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 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 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 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.