March 2009

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: The Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge (Santa Cruz, CA)

Posted by on 31 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew

In the nearly two decades that we’ve been visiting Santa Cruz, they’ve arguably lacked a vibrant café that excels at both coffee and as a student hang out. Recent café openings in town, such as Verve Coffee Roasters, have helped tremendously — but at Verve the focus is squarely on the coffee. (Not necessarily a bad thing.)

With the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge, Santa Cruz has a solid contender at both — though a bit unexpectedly in the form of a non-profit operated by the Vintage Faith Church. Open since mid-2008, their slogan is “made with love.” And given the quality that goes into the coffee and the commitment of the staff, it’s hard to argue with that.

Approaching the entrance to the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge Inside the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge

We liked how the Abbey offered samples of Verve for sniffing Even the coffee menu keeps the religious theme of the Abbey

The staff here, volunteers, are incredibly friendly and coffee enthusiasts to boot. Inside it’s a packed scene of collegiate youth, with occasional jazz performances at night. The space is vast and somewhat dark, with an odd, edgy feel of someone’s old antique store: mismatched sofas, tables, chairs, church benches, hanging window panes, pianos, candles, light fixtures, and found art.

Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli at the front bar, they serve Verve‘s Sermon blend (how appropriate) with a dark brown swirl of modest crema in traditional brown ACF cups. (Date-stamped Verve coffee is also available for retail sale.)

The resulting shot is a little light on body, but it carries a lot of flavor in an appropriately sized shot: some dark caramel notes over a pungent flavor of cloves and herbs with a sharp brightness at the bottom of the cup. Sermon blend never knocks you over, but it has a nice balance of spice with just a hint of sweetness. Served with a small cookie on the side.

Their cappuccino is typically “traditional”: lighter on the milk and volume (so you can taste the espresso) with thick and creamy milk just barely frothed in as a thinner layer. Maybe not the best Verve shot you’ve ever had, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place to enjoy one.

Some of the 'art' in the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge The Abbey's Nuova Simonelli at the front counter

The Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge espresso The Abbey's espresso, cappuccino, and a pack of Verve to go

As for negatives, while our espresso drinks were solid, rumors among the locals have it that consistency can be a problem. Quality control could be an extra challenge with their volunteer staff.

And when we purchased some of the Sermon blend here for home use (from beans they packaged for us out of the supply they were using at the coffee bar), we audibly encountered the first bit of rocky debris in our Mazzer Mini in the seven years that we’ve owned it. There are few more alarming sounds than a pebble coming into contact with your burrs; small pebbles make big, bad noises. We wouldn’t think much of it, but after seven years of home roasted and retail roasted coffee in our Mazzer, it’s very unusual that a “defect” like that came through in their coffee supply.

Read the review of The Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge.

More of the interior inside the Abbey A little pebble in your beans is like floating space junk

Trip Report: Pirate Cat Radio Cafe & Studio

Posted by on 27 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew

This is the kind of place that makes you proud to live in San Francisco. We knew we were in for a treat when we walked in, saw the black-and-red paint all over the space, saw the radio studio with its skull-and-crossbones banner that looks out over the café, and heard the DJ airing Motörhead and the Dead Kennedys (DKSF, as we like to call them, in contrast to DKNY). Now this is a true SF neighborhood café.

Although the associated café has only been in operation since last year, the actual Pirate Cat Radio radio station has been in operation for several years — broadcasting locally in SF at 87.9 FM, but also in L.A. and Berlin. (The FCC battles are a story in itself.)

Pirate Cat Radio - broadcasting live in a neighborhood near you Entering the Pirate Cat Radio Cafe & Studio

Pirate Cat Radio Cafe offers neighborhood wisdom and a Bourdain TV segmentWe first stumbled across the café just a couple weeks ago — when dropping off a friend to pick up his car at one of the area’s many low-profile auto repair shops. But word can travel quickly. Last week NY-based Nicolas O’Connell of La Colombe mentioned stumbling on the place, saying how much he loved the vibe and that its coffee service was quite decent — even if it was a little in spite of itself (we concur). And rumors have it that celebrated traveling TV chef, Anthony Bourdain, stopped in last week to sample their famed bacon maple latte — likely as a segment for a planned TV episode of “No Reservations”: San Francisco?

And you can see why it warrants some of this attention. We may lament some of the tiresome hipster clichés at many SF coffee houses, but these guys seem about as genuine and authentic as they come. Operated by a station manager named Monkey (that’s now his legal name), this is a fiercely independent media novelty that runs on $30/month membership for those who want to operate their own radio shows. (Members also get a $0.50 discount on their espresso shots — and can get a beer in the back.) But it’s community-supported radio, so anybody can become a member.

In the past year, Monkey (as he told it to us) has really gotten into coffee. So much so that it inspired him to recently tour Portland and visit every Stumptown in town. Monkey has brought many of these lessons and obsessions back into Pirate Cat’s coffee operations. Their standards are a little bit all over the place (bacon maple lattes?), but yet it somehow still works for the most part. They have a modified two-group Rancilio (with two boilers and an eyebrow-raising mercury switch) and use Mission-based De La Paz Coffee.

Pirate Cat Radio Cafe: movie screen, hanging gas cans with bullet holes, Melitta bar, they've got it all The Pirate Cat Radio Cafe coffee menu - bacon maple lattes included

There are a few café tables out front and several tables inside. Inside it’s black and red with artistic oddities, such as the string of gas cans along the ceiling — painted fingernail-polish red and strewn with bullet holes. At the back of the small space they even have a screen for projecting movies. One wall inside is effectively the radio booth, where café patrons can view the on-air DJ through the glass.

When we first visited, the barista on duty was brand-new and just learning the ropes with real customers. Tony, a Native American who says he represents one of the 10,000 Mayans living in the Mission, just started his own radio show playing “Red Blues” (as it’s known). He self-consciously followed all the steps — except for pouring my “for here” shot in a paper cup. Bad, bad form — but you have to give the new guy a break.

Other baristas here are obviously more experienced (we just had to revisit that same day). Even so, they tend to pull large volume shots with a medium brown, even crema. Despite its volume, it has surprisingly decent body and is quite flavorful: an interesting, mellow herbal mix of spices. (Served in red ACF cups and no saucer when they get “for here” right.)

Clearly one of SF’s most unique cafés this side of Trouble Coffee. Support your local radio … and café.

Read the review of the Pirate Cat Radio Cafe & Studio.

The Pirate Cat Radio studio from inside the café Pirate Cat Radio espresso after being mangled as a to-go shot

Trip Report: Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant (Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 24 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

Last month — after publishing a few trip reports of nearby Cole Coffee, the Spasso Coffeehouse, and Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea — Luigi DiRuocco of Mr. Espresso asked if we tried the espresso at Oliveto.

We last updated our review of Oliveto a couple years prior, so the focus of our most recent Rockridge tour was to explore some cafés we hadn’t evaluated before. However, Luigi pointed out that, last year, the downstairs Oliveto Cafe was entirely remodeled and that Mr. Espresso installed a beautiful, original Faema E61. We last saw one of these machines in operation at Cafe Noir in Monterey, CA four years ago — which has since been swapped out now that it is now known as Café Lumiere. (Curiously enough, the E61 at Cafe Noir was also installed by Mr. Espresso, so it could be the same machine.)

Luigi also mentioned that they did a new round of trainings for the Oliveto staff — a continual need that plagues any coffee roaster that sells to independent retail locations. And, simultaneously, Christian of Man Seeking Coffee fame contacted us with the idea of another joint review. Thus, Christian and I decided to check them out again this past weekend.

Entrance to Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant Oliveto's Faema E61 with high-contrast window reflections

This restaurant has existed on this Rockridge corner since 1987, albeit in different forms. The latest generation is a higher end Italian restaurant upstairs with a popular trattoria/café downstairs. Downstairs there’s some rather limited outdoor seating, a number of wooden tables and chairs (which replaced the shared, long tables in their previous interior design), and meals that rely heavily on the simple organics. Upstairs it is white tablecloths and a more extensive menu — with the same espresso shots running about $0.50 more.

Using their older, two-group, Mr. Espresso-supplied Faema, they produced adequate results. While its replacement with an even older, more classic, three-group E61 Faema constitutes serious espresso machine eye candy, we were hoping some of the recent training would come through in the shots it produced.

Oliveto's Faema E-61 machine The Oliveto Cafe espresso

They still pull shots with a thinner layer of dark brown crema. It’s more substantial than the shots they pulled with their previous machine (which often had a thin ring of light or medium-to-light brown crema). However, there still seems to be plenty of room for improvement. The body of the shot is thinner — it’s a touch watery even — with a flavor more of pungent herbs than the previous mild spice and wood flavors here. The finish is subtly sharper, but it’s still not nearly as bright as you would expect of a well-made espresso.

Some readers here can make the (logical) conclusion that we’re huge fans of Mr. Espresso, given our ratings of places such as Coffee Bar. More accurately, given the inconsistency of preparation that so plagues roasters, we are much bigger fans of Luigi’s barista skills with Mr. Espresso beans than anything else. While it was a decent cup, we found Oliveto’s improvement over their previous shots to be marginal. (Rumor has it, however, that daytime shifts during weekdays may produce better results.)

Served in traditional brown, thick-walled Nuova Point cups with a modest pour size. Oliveto is also one of those few places that offer to top off your empty espresso cup with filter coffee at brunch, which we don’t particularly mind.

Read the updated review of Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant.

New York Times thinks robusta detractors set the espresso blend standards for everybody

Posted by on 23 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Robusta

Just when we write about the stifling conformity among roasters and coffee professionals of this modern era, today’s New York Times blog reports on the use of robusta beans in espresso blends: Robusta Economy – Times Topics Blog – NYTimes.com.

Although there’s nothing in the post we haven’t heard before, it’s the tone of the post that we find a little sad and almost incredulous. To read the author, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, you’d think measured use of robusta beans in espresso blends were akin to the medicinal practice of bloodletting — and that those who continued to use a little robusta in their espresso blends were akin to underground disciples of Falun Gong in modern China.

We may not seek out robusta beans any more than necessary. (Ain’t that the truth.) But the apparent belief that there is a singular, conformist voice about what definitively does and does not make good coffee today smacks of a “taste totalitarianism” — not to mention a historical and factual revisionism.

Disparaging the Third Wave, Part 3: The Cult of Baristas and Coffee Geeks

Posted by on 21 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Quality Issues

For the last installment of our three-part series on How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, we wrap up by examining two major social fads that have come to identify the Third Wave:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks

We’ll also touch on why, if quality coffee is to progress, we must get beyond through these and the qualitative fads of the times. For good coffee to continue proliferate in convenience, access, and quality, these qualities require a healthy, growing consumer market to support them. So the question is: are these fads helping or hurting those aims?

The Cult of the Barista

Hold back the Zzzz's in Japanese - a televised barista competitionOne of the hallmarks of these coffee times (call them Third Wave if you like) is that the barista has been promoted as the focal point and pinnacle of all things quality coffee. It’s as if we now expect our barista to be picking beans at origin. This despite the fact that many coffee preparations have no need for a barista.

If we promote the barista as not only the public face of coffee but its only face, we end up with representation by many of the least experienced, most novice members in the industry. Meanwhile, many in the industry still believe that barista competitions — themselves a decidedly Third Wave construct — are just as worthy as many cooking programs when it comes to TV-ready entertainment such as “Iron Chef” or “Top Chef.”

We put the 'X' in 'extreme' like the 'X' in 'expresso'It only takes 20 minutes of sitting through an online video feed from the USBC to convince the layman consumer otherwise. Not only that, instead of promoting executive chefs at the height of their profession, barista competitions are more akin to Top Chef de Partie (or “Top Line Cook”): highly skilled and trained individuals at specific, technical tasks, but much less so the conductors of a great, comprehensive coffee offering.

Another reason that our barista competitions are more like drills for line cooks concerns the intense technical precision and narrow focus of these competitions. Specialty drinks add an element of creativity, but they are completely irrelevant to what a retail customer can purchase in a café. Then at the other extreme you have latte art competitions where the results are little more than eye candy: no more the hallmark of a technically gifted barista than a plating contest would be for a competitive chef.

What is a great barista?

Is that to suggest that the barista should be humbled more as a mere entry-level, high turnover position for the coffee industry? Anything but. Great baristas can make or break a café and often for reasons other than the amount of grinds left in their doser — i.e., abilities and skills that just don’t rank on the current barista competition scoresheets.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with New York-based Nicolas O’Connell, an owner and Managing Partner at La Colombe Torrefaction who earned his rank starting as a barista in one of their cafés. While talking about favorite coffee places in New York City, Nicolas was quick to cite Jamie McCormick of Abraço as NYC’s best barista. (Jamie is an alum of SF’s Blue Bottle Coffee.)

Jamie McCormick behind the machine back in his Hayes Valley Blue Bottle daysNicolas waxed poetic about Jamie’s ability to connect with people in line, to engage with his customers by name and learn/know what they want — avoiding the you’re-a-waste-of-my-time attitude common among the staff at many NYC competitors. Nicolas even went so far as to say, “People love Abraço and think its a great place just because of the coffee. But the real reason they are great is Jamie, and most of the customers don’t realize that.”

You won’t find Jamie in a barista competition. Nor will you find many of the skills he excels at valued in the structure of a competition. And yet he is as critical as anyone in New York City at introducing people to better coffee standards.

Coffee Geek, R.I.P.

We save perhaps one of more controversial points for last: the coffee geek ethos needs to go. (Apologies to Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek.com.) We not only mean it for the amateur enthusiasts, but also among the professionals.

You can argue that coffee geeks have existed throughout previous waves, from home espresso enthusiasts to their übergeek home roaster brethren. As for the professional trade, yours truly still sports a goatee he grew as a joke while taking a summer grad school class at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1995 — the old joke being that all Seattle residents must be flannel-wearing, Nirvana-moshing Starbucks employees. But the explosion of these social archetypes came after the 1990s, and in part they have come to define the Third Wave.

Redefining 'wine snob'So why is losing the coffee geek ethos critical? Because we believe it will improve access to better coffee for everyone. The longer that high quality coffee remains the exclusive domain of coffee geeks, hipsters, and “uniformed” coffee professionals, the longer that mainstream accessibility and acceptance will be an uphill battle. We joke about coffee’s tiresome wine analogy, but the wine industry successfully figured out how to bring mainstream wine out of the Gallo era in part by circumventing the image of the elitist, self-absorbed wine snob.

Some believe the Third Wave can build a supporting market for better coffee through an intense public education campaign. But too often, we’ve made it harder for consumers to relax and just enjoy a simple cup of coffee — without feeling the pressure to make a lot more decisions nor feeling burdened by educational materials and processes. And instead of tearing down walls to get more people asking for better coffee, we’ve instead built up a few walls.

If they’re not with you, they’re against you

While it’s hard for readers here to fathom the idea of Starbucks being elitist, nearly every online post that mentions Starbucks attracts a heavy level of venomous contempt for the company and its patrons. (Google it — we dare you.) This contempt seems to originate from staunch defenders of the mainstream and the “prudent” — people who take great offense that their cheaper, mainstream tastes are no longer “good enough.” Now just imagine the shock-and-awe bursting of aneurysms if these same people encountered an army of coffee geeks that look down their noses at Starbucks and its patrons?

You've lived the lifestyle, now own the T-shirtWe don’t envision a Tocqueville-like an end to stratification. And there may always be people so insecure as to feel threatened by another person’s beverage choice — as if it were a personal judgment of their self-worth — where only professional therapists stand to have any hope of changing them. But there are also many coffee geeks, amateurs and professionals alike, who would prefer to keep quality coffee as “this thing of ours.” If for no other reason than irrational fear that the mainstream popularization of quality coffee would devalue their own identities and/or constitute a commercial sell-out.

Every advancement “Third Wave” coffee has brought to bear — from the varieties of single-origin beans to roast-dated coffee to public cuppings to barista competitions — would not have been possible if not for the development of an economic market to support them. But more mainstream coffee consumers — the ones who will help build sustainable economic markets for even better coffee — will not get over their apprehension of delving deeper into coffee as long as its image is that of the self-celebrated coffee geek or judgmental coffee snob. Even the very word “geek” defies social acceptance.

If quality coffee remains trapped in its insulated niche, standards across the board will be stuck. And even we coffee geeks will eventually be stifled by Third Wave coffee’s conformity of non-conformity.

Links to other parts of the series:

Disparaging the Third Wave, Part 2: Single-Origins, Medium Roasts, and Cuppings

Posted by on 20 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting

For the second of our three-part installment on How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, we examine some of coffee’s biggest qualitative fads going today:

  • Single-origin coffees
  • Medium roasts
  • The heavy-handed use of cuppings

We’ll examine a little of why we must get past these fads for accessible quality coffee to continue to evolve — with more details in our last post of this series.

Death by Single-Origin

Quality coffee is currently mired in industry fads that, in due time, will seem as quaint as the non-functional garnish (NFG) — once a staple of restaurant plating in the 80s and 90s, symbolized by the sprig of curly parsley, that has since gone extinct.

Those curls of lemon rind served on an espresso saucer? NFG. Need we say more?

But let’s invoke another restaurant parallel: the molten chocolate cake. A once-ubiquitous staple on early 1990s dessert menus, today you can’t even find any kind of cake in most restaurants. The single-origin espresso made from medium-roast beans could ultimately suffer a similar fate. But what makes us think that?

People such as Nick Cho and Trish Skeie may have originally conceived a Third Wave to be about the appreciation of coffee for its own sake. (Curiously enough, we wrote this part before Nick’s comment on part one.) Yet one of the greatest overriding characteristics of coffee appreciation today is an intense focus on experimentation over a more learned enjoyment. This experimentation is often expressed through a dizzying array of coffee varietals, a deliberate campaign to proliferate public cupping, and more diverse brewing methods and equipment.

Two unfortunate side effects of this include:

  1. a presumption that the coffee consumer is in a constant state of ignorance
  2. the inadvertent devaluation of coffee consumption that lacks educational goals

Oozing with friendly terms of the times: single origin varietal, organic, medium roast These drivers helped fuel the explosion of single-origin coffees available commercially, but it has also done so at the expense of many quality blends — the very thing with which espresso excels. Because blends are rather opaque to most palate-developing exercises employed by “Third Wave” experimentation, they have fallen out of favor. And in the process, the current wave has at least limited these experiences in the world of coffee enjoyment.

Which brings us to a Third Wave paradox: in the name of providing coffee consumers with more options, it has also limited some choices. Dark roasts being another example.

Medium Röaster Cult

Common with generational waves and the naïvité of youth is a rejection of many things and practices of the past. It’s revolutionary/counter-revolutionary logic — also known as rebelling against your parents. Some motivations are forward-looking; others look backwards — simply going the opposite route to be different for different’s sake. The Third Wave glorification of medium roasts, and its fear of the second crack, falls into this category.

It’s not hard to see why. Not long ago, a lot of quality sourced and processed coffee beans were roasted into third-degree burn victims. But the reaction to this has been to introduce a new kind of narrow conformity so that even beans that excel at darker roast levels — such as Indonesian coffees with great body characteristics — sometimes never see the other side of Full City. By doing this, we’ve simply replaced one thoughtless, conformist monotony for another.

We were acutely reminded of this in our recent trip report at Rodger’s Coffee & Tea: experiencing a single origin bean freshly roasted into the second crack (not charcoal) seemed as alien as a genetically reanimated mastodon.

'More cowbell!'? More like 'More roasting profiles!' Rodger's Coffee's Brazil Poco Fundo: a second crack dinosaur that doesn't turn to ash

Public Cuppings, and Worshiping at the Cupping Altar

Among the tools and techniques behind the Third Wave’s emphasis on experimentation, coffee cuppings top the list. Cuppings have been around for decades, but under the Third Wave they’ve proliferated like childhood peanut allergies. Among professionals, cuppings have been exalted as the high watermark of coffee education. Worse, these same techniques are being heavily marketed to consumers as well.

As a result, many in the industry have overtly relied upon cupping as the ultimate test of a coffee — even if the experience of cupped coffee is once or twice removed from what the end customer actually purchases and consumes.

Who wouldn't prefer to have their morning coffee like this? Recently, in response to some less-than-glowing opinions of their roasting operations, a notable Bay Area roaster invited us to cup their roasts. Of course, CoffeeRatings.com is not CuppingRatings.com. We deliberately focus on what coffee consumers experience. So while it was a generous and thoughtful offer, the roaster suggested it almost as an automatic retort. As a reactionary response, it reflected the insular thinking of a trained coffee industry insider — someone who very briefly mistook cupping for the final say on consumer experience.

In reality, cupping is merely a surrogate to what consumers experience out of a French press, a filter process, or portafilter handle. One characteristic we’ve noted among many Third Wave professionals is that they sometimes lose sight of their goal to produce good coffee, not just good cuppings.

Is it a prayer service, or a coffee cupping? It's both!

Tune in next time…

For the last post in our series, we’ll cover the impact of some of the Third Wave’s major social fads and how these, too, are holding back quality coffee’s evolution. We promise it’s going to be controversial, but then we like that. The two major topics?:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks


Links to other parts of the series:

How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, Part 1

Posted by on 19 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

We’ve all been told that coffee’s self-fabricated Third Wave has brought many improvements and options to our enjoyment of coffee. Whether you subscribe to this wave theory or not, quality coffee has experienced an unmistakable renaissance over the past decade or two.

Chicago's Logan Square got literal with itOf course, the same could be said for olives, olive oil, vinegar, cheese, pork, cured meats, beer, scotch, tea, chocolate, and even salt — even if these examples are all technically “waveless” (we prefer wave-free). And although we’ve been encouraged by the state of quality coffee in recent years, we’ve also been thinking about how limiting and confining this so-called Third Wave has been by engendering its own copy-cat behaviors.

Many of these confinements may not seem obvious today, because we’re still momentarily dazzled by the novelty. But if you subscribe to a wave theory of coffee, just what will future waves have to say about where we are today? This post is the first installment in a series of three on this subject.

Why Waves?

Before we explain the shortcomings of the current wave, first a moment to explain why we find this whole wave business dubious to begin with. The moment you declare yourself in some sort of wave is the moment you’ve dated yourself. This has been true whether you’re a drummer for Blondie, a director of French cinema, or a writer of science fiction.

I'm thinking it's Decaf Noir time...Having grown (groan?) tired of the contrived generational analogies in music, cinema, and the Web, we’ve always felt that a term like Third Wave represented a sort of self-ordained self-importance combined with an aching desire to always live in interesting times — even if it means building an unwavering belief, a benign form of mass hysteria, that your own times are more interesting than they actually are.

History is littered with political and sociological examples of this. It’s no coincidence that many of these examples, including coffee’s Third Wave, originated among younger people convinced they had discovered something the world had never experienced before — mistaking naïvité and newbie-ism for enlightenment and wisdom. (In speaking with impressionable college students who wax poetic upon just discovering Ayn Rand and Objectivism, I’ve personally lost count of how many eye rolls I’ve had to restrain over the years.)

Many coffee veterans shake their heads, thinking, “If only they knew how often these industry changes come and go.” Many of coffee’s Young Turks shake their heads, thinking, “Forget that old guy — he’s not very Third Wave.”

We refute the idea of waves simply because coffee quality has been an evolutionary, and not revolutionary, process. Claims of “revolution” largely come from those newest to the business who have the least amount of context, and coffee has too many centuries of history to suddenly favor a more myopic viewpoint.

A Necessary Twilight for Third Wave Coffee Fads

Make mine a shot of Brasil Chapadão de Ferro-Microlot 494But waves or no waves, quality coffee is currently mired in industry fads that, in due time, will seem at least as antiquated and primitive as some of the coffee drinking fads we can look back upon today — things like percolators, instant coffee, “charcoal” roasts, flavored coffees, etc.

In our next installment, we’ll examine some of Third Wave coffee’s biggest qualitative fads — and why we must get past these fads for accessible quality coffee to continue to evolve:

  • Single-origin coffees
  • Medium roasts
  • The heavy-handed use of cuppings

And for the last post in our series, we’ll controversially cover the impact of some of its major social fads and how these, too, are holding back quality coffee’s evolution:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks


Links to other parts of the series:

Trip Report: Rodger’s Coffee & Tea

Posted by on 16 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

At CoffeeRatings.com, we believe that what the end consumer experiences is what matters most, regardless of who is behind the results. But often the story about coffee becomes more of a story about people. Rodger’s Coffee & Tea is a good example of this — where knowing a little of the back story helps provide a reference point describing some of what goes on in the cup.

Coffee Magic and the Birth of Philz Coffee

The story of Rodger’s Coffee & Tea centers around its owner and founder, Rodger Bories. Mr. Bories started a wholesale coffee business in the Bay Area going back to 1982, which later evolved to become Coffee Magic. In that time, Mr. Bories recognized how coffee freshness is a big determinant for whether brewed coffee tastes any good — or not.

While Mr. Bories remained a background figure, in 2002 he partnered with Phil Jaber of Gateway Liquor at 24th & Folsom Sts. And here is where the versions of events can start to vary, depending on whom you ask. According to Mr. Bories, he was invited in to fix some rather awful coffee operations at Gateway Liquor. The fruits of their partnership inspired a successful coffee quality turnaround at Gateway Liquor, which in turn inspired Phil Jaber to strike out on his own to launch Philz Coffee.

Mr. Jaber, being the ultimate showman that he is, took the path of becoming the P.T. Barnum of SF’s specialty coffee world. Meanwhile, Mr. Bories focused on the back-office details of producing quality roasts, ensuring freshness, and using the right equipment. However, as is now blatantly clear, that partnership ultimately ran a bit sour. Mr. Bories has since opened his first retail café at this location in January of this year, bringing with him the “One Cup At A Time” filter coffee concept he helped develop for Philz Coffee.

Mission District urban gentrification entrance to Rodger's Coffee & Tea One Cup At A Time brewing at Rodger's Coffee & Tea - just like Philz Coffee

A mix of the old and new coffee schools

There’s a lot to believe in Mr. Bories’ telling of events. His café exhibits a much greater knowledge and care of bean origins, roasting styles, preparation methods, and techniques than you will find at a Philz Coffee. It also explains why we’ve long felt Mr. Jaber loved the celebrity but couldn’t be bothered with the mundane back-office details of the coffee business.

However, Mr. Bories, with 27 years in the business, is hardly a “Third Waver” — and that turns out to be a good thing. While his roasts show an attention to quality bean sources and freshness (despite the open bins of stored beans in the shop), he’s also not afraid of roasting into the second-crack for darker roasts. Neither is he afraid of blends (just without some of Philz Coffee’s fairytale names for them).

This results in beans that have a combination of freshness and roasting style that are difficult to come by in the Bay Area. We purchased a pound of their limited edition Brazil Poco Fundo for home espresso use ($13/lb). And while it is a single origin coffee, it produced some attributes in body and flavor roundness that you can’t easily find in the coffees of so-called Third Wave roasters. Most importantly, the quality of the espresso it produced, while not necessarily superior, compared well with the same roasters.

Variety of Coffee Magic beans for retail sale, open and oxidizing Only a portion of Rodger's Coffee & Tea's laminated coffee menu

As for the café…

The café is located in the ground floor corner of what looks like some Mission district condo gentrification. They have limited sidewalk seating out front on benches and plastic chairs. Inside there’s a bench and some limited window counter stool seating, but the main attraction is standing up at the coffee bar for service “Italian style”.

Standing at the bar, you can identify dozens of coffee varietals in plastic bins: some blends, but many with geographic designations. You can choose any kind you like for espresso — more than you would practically want, actually. This despite the main attraction of individually-made filter drip coffee. Their hot chocolate preparation is also quite a bit of Benihana-style visual entertainment. The staff is friendly and generally sarcastic, and we like that. Coffee industry rags cover the inside counters.

For our espresso shot, we chose the limited edition Brazil Poco Fundo, in place of the usual Brazil Fazenda. They are careful to grind to order and are conscientious about their beverage preparation. Using a two-group Synesso machine (another example that would never dawn on Philz Coffee), they unfortunately pull overly full espresso shots in a cup without a saucer.

Rodger's Coffee & Tea and their two-group Synesso The Rodger's Coffee & Tea espresso: going deep

Our primary complaint here is the large pour volume, as our home results with the same beans and shorter pulls proved much better. Still, the shot has a healthy layer of a medium- and light-brown crema, with a body that is somewhat thinner given the size of the pour. It has a simple herbal flavor with some spice and smoke, but you can tell it’s fresh.

Decent beans hindered by faulty pull sizes result in a cup that’s not all that much better than average. They should be capable of something better here — closer to what we produced at home. Perhaps given their young stage, improvements are coming. Cash only.

Read the review of Rodger’s Coffee & Tea.

SF Chronicle explores a little Bay Area coffee roasting history

Posted by on 12 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

Must be a light news day for the SF Chronicle to pull out an evergreen story like this today: Exploring our love of the bean from the grounds up. But while the Chronical [sic] has published up to 70% of the material in previous articles, the article provides a worthy (albeit brief) examination of SF’s coffee history — a history that we often reference and yet few locals may know about.

For example, there’s the Gold Rush origins of Folgers and Hills Bros. There’s Caffé Trieste and the birth of the SF cappuccino in the 1950s. There’s Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s Berkeley origins from 1966 and their influence on a budding Seattle retail coffee company known as Starbucks. And of course there are obligatory nods to the city’s nouvelle vague roasters — plus a couple of redeemable restaurant coffee options.

Though perhaps our favorite reference is a 1963 SF Chronicle headline sensationally highlighting the sad state of SF restaurant coffee. (But perhaps not sensational enough to make Hearst proud.) Within six years we were able to put men on the moon, and yet 46 years later most restaurant coffee in this city is still rather terrifying.

Some 46 years later and still a public disgrace

Costa Coffee’s taster has tongue insured for £10 million … and the 2009 USBC winner

Posted by on 09 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Oh, sure, it’s a rather frivolous promotional piece. Today’s Telegraph (UK) gives us a glimpse into how quality coffee is marketed in the UK versus here: Costa Coffee’s taster has tongue insured for £10 million – Telegraph. Whereas American coffee pros seem to go ga-ga at the altar of Q grader certification, the UK opts for a little more of the populist Hollywood glam route: i.e, my-tongue-as-Michael-Flatley‘s-legs.

“Coffee taster Gennaro Pelliccia, who samples products for Costa Coffee, has had his tongue insured for £10 million with Lloyd’s of London,” opens the article. Now does that include fire and theft? Costa Coffee runs a globally ambitious, sizeable coffee chain — not unlike the UK’s answer to Starbucks. (Last year we posted a trip report on a Costa Coffee outlet in the heart of New Delhi, India.)

The article goes on to list a variety of past “body part insurance policies.” However, it oddly missed making any mention of Angela Mount, whose taste buds were also insured for £10 million earlier this decade — though as a wine taster. In 2007, we reported on her foray into coffee tasting for enviro/ethical touchy-feely roaster, Percol.

Thus Costa Coffee seems to have missed that their press release wasn’t entirely original. Still, the investment could have been worse: they could have insured his taste buds through A.I.G.

At Costa Coffee, a slip of the tongue could cost $14 million

2009 USBC: Can you feel the Intelligentsia love?

As we mentioned Friday, over the weekend we occasionally peeked at the 2009 U.S. Barista Championship on the live Ustream.tv feed. Which, unfortunately, makes for viewing that is about as dynamic as watching 50 successive mini-episodes of “Iron Chef” — a TV show to which many USBC advocates compare the event — with the added twists that the featured ingredient in every episode is coffee and that the event organizers suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But what a weekend for Intelligentsia. As if sweeping the top three prizes at the 2009 WRBC wasn’t enough, four of the top five finishers at the USBC hailed from Intelligentsia. Talk about a juggernaut.

Congratulations to Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Chicago who won the overall competition. He has our condolences as well — for being crowned the U.S. champion the same unfortunate year that the winner earned an all-expenses-paid trip to compete at the World Barista Championship in exotic … Atlanta, GA (or, as we like to call it, Mylanta).

Top three USBC finishers, courtesy Barista Magazine

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