The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported today that “Coca-Cola may take on Starbucks.” I used quotes here because the overlap of both businesses isn’t significant enough to warrant their headline — or at least what it leads you to believe.
The story is this: Coca-Cola is always looking for growth opportunities (read: cash flow) in anything you can ingest in liquid form. Soda, water, juice, coffee, gasoline … it really doesn’t matter. Apparently, Coca-Cola has expressed a bit of envy over the consumer-inspired growth of the specialty coffee industry and want a piece of the action for “this thing of ours”.
To this end, Coke filed five U.S. patent applications in 2005 for single-serving coffee pod designs, single-serving brewing machines, and a system for steaming milk to make cappuccinos and lattes. The invasion of the “pod” people has only just begun (I’ll save that for its own article), and Coke knows it. Which is why it is bothering a second attempt at the coffee market after its Planet Java fiasco five years ago.
Despite all these reports, the fact is that Starbucks — for a point of comparison — is heavily about the point-of-sale, the café atmosphere, and the emphasis on a service business where beverages are prepared of a quality that (despite worthy criticisms) beats what the average household can instantly produce. Sure, they may dabble in retail sales of coffee beans and equipment to consumers, but that’s ancillary. Meanwhile, Coke is all about the bottle and the can. As a business, their core competency is in the worldwide production and delivery of standardized liquids that come in small-serving containers.
Arguably, any successes Coke might have in coffee will have much more of an effect on supermarket Frappuccino sales than on what most people think of when they think of Starbucks. As new coffee-related products are introduced later this year, such as Coca-Cola Blāk and Pepsi Café Chino, these soda bottlers must believe they are relevant enough to syphon off the successes of specialty coffee. Unfortunately for them, I expect them to learn the hard way that it’s not just about the convenience of a mass-produced beverage, designed for lowest-common-denominator tastes, with a label slapped on it to provide the illusion of choice.
When the consumer wine revolution broke Americans out of thinking just in terms of “red versus white,” what thrived wasn’t more readily available forms of Boone’s Farm. Consumers developed more discerning tastes and rewarded those products that catered to them. The rest was just…. blēk.
With my kitchen currently getting the bulldozer (i.e., reconstruction) treatment, home espresso operations have come to a screeching halt. What better time to forage for espresso? Last week I reported that Caffé del Doge opens in Palo Alto, and this morning I decided to pay a visit.
This chain of Venetian cafés opened in 2003 (thanks to poster, claudietta, for the corrections) and has since spread to areas as far and wide as Budapest, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. This Palo Alto location opened in December 2005 in the same exact location as the former Torrefazione Italia, which is a great space for a quality coffee experience.
They haven’t changed the site’s layout much at all: great counter window seating, a casual place to lounge upstairs, and limited sidewalk seating. The only difference is that they made the tight walkway from front to back even worse by adding shelves of risotto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, moka pots, and packaged and whole bean coffee. The walls are bright orange with large prints of Venice.
The café’s name is a reference to Venice’s traditional political leaders, elected by the elite, from about 700 A.D. until 1797. The staff wear Caffé del Doge T-shirts with the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe logo on the back, and there’s a real “Sons of Italy” expatriate feel here: native Italian speaking expats frequently chat it up with the manager as if needing to connect back home somehow. But make no mistake — this isn’t the Old World charm of Caffé Trieste. This is Palo Alto, where the homies literally pulled up at the nearby intersection, blasting the Bollywood hit parade out their car windows.
The café still uses dual two-group Elektras that suspiciously look like they have been left behind by the Torrefazione Italia that once stood here, except here they use multiple bean dispensers and Mazzer grinders to handle the variety. And what a variety! For espresso, they offer coffee bean choices of Rosso, Nero, Blue decaf (all $1.50) — and single origins in the form of base ($1.80), premium ($2.30), and gourmet ($3.50). Add 50% for a doppio. (The cappuccinos and macchiatos come in similar choices.)
Caffé del Doge is among the first wave of cafés in the Bay Area featuring multiple bean choices for your espresso — other notables being Café Organica and Santa Clara’s Barefoot Coffee Roasters. However, what I find particularly interesting is their choice of offering single bean espressos (for example, you often have to order “off the menu” for them at Café Organica).
The single bean espresso is an intensely Western (as in the Pacific Coast) concept, though rumor has it that owner Bernie Della Mea offers them even at his Venice locations. It’s a concept akin to single malt scotches — or more appropriately, monovitgno grappas. What qualities you might lose in the flavor balance of a blend (or crema, body, brightness, etc.), you might gain in rich intensities of certain characteristics. The cup might be a little one-dimensional, but the bolder qualities of a single blend might be just what you seek.
The Rosso blend is pretty straightfoward, with a healthy medium brown crema and a robusta balance in their BFG Porcellane cups (they use SchönhuberFranchi cups for their cappuccinos). Their gourmet single origin, the Galapagos San Cristobal Island when I visited, had a thinner, paler crema (which you’d expect in a single origin) and a touch more sweetness over the Rosso.
My favorite was their premium single origin: the Guatemala Huehuetenango San Pedro Necta®: a Slow Food Association collaboration with a (predictably) weaker crema but a brilliant, candy-like sweetness of roasted almonds and bright notes of cedar.
As for their milk-based drinks, the microfoam — much like their latte art — leaves room for improvement (the Torrefazione Italia here handled it far better). However, the milk flavor is quite good and rich.
In conclusion, while their espressos served from blends are pretty good, they aren’t necessarily leaps better than what you can find at the Starbucks down the street. However, their single origin espressos are particularly good, unusual, and highly recommended — they are well-worth the extra splurge over their blends. I’m actually a bit surprised that an overseas chain can pull single bean espressos that retain a great deal of the roast’s original intensity. They must pay a lot in expedited shipping, as these are characteristics that often fizzle out in transit despite vacuum sealing and other shipping precautions.
Canada’s The Globe and Mail reports that a showing of the documentary film, Black Gold, at the Sundance Film Festival this week motivated a viewer to charity: After seeing coffee doc, Utah doc pays for school.
The documentary depicts the disparity between rising coffee prices and declining earnings of the world’s coffee growers.
Nicholas Cho may be a bit of a kook for suggesting that coffee has achieved third wave status. But he’s hosting the Mid Atlantic Regional Barista Competition next month: Coffee-Making Competition to Take Place at the Washington Convention Center, Washington DC, February 24-26, 2006
I generally shun coffee or espresso books that are filled with recipes. I like my coffee books to be coffee books and my cookbooks to be cookbooks. And typically, most coffee books add a recipe section when they’ve run out of useful things to say. Despite this, I’ll mention yesterday’s Prague Post, which published a simple article on the culinary use of coffee: Cooking with coffee.
Which brings me to the unrelated subject of Czech coffee. I first had the infamous local stuff when visiting there in 1995. Approaching the grounds of the Vyšehrad in Prague, I purchased a cheap cup of what seemed to be little more than sawdust particles suspended in hot water. The saddest part of the experience was that I actually enjoyed it — though only for the warmth of the water on a chilling October morning.
Back in 1995, Prague was overrun with post-Communist reconstruction and American college graduates. “Seattle-style” (as they then called them) espresso drinks had only just been introduced there. I made myself a regular at Pražská Káva, located at U Zlatého hada, where the owner called out my usual drink order (yes, a double latte) as I stood at the back of the line each morning. Scary when you become a regular when only a tourist.
As the article opens: “Coffee is on its way to becoming the ‘new wine.’” And the best way to appreciate good coffee requires roasting green beans and grinding them up fresh. From today’s Herald Tribune in Southwest Florida: Coffee connoisseurs are roasting their own. (And also this primer on coffee beans: Did you know?)
When it comes to quality coffee, and espresso in particular, freshness counts. Espresso made with beans roasted as few as four days prior to brewing will start showing noticeable signs of decreased crema, aroma, and flavor.
This says nothing of the whole bean coffee on store shelves or packaged for retail at a Starbucks, where the roast is typically four weeks old or older. Coffee imported from overseas tends to be even older still. And despite the many freshness attempts with vacuum seals and one-way valves, nothing beats the fresh stuff. (Btw, you know the smell of coffee when you open a new vacuum-sealed bag of the stuff? That’s literally the smell of flavor escaping your beans!)
Most people haven’t had truly fresh coffee. The first time I did, and the first time I tried my own home roasts, I was astonished at all the flavors that I was previously missing. It was like being a city kid in the country for the first time, discovering the Milky Way after years of only seeing a handful of stars in the heavens under the orange haze of city lights.
I believe an emphasis on fresh roasting is a trend that will continue, as notable artisan roasters such as Blue Bottle Coffee‘s James Freeman set a new bar for freshness by boldly stamping the roasting dates on their bags of the stuff. But it’s not a market for everyone: it can be costly, messy, take up precious space, and not everyone cares about the difference in the final product. If we are to make worthy parallels to wine, Turning Leaf and Manischewitz still do a great deal of volume business.
Over the past couple of years, San Francisco has undergone something of a revolution in great espresso. Although the quality revolution has yet to trickle down to the typical corner café, great changes have taken place at the upper eschelon.
At the forefront of this revolution is a troika of relative newcomers: Blue Bottle Coffee, Café Organica, and Ritual Roasters. These three cafés have come to represent what some people have (ridiculously) referred to as the Third Wave of coffee in San Francisco. (I’ve come across a poster on CoffeeGeek.com’s forums who once said of me and this site, “He’s not very Third Wave” — as if it was some kind of management cult akin to California’s est craze in the 1970s.)
Personally, I simply prefer the term “good” coffee. This isn’t Moore’s Law or a generation of mobile phone technology that becomes obsolete every 18 months. While the approach and the suppliers have been finely tuned, great espresso has been that way for decades. Hold the techno-foam and the marketingspeak.
Now on to the troika…
I suppose if you had to choose an order, I’d start with Blue Bottle Coffee. James Freeman started in the Easy Bay with the bold statement of actually posting the roasting dates on his small batch coffee roasts. He emphasized freshness above all else, making it a policy to never sell beans roasted more than 48 hours ago. (Of the troika, Blue Bottle is the only member that roasts their own coffee.)
By 2004, James took his Berkeley farmers market stint on a roadshow, establishing a weekend espresso cart presence on farmers market days at the newly remodeled Ferry Building. Long lines soon followed.
However, perhaps the biggest imprint James first left on San Francisco was his partnership with the Ferry Building’s Frog Hollow Farm. Known more for their peaches and baked goods, James’ influence on Frog Hollow Farm’s coffee was total: from the installation of a La Marzocco FB70 … to the use of Blue Bottle Coffee beans … to impeccable staff training for how to produce the finest espresso.
The partnership was so successful that CoffeeRatings.com rated Frog Hollow Farm as the #1 espresso in San Francisco throughout most of 2004 — ranked even higher than James’ own weekend cart service next door. But it was perhaps too successful, as James seemed to have designs of his own for a regular presence in SF. The result was the opening of a rough storefront in a Hayes Valley alleyway. Meanwhile, James appeared to pull out of his partnership with Frog Hollow Farm, and the quality there, while still very good, hasn’t quite been the same since.
Their espresso has a real sweetness in the cup that I like, and they make mean macchiato. I also recommend picking up a bag of their Temescal Espresso blend for making your own milk-based espresso drinks at home (I’ve found it can be better than their own milk-based drinks!).
Ritual Roasters is a great success story. Opened in May 2005 by Northwest expatriates, Eileen Hassi and Jeremy Tooker (and cover boy in the latest issue of the recommended Barista Magazine), Ritual Roasters shows an obsession with great espresso in a neighborhood that has largely neglected these values over the years: the Mission District.
Jeremy and Eileen met when they were first lured to San Francisco to help staff the once-excellent, Seattle-based Torrefazione Italia chain as it developed operations on Union Street and two downtown (on Montgomery Street and on Battery Street). (Disclosure: the son-in-law of Torrefazione Italia’s founder once worked for me.) For those who missed out, Torrefazione Italia may have changed owners several times, but the chain brought a modern quality and aesthetic to San Francisco espresso that previously did not exist here. Elegant Deruta ceramic cups (what, no paper?!), latte art, and baristas who strived for the best behind their dueling Elektra machines were their hallmark.
However, Torrefazione Italia’s last suitor, Starbucks ( a company that, for the record, I am quite neutral about), actually lived up to their normally undeserved Evil Empire moniker. By 2005, the staff was replaced by less competent baristas making far lower wages, and the product suffered terribly until all outlets were (deservedly) closed in San Francisco by September 2005. But like a phoenix from the ashes, Ritual Roasters was born out of the demise of SF’s once great Torrefazione Italia.
But here the owners of Ritual bring a passion for Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee. In fact, despite their occasional mumblings about roasting their own on site, Ritual has benefitted greatly from a relationship they established with Stumptown owner, Duane Sorenson.
Today, it’s great to see Ritual packed with many locals who have come to recognize the real quality in the product they produce.
Café Organica is frequently rated as pulling the #1 espresso in SF on CoffeeRatings.com. It also opened in early 2005, but it has a different lineage than the others. Owner Eton Tsuno developed his taste and knowledge of excellent espresso in Southern California and, later, Mountain View. And where I might describe Blue Bottle and Ritual as places of espresso artists, Eton is more of an espresso scientist.
The scientific approach is evident at Café Organica. Sure, they time their shots and apply methodical preparation techniques like the others. However, Organica leans a bit more on the experimental side. Here the baristas more frequently pull and re-pull shots for customers — partly as a measure of quality control, but also as a way of allowing their customers to taste the differences in both shots when they are prepared slightly differently. And of course, offering a selection of at least four different bean varieties underscores their commitment to customer experimentation and learning. Meanwhile, Eton is often trying new bean stocks and roasters, single-bean roasts and blends, and he was likely the first in the Bay Area to offer shots “naked” or “with spouts” (i.e., with open or the usually closed portafilter).
Eton has big ideas. If you catch him there, he can go on about his visionary ideas for espresso cocktails, educational centers with home espresso machines and training, and other industry trends that may or may not ever materialize. But whatever the espresso topic is, you quickly realize that he has thought about it a lot.
The espresso shots at Organica aren’t the sweetest and most full-bodied (when looking for those qualities, I am more apt to visit the other troika members). However, a visit there is like a wine tasting excursion. They produce some of the most meticulous shots you will find in the Bay Area — and always coated with a crema of dark flecks that I often associate with Chicago’s Intelligentsia.
In today’s New York Times, Michelle Slatalla writes a first-hand account of how she was ready to buy another espresso machine for her home: Establishing Some Ground Rules.
She encountered confusing options and poor machine choices at the usual suspects. Echoing how many of America’s best restaurants are generally ignorant when it comes to good espresso, gourmet stores, such as Williams-Sonoma, don’t even have the first clue about what constitutes a high quality (and not just convenient) espresso machine. None of the lines they have ever carried were something I’d buy for my own home.
Then she discovered the collective wisdom in Mark Prince’s excellent CoffeeGeek.com (home to some of my own equipment reviews). She even wrote to Mark to get a bit of the story behind the site — and some of his recommendations for home espresso preparation.
One of Mark’s best bits of advice?: a solid grinder is often more important than the quality of your espresso machine. This is where many of the superautomatic machines for the home often fail to deliver. Not everyone needs a Mazzer Mini, but don’t go dropping hundreds on an espresso machine and leave the grinder as an afterthought. A grinder may not sound that important, but you could otherwise be driving your 500 Series BMW on the engine block of a Yugo.