With Spring upon us, that means it’s time for the 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC): ‘Attention to every detail’ at Berkeley barista contest – San Jose Mercury News. Starting this past Friday and ending today (check out their photo album), the 2008 WRBC performs a time-honored ritual to select a barista champ representing our region to send to the nationals, the U.S. Barista Championship (USBC), to be held in Minneapolis this May.
The WRBC is the biggest of the nation’s ten regionals and includes competitive baristas from California and Hawaii. This year they even drew in a couple of competitors from Seattle’s Zoka Coffee.
But the big question was whether Coffee Klatch‘s (San Dimas, CA) Heather Perry, the WRBC’s “Iron Barista” of the past several years, could be unseated from her usual first place finish. Last year, Heather defended her WRBC title yet again, went on to win the 2007 U.S. Barista Championship (a feat she also accomplished in 2003), and then placed second in the 2007 World Barista Championship (to the UK’s James Hoffman).
But there was more at stake than just Heather’s streak. After spending a few years in Petaluma (where we reviewed the 2006 WRBC), this year’s WRBC moved to downtown Berkeley. And this year there were more seminars, training opportunities, and awards.
Many baristas and coffee fanatics in the Bay Area were enthusiastic about the WRBC’s choice of a new location and venue — including us. But when we attended today’s competition finals, we found both negatives as positives with the switch.
Of the six finalists, half was a posse representing Intelligentsia‘s Silverlake (LA) location. But in the end, the “unthinkable” happened. The final results?:
Congratulations to all winners, all finalists, and all contestants…
There are plenty of fans of this sunset café with limited breakfast, lunch, and even more limited dinner options. Several indoor and many patio tables overlook the ocean sunsets, but the main attraction here seems to be waking up with a view of the beach and a giant cinnamon roll. Many locals rave about the quality of the coffee here, but it’s hard to blame them given their lack of legitimate alternatives.
The coffee, mostly 100% Kona, once reflected the rest of the Big Island: they know how to grow it, but they couldn’t brew a proper espresso to save their lives from a lava flow. However, by 2008 they switched to Kona Coffee & Tea as their supplier and replaced their dual two-group La San Marco machines with a four-group La Marzocco Linea from Santa Cruz, CA’s Pacific Espresso.
Where they once pulled oversized espresso shots with a minimal pale crema over a large volume of liquid, the shots are now properly short, potent, and dare we suggest: sweet. Even if there is a minimalist crema that’s mostly gone AWOL. Flavorwise, it has a sweet smokiness of some caramel and sweet tobacco — clearly, their espresso blend is (fortunately) not Hawaiian. A great improvement over their sad standards in 2005, even if their baked goods are still dry and doughy.
Read the updated review of Island Lava Java.
According to today’s Globe and Mail (Toronto), Kraft’s Maxwell House coffee will soon be airing new Canadian television ads that may do less to promote their coffee than to assuage consumer guilt: globeandmail.com: Selling good feelings, one cup at a time. In short, the idea is for Maxwell House — who, when it comes to Third World exploitation, represents one of the (Big) four horsemen of the Fair Trade apocalypse — will promote how they’re spending only $19,000 to produce a TV ad that typically costs $245,000, passing the savings on to good causes in your name.
As we’ve mentioned before, for some reason coffee is a bizarre lightning rod for consumers with economic, social justice, and environmental causes. (Meanwhile, $29 DVD players made by cheap labor at river-polluting Chinese factories and clothing produced in Haitian and Honduran sweatshops fly off the racks at Wal-Mart with remarkable impunity.) At issue is the consumer marketing and public relations stunt of the new millennium known as corporate social responsibility, or CSR — sister to the “buy green” oxymoron.
In case you’ve been living under a pet rock, “buy green” has given us the perversely mixed messages of green shopping malls and ceramic coffee cups meant to look like environmentally unfriendly (and flavor-unfriendly) paper cups (what happened to “reduce” and “reuse”?). It’s also given us the bogus concept of carbon offsets, a falsely feel-good currency that modernizes the ad pitch “the more you buy, the more you save” by perpetuating the illusion that you can save the planet by consuming more stuff.
While “buy green” capitalizes on environmental guilt as an unspoken part of a sales pitch, CSR — as so eloquently stated in a recent issue of The Economist — has three main objections: “that it encroaches on what should be the proper business of government; that CSR is a sideshow; and that it involves playing with other people’s money.”
In a legal system that recognizes the rights of corporations as no different from those of a living, breathing person, it’s easy to be cynical about the inherent social value of business — especially in this city. Producing useful and desirable goods and services for society at an attainable cost, employing people with paying jobs to do so, and raising living standards in the process is readily dismissed as a social good. (CSR devalues this more than it does anything else.) So we favor the overly simplistic view that all business is evil business.
At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical liberal arts college freshman/dufus who first discovers Ayn Rand and Objectivism, the problem arises when the when the business of business becomes something other than business — i.e., charitable giving. When that happens, who’s minding the store?
Instead of telling us you’re going to donate $5 to save alcoholic chimps if we purchase your product, how about following lawful business practices to produce it, getting rid of the overhead of collecting and distributing this extra $5 a pop, charging $6 less for the product by focusing on efficiencies, and reasonably expecting me to get off of my lazy ass and put a check in the mail — funded by the savings and made out to the charity of my choice? (And if those business practices are unacceptable, don’t give the government a free pass but demand a universal law for everyone to follow — instead of supporting a system of under-the-table kickbacks from corporations.)
We can talk the talk about corporate social responsibility, but consumers hold the economic purse strings of this country. Where are consumer social responsibilities in this if, in a world defined by globalization, we effectively outsource our personal responsibility for charitable giving to corporations — some random, third party middleman — because we’re either too lazy or too cheap to do it ourselves?
When Starbucks and the Big Four coffee producers started jumping on the Fair Trade bandwagon — the very companies that were the original impetus for Fair Trade organizers — it arguably did more to discredit Fair Trade than to pump up the images of these corporations. So when the Big Four likes of Maxwell House start proudly wearing CSR badges on their chests, what will be its bigger impact on image: improvements to the Maxwell House brand, or devaluation of CSR itself?
Last week, the Guardian (UK) published an article on a home espresso enthusiast’s journey to obsession: In pursuit of the ‘God shot’ | Food and drink | Life and Health. Having reviewed almost 600 espresso shots in SF proper ourselves — most of them pretty bad — we’d like to believe we know a thing or two (a thing or two too many) about obsession. But the pursuit of the “God shot” — the unachievable attainment of the perfect espresso — is a common story among home espresso enthusiasts.
As highlighted in the article, the story typically starts with a “starter” espresso machine — the gateway drug. It then soon leads to machine upgrades, grinder upgrades, and tampers. Conversations with fellow home enthusiasts via online forums (what they were known as before “social networking” became the phrase du jour — and the beginning of the end of the Internet’s second bubble) lead to more areas for obsession, lost kitchen counter space, and financial ruin. These typically include home roasting, naked portafilters, and the point of no return: PIDs.
PIDs, or Proportional-Integral-Derivative devices, are a programmable digital control unit, relay, and a temperature probe combined into one. They enable owners to control the temperature of a boiler to one-tenth of a degree for maximum brewing precision. Now I may be an electrical engineer by way of college degree, but I’ve always seen the PID as the first step of the descent into espresso madness. The point of no return.
Fact is that my home machine is a “simple” manual Gaggia G106 — the modest, illegitimate sister to the author’s original La Pavoni Europiccola. And OK, I also own a Mazzer Mini (pre-doserless model). I’m obviously part way to madness there. But why haven’t I been lured by the siren song of the “God shot”?
I could easily improve my home espresso set up. But there’s this thing called the law of diminishing returns. There comes a point where after every few hundred dollars of investment, how much better does your home espresso really get? And what is the dividing line between simply “enjoying coffee” — and enjoying only something that requires the equipment and budget of a high-energy physics lab that recreates the first few microseconds of the universe’s Big Bang? (My apologies to James: I like that you own a $20,000 siphon bar — so I don’t have to!)
I’m sure I’m missing out on something by not taking my obsession further. But then there’s a lot else in life I could be missing out on too.
In a red-painted colonial village center, Parker Square, next to the Waimea General Store, this café offers coffee and lunch items with an exceedingly laid-back, friendly staff. They have a few outdoor café tables for two in front and several indoor tables. And like any good coffee place on the Big Island, they offer French press specials of some of the island’s finest Kona and other coffees — plus some rather amazing coconut macaroons.
The Waimea Coffee Company gets their coffee from local estates who roast — or from Hilo Coffee Mill on the east side of the island (who themselves aggregate from local estates). But for their espresso, they offered a Hawaiian-only blend from nearby boutique roaster, Cass Coffee of Hilo.
This is typical of the coffee conundrum the Big Island represents: it grows some excellent (and highly priced) coffees, but much of it isn’t suitable for making a decent espresso. Island coffees often do not shine under the darker roasts that typically round out the body and the rest of the flavor profile of a solid espresso. But the stuff can be excellent in a French press or, in particular, as vacuum brewed (i.e., vac pot) coffee.
Using a two-group La Cimbali M30 Classic, the barista steps through some deliberately good tamping and thorough flushing with hot water. They pull espresso shots with a pale, even, slightly textured crema of a modest thickness. (The barista will drink the other half of a double shot if you order a single.)
The result is what you’d expect from an espresso made exclusively with Hawaiian beans: very bright and little body, heavy on the high notes, but no bass. Flavorwise, it is pungent with a flavor of some tobacco and a not unpleasant touch of ash. Served in classic brown Nuova Point generic knock-off cups.
Chatting it up with the local, friendly barista, we apparently learned of a local Hawaiian who travels the Big Island “tasting espresso like a sommelier”. We obviously need to hook up with this guy, but never encountered him in our travels.
Read the review of Waimea Coffee Company.
Tacoma’s The News Tribune published an unusually lengthy bio piece today on Stumptown Coffee Roasters owner and founder, Duane Sorenson: Coffee’s benevolent Mr. Bean | TheNewsTribune.com | Tacoma, WA. One of the big, early supporters of SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, Duane is quite a famous character in the industry.
Among many other things, the article mentions how he tends to recruit barista “stereotypes” in Portland (and beyond), how he provides his employees with health care and bus rides to the latest Slayer gig (though he’s an even bigger fan of AC/DC), how he works directly with coffee farmers (Direct Trade) rather than through certification middlemen such as Fair Trade, and even a little of the controversy surrounding Stumptown’s opening in Seattle last year.
You know, I don’t think I’ll be able to listen to the song “Raining Blood” quite the same way again…
And to quote Mr. Sorenson on his opinion of New York’s coffee scene, “This town is ridiculous.” Which was pretty much our assessment five years ago.
We really hate doing Starbucks posts if we don’t have to. After all, Starbucks hasn’t been relevant to quality espresso in over a decade. But if you’ve been following some of the Clover brewer posts here, you may be surprised to learn that Starbucks liked them enough to buy the company: Aroma comeback: Starbucks to start grinding coffee in stores. (More details here: Starbucks to Acquire The Coffee Equipment Company, Maker of the Clover – HispanicBusiness.com.)
OK, so the rest of the world seems to be “oohing” and “aahing” over news that Starbucks is returning to grinding beans fresh at their locations — reversing a move to pre-ground, packaged beans from 10 years ago. The media also seem curious about Starbucks’ announced replacement for their horrid Verismo machines: an even more dismal-sounding contraption from the same manufacturer, Swiss-based Thermoplan, called the Mastrena. (More on that in a minute.)
But the news most relevant to quality coffee is their purchase of the fledgling Coffee Equipment Company, makers of the (oft-cited-$11,000-a-pop) Clover brewer. This after Starbucks tried out the device in a couple of Seattle-area cafés for a couple months. For chocolate lovers, this is akin to Hershey’s buying out Scharffen Berger in 2005. (It’s entirely fitting that Starbucks announced Hershey’s as their chocolate partner earlier this month.)
Starbucks coffee in a Clover machine? Who buys a $30,000 sound system to listen to AM talk radio?
But back to the Mastrena, a device that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described as “a new machine designed to leave a smaller margin for error in pulling shots and steaming milk.” Apparently Starbucks will now be able to hire employees with less skills than trained monkeys — to produce consistently underwhelming and “safe” espresso beverages that taste like they were squirted out of a coin-operated vending machine.
“It’s an unbelievable tool that will provide us with the highest-quality, consistent shot of espresso that will be second to none,” said Starbucks’ chairman, Howard Schultz. However, we’re wondering if by “unbelievable tool” he meant the Mastrena…or if he was referring to himself.
We’ve long lamented over being served good coffee in ridiculous paper cups. But not everyone is coffee obsessive enough to review most of the espresso shots available in the city — and particularly the expectedly nasty ones. But today the Journal of Consumer Research published results from a study that asked, “Does coffee in a flimsy cup taste worse than coffee in a more substantial cup?”: Study Shows Touch Does Affect Flavor – Science – redOrbit. The answer to that question was “yes”. (Also: Does Touch Affect Flavor? Study Finds That How A Container Feels Can Affect Taste, Touch Can Trump Taste, According to New Retail Research from Rutgers School of Business.)
In a series of four experiments, the researchers discovered that people’s judgments of a drink’s taste and quality were influenced by the container in which it was served. The firmness of the cup was apparently a big indicator of quality and a better perceived taste, with people most sensitive to touch being influenced the most by the choice of cups.
To everyone who insists on serving their coffee in paper cups designed for the birthday parties of four-year-olds: stick that in your Solo and shake it. And to the cabal of inspirational quote spammers on the blogosphere: enough of that fake life yarn about so-called professors telling students that it’s the coffee, not the cup, that matters. Professors, of all people, are among the first to cite the research published in journals.
Having a wife who runs her own private supper club (for which I am the front-of-the-house/”beverage guy”), I’ve been known to occasionally read the goings-on in the food world. This week, my wife introduced me to a post from a renowned food writer, Michael Ruhlman, who recently wrote about the virtues of percolator coffee: ruhlman.com: Percolator Love. It’s the thinking behind posts such as Mr. Ruhlman’s that are contributing to the Philistine state of coffee in American restaurants.
Mr. Ruhlman has made a culinary career out of “writing about food and the work of professional cooking,” including co-authoring The French Laundry Cookbook with Thomas Keller (himself representative of the odd food savant/coffee idiot phenomenon) and authoring The Making of a Chef, a narrative about life in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). (The CIA thankfully just announced a new coffee program to help dispel coffee quality ignorance among so many budding star chefs.) Combine this with a call this afternoon from Josh Sens, of San Francisco magazine — who asked for clarification on the issues with percolator coffee for his article deadline looming tomorrow — and the subject of percolator coffee seems worth a mention.
Mr. Ruhlman’s post laments the demise of the percolator, a 1940s and 1950s staple which fell out of favor once the prototype Mr. Coffee machine and the ensuing family of filter drip coffee machines rose to prominence in the 1970s. So why was the percolator brushed aside so abruptly? It wasn’t a manufacturing conspiracy — percolators were one of the greatest atrocities modern man ever committed upon good coffee. Coffee is cooking. It’s about using the right temperature, time, and pressure to extract the right flavors from the beans and to leave the nasty stuff behind.
And based on these merits, using a percolator on coffee is akin to baking a cake with a blow dryer. It’s surgery with a shovel. Take ground coffee; scald it with boiling water unevenly sprayed on some exposed grounds and not the rest; guess when the heating element kills itself off; hope for the best; serves 12.
Nostalgia makes some people long for the flavors and smells of their youth, but it also gets Communist Party members re-elected in Russia and sends divorcées back to bad marriages. While most home filter drip coffee machines even today suffer from temperature control problems (their #1 deficiency), they are still largely a step up from our culinary Dark Ages that were characterized by Potato Buds, instant Tang, instant coffee, and percolators.
This past weekend, the Sunday Herald (Scotland) published an article on Trieste, Italy and some its great cafés: A Shot In The Dark (from Sunday Herald). (Trieste is also home to illycaffè and the namesake for the local legend, Caffé Trieste.) The article touches on Caffè Tommaseo, the historic Caffè San Marco, Caffè Degli Specchi, and even the Caffè Stella Polare.
As someone who commented on the article pointed out, Trieste may be known for the melancholy literary figures in its history, but Trieste is also a center for international scientific research. And it can have a uniquely sobering effect of class and distinction on even the most hardened jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing post-grad student: two former coworkers of mine in a past scientific life returned from an international conference in Trieste wearing collared shirts and ties to work. Which is about as shocking as finding an American barista wearing the same.
(And Sarah Alder: if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting for my invitation to the Università del caffè! 😉 )