July 2007

Monthly Archive

Andy Newbom of Silicon Valley – Founder of Barefoot Coffee Roasters

Posted by on 29 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

The American Chronicle can be a pretty hokey online rag, but once in a while they feature the occasional gem — like today’s interview with Barefoot Coffee Roasters‘ founder and all around cool guy, Andy Newbom: American Chronicle: Andy Newbom of Silicon Valley – Founder of Barefoot Coffee Roasters. In the interview, Andy reveals how he started out as a coffee hater, if not for his wife.

Andy recalls a foodie trade show where after 11 terrible espressos, he had given up on coffee and was ready to simply get drunk on wine and cheese samples. That is, until he was ambushed by one last espresso that changed everything for him. The revelation espresso. That espresso that many of us have had that forever changed all our preconceptions about what espresso could be.

Andy later goes on to say, “We eschew adulterations in coffee like sugar and syrups as they are masks to cover bad tasting coffee.”

Did I mention how much I love this guy?

Barefoot Coffee Roasters - South Bay coffee salvation

Is it coffee … or a carpet deodorizer? It’s both!

Posted by on 29 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

On Friday, The Republican (Springfield, MA) reported on a recent, local case of daughter-mother domestic abuse: Counseling ordered in ‘poisoned coffee’ case – Breaking News – MassLive.com. On the surface, the story is your typical police blotter fodder. But peel back a layer, and it raises all sorts of questions about what really goes into a can of Big Four coffee — and questions about the people who drink it regularly.

The short of it is that a 19-year-old daughter maliciously added Love My Carpet® carpet & room deodorizer to her mother’s can of Maxwell House coffee. A regular Maxwell House drinker, the mother “had been experiencing stomach upset for about a month prior to her daughter being arrested.” She thus apparently continued to drink her daily cup of Maxwell House, oblivious to any taste, smell, or other sensory differences introduced by a big dose of Love My Carpet® non-dairy creamer.

Love My Carpet...now available in French Vanilla Mocha!

The sad story of domestic abuse is scary enough. But scarier still is the notion that a regular coffee drinker cannot tell the difference between Maxwell House and a carpet & room deodorizer. But I’m still not sure if this story says more about the quality of Maxwell House coffee or the taste buds of loyal Maxwell House drinkers, or both.

Under these circumstances, does Maxwell House’s recent announcement of their switch to 100% arabica beans really make a difference? Especially if we can secretly replace Maxwell House with Love My Carpet® — just as Folgers Crystals did to “fancy restaurant coffee” decades ago. I’m just waiting for the Love My Carpet® latte recipes…

Speaking of Folgers and fancy restaurant coffee, here’s a TV commercial clip from 1989, espousing the virtues of Folgers Crystals in place of coffee from “San Francisco’s Coffee Cantata gourmet coffee house”:

I believe this reference is to the one and the same Cantata Coffee on Upper Haight Street — which has quietly labored as an independent purveyor of fresh roasted beans for decades. The video shoot is obviously from nowhere near the Cantata, as it’s hard to merge the images in this video with Haight St. teen skate punks begging for change and a swearing street person marinating on the sidewalk in his own urine.

Trip Report: The Buena Vista Cafe

Posted by on 27 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

I can’t in my right mind write a legitimate review of SF’s infamous Buena Vista Cafe. Sure, it’s no secret that I frequently dismiss the merits of the coffee cocktail — what people do to coffee when it either isn’t very good, when people don’t like it, or when people get bored easily. Even if the coffee cocktail is a compulsory event at barista championships. But there is no espresso to speak of at The Buena Vista. And if this place did serve espresso, it most certainly would set CoffeeRatings.com records for inadequacy.

Welcome to the Buena Vista tourist trap Lining up glasses of the stuff for the tourists

But in case you haven’t been a tourist in your own back yard for quite a while, The Buena Vista introduced Irish Coffee to America. It’s what the Italians call “Irish Coffee” (no caffè irlandese here, folks — an Italian barista will have no idea what you’re talking about). Back in 1952, the original owner of The Buena Vista joined forces with a travel writer on a mission to recreate the Irish Coffee served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. They soon perfected the recipe, and they’ve been serving it ever since.

This former restaurant for Wharf seamen is located at the SF cable car turnabout — at Hyde and Beach Sts., near the end of Columbus Ave. The Buena Vista is packed with tourists from all over. Glasses are lined up for a mass production mixture of coffee, sugar, Bushmills Irish Whiskey, and cream. The watery coffee is from Peerless, so you need a lot of whiskey to make it palatable. But hey — drink up. Today you’re a tourist in your own home town.

The 'proudly' use Peerless Coffee. A step up if you're used to Maxwell House. SF's original signature coffee drink

UPDATE: Nov. 5, 2008
In case you needed more evidence that quantity and quality are often very different things, the Buena Vista Cafe is apparently about to drive that point home next week: Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco on mission to make world’s largest Irish Coffee – San Jose Mercury News.

Trip Report: Sundance Coffee @ 24th St.

Posted by on 25 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Local Brew

This second outlet of the locally owned and operated café chain opened with the 2007 New Year. It’s spacious, clean, and (like the original at 3rd & 20th Sts. in Dogpatch) has a Starbucks-like modern design. One of the things I really like about this stretch of 24th St. is that it has the cultural significance of Mission St. without the urine smell. But a store this “sanitized” might earn grumbles from the anti-gentrification set if not for their political leanings.

There’s window counter seating, seating at a few indoor tables, and a couple of outdoor sidewalk tables. The company was founded on the belief that Fair Trade/Organics are the future of American coffee purchases (they’re big believers in Guatemalan-sourced FTO coffees), and I don’t disagree. But you could make the case that FTO will be co-opted as the future of Starbucks, which is perhaps not what the owners intended here.

Sundance Coffee on the corner of 24th St. & Harrison St. Seating inside Sundance Coffee

All that attention to FTO seems to have distracted them, as their choice of a single-group superautomatic Schaerer machine ensures a glass ceiling on their coffee quality. Single origin Guatemalan beans don’t always brew the best flavor profiles for espresso unless you’re dealing with very high quality stocks and the right roast levels, but I primarily point a finger at the choice of machines here.

The resulting cup has a blonde layer of crema of medium-to-light thickness. The cup has a creamier mouthfeel, but it tastes of smoky tobacco and ash. Despite its slightly large volume, it has enough body to keep it in the espresso realm. Not bad, but I see no reason to go back other than if I lived in the area and liked the ambiance. (Though Sugarlump a couple blocks down isn’t a far stretch either.)

Read the review of Sundance Coffee on 24th St.

Sundance Coffee and their odd choice of a Schaerer machine The Sundance Coffee espresso

Maxwell House coffee to go 100 pct arabica

Posted by on 24 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues, Robusta

Corporate spokespeople frequently speak volumes more in what’s left unsaid than in what they say. Take yesterday’s Reuters news release from The Big 4‘s Kraft Foods. Kraft’s flagship coffee, Maxwell House, has desensitized American coffee taste buds for decades. Kraft has just recently decided to use 100% arabica beans in Maxwell House’s cans of unholy horror: INTERVIEW-Maxwell House coffee to go 100 pct arabica | Reuters.

In a statement made yesterday by Kraft senior vice-president and general manager of coffee in North America, John LeBoutillier, Kraft is changing the Maxwell House blend “to give mainstream America a richer, less bitter cup of coffee.”

The unsaid message from Mr. LeBoutillier? “For decades we have knowingly given mainstream America a weaker, more bitter cup of coffee. In more recent years, while the likes of Starbucks has created a market for much better coffee than the crude commodity we’ve been forever slinging on supermarket shelves, we countered by offering mainstream America even worse coffee: using cheap Vietnamese robusta beans, chemically treating it to taste more like our usual coffee, and passing the savings on to our shareholders. And by diverting our massive coffee purchases from our usual growers to cheap suppliers of low-grade beans, we helped instigate the global coffee crisis, inspiring desperate measures such as the Fair Trade movement.”

To also cite the Reuters article, “The move is neither an effort to challenge premium coffees nor in response to the hike in robusta futures prices to a recent nine-year peak, LeBoutillier said.” As if we didn’t predict exactly this ten months ago.

Mmmmm, Maxwell House: good to the bitter end.

Trip Report: Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park

Posted by on 22 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew

A Peninsula people-watching Mecca, typically filled with large crowds throughout the day and skirmishes over available outdoor tables. It’s been that way here since I first entered this place 15 years ago. They have large indoor and outdoor seating areas, local art, occasional musicians, and obligatory patrons in bike shorts.

One of the most indelible memories I have of this place is from a dozen years ago. A friend of a friend, who was visiting fresh from her compulsory military duty in Israel, asked us about it as we drove by. My other friend, himself a native of India, answered her, “It’s our local Eurotrash hangout.” To which she replied, “Oh, I love Eurotrash.” It may not be as Eurotrashy anymore, but the cyclist motif is still in full swing here.

The throngs outside Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park on a fair weather day Long lines to the order counter; bring your bike shorts

They use Mazzer grinders and twin two-group La Marzocco Lineas at the heart of this operation. The coffee drink sizes here tend to be enormous, however, so bring a snorkel and fins.

They serve espresso with a very pale, blonde crema of mediocre thickness. Good Lavazza aroma. But with a pour to the rim of their Lavazza-logo IPA cups, it’s dominated by a weak body and a watery drip coffee flavor with some woody notes. Fortunately for most lactose-loving patrons, the milk frothing is much better — as everyone seems to particularly bathe in milk-based drinks here. The weak espresso can be hidden rather easily underneath it all.

Read the updated review of Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park.

Working the dual two-group La Marzocco Lineas at Cafe Borrone The Cafe Borrone espresso - filled high and watery

Starbucks, Hershey to offer coffee-flavored chocolate products in the U.S.

Posted by on 20 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Quality Issues, Starbucks

Starbucks executives bristle at the suggestion that their corporation represents the fast food of coffee. (This despite lamenting memos from the chairman to the contrary.) But when was the last time Starbucks made a corporate decision that favored quality over quantity?

Case and point … the new chocolate partnership Starbucks announced this week: Starbucks, Hershey to offer coffee-flavored chocolate products in the U.S. – International Herald Tribune. Starbucks claims this deal will help them better pursue customers “looking for indulgence”. But indulgence from Hershey’s? Those “artisans” of assembly-line milk chocolate, who brought us the ubiquitous mega packs of fun size candy bars given away for free every Halloween? Well, perhaps if by “indulgence” they mean a Triple Whopper with cheese

(OK, some of you chocolate aficionados will cite Hershey’s 2005 purchase of Scharffen Berger, but buying quality doesn’t count. Just look at what Starbucks did with the acquisition of Torrefazione Italia. Scharffen Berger fans are still dismayed by the sell-out.)

Starbucks acts as if they’re on a relentless mission to erode the quality promise their brand established over a decade ago — from weaker and weaker coffee standards, to drive-thru outlets found in gas stations, to downmarket partnering with America’s greatest purveyor of quantity-over-quality chocolate. If Starbucks brushes off the threat of coffee competitors in the fast food industry, why do they seem hell bent on becoming indistinguishable from their fast food “non-competitors”? (Archrivals storm Starbucks – BusinessWeek Online – MSNBC.com.)

Meanwhile in the news, financial analysts suspect that Starbucks will need to raise their prices once again to improve their flagging operating margins (and stagnant stock price): Price of your caffeine fix at Starbucks could be headed higher. These are rough times to be a Starbucks shareholder. Perhaps their only hope now is for Verismo to make a superautomatic espresso machine with a giant clown head that will take your double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato order.

Nothing says 'quality' like a non-breakable plastic squeeze bottle

UPDATE: July 24, 2007
Sure enough, Starbucks announced yesterday that it plans to raise prices 9 cents this month: Starbucks raises beverage prices 9 cents – USATODAY.com. Operating profit margins and same store sales must definitely be hurting at the company.

2007 National Coffee Drinking Trends Report

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

The National Coffee Association (NCA) just recently released their annual report on coffee-drinking trends in the U.S.: National Coffee Drinking Trends Main Page – National Coffee Association. Yes, the NCA — those dinosaur progenitors of the SCAA, from way back when percolators and instant coffee that tasted like ground kitty litter roamed the earth — is still around and kicking. Relevance be damned. But the NCA publishes an annual coffee consumption report based on national market research.

The short of the report this year? Apparently 18- to-24-year olds are responsible for most of the increases in coffee consumption in the past year (daily, weekly, and annual consumption). They are also the only age group that showed an increase in daily gourmet coffee beverage consumption, and they had largest increase in weekly gourmet coffee beverage consumption. Apparently you need a lot of coffee to stay awake hanging out on Facebook all the time. However, people 40 and up showed the largest growth in consumption of gourmet coffee beverages over the past year.

Also of note: last year the market penetration of coffee among American adults surpassed that of soft drinks, reversing a two-decades-old trend.

Toronto’s love affair with espresso bars heats up

Posted by on 18 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Today’s Toronto Star featured an article on the growth of Toronto area independent coffee shops (many of which call themselves “espresso bars”, per the article): TheStar.com – living – Toronto’s love affair with espresso bars heats up. Toronto now has a mixture of established independent espresso bars and a growing array of newer ones. (A little over a year ago, we wrote about a Toronto local who lamented the common over-extraction problem. Hopefully this new crop of indie espresso bars has helped.)

While some credit Starbucks with paving the way for consumer interest in these indie coffee shops, the co-owner of one of them notes, “They’ve [Starbucks] taken away the art of the barista with what I call their robo-espresso machines.” The article suggests that much of the success of these independent espresso bars comes from how they cater to a customer’s desire for “individual service and wanting to feel special”.

Me? I don’t need to feel special. I just want good espresso.

101 Ways to Make Your Coffee Unrecognizable

On that note, the rest of the article tours a number of Toronto espresso bars with Susan Zimmer, a Calgary-based author of a new book called I Love Coffee! Over 100 Easy and Delicious Coffee Drinks. Which leads me to another observation. Despite the specialty drink “ring” of the three-ring circus that is the barista championship, I have yet to meet a coffee expert with an opinion I respect who focuses their energies on the variety of coffee drinks rather than the quality of the coffee per se.

Sure, a single espresso every time might sound like a monotonous death sentence to some people. But who in their right mind needs over 100 coffee drinks? That smacks of Starbucks’ coffee-flavored milkshake approach, primarily aimed at people who really don’t like coffee but still want to play along as if they do.

And while I’m sure Ms. Zimmer knows her stuff — even if her other book has the red-flag title of Cappuccino Cocktails & Coffee Martinis — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by coffee books that suddenly turn into pages and pages of recipes by the end. These books are no more about coffee than The Betty Crocker Ultimate Cake Mix Cookbook is a book about sugar.

Is it really so hard to understand? Coffee is not wine. It is not a martini either.

Tea-drinking India warms to coffee house culture

Posted by on 17 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

Today’s Globe and Mail (Canada) surveyed the rise of coffee consumption among India’s growing middle class: reportonbusiness.com: Tea-drinking India warms to coffee house culture. We mentioned this trend a year ago, and today apparently one coffee company — Café Coffee Day — owns two-thirds of India’s coffee houses. This is a luxury that Starbucks doesn’t even come close to affording here, despite its joke-inspiring ubiquity.

Stranger yet is that India is trying to fuel more coffee consumption as a nation: India plans to boost domestic coffee consumption – The Hindu News Update Service. Regardless, all projections suggest a rapid rise in coffee consumption among India’s big cities.

UPDATE: July 20, 2007
According to today’s India Times, it may also be a while before Starbucks tries again to enter the Indian retail café market: Unsure Starbucks defers India entry.

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