Trip Report: Sogni di Dolci (St. Helena, CA)

Posted by on 25 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This weekend’s Bay Area shakeout…

We managed to review this café a few hours before, and again a few hours after, the Napa earthquake that struck early yesterday morning. Staying overnight with friends in St. Helena on Saturday, some 20 miles from the epicenter, we experienced it as a moderately strong, somewhat lengthy shake.

Many in the house — half-awake at 3:30am after the shaking subsided — exclaimed, “That was a big one!” Tragic damages and injuries aside, it was not very big. Despite it being the largest earthquake in Northern California in 25 years and causing an up to $1 billion in damages, it was a minor jolt in comparison to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. That one I experienced from the ground floor of UC Berkeley’s then-brand-new LSA building. Whereas yesterday’s quake was rather silent, the Loma Prieta quake came with an unmistakably monstrous roar that sounded like a large truck was slowly scraping a 10-ton Dumpster across a nearby parking lot.

Entrance to Sogni di Dolci with front patio Inside Sogni di Dolci

Hopefully this weekend’s quake will serve as a good emergency preparedness opportunity for the many Bay Area residents whom have experienced nothing like that in at least a generation. But my guess is most have no idea what’s coming.

For all of today’s protests over tech workers driving up housing costs and bringing giant buses to their neighborhoods, few could probably fathom 1989′s mass exodus of “undesirables” from that era — then colloquially called yuppies. Within a few months after the 1989 quake, many sold their homes at a loss, fleeing in fear for states like Arizona and Nevada because they could no longer trust the ground they stood upon here.

Sogni di energia elettrica

After reviewing Sogni di Dolci on Saturday afternoon, we had intended to check out the St. Helena edition of Model Bakery Sunday morning. That plan was thwarted when the western half of St. Helena’s Main Street was left without power. Model Bakery may have been open for business — and still had lines for their baked goods — but there were no working cash registers, no working credit card systems, and certainly no working espresso machines.

Sogni di Dolci was more fortunate, with power long since restored to the east side of the street. The lines were longer, given how the power outage limited options for downtown’s morning coffee zombies, and they processed the queue quite slowly.

Opening in May 2010, this Italian-themed espresso bar/gelato shop/panini bar/booze bar expanded into the next door space at 1144 Main St. in 2012 to grow from 17 to 47 seats. The growth plan included an expanded menu to also cover dinner items, but the place still functions better as a full-service bar & café than as a full-service restaurant. Behind the 1144 doorway is their new full bar, with its long counter of upholstered stools and a variety of unique beers on tap and in bottles (in addition to wine).

Interior of Sogni di Dolci from the back Sogni di Dolci's La Marzocco FB/80 and HDTV

At the center as you enter is their three-group, red La Marzocco FB/80, so they’re making the right coffee investments — even if they’re using Lavazza beans (which, btw, we surprisingly like). Above that is an HDTV often showing soccer matches (e.g., a Ligue 1 match between Saint-Étienne and Rennes on our last visit). There’s also a short, stand-up piano, a number of dining tables in back in addition to their café tables in front plus an enclosed outdoor sidewalk patio with metal café tables under parasols. At the service counter they have a good selection of gelato.

The interior décor is aspirationally upscale: with mirrored walls, dark-painted wood, Italian light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and darkly painted wood bench seating lining the entire entrance perimeter. But despite the owner’s wife studying art in Florence, the hallway of black & white photos she brought from all over Italy combined with a patchwork of sometimes-incongruous Italian-themed décor makes it a bit like Italy by way of suburban New Jersey. For example, we may love Amalfi, but the big illuminated postcard photo is a bit much. (Having started watching the great new Italian TV series Gomorra, adapted from the 2008 movie Gomorrah, I was subtly reminded of the decorations within Immacolata Savastano’s home.)

For espresso, they pull surprisingly (and pleasantly) short shots with an even, medium brown crema. It’s potent with a good body: one area where the owners wisely decided to buck the New Jersey Italian stereotypes. It has a blend of traditional Lavazza flavors of mild spice and herbal pungency and is served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. Their milk-frothing tends to be light and airy but consistent. Overall, a worthy espresso.

Read the review of Sogni di Dolci in St. Helena, CA.

The Sogni di Dolci espresso The Sogni di Dolci triple and double-shot cappuccini

On Coffee and Design — and a Cup Review: notNeutral’s LINO and MENO

Posted by on 09 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

Today This Thing We Call Coffee (substitute “third wave” or “craft coffee” or whatever nonsense marketingspeak one prefers here) seems to have discovered a new toy. It’s called design. Although around since the first coffee retailer opened in Damascus in 1530, lately design has become a rather acutely faddish obsession that has permeated café design, espresso machine design, and even the package design of retail coffee bags.

So much so, the coffee industry has lately given off the impression that it’s become bored or satiated (if not both) with its prior focus on coffee quality. Evidence of that has already started to come out in the cup. We’ve noticed some coffee bars missing the point that while we love great design and ambiance from our best restaurants, it’s not why we primarily want to eat there.

Opening in 2013, Truth. coffee's steampunk cafe in Cape Town, South Africa Packaging design for Origin coffee in Cornwall, England

It’s not hard to see how we got here. Today’s Internet is fueled by a Pinterest- and Instagram-inspired obsession with superficial looks, celebrating form over function. Social sharing, mainstream coverage, and Kickstarter hype have all elevated interest in coffee accoutrement based on visuals rather than performance. After all, who wants to dig into the gritty details when you can look at a pretty infographic?

Sometimes design is overdone like the self-indulgent noodling of a 14-minute Neil Peart drum soloAs with today’s world of pop celebrities, elaborate visuals and outrageous price tags — rather than talent — are what capture the fickle attention spans of layman consumers. Like everything else, perhaps it isn’t surprising that quality coffee is giving in to the temptations of Kim Kardashian’s asp. (You see what we did there.)

This isn’t to understate the many virtues of good design, not all of which are visual decoration. Design is a way of bringing art into the everyday things of life, but it is also a means of eliminating the friction and the senseless from how things work.

We all need espresso machines shaped like V-12 enginesNor am I a stranger to the values of design. My father is a retired commercial artist and designer of some 45 years, and long ago I even pulled a stint as a graphic designer whose work appeared in the displays of a national chain of department stores. While I see design as a very useful tool, I stop well short of treating it as a religion.

Because one man’s Apple logo sticker on the rear of their vehicle is another man’s Jesus fish. There are those who so subscribe to the “Better Life Through Design” mantra, they believe the crisis in Gaza could be averted if only someone designed an Israeli wall that was user-friendly enough.

When coffee’s current love affair with design becomes this noticeable, it borders on religion. As with all religions, when the object of its focused attention drifts from its original premise, things can get ugly.

To make my meal in a box taste better, I decided to tweak the logo rather than the ingredients

notNeutral Cappuccino Cups

notNeutral offices in L.A.Bringing the high-minded topic of coffee and design down to the level of cups, the folks at notNeutral recently reached out to us to pay a closer look at their coffee line. In the 11+ years that CoffeeRatings.com has been posting formal coffee and café reviews, many other blogs and Web sites picked up on the habit of noting espresso machines and other brewing equipment. But for whatever reasons, we still haven’t found any other online coffee review resources to date that have been logging cups unless they’re made as custom one-off designs.

So as a CoffeeRatings.com first, what do we look for in coffee cups? Our 2007 post citing the Espresso Italiano Tasting manual outlines some of the key qualities. But the primary objective is this: does it enhance my coffee drinking experience?

LINO cappuccino cup on two saucers MENO cappuccino cup on two saucers

Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an award-winning multidisciplinary L.A. design firm, founded notNeutral as something of a retail consumer arm for their designs. They do a lot of commercial buildings, parks, water projects, train stations, homes, and landscaping, and through notNeutral they get to do pillows, rugs, furnishings, and housewares such as coffee cups.

De rigueur of many designers today, they make overtures to sustainability and “green living,” but it’s not heavy-handed. One of our pet peeves is the hypocrisy of some retailers and media properties that are devoted to the concept of saving the planet by consuming more things (instead of, say, picking something up from a garage sale or a second-hand store).

notNeutral Coffee even promotes the Modbar design on their home page

notNeutral’s coffee home page opens to a photo of their cups beneath the group head of a Modbar, today’s patron saint of form-over-function in coffee, reenforcing design-aware aesthetics. We tested their cappuccino cups since we have collected dozens of espresso cups from cafés around the world.

First, the white, handled LINO cups. These were the cups they designed in partnership with Intelligentsia. Made in Bangladesh, they have good heft and a relatively compact size: filled to the rim, they can hold up to 6-oz/175ml. Design-wise, they clearly take on a modernization of the ACF or Nuova Point classics.

There are a lot of curves, including the saucers, with an inverted-dome-like rounded bottom and tapering up the sides of the cup: there are no edges inside. The handles are distinctive — sticking out in a wider loop, but cleverly flush to the top edge of the cup, allowing the coffee drinker to place their thumb over the top.

notNeutral's LINO cappuccino cup notNeutral's MENO cappuccino cup

We also checked out their black matte, no-handle MENO cups. These suggest the form and function of more elegant Japanese-style tea cups. Made in Sri Lanka, they are also curved inside with no edges — although not as rounded as the LINO cups. The longer basin also means it can hold up to 7-oz/200ml of liquid to the rim (despite their product graphic to the contrary).

The MINOs have a glaze on the matte finish, as these cups are meant to be handled to experience any heat within them. Without the handle, of course, drinking requires you to rotate your hand further back to angle it when you bring it to your mouth: something you’re either used to or will have to accommodate.

We wouldn’t say the LINO and MINO cups are our absolute favorite cappuccino cups. With all its comparatively under-designed flaws, the classic ACF M66 5.5-oz/150ml tulip cup is still something of a sentimental favorite — even if they no longer make them and they’re increasingly hard to come by. But both the LINO and MINO cups are real good — very good. They are thought out in detail, modern, attractive, and also (and here’s the important part) quite functional at what they’re supposed to do. We prefer them over the many modern ACF replacement knockoffs that have appeared since ACF’s demise — such as Cremaware or those from Espresso Parts.

The inverted dome inside the LINO cappuccino cup A MENO cappuccino nicely complements Silkworm

We also asked Hannah Bartholomew Block, who runs noNeutral’s coffee division, a few questions about these cups.

Q & A with Hannah Block of notNeutral

CoffeeRatings.com: With the LINO cups, some design objectives are clear – such as ensuring that the handle is flush with the rim, allowing the user to place their thumb comfortably across the top of the cup when they bring it to their lips. What design problems/solutions were you seeking to address with the LINO cups?

notNeutral: A lot of thought went into that handle. We tried a variety of forms that extended from the cup in different ways, but the final shape provided the most control for the barista and the most comfort for the user. Our design team considered the entire sensory experience of drinking coffee: the diameter of the cup was kept wide so drinker could enjoy the aroma, not just the taste of the espresso. The cup walls are thinnest at the lip for the best mouthfeel, and thickest at the bottom to retain heat. The bottom of the cup is rounded for optimal fluid dynamics, making it easier for baristas to pour latte art. Beyond those functional aspects, of course we wanted the cups to look modern, unique, and interesting.

The design advantages of the LINO cup

CR: In contrast to the previous question, where do you feel most coffee cups fall short in offering customers a better coffee-drinking experience?

nN: The most important consideration is comfort of the user. Are the cup walls thick enough to protect the user’s hand from heat? Is the handle comfortable and stable to hold? Will the shape of the lip cause coffee to drip down the outside? When you swirl an espresso shot in a demitasse, is it going to slosh over the sides? We consider all these factors when designing or choosing cups for a café.

CR: At CoffeeRatings.com, we’re an odd lot who have also liked using traditional Asian tea cups for brewed coffee service at times: no handles, matte black finish. So in that way, the MENO cups remind us of some classic tea cups. Was the MENO design inspired by those cups?

nN: Yes. We did look at Asian tea cups as precedents. We looked at Japanese ceramic glazes and liked the way the matte black got distressed over time. We also liked the way the dark, non-reflective finish not only drew attention to the graceful cup profile, but also felt warm and satiny to the touch.

CR: Whether inspired by Asian tea cups or not, you’ve clearly labeled your MENO cups as part of your coffee line. Anything about the experience of these cups, or the experience of drinking tea, did you want to carry over with these cups over the traditional cups?

nN: The handle-less cup completely changes the sensory experience of holding and drinking a cup of coffee. There’s a comfort in savoring the warmth of the cup directly in the palm of your hand. That’s a little unexpected for coffee. It makes you reconsider the ritual. We definitely envision MENO crossing over from specialty coffee service to vessels for tea.

Trip Report: Taylor Maid Farms (Sebastopol, CA)

Posted by on 06 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

Taylor Maid Farms has been a Sonoma County coffee institution since 1993. When the overused term “third wave coffee” was first coined by Wrecking Ball‘s Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) many years ago, she was roasting here at the time. With locations in “downtown” Sebastopol and inside Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, in 2013 they moved their Sebastopol flagship café and roasting operations to The Barlow as part of its reinvention and reopening.

The Barlow

The Barlow is a grand attempt at rural renewal. Originally opened in the 1940s as the extensive Barlow apple factory and processing plant, the fortunes of Sebastapol — and its apples — changed with the times. As apples yielded merely a fraction of the crop value when compared to grapes for Sonoma County wines, the apple industry (and the Barlow apple factory) all but perished in the region.

Entrance to Taylor Maid Farms Some of the grounds of The Barlow in Sebastopol, CA

For example, Sebastopol’s infamous Gravenstein apple — a flavorful but not the most supermarket-shelf-friendly apple — had to be rescued from extinction by one of the few Slow Food presidia in the country, an annual apple fair, and other public awareness measures to shore up the county’s agricultural biodiversity.

Meanwhile, the economic changes to the region also created something of a jobs crisis. One solution to the problem arose in the 2013 construction and opening of the nearby Graton Resort & Casino — a nearly $1 billion investment that brought some 1,600 new local jobs. A stark contrast to this approach, and one perhaps much more fitting for the area, was the reinvention of The Barlow.

Inspired by the opening of San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace and Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, The Barlow was reopened in 2013 as a consumer-friendly home to artisinal food, wine, and even coffee production. It’s a vast campus with an extensive network of modernized warehouses, dwarfing the Ferry Building and Oxbow markets. And word from the locals has it that anything served on its grounds carries a number of local production requirements.

Front counter inside Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol Taylor Maid Farms logo inside

From the rear of Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol Roasting operations at the rear of Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol

Taylor Maid Farms at The Barlow

In front of the shop along McKinley St., Taylor Maid Farms offers some rather extensive front patio seating. Inside there are two levels of café tables and chairs, a wall of coffee and equipment for retail, and a lot of counter and stool seating near open glass garage “delivery” doors. There’s a lot of rough, reclaimed wood paneling, concrete floors, and a large rear space dedicated to their coffee greens and roasting operations.

They cover the electrical outlets here, and the environment responds in social kind by being a somewhat vibrant community space where locals and tourists alike tend to talk to each other instead of zoning out in front of screens. Given the region’s many denizens who look like a Phish tour bus just crashed down the road and scattered the occupants everywhere, this should not come as a surprise.

For retail coffee equipment, they sell everything from a Rancilio Silvia, Aeropress, Clever and Hario drippers, Baratza grinders, and their own trademark cans of roasted coffee (but they also sell it to measure in bags). They offer five different pour-over menu coffees to choose from for either “Brew Bar Hot” (five methods at different prices) and “Brew Bar Cold” (two methods).

Brew station at Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol Merchandising on the walls at Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol

A café coffee plant? Sure enough in Taylor Maid Farms Filter coffee menu inside Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol

Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada (and three Mazzer grinders), they pull shots with a darker-to-medium brown, even crema and a flavor that blends in bright notes but is otherwise dominated by molasses and chocolate tones. The thinner body is about the only complaint.

Served in black Cremaware cups with a glass of still water on the side. Their milk-frothing can be a little crude, and their drinks tend to run wet/milky rather than dry/foamy. While the macchiato might be a little heavy on milk, the 6-oz cups for their cappuccino keeps it balanced.

Read the review of Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol, CA.

Working the Strada at Taylor Maid Farms, a barista whom locals suggest is a double for Scarlett Johansson The Taylor Maid Farms espresso

A Taylor Maid Farms cappuccino Alleyway alongside the Taylor Maid Farms entrance at The Barlow

CoffeeCon San Francisco 2014

Posted by on 30 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

You may not have noticed it through most of the usual “coffee media” channels, but this past Saturday San Francisco hosted CoffeeCon‘s first-ever road tour. You might recall our coverage last year of CoffeeCon 2013, held at its Warrenville, IL mothership. In its fourth year, CoffeeCon has been enough of a success at addressing unmet coffee consumer interest to take the show nationally for the first time — with SF on July 26, NY on October 11, and finally in L.A. on November 8.

CoffeeCon is somewhat unique as a consumer-oriented coffee event, where layman coffee lovers and enthusiasts can participate without being overlooked for coffee professionals or shunned by trade show hucksters. We may have derided the widespread abuse of the term “Third Wave” as self-promotional marketing babble for some eight years now. But if there was ever an experience that epitomized coffee lovers “enjoying coffee for its own sake,” this has to rank right up there.

Crowds inside CoffeeCon SF 2014 More crowds inside CoffeeCon SF 2014

Chromatic at CoffeeCon SF 2014 Ritual Roasters at CoffeeCon SF 2014

George Howell Coffee at CoffeeCon SF 2014 Stephen Vick of Blue Bottle Coffee and Alex pumping the Faema of Mr. Espresso at CoffeeCon SF 2014

Event Exhibitors

They held it in SOMA’s Terra Galleries art gallery/event space, which operated with a surprisingly heavy security detail. A great number of area coffee purveyors came to show off their goods to attendees — including roast-to-order Artís in Berkeley, Blue Bottle, Chromatic, De La Paz, Equator, Flywheel, Four Barrel, George Howell (from MA), Henry’s House of Coffee, Mr. Espresso, Old Soul Co. (a gem from Sacramento), Peerless, Ritual Roasters, Sightglass, and Verve. A favorite overheard non-sequitur of the day reflected the variety on display: “Oh, there’s Blue Bottle… but I can get that anywhere.”

Besides sampling a lot of coffee, attendees could also take courses, experience hands-on demonstrations of consumer equipment, hear talks from professionals (CoffeeCon has contractually locked up much of George Howell‘s speaking tours), and even check out home roasting equipment in the outdoor space.

We caught Mr. Espresso’s Luigi di Ruocco‘s “Italian Espresso” talk and even had an epiphany or two. For example, the Italian art of balance in espresso blends makes all the more sense when you think of how many each Italian sips in a given day. Punchy, overbearing brightness bomb shots would create more palate fatigue if experienced multiple times daily. It also dawned on us how important a rounded espresso flavor profile is to end a meal on as a complement, rather than competitor, to the food you’ve just eaten.

Brewing classroom at CoffeeCon SF 2014 George Howell serving up glasses after his course at CoffeeCon SF 2014

Home roasting sessions at CoffeeCon SF 2014 Luigi di Ruocco of Mr. Espresso teaches Italian Espresso at CoffeeCon SF 2014

Old Soul at CoffeeCon SF 2014 Flywheel Coffee at CoffeeCon SF 2014

KitchenAid was one of the event’s key sponsors, and they announced a new home coffee brewer currently in factory production. It attempts to automate manual pour-over coffeemaking with an enclosed system of water-pulsing that follows a programmable pour-vs.-steep algorithm. In that sense, it seems a little like a consumer version of Clover‘s Precision Pour Over concept, which has seemingly gone dark over the past couple of years.

While KitchenAid has been long known for its mixers, it first got into the coffee business with the A-9 and A-10 coffee mills back in 1937. They still do amateurish things, such as exclusives with Williams-Sonoma (who notoriously offer some of the most overpriced and most substandard/landfill-bound consumer coffee appliances on the market). But in recent years KitchenAid has introduced decent-for-the-price-point Pro-line Burr grinders and other worthy consumer coffee products targeting what they now, unfortunately, call the craft coffee market.

Craft Coffee: Third Wave by any other name…

Side note: the term “craft coffee”, appropriated from the beer world, is really just a pound-for-pound stupidity surrogate for the ever-more-embarrassing “Third Wave” term these days. Use of the term is made all the worse by the decades-old homonym, “Kraft coffee“: i.e., the Big Four coffee purveyor more commonly known as “Maxwell House.” This is akin to the craft beer market calling itself the “blue ribbon beer market”. *Facepalm*

So it’s with curious irony, lost on KitchenAid, that they’re now offering an appliance that push-button automates a manual pour-over in the name of craft coffee. (And not an Alanis Morissette “irony” either.)

KitchenAid's new consumer take at Clover's Precision Pour Over CoffeeCon SF 2014's illustrious gray-hairs: LtoR Kevin Sinnott, Kenneth Davids (CoffeeReview fame), and Alan Alder (Aeropress fame)

Artís Coffee at CoffeeCon SF 2014 Four Barrel at CoffeeCon SF 2014

Tasting session during George Howell's talk at CoffeeCon SF 2014 Spent coffee tasting glasses at CoffeeCon SF 2014

As a home-grown event with little professional event staffing, CoffeeCon seemed to experience a bit of chaos outside of its mothership confines for the first time: running out of badge-holders, a lack of pre-event press, some improv when an occasional speaker didn’t show on time, and a couple of classrooms separated only by a hospital-room-like thin cloth barrier. The last one generated audible cacophony when the class next door would roar with coffee grinders. But all in all, the event was anything but disappointing.

We even reconnected with Aleco Chigounis, whose coffee sourcing we’ve long been big fans of. He’s since established Red Fox Coffee Merchants. (No relation, however, to “This is the Big One. Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you, honey!“.)

Trip Report: Back Yard Coffee Co. (Redwood City, CA)

Posted by on 25 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

Originally opened as Caffe Sportivo circa 2008 with a strange homage to a fitness joint (due to a physical trainer who ran the place), this independent coffeehouse introduced better coffee standards to Redwood City — a Peninsula town that locals often jokingly call “Deadwood City.” (…If you must compete with “Shallow Alto” — i.e., Palo Alto.)

In 2012 the same owner changed the name and the vibe of this place to something closer what it is today: a darker corner coffeehouse with a focus on coffee, wine & beer (and minimalist food items), and live music nights. Perhaps in this game of perpetuating bad puns, this place could carry the nickname “Black Yard Coffee Co.” Basic black is sort of the theme here.

Entrance to Back Yard Coffee Co. in Redwood City Service counter inside Back Yard Coffee Co.

The focus here on coffee now is oddly fortuitous given its address (Brewster Ave.). While there is some token outdoor café table seating under parasols along two sides of the building with limited parking in the rear, the vibe is really inside this place. It’s dark: the interior has long sofas and counter seating beneath tinted windows. And black everything: tables, floors, chairs, painted wall sections, etc. The laptop zombie presence is noticeable without being overwhelming — perhaps due to the emphasis on live and recorded music.

Seating area inside Back Yard Coffee Co.They emphasize their Stumptown Coffee supplies, using multiple roasts for their V60 pour-over service. For espresso they use a highly customized three-group Synesso machine at the bar, pulling shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has the expected Stumptown brightness and a flavor of apples, spices, herbal pungency, and some molasses with a potent body as well. Served in black (of course) classic ACF cups with no saucer.

This is solid coffee for an area where that can be still a bit hard to find.

Read the review of Back Yard Coffee Co. in Redwood City, CA.

Synesso machine and service counter inside Back Yard Coffee Co. The Back Yard Coffee Co. espresso

Trip Report: Bancarella (Union Square)

Posted by on 18 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

Gary Rulli apparently wasn’t quite satisfied by operating the Emporio Rulli café along the Stockton St. side of Union Square. He expanded to the Powell Street side of the square around the holidays of 2012 with this addition, branded distinctly separate from the rest of the Emporio Rulli chain. Bancarella means “stand” in Italian — as in a coffee stand. But it’s much more than that, located in a pleasant, almost exclusively outdoor space next to the discount theater ticket outlet, across of the Westin St. Francis hotel.

Bancarella sits in the southwest corner of Union Square Service area inside Bancarella

There’s outdoor sidewalk patio seating under canvas parasols in the Union Square courtyard, enclosing the handful of tourists here (typically) by short plexiglass barriers. Everything is branded Bancarella here, down to their bags of La Piazza Blend coffee, so it’s almost as if they’re hiding any Rulli connections here. But the quality is pretty good regardless.

Bancarella's service window with La Marzocco Strada: as if they were serving hot dogsInside the small service area there’s a small counter offering desserts, sandwiches, salads, and Italian wines. Behind the counter is a three-group, white La Marzocco Strada and a Mahlkönig K30 twin grinder — next to a service window that hands out orders like an ice cream truck.

They pull modestly sized shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has a well-blended flavor that’s smooth, carries some wood, but is mostly spices and light pepper. There was a somewhat foul or off aftertaste when we sampled it, which is probably not something we presume as consistent. It seemed like a coffee defect — like a squonky bean or two made it past sorting and into our shot. But the effect was mild, and our ratings only accounted for that a little bit. Otherwise, the body is a touch weaker than it should be, but the cup overall is made pretty well.

Served in Barcarella-logo Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups. They also offer good latte art and higher-quality milk frothing. There is little to distinguish Bancarella much from its Emporio Rulli brethren, but who cares about branding when the coffee is good.

Read the review of Bancarella in SF’s Union Square.

Patrons queuing up for food and drinks at Bancarella The Bancarella espresso

Trip Report: Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea (Inner Richmond)

Posted by on 10 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Local Brew

This small café on Geary Blvd. opened in early 2013 with the most unlikely of ambitions: serving quality coffee in this part of town, where value is normally prized heavily over quality. It’s hardly unique in this regard, as that’s also something that’s been attempted years before — e.g., Velo Rouge Cafe (and its now hackneyed bicycle theme). Even so, it’s been years since we’ve seen someone successfully repeated it.

And whereas Velo Rouge stands to serve Blue Bottle for SF’s Inner Richmond neighborhood, this café showcases near-reference-quality Ritual Coffee.

Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea at the corner of Geary and Spruce, SF Inside Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea

View from the rear of Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea Fifty/Fifty's La Marzocco Strada and service counter

It’s a bright, quiet space indoors with white walls and tall windows along Geary Blvd. In front there’s window counter seating, and along Spruce St. there are three smaller tables — often occupied by laptop zombies. Thus seating in this small place is at a premium. Besides coffee, they also offer Dynamo Donuts (on weekends only) and baked goods from Devil’s Teeth Baking Co.

In addition to pour-overs of some Ritual single origins, they serve espresso from a two-group La Marzocco Strada at the bar with an even, textured medium brown crema over a shorter two-sip shot. Using Ritual’s seasonal The Golden Bough blend (nice Virgil reference, btw) on our visit, the shot has a modest body with a bright flavor of apple and roasted hazelnut.

There’s a sharp acidity with some midrange but little offered at the low end of the flavor spectrum. Served in Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a small Ball jar of tap water on the side.

They also offer good, even milk frothing with rosetta latte art: it runs a bit milky for a cappuccino, but it’s hard to complain when it’s made well otherwise. The small crew of attentive baristas help make the place stand out.

Read the review of Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea in SF’s Inner Richmond.

The Fifty/Fifty espresso - with Ball jar of tap water Milky but good: the Fifty/Fifty cappuccino

Trip Report: Blue Sky Farms (Half Moon Bay, CA)

Posted by on 27 Jun 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Starbucks

Not unlike Carmel, CA, Half Moon Bay is a smaller oceanside community that serves as something of a test of quality coffee penetration. Located only 30 miles from San Francisco, and possessing its own Peet’s and Starbucks (unlike Carmel), Half Moon Bay remains surprisingly isolated and remote from many of the coffee fads and baseline standards that the cityfolk up north have grown accustomed to.

Thus finding a solid espresso in town is a real challenge. Half Moon Bay is fraught with many wrong turns and dead ends that lead to an over-extracted, watery ash flavor that many San Franciscans might recognize from 1988. But there are some mild exceptions — such as Blue Sky Farms.

Blue Sky Farms from Highway 1 Coffee and breakfast menu inside Blue Sky Farms

This roadside café, coffeehouse, and nursery (yes, nursery — the plant kind, that is) constitutes a rather dark wooden hut that you might miss if you drive up Highway 1 too quickly out of Half Moon Bay towards El Granada. There’s a parking lot with a main entrance to the rear of the building, right alongside the nursery and gardening supply.

Inside the simple wooden frame building, it has a typical rural café feel. It might seem a little like a family-run spot, but it’s more together than that. They serve baked goods, breakfast items (eggs, burritos, weekend waffles), and other light dining fare. There are several indoor metal-topped café tables — and some worn wooden picnic bench seating in the rear patio outdoors.

Patrons inside Blue Sky FarmsUsing a three-group Conti machine in the service area, and Moschetti coffee (Moschetti makes their service area presence well-known in Half Moon Bay), they pull shots with a pale to medium brown mottled crema served short in a shotglass-sized cup (Romania ceramic from IKEA). It has a healthy body and a smoothed-out flavor of mild spices.

For milk-frothing, they can be a bit irregular and frothy — but they will ask if you want your cappuccino wet or dry. Their milk-based drinks are deceptively large-looking and come in white or blue IKEA cups. All things considered, you will hope for something better — but this is one of the better coffee options in this outpost town.

Read the review of Blue Sky Farms in Half Moon Bay, CA.

Three-group Conti machine inside Blue Sky Farms The Blue Sky Farms espresso

Trip Report: Saint Frank (Russian Hill)

Posted by on 10 Jun 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

This café is the brainchild of former middle school teacher and Ritual Coffee barista, Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Starting as a pop-up in SF’s South Park (which has since closed in Dec. 2013), this over-designed flagship café opened in Oct. 2013 to a considerable amount of gushing praise.

It took over the former Teashi spa, and the spirit of past mani/pedis and Brazilian waxings still sort of haunts the place. On the sidewalk out front there’s limited wooden café table seating. Inside in front there’s window counter seating for four on stools right next to shelves of coffee merchandising, just shy of the long service counter.

Entrance to Russian Hill's Saint Frank Wall o'coffee inside Saint Frank

It’s a long space that is deceptively airier than its limited seating would suggest. There’s an array of a few café tables against a shared wall bench; these are typically the domain of laptop zombie squatters. Further back there’s an upstairs under bright skylights that offers two larger, semi-private tables.

Here there is an overwhelming sense of someone’s idyllic vision that a café should be more like an Apple Store. There are stark, plain walls and wood grain paneling plus a wannabe kanketsu “service philosophy” of removing as many barriers as possible between barista and customer.

This is exemplified by their unique, Modbar-like espresso machine: a two-group, under-the-counter job either called the Jepy Minim (per the engineer/designer John Ermacoff, aka Jepy) or the Ghost (per project designer Ben Kaminsky). It’s the guts of a perfectly acceptable Synesso Sabre, but Frankensteined beyond recognition as a sacrifice to form. This worship at the Holy Church of Makerdom might promise greater temperature control, etc., but what only matters to us as coffee lovers is what it produces in the cup.

Malkhoning K30 Twin grinders at Saint Frank's service entrance Coffee menu inside Saint Frank

Laptop zombies and service counter in Saint Frank Still life at Saint Frank: just as they've designed it

They specially source limited coffees and roast them through Ritual Coffee Roasters for their own private label, and our review here is of their Little Brother Espresso — which comes at a whopping $3. (They also served a Costa Rica Los Crestones for $4.) It’s served slightly full with an even, medium brown crema. There’s a balance to the flavor with hints of bright fruit, but there’s primarily a mid-palate of herbal pungency.

In short: it’s a very good shot. But for all the pomp, technology, design, and the price, it doesn’t measure up to expectations — failing to rank in the Top 35 of SF coffee shops. We need to revisit to ensure we didn’t catch them on an off moment, but that would be surprising given they’ve been open for eight months and their machine has dialed down espresso shots to a push-button level. The good news for Saint Frank is that there are clear opportunities to improve. (That might also include banning all employees here from openly calling it “spro”, dude.)

Served in white Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups. They also offer V60 pour-overs and use Malkhöning EK 43 & K30 Twin grinders.

Read the review of Saint Frank in SF’s Russian Hill.

Closer look at Saint Frank's under-the-counter Jepy Minim or Ghost machine The Saint Frank espresso


Café Arms Races That Don’t Involve Coffee

This will read like an attack on Kevin when he’s done some very interesting things with unique coffees, and he’s certainly trying things. Yet Saint Frank is also symptomatic and emblematic of what seems so very lost and misguided with what the industry holds as the new standard of coffee shop today. Among all the toys and distractions of late, coffee quality in the cup seems to have again taken a back seat.

If you’re going to charge $3 for an espresso, it should at least break the Top 35 in the city. Among the 700 active espresso purveyors currently surveyed in SF, Saint Frank’s standard espresso shot is the most expensive in the city that’s served outside of a restaurant setting. (Presuming the Nespresso Boutique & Bar qualifies more as a restaurant, where you’re paying more for white tablecloth service and a global smoke & mirrors marketing campaign.)

We should all be paying more for coffee — but for better coffee. Based on our ratings, it’s not better. For the reported pedigree of their sourced coffees, it doesn’t even have a different or unique flavor profile. So what exactly am I paying extra for?

Ghost in the Machine

First, there’s the promising lure of shiny new equipment and it’s empirically consistent failure to deliver better coffee. In the past we’ve noted the likes of Sightglass who have been guilty of this for years. In Saint Frank’s case, it’s not even so much a “better brewing” sales come-on than superficial aesthetics: i.e., a low-profile workspace primarily conceived to address the First World coffee problem where my barista doesn’t get to see more of my crotch.

When the world's gone ModbarFortunately the Modbar isn’t weighed down by outrageous costs — you can get a full system for under $10k. Hopefully Saint Frank’s custom lookalike (the Jepy Minim or Ghost, depending upon whom you ask) follows suit in that department. But with new, “revolutionary” ways to brew coffee even more perfectly being announced every week, we’ve often wondered if any of the takers ever get the chance to dial-in on them, with a serious dose of experience, before they roll on to the next big thing — looking to technology to bail them out from substandard practices.

This is a little of what former USBC champ Kyle Glanville recently called the “fancy equipment arms race”: “People are spending shit tons on machines to brew coffee when they should be investing in their own palates and understandings of flavor, and the knowledge of how coffee brewing actually works”

When Service Design Forgets to Design for Product Quality

So what about making your café look like an Apple Store? Blue Bottle Coffee has been compared to the Apple of coffee shops, and they’re even sporting Apple-inspired service table designs. And CoffeeRatings.com has had plenty of good things to say about Blue Bottle.

Blue Bottle Oakland's Apple-inspired service table topExcept Blue Bottle’s resulting coffee quality is noticeably better than Saint Frank’s. Now any café owner is entitled to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a custom espresso machine, killer grinders, and a Zenlike service design experience. But if it doesn’t translate to a better cup of coffee, those costs are being passed on to me to satisfy completely different concerns. You’d be better off having your baristas selling me $400 sweaters.

What results is a place that seems enamored with all the trappings of what’s expected of a wannabe Fourth Wave coffee place, but with no improvement in the coffee itself. Which suggests more of our cynical definition of a Fourth Wave coffee shop from four years ago. We then joked that if the Third Wave was about letting the coffee speak for itself and enjoying coffee for its own sake, the Fourth Wave was about appreciating so much of the gadgetry and trappings surrounding coffee service that any actual coffee was no longer required.

Rewarding The Wrong Behaviors

But can any of us blame Kevin? The status quo of the industry’s most popular coffee media encourage this focus. For example, a Dear Coffee, I Love You seems to care more about subway tiles than coffee roasting. While Sprudge heavily promotes their “Buildouts of the Summer” promotional series as if coffee were a construction project. And in professing “we would never grade coffee shops”, Sprudge seems too terrified to lift a judgmental finger to critique any of the coffee and potentially hurt someone’s feelings.

In the absence of critical opinions, these become our public coffee thought-leadersThis leaves a massive void of any popular critical thought about retail coffee quality. Instead of learned coffee professionals, this gap is filled instead by the arbitrary standards of “top 20 coffee shops in America” lists on popular news and travel web sites — often written and compiled by interns most enamored by double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos in paper to-go tubs, whose understanding of coffee quality extends little beyond the MSRP price tags of the commercial coffee machine fad of the month.

Or worse: the void is left to the whims of the “man in the street” on review sites like Yelp!: where electrical outlets for laptops, cute baristas who flirt, and cheap extra large muffins count for more than any coffee quality.

Putting Coffee Quality Back at the Center

Imagine a perverse wine world where the like likes of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast gave everything identical 90-point scores while devoting the bulk of their writing to the wood and fixtures used to build their tasting rooms and the designers of their high-tech wine openers. It’s of little surprise that we have ended up with coffee writing that reads more like an interior design arms race sponsored by Home Depot®. Meanwhile any actual quality judgement on coffee is suppressed to the level of American youth soccer: everybody is recognized with a trophy just for participating. Why even bother with the farce of barista competitions if “everyone is a winner”?

Over a decade ago, one of the major inspirations for creating CoffeeRatings.com was our immense frustration with all the existing books and online reviews of coffee houses at the time: it was impossible to find any critical reviews of coffee places that critiqued any actual coffee. Most of the attention was spent on ambiance: the style of the clientele who hung out there, what novels they read, and how good the bagels were. With all the attention now given to new machines, service counter layouts, and who makes the wooden countertops, we seem to have relapsed to those more ignorant days.

The things we read while dragging on cigarettes in fashionable cafés

I never thought I’d miss what six years ago I called the Malaysian street food experience. Then the environmental design slight-of-hand was in making you feel like a hipster for sipping your espresso while sitting on a cinder block in an alley filled with spent heroin needles. Even so, at least the quality of the coffee still ran as the headline. Today I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it’s time to go back to those days.

Trip Report: Andytown Coffee Roasters (Outer Sunset, San Francisco)

Posted by on 05 Jun 2014 | Filed under: Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

A project of husband & wife team Lauren Crabbe (former Blue Bottle lead barista) and mixologist Michael McCrory, the couple followed the well-travelled “free money” route of Kickstarter to open this this neighborhood café and roastery in March 2014.

It’s located in a corner shop with a small storefront but long interior that extends well back to their converted 5-lb Probat LE5 roaster. In front as you enter, there’s communal seating at a larger wooden table just behind their large glass windows overlooking the street corner. There are also a few stool seats along the long wall beneath wide white shelving of retail coffee merchandising, across from the service counter.

Entrance to Andytown Coffee Roasters Inside Andytown Coffee Roasters with their Probat roaster at the back

Overall, the store can only handle a limited number of simultaneous customers: it feels deceptively large, but large swaths of the floorspace are dedicated to the service counter. But of the few seats available inside, almost none of them laptop zombies — which helps create more of a communal feel for the space.

The highlight of the service counter is the impressive three-group, manual Kees van der Westen Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette espresso machine secured from Blue Bottle’s SFMOMA location (since under much reconstruction). They use Mazzer and Astoria grinders, and for their espresso they pulled shots of their Short Strand blend: a combination of washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe and natural Brazil from Daterra Farms (sourced as greens via InterAmerican). Michael was roasting some of the Daterra Brazil at the time of our visit, noting its lack of “peanut” character typical of its brethren.

Patrons at the small seating area at the front windows of Andytown Coffee Roasters Shelves of merchandising inside Andytown Coffee Roasters

They pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema of good thickness. It comes with a pungent aroma and possesses a fruity brightness with sharp acidity, but yet it’s backed up with a solid body from its Brazilian base. It’s a vibrant and lively shot, which is quite excellent even if it’s lacking a little balance. Served in hand-fashioned ceramic cups created by SF-based Douglas Dowers and served on a wooden plank with a glass of mineral water on the side.

It’s a seriously solid espresso, and its enjoyed within an authentic experience that seems delightfully ignorant of many of the new coffee shop trends and expectations from the more fashionable parts of the city.

In fact, it wasn’t until we tallied up our scores after the fact that we noted our ratings tied it for the best espresso shot in San Francisco. It’s an excellent shot, but it definitely warrants a revisit to ensure consistency. Or at least I need to ensure I wasn’t just in a giddy coffee mood at the time.

Read the review of Andytown Coffee Roasters in the Outer Sunset.

Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette at Andytown Coffee Roasters The Andytown Coffee Roasters espresso

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