July 2010

Monthly Archive

Why CoffeeRatings.com is run by a bunch of map Luddites

Posted by on 15 Jul 2010 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

A long time ago we decided that coffee maps were an odd Internet fetish. Over the years we’ve been approached by people with special Internet maps APIs (call it Internet software for short), requests for Google maps views, and people building just about every coffee map variant under the sun. More recently, we have the local SF rag, 7×7, promoting their own “Third Wave” coffee map: Fully Caffeinated: A Citywide Map of Third Wave Coffee | 7×7. Never mind what arbitrary standards 7×7 uses to determine whether a place is “Third Wave” or not. (Arbitrary standards being one of our oldest pet peeves about anything published about coffee.)

For some coffee fans, this is the holy grail of information.And yet when it comes to coffee maps, this is still the only thing CoffeeRatings.com supports. Why is that? Are we just lazy? In a word, yes. It is minimal effort to export our database to link to mapping software. In fact, every one of our review pages have addresses auto-linked to Google maps.

But quality-ranked views of coffee shops, few and far between on the Internet, have always been more important to us than something that favors geographic proximity. Because if you are primarily driven by proximity, quality becomes secondary at best by definition. You can color-code the café markers in some mapping APIs — so that you can introduce an additional dimension of quality in a coffee map — but our experiments with that did not produce satisfying results. Furthermore, a city map with over 650 data points is information overload — and takes forever to load in a Web browser, let alone a mobile phone.

Are coffee maps useful beyond a visual exercise?

Coffee maps are far more ubiquitous on the Internet than quality-driven listings, and the criteria for including a café or not in these maps are typically arbitrary. (This is another reason why we wanted the café rankings on CoffeeRatings.com to be inclusive, to the tune of 650+ data points, rather than exclusive.) Case and point with 7×7: here some bizarrely subjective measure of “third waveness” is supposed to be a surrogate for coffee quality. And in the end, we are looking for good coffee, not good branding. We honestly don’t care what self-ordained wave a coffee shop belongs to.

Then take the typical San Francisco experience, where even the definition of proximity gets warped by things like parking availability and public transit lines. And while there are a lot of Internet beer maps for pub crawls, coffee crawls? Seriously? Who can honestly make a day of a dozen espresso drinks?

Lastly, we just don’t get the coffee map obsession. Sure, we know it exists. We just don’t understand the point beyond a visual exercise, rather than one of appreciating good coffee. In a way, we liken it to something Ian McKaye, founding guitarist of the seminal D.C. straight-edge band Fugazi, once told us long ago: “People are always asking us for Fugazi T-shirts. I honestly don’t understand the connection between music and a T-shirt.” (A position which spawned a number of unauthorized “This is not a Fugazi T-shirt” peddlers.)

UPDATE: April 19, 2013
A recent Harris Poll survey seems to back a bit of our madness here, suggesting that for most consumers quality is more important than convenience: Harris Interactive: Harris Polls > Battle of the Brew; Americans Choose Taste Over Convenience When Coffee Shops Go Head to Head. (Huff Post link.) According to their survey, people go out of their way to find coffee that tastes better. Hence all these “coffee map”-driven blogs, web sites, and mobile apps that use location as the primary discriminator between coffeeshops seem a little misguided when a quality-based ranking might serve users better.

We’re just sayin’… ;)

UPDATE: Feb. 20, 2014
Of course, none of that stops the human urge to make multiple various of coffee maps. After the New York coffee subway map came out a couple weeks ago, San Franciscans insisted on following suit: The greatest SF coffee shop map ever made – Thrillist San Francisco. You’d think GPS-enabled phones won’t be invented until the year 2125.

Trip Report: Origin Coffee Roasting (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 12 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Among coffee aficionados in town, quality artisan coffee originates with Origin. Opening in 2006 in a more modest space, this place changed the face of coffee in Cape Town if not South Africa. Since its expansion, it is now three transparent levels of coffee, café, roasting, regional Synesso distributor, and barista training labs. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a Nigiro Tea salon inside that will wow any tea lover. (“Nigiro” being “Origin” backwards.) It’s no mistake that the three core people behind the cool South African coffee blog, I Love Coffee, chose to meet me at this very place to discuss the local coffee culture.

One of the striking things about this three-level church of coffee is its level of transparency and open access. Through efforts such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and the organic coffee movement, transparency in the industry has become an operative word. Here that transparency comes to life — as visitors are welcome to walk throughout the building, check out their roasting operations, inspect their bags of imported beans, and tour their barista training facilities.

Hudson St. entrance to Origin, with Table Mountain in the distance Hudson St. entrance to Origin Coffee Roasting

Level 1

The service area downstairs is dark with wood slat walls — sporting an array of Hario vac pots, moka pots, drippers, home espresso machines, and beans. Sure, you could say that this place has all the same fad-driven coffee trappings at Truth., but for some reason it seems more genuine in this environment. There is plenty of seating and a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the ready for espresso drinks. Though this Hudson-Street-level downstairs entrance is a bit clubby with a lounge-like feel.

Signs announce the more interesting fresh roasts from Origin’s roasting operations, with a heavier emphasis on African-sourced-beans (Tanzania, etc.) but also some single origins from familiar terroir in Central and South America plus the occasional El Salvador Cup of Excellence. Signs also announce Origin’s place as the home of the 2007 & 2008 South African barista champions.

Entering the Hudson St. doorway into Origin First floor of Origin Coffee Roasting

Nigiro Tea occupies part of the first floor of Origin Coffee Roasting Staring down Nigiro tea pots

Level 2

Certified barista, on Origin Coffee Roasting's second levelUp the stairs past the Nigiro Tea salon, you enter their second level which consists of offices and a series of benches that form an espresso machine lab. Here, with barista certifications of employees hung on the wall, you can work with a Synesso machine, a WEGA, or a variety of other machines for training (or repair) services. Five years ago we recall Eton Tsuno of the defunct Café Organica espousing his vision for an espresso bar that offers home barista training, showcases home espresso machine models, etc. It’s been five years, and San Francisco still has yet to deliver on that vision. But here it is in Cape Town, South Africa — almost exactly as Eton described.

Wall of barista certification on the second level of Origin Coffee Roasting Synesso on display in the barista training room on Origin Coffee Roasting's second level

Level 3

Upstairs to the top floor, you encounter their main roasting operations, a lot of in-process bagging for shipment, and a soul food café. Towards the rear of the floor, there’s a brighter, glass-enclosed seating area that opens out to patio tables and chairs under parasols across from nearby modeling agencies. There’s plenty of café seating there behind the bright panes of glass with a chalkboard wall that’s something of a community chat space.

Like a few other quality places in the area, they serve their espresso shots as default doubles. There are no cappuccinos on the drink menu: only flat whites. There’s even a “3/4 flat white” for this who like theirs with less steamed milk. Staff wearing Origin “Some Like It Black” T-shirts use another two-group La Marzocco Linea machine to pull their double shots in 30ml shotglasses (for R14), placed on a saucer with a short glass of mineral water on the side. Origin used to offer ceramic demitasses for their espresso, but they’ve run out and are awaiting a new supply (they complained that those from the previous supplier chipped too easily).

US Roaster on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level Bags of greens and packing roasted coffee on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level

Seating area inside Origin Coffee Roasting's third level L to R: Francois Botha, Cindy Taylor, Andrew Franks of ILoveCoffee.co.za

Drink menu inside Origin Coffee Roasting ILoveCoffee.co.za and coffeeratings.com shares some blackboard space inside Origin Coffee Roasting

The Taste Test

Their espresso has a hefty, darker brown crema that persists, a robust body (one of the better examples in Cape Town), and a rounded, pungent, herbal-based flavor with spices and sweetness at the bottom of the cup. They also produce excellent microfoam: it’s even and not overly generous on their cappuccino (OK, “flat white”). You can readily see how inspirational Origin is — any town would be lucky to have it.

Read the review of Origin Coffee Roasting in Cape Town, South Africa.

Two-group La Marzocco Linea inside Origin Coffee Roasting The Origin Coffee Roasting espresso

The Origin Coffee Roasting flat white Seating outside on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level deck

Please Spare Us the Latest Culinary Craze at the NY Fancy Food Show

Posted by on 12 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Few things make our blood curdle like the words “culinary” and “craze” abutted next to each other. Which is not to mention that that the name “Fancy Food Show” sounds more like a culinary event for cats than humans. But as we mentioned earlier, coffee made a big appearance at the 56th Fancy Food Show in New York, and the Epoch Times covered the event: Epoch Times – Check Out the Latest Culinary Craze at the NY Fancy Food Show.

Nothing makes us swoon like wall-to-wall food hawking. You hear that, SCAA?For whatever reasons, the Italians aimed for high representation at the event — particularly through the Caffè Italia exhibit. The author mentions variations between the different regional coffees of Italy from the Roman Caffè Trombetta and Sant’Eustachio to the Neapolitan Caffè Kimbo — heavily endorsed in Italy by the ever-present actor, Gigi Proietti.

In any case, something tells us the slaughtering of live animals was not on the bill — even if it could have improved the atmosphere a bit.

Trip Report: Bread Milk & Honey (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 09 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

This breakfast spot near the Parliament is often frequented by well-heeled, manicured parliamentarians — and for good reason. They have excellent baked goods and very good coffee. Very, very good coffee — at least when it comes to blending with steamed milk.

Out front they have a few wooden sidewalk café tables under parasols advertising themselves and their use of Origin coffee. Inside there are many café tables that extend to a back room. The chalkboard menus provide a heavy emphasis on the coffee service here — advertising the occasional oddity like the “Big Daddy” quad shot of espresso.

Entrance to Bread Milk & Honey with shop and Origin parasols out front La San Marco and blackboard coffee menu at the entrance of Bread Milk & Honey

Bread Milk & Honey from the rear of the shop Rear of Bread Milk & Honey

Using a newer, red, two-group La San Marco behind the counter, they pull short shots with a mottled medium-brown crema (R13). The crema isn’t too distinguished, and it has a simpler flavor of mild pepper and cloves. But it has one of the richer bodies for Cape Town espresso.

Read the review of Bread Milk & Honey in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Cappuccino vs. the South African Flat White

The staff particularly excel at microfoam (and latte art), however. Their milk-frothing consists of fine, consistent bubbles, resulting in a cappuccino that’s well-blended with properly made espresso. But like the rest of Cape Town, here they make no distinction between a cappuccino and a flat white. South Africa may be part of the Commonwealth, but this slippery definition might be considered grounds for war among member nations Australia and New Zealand — where flat white purists beg to differ. A cappuccino’s third/third/third ratio of espresso/foam/steamed milk is generally considered one-third/two-thirds espresso/steamed milk (i.e., no foam) in a flat white.

Spain vs. Paraguay projected across Kloof Street by Café Sofia, with Table Mountain behindEven so, milk foam is a rarity in Cape Town — though we did find a prime (and surprisingly good) example of it on a café cortado at the quasi-Spanish local mini-chain, Café Sofia. South Africans who know their coffee tell us that ordering the flat white is a way of avoiding not just froth-ball cappuccinos but also what sounds like the curse of the overly milky gargantuan cappuccino (common in America).

In any case, Bread Milk & Honey may skirt the controversy by referring to their flat white as a cappucino [sic]. But you can’t go wrong for either breakfast or people-watching here.

The Bread Milk & Honey espresso The Bread Milk & Honey cappuccino

Trip Report: TRUTH.coffeecult @ Green Point (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 07 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Also known as Truth. (note the period at the end), this café and roastery opened in March 2010 — founded by “charismatic leader and coffee evangelist” David Donde. Those aren’t our words, but Mr. Donde wouldn’t disagree.

Mr. Donde, a somewhat controversial local figure, is no small fish in the South African coffee pond. In 2006, he co-founded both the ground-breaking Origin Coffee Roasters and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. He may fancy himself as a coffee cult leader, but perhaps that isn’t entirely an exaggeration. Sure, he’s a regional talk show host and an automobile columnist for the national edition of GQ — giving mirrors a rather excessive workout wherever he goes. Maybe that doesn’t make him the David Koresh of coffee, but perhaps he’s close. Fortunately, Mr. Donde’s coffee efforts largely live up to the self-constructed spectacle and hype.

Entrance to Truth. - set up with Boerewors rolls vending Truth.'s Probat on display

His café sports some outdoor plaza seating with TRUTH.-branded parasols, and indoors the space looks as much a museum to slavery (being home to the Prestwich Memorial) as it does a roastery with bags of beans, a Probat, and a wall of merchandising that includes the necessary Clever drippers, Expobar machines, etc.

Some locals criticize the atmosphere of this place, but we criticize it less for its misgivings in social dynamics and more for its over-earnest veneer of artisan coffee legitimacy. Let’s face it: the place reeks of “Third Wave” clichés. You get the sense that someone visited a few U.S. coffee bars crowned as “Third Wave” destinations by the mainstream media and developed a checklist of brand names, devices, services, and philosophical positions. As a result, Truth. feels a little like it’s going through all the motions of a heralded Third Wave coffee bar, but yet it seems less genuine for its place. To its defense, it’s not a cliché if few others on the continent are doing it. But the resulting espresso here is particularly defensible, given the end product.

Truth.'s wall-o-merchandising The Prestwich Memorial shares space with the inside of Truth.

Truth.'s Clever drippers on full display Truth. branding out front

Although we knew well of this café before arriving in Cape Town, we happened upon it while walking with 149,000 of our closest friends along Cape Town’s World Cup Fan Walk for the Uruguay-Netherlands semi-final. The Fan Walk was arguably more exciting and lively than the match itself.

As the World Cup progressed over the weeks, what started as a secured three-mile-long pedestrian zone for fans to walk to Green Point Stadium organically evolved into a massively popular street carnival filled with revelers, music, dancing, vuvuzelas, and food for people with or without tickets. Given Truth.’s location right on the Fan Walk, they kept their doors open past midnight to serve World Cup revelers seeking espresso and even Boerewors rolls (the South African version of the hot dog).

Nearby Green Point Stadium before Uruguay vs. Netherlands The FIFA Fan Walk after the Netherlands defeated Uruguay 3-2 in the semifinal

Using a three-group Nuova Simonelli Aurelia and grinders from Mazzer and Anfim, they serve double shots by default for R14. The barista also rejects sink shots (also a good thing). While they offer shots in Continental fine bone china, they served us in a 30ml shotglass with a shotglass of mineral water on the side. It has a frothy, darker brown crema with a lighter center at the pour. Its body is still on the lighter side, as is typical of South Africa, but it has a robust toasted flavor, mostly an herbal pungency with a sharp brightness and some earthy body. There’s even some sweetness towards the bottom. One of the most North American-style shots in town.

Read the review of Truth. at Green Point in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Truth. Nuova Simonelli The Truth. espresso



UPDATE: Sept. 14, 2013
TRUTH. not only got moved a few blocks away, but the new location drips with candy for the Internet’s various steampunk fanboys too: TRUTH Coffee Shop In Cape Town, South Africa | Yatzer™.

Trip Report: Cookshop (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 06 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

As we warned you last month, this is the first of what should be a series of espresso-related trip reports from Cape Town, South Africa.

Opening in Nov. 2009, this tiny breakfast and lunch eatery is owned and operated by Ammy Cope & Tom Sheehy, who are major food enthusiasts. They have a few tables and benches under a small, covered patio, and they specialize in fresh baked goods and good coffee from Deluxe Coffeeworks, one of the more notable roasters in South Africa.

Low-profile storefront to Cookshop Inside the Cookshop patio

A partly-sampled Cookshop cappuccino, with latte artUsing a stainless two-group WEGA, they pull shots with a medium and darker brown spotted crema. The crema may be thin in thickness, but it is visually rich. The resulting cup may run a bit thinner on body, but it has a flavor profile that’s smooth, earthy, and more body-forward.

Their milk frothing is also rather impressive, as they blend the microfoam well with the espresso crema – often producing latte art. Served in delicate Crown Professional porcelain cups. With the espresso standards in town starting to evolve beyond the routine, this cup is one of the better options around town. But there are many higher-profile places yet to try…so stay tuned.

Read the review of Cookshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

Tom working the Cookshop WEGA machine The Cookshop espresso

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