January 2008

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Caffè Vittorio Veneto (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 14 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

As we wind up our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series (just three more to go!), we pay a visit to Caffè Vittorio Veneto. This café sits at the mouth of Torino’s grand Piazza Vittorio Veneto (known to the Torinese as simply “piazza Vittorio”) — designed in 1825 by architect Giuseppe Frizz, some 360 meters long and 111 meters wide, on the banks of the Po River, and with the Mole Antonelliana looming above.

Compared with the more glitzy center of town at Piazza Castello, just up Via Po, this neck of the woods bustles with foot traffic in decidedly more casual footwear. Part of that has to do with the nearby University of Torino, where cheap books, cheap T-shirts, and cheap eats are more prevalent among the local college students.

Entrance to Caffè Vittorio Veneto The northern Italian happy hour bounty at Caffè Vittorio Veneto

The café itself, founded in 1878, isn’t particularly noteworthy. In fact, it’s not even rated in the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso. But it provides a reference point for the classic local café for enjoying an apertivo for “happy hour” (just don’t pronounce the ‘h’s…like a native New Yorker) or for one of your required daily espresso pit stops.

But, oh…the happy hour. As in other northern Italian cities such as Milan, they lay on the happy hour food spread heavy here. Ordering a couple of drinks, you can consume an entire dinner’s worth of accompanying snacks gratis.

The bar inside Caffè Vittorio Veneto Rancilio machine inside Caffè Vittorio Veneto

Using a three-group Rancilio, they pull shots with a medium and dark brown speckled crema. It has a good degree of coagulation, though it’s not too thick. Flavorwise, it’s mellow — a light peppery flavor that’s a touch subdued for Torino.

Served in Caffè Costadoro logo cups. (Costadoro is one of the most recognizable coffee brands among Torino’s cafés, and yet it is virtually unheard of outside of the area.) At €1, it’s a touch pricey for this part of town. Sometimes the tourists come from other parts of Italy, afterall, to lounge on the square over an espresso.

Read the review of Caffè Vittorio Veneto.

The Caffè Vittorio Veneto espresso Caffè Costadoro, as purchased via A&A Coffee Importers of Santa Ana, CA

Trip Report: Caffè Platti (Torino, Italy)

Posted by on 11 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Just when you thought it was safe to keep reading this blog…

Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series once again returns to Torino to start winding up the final cafés of the tour. And where better to visit next than Caffè Platti? While a little off the beaten path of downtown Torino, it is one of the city’s finest grand cafés — with all the old-fashioned elegance and charm you’d expect. They first opened their doors in 1875 and still feature their original furniture. And Gambero Rosso also named it one one of the top 18 cafés in Italy (rated 3 chicchi and 3 tazzine).

Entrance to Caffè Platti under the porticoes Caffè Platti doorway entrance

Caffè Platti is spacious and filled with confections, mirrors, multiple tables, and decorative artwork. (And bonus for me: just outside is the location of the famed park bench where the Italian soccer team Juventus was formed in 1897.)

Using their own Caffè Piatti beans and a four-group La Cimbali at the bar, they serve espresso shots with a modest layer of darker brown, uneven crema. It’s served a little warm, temperature-wise, and tastes of cedar and mild pepper. Served properly with a glass of water on the side. There are better espresso shots in town, but few are better at the location in which to drink it. And all that high falootin’ class for just €0.95.

Read the review of Caffè Platti.

Inside Caffè Platti Caffè Platti proudly displays their (Illy-sponsored) Gambero Rosso credentials at the bar

Barista at Caffè Platti serves up a espresso from their La Cimbali The Caffè Platti espresso, with mandatory water glass on the side

Trip Report: Coffee Bar

Posted by on 09 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Previously, we had written about Coffee Bar when it was still under construction. It has since opened on the longest night of the year, December 21 — with limited initial fanfare, as the partners first wanted to iron out some of the kinks that naturally come with opening a new space. And it is a rather huge, quasi-industrial space at that (Oakland shipping/container crane motif notwithstanding). Coffee Bar’s partners consist of two childhood friends, Jason the stage man and charmer of the house and Luigi the coffee obsessive (and of the Di Ruocco family that has owned and operated Oakland’s Mr. Espresso for decades), plus Andrew the consultant/wine obsessive.

Past an entry patio, there are two levels of wooden tables of various sizes (including some very large ones), counter seating, a private room for events, sofas, and metal chairs. The airy space, exposed concrete, and metal chairs make the place a bit cold in SF’s fouler weather, but it warms up with a number of interesting wine options by the glass and bottle (it becomes something of a wine bar after 5pm), small plates, and great coffee.

Entrance to Coffee Bar Upstairs inside Coffee Bar

For coffee, there’s a huge paper roll menu above the first floor bar. Espresso is served as a doppio by default, and they offer four different bean choices: two for espresso from their three-group E91 Faema Ambassador, and two (or more) for their Clover machine. Our first visit featured Mr. Espresso’s Neapolitan Espresso and Kenya AA for espresso and Guatemala Asobagri and Bolivia Cenaproc for the Clover. After the 2006 demise of Café Organica, it is a welcome return to see SF espresso bars once again offering multiple bean choices for your shot.

The Neapolitan shot is served (by Luigi’s expert, timed hand) with a rich, mottled medium- to dark-brown crema of decent thickness. It has a sweeter edge of honey on top of a pungent flavor of herbs and cloves, and it is a touch lighter on body and flavor potency when compared with the shots Luigi makes at the Mr. Espresso employee espresso bar — which still ranks as our highest rated shot in the Bay Area.

Luigi (and, by extension, Mr. Espresso) is not a card-carrying member of the regrettable Third Wave clique. (For example, Luigi was in full presence at last year’s Host Milan, but you wouldn’t read about it in Barista Magazine.) But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his shots seriously. After reading Coffee Bar’s review on CoffeeRatings.com, Luigi wrote to me of his espresso shot, “I had timed your shot at 24 seconds and I felt for the volume I produced it should have poured in about 26-27 seconds, but it looked beautiful… amazing what a couple of seconds can leave out in your shot!” It is that attention to detail that separates the truly great espresso from the “merely” good.

Coffee Bar's bean offerings of the day Luigi Di Ruocco at the helm behind Coffee Bar's, well, coffee bar

As for their single origin espresso shot, Barista Magazine was accurate in suggesting the “Death of the Blend”: the single origin espresso has come to be what single malts are to blended scotch. And their Kenya AA shot is what you’d expect from a single origin espresso; there’s some blonding on the thinner medium brown crema, and Luigi cuts off the shot early as its pour thins much more quickly than that of a blend. One of the big downsides of the single origin espresso is how it typically lacks completeness and well-roundedness, and yet that is also part of the attraction: to taste something so clean, sharp, unique, and unadulterated. Not surprisingly, the resulting cup has a potent, clean, sharp, almost citric sweetness. Served in small white Nuova Point or larger classic brown ACF cups.

(Luigi also noted that at last year’s Host Milan, Italian roaster Sandalj, of Trieste, Italy, was one of the few Italian promoters of a choice among multiple single origin beans for a customer’s espresso. This is another area where Italy seems to be slowly following America’s lead.)

At the time of writing, the Neapolitan shot placed Coffee Bar tied for first in our listings of San Francisco’s best espresso. Because the aggregate score for our espresso ratings comes from a formula, not unlike barista competitions, the final rankings are something we can’t predict until we plug in all the numbers. (Our scoring system equally weights aroma, body, brightness, crema, and flavor plus a taster’s correction.) But anytime a new café arrives in the top 5 in town, it’s cause for celebration.

Read the review of Coffee Bar.

Coffee Bar's Neapolitan Espresso from Mr. Espresso Coffee Bar's espresso with Kenya AA from Mr. Espresso

Worlds greatest coffee by country

Posted by on 09 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Beans

Yesterday, a Syrian blogger posted a rather well-informed introductory article on the notable varietals of many coffee producing countries: Latest hip hop news: worlds greatest coffee by country.

Just don’t ask why it’s on a blog called “Latest hip hop news”. Rapper T.I. is apparently a big fan of Costa Rica La Minita when he’s not dodging weapons charges.

Italians share coffee to beat price rise

Posted by on 09 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

According to yesterday’s Daily Telegraph (London), the tiny Sicilian town of Partinico has defined a social ritual to counter Italy’s struggles with the rising price of coffee: Italians share coffee to beat price rise – Telegraph. Because of the higher prices, and the Italian need for several cups of espresso a day, some Italians have started a rather ceremonious ritual where an espresso is shared among a few people, with each participant partaking in one sip on alternating sides of the cup.

Culturally, this is a rather classic Italian approach to address a problem: create a shared social solution. Meanwhile in Super-Big-Gulp®-guzzling America, we’re still scratching our heads at how the thimble-sized Italian coffee could be enough for just one person.

Meanwhile, in nearby Malta, the Malta Star reported yesterday on how consumers are dealing with various coffee price changes resulting from the tiny nation’s conversion to the Euro this year: Lost in froth: How cafeterias brew their coffee prices – maltaStar.com.

McDonald’s coffee bars to take on Starbucks

Posted by on 07 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

One of the worst-kept secrets of the past few years is that McDonald’s has been trying to get into the espresso business. Today, news services such as Reuters and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that McDonald’s plans to launch coffee bars with the new employee position of “barista”: McDonald’s coffee bars to take on Starbucks: report | Reuters.

Undoubtedly, McDonald’s will hire or convert thousands minimum wage employees who couldn’t tell a robusta from a McSkillet, give them about two hours of training, and place them behind boxy, push-button, superautomated espresso machines producing paper cups full of a rather watered-down, ashy brew that barely resembles espresso. In turn, some of them will then master the art of “dishwater” milk frothing and graduate to making cappuccinos and lattes. In other words, McDonald’s is going to follow in Starbucks‘ footsteps.

Well, more power to the clown. Even if we still think McDonald’s is misguided in trying to refashion Ronald into a Happy-Meal-peddling pusher of lowest common denominator espresso. Starbucks, who in the past has verbally invited the McDonald’s challenge, will now truly discover how far their espresso quality — and ability to differentiate their product — has fallen after years of massive tradeoffs made to support their insanely ambitious expansion plans. Maybe not enough to shake off Starbucks’ most loyal customers, but enough to keep them bleeding. (Though if McDonald’s adds Wi-Fi at their Playlands, who knows?)

The downside is that we’re not looking forward to having to sample a few of McDonald’s offerings — the sacrifice required for the sake of research and completeness of our database of comparative espresso reviews. Well, that and paper-hatted employees with bad acne telling us in their pubescent cracking voices, “Would you like four pumps of vanilla and caramel syrup with that?”

'Pssst! Hey kid! Wanna McLatte? The first one is free.'

UPDATE: 4:15pm PST
Now that Jim Donald got the axe as Starbucks CEO, with chairman Howard Schultz to replace him, this just got more interesting: Starbucks Founder Returns as Chief – New York Times. Starbucks shareholders are pinning their hopes that Schultz is the coffee industry’s equivalent to Steve Jobs.

Now just because their national holiday ad campaign has ended, don’t think that Starbucks has given up their Pass The Cheer spirit. They will Pay It Forward on Mr. Donald’s golden parachute for some time to come.

The Espresso Gospel according to Martha Stewart

Posted by on 06 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Today we came across a New York Times-syndicated article that alluded to the shortcomings of most home espresso machines: Life: Get off to a healthy start in the morning | juice, cup, milk, divide, servings – OCRegister.com. What attracted us to it was some “unconventional” wisdom about home espresso machines — something we rarely find in mainstream media.

Instead of the typical “check out these $150, landfill-bound, plastic pieces of junk that will save you money over your daily Starbucks habit,” someone actually published a consumerism-unfriendly viewpoint: that joining the consumer chum floating amidst the shark feeding frenzy that is today’s quorum of entry-level home machine manufacturers — many just trying to cash in on the “Starbucks phenomenon” — might not be a good thing for every consumer.

Blood in the water with Martha

Oddly enough, we then quickly discovered that the article was attributed to none other than Martha Stewart. We say “attributed” because although the article rang with the bizarre style of Martha’s “voice,” we know that it is her handlers and underlings who do all her writing. Even down to the regular utterances of the word “perfect” on her TV programs, thus creating one of the more unusual drinking games.

But props to Martha’s underlings for questioning the wisdom of many a misguided home appliance purchase. In the article, “she” mentions, “I tried all sorts of machines – all-in-ones, stove-top espresso makers, frothers, drippers – but I could not duplicate the perfect cappuccinos or wholesome lattes I had imbibed.” (Now did everyone drink at the word “perfect”?)

So she apparently turned to a barista at New York City’s Via Quadronno for a segment on her TV series to demonstrate how to make a “perfect” cappuccino. The wisdom from that episode led Martha to purchase a professional-grade, dual-group La San Marco machine — which has since made regular appearances in her TV kitchen. Martha also deferred to Via Quadronno’s choice of Antica Tostatura Triestina coffee beans.

When New York espresso didn’t get much better than Via Quadronno

It’s not often we find common ground with Martha Stewart. Too often, the celebrity food types fawn over their own ignorance about coffee and treat it as if it were no more involved than purchasing the right batch of cilantro. Martha erred in opting for an imported roaster over a much fresher domestic supplier, and she may have turned to a relatively unremarkable espresso purveyor for advice on quality. However, she’s shown far more research and competency in her approach towards espresso than we’ve seen from most other heralded foodiscenti.

Of course, at the time Martha approached their barista, Via Quadronno was regarded as one of New York City’s best purveyors of quality cappuccino. Before the likes of Ninth Street Espresso and Joe the Art of Coffee reached critical public awareness, places like Via Quadronno were it for this (encouragingly improving) espresso backwater of a metropolis.

This post is also another excuse to highlight some non-San Francisco espresso reviews that we’ve been able to recently surface in our database: read the review of Via Quadronno in New York City, last updated in 2005.

Decorated Via Quadronno cappuccino, courtesy of their Web site

Today’s Ben Rogers cups coffee, picks wine grapes

Posted by on 05 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

It may be a new year, but often it is only the calendar that changes. Take this article in today’s New York Daily News — yet another installment in a long line of ever-popular wine analogy/”gee whiz, there’s this thing called cupping” pieces: Coffee: Hey, I’m no ordinary Joe. It comes with the obligatory Counter Culture Coffee PR placements, historical revisionism about what coffee cupping is, shoehorned wine comparisons, and ensuing ridicule in comments from readers who still resent those who started asking for cheese in flavors other than “orange” and “white”.

After getting past wondering how some people could seem so threatened by someone else’s coffee habits, I mused over the ever-bewildering relationship society has been having with their food in general. Setting aside the obesity epidemic and the insane proliferation of corn-based products in the American food chain for a moment, we’ve evidently become so disconnected from how our food is produced that we’ve come to glamorize and romanticize the ugly, dirty, back-breaking underside of food production. (Mind you, I came to this as I was caking grime under my fingernails, taking apart my home espresso machine for the annual ritual of replacing its gaskets.)

How the decommoditization of food has glamorized its production and producers

The public invention of the celebrity chef, the adoration of wine growers, and even the public promotion of coffee cupping all share common roots with this phenomenon. Being a restaurant chef was, and still is, largely a blue collar profession. Wine growers are basically farmers who have developed sudden packs of fashionable, well-heeled groupies. And coffee cupping — despite John Moore’s claim that “[cupping] is like going to mosque, temple or church to celebrate the coffee” — is the ritual of coffee buyers testing lots of unroasted coffee for defects before purchase.

A true coffee cupper is only interested in the taste evaluation and doesn’t actually swallow the stuff — spitting it out into a container. And yet coffee cuppings are being promoted as if some elitist activity analogous to wine tasting (hence eliciting rage and scorn from the occasional Web commenter) … as if slurping and spewing for coffee defects were among the most indulgent pleasures known to royalty. Let’s just say that the next time I get a birthday cake, I don’t plan on celebrating with it by spitting it back onto my plate.

“This coffee cupping sure is fun, Ben!” *spit*

Dealing with agricultural products, whether coffee or wine or restaurants, has always meant a lot of sweaty, unglamorous work. Yet this disconnect between food producers and consumers has created an upscale market where people are willing to spend top dollar for the privilege of performing the most menial labor. It’s the modern equivalent of Ben Rogers, whom Tom Sawyer famously convinced to gladly whitewash his fence for him. Except in today’s version, even Tom Sawyer would have admired the oneupmanship masterstroke of also getting Ben to pay for the pleasure of doing it.

The best examples of this today come from the wine industry, where people are paying large sums of money to go on trips for the back-breaking work of wine harvesting. Marketed as a sort of lifestyles of the rich and richer, the Sonoma County Grape Camp, for example, charges $15,000 a couple (I am not making this up) for the privilege of picking grapes while hunched over in an open field — doing work that otherwise only illegal immigrants can seemingly tolerate. Similar programs exist overseas.

There is an upside to this, of course. People are more willing than they have been for decades to know where their food comes from and how it is made. But the true mark of success for this movement will be when it isn’t just the elitists who recognize the value in that. The first step is in recognizing things for what they are — and even for what they are not.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to taste and enjoy coffee’s many flavors among the different varietals it has to offer. I’ll even continue roasting my own coffee at home from time-to-time. But just as I don’t want to USDA-inspect my own meat, please — someone else do the actual cupping for me.

'Ben, don't you wish you could cup coffee too? Doesn't that sound like fun?'

UPDATE: April 21, 2008
To illustrate how Counter Culture Coffee’s public cuppings graft this industry process on to bewildered retail consumers expecting something much more akin to wine tasting, today a reporter from Asheville, NC’s Citizen-Times wrote a humorous piece about his experience: Columnist at a coffee tasting | COLUMNISTS | Asheville CITIZEN-TIMES.com.

Basically, the reporter puts the “ridicule” in “ridiculous”. Just because some consumers may love bacon, that doesn’t mean they want to play meat inspector for a day and examine a pig carcass for abscesses, tuberculosis, and hog cholera — as much fun as that might be for hog farmers.

UPDATE: May 28, 2008
Counter Culture Coffee continues to seek a profit by spreading consumer ignorance. This time it’s marketing manager, Mark Overbay, trying to sex up coffee’s equivalent of meat inspection in today’s New York Times: Do I Detect a Hint of Joe? Coffee Tastings Catch on With Aficionados – NYTimes.com. There’s a reason why Peet’s Coffee & Tea promotes something called “Comparative Tastings,” Mark.

For example, here’s the definition of cupping from the Napa Valley Roasting Company Web site:

Cupping is an evaluation of green beans. The beans are under roasted and ground into a cup. Then the grounds are infused with water and first slurped and then spit out to experience all the flavors that exist in the beans. The best and worst flavors are present in this state. The key to a truly great cup of coffee is translating the promise of what exists in the green beans and then executing a roasting profile that maximize those flavors.

Italy moves to certify the Italian espresso

Posted by on 03 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Continuing the story on Italy’s (seemingly retroactive) efforts to standardize and certify the espresso, England’s Channel 4 reported yesterday that a member of the Italian parliament and head of Italy’s agricultural commission, Marco Lion, proposed a bill to set a espresso “gold standard”: Channel 4 – News – Coffee: A nation’s obsession.

According to the proposal, cafés would need to meet a series of tests before they could receive a certification of authenticity — as standardized by the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, or National Institute of Italian Espresso. Like Fair Trade, shade grown, organic, and other labels already proliferating the coffee bean supply market, this would be among the first certification labels that covers the preparation of the beverage — which is the downfall of many a roaster.

The bill, which also covers other Italian products subject to quality dilution in their worldwide replication, is scheduled for discussion in the Italian parliament in early 2008. Chances are that the baseline standards for certified Italian espresso would be quite achievable at many Bay Area cafés, but very few would qualify as they are rather blindly serving the stuff today.

UPDATE: Jan. 5, 2008
Chinese TV juggernaut, CCTV, published a version of this story on their Web site today, including a couple notable quotes: Italy promotes bill to guarantee coffee quality – CCTV International.

Trip Report: Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea @ Millennium Park (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 01 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

If Peet’s Coffee & Tea has been a slow-growth contrast to Starbucks‘ cancerous proliferation in recent years, Intelligentsia‘s expansion has been deliberately glacial. And why not? You get big, you get less selective about your coffee growers and suppliers. You start accepting employees with fewer skills and less passion about truly good coffee. And how’s a budding barista champion supposed to develop in that environment?

Intelligentsia’s Millennium Park location in Chicago is just their fourth installment; they now have three in Chicago and one in Los Angeles. Inside, there’s a bit of space — it’s a modern space compared with their other locations. But little of the floorspace is dedicated to seating: it’s mostly a wall display of colorful bags of roasted coffee, a few tables along one edge of the floor plan, and a relatively generous-sized serving area for those preparing coffee.

Entrance to the Millennium Park Intelligentsia Entrance to the Millennium Park Intelligentsia from inside

Using dueling orange, three-group La Marzocco FB70s, they pull short espresso shots with a richly textured, medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness. It has an intensely robust aroma, with a sweet flavor of molasses and almost syrup-like qualities. Definitely lives up to the Intelligentsia standard. And yes, they also have a Clover and feature the roasted single origin varietals for it.

Read the review of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea at Millennium Park.

Intelligentsia staff work their FB70s for espresso shots An artful display of beverage bottle tops at Intelligentsia

The Millennium Park Intelligentsia espresso Ice skating in nearby Millennium Park; 'jelly bean' included

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