A couple years ago, after caffeinating myself to dangerously jittery levels in my quest to sample and review every espresso served in the city of San Francisco, I had the idea of publishing my findings in a book. Crazy idea? Probably. I had written and published a book before, so I certainly should have known better. But friends encouraged me, and I was weak.
Ten book proposals to targeted Bay Area publishers and ten polite rejections later, I got the message. This town wasn’t ready to do for coffee what it had already done for restaurants, wine bars, burritos, and dog walking parks. Or was it?
For years now, I’ve contributed restaurant and nightlife reviews for those slaves to group-think, Zagat Survey. Recently, I received an e-mail from them notifying me of an entirely new survey they were holding: Zagat’s Best Coffee & Tea Places. Apparently, they are holding surveys for multiple cities throughout the country, including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
My first thought at seeing this was, “Finally — some validation that my idea is legitimate!” (Insert vision here of mad Dr. Frankenstein surrounded by lightning as his creation rises from the operating table.)
Books about local coffee are not new in many of the cities known for their coffee appreciation: Seattle, San Francisco, Rome, etc. Yet almost all of them say nothing about the quality of the coffee. Disappointingly, they instead obsess over many of the “café society” aspects: the charming decor, the leftist politics, the house salads, and what pompous literature the guy in the $400 designer glasses is reading next to you.
So I started the survey with cautiously optimistic hopes that somebody cares about the coffee … while knowing full well of the Zagat model’s terrible ratings pitfalls. (The Zagat Survey Music or Zagat Movie guides, anyone? More on that below.)
The survey begins with checkboxes for a number of pre-selected cafés, coffeehouses, and tea rooms in the greater Bay Area. In the coffee category, the nominees include (among a few other notables) Abir, Blue Bottle, Flying Goat (one of my favorite North Bay cafés), Emporio Rulli, Farley’s, Ritual, Roma, and Trieste. Notably absent is Café Organica and Frog Hollow Farm, but fortunately there is an “Other” checkbox to allow write-in votes. And while Tully’s is also listed, surprisingly they have omitted other notable large chains such as Peet’s and (dare I mention?) Starbucks.
Once you have selected the places you’ve visited, you are prompted with the following questions for them:
I am encouraged that they asked for best coffee, latte, cappuccino, and, above all, best espresso votes. But their irrelevant questions about indulgent coffee experiences (?!), seasonal beverages, holiday gifts, and where to bring my pet are confusing at best — disturbing at worst.
Furthermore, Zagat’s fatal systemic flaw is that what’s popular is a reliably poor indicator of what is truly best — or at least, as in the case of Zagat Music and Zagat Movies, what’s truly best for you and your tastes. This fatal flaw is particularly noticeable in an area where consumers are only just starting to educate themselves and their tastes, such as quality coffee and espresso drinks.
This is why I think the educated and consistent palate of the single tastemaker approach — as Robert Parker, Jr. is to wine — is much more useful than a popularity contest when it comes to finding and learning about great coffee and espresso. It wasn’t that long ago (before Starbucks) that the public’s general idea of “good coffee” meant a caffeinated brown liquid, warmed on a Bunn burner, that didn’t make you wince.
Conjecture about what Zagat might actually do with these survey results may be in vain anyway. Oddly enough, this survey is nothing like the typical Zagat review process. Their questions only ask for your favorite place among each category, rather than the usual procedure of rating each establishment on the same criteria.
Arguably, Zagat may not be planning a book to review local coffee after all. Rather, they likely conducted this survey as merely an experiment to gauge the potential quality of their reviewer data and to test the waters for a potential new publishing market.
Given the questions they asked, it is looking like this Dr. Frankenstein needs to go back to the lab a little longer.
When people think of France, and Paris in particular, they most often think of grand boulevards, beautiful architecture, beautiful people, high French cuisine, and the sidewalk café lifestyle. What they often don’t associate with it is black, bitter coffee made from some of the world’s crudest coffee beans, roasted in the most heinous of ways. But that is just what you get in Paris — much to the cries of “sacrilege!” from many an enamored tourist and Francophile.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the French. They have contributed much to the betterment of food, drink, and the enjoyment of earthly pleasures. But arguably one of the greatest atrocities they have committed against humanity is their mark on the world’s coffee consumption — and how they have systematically brainwashed us into such woefully poor expectations for it.
Comic hyperbole, you might think? Nonsense. The last time I went on an extensive espresso hunt in Paris, one of the best cups I could find was served indoors at a Cuban café. And to be completely serious, I largely fault French restaurants with setting the standard for fine American dining establishments today: a fantastic meal, excellently prepared, that completely falls apart at the coffee.
What’s wrong with Parisian coffee? As a general rule it is bitter, burnt, ashy, a little watery, and lacking real body — much like the bad wannabe Starbucks espresso you can get on Mainstreet, USA. And there are social and scientific reasons for this.
If we set our Way Back Machine to colonial France of the 18th century, France derived much of its coffee supply from its colonies in Southeast Asia. The predominant coffee plant variety in places like Vietnam (“French Indochina”, anyone?) is the robusta plant, as opposed to the higher-quality (and more expensive) arabica plant species. French coffee tastes are still steeped in this robusta tradition to this day. (While high-quality robusta coffees do exist, they are very rare and come from very un-French countries such as India.)
Today, this very Vietnamese robusta is at the heart of a coffee quality war going on in the world. Companies like Starbucks created consumer demand for better, almost exclusively arabica, coffee. Given this threat in profit margin and market share, the world’s established multinational coffee giants — Nestle, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee — responded by seeking fatter profit margins through cheaper and cheaper coffee that could be used in their cans of Folgers and Sanka.
The Big Four (as they are sometimes called) turned to Vietnamese robusta production as one of their key solutions. By proliferating these supplies of inferior coffee, they could produce the equivalent amount of beans at as little as a tenth of the price of arabica coffee. But there was one critical problem — these crude robusta beans roast into coffee blends that taste grassy at best, like bitter “burnt tires” (as often quoted by experts) at worst. So the Big Four developed chemical processing plants to refine the robusta into tasting something closer to, well, coffee.
There’s a lot more to be said about the proliferation of low-quality, predominantly Vietnamese robusta coffees in the world — emulating the standards set by the French centuries ago (and being the primary engine that created the Fair Trade movement to combat its ill effects). But I will say this much about robusta coffee. As a home roaster, I can sometimes buy some from Sweet Maria’s, who offers samples of this stock in limited supply for “scientific purposes” only. Meanwhile, the beans have earned the nickname “disgusta” from many home roasters.
And because the French have historically dealt with such crude bean stocks, they also had to invent the French roast — a long, dark roast that, not coincidentally, helps hide any impurities in the coffee. While there are certainly good applications of dark roasts, doing so is the equivalent of ordering your chateaubriand well done. You can get by with a really poor cut of meat if you prepare it by “burning the evidence”. (Commercial coffee buyers typically roast prospective stocks twice: once with a normal roast to gauge its ‘retail’ flavor, and once with a light roast to detect defects and impurities.) The dark roast also has a tendency to impart a burnt, ashy flavor to inferior coffee stocks.
Parisians do a fantastic job of, “Look, there goes Elvis!” to keep you from noticing just how poor their coffee is. And I can’t blame them. If I were a savvy Parisian businessman, you bet I would charge five Euros a cup for the garbage blend popular everywhere. By surrounding my customers on the beautiful Parisian boulevards with beautiful people, I could serve cups of 10w40 and hardly anyone would think to stop raving about the stuff.
So it goes without saying that American establishments that try to appeal to a French ethic in the quality of their coffee are unwittingly doing themselves a disservice. What they want to be emulating is the experience of drinking a French coffee on a sidewalk café along a tree-lined Parisian boulevard. Because they certainly don’t want to be emulating their coffee.
I came across an old blog entry on this subject that stirred a lot of controversy: Chez Pim’s How not to drink black tar in Paris?. The most poignant reply among the controversial follow-up posts came from one blogger who casually mentioned, “I’ve never heard anything bad about the coffee in Paris, aside from the complaint of some Americans that you can rarely get it to go.”
How ironic that the most valuable thing that Parisians have to offer the coffee drinking experience is the one thing that some Americans can do without.