December 2010

Monthly Archive

South Korea’s fetishized coffeeshops: it ain’t just San Francisco

Posted by on 30 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

There ought to be a law. An Internet law at least. And it goes something like this: take any silly idea, add cats, and multiply your popularity by 10,000.

In the LA Times' piece on South Korea coffeeshops, the cat is the main attractionWe swear if we instead remade this Web site as CoffeeCatRatings.com, we’d be peddling endless holiday calendars, photo T-shirts, and immensely popular YouTube videos with no end to the demand in sight. Money for nothing, and your cappuccinos for free. But while we’d be filthy rich Internet sensations, we’d hate ourselves when we wake up in the morning. Ah, such is the angst of the starving artist.

As we wrote earlier this year, SF is no stranger to fetishized coffeeshops. Tuesday’s L.A. Times turned its attention to the fetishized coffee shops in Seoul, South Korea: South Korea, coffee: Themed cafes draw in customers with cats, dogs, games and other gimmicks – latimes.com.

Of Harios and Hairballs

Cats and maybe a little coffee drinking in JapanCat cafés are hardly anything new. They’ve long since ravaged Tokyo and the rest of Japan like Godzilla on a medical marijuana munchies binge. There’s even a Wikipedia entry about them: we learn that the first cat café may have originated in Taipei in 1998, that it subsequently became famous in Japan, and the Japanese — masters of the fetish — later decided to roll their own.

An espresso bar that Seoulites consider noteworthyIt’s not just cats in South Korean cafés either. They reportedly have fetish cafés with the themes of dogs, cake baking, beauty salons, and Barbie dolls. And much like SF’s Ma’velous, they have a decidedly evening — not morning — crowd. This ironically on the heels of South Korean baristas suggesting that American coffeehouses are distorting tradition.

But take it with a grain of salty coffee. American media loves to fetishize Asian culture into a much bigger freakshow than reality could ever live up to. To read another article this year on Seoul’s noteworthy coffeeshops from the Koreans themselves (i.e., the Korea Herald), somehow the subject of cats never comes up: Rediscover Seoul: The rich aroma of coffee! ‘Hidden treasure’ cafes loved by Seoulites.

Today’s coffee experimentation: a one-note samba?

Posted by on 27 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Quality Issues

Over the holiday, a friend asked about the “is crema bad for coffee?” question that we recently posted. We provided an answer in the form of one of our Christmas dinner dishes. This then lead to a debate about the methodology used by today’s coffee tinkerers who are on a discovery mission to improve coffee.

Skimming the crema: a deconstructionist's act?As we wrote previously, some coffee professionals are questioning all assumptions — including whether crema is any good for espresso. The logic behind this last example being that crema, on its own, tastes rather bitter. And while there’s agreement that a healthy crema is a sign of a properly extracted espresso, some would even say the resulting espresso tastes better if you skim the crema off the cup.

How does our Christmas dinner fit into this? My wife decided to make a dish from The French Laundry Cookbook. Like many accomplished chefs, we’ve long considered Thomas Keller to be a great coffee pretender. However, earning three Michelin stars simultaneously at two different restaurants suggests that he knows a thing or two about food.

The French Laundry's crab salad: a metaphor for coffee flavor complexity?The dish in question is a Dungeness crab salad with a recipe that calls for daikon radish. Why did Mr. Keller opt to add the radish to a naturally sweet crab salad? On its own, the radish has a bitter flavor. But taste his recipe in its aggregate form, and the radish adds both a complexity to the flavor as well a texture the dish would otherwise lack.

To our own subjective taste buds, skimming the crema off an espresso is akin to Mr. Keller throwing out the daikon radish. An espresso without crema loses some of its flavor complexity, even if those components tasted on their own aren’t terribly appetizing. And as far as texture is concerned, espresso is a rare emulsion of gas, liquid, and solids all coming together with aromatics originating from each. Skim off the crema, and you’re merely left with the liquid minority.

In pursuit of independent variables

This crema-or-no-crema question typifies the sort of experimentation going on with coffee these days; the approaches we hear about are very binary or one-dimensional. But there’s good reason for that. Simple, baby-steps science encourages us to explore constituent influences in as much isolation as possible so that we may draw direct conclusions of cause-and-effect.

Thus we get primitive experiments such as crema vs. no crema, put portafilter handles in the freezer vs. leave them warm in the espresso machine group head, etc. And we get one-dimensional manipulations such as pressure profiling. Experimentalists are incented to fix all independent variables save for the one they’re monkeying with — to see how it contributes to the overall result. Tweak multiple things at once, and you cannot be sure what gets credit for the difference.

Illustration of the superposition principle of wavesThe problem with this deconstructionist approach is that it leads to a lazy, mistaken belief in superposition — i.e., the idea that all variables are entirely independent and that the whole is the mere sum of all the parts. Nature rarely works this way. Take something as multifaceted, subjective, and broad as coffee flavor. Optimizing your coffee growing, roasting, extraction, etc., for one characteristic — say, sweetness — often has major side-effects on the other characteristics — say, body. We’re certain that our past criticism of deconstructionist approaches must sound like some snobbish critique of post-modern art, but this is precisely what we mean by all that.

Today’s disproportionate appeal of single origin coffees and, more to the point, single origin espresso shots reflects the value currently placed in this simplistic, deconstructed approach. It is well-suited to the early developmental stages of today’s coffee consumer palates. Many single origin coffees exhibit simplistic one-note or two-note flavor profiles, offering basic building blocks for consumers’ budding flavor vocabularies.

Of course, not everyone prefers orchestral music to chamber music. But complex systems are so named for a reason. Saying “crab salad: sweet, good” and “radish: bitter, bad” reflects only the most primitive flavor profiling. Appreciating complex systems, where the sum may differ from the contributions of its constituent parts in isolation, means the difference between recognizing Thomas Keller for deliberate genius rather than for a random mistake.

Trip Report: Moby Dick II (Lajes do Pico, Açores, Portugal)

Posted by on 19 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

As 2010 heads towards a close, we reflect on some of the more interesting coffee bars we’ve stumbled across for the first time in the past year. Cape Town’s Origin Coffee Roasting is clearly a new global favorite. Closer to home, the opening of Ma’velous promises a new evolutionary direction for the coffee bar. But oddly one of the most memorable coffee bars we visited in the past year, and one we had yet to write a Trip Report for, was Moby Dick II on the island of Pico in the Portuguese Azores.

First, a little background. The theme gimmick coffee bar is old hat. But the Moby Dick II, easily one of the most unique cafés you will ever encounter, works it on another level. This has to do with its sense of place.

Sunset near 'Mt. Doom', aka Pico, from the Lajes do Pico harbor The peak of Pico peeks out over a former whale processing plant in São Roque do Pico

Public sculpture on Pico island commemorating the island's open boat whalers Memorial in Lajes do Pico's harbor commemorates the names of local whalers who lost their lives on the job

Of whales and coffee bars

Since the 1980s, the local economy of this small island of Pico may have successfully made the shift from open-boat whaling to whale watching. Yet the place remains respectfully steeped in the legacy of whaling culture — a balancing act that isn’t necessarily easy, given the revisionist temptations rooted in the modern “save the whales” ethos. Pico boasts whaling museums and former whale-processing plants that still carry a lingering smell of what was once the horrible stench of the whaling industry.

It’s easy to overlook the critical, albeit momentary, importance of whaling in world history. At its mid-1800s peak, Nantucket, MA was the Silicon Valley of its era — flush with big money, speculative investors, gargantuan risk-taking, state-of-the-art technology, and workers eager to earn their share of the spoils by living in the extreme. The whaling ships of the time were the grandfathers of space exploration. The worldwide commercial nature of the whaling industry also marked the birth of modern globalization. It is within this context that you have to appreciate one of the greatest works of American literature, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Our visit to Pico made us reread the novel for the first time since high school, which we enjoyed a lot more this time around.)

As reflected in the novel, the Portuguese Azores were a favorite port of call for the Nantucket whalers in the early stages of their global quests. Provisions were cheaper on the islands than in New England (early shades of Wal-Mart buying cheaper goods from China). The local population of the Azores also provided a healthy supply of ready and capable whalers. And nowhere in the Azores has whaling meant more than on Pico island and, in specific, the small town of Lajes do Pico.

Sidewalks in the Azores express the whaling theme Street sign on Pico island designating the

Plaza with detailed Portuguese sidewalk tiles near Moby Dick II California-made steam ovens for processing whale blubber on Pico

Moby Dick II — not the sequel

This is a seriously heavy thematic backdrop for what is a whimsical art project and coffee bar. But with its location on the seaside esplanada of Lajes do Pico, the Moby Dick II café fits thematically better with its place than any other gimmick coffee spot we’ve experienced prior.

This coffee bar is really a service kiosk made out of a mini Airstream-like trailer decorated to look curiously like a sperm whale — from the eyes to the skin and down to the whale tail that suspends above it. The side of the whale opens out onto the street corner with a number of chairs and tables under parasols at a wooden deck, illuminated by fluorescent lights at night, overlooking the ocean and the harbor.

Moby Dick II in Lajes do Pico Backside of Moby Dick II in Lajes do Pico

Patio in front of Moby Dick II, complete with satellite TV dish Close-up detail of the rear of the Moby Dick II coffee bar

Here they play modern music and employ younger baristas. Given the general lack of signage, you wouldn’t know the name of the place if not for the staff T-shirts. This is sidewalk café offers some of the best views in town while keeping the locals happy with a rather full bar (including a wide assortment of Portuguese liqueurs), made-to-order sandwiches and light edibles, and as almost required by Portuguese law: espresso.

Inside the whale by the register is a two-group Fiamma machine. They use the Azores-ubiquitous Sical beans, and with their Fiamma they produce shots with a good layer of even, medium brown crema with a smoothness and pepper and mild spice flavor. Served in BonVida cups with Sical branding for a mere €0.50.

It’s far from the best espresso you’ve ever had. And while it’s almost as hard to find an outstanding espresso in the Azores as it is to find a poor one, this is one of the more memorable options of the lot on its quality merits alone.

Read the review of Moby Dick II in Lajes do Pico in the Azores.

Inside the Moby Dick II trailer The Moby Dick II espresso

Maritime relics from Pico's whaling days Churches and fishing boats are a common sight on Pico

Revenge of the Knoxville (Coffee) Nerds

Posted by on 15 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s Metro Pulse (Knoxville, TN) published a lengthy-but-interesting piece on Knoxville’s budding local coffee scene: Revenge of the Knoxville (Coffee) Nerds » Metro Pulse.

Inside Old City Java, Knoxville's oldest coffee shopThe article includes plenty of common themes we’ve seen many times before — pour-over bars, direct trade, the wine analogy. However, the article succeeds by being non-judgmental while going beyond the usual coffee platitudes. For example, we learn that coffee isn’t actually the second most valuable commodity traded in the world, behind petroleum, and that 18th-century London slang once compared coffeehouses to a method of birth control.

Trip Report: Réveille Coffee Co.

Posted by on 15 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

There was a time when people bored with food found that it was a lot more fun when you put it on a stick. Or freeze-dried and packed it in plastic tubes as “astronaut food”. Today’s equivalent is the glorified roach coach, where bored (and sometimes broke) foodies tell us that everything tastes better when handed out of the side of a truck. Enter the Réveille Coffee Company, where apparently the way to improve the coffee kiosk is to add a parking brake.

This big black truck, looking like something Mr. T drove the A-Team around in for a stakeout, sits at the corner of a parking lot on Sansome St. & Pacific Ave. With license plate REV COF1, and echoes of the 90′s King Missile classic “Cheesecake Truck” playing in our heads, Tommy & Christopher Newbury opened this service on Monday.

B.A. Baracus pities the fool who drinks Starbucks Coffee and espresso offerings at Réveille Coffee Co.

They serve Four Barrel Coffee and some pastries from Pâtisserie Philippe. While a new fixture in this parking lot on weekdays, on evenings and weekends all that’s left is the painted brick “outhouse” bearing their logo — where your guess is as good as ours on where to find them. There are four slated wooden stools off the side of this coffee RV. And despite the parking lot ambiance and going off the charts on the expired-trend-O-meter, the coffee is quite good.

The Réveille Coffee Co. by the dawn's early lightThey use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Friendo Blendo in small white Nuova Point espresso cups with a small glass of sparkling water on the side. Surprise! It’s not all paper cups here — which is a nice touch. (You’re out of luck on other drinks, however.) The resulting cup has that sharp Friendo Blendo acidity: a brightness bomb espresso that will make any Italian double over. But if you like immensely flavorful North American style shots, this will work for you. It comes with a textured medium brown crema and a flavor of bright pungency, some cedar, and a touch of subtle sweetness to round out the profile.

They are much weaker at milk frothing. Not only do they only serve in paper cups, but the microfoam isn’t consistent nor rich. The brightness of the coffee is muted beyond recognition. And even if the general flavor is good, the rest falls flat. It needs work, as there are better milk-based coffee drinks nearby. They also offer French press coffee and pour-over (Clever dripper) cups of several cultivars. Currently, that means coffees from Guatemala, Sulawesi, Costa Rica, and Kenya.

Yes, the roach coach with gourmet food (and occasionally gourmet prices: a $2.50 espresso is steep) may be an overblown fad. And sure, there’s great irony in that the SF coffeeshops who gave rise to a reported “Bedouin” remote worker culture might become nomads themselves. Some coffeeshops will apparently do anything to evade laptop zombies. But when the execution is this good, at least on the espresso, you can’t complain.

Read the review of Réveille Coffee Co..

The Réveille Coffee Co. espresso The Réveille Coffee Co. cappuccino

What a difference four months makes: Cape Town, South Africa redux

Posted by on 11 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Call it coffee’s version of Hubble’s Law: the rate at which a local coffee scene evolves is inversely proportional to its maturity. What?!? Let us explain. Seattle and San Francisco are examples of well-established coffee cultures, and the rate of evolution and improvement we see in the coffee there tends to nudge along at a rather lumbering pace. Contrast this with what we’ve found on our recent return to Cape Town, South Africa. The local coffee culture there today is noticeably different from our last visit in July.

Cape Town may be much further along than, say, Dallas, Texas — where earlier last week we learned that a single new espresso machine in town is all that’s required to “earn us a little gold star on the national coffee map.” Cape Town boasts generally high espresso standards overall, plus a few exceptional cases such as Origin, TRUTH., and Espresso Lab Microroasters. But changes at just those three were significant enough.

Origin Coffee Roasters

The summer fog creeping over Table Mountain from the Origin entrance on Hudson St. The Origin cappuccino - I was looking forward to this much of the flight here

So what has changed? Over at Origin, they’ve reworked their retail model so that customers can now opt for any variety of their roasted coffee, rotated every two weeks, in any of four (five?) ways. This is not unlike SF’s recently opened Ma’velous.

They offer any of their coffees as plunger (i.e., French press, at R17, or about $2.50), Turkish (R17), pour-over (using a Hario V60, at R20), and siphon (also Hario, at R22). Additionally there’s the espresso option (now R16, up from R14 a few months ago) — which can also accommodate any coffee as a single-origin or blend option through the use of their new doserless Compak grinders. Cup of Excellence coffees are additionally available for a R10 surcharge.

Origin's Synesso and Compak grinder in the downstairs service area Origin's new coffee menu

Origin’s upstairs “dining” area is being reworked with a new La Marzocco GB/5 placed at a new espresso bar that’s front-and-center, and downstairs they replaced their Linea with a three-group Synesso (Origin being South Africa’s Synesso distributor).

Origin is also emphasizing their recent triumphs at Cape Town’s 2011 regional barista championships, where Joanne Berry, Origin’s barista trainer, won for the second year running. It inspired Origin to offer the signature drinks of their competing baristas on the menu for R25 — save for the spun sugar cups made for Ms. Berry’s drink at the competition. Although we’ve always questioned the relevancy of the specialty drink category of barista competitions, Origin has at least created a retail outlet to make it more relevant.

Oh, and the Kenya Makwa AA 2010 here, made of a typical SL28 & K7 Kenyan cultivar mutation, was excellent.

Origin promotes their specialty drinks from the recent Cape Town barista competition More Origin specialty drinks

The TRUTH. about espresso crema

David Donde is quite a local force of personality. He founded Cape Town’s TRUTH.coffeecult and co-founded Origin (TRUTH. being part of the stereotypical local coffee scene “divorce,” a la Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel) and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. This when he’s not doing a local radio program on sports cars.

We had missed connecting with David a number of times on our last visit, so we lucked out finding him having breakfast when visiting TRUTH.’s main location. David always has several different ideas going on in the fire — not all of them coffee related. But in our discussions about coffee, he was clearly obsessing over flavor. For one, he’s adamant about getting the “roast flavor out of coffee” and having it rely more on acidity and body. He also expanded on some of the assumption-busting experimentation he’s thought about since meeting James Hoffman in London to play with coffee — akin to how some musicians cross paths and hold a private jam session. (In David’s words, he “spent day with James tasting bad coffee and trying to fix it”.)

TRUTH.coffeecult TRUTH.coffeecult's Probat inside

One big topic was the whole “crema is bad for coffee” debate that originated from the Coffee Collective guys in Copenhagen a couple years ago. Mr. Hoffman took a year to succumb to the idea, and just yesterday we had Eater interviewing Chris Young and touching on the subject.

The idea is that crema is a necessary by-product of good espresso extraction. But while we’ve all been indoctrinated that “crema is good,” further inspection suggests that the crema actually makes espresso taste bad. That without crema, or even skimming it off as David demonstrated for me, your espresso is a cleaner, sweeter shot.

We still came to the conclusion that the idea is very subjective. Yes, the crema by itself was bitter, and the crema-less espresso was cleaner and sweeter. Not that we’re big fans of bitter coffee, but we’re much bigger critics of deconstructionism — i.e., the belief that the quality and integrity of the whole is merely an aggregation of the quality of its constituent parts in isolation. But even ignoring that we value deconstructionism as a barely more reputable cousin of homeopathy, the subjectivity of this evaluation is grounds enough to be skeptical: some people are clearly on a mission to make all of our coffee taste like berries, and not everybody thinks this is a good idea … us included.

David Donde skims crema for us at TRUTH.coffeecult TRUTH.coffeecult's manifesto

Experimentation is high these days in coffee, and David is a major advocate. Still, we can’t help but be a little jaded when people start bandying about the science word in relation to all of this, invoking misplaced implications of high technology. Lacking a basic control or null hypothesis, the simple act of measurement is no more science than a three-year-old who crawls the floor looking for things to stick in his mouth. Just because the Taiwanese chain 85℃ puts salt in their coffee, and experimenters learn that salt masks bitterness in coffee, should that honestly make 85℃ eligible for a future Nobel Prize?

Science or no science, experimentation and challenging assumptions still has merit. David also demonstrated how latte art was possible without crema, explained how he came to appreciate the caffè americano only when the espresso + hot water order was switched (a la the Aussie long black), and related that cold portafilter handles (frozen even, in his own test) do prove to make terrible espresso. We also saw very much eye-to-eye on things like the relevance of specialty drinks in barista competitions (what are you really judging?) and the limits of “cause coffee” when quality isn’t your primary goal (Jo’berg’s Bean There being an example).

David prepares an espresso with skimmed crema for producing latte art Latte art achieved with skimmed crema - even if the drink was far too milky as such

Espresso Lab Microroasters

Last but not least is Espresso Lab Microroasters. While still working with their four core sources for beans, they have expanded a bit of their small storage area for greens and even added an additional GB/5 for Saturday market traffic. Apparently their business nearby doubled since our last post, so here’s to supporting good coffee.

Espresso Lab Microroasters added a second La Marzocco GB/5 Espresso Lab Microroaster's espresso shot of El Meridiano, Tolima, Colombia

But talk about a memory — the team remembered what we last sampled from them four months ago. They also follow a coffee buying strategy we’ve long advocated: buying runners up at Cup of Excellence competitions at a major discount to the winner. Should a couple of subjective points in CoE taste test really justify one coffee selling at multiples of its runner up? The Lab’s organic-farmed Serra do Boné came in second in Brazil’s 2010 CoE competition, and we missed nothing but a much higher price for a stellar, balanced coffee with a sweetness of fruit and honey.

Last week the Lab recently added an Xmas blend (35% Karimikui Kenya, 35% Adado Ethiopia, 30% Mocha Harazi Yemen) as a “dessert” coffee: it has a noticeable lack of body, by design, but with a brightness and lightness for finishing off a big holiday meal. Still, with the great number of South Africans who prefer the moka pot for home use (despite being able to buy every variant of Aeropress, Hario V60 dripper, etc., while here), we like the fact that they optimize some of their roasts for the underappreciated Moka pot.

And on the “is crema bad for espresso” controversy, btw, co-owner Renato thinks crema is integral but sets the stage wrong as the first taste on a consumer’s palate.

Espresso Lab's 2010 CoE Brazil runner-up: Serra do Boné Renato at Espresso Lab Microroasters readying another batch

We can only manage what we might find in Cape Town again next year.

Her Majesty’s Greatest Sell-Out?: Oprah throws Australia’s coffee drinkers under the McBus

Posted by on 06 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

We love a good dose of sarcasm now and then. We’ve also been known to slag on McCafés while praising the coffee standards in Australia. So we had to highlight this sarcastic gem from Australia’s The Punch today: G’day from the McCafe…. Have a nice day! | Article | The Punch.

Research shows that 82% of the population of Australia can be found in a McCafé at any given timeApparently Oprah Winfrey is taking her 25-year-old TV show on a pre-retirement tour through Australia. In anticipation of her Aussie tour, Oprah slanders much of Australia for American audiences with a sponsored TV segment laden with outdated and exaggerated stereotypes.

One of her more egregious offenses? Making the McDonald’s-sponsored claim that Aussies just love McCafés. Millions of Aussies can only reply, “What’s a McCafé?”

Well, at least it’s not a crappy Oprah rehash of kopi luwak. (Pun honestly not intended.)

California-grown coffee?

Posted by on 03 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Beans

The LA Times today published a curious article on attempts to commercially grow coffee in the continental U.S. (California, in fact): Market Watch: Jay Ruskey perks interest with California-grown coffee – latimes.com. Started as a project in 2002 with an eye towards replicating Kona‘s successful specialty coffee industry in Hawaii, two of the biggest challenges of establishing a coffee growing industry here are the relatively low yields (climate, terroir) and high labor costs (the latter shared with Kona coffees and reflected in its high market price). However, the market conditions for specialty coffee may be changing some assumptions.

In the meantime, the current, and first legitimate, crop is producing some interesting results.

The Secret History Of: Moka Express coffee maker

Posted by on 03 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Machine

Today’s Independent (UK) published a curious article on the history of the Moka Express pot: The Secret History Of: Moka Express coffee maker – Interiors, House & Home – The Independent.

Makes coffee - and keeps your whites looking brightEarlier this year, we noted how the original manufacturer named after its inventor, Alfonso Bialetti, was moving out of Italy. But this time we learn that the inspiration for its design came from Italian washing machines at the turn of the 20th century. There’s also historical reason for why they are made of aluminum rather than stainless steel.

UPDATE: Sep. 2, 2011
The New York Times gets in on the act: Who Made That Moka Express? – NYTimes.com.