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.