December 2008

Monthly Archive

Year-end coffee notes: banish urns; brew more coffee, less beer

Posted by on 31 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

The year 2008 wasn’t about to end without a couple of newsworthy coffee notes. First, we have Chicago’s Intelligentsia banning coffee urns at their Broadway St. mothership: Intelligentsia on Broadway banishes urn coffee | The Stew – A taste of Chicago’s food, wine and dining scene.

Earlier this year, we reported on how they killed off the 20-ounce, venti-sized coffee beverage. Now by freshly brewing cups for every customer by default (via a Clover brewer), Intelligentsia commendably wants to push the quality envelope even further. Vacuum pot coffee is also apparently just around the corner at their locations.

In other news, beer giant Heineken announced that they are getting into the coffee business: DutchNews.nl – ‘Heineken to move into coffee sales’. Heineken cites a recent downturn in beer sales that lead them to their nascent interest in selling tea and coffee to bars and cafés, mirroring Coca-Cola’s recent business-to-business coffee moves. All of which seems rather fishy — given how much alcohol sales are notoriously recession proof, and given news from many European cafés, most notably in France, indicating their current struggles to survive.

Taiwan goes crazy for ‘salty coffee’ (?)

Posted by on 29 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Sometimes we wonder if coffee drinkers in Southeast Asia are among the most bored people on the planet. Fad-obsessed Japanese consumers may have attention spans rivaling those of fruit flies, but Southeast Asian consumers often prove just how bored out of their skulls they can be with the same old product — coffee being a prime example.

Take Indonesia’s overpriced gag novelty known as kopi luwak. Or Vietnam’s repeat brewing of the largest cup of coffee in the world with some of the world’s worst coffee. Now today’s The Age (Melbourne, Australia) reports on the Taiwanese fad of “salty coffee”: Taiwan goes crazy for ‘salty coffee’ – Breaking News – World – Breaking News.

According to the 85°C Bakery Cafe — Taiwan’s largest coffee chain — Salt Coffee has outsold basic black coffee by some 20-to-30 percent since its launch on December 11. The article attributes some of its popularity to a current trend of “using sea-salt as a health ingredient in food or as cosmetics” that is sweeping Taiwan.

Besides being called “the Starbucks of Taiwan,” the 85°C Bakery Cafe chain also has one outlet in the U.S. — located in Irvine, CA. Given how we noted that most of the residents of Taipei, or at least those shuffling about in public around the night markets, looked like bored teenagers from Orange County, Irvine is a shrewd choice. (Though unlike Orange County, Taiwan struck us as a better place to live than to visit.)

So can Westerners trust the opinions of Taiwanese consumer tastes? Taiwan may be among the rare Southeast Asian nations that get the concept of a decent dessert, but it also exhibits an odd fetish for snake blood. And noting that the article reads like a press release in some parts — e.g., “Many customers screamed with delight when they tried their first cup of Salt Coffee” — we can’t be sure whom to trust.

UPDATE: June 8, 2010
Is it still a “craze” if, after almost two years of obscurity later, people are still wondering if it’s a craze or not?: Sea Salt Latte: Is 85C The Next Coffee Craze? : NPR.

In San Francisco Bars, a Cocktail Is Not Just a Drink

Posted by on 28 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends

The Travel section of today’s New York Times featured an article on the burgeoning cocktail scene in San Francisco’s bars: Journeys – In San Francisco Bars, a Cocktail Is Not Just a Drink – NYTimes.com. What does any of this have to do with coffee? A bit more than you might think, actually.

The cocktail may no longer capture the sophistication and elegance it once had in the 1940s and 50s, but there are those today who are committed to its comeback. This renewed appreciation for quality cocktails bears a striking resemblance to the more recent public interest in quality coffee.

Of course, the word barista is derived from the Italian word for bartender. And among many high quality cafés in Europe, you’re likely to find great cocktails at the same watering holes where you find great espresso. In America, it’s extremely rare to find them together. But what we do find here is a regional artisan approach to quality drinks.

“The West Coast does liquids well,” the article quotes an SF bar owner. Which is why, as a complement to my wife’s culinary exploits, I only half-jokingly refer to myself as The Beverage Guy of the family. Once while accompanying my wife on a screen test for the PBS cooking show, Joanne Weir’s Cooking Class, Joanne asked me on camera from her Pacific Heights kitchen, “So, Greg, do you like to cook?” To which I replied, “I’m more of a beverage guy” — eliciting audible laughter from the TV crew. Though, for the record, my wife eventually made two appearances on the program — despite my obvious on-screen chemistry with the host.

And while the Bay Area has a rich coffee history, it is no stranger to the history of good cocktails either. Just take the martini, where the article notes Martinez, Calif. as “one of the drink’s putative birthplaces”. “Martinez” being a suitable origin for the drink’s name — explaining why Roberto Cauda, upon visiting us with several kilos of Caffè Mokabar from Torino, Italy, puzzlingly stated, “Why do you call it a martini when it contains absolutely no Martini?!” (i.e., with or without Rossi)

Inside SF's The Alembic, courtesy the New York Times

And yet is coffee at its nadir of sophistication?

As coffee lovers, we are encouraged by the parallel, Bay Area interest in elevating the art of the cocktail. But we close with the last words of the article: “It’s so sophisticated.”

Ah, sophistication. Unlike the cocktail renaissance, it is the one thing that, for the most part, is completely lacking from any West Coast espresso-drinking experience. The continued use of taste-altering paper cups, back-alley kiosks lacking any amenities, and the ironically conformist uniform that seems to equate the so-called Third Wave barista with looking like you woke up behind the bar — sleeping in the same clothes, in a pool of your own vomit, following an all-night bender at some of the Bay Area’s “less sophisticated” alcoholic establishments.

Perhaps James Bond isn’t going to your café to order an espresso, but there’s something to be said about the appearance of pride and self-respect in the craft and the role of a barista. And about treating the beverage with respect by serving it in an “adult” cup … and about treating customers with respect by offering them a place to sit, if not also a functional restroom. One can only hope that everything about the experience of drinking good coffee won’t be reduced to the worst common denominators. Could it get any worse?

Barista at Caffè Platti in Torino, Italy serves up a espresso from their La Cimbali

Coffee Review: Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano

Posted by on 23 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Local Brew, Roasting

If you love espresso, live in San Francisco, and don’t know who Thomas E. Cara is, well, shame on you. Although Caffè Trieste may be a historical West Coast espresso landmark, Thomas E. Cara goes back a decade further.

Espresso first enchanted Thomas Cara while he was stationed in Italy during WWII. So much so that when he returned home to SF in 1946, he opened an espresso machine business — with the first espresso machine west of the Mississippi River — and it remains operational to this day in Jackson Square. Entering the Thomas E. Cara shop (which is a little like being allowed into a private home/loft), you encounter a combination espresso machine salesroom (largely classic La Pavoni home espresso machines), repair shop, and historical espresso museum. Last week we made the latent discovery that, after 62 years in the business, Thomas E. Cara has long been dabbling in a little retail coffee using a “secret” recipe he also brought back from the war along with his La Pavoni.

Now we have no intention of infringing upon Kenneth Davids’ roasted-coffee rating gig. And we concur with Mark Prince’s assertion that espresso cannot be rated independent of the barista. (Even if we puzzlingly wonder why few bother to look beyond North America when asking if and how espresso should be rated.) But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to evaluate an expression of espresso from such an “institution” — despite the current vogue of dismissing any contribution to quality espresso that pre-dates the most recent Iraq War.

Bi-Rite Market, a.k.a. Sammy's Loose whole bean coffee selection at Bi-Rite Market, unfortunately oxidizing in open storage

Available at Sammy’s and no other fine stores…

We’ve mentioned Sam Mogannam, owner of the Mission’s Bi-Rite Market since 1998, in a previous post. Among a number of SF locals who grew up with Mr. Mogannam, Bi-Rite is simply known as “Sammy’s” (as in, “I’m going to Sammy’s to pick up some prosciutto”). We may not have grown up with Sam, but we’re close friends with many who did — so apologies for the informal habit. And from what we’ve learned, Sammy’s is the only retail outlet that carries Thomas E. Cara’s Fine Espresso Napoletano beans other than Cara & Sons’ Jackson Square shop.

One-pound bag of Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast Of course, exclusivity does not equal quality. But at a whopping $15.95 a pound — priced up there with neighboring bags of De La Paz and Ritual Coffee Roasters on Sammy’s shelves — expectations have to be elevated somewhat.

Make no mistake: this is an old school coffee. There’s no freshness date posted on the bag (a shame, really). And the roast is decidedly old school, untrendy Southern Italian: a blend, roasted well beyond Full City and even beyond the realm of French Roast charring. (Have all Third Wave zealots run screaming yet?) There’s enough surface oil on the beans to be an aid for combing your hair or putting on lipstick.

We prepped and pulled shots of it using our Gaggia Factory at home. The Gaggia Factory is essentially a mutant La Pavoni Europiccola — and thus should be very familiar target brewing equipment for the likes of Cara & Sons.

The taste test

But as inevitably happens with deep-second-crack roasts, the grinds in our Mazzer Mini came out black, gummy, and seemed to use up a greater volume of beans for an equivalent amount of ground coffee. (This often leaves us with the odd, unscientific impression that dark roasted coffees leave a lot of toxic build-up on our burrs.) But once we eased back on the grind quite a bit and made a few other adjustments, it produced a decent (though not great), dark crema. Even if the operating window of the coffee is not very forgiving, it was still producing a decent crema a week later — leaving us with the impression that the beans weren’t as stale as we had originally feared.

It has an earthy flavor that’s dominated by smoke and some wood. It’s rare these days to come across an espresso so focused on bass-notes (and hence so lacking in the bright note range). And although it’s well suited for milk, without publishing our usual espresso rating routine, it’s not a coffee we can recommend — even if you like that sort of charred, old school, Southern Italian roast. There are roasts just as richly bodied, and at least as fresh, for quite a bit less money out there. But then how often can you taste that kind of SF espresso history?

The shiny Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast Shot pulled from the Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast

UPDATE: March 11, 2011
Today’s SFGate opted to publish a piece on Thomas Cara’s espresso machine retailing operations: Family steam powers S.F’s oldest espresso retailer.

Trip Report: Bread & Cocoa

Posted by on 16 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Fair Trade, Local Brew

Opening last month on the site of a former Briazz prepared-foods (lunch, primarily) chain shop, this corner café isn’t much of a leap from its predecessor. They serve sandwiches, soups, and salads as before — but with an emphasis on cocoa and espresso.

The store seeps causes from its signage: Fair Trade coffee and cocoa, Clover organic milk, etc. Yet that’s the required price of entry for doing business in SF these days: unless your front door bleeds feel-good causes, you have not justified why you’ve chosen to offend the public by opening a for-profit business in town. Even if said causes are more platitude-driven, high-gloss window dressing than substance (energy-inefficient polluting recycling or coal-burning electric cars, anyone?).

Corner entrance to Bread & Cocoa Some parts of Briazz never left

In addition to a wall of prepared foods and a central counter with a small, two-group E91 Faema Diplomat machine, there’s seating along the corner windows and some outdoor searing along Sutter St. at café tables. Deep in its recesses are the free Internet junkies on laptops, banished to the corner with power cords dangling from the ceiling.

In making a shot from Mr. Espresso beans, the barista is slow, careful, and deliberate. The resulting cup has a mottled, textured, medium-brown crema of average thickness, but it congeals rather richly. The shots also run on the short side, served in black ACF cups. Despite all that, it is relatively lacking in flavor. There’s no real “punch” to the shot; it has a tepid, mellow flavor of mild spices. Somehow they manage to serve a shot with a proper size and a promising crema that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations.

Read the review of Bread & Cocoa.

Bread & Cocoa's front counter with the laptop exhibit in back The Bread & Cocoa espresso

New York City: Guggenheim Turns Coffee Into Art

Posted by on 12 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Today’s New York Times blogged about a new barista-as-art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum: Guggenheim Turns Coffee Into Art – City Room Blog – NYTimes.com.

Part of an art installation named Cinéma Liberté/Bar Lounge (we are told the other half is a movie), baristas behind a wooden bar serve espresso drinks from three Francis Francis machines. The concept presents the craft of, and the interaction with, the barista as art.

Not surprisingly, the coffee is supplied by Illy, which explains the espresso machines used in the exhibit. Illy has opened temporary “concept” espresso bars in New York City before — such as their Beauty Has A Taste stunt two years ago.

To qualify as art, we only hope the exhibit uses legitimate, ground-to-order fresh coffee. However, based on the pictures of the setup, “art” unfortunately seems to mean the stale, flat-tasting, pre-ground beans and environmental waste of Illy coffee pods. Talk about obscene art.

Espresso-bar-as-exhibit at New York's Guggenheim Museum, courtesy NYTimes

Folgers Coffee: When only foreign aid coffee will do

Posted by on 10 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

In the “what were they thinking?” department, here’s a recent blog post discussing a new Folgers Coffee TV advertising campaign: Folgers: the taste of bad advertising « Jenichka’s Weblog. It’s been about 2-3 months since Folgers last publicly humiliated themselves — so this could be an improvement, depending on your perspective.

The theme of this ad campaign?: “Folgers Coffee — the choice of American aid workers stuck in Romania repatriating victims of Piteşti prison experiments.” Which begs the question: just how hard up do you have to be to enjoy a cup of Folgers? You know it’s bad when Romanians have taken insult with the ad campaign.

Folgers: When only air-dropped coffee will do

Trip Report: Google (Mountain View, CA) — and announcing user ratings and reviews

Posted by on 05 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

It may have been a while, but we have reviewed employee espresso bars before. What’s unusual this time is that the espresso bar doesn’t belong to a coffee business. But when said business is slinging shots of Barefoot Coffee Roasters beans out of UNIC Twin machines, we take an interest.

The company in question is Google, and the location is the heart of their Mountain View campus — the corporate headquarters also known as the Googleplex. Walking around the campus this week, we couldn’t help but get the feeling we had been there before — just without the volleyball courts, T-Rex, and stationary swimming pools (with lifeguard). In fact, we had — but nearly a decade ago when it was the renowned campus of SGI, aka Silicon Graphics, in more halcyon days (before the once-grand company rapidly, and sadly, sunk like a modern day Titanic).

The Googleplex campus: on the site of the former SGI SpaceShipOne in Google's Building 43 entrance lobby

The Googleplex has a bit of an odd utopian feel too it — like a high-technology spa & rehab center. Or, more appropriately, a thoroughly modernized research compound of the DHARMA Initiative (a reference to the “Lost” TV show). Entering Building 43, you encounter a SpaceShipOne replica, Google’s Master Plan whiteboard, and a display fridge of Naked juice offered free for all visitors — to which my better half exclaimed when I described the scene, “Google has naked Jews?!” (Yes, you can’t put it past them.)

The former tenants created an academic feel here with creativity “play stations” placed every few dozen yards apart — so employees can take mental breaks to tinker with Lego creations, etc. Under Google, they’ve created the concept of “microkitchens” that are spaced out every 50 yards or so, and they are rather well-equipped for espresso making (and even have attendants on hand). In addition to the aforementioned Barefoot bean supply and UNIC Twins, they feature Mazzer Super Jolly grinders. It’s a rather envious setup for home espresso enthusiasts. (Also at these microkitchens are super-automatic machines for people who don’t want the bother — and the occasional Astra machine.)

Naked juice -- or naked Jews? Barefoot Coffee Roasters provided a cheat-sheet for barista training at the Google microkitchens

However, for the great pedigree of the employee espresso setup at Google, there are a few shortcomings. Not only were they immediately apparent to us as a visitor and fish-out-of-water amateur barista on the spot, but they are listed clear-as-day on an 11-point, “espresso-making 101″ cheatsheet from Barefoot that’s posted at all the microkitchens. Step 1: pre-heat your cups. And yet we had to scramble to find anything other than paper cups. Step 3: wipe the top edge of the filter basket clean after tamping. But with what? A clean, or even dirty, bar towel could not be found anywhere.

Even so, we found the coffee supplies to be quite fresh, so they must have at least a decent level of bean rotation. Based on the equipment setup, we could tell we tamp a lot harder than the typical Google employee (despite the clear 30-40 pounds of pressure in the Barefoot instructions) — so our pull ran as a rather slow trickle. But the resulting shot was very good — flavorful and robust, a primarily pungent taste, with a swirling, textured medium brown crema, and a richer body. Toss out our self-appraised barista scores for a moment, and you have to say this is one of the better shots you can get anywhere in town.

Read the review of the employee espresso setup at Google’s headquarters.

Getting ready to pull my own shot at a Google UNIC Twin Rumba in Building 43 Resulting Google shot from a Building 43 UNIC Twin

New Web site feature: user ratings and reviews

Not that today is Google Suck-Up Day, but coinciding with this review, we just launched a new (beta) feature where you — yes you — can rate and review the many cafés in the CoffeeRatings.com database. This has only taken us…what?…five years?

Entirely unrelated to our Googleplex visit, many months ago we applied to be a beta site for Google’s new Friend Connect service. Just this week we were notified that Google selected CoffeeRatings.com to participate (Google launched the feature just yesterday). One thing we learned about Google at our visit this week: physical servers are the campus currency just like cigarettes are to a state prison. The team behind the Friend Connect beta has to prove themselves before they can earn more of that currency, and the capacity to take on more and bigger users. Hence CoffeeRatings.com was small enough to make it under the wire at this stage as a beta site.

Now we never got the Yelp thing, but fortunately we pretty much don’t have to now. Although adding user ratings and reviews has always been on the radar for site features, we’ve been way too lazy and Google just made it brain-dead easy for us. Just go to any café review page and register/login/rate/review at the bottom. Currently we have review moderation turned on to work out any kinks, so you won’t see your ratings and reviews added right away. But be patient, and we’ll get yours up there as we tinker with this new technology.

UPDATE: June 3, 2009
Turning on review moderation turned out to be a wise move, as loads of spam posts were caught overnight from a single user.

Consumer Coffee Cupping: Education or Marketing Gimmick?

Posted by on 03 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting

Yesterday, the Seattle Weekly published a lengthy, thoughtful, and somewhat critical article on the exploding fad of consumer coffee cupping: Seattle’s New Way to Fetishize Coffee – Food – Seattle Weekly.

As we’ve written here before, the coffee industry has shoehorned many wine analogies onto coffee appreciation. While this shorthand provides a simplistic reference point for consumers who can’t tell their Typica from their Bourbon arabicas, it often falls flat: by setting false expectations for the coffee experience, and by failing to take advantage of coffee as anything more unique than a second-rate imitation of wine.

Coffee cupping is the perfect example of this. There are many purveyors in the industry who failingly promote coffee cupping as an identical experience to wine tasting — with all the social trappings and educational expectations of the beverage’s enjoyment that come with that.

However, in the unimaginative rush to reach for consumer-friendly marketing rhetoric, they dismiss the origins and roots of coffee cupping. It was primarily established as a rather unglamorous means for bulk coffee buyers to taste for defects and taste for a bean’s roasting potential before buying a shipping pallet of the stuff. And neither of these critical functions has anything to do with the consumer experience of appreciating coffee in a café or at the kitchen table.

Writer Jonathan Kauffman goes on to state:

The rite of cupping has been around for centuries among coffee traders. But now, following a pattern already well-established by marketers of wine, olive oil, and the like, a highly technical evaluation protocol once reserved for industry pros is being pitched to consumers.

Coffee is the new wine … With one critical difference, though. We all get to open the same bottles of wine and potentially enjoy the same taste experience. But cupping’s Achilles’ heel — what makes it more an exercise in hype than culinary education — is that it’s totally disconnected from the way every one of us actually drinks coffee.

The article also makes an obligatory mention of the self-awarded Third Wave badge of honor, to which many of these consumer coffee cupping advocates subscribe. All of which points to suspicions we’ve held all along: that the term Third Wave says more about the marketing of premium coffee than it says about the its appreciation. (Though even wine has caught this faux-revolution sickness with things like Wine 2.0 — and we’re not making that up.)

We were particularly amused by the author’s description of one of the least socially graceful practices in the coffee cupping ritual, where one “mimic(s) the harsh snort of their cupping sips, which sound like that moment when your vacuum cleaner suddenly encounters a gum wrapper.” Just try making that noise the next time you’re in a room full of lawyers with sweaters over their shoulders, espousing the brooding nose and roasted red fruit in your glass of 1999 Domaine Ponsot Griottes-Chambertin.