April 2007

Monthly Archive

Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters coming to Seattle

Posted by on 27 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

According to today’s Seattle Times, Stumptown Coffee Roasters — who were instrumental to putting SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters on the map — are opening up a location in Seattle: Business & Technology | Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters coming to Seattle | Seattle Times Newspaper.

With Stumptown adding to Seattle’s coffee riches, and Intelligentsia recently opening up shop in L.A., it makes you wonder when S.F. is going to get a little extra coffee love and attention. Caffè Artigiano, perhaps? (Please!!)

Oxfam coffee ‘harms’ poor farmers

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

Need any more evidence that Fair Trade coffee isn’t unquestionably the “right thing to do” when it comes to poverty and the world’s coffee growers? Today’s The Australian reported on two Melbourne academics who have lodged formal complaints against Oxfam Australia, which oversees Australian Fair Trade certification, challenging that Fair Trade doesn’t achieve what it claims: Oxfam coffee ‘harms’ poor farmers | News | The Australian. To quote the researchers:

“Our primary complaint is that this is an unsustainable system. The only sustainable mechanism is through free trade. They are artificially cooking up the international coffee trade, to promote the interests of the Fairtrade brand and the people who sign up to it.”

Ouch. Put that in your biodeisel car and fry it.

And to think that in 2002 Berkeley academics tried to get Measure O passed, which would have criminalized any restaurant or café that served coffee that wasn’t Fair Trade certified — with violators facing fines up to $100 and six months in jail.

Towards a segmented quality coffee market

Posted by on 27 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

The April 2007 issue of Coffee Talk primarily focused on the annual SCAA conference next month. The most interesting article comes from George Howell, president of Terroir Coffee Company, who wrote about the state of the world’s quality coffee supplies: Towards a segmented quality coffee market [PDF file, page 8].

With the growing public awareness of Fair Trade certification and how little coffee growers receive on the price of coffee in Western markets, Mr. Howell underscores the lack of consumer education for how world economies work. For example, he feels the industry does a terrible job of explaining the basic economics of under-developed countries, which is the main reason why coffee growers receive so little on the dollar: the costs (real estate, labor) and livable-wage margins for middlemen are far, far greater in an industrialized nation (e.g., the U.S.) than in a typical coffee growing nation (e.g., Ethiopia).

Mr. Howell also likens the market for quality coffee as sort of a “squat trapezoid”, whereas markets for tea or wine are more “pyramidal”. While tea and wine quality can reach elite levels that command a significant market price, coffee prices generally plateau once the quality reaches a certain point. The only exceptions to this are “insular market” coffees: bean stocks with such limited supplies (e.g., St. Helena, Jamaica, and Hawaii coffees) that they command high prices regardless of the overall market for quality.

The most embarrassing example of this is the ridiculous Kopi Luwak coffee, a favorite subject for producers of local TV news fluff pieces over the past few years. Roasted Kopi Luwak can fetch $100/lb not because of its quality, but rather because there aren’t a lot of Indonesian civets crapping out these novelties. As with many things in life, “expensive” does not always mean “better”.

Today the typical home-brewed cup of $10/lb coffee is cheaper per unit of volume than a can of Coca-Cola: consumers really pay next to nothing for their coffee. An inexpensive ($10) bottle wine costs ten times that per unit volume. So the question is how to create the top of a pyramid market for quality coffee — just as we have for tea and wine. Because it’s also true that the more you spend at the high quality end, the greater the share of the price that winds up in the grower’s pocket.

Color-changing Lids: Aussie Invention Ready to ‘Wow’ U.S. Coffee Drinkers

Posted by on 25 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

In today’s news, Australian inventors secured an international licensing agreement that stands to revolutionize one of my least favorite subjects: to-go coffee (Aussie Invention Ready to ‘Wow’ U.S. Coffee Drinkers – QSR Magazine). With the introduction of new, temperature-sensitive coffee lids, apparently McDonald’s customers can now be entertained by a show of colors before they scald their thighs.

Now if only we had coffee lids that would turn white whenever the espresso contained within the cups tasted like bitter, watery, over-extracted dreck. Wait! — we’ve already got that.

If you see color, send it back

Saving Earth one cup at a time – but only if that cup contains coffee

Posted by on 23 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade

Earth Day couldn’t pass last weekend without a multitude of feel-good press releases from coffee peddlers. We already knew that our coffee could support Ernie & Bert‘s ambiguously gay lifestyle on Public Television. Now we read about how our coffee could save chimps, help solve the energy crisis, and even how it could stamp out poverty and save planet earth itself. That’s a lot for one cup of coffee — especially when a couple years ago all you could hope for was that it didn’t taste like an oil change.

So I should get the warm fuzzies now that my cup of coffee just nudged Mother Theresa of Calcutta out of line for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, right? Wrong, actually. Not to take away from the many good things going on around coffee, but for some reason coffee has attracted all the kooks-with-causes like flies to a bug lamp. When did buying coffee get to be like wearing ribbons at the Oscars? These days you can’t even smell a morning cup without subscribing to at least four causes and a making a dozen more statements about your personal morality. What gives?

Cause Coffee or Cause + Coffee?

The cynic might say that the best way to sell coffee these days is to package it with rich man’s guilt relief. Certs has Retsyn (a.k.a. “vegetable oil”), and my coffee saves the Western Wood-Pewee. But if it were merely that, why isn’t tea given anything close to the same treatment? Tea is nearly as popular, with as rich a history, and is harvested by the poorest of the poor in the world. And yet to buy a cup of tea today, consumers seem free to buy the Sri Lankan Child Labor Exploitation Blend with impunity — no questions asked.

The fact is that the world problems of hunger, poverty, exploitation, etc., go far beyond coffee. Trying to solve these complex issues as coffee-related problems is commendably better than doing nothing, but let’s not kid ourselves.

My advice: buy the best coffee your wallet and conscience can afford. Then donate cash to the causes of your choice. Every time someone has tried to meter out charity and activism by piggybacking it on a commercial product — whether it be socially conscious mutual funds or long distance telephone service that donates a percentage of profits to charity — consumers have always ended up with weaker products, less control over their charitable contributions, and less effective donations. If the research and choices involved are too much of a headache, pick your causes and labels and outsource it all by proxy. Otherwise, nothing beats D.I.Y.

Illy in D.C.: A Coffee Chain’s Stand-Up Effort on M St.

Posted by on 23 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

According to today’s Washington Post, Illy launched their first U.S. café last week: A Coffee Chain’s Stand-Up Effort on M St. – washingtonpost.com. Rather than taking the form of the Espressamente chain across Europe, Illy opted instead for a stand-up-service-only café inside a Washington, D.C. Marriott. Their quick-witted name for the place?: Caffe.

All’s not always ‘fair’ in coffee labeling

Posted by on 19 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew

Today’s Chicago Tribune published an article that briefly compared Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and a number of their socially conscious coffee bretheren: All’s not always ‘fair’ in coffee labeling | Chicago Tribune. It’s about time the mainstream media tried to clear the air and dispel some accepted myths about certifications and labelling.

In specific, the article noted how Direct Trade was created by Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Inc. roastmaster and green coffee buyer Geoff Watts “in response to his frustration with ‘Fair Trade.’” Coincidentally, Chicago’s other major paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, also published an article on Direct Trade coffee today featuring Intelligentsia’s Geoff Watts: ‘Fair trade’ gives coffee growers a fighting chance :: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES :: Health.

All while I happened to be in Chicago today. Stopping by Intelligentsia’s downtown location this afternoon, I can assure you that all is well in the house where Geoff roasts.

Intelligentsia employees manning their battle stations A Jackson St. Intelligentsia espresso

Intelligentsia's merchandising rack

Drive-Thru Coffee: How lazy can one coffee-drinking American get?

Posted by on 19 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

Yesterday I ran across an franchisor industry article touting the growth market for drive-thru coffee: Drive-Thru Coffee: Franchisors Compete for Quick, Convenient Delivery. Notable quotes from the article include, “This drive-thru coffee bar franchise was founded … to cater to coffee drinkers with busy lives,” and “As a drive-thru coffee bar, they cater to those of us who want access to high-end coffee, but don’t want to take time out of our busy lives to wait for it. ”

What a complete load of crap. No American is too busy to unhitch their 400-pound derrière from the front seat of their three-ton SUV to shave a handful of seconds off buying a cup of coffee. “Too busy” is a ludicrous premise — unless you’re also willing to pay someone to drink it for you. (Or just have it embedded in the soap of your morning shower: Gulfnews: Wake up and soak up the coffee … in shower!.)

Didn’t we already learn from the demise of 1950s drive-ins and motor homes that living out of your car was generally an option better left to the homeless?

Trip Report: Piccino Cafe

Posted by on 17 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

This newer café/pizza place lies in the little-known neighborhood of Dogpatch, just off the new SF Muni T line. It’s a small space with a couple of indoor tables and a few out front on the corner sidewalk. Just inside the door on the left is a small espresso bar: home to a two-group La Marzocco GB/5, and about five stools that surround it. They reportedly use a custom blend from Blue Bottle Coffee Company, and they also serve wine and beer.

Entrance to Piccino Cafe Piccino's La Marzocco GB/5 at the espresso bar

Their espresso shots are doubles by default, and they pull them with deliberate timing to produce a deep, medium brown crema with darker brown flecks and a foamy consistency. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups, it has a potent herbal pungency, a syrup-like consistency, and some natural sweetness at the bottom. No one individual element excels in the cup, but they all work very well in harmony.

Read the review of Piccino Cafe.

The Piccino Cafe espresso

Now for the controversy…

I certainly love a great espresso no matter how it is made. But the Blue Bottle-La Marzocco-Nuova Point combination has come up more than a few times lately. It was just two weeks ago that I finally stumbled into Velo Rouge Cafe for roughly the exact same espresso/espresso pedigree. Of course, three years ago this kind of local quality would have moved me to tears. But there’s a difference between quality and “sameness”.

For example, SF may have a lot of excellent places to eat, but their menus rarely deviate much from each other (insert Niman Ranch/burrata cheese/organic, local beet salad here). Perhaps we are starting to get a little more like Italy — with a greater availability of good quality espresso, and yet suffering more from a certain sameness.

The good news is that the best espresso here is definitely giving Italy’s best some serious competition. However, I only hope to see more places pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo.

Until its closure last year, Café Organica offered SF residents a taste of that. But today if you want to try espresso made from a rotation of single estate beans and/or from a choice of different roasts, for example, you have to travel to the likes of Barefoot Coffee Roasters or Caffé del Doge. Copycats are fine when it’s something excellent, but there’s clearly more than one way to make a great espresso.

Trip Report: Mission Pie

Posted by on 16 Apr 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

This bakery/café runs as a collective between the San Mateo County coast’s Pie Ranch, Glen Park‘s Destination Baking Company, and the Mission‘s Mission High School. If that doesn’t sound a little confusing, just try finding the place by its address.

Its 2901 Mission St. address will direct you to the corner of Mission & 25th Sts., where you will encounter a local NPR (not that NPR: Neighborhood Public Radio) broadcasting booth and a non-profit community arts center/mapping project that have taken over most of the space (Southern Exposure). While you can reach Mission Pie itself by crawling through the cramped hallways of this space (past various offices and past the bathrooms), it’s much easier to enter through the plain-looking entrance along 25th St., east of Mission St. There you’ll find this bakery/café with a few indoor tables, a long church bench, and a lot of pie.

False lead! Mission Pie is around the corner. Now you know you've arrived at Mission Pie

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull slightly larger shots with a lighter brown crema — serving it in a saucerless cup. It isn’t extracted quite properly, and thus the great ingredients give way to a more watery flavor of mild spices. It clearly lacks flavor depth. Still, SF hasn’t seen the regular use of Taylor Maid Farms coffees at a café in over a year now, so that alone may be worth the visit.

Read the review of Mission Pie.

Inside Mission Pie The Mission Pie espresso

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