November 2007

Monthly Archive

Lynchburg, VA: Whole lotta latte

Posted by on 16 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew

The News & Advance of Lynchburg, VA recently published a brief review of the area’s independent coffeehouses. Like many smaller towns in America that have come to similar conclusions about themselves, “In the past two years, Lynchburg has become a mini-mecca for coffee.”

But unlike many articles of its kind, the author doesn’t dote over the ambiance of these various coffeehouses — nor the baked goods and sandwiches they serve. Instead, she focuses more on the coffee — albeit using a rather unscientific approach with the caffè latte as the yardstick (please reserve your sexual stereotypes!): NewsAdvance.com | Whole lotta latte.

More coffee fads from animals’ digestive enzymes: Please make it stop!

Posted by on 14 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

The apocalypse must clearly be upon us. And it’s not just that oil slick out in the San Francisco Bay, either. In the news today is yet another reported “coffee connoisseur” obsession with coffee beans processed through the digestive enzymes of some mysterious Asian mammal: Monkey business yields gourmet Taiwan coffee | Lifestyle | Living | Reuters.

Once again the media is telling us that this latest bean mockery is all the rage among “coffee connoisseurs” (who are these people, and can I slap some sense into them?). This time its Formosan rock monkeys that eat the coffee cherries and spit out the seeds, reportedly creating a monkey spit coffee elixir. I’m sure Kenneth David’s CoffeeReview.com will dignify it with a legitimate review. Yeah, right.

OK, maybe some Taiwanese resentfully want a piece of the ridiculous Indonesian kopi luwak action. But what I really wonder is if there’s an all-out war to discredit people who like coffee that doesn’t come in indiscriminate $3 cans of roasted sawdust — just like their parents used to drink. Is this a subversive war of words on perceived pretentiousness? I’m personally tempted to declare a state of emergency for this all-out media assault on the self-respect and good taste of discriminating coffee drinkers everywhere.

Representing the nation of Taiwan at the next WBC...

UPDATE: Nov. 24, 2007
According to today’s China Post, Taiwan didn’t stop with just monkey spit. Some entrepreneuring Taiwanese have decided that “fox dung coffee” makes a great ghetto kopi luwak for just one fifth of the price: Coffee-lovers unite for a cuppa at expo in Taipei – The China Post. Apparently Chinese knock-offs aren’t just limited to designer handbags, watches, and athletic gear.

Trip Report: Guido Ristorante Pollenzo (Pollenzo, Italy)

Posted by on 13 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Restaurant Coffee

This installment of our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series comes from the very small town of Pollenzo, practically in the middle of nowhere. At least geographically speaking. But on the food map of Italy, this place is one of the country’s brightest stars.

One of the reasons is that it is home to the the Slow Food-affiliated Università di Scienze Gastronomiche — the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the first of its kind in the world. Another reason is that it hosts a restaurant, Guido Ristorante Pollenzo, that served the best meal we had in this most over-the-top of food adventure travels we’ve ever been on.

It’s here on these vast castle grounds that we met Piero Alciati, who, along with his brother Ugo, established this destination restaurant in homage to the cooking of their mother, Mama Lidia Vanzino Alciati — a living legend in Piemonte cuisine (who, along with her husband Guido, opened the original Guido da Costigliole restaurant in the small Piemontese town of Costiglole d’Asti in 1961). The restaurant is rightfully known for its quite outrageously good food — much of it modern interpretations of Lidia’s classic Piemontese recipes.

The grounds of Guido (at left) and the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche The grounds of the university, which is also home to Guido Ristorante Pollenzo

Piero is an outstanding host at the front of the house while Ugo spends most of his time in the kitchen. Talking with Piero, you really sense his all-consuming passion for good food and wine.

In Piemonte we met master chefs who will take your reservation, unlock the door to let you in (it’s quite common to arrive at restaurants in Piemonte with locked doors, needing to ring the doorbell to be allowed in), take your order, recommend wines from their personal favorite vineyards, and cook your meal. But in Piero, we received a formal invitation to visit his massive fine food project at Torino’s Eataly — complete with a business card with his mobile phone number, an arranged tour, and a comped lunch there. And he didn’t know us from anyone. But we’ll save more on Eataly for a future Trip Report.

(Another observation about Piemonte restaurants: the dinner crowd fills in around 8:30pm-9pm, and that’s it. Whoever dines there rents the table for the night — there is no such thing as “turning tables” as there is in the U.S.)

So what’s with all the food talk? This is a coffee site, right?! Of course. But it’s important to understand the context in which an appreciation for great espresso comes. A good espresso is expected as an accompaniment to a great Italian meal. So consider this a representative tribute to the espresso standards of a fine Italian restaurant — unlike America’s finest restaurants, which require public shaming in lieu of doing the right thing. By showing us what is clearly possible, places like Guido further expose the excuseless farce that is espresso at American restaurants.

Guido's interior Piero Alciati takes the kitchen orders in front of a giant photo of his mother's hand

Did we mention that the setting is exquisite? The food here is equally so, and the espresso is no major let down either. (We hope you’re reading this, Thomas Keller.) Using a three-group Faema in the back kitchen, they pull espresso shots with a coagulated but thinner medium brown crema. It has a splotchy consistency with some of the espresso surface exposed — a definite flaw for most Italian establishments. But the shot is the perfect size, and they use roasts from the quite excellent (and quite obscure, outside of the gourmands in the area) Caffè Mokabar in Torino. The resulting cup is potent and has a flavor that’s mostly herbal (thyme, etc.).

While there are deficiencies, it’s still a solid restaurant espresso. It would rank among SF’s top 7%, sharing that honor with only three other restaurants currently. Piero and company may not be gunning for the best restaurant espresso in Italy, but they have standards to uphold. And at only €2, it doesn’t even come with an obscene mark-up.

In our Portugal travels last year, restaurant espresso was generally as good as anything in a café, and few of the residents held a consensus opinion on where to find the best examples. Here in Piemonte, while restaurant espresso was consistently good, it was the select few cafés in town that had the best espresso — and the locals generally knew it.

Read the review of Guido Ristorante Pollenzo.

The Guido Ristorante Pollenzo espresso

Coffee Fest, Seattle: Give me a ‘real’ barista contest

Posted by on 12 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista

Seattle’s Coffee Fest trade show ended yesterday. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article announcing the winners of its “Millrock Free Pour Latte Art competition” (isn’t that a mouthful?): Artistic cup of joe brings home $5,000 prize.

Do this with milk foam and win a prize!Top honors and $5,000 of prize money went to Layla Emily Osberg of Vancouver, BC’s Blenz Coffeewhere I first discovered that the default “macchiato” can be colloquially defined as something far scarier than I ever imagined. (Second place for Draw Tippy the Turtle in milk foam” went to the award-winning Canadian barista, Colter Jones.)

Now I generally find it difficult to get excited about latte art — or even the US Barista Championship these days. However, the best suggestion for any kind of barista competition came from April Pollard, a finalist from Seattle’s Espresso Vivace with “real world” sensibilities about the spectacle. From the article:

She compared the event to a “beautiful baby” contest, and she added that a “real barista contest” would include having 10 customers in a line, one person being a jerk, something going wrong and a person a wanting a muffin while talking on a cell phone.

“They should make it like a normal day,” Pollard said.

Bravo, April. Now we’re talking. Oh, but wait — I first gotta take this call.

Trip Report: Café Abir

Posted by on 11 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew, Roasting

What a difference four years makes. One scalability challenge with an effort as large as CoffeeRatings.com is the attempt to cover the sheer number of places serving espresso in San Francisco while maintaining a common yardstick of consistency (to produce useful comparative reviews). But another challenge is keeping up with the changes; cafés open and close all the time. And some cafés, like Café Abir, can progress in quality from quite poor to quite good while you weren’t looking.

This is a popular independent café with a fiercely loyal, local following. Because of its the vocal loyalists, this café has long been held in high regard — even when there were many, less vocal detractors who didn’t find anything special here (this site included).

For years we attributed much of its loyal following to its atmosphere and status as a lone place of suitable refuge in an otherwise — shall we say — “delicate” neighborhood. (Hanging out at Church’s Chicken just doesn’t cut it, unless you want to pass the time waiting to be a witness at a crime scene.) Because any raving certainly couldn’t be over their sub-standard espresso — which ranked in CoffeeRatings.com‘s bottom 30th percentile. And yet Café Abir won the 2003 SF Bay Guardian readers’ award for Best Independent Coffeehouse.

Cafe Abir's entrance Café Abir's newly remodeled interior

But a lot has changed over the past four years — particularly with its Summer 2007 remodel. And almost all its changes have been for the better. They still retain a sort of Middle East theme out of the silent movie era. But the adjoining grocer and newsstand is long gone — now being replaced with a sake and wine shop. There’s long been a bar in the back for happy hour, and today they seem to have doubled down on their sake theme. Inside, they’ve polished the premises: red upholstered bench seating, nicer tables and chairs, more light. Even the sidewalk seating along Fulton St. looks a little more inviting.

The staff and some patrons here once seemed a bit “damaged,” as can be the norm in this neighborhood. But that seems to have improved along with the other changes. Though on my visit this week, no fewer than two different people came right up to me on the sidewalk, each talking to me as if they were continuing a conversation they started with my evil twin who passed through just minutes ago (“…and another thing!”). Some things haven’t changed in the Western Addition.

(For the record, I used to live along Golden Gate Ave. just a couple of blocks from here.)

New elevated seating for that Julius Ceasar feel with your laptop inside Café Abir Café Abir's back bar for happy hour

But most surprisingly, the coffee quality has noticeably improved here. They still roast their own beans in a backroom. Four years ago their baristas had no idea where their beans came from; today they all seem to know the story.

They now serve espresso with a more solid, richer layer of medium brown crema (it used to be very thin and pale). The weak and watery body is now much more robust — and served in a large shotglass/Gibraltar. It still has a medicinal flavor, but with a stronger tobacco smokiness that almost borders on ashiness — it will seem bitter to many, and it remains my biggest complaint about their coffee service. However, they’ve clearly put a lot more effort into their coffee. They are one of the most improved examples in the city over the past few years.

Read the updated review of Café Abir.

The Café Abir espresso - now served in glass

Do coffee shops discriminate against women?

Posted by on 10 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

Slate Magazine published an article today that posed an interesting question: Do coffee shops discriminate against women? – By Tim Harford – Slate Magazine. The crux of the article is economic research [PDF, 364kb] performed on eight Boston area cafés where the researcher compared the customer service times based on sex, age, race, drink type, the male/female gender ratio of the café staff, and how busy the café is.

The research, despite its relatively small sample size (295 purchases), reveals some interesting statistics. For one, even when adjusting for the greater tendency for women to order the double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato, female customers waited an average of 20 seconds longer than their male counterparts. For another, this difference in wait times diminished when the the café was staffed with a higher percentage of women, and this difference increased the busier the café became.

On the surface, there are plenty of factors that will make you question the study’s conclusions. Are male café staff too busy flirting with the women? The researchers conclude that the male/female difference in service times is rooted in hostility towards the female customers — quite an assertion. But the limited data does tend to rule out some of the usual suspects for simpler, less politically charged explanations. (I still think they were far too dismissive with the “flirt” explanation — the data doesn’t seem to as clearly support it as they seem to suggest.)

Even without some of these usual suspects, there are inconsistencies — take people over age 40. According to their data, they are served slower than younger customers when it comes to fancy coffee drinks, and yet their service times are faster than younger customers for simple coffee drinks.

Decide for yourself what this all really means. But it seems like a question worth asking in greater detail.

Trip Report: Caffè Torino (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 09 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Back to our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series, today we return to Torino’s “living room” for classic grand café style at Caffè Torino. We touched on this café last year when writing about the coffee at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.

The familiar 'L Caval'd Brôns in front of Caffè Torino Outdoor piazza seating at Caffè Torino

Like other grand cafés on the square, there’s seating in the piazza outside. Inside there are elegant details, mirrors, and chandeliers. The bull, Torino’s official town symbol and mascot, is emblazoned everywhere here: on the floor of the entrance, on tiles, on walls, in lights, etc. And the Torinese seem to stop by here throughout the day — whether for a morning caffè, for lunch under the porticos, for an apertivo at the bar for ‘appy ‘our (gotta love how the Italians pronounce ‘h’s), or for the more elegant restaurant in back.

The buzz inside Caffè Torino Caffè Torino's La Cimbali machine at the bar

They use a shiny, chrome, four-group La Cimbali at the ornate bar, pulling shots with a medium brown crema with darker flecks. It has a bold aroma and a more potent pungent Lavazza flavor of cloves and mild spices. While it’s not quite like having a pint of Guinness in Dublin, Lavazza does seem to taste a little more robust here, being so close to its source. Served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. A solid effort at just €0.90 at the bar.

Read the review of Caffè Torino.

Events outside at night under the neon porticos at Caffè Torino Infamous brass bull in the front walkway: step on his testicles for good luck?

Sweets inside Caffè Torino The Caffè Torino espresso

Reviewing Chicago take-out coffee: Know your Joe

Posted by on 08 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

On the heel’s of Chicago’s informal crowning as America’s caffeine capital, today’s Chicago Tribune published an article that provided a light, unscientific, comparative review of 32 different take-out coffee offerings in the Chicago area: Know your Joe — chicagotribune.com. Instead of the single espresso, the yardstick used at CoffeeRatings.com, the Tribune based their evaluations on the 12-ounce house blend drip coffee.

The top finishers in their analysis included the following:

Unscientific PR stunt says SF #1 among least caffeinated cities

Posted by on 07 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

When PR flacks try to get their clients noticed above the crowd noise, a common and effective tactic is the city rivalry vanity/voyeurism survey. Hey, it worked for us. Which is why we’re reporting on the “news” that San Francisco/Oakland ranked #1 among least caffeinated cities in the country: Caffeine Survey Reveals Most, Least Caffeinated Cities.

OK, so their methods are completely unscientific, there were only 20 cities total under consideration, and they had the audacity to call this survey a “first annual” (talk about an oxymoron). I won’t even ask why some Mickey Mouse health care operation is behind it with quotes from their spokesperson, 1968 Olympic gold medalist and 1980s Trident gum queen Peggy Fleming.

But while Seattlites reportedly down more coffee than anyone — and Chicagoans are more amped on caffeine than anyone (largely the product of unrivaled cola and chocolate consumption) — the citizens of our fair standard metropolitan statistical area are the least caffeinated of the lot. We still drink coffee around these parts but apparently give comparatively little love to tea and energy drinks.

You know, San Francisco, I never quite understood how beverage companies could seriously market their products like alkaline batteries either…

Peggy does like her 'sauce', however...

Turks lose taste for traditional coffee

Posted by on 06 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

As Turkish society has become more westernized, so has their preference for coffee: Gulfnews: Turks lose taste for traditional coffee. A report from Ankara suggests that the 16th century art of brewing and relaxing over Turkish coffee is under threat in that nation — with more harried consumers opting for quicker options, as reflected by the more recent influx of cappuccino purveyors.

Some are even going so far to petition the government to ensure these global coffee chains offer the traditional Turkish coffee on their menus. Good luck, I say. I can’t even get most places to offer me an espresso in something other than a paper cup.

Today's modern take on 'Turkish coffee'

UPDATE: Nov. 19, 2007
Two weeks later, Australia’s The Age opted to run an embellished version of this story: Turkish delight sours – Epicure – Entertainment – theage.com.au.

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