March 2010

Monthly Archive

Drip Bar, a Mobile Blue Bottle Café, coming to Los Angeles

Posted by on 31 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine

The coffee culture export trade is in high swing, whether it is Stumptown Roasters opening in Amsterdam or Blue Bottle Coffee following Intelligentsia‘s footsteps and invading L.A.: Drip Bar, a Mobile Blue Bottle Café | NBC Los Angeles. Yes, that last article cites the tiresome caffeine-riff cliché abused by many an unimaginative coffee writer — calling Bay Area Blue Bottle fans “caffeine-starved locals” — but the article notes a second attempt to bring Blue Bottle to the tanned, spackled, and collagen-injected masses down south.

Drip Bar, a mobile/portable café concept scheduled for introduction in L.A. this May, plans to pour Blue Bottle Coffee using Hario V60 drippers. Should we be surprised that in a town where you have to drive everywhere, your coffee should now come on wheels?

Instructions for our Hario V60 cloth filter - e-mail us for details on the translationAs we wrote last October, the spiraling Hario V60 dripper became all the rage at Intelligentsia as a Clover brewer substitute. Many other coffee shops have since followed suit in declaring the Hario V60 dripper as the greatest thing since the double boiler — including SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, who was among the first in the Bay Area to offer a Hario V60 drip bar.

We have our own Hario V60 and Buono drip kettle for home use. We even got a friend to translate all the Japanese instructions for us. Good coffee, to be sure. But the professional coffee world seems to chase short-attention-span fads on a level that rivals many Japanese consumers — with a heavy copy-cat hype that ebbs and flows with the coffee growing seasons.

When we first encountered a Hario V60 drip bar, last December at Intelligentsia’s Monadnock location in Chicago, we asked the barista if he liked it that much better than a Chemex brewer or a typical Melitta bar. While continuing his pour with a Buono kettle, he slowly responded with a resounding, “Well…?” So while the V60 is a fun new coffee toy, and it produces great coffee, let’s just say we’re not ready to throw our old Chemex brewer out the window just yet.

Brits are being sold guff about coffee

Posted by on 30 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s bit of European coffee controversy actually has nothing to do with the undropped espresso machine name from French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently demanded a decent espresso machine of his choice while visiting Columbia University: French President Nicolas Sarkozy demands special espresson machine during Columbia University visit – NYPOST.com. (Meanwhile, the French press made news of the fact that the espresso machine made news in the U.S.: La machine à expresso de Sarkozy intrigue la presse US – Politique – 30/03/2010 – leParisien.fr.)

The abombination of British coffee, or so we've heardNo, we’re talking about the familiar call-to-arms article for bad local espresso standards. This time it came from the UK’s The Guardian: Brits are being sold guff about coffee | Julie Bindel | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk. The usual suspects?: massive drink sizes and milk tsunamis. Evidence of her despair: only the Australasians and their flat whites seem to produce a tolerable, cappuccino-like beverage.

For all the love given to the likes of recent world barista champions from the UK, we’re reminded of one of our all-time favorite coffee quotes:

“Coffee in England always tastes like a chemistry experiment.” — Agatha Christie


UPDATE: Feb. 6, 2011
The Australian gets in on the act a year late: Aussie flat white is the toast of the trendy coffee set in London and Berlin | The Australian.

Trip Report: Wicked Grounds

Posted by on 30 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

This neighborhood café opened in late 2009 with the idea of serving sexual perversions and coffee in the same location. This is one of the more obvious examples of how coffeeshops are being fetishized in the Bay Area. We’ve written about espresso bars in bicycle shops, laundromats, video stores, runners shops, motorcycle shops, gardening supply stores, pirate radio stations, churches, and comic book stores. Finally: the kink shop.

However, if you visit here during most daylight hours, the name of this place — and its subtitle of “Kink Café and Boutique” — is far more titillating than the vibe you’ll find inside. They stage evening events that are another story — such as “bring your human pet” night. But beyond a small case of S&M gear for sale, located across the bar, and some paintings of leather-clad models, inside it is pretty much a basic, run-of-the-mill café.

Entrance to Wicked Grounds Darkness inside Wicked Grounds - with anatomic S&M mannequins on the walls

In classic San Francisco fashion, it even caters to vegans somewhat in its food fare of sandwiches, salads, and sweets. But SF being what it is, we thought a vegan friend of ours was joking when she mentioned that some patrons once caused a minor stir over their lack of vegan bread options. Our response?: “WTF is vegan bread? Isn’t most bread vegan?” Then to prove her point, she pointed out user reviews on Yelp! complaining about “NO vegan bread”. (*facepalm*)

What is it with San Francisco? We swear, you could open a medical marijuana clinic with topless dancers and absinthe on tap, and some pet-issue whiner will still moan that they don’t serve vegan bread. We’ll leave it to someone else to debate whether kopi luwak coffee is vegan or not.

Center bar inside Wicked Grounds Wicked Grounds' artwork delivers on theme

They have a tea service and serve a lot of monster-sized Americanos and filter drip coffees, but espresso from Ritual Roasters beans is one of the highlights. The interior is relatively dark — the LGBT flags covering the front windows don’t help — with dark wood floors, uniquely designed furniture, plenty of café tables and chairs, plus some bar stool seating.

Using a rickety old La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema with some mottled texturing. The barista had the portafilter handle pop out under pressure on his first attempt at pulling a shot — talk about an ornery machine.

The shot has a subtle aroma and not as much brightness as you might expect from Ritual Coffee with the heavy Central American representation in their espresso blends. Flavorwise, it has a warming/spice flavor — but in a unique way quite different from filter drip coffee. There’s almost no finish to the cup, however. Served in a generic white ceramic demitasse.

Read the review of Wicked Grounds.

Wicked Grounds' old La Marzocco The Wicked Grounds espresso

Trip Report: Vega at Langton

Posted by on 29 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

This is the flagship kiosk of a series of hole-in-the-wall cafés named after Lambretta scooter models (the others being Cento and Special Xtra). There’s even a yellow Lambretta in back with the Cafe Lambretta logo written across its windscreen — a remnant from the owners’ first, and now defunct, café foray. There’s even a Cento scooter hung way up high.

Entrance to Vega at Langton - and its makeshift counterLike its sister locations, it sports heavy Blue Bottle Coffee branding. Unlike its sisters, there’s a bench to sit on (ooh-la-la, how posh is that?), a makeshift sidewalk counter in front to stand at, and a lot of metalwork that went into the store signage — all warmed up by a lone, token fern. It’s these “amenities” that make the Vega location the most comfortable of this chain, but that’s still saying very little.

The more we think about it, the more Vega/Cento/Special Xtra/et al. fits SF’s recent mold of what we’ve called fetishized coffeehouses. Although the Lambretta thing makes for a weak fetish compared to other Bay Area examples, the chain’s theme of glorified lemonade stands definitely targets a kind of coffee shop fetish in format if not theme.

Cento motorino up above at Vega Vega at Langton menu signage in metalwork

In addition to their Macau iced coffee and teas, the real love here is on the espresso. They also sell Vega-co-branded Blue Bottle beans at the counter — though we noticed that these can sometimes run two-weeks-old after the stamped roast date.

From a three-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull a modest shot with a textured medium and darker brown crema that’s a little on the thin side. It has a dark, semi-potent flavor of herbal pungency, but its flavor profile range is a bit narrow. It’s a guess, but we suspect the bean stocks could be a little fresher for an improvement here. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.

Read the review of Vega at Langton.

The Vega at Langton La Marzocco Linea - plus yellow Lambretta in back The Vega at Langton espresso

Portugal’s Coffee: A Sumptuous and Delectible Treat

Posted by on 28 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

We’re a little slow on the discovery of this great article on the coffee in Portugal from earlier this month: Portugal’s Coffee: A Sumptuous and Delectible Treat – Catavino. Catavino is primarily a European wine blog that focuses on the growing regions of the Iberian peninsula (i.e., Spain and Portugal), but they often get into more general topics such as the food, drink, and culture of the region.

Designer cup from Café Nicola - aka NicolartAs with our short series on Portugal’s coffee from late 2006, the article explains a few possible origins for the Portuguese term bica — the short espresso. (Though the term is used more around Lisboa than, say, Porto where o cimbalinho rules.)

The author also rates and reviews a number of the major Portuguese brands of roasted coffee. And while we rated Portugal’s branded cafés overall rather than just their retail coffee, we both concur that Café Nicola offers some of the very best the country has to offer. We differ, however, on our opinion of Sical.

The Five Types of Morning Coffee Crazies (And How to %#$@ with Them)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

Today’s post comes directly from the Friday Comic Relief Department. Because we enjoy sarcastic humor, and are frequently guilty of it ourselves, we bring you: The Five Types of Morning Coffee Crazies (And How to %#$@ with Them) | Points in Case. (Title edited for vulgarity.) A rather comic rant on some of the obsessive-compulsive types that might frequent your local café: the Polite Coward, the Perfectionist, the Trashy One, the Camper, the Freak. Plus a few rather odd coffee shop caricatures and a little torching of the Panera Bread chain.

Perfect: the reason why Martha Stewart should have been convictedA fair bit of warning: expect vulgarity. We’ve censored it out a little here in the title, as it’s not for everybody first thing in the morning. But some of us are okay with that sort of thing. Hey, it beats watching stand-up comedians on Comedy Central speaking half-English, half-bleep.

Another bit of warning: college humor. Just those two words on the Web make us collect air sickness bags on flights the way some people collect hotel soaps. While 99% of it fits the retarded category — and we mean that in a Rahm-Emanuel-sort-of-way — there are occasionally redeeming examples of the genre. Monty Python had its moments, after all.

Trip Report: Carmel Belle (Carmel, CA)

Posted by on 16 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Established on this spot in 1955, Paolina’s operated as Carmel’s oldest running Italian restaurant for over 50 years. It was little more than a cafeteria-style indoor food counter, though they used a decorative, three-group, manual, brass eagle Rancilio machine with “Paolina’s” detailed on the back. The espresso may not have been memorable, but their machine certainly was.

Fast-forward to 2009: Paolina’s owners sold the business, the operators lost interest, and a new inhabitant took over. Carmel Belle — or just “Belle” at times, depending on the signage — promotes a heavy local and organic theme. They offer no dinner service and primarily serve breakfasts, soups, salads, and sandwiches with the “Carmel Belle-iefs: simple, fresh, local & organic = yummy”.

The young, fresh, and frugal set worship this place — almost irrationally so. The simple, basic quality of the goods here are definitely worth a visit. Just that it is nothing so special to fawn over, as many do, in this town with a lot of good food to boast.

Entrance to Carmel's Doud Craft Studios, where Carmel Belle resides Counter and mall-court-like dining area at Carmel Belle

For espresso service, they use a new, shiny two-group Faema Due at the counter. Their single espresso is served as a huge shot in a large Mr. Espresso-logo Nuova Point cup. It is truly a doppio.

Even so, it comes with a rich, congealed, mottled medium brown crema with lighter spots. And despite its size, it is not at all diluted or overextracted (a true double shot). The flavor may not be watery, but it is not very potent either. This could be due to the age of their bean stocks, even though the healthy crema suggests it is rather fresh.

It has a smooth flavor of some mild wood and spice. On the downside, the flavor is subtle enough to be lost if you add milk to it. Still, it’s one of the best shots in town.

Read the review of Carmel Belle in Carmel, CA.

The Carmel Belle Faema Due, hidden behind Mr. Espresso pots and iced tea service The Carmel Belle espresso

Coffee liqueur: a little branding might do ya

Posted by on 15 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Thanks to a helpful reader who today pointed out this find to us: Just Bottled: “Firelit” Blue Bottle Coffee Liqueur – Ünnecessary Ümlaut. If Starbucks is good enough for the booze bottle, why not Blue Bottle Coffee? Apparently that’s the question asked by the folks behind Firelit, a new coffee liqueur made from Blue Bottle beans.

Just five years ago, Starbucks branded itself with Jim Beam to create its own coffee liqueur. (Curiously, you can no longer find it on the Starbucks Web site.) Back then, a lot of people still thought of Starbucks as a luxury brand rather than a ubiquitous commodity, so slapping on the Starbucks name (supposedly) upped the liqueur’s street cred. Co-branding being such a universal practice in product marketing, the Starbucks name featured no fewer than three times on the front of the bottle.

Firelit coffee liquor tries to differentiate itself through Blue Bottle Coffee brandingFast forward to today, and now we have the Firelit guys seeing an opening with the small-batch and local angle — popular with a number of discriminating consumers these days — leading them to produce a coffee liqueur with Blue Bottle branding. With the Starbucks brand now sitting somewhere just this side of McDonald’s, this move suggests the possibility for more co-branded product marketing using notable small-batch coffee roasters.

Still, we did have to ask ourselves if this story was even coffee-relevant enough to post here. (Including last week’s coffee inhaler story going around everywhere this week.) We haven’t sampled the product, which hits local retail shelves later this week. But once you process great coffee with alcohol and other ingredients and suspend it in a bottle with a shelf life of several years — as opposed to the two week shelf life Blue Bottle requires of their bean resellers — just how much will the choice of beans really matter besides branding?

Hence why we liken this product idea to using your best straight-sipping tequila to make strawberry margarita mix.

New York discovers decaf that doesn’t suck

Posted by on 10 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

On the continuing theme of New Yorkers being years behind on their coffee trends, yesterday the New York Times published an article on the improving quality of decaffeinated coffees: New Breed of Brewers of No Buzz – NYTimes.com. It is a slightly updated and expanded version of an L.A. Times piece we wrote about in November 2006: Demand is growing for rich decaf coffee. Of particular relevance here is the article’s emphasis on Bay Area roasters.

The New York Times piece features coffee from Four BarrelCaffeine is clearly a drug, as it makes people say and do stupid things. We don’t just mean all the people who give up caffeine “cold turkey” and, like Born Again preachers, feel obligated to tell everyone how much better their life is and how they too should forgo their sinful caffeinated ways.

In fact, most of the stupid things said about coffee usually have something to do with caffeine. But while we never understood the point of a vegetarian restaurant that fashioned non-meat to look and taste like chicken, consumers who don’t get the point of decaffeinated coffee always struck us as fake coffee lovers.

The article quotes Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee as saying, “Those guys are the true believers. They’re not drinking coffee because they need to wake up. They’re only drinking coffee because they like the taste.” Last summer, this sentiment was echoed by Starbucks co-founder Jerry Baldwin in The Atlantic: In Defense of Decaf – Food – The Atlantic. Decaf coffee drinkers may be much maligned and considered traitors to their kind, but we’ve always considered them among the beverage’s truest fans.

The one main drawback to decaf for us, however, has always been flavor. The sub-optimal sourcing of beans and the effects of the decaffeination process aside, caffeine does play a direct role in flavor enhancement. The nation’s chocolate cake mix manufacturers — who rank among some of the biggest purchasers of purified caffeine in the world — learned this lesson many decades ago.

New York Is Finally Taking Its Coffee Seriously (no, this time they really, really, really mean it)

Posted by on 09 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

A fine line exists between the point where you’ve truly arrived and the point where you’d like everyone else to believe that you’ve truly arrived. It’s analogous to comparing “old money” and “new money.” While old money supposedly maintains a low profile and doesn’t feel the need to prove their status, new money pulls up in a gaudy red sports car, engine revving, stereo blasting, and primping in the rear-view mirror in the hope that the paparazzi will appear.

We get this mental image the more we read about New York City’s nascent coffee culture. From tomorrow’s New York Times: New York Is Finally Taking Its Coffee Seriously – NYTimes.com.

Haven’t we read this all before? We posted on this very topic last June: Fables of the Reconstruction: New Yorkers say their coffee has finally arrived. But the more articles we see coming out of New York professing the city’s readiness for its coffee débutante ball, the more we sense the vibe of a city desperately trying to shake off its coffee inferiority complex.

New York and the Art of Not Knowing What You Don’t Know

The NY Times highlighted a photo of Saturdays Surf in SoHo -- and its La Spaziale Seletron machineThe New York Times article cited above offers “The Top 30 Coffee Places in Manhattan and Brooklyn.” Eight years ago, you could count the top coffee places in Manhattan and Brooklyn on one hand, and most of those wouldn’t be worth the trip. Fortunately, things have changed. Though much of it has changed with the influx of coffee cultures from foreign cities — i.e., people and businesses seeking fame and fortune by relocating to what was once a Dubai-like coffee desert.

New Yorkers can be forgiven for their over-earnestness on the matter, as not being the cultural center of the universe for something must leave an identity crisis and deep psychological scars not experienced since the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York during World War II. But it was just last summer that New York media flipped out over the discovery of laptop zombies, who squat on Wi-Fi connections in coffee shops, as if they were a brand new phenomenon. Meanwhile, a number of SF coffee shops were designed years ago with defenses against laptop zombies already in mind. And while NYC seems elated just to have decent espresso options in town, SF has since moved down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Coffee Needs to entertain cultural oddities such as fetishized coffee shops and espresso hovels that mock their own customers.

As with our recent criticisms of Yountville trying to be a second-rate Provence, New York City has yet to figure out that simple forgery does not make a coffee culture. When New York roasters and cafés start making their way out West — i.e., when New York starts exporting its coffee culture instead of exclusively importing it — only then will they have arrived. Until that happens, any claims about New York being a serious coffee town ring about as authentically hollow as the New York New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

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