How ironic that an organization called GreeNow is now affiliated with a product line, Nespresso, that has defined a consumer lifestyle centered around maximum environmental and manufacturing waste by individually wrapping every single serving of coffee that they sell: GreeNow Powers New York Launch of New Nespresso CitiZ Machine.
It used to be enough to ridicule Nespresso’s parent company — Nestlé, a company that the UK Guardian once called “the world’s largest and most ethically questioned food and drink company” — for their Big Four coffee status and the quality of their product line, which includes the likes of Taster’s Choice and Nescafé Specialty Solutions’ bag-in-a-box system. Now we can add the “green” claim based on their use of bio-fuels to manufacture their product — when the very design of their product generated an excess demand for more fuel, more materials, and the creation of more waste by-products to support a newly defined disposable lifestyle.
This is akin to intentionally spreading swine flu, and then following up by publicly taking credit for distributing packs of tissues. You almost have to wonder if Nestlé’s product developers and engineers sat in the design room and thought up, “How can we make home coffee consumption far more environmentally wasteful than it is today? How can we get consumers to help us strip-mine and ship more raw materials, and produce more packaging in factories, with every cup of coffee?” The result was the Nespresso system.
Nestlé says: keep drinking our coffee. It’s good for you… and the environment!
For a few years now, we had an idea for a post that sat in our unpublished queue: how can you tell a good espresso shop from a bad one? (At least before sampling it.) Given the thousands of good, bad, and mediocre espresso shots we’ve reviewed over the years, we have definitely noticed some patterns worth sharing.
It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve recognized the value of shorthand rules. Back in the 1980s, I once (famously, in my circles) observed that the ghetto status of your neighborhood can be surmised by the fast food chicken chain nearby. (In short, Church’s Chicken = “wear Kevlar”.) Earlier this month, there were a couple of coffee-related posts from coffee professionals that inspired us to dust off this idea:
But while coffee professionals know their establishments and their industry favorites best, few have subjected themselves to the horrors of many a bad espresso bar from a consumer perspective. Not that we at CoffeeRatings.com have a taste-bud death wish. But we’ve developed a sort of sixth sense about what to expect just by walking into a coffeehouse and having a look around. This post is an attempt to articulate both the positive and negative cues we get when entering a new establishment.
Some suggested rules are more obvious — like the wine enthusiast’s equivalent of “avoid wine that comes in a box.” Other rules are more subtle or outright unusual. For example, as a news story today had it, if the aroma from the coffee machine forces your plane to make an emergency landing, you might consider tea.
In no particular order…
Now for the cues when you know things are about to get ugly. Call it coffee’s homage to Waiter Rant’s “Signs An Establishment Isn’t Going to Deliver the Service You Expect”.
We really need to stop here before we are overcome with snarkiness poisoning.
Saturday mornings in the southern part of the city (my neck of the woods) — amidst a maze of freeways, live chickens in a stupor, and competitive, full-contact roller derby among elderly Chinese-American women (just without the roller skates) — is Alemany Farmers’ Market time.
This ain’t no yuppie Ferry Building farmers’ market; this is where the locals get down and dirty to compete for fresh fruits and vegetables at a discount. It mellows out as the morning progresses, but come early and you had better bring your game face, your knee pads, and prepare to throw some elbows back in self-defense: few area events can match the Hobbesian fight club required to purchase the morning’s bok choy before it is picked over. I haven’t experienced mosh pits like this in the Bay Area since I saw Fugazi play Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street for their 1990 Repeater tour.
As a curious enough side note, this past week I randomly came across a half-hour of video footage of that very show on YouTube — video I had no idea was being taken at the time. And sure enough, I’m all over the video: at the front of the stage, looking like Cousin Itt‘s mutant tall brother. Let’s just say that the experience of seeing yourself on YouTube 19 years after the fact, in video you didn’t know existed, was bizarre enough that I had to submit the phenomenon as “deja tube” on urbandictionary.com.
With that kind of slam dancing, it’s either a Fugazi concert or the Alemany Farmers’ Market:
But back to the Farmers’ Market… Further away from the mainstage mêlée are the prepared food vendors, including Sabores del Sud — a Walnut Creek-based caterer that runs a cart service specializing in South American food. They offer Argentine alfajores and are the only option at the market for espresso (although even that is arguable). Using a single-group Astra machine and Equator Estate beans, they pull shots with absolutely no crema. However, the shot is full-bodied and carries a bit of flavor: mostly a mellow spice and some earthiness. Not a bad cup, but the espresso they make doesn’t differ much from filter coffee. At which point you’re better off getting something from the nearby Ritual Coffee Roasters tent.
At the Ritual tent, they don’t offer espresso. But I appreciate good coffee purveyors who know their limits of what’s good in the field, and espresso doesn’t always travel well outside of the café. This Ritual booth makes French press batches and uses them to fill air pots. For $2, we had an excellent cup of their Finca El Recuerdo Colombian micro-lot coffee.
If you were impatient for a morning cup, the woman attending the Ritual booth was a little over-earnest to customers in line: taking a bit of time to explain Colombian microclimates and the process of making fully washed coffee. But this is a farmers’ market for locals. As long as you’re not among the early morning “professionals” — those thrown to the mat by a cadre of 78-lb/78-year-old Chinese grandmothers in hot pursuit of cheap long green beans — chances are that people are going to strike up conversations about the lightning bugs and recent weather back home in North Carolina.
The Atlantic continues their recent spate of coffee coverage with a random nostalgia piece today on Italian espresso from food writer and Joy of Coffee author, Corby Kummer: Coffee Glamour: Italians Do It Better – The Atlantic Food Channel. Among other things, the article mentions the infamous Sant’Eustachio il caffè and how they, too, are now sourcing directly from coffee farmers.
Of course, we love the Italian espresso thing too. But we also have to laugh because there are few countries that can survive pulling off something perhaps uniquely Italian in the espresso machine supply chain. In 2007 we ordered replacement seals and gaskets for our home machine from Gaggia. Being a regular habit of our machine maintenance, and knowing the likelihood of back-orders, we order the parts well in advance. Sure enough, this week our parts order from 2007 finally arrived from Gaggia — 21 months later.
Fortunately we still had spares before we needed these parts. But who would expect that ordering espresso machine parts from Italy could be like being on a waiting list for a kidney transplant?
If you’ve been to the Blue Bottle Cafe lately, you’ve probably noticed the sizable public sculpture, emblazoned with a beet, on the sidewalk just outside the front door. Is it a new take on 2004’s Hearts in San Francisco public sculpture project — itself inspired by 1999’s Chicago Cows on Parade exhibit?
No, it’s much more crass and commercial. But it makes for a nice conversation piece.
The sculpture is part of a Google Maps promotional campaign, and it marks the Blue Bottle Cafe as one of Alice Waters’ favorite places. In addition to Ms. Waters, who defined the farm-fresh & local style of restaurant dining that has dominated the Bay Area for decades (through Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and other establishments), there are sculptures around town marking off the favorite haunts of culinary stars such as Michael Minna and Gary Danko.
Like celebrity deaths, do waves always come in threes? Our long history of mocking the industry term, the Third Wave, aside, we’re starting to think our affections for Starbucks are entering a third wave of sorts. Years ago it transitioned from ridicule to ambivalence, but now it’s starting to take on subtle shades of pity.
The reason? According to today’s Seattle Times, it now seems they’re experimenting with the idea that the Starbucks brand itself has become a liability: Local News | Starbucks tests new names for stores | Seattle Times Newspaper. The news that Starbucks now believes that obscuring their green mermaid brand might help their sales, and their neighborhood image, is pretty much an admission that the Starbucks brand may hold more negative connotations than positive ones.
Oddly enough, this news came out right on the heels of the publicized arrest of a 17-year-old Fight Club wannabe, who bombed a NYC Starbucks back in May as part of his own private Project Mayhem: 17-year-old blows up a Starbucks because he was inspired by Brad Pitt’s ‘Fight Club’ character // Current. (Now if only I emulated all the movies that came out when I was 7 years old…)
A little over a year ago, we hypothesized about the idea of a “Starbucks Select” concept for the company to overcome its mass-produced image and regain some relevance to quality coffee again. Think of what Toyota did in launching the Lexus brand. But with this news, in effect, Starbucks is experimenting with taking this idea much further — by omitting the “Starbucks” name entirely and investing in something akin to the absence of branding.
Though if you’re a Starbucks shareholder — and Fidelity Investments is now their largest shareholder — you have to give the company a little credit. If they truly want to convince Wall Street that they are a soulless money-making machine, demonstrating the will to sell out their own brand identity in a heartbeat, should that boost their profits, makes for a compelling argument.
Mike Doughty, NYC resident (OK, Brooklyn) and former frontman of Soul Coughing, performs his song, “Busting Up A Starbucks”:
A recent, random excursion to San Diego produced at least this one CoffeeRatings.com Trip Report. Visiting an old friend there for this past Independence Day weekend, we literally encountered more UFOs than good coffeehouses while in town. If aliens were behind the four red UFOs we witnessed over El Cajon on the night of the 4th, they clearly weren’t coming for the coffee.
The Westernized-Italian Nado Gelato Cafe keeps a low, old school profile just before traffic enters the nearby naval base. (Miss your turn, and prepare to face the rifles.) There’s sidewalk seating on benches and at a single table with a parasol. Indoors there isn’t much more seating: random stools and two tall, small tables.
The main attraction is the gelato here, made by Seattle’s Bottega Italiana, and its flavors are all in Italian names. For espresso, the use, and sell retail, beans from local roaster, Blue Bridge Coffee, which operates next door. You can’t get any more local than sharing a wall. Blue Bridge derives its name from the nearby Coronado-San Diego bridge.
They offer a four-cup Melitta bar, and for espresso they employ a two-group Rancilio Epoca. They produce espresso shots with a thin, pale-to-medium-brown crema, with a thinner body. It has mostly a simple flavor of mild spices, but there’s a freshness you can still make out in the cup. Served in Crate & Barrel China cups.
Read the review of Nado Galato Cafe in Coronado, CA.
Despite Japan’s public reputation for drinking coffee from cans spat out of vending machines, yesterday’s New York Times‘ Travel section listed a few notable specialty coffeehouses: Heads Up – Where Tokyo Grabs a Coffee – NYTimes.com.
A number of these coffeehouses qualify as what we previously noted as kissaten: good coffee of distinguished pedigree at an even more distinguished price. The Times‘ short list includes a Tokyo version of Seattle’s famed Zoka Coffee.
This past week, most of the coffee discussion around the Internet involved the subject of caffeine. Talk about caffeine seems to bring out the worst in people. Too many act as if coffee and caffeine are synonymous and interchangeable — whether it’s scientific research on the effects of caffeine or some lame riff on coffee lovers being “caffeine junkies”.
By the same token, why wine lovers aren’t so readily called “alcoholics” is beyond us. But in the medical research on caffeine category, the study-de-la-semaine involved a mix of mice, caffeine, and Alzheimer’s symptoms: Caffeine Reverses Memory Impairment In Mice With Alzheimer’s Symptoms. So, naturally, this triggers bad science reporting in the mainstream media with unsupported conclusions based on leaps of faith, as in this headline from the otherwise-respectful BBC News: BBC NEWS | Health | Coffee ‘may reverse Alzheimer’s’.
It’s the same old story: lab mice are equated to humans, caffeine is equated to coffee, and the next thing you know we have media companies insinuating that Maxwell House cures Alzheimer’s Disease. If only this were one instance — this type of thing happens on an almost weekly basis.
We have some 1,000 years of epidemiological evidence to prove out any nominal linkages between coffee consumption and human health. Despite the study-de-la-semaine drumbeat of the past few decades — a mystical health obsession that Western civilization has not experienced since Europeans wrested the bean from the hands of Ottoman Turks in the 17th century — there’s little or no evidence to show over the past 1,000 years that coffee has any significant relevance to our health. That includes good or bad health implications. So why the continued, obsessive curiosity?
The myth that there is somehow a meaningful connection is largely perpetuated by two groups, each which stands to benefit most from the continued belief that there’s any real debate about this:
Telling us that normal coffee consumption really doesn’t make a difference to human health would be killing the golden goose.
Over the past few months, Jerry Baldwin, co-founder of Starbucks, has authored an interesting series of articles on coffee in The Atlantic. This month he took up the topic of decaffeinated coffee: In Defense of Decaf – The Atlantic Food Channel.
Like Mr. Baldwin, we question those who don’t see a point to coffee without the caffeine. Because we see two kinds of coffee drinkers: people who are driven more to the taste of coffee, or coffee enjoyers, and people who depend exclusively on its chemical effects, or coffee users. (Really, go straight to the vein if you must.)
We even used to think that decaf coffee fans were the truer fans of the beverage. But given the role caffeine plays in heightening the awareness of taste receptors, and how Duncan Hines got to become one of the largest corporate purchasers of purified caffeine, we’ve come to the conclusion that coffee’s caffeine and taste are not entirely separable.
Mr. Baldwin goes on in the article to mention Swiss Water-process decaffeination, its namesake company’s current consumer scare tactics, and other decaffeination processes.
Thanks to a reader tip (which are always welcome and encouraged, btw), we were alerted to the opening this week of Sightglass Coffee in one of the danker parts of SOMA. Note that by “opening” we mean “unlocked” — and not much more than that.
If this sounds a lot like the “modest” opening of Four Barrel Coffee, it’s no coincidence. Owners/brothers Jerad and Justin Morrison have years of veteran experience that includes roasting at Blue Bottle Coffee and the opening of Four Barrel Coffee.
You’d miss this space if you weren’t looking for it. We honestly had to duck under a half-open garage door to get in, and the place looked like it was closing up shop. But despite the tiny serving space at a serving cart on wheels, this is just one corner of a vast, 1924-built, 4,000-sq-ft space with a 25-foot ceiling — or about the size of a typical large auto-body shop in the area. Except this place serves coffee … and not much else (if you include the salt caramels).
They have a Chemex brewing station, which is somewhat unique for the area, but the main attraction is their refurbished two-group La Marzocco GS2 espresso machine — straight out of the 1970s, and a sister to the one just installed at Intelligentsia‘s fabled Venice Beach location. Replace cheesy 1970s leather with wood, tune up the parts, and they’ve got a pretty serious machine for enthusiasts.
Of course — as with all these Works-In-Progress Cafés, Inc. — it doesn’t stop there. Since the new model of opening notable coffee bars these days is to open stripped-down with many promises to upgrade later, the Morrison brothers soon plan to employ one of those fancy new Slayer espresso machines in the near future — as showcased at the 2009 SCAA conference — putting their Slayer customer ID in the single digits. Will its manual control of brewing pressure blow our minds? Only time will tell, folks. In the meantime, we can’t help but snicker every time we hear the machine’s name — which conjures up images of Stumptown‘s Duane Sorenson head-banging while playing air guitar to “Disciple“.
It’s just not the machine that’s slated for an upgrade, either. They currently have access to Verve Coffee Roasters‘ inventory and equipment until the 14-kg Probat roaster is installed and fired up for their own local roasting. As always in this town, the permit process is one of the key roadblocks. Though they hope to have things up and running in September, we wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still waiting in December.
The resulting shot has a dark, healthy crema. It’s a touch thin on body, but it has a potent pungent flavor of cloves, herbs, etc. There isn’t much to the dynamic range of the flavors, but what’s there is handled well. Served in classic brown ACF cups.
Don’t mind the 90% of the floorspace that’s still being prepped for their lonely Probat. This place will need revisits, as so much is bound to change in the future. For now, it’s a good shot with the promise of becoming better down the road.
Read the preliminary review of Sightglass Coffee. In the meantime, here’s a video of Sightglass making a cap in action: