May 2006

Monthly Archive

Coffee book release event at Ritual Coffee Roasters, June 1

Posted by on 31 May 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Local Brew

In the shameless press-release-as-news-item department, today’s San Francisco Chronicle ran an article by Gregory Dicum promoting the new edition of his new book, The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry From Crop to the Last Drop (GREEN / A Cup of Hope: Coffee’s Lessons).

The article is actually a nice briefing on the past ten hopeful years of a better and more sustainable coffee industry — covering globalization, organics, Fair Trade, social and economic issues, and other sustainable practices. Sure, there’s a bit of that regrettable “Third Wave” hocus pocus in there, but it comes off pretty positive for the future of a once highly endangered crop and industry.

You can attend the launch party tomorrow, Thursday, June 1, at SF’s own Ritual Coffee Roasters from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Now that I have perpetuated my share of shameless promotion…

Colombian coffee icon steps down

Posted by on 31 May 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends

Carlos Sanchez, 71, who portrayed Colombia coffee’s Juan Valdez for 37 years, recently announced his retirement: BBC NEWS | Americas | Colombian coffee icon steps down.

But with Colombia coffee producers having already invested so much in their brand iconography (not to mention Juan Valdez-branded cafés in the U.S.), the successor to Mr. Sanchez will be announced next month.

This is, of course, far more important than any successor to Pierce Brosnan as the next James Bond.

UPDATE: June 29, 2006:
The CBC reports that a new Juan Valdez has been crowned, 39-year-old Carlos Castaneda: CBC News: Colombia coffee growers introduce new Juan Valdez

Mumbai: Does coffee house enlightenment bring prostitution?

Posted by on 31 May 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

In the world of espresso, India may be known for its Monsooned Malabar and premium robusta beans — both of which are excellent components of an espresso blend (and these beans often make it into the roasts I make at home). But with globalization and the resulting growth in India’s middle class, India has developed into a prime, modern example of a coffee producing nation that is rapidly transforming into a coffee consuming one.

Although India is still primarily known for its tea, its exploding commerce districts have brought an infiltration of coffee houses and new coffee addicts. Unfortunately, these great changes have also brought elements of social anxiety and unintended consequences. A much-publicized example is the recent police crackdown on a few major coffee houses in Mumbai, which are rumored to be prime meeting places to solicit prostitutes: DNA – Mumbai – A prostitute can sip coffee at a café: Top lawyer – Daily News & Analysis.

In another article, the same publication, which defines Mumbai as having an inherent coffee culture, goes for the man-in-the-street opinion on the issue: Do we need filter for coffee?

Trip Report: Martha & Bros. @ Excelsior

Posted by on 29 May 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This location of the Martha & Brothers chain opened in late 2005. It has the usual Martha & Bros. Latin feel — down to many of the Spanish-speaking patrons from the Outer Mission. It also feels new and clean inside, with wide windows in front and copper wrapped around the coffee bar.

They have several small indoor café tables, a sofa, large still lifes on the walls, and two benches on the sidewalk out front. The midday sounds of KOIT radio may make you want to slit your wrists, but it’s a pleasant place for coffee in the Excelsior — a neighborhood that has long lamented its lack of a decent neighborhood espresso.

Martha & Bros. on lower Mission St. Inside Martha & Bros.

Using a three-group Faema E91 Ambassador, they pull modest-sized espresso shots with a medium brown, swirled crema of decent thickness. It has that Martha & Brothers darkly roasted aroma and flavor along with a bolder taste of tobacco. The body is solid too, but there’s also the annoying Martha & Bros. habit of serving only in paper cups.

Read the review.

Martha & Bros. three-group Faema The Martha & Bros. espresso

The story of Victoria Arduino #55

Posted by on 29 May 2006 | Filed under: Machine

An article in yesterday’s ThePilot of the North Carolina Sandhills tells the story of how a Victoria Arduino espresso machine made its way from Torino, Italy to Incredible Edibles of Pinehurst, NC — placing the coffee shop on the noteworthy American espresso map: Dolce Vita Right Here at Home – The Pilot Newspaper – Local News.

Just an espresso machine, you say? The Victoria Arduino originated in Torino a century ago. It’s an exquisite machine of classic manufacturing and beauty, held in high regard among many espresso aficionados, and immortalized in advertising prints from the 1920s.

There are some 100 numbered Victoria Arduino machines currently in use, and this is the story of #55. Machine #1 is rumored to be in use at the Vatican for pulling Holy Papal espresso shots. (There is something of what may have once been a Victoria Arduino currently at SF’s Tosca Cafe — but it’s only an unnumbered, garage sale shell of the machine’s past glory.)

Of course, I love a special espresso machine as much as the next guy. But if only great grinders got half the love espresso machines receive — especially given that they contribute arguably half of the machine element required for making great espresso.

The immortal Victoria Arduino poster

Gilbert gets wind of Zephyr

Posted by on 27 May 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew

As reported in today’s Arizona Republic, the bustling metropolis of Gilbert, AZ is the new home of the Zephyr Espresso Caffe: Gilbert gets wind of Zephyr. Or it’s at least the new home of James and Connie Lee. The Lees owned and operated the Zephyr Espresso Caffe and Art Gallery at 3643 Balboa Street (at 38th Avenue) in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond from 1994 until selling it to its current owners in 2004.

Yes, there still are major cafés I have yet to add to CoffeeRatings.com — and San Francisco’s Zephyr is long, long overdue. It’s popular with the nearby San Francisco State University student set, who fills the huge space for cheap eats and mediocre coffee (at least to my last recollection). Perhaps the Lees found it wise to skip town before they lost out to San Francisco’s increasing competition for better espresso … and they knew a review from CoffeeRatings.com was just around the corner.

The Lees may have escaped to Gilbert for now, but the long arm of CoffeeRatings.com knows no boundaries. (Insert diabolical laughter here.)

The WBC: Canada’s quest for coffee supremacy

Posted by on 25 May 2006 | Filed under: Barista

Today the WestEnder of Vancouver, Canada posted an article on one of my favorite baristas in the world, Sammy Piccolo: Canada’s quest for coffee supremacy. Sammy has made some of the best espresso I’ve ever had in North America … if not the world. Back in 2000, along with his brothers Vince and Michael, he also co-founded the outstanding Caffè Artigiano chain in Vancouver, BC.

Sammy also has the distinction of being a repeat Canadian barista champion and placing in the world’s top three baristas for three consecutive years now at the World Barista Championships (WBC).

At the 2004 WBC in Trieste, Italy, Sammy dominated the technical categories of the competition. However, he ultimately lost ground to the eventual 2004 WBC champion, Tim Wendelboe of Norway, in the much more subjective categories covering taste and performance. Sammy ultimately came home sporting the WBC silver medal — no small achievement.

After taking home the bronze at the 2005 WBC in Seattle, Sammy hoped the third time would be the charm at this year’s WBC, held last weekend in Bern, Switzerland.

After the opening round, the competition was narrowed to six finalists with Sammy once again holding a solid lead. But just as in Trieste, Sammy was overtaken in the final round — this time by eventual 2006 WBC champion, Klaus Thomsen of Denmark — and Sammy took home the silver medal once again. Despite his luck with judges in the final rounds of the WBC, Sammy has always been a champion in my book.

Also worth noting is that Matthew Riddle of Chicago’s Intelligentsia , winner of this year’s US Barista Championship, came in third place.

Raising the bar for espresso machines

Posted by on 25 May 2006 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine

Today, Canada’s Tandem Online featured a story on the evolution of home espresso machine design: Raising the bar for espresso machines – Milan architect continues series of user-friendly designs – Tandem – Online magazine.

Ten years ago, Luca Trazzi, a Milan architect and designer, joined forces with Trieste-based FrancisFrancis (founded in 1994 by Francesco Illy, of the Illy fame) and designed the X1 model. This espresso machine comes in an all-metal body and bright colors, and it raised the bar for home espresso machine design.

Mr. Trazzi is now working on the new X6 model — which will be made from a combination of ABS plastic and chrome. Not exactly a step up. Nor is the fact that the X6 is designed to serve the ubiquitously bland coffee pods that have come to define mainstream espresso machine marketing of late.

Does coffee make you crazy?

Posted by on 24 May 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Tomorrow, several publications will carry a story by Moira Herbst from the Columbia News Service on the growing trend of consumer coffee cupping: Does coffee make you crazy? (The Arizona Republic). The article also touches on the extremes to which consumers are pursuing their love of a good cup of coffee.

The irony here is that much of the coffee cupping “ceremony” has been traditionally focused on industry professionals tasting for defects — not necessarily on enjoying a good cup. Some aspects of coffee cupping are akin to a wine taster pouring a cabernet through his or her socks to test the wine’s viscosity — and then repeating that in wine bars as if it were something pleasurable.

Regardless of how people get their coffee fix, it’s also clear that the author is something of a recent journalism school graduate. For example, she credits Google with the alt.coffee newsgroup in the mid-1990s — eventhough Google did not exist as a company until September 1998. (Not to mention that Usenet and newsgroups existed for decades before Google was created.) So read it cum grano salis (with a grain of salt).

Trip Report: Bittersweet – The Chocolate Café

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

This chocolate café has been in business since November 2005. They sell a lot of chocolate bars up front (in sections labelled dark, milk, and surprises — such as chocolate with pepper), but they offer espresso and café service in the back — with seating among several weathered, painted wooden tables and chairs. There is an upstairs seating area as well.

The place smacks of a cocktail-party-conversation-fodder side project of some dot-com millionaire’s trophy wife/husband/partner: there’s little real chocolate merchandising, limited events, and little that distinguishes them from a chocolate retailer like Fog City News. But just so you know my biases, the general concept of a chocolate café doesn’t exactly work for me. There’s something hollow about walking up to buy a chocolate bar, sitting down at a wooden table to eat it, and packaging that as experience marketing. Fortunately, the espresso here is quite good and the place works more as a café than a chocolate one in specific.

Entering Bittersweet Chocolate bars on parade

Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull only double ristretto shots of Blue Bottle Coffee (you can feel the imprint of Blue Bottle’s James Freeman on this chain’s coffee supply, equipment, training, and offerings). The resulting shot is short, even for a doppio, and served with a good layer of spotted medium-to-dark-brown crema in wider-mouthed classic brown ACF cups.

While everything leading up to the final flavor gives you the impression of an excellent espresso, the resulting flavor is a little off; it has a bitter, root-like twang to its flavor. A cup like this should be capable of being much sweeter (or any sweetness for that matter), and any sweetness is lacking. (And yet I like my chocolate dark and bittersweet for that matter.) They also have a dedicated Astra for milk frothing.

Despite the unmet potential in the cups they serve, the imprint of Blue Bottle comes through — making this one of the better places for espresso in the city.

Read the review.

Bittersweet's La Marzocco The Bittersweet espresso

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