March 2011

Monthly Archive

The Onion: Starbucks Is 40

Posted by on 30 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Starbucks

It’s been a while since we posted something specifically about Starbucks. Yes, they still exist. Their CEO, Howard Schultz, is currently promoting a book, published yesterday, called Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul.

If you mentally have to go back to the Clinton administration to remember when Starbucks last had something resembling a soul, you are not alone. But Schultz’s book message is that Starbucks was in financial dire straits with the economic collapse, and it is now making the most triumphant of comebacks. Apparently if you fall into a 20-foot-deep financial sinkhole for a few years, and in the last year you manage to climb your way five feet back up the sinkhole wall, that’s cause for a new book about your miraculous comeback. Even if you’re still stuck in a 15-foot hole compared to where you were a few years ago.

Birthday cakes have been made in celebration of Starbucks turning 40Along with this book release, this month Starbucks celebrates their 40th anniversary. Meanwhile, Peet’s Coffee & Tea has signage up celebrating their 45th. In the spirit of Starbucks buying out anybody who attempts to outdo them, it’s hardly a surprise that there are now rumors about Starbucks buying Peet’s.

Today the comic newspaper, The Onion, put their spin on Starbucks’ anniversary with this infographic: Starbucks Is 40 | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source. Some bullets of note:

  • 2002: Responding to complaints that its coffee tastes bitter and burned, Starbucks releases Metal Machine Roast, the chain’s most perversely unpalatable brew to date
  • 2007: Following the success of its music and book sales, Starbucks begins offering life insurance, tax preparation, and living wills

SF Coffee’s “Battle of the Bands”

Posted by on 29 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Growing up as a teenager, I always hated those “Battle of the Bands” contests. Because — despite my odd musical tastes, from the Dream Syndicate to Mötorhead, at a time when most teens wanted the inoffensive sounds of Huey Lewis & the News — I quickly learned that these contests were never about talent. They always ended up awarding whomever could best rally their peeps in what was really a rather cliquish popularity contest.

What Battle of the Bands was like back in my day of sock hops and kazoos, grandpaAs I got older, I noticed that the same popularity contest problem was at work behind every “America’s favorite” marketing campaign. Seriously — like how could McDonald’s honestly be the best meal money can buy in this country? Quality and volume rarely go hand-in-hand.

Which brings us to this bit of an SF popularity contest for coffeehouses: SF’s best coffeehouse winner(s)! : On The Block: SFGate. TheFrontSteps.com, essentially a real estate sales blog, received some critical mass attention for their contest. For a more complete list of the top 65, minus a couple dozen places with single votes: Winner: The Best Coffee (House) In San Francisco, And The Rest | theFrontSteps.

Just as entertaining, perhaps, is seeing how many commenters on either post fit into our “The 10 Types of Commenters on Coffee Articles.”

The Philniks pay their tithes

The contest winner? Philz Coffee — a local chain of pour-over bars long fronted by Phil Jaber, whose shtick of fashioning himself as the Willie Wonka of coffee has long earned him something of a cult following. But despite making some of the most notoriously wretched and vile espresso in the city, we’ve always thought they made a good cup of coffee.

Philz drink menu would drive a Third Wave barista insaneIs Philz the best coffeehouse in the city? The answer sort of depends on whether you think Scientology is the best religion. But at 27.87% of the votes, with the distant #2 at 8.04%, Philz clearly mopped up the place.

Even so, part of us secretly roots for Philz — despite a cult-like atmosphere that creeps us out and keeps us from setting foot in them anymore. They’ve been a kind of MySpace to the Facebook of the self-annointed Third Wave coffee set — i.e., an out-of-favor rebel that serves as a foil to the many copy-cats who fashion themselves as the true coffee rebels and revolutionaries.

Philz has been doing the hand-made, individual pour-over coffee thing for years before many of the independent coffeeshops even acknowledged the existence of filter drip coffee. And to this date, Philz oddly sticks to their black magic blends — a stark contrast from the many aspiring coffeeshops that (mistakenly) believe coffee quality is directly proportional to the number of ethics descriptors and isolated geographic designations associated with their green beans.

“The more you can isolate a genetic strain to a handful of coffee plants, the better the cup.” Or so goes the prevailing logic at many of Philz’ competitors — and it’s a complete crock that even the ever-popular wine analogy doesn’t live up to.

Weekend at Bernie’s

Heading further down the list we encounter Bernie’s at #2. We like Bernie’s, even if we only rate their espresso as tied for 89th out of 683 rated SF coffeehouses. But going back to the Battle of the Bands analogy to start this post, anyone who knows anything about Bernie’s knows their #2 ranking has more to do about Bernie herself and the neighborhood than it does about their coffee.

We’re perhaps more perplexed by the extinguished campfires often served as espresso by Martha & Bros, listed at #6…

Trip Report: The Summit SF

Posted by on 16 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Taking up the space that was formerly Daniel Creamery and its cheese production, the Summit has tall ceilings in a wide open space converted for café and art space use. The main seating area is littered with rectangular tables and chairs with plenty of wall outlets and laptop zombies — making you feel like you just entered a community college computer lab.

Around the edges are walls of artwork (aka the Peek Gallery) that currently feature various hand-painted signs from New Bohemia mocking the abuse of “real”, “genuine”, and “authentic” labels — and making us think of SF’s Eat Real Festival. Artwork celebrating the abuse of labels here seems more than a bit ironic, given that The Summit bathes itself in the labels “local”, “seasonal”, and “craft.”

Entrance to The Summit SF Inside The Summit SF

Laptop zombies and real & authentic signage at The Summit SF Genuine and Authentic signage at The Summit SF

Ahhh, craft. Previously the domain of garbage men restyled as “sanitation engineers,” wordsmithing is a growth market in today’s coffee industry. We have kiosks now being called coffee pop ups. And this year the term “artisan coffee” has been abandoned in favor of “craft coffee.” Which is not to be confused with Kraft coffee, otherwise known as Maxwell House. Are you sure you’re following all this yet?

The Summit offers a basic (seasonal) café menu and desserts in addition to a coffee menu that features Blue Bottle, using their 17-ft Ceiling blend for espresso. The Summit also features barista Seán Wilson, who trained under Eton Tsuno at the defunct (and much missed) Café Organica — arguably SF’s first real multi-roaster café back in 2005. There’s also a front counter with stool seating and a four-group La Marzocco behind it.

The barista takes his sweet time but produces a worthy shot. It could have a more substantial body, but it has a frothy, darker brown, even crema of some thickness. It manages also to avoid being too acidic until the bottom of the cup, otherwise exhibiting a balanced, herbal-leaning flavor with some sweetness throughout. Served in colorful retro cups made in Turkey for Ikea.

They’re not performing miracles with Blue Bottle coffee here. However, they are aiming for, and succeeding at, a flavor profile that raises The Summit above most other BB resellers.

Read the review of the Summit SF.

The Summit sources locally, uses craft coffee, and insert other fabricated buzzwords here The Summit SF's La Marzocco from behind the counter seating

The Summit SF's La Marzocco and coffee menu The Summit SF espresso

Trip Report: Grand Prix

Posted by on 14 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Three years ago we identified something we called the low budget, ghetto chic conceptual art cafe — the said concept being consumers having to pay for full-priced espresso with the hipster privileges of having zero amenities. Last year some ad wizard decided these borderline coffee favelas should be called “coffee pop ups” (also formerly known as “kiosks”). Which is a little like calling a cardboard refrigerator box in a Tenderloin doorway a “housing pop up.”

Is this the entrance to Grand Prix? Or did Frank Chiu go on a coffee break? Oh, now we're talking... Grand Prix, this way.

Which brings us to Grand Prix — the latest in a local, faux independent chain of makeshift, Lambretta-themed kiosks that includes Vega at Langton, Special Xtra, and the original Cento. Giving the Azul Lounge a day job before it becomes a bar at night, Grand Prix has earned the title of coffee pop up in the local press.

Keep heading down the alley for coffee. No, really.Tucked away in a corner off of Grant Ave., you walk to the end of the short alley and up the few steps into the bar to find a stand-up coffee bar sporting a two-group La Marzocco Linea with Grand Prix branding. Inside it’s bar-dark, with dark wood and low lighting and typically barriers from reaching the rest of the bar.

There’s a short hallway in which to stand, but there is not much in the way of seating. Owner John Quintos is on a mission from God to make coffee lovers feel awkward and uncomfortable everywhere he possibly can — helping them to get over their shyness of ordering their coffee “to go” in paper cups, despite its many quality detriments.

Sarcasm aside, they pull shots appropriately short with a mottled medium brown crema of decent thickness. There’s almost no sweetness to the cup, however — unlike the espresso at its sister cafés. Thus it exhibits a narrower flavor profile, which also is lacking a bright edge. Not the best of the lot — Grand Prix is decidedly one of the weaker siblings — but it will do if you’re nearby. Particularly if you like drinking things out of paper containers while sitting on the sidewalk.

Read the review of Grand Prix.

Tight space inside Azul Lounge, i.e., Grand Prix The Grand Prix espresso

Trip Report: Grand Coffee

Posted by on 07 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Local Brew

Locals rave about this coffee cubbyhole, which opened in July 2010, and you can see why. This colorful stretch of Mission St., in the heart of the Mission, has a dearth of decent coffee shops. At least ones that don’t serve ashy, overextracted dreck.

This tiny shop offers four metal stools at a short counter at the far side of the entrance. Otherwise this place is mostly serving space behind the counter and a small area to walk inside to order. It operates as a one-man coffee bar courtesy of the engaging neighborhood owner/barista, Nabeel Silmi. There’s little to eat, save a few pastries and chocolate bars, so the focus is on the coffee. They also sell French press coffee, Hario drippers, etc.

Grand Coffee's prime SF ¿Qué onde Grand Coffee?

Grand Coffee's coffee menu Not much to look at in Grand Coffee's tight space, save the mobile overhead

Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea, Nabeel uses Four Barrel beans to pull modest-sized shots with a mottled lighter and darker brown crema in classic brown Nuova Point cups. It’s not quite the brightness bomb you might expect from Four Barrel, but it is a strictly acidity-forward cup that’s lacking some body and balance. That imbalance is undoubtedly coming from Four Barrel’s roasting and blending preferences rather than how the shot itself is pulled. It has a good herbal pungency with some cloves and a bright molasses-like edge of sweetness.

While the shot lacks some breadth of flavor and the space is tiny, this is clearly one of the best options for a good quality espresso along Mission St.

Read the review of Grand Coffee.

Grand Coffee's three-group La Marzocco Linea The Grand Coffee espresso, with sparkling water nicely served on the side

The 10 Types of Commenters on Coffee Articles

Posted by on 02 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting, Starbucks

Over the years we’ve read a lot of coffee articles. And ever since feedback forms became commonplace on the Internet, we’ve also read a lot of user comments on these posts. At least enough for us to identify 10 common archetypes among coffee article commenters on the Internet — analogous to the ever-popular coffee shop customer archetypes.

Commenters on coffee articles often fall into distinct cliques — many of them rather nonsensical. Just look at Erin Meister’s Serious Eats post last week on the cost of coffee. Not surprisingly, former U.S. barista champ, Kyle Glanville, described it simply as “great post, silly comments

So here’s to creating a lexicon so we can all say next time, “Stop being such a #6.”

1. The Starbucks Fire Marshall

Tastes like... burning!Like a mutant cross between Tourette Syndrome and a drinking game, these commenters cannot help themselves whenever someone posts something that includes “the S word.” No matter what context or circumstances for the article, we get their reflexive reply: “Starbucks tastes burnt!”

Doesn’t matter if it’s a Wall Street Journal article discussing their quarterly earnings or the latest police blotter reporting on yet another vehicle unable to resist the siren song of a Starbucks’ storefront window. This comment is also frequently offered with an air of implied revelation — akin to Charlton Heston’s infamous, “Soylent green is people!” (Sorry if we ruined that for you.)

2. The Daily Coffee Affirmation with Senator Stuart Smalley

It’s hard to believe that a someone’s self-worth could be called into question by something as trivial as another person’s choice of beverage, but these commenters face this very existential quandary. For them, coffee is still a raw, generic commodity — like kerosene. Hence 1950s truck stop coffee was good enough for grandpa and it’s good enough for us. Anyone who suggests or believes otherwise is part of a social conspiracy.

This conspiracy takes on two dimensions. The first involves separating fools from their money. Yet this is insufficient to explain why these commenters so viscerally exclaim that anybody who pays more than $1 for a cup of coffee is a moron. If it were merely this, any half-lucid person would keep their mouths shut in order to keep fleecing those fools all the way to early retirement.

Senator Smalley approves of your coffee choicesWhich leads us to the second dimension of the conspiracy: these commenters are also reacting to a perceived sense of class warfare. One man’s threat is another man’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

Rather than admit that “fancy coffee” isn’t their thing and they don’t really get it — the way that some of us don’t get kombucha or Russell Brand — projecting this social unease on those “idiots” paying for expensive coffee is a means of self-affirmation. “Because I’m good enough.. I’m smart enough.. and, doggone it, people like me!”

3. Coffee Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Speaking of conspiracies, this commenter archetype believes that the entire apparatus of the coffee industry was deliberately constructed by The Man as a means of enslaving and impoverishing coffee farmers. The actual concept that someone might actually consume and enjoy the end product is irrelevant.

Which explains Fair Trade, a sacred cow among these commenters. Like the TV trope, “think of the children!,” comments from this group focus almost exclusively on “think of the coffee farmer!” What they imply is that every person who touches coffee after it leaves the farm, including the various truck drivers and dockworkers working for pittance wages in coffee-growing nations, are blood-sucking parasites profiting off the backs of noble coffee farmers.

4. The Junkie

This commenter archetype views coffee exclusively as a performance-enhancing drug. When they encounter articles suggesting that there’s good or bad coffee, or that coffee might actually have a taste or flavor, you may as well ask your grandfather what’s his favorite crunkcore band; it’s just as alien.

Appealing to the malt liquor drinkers of the coffee worldWhen they’re drinking the coffee, these commenters could not care less if their coffee tastes like battery acid, and the idea of decaffeinated coffee seems utterly pointless. They are typically attracted to the malt liquor of the coffee world: coffees branded with wake-the-dead, crystal-meth-like psychoactive properties and the sinister names to match.

And if somebody else reports to drink coffee for its flavor, these commenters discount them as merely drug addicts in denial — kind of like the guy who says he buys Shaved Asian Beaver magazine only for the articles.

5. The Born-Again Junkie

Privileged white people haven’t had it easy. In today’s society of competitive victimhood and I’ve-suffered-more-than-you one-upmanship, some are lucky enough to experience the trauma of not getting into Harvard. Others aren’t so fortunate and have to resort to makeshift, bogus afflictions like “caffeine addition.”

Which brings us to the archetype of the recovered caffeine addict. These born-again commenters proselytize a lifestyle free of caffeine: “I once was a caffeine addict, but my life is so much better since I gave up coffee for yerba maté!” Like all lifestyle preachers, it’s not enough that they live with their own life choices — they must convince you to choose them too.

The dirty secret of this archetype is that, rather than face their demons, they are only hiding from the real problem in their lives — namely, their lack of self-control and inability to moderate themselves. Which makes them kind of like the gay man who joins the Catholic priesthood to “cure” himself of his homosexuality. (And we all know how well that works out.)

6. Reverend Home Roaster

Rev. Billy discovers the Gene Cafe coffee roasterHome roasting has been around for over a millennium. Its latest generation, with more modern prosumer equipment, probably peaked about a decade ago. But it is a brand new phenomenon for many. Often those who have discovered home roasting in the past year seem particularly afflicted with a brand of religious zealotry when posting comments on coffee articles.

Whether the article is about the cost of coffee, a Cup of Excellence competition, or even the pour-over brewing device of the month, the comment box is an irresistible platform (read: soapbox) to preach a sort of home roasting gospel. “It’s better than you can buy!” “It’s cheaper to do it yourself!” “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it!” One popular sermon is the Legend of the $5 Hot Air Popcorn Popper: “I have seen the promised land, and it is a West Bend Poppery II!”

You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t start selling off all our worldly possessions in anticipation of the home roasting Rapture. Yes, we like home roasting. It’s kind of a fun hobby from time to time. And yes, we understand that, by golly, you really like this new home roasting thing. We also like Benecio del Toro, but we don’t use the comment thread on a Cup of Excellence article to proselytize his merits as an actor and movie producer. The key to sales is relevancy — that goes whether you’re selling mortgage-backed securities or a home roasting lifestyle.

7. The MacGruber

Somewhere coffee comes out of the end of this contraptionThe MacGruber represents another kind of commenter with a DIY fetish — except that this archetype sees the DIY ethos as a form of social currency. Less idealistic and more self-interested than Rev. Home Roaster, the MacGruber comments on coffee articles to boast of their exploits building traveling espresso machines out of bike parts or attaching PID controllers to portafilter handles. In this regard, they’re a bit like those guys with gold chains and silk shirts who boast of their sexual conquests in laser-filled nightclubs. The difference being that most rational people would be socially embarrassed if confused for a MacGruber.

Given the choice between spending $35,000 on a new BMW or on a used Honda Civic and tricking it out with accessories over the next four years, the MacGruber will invariably choose the Civic. This might lead others to believe there’s something fatally flawed with the Civic. But this archetype also has an obsession with reinventing the wheel. We fondly recall one MacGruber who wrote up an elaborate post on how he converted his Vacu Vin wine-stopper into a coffee preservation system — blissfully ignorant that Vacu Vin has been making “coffee saver” systems for years that are available for $10 on Amazon.com.

8. The Dumpster® Diver

Coffee sale!!!Like The MacGruber, posts from this commenter archetype are about establishing social currency. Except here the currency is scoring a kilo of Colombian for the ridiculously low price of $1.99 a pound at Sam’s Club. As if to jab a hot fork in the eyes of Fair Trade advocates, this archetype boasts about their competitive place in the race to zero-cost, zero-conscience, quality-free coffee.

When this archetype isn’t posting about how much they’ve saved on coffee, they’re frequently long on ideas for using spent coffee grounds to Spackle® bathroom tiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid their frequent posts about how they bought their new car with the Dumpsters® full of cash they saved by making coffee at home instead of going to Starbucks.

9. The No Coffee Left Behind Act

Whether you’ve tried the coffee at three hundred different places or just three, most people have their favorite coffee. A large number of comments on coffee articles consist of personal endorsements of the coffee from a specific roaster, coffee shop, or home brewing contraption. As an anonymous poster put it on Boing Boing this week:

Every comment thread about coffee contains: (1) someone mentioning how great their home roasted coffee is; (2) a plug for a cafe not mentioned in the article.

Maybe we could just assume the existence of these kinds of comments from now on, with no need to actually post them?

But if we all assumed that, what would there be left to talk about? Hence this archetype of commenters who actively police various online media sources, ensuring their favorite coffee sources don’t suffer the egregious injustice of being omitted from a coffee article.

Some may take the additional step of attempting to elevate their pet coffee by dissing on the various coffee sources mentioned in the article. For example, this archetype frequently engages in slagging on quoted coffee shops for their pretentiousness, for the hipsters who work there, and over the fact that the owners cover their electrical outlets. Basically: all of the ridiculous stuff that’s the irreverent lifeblood of Yelp ratings.

10. The Jaded, Crotchety Blogger

This archetype believes they have seen it/done it long before you even heard of it/thought about it. And despite their whiny complaints of coffee articles that dredge up old topics hashed out thousands of times before over the years, they still cannot look away and feel compelled to respond — like gawkers at a gruesome car accident.

Yes, we’re making fun of ourselves this time. Because if it sounds like we’ve seen it all before, quite sadly we literally have seen it all before. Do you realize what kind of petty life you must lead to have read every coffee article ever written on the Internet? How about so pathetic, you come up with a list of 10 types of commenters on coffee articles.