We are not the only ones who have lamented the sorry state of restaurant coffee — particularly at some of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants. The San Francisco Chronicle made poor restaurant coffee a front-page headline as early as 1963.
In some ways, the elevated coffee standards that exist outside of the restaurant world are slowly creeping in. Yet the gap is still exceedingly large: of the current Top 28 on CoffeeRatings.com, only one location, Bar Bambino, is an actual restaurant.
There is a litany of reasons for why this is. Unfortunately, much of the food service/restaurant industry seems clueless about them. Case and point is a recent article published on the culinary Web site, Behind the Burner: Interview With a Coffee Roaster – Article – Behind the Burner TM.
The author, John Grossmann, interviews Alex Roberts, master roaster at Emeryville-based Roast Coffee Co.. Roast opened in early 2008 as part of the Bacchus Management Group (love the Web site, btw), a small management team behind a handful of eclectic Bay Area restaurants. Mr. Grossmann calls Roast an “unusual startup” that’s performing a “new twist in dining” by sourcing and roasting its own beans. And that’s where the naïveté starts spilling out.
For one, roasters offering restaurants custom roasts and blends has been a common practice for decades. One potentially different angle could be in custom bean sourcing, but market economics would prevent Roast from directly sourcing beans from different farms for a single restaurant — which would be the only new ground there. Bacchus Management Group promotes Roast as unique because it is “by the restaurants, for the restaurants”, but exclusively servicing the industry’s least discriminating business customers hardly seems like a virtue.
The interview then succumbs to the ever-popular wine analogy. (It’s quite ironic that they should then do that, given that we cannot think of any restaurant-operated wineries worthy of note.) Mr. Grossmann asks, “Has the day of the coffee sommelier dawned?” To which Mr. Roberts replies:
I think so. I’d love to have the first job as a coffeelier, let’s call it. This would be somebody who understands all the single origins. All the specifications of the farm it came from, all the nuances of the coffee. Is it high grown, low grown? If there’s a blend, what each coffee in the blend contributes. The coffeelier would also suggest coffee and dessert pairings.
And therein lies the rub. Any restaurant mention of a coffee sommelier invariably glosses over the fact that a successful coffee service isn’t as simple as merely pulling a cork on a bottle of roasted beans. Just a couple weeks ago, we posted an article with the common opinion that a great barista can make magic of weak bean sources, and that superior beans and roasts can go to rot in untrained hands and poorly maintained equipment. Machine maintenance and “barista” training standards at restaurants are still woefully inadequate at best.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with dreaming of the day that restaurants offer a variety of coffee options and a guide, or coffeelier, to walk patrons through them. But while Roast can tweak their fresh bean formula until the cows come home, any lofty designs for restaurant coffee appreciation will fail miserably if they’re built upon a rotten foundation of poor training, faulty equipment maintenance, and shoddy brewing practices.
An article from last year does suggest that training is an integral part of Roast’s engagement with restaurants. However, elite Bay Area roasters have long expressed immense frustration at getting training compliance out of cafés, let alone the scattered attention of restaurants. (Some have even expressed using CoffeeRatings.com for business intelligence — to identify retailers doing unmerciful things to their roasts, pointing to our site’s reviews as evidence of the need for training.) Roast Coffee Co.’s three-person operation is hardly poised to succeed where so many larger organizations have failed.
Until these fundamentals are addressed, Mr. Roberts’s dream of being a coffeelier rings about as hollow as a dentist who waxes poetic about the latest laser teeth whitening technology but cannot be bothered with the mundane task of actually cleaning and polishing your teeth. What good are white teeth if plaque and gum disease cause them to fall out? Coffee sourcing, roasting, and a lack of coffeeliers aren’t the problem. Restaurant coffee standards will not improve until the basics of training, maintenance, storage, and a commitment to quality are fixed.
Because it is patently uncool for legitimate coffee professionals to gush over gag novelties for coffee tourists — i.e., kopi luwak — the media needs an alternative outlet to feed its overly simplistic “since it’s the most expensive, it must be the best” obsession. This is what we once called the nouveau riche stereotype: knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing (credit to Oscar Wilde’s quote on cynics). Coffee from Panama’s Hacienda La Esmeralda farm fits the bill nicely, and the worldwide media parade hit the streets with the news that their Esmeralda Special fetched $117.50 a pound at auction this week.
So far, this week’s hit parade includes NBC Bay Area, who yesterday reported on an industry cupping of the Esmeralda at the Flora Grubb Gardens: Cupping Coffee With Bay Area “Titans” NBC Bay Area. “Titans”? Are NBC headlines not-so-subtly plugging the DVD sales of their long-canceled TV series?
Even more bizarre, the article cited the L.A. Times — which decided that a coffee cupping among Bay Area roasters in SF’s Bayview district was newsworthy in the Southland: ‘Cupping’ with the boutique coffee titans in San Francisco | Daily Dish | Los Angeles Times. (Nice photo in the L.A. Times, btw, stolen below.) But beyond Bay Area cuppings, Esmeralda news and cuppings have reached as far as London’s The Guardian: Is the ‘world’s best’ coffee worth it? | Life and style | guardian.co.uk.
Of course, we’re no better — having written about the Esmeralda Geisha breaking price records in 2006 and publishing our own road-testing experience with the coffee in 2007. The trouble is that while the Hacienda La Esmeralda farm produces some fantastic coffees (the farm also scored highest at a Rainforest Alliance cupping in April), they’re hardly the only player. But with the way human psychology works sometimes, you might never know that.
All it takes is scoring ahead of another coffee by a few, relatively insignificant digits to make all the difference when forced rankings are involved. CoffeeRatings.com uses such a forced-ranking system, and we can honestly say that the differences between our #1 and #5 are insignificant enough to flip-flop their order with something as subtle as the day’s humidity.
Subjective matters of personal taste aside, who can honestly discern the clear superiority of a coffee that scores 88.60 versus one that gets an 87.69? But we are invariably asked by anyone unfamiliar with our Web site, “What is your #1 coffee?”
Curiously enough, the Hacienda La Esmeralda did not win the 2009 Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year (pdf, 57kb). That went to a coffee from composite triple beatC.I. Viramax Colombia S. A., and La Esmeralda came in second. And the 2008 Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year went to a coffee from Colombia’s C.I. Racafe & CIA S.C.A., where La Esmeralda also came in second.
Of course, there’s no dishonor in perennially placing in second. Its price tags at auction and the familiar consistency of La Esmeralda contribute to its prominence in the press as the world’s ‘best’ coffee. But good luck finding this kind of hype for one of the recent Colombia winners. On the top, there’s only room for one. Adding others to the mix would only be too confusing.
This St. Helena outlet of a two-location Napa coffeehouse and roaster routinely receives “best coffeehouse” awards in the area. Given how they handle roasted beans, consumer coffee education, and filter coffee, this isn’t much of a surprise — particularly given their general lack of legitimate competition in the region. But from what we can tell, these accolades are for everything but their espresso.
Like their sister location in Napa, this spot is a large, barn-like wooden structure. It has skylights, a few patio tables in front, and plenty of seating inside. There’s also a working Probat roaster at the back, a community book trade, and a central counter devoted to retail coffee bean sales and a four-cup Melitta bar.
Also like their Napa location, they use an unusual two-group Diadema machine for espresso. With it, they pull shots with a medium brown, textured crema that barely coats the surface. It comes in a larger pour size. The resulting shot has a bit of bulk when you taste it, emphasizing body over brightness. Flavorwise, it has an earthy, slightly smoky flavor that also, unfortunately, tastes too much of ash.
The Napa Valley is certainly about wine. It might even be about coffee a little if you look hard enough. But it’s definitely not about espresso — at least yet.
Recently we have been thinking about all the great, Top-20-caliber SF coffee bars that have opened up in recent years. So much so that the news of a great new espresso bar opening in town is thankfully becoming a little monotonous. With all the great coffee now available, we thought we could all use a helpful reminder of how bad things can get.
For anyone who watches a TV program involving food these days, there’s the tiresome, obligatory money shot of the chef or host sampling a dish, smirking to the camera after a mouthful, and exclaiming “Mmmmm, that’s delicious!” It’s never, “Ick! What’s that weird texture?,” or “Do you taste something metallic?,” or “I don’t think I’ll be coming here again.” With no sense of balance, it’s nearly impossible to truly appreciate the good stuff.
So where to find SF espresso’s misery market — the coffee shop equivalent of bumwine.com? (A favorite site of ours, btw.) While inside Farm:Table earlier this week, the four-packs of Café Bustelo on display were more trash-as-treasure than, say, the outright trash we were seeking. So we walked a few blocks from there into the heart of the Tenderloin and encountered a temple of physical self-abuse we could not resist: the L.A. Café at Turk and Jones Sts.
While it’s too easy to speak ill of the Tenderloin and its many disadvantaged and addled residents, there are few blocks in the city where you can view an Airstream trailer parked on the roof of a four-story building — just past a faded outdoor wall painting advertising 7up and “transient rooms” (see photo above). And yet this is hardly one of the Tenderloin’s worst intersections.
Everything about the place screamed, “Run! Don’t walk!” But even if going into a place like this to sample the espresso requires a mental state akin to donating your body to science, we couldn’t help ourselves. Even if we risked nightmares and waking up from our fitful sleep in cold sweats thinking about the place afterward.
Where to begin? The corner entrance has no fewer than two signs designating it as an emergency exit only. There are also no fewer than two “No Trespassing” signs posted by the SF police in their store windows — to deter vagrancy. So you have to walk inside via a side entrance further down Jones St.
Once inside, it looks like any Happy Donuts/Sad Espresso chain, with its plain tables and chairs. But this is misery coffee at its finest — complete with the very same neon coffee sign you can ironically find at China Basin‘s The Creamery.
At the far end of the café was a drugged-out, hooded Dave Chappelle look-alike who, perched over a table, did not move during the 30 minutes we were inside. The rest of the clientele who came in and out sported either gold teeth or wheelchairs, if not both. The pastries are covered in plastic, and the owners sport a Vietnamese calendar advertising bail bonds. If this is called “L.A. Café”, it’s clearly modeled more after downtown Broadway than Hollywood.
Using a two-group Astoria machine with the portafilter handles left out cooling in the drip tray, they pull surprisingly short shots of “espresso” that look and taste more like water than anything else. And, no surprise, they serve one of SF’s finest examples of ghetto coffee: America’s Best Coffee. Their homeopathic espresso comes coated with a balding layer of almost white-pale crema and tastes neither bitter nor ashy — nor much like anything at all. At a steep $1.75 price, we have to figure that the owners are gouging like anyone else trying to make a living in this neighborhood.
Currently L.A. Café is ranked tied for 609th place among SF’s best espresso shots, but it’s not the worst by a longshot. Scarier is that their 2.40 coffee rating still significantly trumps their 1.50 café rating, thus tying L.A. Café with an aforementioned Happy Donuts for SF’s third worst in the café rating category.
Read the review of L.A. Café.
After our sordid and tasteless espresso experience at L.A. Café, we could only think of this following sordid and tasteless video of Vince, the hooker-beating ShamWow guy, and how he hates L.A.:
The tiny space relies on mirrored walls to add depth, and there is a little bit of a kitchen to prepare their local, organic foods. But it seems largely about the coffee here — even if people are apparently always coming in asking for bagels. There’s a single square wooden table inside with wooden bench seating on two ends.
Meanwhile, their three-group La Marzocco Linea at the front counter almost dominates the space. The place is run by two former Blue Bottle staffers in Kate and Shannon Amitin, and Verve was convinced this was the right place to start an SF presence.
For their standard espresso shot (reviewed here), they use Verve’s All-City blend — which was custom designed for the café. Shannon indicates he wanted an espresso blend without “trendy” fruitiness in its flavor profile, and the All-City delivers a potent, sharp, extremely bright shot that reminds us a little of Stumptown‘s Hairbender. They were going for an Italian-style espresso, and it is served relative short and with a very potent herbal flavor. (It is not for the meek who like their coffee mellow or with milk.)
They considered forgoing the whole “single origin thing”, but they offer a unique Sumatra ($3.50) that contrasts greatly with their espresso blend: more floral and smooth-bodied. Served in classic brown ACF cups. And to appeal to the trendy misery coffee market, they also sell cans of Café Bustelo. Kate’s SF-famous sea salt caramels are also on offer.
Read the review of Farm:Table.
Farm:Table represents a sort of milestone for us — and a good one at that. In the six years we’ve been publishing espresso reviews here at CoffeeRatings.com, we’ve witnessed a number of coffee bar openings…and closures. We see Farm:Table representing the natural turnover from a previous generation of coffee bars to a new one with much better standards.
We’ve long been noting how often new coffee bar openings crack our Top 20 rankings for the city. Many of them have been highly publicized and located in SF’s “trend-friendly” neighborhoods. But when the replacement for a hole-in-the-wall café opens up in a less-traveled coffee neighborhood, offering excellent espresso and featuring a new roaster for the city, we have to take a step back and appreciate how much local standards have improved in San Francisco.
This small, cubic space is quite literally a large horse stable. There’s a single metal sidewalk table in front, limited bench and table seating inside on the right, and a stairway leading above the service counter to a few tables above. But it’s an open air space that’s very barn-like, with exposed studs on unfinished wood walls, worn untreated wood floors.
They offer salads, sandwiches, soup, and coffee (even yerba maté) from a paper menu stuck to the wall, and the staff will sometimes call you “boss”. The clientele is an odd mix of area slackers, artists, and older blue-collar laborers.
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea and De La Paz beans, the barista makes a patient shot. It has a mottled medium and darker brown spotted crema, albeit less than 2mm. They serve it as a double-sized shot. And despite a lack of richness in its crema, body, or flavor, it comes off fresh and with a hint of sweetness that becomes more of a potent caramel sweetness at the bottom of their classic brown ACF cups. With a simple, straightforward flavor of spice and subtle herbs.
Read the review of Stable Café.
Australians are no slouches when it comes to appreciating good coffee. But last month, an opinion piece in The Australian highlighted what the author, John Lethlean, felt was a lot of misplaced fuss, pomp, and circumstance going into coffee origins these days: Just a strong one, thanks | The Australian.
A self-described “coffee-geek groupie,” Mr. Lethlean appreciates the energy and dedication behind the many nuances of “single origin”, “estate-grown”, and “cupping”. However, he refuses to play along. Why? In the end, many of these subtle shades of variation don’t make all that much difference to him — particularly when contrasted with the impact a barista can have preparing an end result espresso.
Mr. Lethlean also reaches out to the inevitable wine analogy. But even there, he points out, few wine consumers can discern subtle differences of terroir, variety, harvest condition, and method — and even fewer consumers can do the same with their coffee.
We agree with many of Mr. Lethlean’s sentiments. His article reminded us of what we recently wrote about the recent obsession with origins and “maximizing adjectives”: that it reflects a current trend intensely focused on experimentation over a more learned enjoyment. However, our society has yet to simplify a single consumable after fragmenting its market — whether soda, yogurt, or orange juice. So even as consumer interest in coffee experimentation could potentially wane, we still expect the adjective parade to live on.
This split café and to-go market is founded by Chef Charlie Ayers, famous for catering for the Grateful Dead (as evidenced by the large wall photo inside) and the initial food operations at Google. This place is his attempt to make his Google cafeteria “public.”
It has limited outdoor table and picnic bench seating. Inside is split between the café and market storefronts. The former has metal chairs and tables with set wine glasses, and the later offers a salad bar, coffee bar, and no seating whatsoever.
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea (next to a Clover), they pull shots of Barefoot‘s The Boss blend — resulting in a swirled medium brown crema on a double shot (by default). The shot is very mellow and smooth, with a crema that’s well-integrated with the body of the espresso. Flavorwise, it has a mild pungency but surprisingly lacks any distinctive or strong flavors. Still, it’s a good mellow cup — and is surprisingly served in a real Dudson cup despite the lack of seating. (Though you can park yourself by the cocktail seating in the café next door.)
Read the review of Calafia Cafe & Market A-Go-Go in Palo Alto, CA.
Earlier this week, we caught a radio broadcast of NPR’s “Fresh Air” where the program’s host, Terri Gross, was interviewing an entomologist named Douglas Emlen: The Fascinating World Of The Dung Beetle : NPR. About 34-35 minutes into the audio program, Mr. Emlen introduces an anecdote about cockroaches and coffee that even manages to gross out Ms. Gross.
The story goes like this… In the late 1980s, Mr. Emlen traveled the countryside in search of bugs with his academic advisor/professor, a renowned entomologist named George C. Eickwort. Mr. Eickwort apparently became heavily dependent upon a steady stream of coffee throughout the day, but it had to be whole bean, fresh-ground coffee. And back then, good quality coffee was much more difficult to find than today. So they often had to drive 45 minutes out of their way to satisfy Mr. Eickwort’s coffee habit.
Mr. Eickwort needed whole bean, fresh-ground coffee because he, with his many years of entomology experience, developed an allergy to the cockroaches he often used in his studies. And because pre-ground coffee is processed from huge stockpiles of coffee that typically get infested with cockroaches, it’s next to impossible to keep the roaches — and their, uh, “byproducts” — out of the coffee supply to avoid an allergic reaction to the stuff.
As if the staleness of the pre-ground coffee in pod machines wasn’t enough to turn our stomachs. Of course, to be fair, pretty much everything we consume comes with some non-zero level of contamination. Whole bean coffee comes with its own set of contaminations (the least of which includes rocks).
But it’s interesting to note that people with cockroach allergies can be a sort of canary-in-the-mine when it comes to coffee quality.
An Op-Ed piece in Monday’s Washington Post noted the curious phenomenon of local culture that is exported, reinterpreted abroad, and then imported back again. The article’s topic was the wildly received recent openings of Starbucks cafés in cities such as Warsaw and Prague — with the backdrop of their centuries-old coffeehouse culture traditions: Anne Applebaum – A Starbucks State of Mind – washingtonpost.com.
We’ve witnessed this phenomenon before with the all-American burger joint/diner. A little over a decade ago, these establishments rose in popularity as a cultural export within a number of Southeast Asian cities, such as Taipei, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Several years later, imported versions of these Asian-flavored burger joints showed up in Southern California. (You could always tell when curry powder, pickled cucumbers, and vinegar made their way into the menu.) So why would Starbucks be greeted like coffeehouse “liberators” in Eastern Europe — while many Westerners now view the brand as an overpriced, jumped-the-shark, frivolous luxury that diluted its quality in pursuit of industrialized mass production?
The article’s author notes that the stylish Eastern European cafés of the 19th century served as island respites from dreary conditions at home and an opportunity to aspire to the comforts of the upper classes. Today, after the European café of old was exported to Seattle and transformed into a culture of vapid Sting CDs and gargantuan milkshakes sloshed into to-go paper cups, Starbucks arrival in cities such as Warsaw and Prague once again represents the opportunity to aspire to the world’s upwardly mobile classes in the shadow of Communism’s collapse.
The author also makes mention of Eastern Europe’s preceding decade of Starbucks knock-offs, which reminded me of when I visited Prague in 1995. Back then, Prague was in the throes of its post-Communism reconstruction and remodeling phase. A layer of dust covered the city, and it seemed like PVC pipe was sold on every corner. (I remember remarking at the time how I could have made a killing opening a Home Depot chain there.)
I quickly became a regular at a coffee shop in the historic Staré Město district called Pražská Káva — or, quite simply, “Prague Coffee” — located at U-Zlatého-hada (or “at the golden snake” in Prague’s historic addressing system, and today on a street named Karlova, just across the Charles Bridge). They boasted “Seattle style lattes.” While Starbucks was still largely an unknown there in 1995, the Western appeal for “Seattle style” coffee beverages was clear to anyone who collected money from American tourists. Having been in Seattle just a few months prior, I was actually quite surprised how well Pražská Káva’s lattes measured up to their Seattle counterparts — and how you could get a good espresso in town for only about 20-25 Kč (about $1 U.S. at today’s exchange rates).
Oddly, that was probably the first café I ever gravitated towards just for the quality of their espresso. Although I found the espresso quality around Prague to be generally quite decent at the time, I also suffered my worst coffee experience ever in Prague — a styrofoam cup of traditional Czech “coffee” purchased at the Vyšehrad castle, which I can only describe as grainy sawdust suspended in hot water.
Sadly, Pražská Káva was replaced years ago by a hotel and restaurant. We suspect that today’s infiltration of Starbucks there will do more to lower the imported “Seattle style” standards that Pražská Káva once held.