July 2007

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Bittersweet – The Chocolate Café @ Oakland

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

This Oakland/Rockridge outlet of the small chain is a little smaller than its SF Fillmore District counterpart, but the standards are the same. Outside there’s a sidewalk bench and a couple of chairs; inside there are four beat-up wooden tables and a tendency for houseflies to gather (just something odd about the building dynamics, location, and air flow here). Plus the requisite wall o’ chocolate, of course.

Sidewalk seating in front of Bittersweet in Oakland's Rockridge district Bittersweet's requisite wall o' chocolate

All of their espresso shots are short doubles by default. And using a older, three-group La Marzocco, they pull espresso shots that are potent but not syrupy in consistency. It has a sweet tobacco aroma and a medium brown, even layer of average thickness crema. Flavorwise, there’s honey and tobacco served in their brown ACF cups. A good, Blue Bottle effort.

Read the review of Bittersweet – The Chocolate Café @ Oakland.

Inside Bittersweet, Oakland The Bittersweet, Oakland espresso

Trip Report: È Tutto Qua

Posted by on 16 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

Located in the original Bank of America (née Bank of Italy) building on the corner of Broadway and Columbus, this café/bar/restaurant opened just last month as a nicer alternative. It is a refreshing change from many of the North Beach Italian cafés and restaurants: they use particularly high quality ingredients for the neighborhood, and thus the portions don’t try to hide the more modest ingredient quality in gluttonous volumes of food. Most importantly: the espresso is pretty good too.

In Italian, its name means “it’s all here” — though it’s pre-opening working title was Campo dei Fiori, a neighborhood in old Rome. At the door you’ll be greeted by what looks like a typical Broadway strip club bouncer, but once inside you’ll notice the beautiful mural that connects the two floors of dining — plus a flat-screen TV for airing DVD movies and soccer matches. (I can only hope that unlike a nearby café started years ago by one of its owners, Steps of Rome, the staff here give their Italian soccer enthusiasm more than lip-service to impress the tourists.)

Barker or bouncer? Entering È Tutto Qua. Inside È Tutto Qua, with Down By Law playing on the big screen.

Using a three-group La Spaziale at a long bar on the first floor, they serve espresso with a dark brown, textured crema. While the crema isn’t very thick, it has its own ‘microfoam’ of sorts. Served properly short, it is also potent — with a richer, syrupy body and a pungent flavor. Served in Miscela d’Oro-logo ACF cups — with amateur latte art on milk-based drinks. One of the better espresso examples you’ll find in North Beach. And as you find more often in North Beach, È Tutto Qua is also open quite late for those emergency espresso fixes.

I’ve curiously noticed a recent trend where a number of area Italian restaurants have switched from Illy‘s more northern Italian roasts (Trieste) to the southern Italian roasts of Miscela d’Oro (Sicily). Not that I dislike Illy, but Miscela d’Oro has carved out a more distinctive flavor profile for itself in the marketplace. In part, this is due to Illy’s ubiquity, but a number of coffee buyers at these restaurants have also stated how they have preferred the flavor of Miscela d’Oro for themselves. Even if both brands suffer from freshness problems here due to importing from Italy.

Read the review of È Tutto Qua.

È Tutto Qua's espresso bar is set up much like its Steps of Rome sister's The È Tutto Qua espresso

Latte art on the È Tutto Qua cappuccino

Java quest: ‘Lost’ coffee found on Réunion island

Posted by on 14 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans

I’ve written before about how my personal rediscovery of the Maui Moka bean at the 2006 WRBC was, at least for me, something akin to finding a live dodo…or at least a ceolecanth. But a coffee that was presumed extinct for four years is one thing. One that has been presumed extinct for over 50 years is quite another: asahi.com : Weekend Beat/ Java quest: ‘Lost’ coffee found on island – ENGLISH.

In the 18th century, the French harvested the Bourbon Pointu bean variety — a mutant of the Bourbon variety, coffea laurina — on Réunion island (then called Bourbon island), some 500 miles off the eastern coast of Madagascar. Its sweet taste, delicate aroma, low bitterness, and low caffeine (half of a typical arabica bean) were supposedly enjoyed by the likes of Louis XV and novelist Honore de Balzac. However, after a series of devastating cyclones that hit the island, the last recorded shipment of the bean arrived in France in 1942.

It hadn’t been seen since. Then in 1999, Yoshiaki Kawashima — an employee of Japanese coffee company UCC — came to Réunion island in search of the varietal. (Last month we wrote about UCC’s Japanese anime canned coffee marketing campaign.) Working with the locals, Mr. Kawashima rediscovered the varietal in 2001. UCC has since partnered with Réunion island workers to redevelop the crop.

A couple months ago, UCC made their first release of Bourbon Pointu: some 2,000 packages, each weighing 100 grams, available for purchase in Japan. Costing as much as $270-a-pound (no civet poop required), the lot sold out instantly in a country known for consuming rare novelties.

UPDATE: June 6, 2008
In today’s news, apparently the Japanese aren’t jumping for $50 a cup coffee of the stuff: $50 combo leaves Tokyo coffee fans cold | Lifestyle | Reuters. However, they still seem to be interested in the beans.

UPDATE: June 8, 2008
Here’s a perspective of the story from English-language Japanese media: UCC introduces famous coffee fit for royalty – Mainichi Daily News.

When $600-a-pound Coffee Meets the Slow News Day

Posted by on 13 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Anthropologists really should take a closer look at the story of $600-a-pound coffee passed through Indonesian civet droppings, known as kopi luwak. This ‘news’ story has been repeatedly recycled across TV, newspapers, bloggers, and other media throughout the country for several years now — propagating like a Nigerian bank scam e-mail. And just like a Nigerian bank scam e-mail, it goes away briefly and yet comes back strong … as if no one has ever heard of it before.

Apparently, one of the last managing editors in the country to pick up this story is Leo C. Wolinsky of the Los Angeles Times: $600-a-pound coffee – Los Angeles Times. (Nice job, Leo. Looking forward to the Times‘ upcoming exposé on there being no WMDs in Iraq.)

It was over a year and a half ago when we wrote here about how this was a tired, old, recycled story. For example, kopi luwak coffee was even mentioned on TV episodes of Oprah Winfrey and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation back in 2003. Doesn’t that define the death knell for any trend? Rather than being trendy, the coffee has very limited production and attracts enough people — people curious about its price as well as its production methods — to keep its ridiculous novelty price up.

As a coffee, it’s not even very good. One complete fabrication by the Times is their opening sentence, “To connoisseurs of fine coffee, only one is good to the last dropping.” If the Times‘ Paul Watson bothered to do any research, he would have have learned that, to connoisseurs of fine coffee, kopi luwak is largely a novelty gag for the specialty coffee “tourists”. (Q: How does the fool who knows nothing about wine impress his guests? A: By buying the most expensive bottle he can find — along with a good story to tell about it.) Apparently there are enough people duped into equating price with quality that they probably believe that the U.S. Navy’s infamous $640 toilet seat was once considered the most luxurious in the world (to cite a story with similar “legs” from the early 1980s).

So why doesn’t this story go away? Something about this civet-dropping-coffee story has kept it in the public consciousness and imagination as if it were a trendy, brand new discovery about the excesses of gourmands — even when it clearly isn’t.

“Urban legend or weasel poop? Coming up at 11.”

The propagation of this story has mirrored that of many urban legends, even if the coffee itself is real. For an urban legend to have legs, it must hold a plausible kernel of potential truth, and it must also push buttons of the public subconsciousness to make people spread it. For the kopi luwak story, one of the subconscious buttons is undoubtedly the sense that specialty coffee has gotten too fancy for its own good.

For a few years now, people in the media (and in real life) have universally lamented “the $4 coffee at Starbucks“. But I dare you to find a cup of coffee that costs $4 at any Starbucks. But behind the “$4 coffee” statement is a sort of resentful, eyes-rolling, grandpappy-ish sentiment of, “I remember when coffee cost 50¢ a cup and tasted like black tar mixed with hot water — and that was good enough for everybody!” (If these people had their way, we’d still be eating all our vegetables out of cans.)

But don’t underestimate the role of desperate media outlets either. Faced with a slow news day (especially during those summer holidays), managing editors across the country often come face-to-face with dead airtime and empty columns. This is when they have to pull out their arsenal of ready-made, evergreen filler. And few things nicely pad the segue between Iraqi car bombings and Tiger Woods’ place on the leaderboard like a “Gosh, did you hear about this one, Bob?” story, complete with scatological animal references and snickering on-air banter between the anchors.

Years from now, somehow I just know that the civet will go extinct and we’ll still be subjected to this story. When in reality, for an even better media-ready rare coffee story, I’ve long advocated that we forget the weasels and go straight for “celebrity blends”. Tom Cruise, my offer still stands: my home-roasted coffee and your bowels could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The civet: media star for the specialty coffee age

How to Order an Italian Coffee in Italy

Posted by on 12 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew

Yesterday a friend of a friend (now living in Italy) posted in her blog on the variety of standard coffee offerings you can find at a typical Italian caffè: How to Order an Italian Coffee in Italy — Ms. Adventures in Italy. Also included in the post are a variety of photos, instructions on how to order them in Italian, and the different ways you can sweeten them up. Call it Pimp My Espresso, Italian style.

While the Italians pretty much invented the art of the complicated and multi-faceted coffee order, I’m admittedly a simple guy who virtually always opts for the basic caffè: the unsweetened ristretto (perhaps all the standardized ratings for CoffeeRatings.com has been a bad influence). Yes, it even mildly irks me that the default espresso at one of my world favorites, Sant’Eustachio il caffè, comes pre-sweetened. (The Italians generally prefer their espresso con zucchero di canna — cane sugar, not that beet stuff we typically use in the U.S..)

And yes — even if you want your coffee Fair Trade in Italy, you can order it solo se viene da commercio equo e solidale (com-MER-tcho EH-kwo eh so-lee-DAH-lay). Just don’t insult the barista by ordering it “to go”.

A cup of coffee to go — and hold the cup

Posted by on 10 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Café Society

From today’s Edmonton Journal, a café co-owner, Antonio Bilotta, has said “enough is enough” to the environmental waste of paper cups for take-out coffee beverages: A cup of coffee to go — and hold the cup. Quoting the article and Mr. Bilotta:

“If your product is so good, then force the customers.”

Bilotta wants to see people relax long enough to sit down in his cafe and drink their coffee from proper cups. Alternately, he’d like to see them bring in their own mugs.

He’s my hero. And I don’t care if it saves killer bees — at least give me the option to drink my espresso out of an adult cup once in a while, and I’m all for it.

San Francisco also gets a special citation in the article: even the Canadians are aware of city efforts to abolish bottled water.

My new hero pouring in real-ish cups.

Brazil to be world’s greatest coffee consumer market, association forecasts

Posted by on 10 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew

As posted today by the Brazil-Arab News Agency, the Brazilian Coffee Industry Association (ABIC) forecasts that Brazil will unseat the USA as the coffee consumption capital of the world by the year 2010: Brazil to be world’s greatest coffee consumer market, association forecasts – ANBA. According to a report released yesterday, Brazilian coffee consumption is expected to reach 21 million bags in 2010 — over the current 16.33 million recorded in 2006. Brazil is already the world’s greatest exporter of coffee, with sales of 29.2 million bags for the 2006-2007 crop.

Trip Report: Bar Tartine

Posted by on 05 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

This restaurant sister to the Tartine Bakery & Café opened in 2005. It has been through one relocation and a few head chefs since then. Yet the food is very good at this long space with an open kitchen and scattered lighting.

Inside Bar Tartine Bar Tartine's Faema E61 - formerly at the bakery/café

Bar Tartine inherited the classic two-group Faema E61 machine from the bakery since opening this separate location (the bakery replaced it with a higher-output La Marzocco). But instead of Mr. Espresso here, they use Blue Bottle Coffee. They pull shots fairly high in classic brown Nuova Point cups with a dark brown, thinner crema (that looks much richer than it really is) — often with lighter spots at the pours. It has a mellow pungency suggesting herbs (some thyme, etc.), but it lacks the acidic brightness typical of fresh Blue Bottle Coffee.

Are they letting James Freeman’s coffee sit on the shelf for long periods? Or is this another example of Tartine’s skills at coffee making never measuring up to the reputation of their baked goods? Perhaps the weakest effort I’ve yet experienced for a place using Blue Bottle beans — they could have just as easily used Martha & Bros. beans for a similar result. But for restaurant espresso, this is good stuff.

Read the review of Bar Tartine.

Low light photo of the Bar Tartine espresso

How’s your crapuccino?

Posted by on 04 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

This week, The Guardian (UK) posted an article on the elusive quality cappuccino: How’s your crapuccino? from Guardian Unlimited: Word of Mouth. While the Brits may disparage the “dirty dishwater” that is American coffee, even in London you’re helpless to find a cappuccino that isn’t served in a gargantuan bowl, filled mostly with milk, and gurgling with immensely sized bubbles (and yes, he includes Starbucks Coffee in this category).

The author suggests that home brew is the best option. But given the paltry pressures most home espresso machines can generate, I find good milk frothing to be one of the hardest things to produce at home.

VitaBrew, enters fight against Alzheimer’s, Arthritis, and All Other Ailments Beginning with ‘A’ with a Free Certified GNC and Eight O’ Clock Coffee Snake Oil recipe

Posted by on 04 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

Will coffee marketing atrocities never cease? Of course not! Forget the transdermal patch, apparently the drug delivery mechanism of choice today is your good old cup of joe: WebWire | VitaBrew, enters fight against Osteoporosis and Diabetes type 2 with a Free Certified GNC and Eight O’ Clock Coffee Healthy Coffee recipe. I swear, I could not make this stuff up even if I tried.

Now I remember a time back in the late 1980s/early 1990s when I was in a joint UCSF/Berkeley bioengineering graduate program. Back then, all the scientific rage seemed to be around transdermal patches as a delivery mechanism for just about anything. It wasn’t just nicotine cravings and birth control — I worked alongside researchers who were like six-year-olds who just discovered you can put other things besides water in a water balloon. Vitamins, cold medicines, cheese pizza, you name it … it seemed that everybody was working on a grant to find a way to deliver it via a patch into your bloodstream, no matter how ridiculous the idea.

Today coffee seems to be taking the place of these patches, attracting some of the biggest quacks and snake oil salesmen in the business. Weight loss, gout prevention, and now add to that anemia, osteoporosis, hyperthyroidism, and “hair, nails & complexion.”

Upon visiting VitaBrew’s sick and wrong Web site, you’ll find this unholy brew sharing on-screen real estate with books on building your self esteem, “unleashing the full potential of your mind,” and “the power of concentration.” The site has got it all. (Though I must admit, I’m a little surprised there was no mention of the coming mothership from the planet Zoltar — to take us home when the earth next crosses the debris field of Comet Kohoutek.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to brew up a latte to cure my schizophrenia.

Because nothing quacks quite like Colombia's finest!

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