October 2007

Monthly Archive

High-end restaurants raise the Nespresso white flag: The cult of Nespresso

Posted by on 05 Oct 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

An article in yesterday’s Dublin Independent perhaps thought it was exalting the Nespresso espresso. However, it did more to underscore how clueless high-end restaurants are when it comes to espresso quality: The cult of Nespresso – Food & Drink, Lifestyle – Independent.ie. Pre-ground coffee that has aged for weeks in plastic pods since the second crack of roasting, idiot-proof brewing systems run by barista idiots, packaged coffee “flavors” such as “ristretto” or “cosi” (as in “sto così così”, or “I’m feeling so-so, but it’s better than when Mussolini was dictator”) — that’s the hallmark of quality in a £7 ($14) cup at heralded UK restaurants such as Fat Duck and Sketch.

Mmmmm! Grapey.

Mmmmm! Grapey.

Forget the Fair Trade controversies in the article for a moment. Despite the clean and convenient system, the Nespresso espresso tastes very bland and comes with a thin, monochromatic crema and a body just this side of tea. But as long as the designators of good restaurant food taste believe their superpowers naturally extend to coffee service as well as amuses bouche, restaurant patrons are doomed to bland, underwhelming coffee at exorbitant prices. It’s surprising they haven’t hired sommeliers who choose the finest boxed wine selections to go with their $400 prix fixe meals.

Oddly enough, this was one of the things I appreciated about Coi restaurant in SF. I took my wife there for her birthday last week, and they didn’t even bother with espresso service. Instead, they served Blue Bottle Coffee in individual French presses — that’s it. They scored points for acknowledging what they didn’t know and couldn’t do well, instead of merely pretending that they did (and failing miserably) like so many other high-end restaurants.

Vancouver’s new cafe wins best coffee in region

Posted by on 05 Oct 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

From yesterday’s Vancouver Sun, the praise is rolling in for Vancouver’s 49th Parallel Roasters, a new coffee destination established by Vince and Mike Piccolo (the former of Caffè Artigiano fame): Vancouver’s new cafe wins best coffee in region.

49th Parallel Coffee Roaters - if the name says 'Piccolo', it's got to be good.Just don’t ask what Krups is doing as self-appointed tastemakers of good espresso via the annual Krups Kup of Excellence. As if it wasn’t enough that the Kings of Bad Home Koffee weren’t behind it, the rural Oregon spelling was the klincher.

Meanwhile, Mikwaukee’s Alterra Coffee Roasters once again topped their city’s local best of 2007, according to OnMilwaukee: OnMilwaukee.com Dining: Milwaukees best coffee shop / cafe, 2007: Alterra.

Idiot-Proof Espresso Machines End Excuses, Target U.S. Market

Posted by on 01 Oct 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Today Bloomberg published an article about the latest generation of restaurant and home espresso machines, designed with the idiot in mind: Idiot-Proof Espresso Machines End Excuses, Target U.S. Market – Bloomberg.com: Spend.

Andrea Illy of Illycaffè has to be very careful not to speak out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, today Illy is big on promoting a retail line of restaurant and home espresso machines designed for idiots and incompetents. On the other hand, he has to keep tight-lipped about the shortcomings of super-automated home espresso machines. Because the very safeguards that prevent espresso system owners from doing something terribly wrong or stupid are often the very same things that prevent these devices from producing great espresso.

“In the U.S., they don’t clean the machines correctly, they don’t heat the cups, they serve it with lemon peel,” Illy is quoted in the article. His answer? Illy’s push-button ESE system (for “Easy Serving Espresso”), which uses pre-measured capsules of pre-ground coffee — not unlike their Nespresso competition from Nestlé.

The article’s author was impressed by these ESE devices, saying they produce “not only an impeccably made espresso with a lingering taste of delicious, complex coffee on the palate, but after several minutes the crema had not dissipated”. The crema that wouldn’t die? I’m not sure if I should be excited or mortified.

And while the retail claim is that these machines make it hard for anyone to screw up a good Italian espresso, the fact remains that by “good” we’re still only talking Starbucks quality. A gold standard in 1995 suburban Virginia, perhaps, but irrelevant to anyone who has developed an espresso palate to know better. Or at least a palate for something capable of being a revelation espresso.

Coming Trip Report: Piemonte

And although I don’t expect to be blown away at the high end of the espresso scale, I am off to Piemonte this week — armed with Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Lucky you that my postings should slow down a bit while I’m travelling.

The Piemontese town of Alba, for the white truffle obsessed

The latest on Fair Trade’s mixed messages

Posted by on 01 Oct 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade

For the latest installments that hash and rehash the pros and cons of Fair Trade, we turn to yesterday’s Oakland Tribune and today’s International Herald Tribune.

The International Herald Tribune covered the big chains and the impact on some growers: ‘Fair trade’ certification yielding benefits for Brazilian coffee farmers – International Herald Tribune. Of particular note were comments from Geoff Watts, coffee buyer for Intelligentsia, who said that Fair Trade is best suited for commercial grade coffee rather than specialty coffee: “Fair trade markets itself as a specialty brand. However, the fair-trade model is far more suited to the commercial market, which is the Sam’s Clubs and the Wal-Marts and Kraft, Folgers and Nestlés of the world.”

Essentially, Mr. Watts — who last year famously broke Fair Trade ranks to pursue what Intelligentsia dubbed Direct Trade as a better alternative — is saying that Fair Trade makes sense if you’re buying indiscriminate, bulk quantities of lower-grade coffee. The kind of stuff they sell at Costco out of cans, buckets, or troughs.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Oakland Tribune published an article on Starbucks‘ questionable use of feel-good labeling and certifications on their specialty coffee: Inside Bay Area – The Coffee Empire. Starbucks’ Black Apron Exclusives (such as their $26-a-pound Ethiopian Sidamo) might espouse the image of charity mission when it comes to the environment and coffee growers, but in practice it’s arguably a lot different (just ask Ethiopian growers what they thought of Starbucks earlier this year).

For example, in the article the owner of an organic coffee company in Massachusetts was inspired to say, “They [Starbucks] put out cleverly crafted material that makes the consumer feel they are doing everything possible. But there is no institutional commitment. They do it to capture a market and shut up the activists.”

Meanwhile in the news from the Starbucks corporate press release machine: Starbucks Celebrates Fair Trade Month, Reinforcing Its Commitment to Supporting Coffee Farming Communities. That’ll be a double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato — non-guilt, please.

Ethopian growers sew 120-lb bags of coffee beans (courtesy the Oakland Tribune)

UPDATE: Feb. 11, 2008
The UK nature & environment news site, scenta, posted commentary today about a recent article in the Guardian Unlimited that raised many of the criticisms around Fair Trade and actions they are internally trying to take to address them: Could do better.

It still seems to come down to Fair Trade being an improvement when it involves massive bulk buyers of consumable coffee. But selective, niche cafés and roasters would do better for the growers, the planet, and their consumers to look elsewhere.

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