January 2011

Monthly Archive

An unlikely pair: Cheese paired with coffee is a buzz for your taste buds

Posted by on 27 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

As Americans have ravaged through anything edible from the surface of the planet like a biblical plague of locusts, you can’t argue that we have become rather fat and bored. So as consumers, we have resorted to behaviors suggestive of infants who sit in their own mess sticking various things in their mouths until something maybe tastes good.

The band members of Morbid Angel were regrettably unable to make this photo shootPairing coffee with food comes to mind. Take cultures that have developed a pairing between local wines with regional food over many centuries, throw in the recent vogue for the wine analogy for coffee, and suddenly we can ignore centuries of coffee-growing cultures that have deliberately not paired their coffees with regional cuisine. If we’re going to pretend like we just invented decent coffee yesterday, why not go all out?

Which brings us to Tampa, Florida — home to its own biblical plagues (mostly flying insects in May) and America’s Death Metal capital. Although mentioned elsewhere before, over in Tampa they’re pairing their coffee with cheese: An unlikely pair: Cheese paired with coffee is a buzz for your taste buds | Daily Loaf. At least according to the local free weekly.

Personally, we like a nice Finca La Loma Colombia Caturra paired with Brillat Savarin and a little Morbid Angel on the stereo. Maybe it’s not as unique a pairing as nyethe, where a region in Indonesia laces cigarettes with coffee. (Thanks for the heads-up, Enrico.) But we’ll live like local pirates.

The War on Blends

Posted by on 23 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Last week brought us yet another coffee article about wine analogies and making the “perfect” (groan) cup: The Art of the Perfect Cup of Coffee | CulturePOP | Ingredients for an Artful Life. What was different about this one is it consisted of an interview with reigning WBC champ Michael Phillips of Chicago’s Intelligentsia.

In response to the question, “What should you look for when purchasing coffee beans?,” Mr. Phillips added:

Also, don’t buy blends. These extra flavors are often used to cover up the taste of bad coffee.

And there you have it: a rule of thumb that makes sense when you’re dealing with the mass-produced, supermarket-shelf coffee out there, but yet it makes absolutely no sense when you’re dealing with high quality coffee supplies. Spoken by someone who supposedly represents quality coffee to the American public. Someone who, ironically, won the WBC last year with a specialty drink where different-tasting coffees used in each of two components (actually, the same coffee processed differently) were blended to make a third component.

Mike Phillips at the WBC: blending, dare we point out, the third form of his signature drinkNow we love a good single-origin cup as much as the next coffee geek. Philz Coffee and their black magic approach to blends even creeps us out more than just a little. But it’s ridiculous that we always find ourselves defending the honor of good quality blends and good blending practices in the face of a lot of misinformation and blind bias. Because nobody else in the coffee industry seems to be standing up to this nonsense.

Conventional wisdom has it that one of the first things you do in a political revolution is round up and jail/kill all the intellectuals, ensuring control and eliminating the possibility of informed dissent. You burn your history books and destroy your past artistic and cultural icons. However, this practice also makes you culturally stoopid.

Now enter quality coffee’s wannabe revolution. It’s as if many in the coffee industry believe that advancement could only be achieved through a scorched earth policy that destroys every practice and idea previously associated with decent coffee in its wake: blends, any roast level into the second crack, etc. And yet today we see the same people fawning over Chemex brewer and espresso machine technology invented in the early 20th century — not to mention siphon bar technology developed in the early 19th century. Blindness to the past is not the same thing as enlightenment.

A recent coffee “experiment” to prove our point

Case and point: recently we were experimenting with Chemex-brewed Four Barrel Costa Rica Cafetín 1900 Reserve. It produced an unusually clean cup, with some elements of sweetness and cherry-like acidity and a decent weight to it. But the flavor profile was tame, narrow, and a bit limited. While clearly a refined and well-sourced coffee, it was definitely lacking a few dimensions in the cup.

Two Four Barrel single-origin coffees in a Chemex improved when combinedMeanwhile, we had some Four Barrel Guatemala Concepción Pixcaya leftover from previous use. So we decided to add a modest percentage to the Cafetín in the grinder. To our delightful surprise, the resulting Chemex brew broke out with a more rounded, fuller flavor profile with additional dimensions that were completely lacking in the Cafetín cup.

We were so taken by the improvement, we shared it with some “wine snobs” and budding coffeephiles across the street who had some of our Chemex-brewed Cafetín earlier that morning. The opinion was universally positive. To be fair, as straight-up single-origins go, we preferred the Pixcaya to the Cafetín. But we could make the case that the blend was an improvement over the straight single-origin Pixcaya in mouthfeel and an edge of sweetness it didn’t otherwise have.

What kind of mad scientist alchemy is this?

Were we covering up the taste of bad coffee? We certainly don’t see it that way. Did we defile purist coffees in the process? Who cares! The results were noticeably better. You tell Château Margaux that they’re defiling their cabernet sauvignon grapes with merlot. Not to mention our reigning WBC champ, who used blending to make part of his specialty drink in the competition.

Taste is, of course, subjective. But if advancing the art of coffee is supposed to involve experimentation, questioning assumptions, and learning from the results, we’re dumbfounded by many of the distinguished coffee reps in the industry who put up mental barriers when it comes to things like blends. When we value coffee purity above its flavor, do we want to be museum curators or do we want to drink better coffee? Are we making coffees to win pure bred dog shows or to taste good?

The more this blind bias and spread of misinformation continues, the more we are not convinced their passion is only for the resulting taste in our cups.

San Francisco gets a disloyalty card, but we kinda still don’t

Posted by on 21 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Local Brew, Starbucks

If you’re not aware of the disloyalty card concept, it originated a couple years ago in the UK from former world barista champ, Gwilym Davies. The kicker is that it’s supposed to be the opposite of a customer loyalty card, where consumers are given financial incentives for repeat business. Like the kind you get from the big chains such as Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee.

The SF Disloyalty CardInstead, the informal disloyalty “card” offers financial incentives for consumers to sample the coffee at a variety of independent coffee shops in town — using something of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink informal honor system. The concept has since been mimicked in Seattle, Atlanta, Calgary, and elsewhere, and now it’s apparently come to San Francisco: San Francisco Gets a Dis*Loyalty Card | ShotZombies. Participants in the SF card program include Stable Café, Epicenter Cafe, Coffee Bar, Sightglass, Ma’velous, Farm:Table, Four Barrel, and Ritual Roasters.

The idea has not only spread around the world, but it has even earned a few accolades of genius marketing from a few notables in the industry. We may have groaned in full-facepalm position when Gwilym Davies started spouting from the Gospel according to the Third Wave after winning the WBC crown. But he deserves credit for coming up with a cute concept. But beyond a cute concept, that’s where we never really quite got it.

What dampens our enthusiasm for the concept is that it just moves the goalposts a little further back — rather than refute them altogether. So instead of locking repeat consumer zombies into one chain, we spread them over a few more cash registers. It essentially suggests replacing a monopoly with a cartel. To be truly effective, a program should encourage people to go beyond even the boundaries of something like the participants on a disloyalty card. But then again, we’ve gone beyond boundaries that any sane person ever should…

UPDATE: March 2, 2011
Here’s a curious refinement on the disloyalty card concept: Explore Chicago’s Independent Coffee Shops with Tour de Cafe – Chicagoist. Here the emphasis is on making it a $20 pre-paid card.

UPDATE: Sept. 13, 2011
Toronto’s version of the $25 pre-paid card has been renewed for a second year with new participants (and a few drop-outs): Indie Coffee Passport returns for year two.

UPDATE: Jan. 10, 2014
Three years later in Washington D.C., would you believe there are still people treating this idea as if it’s ingenious and brand new?: Curious coffee drinker? This (dis)loyalty card is for you. With dozens of cities creating disloyalty cards over the past several years (more recently Boston and Baltimore), one can only conclude that the surprised reaction over D.C.’s disloyalty card just proves how these programs have mostly failed in obscurity for all previous markets.

Trip Report: Citizen Cake

Posted by on 18 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Let’s hear it for counter-programming. Starbucks made good on last year’s Plenta threat this week, announcing a new beverage size that targets the gluttony market, called the Trenta. As in Godzilla vs. the Trenta. Taking advantage of a news lull, Starbucks’ press onslaught has the media lapping it up. So naturally, we’re going to talk about the return of Citizen Cake.

This is the long-awaited revival of Elizabeth Falkner’s since-defunct Hayes Valley original namesake shop. Opening in November 2010 on the spot of the former Vivande Porta Via, it’s decorated with a lot of black-painted wood with red highlights. Inside there’s a bar with stool seating and a number of black wooden tables and booths for more formal dining. However, the pastries are, not surprisingly, showcased in front.

Let them eat Citizen Cake Pastries inside Citizen Cake

The staff here are, well, rather quirky — even by SF standards. They operate a rather restaurant-pedestrian UNIC Phoenix Twin behind the bar to pull shots of Equator Estate Coffee. We’ve long been ambivalent about Equator Estate coffees served in a retail environment; the lack of quality controls at the customer delivery end have produced an inordinate amount of underwhelming cups, given their industry regard. But in this restaurant-like environment, it’s surprisingly decent — though not great.

The resulting shots have a thinner but healthy-looking darker brown crema. It has a limited body and not much sweetness, despite its rather short two-sip serving size. With a darker, heartier herbal flavor of cloves, there is limited brightness in the shot. Served in classic brown ACF cups.

The milk frothing here is dodgy at best, and they also offer coffee in metal French presses. But at least unlike their former Citizen Cupcake location, they’re not hinging their business on the health of a record store.

Read the review of Citizen Cake.

The Citizen Cake UNIC Phoenix Twin The Citizen Cake espresso and sketchy-looking cappuccino

Trip Report: Caffè Pascucci

Posted by on 14 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

In 2009, the Italy-based Caffè Pascucci chain (including its espresso school, etc.) turned over its financial management to a group that has since favored more aggressive global expansion plans. These expansion plans included bringing their first non-Italian café chain store on this spot, across of AT&T Park in a modern brick commercial complex.

The Italian bible of coffee ratings, the Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia, rates the coffee at two of this café’s many sisters in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. The location in Rimini (Viale Amerigo Vespucci, 3a) received two chicchi (coffee beans) out of a maximum of three, and the grander shop in Riccone (Via Parini) received a full three chicchi. So there’s enough reason to expect the espresso here to be pretty good (and worth exporting). Contrast this with, say, Segafredo Zanetti chain, which has always underwhelmed.

Building maintenance at the entrance to Caffè Pascucci in SF Inside Caffè Pascucci

They call themselves Rimini-based, however. The on-duty barista on our visit worked for two years in their Rimini café, and he had the appropriate accent and tattoos for someone from the area. But for the many Americans who think of Italy as Florence-Rome-Venice, saying you’re from Rimini is like telling a San Francisco tourist that you live in the Excelsior. (“Is that near the Golden Gate Bridge?”) Despite its famous beach and favorite son in Federico Fellini, we caught an American (who had traveled in Italy, mind you) asking the barista where in Italy the café was from. The barista smartly replied, “East.”

Inside the café it looks like a modern Italian furnishings store — complete with white leather seating options (sofas, chairs), angular tables and chairs, and tall stools. It’s not a particularly large space, but the mirrored wall helps.

Dueling Fiorenzato machines and a large drink menu inside Caffè Pascucci The Caffè Pascucci espresso

Front and center is a serving bar with twin, two-group, shiny Fiorenzato Ducale Tall machines — from which they produce sizable doppio shots with a sharp, potent flavor. There’s little softness to the cup’s spice, woodiness, and slight bitterness that borders on a medicinal edge (which isn’t particularly appealing). It has a nicely textured medium brown crema, however. Served in gold logo ACF cups, like the ones used in their Italian cafés.

It’s a solid Italian espresso, but not among the best examples of Italian cultural exports — i.e., better than Segafredo Zanetti, but weaker than Caffè del Doge.

Their drink menu famously has odd creations, what the Bar d’Italia calls versioni più fantasiose (“more imaginative versions”) or versioni golose (literally, “gluttonous versions”). A prefect example are their espressi confuso — where the confuso means what you think it does. These are espresso drinks made with a unique cream-like concoction served from a whipped cream maker at a premium price, suggesting the popular bucket-of-pumpkin-pie-flavored-Cool-Whip drinks that Starbucks made famous with their own ode to gluttony — but with some Italian-style modesty thrown in.

Read the review of Caffè Pascucci.



UPDATE: April 18, 2011
In case there was any question about Caffè Pascucci’s over-reaching global ambitions under new management: Caffe Pascucci launches ‘Wood?Fired’ pizza in Bangalore.

Lisbon Cafés per the Wall Street Journal

Posted by on 13 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting, Robusta

Pasteleria São Roque from the Wall Street JournalTomorrow’s Wall Street Journal features an article on the Lisbon espresso, the bica: The Best Cafes in Lisbon – WSJ.com. It touches on Lisboeta coffee culture — e.g., drinking many shots each day at the local pasteleria (a sort of pastry shop/bar); a dependence on slower roasts, good quality coffee from Brazil, but also a proportion of robusta from former African colonies; and 40ml espresso shots instead of the Italian standard of 20ml (something we never saw as a positive, btw).

The article’s title is something of a misnomer, as it overlooks some of the best and most notable cafés in town. In part, this is due to the article’s focus on Delta Cafés coffee. Cafés such as Pastéis de Belém and A Brasileira are mentioned. But then again, our definition of quintessential Portuguese/Lisbon experiences includes headbanging to Da Weasel in Praça do Comércio whereas it probably doesn’t rank with the Journal.

Trip Report: Contraband Coffee Bar

Posted by on 06 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

This neighborhood coffee bar had been unusually hyped in the local presses, and on Facebook, for more than six months before it opened. This in a town where online foodie blogs make daily fodder of vacant, stripped-to-the-studs restaurant and café spaces with indefinite opening dates slated sometime before the next presidential administration.

We can attribute some of the hype to Contraband taking over the same spot as the former John Barleycorn bar, a local bar that developed a Nob Hill neighborhood love affair before closing in 2007. Contraband already had several 5-star Yelp reviews well before its opening on Christmas Eve 2010. (Underscoring one of the reasons why Yelp’s ratings are, well, stoopid.) But it’s hard to blame the locals when there aren’t a lot of great coffee bars nearby — even if co-owner Josh Magnani looks to Oakland for his coffee bar’s off-site roasting operations.

Entrance to Contraband Coffee Bar Contraband Coffee Bar's interior

They have a couple of sidewalk tables in front. Inside there’s a short counter lining the front window for stool seating, two seats at the coffee serving bar, and a few inside chairs centered around a long, tall table with flowers growing out of its center. They offer 3-4 different coffees for Hario V60 pour-over (Ethiopia, Guatemala, etc.) plus two kinds of espresso from their two-group Synesso Hydra machine.

They have a Compak grinder for their regular espresso blend (rated in our linked review below), which uses a Costa Rican base among some 5-6 other varietals. It comes with a good thickness of heady medium brown crema and is served in a shotglass to show it off. It is lighter bodied for an espresso and has a molasses-like sweetness (very much in the North American style).

Contraband's Compak and Versalab grinders and Synesso Hydra The Contraband Coffee espresso

Their Organic Kintimani Bali ($3) is more of their single-origin espresso treat — and a favorite of Mr. Magnani. They grind it with a separate Versalab M3 grinder, with its alternating dosing hoppers, and pull shots with a ridiculously bountiful crema. The resulting cup is practically effervescent, like a prosecco, and its lightness and subtle brightness spins the dark, heavy-bodied stereotype of Indonesian coffees on its head. They have access to a few hundred pounds of the stuff, so it’s bound to be in supply for a while.

In all, Contraband is a great local coffee bar — even if it doesn’t quite rank among the city’s elite.

Read the review of Contraband Coffee Bar.

Contraband Coffee's Organic Bali Kintimani data sheet Contraband Coffee's single-origin Bali espresso

While you were staring at that Coava Kone in a box, you missed the Versalab M3

Contraband’s Versalab M3 is worth a passing mention. Much of the local press has zeroed in on Contraband’s use of a Coava Kone. Now we love what the Coava guys are doing. They may yet even displace the Hario V60 this year for all we know. Be we still don’t quite get the industry hype over the Kone.

Contraband Coffee's unusual Versalab M3 grinderSure, it’s clever in that it sort of takes a Finite Element Analysis approach to emulating a paper filter out of stainless steel. But that makes it a second-rate imitation of a paper filter. In our experimentation, and we’re not alone, the Kone hasn’t improved the taste of Chemex-brewed coffee. In fact, the one of the better complements we’ve heard about it was, “It’s almost as good as with a paper filter.” Not that less waste doesn’t have its merits and virtues, but the Michelin guides don’t hand out extra rating stars if a restaurant uses a more water-efficient dishwashing machine.

Yet the local press fails to make any mention of the Versalab M3 here. At least we should expect articles with naïve headlines like, “The $1,700 grinder!” The M3 may not be the greatest grinder on the market — or just maybe it could be. You have to give it serious points for grind consistency. In any case, it is quite a novelty — made by a Florida-based geek who makes only speakers, turntables and coffee grinders. And it’s about time grinders got their due over espresso machines and the pour-over method du jour.

Trip Report: Cotogna

Posted by on 05 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Local Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

This more informal, osteria sister to the Quince restaurant next door (its name is Italian for “quince”) offers a mighty fine, albeit still somewhat pricey, Italian meal. (The old Quince relocated to Pacific Ave. here about a year ago.)

The space showcases many wide glass windows, exposed woods (everything seems brown in here), and a wood-fired oven (with spare wood surrounding the entrance). It attracts an older, old money Jackson Square set. But to remind you of their more modest aspirations, they offer dishtowels for napkins and an unusual wine menu where everything is priced at $40/bottle.

Glassy entrance to Cotogna Inside Cotogna

This is a very rare restaurant where the great attention to their very good food is matched by the attention they give to their very good coffee service. They’ve always been somewhat up on their coffee; when in their old Quince location, they used Barefoot Coffee when virtually no one else was in San Francisco. Back then Quince fell apart at the barista end, but not here.

They use a two-group Synesso — one of the few you’ll ever find in restaurant service — behind a zinc bar. Cleverly, they also employ a doserless Mazzer grinder, enforcing good practices among their staff to ensure that everything is ground to order. But it’s not like they would have to, as this restaurant seems to dedicate an employee to barista duties. In fact, they seem to do this more than just about any other restaurant we’ve ever visited anywhere.

Barista behind Cotogna's zinc bar operating a two-group Synesso and a doserless grinder The Cotogna espresso

Using coffee from Roast Coffee Co. in Emeryville, they pull shots with a richly colored, mottled, medium and lighter brown crema with irregular suspended bubbles. It’s served a little high, but not overly so for a doppio. It has a good, solid mouthfeel, with a roundness to its flavor — which is more focused in the pepper and cloves area.

At $4, it’s seriously expensive. But we like to reward good restaurant espresso service too, and there’s a lot of good practices going on here. This is one of the few American places we’ve been to where the coffee doesn’t give away that you’re having it in a restaurant.

Read the review of Cotogna.

NYC’s Top 10 of 2010

Posted by on 04 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Something strange about the human condition requires us to finish the year by sorting, filtering, and ranking things in order. This perhaps only seems odd to us because we do it continuously. Whether or not you think the world could do without another year-end top 10 list, the coffee consultants behind New York City’s TampTamp have put together their third annual Best-of-NYC: NYC’s Top 10 of 2010 | TampTamp Inc..

Compare and contrast this year’s list with their listings for 2009 and 2008. Although seven of this year’s top 10 use coffee roasted somewhere else, this means that three are actually roasting within the greater NYC area — perhaps suggesting something of a small trend there. (For comparison, 30 of the current top 31 coffee bars on CoffeeRatings.com use coffee roasted in the Bay Area — if you include the Berkeley-raised and Santa-Cruz-based Verve Coffee Roasters.)

Eli Manning: 'I need a good espresso'A few coffee spots have repeated placing on their list over the years, and the consultants have noted how difficult it is now to break into their Top 10. This suggests New York City is experiencing its own evolutionary slowdown, just as we’ve noticed how hard it’s become to crack to Top 20 in SF in the past couple of years.

In any case, this Top 10 list is bound to make New Yorkers happier than their other #10 these days: Eli Manning, the NFL’s leading interception thrower for the 10-game-winning yet once-again playoff-missing New York Giants. Well, they could be the 49ers…

Clover has got your Hario V60 right here, pal

Posted by on 01 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

In what’s starting to look like a Spy-vs-Spy-like dance between a Starbucks acquisition and the unStarbucks set, Starbucks’ Clover Equipment Company’s latest move is the Precision Pour Over: Clover Pour Over « Why Not? Coffee. (Courtesy of Seattle’s Why Not? Coffee.)

Why Not? Coffee shows us a prototype of the Clover Precision Pour Over at Roy Street Coffee and TeaAs we left off in our story, the once-independent Clover Equipment Company made waves with its brewer back in 2007. With its splashy introduction on the market, half lead by its fictitious price tag, lot of people bored with the espresso routine saw brewed coffee as fertile new ground for coffee exploration. But then Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz discovered it, got his hands on it in 2008, and said he was taking all the toys for himself and didn’t want to share.

Many independent cafés were suddenly locked out of the device, and others still thumbed their nose at the machine’s “sell-out” to Starbucks. In retaliation, many independent cafés replaced thoughts of the Clover brewer with an obsession over Hario V-60s drippers — essentially exhuming the 1908 invention of the Melitta coffee filter with a little spit shine.

Clover vs. unStarbucks cafés: a new Cold War?Clover’s latest move is a prototype that co-opts the Hario V60 in a new design that stay’s true to Clover’s hands-off, mass-production mission. Between that and even Williams-Sonoma now carrying the Hario drippers (a jump the shark moment?), we can only wait and see how the unStarbucks set will counter.

Any way it goes, there’s still no end in sight for the filter drip faux arms race — with coffee consumers caught in the crossfire.