Occasionally this Web site can be the source of a real life story, and the story of Caffè Mokabar is a good one. For a little background, after a couple weeks of espresso research in Piemonte, Italy last October, we were most duly impressed with Caffè Mokabar among all the coffee roasters we encountered. So when I wanted an authentic regional import to serve with a Piemontese meal my wife was planning for the private supper club she operates in the city, I scoured the Internet for Caffè Mokabar…but to no avail. Back then (unlike now) they didn’t even have a public Web site. So I settled on a U.S. distributor of Caffè Costadoro that I found.
Not long after, a comment appeared on this blog from Andrea Bertolino, Marketing Manager at Caffè Mokabar and grandson of company founder, Ermenegildo Bertolino. We later connected over e-mail and exchanged our mutual appreciations for great coffee — and immediately discovered that we were both are rabid fans of the Torino-based soccer club, Juventus F.C.. (In fact, Andrea descends a long family line of season-ticket-holding juventini.)
No coffee hooliganism allowed
Andrea then introduced me over e-mail to his childhood friend from the ‘hood, Roberto Cauda, who was swinging by SF as part of his travels to a Las Vegas technical conference and could bring me a stash of Caffè Mokabar — which is unavailable in the U.S. However, there was one catch. Roberto was born an avid Torino F.C. fan, a granata, the cross-city rivals who would love nothing more than to see Juventus burnt to the ground in flames if not for the fact that both clubs have shared Torino’s Stadio Olimpico (i.e., 2006 Olympic Stadium) for the past couple of seasons (and for many, many years prior to 1990).
For a little context, a lifelong friendship with an inherent football (soccer) rivalry like that is not far off from the Montagues and Capulets of nearby Shakespearean Verona fame. It’s ten times worse than the 49ers vs. Raiders fan rivalry. And just before our October travels to Piemonte, Juventus played Torino at the Stadio Olimpico for the first leg of the season’s Derby della Mole — which was spectacularly won by Juventus with a last-minute thriller of a goal by David Trezeguet that had me jumping on my sofa at home (but also ruing that I didn’t schedule my trip for a week earlier so I could attend the match).
Last month I met Roberto at SF’s Grand Hyatt, and Roberto unloaded a kilo and a half of precious Caffè Mokabar on me. And upon seeing me in my Juventus jacket (of course I had to wear it, as much as Andrea wished he could have witnessed that), Roberto made it clear under no uncertain terms that no word nor photographic evidence of himself fraternizing with a guy in a Juventus jacket could ever come back to Italy. (So hopefully there are no granata reading this. )
In all seriousness, Roberto was great company and I showed him around town for the evening. Being on neutral turf in America, perhaps it’s a bit like the truce between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David. After all, I have good friends in Italy who are granata (“some of by best friends are…”). Though Roby shot me an e-mail upon returning to Malpensa afterwards: “P.S. you need a decent jacket ”.
Now about the coffee…
Given my home use of Caffè Mokabar’s best arabica-only blend, did it compare favorably with my experiences in Piemonte? One rule of thumb we’ve long held is that virtually any locally roasted coffee can be superior to even the best imports — given the freshness difference. Illy is a perfect example of quality that is outstanding in Europe but yet doesn’t translate as well in the U.S. — once shipped for many days and thousands of miles to SF as an oxidizing roast. This no matter how much inert gas or other freshness measures the roasters might take.
However, we were surprised with how full its flavor was — and how much it held up, including its volume of crema it produces (the canary in the mine for coffee freshness), over time. Given that it was an all-arabica blend (as is Illy), it produced a surprising amount of crema and managed to have a rather well-rounded flavor profile. (The typical Italian coffee blend for espresso leverages some quality robusta for these merits.)
Andrea was quick to acknowledge Illy as a great quality product for anyone to aspire to. And he was quick to mention how it was worthy of its considerable expense — just as Mark Prince mentioned in comments here how Ernesto Illy would have wanted it that way. But price even aside, I’d take this stuff over Illy beans in a heartbeat every time.
The coffee holds up to a finer grind well. I tightened up my Mazzer Mini on it without the grinds “gumming up” together in the portafilter. Part of that is certainly due to the more modest roast depth of the blend. And as far as the flavor of the blend goes, that’s completely subjective — many people simply cannot stand the flavor of Lavazza, for example, regardless of freshness. But there are a few blends that really “wow” me in flavor even after the freshness fades, and this is one of them.
Caffè Mokabar needs a distributor in the U.S. — so if we don’t pick that job up ourselves, you’ll at least have us as customers. Because unfortunately we’re all out! A big thanks to Roberto, Andrea, and the Bertolino family for underwriting this post with great coffee carried thousands of miles to reach us. I’ll be thinking of them when the next Derby della Mole takes place this Tuesday.
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