March 2008

Monthly Archive

Hawaii won’t ban genetic coffee

Posted by on 07 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Beans

Today’s post comes to you from the Big Island of Hawaiʻi — home of Kona coffee. A local story here about genetically modified coffee in Hawaiʻi apparently has gone national: Hawaii won’t ban genetic coffee –

I’ve been on Hawaiʻi for the past few days, drinking up the good local Kona as filter coffee and scratching my head over the tendency for places to offer Kona and pure Hawaiian Island espresso. As we mentioned in our last post, some coffee is made for filter or vacuum brewing, and some is made for espresso. Kona coffee, with its delicate floral and fruit tones, is not meant for espresso — you lose the high-end of its range in the brewing process (and thus eliminate much of what makes it special or unique), and there isn’t enough body or flavor depth at the low end to carry the cup. But more on that in a future post.

The issue here in the news today regards genetically modified coffee. One group of interested parties wants to harvest genetically modified coffee on Oʻahu that ‘naturally’ grows decaffeinated. A good number of Kona growers, many of them rightfully still angry over Michael Norton’s massive Kona fraud scheme of the 1990s, don’t want the specter of ‘frankencoffee’ to tarnish their hard-fought brand image.

Of course, what none of these growers are willing to admit is that all the coffee in Hawaiʻi is an invasive species, brought in from overseas bean stocks and selected for their own natural genetic modification on the islands. Not that we’re in favor of genetically modified foods at, but many demonize the stuff, copping the purity argument, without acknowledging that the evolution of humans, animals, plants, and everything in between is an impure story of continental migration, cross-fertilization, and genetic modification.

As much as I have come to appreciate and respect Hawaii’s “indigenous” people and culture, the Polynesians who first settled here some 1,500 years ago were themselves invaders — not entirely different from the overweight, Hawaiian-shirt-and-flip-flops-wearing tourists who come off the plane in search of Mai Tais today. Every time I read something about preserving and protecting the unspoiled, native kamaʻāina Hawaiian culture from the foreign haole influences, I have to wonder if they’re a bit pupule (crazy). When someone cries “foul” about protecting the purity of what once was in the face of change, whether it’s genetically modified coffee in Hawaiʻi or immigration in America, what constitutes “pure” is always a matter of perspective.

How the Clover is just one more among many ways to think about coffee

Posted by on 05 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Machine

A bit slow out of the gate (by a year), Slate magazine filed this article on the Clover brewer, naturally focusing on the device’s expense in the article’s title (“Could a Coffee Maker Be Worth $11,000?”): How the Clover could change the way we think about coffee. – By Paul Adams – Slate Magazine. It’s a timely follow-up to our post yesterday.

When it comes to “bragging rights” over who has the bigger price tag (?!?), it’s interesting to compare the Clover brewer to James Freeman’s siphon bar. While the Clover brewer allows a lot of variables to be tweaked and tuned, as cited in the Slate article, it is largely the Northwest American digital engineer’s approach to better brewed coffee. Meanwhile the siphon bar is more like the artist’s approach to the same problem — with at least as many variables and nuances to adjust, but it’s more like the violinist who prefers to ignore the constraints of precision frets on their instrument to produce something they can more fully control in an analog world.

However, the author of the Slate article, Paul Adams, seems to miss the forest for the trees. A new brewer doesn’t change how we think about coffee. In fact, the only reason the Clover brewer exists is because the coffee itself is getting better; the nuanced flavors and aromas these higher-grade coffees produce won’t otherwise be lost on a precision machine like the Clover. But considering the origins of the beans and the roasting styles applied to them, not every coffee makes sense in a Clover — just as not every coffee makes sense as an espresso. A good microscope and a good telescope may both require precision optics to effectively refract light, but I wouldn’t use the same device to examine both the heavens and the structure of cells.

Advances in brewing equipment and technology are an important element to appreciating better coffee. But to focus exclusively on gadgetry and price tags as the only measure of good coffee is akin to purchasing a $4,000 Viking open burner range top to reheat canned soup. Or, in some cases, to roast a turkey.

In defense of better coffee, Or: What I did on my 15 minutes of fame

Posted by on 04 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Café Society,, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Dealing with the media can often feel like waiting for a Muni bus. Just when it’s been so long that you forgot that they exist, suddenly three pull up in a row over the span of a few minutes. This time the media frenzy surrounded the recent openings of Blue Bottle Cafe and Coffee Bar — with additional curiosity spent on filter coffee from the Clover brewer and James Freeman’s $20,000 siphon bar.

Trouble is that there are a lot of eyes that roll when they see things like $20,000 siphon bars and $11,000 Clover machines. “It’s just coffee!,” they mockingly say. “These pompous coffee snobs are rightfully getting ripped off.”

So we at wanted to put our 15 minutes of media fame to good use: to help promote better coffee in the Bay Area. (By saying “we” instead of “I”, it at least helps me to believe there’s more than one Bay Area resident who wants better coffee standards in town.)

James Freeman on camera describes how his infamous siphon bar works James and Amy Hollyfield on camera for ABC 7 TV Morning News

Coffee Achievers, Coffee Believers, and Coffee Agnostics

Fortunately, I didn’t encounter much “are you out of your caffeinated mind?!” reporting. ABC 7 TV (KGO) Morning News, for example, had a lot of fun doing a recent coffee story — as I did shooting it with them: San Francisco coffee bars offer unique, expensive brew 2/08/08. This wasn’t entirely surprising, given that Amy Hollyfield and the rest of the morning TV crew has to get out of bed at 3 a.m. every day for the 5 o’clock News. Let’s just say they have developed a deep appreciation for chemical stimulants, yet they’re rather particular about their morning coffee. (Big Peet’s fans — they thumbed their noses at Starbucks.)

Last month they brought me along as their “expert taster” (their words, not mine) for a TV segment ride-along to Blue Bottle Cafe and Coffee Bar to evaluate some of the newer technologies in brewed coffee. (Classically, at Blue Bottle Cafe the next day, James Freeman asked me if I saw the piece that aired on TV that morning — as he doesn’t own a television.)

Blue Bottle Cafe's cold-brewed coffee setup Coffee Bar's coffee menu

Jason Paul of Coffee Bar on camera with Amy Hollyfield Luigi DiRuocco demonstrates Coffee Bar's Clover brewer for the camera

Then last weekend I hooked up with Josh Sens, a reporter writing a story on Bay Area coffee for San Francisco magazine, and his food-writing/TV-show-producing friend, Sarah Alder, for a coffee-tasting ride-along in San Francisco. Also quite a caffeinated road trip blast, we visited Blue Bottle Cafe, Trouble Coffee, Ritual Roasters, and Caffe Bello. They particularly enjoyed Trouble Coffee for its off-the-wall quirkiness and good macchiati — but they were most impressed with Trouble’s “build your own damn house happy meal” consisting of coffee, toast, and a coconut (the entire shop menu) for $7. (Sarah gets the credit for all of the Trouble Coffee photos, save for the Happy Meal sign, associated with this post below.)

Given their mutual appreciation for good food and wine, my obsessive coffee habits weren’t too off-putting. Josh asked a lot of intelligent, detailed questions about coffee production, preparation, and the industry, and I’ve put him through a bit of my address book for follow-up interviews. It promises to be an interesting piece that should come out in the next 2-3 months.

Trouble Coffee is in Trouble Coffee advertises their own Happy Meal

Coffee shop or found art installation? It's Trouble Coffee The Trouble Coffee Happy Meal: coffee, toast, and coconut

It’s Just Coffee!

A bit more unusual was my interview with Joe Eskenazi, who wrote a similar story for the SF Weekly a couple weeks ago: San Francisco – News – SF’s $12 Cup of Coffee at Blue Bottle Cafe. (Their Web site even included a brief bio piece: News & Politics: The Snitch – Too-Much-Coffee Man: San Franciscan’s Java Obsession Has Led Him to Rate Every Last Cafe in The City (From 1 to 587).)

From that experience, I learned a little more about the art of the media misquote. In the article, Joe quoted me as saying of Blue Bottle Cafe’s siphon bar coffee, “It’s probably not something I’d pay for more than once a month.” However, just as the article’s title misleadingly mistakes a $12 pot for a $12 cup, I was referring to a personally drinking an entire pot of the stuff by myself. Simple mistakes, or examples of poetic license to amp up a story intended to expose the excess of coffee gluttony? You be the judge.

The question is valid — but more for the line of questioning that (thankfully) never made it in the article. In typical SF Weekly socialist bias fashion, I was asked, “There are a lot of homeless people living around the Blue Bottle Cafe’s neighborhood. How can you justify a $10 cup [sic] of coffee when you have to step over the homeless to get it?”

Champagne ethics on a beer budget

Forget for a moment the illogic of buying a $1 cup of dreck at Lee’s Deli as a cure for homelessness. Some people in this town will whine to no end demanding the purest organics, sustainable farms, and well-paid workers with living wages and health benefits … and yet have a coronary if somebody actually expects them to pay for all of that.

One could argue that you could save the spare change from buying cheaper coffee (though screw the workers exploited to grow, store, ship, and serve it to you) and donate the difference to the needy. But what is it about good coffee that is somehow less ethical than buying your clothes somewhere other than Goodwill or relying on a mode of transit other than a bicycle?

Of course, getting this line of questioning from a publication largely funded by its final few pages loaded weekly with ads for escort services and every other form of female sexploitation imaginable raises a whole other set of ethical questions, but let’s stick to coffee.

Even Dante’s Hell puts good coffee in only the third circle

Is premium coffee at a premium price so self-indulgent as to corrupt the moral fiber of our nation? Every time I think that I’m getting too obsessive, elitist, or pretentious about coffee, all I have to do is look at a site like Chowhound and read users’ “trip reports” of restaurant meals, their price tags, and their insular critiques of citrus foam or xiao long bao. Believe you me — we had better hope One Laptop per Child doesn’t succeed at connecting much of the Third World to the Internet. Otherwise hoards of outraged, starving villagers will want to suicide bomb the living crap out of this country after reading sites like Chowhound.

The critical consumptionism of is already shaky ground. But when you elevate that to competitive criticism of consumption — while seeming so blissfully unaware of how offensive that might be perceived by anyone else — you may as well hand out duct tape, bags of nails, and explosives.

Yet another reason why might never solicit open user reviews…

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