June 2006

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Caffè Greco

Posted by on 27 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Yes, this one is one of the classics. It’s a bright North Beach café that’s been open since 1988. They have many small indoor café tables with a lot of that “Cinzano”-like print art, clean surfaces, and East-facing glass windows. They also have an adjoining room that’s available for a lot of overflow on popular evenings.

Up against the wall near the register you can take down a copy of the pink Italian daily sports pages, La Gazzetta dello Sport, to read about the latest in Italian soccer, Formula 1 racing, cycling, etc. However, the main attraction here is often the few people-watching outdoor tables along the sidewalk in front.

Outside Caffè Greco by the sidewalk café tables Caffè Greco's La Spaziale: is there enough Illy branding here?

Caffè Greco relies heavily on the Illy “system”: they serve Illy coffee in Illy logo IPA cups out of a large, shiny La Spaziale.

I’ve had better and worse espresso here. On bad days, the flavor can run a little sour and slightly medicinal. On better days — particularly if you request a short pour — it can have a fuller, robust herbal flavor that’s quite decent. They serve espresso with an even, dark brown crema runs a little thin. While they are capable of very good espresso at times, they are also inconsistent.

The Caffè Greco espresso Greco's back room with more monuments to Illy

Trip Report: Java Beach Cafe

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

When you get out to the fringes of SF, you often places that don’t seem like part of the city. This odd mix of an Irish pub and Outer Sunset beach café across the street from public Ocean Beach bathrooms, at the Muni N Judah turnabout, is a good example.

Popular with the beach and surf set, this café has an almost SoCal feel — even if the weather feels like SoCal for only a couple of weeks out of the year (including today). Packed with an outdoorsy crowd from the bar and several tables inside to the sidewalk patio seating outdoors (tables, benches). Some even sit across La Playa on the benches in the small garden nearby.

A sunny day outside Java Beach Bench seating in the park across La Playa

They heavily brand their use of organic coffees, and they recently (Spring 2006) added some smaller, ceramic espresso cups (even if they are cheap Tuxton cups). Using a three-group La Spaziale, they pull an espresso with a ring of medium brown crema around a bare center. It also has a strong ashy aroma and flavor.

A ‘typical’ California beach espresso, meaning: pass on it. The general rule still reigns here: proximity to water equates to weak espresso.

Read the review.

Behind the counter at the La Spaziale The 'I can't believe it's espresso' from Java Beach

A trickle-down approach benefits coffee growers

Posted by on 21 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

Cup of Excellence season is in full swing. As a follow-up to yesterday’s El Salvador Cup of Excellence post, today’s International Herald Tribune published a business article on the economics of Cup of Excellence coffee: A trickle-down approach benefits coffee growers – Business – International Herald Tribune.

This article starts with Nicaragua’s 2006 Cup of Excellence coffee competition and Geoff Watts, coffee buyer for Intelligentsia Coffee. Intelligentsia founder and chief executive, Doug Zell, invests some $150,000 to $200,000 annually to send Watts on the road seven months each year to reach out to elite coffee growers around the world. For businesses like Intelligentsia, the payoff is in offering a supply of some of the world’s best coffees to consumers who know the difference and will pay for it. For growers, the payoff is in earning a premium for their crops over and above the prices Fair Trade offers.

UPDATE: June-22-2006:
The New York Times published a version of this story in today’s paper: A Coffee Connoisseur on a Mission: Buy High and Sell High – New York Times

Starbucks Under Fire For ‘Unhealthy’ Coffee Drink

Posted by on 20 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Add Milk, Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

As a follow up to a previous post from February, Upscale coffee drinks almost as caloric as Big Mac, SF’s CBS 5 news aired a story today noting that Starbucks’ Banana Mocha Frappuccino (who has time to pronounce all that?!) is even more caloric than a Big Mac: cbs5.com – Starbucks Under Fire For ‘Unhealthy’ Coffee Drink.

And yet people are often obsessing over the possible health risks of coffee — the coffee is least of their worries. (If Clara Peller were alive, she’d be yelling, “Where’s the coffee?!”) Starbucks says it is actively researching alternatives to high fat products, but it’s clearly the consumer, not Starbucks, that’s the problem here.

Mom was right: never eat or drink anything bigger than your head.

UPDATE: December 13, 2006
Months later, and CBS still loves this story — as evidenced by today’s video and news article from KEYE-TV in Austin, TX: keyetv.com – Cover Story: Coffee Drinks, Fats, Calories.

El Salvador Cup of Excellence

Posted by on 20 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues

Today’s Lawrence Journal-World (Kansas) features an article on the El Salvador Cup of Excellence competition: Coffee connoisseur | LJWorld.com.

The competition enables growers to set aside their best beans and submit them for judging — ultimately in the hope of attaining a top auction prices offered by roasters. By selling premium beans directly to roasters, growers stand to make a much healthier profit for growing their best bean stocks.

Mark Zwahl, owner of two Lawrence, KS coffee shops (Z’s Divine Espresso Inc.), judged alongside U.S. roasters Stumptown Coffee Roasters, of Oregon, and Intelligentsia Coffee Inc. of Chicago.

A cappuccino moment

Posted by on 18 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Starbucks

In a personal piece in today’s Napa Valley Register, a father relates the story of how her daughter became a cappuccino professional — if not a “cappuccino Nazi”: A cappuccino moment | Napa Valley Register Online | Kevin Courtney Columnists.

When it comes to cappuccino, besides great espresso preparation, a lot of the quality comes down to the milk frothing. And with a wife who was born and raised in Napa town and lived for several years in East Sacramento, I can personally vouch for the fact that the author needs to drive relatively far for a great cappuccino. (It’s too bad that Flying Goat is so far away.)

The author does close the article by stumbling upon Starbucks Coffee‘s little-known secret of the short dry cap — though some readers may remember a previous post here on it.

Certified baristas, crema of the crop

Posted by on 18 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Barista

As an update to a previous post, the AustralAsian Specialty Coffee Association (AASCA) is about to announce plans for formal barista accreditation and licensing. According to today’s The Australian, AASCA barista licensing in Australia is set to launch next month at the 2006 AASCA conference: Certified baristas, crema of the crop | The Nation | The Australian.

Licensing is often a mixed bag for many skill-based professions. Although it provides some standards for café owners who might not otherwise be able to verify a candidate barista’s credentials, accreditation programs are frequently subject to skewed, if not sometimes outdated, standards.

Trip Report: Zephyr Espresso Caffe and Art Gallery

Posted by on 16 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Across the Balboa Theater, this cavernous café and art gallery was managed by the same owners from 1994 until being sold to its current owners in 2004. (The previous owners have since set up a café in Gilbert, AZ.) The new owners, like the previous ones, are a bit cagey with their customers and seem ultra-suspicious of potential freeloaders; there are signs for minimum orders to use their WiFi, the bathrooms are locked, etc. Part of the reason is because this location caters heavily to nearby SFSU students.

However, there’s a very large base of Asian-American locals who frequent the place — playing cards, reading, etc. Besides the gallery space, there’s also a large room in back where a mannequin in sunglasses on an upper level stares down at you. They sell a variety of exquisite Asian teapots and hand-painted coffee mugs.

Entrance to Zephyr Zephyr owner behind his CREM

Using a newer, three-group, Mr. Espresso-supplied CREM, they pull espresso shots with a whisp of a dark-to-medium brown swirl of crema. (CREM, or Expobar, is an espresso machine manufacturer near Valencia, Spain — Mr. Espresso once had a small inventory of their machines a few years back.) The resulting cup has almost no body and is almost tasteless – save for the faintest hint of mild spice and sawdust. Truly a waste of Mr. Espresso coffee and equipment (and I’m sure Mr. Espresso has their hands full trying to convince them of their need for improvements). Served in classic brown ACF cups.

Read the review.

Scary mannequin watches your every move from the balcony The Zephyr espresso

A Eurocentric quest for espresso in Toronto

Posted by on 15 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

A guest column in yesterday’s Toronto Star concerned a European friend of the writer who feared travelling to North America for the dreadful coffee. She even packed her own espresso machine out of desperation: TheStar.com – A Eurocentric quest for espresso.

The writer was on a mission to convince her European friend that cosmopolitan Toronto had come a long way towards offering good coffee. They started out at Café Diplomatico (aka, “The Dip,” a local Italian café) and a local Starbucks — both that her visitor found dreadful. She reserved particular disdain for the latter:

Kati said that if anyone in Germany or Italy were served espresso in a paper cup, it would be refused — “thrown back” was the literal translation.

Have I ever been tempted to give an espresso shot a heave-ho back at the barista when it comes back to me in a paper cup — even after asking to have it “for here”.

Her visitor found the espresso more acceptable at La Maquette (a French restaurant no less) and particularly excellent at the new and upcoming Mercury Organic Espresso Bar. She also found Jetfuel Coffee to be quite average, Balzac’s Coffee to be a bit better, and gave very high marks for the restaurant espresso at Bar Mercurio.

The writer made no mention of Bulldog Coffee, however, which is a must-visit whenever I’m in Toronto.

Trip Report: Mamá Art Cafe

Posted by on 13 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Opening in May 2004, this is something of an unusual find for the Lower Mission/Excelsior area. (A rule of thumb for the San Francisco “local” test should be to identify where you can find the Excelsior.)

This café is a calm and relaxing environment with quiet patrons. There are collages of photographs on the walls, and most everything is painted in bright pastel colors. Inside there’s a leather sofa, unique tables and chairs, and a piano, plus the odd rack for selling Mexican spices.

Mamá's from along Mission St. Mamá's theraputic interior

I’m not too impressed with the barista, who didn’t know what beans they used despite a sign posting Uncommon Grounds on the counter. Using a two-group Faema, they pull a very large shot espresso with a very modest, pale crema that just completely covers the surface. The resulting cup is light on impact, but it is smooth and has a mellow flavor of spice and herbs — as if you’d expect anything but, given the décor. It could have been much worse.

They also feature live music on Thursday nights 7:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

Read the review.

Working the Faema at the counter The Mamá espresso

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