This unusual, two-story café resides at the base of the ultra modern, five-star 15 on Orange Hotel. On the upper floor, it has a serving area with a two-group Saeco Steel SE 200 at a bar, a number of black tables and chairs, a branded lit display, a couple of Saeco home machines on display, a fashionable clothing and jewelry shop, and a few baked goods under glass. Outside there’s a patio with three plastic chairs and café tables under parasols advertising Saeco. Downstairs there’s more black tables and chairs and an array of several home Saeco machines for demonstration.
Together the place is wrapped heavily in Saeco red & black branding, giving it a Segafredo Zanetti-like feel. But this café, currently unique in the world, is Saeco’s showcase for their machines and coffee — a sort of counter to the Nespresso showrooms planted all over the world.
Despite the hip, modern feel of the place, the friendly barista leaves the portafilter handles cooling in the drip tray. But when the machine is in service (there are few customers ever in here), they pull shots of Saeco coffee (also sold here in kilo-sized bags) into plastic, transparent, double-walled Bodum cups. You can see a good 2mm layer of even, medium brown crema.
But despite the rich aroma and good looks, the flavor is a bit of a disappointment: flat, a little tarry, but otherwise pungent cloves. Served on a silver platter with a large glass of water. R12, or about $1.55.
Read the review of Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa.
In the transitioning Cape Town neighborhood of Woodstock, which out-Missions the Mission, this espresso bar and roaster perhaps looks like no other you’ve seen before. Located inside the newly-art-conscious Old Biscuit Mill, this small space is a pristine, stark black-&-white-themed coffee lab that exudes meticulous organization. The Old Biscuit Mill is known in town for Cape Town’s original gourmet food market (and hipster Mecca) that it hosts each Saturday — giving Espresso Lab Microroasters a little bit of the small-operation, gourmet-public-market-based origins familiar to the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee.
The periodic table of the chemical elements features heavily in the highly consistent theme of this roaster/café. It shows in the elemental-looking coffee drink menu printed on the white tile walls (those “atomic weights” in the photo are actually prices in South African Rands), through to the labeled chem-lab-looking buckets of unroasted green beans, and all the way to the company T-shirts packaged in silver ziploc bags labeled with the “element” Ts for T-shirt.
Opening a little over a year ago, they have three internal benches for seating plus a couple of outdoor patio tables. In back is a black & white Diedrich IR-7 roaster. In front they offer Hario Buono kettle/V60 drip coffee — their “Artisinal Brew” (Ab). Renato, co-owner with Helene, noted how the locals still haven’t made a leap to filter coffee just yet. However, he is assisting in the opening of a pour-over bar (with Espresso Lab Microroasters’ coffee) in Stellenbosch — part of Cape Town’s famed nearby winelands and their associated fine dining establishments. (Stellenbosch is very much akin to the Napa Valley when compared to Cape Town’s San Francisco.)
Although the pour-over uptake may be slow at this location, there’s plenty of espresso to be had from their two-group La Marzocco GB/5, where you have the choice of an espresso blend or (on the day’s visit) a single-origin Kenya. The Kenya, Gichatha-ini from the Gikanda Farmers Co-Operative Society, won the SCAA’s Best of Kenya. Cup of Excellence still doesn’t exist in Africa outside of Rwanda.
Their Esp008 espresso blend (rated here) uses 40% Serra do Boné Brazil as a base, 40% Puente Ecológico Tarrazú Costa Rica for the midrange, and 20% Guji Ethiopia for brightness and “wildness”. Their espresso blends vary mostly by different African varietals for that last 20%, and they emphasize changes in blending ratios — rather than using additional microlot farms or roasting the coffees differently for different blends or uses.
The Esp008 espresso blend shot (R14, or about $2 US) is dense without being too syrupy — with a textured dark-to-medium-brown crema and an upfront sweetness that’s not too off-putting. Still, its citric bite on top of an herbal background makes for a uniquely layered espresso flavor — one that Renato says is influenced by the lighter roasts of his Oslo, Norway coffee upbringing combined with his Portuguese roots and what Africa adds to the cup. Renato’s Norwegian influences include former WBC champ, Tim Wendelboe, and it shows in the lighter roasting styles and the feel of this space.
Their shot of single-origin Kenya (also used for their “Artisinal Brew” pour-over) was super bright with a pleasant floral and citric base — but without being a brightness bomb. They also offer something they call a cortado, which is pretty much the same as an American Gilbraltar out of a Gibraltar glass. And for milk-frothing, they produce rather exquisite latte art with fine surface bubbles. This is a fine and somewhat unique example of what South African espresso has to offer.
Read the review of Espresso Lab Microroasters in Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa.
Whereas we’ve written an SF-oriented post on the common cues for recognizing a good or bad espresso, today’s WAtoday (Western Australia) features an article on how to spot a dodgy coffee: Perth’s Best and Worst Coffee.
We’ll simply quote it here:
Mooba Subiaco manager Hannah Cameron told WAtoday.com.au the top five ways customers can see that the coffee you are about to buy is not going to be top quality:
1) Beans are not ground on demand. Good baristas only grind the beans when they are needed. Ground coffee goes off in no time at all, if ground coffee is sitting in the coffee beans dispenser walk away now.
2) The shot is poured out of the machine too fast. A quick coffee is not a good coffee. Don’t be impatient. If your shot gets poured into the cup from the machine in under 10 seconds it won’t be good. The best take 20-40 seconds to filter through the coffee.
3) Don’t buy it if the barista does not use a clean milk jug, if they re-heat milk, add cold milk onto already heated milk and heat again or have a massive milk jug to heat heaps at a time.
4) If the bench is not clean, there are coffee grounds everywhere, the milk wand is caked in milk or anything looks unclean get out now.
5) If their machine looks like you could buy it for $100 don’t bother. Most top-quality Perth baristas use Synessos, the best machines in the world. If your barista used one of these you have a good chance that the final product will be tasty.
We pretty much agree with all of these points. However, we’d like to add a qualifier to the last one. Using a machine that looks worth about $100 is less of the cause and more of the symptom.
In the right barista hands, we’ve had very good espresso shots pulled from older refurbs or even cheaper machines. The real cue is a place that cares so little about their espresso quality that they cut as many corners as possible. This explains SF’s problem with La Spaziale machines: it’s not the machine that’s the problem, it’s the people who are buying them.
Opening in Sept. 2009, this beachfront café in downtown Kalk Bay bustles with lovers of coffee and baked goods. They’ve adopted a theme based on New York City’s TriBeCa neighborhood, which is expressed in NYC imagery on the walls. The tables are pretty classy, actually, and there are often musicians in front along the sidewalk (which has some of its own sidewalk table seating). While popular for breakfast, they also serve sandwiches and dinner after 5pm.
Cappuccinos are on the menu, instead of flat whites, and they also offer the occasional odd South African coffee cocktail, such as the honey nut crunch macchiato. In back there’s an espresso bar that also offers wine, where an older, deep red, three-group La San Marco machine pulls shots of their own espresso blend. (They also have a Mazzer grinder.)
The resulting shot has a flecked, even, medium brown crema. It’s a touch thin, but it’s hard to complain: it’s a potent espresso (surprising as a double-sized single) with a fuller body and a roasted flavor of some pepper and spices blended well. A fine example of espresso in a popular place. R13 (about $1.75).
Read the review of Tribeca Bakery in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, South Africa.
We’ve previously lamented the abuse and overuse of the term “perfect,” particularly when it comes to espresso. For this, and for injecting the term into the media vernacular for anything we consume, we have justifiable grounds to send Martha Stewart back to prison. Until we again see Martha in an orange jumper, today our inboxes provided two more exhibits for state’s evidence.
The first concerns a pursuit of un cappuccino perfetto in San Francisco: The Sipping Point – The Bold Italic – San Francisco by Nicole Martinelli. The other comes from a coffee taster and sales manager for Caffè Umbria: Coffee Taster » Blog Archive » The perfect espresso: a caresse, not a punch. The latter covers some familiar themes on what’s lacking in restaurant espresso in America, so here we will instead focus on the former article.
Ms. Martinelli’s article is written from the perspective of a San Franciscan who, for a time, left to live in Milan, Italy. She thus uses Milan as her point of reference for the “perfect” cappuccino. Yet we’ve stated for years how Milan is one of the greatest espresso underachievers in Italy, and the café ratings in Gambero Rosso’s annual Bar d’Italia back us up. (The additional irony of an interista speaking to the authentic Italian cappuccino is also not lost here, given that the Inter soccer club is about as Italian as Buenos Aires’ Boca Juniors.)
So how can you stake a legitimate claim to perfection when your reference point is anything but? It’s not by accident that of the 666 active San Francisco espresso purveyors currently listed on CoffeeRatings.com, not one of them scores higher than an 8.6 on a 10-point scale. But what is interesting is the cappuccino angle, of course. Even if the comprehensiveness of the author’s quest falls about 659 entries short of ours, we’ve historically made it a point not to rate the cappuccino. We do, however, comment on their quality in the reviews, and this does influence our Taster’s Correction score. But if they can judge a cappuccino at barista competitions, there’s reason to suggest we should.
The article also cites Giorgio Milos, who recently ruffled some American feathers by suggesting the Italian way is the only way to appreciate espresso. Back to our original “perfect” denunciation, we introduced the work of Howard Moskowitz to underscore that instead of a “perfect cappuccino”, what society really wants are the “perfect cappuccinos.” OK, i cappuccini perfetti if you want to be Italian about it.
This downtown espresso bar and roaster was co-founded by Carl Wessel and former Origin roaster, Judd Francis. It’s a tiny, tiny spot with room for only three stools at the espresso bar, two stools along the shop window counter, and two inside chairs.
Inside there are worn, wooden floors, artsy touches like cacti and odd sculptures (not to mention the Vespa skeleton on the wall, giving the guys behind SF’s Vega something to lust after), a short wall rack of coffee accessories, and good rock music for the slacker set.
There’s also a roaster for on-site roasting behind the barista counter, if you can believe it. How they get this all to fit into one tiny space reminds one of a Japanese commuter hotel/locker.
Every drink is R10 (about $1.30) — milk or not — which is a bit of an unusual pricing strategy for anywhere. Using a two-group WEGA, they pull shots with a semi-thin, mottled medium and dark brown crema. It sits a little high in the cup, and this is reflected in the thinner body. Flavorwise, it tastes earthy with pepper and some tobacco. Served in classic brown ACF cups.
Read the review of Deluxe Coffeeworks in Cape Town, South Africa.
Mention the name “Woolworths” to an American, and they’ll think “Woolworth’s” [sic] (again with that possessive thing). Woolworth was founded in 1879 as one of America’s first five-and-dime stores — even if it has become known as Foot Locker since the turn of the millennium. For those who remember Woolworth as a discount dimestore, the last thing you’d expect from something named “Woolworths” is decent espresso.
Woolworths is a South African chain of clothing stores that was founded in Cape Town in 1931. This chain has no relation to the U.S. company, other than legally stealing an inspired variant of its name (without the possessive). They also operate in Australia under this name as a clothing retailer and discount grocer, so Australians have a similar reaction to Americans. But just as the American Woolworth’s evolved into an athletic shoe store, in South Africa Woolworths has evolved into something of a fancy packaged food store. It has the wholesome, feel-good green messaging of a Whole Foods, but without any of the whole food produce — making it more akin to an upscale version of the American Trader Joe’s chain. (Woolworths identifies not only the breed of cattle on their milk cartons, but also the farmer with his/her photo.)
Cultural perspective can do a lot to screw with your head. Take the Italian sportswear label, Kappa. Most Americans look at their Adam-and-Eve Omini logo and blush red, being culturally conditioned to think instead of the Eve-and-Eve silver naked ladies on the mud flaps of 18-wheelers. Meanwhile, any Italian knows it as the image of Adam and Eve — representing equality in sports, analogous to America’s Title IX, and the complete opposite of the chauvinistic American interpretation.
What helped get us beyond our cultural conditioning about Woolworths was that their W Cafés have earned some notoriety for the quality of their cappuccinos (not flat whites, mind you). A W Café is also home to the reigning South African barista champion — stealing the crown from Origin Coffee Roasting.
This W Café is located around the corner from their corporate flagship store/corporate offices in Cape Town’s City Bowl. There are a number of W Café parasols along the Longmarket St. sidewalk for sidewalk dining, but who really wants to here? (It’s not the most inviting sidewalk seating and people-watching in town.) Inside the small space there’s loud music and a festive staff with a limited number of stools to sit at along a short window counter facing Longmarket St., plus a lone table in back. The shop specializes more in “to-go” food, which leaves few options for breakfast and more for lunch (let alone indoor seating).
Using a three-group Nuova Simonelli — and a worn, three-group La Marzocco Linea — behind the front counter, they pull shots of decidedly organic espresso with a richly textured brown crema in a short paper cup (R11).
Ugh — if only they had something besides paper here. That’s enough to get us swearing in Afrikaans. However, the cup offers more than the usual paper design: with a grippable spiral, like the inside of a Hario V60 dripper. And the resulting cup is surprisingly good: with a full crema of real thickness, and very good body, and a rounded and smooth flavor that’s mostly a blend of herbal pungency.
A good place to go for a shot, and even a pretty good cappuccino (which is more like a caffè latte) — but not too much else.
Read the review of the W Café at Longmarket St. in Cape Town, South Africa.
Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald published a curious fad-contrarian article under the subhed of “Espresso lovers are fighting the siphon and filter revolution”: Shots fired in retaliation.
Now the idea of a “siphon and filter revolution” is still a bit silly to us, given that siphon brewing has been around since the 1830s and filter coffee for even longer. For example, we’ve lost count how many times we’ve seen people “ooh” and “ahh” geek-out over recent Chemex brewer coffee references as if they we witnessing something revolutionary. This despite the fact that I have several uncles-by-marriage who have been using Chemex brewers for longer than most of today’s baristas have been alive.
However, filter coffee has undergone something of a public interest revolution. This has been another dimension to our theory about exploratory coffee fads, such as an obsession with single-origin coffees and medium roasts. What’s old becomes new again as coffee lovers experience the natural progression when seeking out the next “new” thing: something to learn from and to be stimulated by, even if it’s your immigrant uncle’s coffee.
So we have things like London’s Penny University, who are focusing on the new faddish thing (for UK standards) by offering only filter coffee and not espresso. This makes as much sense to us as the concept behind Scott Rao’s Everything But Espresso book. Instead of defining what you are, you define yourself by what you are not.
Now don’t get us wrong. We love filter coffee in its various trend-friendly forms. But if the Third Wave was supposed to be about enjoying coffee for its own sake, why are we setting up so many rules about what not to offer and what not to do? The traps of single-origins-only, medium-roasts-only, or filter-coffee-only are just as badly restrictive and closed-minded as having only blends, dark roasts, and espresso at our disposal.
Back to yesterday’s article, unfortunately it doesn’t express that “backlash” very well — instead favoring its own, counter-fads such as the Strada, the Slayer, etc. More to the point, we need more people speaking out saying, “But I like my espresso. Why is it suddenly passé?”
In the news today, researchers in Australia have decided to take a deconstructionist’s approach towards creating the ideal coffee: Australia Looks To Produce The Ultimate Cup Of Coffee | Gov Monitor. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) performed experiments to determine how picking coffee cherries at different stages in their maturity might affect their taste in a resulting cup.
From the article:
Researchers taste tested a range of roasted coffees which had their cherries harvested at different stages of their growing cycles. Their aim was to determine when is the best time to harvest coffee cherries in order to achieve the tastiest cups of coffee for the growing espresso market and the traditional plunger market.
They rated the coffees according to five criteria; sweetness, balance, body, flavour and aftertaste.
We applaud the intended goals of measurement-driven thinking in their research, even if we’ve previously debunked the confusion between measurement and science for people tinkering with coffee. However, we also cannot help but feel that the RIRDC’s approach is loaded with the self-deceptions of food science deconstructionism. Another example of this deconstructionist approach being nutritionism.
The big problem with deconstructionism is that it presumes the superposition principle. In less geeky terms, this means assuming that nature behaves as if everything you can isolate is completely independent from everything else you can isolate, and that nature follows a simple sum of all the parts. This is a naïve belief because biological systems are highly interdependent. For example, vitamin D is added to most forms of dairy milk because our absorption rates of vitamin D are much poorer if we take it separately — i.e., without milk.
Similarly, what might give coffee a better body might also adversely impact its brightness or flavor (and does, in fact). Is it any wonder why coffee blending is more of an art than a science?
In the less geeky news department, we have this post from the Seattle Times‘ regular “Coffee City” columnist, Melissa Allison: Business & Technology | Coffeemania — from the mouths of baristas | Seattle Times Newspaper.
In true tyranny of the barista fashion, Ms. Allison offers several short interviews from coffee industry notables, from Tonya Wagner of Victrola Coffee Roasters to David Schomer of Espresso Vivace to author Michaele Weissman. With her lead-in of, “We’re going behind the counter to ask baristas to talk about themselves,” clearly we have several people who either currently aren’t or never have been professional baristas.
Must we always presume that anybody doing anything for quality coffee in the industry must be a barista? Is there any better way to simultaneously lowball the qualifications of a barista while grossly oversimplifying how good coffee arrives in our cups?
One of the most important, and most tragic, stories of human history since the age of the Portuguese explorers is the story of Colonialism. Today the vestiges of Colonialism are apparent everywhere from globalization to the impact of slavery and race relations around the world. For example, to look at the history of Cape Town, South Africa, is to look at the Dutch East India Company and the forced migration of slaves not from Africa but from southeast Asia — i.e., primarily modern day Indonesia and Malaysia.
Fast forward to modern times. It has been less than two decades since South Africa has been free from apartheid, and the “Rainbow Nation” has done a remarkable job at overcoming cultural differences and burying grudges over the many wrongs of the past. (Contrast this with, say, the recent history of the Balkans.) Fortunately, Colonialism in South Africa today has been reduced to more of the corporate variety. Take retail coffee chains, for example.
Last month, coffee colonialists Starbucks blew their vuvuzelas to announce their arrival in South Africa in time for the 2010 World Cup. It was as if to tell the many global tourists to the Rainbow Nation, “Don’t worry. We will save you from the scary coffee backwaters of South Africa. Rest assured that good coffee will be made available during your stay, thanks to us — your Starbucks rescue team.”
Not unlike South Africa’s Commonwealth sisters, New Zealand and Australia, Starbucks lacks a presence here partly because a typical espresso in South Africa is better than most of what’s typically available in a Starbucks haven, such as the U.S. Hence Starbucks’ announcement elicited little more than a yawn from the locals.
Another reason why this wasn’t news was because smaller regional chains, such as Vida e Caffè (“Life and Coffee” in Portuguese), have captured the market with better coffee and a far more relevant environment. Vida e Caffè is one of the best local chain examples — branding itself through a Portuguese theme, bright red colors, and a lively, youthful image. In American cultural imagery parlance, think artsy, ethnic skateboarders gone hip hop. This is not the café chain for anti-social laptop zombies.
This installment of Vida e Caffè is located in the high-security Wembley Square mall. “High-security” is sort of redundant in much of South Africa, but this place takes it to another level. For those who recall the transformation of SF neighborhoods such as the eastern Mission District — where, in the 1980s, metal bars and gates once covered every street-side window and door along Bryant St. — imagine going in the complete opposite direction.
South Africa takes its security so seriously, to an outsider it feels like a cross between paranoia and a people under siege. Barbed wire and electrical fences are as ubiquitous as the security systems advertising “Armed Response”. Half of Cape Town’s 3.5 million residents seem employed as private security. Yet despite the ominous signs of eminent danger, and despite the country’s criminal reputation, in reality there are rarely signs that the alarm is justified. A 1970s New York felt far more dangerous. Whether their cultural response is overkill is good fodder for a separate debate.
The newer Wembley Square mall, frequented by the perfect bodies entering and leaving the Virgin Active gym inside, is built like a fortress. Pedestrian entry is next to impossible to find at street level, and where it does exist there are interlocked double security doors. But once inside the fortress, in a small mall court, you’ll easily recognize Vida e Caffè by the red plastic tables and chairs along with logo parasols (what for in an indoor mall, we still don’t know). High-energy baristas/servers decked in Vida e Caffè gear will shout out the orders in their ethnic tongues while Brazilian samba plays overhead.
Using a four-group, white WEGA Nova machine, they pull shots that are also decidedly Portuguese. It has a thinner layer of a medium brown crema and a somewhat thinner body. The flavor profile is weighted more in the tobacco end of the spectrum, though they are quite excellent at producing dense microfoam with their milk. Served in a Vida e Caffè-logo Protexca cup with a 70% Lindt chocolate on the side. A decent deal at R10.50.
Read the review of Vida e Caffè at Wembley Square in Cape Town, South Africa.