October 2009

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Horatius

Posted by on 30 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee

Entering HoratiusOpening in early 2009, this is an unusual space in that most people cannot make it out: “Is it a café? Is it an event space? Is it a restaurant? Is it a wine bar?” Well, it’s all of the above inside an old, long, barn-like structure across from the diploma factory California Culinary Academy (CCA) across the street.

There’s some sidewalk seating in front of the space with more of a café space just inside — with flat-panel TV screens overhead, Portuguese cookbooks for sale, and a bit of Ritual coffee on display.

In the back, past the wine bar at the side and near the food and pottery items, is a space that is used as a Portuguese restaurant at night with projection movies. Decent Portuguese fare is hard to come by in these parts despite over a century of immigrants around the Bay: it seems you either have to get it at Tia Maria’s (short for: a Portuguese relative’s home) or down in San Jose along Alum Rock Road. However, they do an OK job here. Even if the coffee isn’t more of a Portuguese style.

Entrance to Horatius Ritual Coffee Roaster coffee and other offerings at Horatius

Ritual not only roasts their coffee, but they even custom farm-source some of their custom blend coffee. When we visited, they were pulling single-origin espresso shots from Matalapa La Sidra, La Libertad, El Salvador from their three-group La Marzocco Linea. The resulting espresso has a good, sharp depth. While not as robust as what you might get directly from a Ritual Coffee Roasters café, it still has a bit of personality in the cup as a sharper, clearly Central American shot with more of a turpeny base. Served in wide ACF cups.

Back in their restaurant, they serve espresso and offer a coffee menu highlighting three different farms as French press coffees ($4 for a small pot, $8 for a large). Credit is due for taking their coffee seriously here: many of the best high-end restaurants in town don’t have a coffee service half as good in either thoughtfulness or execution.

Read the review of Horatius.

Space inside Horatius Demi Moore does 'Ghost' inside Horatius

The La Marzocco Linea inside Horatius The Horatius espresso

Book Review: Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2010

Posted by on 25 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

The 2010 edition of the bar d'Italia del Gambero RossoA few weeks ago we received the latest (and tenth) edition of the annual Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso for 2010. It is the closest thing in print we’ve seen to our Web site reviews, and we’ve generally found it indispensable when traveling Italy in search of good espresso. (We last reviewed the 2007 edition.)

Illy is, as they have long been, a heavy sponsor of the guide. If this seems like an conflict of interest, it certainly is: not all award-winning cafés in Italy necessarily serve Illy coffee, and non-Illy winners frequently display their Illy-branded credentials.

Italian culture seems to accept these conflicts of interest more readily than America (more in a fatalistic way than anything else). But when you have Krups as the lead sponsor to the U.S. Barista Championship, it’s not like we have a lot of high ground to stand on either.

And, at least in Europe, Illy coffee is often an excellent option — unlike the blander, stale distribution that dominates their U.S. market.

Bar of the Year 2010

On September 24, a panel of experts met at the Città del Gusto di Roma (quite literally the “city of taste” in Rome) to present this new edition of the guide and to announce the winner for Bar of the Year among the guide’s 18 highest-rated finalists: Zilioli of Brecia, Lombardia. Former winners of the Bar of the Year award include Converso Bra, winning it in both 2004 and 2005.

Among all of Italy’s 20 regions, Piemonte still dominates the awards, boasting 7 of the 27 highest rated coffee bars in the country — including Baratti & Milano, Caffè Platti, Caffè Mulassano, Neuv Caval’d Brôns, Strumia, and the aforementioned Converso Bra.

The print stock and cover of this year’s guide is a bit flimsier than our 2007 edition (it’s now closer to a Zagat paperback guide), but it otherwise seems largely the same. As in past years when we’re not in Italian bookstores, we purchased it from ibs.it for €10 plus €10,20 shipping — which, for being FedEx’ed from overseas in under a week, is one of the better deals out there.

Trip Report: L’Eataliano

Posted by on 23 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Local Brew

Opening in April 2009 on the site of the former Eatcetera (they still retained their frozen yogurt machines), “eat” still seems the theme at this Financial District salad and panini shop. We’ve long been hoping for an Eataly to move into town, and this would barely cover their bathrooms. But it’s definitely an improvement over its previous resident.

Entering L'Eataliano Inside L'Eataliano

The L'Eataliano espresso - and classic Mr. Espresso Nuova Point cupIt’s an open space with vast ceilings and signage climbing up the walls in back. For seating, they have a smaller area of modern stools and high tables. And they serve espresso: Mr. Espresso, in fact, from a two-group, old school Faema machine with Mr. Espresso branding.

They pull relatively large shots with a crema on the pale side, but it’s of a decent thickness. It has a stronger, potent flavor of pepper and tobacco, and it’s served in rare “Mr. Espresso Collection ’95” Nuova Point cups. There are even large bags of Mr. Espresso beans for sale. A decent choice if you’re nearby and want something convenient that isn’t half-bad.

Read the review of L’Eataliano.

Equator Estate Coffees wins Roast Magazine’s 2010 American Roaster of the Year Award

Posted by on 22 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

San Rafael-based Equator Estate Coffees has long been a major enigma for us. They have heavy distribution among high-end restaurants in town — and quite a few on the low-end. But despite the occasional accolades among tastemaker chefs, we just didn’t “get it.”

Roast Magazine recently announced their roaster of the yearOver the years, we sampled the espresso at well over 30 different places serving Equator Estate coffees and purchased some roasts for our home use. We invariably found them to be too tepid in flavor depth, richness or “personality” to make them stand out from the crowd. It was only this year that we finally came across an example of their coffee we truly liked. To this day, it remains the lone exception, and we suspect that some of this has to do with a lack of quality control over their delivery chain (e.g., cafés/restaurants that let their coffee lose flavor and go stale, etc.).

But of course, we’re only one opinion with a taste palate that may radically differ from anyone else’s. For example, we’ve recently come to the conclusion that, pound-for-pound, we somewhat regularly produce better results at home with the coffee from Barefoot Coffee Roasters rather than, say, the celebrated Blue Bottle Coffee — an opinion that may count as blasphemy among so many Blue Bottle loyalists in the city.

However, there’s no question that our congratulations must go out to Equator Estate Coffees for earning Roast Magazine‘s 2010 American Roaster of the Year Award: Equator Estate Coffees and Teas Wins Coffee Industry’s Top Honor. Past winners have included the likes of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Zoka Coffee Roasters, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters — which is great company in any context. Now only if we could find a way to appreciate their coffee in the way others obviously have.

Trip Report: Caffè Cento

Posted by on 22 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine

Not to be confused with Cento, which is decidedly at the opposite end of the amenity scale, this is a classically pretty café at the rear entrance of the elegant Fairmont Hotel. It caters primarily to hotel tourists — many of whom come from around the globe and get a little homesick for something other than a McStarbucks.

The location overlooks the cable cars intersecting at California & Powell Sts., and there is limited outdoor sidewalk seating at café tables against the building. The café itself seems closely modeled after many of the thematic and modern Illy-branded cafés of Italy: modern red light fixtures over café tables, a polished décor, Italian music, and wait staff with accents.

Entrance to Caffè Cento Caffè Cento interior

Seating inside Caffè Cento Illy products inside Caffè Cento

The tourists seem to go for the “authenticity” here — even if the espresso doesn’t come close to matching what you can get from an Illy café in Italy. They serve the usual Italian-themed light lunch fare, and there’s a merchandising wall of Illy and Ghirardelli products so tourists can return bearing gifts. One nice touch is an old school, decorative brass Gaggia espresso machine on display at the hotel entrance, just inside the hotel hallway leading from the café.

Inscription on the Fairmont Hotel's brass Gaggia Brass Gaggia leaving Caffè Cento inside the Fairmont Hotel

Using a sparkling and shiny, Illy-branded two-group La Cimbali machine, they pull shots of espresso from the giant sealed Illy cans. It’s the typical North American Illy flavor: soft, meek and based on mild pepper and spice. However, it does lack some of the woodiness you often find in Illy. It has a thin layer of lighter brown crema and is served in Illy designer IPA cups with no saucer. All the things you expect from a North American Illy shot, including all the things you expect it to be lacking.

Read the review of Caffè Cento.

The chrome La Cimbali in Caffè Cento The Caffè Cento espresso

Even GQ magazine can’t figure out if the “Third Wave” is coming or going

Posted by on 20 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Thanks to Tim of espressophile fame for giving us a heads-up on this article posted yesterday from GQ magazine: The Most Important Drink of Your Day: Restaurants + Bars: GQ. Tim got his heads-up from the guys down at Verve Coffee Roasters, who are among the handful of regional coffee shops highlighted in this best-of article. Also cited from the ‘hood, with photos, were Blue Bottle Coffee and Ritual Coffee Roasters.

Even if GQ doesn’t register on our respectable reading list — after all, they have a sub-section on their Web site dedicated to Megan Fox — we liked a few quotations from the piece, including:

So why, every morning, do you pay $4.79 for a watery latte that was lovelessly made on a push-button machine that could be safely operated by a 4-year-old?

GQ: Read it for the pictures, not for the articlesBut, as always, things get stupid when they stumble over this “Third Wave” business — what we’ve long dismissed as delusional, fabricated nonsense perpetuated by people who think they just invented good coffee or just discovered consumers who appreciate good coffee. (Or perhaps worse: naïve journalists that take this nonsense as fact.)

For example, in one paragraph, GQ presents a statement about these cafés returning to the quality practices of yore:

In case you haven’t heard, we’re living in a Golden Age of Coffee. (Note: Please don’t actually go around calling it that.) Thanks to a new generation of purveyors bent on returning craft and artistry to the beverage

Then to completely sound like they’re talking out of another bodily orifice, a few paragraphs later they commence mumbling about the “Third Wave”:

Here’s the deal: Vacuum-packed stuff like Folgers and Hills Bros. is considered coffee’s First Wave in America. Peet’s and Starbucks, which brought us espresso, are Second Wave. Third Wave? That’s the painstakingly crafted brew we’re talking about. Here’s how the new breed does it.

So which is it? New breeds, a new wave? Or is it a throwback “returning craft and artistry to the beverage”? The article should have stuck with its own final advice: shut up and drink it. All that time staring at January Jones’ cleavage on the cover has clearly affected their coherence.

The Nespresso CitiZ, or how McDonald’s has become the home espresso of the future

Posted by on 16 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine

A little over two years ago, we lamented the state of populist retail home espresso by reviewing what we thought was one of the better options at the time, the Nespresso C180 Le Cube: The Home Espresso Machine Blues: Rating today’s state of consumer espresso machines. Besides having a name that sounded regrettably familiar to Renault’s Le Car of the late 1970s, we found the Le Cube to be typical of superautomated, pod-based home espresso machines at the time: the overpackaged, overpriced convenience of consistently stale coffee.

Since then we’ve had a whopper of a global recession — and all the mathematically-precise/psychologically-ignorant cost-savings come-ons for home brewing that have followed. With the Fall 2009 release of Nespresso’s new product line, the CitiZ, we wanted to test if the populist retail home espresso situation had changed through all of that.

In case of earthquake, do not stand near the massive towers of Nespresso branding... CitiZ & Milk - our competitor from Nespresso

It’s not an espresso machine, it’s a lifestyle

We first wrote about the new CitiZ line a few months ago in a critique of Nestlé’s recent environmental chest-beating: Nespresso and the definition of greenwashing. If Nestlé’s primary product line goals were to deliberately maximize materials extraction, manufacturing production, and waste by-products with each coffee serving, it’s hard to imagine the Nespresso coming out much differently than it appears today.

As with the Le Cube, we approached one of these new Nespresso beasts in its native habitat: a mainstream kitchenware retailer. Upon entering the Sur La Table, we were accosted with the massive marketing expense of what looked like a cardboard Playland promoting the new CitiZ line. Nestlé is clearly wheeling up dump trucks full of money for their consumer retail marketing campaign. This flash of cash seems like Nespresso’s attempt to convince consumers of its “upscale” ambitions.

Choose your weapon: Nespresso continues to market coffee like Jelly Bellys The CitiZ starts off looking decent...

Heading to the back of the store, we opted to test with a Nespresso CitiZ & Milk — which sports a built-in milk frother that we had no intention of using. In case you’re not familiar, Nespresso takes a Jelly-Belly-style approach to the coffee varieties in its capsules. Some of these coffee capsules brandish Nespresso’s new, lofty “Grand Cru” designation. However, for consistency, we opted to stick with the scary “flavor” concept known as a Ristretto capsule.

We inserted the capsule and pushed the “espresso” button (represented with an icon of the smaller of two cups). The extraction started out promising enough: a laminar flow of medium-to-dark brown crema from the get-go. We were honestly impressed at first — maybe things have gotten better?

But then the pour kept coming. And coming. And as it did, the richer brown crema turned into a more turbulent flow of what looked like a milky, splotchy hot chocolate with uneven bubbles. Not exactly appetizing. In just several seconds, the shot rapidly turned into the meager espresso we experienced with our 2007 review of the Le Cube.

The CitiZ is now producing a more sickly, pale beverage with large bubbles it calls a 'ristretto' The final espresso product from a CitiZ: far from appetizing

The Taste Test

Tasting the shot, it had a much frothier and greater amount of crema than we experienced with the Le Cube. But the crema quality was a bit suspect in taste as well as appearance: thin, one-dimensional, and lacking any flavor richness nor depth. The shot was also too large, resulting in a thinner body and making us wonder what diluted mess the Nespresso would have produced if we pushed the “lungo” button.

The espresso itself had a tepid flavor still on par with an average Starbucks and not much better than a McDonald’s. Like most espresso shots made from stale, pre-ground beans packed for weeks in sealed capsules, it has a narrow flavor profile consisting primarily of some mild spices and pepper. And universally, it tastes like it is “missing something” when compared with the real thing. The company and its advocates like to point out the supposed “high-tech” vacuum-sealed freshness of these capsules, but vacuum-sealing ground coffee is a standard practice the likes of Sanka and Maxwell House have been performing since the 1980s.

Our verdict: more crema, but otherwise very little has changed from the last generation of Nespresso machines we tested. At a 5.80 coffee rating, it’s pretty much even with our C180 Le Cube review (a 5.90). We suppose something can be said for consistency. In the meantime, populist retail home espresso still seems stuck in the McDonald’s Dark Ages. (And here the McDonald’s comparison is actually a bit flattering, given that they at least grind to order.)

Read the review of the Nespresso CitiZ & Milk.

Trip Report: Lulu’s at the Octagon (Santa Cruz, CA)

Posted by on 15 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Machine

This unusual café is situated in the 19th century Octagon — the last surviving remnant of the historic Cooper House complex, which was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Looking at the aging masonry of the outside façade, you can see a little as to why the rest didn’t make it.

Manthri Srinath, owner of the various Lulu’s in Santa Cruz plus Scotts Valley’s Coffee Cat, opened this Lulu’s in 2008 with a decidedly modern approach inside: opting for a Clover brewer and a La Marzocco Mistral — each are which rumored to be the first installations of their kind in all California.

In an e-mail exchange not long ago, Mr. Srinath noted how local regulations play a big role with rare coffee equipment. Like many other communities, Santa Cruz requires commercial espresso machines to be certified ANSI/NSF 4. Given La Marzocco’s limited distribution of the Mistral, they didn’t bother to certify it, and Clover’s NSF 4 certification followed only after Lulu’s installed it.

Enter the Octagon Skylight inside the Octagon

Unlike the other Lulu’s (namely the nearby flagship store, Lulu Carpenter’s), the focus here is primarily on espresso, including options for single origin shots. The modern interior is as attractive as the exterior, with a central skylight. But it has the same Lulu’s touch of black & white international photographs on the walls and a lot of richer wood. There’s also a display in back dedicated to coffee merchandising.

Whether it is the result of UCSC student reactions or not, the price posted for an espresso here — at least when we visited — is almost ridiculously low at 95¢ for a double shot. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Zander Nosler, of Clover fame, supposedly noted this location for some of the highest volume business for a Clover brewer before his company was acquired by Starbucks — likely reflecting the modest price margins here.

A wall of accessories inside Lulu's at the Octagon Beans on display inside Lulu's at the Octagon

The barista takes his/her deliberate time here to pull natural double shots. It has a congealed dark and medium brown crema, but the crema is not very thick and its consistency is a little spotty. There are also larger oil droplets suspended in the crema, indicating high extraction pressures while brewing.

The resulting shot of the house blend has no ashiness, a modest body (no syrupy shots here), and a flavor of a lot of dark roasted wood and pepper. There’s a bittersweet dark chocolate to the flavor as well, but more bitter than sweet (think 90% cocoa level). It is neither too forward nor too strong. Served in classic brown ACF cups. Overall, it’s one of the finest shots in the Santa Cruz area, regardless of the price.

Read the review of Lulu’s at the Octagon in Santa Cruz.

The Mistral at Lulu's at the Octagon The Lulu's at the Octagon espresso

Trip Report: Lulu Carpenter’s (Santa Cruz, CA)

Posted by on 13 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Don’t ask why it’s taken us years to formally review this place. We first got to know this location as the Espresso Royale Caffe dating back to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. However, it was originally known as Lulu Carpenter’s saloon among the old-timers, and Manthri Srinath‘s café opening here (with the building’s earthquake retrofit) now pays homage to its original name.

Over time, the ownership — who also manages, and roasts at, the excellent Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley — has given much greater attention to the quality of the espresso here. What was once easily forgettable (and the prime reason why we neglected reviewing it for so long) is now notable for its coffee.

Gone are the plants that once gave this café the look and feel of an old library study in the midst of a jungle foliage invasion. In its place is a (still) darker interior with sunlight beaming through the rear windows by most of the seating. The brick walls remain, however, as does the sidewalk patio out front.

Entrance to Lulu Carpenter's Inside Lulu Carpenter's

They pull shots from a multi-group La Marzocco Linea with a deep, dark, thinner layer of crema. Like sister café Lulu’s at the Octagon (review forthcoming), the body isn’t terribly strong. Yet it seems to have more of a tobacco flavor here than at the Octagon.

All-in-all, it’s a solid shot. While not quite the technical mastery of nearby Verve Coffee Roasters, it’s a worthy espresso in a central, downtown Santa Cruz location.

Read the review of Lulu Carpenter’s in Santa Cruz.

Ordering counter and roasted coffee on display at Lulu Carpenter's The Lulu Carpenter's espresso


UPDATE: Oct. 19, 2009
Yes, even Lulu Carpenter’s can’t escape the renewed media scrutiny over Wi-Fi squatters: Downtown coffee shop pulls plug on power-hungry patrons – Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Roll over Clover, and make way for the Hario dripper

Posted by on 12 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Starbucks

Ever since Starbucks announced their outright purchase of the Clover brewer supply, it was a mere matter of time before replacement filter-coffee-brewing setups were anointed by the coffeeshop elite. From the Chicagoist today, at least Intelligentsia seems settled on the Hario ceramic coffee dripper and kettle: More Change Brewing at Intelligentsia – Chicagoist.

The Hario pour-over kettle and ceramic dripper on display at IntelligentsiaAh, yes. The Clover brewer: what got everyone excited about filter coffee again — with countless citations of its $11,000 MSRP price tag that not a single café (at least to our knowledge) actually paid — was suddenly reclassified as “Oh-so-second-wave” by proxy of ownership. So some coffee shops are turning to a Japanese twist on the old Melitta bar. (And yes, this is the same Japanese company behind the siphon brewing systems you can find at Blue Bottle Cafe, for example.)

Another upside to the Hario? The home version of this game show doesn’t require car payments and dedicated plumbing — so your favorite café doesn’t have to tell you, “Don’t try this at home, folks.”

Call us a little jaded, but we haven’t jumped the bandwagon on these just yet — despite how much they have permeated the coffeesphere since Black Wednesday. But in due time, even with so much coffee to consume, we’ll be sure to give one a test drive. At Chicago’s Millennium Park Intelligentsia if nothing else…

UPDATE: Oct. 13, 2009
It seems that even Starbucks is getting in on the act of phasing out the Clover brewer. According to boston.com today, Starbucks is removing Clover machines from seven of its Boston area stores: Starbucks tweaks test of Clover brewing system – Daily Business Update – The Boston Globe.

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