May 2008

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: The Sentinel

Posted by on 30 May 2008 | Filed under: Local Brew

This kiosk/cubby hole with old cigar branding on glass above the doorway has only a dry-erase marker menu inside giving away its name. (“The Sentinel“? Are they Michael Douglas fans or something?) A former cigar shop, and most recently an outlet of Enzo’s Italian Deli for a number of years, this tiny location opened in May 2008 by former Rubicon chef, Dennis Leary (that’s one more ‘n’ than the comic actor and noted “coffee-flavored coffee” advocate), who runs the also very small Canteen restaurant.

It has a simple, exceedingly short takeout menu — that doesn’t quite live up to its food billing (nice, a touch pricey, but nothing to write home about). So how’s the espresso?

Entrance to The Sentinel Pulling a shot on The Sentinel's Elektra

They currently serve Mr. Espresso beans — not a bad choice. The management talks of switching to Four Barrel Coffee when their roasting operations become available. But given the state of things at Four Barrel, we might all be driving solar-powered hovercraft a la The Jetsons by then.

They serve espresso from a single-group Elektra machine at the Stevenson window side. The barista carefully pre-heats the for-here shotglass and essentially times the shot. She even took multiple tries to make sure she got it right — big points there. However, the resulting cup has only a thinner layer of a lighter brown crema. There’s a stiffness to it, but it’s too thin. Flavorwise, it tastes of a sharper spice, cloves, and a touch of tobacco — without much of any sweetness.

Given the pedigree, effort, and price that goes into the espresso here, we expected a lot more out of it. After all, you can get a much superior Four Barrel Coffee espresso for 25¢ cheaper (if you can put up with the upper Mission regulars around the Plasticuffs BART station). Mr. Leary may love tiny dining spots, but small size isn’t enough of a selling point here.

Read the review of The Sentinel.

The Sentinel espresso

Coffee in India

Posted by on 27 May 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Robusta

One definition of “overly ambitious” is attempting to write an article about the relationship between coffee and a pluralistic nation of over 1.1 billion people. Compounding this is the nature of India itself — where not only can you find evidence of just about everything, but for everything you find to be true you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.

India is a mesmerizing country that can be quite a lot to take in at any given time or place. Life there seems so much more raw…and vibrant. Besides being a diverse country of contradictions, one seems to experience a 360-degree view of life there — in contrast with our much narrower perspectives of the world here. For example, destitute poverty lives side-by-side with optimistic, upwardly mobile hope for the future. But at either end of this wide spectrum, India is filled with people of great friendliness, joie de vivre, and spiritual centeredness. It boasts some of the best people-watching in the world, and we rapidly developed a great fondness for the country and the people who live there.

Taking a rickshaw back from market, south of New Delhi Woman climbing steps in the Jantar Mantar observatory, New Delhi

Arabic inscriptions in the Qutb Minar At Qutb Minar

Humayun's Tomb, New Delhi - inspiration for the Taj Mahal Khas Mahal, Agra Fort

Yet despite two weeks in a country that arguably changed us (is there such a thing as an Indiaphile?), we were much less successful at unraveling the mysteries of India’s historic, evolving coffee culture. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Daily 115-degree temperatures weren’t exactly conducive for drinking many shots of the stuff. Whoever coined the term “Indian summer” for those few warm weeks a year in SF obviously had no idea.
  • Urban mobility is a challenge. With coffeehouses being relatively few and far between in a city as large as New Delhi (by most counts, one of the ten most populous cities in the world), getting to them on foot isn’t very practical. (Blistering heat aside.) Then add India’s rather maniacal driving culture. Its extensive network of hired drivers helps a lot, but it often requires you to know where you want to go — instead of wandering aimlessly in search of coffee.
  • While there are a number of establishments with espresso machines in the region, few are dedicated to the craft. Those places that are focused primarily on coffee are overwhelmingly big chains. Despite a number of 24-hour coffee shops in hotels, their emphasis is on food service.
  • India lacks a quality-aware coffee culture that directs consumers to specific coffeehouses. Although India actually has a long and rich tradition of coffee growing and consumption, only until recently has it switched focus from quantity to quality. And India has no real history with espresso, which is more of a very recent phenomenon among the mobile middle classes.

Despite these obstacles, we always welcome flimsy excuses to publish more travel photos.

View down onto the courtyard of Jama Masjid, Old Delhi A break from the midday sun along the walls of the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Prayers inside the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi Old Delhi from the Jama Masjid

Game-winning celebration at a pickup cricket game, east end of the Rajpath, New Delhi Swimming in Children's Park, at the east end of the Rajpath, New Delhi

It’s a bit ironic that Westerner travelers feel the culture shock of India’s raw authenticity — far removed from the corporate sameness that afflicts every downtown in America — and yet dedicated retail coffeehouses in India are dominated by big chains. The independent, mom & pop places called “coffee houses” are typically old school diners, cafés, and restaurants. (Another strange irony: with the escalation of world food prices, there are questions of how middle America can continue to afford organic foods for their families — whereas in destitute India, that’s all they’ve ever eaten.)

Of course, India is a nation famous for its tea drinkers. Chai being the Hindi word for tea — and not that latte-styled spiced tea stuff Americans call “chai” either, which is closer to chai masala gone Starbucks. (Indian trains and train stations are filled with the “chai, chai!” calls of tea-vending children and adults.) As in other developing countries famous for their tea drinkers, such as China, many of the newly affluent are gradually eschewing their daily tea for the perceived cosmopolitan mystique of espresso drinks. And in most modern offices staffed by younger Indians, coffee seems to be the beverage of choice.

Local tourists inside Agra Fort Local tourists inside the Taj Mahal, Agra

Inside the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, a historic Sikh temple in New Delhi Walking outside the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, New Delhi

Washing feet before entering the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, New Delhi Morning religious TV in India: their take on Pat Robertson would surely be labeled 'satanic' in the U.S.

Vishnu shrine in Old Delhi

However, coffee (kaufi in Hindi) is hardly new to the subcontinent. It’s generally believed that coffee was first brought to India in the 17th century through its historic Islamic ties to Yemen and the Middle East. Today India claims to be the fifth largest coffee producer in the world. Coffee is grown almost exclusively in South India, and most of it has been consumed in the domestic market — with an occasional bulk trade with the former USSR. But since the 1990s, India has developed some excellent coffees. They are also home to some excellent “oddities”, such as Monsooned Malabar and some of the highest quality robusta beans in the world. (Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to visit coffee farms at origin.) Italy is currently the largest importer of Indian coffees.

At Agra Fort, where even Hindu Brahmin are tourists too

South India is also famous for what they call “filter coffee” — or what the rest of us call “South Indian” or “Madras” coffee. It’s a ritualistic combination of darkly roasted beans blended with chicory, a lot of warmed milk, and sugar. It all comes together through coffee mixologists who use metal cups and tumblers to form the frothy, sweet, milky drink. While available in Northern India, it was too sweet and milky for our tastes — though some Madrasi purists told us that the concoctions up north came up short to the real thing.

Morning prayers just past dawn at a mosque in Shah Jahan Park, Agra Cricket player, Shah Jahan Park, Agra

Approaching the Taj Mahal, Agra The almost unreal Taj Mahal, Agra

Taj Mahal, Agra Taj Mahal, Agra

We conclude with a pathetically token sampling of a few Delhi area espresso ratings:

Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Barista Crème 33, 1st Floor, Khan Market New Delhi 6.60 6.80 6.700
Costa Coffee L8. Outer Circle, Connaught Place New Delhi 6.40 6.50 6.450
Café Coffee Day 14 Indira Gandhi International Airport New Delhi 7.10 4.20 5.650

Barista Coffee, Connaught Place, New Delhi Café Coffee Day, Connaught Place, New Delhi

Barista Coffee's Lavazza espresso, inside the Metro Mall, Gurgaon South Indian, or Madras, filter coffee, served in Gurgaon

Transporting bamboo along a Gurgaon highway A roadside morning shave, Sector 30, Gurgaon

Trip Report: Café Coffee Day @ Indira Gandhi Int’l Airport (New Delhi, India)

Posted by on 25 May 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Who doesn’t love a great cup of airport espresso? We sure do — but in extra measure because such a thing simply does not exist. Sure, things have improved since the era of $4 cups of rancid airport coffee, unburdened by quality concerns. But airport coffee today is still characterized by inflated prices, poor quality coffee, paper cups, superautomatic espresso machines, staff trained to do little more than collect money and give out change, lowest-common-denominator mega-chains, and worse still: mega-chains that license out their name to some airport-contracted food service organization who lumps coffee in with their sales of suduku puzzle magazines.

Not surprisingly, airport espresso is often a poor measure of what a chain’s non-airport cafés are capable of serving.

But there are exceptions. We discovered one of them at a Café Coffee Day in India, in one of the most unpleasant international airports we’ve ever had the displeasure of passing through. Not only that, but after taking a 15-hour flight from New Delhi that flew us directly over the North Pole to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (ORD), we found that the espresso in the amenity-free Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) beat the pants off anything we could purchase at the prime drop-off point for Intelligentsia‘s international coffee buyers.

In the immortal words of Popeye, “Huhhh… how embaraskin’.”

Café Coffee Day kiosk at Indira Gandhi Airport, Terminal 2 The surprising Café Coffee Day espresso at Indira Gandhi Int'l, with rupees to spare

The India-based Café Coffee Day chain currently consists of some 585 locations in 96 cities (including Vienna, Austria of all places). And by some sources, as we reported last year, they can claim two-thirds of all chain coffeehouses in India. However, in terms of coffeehouses per person for a country of over a billion people, that puts Café Coffee Day’s market penetration in India at about 1/44th that of Starbucks’ U.S. penetration. Even so, Café Coffee Day is the heavyweight in India — even if airport kiosks are dominated more by Nescafé.

An office superautomatic espresso machine, courtesy of Café Coffee Day

This tiny kiosk of a café is in Terminal 2, the international terminal. A terminal that’s a lot better going (e.g., airport workers who casually offer free assistance) than coming (e.g., throngs of locals grabbing luggage for tips that would make the scugnizzi of Naples’ central train station blush). Past the extra-tight security detail, but before the full body cavity searches just prior to boarding the aircraft, you’ll find this kiosk next to a Subway stand (yes, as in “6-inch Paneer Tikka sub” Subway).

They use a shiny, silver, two-group Astoria to pull shots with some deliberate timing. The result has a decent medium brown crema with some richness and thin striping — something quite rare in India. And yet the barista often pre-grinds a lot of beans many minutes in advance.

The resulting shot has a good body and a smooth flavor of robust spices and cloves. Oddly enough, this is one of the better espressos we had in India — and it compares well with what they offer in their non-airport cafés. And it costs a mere Rs. 34. Their “Espresso Americano” will run you Rs. 35, meaning that extra hot water will set you back a whole rupee (or about 2½¢).

Read the review of Café Coffee Day at Indira Gandhi International Airport.

Indian military holds the chaos at bay as best they can upon arrival Nescafé stand outside Indira Gandhi Int'l Terminal 2


UPDATE: May 28, 2008
According to the India Times today, Café Coffee Day is planning to expand their number of stores in India by 50% within the next fiscal year: Cafe Coffee Day to have 900 outlets by year end- Retailing-Services-News By Industry-News-The Economic Times.

Trip Report: Costa Coffee @ Connaught Place (New Delhi, India)

Posted by on 23 May 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

Located in the Outer Ring (‘L’ block, more precisely) of what the locals call “CP”, this café in the vast UK chain’s armada is reportedly the largest in South Asia. It’s actually a bit impressive, particularly given that the chain has designs on adding 300 more Costa Coffee outlets in India over the next four years.

Connaught Place (a.k.a. Rajeev Chowk) marks the geographic focal point in the center of New Delhi. The British built this Westernized shopping district in the 1930s, complete with colonnades and traffic circles. And while the city traffic in Delhi today reminds one of the 1960s Wacky Races cartoon — with every flavor of transportation imaginable competing for the same roads with few rules to get in the way — CP’s primacy as a shopping destination for the locals has waned over the years with the expansion of new markets and more Westernized shopping malls towards the edge of town. But tourists and locals alike still intermingle here, and it remains a sort of social heart of the city.

Connaught Place - where death by auto rickshaw reaches epidemic proportions Vendor in an alleyway near Connaught Place: if he sold coffee in SF, he'd be the bomb

As a chain founded in 1971 and globally expanding rapidly, Costa Coffee seems to have far too many parallels with Starbucks. There’s the mainstream chain store environment. There’s a sense that Costa copies many of Starbucks’ corporate moves. There’s even cheesy adult rock (think Bryan Adams) playing overhead in the café.

While the Costa chain at least did not copy Starbucks’ costly move to horrid superautomatic espresso machines (just how can Starbucks claim they can’t wean themselves off these crap machines when the vast Costa chain can live without them?) — it’s all enough to make us long instead for the Malaysian street food experience.

In New Delhi, independent coffeehouses are typically old restaurants - as with this Connaught Place example Entrance to the biggest Costa Coffee in South Asia, at New Delhi's Connaught Place

There are two floors to this large storefront of glass, dark wood, comfortable furnishings, and walls painted in bold colors. And despite their obvious mermaid envy, the quality controls and use of real machines here seems to be a real upgrade from all that plagues Starbucks.

They pull espresso shots with a three-group, Costa-branded CMA machine. The resulting shot has a thinner, medium brown crema, a thinner body, high acidity, and a sharpness to a mostly pungent, herbal flavor. Only Rs. 29.

Read the review of Costa Coffee at Connaught Place.

Corporate Costa Coffee drink menu Inside the comfy confines of Costa Coffee at Connaught Place

The Costa Coffee three-group CMA machine The Costa Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Four Barrel Coffee

Posted by on 21 May 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine

Jeremy Tooker, co-founder of Ritual Roasters, had a bit of a falling out with Ritual’s co-owner, Eileen, and he’s pursued his own vision of a quality coffee business in Four Barrel Coffee: no Wi-Fi, no squatting start-ups that can’t pony up rent, just no-frills retail coffee plus a roasting and distribution operation.

We admire the pursuit of good coffee without all the groan-worthy trappings. Except things have opened early at this location. Real early. There is no storefront café (it’s woefully under construction at the former Ideal Upholstery shop), the hours are semi-random, and the coffee comes from Stumptown (as when Ritual first opened, they plan to open a roasting operation later). They currently sling their coffee out of an open garage door along an unmarked Caledonia St. back alley (save for a “4B” sign), so some ask if it is too early to review Four Barrel Coffee.

Four Barrel Coffee or busted up crack house? But wait... what's this sign on Caledonia St.?

Well of course it’s never too early for CoffeeRatings.com. If you serve espresso in SF, we don’t care if you’re some guy named Joe running a cart with a mobile Verismo machine connected by extension cord to the downtown Sherman Clay piano shop. We don’t even care if money exchanges hands.

Money exchanges hands at Four Barrel Coffee, but that’s about as legit as this location gets. As with the Hayes St. Blue Bottle location and echoed in the likes of Trouble Coffee, SF coffee geeks strangely crave the Malaysian street food experience when it comes to their espresso: serve it from a cart in an alley near an open sewer, and somehow your street cred shoots the moon.

Four Barrel Coffee clearly delivers on those criteria. But we have to ask: is it just us, or is it getting harder to enjoy top-notch espresso in SF these days without the odd pretense of feeling like you’re part of some low-budget, ghetto chic conceptual art project? (Here’s a telltale sign: if you have to guess if and what furniture might actually belong to the place, it qualifies.) Their arrangement consists of a simple counter (on wheels, no less) surrounded by stacks of burlap coffee bags and simple, colorful artwork. For seating, there are two randomly placed chairs on a sidewalk across the alley.

Yet for all the ridiculously stripped-down surroundings, they serve espresso from a three-group La Marzocco Mistral — which is like buying a Bentley and driving it in a tractor pull. The last time we encountered a Mistral up close was at the Honolulu Coffee Company in Waikiki four years ago. And even inside the luxurious Sheraton Moana Surfrider Hotel, we had to wonder if the Mistral’s owner went out of his mind with the expense.

Four Barrel Coffee - with the ambiance of a Mission drug deal Chris pulling shots behind the Four Barrel Coffee Mistral Triplette

Serving an 8-day-old roast of Stumptown’s Hairbender blend (which still runs quite well into 12 days), barista Chris (a former Ritual barista and genuinely friendly guy) performed a lot of deliberate prep work — unburdened by the long lines and crowds common to his previous employer. After pulling the shot, he spent a few moments to tap it down and release some gas even with an 8-day-old roast — rapidly thinning out the crema from an overly bubbly froth to a surprisingly scant medium brown, textured coat.

Flavorwise, the shot is supremely bright: mostly a sharp pungency of spices and some herbal elements, but there are traces of honey, nuts, and even orange peel. Served in classic brown Nuova Point or ACF cups.

Milk-frothing is where things seem to break down a little, however. The microfoam texture and consistency is just better than average, despite the touch of a latte art heart. (This is reflected in the correction score, which is also buffered by a correction for an abnormally soft crema rating.) Because of the low retail sales volume, they even get by with small metal kitchen pitchers that are typically reserved for home use.

Read the review of Four Barrel Coffee.

The Four Barrel Coffee espresso - in vivo The Four Barrel Coffee cappuccino taking up half the available seating

Home espresso education: Short, strong grounding in espresso

Posted by on 21 May 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Yesterday’s The Age (Melbourne, Australia) published an article on the growing business of home espresso education: Short, strong grounding in espresso – Epicure – Entertainment – theage.com.au. The author noted how cafés, roasters, and other retail locations are creating “coffee classrooms” for instructing consumers on how to “create the perfect coffee at home”. The reason for this? Citing the article: “Many of the classes around town grew from pressure by consumers who were disappointed with their home espresso making.” The Age has published essentially the same story before — so this was more of an update.

On the one hand, that consumers are seeking out better quality espresso is good news. It means they are becoming more aware of its potential beyond the bitter, over-extracted dreck that’s an American staple. And for many home espresso enthusiasts, scouring the Internet for forums and blogs isn’t their favorite method of self-education, so more formal training courses make sense.

However, there are multiple reasons why home espresso consumers are disappointed. For one, most home machines are ineffective slabs of future landfill that produce lame espresso. For another, there is a home espresso industrial complex actively convincing consumers that they all need their own home setup — when it’s actually inappropriate for many people. And they are luring consumers with false promises of convenience, quality, and cost savings as part of their pitch.

Although it is true that just about anyone can make great espresso at home, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. It depends on the person. For most consumers, we believe good home espresso is possible but impractical — as it requires a special combination of financial investment, time commitment, and a willingness to learn for the home espresso hobbyist to make it all worthwhile.

So what are your best options?

Option 1: Stick with the “costly” coffee shop habit

This option gets dismissed most often by personal finance columnists and home espresso machine hawkers, but it’s still one of the best options out there. Even those of us with decent home set ups still want the occasional retail espresso (CoffeeRatings.com is ample evidence of this) — for convenience when on the road or for the variety of trying something different.

Pros:

  • It’s convenient. Someone professionally makes your coffee for you.
  • It’s mobile. No need to carry your own set up with you wherever you go.
  • It’s usually of a decent quality. The pros typically make a living off of better machines, more regular system maintenance, and supplies in heavier rotation than most home setups.

Cons:

  • The recurring costs add up over time, and they are all quite visible once you look for them.
  • The typical American retail espresso still has a long way to go on quality standards.

Option 2: Buy a home espresso set up

New homes are regularly sold today with these ubiquitous appliances built into their kitchens — even if the appliances themselves are built more for convenience than quality. And the convenience vs. quality question is the major theme with this option — as consumers must pick one, and only one, of the two for it to work.

This is also really the only option if you are seeking the God shot. But for every home espresso zealot committed to the religious cause, there are dozens who are merely window shoppers enamored with the concept. (You know the type: copper pots in the kitchen that are never used, etc.)

Pros:

  • Potentially cheaper over the long run. But then if you want cheaper, so is changing your own motor oil.
  • Potential quality. It’s a great choice for “prosumers”. If quality is what you’re after, with a bit of time and money you can easily beat over 95% of the retail cafés out there. But if you’re buying a superautomatic machine for the convenience, Starbucks starts to look pretty good.

Cons:

  • People readily devalue the costs of their own labor.
  • Major up-front costs. If you do not commit to a lot of regular, repeat usage, you’re throwing money away relative to buying your coffee out every morning. Even if you discount your own labor, many machines require hundreds of drinks just to break even.
  • Most home espresso machines produce inferior espresso. The most readily available machines on the market are frequently made by general appliance manufacturers (“garbage disposals, toasters, ice cream makers, and espresso machines” — that sort of thing) looking to cash in on the Starbucks craze.
  • Potentially exploding costs and loss of counterspace. Even among those that do manage to get a lot of use out of the up-front investment, many are soon tempted to upgrade and spend even more money.

For these reasons, this is the option we absolutely recommend least out of the three.

Option 3: Buy a Stovetop Moka Pot

This is the option we recommend most often for people interested in a home espresso set up. Oh, sure, it’s not really espresso (as if the SCAA-awarded “Red Espresso” [sic] is any more so). But neither is some of the stuff poured at a lot of retail cafés — and even less so for what a lot of home machines produce.

This is the Italian family’s home coffee staple. Though in Italy, good retail espresso is around every corner. And if you’re buying a Moka pot larger than the 4-cup variety, you must either like stale brewed coffee or you’re throwing a Bar Mitzvah.

Pros:

  • Typically costs less than $20
  • No need for stale, pre-ground coffee and ridiculous environmental waste as with coffee pods.

Cons:

  • It isn’t espresso.

Trip Report: Barista Crème @ Khan Market (New Delhi, India)

Posted by on 18 May 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Yesterday we returned from our recent travels in Northern India. Whereas many Asian cities such as Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, etc., have culturally enlightened us in the past, none of them have enamored us the way Delhi has. Unfortunately, our infatuation with India has nothing to do with the local coffee, but more on the general topic of coffee in India in a future post. For now, we’ll kick things off with a review of the Barista Crème in New Delhi’s Khan Market (aka the “Khan Market Crème”).

It’s been noted that the Khan Market is the “costliest retail location in the country” — and 24th globally. But to us, it honestly looked like a Sunnyvale strip mall in great disrepair. But as with a lot of India, its big rupee rents are invested in nicer interiors and the area’s inexpensive labor supply rather than exterior paint jobs. The Barista Crème here, like many other storefronts, affords a private security detail in front to keep out the riff raff. (Unfortunately that does not extend to the market’s “free” parking lot, where Westerners are frequently hassled by squatters angling for payouts.)

Khan Market - India's 'luxury' retail capital Fruit vendor in Khan Market - he must charge $23 a mango

Across the street of the Khan Market we have, uh, 'specialty' businesses The Khan Market Barista Crème and its security detail

Barista Coffee is an Indian chain of coffee shops recently acquired by Italy’s Lavazza. Specifically, Barista Crème represents their luxury brand — featuring single origin and estate coffees in a “premium lounge” format. And inside, the interiors are quite nice: a lot of dark wood, comfortable furnishings, and a TV and music lounge upstairs.

Using a two-group La Cimbali M22 Plus on two different floors (floors 1 & 2 of the building — i.e., floors 2 & 3 in U.S. terms), the pour has a (disappointingly) very thin layer of medium-to-light brown crema served in preheated Barista Coffee fine porcelain logo cups. It has an astringent smoky tobacco and deep herbal notes (as the French would call it: “tight”). So fancy, even 1-liter bottles of water are complimentary. All for a mere Rs. 65 ($1.65).

Read the review of Barista Crème – Khan Market.

Inside the Khan Market Barista Crème The Khan Market Barista Crème does make Starbucks look like a dump

The Khan Market Barista Crème's La Cimbali The Khan Market Barista Crème espresso



UPDATE: June 10, 2009
Lavazza has completed their “brand integration” with the Barista chain, as all Barista Espresso and Barista Crème outlets across India will be known as Barista Lavazza and Barista Crème Lavazza respectively: Barista completes brand integration with Lavazza.

ROAST WITH THE MOST / A new generation of Bay Area coffee roasters pushes the perfect cup to the next level

Posted by on 14 May 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

Today the SF Chronicle posted an impressively long article on the state of quality coffee roasting in the Bay Area: ROAST WITH THE MOST / A new generation of Bay Area coffee roasters pushes the perfect cup to the next level. It’s a remarkable piece, given its breadth. It lightly touches on everything from the roasting process, roasting trends, more meticulous coffee sourcing, and restaurants taking notice in better quality coffee. It also includes interviews with a good number of quality coffee luminaries in the area — and not just the usual, overexposed suspects.

On the topic of overexposure, it’s also good to see focus on advancements in the quality of the coffee — and not just an emphasis on machinery (and their escalating price tags), which has been something of a media trend of late. Equipment advances such as the Clover brewer would be amount to little more than a curiously expensive robotics grad student project if not for the improvements in coffee sourcing, roasting, and freshness.

Today’s geography lesson: Rome is not a U.S. city

As much as Coffeeratings.com was born five years ago out of frustration with the lack of quality standards and their awareness in the Bay Area specialty coffee scene, we actually take a bit of exception with some of the suggestions in the article — for example, “While the Bay Area is considered the birthplace of premium coffee, many say the quality of its coffee has lagged behind that of other U.S. cities in the past 10 or 15 years.”

In the past few years the Bay Area has arguably established itself as a national coffee leader, second only to perhaps Portland and Seattle. (And even at that, Seattle and Portland — like SF — are equally rife with median-quality coffeehouses that make poor espresso.) But go back a decade ago, and the coffee quality in the great majority of other U.S. cities was hurting far worse than SF.

Only hipster dufuses who use the word “‘spro” need apply

The article also unfortunately feeds this terrible misconception going around that better coffee can only come from a “new generation” of coffee professionals — an attitude that if you haven’t been making coffee for less than three years, you are irrelevant to good quality coffee today. Call it specialty coffee’s take on Jerry Rubin‘s “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” (It’s also one of many reasons why we ridicule the term “Third Wave.” Although the phrase’s originators coined it more to describe coffee consumption rather than coffee purveyors, today it is most commonly used to describe the latter.)

But the media will always focus on the new. And what’s old often becomes new again. (See: siphon coffee.) We read stories that suggest single origin coffees will bring about the (greatly exaggerated) death of the blend, or that lighter roasts will universally trump all those “horrible, traditional darker roasts.” But we see each of these as consumer fads that are merely highlighting the less explored dimensions of the overall coffee enjoyment experience. When the novelty of the new wears off, single origin or blend, light or dark roast, there will always be something to be enjoyed in the full variety of experiences coffee has to offer.

No longer content with mimicking McDonald’s, Starbucks now following 7-Eleven’s lead

Posted by on 13 May 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Starbucks Coffee has spent the last decade squandering away whatever market leadership they had in the world of quality coffee, and it’s no secret that they are now trying to regain some of these losses. But to do so in recent months, Starbucks has bizarrely looked to McDonald’s for inspiration: introducing $1 “daily coffee”, free refills, and their Pike Place Blend (the latter of which has become a source of disingenuous product marketing).

But even if you can forgive them for that McMisstep towards regaining some coffee leadership, turning to the likes of 7-Eleven and their fortified coffee drinks is even more bewildering: Energy Examiner – Starbucks to increase their caffeine content in coffee shops – Examiner.com (also, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Starbucks hopes new drinks can lift profits).

Yes, Starbucks’ desperation has now led them to co-opting 7-Eleven’s coffee strategy, which is about the lowest common coffee denominator you can get. Starting this week, Starbucks has begun selling “+Energy as a special ingredient in their coffee drinks,” which includes “extra B-vitamins, guarana and ginseng” — all things 7-Eleven promoted in their Fusion Energy Coffee over a year ago. By stooping to “healthy coffee” pandering pioneered by the “sophisticated” Super Big Gulp® purveyor, Starbucks is only further debasing their brand as just another commodity. Can Starbucks-branded Slim Jims be far behind?

UPDATE: June 2, 2008
It’s not often we’re inspired to link to citations in GQ Magazine, but this rant on Starbucks’ current sad state is an absolute winner: OPEN LETTER – Dear Starbucks – GQ Articles, Fashion Features, and Pics on men.style.com. We particularly liked, “When we’re in the mood for a twenty-four-ounce cup of pumpkin-pie-flavored Cool Whip… Here’s the thing, though: We’re never, ever in that mood.”

Say It Ain’t So, Australia: Caffeine connoisseurs say lattes are the cream of the crop

Posted by on 13 May 2008 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

The truth is out. What do die hard coffee drinkers in coffee-obsessed Australia really order?: Caffeine connoisseurs say lattes are the cream of the crop | Herald Sun. Yes, it’s the boorish latte. (And written by a boorish reporter: “Caffeine connoisseurs”?!? It’s been a while since we’ve seen the tiresome caffeine riff.)

Of course we’re being a bit facetious. But Australians are often cited as some of the greatest espresso connoisseurs in the world. And we at CoffeeRatings.com have heard a lot of smack talk from visiting Aussies, lamenting our national disregard for latte art and the inability to find a proper flat white (assuming anyone actually knows what one is).

The fact is — they’re right. Coffee standards are terrible in this country; they are one of the prime motivators that gave birth to CoffeeRatings.com five years ago this month. We generally serve over-extracted, bitter, watery dreck that is only made fit for human consumption after drowning it in gallons of milk and flavoring it with three kinds of syrup.

Even if that’s the rule, there are exceptions — and more exceptions thankfully appear around the nation every month. And while those exceptions are, say, easier to come by in towns like Seattle (which, as a rule of the masses, has generally terrible coffee standards as well), Australia has a coffee history and national obsession that makes these exceptions more commonplace.

But now we also know the “dirty truth”: behind every person who can drink a decent quality espresso in Australia, there are seven Aussies swigging down skinny/soy/chai lattes. Has the Australian coffee palate evolved much at all beyond our double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato? After reading this story, you’d be hard-pressed to say so.

So we asked our guest correspondent in Perth…

To get another perspective on this story and the “research” behind it, we asked Michael ‘Grendel’ Carroll what he thought about the Herald Sun‘s claims. Michael runs Cafe Grendel — a coffee review blog out of Perth, Australia. Granted, Perth is half a continent away from the Herald Sun‘s Melbourne, but at least they use the same currency.

Mr. Carroll first noted that the online poll associated with this Herald Sun story should be taken with a grain of salt. Given that the article mentions The Deck, better known as a restaurant, it calls the specialty coffee/cafe credibility of the Herald Sun into question. Mr. Carroll also noted, “It sounds to me as if (to use an Aussie slang) the owner [of The Deck] was ‘having a bit of a lend of himself,’ which is another way of suggesting he sounds a bit pretentious.”

And coffee pretentiousness is something of a problem Down Under, just as it is in very limited circles in the States. “While verbose descriptions of the various flavours and aromas have their place I think we may have taken it a little too far over here at times, and our coffee snobbery drifts to ridiculous levels,” said Mr. Carroll. “So much so that I and some fellow coffee snobs have a running ‘elderberry’ joke whenever we do a cupping.” Did Counter Culture Coffee recently open an office in Perth?

As in the U.S. as Australia, consumer knowledge and awareness of specialty coffee is spreading rapidly, raising consumer expectations for the coffee they drink. This in itself is a huge accomplishment. However, knowledge often inevitably leads to a rise in pretentiousness (see: the ever-popular wine analogy) — which can undermine more populist demands for better coffee. To counter this, Mr. Carroll wrote, “We will one day stop making rules for people, I hope, and allow them to enjoy coffee as coffee without placing too many subjective demands on the experience.” We could not agree more.


French coffee cuppers seem displeased with the San Ignacio Juana Mamami Huanca from Bolivia — or maybe they’re just being French.

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