A Book About… Local Coffee?!

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.

But First, I Would Like to Ask You a Few Questions…

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:

  • What is the BEST place to get a cup of regular coffee?
  • What is the BEST place to go for a late night cup of coffee?
  • What is the BEST place to go for an indulgent coffee experience?
  • What unexpected place or location (non-coffee house) has the BEST cup of coffee?
  • What is the BEST place to get alcoholic coffee drinks?
  • What is the BEST place to get latte?
  • What is the BEST place to get cappuccino?
  • What is the BEST place to get espresso?
  • What is the BEST place to warm up when it’s cool out with a hot cup of coffee or tea?
  • What is the BEST place to get a seasonal coffee or tea beverage?
  • What is the BEST place to get coffee or tea that offers live entertainment or activities?
  • What is the BEST coffee/tea house for finding a unique holiday gift?
  • What is the BEST place to get coffee or tea that you can visit with your pet?

What Is the BEST Thing to Do With All That Data?

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.