Alvin Azadkhanian is something of an SF institution amidst the ever industrialized approach of coffee roasting and serving. This unassuming storefront/café has a few plastic sidewalk tables & chairs out front under awnings and a few simple diner tables inside. They sell everything from Bodum Santos vac pots, La Pavoni Europiccola machines, many organic roasts for around $10/lb, and even the ridiculous Kopi Luwak at $75/4-oz.
But Alvin’s is far from pretentious. Cut from the same cloth as Henry Kalebjian of the Outer Sunset’s House of Coffee, Alvin’s is a friendly neighborhood place. And the master roaster will serve your espresso himself. (There are pictures of him roasting out of a PROBAT roaster on the back wall.)
Using a two-group Futurmat, Alvin pulls a larger shot with a marginally thin and pale crema. Roasting, rather than espresso preparation, is visibly Alvin’s passion. His espresso has a milder, smooth flavor. But instead of tasting weak, it’s delicately flavorful of fresh mild pepper and some cedar. He serves it in an ornate-looking, Chinese-made demitasse (ironically branded as “Italian Styles”).
This former Holey Bagel shop has earned an extremely loyal (dare I even suggest “partially blind”?) following in the central Haight district. On their front door, they boast themselves as the #1 coffee shop in San Francisco on the basis of their reviews on Yelp.com. So they must be fantastic, right?
Well, the Upper Haight has a number of weak coffee shops. And when you’re in the Haight, there’s a certain socio-political expectation the locals have of neighborhood businesses. And as for Yelp, you can read my lone Yelp review for how CoffeeRatings.com was, in part, motivated by my frustrations with review sites like Yelp.
Coffee to the People is a huge space, a little on the mandatory drab & dingy side, with tables covered in socially conscious stickers and artwork: they know how to play to their customers. There is also a reading library with couches and free WiFi. So of course, there are the usual Haightsters sleeping at tables.
They roast their own coffee beans in San Rafael — all Fair Trade and organic, of course, as many of their clientele seem to be single-issue coffee drinkers. (Despite Fair Trade certification’s many flaws, many customers here seem to bestow it with a monopoly on ethical behavior. Of course, finding Fair Trade and organic coffee in SF is about as difficult as finding a good burrito…but nevermind.)
Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea, they serve espresso with a medium brown crema of decent thickness. It has a mild flavor of cloves and cumin, but it’s not terribly distinct from quality drip coffee — for example, there’s no uniqueness to its flavor profile nor special notes like sweetness. Served in cups from Espresso Supply, Inc.
It’s a good cup of espresso, and the baristas aren’t half bad. But this café is currently ranked tied for 78th on CoffeeRatings.com, far from #1, with better competitors even in the neighborhood. For a lot of socially conscious locals, it’s apparently pretty easy to let your mind short-circuit your taste buds. What else explains phenomena such as TVP?
All that talk about what phenomenal coffee I expected of Coffee to the People made me homesick for Café Organica, across the (Golden Gate Park) Panhandle. So after visiting this past Saturday, I headed over to Organica, wanting to congratulate owner, Eton Tsuno, on placing third in last weekend’s Western Regional Barista Competition — and wanting to check out his new Mirage.
I was thwarted again, as it was closed with signs saying “We are training hard for the U.S. Barista Competition — wish us luck!” Almost as strange was seeing CoffeeRatings.com posted in every window on print-outs of this month’s San Francisco magazine article.
Today’s New York Daily News claims “New York is, and always has been, a coffee town.” In the few times I’ve scouted much of Manhattan and Brooklyn in search of good coffee over the past few years, my conclusion is that “New York is, and always has been, a bad coffee town.” Award-winners from New York magazine, The Village Voice, and other souces served marginally good espresso even by SF’s sketchy standards. Many of these places closed within a year or two of receiving their recognition. But there are signs that things are changing for the better.
Among its eight million residents, a handful of New Yorkers are fortunate enough to live within the right ZIP code or within access of the right public transportation — as there are a few professionals in town who seem to know what decent coffee should taste like. Some of these professionals made the Daily News‘ article on the New York coffee scene: New York Daily News – Home – Something’s brewing.
Reason magazine recently published an excellent article on the history of Fair Trade coffee and the complicated web that has evolved around it over the years: Reason: Absolution in Your Cup: The real meaning of Fair Trade coffee by Kerry Howley
Starting at the roots of the American Fair Trade coffee movement — at a 1990 SCAA conference at Oakland’s Claremont Hotel — the article then touches on Reagan-era politics in Central America, the evolving economic crisis of quality coffee production around the world, and the development of higher quality coffee brands. It concludes with the complicated state we have today: where Fair Trade coffee is more popular than ever, and yet where the Fair Trade movement is not exactly succeeding as it was originally intended.
Fair Trade is just one of a number of possible solutions to the problem of quality coffee growers not earning enough to support their farms while low-grade, mass producers depress prices on the overall market. By disintermediating the middle man, the hope was to pay a fair sustainable wage to growers and get the quality stuff directly into the hands of retailers and roasters who sought it out. Afterall, Americans were showing a greater and greater willingness to pay more per cup as growers’ earnings plummeted.
But Fair Trade certification has taken on a life of its own. It has been coopted by many of the corporations who were at first staunchly opposed to it or originally seen as the source of the problem (a little mermaid comes to mind, for one). It has introduced a conform-or-die impetus on other growers, creating new problems and inequities in place of the ones it originally tried to address. (Worst of all are those who have used Fair Trade certification as a public license to engage in other questionable practices.)
Required reading for anyone who thinks they have an obligation to social justice with their morning coffee. A lot of people now swear by and insist upon Fair Trade coffee with blind loyalty — as if not doing so would be an endorsement of Satan himself. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that, and Fair Trade certification remains a compromised, flawed system.
As many in the industry describe it to me, “Fair Trade is at least better than nothing … maybe.”
I hate writing about espresso bars in regression when there’s every reason for us to expect progression. There’s a rising tide of coffee quality that should theoretically lift all boats: McDonald’s is offering premium roast from Gaviña, 7-Eleven is offering single origin Kenya AA and Hawaiian Kona … and late last year Café de la Presse made a big upgrade from America’s Best Coffee with a far better blend in Philadelphia’s La Colombe Torrefaction — one of the most esteemed specialty roasters in the country.
What’s this I hear? A très français café with espresso Greg not only tolerates, but he likes?! Yes, it’s true — at least at Café de la Presse. But it wasn’t always this way.
This spot is a classic French café/bistro at the southern Grant St. gates of Chinatown, strategically located near the Alliance Française de San Francisco. It has authentic bistro tables inside and out (the sidewalk café seating is very popular when the weather encourages it) — with a bent towards foreign tourist accents that also flock to the international newsstand. The service is Euro-slow and generally only good if you want to linger over an issue of Paris Match like many other patrons.
This café underwent a major facelift in 2005 — and for much the better. It now has a traditional zinc bar, the magazine rack moved to the back, and most importantly the espresso improved significantly. They replaced their cheap twin Astoria machines with a less cheap three-group La Spaziale. But their change in coffee beans and renewed attention to barista skills were the most significant improvements.
They now serve espresso with a relatively generous, and very un-French-like, medium-dark brown crema — poured in a tall brown ceramic cup (from Germany’s Caffé Ti Amo) with an odd spoon. Flavorwise, it has a woodsy, herbal flavor and a mildly warm serving temperature. This is a vast improvement over this café’s previous M.O. — it was once known for faint rings of crema and a slightly bitter tobacco flavor due to their inferior equipment, bean choices, and laissez-faire attitude towards espresso preparation. Last year I noted them as one of the most improved SF cafés of 2005. You can now actually drink something besides a café au lait with the cat-sized milk bowl here.
And as often happens, paradoxically, when places improve their espresso: the price per shot dropped 50¢.
Since everything I learned about coffee I learned by watching NBC’s Today show, I had to share an article that came across my desk today highlighting some of their top picks for home coffee and espresso machines: Make a great cup of joe with the latest makers – Today: Food – MSNBC.com.
The article was written by Today food editor Phil Lempert, whose distinguished credits include Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Chat News — with recent articles such as: “ASK PHIL: Getting the Best Flavor With Your Percolator!” (To which my rebuttal would be, “ASK GREG: Getting the Best Flavor With Your Curling Iron!” Percolating is arguably the most damaging method for brewing coffee.)
In the article, Phil reviews a number of machines — including the required disk-o-coffee pod models (“no mess, no fuss, no flavor!”). But I was honestly surprised that he made mention of the Pasquini Livia 90 and the Rancilio Silvia. While neither machine is “new” by any means (they have been on the market for years), both are solid for personal home espresso preparation.
Of course, Phil calls it the Illy Pasquini Livia 90 (not realizing that Illy doesn’t make espresso machines — they just co-brand them). But given the tendency for mainstream food folks and retail stores to treat Krups as the vaunted brand in home espresso machines, this is progress. (Though I do love the fact that their slogan is, “Krups: Beyond Reason.”)
Speaking of Krups and glorified rice cookers that brew coffee, apparently the C1000 Capresso Automatic Coffee Center machine just joined the list of big ticket/cheesy plastic home espresso machines that spontaneously burst into flames — and yet have no risk of spontaneously producing decent espresso. Maybe my curling iron idea isn’t so ridiculous afterall…
This swanky, authentic, Italian-style bar/café is located at the Stockton St. Pavillion, atop the Union Square plaza. Say hello to Italian marble and mahogany. They have a decent amount of indoor seating along large windows and a vast swath of exposed outdoor seating beneath Pellegrino parasols. They even feature some bar counterspace for stand-up espresso service. But they are more than just an espresso bar — serving gelato, dolci, and panini heated from authentic Italian grills (even if their panini aren’t exactly stellar).
Emporio Rulli roasts their own coffee beans at their mothership Larkspur location. Using a three-group, Mr. Espresso-supplied Faema E91 Ambassador, they generally serve espresso properly short with a moderate layer of thicker, dark brown crema — sometimes with a white dot indicating a high brewing temperature. They serve it in Emporio Rulli logo cups, though unfortunately they do not pour directly into them (i.e., unnecessary heat transfer). When they do serve espresso properly short, it has pungent, smoky flavor that can be a touch bitter and overroasted. But it is potent and still quite good. Or, more accurately, at least it was … as I’ll explain.
The quality of the espresso here has declined significantly from the year this café first opened (2003); more often the shot is too large and slightly overextracted. While not bitter, it tastes watery on top of what could otherwise be a fine espresso. Their prices also went up just as their service quality went down. In recent months, they also seem rather slow and disorganized at high noon. Employee quality control and training has suffered most, however; too many staffers now let their espresso shots run too long, resulting in a watery cup filled high that tastes more like fancy drip coffee.
This makes their espresso a disappointment when compared with their Chestnut St. location. Here what you get is a lot of the sizzle of a great Italian espresso-drinking experience, but not nearly enough of the steak. While not a bad espresso per se, it’s a shame to see a place with once high espresso standards really let their guard down.
Owner and pastry chef extraordinaire, Gary Rulli, sent me e-mail a couple months ago to revisit their cafés — and in this location’s case, I hope he is glad that he did. If you’re listening, Signore Rulli: please clean up this café’s act before you fall to the level of just another mediocre chain ready to be bought up and assimilated by Starbucks. Remember: worse things have happened recently to Torrefazione Italia.
Today’s Crain’s Chicago Business covers some of the first reports from the field for how well McDonald’s reformulated coffee is faring in the marketplace: McDonald’s new coffee wins early praise | Crain’s Chicago Business
The initial results for the Big M look promising: apparently some people can actually taste “coffee” in their styro-paper cups. That and, hey — it’s cheap compared to those mermaid coffee pushers in the neighborhood.
I can’t say that I’m willing to subject myself to a McDonald’s espresso for CoffeeRatings.com in the name of scientific advancement just yet. However, I see this as yet another good sign of progression towards better quality standards for coffee drinkers everywhere.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the 2006 Western Regional Barista Competition was held in Petaluma over this past weekend. Twenty-two baristas from across California and Hawai’i participated in the annual competition — many for their first time. In addition to bringing out some of the best espresso preparation the region has to offer, it was naturally a great social event for many people in the industry to get together, share stories, and do so over some fantastic espresso.
Eton Tsuno, owner of Café Organica, performed early on in the competition (too early for this blogger to arrive at 9:30AM on a Saturday morning in Petaluma, I’m afraid) and didn’t seem too encouraged by his performance. Still, Eton was visibly beaming over the new espresso machine he acquired for Café Organica: a Mirage designed by Kees van der Westen. Kees’ machines are considered some of the most coveted in the industry, and apparently Eton’s new device is currently the lone example in all of California.
Danielle Joray, also of Café Organica (and a former barista at Washington D.C.’s famed Murky Coffee), entered the competition as a first-timer.
Representing Ritual Coffee Roasters was Ryan Brown and Gabriel Boscana. Gabe took second place in the 2005 WRBC, then as a barista at Pacific Bay Coffee in Walnut Creek. (Click here for a PDF of the final scores from last year’s competition.)
Ritual Coffee Roasters also brought quite an entourage to the competition, including co-owners Jeremy Tooker and Eileen Hassi (who also served as a judge … and was one of the friendliest faces at the event). And while Flying Goat Coffee may have printed signs for their cheering section, Ritual’s cheering crew took the prize as the most vocal.
In addition to Flying Goat and Pacific Bay Coffee, the Bay Area was also well-represented by Andy Newbom of Barefoot Roasters, who served as an event emcee (…and boarding house for one of the competitors — among the many he has helped take under his wing). Duane Sorenson of Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters (and supplier to Ritual Coffee Roasters) was in attendance “to support good coffee” — as he put it.
Representation for Southern California came in the form of Coffee Klatch Roasting of San Dimas. Owner, Michael Perry, was in attendance, as was noneother than Heather Perry, the 2003 U.S. barista champion and defending winner of the WRBC.
Just to show how some things can go wrong during the competition, Heather was forced to call a “technical” during her first attempt at a 15-minute presentation. During the prep time at her station, one of the two steam boilers of her La Marzocco ran low on pressure — down to 0.5 bar, versus the 1.0-1.2 bars that are recommended for proper operation. This caused her milk-frothing to go awry. Fortunately she was allowed to start over from the beginning at a later time during the competition.
The event’s lone representative from Hawai’i this year was Chester Huan of the Aloha Center Café. He opted for a full-Hawaiian presentation — down to his choice of the single origin Maui Moka bean for his espresso.
It would have been unusual enough to have witnessed a competitive barista select a single origin bean for their espresso (blends typically offer the range of sensory properties you look for in a full espresso experience). But the Maui Moka bean is legendary among some home roasters — myself among them. What makes this coffee bean particularly legendary is that I, among many others, have presumed that it has been extinct on the market since its last harvested crop from Maui’s Ka’anapali Estate in 2002.
When I mentioned the Maui Moka bean to others at the competition, no one else I talked with had heard of it — making me surmise that if anyone else at the event was also an avid home roaster on the side, they haven’t been at it for that long. For a little background, the Maui Moka bean is derived from Yemeni Cultivar seed stock in the original Arabia Felx, the birthland of all coffee. And it has a few unique properties: one is it’s incredibly small bean size, another is that it produces the most intensely chocolate flavors of any single origin bean I have ever tasted.
In 2002, the Ka’anapali Estate in Maui, where it was grown, succumbed to the bulldozers of progress in the form of condos and real estate development. There were long-standing rumors that James Falconer, formerly of Ka’anapali and now working for Kauai Coffee Company, was on a mission to rescue and revive the bean. But this was the first time I had actually seen or heard proof of it.
The bean isn’t a peaberry, which often look small because they come as two halves. But it is very problematic due to its small size — affecting the overall weight of the harvest and being incompatible with standard commercial roasting equipment. Chester had to pull his shots longer than usual with the bean to balance out its acidity as a single origin espresso.
But enough about bean stocks and roasting. This event was about preparation. And Saturday’s showcase was judged down to these six finalists for Sunday’s competition:
OK, so I missed Sunday’s finals. Even I have my limits of coffee geekdom sometimes… life intervenes. But Sunday’s finals competition produced the following award-winners:
Heather Perry, Coffee Klatch
Gabe Boscana, Ritual Coffee
Eton Tsuno, Café Organica
Congratulations to all the winners. Heather demonstrates her competition dominance once again and earns an all-expenses-paid trip to the U.S. Barista Championship held at the SCAA annual conferece in Charlotte, NC next month. Good luck!
As if you haven’t seen enough already, click here for far more event photos … and hope to see you at next year’s WRBC.
Yesterday (Saturday, March 4) I attended my first SCAA barista competition. Held at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma, the Western Regionals are a competitive prelude to next month’s U.S. Barista Championship. (Petaluma: it’s not just world arm wrestling championships anymore.)
The annual Western Regionals covers competitive baristas across California and Hawai’i, but the emphasis is clearly on Northern California. Last year they were held at Roshambo Winery in Healdsburg, California, with 15 competitors. Thus year there were 22 competitors (most first-timers), with the top six from the Saturday preliminaries advancing to today’s finals.
To the uniniated, the barista competitions modelled for the U.S., and World, Barista Championships are a bit like Iron Chef for espresso — just without the improv. Is it for coffee geeks? You bet. What else would get a couple hundred people to drive up to Petaluma on a Saturday morning to watch people make coffee? But it’s a great crowd of baristas, roasters, café owners, and coffee enthusiasts who all share a love of great coffee. What makes it a sort of family is that everyone there pretty much wants to see better standards so they can drink more of the good stuff. And oh, is there good stuff to be had around the competition…
Walking into the hotel conference room, I was first greeted by a many people standing around (with quite a few familiar faces), talking with each other, and drinking a lot of the great coffee that was available in spades. In the back was The 4th Machine — where various sponsors and coffee vendors took hourly shifts pulling their best competitive shots while the competition proceeded in the main conference area next door. More on that later…as I spent a lot of time getting to know the 4th Machine. But I will say here that this was not the place for anyone with a love of great coffee and a low tolerance for caffeine. (Bring your own defibrillator paddles.)
Competitors each get 15 minutes of prep time at their stations to become acquainted with their equipment and to tune their shots. Usually during this time, another competitor is finishing up at another station or the emcee (such as Barefoot Roasters‘ legendary Andy Newbom) is passing the inbetween time with trivia questions and commentary.
When the prep time is up, the judges file out … sometimes announced like San Jose Shark hockey players as they take the ice. And there are plenty of judges. There are four sensory judges who are the primary tasters, and they contribute to 2/3 of a barista’s total score. (They also need to pull different shifts to hold up to all the caffeine.) The remainder of a barista’s score comes down to technical judges, who monitor a barista’s every move. The technical judges also serve as something of a team of forensic detectives at a crime scene: after the barista serves a round of shots, they check the consistency of the coffee puck in the portafilter handles, inspect the cleanliness of the barista’s station after a wipe-down, etc.
Each barista must produce a dozen espresso drinks in under 15 minutes: four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four specialty drinks (call them “espresso cocktails”) — the last round of which is akin to a “freestyle” event in Olympic ice skating terms. While the order of the rounds is flexible, most baristas serve their cappuccinos first (starting their judges off with a mellower flavor), followed by their espressos, and finishing off with their specialty drinks.
There are even some “compulsories” in the competition — including the barista serving each judge with water, a spoon, a napkin, and sugar. The sugar is the odd requirement — as the judges never use it, and any good barista would be mortified if they did.
Many competing baristas bring their own equipment: beans, frothing pitchers, espresso and cappuccino cups, sometimes grinders, milk (Clover Stornetta seems to be the milk of choice), and any necessary props and ingredients for their specialty drinks. And like Olympic ice skaters, they even bring their own music as an audio track to their competitive performance. Wearing headsets hooked up to overhead speakers, they either narrate their presentation and answer questions from the emcee. (I was particularly amused by one barista’s fitting selection of Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”.)
And to further complete the Olympic ice skating analogy, there’s a backstage area where baristas get their carts together with their equipment before taking their stations. Some of them were joking about a barista pulling a “Tonya Harding” — easing some of the pressure with humor. If you thought the sensory judges were jittery from all their tastings, the high pressure of the event made both veteran and first-time barista competitors unable to hold a milk-frothing pitcher steady (though unfortunately not in a way that helped their latte art).
With three machines in competition, a fourth La Marzocco in the back was reserved for hourly shifts of different baristas and different roasts for complimentary espresso drinks. They included Ecco Caffè, Taylor Maid Farms, Flying Goat Coffee, Pacific Bay Coffee Company, Calistoga Roastery, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, and Petaluma Coffee & Tea Company.
Like many other attendees, I did my part to tell the time at the event by the espresso I was currently drinking — as this next series of photos indicates:
From the trivia questions being asked by the emcees between performances, I learned a few things:
In my next installment on this event, I’ll cover some of the people in attendance: the barista competitors, the roasters, and the café owners alike. At the time of writing, the event is now over and the winners have been announced. But before I review the final honors, I’ll leave you with the unique trophies for the event, designed by local artist David Dexter Anderson.
If only the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games offered these beauties to the winning athletes…