May 2010

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea (Kirkland, WA)

Posted by on 19 May 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Now that we’ve been told Seattle espresso is passé — with self-proclaimed Third Wave aficionados holding their nose at the (former) Queen City’s “Oh So Last Wave” reputation — we recently visited a variety of Seattle espresso bars. This is the first post of a coming series on Seattle cafés. We hope this series will provide some basic insight into Seattle’s coffee culture and how it is currently measuring up next to the rest of the coffee world. (More on that later.)

Oddly enough, our first installment comes from Kirkland, WA. Most of you are probably familiar with Kirkland only through Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand — named after this town that served as Costco’s headquarters from 1987 to 1996. Located on the shores of Lake Washington, northeast of Seattle, Kirkland is a quiet suburb of old homes and sprawling new condo development … and it’s home to the only Zoka Coffee outside of Seattle and Japan.

Entrance to Zoka Coffee in Kirkland, WA Patrons playing a game of 'My Mobile Phone Is Cooler Than Yours' at the Kirkland Zoka Coffee

This is a large corner café in “downtown” Kirkland with a lot of seating inside on various tables and chairs, including a giant communal long wooden table and even the sawed-up midsection of a giant tree stump. Outside there is a lone metal table along Central Way near bronze public sculptures of wrestling rabbits in front.

The laptop zombie factor is heavy here, as even this spacious café with its tall ceilings is packed with people who don’t appear to work for a living. (Not unlike, say, SF’s original Ritual Roasters.) They use Mazzer grinders, a Hario Buono drip kettle with Bonmac drippers, and the wall sells everything from beans to Bodums to Chemex.

Coffee service at the Kirkland Zoka, with the departing Slayer in back Bags of Zoka coffee for retail sale in Zoka Kirkland

They had a two-group Slayer machine when we visited, but they were packing it up to ship to an alternate Seattle location because of “underuse” here. Sorry, folks, but you’re “stuck” with a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 instead. The signage proclaims “19g of espresso extracted for all espresso drinks,” and they use their Espresso Paladino for pulling shots (ours was from a five-day old roast).

The shot has a mottled medium brown crema of average thickness. It has a smooth and simple flavor of blended spices, herbs, a touch of molasses, and runs very fruity (stone fruit). Combined with a little bit of chocolate on the finish, there’s a bit of chocolate-covered cherries going on. But clearly this is no brightness bomb.

The flavor is blended well and somewhat understated — almost too understated compared to the shots of Paladino we used to have at SF’s defunct Cafe Organica. There is definitely an Old World dimension to the working espresso blend here. While a good, solid effort, there’s room for improvement and there’s better Seattle espresso to come.

Read the review of Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea in Kirkland, WA.

Zoka Kirkland's La Marzocco GB/5 and Cup of Excellence signage about The Zoka Kirkland espresso

A Winning Formula for Traditional Espresso

Posted by on 13 May 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

In recent months, The Atlantic — much like the New York Times — has shown a heightened interest in coffee. Most of it has come from articles penned by Starbucks co-founder, Jerry Baldwin. But today’s article comes from Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè: A Winning Formula for Traditional Espresso – Food – The Atlantic.

Illy branding at Caffè CentoYes, Italy: the birthplace of good espresso, and the perennial underachiever at barista championships. But even so, Mr. Milos has a few critiques to offer Americans on the deficiencies of our espresso — namely:

  • too much coffee per shot — resulting in overly concentrated shots with a narrow aroma profile,
  • coffee that is still gassing out after recent roasting — often resulting in sour flavors (akin to the brightness bomb we often mention),
  • cups that aren’t pre-heated, and
  • improper grind.

Italians take their espresso preparation very seriously. On the whole, our palate prefers some of the best North American examples to the best that Italy has to offer. However, Italy is far more consistent, the typical standards are much higher there than here, and the process of making a decent espresso is far more codified than the free-for-all we experience in America.

It’s not uncommon, however, to find sour expressions on the faces of Italian espresso experts when they try even the best examples this continent has to offer. The Italian espresso palate may be precise, but some in the Americas might say it can be a bit too precise.

The social politics and economics of coffee prices

Posted by on 07 May 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade

What is it about coffee today that makes it such a lightning rod for consumer indignation and class warfare? Nobody expresses outrage over a $400 bottle of wine, a $110,000 MSRP Mercedes-Benz, or even a $300,000 diamond-encrusted smart phone. But should someone dare sell a cup of coffee for $12, the world is coming to an end.

Angry mobs confront the $12 cup of coffeeAnd it’s not just the price tag that gets people taking up torches to Frankenstein’s castle either. Bring up a $12 cup of coffee, and angry mobs start asking about how much is going back to the farmers — or how much of the perceived price gouging should be donated to charity instead. Yet this reaction never happens with expensive wine, cars, or mobile phones. (We’ve even noted how this doesn’t even happen with tea.)

Because everything you do is really about me, me, me

People willing to splurge once in a while on a $12 cup of coffee are then invariably labeled “idiots.” But the same could be said of any passion or hobby that each of us spends our discretionary income on: wine, automobiles, NFL tickets, cable TV subscriptions, golf memberships, works of art, Disney vacations, etc. So why all the hostility as if a $12 cup of coffee were a personal threat?

In pearls before swine parlance, we are all swine about something that others deeply value. What makes coffee different is that we resent the suggestion of being “swine” when it comes to something we already relate to and experience. What could be presumed is that our taste in coffee is no longer good enough — as if what someone else drinks is somehow a value judgment about ourselves. Talk about insecurity.

Jezebel & Newser chime in on the designer coffee debateOne of the reasons for this cultural dissonance is that coffee is still largely perceived as a universal, utilitarian beverage of only marginal quality differences — an old notion rooted in coffee’s mass production in the 20th century. Another reason is the sense that specialty coffee has gotten too fancy for its own good. But yet another reason is that very few people in our complex society honestly know what things really cost — even if we all think we do.

Cost breakdown of a cup of coffee

Oscar Wilde once famously said that a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Most consumers know the price of everything but the cost of nothing. Coffee is a prime example. This is what makes layman reporters’ eyes bug out when they see the $18,000 MSRP price tag for a Slayer machine. They think you’re launching the thing on a mission to Mars for that price, completely oblivious of the fact that a decent — and more “pedestrian” — La Marzocco GB/5 machine runs for more than $20,000.

When people complain about the mythical $4 cup of coffee — or the “How I bought a house by making my own coffee at home” myth — they commonly operate with the false perception that retail coffee is $0.20 ingredients and $3.80 pure profit. We’ve vainly tried to explain that the biggest expense in a cup of retail coffee is labor, not coffee beans, so this time we’ll try to back it up with public data.

One major challenge is that every coffee shop is different. Another challenge is that the figures are often obscured in research reports costing thousands of dollars. We unfortunately couldn’t reproduce a recent chart for Starbucks showing how much labor costs were their biggest expense in a cup of coffee. However, here we’ve plotted data from one UK report in 2007 and a BIS Shrapnel report from 2006 showing the production costs of a retail flat white (call it a cappuccino for American purposes).

Data from a 2007 UK study on the costs behind a retail cup of coffee Data from a 2006 Australian study on the average component costs to produce a retail flat white

The chart at left represents the cost breakdown for a major coffee retailer, such as Starbucks. It not only includes labor, profit, and local taxes, but there’s also an administration overhead that covers things like advertising and marketing expenses, utilities, insurance, etc. The chart at right does not include the overheard of rent, administration, nor profit; it more closely represents just production costs.

The thing to note here is how little the actual coffee represents in the price of a retail coffee — and how much its price reflects labor, rent, utilities, and other costs.

So when you’re buying a specialty, limited supply, microlot coffee for $12 a cup, the cost of the coffee beans can increase by an order of magnitude. But don’t overlook the impact of labor costs on the end price. A delicate, pedigree coffee can be wasted by “normal” brewing methods. While vacuum pots and Hario drippers do a far better job of showcasing the coffee beans, they are far more labor intensive than brewing in a basic French press or generic coffee urn.

New York City or Yakima, WA: Who has the more sophisticated palates?

Even if you can successfully explain the constituent costs in a $12 cup of coffee, that still doesn’t explain the recent media freak-out in New York City over it. Aren’t New Yorkers supposed to be the cultural sophisticates — and not the ones stepping off the Greyhound bus on 42nd Street yelling, “Golly!!! That there sure is one tall combine!” like some wide-eyed Kansas farm boy?

Contrast New York City’s recent reaction with a $14 cup of microlot coffee that ranked no greater than a mere footnote in the Yakima Herald in 2008:

And while supplies last, you can order up a $14 cup of coffee made from Nicaraguan beans that Stumptown bought at auction for $47.06 per pound. According to buystumptowncoffee.com: “Its thick caramel notes, Granny Smith apple, kiwi and apricot flavors had us awestruck and thirsting for more.”

When it comes to coffee, it’s as if New York City keeps inventing new ways to embarrass itself.

UPDATE: June 6, 2010
Tadias Magazine, which reaches out to the Ethiopian-American community in the U.S., published this article questioning why the same rare coffee can go for $12 in New York and $2.69 in Seattle: $12 Cup Joe in New York? Same Coffee Goes for $2.69 in Seattle at Tadias Magazine. Once again, to paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the coffee. It’s about the labor. While the profit margins may differ, a huge part of the costs behind their pricing depends on how one café prepares the coffee versus another. Not to mention cost of living differences between café locations.

Please repeat after me, aspiring journalists and laymen alike: when you buy food or drink retail, you’re mostly buying labor. When you drop three bills for dinner at The French Laundry, you’re not primarily paying for a grocery shopping list of ingredients. This really shouldn’t be that hard to understand.

UPDATE: Sept. 23, 2013
Today the Daily Mail cited an Allegra Strategies study noting the breakdown of the price of a cup of coffee — down to labor costs (the biggest) and even how the beans cost less than the disposable cup it comes in: Coffee, the surprising reality: CUP costs twice as much as beans that are flown in from South America | Mail Online. Ironically, this news came out the same day that a blowhard in Australia, Michael Pascoe, gripes about the cheap materials cost of coffee while clearly clueless that it amounts to less than the price of the paper cup it comes in: The great coffee rip-off is no myth. Labor, Mr. Pascoe, perhaps you’ve heard of it? Or perhaps you write for free, as it shows in your analytical business skills.

Trip Report: Sohberts

Posted by on 07 May 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

This industrial art space café opened in late 2009 and is easy to miss — despite its size and being across the street from AT&T Park. There are a few French café tables among the front patio and also inside, but inside it is primarily a large art space with white walls and a number of pieces of various media, including lawn chairs on a real patch of lawn.

At the center of the airy space is a coffee bar that doesn’t mess with food items: the focus here is on the coffee. They use a two-group Laranzato ME-2, which is the only one we’ve seen outside of the Big Island of Hawaii. There are also a number of plastic Clever drippers from Sweet Maria’s and a number of Pelligrino bottles lining the long serving countertops.

This indescript entrance to Sohberts is down an alleyway off King St. Inside Sohberts is about art, industrial design, and, well, grass

The SF Weekly highlighted the introduction of these Clever drippers earlier this month — as they now are available for retail coffee use in SF beyond Four Barrel Coffee. The SFoodie crew at SF Weekly were also quick to anoint them as a “Third Wave coffee shop” in the article’s first sentence, but that (meaningless) claim rings hollow when paper cups are the only option available. To us, this is akin to comparing a restaurant to a James Beard Award winner while it only serves on paper plates.

But let’s forget the coffee toy du jour for a moment: of course, our reviews focus on the espresso.

They proudly feature coffee from Equator Coffees & Teas, which we’ve long been ambivalent about — particularly in a retail environment. Equator receives tremendous accolades as a roaster, but virtually all of the cafés they supply produce decent but ultimately forgettable results. Here they used Equator’s Arabian Mocha Java blend for espresso, but they also featured an organic Brazil Chapada Diamantina, a Colombia La Josefina, and a Costa Rica Montes de Oro (for the Clever drippers).

Sohberts Clever drippers leading up to their Laranzato ME-2 machine The Sohberts espresso - in the required paper cup

They pull espresso as sizable shots served in larger, drip-coffee-sized paper cups (unfortunately). It has a healthy looking, mottled, medium brown crema of average thickness and a flavor of a light tobacco smokiness. There are some herbal notes and pleasant spices in the mix, but the shot has a somewhat narrow flavor profile.

The crowds are light and the art space makes for an interesting place to linger over a coffee. And the coffee itself is pretty good — just again not the place to showcase Equator beans. But then that isn’t surprising for Equator coffee in a retail environment.

Read the review of Sohberts.

Blue Bottle, Four Barrel Rank in Food & Wine Magazine’s 2010 Go List

Posted by on 04 May 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

We honestly don’t like repeating ourselves, but we will anyway. No, this has nothing to do with the Cafe Grumpy $12 cup of coffee scuttlebutt going around — where New Yorkers once again find something in their backyard and therefore presume they must have invented it. (Curiously, this came up one month after CNN reported on a $13 cup of coffee in Baltimore. Let alone the $15 cups we wrote about in 2007.)

Food & Wine magazine publishes an annual “Go List” [pdf, 1.34Mb] of their Top 100 “New Food & Drink Experiences,” and the 2010 version that came out in this month’s issue includes the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee (#20) and Four Barrel Coffee (#21). Rounding out their coffee obsession: cult roasters section is Copenhagen’s Coffee Collective (#19) and Melbourne, Australia’s Seven Seeds (#22).

What makes this a repeat? Flashback to our recent posts on Bon Appétit’s Top 10 Boutique Coffee Shops or MSN City Guide’s choices for coffee roasters for a moment. Not that Blue Bottle and Four Barrel wouldn’t be on our short list, but we sometimes wonder if said article researchers do little more than read each other’s Top 10 magazine lists. We also wonder why a list of supposedly “new” hot spots includes roasters who have been established for a few years now.

The nebbia, or fog, of Nebbiolo fame shrouds the Ceretto Bricco Rocche estateWhat we do appreciate is that a magazine called Food & Wine noticeably changed their tone with a decidedly Food & Drink list — so that they may include beverages such as coffee. Well, that and it was also interesting to see Ceretto‘s new wine tasting room in Piemonte at #6 — having experienced some of the modern glass architecture of Ceretto’s Bricco Rocche estate when we last visited in 2007.

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