It’s tough to be a newspaper man these days. Having run out of tiresome video game and comic book themes, they’re now making Hollywood movies out of bloggers. It seems that anyone with a Twitter account can also get a book deal — ironically celebrating the very media format it supposedly deems irrelevant. So we avoid the knee-jerk reactions when a newspaper staple like SF Chronicle restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, publishes a brief write-up on the local coffee scene: Michael Bauer: Between Meals : Let’s have another cup of coffee.
Trust us: a guy like Mr. Bauer has his haters. The guy even has recent exposés of his identity — Superman-style — despite the fact that his face has been on “WANTED” posters in SF restaurant kitchens for years, offering a bounty for any restaurant employee who identifies his arrival.
What we appreciate about Mr. Bauer is that he makes no pretense about being a coffee expert. That you’ve developed a professional palate for food doesn’t convey credentials as a coffee expert, purely by association, just because both activities involve your mouth. This is a far cry from the megalomania of some Bay Area celebrity chefs who think their coffee reigns supreme — when, in fact, it loses taste tests comparing them with an airport Starbucks. A bellwether of intelligence is a self-awareness of limitations.
In the article, Mr. Bauer notes that, “Blue Bottle has become a name with loads of cachet, and coffee made in a French press is practically becoming as ubiquitous as tap water.” We couldn’t help but notice this very phenomenon this evening, as we watched Noe Valley‘s Contigo produce French presses of the stuff like a factory assembly line for coffee-craving customers. Before even asking who supplied their beans, we (correctly) suspected it was branded Blue Bottle just by the heavy rotation at their coffee grinder. (Oddly enough, we found the resulting press pot to be a bit underwhelming — in flavor, freshness, etc. — for the pedigree.)
And to prove his own ignorance of the topic, the last half of Mr. Bauer’s article on “artisan coffee” (his term, not ours) concerns McDonald’s and Starbucks — which have about as much to do with artisan coffee as a Big Mac has to do with Kobe beef. The difference here being that we can forgive the guy — he clearly knows not of what he speaks. But at least he’s not pretending to be something he’s not.
Over the years, we’ve dropped notes about New York City’s coffee culture: from its origins as a desolate wasteland through its more recent redemption. Like the awkward and homely tomboy who first gussies herself up for the debutant ball, in the past year New York City has been running a major publicity campaign to promote their coffee “arrival”. (“We matter! Really!”) One of the latest examples is Edible Manhattan’s recent article, “Coffee Groundswell”, penned by Liz Clayton: Bean Scene | May-June 2009.
The article is a pretty good recap of the story we all already know: New York prides itself as the center of everything cultural; for decades the provincial corners of the country sipped fine espresso while New Yorkers were forced to chug swill; and after the turn of the millennium things started to turn around. We can overlook Ms. Clayton’s telling use of the word “coffeerati” and a little too much focus on the gadgetry of the Clover brewer as a proxy for good coffee. But we couldn’t overlook the main focus of the piece, which is clearly reflected in its subtitle: “Gotham joe finally catches up”.
Why? Because it hasn’t caught up. For the most part, New York is still the wagging tail of coffee dogs from the more provincial parts of America: Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Durham, etc.
We can sympathize with the regional shame that must exist when a post-Communist reconstruction Prague served quality “Seattle style” coffee from independent cafés years before New York City seemed to even consider it. But the anxious desire to wash away that shame could conceivably create a skewed state of self-perception. Ms. Clayton’s piece very much rings a “we have arrived!” bell to the rest of the country, putting us all on notice that we have no reason to snicker and sneer over that backwoods on the Hudson.
But to have truly arrived, you need to have a coffee culture of your own — and quality coffee solidly remains an import, not an export, market in New York. So instead of New York’s true arrival on the coffee scene, what we have more is a city that’s akin to a sunken ship being exhumed from its watery grave through the mutual aid of foreign prospectors.
The New York coffee “Gold Rush” is dominated by an invasion of professionals from the aforementioned provincial cities and towns, looking to fill NY’s great coffee void while seizing potentially great business opportunities. New York has become to coffee what China became to Western product marketers when economic trade barriers first opened up: an opportunity to access millions of potential new customers, long shielded from the outside, and the corresponding promise of potential riches.
Sure, with the likes of Gimmie! and Ninth Street Espresso, New York can claim a few years of native influence. It’s also good to see New York roasters doing more to boost their local relevance. But to make a crude comparison using Seattle’s two most notable 1990s cultural exports, quality coffee and grunge, Seattle can boast Nirvana, the Melvins, and Pearl Jam while New York has the Stone Temple Pilots (OK, they were from San Diego) — but yet little else to show for themselves.
And it’s not just that people expect New York City to lead cultural trends, rather than to dawdle in following them. For a city of its size and population, the market penetration of quality coffee is still lousy. (Or, as we put it in a recent post, the ratio of quality coffee shops to New York residents rivals that of Toby Keith fans in North Korea.) New York residents deserve to have good coffee in the same per-capita abundance currently available in, say, Los Angeles — which itself was a coffee wasteland until a few years ago.
I may be able to now find quality coffee in New York, but I wouldn’t put Gotham on my list of coffee destinations anytime soon. Until at least that much happens, any “catching up” is still a work in progress.
A couple months ago, we kicked up a bit of dust when we dressed down the Gibraltar, an espresso beverage created by accident when Blue Bottle Coffee Co. was opening their first SF café in 2005. We called it the fool’s cappuccino — essentially the same beverage, but poured in a cheap restaurant supply glass and gushed over by those who questionably valued faddishness and faux exclusivity over beverage quality. Blue Bottle’s follow-up act in the restaurant-supply-glassware-as-drink-name category is the SG-120, and we put it to the CoffeeRatings.com sensory test.
As many a curious customer asks, what is an SG-120? And why does an espresso drink have a name that sounds more like a license plate number, a Soviet rocket launcher, or a brand of synthetic motor oil? Searching for “SG-120″ on Google, we found that it is also the name of a single door steam jacketed gravity sterilizer and a rotation mill for “viscous or sticky products”. More to the point, as with the Gibraltar, the SG-120 is named after a restaurant supply glass the beverage is served in — this time a shotglass from Japanese glass maker, Hairo.
Unlike the Gibraltar, Blue Bottle Cafe actually lists the SG-120 on their coffee menu. They typically offer it for about $3.50 from their single origin Bosco machine — along with the options of the less-milk macchiato ($3.25) and a straight double shot ($3).
Blue Bottle Cafe had been producing SG-120s from their Misty Valley Ethiopia beans until their Bosco had to be sent out for repairs. The machine returned from the shop this week — along with their Chapada Diamantina Brasil as the featured single origin coffee (which shares its name with a national park in Brasil’s state of Bahia). On Wednesday they served us an SG-120 with a smooth, integrated, and well-blended emulsion of coffee and frothed milk. Oddly, it was so smooth it almost didn’t taste much like coffee — more akin to a liquid candy bar.
Despite its non-coffee-like qualities, it was an impressive beverage. But given the SG-120 it came in, it begged the obvious question: would we have enjoyed it more if it were served in a demitasse? Our answer was a definitive “absolutely”. The SG-120 detracted from the experience with some poor glass aesthetics: the SG-120 is thin-lipped, much flimsier than the Gibraltar, it felt “cheap” and almost disposable, and its thinness and materials added no real thermal properties. So once again, we were convinced by the beverage — but not the suboptimal serving format.
(As an aside, Ben, an Apple employee from Vancouver who was visiting the nearby Apple developer’s conference, showed me photos of Chapada Diamantina national park on his iPhone while sampling the same coffee in a siphon pot. His take was that it was very clean, bright, and straightforward — lacking any buttery characteristics, etc. We picked up some beans to test the home version ourselves.)
Today’s post is really a series of news citations where coffee-making rivals duke it out in various venues.
First we have New York City-based BlackBook praising a rather healthy list of cafés to check out in Vancouver, BC: Vancouver: Top 10 Cups of Coffee – BlackBook. Sure, they seem to say more about waffles and string-wrapped sandwiches than they provide any details on the quality of the coffee. But what do you expect for a local entertainment e-rag?
Is everybody writing about their jones for coffee in some other continent? What follows is the Sydney Morning Herald giving Aussies a fill of respectable cafés in New York City: New York’s best coffee and cafes: baristas worth every bean. Although we’d still fly to Sydney or Vancouver long before subjecting ourselves to the coffee in New York City, Gotham City has at least elevated itself to one decent coffee shop for every three million residents … or about the same proportion as Toby Keith fans in North Korea.
And traditional coffee battles wouldn’t be complete without Gourmet magazine taking a Roman holiday that pitted the merits of the snide Sant’Eustachio il caffè against the populist-but-tacky Tazza d’Oro: CIAO, ROMA! Coffee and Gelato Edition: Food + Cooking : gourmet.com. We love them both — though among some locals in the centro storico, their rivalry makes Raiders-49ers matches seem like a tea party. (But if you really want to get into sporting rivalries with the locals, Roma-Lazio is the closest thing Europe has to a biannual re-enactment of Anzio.)
Last, and most definitely least, we have perhaps one of the most anti-climactic battles in the world of coffee — Starbucks crowing over their Zagat-rated supremacy in the fast food category: Zagat votes, Starbucks gloats. Vainglory may have been cool enough to make the cut for the seven deadly sins. But when your trash-talk concerns your pecking order relative to McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, the battle is already lost. Save your victory dance for when your competition isn’t known for their mechanically separated chicken dunked in high-fructose corn syrup.