November 2006

Monthly Archive

Starbucks enters competitive Brazilian coffee market with 2 Sao Paulo stores

Posted by on 30 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

Today the Associated Press reported that Starbucks entered the Brazilian market with two cafés in São Paulo: Starbucks enters competitive Brazilian coffee market with 2 Sao Paulo stores – Business – International Herald Tribune.

Starbucks demonstrated success at establishing over 100 cafés in Mexico, which is generally not known as a coffee-drinking (let alone espresso-drinking) nation. However, Brazil, second only to the U.S. in the sheer number of regular coffee drinkers, is an entirely different story. As with their compatriots in the sibling nation of Portugal, Brazilians participate in a ritualistic, daily regimen of espresso shots as part of the culture. Also as in Portugal, the average cost of an espresso in Brazil is around 60-70¢ (U.S.) per cup. Starbucks plans to charge its new Brazilian customers almost twice that.

Brazil represents a huge, youthful new market for Starbucks. And to a degree, the extra costs might not deter some aspirational Brazilians seeking a more cosmopolitan image (yes, I hate to use such inane marketingspeak, but your café can be an expression of your lifestyle). But knowing the quality of the espresso in Brazil — unlike many Mexicans who had no prior comparisons — Starbucks has their work cut out for them.

12 Best Cups of Coffee of 2006

Posted by on 29 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues

In the most recent issue of Fast Company, they named Coffee Klatch Belle Espresso blend among the “12 Best Cups of Coffee of 2006″: Fast Company Magazine | 12 Best Cups of Coffee of 2006. The coffees were reviewed by noneother than Kenneth Davids of coffeereview.com.

This blend, the only espresso blend on this list, was developed for and used by Heather Perry when she won the Western Regional Barista Championship in 2006. Intelligentsia‘s Colombia Tres Santos Micro-Lot Almague also made the list.

Meanwhile, on a different subject, same magazine…

The May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine included an article on one of the country’s 48 certified coffee graders: Java Man. A coffee broker, a private taster, and now a New York Board of Trade-certified cupper, Ed Faubert can readily identify coffee defects and the states and altitudes, not just countries, in which it is grown.

Decaf Coffee Is Not Caffeine-Free (And Particularly If You’re At Starbucks)

Posted by on 29 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Ignore the stating-the-obvious article title for a moment. Even ignore my latest tirade against unimaginative writers who use the caffeine riff as a synomym for coffee.

Today WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, published a story on how they tested the caffeine levels of random decaffeinated coffee samples at five different retailers: wcco.com – Decaf Coffee Is Not Caffeine-Free. Although the NCA suggests that caffeine levels should be about 3 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup of decaffeinated coffee, WCCO-TV found the levels between 3-7 mg — with the exception of Starbucks.

The Starbucks decaffeinated coffee had a whopping 175 mg of caffeine — or pretty much the same as a cup of regular coffee. WCCO-TV even tried to see if they got the wrong stuff by mistake, but this curious bit of evidence suggests something I’ve wondered about all along: maybe Starbucks serves all their coffee drinks from the same spigot? For those fans of The Simpsons, I’m reminded of an epsiode where Homer tours the Duff Beer brewery. In the background of the scene, you subtly notice a single pipe feeding three storage tanks labelled “Duff”, “Duff Lite” and “Duff Dry”.

UPDATE: October 25, 2007
Perhaps asleep at the wheel the first time around, Consumer Reports jumped on this story idea and published an article in their November issue, per the New York Times: A Wake-Up Call for Coffee Drinkers – Well – Tara Parker-Pope – Health – New York Times Blog.

Brazilian drought leaves coffee crop high and dry

Posted by on 29 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Robusta

As Frank Sinatra once sang, “They got a lot of coffee in Brazil”. However, the driest winter in two decades is threatening to drop next year’s crop yield by almost a third: Brazilian drought leaves coffee crop high and dry | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle.

As the reality of global climate change sinks in, one also has to wonder if shifting weather patterns might result in worse and more frequent droughts — steering coffee farmers to produce more heat- and drought-resistant robusta beans. Not that I would call arabica beans an endangered species, but I can’t bear the thought of a post-apocalyptic world where the only coffee available is Yuban-in-a-can.

UPDATE: December 7, 2006
According to a Reuters story published today, supplies have apparently gotten so bad that Brazil is now planning to sell 30-year-old green coffee beans: Brazil plans to sell 30-year-old coffee beans | Oddly Enough | Reuters.co.uk. But don’t listen to what the Brazilian officials might say in the article — green coffee beans remain fresh for no more than 12-24 months when properly stored. Unless, of course, you’re roasting for Yuban-in-a-can.

UPDATE: April 11, 2007
Sure enough, more sources are noting how global warming will have seriously damaging impacts on the world’s coffee supplies: Global warming seen threat to coffee production | Environment | Reuters.

Trip Report: Spike’s Coffee & Teas

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

This popular neighborhood café deserves the attention. They have shown a tremendous amount of consistency over the past few years; I can tell when an age-old review on CoffeeRatings.com still nails the espresso at some establishment over a year or two later. The price of a single espresso may have risen 40¢ since 2003, but the rest is the same.

In a small, humble space that goes relatively deep alongside wall-to-wall coffee beans. They have a few indoor tables and a few for the sidewalk outside as well. And of course, they offer a wide variety of loose teas and roasted beans for sale.

It's almost closing time at Spike's Spike's coffeeteria

The baristas here tamp well and are deliberately patient. They serve a modestly sized espresso with a dark brown, congealed crema of good thickness; it holds together well and persists throughout the cup. It has a very smooth texture with a robust, syrup-like body. Well-balanced, complex, and a rich flavor — tasting of tobacco with some herbal and spicy elements. Not a sweet cup, but there’s a lot going on. Served in stocky IPA cups.

Read the updated review.

Inside Spike's Coffee & Teas Spike's espresso

Trip Report: Mara’s Italian Pastry

Posted by on 25 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

This old school, Calabrian-themed Italian pastry shop once had a touch for good espresso under its longtime ownership. They owner had been using Graffeo beans religiously since 1985. However, by 2006 they switched to Lavazza beans and began making inferior espresso (though the two aren’t exactly cause-and-effect). I’ve been unable to confirm with certainty, but this looks like another example of a “sinking North Beach” (forget Venice!): a likely ownership change as the old guard retires from the business.

Such changes are arguably inevitable. For example, the Castro District, née Eureka Valley, is long past its Scandinavian immigrant roots. So as successive generations of Italian immigrants to North Beach move away, close up shop, and meld into the big American melting pot, the Italian flavor of North Beach gives way to new waves of immigration and social influences. North Beach may still be one of SF’s most vibrant and dynamic neighborhoods, with great social interactivity and nightlife. But as an Italian immigrant community, it’s been dying for years. All the more reason to enjoy what’s still there before it disappears.

Today Mara’s is merely an imitation of its former self, run by well-meaning-but-disconnected owners trying to eek out a tourist profit from its past glories. It’s is a small space with many pastries in the front window and inside counter. They have a few indoor café tables with some token outdoor seating — which you’d be lucky to get at most hours of the day. The new proprietors are a bit sloppy with the two-group Elektra Maxi here, and they seem not to really care about their espresso.

The resulting pour has a very thin, blonde crema and a weak body. While the espresso had always been mild here, the crema was much thicker and the flavor was full: of spices and some sweeter notes. Today, the flavor here is of the pedestrian variety of watery mild spices and pepper. Also gone are the Café New York-branded IPA cups in place of Lavazza-branded cups. The coffee and cannolis are still here, but the soul is gone.

Read the updated review.

Mara's lives on despite a change in ownership and quality Mara's pedestrian espresso

Coffee educators gladly spread the java gospel

Posted by on 23 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Quality Issues, Starbucks

Today’s Seattle Times posted an article on the 19-strong “coffee educators” at Starbucks: The Seattle Times: Business & Technology: Coffee educators gladly spread the java gospel. The article explains the role of coffee cupping at Starbucks as part of their basic training for coffee buyers and baristas.

The article also makes mention of Starbucks’ definitions of aroma, acidity (what we call brightness), body, and flavor — all of which have been ratings criteria on CoffeeRatings.com since 2003.

It’s more than just coffee — it’s a bowl for the soul

Posted by on 22 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Starbucks

InsideBayArea.com published an article today by a self-employed writer (and cooking class instructor) who named some of her favorite coffeehouses around the country: Inside Bay Area – It’s more than just coffee — it’s a bowl for the soul. Yes, she unimaginatively resorted to the ever-popular, ever-tedious caffeine riff (calling coffeehouses “caffeine dens”). But she claims to have sampled a lot of coffee drinks.

Among her listed favorites is SF’s own Tartine Bakery & Café, which, given their marginal espresso quality, seems like a Martha Stewart-inspired cop out. However, it’s clear from her stated criteria that she defines a “coffee drink” as something that requires a recipe. And the “vibe” and ambiance of the place counts as least as much as what is in the cup. She identifies her all-around favorite as Java on Fourth in Ketchum, Idaho — and primarily for the “buttery scones”; a custom drink consisting of coffee, hot chocolate, and cream (the “Bowl of Soup” … unless you’re a cat, beware of coffee served in bowls); and “tacky-but-cool patchwork leather easy chairs”.

It’s enough to drive an espresso nazi insane. I’m reminded of Tony Shalhoub in the brilliant art-versus-business foodie movie, The Big Night, where his character, a chef artiste named Primo, rants in outrage against the philistine tastes of the customers at a popular rival restaurant, “Do you know what happens in that restaurant every night? Rape! Rape! …The rape of cuisine.”

Of course, the brutal truth of the movie is that without attempting to cater to those philistine tastes, Primo’s restaurant would be a commercial failure. Any espresso shop owner who plans to stay in business also knows this. Could you imagine the equivalent of Primo as a barista? “What? You want a latte after 11am? And with caramel on top? In Italy, this is blasphemy!”

The fact is that mainstream America loves Starbucks and wouldn’t have it any other way, despite all their obvious shortcomings. I feel fortunate that the economic coffee ecosystem allows the occasional stellar café to survive just on the merits of its exceptional espresso; they will ultimately develop a loyal following that mass appeal cafés could only dream of. Now what to do about those nightmares of peppermint mochas and gingerbread lattes

Trip Report: Caffé Trieste, North Beach

Posted by on 22 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Yes, this is the San Francisco legend — a meeting place for writers of the 1950s Beat movement; where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for The Godfather; where espresso was first introduced to the West Coast in 1956.

This café is rather old-school Italian to the core — one of the fewer and fewer remaining places in North Beach that still operates like the Italian immigrant community of its original era. Today a generally older café crowd soaks in the opera and Italian music classics on the jukebox among several large, indoor tables (there’s never enough, so expect to share). There’s even a holdover phone booth in the middle of it all. In good weather, and often in bad, their outdoor sidewalk seating is used like a casual Italian living room. It may be a little rough on the edges, but it has a definite neighborhood feel. Even without the weekend accordion sing-alongs.

Lounging in front of the 1950's original: Caffé Trieste Inside Caffé Trieste

Caffé Trieste has been serving espresso from this location for over 50 years, and it generally has not changed much since then — for better or worse. Using a two-group La San Marco, they produce a shot with a rather thin but rich, dark brown crema. It has a pungent-to-smoky flavor from an often thick-bodied, almost syrup-like pour. (Occasionally the body can run thinner.) As if there was any other way, they classically serve espresso in wide-mouthed, brown ACF ceramic cups.

As Caffé Trieste continues to expand as a chain — due to modern business expectations for a decent retail coffee outfit — check out the original while you still can. Although the original Caffé Trieste has maintained much of its character despite the changing demographics of the neighborhood, it’s still part of a dying breed to enjoy while it lasts. Next door you’ll also find their shop — which sells coffee, espresso machines, and various coffee accessories.

Read the updated review.

Caffé Trieste's trusty La San Marco The Caffé Trieste espresso - thinning on the top like a lot of patrons

Coffee Snobs Move on to Homemade Roasts

Posted by on 21 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Roasting

The Northwest Indiana Times ran a story today on the growth of those freaks of coffee consumption, home roasters: Northwest Indiana News: nwitimes.com – Coffee Snobs Move on to Homemade Roasts. Home roasting has been around for a while. In fact, a long, long while. Its most recent resurgence has come about over the past decade or so. However, home coffee roasting was pretty much the norm for centuries up until commercial coffee roasters arrived on the scene in the 20th century.

Even so, it’s about time the mainstream media acknowledged the existence of true coffee snobs. Last month I got into a debate with syndicated columnist and “The Wine Guy”, Brian Goodell, that coffee snobs did, in fact, exist. It’s just that wine snobs are little like the Wampanoag around Plymouth Rock, thinking that the Pilgrims who just got off the Mayflower are just an aberration.

However, there’s one comment in the article I have to question: “America’s most finicky coffee drinkers tout their caffeine connoisseurship in many ways.” Caffeine connoisseurship? Excuse me? Why do unimaginative writers always insist on resorting to lame jazz riffs on the word “coffee” by interjecting the word “caffeine”? This is akin to calling a “wine snob” an “alcohol connoisseur” — which takes on a wholly different meaning.

Also in the news today from the Associated Press: Coffee roasting how-to.

UPDATE: November 24, 2006:
This story has also been recycled by other news agencies: Their cup of tea: home-roasted coffee – The Boston Globe.

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