Thanks to friend of this blog, Shawn Steiman, for pointing out this somewhat amusing article from today’s New York Times: Loving Coffee Without Being a Drip – NYTimes.com. In something of an ode to the Mr. Coffee automatic filter drip machine, the author — Times food critic, Frank Bruni — laments the many overly precious methods of coffee-making he experiences as friends try to raise his coffee game.
We’re still at a loss for how someone could spray themselves in the eye with a Chemex brewer. The physics defies anything we can diagram and anything we have ever received in a college physics exam. (You know the kind: “Person A is driving a car at 55 mph on a surface with a coefficient of friction of 0.78. What color is his tie?”)
But even if you can make the argument that your choice of brewing method should factor in proportionate personal risks of scalding and blindness, far be it from us to dispute that coffee has become too fussy for its own good. Mr. Bruni cites “just how much self-identity and self-definition go into every aspect of ingestion these days.” He’s singing our song.
Personal coffee travel suitcases aside, another telling example comes from a friend of ours who just returned after living a few years in London. He’s no coffee slouch, having used French presses for decades and a manual La Pavoni Europiccola while in London. In asking me about a home espresso machine, we concluded that a standard Rancilio Silvia would be a good fit.
What made him hesitate about purchasing one? All the Web pages dedicated to Silvia owners who outfitted their machines with PID controllers. A simple Google search produces 256,000 results. Here the coffee geek ethos of graduating from temperature surfing to PID-fitting created a potential customer who believed something was horribly wrong with the Silvia machine’s temperature control — something so defective that he wondered why it did not go through a necessary and massive product recall.
They say that good is the enemy of great, and that’s certainly true if you’re trying to improve your standards. However, that’s not the same as having an intolerance for good — which ironically, by definition, isn’t always a good thing. We love improved standards. But how enjoyable is a walk in the park when you’re always measuring it against Olympic speed records?
Today’s The Korea Herald published a thought-provoking (if not debatable) piece about one-time Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong: Barista bringing coffee back to basics. Internal divisions within the national barista association prevented him from representing South Korea at the 2007 WBC in Tokyo, and he dismisses the notion that a training course can make one a qualified barista.
But one of the more curious topics he brought up concerned coffee standards — and how what the Italians may have started long ago has since been hijacked and adulterated by American franchise coffee shops. From the article:
“Coffee is being globalized by the American standard. Coffee is a culture that the Italians have cultivated over hundreds of years. It’s a pride they have, but the American franchise coffee shops have completely distorted the originality ― let’s say Korean kimchi is being spread to the world with the Japanese word ‘ki-mu-chi’ ― that is not what we can call cultural diversity, but a distortion of a tradition. That is what is happening to coffee these days ― becoming like ‘ki-mu-chi.'”
— Former Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong
Earlier this year, Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè, ignited a bit of a coffee culture smackdown — taking shots at the American brightness bombs and heavily-packed shots that pass for quality espresso here. You might say Mr. Yong seems to be in a similar camp, suggesting that American coffee shops have perverted a standard that is now being spread throughout the world with America’s economic and cultural weight. (We liked his kimchi analogy.)
As we like to jokingly say with a zombie-like mantra, “Third Wave is Best Wave“.
Yet right after making that point, Mr. Yong completely loses the plot — linking the same forces distorting espresso’s cultural standard to those exploiting coffee growers to the fullest extent possible. (A bizarre accusation for some of the biggest wavers of the Fair Trade flag.) Commenting after he watched the deeply flawed documentary Black Gold, we don’t expect him to fully comprehend the cost-of-living disparity between coffee producing and consuming nations, which the documentary miserably failed to do. But any wannabe champion barista should be aware of the many links in coffee’s supply chain — not just farmers and baristas.
Worse, he claims both that coffee is “completely overpriced” and that we are not paying enough to coffee farmers in the very same article — practically a form of cognitive dissonance. All of which unfortunately devalues his opinions in the end.
The name is “Ma’velous”. We’re not sure if this is a New Yorker thing — like when Monday Night Football legend, Al Michaels, tries to pronounce the ‘h’ in the word “huge.” But the owner, Phillip Ma, is a self-fashioned coffee geek with apparently enough money for high-end coffeemaking toys but no real prior training in a formal retail coffee environment.
Is this a liability? Definitely in the beginning, but it’s hard to say in the long run, as Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman got his start as a coffee hobbyist. Even the legendary Alice Waters started her influential empire of local, organic California cuisine with no formal culinary schooling nor restaurant management training.
Located in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood — just one block from SF’s amputee panhandler Mecca along the base of South Van Ness Avenue — this spot is part night club, part wine bar, part coffee lounge. Among the many unusual things about this place is that it is a night-time coffee lounge.
Yours truly may recall fond memories of late-night, up-and-coming jazz acts at the long-since-defunct (and increasingly legendary) Ajax Lounge in San Jose, where I would down a couple of sub-par double espresso shots after midnight and still sleep soundly by 2am. But for most people, the caffeine jolt of the ideal coffee experience is decidedly a morning thing.
Coffee six ways? That’s what they offer between an espresso machine, Hario V60 pour-overs, Chemex, French Press, a Japanese siphon bar, and a Kyoto slow-drip coffee maker. “This will allow aficionados to taste the full complexity of each coffee, its natural sweet, fruity, acidic or buttery finish without cream or sugar. No bitterness here,” claims their Web site.
As for the coffees themselves, they offer everything from Intelligentsia‘s Black Cat, Intelligentsia’s Bay Area acquisition of Ecco Caffè (their Kenya, Ethiopia, Honduras, Guatemala El Tambor, and El Salvador roasts, to name a few), and coffee from Tim Wendelboe. Which makes the opening of this café rather exciting for us: even if they have only three different grinders, this is the first notable espresso bar in San Francisco to offer coffees from multiple roasters since the untimely death of Café Organica in 2006.
Yes, they spared no expense here — down to the Dyson hand dryers for the staff behind the counter. The interior is dark with artistic murals, a few red leather booths, painted black wood walls, a high ceiling, red acrylic chairs, and a short bar seating area at the front entrance. They have a wine list and a cheese list in addition to their “caffeine list,” and the table service even pours water out of a Chemex.
After a few dry runs on private media openings in the past couple of weeks, last night (Thursday) was their informal public opening night. So service was bound to be sketchy, and it most certainly was: six people squirming behind the tiny counter, customers trying to squirm past the narrow pathway by the front of the counter, limp-wristed espresso tamps, slow-moving lines, and a pre-infusion-controlled espresso machine that required a bit of time to calibrate and was only yet dialed-in for a handful of their available coffees.
Local street artist, Eddie Colla, whose mural decorates the wall and the staff T-shirts, was present for the opening event, adding to the mob scene. But even for all the confusion and early kinks, there’s a lot here worth checking out.
For the most part, the Intelligentsia Black Cat is their default espresso (rated in the linked review at bottom). But as with these pressure-controlled espresso machines, don’t think that there’s only one flavor profile per coffee. Our first shot of the Black Cat was set at a 199-degree brewing temperature with four
pounds bar of pre-infusion pressure. The resulting shot was an even, lighter, medium-brown-colored crema with a nose that was slightly tarry.
The flavor was primarily sweet tobacco, with some edges across the flavor profile to remind you that this was a blend and not a single origin shot. Still, it is a far cry from the Black Cat shots we’re used to at Chicago’s Intelligentsia — with it’s textured, darker crema that practically leaves a blackened ring around the cup and a pungency-heavy flavor to match.
But as if to prove a point, Phillip offered me a follow-up shot of Black Cat made at a different profile: a 200.5-degree brewing temperature with six
pounds bar of pre-infusion pressure. This shot was a bit closer to the Black Cat “at origin” we’re used to: a much headier crema, more caramel flavors, and a more traditional, more rounded flavor and a slightly darker crema.
Their machine was also tuned for the Ecco Caffè Guatemala El Tambor single origin shot, which came with a mellow aroma, a lighter crema, and served sweet and bright with just a touch of sourness — very much in the tropical fruit vein. We originally thought they managed to manipulate a shot of Black Cat to taste like a Central American single origin shot until we discovered it actually was a Central American single origin shot. (Whew.) Served in classic brown ACF cups.
It’s hard, and unfair, to judge a place entirely on its opening day to the public. There’s a bit of tuning that’s still needed in the espresso shots, and there’s currently a high emphasis on tuning for brighter shots with coffees that sometimes perform better with greater fidelity at less acidic flavor profiles.
Sure, the place is overly enamored with coffee’s gadgetry du jour. But just the ability to sample some Black Cat — forget even at different extractions, or even the yet-to-be-readied Wendelboe coffee or the five other brewing methods available — makes this worth a return visit if for no other reason. Then add that it’s the rare coffee bar offering beans from multiple sources, the novelty of a coffee nightclub, and a decent opportunity to compare pressure profiling on the same coffees — even if it isn’t necessarily making better shots.
Read the review of Ma’velous.
Lately we’ve been thinking about quality coffee’s current obsession with all-things-technology. While there’s arguably more science than art to making good coffee, the current climate seems to have pushed any art aside. It reminds us of civilization at the turn of the 20th century, when society held a common belief that technology was going to solve all our problems. Right before the mechanized killing of World War I, the Industrial Revolution giving way to the Great Depression, and the invention of the atomic bomb.
So today we witness a lot of obsession over incessant measurement — sometimes merely in the pursuit of more measurement, and even to the level of confusing the act of measurement for actual science. This technological obsession also manifests itself by a holy-grail-like belief in the new espresso machine that will revolutionize coffee. All of which creates a lot of interest in coffee but has rarely created better coffee — or at least better coffee experiences.
As a result, quality coffee feels a bit soulless and sterile these days. This sterility has even gone mainstream in a mass-produced way, at least at the general consumer end, most notably in the form of espresso pods, single-serving coffee devices, and superautomatic espresso machines. Hence this reactionary article in last week’s New York Times: In Defense of Old-Fashioned Espresso – NYTimes.com.
How might we overcome this clinical obsession and save the soul of good coffee? A few months ago, Ben over at Chemically Imbalanced proposed a very thought-provoking (and discussion-provoking) idea of Le Coffeeing — a sort of coffee variant on France’s recent and reactionary Le Fooding culinary movement. Le Fooding may be a weak analog for what coffee needs, but the inspiration behind Le Coffeeing carries a lot of merit.
We’ve recently been thinking about the potentially constructive parallels between the wine and coffee industries (at least where they make sense), and today’s coffee vanguard has a lot more in common with Napa winemakers than they do with the stodgy-but-vaunted restaurant establishment of France. This is why we caught a glimpse of potential quality coffee salvation in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article on Napa Valley Wine’s Retro Dudes | Jay McInerney on Wine – WSJ.com.
The Retro Dudes of Napa are more than familiar with Napa’s cathedrals to perfectly manipulated premium wines — for example, high-performance Cabernets that smack you in the face like a plumber’s wrench made of fruit and oak. What makes the The Retro Dudes interesting is their “passion for quirky, individualistic, artisanal wines” — pursuing neglected wine varietals, blending their wines in Old World ways, keeping the skins on their grapes for natural fermentation rather than the modern technology of controlled yeast additions, and generally “rejecting some of the technological winemaking of the modern era in search of wine authenticity (and presumably, drinkability)”.
Today coffee lovers are bombarded with hype about the pressure profiling technology of new $18,000 espresso machines, $20,000 Japanese siphon bars, $11,000 superautomatic Clover brewers (i.e., until Starbucks purchase of the company made them uncool), disproportionate fawning over $100-per-pound Cup of Excellence microlot winners that devalues all runners-up, and $400+ gadgets providing digital readouts of your total dissolved solids and extraction yields that risk making statistical gymnastics the ends rather than the means to better coffee. The pursuit of the mythical perfect coffee may be giving us more to learn and experience, but it’s also sapping the soul and even the enjoyment out of the beverage.
Here’s to hoping that a generation of Coffee Retro Dudes can come to the rescue before its too late.