August 2007

Monthly Archive

Founder of Peet’s Coffee dies at 87

Posted by on 31 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Roasting

According to today’s SF Chronicle, Alfred Peet — founder of Peet’s Coffee & Tea, consultant to the birth of Starbucks, and chief influencer and educator to many in today’s modern coffee trade — passed away in his home in Ashland, OR today at the age of 87: Founder of Peet’s Coffee dies at 87.

Mr. Peet started his namesake coffee chain in Berkeley in 1966. He ultimately retired from his post in 1983. A more detailed biography on Alfred Peet can be found in the L.A. Times: Alfred Peet, 87; coffee brewer’s Berkeley shop spawned a nationwide caffeine craze – Los Angeles Times. (And since the Times likes to aggressively expire links to old content: Salt Lake Tribune – For Peet’s Sake, Drink Good Coffee.)

UPDATE: Sept. 5, 2007
Today Berkeley’s The Daily Californian published a decent bio piece on Alfred Peet: Peet’s Founder Brewed City’s First ‘European-Style’ Coffee – The Daily Californian.

The Italian Espresso Party?

Posted by on 31 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

All is not well in the Italian Peninsula, and there are few things that can inspire Garibaldi‘s Redshirts to go marching again like the price of that all-important daily staple of life: the espresso. This week, the Milan-based national paper, Corriere della Sera, reported on the shocking surprise many Italians received upon their return from their obligatory August vacations: the price of an espresso now costs €1 in many major Italian cities. (Il caffè? Dopo le vacanze costerà un euro – Corriere della Sera.) This represents a sudden price-hike of between 20¢ and 30¢ per cup since the beginning of August.

In protest of the price hikes, Italian consumer associations are calling for a national boycott of espresso at bars across Italy on September 13. The papers are calling it, “lo sciopero della tazzina” (the “strike of the coffee cup”: «Il caffè a un euro? Sciopero della tazzina» – ViviMilano). September 13 also marks the date for a more general shopping strike to protest the price increases in other staples such as bread, pasta, milk, and train tickets.

Industry groups have countered that the price of a caffè at an espresso bar has not risen for five years, and hence the price hike is inevitable and necessary (Milano prepara il caro-tazzina: caffè a un euro – ViviMilano). They have denied some consumer claims of an espresso cartel. Meanwhile, the Italian business association Confesercenti has taken a different tactic — providing research showing that prices have remained relatively unchanged ( Prezzi: Fiepet Confesercenti, “evitare allarmismi, nessun cartello per aumentare la tazzina di caffè” – Confesercenti Italia. Sito Ufficiale).

Tempest in a tea cup? Wait until the Italian Sons of Liberty get their hands on some espresso…

Roots of a consumer revolt in Italy?

Re-Engineering Espresso: introducing Illy’s Hyper Espresso machine

Posted by on 31 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine

Today’s Wall Street Journal features an article on a new home espresso machine/system being introduced by Illycaffè next month: Re-Engineering Espresso – WSJ.com. Illy’s new coffee-pod-based machine/system is called Hyper Espresso — ‘hyper’ being a sort of European equivalent of ‘super’ (as in hypermarket shopping). The system consists of a custom machine (produced by Illy for about $600-$800 for the home version). Instead of coffee pods the machine will use coffee-filled plastic capsules developed, and sold, by Illy for about 75¢ each (or about $50 per pound of coffee!).

Unlike other single-serving, home espresso systems, Illy’s new system promises to enable the home barista to tweak their espresso shots — for example, allowing owners to alter brewing temperature and pressure to produce different espresso strengths and nuanced flavor changes. While the ability to alter espresso shots is a step in the right direction, the system will still be constrained by using only stale, pre-ground coffee roasted weeks earlier, it is obviously beset by high coffee prices, and it will still create a huge amount of environmental waste per shot. You can read more about these capsules on the Illy Web site.

The article concludes by reviewing Illy’s research on all the complex variables and factors that go into making a quality espresso.

Illy's Hyper Espresso machine Illy's bag o' capsules -- only $495!

Vienna’s coffee makers take on the convenience cup

Posted by on 30 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew

Today Earthtimes.org published an article on the evolving consumer coffee market in Vienna, Austria: Vienna’s coffee makers take on the convenience cup : Health. While Vienna is steeped in a long tradition of contemplative coffee-drinking in elegant cafés, modern trends such as espresso drinks, big international coffee chains, “to go” coffee, and home espresso machines are changing the landscape and competing for the hearts and minds of the local Weiners (Vienna being “Wein” in the local language).

Vienna’s roots are in filter coffee, but some of the traditional cafés have seen the exploding interest in espresso drinks as a growth opportunity. Small, local roasters also have to contend with the proliferation of home espresso machines and the coffee pod/single-serve-coffee phenomenon. However, they also cite the limited quality these pods often provide — not to mention the extensive environmental waste they produce.

And while many local cafés were thought to be under threat when Starbucks first arrived in 2001, to date Starbucks represents only 11 of some 2,600 coffee outlets in Vienna.

Inside Café Central, Vienna

New Grounds in Coffee: The French Onion Roast

Posted by on 27 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Just to prove my point about how the French get away with coffee atrocities while profiting from an undeserved reputation for being such café sophisticates, things seem to have taken a turn for the worse in the new Sarkozy era: Artsick > Other > New Grounds in Coffee: The French Onion Roast. In an unholy alliance between Nescafé and Mayor McCheese, the French have apparently taken their usual bitter black tar coffee, topped it with croutons, added liberal amounts of grated fromage, and then broiled that sucker into a gratinée a la French onion soup.

Somewhere in the rear of some Parisian café, a bitter, Camus-reading Frenchman has found a brief respite from his failed culinary career and is now laughing his ass off.

French onion roast coffee: sick and wrong has a new flavor

Book Review: Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2007

Posted by on 26 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew

I’ve been planning another road trip to Torino this October — my first since 2004. The wine and food are always excellent, the tourists are hard to come by (you can have an Italian city of almost a million people to yourself), Juventus is back in Serie A (and yesterday started the season off smashingly), and Torino always beckons with so many notable and good cafés. Like my travels to Portugal last year, this time I plan to take better notes about the espresso around town and in the neighboring countryside.

To help me do that, I recently picked up a copy of the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2007 — an annual, 368-page guide to some of the best espresso bars on the Peninsula (the 2008 version of this guide is due out in early October). In case by “bar” you’re thinking of the drunken taverns here with terrible Bunn warmer coffee for designated drivers, in Italy a bar is more like an espresso bar with a liquor license. Hence why the term barista quite literally translates to “bartender”.

The “red shrimp”?!?

Gambero Rosso is a leading source for Italian gourmands, with Slow Food affiliations and a variety of publications that review the local food, wine, gelato, grappa, and everything in between. Think of them as a less stuffy Michelin Guide that concerns itself less with hotels and more than just restaurants. Many cafés in Italy also take great Michelin-star-like pride in their Gambero Rosso ratings; as an example, Gran Caffè Belli in Amandola, in the Le Marche region of central Italy, posted color scans of their 2003 & 2004 Gambero Rosso reviews on their Web site.

But instead of Michelin stars, Gambero Rosso awards bars up to three chicchi (or coffee beans) and three tazzine (or small coffee cups). The coffee beans are a measure of espresso quality, with a secondary influence of how it is served. The coffee cups represent a more complex judgment on the place, including the quality of any food offered, the level of service, the atmosphere, its cleanliness, the alcohol served, etc. They are a bit like the ratings on CoffeeRatings.com, with the beans representing the Espresso Score and the cups loosely representing the Cafe Score. But unlike CoffeeRatings.com, just getting listed in the Gambero Rosso guide is an honor in itself.

For some points of reference, here’s how some of Italy’s more famous cafés (err, bars) — and cafés with Bay Area connections — stack up:

Café City Chicchi Tazzine
Caffetteria Piansa Firenze 3 2
Chiaroscuro Firenze 3 1
Emporio Armani Caffè Milano 1 2
Peck Bar Caffetteria Milano 2 2
Sant’Eustachio il caffè Roma 3 0
Tazza d’Oro Roma 3 0
Al Bicerin Torino 3 2
Caffè Torino Torino 2 3
San Tommaso 10 Torino 2 3
Caffè del Doge Venezia 3 2
Caffè Florian Venezia 2 3

The guide is far from perfect. I question how tough the standards are to achieve 3 chicchi — standards for espresso at the high end in Italy being notably lower than those in the States. But while Caffè Florian’s two chicchi rating seems ridiculously generous, sensibly Milan is lacking 3 chicchi candidates — with Gattullo and Pasticceria Marchesi as the lone exceptions. (Milan is one of Italy’s biggest espresso disappointments.)

In the end, it’s a very good guide — albeit available only in Italian — to keep you from drinking “average” espresso in Italy (which is still pretty damn good). I strongly recommend it for traveling espressophiles in Italy, even if you know very little Italian. It is almost as informative as the Ristoranti d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2007 (also only available in Italian), the restaurant review equivalent which I recently picked up at the A. Cavalli & Co. Italian Bookstore in North Beach.

Given how hard it is to find Italian publications in the States, your best option to purchase a copy of the Bar d’Italia will likely be to order it over the Internet. The best deal I could find (better than the slow/non-existent e-mail response from Gambero Rosso — it’s August — and their €65,00 shipping) was from the Internet Bookshop, ibs.it (think Italy’s answer to Amazon.com), for €10,00 plus €12,60 for FedEx shipping that will get it to your door within a week. (This from personal experience.)

Bar d'Italia del Gambero Rosso 2007 Example 1 tazzina, 2 chicchi review from the 2004 edition (there's more detail in the 2007)

Swinging a dead cat for a good café in Torino

On the subject of Torino, it has plenty of representatives in Bar d’Italia. Torino has so many good cafés to choose from, the city has engendered an environment of competition through specialization. There the “café lifestyle” has taken on a diversity that is almost unparalleled.

To explain what this means in local terms, here in SF you have so much competition among good restaurants that almost no one serves “Italian” food anymore: restaurants here now specialize in regions such as Campania, Sardinia, Liguria, Venezia, Piemonte, or even Italian seafood. And of the 19 cafés in all of Italy [PDF, 152kb] awarded both Gambero Rosso’s 3 chicchi and 3 tazzine in 2007, four are in Torino — no other city has more than one. Two additional cafés are from the Piemonte region, for which Torino is the “state” capital. (Italy is made up of twenty different regions, each with a regional capital.)

With little margin between the best espresso quality in town, Torino cafés compete in ambiance by attaching themselves to film museums, libraries, the narrow basements of old buildings from the Roman settlement era, perfume shops in a private homes, places where Mini Coopers sped across marble-floored hallways in the original 1969 The Italian Job, and mothership cafés for Lavazza, Illy, etc. They should offer plenty for me to absorb while wigged out for several days on a caffeine bender.

Under Construction: Coffee Bar

Posted by on 24 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

This week the The San Francisco Chronicle published a piece on the anticipated October opening of Coffee Bar, located at at 1890 Bryant St., which is really on the NE corner of Mariposa & Florida Sts. — just west of Potrero Hill: The Inside Scoop / Restaurants retooling decor, menus, concepts. As it so happened, this week one of Coffee Bar’s co-founders, Luigi Di Ruocco, invited me to check out the new space.

So why is TheShot posting news about espresso bars that don’t even exist yet?
No, we’re not going the tablehopper route — treating espresso bars like upcoming movies in Hollywood gossip columns. Regular readers may recall that Luigi is part of the family that has owned and operated Oakland’s Mr. Espresso for over a generation. However, particularly savvy readers may also note that I’ve rated the employee bar at Mr. Espresso as serving a better espresso than anything served publicly in the entire Bay Area. So despite Luigi’s modesty, it’s worth keeping an eye out for what’s going on here.

Coffee Bar's space from the front on Mariposa & Florida Sts. With stairs and elevator coming, two bare levels inside the Coffee Bar space

Between now and October, co-owners Luigi, Jason Michael Paul, and Michael Richardson have plenty of work to transform the former Arc Cafe space into Coffee Bar. (The Chronicle corrected their faux pas of calling it the site of the “former” Axis Cafe — which is still in business and was apparently mixed up with co-owner Richardson’s roots there.) In front is a sidewalk patio area with a cyclone fence that they’ll be taking down. Inside the space is currently taped-down concrete and bare walls on two levels.

While Luigi and I discussed our appreciation for the likes of Blue Bottle Coffee Co., we also noted how they left a lot to be desired as a space to engage with and appreciate coffee. (Coincidentally, Blue Bottle Café is still in the works for a Mint Plaza opening — also in October.) Thus the concept behind Coffee Bar is more than just good coffee; it’s about bringing more of what’s been traditionally associated with the wine-tasting experience to coffee enjoyment. For starters, that will include featured coffee tastings, coffee flights, quality food to match, and beer & wine. They’re even bringing in a Swiss-made Pacojet machine, as used at Restaurant Gary Danko, for producing ice creams and sorbets virtually on-demand.

Quite literally the wood that will make up the actual 'coffee bar' at Coffee Bar The buzz of the coffee serving area from the level above

Since the demise of Café Organica, and along with Bar Bambino, Coffee Bar plans to fill the SF void of good coffee places that offer a choice of beans for your espresso. Luigi says they expect to offer about three bean variety choices, including one decaf.

But to be clear, this café won’t cater exclusively to coffee snobs. The co-owners are clearly trying to make the place inviting, fun, and not at all intimidating.

Luigi at the front windows Busy co-owners, Jason Michael Paul and Luigi Di Ruocco

Trip Report: Cinecittà Bar and Roman Pizza

Posted by on 21 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

This combination pizza parlor (they serve square pizzas) and wine bar has numerous small café tables indoors and counter seating at the bar/pizza ovens. There’s also limited sidewalk seating out front. The décor is their namesake Roman film studios of Fellini’s 1950s, complete with movie posters (plus an AS Roma kit on the wall by the wine rack).

Approaching Cinecittà San Francisco Homage to the era of Fellini's 1950s Roma

Using a two-group La Spaziale near the pizza ovens, they meticulously pre-heat their Miscela d’Oro logo ACF cups and properly brew espresso shots straight into the cup. It’s the right, modest pour size, and it comes with a deep brown speckled crema of decent richness — though the thickness could be better.

It has a sharper (almost bitter) herbal flavor with some weakness in the body despite its size. There’s also something of a lingering dry-mouth aftertaste. But even so, this is espresso as handled by people who are knowledgeable and care. They also produce good milk frothing.

Read the review of Cinecittà Bar and Roman Pizza.

The La Spaziale at the Cinecittà bar The Cinecittà espresso

Where’s the coffee?

Posted by on 19 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends

Back in the 1980s, Wendy’s fast food restaurants sponsored a highly successful advertising campaign featuring a diminutive elderly Jewish woman (Clara Peller, she quickly became a cultural icon from these spots). When presented with the hamburgers of Wendy’s competitors, she famously asked, “Where’s the beef?!”

These days, it seems like we need a similar campaign for the coffee content in most cappuccinos and lattes. Because whenever I buy milked-based espresso drinks in this country, my reaction is almost always, “Where’s the coffee?”

Clara Peller famously asks, 'Where's the beef?' as part of a record deal Clara Peller as immortalized in an episode of The Simpsons

To understand why this is the case, you first need to understand that milk is the new coffee flavoring. Back in the 1990s — when the coffee business was lamenting a decades-old decline in coffee consumption combined with a dearth of new, young coffee drinkers to replace the aging ones — the industry introduced coffees with spray-on chemical flavorings. This desperation move hoped to entice young, flavor-variety-seeking consumers to put down their Diet Cokes and, for the first time in their lives, consider coffee as an alternative. Hence the era of “hazelnut French vanilla creme” coffee was born to appeal to the millions who simply did not like coffee. (“It’s, like, not even coffee.”)

The flavored coffee fad lasted only a few years. But following closely in its wake was the popular rise of Starbucks and the proliferation of milk-based espresso drinks. By “cutting” the coffee, these drinks also offered something to consumers that the flavored coffees did not: appeal to the insatiable American appetite for 44-oz Super Big Gulp®-sized beverages. (Americans may love their caffeine — but not that much caffeine. At least at once.) Ironically, the story of specialty coffee’s booming success in America is really the story of the dairy industry’s revival. Our coffee houses have literally become milk bars.

The rise of coffee-flavored milk

Milk has become flavored coffee’s new flavor of choice. But given the volumes of each involved, it’s actually the other way around: we are a nation of coffee-flavored milk drinkers. And it shows in what passes for a typical cappuccino or latte. There is so much milk, our typical cappuccino would be considered a caffè latte in Italy; I often find myself ordering caffè macchiatos to get something close to a legitimate cappuccino. (And a legitimate macchiato is almost unheard of without playing backseat driver to the barista.) Newly introduced mutants like Gibraltars are typically interpreted just as variations on how much milk you want to wallow in.

Compare the photos below. The first is a photo of a medium cappuccino recently purchased at a downtown Peet’s Coffee, served, by design, in a Peet’s 16 oz. mug. Now contrast with the second photo of a regulation Intelligentsia 4.75 oz. cappuccino cup, which meets the Italian standards for a single cappuccino. (Note the foreground penny and quarter for comparisons.) Poured inside the Intelligentsia cup is a double shot of espresso (about 2 oz.) — twice the amount of espresso designed for the cup and the amount contained within the Peet’s mug — and yet there’s still plenty of room for milk. Even if you double the regulation cappuccino size to about 10 oz., what’s with the Olympic-sized pool that Peet’s is serving as a medium cappuccino?

Unless I’m planning on a “to go” cup for scalding reckless bike messengers who cut off pedestrians in crosswalks, I don’t understand why my medium cappuccino has to be such a gargantuan soup of steamed milk.

The Peet's Coffee & Tea medium cappuccino: 'Where's the espresso?!' For size comparison, an Intelligentsia cappuccino cup with a double shot of espresso

UPDATE: Feb 23, 2008
Even as far away as London, coffee experts are lamenting the comical, standard sizes of American coffee drinks: Foodie at large: The dark art of coffee making – Times Online. To quote how the situation that depresses London area roaster, Jeremy Torz:

“Quality shot up in the Nineties, but the American market has commercialised it,” he says. “It would be difficult to sell a small 6oz cappuccino, the traditional Italian size, for much more money, so to make a viable business out of it, they started to make the drinks bigger. And how do you do that without overdosing everyone on caffeine? You add more and more milk.”

So we entered the Alice in Wonderland age where the smallest latte you can buy in Starbucks is the “tall”. “What should be a silky textured, sensual drink has become a 32oz big gulp suited to the movie theatres of middle America,” says Torz scornfully.

Trip Report: Victoria Pastry Co.

Posted by on 18 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

This bakery has been in operation since 1914. While today it is Italian in name, like much of modern North Beach it has a distinctive Latino flair in how it is run today (even if its immediate location is more Chinatown than North Beach). There’s limited outdoor seating along Vallejo St., a wide array of pastries under glass indoors, and a map of Lucca over the espresso bar.

Approaching the Victoria Pastry Co. on Stockton St. The Victoria Pastry Co. sells ... pastries!

They use Caffé Roma beans for drip coffee and Graffeo for espresso (as the branding about shows). Using a two-group La Caramali, they pull large espresso shots with a swirl of medium and lighter brown crema. The larger pull means it’s a little watery, and the resulting cup has a muted peppery flavor.

Read the review of Victoria Pastry Co.

Espresso bar inside the Victoria Pastry Co. The Victoria Pastry Co. espresso

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