June 2007

Monthly Archive

The battle of cafés in Budapest

Posted by on 11 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

As with many countries where Starbucks hasn’t yet deployed their green mermaids in a D-Day-like marine invasion, Budapest, Hungary is still waiting for the wave: portfolio | The battle of cafés in Budapest – Eston. Budapest has long been rich with cafés, but according to the Hungarian online financial journal, Portfolio.hu, Starbucks may finally open there next year — and quite predictably under the banner of Pizza Hut and KFC. (Mmm mmmm, nothing says “good coffee” like the Fincsibe sandwich.)

The article notes some of the differences between Hungary’s café culture and what many of these international café chains offer. For example, Starbucks has thrived by repackaging a Mediterranean coffee culture for Anglo-Saxon markets. However, Starbucks has wisely not set foot in Italy or Portugal — knowing the folly of putting their native culture through a milkshake blender and regurgitating it back to the locals at three times the original price.

Budapest’s first café opened in Buda (the hilly, palacial side of town to the west of the Danube) in 1579 — partly due to the local Turkish influence at the time. Vienna-style coffee was then the norm before the advent of espresso machines that popularized Italian-style cafés starting in the 1930s.

Although there were no “Seattle-style” coffee shops in Budapest when I last visited there in 1995 (unlike my visit to Prague the week prior), I am positive they must have some by now. Budapest and its people were some of the most romantic, Western thinkers I’ve met in all my travels.

Trip Report: Flying Goat Coffee @ 324 Center St., Healdsburg

Posted by on 10 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

This started as a small, Sonoma-based chain café and roastery. It has since grown, deservedly, due to its popularity. There are two locations in Healdsburg (the other being the roasting plant, for Phil Anacker‘s finest, plus take-out-only coffee at 419 Center St.), one in Santa Rosa, and one soon planned for downtown Napa. The locals like to call it “The Goat.”

It's 'The Goat'! Inside The Goat - much brighter than before

This location originally boasted a very modern design, with angular counters, spot lighting, and a mostly dark, empty space. In recent years they have since softened the design a lot where it is now brighter and friendlier to joe coffee drinker. It still has tall counter seating, several indoor tables, and some benches on the front sidewalk. The baristas are young professionals with a little attitude, but the coffee backs it up against their Healdsburg competition.

The Goat's La Marzocco FB/70 The Goat's coffee menu

They serve espresso from a cherry red, three-group La Marzocco FB/70 with a dark brown crema of average thickness (it’s slimmed down some in recent years). Rich, dark, and smooth, with a sign of some grounds in the pour. Served more appropriately lukewarm, rather than scalding hot. The body has lightened up a little, but it’s still a great cup. Mellow and smooth flavor that mixes herbal and buttery tastes, with a slightly sweet finish. They’ve also replaced their Homer Laughlin cups with those from Espresso Supply.

One of the best things going for coffee in the North Bay and Wine Country, though they do leave the door open somewhat for potential competitors to top them.

Read the updated review of Flying Goat Coffee @ 324 Center St., in Healdsburg.

The Goat's espresso and macchiato A Goat espresso close-up

UPDATE: June 2, 2008
In response to some of the quality changes at this location, we published a Trip Report Redux of Flying Goat Coffee @ 324 Center St. in Healdsburg.

Trip Report: Cafe Luna

Posted by on 09 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

A neighborhood café with some booth seating at the front window and along the back wall. Outside there’s a lone café table, but inside there are a number of small tables with large format modern artwork on the walls. They sell coffee, bagels, panini, sandwiches, and baked goods supplied by Il Fornaio. Their coffee is custom roasted by the diminuitive Sonoma Valley Coffee Roasters, and they also sell their roasts here.

Cafe Luna entrance Inside Cafe Luna

Using a two-group La Spaziale, they pull espresso shots with a medium brown layer of crema – it has a decent thickness and a consistent, even texture. Flavorwise, there’s a bitter edge like you’d find in an over-roasted Martha & Brothers blend. But for the most part it tastes pungent — of cloves and some spice.

Read the review of Cafe Luna.

The Cafe Luna La Spaziale is in there somewhere... The Cafe Luna espresso

L’espresso “solo” da Starbucks

Posted by on 08 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Sometimes it’s quite revealing to see America through foreign eyes. Case and point with a post today on an Italian blog that covers the subject of tourism in the good ol’ U.S. of A.: Guida USA – Info, foto e video. – » L’espresso “solo” da Starbucks. It gave me a chance to put my years of Italian to the test…

In Italian (quotes used here for literal translation emphasis), the blogger notes:

Starbucks has become pervasive in European life — particularly in the past year. And if you are a consumer of the true Italian espresso “made the way God commanded,” you could visit the ubiquitous Starbucks. Typical bars and restaurants are risky at best in this regard. But if you do go to a Starbucks, be sure to order a “solo” — otherwise you will be handed a large, diluted American coffee. Because the rest of Starbucks’ menu consists of “milkshakes, for which the Americans go crazy” — so just order the “solo”.

Hence the title of the article: a play on words where a “solo” is the “only” thing worth ordering at a Starbucks. It goes on to note:

As for the cost, it’s a bit more than average — even with the exchange rate. But abstinence isn’t a bad option either if you’re going to be here a while.

Given the typical espresso quality standards involved between the two countries, abstinence is clearly the best policy.

Espresso like no Other and perhaps a little like Wine

Posted by on 08 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Beans

Last year I asked the question, “Where are all my coffee varieties?”. Today a press release from a Florida roaster picked up where I left off: Espresso like no Other and perhaps a little like Wine.

The broken English is pretty amusing for a press release — even if they make an obligatory wine comparison (yes, here we go again). But Key West, FL’s Island Joes Gourmet Coffee Roasting Company was trying to make a point about how supermarkets typically carry only one espresso blend.

Turns out that Kenneth Davids did give several of their blends a coffeereview.com score of 90/100 or better — which is nothing for your portafilter to sneeze at. But after months of explaining it to store managers and helping customers learn about their own espresso palates, they successfully convinced Albertsons to recognize that espresso isn’t a monolithic commodity.

Coffee workers in India paid 32% more than tea workers

Posted by on 06 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Fair Trade

In a previous article, I made the curious observation that coffee has become a lightning rod for social and environmental angst in a way that is disproportionate with just about any other export. (As if nobody buys children’s toys or clothing from Wal-Mart.) As a point of comparison, I noted that while we obsess over Fair Trade causes, sustainability, and social ethics in our coffee cups, “consumers seem free to buy the Sri Lankan Child Labor Exploitation Blend with impunity — no questions asked.”

'If this is tea, please bring me some coffee.'Some readers thought I was making this up. Yet according to a report in today’s NewKerala.com, a popular online Indian news site, coffee plantation workers in India earn an average of 32% more than their tea plantation counterparts: Rubber plantations workers make more money than coffee-tea labourers @ NewKerala.Com News Channel. Something tells me there are a lot of militant Fair Trade coffee advocates at tea salons, sipping their feel-good oolong, blissfully ignorant of the disconnect.

UPDATE: May 10, 2013
In light of this month’s horrific garment factory collapse outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 workers, Foreign Policy raised this very question we asked six years ago: When it comes to ethics, why do consumers care more about coffee than clothes? | FP Passport. The general thinking, based on a few cited studies, is that “the complex supply chain in retailing made it easier for consumers to justify poor labor practices.”

This still doesn’t explain why coffee and not tea raises this level of ethical concern.

What makes coffee bitter?

Posted by on 06 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Quality Issues, Robusta

Last week, C. Clairborne Ray of the New York Times answered this question as part of the paper’s Q&A feature: bookofjoe: What makes coffee bitter?. (I’m citing it on another blogger’s post instead of the original NY Times source — in case you are religiously opposed to NYT logins.)

As the article states, coffee is a “complex chemical soup”. So complex, in fact, that the answer they offer is a complex alphabet soup.

The digestible short of it is that a little bitterness isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the overall balance of coffee, as it cuts down on its acidity. However, you can cut back on the perceived bitterness of the cup by avoiding distilled water, by brewing at higher temperatures, and laying off the robusta. The Coffee Research Institute also recommends medium roasts, drip-brewed systems, and using a coarser grind.

NYC coffee needs to spend plenty of time in therapy

UPDATE: Aug. 21, 2007
It’s amazing what old stories get rehashed over and over again. Chemist Thomas Hofman presented findings today at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, seemingly unaware of the fact that others have bothered to ask the very same question before, leading to prior research reported several times over already: Chemists Find What Makes Coffee Bitter | LiveScience (also: Physorg.com). How long before the next scientist reports on gravity research made by dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

Nashua, NH espresso

Posted by on 06 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Ever find yourself lost in Nashua, NH? Who doesn’t?

Which is why this latest article on some of the espresso shops around town might come in handy the next time I wind up there … dead or alive: Nashuatelegraph.com: Food and Drink – Local coffee shops push taste with cups of joe, other fancy drinks.

Turkish coffee, as explained by a Turkish expat

Posted by on 06 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew

Today’s Zaman is published in English in Istanbul. So when someone writes an article there about Turkish coffee, you better believe I’m going to pay attention: TODAY’S ZAMAN – Time for a coffee break!.

The article offers some excellent tips for brewing your own Turkish coffee … right at home, without risking Your Own Private Midnight Express: how to make it, the four degrees of sweetness (sade, az şekerli, orta şekerli, and çok şekerli for all you sugar junkies out there), Turkish customs for serving it, etc.

And to think I once had a Turkish housemate who never bothered to teach me this. But I’m not bitter. (You hear that, Levent?! And thanks again for all the times you accidentally dialed “9-1-1” instead of “0-1-1” when making calls back home to Diyarbakir at 6am on a Saturday morning…)

UPDATE: June 8, 2007
And in case the home version leaves you a little unsatisfied, today’s Turkish Daily News published excerpts from Grand Bazaar Guide 2007, offering a few Turkish coffee options in Istanbul: Satisfying the stomach at the Grand Bazaar – Turkish Daily News Jun 08, 2007. They report that Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) is the largest and oldest covered shopping center of the world. Sure, the Mall of America may have its own rollercoaster, but just imagine the airspace you need for all the flying magic carpets.

Vintage Trend: When wine is nothing like Starbucks

Posted by on 05 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine featured an article that sort of did a reverse take on the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee: Vintage Trend – Retail Wines Chains – Wines – Alcoholic Beverages – Alcohol – Consumed – Rob Walker – New York Times. Except this time, the Times writer, Rob Walker, got it backwards: he attempted to make a coffee analogy for wine.

In the article, Mr. Walker discusses a possible new trend in wine retailers: 100-store chain franchises that attempt to simplify the wine-choosing maze and yet appeal to a consumer’s desire for sophistication and choice, without being overloaded with choice. These chains apparently organize their inventory in more shopper-friendly terms for different wine characteristics, and they emphasize the concept of a retail environment as a gathering space — for events and socializing (think SF’s Vino Venue).

Which came first, the wine snob or the coffee snob?

But then Mr. Walker goes on to write, “It’s safe to say that these chains aim to be something like the Starbucks of wine.” And that’s where it’s safe to say that he completely loses me. If these wine retailers were truly modeled after coffee shops, why does my local Starbucks only offer me one kind of coffee to make my double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato? Why don’t they offer a dazzling array of 40 different roasts from all over the world that we could sample at a tasting room — all organized by characteristics of body, acidity, and aroma?

And as far as a gathering space for socializing, Starbucks’ attempt at a third place allows customers to converse, slowly sip their morning coffee or tea, and type on their laptops. But it is something else entirely to set up a space for customers to down alcohol at 9am, to try not to spill on their $2,000 laptops while experiencing impaired muscular control, and to be legally prevented from operating motor vehicles after their second order. And if we truly need a third place where customers can hold events and casually socialize with an alcoholic beverage after work, there’s this thing called a bar.

The fact that the author got the direction of influence for this supposed analogy completely backwards makes me wonder… Are consumers so confused by the specialization of products formerly known as commodities that they’ve completely lost track of which came first in mainstream America: the latte or the cabernet sauvignon?

Ready-made snobbery for under $20? What a bargain!

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