September 2006

Monthly Archive

Coffee roaster pushes beyond its ‘Peetnik’ roots

Posted by on 17 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew, Quality Issues, a Web entity representing a number of local newspapers including the Oakland Tribune and the Marin Independent Journal, published an article today on the growth dilemma facing Peet’s Coffee & Tea: Inside Bay Area – Coffee roaster pushes beyond its ‘Peetnik’ roots. (There’s a bit more detail in this article than in the related one posted here in June.)

While chains like Starbucks long ago gave up any pretense of preserving the quality of their brand as they supported their breakneck store growth, Peet’s has expanded ever so carefully. In the process, they’ve been able to preserve higher levels of quality control — such as access to smaller lots of higher quality beans (while maintaining consistency), roasting in smaller batches, and hiring more skilled employees. But in recent years, Peet’s growth has accelerated: from 60 stores in May 2002 to over 120 today.

Will Peet’s growth plans allow it to preserve a higher quality standard? Or will it succumb to becoming just another Starbucks wannabe where quantity rules over quality. Peet’s needs to preserve its quality standards as a differentiator. However, those standards will inevitably decline with their expansion plans. The question is how much.

UPDATE: March 8, 2007
Peet’s expansion plans were the subject of a Contra Costa Times article today: | 03/08/2007 | Peet’s future is percolating. Their challenge is how to grow without the bloat of Starbucks.

Trip Report: Lettüs Café Organic

Posted by on 15 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Fair Trade, Local Brew

The umlaut in the name might suggest a 1980’s metal band (pronounced ‘let-TOOOSE‘?), but this place is actually an ultra-organic café. It follows the trend of ‘preachy’ eateries that cross the line from espousing sustainable, organic agriculture to slapping you across the face with it.

Now I apprciate the Slow Food movement as much as anybody. But to be brutally honest, sometimes I’m not up for changing the planet and all I want is an espresso … just a decent espresso … without feeling like I joined a cult to get it.

I recently saw TV chef/personality, Anthony Bourdain, speak at the Commonwealth Club about (among other things) the subject of the organics movement. Pretty much his take, like my own, is that organics is only as good as the quality of the food it produces [starting at 28′ in the linked audio track]. Quality is much easier to verify than ideology or pedigree, given the recent woes with Fair Trade certification. So if the quality isn’t there, the organics label is worthless to me.

The scene in front of Lettüs - complete with recycling opportunities with the neighbor's garbage Organic food and drink consumers: Unite!

Lettüs (why can’t I stop snickering when I type that name?) offers juices, smoothies, breakfast, and sandwiches. There’s a good deal of wood sidewalk seating and a deep cavern of wooden seating inside.

Using a two-group Rio, they pull a modestly sized shot of espresso with a decent, medium brown layer of crema with good consistency. The barista takes time to pull a proper shot, and it’s served at a properly mild temperature. It has a flavor of herbs and some thyme. There’s nothing exceptional about their espresso, but every measure is handled well. Organics or not.

Read the review.

The Lettüs espresso does nothing exceptionally well, but it's all good

Tucson, AZ: Best place for Coffee – Or: Perhaps none of the above

Posted by on 15 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Starbucks

How do you know it’s time to move if you want a decent espresso? Why, when your local paper (here the Arizona Daily Star) overwhelmingly tells you Starbucks is the best thing going in town: Best place for Coffee | ®.

Why is it that so many presumed “respectable” media sources often aspire to such mediocrity? Undoubtedly there are those who cite Taco Bell as the best Mexican food in Tucson, as disconcerning as that may sound. However, the other truth is that many places don’t have real options for quality beyond what the big chains offer.

I’m a bit skeptical in this case, however — given the opinions of others that I consider “in the know”. One reported Tucson gem that strangely didn’t even make the cut is Coffee Vein. What about other espresso café gems around the country that may be negligently overlooked?

I have been accumulating my own database of them myself over the years — just that they’re too sparse to be consistent with my San Francisco listings to surface in any intelligent way here (ah, one of these days…). But last week, reader Eric Schrepel wrote to me about his new non-profit Web project that fits the bill:

As Eric wrote to me:

It’s a subjective map of excellent espresso in North America, so that when I travel from Portland, Oregon, I can find espresso on the way. Cafes are only added based on consensus from competition-level baristi or other respected palates.

Check it out. It looks like Eric has done his homework — and not just because I could not find a single Starbucks on the map.

UPDATE: March 7, 2007
The Oregonian picked up Eric’s site in an article today: With, Portlander puts coffee on the map.

Coke, Nestlé Take Aim at Starbucks

Posted by on 14 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Not to be outdone by Coca-Cola’s Far Coast and CHAQWA announcements earlier this month, Big Four junk coffee giant, Nestlé, says “me too!”: Coke, Nestlé Take Aim at Starbucks (Advertising Age).

I am not making this up: Nestlé marketing is instructing the media call their version the Nescafé Specialty Solutions’ bag-in-a-box system. How’s that for appetizing?

Furthermore, Nestlé has announced that part of their product marketing strategy will be to pursue distribution at theme parks. If you thought your local neighborhood Starbucks had a Mickey Mouse barista, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

New York City: Espresso’s New Wave Hits Town

Posted by on 13 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

New York City — that backwater of quality espresso that has long proven, if I may paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “If you can make decent espresso there, you can make it anywhere” — has reportedly been hit by a “wave” (here we go again) of better coffee. Or so says today’s New York Times: Espresso’s New Wave Hits Town – New York Times.

It’s nothing we haven’t exactly seen before. The article touches on a few of the better quality espresso shops now in New York. But it does offer a nice overview of what goes into bean selection, roasting, dosing, tamping, and pulling a quality shot.

Meanwhile, those wizards of semi-stale coffee put under strict quality controls, Illy, announced the opening of another month-long, temporary exhibit in New York called “Beauty Has A Taste“: Illy Introduces ‘BEAUTY HAS A TASTE’ an Exhibition in the Heart of New York City.

Beverage marketers must be spending a lot of time at conventions having pajama parties to talk about this recent fad of sponsoring temporary exhibits/installations. I hesitate at the prospect of subjecting myself to a walk-in infomercial. But if I was in New York during the next month, curiosity would still probably get the better of me. Afterall, I was lame enough to stumble into the Glenlivet City Links miniature golf- and scotch-themed (no, really) exhibit on a lunch break last February.

UPDATE: Oct. 25, 2008
Yesterday the New York Times essentially published a two-year update to this same article: Beyond Starbucks – Coffee Shops Overflow, but Will Connoisseurs Pay the Price? – The difference now being that there are more and more decent places to get espresso in this long-standing coffee wasteland. Even so, calling New York “Bean Town” now (as in the title of the article) is a bit of a stretch — considering that there are still more than three million residents for every great espresso purveyor in town.

Espresso now comes express at McDonald’s – Or: The McCafé idea is new if it’s new to you

Posted by on 13 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee

In the “who just can’t let a failed idea die” contest between McDonald’s McCafé and the Sony Mini-Disc, McDonald’s seems to be upping the ante along the Central Coast of California: Espresso now comes express at McDonald’s –

The strangest part is that the article cites Marcos Salazar, an area supervisor for McDonald’s, as saying, “The Central Coast is known to have successful rollouts of new products.” Nevermind that the McCafé has already been tried and failed miserably each of several times across the U.S over the past several years. If there are people who don’t know this yet, McDonald’s just has yet to reach them.

UPDATE: Aug. 31, 2007
So what if the rest of the world doesn’t like it. Those Japanese will try anything they think is new: McCafe aims for slice of coffee shop pie | The Japan Times Online.

Baristas are having a cow over dairy

Posted by on 13 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends

The lengths some people will go to save a buck… This story was cited in a few publications around Seattle yesterday (this version from The Seattle Times): The Seattle Times: Business & Technology: Baristas are having a cow over dairy “thefts”. It seems some baristas are up in arms over the covert, money-saving habit of some customers to purchase their iced latte without the milk — and then add milk from the complimentary dairy canisters other customers use to doctor up their coffee.

I’m at least glad to see that this tends to be a habit mainly for iced espresso drinks. Because the thought of customers sneaking in with those battery-powered milk frother wands is enough to make me spew a double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato out my nose.

Espesso: Turning coffee world upside down?

Posted by on 12 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Two years ago when I visited the San Tommaso café in Torino, the birthplace of Lavazza, they were promoting a menu item called espesso that wasn’t exactly what you’d expect.

“Espresso in Italy? How crazy is that?!” But hold on… Note that what we call espresso here in America is called simply a café in Italy… and note the missing ‘r’ (I didn’t at first). So here I was at the Lavazza mothership (the night I was in town to see Juventus lose the Coppa Italia final to Lazio — grumble, grumble), and all the promotions for this espesso item make it look a lot more like ice cream (sorry: gelato). And the many well-heeled Torino business types are coming in for the stuff, standing around holding small cups and spoons in mutual conversation at the dark wood counters. What’s going on?

Well, it turns out that Lavazza’s L’èspesso is a solidified coffee creation of the world’s most renowned experimentalist, post-modern chef, Ferran Adrià, of Catalonia’s (Spain) El Bulli. Chef Adrià is famous for making food that maybe tastes like food, but, to all intents and purposes, you question if it really is food. One of his famous deconstructions is his “pizza” — consisting of a tiny square of rice paper and tomato powder, perched on the head of a pin stuck in a wax bowl. (Word has it that it “tastes just like pizza”.)

With a build up like that, how could you not order L’èspesso at one of the three U.S. Lavazza cafés? — all located in Chicago: Espesso: Turning coffee world upside down? (Chicago Sun-Times, link since broken). While L’èspesso has been available in Europe since 2002, today marks its first day of availability in the U.S. Just a mere $2.49 for what you might call a “shot” (?!), and far cheaper than a meal at elBulli.

UPDATE: Sept. 13, 2006
Chicago’s ABC7 Web site provided a slightly different take on the Sun-Times story, with more of a focus on Lavazza’s offerings: Espesso: Coffee you can eat.

UPDATE: Sept. 13, 2006
Leave it to Movable Feast to write up a quick story with photos on it: Movable Feast: Espesso by Ferran Adria.

Users, vendors not fans of coffee pods

Posted by on 11 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

According to an article in today’s Frederick (MD) News-Post, the coffee pod revolution isn’t exactly winning over fans en masse just yet: Users, vendors not fans of coffee pods – The Frederick News-Post.

Citing a recent NPD Group report, the article notes that beyond single-serving convenience, pods don’t exactly represent a step forward in the evolution of better coffee. Also mentioned in the study are coffee pod customers who are “dissatisfied with unreliable machines, pricey refills, the limited selection of flavors and the difficulty in finding coffee pod refills easily.”

The last two aren’t really long-term issues, as they will either be addressed with popularity … or pods will simply be marginalized. The first two customer issues may get better over time — they may not. But one of the big problems I have with pods is the freshness of the coffee — a point that the article makes at the end, where locals instead recommend a French press or a stovetop maker. (The article mentions Melitta, but the description is clearly more like a Bialetti — I’m guessing the reporter got them phonetically mixed up.)

Pods?! ¡Viva la contrarevolución!

A verdict is in: ceramic not only tastes better, it’s more eco-friendly

Posted by on 11 Sep 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Back in March I posted an article espousing the taste and espresso-drinking experience virtues of the ceramic cup: Green or not: lose the paper cup. I also poked a little fun at the inevitable “carbon footprint” debate that would follow — i.e., are disposable paper cups more environmentally friendly than a manufactured, regularly washed coffee mug?

Now I appreciate the spirit behind these debates to make ours a better and more sustainable world. But the woeful, agonizing analysis paralysis people can sometimes put themselves through for something as simple as what to floss with borders on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. And sometimes thwarting the whole effort, we can find that some of our assumptions were wrong after the first concensus offers us conventional wisdom — as in the case of paper vs. plastic grocery bags.

But if you’ve been up sleepless nights worrying about how many kilos of CO2 your choice of polyethylene dental floss adds to the atmophere over nylon floss, here’s a post that should set your mind at ease for doing the right thing by the environment as well as your taste buds: Triple Pundit: Ask Pablo: The Coffee Mug Debacle.

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