September 2006

Monthly Archive

Head barista: Andrea Illy of Illycaffè

Posted by on 28 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Roasting

From the print edition of The Economist, an article on Andrea Illy of Illycaffè: Face value | Head barista | Economist.com. Andrea Illy is the head of Trieste-based Illycaffè. And despite the standards gap between Italian espresso and the chain that made the most riches exporting their own version of it, Mr. Illy has only praise for his Starbucks competition.

The article reviews Illy’s strategy behind their recent opening of Espressamente Illy cafés across Europe and temporary exhibits such as “Beauty has a taste” in New York City — all primarily as advertisements for the Illy brand. It also touches on his skepticism about the Fair Trade movement — which he claims rewards growers for certification rather than quality.

Illy the company still represents something of an anomaly for me. On the one hand, they exhibit some of the most intensive and laudible quality controls in the industry — perfect bean shapes and roasting hues all within minute tolerances. And yet they commit themselves to pod delivery systems with pre-ground beans — and distribution of fresh roasted beans that, despite all vacuum seal precautions, age for weeks on ships leaving Italy.

Trip Report: Perk Presidio Cafe

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

Perk Presidio?! Has George Lucas been watching too many episodes of “Friends”?

Nestled in the sterile, futuristic confines of the Presidio’s Lucasland, this café sits in the back of Building C with a wide, concrete patio overlooking the clean buildings, perfect lawns, and beautiful views facing the Palace of Fine Arts. Outdoors there are many green outdoor patio tables; inside there is a lot of minimalist seating space. Magazines for reading and plenty of space for discussing the next movie in the works. Employee discounts for LucasArts and other employees, but the rest aren’t missing a whole lot.

Views of the Palace of Fine Arts from Perk Presidio Cafe - and that's not the geeky Yoda statue Perk Presidio is indistinguishably located on the corner of Bldg. C

They used to dump plastic bags of Uncommon Grounds beans into their brain-dead, single-group Schaerer super-automatic machines. But their espresso has improved with a switch to a two-group Astra, where at least they tamp the coffee in their portafilters. They produce a thinner, medium brown crema (better than the pale, paltry one made by the Schaerer) in a logo cup with no saucer. It has a pungent flavor with hints of cloves (and no longer much ash). Major improvement over when it first opened in 2005. Café service is provided by Guckenheimer, who contracts out food service as scary as at SLAC and as decent as at Levi Strauss’ San Francisco headquarters.

Read the updated review.

Inside Perk Presidio Cafe The Perk Presidio Cafe espresso

Starbucks Accused of Abusing Monopoly Power in Violation of Sherman Act

Posted by on 25 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Starbucks

Independent coffee shops complaining that Starbucks muscled in on their turf and waged unfair competitive practices are nothing new. Starbucks buying up the competition is nothing new. What is new today, however, is a class action lawsuit filed against Starbucks. It claims that, among other anti-trust practices, Starbucks signs exclusive lease agreements with property managers to lock out competition: Starbucks Accused of Abusing Monopoly Power in Violation of Sherman Act: Financial News – Yahoo! Finance.

This is, of course, what brought the successful Palo Alto Roasting Company to an end — among many other competitive chains and cafés. While there definitely seems to be a strong element of truth behind this accusation, how the courts interpret this may be different story. Starbucks has faced a multitude of similar suits prior.

For another version of this story from Reuters: Starbucks sued for squashing competitors | Reuters.com.

UPDATE: Sept. 26, 2006:
The Seattle Times published an article today on this story: The Seattle Times: Business & Technology: Starbucks sued over “unchecked ambition”.


UPDATE: Dec. 20, 2006:
The USA Today finally joined in on the act — discussing the legal need to demonstrate predatory practices and identifying a number of higher-profile cases where coffeehouses have been driven out of business by Starbucks: Owner of small coffee shop takes on java titan Starbucks – USATODAY.com.

Know Your Coffee Reviewers

Posted by on 21 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

A friend and CoffeeRatings.com reader, Jeremy Nisen, occasionally writes for SFist — which many rightfully recognize as San Francisco’s best local blog. (Jeremy interviewed me for it earlier this year.) Yesterday he pointed me to his most recent article on the site: SFist: Um, Yeah, But What Kind of Grinder Did They Use?.

In it, Jeremy takes issue with a recent Los Angeles Times article (French roast brews, sip for sip – Los Angeles Times) where a panel of coffee tasters reviewed the French roasts of several different roasters. True to an SFist’s core, Jeremy does his best “L.A. sucks” rebuttal when he finds them guilty of talking smack about Graffeo beans. But more to the point, he raises all sorts of legit questions about the validity of their side-by-side comparison taste test to begin with.

Certainly, the L.A. Times was just innocently cranking out a nice, forgettable fluff piece that perhaps influenced a few readers to try out different roasters — and undoubtedly the staff are now all off to thinking about who has the best mojito recipe. But in a taste-making media world now dominated by celebrity chefs who never cook, knowing the quality of the advice you’re getting is at least as important as knowing the rancher who raised your Kobe beef.

The Airing of Grievances

Issue #1: Food editors, like most restaurant chefs, couldn’t tell a good cup of coffee if it scalded their thighs in a McDonald’s drive-thru. They’ve made it their business to know everything about food, but often that has translated into a misguided belief that this somehow confers upon them de facto coffee taster certification. Which partly explains why restaurants notoriously serve some of the worst espresso in any city I visit. And as Jeremy put it, “After all, how often do you see a restaurant review talk about the end-of-the-meal cuppa joe?”

Issue #2: Thirteen cups of coffee at one sitting is bound to make anybody think, “we were struck by how similar so many of them were.” I guarantee you that if you smack your forehead hard enough on your kitchen table a dozen times, that thirteenth smack will feel less painful than the first. When I reviewed espresso for CoffeeRatings.com, four was my limit at any one time (caffeine-induced hallucinations aside). Even at coffee cuppings, my tastebuds go numb before reaching double digits.

Issue #3: How fresh is the coffee? This is a huge determinant to how good any coffee will turn out. If you bought resold Blue Bottle Beans hidden behind the two-year-old Pop Tarts at the corner convenience store, they may taste a lot worse than Costco’s ashy Mt. St. Helens Pyroclastic Flow blend that you happen to catch a mere three-weeks-old that day.

The point of all this is that methodology counts immensely when making any legitimate comparison. While I do not claim to be a professional coffee tastemaster by any means, it is for this reason that I have posted a Tasting Methodology link prominently on the site from day one. If you really want to know methodology, the guide Espresso Italiano Tasting is a good resource for “rules of engagement”.

Vancouver: Locals have much to learn about espresso

Posted by on 21 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Barista, Quality Issues

Knowing the difference between a good and bad espresso can be a curse to many a former barista. Or so says a former barista in today’s Georgia Straight, a popular Vancouver free weekly: Straight.com Vancouver | Best Eating | Locals have much to learn about espresso.

The author writes that, “The espresso, as it is pouring through the machine, should squirt through in 20 to 30 seconds and have three clear features: at the bottom, the dark heart; in the middle, a deep brown body; and at the top, a thick layer of flavourful crema.” All basic stuff. But it gets interesting when she suggests, “a bitter-tasting latte should be sent back.” Who would pay for a corked bottle of wine, right?

The author says she sends back about half of her espresso drinks. It’s a habit I’m going to have to take up more often myself.

Also mentioned in the article is the Canadian National Barista Championships in Vancouver this weekend and an interview with Barrett Jones, an award-winning barista from Vancouver’s Caffé Artigiano — arguably my favorite place for an espresso in North America.

Coffee’s Gold Rush: Starbucks to double store numbers, says chairman

Posted by on 21 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

If you already thought two Starbucks on every corner was overkill, and if you thought their breakneck expansion diluted their quality like a packet of Kool-Aid dumped in a county reservoir, you ain’t seen nothing yet. At least according to Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, who recently said, “[T]he saturation opportunity in the US is not 50% there.”: Starbucks to double store numbers, says chairman – Drinks Business Review.

And it’s not just Starbucks. Dunkin Donuts is performing a Blitzkrieg across the Eastern U.S., Peet’s is expanding beyond the West, and even locally, Caffé Trieste seems to be opening up yet another café — this time at 199 New Montgomery St. at Howard in SF’s SOMA.

Has everyone just gone coffee mad? Has coffee become the new dot-com stock for the new millennium?

To be honest, seeing concurrently overzealous expansion plans like this collide all at once, I’m really starting to worry about a massive coffee flame-out. What we’re mostly seeing is a proliferation of carbon-copy cafés of modest, if not declining, quality. A flood of mediocre coffee doesn’t do us much good, and nor will a market crash forcing the closures and consolidation of penny-pinching-for-survival cafés. I only hope the real bastions of espresso quality weather the coming storm.

As the Magic 8-ball once famously said, “Outlook not so good.”

Caffé Trieste: today New Montgomery, tomorrow Trenton, NJ. Many cafés may soon replay this scene in reverse.

Once feisty Coffee People whipped into Starbucks

Posted by on 20 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Starbucks

This is an old story to those in Oregon (it was announced last week), but it’s also an all-too-familiar story across the country.

Oregon’s Coffee People started in the late 1970s as a hippy-friendly mom & pop (Jim and Patty, where Jim is now a regional barista judge). It was ahead of its time — with high quality standards. In 1999, Diedrich Coffee, a 200-store chain based in Irvine, CA, purchased Coffee People, and the ownership change screwed it up royally. And now Starbucks has swooped in to buy the combined lot: Once feisty Coffee People whipped into Starbucks (The Oregonian).

This is a nearly identical fate that befell the once-grand Torrefazione Italia chain. In 1998, it too was acquired by a larger conglomerate, Seattle’s Best Coffee, and then proceeded to go down the tubes in terms of coffee quality, the skill level of staff, and even the amenities for customers. Then Starbucks bought the lot, dropping the quality even further into the gutter. Torrefazione Italia was almost unrecognizable before Starbucks finally rebranded them with the green mermaid and Pottery Barn CD collections (or closed them down entirely).

I truly hesitate before bashing Starbucks as the evil empire of coffee, as many have made them out to be. Even if it’s all in the past now, they have done a lot of great service for the overall quality of coffee available today. And there’s always a willing seller behind every so-called greedy buyer. But this is one area where their influence has set coffee standards backwards rather than forwards for consumers.

Trip Report: Michael Mina

Posted by on 19 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee

This decadent dining establishment ups the ante on most hotel dining rooms in the city. The food and decor are as over-the-top as the credit card bill. Part of the Mina Group “chain”, this restaurant in San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel opened in 2005 to much fanfare — including details about how the interior designers could not get the right shade of “fog” for the napkins.

It’s considered one of the premiere dining establishments in the city, if not the country, with the most recent issue of Wine Spectator rating it as SF’s best. So can at least a restaurant of this caliber get an espresso right? Afterall, if I can have my Sonoma County duck roulade and foie gras served three ways, is it too much to ask for a decent cup of coffee? I was on a mission to find out.

Michael Mina's posh bar - be careful not to stumble into the Ionic columns This ceiling tile is definitely not a Home Depot job

After an impeccably prepared series of succulent dishes, each suitable for framing, out came the choices for coffee and dessert. For espresso, they use a single-group superautomatic machine that grinds the beans and everything after (definitely a low-skill setup). It appeared to be a Verismo machine that somehow didn’t end up in a Starbucks. For coffee beans, they use a modified version of Peet’s Major Dickason; they apparently add more Kenyan to the blend. The fact that the waiter (an amiable, and not stuffy, professional) knew this notched them a few savvy points.

However, the resulting cup was by no means exceptional by even typical restaurant standards. In fact, it was downright average. Their espresso has a light film of pale crema and a mellow flavor of mild spice. It’s not a flavorful cup by any means, but it is pleasantly understated. (This is about as close as espresso gets to decent tea.)

Once again, a five-star restaurant offers you the meal of the lifetime … only to finish it off with a two-star espresso. Is it really sane for any restaurant at least feigning high-end dining to send their patrons home with this as the last memory of their car-payment-priced meal?

Read the review.

The Michael Mina espresso - ho hum

Airlines need to wake up and smell the coffee

Posted by on 18 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Today the London Times published an interview with Brian Chapman, who founded Percol Coffee in the U.K. some 15 years ago: Airlines need to wake up and smell the coffee – Business Travel – Times Online.

One of Mr. Chapman’s most memorable (and accurate) quotes?:

“You can judge a restaurant by its house wine and its coffee. Coffee is the one thing most people end up with and if it’s rubbish then it ruins the meal.”

In the article, Mr. Chapman has made it his personal cause to upgrade the ‘awful’ coffee that’s the standard on board virtually all airlines. To which I say, “Good luck, ol’ chap!”

UPDATE: July 25, 2007
To more and more airlines, such as Midwest Express, competition with improved in-flight coffee options is heating up: Airlines wake up to smell the gourmet coffee aroma – South Florida Business Journal:.

Delving into the Turkish coffee cup

Posted by on 18 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine

At home, I’ve been on a major café cubano kick lately. Part of that could be inspired by the Fidel Castro deathwatch. But a bit of my influence goes back to two very good Cuban expat friends of mine, Rolando and Elena, whom I met when I first moved out on my own to Maryland nearly 20 years ago. They introduced me to my first addictive taste of real Cuban coffee (and my road to hell!) — joking that I needed to sit down before drinking it. They quickly stopped joking when it became clear that my frequent requests for “refills” were also no joke.

Now while I did once have a Turkish housemate, Levent, while working at Stanford, unfortunately the guy never taught me anything about Turkish coffee. Which is a damn shame, because it is also one of my favorite coffee preparations. However, we at least have yesterday’s Turkish Daily News, which published an article on the history of Turkish coffee … and a little on how to prepare it: Delving into the Turkish coffee cup – Turkish Daily News Sep 17, 2006.

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