January 2008

Monthly Archive

It’s 2008. Why are we still reviewing coffee houses as if they were gas stations?

Posted by on 28 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, CoffeeRatings.com, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Every time we think about how far we’ve come with the mass cultural awareness and appreciation of specialty coffee in this country, we’re slapped in the face with reminders of how far we still have to go. One perfect example of this is the sorry, antiquated state of the coffee house review — whether in newspapers, on TV, online, or even by bloggers.

It’s been more than a decade since the popular proliferation of Starbucks, and yet everyone from the food editors at big newspapers to local bloggers still approach reviewing coffee bars as if they were gas stations. Sure, we get plenty of information about what they charge for Corn Nuts, bathroom cleanliness, if they carry six-packs of Fat Tire beer, and the freshness of their nachos … but why would anyone in their right mind comment on the quality of their gas? Or at least that seems to be the logic.

Meanwhile, newspaper readers apparently can’t get enough smack talk comparing Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks coffee. And yet our society is more critical and discerning about the quality, variety, and flavors of cat food than it is about coffee.

CatFoodRatings.com got your tongue?

If only it were just the espresso backwaters — towns that greeted the opening of their first hometown Starbucks like the arrival of the Pony Express. (For a textbook example from today’s Florida State University newspaper: Wake up and smell the coffee – Arts & Life – A guide to local coffee shops in Tallahassee. Please, tell us more about pre-packaged macaroni & cheese and walks around the lake.) But recently even New York magazine openly admitted they were befuddled on how to review a coffee bar.

Last week, the New York Times — provider of detailed food and wine reviews for decades — could only go far enough in their review of the new Blue Bottle Cafe to obsess over the price tag on a coffee brewer. But turn to TIME magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year for an opinion, and you still can’t get a straight, useful answer. Yelp reviewers, for example, proved yet again that they aren’t concerned with the quality of the coffee as much as employee attire, paper to-go cups, and garage ambiance (what the ?) — or that they are more discriminating about their gasoline than their coffee.

Coffee isn’t the new wine … it’s the new gasoline

CoffeeRatings.com is in its fifth year of publishing on the Internet, and yet we’re surprised that we are still one of the few resources out there that has given this subject any service. It’s not like we had to invent the SCAA coffee tasting criteria or the IIAC espresso tasting cards either — all of this has existed for years prior. We keep reading about how coffee is supposed to be the new wine, and wine has reviewers and ratings in spades. So why are we all still brain-dead about coffee quality?

Can someone else please pick up the ball here and help lead us out of the coffee Dark Ages? As much as we might try, we can’t do this all ourselves. We can barely cover most of San Francisco. Because if we’re going to be expected to drop $4 for a double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato in Anytown, U.S.A., is it too much to ask for some thoughtful evaluation of the coffee quality?

Trip Report: Trouble Coffee

Posted by on 27 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

This espresso bar is a landmark DIY (i.e., Do It Yourself) oddity of San Francisco, making it something of a cultural institution in the short time it’s been in business (since Summer 2007). The closest (inadequate) comparison we can think of is Portland’s surreal Rimsky-Korsakoffee House — a fun house of a coffee place complete with slowly spinning motorized tables, an “underwater” bathroom, and abrasive wait staff armed with squirt guns that we first stumbled into a decade ago.

But whatever Trouble Coffee is, it makes the likes of Ritual Roasters seem button-down corporate by comparison. (Coffee posers/haters of Blue Bottle‘s new upscale digs rejoice.)

Trouble Coffee's front window Trouble Coffee's window menu/manifesto

Run by the tattooed, oddly accessorized young eccentric, Giulietta (formerly of Athens, GA’s Jittery Joe’s and with connections to SF’s Farley’s Coffeehouse), they serve only coffee, coconut, and toast — each of which are standouts. (She attributes the start of the place to a coconut and a tattoo. Technically, this place is called the “Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club”.)

Otherwise, the tiny space near the beach end of the N Judah line has a “Fellini’s garage sale” theme: rare indie LPs, date signs from 1982, signs requesting customers to not wear masks, etc. In front there are three minichairs camped out on the sidewalk. Inside there’s a wooden counter of planks and a few mismatched stools in a cramped space. And it’s a real hangout for the locals: teens and slackers in particular.

Approaching Trouble Coffee along Judah St. Batman's nemesis' lair, or inside Trouble Coffee?

Founded by people with an abundance of skills and energy but little money, their equipment is all hot rod/DIY: the machine, grinder, etc., are all items they assembled from parts. But they use Ecco beans and try to optimize their rotation for serving between 4 and 8 days after roasting.

On our visit, we caught them dipping into their future supply — which meant an espresso made from a three-day-old roast of their single origin Brazilian. The coffee was still gassing out a little and tasted a bit gassy (before enough CO2 has been released), which was still a little surprising after three days. Even so, it had a rich, textured dark-to-medium brown crema and a rather full flavor for a single bean varietal. With a flavor of pungent (cloves, thyme) goodness.

Giulietta behind her home brewed espresso machine (that's not her hair, it's an aviator hat) Giulietta demonstrates her tamping skills

Giulietta may have been apologetic about the beans being too fresh (we love that concept, btw), but the quality was still there. She also recommended the macchiato for the newer raost: americanos and macchiati are quite popular with the locals. As much an experience, with Giulietta’s great storytelling, as it is great espresso.

Read the review of Trouble Coffee.

The Trouble Coffee espresso The Trouble Coffee macchiato

The La Marzocco GS/3 comes home: Espresso-machine price leaves some steaming

Posted by on 25 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine

Today’s Seattle Times reported on how the exchange rate wreaked havoc on the American waiting list for the La Marzocco GS/3 — their first machine designed with home use in mind: Retail Report | Espresso-machine price leaves some steaming | Seattle Times Newspaper.

For two years, La Marzocco promised a hefty $4,500 price tag for the device. But when the device was finally unveiled for sale by the American distributor for Franke late last year, two years of Bush Administration spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave depressed the U.S. dollar enough to jack up the price of the Italian-manufactured machine to $7,500. Thus making the New York Times‘ exaggerations earlier this week seemingly rank a little lower on the hyperbole scale.

But like the confused Food Network viewers who insist upon commercial ovens in their home kitchens, regardless of the Byzantine building codes for ventilation systems required by these megaliths, somehow we doubt that the extra $3,000 is really going to stop someone that hell bent on consumption.

Time to upgrade the Hummer to a real Caterpillar dump truck while you're at it

Which? Magazine survey: UK coffee chains

Posted by on 24 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

Today Which? Magazine (U.K.) published a comparative review of three major coffee chains in Britain: Starbucks, Caffé Nero, and Costa Coffee: Coffee shops | Overview. Their survey examined coffee prices, beverage quality, and how much their drinks are calorie bombs.

For their taste test, they sent in an “undercover expert” — Whittard coffee buyer and taster Giles Hilton — to representative outlets in central London. (IMO, I’m a big fan of Whittard teas, which I have sampled and purchased at their London and Singapore locations, but I cannot comment on their coffee prowess — they honestly never struck me as a place to get good coffee.) Mr. Hilton sampled two coffee beverages at each shop — an americano and a cappuccino — and rated them for appearance, temperature, taste, and overall satisfaction. So while I might question his pedigree, it sounds like he at least had standard criteria.

Starbucks came up the worst among his tests — too much water in the americano, and rather anemic milk frothing on the cappuccino. And to prove that you don’t always get what you pay for, Starbucks also rated the most expensive of the lot. Meanwhile, Caffé Nero scored highest for taste — and the cheapest (surprising, given that they apparently used twice as much coffee as the others in some drinks).

U.S.-based Starbucks did win the calorie bomb contest, however. Their white chocolate mocha with whipped cream and whole milk weighed in at 628 calories — more than a quarter of the average person’s recommended daily calorie intake: BBC NEWS | Health | Morning coffee is ‘meal in a cup’.

Face it: when it comes to girth and excess, America just can’t be beat. Just look at one of these items that surfaced at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this month: the Cruzin Cooler, a motorized, rideable cooler — with cup holder — that can apparently motor a 300-lb person at speeds up to 14 mph. Who said, “you should never eat more than you can carry”? My latest idea for a gluttony-themed Italian-American restaurant concept, Troppo di Tutto (“Too Much of Everything”), might have legs afterall. Just no neck.

Take me to the nearest drive-thru

UPDATE: Jan. 25, 2008
The BBC followed up on the big UK chain coffee showdown with an article on how independent cafés are making it in this climate: BBC NEWS | Magazine | Giving it their best shot. And while it succumbs to the lazy and inaccurate wine analogy, I particularly liked this quote: “We are in the ‘Blue Nun stage’ of coffee drinking.”

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Cafe @ Mint Plaza

Posted by on 23 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

Today Blue Bottle Coffee Co. opened up their long-anticipated Mint Plaza café — their first true space (besides kiosks and outdoor carts at the Ferry Building and in the East Bay) to showcase James Freeman’s commitment to freshness.

Blue Bottle's Mint Plaza location is in the corner of the building on the left Blue Bottle serving up espresso shots from their La Marzocco GB/5

The café is located at a bend in Jesse St. in the Mint Plaza alleyway — in the corner of the old San Francisco Provident Loan Association building (SF’s largest jewelry-only pawn shop, if that gives you an indication of the neighborhood’s dicey past). It’s a bright space with tall ceilings and tall windows that look out on Jesse and Mint Sts. Along the windows is a series of stools with counter seating. Inside there is limited seating at the siphon bar (more on that below) and one long, high table surrounded by stools.

Of course the emphasis is coffee in all its various forms. But there’s also a worthy dessert menu (Caitlin A. Williams is their pastry chef).

View inside Blue Bottle's Mint Plaza location, looking across the long table Blue Bottle Coffee's coffee menu

For their “routine” espresso blends ($2), they use a three-group La Marzocco GB/5. As you would expect from Blue Bottle, the barista concentrates on timing a slow and deliberate shot — producing an espresso with a richly textured, medium brown patterned crema. It has a beautiful color in the light of the space, a potent aroma, but a thinner body than you might expect for something of this quality. Still, it has a classically robust Blue Bottle espresso flavor of roasted tobacco with an edge of a sweeter honey. Served in a classic brown Nuova Point cup with a glass of water on the side.

The Blue Bottle Coffee espresso, with glass of water - fulfilling order #1 James Freeman prepping a vac pot behind the Blue Bottle siphon bar

Single Origin Espresso

Of course, as a showcase for Blue Bottle Coffee, this is just the beginning of the coffee experience here. James has established a weekly rotation of single origin espresso shots, served from a dedicated old copper, manual, two-group La San Marco machine. Today’s special single origin roast was a Brazilian Camocim Bourbon. Producing one of the very best, if not the best, blended espresso in town, Blue Bottle’s single origin Camocim Bourbon will knock your socks off and comes highly recommended at $3. (James apparently knows me too well, as he personally served me up one before I even had the chance to ask!)

It has an exquisite aroma. The crema is a rich, mottled, and frothy medium brown — a touch thinner in size, as you might expect from a single origin espresso, but it has texture for miles. It has a robust flavor — there aren’t any elements noticeably missing, which is common to single origin espressos — and tastes of chocolate and some tobacco smokiness. Served in a white ACF cup — it is an outstanding recommendation over the “standard” blend.

Blue Bottle's La San Marco for pulling single origin espresso shots - while cameras fawn over the siphon bar Blue Bottle's single origin espresso

Siphon Bar

For this café’s opening day, the siphon bar earned Blue Bottle a front-page story on the “Dining In” section of the day’s New York Times. And the place buzzed with the feel of a grand opening. James was beaming over his latest pride and joy, cameras were about still taking photographs of the place and its coffee, and many of the local coffeescenti came by to welcome the place (including Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee Roasters while I was there).

So what is this “siphon bar”? For one, it’s not necessarily anything radically new or different. It is essentially vacuum pot coffee made with a special system imported from Japan, except it uses halogen lamps as a heat source and cotton cloth filters that James told me should last a whole year. (Cafe Bello, for example, has offered vacuum pot brewed coffee for the past four years — even though it’s no longer listed on their main café menu.) The New York Times may have gone ga-ga over their fixation with its price tag — which they quoted as $20,000 for the setup — but James dismissed some of that figure on many of the peripheral parts they purchased, training, etc.

Halogen lamps heat the vac pots at the Blue Bottle siphon bar A serving at the Blue Bottle siphon bar, complete with caramels

However, the siphon bar presents a unique way to experience some of Blue Bottle’s most exquisite coffees. They offered three different bean options. I had their Idido Misty Valley Ethiopian ($10) — which comes accompanied with chocolate sea salt caramels. The pairing may sound a bit pretentious (I’m leery whenever coffee people try to shoehorn familiar wine tasting rituals on themselves), but it works quite well — enhancing both the flavors of the delicate, clean coffee and the richer chocolate and caramel. In any case, the café could barely keep up with the novelty demand for their siphon bar coffee.

James Freeman may have made his start in the East Bay, but as a resident north of the Panhandle, he has made this location a showpiece and a true coffee destination for the city. Some Blue Bottle loyalists might piss and moan because “Blue Bottle was way cooler when you could drink espresso shots made by a tattooed slacker over a sewer cover in a back alley,” but we’ll take good coffee over misplaced adolescent attitude and poser angst any day.

Read the review of Blue Bottle Cafe at Mint Plaza. — with ratings based on their standard espresso blend.

Chemistry lab time at the Blue Bottle siphon bar James Freeman talking with Ritual's Eileen Hassi and others at Blue Bottle's grand opening

Blue Bottle ups the brewed coffee ante: At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee

Posted by on 23 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Today’s New York Times revealed the “very special machine” to be showcased at Blue Bottle Coffee’s Mint Plaza grand opening today: At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee – New York Times. One-upping the now-blasé Clover, it’s a $20,000 siphon bar for brewed (i.e., not espresso) coffee, imported from Japan via the Ueshima Coffee Company. Yes, UCC — the aforementioned, Kobe-based king of Japanese canned coffee who sports the barista-T-shirt-ready slogan, translated to English: “Good Coffee Smile”.

So what is more amusing? The trumping escalation of high-end commercial coffeemaker prices, or the media obsession with these prices? It’s as if to suggest a Times headline for the brand new Mercedes-Benz CL Class: “At Last, a $118,127 tank of gas.” (Either that or this reporter must think the siphon bar is disposable after a single use.) You can always tell when a reporter is in way over his head when the only vocabulary they have to describe the qualities of an item is its price tag.

Yet the article rightfully ponders whether “the age of brewed coffee” has arrived. To a degree, it has. We’re not ones to take away from the luxury of a great espresso (something that the great majority of cafés still flounder at, and even the best get a little wrong now and then). However, espresso is just one limited method of showcasing the complexity and wide variety of flavor profiles that the world’s coffees have to offer. Now that we’re in an era of coffee quality exploration — with the rise of single origin and Cup of Excellence coffees — it makes complete sense to introduce brewing methods that best highlight those nuances.

Have the Coffee Wars Moved on to Good Old Brewed Coffee?

It doesn’t mean we stop enjoying a little quality washed Indian robusta in our favorite espresso blend — or that we are calling for the death of the quality blend. But tasting a delicate island coffee, like a Kona peaberry or a St. Helena, in a vacuum pot can make a world of difference, and improvement, over forcing it through an espresso preparation.

If anyone should be freaking out over this turn of events, it shouldn’t be the eyes-rolling, look-at-what-those-rich-geeks-are-paying-now-for-coffee reporters. It should be Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz. With all his lip service about getting the insanely expanded Starbucks to reclaim it’s spot at the zenith of the consumer coffee world, they cannot afford to participate in this new brewed coffee arena. Because you can not only forget capably training 99% of their 150,000 low-wage employees on how to properly work a siphon bar — you can’t even trust many of them after-hours in the same room with this equipment. And without a strategy for quality brewed coffee, Mr. Schultz is merely fighting the last decade’s coffee war.

In the meantime, San Franciscans should be proud that the likes of the New York Times are spending a lot more time these days reporting on the coffee revolution that’s playing out in our very own backyard.

New York Times photo of Blue Blottle's new siphon bar at Mint Plaza

Trip Report: Caffè Mulassano (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 20 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Concluding our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series (finally! aren’t you glad?), we’ve saved the best for last. We last visited Torino’s Caffè Mulassano in May 2004. And while we sampled many more Piemonte area cafés in our October 2007 visit, both times Caffè Mulassano came out on top for our favorite espresso in Torino. Caffè Mulassano is also one of Torino’s four cafés rated among Gambero Rosso‘s top 18 in the country.

Entrance to Caffè Mulassano Closer view of the Caffè Mulassano entrance

From the sidewalks around Piazza Castello, right across from Baratti & Milano, it appears a little less grand than some of its Torino peers. But by any American standard, it has curb appeal for miles: dark wood, antique lights, and classic Carpano branding.

Inside the baristi wear white jackets and black ties, serving customers in a tight space of mirrors and dark wood. There are a couple of sidewalk tables in front and not a lot more table seating inside. Even at having your espresso at the bar leaves little space, given how much of their limited counter tops are covered in things to drink or eat. Add the mirrored walls and the usual matron at the side register looking down on everything, and the place almost has a fun house feel.

Caffè Mulassano's full bar -- hence 'barista' Limited table seating by the Caffè Mulassano register

They use a two-group Ariete machine. But when we asked about it, they dismissed the importance of the machine; they claim the quality here is all in the miscela (or coffee blend…if only that we’re true). Not surprisingly, they are quite proud of their own roasts.

Yet they do arguably pull the best espresso shot in town. It has a speckled, even, medium brown crema of decent thickness, a potent aroma, a medium body, and a flavor of pepper and spices. Served in Mulassano-logo ACF cup. Very reasonable at €1.

Despite the fact that the best espresso in Italy generally doesn’t exactly measure up to the best in North America (in Italy, it’s all about the power of averages), Caffè Mulassano’s espresso would tie for first among San Francisco’s other café ratings. Check out the updated summary of our espresso in Torino and Piemonte ratings.

And read the updated review of Caffè Mulassano.

Coffee grinders at Caffè Mulassano The Caffè Mulassano espresso

One last, higher-resolution look at the entrance to Caffè Mulassano

What’s New: Restaurants brewing up gourmet blends

Posted by on 18 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Restaurant Coffee

Earlier this week, the SF Chronicle ran a piece on the escalating coffee wars among area restaurants: What’s New: Restaurants brewing up gourmet blends. With the likes of the SJ Mercury News running front-page stories this week on the coffee war between McDonald’s and Starbucks, hopefully places that sell $18 hamburgers might try to outdo the quality of the coffee sold with $3 Big Macs®. (Though is it really front page “news” if the story is as old as 2006?)

The article cited a growing use of Blue Bottle coffee, which is now served in some 40 area restaurants. Even the French Laundry got a mention for their short-lived Panama Esmeralda coffee program, which was apparently 90% press release and 10% actual product.

But the article also made a regrettable mention of coffee’s greatest and most expensive novelty gag, kopi luwak, at Silks restaurant at the Mandarin Hotel. Kopi luwak is regularly cited in the media and on blogs as a premiere choice among “coffee connoisseurs” — and yet oddly we have not encountered a single one of these people in our lifetimes. That the reporter, Tara Duggan, attributed the digestive processing of this bean to lizards rather than a mammal, the Indonesian civet, we are not at all surprised.

Overall, this story is good news for restaurant coffee. But, as Blue Bottle’s James Freeman suggests at the end of the article, this may not be any better news for restaurant espresso. Hey — if it has to come out of the digestive system of a Salvadoran dishwasher named Alejandro, we’re all for it if it makes a better restaurant espresso.

Trip Report: Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 17 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

The next-to-last café in our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series was chosen entirely at random. Torino’s Borgo Nuovo district keeps a lower profile than most, but it has quite a bit going on for the locals on almost every corner. Walking through this neighborhood on a Monday afternoon, when many of the storefronts are closed, we stumbled upon Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo and decided to try their espresso. The intent was a random sampling of what is typically offered in town — the neighborhood espresso that doesn’t make the ranks of the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso.

Now when it comes to the locals, the Torinese have this habit of unintentionally playing tricks on anyone unfamiliar with the area. (Afterall, who visits this town besides out-of-town Italian businessmen?) Many streets and piazze go by multiple names: the official name, and the informal, historical name. Contrada San Filippo, for example, is nothing you’ll find on a modern map, but the Torinese know it as Via Maria Vittoria. If you’re lucky, a few might even call it Via Maria Vittoria.

You follow, right? The whole thing makes you half wonder if the locals did this intentionally to confuse any potential invaders.

Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo from Via Bogino Step right up to the bar - looking where the bar meets the floor

The Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo (on “Contrada San Filippo,” of course) is a local bar in every sense of the word. It has the standard café setup, pasticceria, sweets, and alcohol varieties one would expect. When we were there, a regular customer ordered a caffè corretto (literally, “corrected coffee”) with sambucca — which proprietor jokingly called, “Aqua Velva.” Torino’s answer to a TV bar like “Cheers” would have to be something like this.

Using a three-group WEGA, they pull shots with a darker brown crema with some lighter texture in it. It has surprising potency and a robust flavor of cloves. When random espresso shots in town taste this good, you’re living among some of the highest standards in the world. And it’s still only €0.90.

Read the review of Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo.

Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo's WEGA The Torrefazione Contrada San Filippo espresso

The Best Coffeehouses according to … Forbes?!?

Posted by on 16 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Yesterday ForbesTraveler.com, part of the imperialist publishing expansion of Forbes magazine, posted an article of their votes for the “10 Hottest Coffeehouses” in the country: Best Coffeehouses | ForbesTraveler.com. To hear it in their words: “We polled industry experts and coffee connoisseurs nationwide to find out where the best espresso artisans are serving up their creations. See for yourself in our slide show of America’s Best Independent Coffeehouses.”

Several years ago, financial magazines backed by Wall Street’s stodgiest cigar smokers, such as Forbes and Smart Money, started reviewing and recommending mp3 players, lawnmowers, dentists, and now coffee places. (I am not making this up.) I have been stupefied by and suspicious of them ever since. Like I want my neighborhood barista to give me a macchiato with some estate planning advice on the side.

But it does appear that their “American Espresso Idol” competition did cull together a list of the usual suspects. Their slideshow highlights, in order, Seattle’s Zoka, SF’s Ritual Roasters, Portland’s Stumptown, SF’s Blue Bottle, New York’s Gimme!, NY’s Café Grumpy, Milwaukee’s Alterra Coffee Roasters, Chicago/LA’s Intelligentsia, Seattle’s Victrola Coffee Roasters, and Portland’s Albina Press.

Unfortunately, it appears we still have to wait for Forbes to introduce centerfolds of hedge fund managers, complete with their own “Data Sheet” listing their likes and dislikes in the world of high-powered specialty coffee beverages. Until then, this will have to do.

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