February 2007

Monthly Archive

Malabar coffee set to get Geographic Indication mark

Posted by on 28 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Beans

In the news today from Bangalore, India has applied for a Geographic Indication (GI) for Monsooned Malabar coffee: Malabar coffee set to get GI brand : Malabar Coffee, Monsooned Malabars, Geographic Indication mark, GI : IBNLive.com : CNN-IBN. Some love the stuff, others can’t stand its “funkiness” at times. Whatever it is, it makes a mean espresso blend. (Monsooned Malabar is one of the core components, and the only named bean, of the infamous Malabar Gold blend.)

India’s choice for GI instead of trademarks will be sure to please Starbucks, who are preoccupied with Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Harar: What’s in a name? Ethiopia’s battle against Starbucks | FP Passport. (Though in unrelated news today, it looks like Starbucks has a better alternative to their super-automatic Verismo machines to consider … robot baristas!: Japan mixes robotics with tea time – Innovation – MSNBC.com.)

Vancouver, BC: The Elysian Room

Posted by on 28 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Yesterday Scott Beale, of SF’s Laughing Squid fame, posted on his visit to The Elysian Room in Vancouver: Laughing Squid » The Elysian Room. I too hear they make a mighty fine espresso (boy, am I overdue for a Vancouver espresso trek). They not only have a Clover, but they’re also a dealer.

Hurting the third world one latte at a time

Posted by on 27 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade

Today the Chicago Maroon, an independent student newspaper of the University of Chicago, published a curious indictment of the Fair Trade movement: Chicago Maroon » Hurting the third world one latte at a time. Being the University of Chicago, the author takes a more world economic view of the issue.

While I completely disagree with some of his logic and predictions (e.g., that first world economies will resort to garbage coffee in a recession), he makes the case that Fair Trade offers the same economic incentives as farm subsidies. Could Fair Trade essentially incent third world nations to remain impoverished by keeping them beholden to agrarian economies?

Unfortunately, somebody has to grow good quality coffee. Because if the past is any indicator, it is not going to be the Vietnamese: Nestlé to buy quarter of Vietnam’s coffee exports – Vietnam latest news – Thanh Nien Daily.

Dealing with coffee customers: Certified Coffee Pusher

Posted by on 26 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Fair Trade

Some of you may recall just how much the zombie children of the Fair Trade cult scare the bejeezus outta me. Ritual Coffee Roasters barista, Gabriel Boscana, wrote a much more tactful and civil approach to these single-issue customers in this month’s issue of Barista Magazine: FebMarch 07 – Certified Coffee Pusher. It was oddly reassuring to read that Gabe, while similarly appreciating their concern for creating a better world, also found many of them to be close-minded to a fault.

IMO, the faux transparency of the “look for the Fair Trade label” mantra is as much an over-simplified, denial-laden cop-out as the person who wants to believe that all their meat originates from sanitized cellophane and styrofoam packaging. This month’s issue of the industry rag Coffee Talk discusses the murky world of coffee certification programs, such as Fair Trade, and the difficulty of knowing if they are really achieving their stated intentions: Certified Coffees: Who Really Benefits? [p8 of the PDF file].

On a related topic, this month’s Barista Magazine also published a primer on organic coffee: FebMarch 07 – An Organic Primer. Of course, seeing how Fair Trade was co-opted (and, to some degree, subverted) by the big coffee producers it originally intended to counteract, organic probably won’t trail far behind. Mark my words: Organic Coca-Cola is ultimately coming to a supermarket near you. Then what? Are we ready for the implications? What was once an alternative is now becoming co-opted and industrialized in the name of product marketing — for all the good and bad that represents.

Btw, Gabe and his partner in Ritual crime, Ryan Brown, will be judging at the 2007 Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC) next month in Petaluma (March 16-18). I probably won’t make the trek this time around. But this year, as at last year’s event, they promise to stage the 4th Machine (arguably my favorite part) in addition to some educational seminars for both industry pros and the home geeks.

Anchorage is Coffeetown, USA

Posted by on 25 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Today’s Anchorage Daily News proudly announced that the Alaskan town has more coffee shops per person than any other city in the U.S.: adn.com | front : Anchorage is Coffeetown, USA. Is it the cold? Is it the correlation of coffee consumption with more northerly latitudes? Whatever it is, Anchorage’s drive-thru culture ensures you don’t have to leave the seat of your truck to get your double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

The Clover Story: Holy Platinum Percolators! Stumptown’s $11,000 coffee makers

Posted by on 24 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Machine

This week Willamette Week (Portland, OR) reported on a new coffee maker — one that has been getting a ton of buzz in coffee aficionado circles — now in use at Portland’s Stumptown: Willamette Week Online | Post: ‘Holy Platinum Percolators! Stumptown’s $11,000 coffee makers’.

Made by Clover of Seattle, the uniqueness of its design is in providing custom time and temperature control that accentuates the unique properties of origin coffees on a per-customer/on-demand basis — something not easily done in a high volume retail environment. It apparently melds the properties of a French press and a vacuum pot. One of my favorite cafés in the world, Caffè Artigiano of Vancouver, BC, for example, has started using a Clover to brew their record-breaking Brazil Cup of Excellence coffee.

The Clover 1sI don’t know of any Clovers in use in the Bay Area yet (the nearest one is currently in Portland), but I’ll report when I do. Many claim them to be the biggest breakthrough for brewed coffee in decades. Non-espresso brewed coffee is becoming interesting again.

An American Revolution

The article also mentioned the high-end espresso machines of Seattle-based Synesso. The article quotes a Synesso owner as saying that now “we’re making American espresso on American machines.” It’s a seemingly trite comment, but there has been something of a Western espresso succession from Italy underfoot for years now. I don’t mean in a Starbucks‘ faux-Italian-café kind of way, but rather in how North America has been creating the occasional superior, and far more obsessive, espresso than can be found as a general rule across Italy.

This month’s issue of Barista Magazine (“From Canada to Italy”, by Stephen Morrisey) underscores this experience — where Italian cafés consistently produce good, but not excellent, espresso, and North American cafés generally produce poor espresso with some stellar exceptions.

UPDATE: February 28, 2007
No surprise, given Ritual Coffee Roasters‘ original Stumptown roots. But word on the street is that Ritual has their Clover up and running today: Metroblogging San Francisco: Ritual & Clover.


UPDATE: March 3, 2007
Ritual has two Clovers set up at their front counter, but they still are not ready for prime-time. I visited this afternoon, and while there were two people on shift who could run the machines, they haven’t perfected the art to “go public” just yet.


UPDATE: Nov. 15, 2007
Proving that some think it is never too late to show up for a party, today The Economist published an article on the Clover machine from SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters: Coffee | Move over, espresso | Economist.com.

Starbucks warns of damage to brand

Posted by on 24 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Quality Issues, Starbucks

You can always count on the founder of a company to retain the passion of its original business concept — long after the recruited executive wonks have arrived, armed with hockey-stick charts and completely dissociated from the inconsequential “widgets” they’re peddling for maximum revenue and EBITDA growth.

Starbucks founder and corporate chairman, Howard Schultz, is case and point. In a memo dated Feb. 14, Schultz addressed Starbucks executives expressing his concerns that their measures to facilitate massive growth have damaged their brand: Is Starbucks being watered down? – Food Inc. – MSNBC.com. (Also the Wall Street Journal: Starbucks Chairman Says Trouble May Be Brewing – WSJ.com, UPI: United Press International – NewsTrack – Chairman: Starbucks commoditizing itself, and Television New Zealand: Starbucks warns of damage to brand | WORLD | NEWS | tvnz.co.nz.) In his memo, Schultz cited their superautomatic espresso machines (“Verismo hell”, as I call it), bagged coffee (not scooped fresh beans), and “cookie-cutter” store designs as signs of major brand erosion that have helped open the door to fast-food chains and other competitors.

“In order to achieve the growth, development and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have (led) to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.”

We’ve been saying this all along: Starbucks wasn’t always this poor. They just sold their soul to the devil for massive growth. Ironically, Schultz’ memo is perhaps the best sign in recent years that Starbucks might still have a chance to become relevant again to the specialty retail coffee trade they were so instrumental to popularizing over the past 10-15 years.

Unfortunately, the other corporate truth is that founders are often tolerated as crackpots. Meanwhile, executive teams do their best to ignore them and keep counting the money as fast as possible — until it’s too late. Starbucks’ cancer has metastasized with their growth, and I see only a terminal diagnosis of irrelevancy.

UPDATE: February 27, 2007
The irrelevancy news for Starbucks just keeps on comin’… Today Forbes reported that Dunkin’ Donuts edged out Starbucks for first place as the hottest coffee chain — according to Brand Keys’ latest Customer Loyalty Survey [linked PDF from 2006]: Dunkin’ Donuts Edges Starbucks – Forbes.com. This marks the first time in five years that someone other than Starbucks topped the list from these revered marketing researchers.


UPDATE: March 4, 2007
Today’s Washington Post published a story illustrating how none of this is news to residents of Seattle, Starbucks’ birthplace: Is Malaise Brewing at Starbucks? – washingtonpost.com. The comments from customers at Victrola are particularly pointed.


UPDATE: March 23, 2007
…And Starbucks shows no signs of slowing down their expansion: delawareonline ¦ The News Journal ¦ Starbucks aims for 40,000 locations worldwide.

Interview with the founder of an espresso tasting society

Posted by on 24 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Today The Oregonian published an interview with David Rittenhouse, who over the past summer started the Portland Oregon Espresso Tasting Society (or P.O.E.T.S.): Opinions flow.

And you guessed it, his top tip for people ordering espresso…?:

If someone pours you a bad shot, don’t be afraid to ask for another one. Everyone has a flat shot sometimes; it just works out that way. If they’re starting a new bag of beans, for example, you may get what’s called a “sink shot.” It just doesn’t taste right.

Yep, you hear that? Send it back. (“Send it back”? — can I get that as my beverage order on a custom Starbucks T-shirt?!) And for the home espresso brewer, he also recommends spending the money on a really good grinder and using beans as fresh as possible. All of which probably sounds familiar to readers here.

What’s probably not so familiar to S.F. coffee lovers is the concept of the Coffee Meetup, which is how P.O.E.T.S. organizes themselves. Surprisingly, S.F. has not yet organized a Coffee Meetup. Yes, if you follow that link, that’s me with the Robert Goulet avatar as #58 on the notification queue — should someone in town be ambitious enough to finally organize one. (Look, don’t ask me — I’m just a dufus with a Web site!)

The closest Coffee Meetup to S.F. is The South Bay Coffee Meetup Group, based in Santa Clara. It will come as no surprise that it was founded by noneother than Andy Newbom of Barefoot Coffee Roasters. Their next meeting is March 5.

Fusion Energy Coffee will keep you up 7-Eleven

Posted by on 23 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

I’m not sure what’s worse: 7-Eleven’s coffee product marketers, or the coffee customers who patronize them. In any case, 7-Eleven recently introduced something called Fusion Energy Coffee: Fusion Energy Coffee will keep you up 7-Eleven | TheNewsTribune.com | Tacoma, WA.

In case you haven’t been keeping up on your ephemeral, forgettable product fads (remember Pepsi Clear? Coke with Lemon?), the product fad du jour is anything with the word “energy” in it — be it juice, water, gum, candy, beer … or coffee. Apparently, at least according to product marketers, the continuous flow of depressing news from Iraq and diminishing grounds for denial over global warming have made consumers a bit anxious about their supply of energy.

In the words of 7-Eleven’s wordsmiths, it’s “the only coffee infused with all-natural ingredients and powered by ginseng, guarana and yerba mate. … It’s the perfect way to totally seize the day!” Excuse me while I totally seize my air sickness bag. Or one better — time to break out the rubbing alcohol, Coleman’s fuel, hydrogen peroxide, and a few over-the-counter packages of Sudafed to make me some home-brewed meth coffee … the real deal.

Coffee Shops in Missoula

Posted by on 22 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Going to find yourself in the Garden City of Missoula, MT anytime soon? Today a writer for New West Unfiltered published his coffee recommendations there: New West Network | New West Network Topics Unfiltered | Coffee Shops in Missoula.

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