June 2007

Monthly Archive

Independent Coffee Shops: Problem Customers and Small Change

Posted by on 18 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society

Today New York Public Radio aired a story on the customers of independent coffeehouses and how some of them have become de facto “residents”: WNYC – News – Independent Coffee Shops: Problem Customers and Small Change. When is a café customer patronizing a business, and when are they just deadwood looking for a cheap hostel?

Trip Report: Crépe ‘n Coffee

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

This is yet another one of those coffeeshops/crêperies with the colored-chalk menu. They have nicer wood benches and tables inside its large, square space. It has an overall Latin feel — from the photos of Peru on the walls, to the employees, to using Martha & Bros. coffee from across the street. Which is unfortunate, because Latinos selling crêpes seems like a missed opportunity for something more authentic. Though off peak hours, the staff will kindly serve your espresso at your table.

Crêpes? Coffee? Colored chalk? What a brilliant concept! Inside Crépe 'n Coffee

Using a two-group La Spaziale, they pull espresso shots with a thin film ring of medium brown crema. It has an ashy odor, but its flavor isn’t as harsh: darker roasted with some mellow caramel hints among a sharper clove-like pungency. Served in large brown ACF cups — without a saucer.

Read the review of Crépe ‘n Coffee.

Crépe 'n Coffee's espresso: advertising for Martha & Bros. across the street

Zurich: Coffee exhibition stirs seductive passions

Posted by on 15 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society

Should you find yourself in Zurich, Switzerland in the coming year, the Johann Jacobs Museum is hosting an exhibit devoted to coffee’s cultural history titled “Coffee: a tale of irresistible temptation“: swissinfo – Coffee exhibition stirs seductive passions.

The article offers a little cultural trivia about coffee (e.g., did you know people once tipped the coffee into a saucer to let it cool down first before drinking it from the saucer?). But, like the art exhibit, it focuses on the social messages and images that have surrounded coffee consumption through the years — from coffee’s heat as a symbol of passion to images of social flirting. Some of these images can be found on the swissinfo Web site: Coffee art.

Coffee: the favorite drink of half-human, half-butterfly mutants the world over (including the goddess Psyche of Greek mythology)

Black Magic: The Perfect Espresso

Posted by on 14 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Barista, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

TIME magazine posted a “Summer Journey” special documenting the theme of “we are what we eat.” One of the stops of this photo essay is an espresso bar in southwest Rome: Black Magic: The Perfect Espresso – TIME’s Summer Journey | TIME. The author, a California expatriate and recovered Starbucks addict, waxes on the joys of the true Italian espresso bar.

The author notes the Italians’ preference for fast, furious, and pure espresso service, and he gets into the timing and mechanics of the espresso-making process with his local barista. And given that “barista” is Italian for “bartender”, he also mentions that a barista’s skills are also of the social kind — i.e., what we typically associate with bartenders.

In an interview with his local Roman barista, the author learns how young, aspiring baristi in Italy get their start: “When you start out, they let you do the base for cappuccinos. It’s easier to hide errors.” Oh, how true that is.

This is one of the reasons why CoffeeRatings.com reviews espresso as the yardstick of coffee quality — rather than the more popular cappuccino or caffè latte. (In contrast, the Roman barista quoted in the article suggests that 80% of his orders are for a basic espresso.) This American preference for the “milkshake” also ensures few cafés ever need to hire decent baristi.

Why a five-star restaurant serves one-star food, Or: Why I don’t use Yelp

Posted by on 13 Jun 2007 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew

Today a Salon magazine blog touched on the flaws of the many online review sites: Why a five-star restaurant serves one-star food – Machinist: Tech Blog, Tech News, Technology Articles – Salon.

The writer opens with an anecdote about Yelp — a review site that, in my experience, has long epitomized these flaws (see my lone Yelp review). The writer stepped into a weekend breakfast café that thirty-eight Yelp reviewers gave an average rating of 4.5 stars (out of 5 possible stars), and yet he perplexingly “gulped down limp slabs of two-star French toast, sipped at one-star coffee, and took in the ordinary two-star ambience.” What gives?

In the case of Yelp, I believe it’s the form of the “popularity contest” they’ve created, the nature of Yelp reviewers, and the dynamics Yelp has created to incent these reviewers. (Some readers here may recall that Yelp approached me in their very early days to write café reviews for them, and my reply was that I created CoffeeRatings.com back in 2003 directly out of my frustration with sites like Yelp.)

Sites like Yelp have a tendency for reviewers to weigh unusual biases — such as a perceived value for the money (“all-you-can-eat soggy French toast for $2?!…Five stars!”), extra credit for obscurity and the hipness quotient that bestows on the establishment as well as the reviewer (“Frank Chu‘s mom doesn’t make French toast for everybody, but we go way back and she deserves to be Yelped…Five stars!”), etc. It has since gotten to the point where I find CitySearch‘s restaurant user reviews more useful than Yelp’s.

While you might say that Yelp is CitySearch’s user reviews with the “Web2.0” veneer of social networking, unfortunately that social element creates a competition between Yelp users and serves as a major underlying driver for the reviewing process. Too often the game isn’t about good, fair, and accurate reviews (externally focused) — it’s about ego and online social posturing (internally focused).

Response bias

But none of that is mentioned by the writer of the Salon article. Rather, he pursues the problem of what’s called response bias. It manifests itself in skewed ratings where, as often happens, most everybody is better than the average — a mathematical impossibility. For example, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told the writer that “85 percent of local businesses on the site get a three-star or better average rating.”

But it’s not just star inflation either — user ratings on sites like Amazon.com show compression at the high and low ends of the scale, and relatively few ratings inbetween. Perhaps ambivalent, middle-of-the-road reviews just don’t inspire any of us to submit our thoughts to a Web site. We have to love it or hate it.

All of this comes back to my motivations for personally reviewing as many cups of espresso as I could find in this town. Sure, nobody can review everything with consistency. But just how valuable is my four-star rating for a Burmese restaurant if I’ve been to very few for comparison?

So in the interest of full disclosure of my own espresso reviews here, some self-examination was in order. Evaluating my 595 (and counting) espresso ratings in San Francisco alone (which includes establishments since closed), what follows here are the average ratings for a variety of different rating criteria — each made on a scale of 0-10:

Criteria Avg. Rating Notes
aroma 5.339
brightness 5.533 This was a touch higher than I expected
body 5.316
crema 5.237
flavor 5.427 This was also surprisingly a touch high
correction -0.105 Cupper’s correction was slightly negative
coffee rating 5.2654

And then there is the similar question of my café rating criteria:

Criteria Avg. Rating Notes
ambiance 5.939 Serious inflation!
barista 4.834 Here is where I held the toughest standards
presentation 5.602 I gotta get tougher on paper cups
savvy 4.946 Not too generous here either
cafe rating 5.3302 Saved by ambiance!
net rating 5.2978
price $1.699 That comes to $1,010.91 for 595 espressos

All things considered — outside of my clearly biased ambiance ratings — I’m pretty happy with the results of this spot check. If you consider that 5.0 should be about the center point, these averages aren’t out of whack. And I dare you to find many 10s or 0s on our reviews.

Uptight Seattleite: The Portlanders are coming!

Posted by on 13 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

As Stumptown Coffee Roasters plans to invade Seattle, today’s Seattle Weekly published an amusing letter of distress from a reader concerned about the coming potential clash of Northwest espresso cultures: Uptight Seattleite: Why This Unfair Prejudice Against Skateboarders? (Seattle Weekly).

The writer also categorizes the local shot pullers in two distinct families:

  1. The Starbucks family, which includes Starbucks itself and its clones, Tully’s and Peet’s: “We despise them like we despise Microsoft, but will use them in a pinch.”
  2. The V’s: Vivace (the original V), Vita, and Victrola: “They’re known for their microroasts, their funky ambience, and the rosette thing they do with the foam.”

Can I get this on pay-per-view?

History Of Espresso Coffee Cups

Posted by on 13 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society

The online magazine American Chronicle featured an article yesterday that covered the recent rise of the designer espresso cup: American Chronicle: History Of Espresso Coffee Cups. (Though calling it a “history” is a bit of a misstatement.) In 1992, Illycaffè decided that art and design should be better woven into the espresso-sipping experience, and the result was the first modern designer espresso cups.

The originals were first designed by commissioned artist Matteo Thun. Today a number of cup manufacturers design and produce these as collectors items — commissioning new designs on a frequent basis. Sometimes they even number the cups produced in a series. While the cups themselves can be quite exquisite, the prices some collectors will pay for these limited edition cups can be outrageous.

(Note: This American Chronicle piece was written as part of an article-writing PR campaign by a shadow Web site, which sells Saeco machines through Amazon.com. All these articles are mysteriously attributed to a site owner named either “Ricky Lee” or “Ricky Lim”. Blogger payola is alive and well.)

Matteo Thun's original design has since spawned a gallery of successors

VOA News – Good to the Last Drop: Coffee Culture Is Alive and Well in the US

Posted by on 12 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Fair Trade, Starbucks

Today Voice of America News broadcast an executive summary of sorts on specialty coffee consumption in America: VOA News – Good to the Last Drop: Coffee Culture Is Alive and Well in the US. Like many things VOA, it’s spoken in slow and clearly annunciated English. Think the clinical drone of NPR presented at the pace of Barney & Friends. It’s enough to make you feel like a severe head injury victim in rehab, recovering from a high-speed motorcycle accident.

The story starts in Philadelphia’s excellent La Colombe Torrefaction. It then proceeds to touch on Starbucks bashing for its cancerous expansion, public curiosity about barista championships, a little on the history of coffee production and consumption, the differences between arabica and robusta, coffee’s economic crisis, and some of the environmental concerns surrounding coffee production.

Unlike the Catholic Church — which swallowed the Fair Trade self-promotion bait hook, line, and sinker — VOA did a commendable job of at least attempting to present both pro and con arguments to the Fair Trade movement. That sort of critical thinking is worth calling out in itself, particularly coming from an agency whose sole purpose is essentially propaganda.

Trip Report: Flying Goat Coffee @ Santa Rosa

Posted by on 12 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

After recently posting on the Flying Goat mothership, the time seemed right to dust off another Flying Goat review I should have published long ago.

This large outlet of “The Goat” (as it is affectionately known by locals), a Healdsburg-based chain café and roastery, is located across from the Santa Rosa train station. Bright and airy space feels like a former Victorian home. It has separate rooms, each with café tables and chairs, outdoor sidewalk seating by the railroad tracks, and a long metal espresso bar for service.

Approaching the Santa Rosa Flying Goat Coffee Inside The Goat, Santa Rosa

The Goat uses a three-group La Marzocco Linea to pull espresso shots with a speckled, medium brown crema of decent thickness. The cup has good merits all around, although the body is a touch thin. Flavorwise, it’s herbal with some spice notes. Served high in Espresso Supply cup (F.A.C.). Their milk frothing is also quite good: thick and decent microfoam.

Read the review of Flying Goat Coffee @ Santa Rosa.

A macchiato and espresso at The Goat, Santa Rosa The Santa Rosa Goat's espresso

Coffee marketing in Japan: The UCC Evangelion Project 人類補缶計画

Posted by on 11 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

If you thought American or European coffee marketing was an intense animal, take a peek at what they do over in Japan: UCC Evangelion Project 人類補缶計画. The Ueshima Coffee Company — or UCC, with the English slogan, “Good Coffee Smile” — is a Kobe-based manufacturer of coffee and tea products. They also own a Kona coffee farm on Hawaii’s Big Island and a coffee estate in the famous Blue Mountain region of Jamaica.

UCC just launched a new marketing campaign for “Evangelion coffee”, called “UCC Coffee: Milk & Coffee Evangelion Project.” It is a product tie-in that coincides with the June 18 release of four related anime films with the Evangelion theme. The Japanese are masters of the modern Automat, and canned coffee has been one of the most popular items available from them since it was introduced for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

You know, I always thought Pokémon should have introduced a villain named Professor Overextraction.

UCC Milk & Coffee: Coffee power happy!

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