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.
Bean there, done that
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.
What’s so wrong about a restaurant coffee sommelier?
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.
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