February 2011

Monthly Archive

Travel + Leisure: America’s Best Coffee Cities

Posted by on 24 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Opinions are like… Well, let’s just say that everyone’s got one. And when it comes to America’s best coffee cities, Travel + Leisure magazine recently published theirs: America’s Best Coffee Cities – Articles | Travel + Leisure.

San Francisco ranks #3 on Travel + Leisure's America's best coffee citiesThe article opens with a rather puzzlng personal endorsement of Steps of Rome in SF’s North Beach, where a traveler is quoted as saying, “their espresso is the gold standard.” Just to prove that everybody’s different, Steps of Rome is currently ranked tied for #186 out of 677 SF coffee shops on CoffeeRatings.com.

This might help explain why a place like Los Angeles — with its Intelligentsia dominance and boutique shops like Lamill — didn’t rate relative to the likes of Savannah, GA. To spare you having to flip 20-some Web pages, here’s their ranked ordered list:

  1. Seattle, WA
  2. Portland, OR
  3. San Francisco, CA
  4. Providence, RI
  5. New York, NY
  6. Denver, CO
  7. Savannah, GA
  8. New Orleans, LA
  9. Austin, TX
  10. Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
  11. Portland, ME
  12. San Diego, CA
  13. Charleston, SC
  14. San Juan, PR
  15. Chicago, IL
  16. Nashville, TN
  17. Boston, MA
  18. Anchorage, AK
  19. Washington, DC
  20. Los Angeles, CA

Like Yelp, where ratings are often based on the cuteness of the baristas or perceived hipster douchiness of the staff, Travel + Leisure makes some odd nods to barista friendliness, comfortable chairs, and free Wi-Fi when talking about what makes a great coffee city. Of course, none of this is of concern to coffee geeks who cannot leave home without packing their own coffee luggage.

Trip Report: Brown Owl Coffee

Posted by on 20 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

Good coffee is not only a rare treat in the Outer Sunset, but it is often a rather uplifting social experience. (Though some will call this neighborhood “Central Sunset” or “Parkside”.) This adage remains true at this tiny coffee shop, which looks more like an old barber shop from the outside — save for the wooden owl in the tree out front next to the Muni L-line stop.

Inside it has a woodsy, camp-like feel with decorative logs and wood-cuttings, lacquered wood-cut tables, and mosaic arts decorating the walls. Opening in January 2011 (a big opening month for many area cafés), this shop is the brainchild of Ariana Akbar — who has to be one of the most genuinely friendly and engaging people we’ve ever met in the coffee world. You may be in the Outer Sunset, but you’ll feel like you’re in a friendly Alaskan outpost.

The humble storefront of Brown Owl Coffee - with wooden owl in tree The wooden interior of Brown Owl Coffee

Ariana got into the business by roasting her own coffee (now as Hearth Coffee Roasters, where she time shares at a Peninsula roasting facility) and deciding to open a shop here, rather than the much more expensive and competitive North Beach. Her local friendships show in the mosaic art on the walls and the John Campbell baked goods. Engaging her patrons with stories and conversation, she’s generously been known to offer a cookie or two, pour some Pelligrino with your espresso, etc.

The not-so-brown wooden owl out front of Brown Owl CoffeeHer coffee emphasis is supported by Clever drippers and a four-group La Marzocco Linea. For her espresso, she’s using Flores Island (Indonesia) Blue Dragon, which exhibits a surprisingly broad flavor profile for a single origin. She produces it in classic brown ACF cups with a healthy mottled dark and medium brown crema, plus a brief acidic sharpness followed by a more rounded herbal profile.

It’s a great espresso of truly personal-crafted origins, and the location is a real asset to the neighborhood — which is otherwise dominated both positively by the character of a true working class SF neighborhood and by the pitfalls of its many 40-year-old, forgettable food establishments. But this is the very kind of local place many of us would like to see supported in SF — and the kind of place where something like a disloyalty card program fails at its mission just where it is needed most. A few coffee shops have tried and failed on this spot before, including the E Surf Café and Cafe Benalli. But this one is doing something different enough, and with enough pride, that it definitely deserves the support of the locals.

Read the review of Brown Owl Coffee.

Ariana Akbar working the La Marzocco Linea at Brown Owl Coffee The Brown Owl Coffee espresso

When is coffee a beverage or not a beverage?

Posted by on 19 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Two articles in the news yesterday highlighted a bit of our thinking about a major divide in coffee formats: espresso and filter coffee. The Puget Sound Business Journal interviewed the sometimes-controversial Illy man, Giorgio Milos: Illy’s master barista challenges us to take a fresh look at Starbucks, Tully’s | Puget Sound Business Journal. The other article was from London’s Financial Times: FT.com / Food & Drink – The trend: Filter coffee.

Much of what’s there has been said before, except that Mr. Milos nailed a key point with this opening statement: “Espresso is not a beverage.”

Last year Starbucks joked about the Plenta; this year they gave us the TrentaThis key distinction is critical to understanding good espresso. Without it, Americans suffer bitter, watery, over-extracted dreck. Compensating for the American “more equals better” approach has been the American latte or cappuccino that’s been drowned in large volumes of milk compared with the more typical European version. Alternatively, the American demand for volume — with an equivalent level of caffeine tolerance and quality — is now being met by the return of pour-over/filter coffee.

But let’s back up a step to be sure: what does it mean to say, “espresso is not a beverage”? Espresso is about an intense, concentrated, rather fleeting taste or experience. It is not about quenching your thirst, 44-oz Super Big Gulp style (or two-hour mug style). It’s not about washing down your scone or lingering, Parisian style, in a café over a copy of Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Espresso is the amuse-bouche of the coffee world; satiety has no place.

The Cheesecake Factory: where one chicken bellagio can feed you for an entire day's worth of caloriesExcept satiety plays a massive role in the American ethos towards food and drink. When Americans speak of “value” consumption, we’re almost always obsessed with volume more than we are with quality. Dollar for dollar, we are more disappointed being served amazing food that might leave our 34% obese population still able to walk than we are with mediocre food that buries us alive in avalanche-level quantities. See: the American popularity of The Cheesecake Factory.

What this means is the resurgence of filter coffee (in higher quality forms) should do quite well from a cultural popularity standpoint. This trend may be a retread, but it stands to have far more cultural impact here than espresso ever could. We just hope that the minority of us still demented enough to prefer our flavors in short, concentrated doses continue to reap the benefits too. So please: no more pour-over bars that deliberately eschew espresso machines.

The Cup of Excellence: The Oscars of the Coffee World

Posted by on 15 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues

Ecco Caffè founder and fellow South Side Chicago homie, Andrew Barnett, posted a little background about the Cup of Excellence program on SFGate yesterday: Inside Scoop SF » The Cup of Excellence: The Oscars of the Coffee World.

The Cupping of Excellence - from the SFGateThankfully he compared CoE to the Oscars and not the Grammys — the latter of which have been, hands-down, the least credible and least relevant artist awards going. (As evidenced by the many album-of-the-year winners named at least a decade after the artist is either over the hill or dead, plus occasional jems like naming Jethro Tull “best heavy metal band”.)

As one reader pointed out to us over email, there is some irony in that George Howell — someone whom many in the industry look down upon as a sort of “second wave” coffee dinosaur — is at the roots of the modern single-origin coffee explosion.

Coffee’s Slow Dance, or Pop Will Repeat Itself

Posted by on 12 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends

The New York Times published an article this week (due in the NY Times Magazine tomorrow) from its coffee beat regular, Oliver Strand: Japan’s Pour-Over Coffee Wins Converts – NYTimes.com. It’s a relatively effective trend piece — dealing more with pop culture and a sort of social anthropology than anything it says about coffee. But coffee’s story over the past decade is primarily about an evolution of pop culture rather than any evolution in coffee itself.

What's old is new again: NY Times on the pour-over coffee fadThe article introduces the notion of national coffee cultures and how Japan has finally earned some long overdue recognition. Giving credit to Japan’s long history of quality coffee is a refreshing change from the usual mainstream media take, as coffee reporting is rife with historical revisionism.

Just last week, the San Jose Mercury News reported that “there’s a new DIY trend afoot in the world of coffee lovers … they’re roasting their own coffee beans — at home.” This despite a good decade of noticeable decline in activity on home roasting newsgroups, online forums, and mailing lists — in response to the increasing consumer availability of high quality, fresh-roasted, date-stamped coffees.

Pour-over coffee is new if it’s new to you

But while Mr. Strand does a great job in recognizing that Japanese quality coffee culture wasn’t born yesterday, he isn’t nearly as successful with doing the same for the very old, very un-trendy practice of pour-over coffee brewing. To quote his article:

“…Cooking isn’t stuck in 1990, or we would still be sitting down to menus with honey-mustard glaze and sun-dried tomatoes. Why should coffee be any different? ”

And yet the article goes on to discuss pour-over coffee. Except that pour-over is a holdover from the 1990s, with coffee shops such as Oakland’s Cole Coffee (née Royal Coffee) and Monterey’s Plumes offering handmade, individual serving pour-over coffee since the halcyon days of car phone antennas and rollerblading along the Embarcadero. Long before Phil Jabar, of Philz Coffee fame, even thought about coffee.

Monmouth Coffee in London - serving individual pour-over coffee since 1978But even 1990 doesn’t go far back enough. Monmouth Coffee in London has been offering individual pour-over coffee since 1978 — the days of the very fondue sets that Mr. Strand mentions in his article. And yet we have food blog posts announcing those “high-tech Chemex brewers” that were actually invented in the 1930s, and the original Melitta pour-over filter design was patented around the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series (1908).

Is it any wonder why we roll our eyes whenever someone brings up the popular (and misused) form of the “Third Wave” tag — as if nobody had thought of making quality coffee until they just invented it three years ago? Even the Japanese Hario dripper kettle Mr. Strand cites in the article represents a simple modification of the hot water pot — i.e., hardly something revolutionary. Consumer toaster manufacturers change their designs every couple of years, introducing new features like bagel settings, and yet nobody speaks of toast experiencing a “Third Wave” or radical quality revolution.

Understanding the need for (perceived) speed

Which all makes us wonder why coffee has a tendency to put a new coat of paint on the Vatican and tell us it’s new and revolutionary architecture. Perhaps we all innately need to believe that we live in accelerated and interesting times to get us out of bed in the morning. A cultural environment that promotes a kind of faux anxiety is probably good for jobs, good for product marketing, good for filling conference seats, and even good for book authors, newspaper columnists, and, well, blog posters.

However you look at it, hand-pour coffee is old. Japanese coffee culture is even older. But the Western recognition of and appreciation for pour-over coffee and Japanese coffee culture is definitely new. Or at least new to enough of us to warrant a worthy trend piece in the Times.

Australia rates home espresso machines as the most unreliable appliances

Posted by on 05 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Home espresso machines have been rated the most unreliable consumer appliance in a survey by Australia’s Choice: Brewing a great big cuppa strife | Herald Sun. Choice is akin to America’s Consumer Reports magazine — just without the bitter socialists at the Consumers Union behind it.

Over the years, Krups is responsible for more sponsored barista champions and more disgruntled home machine buyers than any other brand.One major contributor is likely the recent opportunistic flood of home appliance manufacturers: makers of toaster ovens and vacuum cleaners who suddenly smelled a cash cow in home espresso machines as Starbucks‘ stock price increased. (Okay, so that last part was way back in the Clinton era.)

Yet Australians aren’t that gullible; they’re some of the world’s most enlightened espresso consumers. But perhaps that very savviness is at the root of Australian’s dissatisfaction with home espresso machines: their standards are simply higher, and there are a lot of landfill-bound appliances on the marketplace that call themselves espresso machines in name only.

Another factor is undoubtedly the inescapable need for machine maintenance and tuning. The concept of regularly cleaning and tuning an appliance makes no sense to a lazy consumer who compares it to televisions, PVRs, and mobile phones.

Undoubtedly very few of us realize that we’re likely in violation of our refrigerator warranties if we do not dust or vaccuum the coils every month. Clearly no one does this. The difference being that a poorly maintained refrigerator still keeps food cool while it consumes more energy until finally blowing a compressor months or years later. A poorly maintained espresso machine makes foul espresso right away.

Why is the coffee industry so indifferent to its customers?

Posted by on 03 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine

Many in the coffee industry speak volumes about wanting to market themselves to the public as the “new wine.” But if we examine the practices the industry has taken on to accomplish any of this, it has failed miserably on nearly all fronts. What becomes all too clear is that the coffee industry either doesn’t want to engage with its customers or awkwardly has no clue how to do it — despite the many hints and clues left by the wine industry it supposedly looks up to.

Let’s examine the closest things the coffee industry offers in terms of public outreach, contrasting them with similar practices in the wine industry.

Death by barista competition

The new season of barista competitions is upon us once again (this is the original inspiration behind this post). Barista championships are widely considered one of the prouder, most marketable achievements of the specialty coffee industry. And yet they exhibit all the hallmarks of a navel-gazing insider event that feigns courting but really disregards the coffee consuming public.

Does this look anything like what café customers can relate to?Whether in person or via online video streams, following a few seasons of them creates its own form of repetitive stress injury. Bear witness to a few consecutive seasons, and it’s little wonder that people in the coffee business for any length of time simply stop attending. And despite a frequently-stated desire for a TV-ready, Top Chef-like equivalent for the coffee industry, these competitions are even more tedious for the coffee consuming public.

The competitions demonstrate a form of precision gymnastics to which no retail coffee consumer can relate. Glowing red timers on the walls; a dog-show-like presentation complete with mic’ed up headset and mood music; a hunched-over team of clipboard carriers who scurry like roaches as they inspect spent pucks and leftover grinds in the hopper. Even the specialty drinks compulsories are completely disconnected from anything resembling coffee in a retail environment. (As we’ve always liked to say, “if it requires a recipe, it’s not coffee.”)

Coffee lovers are sure to swoon over the USBC Brewers CupTo make matters worse — or at least more puzzling to consumers — the USBC has now introduced the concept of the Brewers Cup: to exhalt the art of pouring hot water over coffee grounds. Then throw on more formal recognition of latte art competitions — the industry’s push to elevate coffee not so much as a consumable, but as an art medium not entirely unlike pen & ink wash or watercolors. Huh?

Can the coffee industry produce a public event that isn’t a game show?

If we look over to the wine industry, just how many of their public events are modeled after reality TV game shows? A competitive sommelier beat-down, perhaps? Painting with wine contests? PBS surprisingly opted to renew The Winemakers for a second season, but microscopically few wine fans have ever heard of it.

The SF International Wine Competition: maybe engaging with consumers isn't such a horrible idea after allThere are competitive events such as the SF International Wine Competition, but they actively engage public participation, offer public education, and generally prevent these events from becoming industry navel-gazing or a mere spectator sport. However, the wine industry frequently engages with consumers through targeted consumer appreciation events as varied as the Rhone Rangers or the Family Winemakers of California or even cultural attaché marketing arms such as local chapters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.

And coffee has… well… the SCAA conference. The conference made recent overtures to invite the culinary world to their events. But that’s still just business-to-business marketing that completely ignores consumers. With coffee, it’s as if the trade is all that matters. This is also reflected in the industry’s most popular publications — i.e., magazines such as Roast, Fresh Cup, Barista, etc.

Yet when you compare the number of coffee consumers to wine consumers, and the frequency that each consumes their respective products, doesn’t this suggest gaping holes in the coffee industry’s consumer outreach strategy?

Making consumers bend to the industry vs. the other way around

How could any coffee consumer resist this?Even when the coffee industry makes a direct attempt to engage consumers, it can blow up on the launchpad. When it tried to court consumers with the concept of comparative coffee tastings, it instead opted for the industry trade practice of cupping — with all its obscene slurps, crust making-and-breaking, and spinning a lot of defect detection as if it were a social event (meat inspection, anyone?). As such, coffee cupping resembles nothing like the experiences that made your average coffee consumer a fan of the stuff to begin with.

The idea of using coffee “disloyalty cards” to introduce consumers to new coffee houses is a more clever consumer outreach program that has caught on in a number of cities. But none of these programs have had much impact beyond a small audience enthralled with their initial novelty and a few local press releases.

And if you look at the way quality coffee is marketed in the press today to consumers, it’s as if the industry is hell-bent on a mission to prevent good coffee from being consumer-friendly and approachable. If you purchase a retail coffee beverage in a shop, consumers are barraged with price-tag hype and the programmed obsolescence of the latest espresso machine. Consumers brewing at home are bewildered by the pour-over arms race.

Wine may have more than its fair share of gadget hawkers — e.g., the next Rube Goldberg-esque cork pull or aerator gadget. However, wine consumers aren’t inundated by a monthly one-upsmanship competition telling them that how they appreciated wine last month is now wrong, outdated, and no longer expensive enough. We cannot say that about quality coffee, whose public marketing strategy has more in common with 4G smartphones than with wine.

What we’d like to see as coffee consumers

No, really -- just imagine itAs much as the coffee industry has promoted the idea, we’ve always felt comparing itself to the wine industry was generally a bad idea. Even so, there are simple things the coffee industry could be doing that might include consumers in their success — rather than putting up barriers, refusing to accommodate consumers, and yet still hoping they still find a way to engage themselves to keep their industry afloat.

Given the belief in coffee terroir, why not demonstrate and educate consumers on it? For example, we’d love to see a coffee-growing-nation-sponsored, consumer-focused event that explores the various roaster expressions of the latest crops from, say, Guatemala. Or if not a tasting event based on regions, how about growing seasons? The Cup of Excellence program has elements that can be applied here. However, it is modeled as purely a trade event and many coffee growing nations aren’t even represented.

Come on, guys. We love your stuff. Why do you have to make it so ridiculously hard to participate, let alone enjoy it?