May 2006

Monthly Archive

5 Things to Ask About Espresso Makers

Posted by on 08 May 2006 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine

The May Kiplinger’s Personal Finance includes an article on how to get coffeehouse-quality brew at home: 5 Things to Ask About Espresso Makers.

As that cranky espresso guru, David Schomer of Espresso Vivace, has said for years, most machines built for the home cannot build up enough pressure or control the temperature well enough to make a truly good shot. But the quality of espresso machines for the home is gradually improving. I’m noticing machines in gourmet cookware stores that are no longer as laughable as the Fisher-Price toys they used to be. Sturdier boilers and better-built machines seem to be reaching the wider market — now that consumer demand for quality has grown with their educated palates.

So the article asks, and answers, “Can home machines deliver Starbucks-quality espresso? Yes.” And I would agree. But given that Starbucks has as many employees as the U.S. has troops in Iraq, we’re not exactly talking the cream of the crop in terms of coffee-making skills here. But if your standards are the local Starbucks, quite a number of home machines can do the job.

The article mentions the moka pot as an option. Technically, it does not make espresso per se, eventhough it is what many Italian families use at home for coffee. (Because the average espresso you can get at the ubiquitous corner bar is very good in Italy, unlike in the U.S., there’s no need for the extra investment at home.) However, the article makes no mention of the grinder. You could shell out the GNP of a small African nation for a plumbed-in La Marzocco Mistral, but you can kiss any crema goodbye without a decent grinder.

Of course, this is the peril of the personal finance world getting bored with the numbers game and all deciding they need to start reviewing home appliances. What is up with that, anyway? WSJ’s Smart Money even has a regular column on topics such as “10 Things Your Butcher Won’t Tell You” or “10 Things Your Dentist Won’t Tell You”. Isn’t Suze Orman scary enough when she tells you how to go about building your porfolio? I certainly don’t want her cutting my meat and flossing my teeth.

Barista artists strive for the perfect cup of coffee

Posted by on 06 May 2006 | Filed under: Barista

Today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch included a detailed article on the image, technique, social role, and concerns of the modern barista: Barista artists strive for the perfect cup of coffee – STLtoday – Life & Style – Everyday.

The article takes the local angle on the recent U.S. Barista Championship, where Alex McCracken, head barista at St. Louis-based Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co., placed among the top 25 last month. Andrew Timko, director of coffee at Kaldi’s, explains the barista competition format and how the state of the barista art — and customer expectations for it — have been elevated in recent years.

Wrigley thinks coffee gum might be hot

Posted by on 06 May 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

Yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times published an article on the latest industry looking to cash in on consumers’ growing interest in coffee: Wrigley thinks coffee gum might be hot.

Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. is testing a new coffee-flavored gum, Doublemint Kona Creme, in 7-Eleven stores nationwide. Oh, thank heaven. Meanwhile, Starbucks Coffee officials were not available to comment on rumors of their impending introduction of a new chewing-gum-flavored coffee beverage … and accompanying music CD.


UPDATE: 09-May-2006
The Chicagoist reviewed the gum. Of course, they believe people would only want to drink coffee to wake up, rather than for the flavor. So what do they know… they must be still drinking Folgers out of a can.

Book Review: Espresso Italiano Tasting

Posted by on 06 May 2006 | Filed under: Quality Issues

As mentioned in a previous post, out of curiosity I recently ordered a copy of Espresso Italiano Tasting (€18) available from the Istituto Internazionale Assaggiatori Caffè (IIAC), or the International Institute of Coffee Tasters. It’s the closest reference I’ve found to what CoffeeRatings.com is about. This 168-page book is available in Spanish & Portuguese, German & French, Russian, and the Italian & English split edition I purchased. Each page is presented side-by-side in both languages, so with my modest Italian language skills I was able to vouch for its decent English translation.

It begins by defining standards for the physical and even mental preparation of the espresso taster. Some of the more interesting quotes in the book? (many of them now industry conventional wisdom) :

  • “The environment in which a sensorial analysis is carried out should have … good natural light … The room temperature should be between 20°C and 25°C and humidity should be between 50% and 70%.”
  • “Espresso should always be drunk from a small cup even though some restaurants serve their coffee in big ones just to be different.” (What’s going on with that one?!)
  • “the sensorial analysis must be executed within one minutes [sic] of the coffee being prepared, and the cup must be warm”
  • “During the sensorial evaluation of coffee, the encounter between the aroma and our olfactive sense is of paramount importance.” (As in wine tasting, the sense of smell is really where any tasting happens.)

The book makes the strong distinction between the two types of aroma: the first being the olfactory sensation perceived by the mucous membranes in the nose (the olfactory mucosa) — and the other being the sensations perceived on the mucous membranes at the back of the throat (the oral mucosa). The latter of which is where the coffee has been cooled to something closer to body temperature, and the molecules released from the lipids in the crema play a large role.

Espresso Italiano Tasting Gratuitous image filler: this morning's home espresso needs some crema tuning

The book presents suggestive information for descriptors when evaluating espresso. One of my favorites being the literal Engish-language term Stinker for the rotten flowers negative odor that can be detected at the back of the throat. (This is apparently caused by micro-organisms that can attack the coffee cherries and beans.) The book also explains two forms of standardized IIAC espresso tasting cards, or trialcards. Yet the majority of it is dedicated to the bean-to-cup Zen of an espresso and how factors influence the eventual flavor along the way.

This book is not definitive nor complete by any means. However, I could not help get the impression of how much the specialty coffee industry in America (or dare I suggest the Third Wave?; this coming from a self-described No Waver) has only scratched the surface in some areas — especially when compared to the layered, rich, and multi-generational history in pursuit of excellent espresso (or coffee) that comes out in a book like this. Surprisingly, the book still leaves a lot open to subjectivity — despite the structure it provides in judging criteria. For example, the trial cards allow tasters to introduce “write-in” candidates for qualitative characteristics that they can then quantitatively score.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot this book can build upon in detail, but it lays a solid foundation and lacks any real peers that I have yet come across. Definitely recommended. It’s part of a larger series published by the Centro Studi e Formazione Assaggiatori, basically a professional organization of tasters. They have four books just on grappa alone (which might explain a little of my unorthodox grappa obsession). They also publish an interesting quarterly magazine, L’assaggio (or The Taste). For example, check out a sample PDF article that features the sensory profiles of coffee beans in the growing regions of Colombia and Costa Rica.

Consumed by coffee: DOMA Coffee Roasting Company

Posted by on 05 May 2006 | Filed under: Roasting

Today’s Spokane Journal of Business featured a lengthy article on Terry Patano, co-owner of the Coeur d’Alene, ID café and the esteemed word-of-mouth roaster, DOMA Coffee Roasting Company: Consumed by coffee – Spokane Journal of Business. Not only is Terry a detail-oriented roaster who is heavy into preparation, but he’s an everyday reader of TheShot — and author of some of the most amusing e-mails I’ve received from someone in the industry. (Not exactly a find that’s as easy as it may sound!)

As described in the article, DOMA focuses on brewing what Terry calls “cause coffees,” meaning that their purchase supports social causes. Some 80% of DOMA’s imported coffee beans are also organic. (DOMA’s Ruby’s Espresso Blend was featured at the legendary but still closed Café Organica, for example.) DOMA also specializes in lighter roasts than are typical of Northern California.

Trip Report: Caffè Amici Espresso @ Montgomery St.

Posted by on 04 May 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This is the sister café to the one on 15th Street in Potrero Hill by the same name. It just barely opened this week on the former site of a shut down Torrefazione Italia. It’s so new, the cash register wasn’t working when I visited, and the staff were making receipts with pencil and paper.

Inside, this café retained the same layout and many of the same features as the former “TI” on this site. There are five small indoor tables — and two outdoors along the sidewalk in the building shade, with displayed bags of Caffè Umbria beans and Deruta kettles.

Entrance to Caffè Amici Espresso downtown Nearly identical interior from the former Torrefazione Italia on this spot

One change from TI is that they replaced their dual two-group Elektra machines with dueling two-group La Spaziale machines. They serve espresso with a rich, darker brown crema that’s somewhat thick and definitely persists. Impressive given their limited investments in equipment. Flavorwise, it has an almost tangy, pungent taste of clove, hints of pine, and a small bit of pipe tobacco. Also like TI, they serve espresso in hand-painted Deruta cups — though here with Caffè Amici branding.

So far, the replacements at former Torrefazione Italia locations have been a mixed bag of both good and bad. But this is a surprisingly good newcomer to the downtown area.

Read the review.

Caffè Amici Espresso's dueling La Spaziale machines Caffè Amici Espresso's caffè espresso

Australian baristas: Master the daily grind

Posted by on 03 May 2006 | Filed under: Barista

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald published an article on what it means to be a champion barista: Master the daily grind – Employment News – MyCareer – smh.com.au.

Among the interviewees, David Makin is representing Australia at this month’s World Barista Championship in Berne, Switzerland. Also interviewed is Keith Pettigrew, executive officer of the AustralAsian Specialty Coffee Association (AASCA), who indicated that the AASCA has toyed with the idea of accrediting professional baristas to differentiate them from what he calls espresso operators.

Paul Bassett: Cup always half-full

Posted by on 02 May 2006 | Filed under: Barista

Today’s Adelaide (Australia) The Advertiser featured a brief article on Paul Bassett, Sydney resident and winner of the 2003 World Barista Championship (held in Boston): The Advertiser: Cup always half-full [03may06].

In the article, Paul mentions how he discovered his calling during his travels in Siena, Italy in the late 1990s — where he was mesmerized by the locals’ espresso. (As if that’s something I could not relate to…)

While Paul no longer works in cafés, he has translated his barista fame in a few areas. He was the host of a thirteen part Discovery television series, called “Living Coffee”, that explored the world of specialty coffee. Today he’s a travelling spokesperson for small appliance maker, Sunbeam Australia, with whom he also partnered to help develop a home machine.

Trip Report: Peet’s Coffee @ Potrero Center

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

Next to the “Psycho Safeway” (where waiting in line at night is far more entertaining than any reality TV show could ever be), this is a busy Peet’s with often long lines of neighborhood loyals.

They offer a bit of window counter seating, some minimal table seating in the back, and plenty of outdoor table and benches among “Please Do Not Feed The Birds” signs in the Potrero Center. There’s a “Peet’s At Home” retail wall at the entrance, and, like some other Peet’s, they play the classical music tape loop overhead. (Though unlike Starbucks, it’s not for sale.)

Daylight - a good time to not worry about conversations with the Safeway customers Long lines overwork the old La Marzocco in back

This Peet’s uses an older, three-group La Marzocco, which they effectively have to run on only two groups so they can commit one end of the machine as a milk frothing station. With two people sometimes working the machine simultaneously during busy hours, the turnover can be a little slow.

They pull espresso shots with a medium-to-dark brown bare crema that dissolves away as quickly as you pick it up off the counter. Served in Peet’s own branded cups. Though it has a weaker body than many Peet’s, it still has a solid pungent flavor with some brightness. (The weaker body combined with a bolder flavor makes for a slightly odd-tasting beverage, though.)

Read the review.

The Potrero Peet's espresso: don't blink, as the crema vanishes before your eyes

Starbucks Announces Media Marketing Initiatives; Australian Researchers Announce Persuasiveness of Caffeine

Posted by on 01 May 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Some days you come across two stories that, when combined together, are far more interesting than they are separately. Case and point, two curiously complimentary (conspiratorial!?) stories that came across the wire today:

Now of course I am being facetious. The belief that you should “never assume a conspiracy where incompetence will suffice” is written gospel to me. (I would never make it in Italy.) But here’s the lowdown on these two stories, and together they make for some interesting conspiracy fodder…

Would you like a latte with that home entertainment system?

First, Starbucks Coffee continuously seems to fashion itself as an entertainment company rather than a worldwide chain of coffee houses. Today they announced a relationship with the William Morris Agency (WMA). Yes, the agency that once represented Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley — and today represents many of their modern day equivalents — is jumping in the coffee sack with the company-formerly-known-as-Starbucks, who just brought us the movie Akeelah and the Bee this past weekend.

Quoted in the press release is Ken Lombard, president, Starbucks Entertainment (notice that curious division name?): “We are extremely excited about the value that William Morris is providing to our strategy and more importantly bringing quality entertainment choices to our customers.”

First step, William Morris. Second step, Philip Morris.

Which brings us to the second article. As regular readers of TheShot know, I normally refuse to post on the medical blather du jour about caffeine and coffee — largely because unfiltered health information is the legacy of a scientifically ignorant mainstream media (and is one of the industry’s most painfully obvious embarassments).

But researchers in Australia have apparently found that caffeine makes us more open to persuasion… and, perhaps, advertising. To quote the article:

Their experiments showed that “caffeine increases persuasion through instigating systematic processing of the message.” But caffeine also puts people in a better mood, which makes them more likely to agree with a message, the researchers say.

You know you want that Pauly Shore anthology box set, don’t you? Oh, and have another latte — it’s on the house.

I forget… was George Orwell a former WMA client?

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