As the number of specialty coffee shops tripled over the past decade, cafés and coffeehouses have become a magnet for today’s youth in a way we haven’t seen since the invention of PacMan. Starbucks’ day care must be just around the corner. OK, the Philadelphia Inquirer did not print that part, but they did print this: KRT Wire | 11/21/2006 | Coffee is the brew of a new crew of youngsters.
It beats drugs, alcohol, smoking, and sugary sodas, and parents seem to encourage it. Now many kids are buckling to the peer pressure with every paper cup.
ChannelNewsAsia published an article today on Coca-Cola’s venture into coffee distribution in Singapore: Channelnewsasia.com – Coca-Cola ventures into premium specialty coffee. Coca-Cola has been investing in coffee service for quite some time. In previous posts here, we’ve covered their development of Far Coast pod systems — among other patents. As one of Wall Street’s darling growth stocks, and a stock represented in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Coke continually seeks out new revenue streams to keep the party train going.
Some at the company are banking heavily on future growth in coffee — by essentially leveraging their existing beverage distribution channels to also support barista-free coffee service for restaurants and cafés. (Despite oddities like Coke Blāk, they show no interest in direct retail of coffee products.) Of course, a company like Coca-Cola typically has senior vice presidents and their minions at odds with each other over company strategy, so anything is possible. But for the past few years, the momentum seems to be in the coffee lobbyists’ favor.
Normally I’d be quite skeptical of their efforts — and, in particular, any effort to make decent espresso from pods or systems that operate like a push-button soda fountain. However, a couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of having dinner with Kenneth Davids, of CoffeeReview (and author of one of my favorite coffee books, Home Coffee Roasting). David has been consulting for Coca-Cola for five years now — and they’ve even made him a full-time job offer to leave his coffee consulting practice behind. For Coca-Cola to make moves like that, they have to be serious about coffee — and David would lend them instant credibility. So this is progress that’s worth keeping an eye on.
There’s been a lot of “he said, she said” going on between Starbucks and representatives of the Ethiopian coffee trade lately. Ethiopian Sidamo and Harar (two generally excellent bean stocks, mind you) were up for trademark protection when a “certain voting member” of the U.S. National Coffee Association (or NCA, a business interest legacy of coffee’s darker ages) effectively blocked passage at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Passage of the trademark requests would have enabled Ethiopian coffee farmers to secure more of their coffee’s retail price plus access to additional demand of some 48 million pounds of the stuff. Fingers started pointing, beginning with U.K.-based, anti-poverty charity, Oxfam — who singled out Starbucks as instigating the NCA block. Oxfam called Starbucks “corporate bullies”. Starbucks responded with denial, saying that they had nothing to do with the block vote.
I’ve refrained from posting any articles on the issue until the dust settled a bit, and today the online site for the German magazine, Der Spiegel, seems to have done the best job yet of explaining the intricate problems and tradeoffs behind this showdown: A Hot Cup of Money: Starbucks, Ethiopia, and the Coffee Branding Wars – International – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News.
Back in August we reported on Caffè Nero’s expansion plans beyond the U.K. to the rest of Europe. For my recent travels to Portugal, I passed through London Heathrow Airport and had the chance to finally review a Caffè Nero for myself. (OK, you always have to wonder about airport espresso, but I’ll get to that.)
Tatler magazine, a U.K. society and style guide, once claimed that Caffè Nero has “The best espresso this side of Milan”. Caffè Nero loved the quote so much that they stamped it on the back of all their employee T-shirts. But talk about a back-handed compliment. In my experience, Milan has some of the weakest and worst espresso — and some of the most inexperienced and oblivious baristas — in all of Italy. (An hour’s drive to nearby Torino, for example, and the espresso is noticeably better.)
Caffè Nero has two Heathrow airport locations at Terminal 1: one small kiosk just inside the terminal, and one large café deep in the terminal’s mini-mall. They claim to charge the same as their in-city locations (1.30£, or 3€ or $3 U.S. — be wary of the clueless tourists in line asking for change in their own currencies). In the U.S., I never find the espresso quality at airport versions of cafés to come close to their normal retail locations. However, that’s much less of an issue in Europe. And I was given no reason to believe that the espresso quality at the airport Caffè Nero was significantly different from what I might find at, say, their Chelsea location.
Using a four-group E91 Faema Diplomat (at both locations), they serve espresso as a double shot by default. It has a richer, dark brown crema that’s not terribly thick. Bodywise, it’s somewhat watery and thin considering. Flavorwise, it is quite bitter and dark in the Martha & Bros roast style: smoky tobacco with some ash and pungency. Even when you order your shot as a ristretto, it comes shorter and has slightly better body but still falls short on the same crema and flavor.
While I would order one of these over anything in, say, a Starbucks anyday, I wouldn’t go out of my way for a cup. Even if flights through Torino are far more impractical.
Back in July we reported on Illy‘s strategy for opening licensed Illy Espressamente cafés across Europe. During my travels in Portugal last month, I had the pleasure of encountering my first one in the unlikeliest of places.
In the perimeter wall of the recently remodelled Praça de Touros do Campo Pequeno bullfighting arena, this fully owned & operated Illy shop actually serves one of the best espresso shots in Lisbon. Not that I have anything against Illy — they do a great many things right and well. But in America, I am so used to Illy beans that have travelled thousands of miles from Trieste, leeching out freshness and flavor in their air-tight cans. So by the time they reach San Francisco, they remain beans of the highest quality — just a bit on the stale side. This, as it turns out, marks the difference between Illy in America versus Illy in Europe.
As you would expect, the café has a newly designed, modern interior — spread out on two floors. The walls and aisles are decked with magazines, artwork, and Illy coffee cans on display. At the bar they offer a wide variety of espresso-based drinks, plus the usual European café options of hard liquor. Here the ristretto is listed separately from the standard café, and the café menu image of the café corretto shows a bottle of Nonino grappa — so you know you’re in good hands.
Using a modern, three-group La Spaziale (one of the nicer models you almost never find in San Francisco), they pull an espresso with a great aroma — better than you get from Illy beans in the U.S. It has a thin layer of dark brown crema — surprisingly thin considering all other indications of quality. (It’s the one thing they didn’t get quite right.) The cup is flavorful, has a full body, and tastes of an herbal pungency and smoke. Served in Illy logo IPA cups with some coffee grit at the bottom, it still beats the pants off any Illy offerings in the U.S. And all for a mere 0,75€.
Yesterday’s Toronto Star featured a few interviews on what it takes to make a great espresso — including the opinions of Stuart Ross, an award-winning barista and co-owner of Bulldog Coffee in Toronto, and Coulter Jones, the 2006 Canadian barista champion from Vancouver’s Caffe Artigiano.
In my last post on espresso in Portugal, I reviewed a handful of notable cafés in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. For this installment, I review notable cafés in other parts of Portugal. Namely, futher north … where I generally found the espresso to be even better than that in Lisbon.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Café Nicola||Rua Ferreira Borges, 35||Coimbra||7.10||7.50||7.300|
|Pastelaria Toledo||Largo da Portagem, 15||Coimbra||6.80||7.50||7.100|
|Café Calhambeque||Rua de São Sebastiáo, 15||Porto||7.40||7.00||7.200|
|Majestic Café||Rua de Santa Catarina, 112||Porto||7.00||8.00||7.500|
|A Brasileira||Largo Barão São Martinho, 1||Braga||7.80||8.30||8.050|
The sample cafés chosen for this post come from the central (Coimbra) and northern (Porto, Braga) parts of the country. They represent a mix of the classic European grande café (Majestic Café, A Brasileira), the local favorite (Nicola Café), and the random find (Pastelaria Toledo, Café Calhambeque).
I was warned in advance that Coimbra was a bit of a run-down town with little going for it outside of the Universidade de Coimbra, which has been in continuous operation since 1290. However, I found Portugal’s third largest city to have a lot more going for it beyond university students in capes.
This is one of the best cafés in town — with popular table seating in front along the commercial Rua Ferreira Borges. Using a three-group Magister Kappa machine, they pull espresso shots with a rich brown crema of a decent thickness. With a fully textured froth, it persists as you sip. The body is slightly weaker than you’d expect, given all other indications. But it has a bold, dark flavor — more of cloves. Still, the Nicola Café stand-up cafés seem to oddly serve better espresso than you can find at their grander sit-down locations.
Read the review.
This café/bakery is located in the main square just across the Mondego River. It is often packed with locals and none of the few tourists in the area (particularly on weekends), which often says something. Much of the local appeal must be for their baked goods, which are fantastic. They make a chocolate croissant that simply dissolves in your mouth. Using a three-group Brasilia Century, they pull shots with a not-too-thick, light-to-medium brown mottled crema. It has a decent body, with mostly a spice and herbal flavor with some woodiness. Served in Delta Diamante logo Costa Verde cups.
Read the review.
Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, or Oporto (adding the “the” article to call it “The Port” to the Portuguese), is most famous for the production of fortified port wine from up the Douro River. (The Douro Valley is the world’s oldest designated wine-producing region, with Port being its most popular export.) The famous port wine lodges reside across the river from Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia, but Porto is an interesting town unto itself.
The saying goes that Lisbon is where Portugal has fun, but Porto is where it goes to work. Porto’s industrial and gothic feel reminds me of Italy’s Torino to Lisbon’s Roma.
This is one of those classic examples of where you’d expect some overpriced, foul-quality espresso stand in the U.S. — given its tourist-friendly proximity to the entrance of the Porto Sé (cathedral). However, in Portugal it’s just the opposite experience. Run by an owner who wants to be a fisherman full-time (he helps pay for his ‘habit’ by running this place), this small café serves epsresso from a two-group Brasilia Portofino. For 0,60€, you get an espresso with a rich, thick, deep brown crema, a decent body, and a richer flavor of cloves and some herbal notes. A typical pleasant surprise you find in random cafés in northern Portugal.
This Porto institution has been in operation as a grand café of Europe since 1921. With the Imperial Café converted into a McDonald’s and the local A Brasileira in transitional ownership/use as a restaurant, this is one of the very few remaining grand cafés in operation in Porto. The place comes with weathered palacial decoration: grand mirrors, chandeliers, and sculpted artwork. They have an old brass dome Brasilia in the bar area at the center of the room (there’s some limited outdoor table seating as well), but they currently use a red, three-group Faema E92 Elite marked as ‘Selecção Diamante’ by Delta Coffee. They produce espresso with a somewhat thinner layer of a deep brown crema. It has a great aroma, with flavors of cloves, tobacco, and a little oakiness. Pricey at 1,50€, but then you get the posh environment plus a Delta chocolate served on the side. When it comes to milk frothing, they produce a significant amount for Portugal (which isn’t all that much) — though it consists of slightly large bubbles and no microfoam.
Read the review.
Braga, along with neighborhing Guimarães, are the more sophisticated, non-smoking cousins to the central and southern parts of Portugal. Although small in size, they carry much more in stature — given their recognized roles as the religious heart and political birthplace of Portugal, respectively.
In terms of espresso quality, I’ve perhaps saved one of the best for last. This is yet another prominent city café in A Brasileira’s line-up. It shows its age a little more, eventhough it still dominates a prime city corner near the Praça da República. Older and a bit worn, inside it displays dingy mirrors and aged chairs on two levels. Using a old, plain-looking, two-group Gaggia, they pull shots with a great aroma. It has a rich, dark brown crema of considerable body, and the cup is weak only on flavor — which is a little mild and missing pungency. Flavorwise, its light herbal flavor is accented by some woodiness. A mere 0,55€ served by old school wait staff.
Read the review.
These only represent a few of the cafés I sampled in Portugal. I’ve overlooked many others I’ve tried in these main cities — plus more remote towns such as Óbidos, Alcobaça, Guimarães, Évora, Viseu, Cascais, Sintra, Peso da Regua, Monsanto, etc. However, I sampled enough to notice a tendency for the corpo, or body, of the local espresso to improve as you travel north.
I also sampled enough espresso at cafés, restaurants, soccer stadiums, and other venues to note that quality and prices are generally consistent throughout — whereas they wildly vary within the U.S. And although I certainly have to give Italy the edge for a better cup, I may be hard-pressed to find other countries where the single espresso is so widely held to such high regard. Finland may have to be next on my travel list to top it…
Decaffeinated coffee was once treated a lot like robusta: as some kind of crude, faux coffee that caters to consumers with the misfortune of a biological defect. But just as high-quality, expertly prepared robusta beans started appearing on the market from places such as India (for blending into quality roasts for espresso, etc.), decaf coffee — or at least the drinkers of the stuff — started getting some love and respect: Demand is growing for rich decaf coffee (syndicated from the Los Angeles Times; new working link).
As I mentioned in a previous post, earlier this year, decaffeinated Fair Trade and organic specialty beans were being bought up en masse by the likes of Wal-Mart. Although I never buy decaf coffee for myself, I typically buy it for caffeine-free friends who come over for dinner (and most often I buy Stumptown decaf beans from Ritual Roasters). And I have noticed that the quality and variety of decaf beans have become much more appealing. When I have good decaf left over, now I don’t hesitate putting it in a stovetop espresso maker or French press.
There’s something purist about good decaf coffee that I like. With so many people who primarily crave coffee for its caffeine buzz, the quality of the coffee can seem irrelevant. In the world of beer, this is like the difference between buying a microbrew for its flavor versus buying a 40 of Colt 45 for the dead brain cells. But let’s not take this analogy too far — I still don’t see the point of non-alcoholic beer. Just as I don’t get why some vegetarian restaurants serve tofu made to look and taste just like chicken. That’s just crazy.
In a previous post, I noted some generalizations about the espresso in Portugal. For this post, I’ve selected a few notable cafés to review in Portugal’s political and cultural capital, Lisbon.
|Name||Address||Neighborhood||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|A Brasileira||Rua Garrett, 120||Chiado||6.60||7.00||6.800|
|Café Nicola||Rua 1° Dezembro, 20||Rossio||6.50||7.50||7.000|
|Pastéis de Belém||Rua Belém, 84 a 92||Belém||6.00||7.00||6.500|
|Terreiro do Paço||Praça do Comércio||Baixa||7.00||7.50||7.250|
The first two are famous examples of Portugal’s historical grand cafés. Both have spawned national franchises. The third, Pastéis de Belém, is classically Portuguese in that it is far more famous for its baked goods (a pastelaria) than for its coffee. The last, Terreiro do Paço, represents one of Lisbon’s many modern restaurants. In 2001, Condé Nast Traveller listed it among the world’s top 50 restaurants.
This 1800s throwback is one of the most historic cafés in Lisbon. It’s packed with tourists and Chiado shoppers (and ultimately Bairro Alto clubgoers) for about as long as its doors are open. There are deep rows of table seating inside, though most prefer the outside seats beneath parasols. There you can sit next to a statue of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. They use two-group semi-automatics from both Gaggia and Visacrem (a Spanish-made System KB 200). With them, they produce shots with a good aroma and a medium brown crema of modest thickness. The body is fine, but the cup lacks flavor depth to be truly great. Classically cheap at 0,50€.
This is the mothership Café Nicola in the Baixa, with a Nicola Gourmet just up the block (definitely recommended). Unlike A Brasileira, Café Nicola expanded beyond a chain of branded cafés and kiosks to licensed coffee service for numerous independent cafés. Given that Café Nicola is my favorite among the major Portuguese chains and coffee distributors, it’s an expansion strategy that has worked well for them.
There’s a row of café tables inside the front door with more restaurant-style seating at the back. Plus some counter service and ample sidewalk seating. Using a three-group Magister Kappa XT and a three-group Promac, they pull shots with a solid, darker brown crema with full textured froth. It has a deeper, darker flavor — more elements of cloves. However, bodywise, it’s still a bit watery. Particularly when compared with their owned-and-operated cafés that you can find in indoor malls — such as at the Armazéns do Chiado just down the block. Shockingly, the mothership café of this quality chain has the worst, and most expensive, espresso of the lot.
Since 1837, its namesake is perhaps the most famous pastry in all of Portugal. Started as a church fundraiser by nuns, the recipe is carefully guarded. And they crank out pans among pans of flaky crusted pastéis, served warm. The site is cavernous, with gigantic rooms expanding as you explore further and further back from the busy front counter. The place comes off like New Orleans’ Cafe du Monde when you consider their pilgrimmages for begniets and chicory coffee. Here they serve espresso that has a thin layer of medium brown crema. It’s a touch watery with a flavor of mild spice. Served in Costa Verde Porcelana de Hotel cups branded for Delta Coffee.
This excellent restaurant covers a couple of levels at the west side of the otherwise ghostly Praça do Comércio. It is quiet, event dining, with well-prepared food derived from native Portuguese ingredients. For espresso, they produce a good medium brown, textured crema. It has a more pungent flavor for Delta Coffee, and they serve it with four unique sugars (a sugar menu?!), a small cup of chocolate, and a small serving of crème brûlée.
In Portugal, restaurants serve espresso that is every bit as good as what the famous pasterlarias or cafés serve. Therefore it’s not a surprise that their shot was the best among those reviewed here.
Still to come… espresso ratings and reviews from other towns and cities in Portugal.
Here’s an item in today’s news: Nestle reportedly to open luxury coffee shop in Brazil – MarketWatch. In some parts of the world, Nestlé’s Nespresso system, at least on the surface, appears to be making money hand-over-fist for them. Part of Nestlé’s strategy has been to open up Nespresso stores in places such as Geneva, Zurich, Vienna, Paris, and Moscow.
Lisbon is no exception. The Nespresso store in Lisbon’s Chiado district offers window displays of the latest Nespresso machines. Inside, once you look past all the customers and curious onlookers in the store, you encounter a lighted wall of machine choices. And in back, where the store is particularly jammed, you notice the many clerks, buzzing around like busy worker bees in front of a Nespresso refill “hive” of sorts. Add the number of Nespresso bags you see shoppers carrying in the streets, and you realize that the store’s success is perhaps more than a novelty fad.
This posed a great mystery to me. How could a culture so dependent on good espresso seem so smitten, at least from what I could tell, with the mediocre quality of an at-home pod machine and it’s pre-ground, pre-packaged coffee? Personally, I would buy a simple Bialetti long before I’d buy one of these systems.
To solve this mystery, I think you have to start by looking a little into the Portuguese psyche. Different cultures will have different motivations, of course. But the reasons behind Lisbon’s unexpected fascination with Nespresso may have parallels in other countries where sales are healthy.
First of all, the Portuguese are infatuated with modern design. Bright orange is arguably the national color. And a little unlike Italy, where historical preservation carries a tremendous reverence, the Portuguese are less reluctant to throw out the old to make way for the new. Particularly when it comes to their personal living environment. (And Lisbon is perhaps one of the greatest contrast studies between the very old and very new, coexisting side-by-side.) So from a modernist perspective, the idea of a cubic Nespresso machine in the home is quite aspirational.
Another factor: historically, the Portuguese have not made espresso at home — other than the stovetop moka pot. Good espresso is ubiquitous in Portugal’s streets, so there hasn’t been a motivation to make something at home that’s half as good. It’s a similar story in Italy. However, the quality of espresso from typical home machines has improved greatly over the past decade. And when you combine Nespresso’s modern design with its compact size (interior space being another thing in short supply in Portugal), the home espresso machine becomes an achievable luxury item.
I don’t see Nespresso having the same appeal in America as it does in, say, Portugal. American kitchens have grown much larger — like our SUVs and dinner plates — to accommodate bigger appliances. Modern design is nice, but it’s not an obsession here. And Americans primarily drink coffee at home — and have for decades. If anything, Americans are just now learning to appreciate more of the joys of having a coffee out.
But if you are ever accosted by Nespresso salespeople while walking through a kitchen store (as I have been multiple times), do yourself a favor and just tell them it’s the best coffee you’ve ever had and you’re already stocked up for the winter. I unfortunately learned this the hard way.