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.