March 2007

Monthly Archive

Java City’s rebirth or an idea past its prime?

Posted by on 31 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Quality Issues

In 1985, Java City started as a café on 18th & Capitol in Sacramento (back then my wife was a regular) that quickly grew to a number of retail outlets across northern California. However, over the past few years, Java City reconsidered their growth strategy as Starbucks grew everywhere like weeds: Java City closed numerous retail cafés in S.F. and focused instead on their wholesale operations.

Today Java City’s focus has apparently gone back to the art and craftsmanship of espresso — what they like to call their “purist” roots of the 1980′s. To celebrate next month, they plan to finish a complete remodel of their original location, featuring “coffee tastings and hand-made lattes from professional baristas”: News10.net – Free Coffee Celebrates Java City’s “Rebirth”.

With so many independent and “boutique” cafés now leading the quality charge for espresso, it’s hard to say whether a focus on quality over Starbucks’ quantity will be a viable growth strategy for what today is “yet another coffee chain”.

Taiwan to ban paper cups in offices, schools

Posted by on 29 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Quality Issues

Now we’ve written before about the importance of a good cup when drinking espresso. And we’ve written that there are times where what’s right for flavor and what’s right for the environment go hand-in-hand. The paper cup issue is the perfect example, and some governments are contributing to the cause: Taiwan to ban paper cups in offices, schools.

This news will cheer American greenies and encourage hopes of similar actions here. But even if we are a nation addicted to convenience, I’d welcome more cafés that would at least offer the option of getting my espresso in a dirty cup. Too often the cafés here — including even good cafés serving good espresso — don’t even bother. Why should your customers take your espresso seriously if you can’t even do the same?

UPDATE: May 17, 2007
In Canada, a regional Councilman from Toronto is proposing that an incremental tax or fee be added to take-out coffee purchases served in cups not made of recyclable material: Osprey Media. – Niagara Falls Review – Ontario, CA.

Trip Report: Velo Rouge Cafe

Posted by on 28 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

Thanks to a number of regular readers who pointed this café out to me. SF may not be a big city, but it is when you’re trying to cover all the coffee shops in town.

Velo Rouge Cafe is a popular corner café with six indoor tables with window counter seating and a couple outdoor tables along the McAllister sidewalk. The place carries a bicycling theme, which suits the many bicyclists who pass along Arguello on a daily basis. It’s also reflected in the bicycle-themed artwork on their red walls. In addition to serving coffee, this café also serves full-on meals.

Entering Velo Rouge Cafe Good espresso is definitely on the Velo Rouge Cafe menu

James Freeman and crew (of Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee Co.) provided some of the coffee consulting here. However, the bulk of the recommendations that put this place on the coffee map last year came from Andrew Hetzel of Cafemakers — from replacing their old UNIC espresso machine and grinder to their Illy beans, etc. Using Blue Bottle‘s Bella Donovan blend and a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull rich doppio shots with a full layer of darker brown crema. It has the potent flavor of some smoke and herbal pungency with a strong sweetness at the bottom of the cup.

For milk-based drinks, their microfoaming techinique is good — producing decent microfoam heart latte art. The baristas here may be a touch slow at times, but they are deliberate and careful — which is good in my book.

Read the review of Velo Rouge Cafe.

The Velo Rouge Cafe espresso The Velo Rouge Cafe cappuccino

Coffee roasting for the computer age

Posted by on 26 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

It’s no secret that I generally disdain superautomated espresso machines (myself and Howard Schultz apparently included) and the convenience-step-forward/quality-step-backwards home pod machines. So you may get the (false) impression that, when it comes to coffee, I am an anti-technology Luddite. While I have never placed PID temperature controllers on the group of my home machine — and while I have no faith a machine will ever be able to toss out substandard shots the way Sammy Piccolo can — with coffee roasting it’s a different story.

Recently I met Matt Weisberg, general manager of Fresh Roast Systems (not to be confused with the infamous Fresh Roast home roaster, of which I am a longtime owner, from Fresh Beans, Inc.). Matt’s company consists of a number of innovative, patented retail coffee roasters — self-contained and deployable for on-site fresh roasting just about anywhere — and a handful of techie/coffee geeks who manage and evolve them. The team may know squat about operating an espresso machine, but they are religious fanatics when it comes to the freshness of roasted coffee. Matt is one of the most vocal advocates I know for making the public recognize that roasted coffee is a lot more like fresh baked bread than the bottled cola our society has long treated it as. And that’s music to my taste buds.

Last month, Matt invited me down to their East Palo Alto office/coffee roasting lab to check out some of their roasting equipment and operations. It was clear from my visit that Fresh Roast Systems — through sophisticated instrumentation that includes lasers, pressure systems, and computer controls in a device the size of a large refrigerator — were attempting to scientifically emulate the job of a roastmaster.

This is highly controversial. Matt has been stirring up controversy and trouble (two things I seem to be naturally attracted to) on the SCAA‘s Roasters Guild Web forums. Most traditional “artisan” roasters (a term Matt scoffs at) are men and women of art rather than of science. On the surface, that hardly sounds like modern day grounds for the Hatfield-McCoy feud. But to many roasters who act as the guardians of the trade, Matt’s company represents a threat that illicits a visceral reaction. They scoff at the notion that anything they do could be scientifically deconstructed through instrumentation, measurements, and controls. So they tend to be reactionary: “this stuff tastes like garbage”, “it comes out of a computerized machine instead of the hands of a traditional roastmaster — so what do you expect?” Ultimately, this debate is a modern version of John Henry folklore.

John Henry versus the Steam Wand

Which side do I fall on in this debate? I personally could care less about any pretense of science or tradition: just give me good coffee. And while I wouldn’t say that Fresh Roast’s steam drill killed off the John Henry roastmasters with a heart attack, I can say both approaches are pretty good in their own right.

Making espresso at home from the coffee I roasted with Fresh Roast’s equipment, I may have to disappoint many a roastmaster: the flavor profile for single-origin stocks of green beans measured up quite well, producing full flavors (and very good crema) for many days afterwards.

Unlike the curse afflicting superautomatic coffee machines, the variables involved with coffee roasting appear to be fewer and rather self-contained and controlled. Roasting seems to lend itself much more to a successful scientific approach rather than relying exclusively on an artisanal “black arts” explanation for how good roasts can be achieved. Take a look inside the automation of the Illy roasting plants in Trieste, and you’ll see — and taste — what science and technology can offer.

For Fresh Roast’s latest technology “trick”, last week Matt had me run a roast from my office 40 miles away using an Internet connection. Using a simple prototype made of an Internet-accessible building security camera along with GoToMyPC access to their touch screen roast controller, I was able to remotely roast (and watch) a couple pounds of F.T.O./shade grown El Salvador coffee. Slap on a computer-generated label and Fedex shipment, and you’ve got a nice webcam application that delivers custom-roasted fresh coffee without the mess or smell.

I roasted green beans online from 40 miles away

Coffee Bars in Rio de Janeiro

Posted by on 24 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

The travel section in today’s New York Times featured an article on Rio de Janeiro coffee bars: Coffee Bars in Rio de Janeiro – Travel – New York Times.

Brazilian botequins — sort of café/lunch counter/bistro combinations — can sometimes be pretty awful. Despite Brazil’s esteemed coffee status — this is a nation where the word for “breakfast” is “café da manhã”, or “morning coffee” — they often serve coffee that has sat on burners for far too long. But at these botequins, you can order a traditional cafezinho — a Portuguese diminutive for a “small coffee”. You can order it black, Carioca (“Rio style”: with added water), media (with milk), or pintado (just a few drops of milk). And no matter how you order it, it will come with mandatory sugar: the Brazilians and Portuguese love their coffee sweet.

Espresso made from Italian interlopers, such as Illy and Lavazza, has replaced many of the cafezinhos served to visitors at shops, cafés, and restaurants. But it’s a mandatory tradition; one that I promise to write about whenever I can make it out there.

Starbucks barista: We’re not your friends (but your tips are appreciated)

Posted by on 23 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Starbucks

A vitriolic, and very funny, Starbucks barista went off the handle recently in a post on the Chicago Craigslist. Craigslist unfortunately removed the rant, but it has been preserved at Starbucks Gossip: Starbucks Gossip: Starbucks barista: We’re not your friends (but your tips are appreciated).

The heavy-handed rant — which skewers everything from upscale latte moms to tree-hugging wannabes and other prissy customers — could apply almost anywhere there’s a barista, and not just at Starbucks. Everybody needs to release a little stress on the job now and then…

Coffee: top flavors in new products

Posted by on 22 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends

Drinks Business Review published an article yesterday noting the top ten most often used flavors in new coffee worldwide: Coffee: top flavors in new products – Drinks Business Review. Of course, as might be predicted by Denis Leary, “coffee-flavored coffee” didn’t make the list. But disturbingly “cappuccino” did at #5. Is that like anchovies made to taste like Cesar salad dressing?

I suppose that if, in the South, “barbeque” can be both a noun and an adjective, anything is possible. However, don’t even ask me what “sweet” is doing listed as a flavor — and why it’s different from “sugar”. I am much too afraid to find out.

David Lebovitz: Making Perfect Espresso at Illy

Posted by on 21 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues, Robusta

David Lebovitz is a fairly well-known pastry chef and foodie who launched his career through a long tour of duty at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Lately he’s taken on a great interest in making the kind of espresso he can get in Italy — but not in the U.S. as easily. Following his pursuit of perfection, today he wrote about his recent training at Illy‘s Università del caffè in Trieste, Italy: David Lebovitz: Making Perfect Espresso at Illy.

At l’università, they compared for him espresso made with 100% Arabica beans and with a 50/50 Arabica/robusta blend. Illy openly disdains robusta coffee as a cheaper coffee stock, so it’s not surprising that they went for the full “cheap beans” effect. Yet there are others who argue that the American outright avoidance of robusta in quality espresso is a major problem. In any case, I find an espresso blend of 90/10 makes a nicely balanced espresso — particularly with some of the high-end, carefully processed robusta stocks now available from places like India.

The Illy preachers also sound a bit reactionary to the trend towards single-origin products. It’s a bit like the Johnny Walkers making their case against the single malt scotch trend. While there is a definite art and mastery to making a well-balanced espresso from a variety of blended coffee sources, single-origin espressos can often be excellent for their singularly strong, albeit imbalanced, flavor profiles.

Mr. Lebovitz appears to finally strike good espresso gospel when he writes:

So a good espresso isn’t bitter (or burnt-tasting) and should be a thin syrup, 25 ml (about 2 tablespoons) and should have a layer of crema on top, a bit of foam which barista Michele told me was marked with what he called a “tiger’s stripes”, because of the wavy lines and mottled marks in the foam.

Definitely not, as the Illy guys said, “like your Starbucks in California“…

UPDATE: March 23, 2007
David replied to this post in an e-mail, which I will quote here:

Hi Greg:

This is a great site, full of lots of good information. I linked to it twice in responses to comments on my site!

I know far more about chocolate than coffee, although I’m excited by all I’m learning, I think that people get obsessed with terms like single-origin, or percentages, at the expense of taste. I like forestero chocolates sometimes, but wouldn’t use them for dipping. There’s likely lots of badly-processed Arabica beans out there, but it was interesting to sample the 2 offered side-by-side. (When I asked why they didn’t offer us cups of pure Robusta for sample, they said, “We didn’t want to do that to you.”)

Unfortunately where I live, there is a lots of robusta, or poorly-prepared Arabica coffee and it’s frustrating not to be able to get a decent cup of espresso anywhere. So I’m trying to learn more about it at home. I’ve got a good machine, although I think my next purchase is a burr grinder.

Glad you found my post interesting and thanks for your feedback.

Consumer Delusion: ConsumerReports.org’s buyer’s guide to espresso makers

Posted by on 20 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine

Consumer Reports published a home buyer’s guide to espresso makers this month: ConsumerReports.org – Buyer’s guide to espresso makers 3/07. As with a lot of things in Consumer Reports, they often lack sufficient knowledge or background to offer educated opinions beyond winging it with what’s on the surface. (Well, beyond that and Consumers Union‘s usual internal arrogance of believing that all consumers are good and vendors evil. But that’s another story.)

I can look past the article talking about Starbucks as if it were just a recent fad. But trouble brews when they mention Bialetti among the espresso machine brands sold in the U.S., and yet four paragraphs later they clearly state “espresso is made by forcing hot water under pressure through tightly packed, or tamped, finely ground coffee”. (Bialetti moka pots use steam rather than water under pressure — and thus technically they do not make espresso.) The other brands in their list are makers of historically cheap, landfill-bound home appliances — with a shaver and a popcorn popper manufacturer thrown in for good measure.

It gets dicier, with the article emphasizing the the ever-popular-and-delusional cost savings benefits of these home espresso machines. And when it comes to the taste test, they treat espresso machines as if they were self-contained, standalone appliances that pump out uniform cups of espresso, regardless of the grinder and the beans used. As if we all plug our home espresso machines into a wall socket for a steady stream of freshly ground coffee that appears on our monthly PG&E bill.

Consumer Reports tested seven machines as if coffee is a commodity like electricity. As when SFist Jeremy Nisen skewered a Los Angeles Times article that attempted to comparatively review coffees last year (“Know Your Coffee Reviewers”), this oversimplified approach is disingenuous and counter-productive. How can you reasonably compare one machine that can use fresh coffee beans with a pod machine that must use the requesite packets of stale, pre-ground beans — without taking all these other factors into account?

And yet despite the world of difference between fresh coffee beans and not, Consumer Reports concluded with much love for the Nespresso. Not that it’s a bad espresso machine. But personally, I cannot make it past their required stale, pre-ground beans. Fortunately for Nespresso, many of their customers have been so conditioned by stale, pre-ground beans (the reviewers of Consumer Reports apparently included), they’ve come to expect — and believe there is — nothing more.

Upscale Coffee Makers Drive Segment But Overall It’s Flat

Posted by on 19 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine

Coffee pods are a fad that is on life support at the value end (i.e., for machines under $100). However, home sales of high-end coffee pod makers are up significantly: MediaPost Publications – Upscale Coffee Makers Drive Segment But Overall It’s Flat – 03/19/2007. As I discovered in Lisbon’s fashionable Chiado district last year, an upscale market for these devices currently exists in espresso-loving Portugal at least.

But the U.S. isn’t Portugal. According to a recent NPD report, the machines are primarily gift purchases — which should be a warning alarm for the technology right there (remind anyone of Krups circa 1990?). Given that these single serving coffee pod machines use stale, pre-ground beans, these days the home espresso drinker generally has increasingly better quality options among nearby cafés and coffeehouses. Which is why I generally believe the survival of the coffee pod format depends more on the bargain end of the coffee consumer market: it can’t sustain itself in a high-end market, because the quality will always be inferior despite the machine conveniences.

UPDATE: March 21, 2007
When you’re living in England and have been conditioned to drink instant coffee for most of your life, even the downmarket home machine marks a real improvement: Sales of espresso machines soar as Brits turn their backs on instant coffee | the Daily Mail.

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