January 2009

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Connoisseur Coffee Company (Redwood City, CA)

Posted by on 28 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Locals on the Peninsula generally have good things to say about this place, and with good reason. This is primarily a roaster with a retail café operation hidden inside among its “warehouse” floorspace — perhaps a glimpse of what Peet’s Coffee & Tea was like just as they made the transition from a bean-and-leaf pure-play store to today’s retail beverages.

Entrance to Connoisseur Coffee Company - with wood Westerner Middlefield Rd. in Redwood City is an ocean wider than Ocean St.

It’s located along Redwood City’s Middlefield Road, amid a heavy population of Mexican restaurants and other local Latino culture nearby. And this place fits the neighborhood mold: much of the staff are Latino, they are extremely friendly, and they seem to intentionally speak a little Spanish to you as a way to welcome you into their culture. It’s all rather inviting, and what says “coffee” better than Latin America, right?

Connoisseur's G. W. Barth Menado roaster There are several rooms to this place. The main entrance presents large bins of roasted coffee beans and a sales counter for walk-ins. Off to the left of the entrance, they display a variety of cups before leading up to upstairs offices. But the biggest space is in the right/back, hidden behind a garage door. This rear area contains their humble coffee bar setup, a large G.W. Barth Menado roaster, workspace for post-roasting operations (they roast Tuesdays and Thursdays), and a collection of large burlap sacks for sale — with or without coffee in them.

The “coffee bar” is largely unattended unless someone walks in back. They offer cups of filter-brewed coffee from three different thermoses. And using a single-group, red Rancilio, they pull shots of espresso with a medium brown, even crema in a paper cup. It’s a slightly large pour, with a mild pungency and tobacco flavor. The roasting is still a bit dark for our general tastes, but you have to admire a long-standing, local operation such as this one.

Read the review of the Connoisseur Coffee Company.

Work area packaging roasted beans at Connoisseur Coffee Company Plastic crap home espresso machines at Connoisseur Coffee Company

The Connoisseur Coffee Company coffee bar The Connoisseur Coffee Company espresso

The Birth of the Caffè Latte: Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum in the news

Posted by on 26 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Local Brew

Today’s Daily Californian, an independent student newspaper for the UC Berkeley campus, published an article on Berkeley’s venerable Caffe Mediterraneum: Historic Cafe Grounds For Coffee and Conversation – The Daily Californian. Sure, the coffee isn’t so great here. But for a place that is over 50 years old and is most often credited as the birthplace of the caffè latte, they are due some props.

Caffe Mediterraneum is also located just a few blocks from the site of last year’s Western Regional Barista Competition. Coincidentally, the 2009 version concluded yesterday in Los Angeles, with each of the top three finishers hailing from Intelligentsia L.A.:

  1. Nick Griffith
  2. Devin Pedde
  3. Ryan Willbur

Congratulations to the winners. Intelligentsia sure knows what they hell they’re doing, no question. Though one might suggest these results add to the theory that barista competitions have a “home field advantage”. (Last year’s runner-up at the WRBC in Berkeley, Intelligentsia L.A.’s Kyle Glanville, went on to win the 2008 USBC.)

The Intelligentsia-LA WRBC winners, courtesy of Tonx

Trip Report: Starbucks’ Clover crafted Small Batch Coffee

Posted by on 22 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Machine, Starbucks

Introduction

Here at CoffeeRatings.com, we prefer to be experimentalists rather than theorists. This means we may have opinions, but we try to back them up with first-hand experience — even if it means consuming coffee, Fear Factor-style, that we would much rather avoid.

Last year when Starbucks announced they were purchasing The Coffee Equipment Company, makers of the Clover brewer, we scratched our heads in bewilderment:

Starbucks coffee in a Clover machine? Who buys a $30,000 sound system to listen to AM talk radio?”

This past October, Starbucks finally started offering “Clover crafted Small Batch Coffee” at a few select locations. After giving them a few months to work out the kinks, this week we finally put our expectations to the test at the 295 California St. Starbucks — one of four San Francisco Starbucks featuring the Clover.

Having previously sampled Clover-brewed coffee at the likes of Ritual Coffee Roasters and Coffee Bar, we already had an idea of what to expect. So how would Starbucks’ coffee measure up with the same process and equipment?

Starbucks with the Clover...no, wait, it's the one across the street Starbucks' Small Batch Coffee, or Clover brewed, menu

Materials and Methods

We started by selecting their Papua New Guinea (aka “PNG”) Kainantu. We were first turned on to some of the excellent PNG coffees by Terry Patano, a longtime CoffeeRatings.com reader and co-owner of DOMA Coffee Roasting Company (Cour d’Alene, ID). And at $3.45 for a “tall”, compared to the others at $2.75 (Colombia Manzanares, Ethiopia Sun-Dried Sidamo, Bali Batur Highlands — and Guatemala Casi Cielo at $2.45), we figured we’d opt for something interesting enough to avoid low-balling our test.

Starbucks’ Clover set-up includes a nice Mahlkönig grinder, an array of Bodum Yohki storage jars containing their small batch coffees, and, bizarrely, a strange fetish for paper cups. If the Mahlkönig was promising, the stacks of paper cups was unsettling. After ordering, the barista immediately produced a paper cup — until we stopped her by asking that it be “for here”. Given the target experience of the entire Clover setup, this is like having to ask for the ketchup on the side when ordering your chateaubriand.

Following that incident, our wait for our coffee was at least five minutes. Part of this delay, we could tell, was because they don’t seem to get many Clover orders. This spelled trouble for the freshness of their coffee, as a low turnover rate will deaden even the freshest roasts.

Starbucks' Clover setup, with paper cups all around(?!?) Big cup o' Clover brewed Starbucks Small Batch Coffee: size 'tall'

Results

Now whether the original roasts weren’t very fresh, or whether they were left to grow stale after a couple of weeks, or whether the quality of the coffees themselves weren’t all that great — we can’t be entirely sure. But we suspect all three faults were at work when we say that the flavor of the Clover-brewed coffee here fared no better than meeting our low expectations: AM talk radio. (Not to mention that Starbucks likely burned some of the evidence of flavor out of their coffee using their typical roasting style.)

The beans did not carry distinctive flavors that we commonly found with other Clover brewings, and the finish even lacked some of the characteristic “clean” that the Clover can produce with high quality and properly handled bean stocks. In fact, we’d go so far as to say the coffee was no more flavorful than retail coffee beans we’d brew in our French press at home. Philz Coffee, by comparison, is far more flavorful, interesting, and even cheaper.

Conclusions

In these hyper-conscious economic times, spending $3.45 for filter coffee seems even more outlandish than the $4 latte (aka “Fourbucks”) — even if Starbucks charges less for Clover-brewed coffee than other high-end cafés. But the worst part isn’t that a $3.45 filter coffee seems as quaint as businesses that once slapped their logo on company Hummers for self-promotion. The biggest offense is that consumers are asked to pay double for coffee that ultimately tastes very pedestrian. Even if Starbucks’ high-end competitors charge a dollar more for their Clover-brewed coffee, it at least tastes like you’re getting something special for all the price and pomp.

Starbucks needs to rethink how they’re using the Clover in their stores — i.e., if they intend to keep using it at all. In the end, Starbucks’ purchase of The Coffee Equipment Company may prove to be an entirely defensive move — just as they did with the acquisition of Torrefazione Italia. If you can’t beat superior competition, buy them out and hide the evidence from customers that much better coffee ever existed.

Trip Report: ZombieRunner (Palo Alto, CA)

Posted by on 21 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Foreign Brew, Roasting

You have got to be kidding us. A runner’s supply store with outstanding espresso — perhaps the best in town? You bet. And a big thanks to veteran San Jose Coffee Geek, Gary Hutchison, for publicizing this unusual discovery.

This place ran as an online-only store for several years before opening this physical location in the old Fine Arts theater in the Fall of 2008. Walk past the aisles of Lycra, and in the back by the running shoes, you’ll find a small espresso bar run by serious espresso enthusiasts.

ZombieRunner does not sell Milk Duds, however Does this look like a great espresso bar? It does at ZombieRunner.

They use beans from the small and local Moksha Coffee Roasting, who roasts beans for them around four times per week. The barista here (Don, ZombieRunner‘s co-owner) is very deliberate. We ordered the first shot of the day, and he took his time working out several shots just to make sure he got it right.

Using a two-group Rancilio HX machine, he employed what’s known as the “Weiss Distribution Technique” — which is an overly fancy term for stirring grounds with a stick, held steady inside the portafilter basket with a hollowed out yogurt cup, to ensure the evenness of an extracted espresso shot.

Don calls the shots at ZombieRunner The ZombieRunner espresso

Don pulls careful espresso shots with a highly textured, mottled medium and dark brown crema: it has the dark colors and red speckling you expect from espresso done right. The crema is also rather full and thick, and it makes a shot that’s a true emulsion between liquid and solids. It has a potent aroma, a firm-but-not-heavy body, and a robust flavor of cloves and herbal pungency with some tobacco notes. There isn’t much sweetness in the shot, but it’s done so well you don’t miss it much.

They serve it in a double-walled Bodum glass — with an aperitif glass of sparkling water on the side. Great stuff. ZombieRunner is more than just a convenient place for good espresso; this is definitely worth the trip as an espresso destination. A new vacuum pot has also arrived for other brewing options.

Read the review of ZombieRunner.

A little coffee merchandising while you sip at the coffee table 'My name is Ema Hesire, but you can call me Emmy. After close at night, I do shots with Andrew McCarthy.'

Trip Report: Plantation Coffee Roastery (San Carlos, CA)

Posted by on 18 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

Recently we’ve been spending a bit more time on the Peninsula, so we’ve been on the hunt for notable espresso shots just due south of San Francisco. We’ve followed up on a few places that locals admire and put them to the test. The results have been… well… you’ll see.

Some consider this among the best coffee spots in sleepy San Carlos. Maybe that’s not as backhanded a compliment as being elected prom queen at a leper colony, but it still doesn’t really say much. Outside there’s a large sidewalk table and several small café tables indoors. The space is dominated by the elongated serving area, with bins of their own roasted coffee and an old, dingy Probat roaster at the far end of the shop. Given the sandwiches, ice cream, and classical music radio here, this is a full café — even if they are known more as a roastery.

Owner Young Cheong proudly displays a few things on the walls: his training credentials (from Burlingame), their policy to use no roasts older than 21 days, and their commitment to filtered water. Their roasts are rather dark — even the Kenyan beans have a major gloss — and the owner roasts only about once or twice per week.

Plantation Coffee Roasters along the San Carlos strip Dirty Probat roaster at the back spends most of its time as a newspaper stand

Serving espresso from their two-group WEGA, he serves shots that are full and high, with an even, semi-thick light/medium brown crema in their classic brown ACF classic cups. The tobacco flavor leans towards some ashiness, however — as could be expected given the darkness of their roasts.

Careful when asking “for here”: they still might serve you in a paper cup…then crassly dump it in a ceramic one when you point out their mistake. Not exactly recommended, even if you’re lost in San Carlos.

Read the review of the Plantation Coffee Roastery.

Plantation Coffee Roastery's WEGA The Plantation Coffee Roastery espresso - after dumping from a paper cup (ick!)

Bad Science » Drink coffee, see dead people.

Posted by on 16 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Coffee Health

We’ve been harping on the ethically and intellectually bankrupt medical infotainment industry for years now. Publicity stunts masked as science are bad enough (see: Tuesday’s example). But bad science transformed into a publicity stunt is far more irresponsible. A textbook example came to us all this week in the form of a flawed study linking heavy caffeine consumption to hallucinations: Bad Science » Drink coffee, see dead people..

Newspapers, Web sites, and bloggers went ga-ga over the story. And when stuff like this inevitably happens, there are no two blogs we value more than the UK’s Bad Science and Neuroskeptic. In the U.S., we’ve been encouraged by a special weekly feature in Discover Magazine online, who once again didn’t get caught napping: Worst Science Article Of The Week: Too Much Coffee Will Make You Hallucinate? | Discoblog | Discover Magazine.

Rather than beat that dead horse further, we strongly encourage anyone even remotely curious about the “Drink coffee, see dead people” study to read the above-cited article. It’s a bit of an eyeful, depending on your tolerance for statistical analysis and critique. But it provides insight on the fraudulent underpinnings behind much of the study-based medical reporting we read — and willingly share as if it were fact — today.

UPDATE: March 7, 2009
We cannot believe our eyes. Finally, a news article that tells readers how to tell the difference between good and bad health studies. But it gets much better than that. They also confess that pretty much all medical research and news reporting on the health-related effects of coffee are essentially useless: Health | Get smart about science news: Sorting through health studies | Seattle Times Newspaper.

And we quote:

According to experts who study disease and risk: You can pretty much ignore almost all of these health bulletins, with a few exceptions:

Exercise, eat a balanced diet, don’t be fat, drink only in moderation and, whatever you do, don’t smoke.

There’s nothing more to see here, folks. Everyone, please go back to your homes and worry about something else worth worrying about.

The coffee house as TV pilot

Posted by on 16 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Café Society

Recently we crossed paths again with an old TV pilot from 2006 that bears rewatching (apologies to those who have already seen it): PilotLite – Grounds Zero. Called Grounds Zero after its fictitious namesake café, this 25-minute episode is among the more entertaining TV pilots you’ll find — whether or not you like coffee shops (but particularly if you do).

The pilot sports some of our favorite café stereotypes: the bad tipper (courtesy of The Daily Show‘s Wyatt Cenac), the belligerent barista (wonderfully played by MADtv‘s Mo Collins), the guy blabbing on his mobile phone in line, the café manager’s replacement of a capable semi-automatic with an evil superautomatic machine, the decaf/soy-milk hypochondriac, and various other café customer archetypes. There’s even 30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer (aka “Kenneth the Page“) playing essentially the same character.

Given that the quality of this program is far superior to many of the anemic TV series that actually do get funded (10 Items or Less, anyone?), we can only guess that the network programmers must have thought that the material didn’t have legs past a couple of episodes.

Trip Report Redux: Crissy Field Warming Hut Bookstore and Café

Posted by on 14 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

A few things have changed since our last trip report from the Crissy Field Warming Hut. Some of the changes are related to an electric car that mysteriously burst into flames here exactly two years ago; the water damage from putting out the fire shut The Hut down for repairs for most of 2007. But more to the point of this post, The Hut changed their espresso set up — and surprisingly for the better.

The Warming Hut is an old army shed converted some time ago into a café and bookstore. When you’re standing there in the billowing fog and blasting winds from the nearby Golden Gate, you immediately understand how it got its name. Inside locals and tourists alike warm up to soup, sandwiches, baked goods, juices, and espresso among a few indoor tables. For the courageous, there’s also plenty of picnic tables outdoors.

Approaching the Crissy Field Warming Hut Bookstore and Café La Marzocco GB/5 inside the Crissy Field Warming Hut Bookstore and Café

The greening of the Warming Hut

As part of the evolving Presidio, and the repairs from water damage, today The Hut clubs you over the head with its sustainability and green themes. In secular San Francisco, social and environmental causes have become our surrogate religions, and public spaces such as Crissy Field and the newly reopened California Academy of Sciences have become our temples.

It’s all a matter of personal taste, but for us, just as with The Organic Coffee Co., there’s a fine line between supporting a cause and opening what almost feels like a religious theme park. And because American marketing is about as subtle as Whitney Houston passing a kidney stone, and since it relies on frequently changing campaigns to retain top-of-mind attention, we get the feeling that some of these over-earnest “green branding” efforts will seem painfully dated within a decade.

So although The Hut previously made quite respectable espresso from a three-group Mr. Espresso Rancilio and a custom blend of Mr. Espresso beans, the sustainability wonks here must have decided that Mr. Espresso just didn’t measure up to the public image they wanted for their new temple. So they upgraded to a nicer two-group La Marzocco GB/5 machine, and they switched to a more prominent “cause” coffee in Equator Estate Coffee.

From their La Marzocco, arguably employing less skilled baristas to operate their equipment than in prior years, they serve a correctly-sized espresso in a short paper cup. It has a decent layer of light-to-medium-brown crema and a rather potent aroma. The flavor here has more depth and pungency than before — suggesting richer spices and tobacco suspended in a decent body. This place originally overextracted their shots a bit, but that (and their espresso) has since improved with shorter pours in recent years.

The Crissy Field Warming Hut Bookstore and Café espresso The Warming Hut is a last walking stop before Fort Point

The question of Equator Estate Coffees

Equator co-owner and roaster, Brooke McDonnell, posted here prior about the very subjective nature of coffee tastes and preferences. And she was entirely correct. Since we were largely underwhelmed after sampling Equator Estate coffees at dozens of restaurants and cafés, we questioned whether there was just something about Equator’s coffee that just didn’t suit our fancy (Thomas Keller be damned).

We also questioned whether Equator Estate was a victim of their resellers: coffee is often only as good as the people preparing it for retail. But after buying whole beans of Equator Estate for home use on multiple occasions, the underwhelming results pointed a finger back to Equator’s coffee and our own taste buds.

After five years and over fifty shots of espresso made with Equator Estate beans, we were finally impressed last week at The Warming Hut. This now paints a slightly different picture of our opinions: the majority of our disappointments with Equator Estate coffees likely stems from a personal preference for only some of their roasts and/or the post-roasting handling in their retail distribution chain.

Whatever the case, unlike most examples of Equator in the area, this is a major exception. Equator finally has a retailer who can showcase their coffee somewhat (regrettable paper cups aside) — something the French Laundry couldn’t even achieve. Whether if this is by freak accident or through deliberate intent remains to be seen. But for now, appreciate this oddity of a café as one of the better examples of good espresso in the city.

Read the updated review of the Crissy Field Warming Hut Bookstore and Café

Fort Point’s slow and steady Renaissance

As SF locals, we’d also like to make a shout out for all the positive changes going on at nearby Fort Point, a brief walk up Marine Drive from The Warming Hut — just beneath the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate Bridge. We’ve been visiting this site on and off for nearly two decades, but things have really accelerated in the past couple of years.

The Golden Gate Bridge from inside Fort Point Also the Golden Gate Bridge from inside Fort Point

On the negative side, the post-9/11 threat of terrorism has made the “No Trespassing” chain link fence encroach from just under the bridge to now encompassing most of the fort itself. But inside the fort, they’ve invested in building out historical exhibits, and they opened up access to the roof of the fort for some pretty amazing views. It’s always good to see investment in the preservation of SF landmarks (something we’re bound to see less of given the current economy), and surprisingly access is still free.

Underside of the Golden Gate Bridge from atop Fort Point Inside Fort Point

Second annual unscientific PR stunt rates SF #3 in coffee consumption

Posted by on 13 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

Why we entertain the unscientific musings of a discount health care company is beyond us. It’s probably because we’d rather report on it before much of the local press undoubtedly picks this bubblegum lifestyle piece up and makes it out to be something remotely substantial: Caffeine Survey Reveals Most, Least Caffeinated Cities.

A year ago we reported on their “first [sic] annual” survey, and we surprisingly get a second. Whereas San Francisco was ranked the least caffeinated city in America in 2007, we’ve apparently dropped off the Top 5 list in 2008. Curiously enough, we are now ranked #3 for the most coffee consumption after being unranked in 2007.

Of course the real question — after checking out the survey’s home page — is why Peggy Fleming got the can as their spokesperson. Apparently nobody’s job is safe in this economy.

It’s a floor wax. No, it’s a dessert topping. No, it’s a barista.

Posted by on 11 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Barista

If there ever was a news article that embodied what we’ve found unsatisfying about how barista competitions are promoted, this one from today’s News Tribune (Tacoma, WA) is up there: More than another cup of joe | TheNewsTribune.com | Tacoma, WA.

Over the weekend, Tacoma hosted the Northwest Regional Barista Competition. Barista competitions may be old hat for many of us, so we have to respect efforts to simplify things for a layman audience. As much as barista competitions bring out an industry tension between keep-it-to-ourselves insiders and those with a desire for mass public appeal, public awareness and recognition are two primary goals of these events. Therefore Barista Competition 101 introductory information is critical for the public to understand why coffee professionals do all of this in the first place.

Northwest Regional Barista Competition judges courtesy of the News Tribune Technical judges at the Northwest Regional Barista Competition, courtesy the News Tribune

Jay Lijewski, the coffee program developer for Dillanos Coffee Roasters (the main sponsor of the event), lands two barista competition quotes in the article. In the first quote, Mr. Lijewski states, “It’s almost like an Iron Chef for coffee.” But in his very next quote, two lines later in the piece, he states, “We’re trying to elevate the name barista, to make it something like a sommelier.”

Individually, each (albeit flawed) example is backed by semi-accurate elements of truth. But combined, Mr. Lijewski offers a bad case of mixed metaphors. A mistake like this may seem innocuous, but it’s not just Mr. Lijewski. Both of his quotes are akin to industry platitudes. Which underscores just how confused even the coffee industry is on how to represent the barista and the role they play to the lay public. If the industry can’t even articulate it right, how can anyone expect the public to do that?

“It’s like wine.” “It’s like Iron Chef.” Each are examples of uncreative ways which we define coffee and baristas by what they are not, rather than by what they are. Some degree of analogy may be necessary to explain the basic concepts, but we’re not going to educate anyone by simply coming up with more and more inconsistent ways to confuse them.

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