Good coffee cultures are exported. Starbucks grew by churning out a mutant strain of Italian coffee culture by the thousands. Fifteen years ago, we saw cafés in Prague that boasted “Seattle style lattes.” And while New York City is beating its chest lately over its recent coffee prowess — emulating one of its most famous tourists of the Great Depression — most of what’s boast-worthy has been imported from the coffee cultures of places such as Portland and San Francisco (or even Australia).
Wait? Did we just say San Francisco? Despite this town’s long coffee history, ten years ago SF lacked any quality focal points that were honestly worth exporting. A lot, however, has changed since then — even to the point where the term “San Francisco” has become something of a coffee branding strategy.
Atlanta, GA, for example, has a local, independent coffee house and roaster known as the San Francisco Coffee Roasting Company (not to be confused with the Pier 39 place with the same name). There’s the San Francisco Coffee Company in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (not to be confused with a local roaster). Malaysia and Singapore even have a 27-outlet chain called San Francisco Coffee.
Of course, the quality at most coffee shops in San Francisco is suspect at best. So there’s clearly no need to get into the protectionism of regional labeling that we’ve seen in products such as champagne or Vidalia onions. But whenever parts in the rest of the world take notice, that’s usually a good thing.
One of the long running jokes among the (these days: masochistic) fans who follow Italian soccer is that — at least according to the Italian sports media — teams tend to go from “crisis” to “crisis” several times in a given season. If a top-caliber team doesn’t win for two straight matches, sono in crisi (or “they are in crisis”). It’s as if the Italian media have a mission to create melodrama.
We think about that sometimes when we hear about the new coffee crisis: global warming, or climate change if you prefer. If you weren’t keeping score, the last coffee crisis was rooted in the collapse of coffee prices. With the 1989 dismantling of what was essentially a cartel among coffee producing nations, mass market coffee greens went from a high of about $1.50/lb to an all-time low of $.46/lb in 2003 — a pricing collapse catalyzed by the influx of mass-produced, low-grade Vietnamese robusta. It was this crisis that gave root to Fair Trade and other economic initiatives — to stave off the inequities of the coffee trade from spreading poverty and putting coffee growers out of business.
However, today coffee has a new crisis. From papers [pdf, 622k] presented at the 2007 SCAA conference to some of the key talks at the conference last weekend (not to mention posts here going back to 2006), there’s been a lot of chatter lately about how the forces of climate change are reducing crop yields, eradicating available land use for coffee production, and extending the breeding grounds of harmful coffee plant pests. This month’s CoffeeTalk cover story comes with the apocalyptic headline, “Can this really be the end?” and the quote:
Nearly all of the specialty coffees in Latin America are sold and shipped. There simply are no quality Latin coffees left except Brazilian and those are going fast.
Something is seriously going on. But is it a bit premature to declare the end of coffee? There’s real danger in being false alarmist.
Whether it is quality coffee or anchovies off the coast of Chile, one of the biggest safeguards for a product’s survival is a group of consumers willing to pay a decent price for the good stuff. So when we read lamentations that coffee is going to disappear, and that coffee consumers are going to flee for cheaper energy drinks, we get the sense that these are primarily concerns for the lower grade coffees we generally avoid anyway.
Yesterday we attended a Meet the Producers event hosted by the Epicenter Cafe and Barefoot Coffee Roasters and got to test this theory. There we talked with Barefoot’s “Chief Espresso Officer,” Andy Newbom, to ask his opinion on the subject — in addition to the opinions of visiting coffee growers from El Salvador and Guatemala.
Sure enough, they all confirmed our suspicions. As long as there are consumers willing to pay for good coffee, there will be a market for good coffee. It does leave concerns about supplies at the mid-range and low end. But the best way to ensure there will always be supplies of good coffee is to keep demanding it and paying a premium for it.
Is there anything the The Huffington Post won’t publish these days? Fortunately, this includes one of the better summaries of the US Barista Championship, completed yesterday: Todd Burbo: Intelligentsia Wins National Title, then Throws it Back. Congratulations are in order for Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Chicago, now the winner for two years running.
The article was written by Todd Burbo, himself the Director of Coffee at Intelligentsia‘s Monadnock location in downtown Chicago. But don’t mistake it for an Intelligentsia cheerleader piece, even if Intelligentsia baristas claimed half of the top six finalist spots at this year’s competition — a not uncommon occurrence, and a frequent source of competitive grumbling. The last part of the article deals with Intelligentsia’s internal decision to field no one in the 2011 competition.
Despite the shortcomings of the barista competition format, and professional coffee’s curious promotion of the Cult of the Barista, barista competitions are one of the best public celebrations of coffee knowledge, skill, and enjoyment. And full credit goes to the Intelligentsia team for figuring out what the judges want, as they have it down in spades. We can’t blame them for wanting to move on.
But while the SCAA heavily promotes the USBC as a kind of ultimate chef’s competition for the coffee world, you also have to remember that two-time champion Mike Phillips has only been a barista for just two years [pdf, 173k]. You could say he’s a boy genius, but this is not all that unusual for what is essentially an entry level position among coffee pros. Meanwhile, for comparison, it takes a budding sushi chef a good 7-8 years just to first learn how to make sushi rice properly. What do you do next when you’ve mastered your craft in the second year on the job?
Frog Hollow Farm reserves a rather anonymous place in the retail coffee history of San Francisco, but it was a watershed for the coffee quality in this city. As much as we roll our eyes at the hackneyed and abused third wave term, by many definitions (theirs, and definitely not ours) this was SF’s first third wave espresso bar.
But its rise to prominence and its influence was very short-lived. A variety of changes internal and external to the shop caused the quality here to plummet from #1 in our rankings to #91 in just two years — as reflected in our first Trip Report for Frog Hollow Farm posted four years ago. But the good news is that a recent change in management here has brought something of a coffee revival.
The relatively brief coffee story of Frog Hollow Farm, located at the rear of the Ferry Building, is a genuinely complicated one. In its 2004 prime, this was home to the best espresso in San Francisco.
This claim may ring a little odd today now that SF is flush with the nationally acclaimed likes of Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, and many well-regarded independent coffee shops in between. But when we started research for this Web site in 2002, the answer to the question, “Where can you get the best espresso in SF?” was genuinely complicated. So complicated that most answers from the public varied from Peet’s to Starbucks to battle-of-the-bands-like ballot stuffing for neighborhood favorites such as Dolores Park Cafe.
Frog Hollow Farm opened in Oct. 2003 as an outlet for an organic peaches/specialty fruit/pastry business. For whatever reason, they decided to also take their espresso efforts very seriously. To that end, Frog Hollow Farms enlisted the help of a then-relatively-unknown James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee fame. Back then Mr. Freeman was known for his small batch, fresh coffee roasting in Oakland — for cart service oddities such as the Berkeley farmer’s market, but he had no presence in San Francisco. Even his Ferry Building cart service wasn’t yet up to speed.
With Mr. Freeman’s guidance, Frog Hollow Farms invested in a new, shiny red La Marzocco FB/70 (still in use today), deluxe wood tampers, the first commercial appearance of Blue Bottle Coffee beans across the Bay Bridge (which were also available for retail sale), and barista training from James himself. In a sense, this made Frog Hollow Farm SF’s first de facto Blue Bottle Coffee café — even if not in name. We can literally trace the decrease of our own home roasting operations to the initial sales of Blue Bottle beans here in 2003.
But by 2005, James Freeman had his own designs to open SF coffeeshops under the Blue Bottle name. He soon pulled out of this location and their coffee operations. The espresso immediately went downlhill and continued years of decline from poorly trained baristas, mishandled McLaughlin beans, and thin, watery shots.
A real measure of salvation came with a management change in Sept. 2009. Cameron White moved up from Santa Cruz to take over the coffee operations here, and he brought along Verve coffee and barista training (all baristas were trained by Chris Baca and Jared Truby). He replaced their aging Nuova Point cups with a set of classic brown ACF cups and installed a sort of bar with seating among six stools in front.
They now serve a solid, two-sip short shot of Sermon blend: with a medium brown, textured crema and a flavor that includes tobacco smoke, herbs, pepper, and a few others all well blended together. Only the body is a shade light for its pedigree. They operate two Mazzer grinders, dedicating one for Vancouver decaf, and also sell bags of Verve beans. They even talk about bringing in more grinders so that they can also showcase Streetlevel and other Verve roast varieties.
The quality change here is significant. They are currently rated tied for #17 in our SF ratings. However, with SF espresso quality standards as improved as they are these days, there’s a lot of compression at the high end: meaning, a lot depends on your personal taste. Fans of Verve’s flavor profile will not be disappointed.
Read the updated review of Frog Hollow Farm.
We published our first trip report for Sightglass last July: Sightglass Coffee, Version 0.3. Back then, Sightglass was a tiny espresso-serving kiosk at the front of a vast, 4,000-sq-ft space with a 14-kg Probat roasting operation planned to start in the Fall of 2009. We revisited Sightglass this week to see how much things have changed.
It’s perhaps both bad and good news that things haven’t changed much at all since our first visit. They still operate as a tiny kiosk of a service station in front, offering espresso, Chemex brewing, and some salt caramels. Their roasting operations are still being built out; the current completion estimate is now June 2010. Instead of facing the permit issues that delayed Four Barrel’s roasting operations, the delays at Sightglass were primarily zoning: given that there are two other notable roasters in the SOMA district, the environmental impact of another neighborhood roaster required a rather thorough evaluation.
One other major change here was a highly publicized switch of their espresso machine. What was a beautiful, rare, refurbished, two-group La Marzocco GS2 espresso machine — straight out of the 1970s, and a sister to the one recently installed at Intelligentsia‘s fabled Venice Beach location — has since been replaced with a two-group Slayer machine. (Just like the one at Matching Half Cafe.)
Ah, the infamous, fetish du jour: the Slayer. While the verdict is still out on the merits of the Slayer as an espresso machine, its merits as a hype machine are unquestionable. For example, two months ago one barista/blogger made the ludicrous claim in Serious Eats that, with the Slayer, “fourth wave coffee has arrived”.
First of all, remember that the term third wave was originally coined to describe a level of consumer appreciation for coffee. Thus, the author literally suggested that an espresso machine will single-handedly make consumers appreciate coffee in such a significantly novel way as to change consumer culture. By comparing waves, her statement suggested that once consumers compare a Slayer-made espresso with a run-of-the-mill Blue Bottle shot, for example, public coffee-drinking habits will change as dramatically as when people raised on cups of Sanka brewed in 1950s percolators discovered the espresso made at Rome’s Sant’Eustachio il caffè.
Wow. Talk about Mother of All Hyperbole. We’re honestly incredulous at how someone could make such an absurdist claim.
Thankfully, the New York Times tempered the post’s price-tag-based hype: the Serious Eats post lead with sensationalist $18,000 price tag headline, completely oblivious to the fact that a decent, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 will set you back more than that. But then Salon magazine echoed that piece with a post titled “Baristas gone wild”, and local culture & clique rag, 7×7, anointed the Slayer at Sightglass as “ushering in coffee’s fourth wave”.
We love a taste test challenge. But to make a fair and reasonable comparison, a number of variables must be held in check: location, barista, coffee roast, grind, ambient temperature and humidity, etc. Unfortunately, controlling all of these is a next to impossible task. However, there are a few things in our favor: the same place (Sightglass) using the same roast (a Sightglass blend made at Verve Coffee Roasters) and the same grinding equipment.
On the negative side, the baristas were different (but were hopefully trained to the same standards), the weather may have been different, the age of the roasts could be different, etc. But since we couldn’t reasonably get lab time to compare a Slayer with a La Marzocco GB/5, we’ll have to settle for a taste comparison made months apart.
The other thing in our favor is that we’ve historically found our own espresso tasting descriptors and rating system to be very consistent between visits at cafés with good standards and consistency. We’ve been surprised many times when, having a “blind” test at a place we haven’t visited in over a year, we’ve compared our notes and scores with our previous visit and discovered that they completely agree. And if the Slayer truly created an entirely new wave of consumer coffee appreciation over the old standards, our lack of precision should theoretically matter little.
We found our Slayer-pulled Sightglass shot to have a dark crema. Comparing it with the La Marzocco-made shot of old, the crema is a little darker but a little less substantial. The body is a touch thin, but that was true before here also. One greater difference was the focus of the flavor profile: instead of a potent flavor dominated more in the pungent range of the flavor spectrum (more of cloves, herbs, etc.), the Slayer-made shot had a darker, more earthy flavor dominated more in the smoky/muted tobacco end of the spectrum. And while their La Marzocco shot had a pretty limited dynamic range of flavors that were still executed well, the newer shot had the same limited range with the exception of a surprisingly acidic bite to its finish.
Even so, these differences were subtle. We noticed the $0.50 increase in their shot prices more than any tasting differences (namely: more smokiness than pungency plus a brighter finish). In fact, when we tallied our espresso rating scores, they were identical with the GS2 shot from last July.
So does that mean the Slayer isn’t a great machine? No. But it does suggest that the 2010 issue Slayer, for all its hype, imparted no noticeable difference to the resulting shot in the cup — from a 1970′s-made La Marzocco. At least from our espresso consumer’s perspective, this supposed fourth wave looks identical to the so-called third. We honestly couldn’t tell them apart.
Sure, we have taken a bit of poetic license to its literal extreme with this semi-facetious comparison. But if you are going make audacious claims, we ask that you back them up.
Of course, the Slayer’s prime advantages are manual pressure control and pre-infusion capabilities that are perhaps best suited for single origin coffees rather than blends. The reason we found little difference from the Slayer at Sightglass could be due to the coffee being a blend, or because they’ve tuned it to produce shots that meet their previous flavor profiles, or because their baristas haven’t yet learned how to take advantage of the additional controls.
But perhaps the biggest telltale sign as to why Sightglass switched from a perfectly reasonable GS2 to a Slayer can be found in their most recent cash register system, which is now based on the Apple iPad released just this week. Is there any better way to indicate how much you’re enamored with the new and less with the reasons why behind a switch?
Read the updated review of Sightglass.
The New York Times today published a piece on the Bay Area roaster land grab going on out East: West Coast Coffee Roasters Are Lengthening Their Reach – NYTimes.com. Ritual Coffee Roasters, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Four Barrel Coffee are each mentioned — lugging their roasting equipment over the Rocky Mountains and through the Great Plains of our nation’s mid-section, panning for retail gold as prospectors in the uncivilized coffee wilderness of our nation’s Atlantic Coast.
Who knows what obstacles they might find among the savage tastes and customs of the local natives? But these brave men and women are taking our nation’s pioneer spirit to heart, from sea to shining sea, spreading our Manifest Destiny of good coffee for all.
Seems a lot like it, doesn’t it?
On a more serious note, we did learn something from the article — such as the word “java” was first coined on the coffee docks of San Francisco. Otherwise there’s Ritual’s Eileen Hassi mentioning the importance of green bean seasonality, Intelligentsia taking over Ecco Caffè and establishing a roaster in Potrero Hill, and of course some of the obligatory third wave gibberish.
I particularly liked The Age‘s comments about the flat white — i.e., “they’re considered uncool back home” — and yet they’re appearing all over New York. Last night I had dinner with a friend living in London, and he says the coffee shops there are crawling with flat whites these days.
In today’s, er, tomorrow’s news from London’s The Independent, classic Italian stove-top/moka pot coffee manufacturer, Bialetti, announced that they are closing shop in Italy and moving their operations to Eastern Europe: Rivals too hot for Italy’s classic coffee pot – Europe, World – The Independent. In Italy — where the Bialetti has enjoyed decades of near-ubiquitous home coffee use — opinions on the matter have apparently heated up, as Bialetti claims modern coffee maker competition necessitated the move.
The article suggests that “the little pot has helped to see off the threat of the ubiquitous, high-volume offerings of the mass-market chains.” We don’t see that at all. Mass-market chains have failed to catch on in Italy because the market for decent espresso has long been saturated with local cafés on every corner that reliably produce a good shot. The moka pot largely seemed to survive because of its simplicity: there’s no reason for a family to purchase a hulking espresso machine for home use when good stuff is always available nearby.
However, the article notes the recent popularity of coffee capsules for home use — even in places like Italy: “millions of coffee drinkers in Italy and beyond bought into the hype that the capsules provide an espresso virtually as good as one served in a coffee bar.” We agree with their use of the word hype, given that we’ve found that the best of these superautomated, capsule-based home machines produce espresso shots on par with McDonald’s quality.
That said, European consumers want to look forward to the modern. Four years ago we questioned how Nespresso shops could succeed in Europe. Sure enough, today European consumers are at least buying the coffee.
The mainstream media barely understand that qualitative differences exist between really good coffee, good coffee, and average coffee — let alone that some of the differences might be worth shelling out a few extra bucks on. CNN is one of the more recent outlets to ponder the differences: $13 coffee worth the brew-haha? – CNN.com.
Of course, this is an old story just now washing up on the remote cultural shores of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Back in 2007, we wrote about $15 cups of Hacienda la Esmeralda and even UK restaurants that sold $14 cups of Nespresso (Nespresso! You know, the same people who brought us Taster’s Choice.) By 2008, we experienced first-hand exposure to these media biases when we were interviewed for a variety of magazine articles and TV news programs. We realized then that the common theme was a need to defend better coffee — and why we should consider paying more for it.
At least the CNN piece didn’t take a typical Bay Area approach, which was more along the bizarre logical lines of, “How can you justify a $10 cup of coffee when there are starving children in the world?” Instead, CNN seemed to think the price should translate to ridiculous levels of service — underscoring how they couldn’t differentiate Thunderbird-like rot-gut from a DRC burgundy of the coffee world.
But what triggered our gag reflex when reading this story wasn’t yet another tiresome reference to kopi luwak — the gag novelty of the coffee tourist world. Instead, it was mention of Baltimore’s Jay Caragay — a good coffee guy and one of the brains behind Portafilter.net — and how he actually named a café “Spro”.
So it ain’t so, Jay. Baristas at quality coffee shops already have their hands full trying to buck the hipster doofus stereotype.
Last night we attended a quasi-annual Portuguese wine tasting event sponsored by ViniPortugal. We’ve attended this event a few times prior (last at the Palace Hotel in 2008), and this was by far the worst: completely cramped quarters atop the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis, vendors who ran out of wine and bailed within the first 30 minutes of the event, and passed hors d’oeuvres that had more in common with Thailand or Italy than Portugal.
One of the co-branded offerings of the public event was a free copy of Marcia Gagliardi’s recently published The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco — and the opportunity to get the author’s signature. We’ve written about tablehopper prior. She may not know much about food, but she’s made a career out of knowing people who know food and providing a useful service out of that. She also may not be much of a writer, but she’s great at pithy — something we honestly respect.
Setting aside the bizarre reality that makes new media specialists turn to old media distribution platforms to make a little coin, her pithy section on SF espresso quotes something like this (pp 147-148):
Espresso is the nude beach of coffee making — there is just no hiding. You can tell with one look whether that shot is tight or flabby. [Hence our mandatory photos.] These are places whose shots can proudly walk along the shore in the unforgiving light of day.
Well said, tablehopper. She then proceeds to rank Blue Bottle Coffee and Four Barrel Coffee. With a lot to choose from these days, it’s still hard to knock these two. Yes, Jeremy Tooker: I know you’ve thought we’ve had it out for you for so long, but congrats on really improving your roasting operations over the past couple of years. You guys have since earned your top-notch accolades after a rougher start.
tablehopper then makes mention of Philz Coffee (even if they have nothing to do with espresso), Ritual Roasters, and Coffee Bar. But, playing her hand, she also pulls out an editorial bubble on the Gibraltar. Which is pretty much shorthand to us for, “I don’t know coffee, but I know clique.”
Not that we are honestly surprised. Even industry gossipers can’t help themselves: it’s in their nature.
Saturday’s Chicago Tribune published a pretty good piece on Intelligentsia CEO, Doug Zell:
Intelligentsia Coffee’s CEO talks beans – chicagotribune.com.
While Doug gets a little loopy (our opinion) in abusing the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee — e.g., espousing such shoehorned ideas as coffee pairings — he’s been a pioneer and leader in areas such as:
The article also notes the roots of his coffee experience at the Bay Area’s Peet’s and Spinelli chains (the latter since bought out by Tully’s), Intelligentsia’s successes at barista competitions, and working with area restaurateurs.
However, on that last note, the article also quotes Rick Bayless — the “Frontera Grill/Topolobampo chef/cookbook author/TV personality.” While he is a genuinely talented perfectionist himself, and we love his food, his restaurants pull some of the weakest shots of Intelligentsia we’ve ever had.