We’re more than a bit late with the news here, but a hearty and well-deserved congratulations to Kyle Glanville of LA’s Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea for winning the 2008 U.S. Barista Championship (USBC): 2008 US Barista Champion « The Official 2008 SCAA Conference Blog.
Proving the West is Best, and giving us some minor trash-talking rights, five of the six finalists all hailed from our own backyard Western Regional Barista Competition. Booyah.
We weren’t exactly glued to our monitors for the blow-by-blow updates of the USBC as some have. Part of that is being in India, where everything is 12½-hours ahead of Pacific Time (yes, there is an extra 30 minutes in there). But a bigger part reflects the forced spectacle of barista competitions in addition to the overall SCAA conference spectacle itself.
The redeeming qualities of the SCAA conference include a number of interesting presentations and topics of discussion, elements the USBC, and the Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year Competition. But there are also big sponsorships by the irrelevant likes of Krups and Da Vinci Gourmet syrups (never trust a product that has “gourmet” in its name), soapbox political causes that have been uniquely attracted to coffee like flies to a bug lamp, and featured or “award-winning” irrelevant products — such as java jackets (just say no to paper cups), the 2008 PR onslaught of the Handpresso (wow, now we can drink crap pod coffee on the go!), and the exhumed resurgence of a PR onslaught for “Red Espresso” (which is no more “espresso” than if I put orange pulp in my espresso machine and called it “Orange Espresso”) after a two year hiatus.
In short: many of the things about the coffee industry I really don’t like and wish would go away. If this is the promise of the so-called “Third Wave” as advertised on the SCAA conference Web site, please drown me now in the undertow.
As we hinted in a previous post, San Francisco magazine just published Josh Sens’ story on the more recent evolution of San Francisco’s local coffee scene in its most recent issue: A new buzz | San Francisco online. (There’s even an article featuring CoffeeRatings.com on the back page: The coffee bard | San Francisco online.)
The article features Coffee Bar, Blue Bottle Cafe, Ritual Coffee Roasters (including some great quotes from one of our favorite area baristas and coffee writers, Gabe Boscana), and Trouble Coffee. A couple of interesting points Mr. Sens raises in his article include:
Last week, the Contra Costa Times published an article announcing the Bay Area arrival of McDonald’s specialty coffee drinks: McDonald’s new coffee drinks ignite breakfast wars – ContraCostaTimes.com. Of course, none of this info is really new, so we’re a bit perplexed over how someone can “ignite” something with a two-year-long fuse. But the article cites some local coffee lovers who didn’t find McDonald’s specialty coffee drinks up to the task.
Is anyone surprised? We already have the McDonald’s of specialty coffee: it’s called Starbucks.
The article also highlighted one of the more ridiculous aspects of the consumer marketing industry: the art of packaging everything as a “solution”. Quoting Matthew Ramerman, principal of HL2, a Seattle-based advertising agency that focuses on restaurant chains: “Consumers have been saying ‘I’m looking for a breakfast solution.'” Huh?!
Perhaps CoffeeRatings.com has missed this all along: all we’re really looking for is an espresso solution. It reminds me of an old joke I used to tell my marketing friends: “It’s not a chair, it’s a seating solution.”
The reporter also interviewed Michaele Weissman, author of a forthcoming book called God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee. Which, curiously enough, sounds a lot like like last month’s release of Instaurator’s The Espresso Quest, proving just how difficult it is to come up with an original idea.
We received our copy of The Espresso Quest in the mail from Australia a couple weeks back and are still well behind posting a book review here any time soon. But stay tuned… Miracles can happen.
Yesterday, the host city’s hometown paper, the Star Tribune, published a rather lengthy article on the event: The great barista battle is brewing. It’s a story that’s been covered dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. But besides the usual descriptions of contestants’ “espresso cocktails” (specialty drinks), they touched on an interesting point for the industry:
“Caribou, after Starbucks the nation’s second-largest purveyor of coffee in terms of number of stores, is a major sponsor of the conference, yet has no baristas entered in the competition. Why don’t titans like Starbucks and Caribou participate?”
It’s a great question. The article quotes the new SCAA president, Mark Inman, who suggests that the barista championship is an underground cult and that the big, deep-pocketed coffee pushers are casing out the event before getting more involved. But that’s as much a load of crap as the self-serving “Third Wave” platitudes on the conference Web site.
Sure, according to Mr. Inman, Starbucks and Caribou should “have the resources to hire and train the best talent in the industry and sweep the competitions.” But it’s not because “they choose not to expose themselves to this arena”. What big corporation doesn’t want free PR and employees who can boast national awards? Particularly Starbucks these days, who are desperate to claim some kind of coffee quality relevance after selling their souls and taking the highway to fast-food hell.
Mr. Inman is being rather disingenuous — he knows better than that. Krups is once again sponsoring the competition, afterall — a company that profited for decades selling an armada of landfill-bound home espresso machines. The reason Starbucks and Caribou don’t participate is because they are incapable of participating and they are afraid of the embarrassment when that fact publicly comes to light.
The best baristas in the country are not lured to work for the big chains to prefect their craft and their love of coffee. And even if they were, Starbucks’ espresso delivery system™ would put their baristas behind equipment and supplies that place them at an extreme competitive disadvantage: no barista trained on a push-button Verismo or Mastrena machine, using pre-packaged beans purchased in bulk supply for chain consistency, would have a chance against the competition.
The truth is that Starbucks and Caribou don’t want an event to prove to the public how woefully inadequate their coffee standards are — especially when compared to the level of competition that comes to these championships. If millions of their customers realized how much coffee quality they were being cheated out of at $4 a pop, it would be a boon for many independent coffeeshops and it would scuttle corporate coffee with long-lasting damage.
Big corporate coffee may not be that great, but they’re not so stupid as to give away their dirty secrets. The coffee quality strategy of major chains like Starbucks and Caribou isn’t at the high end of the scale — i.e., to provide the best coffee possible served by their most talented staff. Instead, their strategies are focused at the low end — i.e., how to best elevate the worst coffee made among all their chain stores using the least-skilled staff available to them.
When it comes to coffeehouses in San Francisco, few are worth writing home about. This isn’t one of them. But then the Castro Cheesery exemplifies what you most commonly find in the city’s murky midrange of espresso bars.
Contrary to its name, cheese plays second fiddle to the vast array of roasted coffee available for purchase in this tiny storefront — not to mention the coffee makers, filters, and related accessories. This dark, tiny place has no seating for customers, however.
They serve and sell Caffen coffee from Naples (i.e., Napes, Italy — and not that abomination in Florida that goes by the same name, even if the latter has adequate landfills for garbage collection). Using an older two-group Rancilio at the back (it used to be a La Pavoni), they serve espresso with a thin, pale crema and an average body. It has a woody, mostly herbal flavor that borders on ashy and bitter without jumping over the line too strongly.
With no seating area, everything is “to go” — which means paper cup purgatory.
Read the updated review of The Castro Cheesery.