March 2006

Monthly Archive

Montreal’s International Coffee

Posted by on 05 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

From today’s The Gazette, a primer on a few international coffee options in Montreal, Canada: How do you take your coffee?

The article includes example cafés, and customs, for Italy, Arabia, Greece, and Vietnam:

  • Cafe Milano: Just as no Italian will be caught in “short pants” after the age of 11, no Italian will be caught with milk in their espresso after 11am.
  • Jounieh: Arabic coffee in the home is traditionally served by the host, and the eldest or most important person in the room is served first. The amount of sugar served with the coffee also reflects the solemnity of the occasion.
  • Zorba’s Remezzo Cafe-Resto: In addition to the traditional Greek coffee (and the dozens of ways that you can prepare it), the Greek frappe has become popular with the younger crowd as a bitter and sweet mixture of “coffee” (i.e., instant crystals) and condensed milk. Just don’t clear away the dishes too soon. And your fortune can be read in the residue of your coffee cup like tea leaves.
  • Pho Cali: If you grew up drinking only robusta coffee, should we be surprised that you almost always drink it with condensed milk to soften the harshness of the beans? You also don’t drink Vietnamese coffee if you’re in a rush; it typically takes 10 minutes for the coffee to drip through the filter.

Trip Report: Caffè Espresso

Posted by on 03 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This upscale, Italian-styled espresso café at the base of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel also serves your basic breakfast and lunch fare. It attracts well-heeled business types with a good international tourist contingent — given the hotel proximity. And it is one of the few places in SF where you can down an espresso Italian-style: standing (or sitting) at dedicated bar space. But beyond this and the Italian pop music, the authenticity ends: the food is merely decent, and the espresso machine is French.

Inside they have many nicely-surfaced indoor café tables. Outside, along the Sutter St. and Powell St. sidewalks, they also have a number of tables for when the weather cooperates. These guys are Illy to the core though — right down to their uniformed staff in black, Illy-logo shirts. The baristas here are quite social and friendly — making them more like chummy bartenders. They pull their espresso shots from a two-group UNIC ZR, directly pouring straight into the cup.

Caffè Espresso Seating inside Caffè Espresso from the espresso bar

The crema on their espresso varies from a moderate, deep, and very dark brown with some lighter stripes to an even, medium brown layer of decent thickness. It also has a moderate herbal flavor (some thyme and cedar notes) and is served in designer IPA Illy cups. However, the body of their espresso has been notably thinner since around the spring of 2005 — resulting in a more watery, less flavorful cup than they previously served.

Still, it is quite good for imported roasted coffee. And when it comes to milk-based drinks, they’re particularly good if you like a “dry,” frothy cappuccino.

Read the updated review.

Barista working the UNIC ZR for all things Illy branded  Caffè Espresso's namesake drink

Trip Report: Beanery Coffee Company @ Irving

Posted by on 02 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This is the little sister café to the one on Irving St. & 9th Ave. It is popular with the Inner Sunset locals for the roasts they sell directly — in addition to the (unfortunately paper) cups they serve. This space has only three small indoor tables and three small sidewalk tables. Using a two-group La Spaziale, they pull an espresso shot with a thin, medium brown crema with some occasionally large bubbles in it. Flavorwise, it’s mostly pungent and herbal with an unfortunate burnt edge of some ash.

It’s a decent espresso for the neighborhood — though I like the shots pulled at their sister café better.

Read the review.

Beanery Coffee on Irving St. Beanery's tight quarters and La Spaziale Beanery's espresso - a vanishing crema and a required paper cup

SCAA 2006 U.S. Barista Championship

Posted by on 01 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Barista, Machine

Is your barista worthy?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America is holding their annual convention in Charlotte, NC beginning April 7. One of the main events coinciding with the conference is the 2006 United States Barista Championship. From Business Wire: Barista Champion to Be Revealed from Among Nationwide Competitors; The Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2006 United States Barista Championship, Hosted by Krups, Takes Place April 7-10 in Charlotte, N.C. (Since when did press release headlines become novellas?)

Baristas are facing an uphill battle for legitimacy. Making a fine espresso is a lot like gourmet cooking — it demands quality ingredients, quality equipment, temperature, pressure, timing, skill, and consistency. And in a number of places in Italy, for example, being a great barista is an artisan craft with a legitimate career path.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of Starbucks in this country has publicly equated the profession with little more than a minimum wage McDonald’s fry cook. And as Starbucks needed to hire thousands of new employees to fuel their growth, they hired more of what was cheap and available in the marketplace: employees with less skills and lower wages. This progression was also largely facilitated by their widespread switch to push-button Verismo machines that a monkey could operate.

Bam! Goes the Weasel

Events like the USBC (and, ultimately, the World Barista Championship) help to elevate the profession and recognize the commitment and skills of those who truly are masters of an art … and science. Other advances include the recent introduction of Barista Magazine (to which I subscribe as a pro bono amateur barista myself).

Some baristas hope to one day see public legitimization of their profession reach the level of the “celebrity barista” — something of a public representative for the specialty coffee industry, not unlike the way that the Food Network has crowned many a celebrity chef (deserving or otherwise).

But despite the achievements of the world’s greatest baristas, I don’t see them ever making good television. Although they’re not accountants, baristas aren’t exactly known for having the most, shall we say, effervescent of personalities. (And I’ve probably been served by more baristas than anyone in SF over the past three years.) And while espresso machines are proliferating in the home, there’s a huge difference between the maestro with a three-group La Marzocco FB-70 … and someone at home, watching on TV, struggling with their Krups machine and pre-ground coffee pod.

It makes great espresso … once you change the light bulb

Speaking of Krups machines and seeking legitimacy… did I read that press release headline correctly? “Hosted by Krups”? And for the third year running?

I wrote about general experiences with Krups espresso machines in a previous post. I simply cannot imagine any self-respecting, professional barista doing anything less but snickering at the association of Krups with this competition. It’s like having the World Pastry Cup hosted by the Easy-Bake Oven.

Both the baristas and the sponsors are clearly hoping to use this event to reach out, educate the public, and improve their image. The only question that remains is who will win this tug of war: the champion baristas pulling up Krups’ image, or Krups pulling the image of the profession down with them?

McDonald’s to tap into coffee trend by adding richer cup of joe

Posted by on 01 Mar 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee

McDonald’s is apparently feeling the heat from consumers’ changing tastes in coffee. According to yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, McDonald’s is planning to switch their customers to a new “premium roast” instead of the dreck they’ve been sloshing for the past 30 years: New McDonald’s brew (or as The Arizona Republic put it today: McDonald’s to tap into coffee trend by adding richer cup of joe).

Other, older chains such as Dunkin’ Donuts have established themselves with premium coffee, and McDonald’s appears to be struggling to stay relevant when Starbucks has already stolen their game in the retail coffee trade. The recent failure of McDonald’s McCafé to take root in the U.S. hasn’t helped them either. (And it’s not just the U.S., as this story from today’s The Times in London shows: McDonald’s orders 25 closures as coffee rivals begin to bite.)

Though I suppose that if you’re going to scald your thighs with the stuff, you may as well do it with better coffee.

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