With little fanfare, last week Four Barrel Coffee finally graduated out of the ranks of the Malaysian street food experience and opened up its formal café space. So this week we paid a visit to check out the new digs — and update our espresso review. (See: our previous Four Barrel Coffee Trip Report.)
Last year Jeremy Tooker (along with partners that included Stumptown‘s Duane Sorenson) split from nearby Ritual Coffee Roasters to start a new coffee business that avoided the trappings of Ritual’s Valencia St. coffee bar (besides emphasizing more of the roasting operations). While it’s still early to tell, so far it’s not clear if they solved many of Ritual’s problems so much as relocated them a few blocks up Valencia St.
Not surprisingly, given loyalties and lineage, many of the clientèle here fit the same MO as Ritual’s customers. The lack of Wi-Fi and laptop outlets might prevent some table squatting. But like the liquor store/mini-marts of my old Southwest Berkeley neighborhood, there are already early signs of a “front sidewalk loiter” that so many Ritual customers have perfected. And when we approached the counter to make a purchase, most of the staff and the customers in line were perfectly content to mill about and socialize as if at a kegger party rather than service the line or make an order. Hopefully this is something that will diminish as the novelty wears off.
On the positive side, they finally can boast some baseline customer amenities: places to sit with tables or counters, and a lone a restroom complete with hanging chandelier and a laminate floor that sports a hunting motif. This latter detail nicely compliments the four boars’ heads that adorn one wall above a display of roasted coffee for sale. Apparently, each of these trophies Jeremy hunted off of eBay — at least if we are to believe this informative video published by SF Gate: SF Gate: Multimedia (video).
The five-minute video is a rather worthwhile interview with Jeremy, who offers an early tour of the space, demonstrates how to make a great French press of coffee, and discusses a variety of topics that include restaurant coffee, SF’s coffee history before Seattle stole the limelight, and Direct Trade.
The entire space, despite its in-progress roasting operations in back as PG&E allows in the gas lines, centers around the café’s showpiece: two beautiful Mistral Triplette espresso machines, tricked out with Four Barrel branding in glowing glory. These machines themselves are worth the trip, given their rarity and the exquisite machine design handiwork of Kees van der Westen (though the Mistral is now distributed by La Marzocco). Duane Sorenson’s influence shines through.
Oh, but how was the espresso? Great, of course. Until they get their own roasting operations up, they are serving Stumptown’s Hairbender blend. The baristas here are meticulous and deliberate — rightfully taking their sweet time to do it right. They pull shots with a darker, mottled, somewhat bubbly looking crema. The body is a touch thin for the pedigree. But 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. That much hasn’t changed.
Read the updated review of Four Barrel Coffee.
We previously wrote of our annoyance with the old and ever-popular yarn spun by wannabe personal finance gurus who constantly tell us we can become millionaires by quitting our daily coffee habit — or by replacing it with home-brewed coffee. For the record, we have a lot of coffee both out (as evidenced by CoffeeRatings.com) and in the home. But we’ve always thought that home-brewed coffee is hardly the magic path to champagne wishes and caviar dreams. This time we do a little of the math to show why.
Many of these personal finance hacks first fail to recognize that coffee, for at least some people, is one of life’s small pleasures. The idea of giving it up entirely makes about as much sense as giving up other “superfluous” things in life — such as haircuts, your child’s dance lessons, and cable TV. Once you get past that logic, the debate then becomes about the private jets you’ll be able to afford by making your own coffee or espresso at home instead of paying Starbucks each time for the mythical $32 coffee beverage. (Hey … inflation. OK, so we’re exaggerating about the $32 beverage to make a point. But then again, so are they.)
We recently came across a blog post, similar to the thousands of others just like it, where a “home savings tip” savant posted on how she saved a “small fortune” by switching from her thrice-weekly Starbucks habit to a stove top Bialetti coffee maker at home.
Small fortune, eh? Let’s do the math. A $4 bucket of Starbucks’ pumpkin-pie-flavored Cool Whip, purchased three times a week, will set our home-savings-tip heroine back about $12 a week — or about $600 a year.
A new Bialetti will set her back about $20 — which is nice and cheap compared to some of these ridiculous $1,200 hulking piles of home espresso machine plastic that typically produce shots inferior to even Starbucks’ dubious standards (Jura, anyone?). Then add a chop grinder for about $30, and her capital outlay comes out to be about $50.
Now since fresh roasted coffee is like fresh baked bread, the supply needs replenishing every couple of weeks before it goes stale. So if she’s buying Starbucks’ coffee (and it is pretty much already stale when you buy it), that should set her back about $6 for a half pound. Then add some incidental charges for milk, pumpkin pie flavoring, and tubs of Cool Whip — but for the sake of argument, we will consider it negligible (which it isn’t).
That comes to about a $50 capital outlay plus $6 every two weeks = about $200 in the first year.
Now let’s factor in labor costs. Starbucks’ costs are dominated by labor, not coffee. To say that your labor comes out in the wash is deceiving yourself: your time is money. The federal minimum wage is $5.85 per hour (in SF, it is $9.36) — and let’s say her time is only as valuable as the lowest fry cook at McDonald’s at $6 an hour. And let’s say that making these coffee drinks at home takes about 15 minutes of her time — between grinding, watching the stove, steaming milk, washing dishes, cleaning the espresso machine, etc. All the work that Starbucks pays someone else to do for you. Three times a week for a year comes to about 40 hours of labor a year = $240.
So in her first year, you compare her $600 Starbucks habit to $200 + $240 = $440. So she saved maybe a whopping $160 in the first year — minus her additional expenses for milk, pumpkin pie flavoring, and Cool Whip. And her coffee wasn’t probably nearly as good as the kind and variety she had buying out: the coffee supplies were probably more stale, the consistency wasn’t right, and she was using equipment and skills that were a fraction of what the pros have. (After all, a moka pot doesn’t even technically make espresso to begin with.)
Add that she had to put up with this inferior coffee for a whole year. Then add that she just valued her own time at the lowly wages of a fry cook working a burger joint fronted by a clown.
A small fortune? Indeed.
But at least she didn’t buy some $1,200 Jura (likely without a decent grinder, we might add) that will require her to grin and bear hundreds of inferior espresso shots before she breaks even on the purchase price alone. Or worse…
Home espresso machines, for most buyers today, are the home exercise treadmills of the previous decade. She could easily tire of the inferior shot quality she gets at home, and she could tire even more of doing all the labor herself. After all, we live in a society that can’t even be bothered to slice an apple or toss a salad because it’s too much effort. This means that not only does she return to her regular Starbucks habit, but she does so with an additional $1,200 hole burned into her pocket — now that her home espresso machine is gathering dust in the kitchen corner.
This is why we generally recommend a home espresso setup for less than five percent of the people who ask about one. Unless you’re in it for the pursuit of higher quality shots, you’re going to be gravely disappointed. Don’t even think that you’re going to save much money with a home espresso setup unless you can make the time commitment — and if your taste buds can’t tell the difference in quality.
Sipping a double espresso at Blue Bottle Cafe earlier this afternoon, I felt like a million bucks. In fact, that espresso shot of single origin, dry-processed, Ethiopian Sidamo was so good, it deserved its own post. (To be continued…)
All this talk about “doing the math”… You know who has done the math several times over, before any of us even considered it?: Starbucks’ marketing department, that’s who. You can bet your double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato that they know the lifetime value of their customers. And if Starbucks is devoting expensive retail space to selling home espresso machines in their cafés, how naïve does one have to be to think they’re doing it at a known net loss of customers and profits?
Opening in the Spring of 2008, this remote Ritual location is little more than a counter inside Napa’s relatively new Oxbow Public Market. At first we questioned why the Wine Country needed a Ritual outlet — rather than an expansion of Sonoma-County-based Flying Goat Coffee. But then as we’ve monitored the quality over at The Goat lately, a little competition could do the region some good.
Inside the shared market space, just beyond Ritual’s front counter, there is an assortment of wooden tables and chairs. There is even the occasional Wi-Fi laptop user — just to give you the authentic feel that a Ritual Roasters is nearby. Around the rest of Oxbow you’ll find small purveyors of meats, tea, cheese, seafood, oil, spice, chocolate — and a few dressed up, fast-Slow-Food eateries. There’s even a small weekend farmers’ market.
In addition to a four-group La Marzocco GB/5 they use to pull shots, this Ritual location also has two Clover brewers. They also have as many as four Mazzer grinders in service, with at least one dedicated to espresso and one to a decaf blend. Upon this visit, they had labeled one grinder with “Lifesaver Spro” — the latter term invoking our gag reflex. But fortunately a good espresso here helped smooth things over.
This counter is commonly staffed by former baristas from their SF Valencia St. flagship café (some complete with prerequisite tatts). But unlike the other Ritual locations, however, they offer true single espresso shots on the menu ($2.25) rather than just the usual doubles ($2.75). (Of course, we probably haven’t re-scanned the Ritual menus at their SF locations in a while.) Purists will rightfully balk at the virtues of a single shot from a portafilter, but CoffeeRatings.com has long standardized on the closest we could get to a place’s smallest ristretto.
They pull shots with a darker brown, even crema over a very modest, short pour. While it isn’t exactly syrupy, the shot has a thick body and some honey-like sweetness over tobacco flavors. It doesn’t quite live up to the espresso standards at its sister cafés in SF, however; the flavor is a little less potent and the brightness didn’t shine through as much. But it’s clearly some of the best stuff you’ll find in Napa County. Served in black ACF and classic brown Nuova Point cups.
Regular readers here are familiar with our squawking about Slow Food in this blog for almost three years now. You might even recall our pilgrimage to the Slow Food mothership in Bra, Italy last October. But in case you haven’t seen the orange and black posters everywhere, next weekend Slow Food comes to America for the first time as Slow Food Nation — part expo, part celebration of good food and good food-producing practices, and part public education campaign.
Fort Mason will host the Taste Pavilions for the event, where organizers will dedicate large exposition spaces to twenty different culinary arts: spices, oils, chocolate, beer, wine, and — yes! — even coffee. (If it is anything like what we experienced at Torino, Italy’s Eataly last year, it’s going to be a blast.) The coffee pavilion itself promises to be about 2,000 square feet, curated by Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffè, Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and Tony Konecny of tonx.org fame.
Mr. Barnett was recently interviewed by CHOW, where he described the coffee pavilion as offering four different coffee tastes from four different regions/varietals/farms. You can download a podcast of his interview (5:49, 3.3 Mb), where he also helps describe some of the objectives of the event:
“It’s to turn the restaurateurs on to what a great cup of coffee tastes like. Coffee in many ways has been the bastard child of the culinary world. It was an afterthought.”
Some 50,000 attendees are expected at Slow Food Nation. The coffee pavilion alone expects to serve some 3,000-4,000 people a day — compared with the 1,100 transactions per day normally handled by Ritual Coffee Roasters.
We’ll be attending the Taste Pavilion (note: daytime tickets are sold out, but evening tickets are still available) — and we are looking forward to much more than just the coffee pavilion. We’ll also be attending the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity coffee & dinner event, held the following Monday at Coffee Bar. So expect future posts here on these topics.
In the meantime, we leave you with an artist’s rendition of some of the architectural detail planned at the event. Each taste pavilion is being designed out of repurposed materials by some of the Bay Area’s top design firms. For example, the pickle-and-chuntey booth, depicted below, will consist of walls made of pickle jars and a ceiling made of some 3,000 mason jar lids suspended from wires — all assembled just days before the event:
Photo courtesy California Home + Design magazine
In the name-dropping department, the September issue of Food & Wine magazine included a brief article on a select assortment of “classic and new places around the country with the most fanatical devotees” in the world of quality coffee: Where to Go Next: Best U.S. Coffee Bars | Food & Wine. Included on the list is SF’s Blue Bottle Cafe and a smattering of the usual suspects from around the country: including Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters, and a few places we’re overdue to visit — such as L.A.’s Lamill Coffee.
Spin, however, can be a funny thing. For example, The Ithaca Journal (NY) interpreted the inclusion of local pride, Gimme! Coffee, in Food & Wine‘s unscientific list with this headline: Gimme! Coffee voted best U.S. coffee bar by Food & Wine Magazine | theithacajournal.com | The Ithaca Journal. Apparently the ace reporters behind The Ithaca Journal are bucking for a Pulitzer in investigative reporting, given that they were able to discover both that there was a “voting system” behind Food & Wine‘s article and that Gimme! was ranked first on this list — while no other reporter nor reader has been able to detect the existence of either.
Now that we’ve caught your attention with the sensationalist title, we’ve had a thought that has been milling around in our heads for quite a while. All this talk about a supposed Third Wave in quality coffee (it truly is that hard for us to restrain our contempt for that term) seems to have coincided with another odd phenomenon: that of the barista becoming not only the predominant face of the entire coffee industry, but also a sort of rising expectation that the barista should be the coffee industry.
When it comes to the coffee delivery chain, there are a lot more people employed in the barista service end than anywhere else. And the barista is certainly the front face of the industry that consumers most interact with (at least when they are having espresso-based drinks). But while they are far from the only role in the coffee delivery chain, you certainly wouldn’t know it based on the proliferation of magazines, social networks, blogs, competitions, and coverage in traditional media.
And while all good baristas should aim for a bean-to-cup knowledge of what makes a great espresso beverage, many baristas and espresso enthusiasts alike seem to be encouraging a model where top baristas are expected to manage every aspect from bean-to-cup — the benefits of specialization in modern society be damned.
So what makes us think that the barista has become the focal point for the entire coffee industry — in a way that is out of proportion with reality (and need)? Although the majority of the decent coffee served in this country involves some form of a barista, a barista is not necessarily required.
Furthermore, today avid coffee consumers cannot escape the barista-heavy bias when it comes to discussions of good coffee. There are an absurd number of redundant social networking sites for baristas — from Barista Exchange (founded by the nice guy whose prose ultimately made us cancel our Barista Magazine subscription) to Barista Connection to the offhand Common Grind: Tales from the Driptray … to redundant presences of these same entities on social networking sites such as Facebook.
What next? Social networks for all those bikini-clad baristas in the Northwest? A kind of Suicide Girls meets Starbucks Gossip? Someone better start up a business plan.
But if we were to dismiss the number of these barista-focused blogs and networks (at the expense of other roles in the coffee industry) on the basis of the sheer number of baristas, coffee consumers clearly outnumber baristas many times over. Looking at the few social networks and Web sites dedicated to coffee consumers, they’re mostly pretty lame. (See: Coffeenatic.)
The regular mainstream media drumbeat of barista championships, latte art contests, etc., also seems to drown out any mentions of Cup of Excellence bean growers or even roasters to a large extent. And any acknowledgment given to buyers, blenders, and like is virtually non-existent. Can we really be faulted for having this impression of barista bias? (Or call it “Barismo“, if you wish.)
We are actually a bit shocked at how few baristas we know are also home roasters. Yet it’s becoming more common to read stories of baristas who are training to become everything from certified Q graders to roasters. In part, this reflects the role of barista as a popular entry-level position to the coffee industry — even if it is by no means the only one.
But when you combine these trends with the nascent (and latent) obsession over, and coverage of, Fair Trade, you’d think that the quality coffee industry consisted entirely of impoverished growers, minimum-wage baristas who manage everything from bean-to-cup, and an array of useless middlemen and (dare we suggest?) evildoers in between. As a result, it undermines the value that everyone from buyers, graders, shippers, and, to a lesser degree, some roasters provide in the chain.
In today’s landscape, where is the role for future Ernesto Illys if they are not baristas?
Our point isn’t to squelch the voice of the many ambitious baristas who have the commendable goals of quality coffee in mind. But we question whether should they be the only voice. It’s time for the rest of the industry to speak up — and be recognized for the value they provide in the coffee chain.
And on a slightly different note, because consumers of quality coffee need representation of their own kind, we believe we need a spokesperson. Forget Cicely Tyson sipping to the music of ELO for the NCA’s Coffee Achievers campaign — we’re voting for a new Espresso Achievers campaign featuring Iggy Pop and his heroin-addled body singing “Gimme Danger”.
Iggy is our kind of spokesperson. Today the Daily Mirror (UK) reported on how he conquered his addictions through a love for red wine and … strong espresso: Iggy talks about addiction. We can see the slogans now: “A strong espresso: it’s better than heroin.” Sign us up!
Video: Iggy sez: Gimme a doppio.
Today the Daily Herald (Chicago suburbs) republished a Wall Street Journal story (no subscription required!) covering the growing consumer interest in home latte art: Daily Herald | Coffee drinkers show their latte love with artistic creations. The article notably takes a San Francisco bias in its choices for interviewees. However, it properly cites the founder of Seattle’s Espresso Vivace, David Schomer, as the father of modern latte art.
The article also notes how coffee shops are now offering classes in creating latte art designs and how the latte artists themselves are organizing contests (events that have been around for some time, but with new, prosumer players). But while the article fusses over the prices of home espresso machine models, it makes no mention of the equally important role of a decent grinder.
Last year we expressed how latte art is about as relevant to coffee quality as, say, bathroom towels are to a good restaurant meal. (Unlike Wikipedia, at least we don’t liken latte art to a nuclear holocaust.) So what resonated with us most in the article were closing comments from Chris Baca — barista at SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters and winner of the 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition. The article cites Chris saying that he’s “tiring of latte-art buzz”: “It’s part of what we do, but we like to focus more on the coffee. You could have a drink that’s totally beautiful with the most amazing design – and tastes like garbage.”
Don’t get us wrong: aesthetics do count. When my wife attended an advanced boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) last month (her class was also written up in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, btw), the instructors made a big point about how you eat with all of your senses — and that you typically always start with the eyes. This is why all our ratings have Presentation scores.
But coffee as a medium for art almost as an ends to itself? When we really want to perfect our art at home, we’ll skip the rosettas and leave the coffee as a drinking medium. For a legitimate art medium, paper and charcoal or pen and ink wash still do just fine.
Video: Taking the concept of latte art to its next natural (and ridiculous) stage of evolution…
Weren’t we just saying that there are only about three or four people with original story ideas? Sure enough, this time it’s the New York Times that recycled the same local roasters story idea that has already been once around the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post in recent months: Specialty Coffee Roasters Brew in New York – NYTimes.com.
New York’s quality coffee scene, while improving, remains a major coffee underachiever. So interestingly enough, the article heavily weights its coverage towards the many New York imports angling to get the job done, including many of the West Coast’s usual suspects: Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Intelligentsia employees, Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffè, and James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee.
Only at its conclusion does the article make mention of any NY locals: Café Grumpy, Abraço Espresso, and Ninth Street Espresso. With much of the New York quality coffee scene still playing catch-up to the rest of the country, the writer suggests (we think correctly) that the lack of representation by NY roasters reflects the capital investments and relationships with growers that take time to develop.
In any case, the Chicago Tribune has probably been put on notice that their turn is next to rehash this article.
Two days ago, the New York Times ran another pop piece of medical journalism about coffee. However, this time they disguised it as a critique of medical journalism: Personal Health – Sorting Out Coffee’s Contradictions – NYTimes.com. Now we’ve managed to survive a six-month moratorium on pointless medical research articles about coffee — which is about six months longer than just about every major media outlet, including the New York Times. So why break the blissful silence now?
As the article clearly notes, “hardly a month goes by without a report that hails coffee, tea or caffeine as healthful or damns them as potential killers.” However, it disingenuously adds to the very same feeding frenzy of confusing medical information that it reportedly criticizes. The real clue is in the article’s lower right hand column: since its publication on August 5th, this article has been the most e-mailed story on the New York Times‘ Web site — and its most blogged Health story.
But those statistics are not unique to this article; this is actually quite a common phenomenon for many articles on this topic. Media companies, medical researchers, and those who underwrite their research grants all know this. Most consumers, however, do not know this. Therein lies the root of the problem…
As much as I have a distaste for conspiracy theorists (i.e., Hanlon’s razor or “never presume conspiracy where incompetence will suffice”), over the years I have started to believe in the existence of a not entirely benign, self-sustaining media-medical-research complex — analogous to that favorite villain of paranoids everywhere, the military-industrial complex. Although I am no official expert, my credentials at drawing such seemingly silly conclusions are rooted in my experience as a graduate student medical researcher/journal-paper-publisher at UCSF and a twelve-year career working for Internet media companies.
So why such a ridiculous conclusion? As the New York Times article alludes, much of the medical research behind these studies is quite sloppy (poorly constructed scientific studies, etc.). This contributes to the inconsistencies of their conclusions: these studies always seem to suggest that coffee will either kill you or make you live to 150, alternating as regularly as San Francisco’s street sweeping schedules.
However, as is often the case, the truth most certainly lies somewhere in the middle. In fact, it’s been lying there for about 1,000 years — given how that is the volume of epidemiological evidence we have to prove that coffee consumption in moderation is pretty much irrelevant to human health. Case closed, right? The intense scrutiny of modern medicine combined with 1,000 years of data — so why are there always new studies and new controversies over coffee as if it were just invented yesterday?
First and foremost, as the New York Times most e-mailed/blogged numbers attest, these medical studies of a beverage that dates back to the Dark Ages keep coming because people read stories about these studies in earnest. They sell newspapers and online advertising. And yes, they even generate enough regular and reliable public interest that they ensure funding for what essentially is a futile medical research effort to continually flog a dead horse. The day we see a final conclusion about coffee and your health will be the day that newspapers give up a reliable supply of potential readers and medical researchers give up an easy stream of potential research grants.
So what’s the harm, you ask? For one, instead of aiding the public good, we are committing significant medical research resources to essentially pointless, Sisyphean exercises. Another major harm is that it essentially gives rise to the fledgling field of medical infotainment: many of the same economic forces and guiding principles that have made media companies turn evening newscasts into “infotainment” are now bearing down on medical research policy.
Honest — do we really need so many studies about coffee, given all the other medical challenges and concerns we have as a society? If the health-related impacts of coffee were anything close to, say, cigarettes — something humans have consumed for only half as long — shouldn’t we have clearly known by now?
Apparently, who cares as long as there is news to sell and research funding to be had. What’s science got to do with it?
As the Discover Magazine article illustrates, the actual science and statistics behind the cited research suggested something far more mundane and generated few, if any, useful conclusions. However, the mad rush to leap to scientifically sensationalist/ignorant conclusions outweighed any checks and balances. In short: who cares if the story is real as long as you get readers?
This large, spacious café, located near SF City College, is a rare Ingleside gem. It’s of Italian influence by way of Argentina. Part coffee roastery and café, part restaurant.
They have two sidewalk benches along Ocean Ave. in front (perhaps the only SF city street wide enough to land a 747). Inside there’s a wide space with tall ceilings, a skylight, and numerous tables. In front there’s what looks like a Primo PRI-20 25-lb roaster surrounded by plastic bins and burlap sacks of green beans. (They apparently roast only once weekly.) There’s also a wall of pre-bagged coffee for purchase — including their new “Obama Blend” of Kenyan coffees (reflecting the politics of the place).
They pull shots with an old school, two-group La San Marco near the register. With it they produce espresso shots with an even, slightly thin layer of medium brown crema. Using darker roasted coffees — in a way that is very un-trendy these days, but done well — the resulting shot has a bold flavor with a nice pungency of spices and a classic espresso italiano edge.
Yes, drinking darkly roasted coffees these days feels a bit like drinking merlot after the movie Sideways came out: i.e., there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but the fleeting faddishness of public tastes and opinion have, at least momentarily, placed it squarely in the gauche category.
There’s a strong component of smokiness and a slight tobacco edge to its flavor. It’s a bit thinner on the body given the rest of the cup qualities — not surprising, given the large pour for single shots (doubles are just 25¢ more). Served in classic brown, thick-walled ACF cups. And definitely worth the trek.
Read the review of Caffe D’Melanio.