August 2006

Monthly Archive

Hovering over Detroit: A close call on the high wire

Posted by on 31 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

If you thought Starbucks was desperate to resort to podcasts to sell their coffee, McDonald’s recently promoted their premium roast coffee by hiring the Flying Wallendas to tightrope walk for its one-year anniversary: HOVERING OVER DETROIT: A close call on the high wire (Detroit Free Press).

I’m not sure if McDonald’s wanted to send the message that trying their premium roast coffee is a death-defying act. However, I may think twice now before trying it.

Take a caffeinated tour of Tulsa

Posted by on 29 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

It’s been a while since we posted a mindless mini coffee review for some low rotation corner of the country. So today we bring you a brief coffee tour of Tulsa, OK from the local university rag: The Collegian Online: Take a caffeinated tour of Tulsa. It’s a short list, alright. But the one notable here is the DoubleShot Coffee Company.

Yes, this is the same DoubleShot that recently got a cease-and-desist salvo from the law partners of Starbucks, Starbucks, and Starbucks because their name infringed on Starbucks’ stale-espresso-and-milk-in-a-can concoction, the Starbucks DoubleShot. One represents one of the finer roasters and espresso purveyors in the nation’s heartland. The other represents, well, the coffee equivalent of yesterday’s reheated frozen pizza served up cold for breakfast. No matter, the law firm of Starbucks, Starbucks, and Starbucks must vigorously defend against the precedent of consumers confusing their product with good coffee.

However, should you find yourself 100 miles ENE of Oklahoma City for some reason, we recommend that you skip the can and go straight for the cup — preferrably of that “other” DoubleShot.

How many podcasts does it take to sell a mediocre cup of coffee?

Posted by on 29 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Starbucks is about to find out.

Today, the company announced their strategy to counter the growing encroachment of fast food rivals vying for their coffee business: To stand out, Starbucks pushes coffee know-how | Consumer Products | Reuters.com. The plan includes holding coffee tastings in its North American stores. As reported here earlier this summer, this is likely an extension of the trial education programs Starbucks staged in places like Michigan.

The plan also includes the launch of a series of podcasts about coffee on its Web site — with the first show scheduled to “air” Tuesday, Sept. 5th. Yes, Starbucks is now following the lead of the mindless marketing lemmings at Eight O’ Clock Coffee and other unnotables for buying the blog/podcast hype whole hog. If only enough mainstream consumers were using the Web in 1996, these blindly trend-following product marketing strategies would have given us the same kind of press releases — but instead announcing obligatory 3-D Web sites programmed in VRML.

I can barely make the time to listen to occasional parts of Portafilter.net, and here I’m dangerously obsessed enough with coffee to put up a site with almost 500 local café reviews. I simply cannot comprehend how Starbucks believes that coffee drinkers will commit precious media consumption time each week to listen to a merger between college radio and a Starbucks infomercial. And as CBS MarketWatch noted today on Starbucks’ sample podcast, “To judge by the first ‘sip’, it’s going to take a lot of coffee to keep me awake listening to a full show.” (Starbucks’ lukewarm podcast plan.)

Trip Report: Cafe Los Olvidados

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

Some of the enjoyment I get adding new cafés to CoffeeRatings.com is in finding completely obscure places that make surprisingly decent (though never great) espresso. Last Saturday night I was visiting some friends for an event over at the ArtSF community center near the sketchier cross section of 16th and Capp Streets in the Mission. En route, I found a small cubbyhole of a café called Cafe Los Olvidados.

This café was formerly known as Gaudi (as indicated on their main blackboard menu) and also as Chile Lindo (on the decaying Coca-Cola sign outside), but it changed names and owners in July 2006 to Spanish for “The Forgotten Ones” (appropriate, given how easy it is to miss this place). (Los Olvidados also suggests a famous 1950 Luis Buñuel neorealist movie set in Mexico City.) The woman proprietor is Mexican, and her male partner is Spanish — which explains the cortado (a Barcelona macchiato) and cafe con leche (Andalusian latte) on the drink menu.

Using an old dual-group Mr. Espresso CREM, they pull espresso shots with a thinner layer of medium brown crema of a decent substance. Perhaps surprisingly, the shot is short, potent and better than most places that look far nicer — despite their exclusive use of paper cups, the “be back in 5 min.” informality, and the tendency to find the place with their portafilters out of the group heads (say it isn’t so!).

Despite the aesthetic merits of their espresso shots, the flavor doesn’t quite live up to expectation — it’s a little smokey and lacks a punch — but it’s still pretty good. They also use only Fair Trade and organic coffee. The hours can be erratic, but any place open at 8pm on a Saturday night on this block is a find.

Read the review.

The charm of 16th & Capp Sts. by night Not a lot of space, but decent coffee at Cafe Los Olvidados

Coffee craze has everyone a bit nuts

Posted by on 28 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

Yesterday’s Washington Post ran an article that pretty much embodied everything I despise about coffee: Coffee craze has everyone a bit nuts – Family Times – The Washington Times, America’s Newspaper. It’s the focus on all the sizzle and none of the steak. Apparently, few of us want to hear about what it takes to get the best single espresso possible in a ready and convenient location. Instead we’re inundated with stories about all the ridiculous frippery that comes disguised as “gourmet” (oh, do I ever hate that over-abused word) coffee.

The article pushes all my basic “annoy-the-hell-out-of-me” buttons, including:

  • The idea that good coffee must equate with a 17-adjective concoction of frothed milk, hazelnut syrup, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and a cherry on top that is oh, about, 2% espresso,
  • Branded cafés opened by those purveyors of great coffee production, Kiss and Jackie Chan,
  • Yuppies bored with the wine tasting routine who have now turned to coffee cupping as their latest taste bud fad (I still reserve that cupping is mostly a nasty, brutish task that’s best suited for finding bean defects than for the enjoyment of coffee),
  • McDonald’s McCafé has been a repeat failure as dependable as the Sony Mini-Disc in most countries, save maybe Ireland, and yet it just won’t go away,
  • Starbucks has gotten bored with coffee and now is a media company wannabe, making book, CD, and movie deals,
  • Kopi Luwak press for those who must pay the ultimate for the über exclusiveness of everything, including coffee beans crapped out of an Indonesian civet (I say we forget the weasels and go straight for “celebrity blends” — starting this month with beans passed through the bowels of Tom Cruise).

The problem isn’t that a good cup of basic boring old coffee is such a rare breed these days. The problem is that society is easily distracted by anything beyond the simple merits of good coffee.

We probably owe some of that to all the people who really don’t like coffee to begin with and yet now have vehicles for coming along for the ride. We probably owe the rest to modern product marketing techniques.

I’ve mentioned my experience with orange juice. And you can’t even buy a toothbrush today without stumbling on the monthly patent war of marketing escalation: laser-guided plaque-interceptor technology is the only possible outcome where Moore’s Law of disposable razors predicts we’ll be using 14 blades by the year 2100.

U.K. Business: Waking up to smell the coffee

Posted by on 27 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

Ten years ago in London, Starbucks was a complete no-name. Today London has more Starbucks than Manhattan Island, according to an article in today’s Scotland on Sunday: Scotland on Sunday – Business – Waking up to smell the coffee. Not too shabby for a traditional tea town.

Point is that the rampant growth of the higher-end coffee market is a worldwide phenomenon. It has surprised many critics with expectations of a faddish burn-out after a few years. Yet five years after the market was supposedly saturated, the growth continues.

The article also touches on the business story behind one of the larger UK-based espresso café chains, Caffè Nero (mentioned here in a previous post). Caffè Nero CEO, Dr. Gerry Ford, is apparently excited about Nero’s prospects for international expansion — particularly in Europe, in countries such as Ireland, Holland, Spain and Sweden.

And while the company calls itself “The Italian Coffee Company” with roots clearly planted in the U.K., Ford even expects growth opportunities in established coffee consumer nations such as France, Italy and Belgium. His reasoning? There isn’t a proliferation of big coffee brands there. (However, something tells me the Home Depot/big box approach to coffee may not float too well with the locals.)

Like all good CEOs with delusions of grandeur, Ford even thinks they have the edge on Starbucks in penetrating these markets. But meanwhile, Starbucks isn’t exactly biding its time in “coffee wasteland” nations such as Taiwan.

Coffee Economic Forecast

Posted by on 25 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee

Associated Content regularly posts articles of informed-yet-amateur research, and today they published one on the economic outlook of the retail coffee beverage business: Coffee Economic Forecast – Associated Content.

The author highlights that regular coffee sales (“convenience coffee”) are projected to grow 7% annually while espresso beverages are projecting 15% annual growth. So there is money to be made with growing consumer tastes for the stuff. And while Real Gross Domestic Product is expected to fall in the coming years, coffee makes for a cheap luxury item, without all the baggage that cigarettes carry. Therefore, it would be little surprise if coffee sales remained strong in an economic downturn.

With pricing taken out of the competitive focus (sales are increasing regardless), the author suggests that atmosphere, events, location, and peripheral services will differentiate the competition. She expects the fast food peddlers to muscle in more for their coffee revenue cut on the basis of convenience, but the rest will need to focus on these four areas.

Of course, I subscribe to the most difficult differentiator of all — and the hardest to reproduce at a grand scale: excellent coffee. But that’s why there will be niche cafés that top the lists on sites like CoffeeRatings.com … and why everyone else will be getting coffee and a smog check at a Starbucks DVD release party.

Toronto: Latte Art at Bulldog Coffee

Posted by on 25 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Some of us coffee freaks out there are often dumbfounded when a local in another city suddenly stumbles upon a coffee institution we otherwise know all too well. For example, take this local’s “discovery” of Bulldog Coffee, and latte art, in Toronto: Latte Art at Bulldog Coffee.

Maybe it’s not quite like being Catholic and having some Roman local tell you that they suddenly stumbled across the Vatican. But sometimes it’s close.

Trip Report: Axis Cafe

Posted by on 24 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This “living room” environment on the north end of Potrero Hill has a large space with modern seating indoors. They also have a large, private patio in back with many tables and large sun umbrellas. The staff seem motivated to make a higher-quality espresso, and for the most part they deliver on that.

Approaching the Axis Cafe Inside the Axis

Using a Mr. Espresso-supplied three-group Iberital, they pull espresso shots with a thicker medium brown crema into black ceramic designer cups. It surprisingly has a thinner body than the crema might suggest, and there’s something of a watered-down edge to the otherwise spice-and-herbal flavor.

A good neighborhood espresso in a nice space (when you can catch it open during weekday hours). With some fine tuning in pulling the shots (they did ask if I wanted a ‘short’ shot at least) and keeping the extraction low, they have the potential for some greatness. They also tend to serve a rather ample amount of coffee ground grit at bottom of the cup, however.

Read the review.

Axis' Iberital The Axis espresso

Mouldy coffee ‘tastes better’

Posted by on 22 Aug 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues

Brazilian research suggests that fungus in coffee crops adds to its flavor, as reported recently in Australia’s Herald Sun: Mouldy coffee ‘tastes better’ | Herald Sun. Australia is holding (no, seriously) a week-long fungus conference in Cairns, Queensland this week with over 800 worldwide fungus experts in participation.

Fungus naturally appears on raw coffee beans. But according to the research, the species of fungus can impart an improved flavor and smell. Some researchers suggest this discovery could influence how coffee is grown and consumed in the future.

UPDATE: August 25, 2006
A more detailed story on the relationship of fungus to coffee flavors was posted today by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (that other ABC): News in Science – Coffee? One fungus or two? – 25/08/2006.

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