December 2006

Monthly Archive

Italy: Cappuccino Obtains Certificate of Quality

Posted by on 29 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Add Milk, Quality Issues

The Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano (INEI), or the National Italian Espresso Institute, was born with the certification of quality standards for the Italian Espresso in 1998. Today they announced new certification standards for the Cappuccino: Agenzia Giornalistica Italia – News In English – Italian Products: Cappuccino Obtains Certificate of Quality.

Organizations such as the INEI really love their coffee, and one of their more commendable actions in recent years has been the development and publication of quality standards. Not that every espresso or cappuccino should taste the same. But it’s painfully clear that the great majority of beverages served under the “espresso” or “cappuccino” names are third-rate impostors at best. (Earlier this year, I published a book review on Espresso Italiano Tasting — a highly recommended standards guide developed by the Istituto Internazionale Assaggiatori Caffè [IIAC], or the International Institute of Coffee Tasters, for the INEI.)

According to the INEI, “traditional cappuccinos are made up of 25ml of espresso and 125ml of milk steam-whipped milk starting with cold milk (3-5°C) and brought to a temperature of about 55°C and then poured on Italian Certified Espresso in a cup of 150-160ml. The milk must be fresh bovine with a minimum of 3.2% proteins and 3.5% fat, and steam-whipped in a specific way.”

How many American cappuccinos would fail their test? Probably about as many that are substandard. Perhaps the Italians are laying defenses in anticipation of Starbucks‘ coming amphibious assault of mass-produced, diluted-quality espresso drinks.

UPDATE: January 1, 2007
Today’s Guardian (Manchester, England) picked up on this story and published an article of their own on the topic: Italy puts froth back into cappuccino | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited. In it, they underscore the INEI’s desire to counter the literal dilution of the cappuccino standard — as more recently re-defined by the drowning-in-milk cappuccino, popularized by café chains such as Starbucks.


UPDATE: Sept. 25, 2007
The Telegraph (UK) published a slightly updated take on this story: Italy aims to standardise the perfect espresso – Telegraph.

Does “Fair Trade” imply everything else is “Unfair Trade”?

Posted by on 29 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

One of coffee’s big stories of the past year has been the seemingly sudden discovery and public awareness of Fair Trade coffee. Twenty years after the founding of Equal Exchange, Fair Trade coffee awareness reached critical mass this year in the U.S., the U.K., and many other nations around the world.

This awareness began with a select group of activists who recognized the inequities that globalization was bringing about in the world. Then it was a number of coffee industry specialists. Then more social and environmental activists. And finally, in the past year or so, it has taken hold with more of the mainstream: socially and environmentally conscious consumers, bloggers, journalists, the coffee-obsessed dinner guest, etc. But to read newspapers and blogs in the past year, you’d think the only controversy surrounding Fair Trade was that there were still places that sold or used coffee that wasn’t certified Fair Trade.

The good news is that after years of public campaigns to help make people aware of the plight of coffee farmers who cannot make a living wage under the current systems, and the many ills of industrialized coffee farming, consumers are now responding en masse to the concepts of Fair Trade. Consumers are now asking questions about where their coffee comes from and how their decisions affect the people and land elsewhere in the world.

The bad news is that there are now millions of people entirely new to the concept of Fair Trade. Many of these newly initiated consumers have essentially afforded Fair Trade with monopoly on ethical and sustainable coffee farming practices — at least subconsciously. Some even go so far as to absurdly believe that to use, sell, or purchase coffee that isn’t certified Fair Trade is unquestionably immoral, irresponsible, and destructive.

The Fair Trade Mafia

Earlier this year, I recall a specific incident where Eton Tsuno, owner and head barista at SF’s (regrettably) now-defunct Café Organica, was cornered by coffee consumers who complained that only 80% of the coffees he used were certified Fair Trade. Here’s a coffee expert who knew a tremendous amount about the industry, quality coffee, and its various social and ethical implications. And yet he was being talked down to by boycotters, armed with a flimsy three-paragraph article on Fair Trade coffee, who essentially accused him of unethical practices over 20% of his coffee supplies. This was insane — and yet another example where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

As with most problems with worldwide social, economic, and environmental implications, there aren’t simplistic solutions. Nor are there convenient black-or-white decisions. The reality is a lot more confusing for the average consumer. If you asked Frederick Engels how to address the huge, worldwide problem of worker exploitation in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Communism sounded like a pretty good idea on paper. But you would probably get a wholly different story when asking someone who lived under Communist rule for how well it worked out in practice.

“Look for the Fair Trade label” seems like the most obvious, simplistic strategy for the consumer who can only scratch the surface of this issue — in a busy life full of dizzyingly complex ethical consumer decisions. However, Fair Trade has also hurt a number of other coffee producers who hold practices at least as ethical and sustainable (locking them out of access to certain markets, placing conform-or-perish ultimatums on some family farms, requiring thousands of dollars in certification fees, creating price ceilings for growers, not rewarding higher quality, etc.). Furthermore, Fair Trade itself is also rife with problems. For example, earlier this year, the London Financial Times reported on several problems with Fair Trade, including weak enforcement of certification, allowing farmers to plant in protected rainforests, and certifying growers who do not pay their employees a living wage.

Ethics beyond Fair Trade

Since Fair Trade’s origin, some professionals in the coffee industry have said that something is better than nothing, while others have long stated Fair Trade is worse than nothing at all. Perhaps one of the greatest statements on Fair Trade’s shortcomings came this year from Chicago’s Intelligentsia, one of America’s premiere specialty coffee roasters and home to the 2006 U.S. Barista Champion. Intelligentsia found enough problems and inconsistencies with Fair Trade that they opted to define and pursue their own alternative certification system, called Intelligensia Direct Trade™, and no longer do business with Fair Trade. Yes, it turns out that there are many alternatives to Fair Trade — just without a commonly recognized “brand” label.

All of this isn’t to scare off people from wanting to improve matters by patronizing Fair Trade. Fair Trade has done a number of great things that have improved things for coffee quality, coffee growers, and the environment. However, Fair Trade is not a cure-all, and it’s not without its controversy and shortcomings. The Fair Trade brownshirts may have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean that they will succeed at achieving them. Unfortunately, at least today, there are no ethical shortcuts to solve the global coffee problem — consumers still need to read all the facts and make their own decisions for themselves.

UPDATE: May 15, 2011
In the 4 1/2 years since we wrote this post, there’s fortunately been a lot more questioning and debate about who Fair Trade is truly helping and where it the program has failed, if not where it has outright backfired. Yesterday’s National Post (Canada) offers just one of many counter perspectives, this one particularly on the negative impact of Fair Trade on African coffee farmers: Fair-trade coffee fix.

There’s a war brewing, but taste is still the loser on America’s coffee front

Posted by on 26 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Leave it to the Australians to best capture the state of Big Coffee in America, as reported today on Melbourne’s The Age: There’s a war brewing, but taste is still the loser on America’s coffee front. The article points out America’s escalating obsession with quality coffee, but (IMO, correctly) notes how poor the baseline coffee quality level is in this country. (With no exaggeration, Australia has much higher standards for coffee and espresso in their country.) In effect, what we have in the U.S. is an all-out retail war for who can dominate the mass market for underwhelming, underachieving coffee — to win the hearts, minds, and dollars of those who believe good coffee is meant for lattes and paper cups.

In particular, the article takes a third-person perspective on the Starbucks vs. Dunkin’ Donuts celebrity death match. In one corner are the aspirational Starbucks drinkers, who are driven by a need to, ironically, express their individuality and non-conformity … and see Dunkin’ Donuts as too stripped down and lacking style. In the other corner are the Dunkin’ Donuts loyalists, who take pride in not being duped by fancy names (call it “Fretalian”) … and fancier prices for the privilege of stumbling over them.

And yet there’s a third party in all this, the spectators, who just want better coffee — regardless of the lifestyle image supposedly projected by their choice of where to drink it. For us, watching Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts duke it out is a bit like watching two inebriated women in an eye-gouging, mud-wrestling cat fight trying to settle the Miss Congeniality crown. The absurdity of the situation keeps us laughing. That is, until we want to take a break for a decent coffee and discover that our favorite café sold the business to one of these louts. And then we start crying.

Italian coffee company illy looks to expand with luxury

Posted by on 25 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Today’s International Herald Tribune published an article on Illy’s growth strategy of luxury cafés: Italian coffee company illy looks to expand with luxury – Business – International Herald Tribune. (Ignore the article’s initial, erroneous paragraph for a moment: Francesco Illy clearly did not “invent the espresso.”) Illy’s café chain is called Espressamente. We reviewed a Lisbon Espressamente here last month.

With Starbucks planning to soon infiltrate Italy, Illy executives describe how they plan for growth by appealing to a more distinguishing espresso clientele. More power to them. Given my limited experiences at the Lisbon Espressamente, it makes Starbucks seem a bit like slumming it (and that’s not just the coffee quality).

While Illy won’t ever reach the ubiquity of Starbucks (nor should they ever try, IMO), Illy also runs circles around Starbucks in the area of quality controls. Illy has scientifically perfected the art of consistency, whereas the Starbucks in just S.F. vary wildly in espresso ratings from 2.6 to 6.2. Illy’s strategy may not poise them for world domination. But they seem positioned for a high-quality niche that could be very successful for them.

Illy’s greatest hurdle will likely be replicating the quality level of their coffee — or at least its freshness — in the Americas. Despite all their quality controls, weeks-old coffee shipped from Trieste is still weeks-old coffee.

Trip Report: Barefoot Coffee Roasters

Posted by on 23 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Fair Trade, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

As a former resident of Palo Alto for several years, a trip down Santa Clara’s Stevens Creek Boulevard conjures up images of discount mattress stores, Denny’s, and strip malls as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately, that’s commercial real estate in the Silicon Valley — regardless of the hidden gems tucked away in Northern California’s answer to The O.C.

One of those gems is Barefoot Coffee Roasters — three-time winner for best coffee in the local free weekly, Metro (and one of those rare occasions where a popularity contest gets it right). Despite all my peripheral encounters with Barefoot and its well-deserved accolades, I finally paid my first visit this week.

Livin' la vida Silicon Valley: Barefoot is sandwiched between strip mall bagels and burritos Barefoot's inviting counterspace, with Paul behind the register

Barefoot starts with Andy Newbom (owner and CEO, or “Chief Espresso Officer”), and I couldn’t think of a better person for the role. I first met him as emcee at the last Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC). There are many great inside stories of how he’s offered his time, energy, and even his spare bedroom to support the training and development of budding, high-quality cafés throughout the West. But most of all, he exudes an infectious enthusiasm for good espresso. Andy visibly loves good espresso the way Homer Simpson loves donuts.

Outside this small café there are several sidewalk tables and chairs for scoping out the nearby freeway traffic. Inside, there’s a handful of artful tables and sofas — and a long corridor leading past their famous Probat roaster to their less-famous bathroom with its brooding, Central American-themed mural walls.

Eugenia Chien, Barefoot master roaster; would you believe this was a candid shot in front of the Probat? No trip to Barefoot is complete without a viewing of the bathroom wall art

Barefoot is religious about the need for, and its support of, professional barista training, and it shows. They have mounted numerous framed training certifications on the back wall behind their three-group La Marzocco GB/5 station. The barista will demonstrate a detailed level of quality control — rejecting shots that didn’t come out to their professional standards.

For espresso, I first sampled their Bare Espresso — a double shot made with a standard blend ($2). They served it with a medium brown crema without distinctive markings or froth, and it was a little lighter in color and thickness than I expected (or experienced at the WRBC’s The 4th Machine). The cup had a sweet, herbal earthiness with a lot of bright, acidic notes, but the body was surprisingly lighter.

Andy Newbom, WRBC emcee and Barefoot Chief Espresso Officer Quality control at Barefoot required multiple attempts to get it just right

I moved on to their Single Estate Espresso ($3.50) — a variant to their usual blend, typically made with a rotation of estate coffees (as modelled in very few other cafés, such as Palo Alto’s Caffé del Doge). As a single origin espresso, as in the case with single malt scotch, it often has a very distinctive, unique, and intense flavor profile. The day’s offering was a Panama Finca Hartmann, which they recommended with spouts (as opposed to a naked portafilter).

One of the things I really like about Barefoot is that they don’t succumb to the latest popularized specialty coffee trends. For example, some baristas have recently glommed on to the (not-so-new) Cup of Excellence phenomenon — as if Cup of Excellence-competing coffees have a monopoly on unique, distinctive, high-quality flavor profiles. But Barefoot knows there is plenty more out there to choose from, like Finca Hartmann. (We’ve arguably witnessed a similar phenomenon in the past year with socio/eco-conscious types discovering Fair Trade coffees en masse and attributing it with a monopoly on ethical and sustainable growing practices — putting a blind eye to Fair Trade’s many shortcomings and problems.)

The Finca Hartmann espresso hit paydirt. Not that the Bare Espresso was a slouch, but here the cup came with dark red and brown flecks in its thinner crema (expectedly thinner, given its single-bean profile). It had a more robust aroma, a round and robust body, and an intense sweetness with a sharp but pleasant bite at the back of the throat to complement its herbal pungency. Outstanding.

Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Roasters (Single Estate Espresso).

Barefoot's 'Bare Espresso' - not as much to write home about as you'd think Barefoot's single estate espresso: this time it's Panama Finca Hartmann

Kona purists win Big Island vote

Posted by on 21 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues

Supporting the idea that consumers are willing to vote for better quality coffee with their pocketbooks, the Hawaii County Council voted 8-1 in favor of requiring coffee labelled as a “Kona blend” to contain a minimum of 75% Kona coffee instead of the current 10% requirement: Kona purists win Big Island vote – Pacific Business News (Honolulu):.

Because Kona coffee is sold at a premium relative to most of the world’s coffee bean stocks, some roasters and distributors were concerned that the resulting price increase would adversely affect sales. (Kona blends seem most targeted to the tourist set.) While Kona blends might now be priced out of some consumer markets, other growers believe the value of the Kona designation is currently diluted by today’s cheaper blends.

UPDATE: December 26, 2006
In a not entirely unrelated article today, the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported on the experiences of new coffee pickers at Kona plantations: starbulletin.com | News | /2006/12/26/.


UPDATE: January 10, 2007
The Kona Coffee Farmers Association came out with a statement in support of the recently passed measure, calling the objections of some coffee processors “scare tactics”: Hawaii Reporter: Hawaii Reporter – Battle Continues to Ensure Kona Coffee is Authentic and Properly Labeled So Consumers Know What They Are Buying.

CoffeeGeek – Editor’s Choice Awards 2006 – Espresso

Posted by on 20 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

A couple days ago, CoffeeGeek.com announced their 2006 Editors’ Choice awards for espresso: CoffeeGeek – Editor’s Choice Awards 2006 – Espresso. Award categories include espresso machines in different price ranges, coffee grinders, bean blends, and espresso-making accessories.

If you still need holiday gifts for that special coffee mutant in your life, get your credit card ready. (I hope my wife is reading this…)

Trip Report: Caffé Trieste, SOMA

Posted by on 18 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This newest location of the Bay Area chain is the sophisticated sister to the rest — perhaps a nod to the residential growth in SOMA as China Basin fills. A long, windowed, sidewalk-facing café with dark painted walls, dark wood furniture, elegant lamps, opera music, and plenty of stands selling coffee accessories: Moka pots, coffee cups, etc.

Approaching Caffé Trieste in SOMA Caffé Trieste's elegant interior

Using dual two-group La San Marco machines, they pull shots with a generally decent crema that shows signs of intense heat: it’s split between a dark brown center with whiter heat spots from under the spouts. (I’d normally attribute that to machine tuning for a new place, but with Caffé Trieste they like high brewing temperatures.) The cup doesn’t have much aroma, but the body is adequate. Flavorwise, it is dark, smoky, and carries tobacco. It has some sweetness, but it remains just this side of ashy. Served in classic brown ACF cups.

Read the review of Caffé Trieste, SOMA.

Running dual two-group La San Marco machines The Caffé Trieste, SOMA espresso

Trip Report: The French Laundry

Posted by on 14 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee

An espresso review for a restaurant where the cheapest item on the dinner menu is $210 may seem a bit irrelevant, but it is important for what it represents: a gold standard for food and wine. Back in September, we reviewed one of San Francisco’s most highly regarded dining establishments, Michael Mina. But to many of the fine dining elite and notable chefs alike, Napa Valley’s The French Laundry marks the height of American restaurant cuisine. Thus the question: given such immense expectations, how do they deliver on their espresso?

The French Laundry resides in a stone house with a low profile on Yountville’s main road (Washington St.). Among two floors of dining, a swarm of restaurant staff serve among two or three coordinated tasting menus of nine-course, set meals. Personally, my favorite courses included the carnaroli risotto biologico, topped with shaved white truffles from Alba (served out of the requisite wooden truffle box), and their signature roulelle de tête de cochon — quite literally a delicate pork roll made of meat from a pig’s head (it is far more appetizing than it sounds, regardless of its off-putting description).

The wait staff are serious, professional, and rather stiff. The challenge of getting them to crack a smile was often like that of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. But some opened up more than others — which was instrumental to learning more about how they made their espresso. Super Chef Thomas Keller (whom one relaxed staffer jokingly called “TK” with a sort of faux familiarity) has publicly sworn by Equator Estate Coffees. But their decision to use a superautomatic Schaerer machine is what caught me by surprise.

Nondescript: signage for The French Laundry Entering The French Laundry

“Once in a while you might see me at In and Out Burger.” – TK

The staff beamed when speaking of how they could set a precise temperature for the Schaerer’s automatic milk frothing, and they liked how it could allow them to make espresso on auto-pilot. Ultimately, they seemed happily and blissfully ignorant of what it takes to make a decent espresso. (They all could recite their bean supplier offhand†, but, for example, they knew nothing of the machine until I asked about it.) Yet this is a restaurant that performs on-site training and development of their own sommeliers like a baseball farm club.

I should have guessed the level of institutionalized coffee ignorance at The French Laundry when I noticed a dessert menu item that included “crushed espresso beans”. Given that “espresso” is strictly a brewing method for ground coffee beans — a preparation — and not a flavor or style of roast, “espresso beans” makes as much culinary sense as “quiche eggs”. This may seem overly picky, but this is one place that has no excuse for getting it wrong.

Welcome to The French Laundry. How do you prefer your condescension today? The French Laundry espresso

They serve espresso with a somewhat frothy medium brown crema that’s not very thick, but it coats the cup well. It has a decent body and a more interesting and complex flavor than drip coffee. But otherwise, its modest flavor of mild spice and some herbal pungency does not distinguish it much. There isn’t a robust aroma, a bold depth of flavor, or even a delicate sweetness to the cup that I would expect from a restaurant of its caliber.

The French Laundry certainly delivers on high expecations for food with their elaborate nine-course tasting menus. They deliver on service with their educated and professional staff. And they certainly deliver on wines — from vintage bottles of Cristal Champagne to Gaja Barolo to Dujac Burgundy. (Though I am still surprised that, despite Keller’s perfectionist control over the menu, The French Laundry does not offer a single flight of recommended wine pairings.)

When it comes to espresso, they certainly deliver on expectations for what they serve their espresso in — porcelain from Raynaud of France. However, the espresso itself is clearly a let down here: “not bad” just isn’t good enough. They literally provide the same coffee service you can get with an $8.95 turkey club sandwich from Sellers Markets. TK: you could do so much better.

Read the French Laundry review.

Sellers Markets: they share identical espresso service with The French Laundry It's not Raynaud, but otherwise the Sellers Market espresso comes from the same stock

UPDATE: Nov. 3, 2007
† — Despite the French Laundry staff’s universal acknowledgment of Equator Estate Coffees as the coffee supplier for both their drip coffee and espresso, Brooke McDonnell of Equator Estate Coffees recently posted information to the contrary on this site — claiming that Illy has always supplied the French Laundry for their espresso. So someone is misinformed. Given that the French Laundry staff are much closer to product delivery, we’re prone to side with their version of events — even if their knowledge of coffee is extremely limited.

Vietnamese arabica coffee project facing failure

Posted by on 13 Dec 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Robusta

In response to the precipitous rise of specialty coffee in recent years, coffee’s traditional Big Four (Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft, and Proctor & Gamble) — rather than compete by raising their quality standards — responded instead by seeking cheaper bean stocks to squeeze out more profits. The Vietnamese robusta coffee market rode the wave of these investments, and its explosive growth, overproduction, and proliferation fueled much of the coffee crisis that inspired Fair Trade and related initiatives to protect the endangered quality coffee grower.

Despite the low-grade coffee that Vietnam came to symbolize, that did not prevent delusions of grandeur. One of these delusions is now facing a harsh reality check, after eight years and $50 million of investment to develop higher-grade arabica bean growth in Vietnam: VietNamNet – Arabica coffee project a fantastic hope.

Robusta coffee is just that — rubustly resistant to drought, heat, and climates that can be inhospitable to the higher-quality arabica coffee species. The problem is that robusta coffee is so inferior, it often needs to be chemically treated to taste more like coffee — and not like the burnt rubber it is most commonly described as. The failure of arabica coffee to take hold in Vietnam only underscores how challenging it is to produce good coffee there.

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