March 2006

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Peet’s Coffee & Tea @ Mission & 2nd Sts.

Posted by on 23 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This expansive Peet’s Coffee & Tea outlet has plenty of window counter seating for sipping your morning latte, reading the headlines, and listening to a tape loop of classical music “greatest hits” playing overhead. Additionally, there’s a good amount of public indoor seating in the connected atrium of the 101 Second St. building. They have a good section of the floorspace dedicated to bean sales and the usual assortment of coffee- and tea-related merchandising for sale.

The morning long lines are long, but they tend to move quickly. And there’s good reason why the lines are long: this is arguably the best Peet’s I know of in San Francisco. And many Peetnicks seem to agree. (Disclaimer: a couple readers have commented how I haven’t listed their favorite Peet’s here yet — and they are correct. As many cafés as I have reviewed, to deal with the sheer number, one strategy I’ve employed is to defer reviews for every last retail store of a given chain.)

Here they use an overworked four-group Faema E91 Diplomat and a separate milk frothing Astra machine (where old espresso machines go to die?). The resulting espresso here is, by SF standards, quite sweet and rich. It has a dark brown crema of an appreciable thickness — with excellent balance, body, and flavor depth. They clearly know when their equipment is “out of tune,” and they’re not afraid to make a maintenance call. They are a little weaker at milk frothing, but hey — it’s just an Astra.

Entrance to Peet's on Mission St. Ron calling the shots behind their overworked Faema E91 Diplomat

Their morning barista shift is generally better than their afternoon shift, when the flavor tends to run less bold and sweet. You’ll know you’re in good hands when Ron, their Frank Zappa lookalike, is around: he makes the best espresso. They also tend to make better double than single espressos; puzzling for no obvious reason.

One irritation: occasionally the counter staff won’t get your “for here” request right, even if you tell them twice. Worse yet are green baristas who, when you point out this error, will merely pour your espresso from a paper cup into a ceramic one when lines are busy. I’ve deducted from their barista and savvy scores for this recent bad habit. (Hint: make sure the cashier hits the “FOR HERE” button on the register. It should display just above the register’s total facing you. It’s still no guarantee that you won’t end up with a paper cup anyway, but it’s a start.) Otherwise, they serve it in a Peet’s IPA cup — apologetically at times (which is often) without a saucer.

Read the updated review.

Peet's uses separate stations for espresso and milk frothing Peet's single espresso

Trip Report: Café Que Tal

Posted by on 22 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Quiet, semi-private coffee house with many plants and stained tables indoors. Sky-blue ceiling adds to the tropical theme. Minimal outdoor seating (no tables). They occasionally offer a free chair massage.

Café Que Tal formerly used Mr. Espresso beans, then switched to Vigal, and more recently they switched back again. They pull shots from a two-group Faema Due, grinding to order, but they also unnecessarily pour first in a small metal pitcher. Yet it comes with a rather rich crema that can vary from a darker brown to a mottled medium brown. Very smooth and mellow flavor of a mild spiced molasses.

It’s not quite what you’d expect: it’s muted and not very bold, but the mellowness grows on you. Like a kamikaze-sweet cocktail, you can down a few of these before the caffeine suddenly hits you with the realization that you’ve had a lot of coffee. Served in finer matching Homer Laughlin or Tuxton china.

Closing time at the Café Que Tal The Café Que Tal espresso

But what will flagpole-sitting coffee drinkers think?

Posted by on 21 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

OK — it’s only Tuesday, and I have already found the winner for the most imbecilic coffee-related news item of the week.

So what do you do if you’re a coffee marketer desperate for an angle? How about selling coffee with those yellow rubber LIVESTRONG wristbands? Nah — not trendy enough. OK, how about a reality TV show about our coffee? Too expensive. Hey — all the media is talking about “blogging,” whatever that is. That’s the hot thing now. So let’s sell coffee specifically for bloggers!

Oh, if only I was joking: Boca Java Creates First Gourmet Coffee for Bloggers: Bloggers Blends; Bloggers Will Create the Next Coffee Blend for Boca Java at www.BloggersFuel.com

Oh sure, I may have had a personal Web page since 1994, but slap the “blogger” title on me and I am nudge-nudge-wink-wink in the new coffee achievers generation.

I dare you to read a few lines from this press release and keep from soiling yourself from laughing so hard:

Boca Java, the premier, direct-to-consumer gourmet coffee company that fresh roasts-to-order, today launched Bloggers Blends, one of the first product lines designed specifically for the rapidly expanding blogger universe. Boca Java’s new products, along with the company’s launch of a new blogger-specific website, www.BloggersFuel.com, will, for the first time, directly target this community as a consumer demographic and enable bloggers to purchase, create and name new coffee blends in the product line.

Now only if I had some diaper wipes designed specifically for the rapidly expanding blogger universe…

UPDATE: Sept. 9. 2006
The untold story after this article was that I took the bait. I was so intrigued by how badly this might turn out that I even agreed to blog about the quality of their coffee here as required. But almost six months after signing up and being approved by their marketing department as an official Blogger Blends taster, not a single bean of coffee has shown up at my door. Today there are no longer any mentions that any beans will be coming whatsoever.

You might think that this promotion could have at least cynically achieved one thing on the marketing front: getting bloggers’ e-mails on the subscriber lists for their spam sales newsletter. But even that, after a brief handful of occasional sales e-mails, was handled half-heartedly and eventually died.

No matter, their Web site posted blogger reviews regardless. Either they were scared off by me (I honestly was going to give them a CoffeeRatings.com-style “fair & balanced” review) … or their marketing department has been busily creating virtual bloggers around the Internet to forge rave about their coffee. One has to wonder…

UPDATE: Oct. 6, 2008
It just goes to show… a bad idea with a little spit polish can be exhumed two years later by people naïve enough to expect a different outcome: Joffrey’s Introduces “Coffee 2.0” for Bloggers; Free Brew for Mashable Readers – Mashable.

Do hot coffee and ‘Wobblies’ go together?

Posted by on 21 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Barista, Starbucks

Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured an article (syndicated from the Wall Street Journal) that documents attempts to unionize at the nation’s Starbucks: Do hot coffee and ‘Wobblies’ go together?

Starbucks ranked #29 on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, and they are very sensitive about their brand image and integrity with consumers. This image includes fair employee pay and benefits in addition to socially-friendly causes, such as their adoption of Fair Trade coffees and recycled paper cups.

However, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has adopted a strategy to pierce Starbucks’ corporate image armor. As an IWW organizer put it, “Starbucks has anointed itself a leader in employee health care but the fact remains that a lower percentage of its employees are insured than at Wal-Mart.” And Starbucks doesn’t dispute the figures, citing a disproportionately young work force.

The pressure on labor practices at Starbucks is bound to increase, despite their current image — not wholly unlike what has happened recently with Wal-Mart. Starbucks’ expansion strategy relies heavily on an almost insatiable need for a growing, relatively unskilled labor force.

UPDATE: July 24, 2008
A blog published an interview yesterday with Jake Bell, one of the Starbucks baristas from the Mall of America who is leading a unionization drive with the IWW: Rhubarbarism: From the Coffee Factory: Interview with an IWW barista from the Mall of America Starbucks. Though having once been in the Mall of America back in the late 1990s, someone might do the public a greater service by instead rioting and burning the entire place to the ground.

Green or not: lose the paper cup

Posted by on 20 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

Of all the reasons to drink your espresso out of a for-here ceramic cup… in today’s Anchorage Daily News Bill Sherwonit professes doing so as part of his “move toward becoming a more responsible espresso drinker.” No, I’m not making this up: adn.com | life : Housecleaning tips: Begin with small steps and see where they lead.

The author talks about how he parted ways with paper cups as an environmental cause. Of course, this begs the question of whether a paper cup or the soap-and-hot-water washing of ceramic cups is more environmentally responsible. Afterall, the “paper or plastic” grocery bag debate turned out to be such a quagmire for environmentalists.

So while the environmental debate may still be out, why overlook the fact that an espresso tastes far better in a real cup? Would you drink a single malt scotch out of a paper cup? Would you dine out at a fine restaurant and request that everything be served in a plastic basket, wrapped in aluminum foil?

If you bothered to have an espresso drink of any decent quality at all, a lot of preparation has undoubtedly gone in to making it: freshly roasted beans, the right blend, a tuned machine, the right timing and barista skill, etc. So why take that $3-4 coffee and dump it in a paper cup like something served at a four-year-old’s birthday party? There’s a reason why the good baristas take the effort to pre-heat cups … why espresso served in paper cups tastes like paper … why the best espresso cups are chosen to provide the right amount of thermal insulation while providing a shape that best suspends the delicate crema that sits on top of the espresso.

Given that the article’s author also professes to drinking his espresso out of a 16-ounce insulated mug, I hope that he’s putting milk in it. (Otherwise he has a lot more problems than just environmental ones.) But even if you’re drinking one of those milkshake-sized espresso drinks, do yourself a favor: lose the paper. You’ve earned the right to be treated like an adult.

Speed coffee — and its kings of Tel Aviv

Posted by on 19 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Looking for espresso along Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv? The online version of the Haaretz English Edition reviewed eight branches of large coffee chains (including The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf) — with a bizarre emphasis on how quickly they can shuffle you out the door with a paper cup (blech!) of gourmet coffee in hand: Haaretz – Israel News – A long Mochaccino Fredo Grande, please.

Granted, America’s only familiarity with Israeli cafés typically involves gruesome TV footage of suicide bomber attacks. But gross American media distortions aside, there truly is no excuse to wolf down gourmet coffee on the run and to use that as the foundation for quality judgements. The moment we measure anything we ingest into our bodies with a stopwatch is the moment we’ve surrendered any enjoyment of it over to pure biological necessity.

The article mentions how coffee consumption in Israeli society has transformed from instant powdered coffee to gourmet coffee-to-go — not recognizing the irony of a society that preferred instant coffee in more leisurely, coffee-sipping times. “Our relationship with the coffee shop we have chosen is expected to be short and effective,” says the article’s author, Nofar Sinai. And yet the fast food lifestyle invariably begets fast food quality.

My wife, a complete foodie (and a great chef at that), recently became a member of Slow Food. It is a great worldwide organization (dare I even say: “movement”?) of people with like-minded interests to promote food and wine culture and defend it from the forces of fast food homogenization and blandness. I believe the very same ethics apply to the enjoyment of good coffee or a good espresso.

My wife also fully believes that we are all making ourselves sick as a society — with a host of new illnesses and diseases — because we’ve become so disconnected from the things we put into our bodies and any enjoyment we derive from them. Though I can’t say that coffee-to-go is contributing to the world’s childhood obesity epidemic, I can say that consuming coffee like a NASCAR driver at a pit stop is a wholly regressive step towards the enjoyment of good coffee. It’s been forty years since powdered Tang® was considered the pinnacle of human gastronimic achievement, and there is no good reason we should go back — even if it costs us two whole extra minutes out of the day.

Meet Coke Blak: Soda with a coffee kick

Posted by on 19 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

From the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Coca-Cola has revealed a little more of their latest beverage play in the hopes of cashing in on consumer interest in specialty coffee. Coke Blāk (no, I am not making this up) is scheduled to hit U.S. store shelves April 3: Meet Coke Blak: Soda with a coffee kick.

According to Coca-Cola, the coffee-flavored beverage will have “fewer calories but more caffeine than regular Coke.” Apparently, whether or not it tastes like shoe polish will only be of secondary importance to consumers.

Refrigerated beverage fads come and go faster than Pepsi A.M. So what really makes me curious is what Coke still has up their sleeves — given all their recent patent applications for single-serving coffee pods, pod brewing systems, and a system for steaming milk.

UPDATE: Aug. 31, 2007
Beverage giants introduce and discontinue products more and more like movie production companies, and coffee flavoring was just one of the many fads. According to yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Coke’s Blāk turned out to be a lot more wishful hype than real consumer interest or sales: Coke Blak goes dark | ajc.com. Coke has pulled the plug on the product and is now concentrating on selling the remaining inventory in clearance-sale fashion.

Coffee Wars 2006

Posted by on 16 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Today’s Los Angeles Times reports on the corporate expansion plans of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf: Coffee Chains in Grand Battle to Take No. 2 Spot – Los Angeles Times.

Coffee Bean’s angle? Just looking at the ratio of coffeehouses to residents, Seattle is more than ten times as saturated as California. Thus this L.A.-based chain sees California as a growth market with a lot of huge potential remaining. That and they see their lighter roasting styles as a differentiator from the likes of Peet’s Coffee & Tea or Starbucks.

And as Americans are guzzling more premium coffee than ever, some marketing experts are characterizing the coming coffee wars as a repeat of the cola wars from prior decades: USATODAY.com – McDonald’s debut of premium coffee stirs up rivals. Examples cited include yesterday’s first-ever National Coffee Break, where Starbucks reportedly served some 500,000 free coffees at over 7,500 U.S. locations between 10am-12pm.

Of course, the most telling thing I saw yesterday morning were the number of people in line with me at the Peet’s Coffee on 2nd & Mission Sts. who were holding their free newspapers and Starbucks coupons in hand. While it’s hard for anybody to pass up a good freebie, it seems that you still can’t get people to stop paying for better coffee.

Trip Report: Philz Coffee @ 18th St.

Posted by on 15 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Roasting

A year ago or so, owner Phil Jabar started serving coffee as “Philz Coffee” at the former Gateway Market at Folsom & 24th Sts. This newer location opened more recently (January 2006), and it has as loyal a local following as the original shop. Business here started slow, though, and has picked up more recently as word-of-mouth spread. With slogans such as “one cup at a time” and (confusingly) “That’s Italian!”, I’ve decided that Philz represents more of a success at guerilla marketing than great coffee. And I really wanted to like Philz.

Walking up to this place, locals told me on the street, “You must try their coffee!” Inside there is dingy, used furniture: sofas, school desks, mistmatched chairs. And piles of roasted coffee. At $11.95/lb, I inquired about what beans were in their Heavenly Blend, which looked interesting on sight. Phil’s son, behind the counter, told me, “I don’t know what beans — it’s a mixture of light and dark roasts.” Big trouble right there.

And this is a place the SF Weekly recently called “best local coffee blend”? They host Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday coffee tastings from 2-5pm, but what’s the point of a wine tasting if all you learn you’re drinking is “red” or “white”?

Philz Coffee, complete with banners Inside Philz

If you can get past the fact that they don’t know what beans are in what blend, and that they tend to describe their blends with only adjectives rather than any nouns (?!), Philz serves good drip coffee. But is that enough to create a loyal following?

Philz brews it in single-serving drip filters — but moderately good places like Plumes Coffee House in Monterey (among a number of others) have been doing that for years now. And while their roasts are pretty good (I took a pound of their Heavenly Blend home anyway), they didn’t strike me as any fresher or better than you could get at The Beanery or, say, his Sunset roasting counterparts: legendary, friendly neighborhood “loners” such as Alvin Azadkhanian of Alvin’s and Henry Kalebjian of House of Coffee. So what’s the secret?

I believe it comes down to Phil Jabar himself. The man is a better showman than his Sunset counterparts, and his business benefits from clientele who think they need a visa to travel to the Sunset District. Phil puts on the Reno charm and plays the role of alchemist rather than barista.

But whereas Philz is particularly strong at beverages such as Turkish and Arabic coffee, run — do not walk — away from this place if you want anything resembling a drinkable espresso. Using a two-group La Spaziale with the portafilter handles left out cooling on the drip tray (ugh!!), they pull shots with absolutely no crema. They serve their espresso jet black and in a regular coffee cup. Not surprisingly, it tastes ashy and tarry with some bitterness.

Did I mention that I really wanted to like Philz? Well, it might be surprising that Philz Coffee ended up rated in the bottom 10% of all SF espressos. But the pictures here don’t lie. Make no mistake: when it comes to espresso, Philz suckz.

Read the review.

And the portafilter handles are lying on the drip tray because...? Philz ezpresso suckz

UPDATE: June 27, 2007
Apparently this Philz location closed due to a business relationship that went about as sour as their espresso. Philz still has other SF locations yet to be reviewed here (with some trepidation, we might add).

Café Organica on hiatus

Posted by on 15 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Thanks to tips from some locals and fellow readers, I’ve recently learned that Café Organica has closed down momentarily for renovations. So unlike my initial presumption that Café Organica closed down this past Saturday in order to train for the U.S. Barista Championships, apparently last Saturday was the beginning of a larger project. San Francisco espresso lovers will need to get their fix elsewhere — for at least a little while.

For other details from the Café Organica Web site: http://www.cafe-organica.com/.

There are also unconfirmed rumors that Eton may be moving his operations to the Financial District, leaving his North-of-the-Pandhandle storefront for baristra training. I hope to get in touch with him soon and will personally post here should I learn anything.

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