April 2009

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Gilt Edge Creamery (aka “The Creamery”)

Posted by on 30 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Local Brew

Ritual logo, liquor license, and neon coffee sign at The Creamery Most locals mistakenly presume this is a new (opening in 2009) corner café simply called “The Creamery” — based on its building signage and its product offerings. However, it is a retail operation of the Gilt Edge Creamery, a family-owned SF institution for milk, butter, eggs, and cheese since 1908. (The family that owns it, along with its address, has changed.)

Despite the dairy operations in back, virtually no one comes in front here to order a #32 tub of sour cream: it’s about breakfast, crêpes, salads, and in particular: coffee. Even if there’s a hokey neon coffee sign over the entrance door. They also offer baked goods from Sweet Sue’s in Brisbane.

Outside in front, they have a decorative patio with wooden tables and wicker chairs when the weather, and the less-than-optimal ambiance of being kitty-corner from the CalTrain station, complies. Inside, it is darker than a goth mortuary, with a handful of tables lined around the perimiter.

Approaching The Creamery across a parking lot Lighted view of The Creamery's interior

Using dual two-group La Marzocco GB/5 machines, and Ritual Roaster‘s Vitamin D blend, they pull espresso shots with a mottled, medium brown crema. They serve them as doubles by default, and they have a smooth texture and a blended taste profile accentuated by a sharp pungency. It has a viscous body without being too syrupy (a complaint some in the biz tend to have about Ritual’s own operations, though we like that sort of thing).

It’s a nice interpretation of Ritual beans, served in red ceramic World Market China cups. At last visit, they were also applying for a beer & wine license.

Read the review of the Gilt Edge Creamery.

Dueling La Marzocco GB/5s at The Creamery The Creamery espresso

Trip Report: Gaylord Caffe Espresso (Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 27 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Locals have raved about this indie coffee and espresso shop for decades. The owner roasts his own, and it’s been in operation since 1976. However, there is no mistaking that the espresso standards here leave a lot to be desired. We may be accused of being traditionalists from time-to-time. But this is an example where we’re that isn’t too likely.

For outdoor seating, there’s a single bench along the front sidewalk. But inside, there’s everything from a decommissioned organ and two Mrs. PacMan machines. The clientele here also skew to an odd lot: a combination of studious laptop users, high schoolers who avoid the Starbucks across 41st St., and more than a few neighborhood psychotics (one required us to avert our eyes to avoid stumbling into her boisterous conversations with herself). They offer food and fountain drinks, but it’s mainly about the coffee here.

The Gaylord Caffe Espresso storefront Inside Gaylord Caffe Espresso

Using a three-group La Spaziale, they pull their shots into odd metal cups with a minimal wisp of medium brown, splotchy crema that’s otherwise little more than massive bald spots on the surface. The cup lacks aroma and potency, but it has a generally not-unpleasant earthy flavor with some notes of pungency and spices. Served in chipped Crate & Barrel China-made porcelain cups. If this place is noteworthy, it’s certainly not for their namesake espresso.

Read the review of Gaylord Caffe Espresso in Oakland.

Gaylord Caffe Espresso's La Spaziale The Gaylord Caffe Espresso espresso

Independent cafés: D.C.’s coffee culture problem

Posted by on 24 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Yesterday, Washington DC’s local blog, We Love DC, posted an article on what they consider one of D.C.’s greatest coffee culture challenges: the survival of good independent cafés. To help remedy the problem, the post includes a few promotional suggestions for the area: We Love DC » Blog Archive » We Love Drinks: Coffee Culture.

The post’s author, Jenn Larson, is on a mission we can relate to — given that we started what eventually became CoffeeRatings.com in 2002 to raise awareness of better espresso standards and the good, independent places where you can consume it. Earlier this month, Ms. Larson also lamented the death-by-drowning-in-milk of the American cappuccino — a subject long dear to our taste buds: We Love DC » Blog Archive » “This is NOT a cappuccino”.

We’ve written previously about D.C.’s challenges with good coffee. The transitional status of Murky Coffee hasn’t helped either. Twenty years ago, I was living in the D.C. area myself. The coffee was terrible; the Starbucks invasion was still years away. But right after the first recognizable cappuccino I had — in Berkeley, CA — I immediately moved there. Coincidence?

Hawaiian Islands erupt with new coffee regions

Posted by on 24 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Beans

Today’s SF Chronicle features an article on some of the lesser-known coffee growing regions of Hawaii: Hawaiian Islands erupt with new coffee regions. For each of the islands of Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui, and Hawaii (the Big Island), they offer info on the coffee growing history of the island, what’s brewed from there today, and additional tourist perks near the growing regions.

Just when we were pointing out the annoying media obsession with all things shiny and new earlier this week, here comes this article’s headline. But while coffee growing has a history on the islands dating back to a commercial farm in Koloa, Kauai back in 1836, many of the designated growing regions in the article have only been operating plantations since the late 1980s.

Trip Report: L2O Restaurant (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 23 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

L2O Restaurant is located inside the Belden-Stratford Hotel Esquire magazine named this place 2008 Restaurant of the Year (among new restaurants). The same Nov. 2008 issue also crowned Dominique Crenn, executive chef at SF’s excellent-but-underappreciated Luce, as 2008’s Chef of the Year.

While L2O is a pretty fabulous restaurant, calling it the year’s best is debatable. However, there’s no question this is a serious dining establishment. More to the point, unlike many of its high-end restaurant peers, their seriousness extends all the way to their coffee service.

Located in the Belden-Stratford Hotel across the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chef Laurent Gras resurfaced here in May 2008 after previously making waves in SF. In 2001, he served as Executive Chef at SF’s Fifth Floor and was named Chef of the Year in San Francisco magazine for 2002.

L2O is located across the parkway from the Lincoln Park Conservatory It's a fluke!: sashimi platter complete with excessive use of gelée topped with soy sauce and two odd marshmallows

The restaurant models itself as a sort of inventive, high-end, Japanese-influenced (and very expensive) seafood restaurant, but that’s limiting the menu a bit. They boast that they don’t use distributors for their seafood — FedEx’ing it in from fishermen directly, so that what they serve has only been out of the sea for two days. They’re also proud of their two tatami rooms, where they sand down wooden tables before you eat off of them.

As a test, we saw their Japanese seafood snobbery and tried to raise them with some of our own West Coast J-snobbery, asking if they offered any unpasteurized sake. No dice. (Hooray for San Francisco snobbery.) They are inventive, however, and borrow heavily from the science lab techniques of the cuisine-formerly-known-as-molecular-gastronomy: liquid nitrogen, freeze-drying equipment, vacuum pumps, etc.

To their discredit, they tend to go crazy pairing some form of a gelée with nearly every course, and they also exhibit an occasional odd use of what we can only call marshmallow nouveau. It’s no COI, but it’s impressively good.

And of course, there are white tablecloths and multiple servers — the latter who are fun rather than stuffy.

Inside the L2O kitchen Detailed plating inside the L2O kitchen

It wouldn't be dinner at L2O without the liquid nitrogen L2O's blogger-photo-friendly cabinet contains their natural flavor palette

We would have been remiss by not talking about their food, so back to the subject of coffee. Restaurant coffee has long been an afterthought at many of even the finest American restaurants, but that’s not true here. This is the only restaurant we’ve seen with a Clover machine. They offer Intelligentsia for both Clover and espresso use, using Black Cat Espresso (also available as decaf) from a two-group La Marzocco in the back service area.

With the Marzocco, they produce a thinner, textured layer of medium-to-dark brown crema. The body is a bit thinner as well — related to the larger pour size. It has a mostly pungent flavor with no smokiness and is served in Hering-Berlin porcelain cups.

They make a serious attempt at a restaurant coffee program here. Yet it still leaves significant room for improvement.

Read the review of L2O Restaurant in Chicago.

L2O's coffee menu features Intelligentsia coffee for espresso and even Clover coffee The L2O restaurant espresso

The New Portland Coffee Micro Roasters

Posted by on 22 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Roasting

MIX Magazine of Portland, OR recently published an article on some of the new micro-roasters in town: The New Portland Coffee Micro Roasters | MIX Magazine. Yes, it seems that it is now Portland’s turn for the often-recycled “new area roasters” story idea.

The article notes five new and notable roasters and lists a brief bio for each: what inspired them, how they learned to roast, and why they think Portland has attracted such coffee enthusiasts. They also enlist Connie Blumhardt and Shanna Germain, the publisher and editor (respectively) of Roast magazine, to cup coffees from each roaster.

While the article perpetuates that annoying media obsession with all things shiny and new, it’s hard to kick print media when it’s down. But we will anyway…

Trip Report: Chill

Posted by on 21 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

This modern glass storefront, built in 2008 on the site of the former, 70-year-old Brooks Camera, offers a modern, culturally diverse dessert café. The long internal space is characterized by a long bench on one side with simple-but-modern tables and modern, colorful acrylic chairs.

They offer frozen yogurt, crêpes, Vietnamese sandwiches, and a coffee bar featuring Four Barrel Coffee. Four Barrel’s new elephant-logo branding is printed out on photocopies throughout the store and out front on the sidewalk sign. But as progressive as this location tries to be, its espresso is a bit regressive.

The staff here originally lead us to believe that they used Four Barrel Coffee for both their filter coffee and their espresso (this is not as uncommon as it sounds). But thankfully someone in the comments below, and offline, helped identify and correct some of the misrepresentation: they use Peter James Coffee for espresso.

Approaching The Chill Cafe Interior seating in Chill

Chill has a two-group La Spaziale, but they favor a single-group, superautomatic Schaerer Ambiente machine to produce shots of espresso with a thin, pale crema with extremely large and erratic bubbles. It looks a mess. Fortunately it tastes a little better than it looks, but not by much: a mellow flavor of spices with enough body to the large shots to prevent it from being mistaken for filter coffee. As for filter coffee, the posted signs indicated they were serving Four Barrel’s Idido Misty Valley yirgacheffe (Ethiopia).

Read the review of Chill.

Chill's service area with Schaerer and La Spaziale behind the counter The Chill espresso - it gives us shivers just thinking about it

Sidewalk signage outdoors for Chill promotes Four Barrel Coffee Four Barrel Coffee write-up inside Chill

Trip Report Redux: Piccino Cafe

Posted by on 14 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

It has been two years since we first reviewed Piccino Cafe in a previous Trip Report. Opening in Dogpatch in late 2006, just off the new Muni T line, they originally provided espresso bar service at their 801 22nd Street pizzeria. A year later they moved their coffee bar operations to kiosk at the end of 22nd Street (closer to 3rd St.), to be closer to the commuters. But most recently (late 2008), they converted a tiny space at 807 22nd Street and devoted it to all their coffee bar operations.

If you thought the original space in the pizzeria was small, the latest one is minuscule: there’s barely enough room for a couple of benches (there are no tables save for one devoted to coffee “condiments”) and a barista behind the espresso bar.

Entrance to the new, dedicated coffee space for Piccino at 807 22nd St. Inside the new Piccino cubby hole coffee bar

They use the original two-group La Marzocco GB/5 they’ve carried over since the pizzeria days. Their espresso shots are doubles by default, and they pull them with deliberate timing to produce a thinner medium brown crema. The crema on Piccino’s original shots was more of a deeper medium brown with darker brown flecks and a foamy consistency, but it can vary a little.

Using Blue Bottle‘s special Piccino blend (which they sell retail), the shot is short and compact with a potent herbal pungency and a good brightness. Surprisingly, the body is not as dense considering the small volume of the shot — it used to be more syrup-like with a natural sweetness at the bottom that now seems to be lacking. Still, no one element overwhelms, leaving the cup rather balanced in flavors. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.

Read the updated review of Piccino Cafe.

The Piccino espresso

Trip Report: Cafe Capriccio

Posted by on 09 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Quality Issues

A couple weeks back we visited this café with Tim of espressophile fame. Approaching its North Beach location, you wouldn’t think it would be much different from the others nearby — but you’d be wrong. The espresso here is a real standout in the neighborhood, coinciding with the ownership change in late 2008 to Alex and Jessie.

North Beach may be credited as a sort of ground zero for the historical introduction of espresso in America (or at least west of the Mississippi). But unfortunately the espresso standards in North Beach seemed to have evolved little beyond those pioneer days: a heavy dependence on beans roasted too darkly for any brightness or balance, little regard for roast freshness, and a slack and often haphazard approach to barista skills. It’s little surprise that, in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of better espresso standards in neighborhoods such as the Mission — culturally rich ethnic neighborhoods of growing economic means, much like the North Beach of its time.

While neighborhood staples such as Caffé Trieste and Caffè Greco have stagnated, Cafe Capriccio marks a neighborhood return to the practice of making great espresso.

Cafe Capriccio and its red-and-white striped, icicle light façade Inside Cafe Capriccio

This corner café has red-and-white-striped awnings (complete with icicle lights), sidewalk tables, and many mirrors inside a small space with a few dark tables. The clientele here are generally quiet and studious. Using an organic Ecco Caffè espresso blend and a new three-group Nuova Simonelli, they pull pretty shots with mottled dark brown crema with reddish flecks.

Ordering a few shots here, the consistency wasn’t perfect (the crema on some was lighter) — but it looks serious and has a good consistency, thickness, and persistence. A shot close to our hearts, it has a thick, almost syrupy body: potent, dense. Flavorwise, it is well-balanced (a true espresso blend), smooth, shows pungent strength, and finishes with a sweeter edge. A very pleasant surprise, and one of the finest espresso examples in town. North Beach is relevant again.

Read the review of Cafe Capriccio.

Cafe Capriccio's Nuova Simonelli, with owners Alex and Jessie The Cafe Capriccio espresso

The Gibraltar: Fool’s Cappuccino

Posted by on 06 Apr 2009 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

We had originally posted this as an addendum to our recent review of the new, more permanent installment of the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. in the Ferry Building Marketplace. However, the strange phenomenon of the Gibraltar deserves its very own post. Originating here in San Francisco, the Gibraltar has since spread to Los Angeles (Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea), New York (Café Grumpy), and now London (Climpson & Sons). The purpose of this post is to demystify, debunk, and, well, defrock the Gibraltar before the misconceptions behind this invasive species are allowed to propagate any further.

The Gibraltar glass tumblerSo what is the Gibraltar? Technically speaking, it’s the registered name for a line of glassware tumblers from Ohio-based Libbey Inc..

So what does any of this have to do with coffee? Prior to opening Blue Bottle Coffee Co.‘s first SF café in Hayes Valley in January 2005, owner James Freeman experimented and tuned variables for his café by making cappuccinos in 4.5-oz versions of these cheap restaurant supply glasses. He offered these practice runs to his staff and to employees of the Dark Garden corset shop down the street.

Word of mouth spread, and these test beverages needed a name. Steve Ford, then a barista and roasting colleague of James at Blue Bottle (and now head roaster at Ritual Coffee Roasters), apparently found inspiration from the packaging for these glasses. Thus the Gibraltar was born out of a combination of happenstance and an inside joke. Except now the joke has gone global.

Sarsaparilla — in a dirty glass

We chalk up the rise of the Gibraltar as one of coffee’s more pointless creations — an artifact of America’s milk-engorged bastardization of the standard cappuccino.

Why? Because the 4.5-oz Gibraltar glass is redundant with the regulation 4.75-oz ceramic cappuccino cup. (James obviously knew this when he started his experiments.) Both are sufficient for containing the 150-ml Italian regulation cappuccino. Except that the ceramic cup is explicitly designed with thermal and aesthetic properties for consuming a cappuccino.

The problem is that few people in America have experienced a true, regulation cappuccino. As illustrated in the photos below — comparing a medium cappuccino from Peet’s Coffee & Tea with a 4.75-oz regulation Intelligentsia-branded cappuccino cup — Americans drown their cappuccino in so much milk that the typical cappuccino technically qualifies as a caffè latte (latte being Italian for “milk”).

The Peet's Coffee & Tea medium cappuccino: 'Where's the espresso?!' For size comparison, an Intelligentsia cappuccino cup with a double shot of espresso

When preciousness is valued more than quality

So when a local food & fashion magazine such as 7×7 says that the Gibraltar is a “MUST ORDER” at Blue Bottle Cafe, and that it ranks #28 on the “100 Things to Try Before You Die”, this is basically shorthand for, “We’ve never had a properly made regulation cappuccino in our lives, so we’re willing to worship it in a cheap restaurant supply glass.”

It’s things like this that make it easy to be cynical about consumer behavior, particularly among self-described foodies. We would dismiss this misplaced (and misinformed) obsession with the Gibraltar as just a lone opinion in 7×7 magazine, but we personally know too many knowledgeable people working professionally in the quality food business who also contribute to the Gibraltar’s cult-like status.

The Gibraltar: for when you're out of good cappuccino cupsWhere’s the harm in that, you say? We’ve long lamented that genius chefs are often coffee fools, but many of these food writers and bloggers serve the role of influencers and arbiters of taste. Trouble arises when they spend more energy trying to be precious than focusing on quality.

The trap of this preciousness is the illusion of exclusivity. This makes the Gibraltar a cousin of what we’ve previously called the Malaysian street food experience: cafés that serve espresso out of the alleyways of heroin deals, stripping themselves of all customer amenities, to fabricate an image of exclusivity. The Gibraltar grew out of behind-the-scenes experimentation carried out in a Hayes Valley alleyway, and to this day the Gibraltar has never been featured on a Blue Bottle coffee menu — even though Blue Bottle’s espresso machines sport stacks of Gibraltar glasses in anticipation of the inevitable orders. (Mr. Freeman doesn’t receive enough credit for his clever marketing savvy, even if the cult of the Gibraltar was far from his intentions.)

So instead of encouraging people to enjoy a proper espresso drink served in a proper cup, this desire for the illusion of exclusivity ends up proliferating ignorance (about the existence of the regulation cappuccino) and trumping a better sensory experience (drinking out of cappuccino cups instead of cheap restaurant supply glasses). The next thing you know, the Gibraltar — and not the regulation cappuccino — is being held up as a standard in London cafés.

In an article from London posted last month on this subject, Steve Ford put it this way:

I’ve never really talked about the Gibraltar for publication, partly because I think it was very much of a time and place – that being the Bay Area circa 2005. The fact that I’m talking about it now is mostly because I’ve given up on the original idea. There WAS something special about it back then. Now, it’s just another drink on the menu to me, and like so many cappuccinos, generally prepared poorly or just wrong. Every year people ask about it, so I can track how far the idea has gone, but the fact that it’s all the way in the UK and I have no idea how it got there is disappointing. And not to be too melodramatic, but I feel like the soul of the drink has been lost. It used to be something unique, and now it’s just another piece of fucking latte art.

There you have it: the Gibraltar as the Fool’s Cappuccino. James Freeman, always looking at the bright side, still offers Gibraltars in his cafés “off the menu” because he sees demand for it as a way of weaning people off paper cups and overly milky caffè lattes. But for some of us, the Gibraltar represents a faddish Band-Aid for how badly America screwed up the cappuccino.

UPDATE: Oct. 1, 2010
And in case you thought it was just us: 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies is Done With Lattes & Flat Whites.

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