Today’s The Marlborough Express (New Zealand) published a travel article on Vienna, Austria and its coffee culture and history: Coughing up for coffee in Vienna – Stuff.co.nz: New Zealand’s leading news and information website. This town gave its name to the Vienna roast, of course. The brief article concludes with a visit to Vienna’s famous Café Central.
Today on Agoravox, a European citizen journalism portal, a poster wrote an article about the growth of Starbucks Coffee in Europe: Starbucks; the coffee giant blending in Europe – AGORAVOX – The Citizen Media. Over the past few years, the chain has proliferated in Paris, the UK, and a multitude of other European locations as it continues to execute on its plans to expand to 40,000 stores.
While the author believes Starbucks has been successful in Europe as a concept, he is less sure of its prospects as a business. He points out a number of cultural problems affecting the chain: poor customer service and poor ‘working spirit’ in England, poor work performance in France and other European nations due to the socialized level of job security, and (my favorite) that the “take-away coffee shop” concept is completely alien to the local culture.
The series has always taken a more interesting, scientific layman’s approach towards cooking. And while most cooking shows, and most serious professional cooks for that matter, couldn’t tell a good espresso from the vile stuff they place in ads to actually sell the Tassimo machine, I was pleasantly surprised at how much the show got right. (Save, perhaps, his instructions to pre-heat milk to 160°F before stretching its surface when making a cappuccino.)
Maybe — just maybe — there is hope for us all.
I’ve lamented the bizarre insistence on paper-cups-only service by so many espresso retailers in America. Adding insult to injury, according to yesterday’s Deutsche Welle, now even the McDonald’s in Germany are breaking out the porcelain cups: McDonald’s Jazzes Up Restaurants Amid Anti-Union Accusations | Business | Deutsche Welle | 11.04.2007.
In case you thought we were simply making things up for the benefit of a joke, coffee is truly getting worse at the same time it’s supposedly getting better. Today’s commercial flood of poorly designed home espresso machines marks some of these steps backwards. Other examples are more insidious, such as how the Nespresso machine advanced convenience while dragging coffee quality several years back down the evolutionary chain.
But if there are ever Nuremberg Trials for heinous crimes committed against coffee, the first death sentence might be issued to X Cafe LLC — a Portland, ME-based coffee roaster who is “recognized nationally as the originator of shelf-stable coffee extracts”: Inventive Coffee Roaster Changing the Way Americans Drink Coffee. Per the cited press release, “it’s all done with Bag-in-Box technology, long favored by Coca Cola and Pepsi for the soda industry, using post-mix dispensers.”
Yep. Because we all know that ice cream tastes better out of tubes — since that’s what the astronauts eat — this Starbucks-obsessed nation is going to love getting their coffee from a soda gun mix of concentrated coffee extract and fizzy water. Mmmm mmm mmmm mmmm mmm. To think I’ve been wasting all this time celebrating the moments of my life with the flavor of General Foods International Coffees.
French Vanilla Café, anyone?
No, I’m not slated as the latest guest movie reviewer for TV’s Ebert & Roeper. (Though I would love to be backstage to witness Robert Roeper tell his guests, “My show. Got that? It’s my show now!”) But last night, KQED aired a coffee-crisis-themed documentary for PBS’s “Indepedent Lens,” titled Black Gold: Independent Lens . BLACK GOLD | PBS.
We first mentioned this documentary back in January 2006. Last November, the Mission district’s Roxie Theater gave it a weekend showing — and at first I rued missing it. But after watching the movie last night, I’m glad I didn’t spend the money. PBS will also be airing this documentary on various affiliates in the coming weeks, so check your local listings.
Although the movie is of interest because of its subject matter, it largely fails as a documentary. Other reviewers have similar thoughts, calling it “nearsighted” and “not particularly well-grounded”. In short, it seems best targeted to a rather green audience (in terms of both naïveté and environmentalism) who is either new to the global coffee crisis or is seeking further validation for their newfound Fair Trade ethics. The film offered no original nor particularly insightful perspectives.
What Black Gold does provide seems more of an autistic auteur’s interpretation of the modern, social-issue-driven documentary: a lot of footage of the destitute, a few random statistics thrown on screen showing how little growers receive, and spliced in footage of big business coffee in the Western world. But rather than connecting all the pieces together for us in a cohesive cause-and-effect argument, it leaves us with disconnected factoids and a cloying sense of emotional appeal.
Sure, it’s not the Chewbacca defense, but, “Huh?” There are no financial breakdowns of what percentage of the price of coffee goes where in the whole supply chain. There’s no critical examination of how co-operatives work, or not, for small farmers (Fair Trade ensures a minimum price is paid to co-operatives, not growers — everything beyond that isn’t addressed). But perhaps the movie’s worst offense was the glaring omission of the role of the Big Four and Vietnamese robusta coffee behind the global coffee crisis.
Starbucks gets a bit of unfair treatment too. Their stock price might soar on the “hot air” thermal currents created by a faux image of Fair Trade goodness (only 3.7% of their coffee is certified as Fair Trade), but lumping them in with the Big Four was a bit extreme. Unlike the Big Four, at least Starbucks popularized the notion that customers’ coffee tastes could evolve beyond stale cans of Yuban.
The movie’s producers have a clear Fair Trade agenda, but they do little to clearly justify it. The global coffee crisis, and the inequities of globalization, involve complex issues. Far too complex for overly simplistic platitudes such as “buy Fair Trade coffee” as the natural and only solution to the mess. For example, just reference today’s Vancouver Sun — where a Fair Trade researcher concluded, “Consumers should never believe that problems of poverty are so simple they can be alleviated just by buying a certain label.”: Make sure your fair trade coffee really is, researcher says.
So at best, the movie offers the emotional appeal of a Sally Struthers telling us what “just a few cents per cup” could do. But wouldn’t higher incomes help the lives of just about anyone in the world living below the poverty line?
But at worst, the filmmakers’ techniques of storytelling with disconnected facts, emotionally-charged imagery, no legitimate attempt to connect the dots, and a drawn conclusion without clearly supporting arguments is on par with what the American public received as justification for the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003.
My favorite part of the film, however, was seeing Caffè Artigiano‘s Sammy Piccolo (who is called ‘Salvatore’ Piccolo in the footage) competing at the 2005 World Barista Championship in Seattle. Sammy placed third that year. If only The Roxie offered you one of Sammy’s espresso shots, it would have made it worth the price of admission.
Last Friday, the Chicago Sun-Times published a brief guide to the independent coffee houses of Chicago: Independent coffeehouses :: Chicago Sun-Times :: jump2web ::. Although limited, it’s not a bad reference (other than the annoying pop-ups) — and something I might put to use when I’m back there next week. I only wish they would have added comments about the quality of the coffee.
Contrast with the many home espresso machine design failures, Nestlé’s Nespresso pods and machines have been something of a consumer success story. The Nespresso machines do exhibit good design and an impressive amount of convenience. For a number of home espresso lovers, however, these advantages ultimately pale in comparison to their required use of stale, pre-ground coffee. And when you add in that these machines are just as susceptible to the build-up of rancid coffee oils, and thus require regular maintenance anyway, they’re no longer quite as hands-off convenient as advertised.
Yet Nestlé has been very savvy at globally positioning these machines and their pod “system” as an upscale brand. (Contrast with Kraft Foods’ home pod coffee system, Tassimo, which has been a financial disaster.) Today’s Los Angeles Times featured an article on Nestlés marketing strategy for the Nespresso, which has included branded boutiques for showcasing the devices: Nespresso controls brand with boutiques – Los Angeles Times. (Last year we wrote about one such Nespresso boutique in Lisbon’s Chiado District, including George Clooney’s Portuguese ads for the stuff.)
Of course, Nespresso’s chief executive is going to say, “We’re selling the ultimate coffee experience” — even if that experience means stale, pre-ground coffee pumped out of a hunk of cheap plastic. The question for me is how long can Nespresso play this Wizard of Oz-like “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” upscale experience. Because sooner or later, coffee consumers will catch on to the critical importance of freshness in good coffee. And like fresh baked bread, nobody considers pre-shredded croissants, baked a month ago and stuffed in vacuum-sealed capsules, an “upscale experience”. The proof is in the flavor.
In yesterday’s International Herald Tribune, design critic Alice Rawsthorn wrote about the increasing number of design failures in commercial products today: Why the overwhelming numbers of design flops? – International Herald Tribune [link updated]. What does she consider to be a design failure? Something that’s “not especially efficient or environmentally responsible” … “nor are they lovely to look at, to touch and to use…”.
Given our recent comments here about the many new home espresso machines that are destined to be little more than landfill, this particular paragraph resonated with us:
2. Change for change’s sake.
This often happens when an industry scents sudden sales growth. A regrettable example is the espresso machine. The classic Italian machines, like lovely old Gaggias, were fantastic: simply styled, no-nonsense exercises in engineering. But, as soon as Starbucks‘s success convinced the espresso industry that there was money to be made by persuading us to make a latte or macchiato at home, manufacturers start to mess with their machines. Cue the new breed of fiddly, fussy, over-styled espresso machines.
Everytime I take a step into a Williams-Sonoma or a Sur La Table and come across most of what they’re pushing for home espresso machines these days, I feel the urge to fire up a bulldozer.
Take the current crop of espresso machines. They’re the SUVs of the modern kitchen. Too big. Too blingy. Too tricksy. Too much. My vote for the worst offender goes to Casa Bugatti’s ridiculously overwrought diVa. The silly name says it all, and the over-complicated spelling makes it worse.
It was a year ago that we posted a review of Cafe Madeleine on O’Farrell St., near Union Square. And since we’re overdue for a Trip Report, and since I’ve been terribly lax (inept?) about taking photos at some of my more recent café visits, it’s time to dust off some “old” photos for a Trip Report of Cafe Madeleine’s South of Market St. sister location. (It beats photos of a burned down Warming Hut where now only hot dogs are available outside.)
This location is the newest of what was once a small-but-expanding downtown chain of French café/bakery/confectioner shops. I say “once” because no others have opened downtown since this location did in 2004. But like the others, the staff here run about in their white “labcoats” (a bizarre sort of staff/customer reversal from the Delta Café in Lisbon’s Vasco da Gama mall that I posted on last year). And true to their other locations, this café has characteristic high ceilings and limited seating among small tables.
Using their typical three-group Faema E91 Ambassador (from Mr. Espresso), they produce an espresso with a properly concentrated volume … dare I say even “ristretto” short. (Add just 25¢ for a double.) It has their typically swirling, darker, thick crema. The flavor consists of tobacco and a sharp herbal pungency that sometimes borders on bitterness, but in the past year it’s been pleasantly sweeter. This results in a flavorful cup with real boldness, and it has finally attained much of the sweetness it once lacked.
Why they sometimes serve a single espresso in a large styrofoam-paper paper cup is still beyond comprehension. Their more recent switch to large paper cups isn’t much better. A classic case of an establishment thwarting their otherwise decent espresso by not taking their serving of it very seriously. Their milk-based drinks aren’t too bad, although the foam bubbles can run a touch large.