June 2008

Monthly Archive

Condé Nast’s Coffee Drinking Guide

Posted by on 24 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Roasting, Robusta

Today Condé Nast posted an general consumer article on what to look for in good coffee: Coffee Drinking Guide – Portfolio.com. However, it reads more as a quick guide to following what’s “trendy” today — rather than as a guide to seeking good quality coffee experiences. (Not to mention that the article’s title, “Eat Sheet: Coffee,” takes on a whole other meaning with a Middle Eastern coffee grower’s accent.)

For example, the pro-“light roast” movement is really just the flavor du jour. And after so many years of over-roasted and darkly roasted coffee, who can blame anyone? But as much as we tire of the ubiquitous wine analogy for coffee, the recent focus on light roasts isn’t far off from all the people who are now drinking rosé wines again.

Once people get it out of their system, they’ll be interested in darker roasts again. Just as when they get off single origin and single estate coffees, they’ll come to appreciate well-crafted coffee blends again — and the merits of high quality robusta beans again. And just as we explore enough with Clover machines and vacuum pots, something like espresso becomes interesting again. Each has their merits, and there never has been one way to appreciate good coffee.

For example, it’s true that lighter roasts exhibit better characteristics of certain beans. But for other bean varietals — such as those from Indonesian estates in Java and Sulawesi — a lighter roast is no better than darkly roasting a delicate island coffee: instead of the great body and lower acidity inherent to these beans, they come out tasting thin, bland, and even a little grassy at times.

Coffee is often best roasted to maximize the best, most unique qualities in the bean — and no bean is the same, really. And there is no one way to appreciate it all.

While we were out…

Posted by on 23 Jun 2008 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com

Thought CoffeeRatings.com went belly up there for a while, didn’t you? If not, we certainly did.

On Saturday, June 14, our subscription with our Web hosting provider (Burton Hosting: avoid like the plague) automatically renewed after a credit card payment cleared. The next thing you know, the DNS to route traffic to CoffeeRatings.com (and all e-mail, etc.) was completely botched up for over a week.

Which is when we learned how bad things can get when a Web hosting provider slowly pulls their own plug without telling you anything: emergency tickets go unanswered for more than a week, you discover support phone lines have been disconnected since you last used them, and all e-mails to former e-mail contacts there go unanswered as well.

Essentially, our current Web hosting provider appears to be a sinking ship, so we’re trying to refrain from posting much here with the expectation that the lights could go out at any moment. Databases have been backed up in triplicate, and we’re in the process of planning a switchover to a new host that might actually have a live human or two behind the operation.

You can read more about it at CoffeeRatings.com – Our Nomadic Home (http://coffeeratings.wordpress.com/), which we’ve designated as an alternate information source while we go through this transition.

Thanks for hanging in there, and sorry for the mess. The mops are out, and we’re going to be in a bit of a tussle trying to wrest control of our domain name from a business that apparently exists only as an answering machine in a broom closet somewhere in England.

Trip Report: Mojo Bicycle Café

Posted by on 12 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

This combination food/espresso café and bike shop sits across the street of The Independent (née The Kennel Club, for those around long enough to remember). They have some nice, open air seating along the dingier Divisadero St. sidewalk, and there are several indoor café tables. The menu includes beer, wine, and sandwiches, but they take their coffee the most seriously out of their non-bike consumables. They even offer private label biker roasts from Ecco Caffè.

Entrance to Mojo Bicycle Café

And yes, there’s a whole bike shop in the back. We never understood what bicycles had to do with espresso. Yet there are various biking-and-coffee-themed cafés, cafés with bicycle racing teams, coffee accessories designed just for bikers, charitable organizations linking coffee and biking, etc. Some bikers even believe that they have a special affinity for coffee that many non-bikers do not. But generally none of these people I know have ever met any school bus drivers. Talk about a special affinity: just think what 5 a.m. wake-up calls followed by dozens of screaming kids in a backseat that stretches for miles will do to you every day without the aid of good espresso every morning.

Furthermore, when I get on a bicycle, I don’t feel a sudden, unusual craving for coffee. In fact, if I’m about to go on a big weekend bike ride, I often find myself consuming big plates of rigatoni as if I was just rescued from a shipwreck (i.e., carbo-loading). So why is it that we have so many bicycle cafés but no bicycle trattorias?

Open air seating in front of the Mojo Bicycle Café The shock?: 'I thought this was a coffee place...'

No matter, this is a coffee site…right? They have a two-group La Marzocco Linea behind the pastry case — although they’re about to move things around to showcase all things coffee in one corner.

Using the Linea, they pull a shot with a mottled medium and dark brown crema of decent thickness. The barista smelled the cup before serving it, which is a good sign, and the unique smell of Ecco roasts is a treat in SF. It’s a modest-sized shot with a lighter body — not thick or syrupy in the least bit, but not thin or watery either. It has an interesting and robust flavor reflecting their use of fresh Ecco Caffè beans. Served in classic brown, thick-walled Nuova Point cups.

Read the review of Mojo Bicycle Café.

The Mojo Bicycle Café's hidden two-group Linea The Mojo Bicycle Café espresso

Coffee lovers spill the beans on their favorite small-batch roasters

Posted by on 11 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Roasting

Due to a number of reader comments, today’s SF Chronicle published a brief follow-up to a lengthy piece they published last month: Coffee lovers spill the beans on their favorite small-batch roasters.

The article mentions SF’s De La Paz Coffee and the East Bay’s Catahoula Coffee Company & Roastery. Once again the emphasis is on the more recent consumer interest in lighter roasts and “new generation” roasters. So we don’t ask why the excellent Barefoot Roasters, who have been around since the 1990s, is on this list…

Coffee Pollutant No. 1: Cream

Posted by on 10 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends

Just when we thought we needed to chill out a little more on the “coffee snob” factor, today’s New York Times blog includes a rant against the adulteration of coffee with any milk-based products: Coffee Pollutant No. 1: Cream – Times Topics – Topics – New York Times Blog. Calling cream or milk a “pollutant” is quite a bold statement. But while just this morning we enjoyed a cappuccino made with some exquisite microfoam, we can only say, “Sing it to the back of the chapel!”

Perhaps the milk and coffee comparison with “dab[bing] a Peter Luger porterhouse with ketchup” is a bit extreme. But if we’re drinking good coffee, we almost always drink it black. And not just because it makes for fewer non-coffee variables in our espresso reviews either.

As we’ve always said: the basic black is the foundation for everything. If you’re a pizza place that can’t make a decent cheese pizza (the California Pizza Atrocity chain, please take note), or if you’re a Thai restaurant that can’t serve a decent pad thai — why bother? Although it is all a matter of personal preference, a good coffeehouse should be able to make a basic espresso or cup of black coffee that stands up on its own.

If not, then they’re hiding something. Or, to loosely paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, it’s something we like to call, “save for a double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.”

Trip Report: Coffee Adventures

Posted by on 10 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Local Brew

Sometimes coffeehouses can earn rave reviews, in part, because their most vocal customers don’t venture much beyond Starbucks or Fisherman’s Wharf. Coffee Adventures is your typical, low-frills, family-operated café — but with far more than its fair share of ravers (ignoring their coffee credentials). Some rave by word of mouth, and others rave via user reviews on Web sites. But in either case, they all contribute to a sort of irony about their own coffee experiences through the café’s name (e.g., half the raves end with “…and it’s not a Starbucks!”)

As anyone who has lived here long enough realizes, San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf is something of a tourist concentration camp — a way to efficiently keep the tourist dollars flowing into the city’s coffers while keeping most of the chaos and unsightly crowds confined to a reservation of sorts (call it SF’s “The Rez”). As a result, the locals venture into Fisherman’s Wharf about as often as they visit traffic court.

So we expect many of the user reviews to come from distant visitors who might have little besides a neighborhood Starbucks to compare with it. And the raves from the locals likely stem from neighborhood residents and workers who really appreciate the personal touch of a friendly, comfortable, family-owned business. (And given the Myanmar-inspired locales for some recent cafés in town, who can blame them for raving?) Because otherwise the coffee here is, at best, average for SF.

Befuddled tourists evaluating their coffee options in front of Coffee Adventures Inside Coffee Adventures

Coffee Adventures has the typical discount sofa and chairs seating you would expect from a 1990’s SF coffeehouse interior design catalog. They also have a few café tables and some limited outdoor sidewalk plastic chairs. In addition to various forms of coffee (this is no understatement), they serve stale pastries and smoothies.

The family-run business scores points for service and charm, but that only goes so far with coffee quality. Using a three-group La Spaziale S3, they serve a properly short with a whitish dot hotspot (they don’t cut off the pour soon enough). With a medium and lighter brown crema of very modest thickness — with some larger bubbles suspended in it. There’s the classic Mountanos Bros. ashier aroma and a flavor of some tobacco and a somewhat bitter, ashy edge. They also sell their own (Mountanos Bros.) beans as “CA at Home”, and they do offer cold press coffee.

Unfortunately, for good coffee near the Wharf, we still recommend that you leave The Rez.

Read the review of Coffee Adventures.

La Spaziale barista workstation inside Coffee Adventures The Coffee Adventures espresso

Trip Report: Cento

Posted by on 08 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

This dive with barely a service opening sits at the end of an old brick building — still labelled as “Uncle Vito’s Pizzeria” in signage and its black awning. Opening just last month, “Cento” stands for “100” in Italian — which looks like about the monthly rent that owner John Quintos must be paying for this location.

Cento unfortunately perpetuates the annoying trend requiring espresso lovers to participate in mock heroin deals — i.e., sipping espresso from classic brown Nuova Point cups passed out a back door, standing in an alley of some noxious armpit of town where a body was found the night before. (A.k.a., those conceptual-art-wannabe cafés that keep cropping up.) It may save money and attract the prerequisite hipsters, but it also shows little respect for themselves and their customers.

Uncle Vito's Pizzeria or Cento? Opening to Cento and their La Marzocco Linea

So yes, it’s the stereotype alleyway — with music playing out into the street and no seating save for a single outdoor bench that straddles a towaway parking zone. However, there is “seating” on a loading dock platform across the street.

The folks here club you over the head with the Blue Bottle Coffee branding — so much so, Cento’s branding takes a back seat to it. It’s also staffed by the prerequisite failed art student doppelgängers (ok, yes, so that one was below the belt), but you can’t knock their good barista skills — and here they have them. While they have paper cups for the odd drink like the New Orleans iced tea, the staff claim they serve “for here”-only espresso (they get it).

Oh, and btw, we're called 'Cento' not 'Blue Bottle Coffee' Filter coffee lined up inside Cento

Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a darker brown crema that is rather thick and rich in consistency — it’s one of the finer examples in the city in this regard. The cup is smooth and has a complex flavor of herbal notes and pungent spices. It has a bit of an odd flavor edge/aftertaste in the middle of the cup, but it runs sweet at the bottom.

So despite our gripes about cookie-cutter squatter camps masquerading as “third wave” hipster coffeehouses, here they make some of the finest espresso in the city. And unlike other recent examples of James Freeman’s expansionist plans, such as the recently reviewed Jackson Place Cafe, they do the Blue Bottle beans justice here: the coffee tastes fresh and the baristas approach their drinks skillfully.

Read the review of Cento.

(More on the sinking state of where good coffee is now being served in SF can be found in the comments below.)

Working behind the Cento Linea's Wall O' Glass The Cento espresso

Trip Report: Jackson Place Cafe

Posted by on 06 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Quality Issues

This café isn’t easy to stumble upon, even if its signature is a rather large Art Nouveau café sign in lights. You have to enter the One Jackson Place center to reach this café, adorned with a miniature zinc bar and zinc-plating decorating its small kiosk.

Located in a quiet courtyard surrounded by multiple stories of lawyer and architect offices, old brick walls, and gas lanterns, it’s a quiet place. It’s a great, semi-private retreat from the city. The only seating here is outdoors: several outdoor, faded wood café tables and metal chairs — with seating additionally along the breezeway to Sansome St.

Approaching One Jackson Place from Sansome St. Outdoor breezeway seating outside Jackson Place Cafe Looking up at the lawyer and architect offices from the Jackson Place Cafe courtyard

In addition to coffee, the café here also offer bagels, panini, pizza, and salads. The friendly Italian owners engage the locals to test their Italian, even if its incongruous with the café’s signature Parisian and Art Nouveau style. (Italy, France — what’s the difference, right?) When ordering an espresso, the barista might ask if you want it “straight or macchiato” — as if she (or he, depending who is on duty) expects that you made a mistake in not asking for milk. (?!?)

The espresso shots, made from very un-Italian Blue Bottle Coffee beans (which they promote heavily), are rather big doppios — filled to the rim of their classic brown Nuova Point cups. They pull shots from a two-group Astoria machine, which is also a bit incongruous. The resulting shot has a medium brown crema with a decent texture and thickness despite its serving size. It has a flavor of mild pepper and some herbal notes, but no real sweetness. For Blue Bottle beans, it has a bit of a (not altogether unpleasant) ashy edge. Although the body is thinner due to the large size of the pour.

Approaching Jackson Place Cafe from Once Jackson Place's Battery St. entrance Jackson Place Cafe and its Art Nouveau sign

This is a prime example for why a choice of beans isn’t sufficient to make a good espresso; the choice of machine, shot size, barista skill, freshness of the beans (they seem a little off), etc., all contribute to something that’s less than the expectations set by one single factor. But it’s a solid cup for a part of town that once only had the choice of a ubiquitous nearby Starbucks and a dodgy Harpo’s Cafe Society cart service up the street at 717 Battery St.

However, James Freeman of Blue Bottle is just starting to show the signs of spreading his brand too far to keep the quality control standards in check. (Not to mention how it’s making Blue Bottle beans “commonplace”.) But as long as there are Bay Area fans who swear by Blue Bottle to their own detriment of not being able to look beyond them, it’s a formula we expect to see repeated for some time before a degree of variety or even novelty becomes more important in quality SF espresso.

Read the review of Jackson Place Cafe.

Italian owner behind the Jackson Place Cafe Astoria machine The Jackson Place Cafe espresso

Trip Report Redux: Flying Goat Coffee @ 324 Center St. (Healdsburg, CA)

Posted by on 02 Jun 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

It’s been a rather sad week for coffee news. An embarrassment, really — with headlines dominated by the ridiculous. There’s Racheal Ray’s TV commercial promoting both Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and her Death-to-Israel Hamas credentials (though who hasn’t wanted to go jihad on her?). There are vocal members of Christian groups that we now need to worry about accidentally stumbling in on in a moment of self-pleasure in Starbucks‘ bathrooms — with paper cups of skinny mochas in their hands and lust in their hearts over the retro Starbucks logo. Sure, this all has nothing to do with quality coffee, let alone coffee. But it’s the kind of stuff that makes us want to drink more tea.

When good coffee goes… not quite as good

Speaking of news that makes us want to drink more tea, few things disappoint us more than the backslide — the coffeehouse fall from grace. (What the Italians might call a sdrucciolo.) It’s one thing when Starbucks first purchased the vastly superior Torrefazione Italia, mocked and spit on it for several months, and methodically humiliated it into oblivion. Or when James Freeman decided to part ways with Frog Hollow Farm, gradually sinking what was once CoffeeRatings.com‘s top SF espresso to something now dwarfed by the neighboring Peet’s. In these cases, outside forces contributed to their demise.

Which is a whole different story from what’s happening at Flying Goat Coffee, aka The Goat, in downtown Healdsburg. A year ago we wrote how The Goat was losing a little of its quality edge, but we dismissed that as part of the random fluctuations in quality we sometimes come across. However, after a revisit this past weekend, we noted that their espresso score dropped a full half point from their last set of slightly disappointing scores.

This raises the alarm that something is fundamentally changing for the worse over at The Goat, and it’s an inside job. And given The Goat’s status in Sonoma County, it needs a Trip Report Redux.

This again?

This small, Sonoma-based chain café and roastery claims this location as their flagship coffeehouse. Compared to when they first moved into the space a few years ago, it’s much brighter (and less modern in design) with a lot of uncluttered, empty space. Its high counter seating, originally under spot lighting, has softer, more general light. There are also several indoor tables and some benches on the front sidewalk.

The baristas here are young professionals with a little attitude, but the coffee generally backed it up. The Goat has been a regular, major sponsor of the Western Regional Barista Competition, and they frequently sent competitors. But over the years, the staff here seem to have lost both their attitude and their edge — just as beans from The Goat have appeared in more and more notable area restaurants and other food establishments.

Approaching The Goat flagship coffeehouse in Healdsburg The Goat's new La Marzocco GB/5

By 2008, this location replaced their cherry red, three-group La Marzocco FB/70 with a three-group, silver GB/5. From it, they now serve espresso with a slimmer and lighter crema — in contrast to the generally darker brown crema of average thickness they used to serve. The pour itself has grown more watery, less rich, and with a larger volume than their past pulls of richer, darker, and smooth shots. They’ve inexcusably let their quality controls slip over time. It seems that their modest growth has come with a sloppier attention to detail.

Lining up at The Goat

Their shots are served more appropriately lukewarm, rather than scalding hot (a good thing). Flavorwise, it is generally mellow and smooth — mixing some herbal and buttery tastes with a slightly sweet finish. But with the larger pour volume of late, this is becoming masked more with watered-down overtones. They replaced their Homer Laughlin cups with those from Espresso Supply, and most recently they’ve opted for black ACF ceramics.

When Napa’s Oxbow Public Market first announced that they were going to open a Ritual Roasters inside, we questioned why. After all, The Goat should reign supreme in its own backyard. But given what we’ve observed over the past year or two at the flagship Goat coffeehouse, a little friendly competition will hopefully do them some good.

Read the updated review of Flying Goat Coffee at 324 Center St. in Healdsburg.

The Goat's Wall O' Coffee - all date stamped The Goat espresso - looking larger, paler, and thinner with the years

Ritual Roasters mounts their flag in Napa's Oxbow Public Market, March 2008