium brown crema that ran slightly thin on thickness. It was light-bodied, fruity, and expressed some mild spice in addition to some roasted almond bitterness — a touch of which might be due to slight overextraction. It’s a solid shot, even though it shows some technical softness around the edges that could be tightened up with stricter standards and attention to detail. Served in a white notNeutral demitasse with sparkling water on the side.

Read the review of Cafe Virtuoso in San Diego, CA.

Another random space of tea and other mersh at Cafe Virtuoso Drink menu at Cafe Virtuoso

Cafe Virtuoso's La Marzocco Strada The Cafe Virtuoso espresso, with sparkling water on the side

Coffee Studies: John Oliver Skewers the Medical Infotainment Industry

Posted by on 09 May 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

This is gonna sound cliché, but while I’ve been a longtime fan of Jon Stewart, I never quite warmed up to John Oliver.

Oh sure… on his new show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, now in its third season, Mr. Oliver can amp up the incredulity and indignation, throw in contrived comedic riffs, and preach to the choir of his liberal-minded audience as Mr. Stewart did for years on The Daily Show. But Mr. Stewart was always so much more adept at it.

Even if Mr. Oliver is trying a bit too hard to follow in Mr. Stewart’s Daily Show footsteps, there are times — like his rant on FIFA — where he can nail a topic with obliterating precision. This week’s episode on scientific research in the media did exactly that, where coffee-related medical research is one of the more popular topics among cited studies.

Readers of this ancient blog may recall many past rants of mine on many of the identical issues raised in this short — from a 2006 story about caffeine studies on rat libido to my 2008 calling out of the media-medical-research complex to a 2014 lament on the scientific shallowness of TED talks.

As Mr. Oliver says in the video:

Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament: it will either save you or kill you depending upon how much you believe in its magic powers.

Reading news headlines on my Flipboard these days has been an exercise in dismay for the future fate of the species. “Science” is regularly quoted in headlines as if it were an individual person, spouting off the most inane opinions on the most vapid subjects. But these opinions are treated as fact — as if chiseled in stone and handed out from high atop the mountain.

Yet study after cited study is inevitably flawed, distorted, and/or spun as click-bait. And no matter what, each and every study is almost certainly unverified — each a quotable example of what has been brewing as science’s massive replication crisis that’s been quietly underway for the past decade. The lone hope is that the scientific process can still call out these replication gaps. But as Mr. Oliver points out:

There is no reward for being the second person to discover something in science. There’s no Nobel Prize for fact-checking.

Myanmar Coffee: from a Yangon supermarket

Posted by on 24 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Myanmar has been in the news a lot lately, and that includes news about its coffee. For example, earlier this month Myanmar coffee made its first-ever appearance at the annual SCAA Conference.

So why the sudden interest in coffee from Myanmar? While it is still more curiosity than serious demand, coffee from Myanmar is still something of an exotic export — despite Myanmar being overshadowed by its neighbors in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The new Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw The Naypyidaw complex where Htin Kyaw was sworn in as President

The country formerly known as Burma is just now opening up to the world much like Cuba is currently opening up to the U.S. Once a prosperous nation, Myanmar succumbed to a coup d’état in 1962 and it had been under military rule until only recently. Borders were closed, the economy stagnated, civil guerilla wars proliferated among Myanmar’s many tribal minorities, and multiple generations of Burmese citizens were lost to an oppressive regime stuck in the past.

That’s all changing today — and ridiculously fast. Last month, and for the first time in 17 years, a co-worker of mine and all-around cool guy — Anjo — recently returned to his Burmese birthplace. He witnessed a vastly different place with paved roads, modern construction, saturated trucking routes to and from China, the proliferation of smartphones and $1.50 SIM chips, and local Burmese wearing more Western clothes. In the three weeks he was there, he witnessed Myanmar swearing in its first democratically elected president in 50 years and the opening of a new Myanmar stock exchange.

Two bags of supermarket coffee from Yangon, MyanmarAnjo also brought me back some coffee.

At first Anjo hoped to pick up some coffee at origin near his original home in the Shan State, where much of Myanmar’s coffee has been grown ever since it was first introduced by missionaries in 1885. Instead, he picked some up at a City Mart, a popular supermarket in the former capital of Yangon.

This was even more interesting to me, as it represented what is consumed in the domestic coffee market — not just what’s shipped out for export. While the difference between domestic and export market coffee can be dramatic in many coffee-producing countries, Myanmar’s history of closed borders likely means the locals have become used to drinking “the good stuff” as its only market.

Italian Coffee Myanmar

The first 200g bag of coffee I tried was simply labeled — in English — “Italian Coffee Myanmar” from Ananda Cocoa & Coffee Ltd. It was 100% organic, 100% Arabica coffee designed for “Italian espresso” shade grown in the Pyin Oo Lwin of the North Shan State at about 1200m. As for the coffee varietal, it claimed to be Kenyan — which coincides with the SL 6, SL 14, SL 28, and SL 34 cultivars introduced to Myanmar in 2004.

Purchased in mid-March 2016, I couldn’t help but notice the expiration date stamp of 28-Jan-2017 on the bottom of the decorative bag. Taking a wild guess, that was probably an annual stamp and thus the roast date was probably about 6 weeks prior to purchase. It’s also worth noting how much English labeling is on a package of coffee sold in a Yangon supermarket. (Thank you, British colonialism.)

Italian Coffee Myanmar 200g bag Expiration date on Italian Coffee Myanmar

Myanmar coffee is more typically Arabica (two-thirds of its production, the other third being robusta that was originally planted by tribesmen of the Karen minority) and tend to be higher elevation Catimor cultivars — known more for their body and earthiness. Which is why it was a little bit of a surprise — especially on a bag labelled “Italian espresso” — to find a more medium City/Full City roast that barely made the second crack. There was no visible signs of surface oils on the beans. Have Myanmar coffee roasters been following Third Wave hipster protocol all along?

Brewed as espresso, though not on my most meticulous espresso machine setup (a consumer-typical Saeco Syntia Focus), it produced a cup with a medium-to-blonde crema that was relatively slight (6+ weeks since roasting will do that to you). The body was pretty solid but not heavy. The flavor profile lacked sweetness but also that dense, roasted fullness — and thus centered more around the midrange of the palate. I suspect it wasn’t quite a single origin, but it was a close approximation for some relatively similar green stocks.

Overall, an impressive coffee if you compare it with anything you could get in a supermarket bag labeled “Italian espresso” in Vietnam, Thailand, or China.

The surprisingly medium roast of Italian Coffee Myanmar An Italian Coffee Myanmar espresso

Shwe Yin Mar

The second 200g bag of Myanmar coffee I tried came from Shwe Yin Mar Coffee, a member organization of the Mandalay Coffee Group — and not to be confused its related auto parts, iron, and steel business.

The packaging appeared far more commercial and lacked any designation for coffee origin other than “Arabica from Shan State”. While not labelled “100% organic”, they claimed their beans were grown without chemical fertilizers. Plus an expiration date also showing January 2017 and what looks like an indicator that it was roasted January 2016.

Shwe Yin Mar 200g coffee bag Expiration date at the bottom of a bag of Shwe Yin Mar coffee

As a bag labelled “Espresso – whole bean”, the roast was more of what I expected for SE Asia supermarket coffee: a dark roast with a sheen of oils. As with the Italian Coffee Myanmar, the beans are a healthy, Arabica-friendly size which you might not normally associate with coffee in this part of Asia.

Brewed as espresso on the same machine as before, it produced a cup with a slightly more blonde crema of weak thickness. The body was decent, not great, and the flavor profile dipped into that burn-the-crap-out-of-my-identity territory: not quite a watery cup of ash, but definitely heavier on the smoke and tobacco with only some midrange and no real brightness to speak of. Which is a shame, because it was essentially roasted to taste like coffee from anywhere else.

The expected dark roast of Shwe Yin Mar coffee A Shwe Yin Mar espresso

In conclusion, I can’t say I wasn’t fully convinced of the exotic magic of Myanmar coffee. But there was clearly something going on here that I wasn’t quite expecting — and that coffee from Myanmar clearly has the distinctive potential to be something that could stand on its own relative to other quality coffee producers around the world. So at a minimum, I’ve been put on notice for what’s to come from this rapidly evolving country.

Espresso in New Mexico (Albuquerque & Santa Fe)

Posted by on 12 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

As the local T-shirts put it, “New Mexico: It’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”

Even the food here is its own thing. Between sopapillas, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Hatch Valley chiles (and ordering things “red”, “green”, or “Christmas”): it’s not Mexican, and it’s not Tex-Mex either.

Pueblo cave homes in Bandelier National Monument Apache mountain spirit dancer, outside the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, NM

Mountains and high desert of New Mexico Lone Butte, NM is little more than a general store

New Mexico can probably even lay claim to its own state of mind, defining the term high desert. Anywhere you turn starts from at least 6,000 feet of altitude. The combination of the altitude and arid climate can leave you with mild headaches and nosebleeds for days after arriving. Any notable breeze will result in red dust and grit in your teeth.

I last visited this region one winter in the 1990s, passing through one bleary-eyed day in the high-desert driving across I-40 from Flagstaff, AZ to Oklahoma City as part of a marathon trek across the country. Even back then I found Albuquerque more than a little odd, with the entire stretch of the town littered with “experimental speed limit” caution road signs. Experiencing it close up two decades later, it’s far stranger than I could have imagined.

Butte near Los Alamos, NM Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM

Albuquerque aka ABQ aka The Duke City

It seems rather apropos that humanity’s nuclear era started in the neighborhood, just up the road at Los Alamos. The town of Albuquerque strikes you as a post-apocalyptic world where someone entered a typo in their nuclear launch codes and accidentally overlooked this place. Add the many locals who convincingly impress you as veterans of earlier (and multiple) alien abductions, and to this day there is perhaps no better movie that captures the essence of Albuquerque than the 1984 cult film Repo Man:

Repo Man:This could easily have been set in Albuquerque, NM
Yes, even more than No Country for Old Men and the excellent TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While New Mexico may not directly feature in Repo Man, it’s the film’s origin story and its influence permeates throughout. (Sorry, L.A.)

The residential areas are typically a criss-cross of wide East-West-bound boulevards littered with strip malls, with North-South streets (like Washington St. NE) jaggedly intersecting like misfit puzzle pieces so there’s never a continuous line through the many lots of ranch homes, covered car ports, and gravel landscaping.

Old Town Albuquerque, NM KiMo Theater, downtown Albuquerque

On the subject of food, simply eating here reminds you that Albuquerque is not your typical American city. The most exclusive restaurant in town — universally voted the biggest “splurge” restaurant in ABQ — is run by a three-time James Beard nominee. In true ABQ style, it resides in a local strip mall, next door to a hydroponics shop and across the street from a drive-thru emergency loan shark/cash station called Fastbucks. That’s how ABQ rolls.

Among friends I’m known for identifying the TV trope of the generic “fancy restaurant”: high-end dining establishments that have zero distinguishable interior design. Meanwhile, real-life restauranteurs often bleed ridiculous amounts of money to heavily brand their high-end dining room experiences so you always know exactly where you’re eating. For all that Better Call Saul gets right about the town, there was a scene in an episode last month where they dine at one such generic “fancy restaurant” in Albuquerque. If you spend any time in ABQ, you’d immediately recognize that no such place could exist in town.

This restaurant from Better Call Saul simply could not exist in Albuquerque

Better Call Saul does, however, nail the region on lawyers. Albuquerque is overflowing with courthouses and law offices, with the billboards of personal injury attorneys lining Interstates 25 & 40 with come-ons such as, “Hurt? Call Bert”. Is it any wonder why Bugs Bunny should have turned left?

Downtown ABQ gets even stranger. There’s a vast sea of multi-story parking garages, largely filled with cars, scattered among the remains of aging U.S. Route 66 kitsch and the tinted glass monoliths of more modern-yet-nondescript bank and energy company towers. And yet walk the downtown streets on a weekday afternoon a couple hours before rush hour and it is eerily devoid of pedestrians or even traffic. Which gives downtown ABQ the feel of a giant long-term airport parking lot for alien abductions: nobody is here, and yet everyone has left their cars behind.

We’ve written before about Austin, TX and their “Keep Austin Weird” motto. But the people here, although very friendly, are simply just too weird for Austin. More to the point: they’re blissfully unaware of their weirdness, thriving as an amalgamation of teen and adult runaways, Native Americans, silver-toothed street urchins, and the progeny of prior vehicle breakdowns along U.S. Route 66 to California.

Interstate billboard, Albququerque, courtesy of Outside Magazine Albuquerque skyline from I-25

Parking garages and glass towers in downtown Albuquerque Breaking Bad RV tours, Albuquerque

All of this makes Albuquerque a more than unusual base for developing a quality coffee culture, which most cities typically identify with urban hipsters. The bizarro culture of ABQ essentially renders a hipster’s raison d’être as pointless and irrelevant. If anybody from Portland, OR ever ended up here, I’d put them on a suicide watch.

Quality coffee is a relatively new thing in this town that normally celebrates commodities, down to its streets named after mining and minerals. Hence it is surprising to see a few $3 espresso shots here without the “moral outrage” you’d normally expect from most cities that love to gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee.

In Albuquerque, the espresso shots tended to run a bit thin on body and were often served in various presentation contraptions involving carved wooden blocks (or serving trays) and sparkling water on the side.

One of the local oddities I came across was piñon coffee. Much as New Orleans has been known for blending regular coffee with chicory for a unique local variation, piñon coffee is made by combining regular coffee with nuts of the piñon pine tree (the official state tree). Native Americans traditionally harvested these pine nuts. Once roasted and brewed, it exhibits a sweet, spiced smell like an amped up Arabic coffee, but it tastes more like regular coffee with an earthy, nutty edge to it.

Because... Albuquerque New Mexico espresso is heavy on presentation

Santa Fe

An hour up I-25 from Albuquerque is the town of Santa Fe. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonialists, the New Mexico state capital carries a lot more history — including one of the oldest houses and the oldest church in the U.S.

Very much unlike Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a deliberately preserved town. This makes the stark contrast between the two not unlike the city of Napa versus St. Helena in the Napa Valley: one grows through big-box-store sprawl and lower costs of living while the other prefers a controlled aesthetic gentrification that makes it attractive to tourists with money.

San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe: the oldest church in America Downtown Santa Fe in the Pueblo architectural style

De Vargas Street House: one of the oldest homes in America, since 1646 Santa Fe architectural style

This means that Santa Fe, like New Orleans, is one of the few places in the U.S. where you know exactly where you are — i.e., not in some random urban center lined with all the same chain stores. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants and massive hotels and spas about town, but everything is harmoniously dressed up in Pueblo or Spanish style. Every building is some variation of an earthtone and the architecture is remarkably consistent.

Despite the million-dollar Pueblo homes near the old city center, there are still plenty of tourists parading through town in rumbling two-story pickup trucks with tinted windows, Oklahoma or Texas plates, and blasting some variation on death metal out their windows. Yet at the same time there’s an extensive arts community and even the relocation of many Tibetan expatriates in town.

Snow in Santa Fe Tibet comes to Santa Fe

The Old Santa Fe trail leading into town Santa Fe Railyard beneath the Sandia Mountains

Although Santa Fe is where locally roasted coffee was first introduced to New Mexico, the coffee culture here has generally been slow to evolve — with more options growing in just the past few years. Like Albuquerque, there’s often an unusual emphasis on an inventive rotation of specialty drinks. But here there is also a strange validation of the Paleo diet as something more than the snake oil fad that it is: a few places place their own buttered coffee knockoffs prominently on drink menus.

Synesso espresso machines can be found in uncommon locations — cart services, ice cream shops, etc. — which makes us suspect there’s a local distributor with service and influence in the area. If you’re going to cover this high desert service area, my advice — based on ample empirical evidence — is to listen to a lot of Guadalupe Plata on the car stereo:

Guadalupe Plata may be from Andalucía, Spain, but if it was good enough for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I originally noted a lack of sweetness in the coffee of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which I partly blamed on the altitude at first. But I eventually found examples that broke that stereotype, such as the excellent Iconik Coffee Roasters — easily one of my more favorite coffee house finds of the past couple of years.

In conclusion, fallout from the Manhattan Project and Trinity tests may have left behind one unusual place and its residents, but the global advance of good coffee has infiltrated even here in just the past few years. Though for the record: Los Alamos scientists still drink pretty crummy coffee for the most part.

Espresso Ratings in New Mexico
Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Deep Space Coffee 504 Central Ave. SW Albuquerque 8.10 7.50 7.800
Humble Coffee Company 4200 Lomas Blvd. NE, Ste C Albuquerque 7.50 7.80 7.650
Zendo Coffee 413 2nd St. SW Albuquerque 7.50 7.50 7.500
35° North Coffee 60 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.40 5.50 6.450
Holy Spirit Espresso 225 W San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.10 6.50 6.800
Iconik Coffee Roasters 1600 Lena St., Ste A2 Santa Fe 8.10 8.20 8.150
Ohori’s Coffee Roasters 505 Cerrillos Rd., Ste B103 Santa Fe 5.80 5.50 5.650
Santa Fe Espresso Co. 56 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.30 7.00 7.150

Trip Report: Zendo Coffee (Albuquerque, NM)

Posted by on 06 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This art café is located where downtown Albuquerque gets more industrial the further south you get. Opened by Trevor Lucero, a self-proclaimed “coffee guy”, in June 2013, this 1,000-sq-ft space and 600-sq-ft outdoor covered patio serves as much as a community gathering space as it does a coffee bar or art space. Third places are apparently a more natural setting in Albuquerque than they are in Santa Fe.

There’s a short, wooden high counter with stools at the front windows. The white-painted brick wall in the rear is adorned with color photographs. Larger wooden block tables and a bench scatter about in the in-between spaces for contemplating with headphones or laptops under a white-painted wood ceiling. The laptop zombie quotient being higher as it is in ABQ.

The side of the Zendo Coffee + Art building space as you head south on 2nd St. Street-level view of the Zendo Coffee entrance

The Zendo name apparently refers to an international feng-shui-like term for the supposed spacial zen-like state of the joint. Or so we’re told.

Whatever you call it, the place is packed with locals. It seems heavily frequented by a younger, more female clientele who take to eating take-out lunches at the bar stools and conversing with friends for the day. Rather than mistaking them for UNM students from the campus across the I-25 freeway, like much of downtown Albuquerque there’s little indication that the folks hanging out here do much of anything professionally besides, well, hanging out here.

Hanging out at the bar inside Zendo Coffee - where everybody knows your name Laptop zombies take up the perimeter of Zendo Coffee

Zendo Coffee's menu of new, strange drinks above their retail coffee bean sales How about that for presentation at Zendo Coffee?

Señor Lucero bought a three-group manual Victoria Arduino Athena Classic for $6k that’s used at the bar. They originally relied on independent roasters but have since started roasting their own at a facility further down 2nd Street, though they do feature a rotation of guest roasters Denver’s Boxcar was featured on my visit.

Using the Zendo Espresso blend, they pulled a shot with an medium brown, even crema with lighter heat spots from the spouts. It tastes of an edge of tobacco over more spices and herbal pungency. Good, but there are noticeable flaws.

Served on a custom wooden block with even a spoon holder as well as sparkling water — like you do in ABQ — in a World Market China cup with no saucer. Cheap at $2 though.

And like a number of ABQ coffee shops, they offer their own inventive specialty coffee drinks — except here they go a bit crazy with it: the London Fog, the Sweet Bonnie, the Maroccino, the Golden, the Regis, Red Cappuccino, Lapsang Latte, etc. Mixologists Gone Wild.

Read the review of Zendo Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.

Pulling shots at Zendo Coffee's Victoria Arduino Athena Classic The Zendo Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Deep Space Coffee (Albuquerque, NM)

Posted by on 03 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

This is a coffee shop fitting for downtown Albuquerque, which feels like it’s at the fringes of the known universe. (More on that in a later post.)

Located along the old US Route 66 along the Duke City’s Central Avenue — next to Lindy’s Diner and somewhat kitty-corner to the landmark KiMo Theater — this bare space opened in January 2016.

Entrance to Deep Space Coffee on ABQ's Central Avenue Inside Deep Space Coffee looking out on Central Ave.

Retail Picacho Coffee for saleIts interior is stark black and white, frequently adorned in stripes, with cement or brick walls, scuffed square tile floors, and a worn wooden service counter littered with woodcut puzzle pieces of their logo (aka, their “business card”). There are several tables inside, often attended by students and/or laptop zombies, with window counter seating in front beneath glass block windows.

They work closely with Chad Morris, roastmaster at the Las Cruces, NM Picacho Coffee Roasters – one of the best roasters in the state. They serve V60 pour-overs in addition to espresso drinks.

Rear of Deep Space Coffee Deep Space Coffee's 'business cards' on the counter

Humble kitchen setup inside Deep Space Coffee Laptop zombies inside Deep Space Coffee

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the back of the rectangular space they pulled shots of Picacho’s Sidami Ardi Natural to produce a cup with a mottled medium-to-darker brown crema. As a single origin Ethiopian, it exhibits a broader flavor profile than you might expect — with some bright fruit balanced with body and darker herbal elements with more spice and warming elements at its core. Served in a cheap Tuxton cup with a glass of sparkling water on the side.

It’s a pretty solid espresso shot: not exceptional, but worthy in a town ruled by the odd and bizarre — albeit pricey at $3.

Read the review of Deep Space Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.

Working the Deep Space Coffee La Marzocco Linea machine The Deep Space Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Iconik Coffee Roasters (Santa Fe, NM)

Posted by on 29 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

After my discouraging visit to the much-lauded Ohori’s Coffee Roasters, I was worried that the coffee wasn’t getting much better in Santa Fe. Then I arrived at Iconik.

Opened in May 2013 by Albuquerque native Natalie Slade, her brother Darren Berry, and their longtime friend Todd Spitzer, this café inspires a bit of local controversy. Some of the controversy originates from the intentions of this team: with Ohori’s being such a beloved local institution, they opted for more defiance and a dare — down to naming their flagship espresso blend “Iconoclast”.

Streetside view of Iconik Coffee Roasters Rear parking lot entrance to Iconik Coffee Roasters

The rest of the controversy comes down to Santa Feans, as evidenced in local social media commentary and reviews. Although many locals have taken to Iconik, some seem a little resentful of the interloper — complaining about the coffees being roasted too lightly, about the service staff being too arrogant and snobbish, or perhaps even just expressing resentment over a $3 espresso.

Only the second commercial coffee roaster to open in Santa Fe, their roasts are decidedly lighter — even if they are made in a very rare, 1927 vintage Otto Swadlo roaster that was found in an Oregon warehouse. The roaster sits at the café’s rear entrance.

Inside Iconik Coffee Roasters, with vintage Otto Swadlo roaster in back Outdoor patio at Iconik Coffee Roasters

There’s outdoor patio seating in front with cushioned patio tables and chairs. Inside there are cement floors, a counter with stools, a long shared wooden table, multiple short café tables at the window seats, and even a sofa — giving it more of a vibe like a brighter version of SF’s The Grove.

It’s a little loungey, and it would be a hipster magnet if not for New Mexico’s dearth of self-aware hipsters. There are also a number of older and colorful local Santa Fe patrons about, as the neighborhood is deep into the cheaper rents in town. There’s a wall of merchandising with Chemex equipment, grinders, and roasted coffee. They serve salad, bagels, and lunch items, but it’s all about the coffee.

Roasted Iconik coffee Local Santa Feans line up inside Iconik, unaware of their hipster status

Drink menu at Iconik Coffee Roasters Wall of merchandising at Iconik Coffee Roasters

Using a three-group La Marzocco Strada, they pulled a shot of their single origin Sumatra Takengon Mandheling as the house espresso for the day. It came with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema, a solid body, a good pungency, but little spice: a more narrowband flavor profile due to its single origin (not their Iconoclast espresso blend). Served as a long three sips in black Espresso Parts cups with sparkling water on the side.

I normally prefer a more complex flavor profile for my espresso, but it was interesting — daring for Santa Fe even. And I had every indicator to expect that their Iconoclast blend wouldn’t be half-bad.

Milk-based drinks come with rosetta latte art and gentle, even, quality milk frothing that somewhat integrates well with the espresso emulsion. Their V60 pour-overs are properly flavorful and included options such as a Mexico Oaxaca, a Guatemalan Panchoy, their Sumatra Idido Yirgacheffe, and Panama Hacienda La Esmerda.

Another view of the interior space at Iconik Coffee Roasters Iconik Coffee Roasters service counter with La Marzocco Strada

There is simply no contest about the best coffee in Santa Fe. Local loyalty to Ohori’s seems analogous to South Africa’s complicated relationship with the ANC: i.e., deep appreciation for something revolutionary achieved decades ago, but selectively blind to all of its shortcomings and failings in the years ever since.

Some local haters might complain of the “burning acidity” of Iconik’s lighter roasts, but anything to make it taste this side of Ohori’s ashy wet fireplace is a good thing in my book. As for complaints of arrogant service, that’s always the risk when you’re dealing with someone who is really into their coffee. Customers can feel insecure, if not offended, when they casually order their favorite caffè latte and are suddenly confronted with a question such as, “Do you want it with the Sumatra Takengon Mandheling or the Mexico Oaxaca?” The nerve of those arrogant bastards.

Santa Feans deserved better, and they’re now finally getting it. But it’s not just for Santa Fe. I’d very much enjoy coming to a place like this wherever it’s located.

Read the review of Iconik Coffee Roasters in Santa Fe, NM.

Iconik Coffee Roasters espresso Iconik Coffee Roasters cappuccino

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