September 2008

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Cafe’s Bosco/Single Origin Sidamo

Posted by on 27 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Machine

It’s not often that a lone double shot of espresso warrants a post here. But last month (hey — we got lazy) we had a rather rare espresso experience. We alluded to this espresso shot in a previous post, and it was among the best we’ve had in the Bay Area. (And we’re including the employee espresso bar at Mr. Espresso.)

It was a shot of single origin Ethiopian Sidamo brewed from the “new” Bosco machine at Blue Bottle Cafe. Actually, we couldn’t stop at one and ordered a second.

Single origin? Ewwwww…

Are we big fans of the single origin trend? Not exactly. But we do like experimenting with different kinds of coffee and learning about our tastes — and the components that make up the coffees, blends or otherwise, that we like. The likes of CoffeeGeek.com’s Mark Prince may understandably say, “I’ve never met a single origin espresso I’ve liked.” But there are moments where the individual parts of what goes into an espresso blend, when of high quality and exquisitely prepared, can hold their own.

Our most common complaint about single origin shots is that the flavor is typically one-dimensional. Second, the crema tends to run thin — lacking robusta or other varietals to punch it up. Third, their body tends to run a bit thin. Since single origin shots typically go for flavor over raw earthiness, there’s often little in the cup to carry it — such as a more darkly roasted Indonesian coffee.

However, this single origin Sidamo shot had a rather impressive dynamic range, a well-rounded flavor profile, a solid crema, and a full body. This when we were expecting a dry-processed, wild-tasting Ethiopian with some potential floral and citrus notes. James Freeman told us that barista works the Bosco machine to about nine bars of pressure to get the right impression on the coffee and bring out these broader effects. And a result is a tiger-striped crema of a relatively rich and very even consistency accompanied by a primarily pungent flavor with a honey-sweet edge.

Read the review of Blue Bottle Cafe’s single origin Ethiopian Sidamo made with their Bosco machine.

Dry-processed Ethiopian Sidamo single origin espresso heaven at Blue Bottle Cafe (take 2)

The Machine

Lately, rare espresso machines have become something of a differentiator among high-end SF espresso bars. Many know about Blue Bottle Cafe’s Japanese siphon bar. And Four Barrel Coffee‘s recent opening showcased their two Kees van der Westen-designed Mistrals.

Last month, Blue Bottle Cafe replaced the two-group La San Marco lever machine at their single origin bar with a Napoli-manufactured Bosco manual lever machine. (We say “Napoli” instead of “Naples” to distinguish it from the soulless, godforsaken town in Florida that’s better known for golf, bugs, strip malls, and $2 million condos.) It’s the only Bosco we know in the city besides the showpiece at Cafe Zoetrope, gifted to Mr. Coppola. Otherwise, you need to look to a five-group model over at Caffé Vita in Seattle.

If you know James Freeman, you know his m.o. would be more of the classical enthusiast — preferring Japanese siphon bars and Bosco machines to, say, the Mistral’s state-of-the-art, high-design hot rod that’s naturally more to Jeremy Tooker’s liking (of Four Barrel Coffee fame). When tablehopper first reported that Blue Bottle Cafe would open with “some very special machines”, we very briefly wondered if James would go for a Mistral. That lasted about a millisecond. Knowing his traditionalist appreciation, the Bosco is hardly a surprise.

Blue Bottle Cafe's two-group, manual espresso machine from Bosco of Napoli Blue Bottle Cafe barista prepares my shot with the Bosco machine

In other Blue Bottle news, last month we also got in a conversation with Richard Tarlov, co-owner of the Canyon Market. He mentioned that he had been trying to carry retail Blue Bottle beans in response to numerous customer requests (yes, they even have Blue Bottle zombies in Glen Park), but that Blue Bottle coffee production is currently tapped out. They are apparently fully maxed out on their distribution until they move into larger facilities for their roasting operations.

UPDATE: Dec. 24, 2008
We recently learned from Scott Brody, Lead Bartender at SF’s Epic Roasthouse, that Epic Roasthouse ultimately sold this Bosco machine to Blue Bottle Coffee (and that Epic purchased it earlier this year through Seattle’s famed Caffé Vita). Apparently Epic management found the Bosco too expensive, and as a two-group machine it was too large for a bar.

Still, Mr. Brody lamented that, “In over 15 years of working in restaurants with espresso, that was far and away the best machine I’ve come across. And the easiest to get a great shot. The first I ever pulled was the best I’d ever pulled to date. And as the machine broke in, and I got used to it, they just got better.”

Trip Report: Caffè Roma, SOMA

Posted by on 26 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Local Brew, Roasting

Many of the new espresso joints in town have fortunately helped raise SF’s quality bar. But these new places also seem to monopolize all the love. It’s no wonder that crackpots spouting theories of some Third Wave are often taken seriously rather than laughed at, because this obsession with the new and devaluation of everything that got us here is supported by a complicit media — both bloggers and traditional.

So allow us to introduce a radical departure from coffee’s tiresome wine analogy: call it a footwear analogy. Decent coffee places and roasters that have been slugging it out for years are often treated like last year’s Uggs by a public that today seeming only cares about Crocs. Yet a few of us know that Crocs are really just next year’s Uggs anyway.

So what better excuse to get in touch with last year’s Uggs than jury duty? (*needle scratch*) Huh?

Entrance to Caffè Roma in SOMA Many bail bond opportunities conveniently located across the street

Because unless you collect traffic tickets or often find yourself springing cousin Clem from SF’s Glamour Slammer, Caffè Roma’s SOMA location is inconvenient at best. If you’re fortunate, SF’s Bail Bond Row isn’t something you often seek out, and it had been five years since we were last called for jury duty at the Bryant St. location (less so for the McAllister St. location). It’s no coincidence that CoffeeRatings.com had not rated this Caffè Roma since last visiting it on June 20, 2003.

This location is a landmark café/roastery across the S.F. Hall of Justice — where naturally all of SF’s Super Friends hang out. (Look for them running for various city supervisor offices on the November ballot, including the likes of Starchild — SF’s Libertarian answer to Richard Simmons.) Sister to the North Beach institution, inside they pay homage to Rome and coffee roasting.

Inside Caffè Roma in SOMA The legal circle - a common sight at the SOMA Caffè Roma

Given its proximity to the courts, the clientele here typically includes many lawyers in suits. For seating, they have several dark café tables beneath wide, bright, windows and a row of stool seating along the Gilbert St. windows. Considering the neighbors on the block, it’s quite clean and modern. Their roasting operations are at the rear, courtesy of a huge Probat roaster. They sell roasted retail beans in old school bins that look nice but unfortunately allow the coffee to oxidize and grow stale rapidly.

Caffè Roma's Probat-based roasting operations in SOMA Oxidizing bins of retail beans behind the Caffè Roma (SOMA) La Spaziale

Using a two-group La Spaziale at the bar, the pull modestly sized shots of espresso with a thin layer of richer crema that dissipates somewhat quickly. It has a bold, complex taste of spice and earthy elements and a pungent edge of cloves. For millk-frothing, they produce good microfoam with very even, consistently fine microbubbles (it’s actually slightly better than their espresso). Served in classic brown ACF cups.

With jury selection continuing next week, something tells us we’ll get to know this café pretty well over the coming month. It’s time to share the love.

Read the updated review of Caffè Roma in SOMA.

The Caffè Roma (SOMA) espresso The Caffè Roma (SOMA) cappuccino

Trip Report: Dynamo Donuts

Posted by on 22 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Local Brew

For the past few months, we have exchanged notes and e-mails about a number of coffee places and events in the area with fellow SF coffee blogger, Christian G, of Man Seeking Coffee fame. (We’ve added the “G” here in an attempt to give him some rap-star-like mystique.) More recently, we collectively had the idea to pull a sort of Siskel & Ebert-like joint review together. This Dynamo Donuts trip report is a result…

This high-end donut purveyor may not have “espresso” in their name, but they take it every bit as seriously as their $2 donuts. Of course, for the many purists who believe that a Mission postal address requires a vow of poverty — and that only cheap dives and cheap food belong in the neighborhood — a $2 donut is cause for outrage. Whether or not you believe the less fortunate need equal access to donuts, can you just hear the revolution starting with, “Let them eat donuts!”??

On the subject of qu’ils mangent de la brioche, Dynamo’s hooped-shaped confections are hardly things your grandmother would recognize as a “donut.” They’re more akin to a sort of round cake. But they are enough to bring out the inner Homer Simpson in a lot of people.

Approaching Dynamo Donuts on 24th Street 'Seating' outside Dynamo Donuts

Despite these accusations of donut snobbery, you could say that Dynamo is pretty much a glorified sidewalk lemonade stand. There is a row of chairs on the sidewalk for outdoor seating (OK, for any seating whatsoever). And the on-duty barista/donutmonger might ask you to mind the store while she, or he, needs to take a restroom break. We’re talking a modest operation.

Here they stick to some high-quality ingredients: Stumptown Hairbender, Clover organic milk, etc. Using a four-group La Marzocco Linea, they take their time and make deliberate shots of espresso with a mottled medium- and dark-brown crema of a good, but uneven, consistency and some real thickness. Rumor has it that some of the folks over at Four Barrel Coffee believe that this Linea pulls better shots than their deluxe hot rod Mistral machines. That could be more familiarity than quality talking, but hey — sometimes that’s the price of art.

As with the Hairbender served at Four Barrel, the shot has an intense brightness that gets more potent at the bottom of the cup. With a semi-syrupy constency and a strongly pungent flavor, you may be hard pressed to blind taste their Hairbender versus Four Barrel’s version to tell them apart. And that’s a good thing.

It seems that the donuts-for-espresso barter between Dynamo and Four Barrel has afforded benefits for both locations. Christian had pretty much the exact same opinion about their espresso (call it “two thumbs up”?). And after plugging in our rating numbers, sure enough: Dynamo Donuts scored dead even with Four Barrel Coffee.

Read the review of Dynamo Donuts.

Dynamo Donuts' four-group Linea and coffee menu The Dynamo Donuts espresso - with a chocolate spice donut



UPDATE: Sept. 24, 2008
Christian posted his review of Dynamo Donuts on Man Seeking Coffee: Man Seeking The Shot: A Trip to Dynamo Donuts « Man Seeking Coffee. Let’s just say I knew I was in the presence of someone poetically inspired by the possibilities of the “common” donut.

Folgers unveils expensive innovation for leadership of the elite “frozen turkey” coffee market

Posted by on 20 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

How is it that some people can unwittingly ridicule themselves far more than anyone else could while trying? Case and point with Folgers Coffee.

Allow us to use a more bizarre application of the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee: for decades, Folgers profited as coffee’s equivalent of Thunderbird. But as consumers have developed more of an interest in, and taste for, higher quality products, the reach and profitability of the misery market — whether wine or coffee — has waned dramatically.

The best part of wakin' up is T-bird under the freeway overpass Thunderbird’s Ernest & Julio Gallo responded to the challenge with high-gloss marketing, upscale brands, and even a family crest. Folgers is responding with “the biggest innovation since the launch of decaf” and an ad campaign that is “the most expensive in the history of the brand,” according to yesterday’s New York Times: Advertising – Folgers Markets a New Coffee to Cost-Cutting Home Brewers – NYTimes.com.

Folgers is also responding with a heavy dose of unwitting self-ridicule. So what is this innovation? The culmination of 8-10 years of research, Folgers is unveiling a new roasting process that includes a “predry” or “preroast” step to make their product less bitter.

And here’s where the self-ridicule comes in. Also from the New York Times article:

Jim Trout, innovation leader for research and development, at P.& G., said: “It’s like thawing a turkey before you cook it. If you don’t, the outside will be burnt and the inside will still be raw. This way it cooks evenly all the way through.”

Now if you’re promoting a new product in the food industry that you want to be perceived as better, improved, and — dare we suggest — gourmet, why would anyone in a sane frame of mind compare their fancied product to frozen turkeys? We suppose we should at least give them credit for not comparing it to instant mashed potatoes.

Trip Report: Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant (Big Sur, CA)

Posted by on 18 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

We recently reviewed a couple of solid espresso options when you head just south of the Bay Area — in Santa Cruz and Monterey. But what if you head further south through Big Sur? Sure, more of your options involve camp stoves and dodging cranky, caffeine-addicted black bears, but there are a few exceptions. One of them is the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, which was featured earlier this year in a New York Times Magazine article.

Heading south on Highway 1, just past the Big Sur deli and post office, you’ll encounter a sign for the place. Driving up a dusty, dirt driveway to a Shell station, you’ll find it atop stairs — likely pouring out smoke from their wood-fired pizza ovens. They have several indoor restaurant tables and extensive outdoor patio seating. And it’s definitely rustic here, alright: going to the restroom involves a trip to a plumbed-in outhouse past rusted old Coca-Cola signs like something out of a John Cougar Mellencamp video.

Roadside signage for the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant Not on fire: just pizza

The Big Sur area is rough country for good espresso, of course. And this place seems to take complete advantage of that fact — offering espresso at near-Ritz Carlton prices. They have their own Big Sur Bakery blend from Berkeley’s Uncommon Grounds, and they were selling their Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade organic blend. (The signs of the great Big Sur fires of 2008 were noticeable just across the highway.)

The Big Sur fires of '08 stopped just across the freeway Inside the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant

Despite the astronomical prices, they do a good rotation of espresso throughout the day here, and the baristas grind to order. Using one of two La Spaziale two-group machines at the front espresso bar, they pull shots as extra large doppio pours served in a regular coffee cup. It has a patchy coverage of congealed, medium brown crema — though its texture runs thin relatively quickly. And despite the huge pour size, it surprisingly has a decent body. It has more of an earthy, herbal flavor with strong hints of smoke, and it can be served with some grit at the bottom of the cup.

If you thought the espresso was expensive, just wait until you see the pizza prices. Of course, shipping supplies to a remote area costs money. And then there’s labor. And then the seasonal nature of business here doesn’t help — especially when one of those seasons is “fire season”. But we can confirm that we were not accosted by any angry bears while getting our espresso here — unless you include the pack of burly, grizzled motorcycle riders who made it a pit stop for brunch.

Read the review of Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant.

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant uses two dual-group La Spaziale machines The Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant espresso

Trip Report: Café Lumiere (Monterey, CA)

Posted by on 16 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

The Cafe Noir that previously existed at this location made one of the best espresso shots you could buy in the Monterey area since around 2005. Unfortunately, it closed in early 2008, leaving this location vacant for a couple of months. Fortunately, its replacement, Café Lumeire, opened in April 2008 and has been more than worthy.

This spot still has one of the best café scenes in the entire Monterey Peninsula. But now it has trip-worthy espresso if you’re in the area. Attached to the Osio Cinemas downtown, this location has two indoor levels and an outdoor patio designed for lounging — whether or not you’re waiting for a movie. Like the Cafe Noir that preceded it, it has a rather Bohemian feel. But we actually mean that in a good way. Here you will even find groups of middle-aged men speaking Italian over espresso on weekend mornings – giving you an almost Caffé Trieste-like feel (just at half the age).

They offer free Wi-Fi plus pastries, desserts, and basic sandwiches and salads. But where they’ve bettered their predecessor is in the espresso department.

Apparently 'grand opening's can last for many months at Café Lumiere Inside Café Lumiere

The local Italian men socialize at Café Lumiere Outdoor seating at Café Lumiere

They replaced Cafe Noir’s Faema E-61 with a two-group La Marzocco GB/5, pulling shots of nearby Acme Coffee. The barista takes the necessary time to make a proper shot. This may not service the line very quickly, but the results are very positive in the cup.

The shot is a bit generous — a doppio served tall in a classic brown Nuova Point cup. It comes with a richly textured, medium brown crema, and the flavor is potent and pungent. They clearly use freshly roasted and well-prepared beans here. They are also not half-bad at milk-frothing: a thick, dense microfoam, although it doesn’t fully blend in (there’s a noticeable coffee-milk barrier). But they manage simple rosetta latte art. They have inexpensive vac pot coffee too.

Finally, the Monterey Peninsula has destination-worthy espresso.

Read the review of Café Lumiere.

Pulling shots behind Café Lumiere's La Marzocco GB/5 The Café Lumiere espresso

Trip Report: Verve Coffee Roasters (Santa Cruz, CA)

Posted by on 15 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

We first encountered Verve at Slow Food Nation ’08 (SFN), where they contributed beans, baristas, and other support for the event. Originally, they had planned to open this café and roastery in Berkeley. However, one of the owners moved to Santa Cruz and the rest was history.

The “joke” from some of the Verve baristas at SFN was that Verve opened so a few surfers could make a living between riding waves. However, upon visiting their café and roastery, it’s quite clear that making good coffee here was never a secondary afterthought.

Street entrance to Verve Coffee Roasters Entrance to Verve Coffee Roasters' roast house next door

Across one of the requisite surf shops in town, Verve operates a Probat-powered small roastery across an alleyway with café tables from their spacious, clean café. Jazz is a big theme: both owners are jazz lovers, organ players, and they name roasts after jazz albums. There’s a bit of classy art with wallpaper and jazz music playing throughout. Inside there are tall ceilings and tall, bright windows surrounding several casual tables.

Inside Verve Coffee Roasters Some window seating at Verve Coffee Roasters

Verve Coffee Roasters' Probat We’ve also noticed how much we’ve been spoiled by fresh roasted retail coffee. Verve will roast date the coffee you buy retail by writing it on the package. But it is not uncommon for them to sell roasts up to a week old: we bought some of their Streetlevel blend for home use, and it was roasted five days prior. Even so (a whole week? sacrilege!), they’ve set the bar for Santa Cruz.

Using a two-group La Marzocco GB/5, they pulled a shot of espresso using their Sermon blend (named after the Jimmy Smith album): a mixture of Brazilian, Sumatran, and dry-processed Ethiopian. The resulting shot had a thinner layer of dark brown crema in that reminded us of that thin-but-near-black crema popularized by the likes of Intelligentsia.

They serve a doppio ristretto by default, and the shot is still quite short in its black ACF cup. There’s some potent, syrup-like sweetness at bottom of cup, but it’s characterized mostly by a pungent intensity in a concentrated, short shot. The baristas here carefully try and retry to get it right, and it shows.

Read the review of Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz, CA.

Working the tamper behind Verve's La Marzocco GB/5 The Verve Coffee Roasters espresso

In defense of “food snobbery”

Posted by on 11 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Quality Issues, Robusta

Whether it’s coffee or Slow Food Nation (or both), today there’s a strong public undercurrent of knee-jerk, reactionary dismissiveness of anybody who dares suggest that the generic brand-X-in-a-can isn’t good enough for them.

The mistaken public belief is that most of the things we eat and drink today are somehow normal, inevitable, and “natural” outcomes — and not necessarily the result of a series of cut corners to even outright scary practices made to industrialize food production and minimize costs (while also maximizing profits).

Now minimizing costs is a good thing. But when it’s the only thing, when lowest price is the rule and all consumables are considered interchangeable commodities, typically all the production tradeoffs made to minimize those costs are swept under the carpet and consumers are kept blissfully unaware.

Elitist snobs! Food freaks!

If you operated a business where you produced a good or product that consumers thought the only difference was price, how would you run that business? You’d make the cheapest stuff available — using as low-grade supplies as you could, and performing whatever compromising processes and practices you could to keep expenses down. You’d follow Henry Ford’s rules of industrialization, add scale, find innumerable ways to cut corners. This is how you’d make your profits. The only other challenge would be ensuring that whatever came out the other end of your machinery still qualified as the product in the eyes of indiscriminate consumers.

These practices in the mid- to late-20th century ensured that we were sold unripe oranges shipped on trucks and painted orange for consumer appeal. It ensured that supermarket tomatoes were hard and flavorless. It ensured that the chicken we eat came from factory farms where the animals were raised in impossibly tight quarters, succumbed to various diseases and illnesses because of the conditions, and then had to be pumped with drugs and antibiotics to combat these illnesses and keep them alive under those conditions. All the things that would horrify our grandmothers in contrast to what they used to call “food”. But even what do they know, given the transparency and accountability of the sausage factory these days?

The analogue for coffee today is embodied by the Big Four. Coffee beans were treated as the equivalent of nuts on screws — so producers were incented to find the cheapest, lowest grade stuff available. This is how we got in the Fair Trade mess in the first place. The major international coffee producers sought robusta supplies from Vietnam and other emerging markets — bean supplies that were cruder, and yet far cheaper, than their existing suppliers. They added chemical treatments to make it taste more like their “old” coffee, and violá! No transparency. No accountability. Just give me a big can of generic “coffee”.

Food snobs unite!

Today people are coming to a greater awareness that their tomatoes don’t taste the same under these conventional rules of industrialization as they do from the backyard. And so there’s a growing consumer interest and demand for accountability and transparency in what they are actually getting for their money. A tomato isn’t necessarily like every other tomato, and the same is true for coffee in how it is grown, handled, and prepared.

It’s always been true: you often get what you pay for. But how many of us truly know what we’re getting, or what we’re contributing to, when we demand whole chicken at Safeway for 69¢ per pound?

A lot of people still want lowest common denominator products. All fine and good — that’s a matter of choice, and economics. But should someone remember what a ripe tomato really used to taste like and asks for that experience again, does that make them an elitist food snob? If so, we will proudly wear the badge of elitist food snob with honor. Food snobs everywhere are saving our food supply from becoming one giant Play-doh Fun Factory fed by tubes of high fructose corn syrup.

Interestingly enough, yesterday The Consumerist highlighted a Pittsburgh-area video from WTAE-TV. It featured someone’s grandmother, and she demonstrated some of the clandestine production practices a Big Four coffee producer followed to squeeze every last drop of profit out of their “tastes like crap” coffee. As if we’re surprised…

Same Maxwell House crap, but now in smaller quantities for bigger profits!

UPDATE: Sept. 20, 2008
Is it any wonder that the most publicized “anti-food-snob” forces out there right now are represented by McDonald’s?: Shop Talk » Blog Archive » McDonald’s brews up anti-coffee snob ad blitz | Blogs | Reuters.com. All we can say is: Viva la snobbery!

The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Coffee Presidia tasting

Posted by on 02 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Fair Trade

As one of the final events of Slow Food Nation ’08, we attended The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Coffee Presidia tasting at Coffee Bar.

It is quite a mouthful of nouns. But the key points are that Slow Food is a non-profit, its Foundation for Biodiversity is a countermeasure effort to the dwindling food product diversity in the world (e.g., today the American food supply is dependent on just 7% of the food product diversity that was once available to us in 1900 [thank you, Monsanto]), and Presidia are Slow Food groups that promote different local foods and traditions — such as coffee growing.

Social mingling at Coffee Bar Andrea Amato of Slow Food Foundation addresses the audience

Monday’s event was a an educational and publicity affair among coffee professionals, showcasing some of Slow Food’s efforts to develop, enrich, and promote the coffee markets of the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium (Guatemala) and the Sierra Cafetalera Coffee Presidium (Dominican Republic). Working with local farmers and cooperatives, the Slow Food Foundation seeks to preserve the heritage of these unique crops — and elevate their quality for consumers and the quality of life for their farming communities.

Slow Food Presidia signage at the event While not a formal coffee cupping, French press samples were prepared to standard while representatives of the various cooperatives from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala spoke about their coffees with the help of a volunteer translator. Seeing and hearing from those who work at origin is a relatively rare experience in S.F. — and stories of life on a Guatemalan or Dominican Republic coffee farm are a humbling contrast to the criticism of “elitist food snobbery” that has often been levied against Slow Food Nation. (Between that and complaints that the $65 entrance fee to the Food Pavilions for this non-profit wasn’t an all-you-can-eat Sizzler proves that stupid people are everywhere.)

But if that doesn’t scream “elitist snob” enough for you, this Huehuetenango coffee is also roasted by prisoners at Torino, Italy’s Vallette prison through a social cooperative called Pausa Cafè. Coincidentally, last year we sampled this very same Pausa Cafè-roasted Huehuetenango coffee at Caffè Carpano in Torino’s Eataly.

Sierra Cafetalera Coffee representative addresses the crowd with a volunteer translator James Freeman tastes the Sierra Cafetalera coffee alongside his Huehuetenango Highland coffee connection

Not only did some 60 coffee professionals get to enjoy conversation, coffee, and wine over a fine organic dinner prepared by chef Eskender Aseged of Radio Africa & Kitchen fame, but we were even supplied with sample greens of Huehuetenango Highland coffee. The green beans were an appropriate touch for this crowd (and fortunately I’m also a home roaster).

Blue Bottle's Huehuetenango Highland Coffee at SFN's farmers' market, Civic Center Plaza Included in a small media kit was a 25-minute DVD-video documentary of the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium, with its opening scene taking place in none other than Alba, Italy’s Caffè Calissano. The documentary was also set in Venice, Italy’s Caffè del Doge — whose Slow-Food-affiliated Huehuetenango San Pedro Necta single origin espresso we rated quite highly at their Palo Alto location two years ago.

I quickly learned that event chair Andrea Amato, who is in charge of the Latin American Presidia for the Slow Food Foundation, is also a big juventino — so we finished the evening with shots of limoncello and lamentations over Juventus’ last-minute falter in drawing 1-1 at Fiorentina on Sunday. Just the way they do it in Italy.

What happens to the camera if you've had a few samples too many And after dinner -- of course, a Coffee Bar espresso from Mr. Espresso

Slow Food Nation ’08: Who wants coffee?

Posted by on 01 Sep 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

It is Labor Day weekend in San Francisco. And the only thing keeping us from inaugurating Itching Man, our long-proposed rival event to Burning Man, was Slow Food Nation ’08.

For a little background, we mentioned this event in a post last week. Given how it had been billed, we had hopes there would be elements of Torino’s Eataly, hopes of good discussions about the many insidious and harmful trade-offs we’ve made in modern society to heavily industrialize food production over the past 50 years (think Michael Pollan), and hopes there would be a lot of drinking of, and conversation about, good coffee. It delivered at least something on all counts.

But in the end, our feelings about the event are rather mixed. While it has achieved some of its goals, it totally missed the mark on others.

View from above the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilions at Fort Mason The Slow Food Nation welcome trailer at Ft. Mason

Throng at the Taste Pavilions The real version of the Pickles & Chutney Taste Pavilion design we showed in a previous post

About Slow Food

Take Slow Food itself. This event seems to have successfully developed a much greater awareness of Slow Food here. Yet the event seems to have done little to clue in many attendees, let alone most of the general public, what Slow Food is really about. If we had not previously immersed ourselves in the land of Slow Food’s birth, we’re not sure we would have come away from this event with any of the social and cultural understanding we developed in Italy.

Slow Food Nation has admirably tried to keep the message as simple as “good, clean, and fair.” It has exposed many consumers to the notion that good, clean, and fair aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and it has also done a very effective job at not merchandising itself. However, its events have been a bit chaotic and incongruous — seemingly espousing different or unclear themes in different places. Is it a foodie thing where people just gorge on different foods? Is it some green politics thing that just adds to the cacophony of causes out there?

Slow Food farmers' market at the Civic Center Plaza Northern Californians always seem to find a way to botch up a good imported idea by hijacking it with our own local political biases and causes to make it into our own. From what we could tell at the events, some people thought Slow Food belonged to the “buy local” movement. Others thought it was just another elitist food thing in support of food snobbery and selling $25-a-pound turkeys. Even some of the people representing Slow Food U.S. were among the guilty: one of the speakers at the Civic Center Plaza yesterday told the audience that the event was more than just a Bay Area thing — implying as if the movement was invented here, oblivious of its Italian roots as a means of standing up to the clear-cutting of the American fast food and factory farming machines.

It’s in these areas that Slow Food Nation has, thus far, failed at its mission. Though to be fair, this is just a first step in the U.S. as an inaugural event.

Did someone say 'Spirits Pavilion'?! Pours at the Wine Pavilion

The Bread Pavilion at least got into the Slow Food spirit with its trademark snail Creative use of olive oil at the Olive Oil Pavilion

So why do we support Slow Food?

Cause fatigue is at epidemic levels these days. Much of the world, and even the Bay Area, seems tired of being told what to do — and that whatever you have been doing is most assuredly wrong. So it’s no surprise that people respond with cynicism and defensiveness to things like Slow Food. Greenwashing is also rampant. I often joke to my wife that some day soon I expect to see a glossy, feel-good oil company magazine ad placement — informing me of how, in an effort to help combat the effects of global warming, ExxonMobil is using recycled petroleum products to provide drowning polar bears with water wings.

And the aforementioned food elitism argument against things like Slow Food is very real. At the Slow Food Nation farmers’ market in the Civic Center Plaza, we found organic strawberries going for $8 a pint (!). Meanwhile, at the regular Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, just across Larkin St. in the U.N. Plaza yesterday, we found certified organic strawberries at three pints for $7. How can a lay consumer not feel they are being gouged by elitists?

...and yet organic foods are considered weird and factory food the normAnd yet, when it comes to Slow Food, the $8-a-pint organic strawberry argument is completely missing the point. Last May when I was in India, I read media stories on the Web about the rising costs of food and the developing U.S. recession. American mothers were lamenting that they could no longer afford to shop for organic and whole foods for their families. I read this while I was waist-deep in some of the most heartbreaking poverty on the planet. And yet, looking around, I noticed that virtually everyone in India eats organic food almost exclusively. Unless we’re prepared to call the destitute of the Indian subcontinent “elitist snobs,” what’s wrong with this picture?

Wil Edwards of CurdCulture.com fame discusses the merits of cheese The Ice Cream Pavilion wasn't exactly unpopular either

There’s plenty of statistical debate about the causes of obesity and the reduction of life expectancy in the U.S. But we support the principles of Slow Food because, first of all, the food is often better than the alternative (and our factory farming lifestyle is the alternative — not the other way around). And because we are making ourselves sick as a society through reduced biodiversity, fish collapses, corn-dominated diets and other monocultures, a Farm Bill that rewards corporate farms for not producing anything, and unsustainable factory farming.

Slow Food dares suggest that knowing who produces what you eat, and how it is made, can lead to a better standard of living for both producer and consumer. It’s a system that, at least in Italy, creates potential levels for both quality and accountability that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.

The Taste Pavilions decorated with coffee trees Signage along the Coffee Pavilion Ritual Roasters' Eileen Hassi is not giving haunted house tours, despite appearances

So what does any of this have to do with coffee?

A lot, actually.

We don’t believe we qualify as some of the city’s stereotypical green lemmings who support a prefab checklist of causes. For example, we’ve made no secret of the fact that we’ve never supported the Fair Trade system. But Direct Trade, on the other hand, is another story. In the Slow Food Nation message of “good, clean, and fair,” “good” comes first: it has to be about making a better product. Similarly, “good” is a key value and differentiator of Direct Trade, and it’s certainly a big reason why Intelligentsia buyer Geoff Watts dropped their Fair Trade affiliation two years ago in favor of their own Direct Trade route.

On Saturday we visited the Coffee Taste Pavilion at Slow Food Nation. The pavilion was split with attendees forming lines in two distinct areas: one for sampling a variety of espresso shots from a row of La Marzocco GB/5s, and the other for performing taste comparisons of brewed filter coffee. Behind these was a service area with Clover brewers and a lot of classic brown Nuova Point cups getting a wash for the next round.

The La Marzocco GB/5 row: the espresso tasting bar at the Coffee Pavilion The espresso bars at the Coffee Taste Pavilion

Andrew Barnett behind Barista Magazine cover girl, M'lissa Muckerman My wife models a shot of Colombian Finca el Guayabo from Huila

Unlike the structure of, say, a barista competition, this was more an informal line-up of people who wanted to sample and learn about different coffees — with baristas and coffee professionals all too happy to enjoy and discuss it with them. Almost nothing was written down — to encourage conversation and to not give credit to any one coffee estate, roaster, café, or whatnot. Roughly the same approach was followed at all the other taste pavilions. While it avoided partiality and encouraged conversation, this was one area that differed dramatically from our Slow Food Italy experience — where restaurants will take a certain pride by meticulously listing all their purveyors for butter, flour, salt, etc., on the menus.

As a result of this approach, our notes were sketchy at best. But a few things stood out, including the very sweet Ritual Roasters‘ espresso of single origin Finca el Guayabo, Huila of Colombia. (My wife noted how neither sugar was required — nor, to be sheepish for her to notice, was it available.) Then there was the interesting, well-rounded, wet-processed (and vacuum-sealed 18 months prior!) single origin Yirgacheffe Konga Cooperative espresso from Ecco Caffè that curator Andrew Barnett walked us through.

Another highlight was a comparative tasting of filter brewed coffee with Edwin Martinez (mentioned in an SF Chronicle story yesterday). After sampling some Panamanian and Ethiopian coffees (details long since forgotten), I had noted how many of the Indonesian coffees have fallen out of vogue lately — along with untrendiness of blends and darker roasts. Edwin noted how he once sat at a tasting of some 300 Indonesian coffees, and the rich-bodied, vegetal earthiness ultimately made them all taste like V8 Juice after a while.

Andy Newbom of Barefoot Roasters, among others, guides patrons through a coffee comparison Edwin Martinez pours coffee samples out of, would you believe?, a Superior Coffee pot

The Coffee Pavilion 'back stage' of Clovers, coffee, and dirty cups Too much coffee, or too much of everything else?

In conclusion…

So to summarize some of our experiences at Slow Food Nation, and particularly the Taste Pavilions, we bring you an analysis we used for the last Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC)…

The good

  • The Fish Pavilion — Clearly the best food and the best pavilion design at the Taste Pavilions. Hands down. Some of the most interesting food offerings and great conversational opportunities. And their use of black, sheer screens with the X-ray images of fish skeletons was art.
  • Good food, and even better coffee — But oddly enough, the consumer-oriented experience at Torino’s Eataly still blew this out of the water. While the Taste Pavilions offered some really good food items, Eataly leaves you thinking that you’ve just had some of the best-in-class food items of their kind available on the planet.
  • Slow Dough — The Taste Pavilions had their own currency, which many vendors marked off for your tastings. Given the $65 entrance fee to even get in the Taste Pavilions, this seemed a bit of a gouge at first. However, the amount of Slow Dough provided with the entry fee was more than plenty (and the Coffee Pavilion required none of it).
  • The mixing of food groups — Perhaps the best part of the entire event was seeing the co-mingling of vendors and enthusiasts for different foods. For example, the specialty coffee world is often a rather insular lot. But here, they were exposed to people in entirely different markets that hold many of the same principles and values of quality, sustainability, and fairness. Just seeing Ritual Roasters’ Eileen Hassi sampling ice cream with friends at the neighboring Ice Cream Pavilion gave you a sense of connections that wouldn’t happen elsewhere.

Some of the designs around the Fish Pavilion Screens and samples at the Fish Pavilion

The Charcuterie Pavilion - no vegetarians allowed Hand-outs in line at the Charcuterie Pavilion

The bad

  • Slow Food, Slower Service — While organizers were wise to sell out the Taste Pavilions for different blocks of time and meter out the crowds, it still resulted in a number of very long lines for different food tastings. Think the lines at Disneyland, but with a payoff being a few samples of cheese. Thankfully the organizers caught on by offering tastes to those waiting in line, otherwise some patrons might have starved to death waiting in line at a food festival.
  • Lectures were too packed — When the likes of Charlie Trotter come to talk about Slow Food cooking, a separate lecture space larger than 2,000 square feet would have been a good idea.
  • Compartmentalization — One way in which the Taste Pavilions were very much like Eataly was that you had to wait in line at several different stations if you wanted to put something close to a meal together. But more critically, the separate Taste Pavilions each seemed to have their own confusing set of protocols and rules of engagement that patrons had to learn anew each time.
  • Lack of published information — Sure, you could say a main point of the Taste Pavilions event was to inspire conversation. But even after talking up a storm about various consumables, the notable absence of any labeling, note-taking, and take-home materials left very limited opportunities for follow-up.

The ugly

  • Too much caffeine — As with the 4th Machine at the WRBC, there can be too much of a good thing. Fortunately we were able to pace ourselves out and consume a lot of other things between caffeinated doses. But it sure makes for a long night.