December 2009

Monthly Archive

Coffee Worth Traveling For

Posted by on 31 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Coffee hearts that inspire travelersThis past year, The Atlantic magazine has been no stranger to the subject of coffee. They finish out the year on the topic of coffee tourists: Coffee Worth Traveling For – The Atlantic Food Channel.

We’ve always used the phrase coffee tourist in a much more derogatory context — e.g., “kopi luwak is a gag novelty for the coffee tourist who cannot tell the difference between price and quality”. However, here The Atlantic uses it to describe those who travel the world in search of superior coffee shops in addition to those who seek out coffee growers “at origin”.

By this definition, we’re guilty as charged of course. But this reflects another failure in coffee’s ever-popular wine analogy: nobody needs to hop on an airplane just to sample some the finest Burgundy wines.

Trip Report: Espression by Lavazza at The Drake Hotel (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 29 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Espression: Lavazza's answer to Illy's Espressamente on Torino's Via GaribaldiTwo years ago, when we first encountered this café chain on Via Garibaldi in Torino, Italy, we had no idea how few of them exist. For one, turns out it was the only one in all of Italy. For another, there is only a dozen of them in the world. Oddly, four of them are in Chicago — three more than any other city.

This one is located next door to the historical Drake Hotel. Inside it is a modern café vehicle for promoting Lavazza coffee, right on down to the Lavazza retailing and the modern photographic artwork on the walls suggestive of their annual commercial art calendar. It’s a spacious and modern café that also offers a number of edibles.

Tourist taking photos outside the Espression by Lavazza at The Drake in Chicago The next door Drake Hotel in Chicago

Inside the Espression by Lavazza café Operating the Espression by Lavazza Faema

The not-very-competent barista serves espresso shots from a three-group Faema Stylema, and the resulting cup is a bit tall with a thinning medium brown, even crema. It’s a little thin-bodied and on the stale side: the herbal Lavazza flavor here is more residual and subdued than anything up front on your taste buds

However, they do exhibit rather decent milk frothing and microfoam, which is better than the brewing standards here. We therefore recommend the cappuccino over the espresso here. But curiously enough, the receipt for our cappuccino said “no flavor” on it. We surmised that was a statement about the lack of syrupy additives, but the alternate interpretation of the phrase isn’t too far off either.

Read the review of Espression by Lavazza at The Drake Hotel on Chicago’s Gold Coast.

The Espression by Lavazza espresso A better choice: the Espression by Lavazza cappuccino

Does the growth in high-quality independent cafés mean the mom-and-pops are making a comeback?

Posted by on 28 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Has it really been a couple weeks since our last third wave rant? A few years after we thought this topic was dead and buried, lately newbie third wave coffee articles have been cropping up in local newspapers like teenage vampire profiteers. London, Oakland, and now Vancouver: Indie cafés perfectly poised to quench coffee aficionados’ palates – The Globe and Mail. What makes this incarnation worth pointing out is that it attempts to colorize the progression of coffee standards as an independent café vs. chain store debate.

The new Momento Coffee House in Kitsilano has great coffee in order to remain viableHelping to cement our theory that the phrase “third wave” has been co-opted exclusively for marketing purposes, the article makes no mention of coffee consumers as part of this “third wave” — only coffee purveyors. And as usual, all this talk of distinct coffee waves seems oblivious to an outside world where “Himalayan rock salt” has become part of grocery store vernacular. We’ll even overlook that the article’s cited Piccolo brothers have been making outstanding coffee since a decade ago.

But what’s different here are suggestions that small mom-and-pop coffee houses, the ones that were nearly exterminated at the hands of big coffee chain stores, are making something of a comeback.

Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years

We see things quite differently. Rather than being about indie-vs-chain coffee shops, this is just the natural progression of a continuous rise in consumer expectations for coffee quality. Many mom-and-pop coffee shops died at the hands of big chains because they sat on their laurels and languished from poor quality and poor management. All it took was a coffee chain that thought a little about improving their coffee quality and consistency — while also replacing the flea market furniture and cleaning up their bathrooms — to put many mom-and-pops out of business.

Truth in advertisingBut as these coffee chains grew (and grew and grew), their quality could only plateau at mass production standards. And in extreme cases such as Starbucks, their quality even declined as their business volume and number of employees ballooned out of control. This opened a major gap for a handful of independents to raise the quality bar further.

But here’s the major catch: do not mistake the independent status of these notable new cafés as a revival of the mom-and-pop coffee shop. If anything, opening an independent café is more challenging than ever. In fact, the only way that new independent cafés can remain viable in this environment is to differentiate themselves through higher quality standards.

In our espresso ratings for San Francisco over the past few years, we’ve noticed the great number of new cafés that typically break in the Top 40 rankings. However, we also noticed very few new café openings that rank below that. The reason being that the big coffee chains will chew up and spit out any new independent café that does not differentiate itself with some of the best coffee out there.

As chain coffee stories continue to expand (e.g., Peet’s Coffee & Tea has grown new outlets like a metastasized cancer over the past 2-3 years), the notable rise of these quality independent cafés is less about a better business environment for independents and more about the fact that they honestly have no other choice to survive.

UPDATE: Dec. 29, 2009
Today’s Toronto Star also published an article on the rise of local independent coffee houses: Grinding out their own niche – thestar.com. However, contrary to our opinions above, they suggest the Toronto independent café market is currently growing by 20-30 cafés each year.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on without some additional numbers. For example, the ubiquitous Canadian coffee & donuts chain, Tim Hortons, is still growing in Toronto — so it’s not clear if these independents are yet eating into the market for chain coffee shops.

You also need a sense for the city’s baseline of annual independent coffee shop openings and closings before, say, a decade ago. And regional markets will also differ based upon their saturation and customer demand for higher-end coffee.

In any case, let’s not forget that the leap to a Starbucks-sized megachain started with independents that quickly grew to the size of our current day Blue Bottle or Ritual Roaster chains.

Colombia: Land of horrible coffee

Posted by on 22 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Despite the Juan Valdez quality image, brewed coffee in Colombia tastes more like something from his mule ConchitaToday a writer for the Boston-based GlobalPost published a somewhat contrarian article on Colombian coffee: Colombian coffee | Juan Valdez. Instead of the Juan-Valdez-inspired marketing image of “the richest coffee in the world,” the author suggests that brewed coffee in Colombia has a lot more in common with dirty water.

This is also true in a number of Central and South American countries that, culturally, rarely drink the stuff themselves — selling their best stuff for export. However, exceptions such as the Juan Valdez-branded cafés are seeking to change that at least with younger Colombians.

Random Choices 2: The Coffee Roasters

Posted by on 19 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

MSN City Guides recently joined the ever-popular year-end parade of Internet-friendly Top 10 lists: America’s Best Coffee – 1 – MSN City Guides. As if to show Bon Appétit that they, too, can list their favorites without the bother of any supporting criteria, MSN’s editors also took an early holiday and let two additional nominees pass through to make a Top 12 list.

MSN City Guides picks their top roasters - or do they?MSN’s editors also let skip the slightly misleading headline of “America’s Best Coffee,” as their list consists exclusively of coffee roasters. The Bay Area irony being that “America’s Best Coffee” is synonymous with a local coffee roaster behind many of the most repulsive espresso shots in San Francisco.

Bay Area props in their list go to local favorites Ritual Coffee Roasters, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Ecco Caffè. None of the Ritual and Blue Bottle cafés made the Bon Appétit list, however. And yet MSN neglects the Four Barrel roasting operations that helped inspire their inclusion in Bon Appétit.

Confused? Good luck finding any reason behind this schism. Although roasting operations and boutique cafés are two different things, neither list gives any indication behind their ranking criteria for why their lists would be mutually exclusive. Compounding their credibility problem, MSN lists two New York City locations (Café Grumpy and Gimme! Coffee) known primarily for their cafés and not their roasted coffee. They even classify Portland-based Stumptown as primarily a Seattle roaster — and their only Seattle-based roaster, mind you.

Taking these lists far more seriously than they do

Of course, we honestly know why. We take these things far more seriously than a more general, mainstream publication. It’s our job to be incredulous when we see mainstream publications not taking the business of rating coffee operations seriously enough.

But these more mainstream publications typically spend all of one day thinking about coffee before they’ve moved on to their next Top 10 culinary subject. In that one day, they must deliberately choose a geographically distributed list to ensure readership representation — not unlike porkbarrel politics. This, and the lack of thoroughness due to time and budget constraints, leads to a number of omissions for reasons other than quality.

The inevitable user comments still amuse us. For every person who identifies a world-class roaster overlooked due to the editorial blindspots of a rushed publication deadline, there is an oblivious lout who never ventures beyond their neighborhood pet roaster and takes offense that the “Badass Coffee” chain (or similar) wasn’t listed. It’s for these reasons that CoffeeRatings.com has taken the deliberate effort to review some of the most foul espresso purveyors in the city. And it’s also why we use stated objective criteria to back it up.

UPDATE: Sep. 23, 2011
Fortune magazine made their odd swig at a top 17 of “boutique” American roasters: 17 of the nation’s best small coffee makers – A hill of beans (1) – CNNMoney.

Bon Appétit’s Top 10 Boutique Coffee Shops

Posted by on 17 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Bon Jugement or Bon Appétit?Bon Appétite‘s January 2010 issue steps into the fray by naming their top 10 boutique coffee shops: Top 10 Boutique Coffee Shops: In the Magazine : bonappetit.com. Making their list is SF’s Four Barrel Coffee.

But before anyone gets too excited, it’s worth noting that Bon Appétit is a sausage factory for Internet-friendly “Top 10″ lists that lack any explanation, rhyme or reason behind their choices. Bon Appétit describes itself as “a food and entertaining magazine” with a heavy bias towards recipes. And as we’ve often stated about many a coffee book published over the previous decades: if it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee.

On the one hand, another culinary reference that lends coffee some of the legitimacy it deserves is a good thing. But on the other hand, in the absence of any stated objective criteria, the names may just as well have been pulled out of a hat. Truth be told, bon appétit unfortunately does not imply bon jugement.

East Bay Express: Surfing Coffee’s “Third Wave”

Posted by on 16 Dec 2009 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Today’s East Bay Express published a good, and long-overdue, cover story on some of the quality coffee changes going on in our fair East Bay: Surfing Coffee’s “Third Wave” | Feature | East Bay Express. Its use of the Third Wave crutch is unfortunate, but also par for the course these days. Meanwhile, we will try to avoid becoming too tiresome (and absurd) by limiting our Third Wave mockery to only one post per week.

Luke Tsai's cover story on today's 'East Bay Express' is on East Bay coffee shopsLuke Tsai’s article was fair and somewhat balanced in its reporting — even if it had to make mention of two of our least favorite (and, IMO, least reliable) Web resources for café reviews: the insufferable gluttons at Chowhound.com and the social networking gamers with arbitrary standards at Yelp.com. We even made page 3 of the article for our routine Third Wave ridicule. The article touches on one of our Third Wave stereotypes, lighter roasts, and even our defense of coffee Nazis.

The notable cafés and roasters in the article include Local 123 (and their Flying Goat coffee), Remedy Coffee (Ritual Coffee Roasters), SubRosa Coffee (Four Barrel Coffee), Blue Bottle Coffee Co. (for their new Jack London Square roasting facility and café), and Awaken Cafe (Taylor Maid Farms). The article also makes mention of notable pre-Third Wavers, Cole Coffee. A number of these truly are a gaping hole in our current review database.

Mr. Tsai had originally contacted me for this article back in early October. So coincidentally, just yesterday I searched the East Bay Express Web site to see if his article had been published yet (it hadn’t). However, a search for “third wave” on the site did amusingly produce articles mentioning third-wave ska, third-wave environmentalism, and third-wave feminists.

UPDATE: Dec 23, 2009
A regular coffee column in the Seattle Times picked up this story yesterday: Coffee City | How seriously should people take their coffee? | Seattle Times Newspaper. Interestingly, the author, Melissa Allison, took upon defining “third wave coffee” this way:

A term coined around 2002 that aims to define an evolved coffee scene in which baristas, roasters and farmers know each other and are connoisseurs of a product to which they’re all passionately connected.

If you go back to our post from April 2006, our debate in the comments with Nick Cho was about how the term “Third Wave” may have been originally conceived about “letting the coffee speak for itself,” or enjoying coffee for coffee’s sake, but the phrase has since been completely co-opted for marketing purposes. That is: what started with more of a consumer-focused perspective was redefined for the convenience of business-focused uses — i.e., uses by baristas, roasters, and farmers.

Note that there is no mention of the coffee consumer in Ms. Allison’s definition above.

The myth of the perfect espresso

Posted by on 14 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Last Friday, the UK edition of Wired magazine published one of those well-meaning articles that thoughtlessly got much of it all wrong: Computing the perfect coffee. At the article’s core is the myth of the “perfect” espresso — something we believe to be about as real as the tooth fairy.

Can we really engineer our way to the 'perfect' cup?Blame for the modern myth of the “perfect” anything lies plainly with Martha Stewart and her catch-phrases. The myth of perfection has been perpetuated ever since by just about every talking head who stuffs something in his-or-her mouth on TV for a living. However, since the 1980s and the pioneering work of Howard Moskowitz in the field of psychophysics, we can pretty much safely assert that the notion of a singularly perfect anything is a dead-end. An illusion.

Howard Moskowitz and the rise of pasta sauce segmentation

Back in the 1980s, Mr. Moskowitz broke ranks with the conventional wisdom of the times that believed in singular perfection — i.e., that one, true combination of physical properties and aspects could be held up as the model for which everything else was an inferior imitation. Mr. Moskowitz deeply believed in the rule of “different strokes for different folks.” He leveraged this idea to help make Prego pasta sauce — what many considered a superior product that languished and lagged in market share at the time — into a formidable competitor to the day’s rule of Ragu.

Pepsi now comes in more varieties than anyone can countWhile conventional wisdom believed there was one ultimate mother sauce that all pasta sauces were beholden to, Mr. Moskowitz’s research showed there was a market demand for extra chunky sauce — which had no rational origin in all of mother Italy. Prego hired Mr. Moskowitz after he told Pepsi that they should seek out the perfect Pepsis instead of the perfect Pepsi — a radical idea at the time. Today we can count over 40 types of Pepsi, excluding all the diet variations.

Now take this logic a few steps further, and you can understand a little of why today Green Giant sells frozen vegetable mixes under the names “Immunity Blend” and “Digestive Health”.

If measurement was science, why isn’t there a Nobel Prize for weathermen?

But back to coffee, the lessons from Pepsi and pasta sauce suggest that there is no perfect espresso. Some consumers like a sharp, acidic espresso — often dominated by Central American beans at a lighter roast level. Others think these brightness bomb espresso shots are repulsive — and many of these consumers would rather have a more classic espresso defined by body and balance.

But there’s another area where the Wired article fails, and that’s in confusing the acts of measurement and tinkering for actual science and technology. Wired magazine lives and breathes on its celebration of cutting-edge science and technology. So they shoehorn the analogy of the Silicon Valley start-up-in-a-garage upon a couple of national barista heroes: the current and a previous World Barista Champion in Gwilym Davies and James Hoffman.

However, the article exalts the act of measurement as if that in itself has some magical, intrinsic value. And yet a GPS receiver in isolation — i.e., without the aid of cross-referenced maps — merely enables its owner to get lost with greater precision.

Measurement adds greatly to the reproducibility of results and as an aid to identify unconventional areas for experimentation. But it is foolish to compare someone’s experimentation with precise brewing temperature controls to the invention of the first personal computer, as the article suggests. What’s also problematic is that the more something can be measured, the more we tend to believe in a magical combination that unlocks the secrets to its perfection — a perfection that, as we pointed out above, doesn’t really exist to begin with.

When in doubt, stamp “Third Wave” on it

Pages 188-189 from 'Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality' - this ain't no latte art class, kidsOf course, the article’s author, Mei Li, blew her technologist street cred by brandishing the ever-laughable Third Wave crutch. We dare Ms. Lei to pick up a an old school textbook such as Andrea Illy‘s Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality (2nd ed.). Its scientific foundation of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and biochemistry would surely make her latte-art-fawning head explode.

They do not teach this in barista school, folks.

With its first edition published in 1995 (as Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality), this decidedly “second wave”-era book exudes more coffee science and technology per page than we’ve seen in all the volumes of “Third Wave” coffee books published in the 14 years since. For a magazine committed to “the future as it happens,” Ms. Lei’s Wired article sets our standards for actual coffee science back by a generation.

Melbourne, Australia qualifies for a top coffee book, so where’s SF’s?

Posted by on 11 Dec 2009 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

We’ve posted before about Melbourne’s claim as the coffee capital of Australia. In addition to the Melbourne Coffee Review Web site we noted back in 2007 (in operation since 2004), there is now a printed guide to Melbourne’s top 100 coffee shops with the title Melbourne Coffee Review: Crema of the crop – Epicure – Entertainment – theage.com.au.

The 2010 edition of the Melbourne Coffee ReviewSome 20 reviewers make up the short reviews on the Web site and, now, guide. And not unlike the Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia, places with the top coffee scores earn three beans. Within this guide, beneath the sacrilegious paper cups brandished on its cover, these three-bean cafés include these three locations: 7 Seeds, Brother Baba Budan and St. ALi.

As some of you might know, this Web site started with the idea for a printed, local coffee guide in 2002. We’ve been published before, and our book proposal seemed to fit a real opportunity and need for a town brimming with coffee history and culture.

But after engaging with a number of local guide mongers — including Chronicle Books, Globe Pequot Press, Sasquatch Books, Sunbelt Publications, and TenSpeed Press — we were dismayed by how clueless these publishers were about the market for local information on quality coffee. It was as if we were proposing to write a book reviewing public toilets in SF. (Come to think of it, that’s not so terrible an idea either.) Thus in 2003, out of frustration, we took our research directly to the Web.

Of course, the world is awash in wannabe authors with bad ideas and grudges against “clueless” publishers. (Insert disgruntled, misunderstood scientist cackling, “They laughed at my ideas and called me mad! But I’ll show them… I’ll show them all!“) But the publication of yet another local coffee shop guide, with ratings based on coffee quality, adds just a little more fuel to our we-told-you-so fire.

Also overheard in Melbourne…

So what else is going on, coffee-wise, in Melbourne — the city that also gave us talents as diverse as Rupert Murdoch, Steve Irwin, Olivia Newton-John, and Flea?

Recently, the local press published a story promoting the coffee, prices, and siphon brewing equipment of a Melbourne café that curiously reminded us of an old Blue Bottle Cafe post: Coffee lovers forking out $12 a cup for trendy brews. And just before that, they published an article on their own new local roaster phenomenon, reminding us of our own from way back when: Ruling the roast.

So if Melbourne can publish a local coffee quality guide, what’s our excuse? Besides clueless publishers, that is…