April 2011

Monthly Archive

Revealed: Nation’s flimsiest coffee-related press release

Posted by on 20 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Earlier this week, KRUPS, that bastion of great coffee, announced the winners of their National “Cup O’ Joe Awards”: Revealed: Nation’s best coffee shops – This Just In – Budget Travel. Now if only this announcement had anything legitimately to do with good coffee. Heck, if only KRUPS had anything legitimately to do with good coffee.

Of course, what we really have is one of the oldest tricks in the PR playbook: fabricate some kind of award (the broader the better — for potential distribution), issue your press release, and pray that it gets picked up in your target markets. The technique works, because we’re picking up the story here. Just probably not in the way KRUPS’ marketing department intended.

High density living for KRUPS coffee machinesOver the past 20 years, KRUPS has probably done more to disappoint more home espresso consumers than any other company, and a multitude of American landfills contain much of the evidence. To counter this reputation, KRUPS has resorted to associating itself with “upmarket” coffee — such as years of sponsoring barista championships. Here KRUPS created a new Cup O’ Joe Awards out of thin air to honor the nation’s best coffee places — and to remind consumers to keep filling their landfills with KRUPS coffee equipment (and not just KRUPS waffle makers and deep fryers).

One signature of the fabricated press release award is when the award winners have never heard of it. Another is carpet bombing high density population centers (i.e., home espresso machine consumers) to maximum effect. Thus KRUPS ignores Portland, OR, quality coffee’s Biggie Smalls, while New York City, quality coffee’s Jay-Z, gets awards for each of five boroughs.

Now that's quality Italian!And when it comes to the criteria for why one place inches out another in a given market for this coveted award, we learn the criteria involves “mailers, street teams and social media pages.” It’s Battle of the Bands all over again.

From their press release: “Krups USA polled 250 coffee-toting New Yorkers on the streets of each borough to discover their picks for the city’s best sips.” Can you imagine a SCAA barista champion crowned without the use of scoresheets — but instead by some quasi-magical popularity contest involving random street interviews, mailings, and Facebook Likes?

The San Francisco award went to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is hardly unwarranted. But KRUPS awarding the nation’s best coffee shops is a bit like Chef Boyardee awarding America’s best Italian restaurants.

Lights Out in London

Posted by on 11 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

This has to be one of the most clueless stunts we have ever seen anyone perform in the name of the professional quality coffee trade. Coinciding with the first London Coffee Festival, some ad wizards came up with the genius idea of having 100 UK baristas churn out a Guinness World Record 12,005 espressos in one hour. Worse still, they celebrate this orgy of mass-produced gluttony as if it were an accomplishment rather than an embarassment: Newswire / UK Baristas Smash Aussie World Record At London Coffee Festival 2011 – Beverage/Wine – Allegra Strategies | NewswireToday.

Because nothing says 'quality' like making world-record quantities of the stuffIt’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a better definition of the ol’ *facepalm*. Here we have a quality-focused industry of small independents struggling to find relevancy in the face of corporate coffee behemoths such as Starbucks. To those ends, they have turned to the language of artisan coffee, individual pour-overs with an attention to detail, the term “craft coffee,” and flowery, self-congratulating prose about the so-called Third Wave.

Instead, what we get is a competition that honors espresso-making like a factory that mass-produces vats of industrial lubricant. And Lord knows nothing says “quality” like “quantity”. Even better: quantity rushed to the point of setting world records.

Apparently, much of the discredit goes to Jeffrey Young, Managing Director of consultancy Allegra Strategies, who revels at the UK besting Australia in the PR Hall of Shame: “This record is a tremendous achievement and really shows the rest of the world London’s leadership in artisan ‘Third Wave’ coffee culture. London offers best-in-class food and coffee with many visitors coming here to learn from trends in this great city.”

Thank you, London. Apparently someone forgot to mention that the Third Wave is about how you can produce over 140 gallons of espresso in an hour.

Ethiopia’s coffee love affair – CNN.com

Posted by on 08 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Yesterday CNN posted a brief video piece on coffee culture in its birthplace, Ethiopia: Ethiopia’s coffee love affair – CNN.com.

The interviewees were weak, but the under-five-minute video offers some of the cultural backdrop behind coffee’s birthplace: the importance of coffee in the culture, how Ethiopians consume their coffee, and some of the challenges Ethiopians are facing with the global increase in coffee prices. In particular, we enjoyed seeing the mobile coffee vendors on the streets of Addis Ababa serving coffee to drive-up vehicles in real, not paper, coffee cups.

Every time we come across someone trying to promote consumer coffee cuppings as some second-rate imitation of wine tasting, we think of how much we turn our backs on coffee’s unique heritage — such as the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and its jabena pot, etc.

UPDATE: April 26, 2011
Tomoca, the coffeehouse featured in this video, also made a recent appearance on one of AOL’s 14 bazillion blogs: Tomoca: the best little coffee house in Africa | Gadling.com.

Fear and Loathing in Portland, OR and Toronto, ON

Posted by on 07 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine

This week the pipes and tubes of the Internetz delivered a couple of noteworthy articles on local coffee scenes. The first is a cover story in Portland’s Willamette Week (“Drip City: Everything old is new again in Portland’s coffee scene”). The other is a next-generation rehash of a “favorite coffeehouses” list from the Toronto Star (“Espresso yourself: Find your perfect café – thestar.com“).

Portland = Drip City?!

First, Portland. Can we call Portland “the capital of American coffee culture” as the article claims? The idea has its merits. But “Drip City“? Or the even worse subtitle, “The Rise of Nerd Coffee.” Huh? What nerd wouldn’t prefer working with machines that cost as much as a Toyota Prius over playing with plastic cups and paper cut-outs like a poor man’s woodshop class?

Willamette Week's cover story: Drip City?!?But they are right about the claim that “old is new again.” (Didn’t we just write that piece a couple months ago?) Does that make the current pour-over fad akin to bell-bottoms making another comeback, albeit made with very 21st century recycled materials? That might also explain the unfashionables who have been sporting their coffee “bell-bottoms” (i.e., offering individual pour-over coffee) since the 1970s, such as Monmouth Coffee in London, only to discover that they are suddenly in fashion again.

More telling is perhaps this quote from the piece: “I think a huge part of its value is that it’s just fun.” There you have it. One of the greatest motivators behind pressure-profiling machines that add little in the cup and the exhuming of decades-old pour-over technology: never underestimate the power of barista boredom. Given the repetitive stress injuries they risk in a given day, day after day, who can really blame them?

We’d have sued Willamette Week for plagiarism, given how it finishes the piece with a rehash of the evolution from Clover brewer -> Hario V60 -> Williams-Sonoma -> Precision Pour Over — something we posted New Years Day earlier this year. But given how much the rest of the piece is overwrought with Martha Stewartesque abuse of the word “perfect,” we’re distancing ourselves as much as possible.

However, we could use another dose of 90′s rehashed bell-bottoms, JSBX style. Anthony Bourdain need not apply.

Blame Toronto

Speaking of Martha Stewartesque abuse of the word “perfect,” the Toronto Star gave us another groan for the coffee industry with the article title “Espresso yourself: Find your perfect café.”

What is it with coffee and coffeeshop names? Coffee must have more bad puns per capita than any other industry this side of porno movies. The words latte, grind, brew, bean, perk, and grounds should all be banned from coffeeshop names. Though we just might change our minds if someone flaunted it by naming a café “Grounds for Divorce” or something of that ilk.

Toronto's Mercury Espresso BarWe’ve probably given Toronto a bit more coffee love here than they’ve deserved — likely because the squeaky media wheel gets the grease, and the Toronto Star has needed a chassis lube for years now. But despite having rehashed the local Toronto café round-up for more times than we can count, the article does a nice job of starting its latest incarnation with the vital baseball card statistics: listing coffeeshops with their opening dates, machines, beans, costs, and specialties.

It gets a bit flowery by qualifying things such as “impressions” and “music,” but that matters to many customers too. They also went a little doll house design crazy by building their ultimate coffee bar in this related article: Raising the bar: Toronto’s ultimate café – thestar.com.

“No, no, no. Alright? No coffee places with names involving metaphors, jokes, or any wordplay whatsoever. No ‘Sufficient Grounds’. No ‘Sacred Grounds’. No ‘Espresso Yourself’.
– Officer John Cooper, Southland (TV), “Identity” (Season 4, Episode 4)

America will never make good restaurant coffee

Posted by on 03 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

We’ve been lamenting the sorry state of restaurant coffee in these pages since 2005. But let it be known that, as of this moment forward, we have officially given up on the possibility of ever being reliably served good coffee in American restaurants.

Modernist Cuisine's five-volume series for a mere $625Sure, there have been a few successes and battles won along the way. There has even been the occasional restaurant that made us think about what’s possible. But reliably good coffee — the way you can safely expect at any restaurant in, say, Portugal — is a pipe dream. We’ve finally come to the stark realization that the war is effectively unwinnable … a lost cause. To deny this is to blindly ignore an overwhelming display of evidence.

Oddly, the bit of news that finally killed the dream for us — what finally broke the camel’s back — was a post in the New York Times about Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine five-volume encyclopedia set and Mark Prince’s review of its coffee chapter on CoffeeGeek.com. We’ll explain in a moment.

Restaurants’ running coffee joke

Bad restaurant coffee has been the norm long, long before many of us were even born. There are even front-page references to this topic in the San Francisco Chronicle going back to 1963. Among long-anticipated social revolutions that ain’t never gonna happen, this places reliably good restaurant coffee somewhere between professional soccer making it big in the U.S. and the coming of the Jewish Messiah.

The San Francisco Chronicle, above-the-fold, Monday, February 18, 1963So what about those two articles triggered such absolute futility about restaurant coffee? Both pieces were written with a kind of presumptuous expectation that quality coffee somehow deserves a place in the discussion of “modernist cuisine.” As much as we love coffee, the idea is both audacious and completely misplaced. Located in Volume 4 of the series (“Ingredients and Preparation”), the coffee chapter follows a roughly equivalent chapter on wine. And that’s where the comparisons begin to fall apart.

When wine, beer, cheese, and even salt have a lot more to do with cuisine than coffee

It is not even a question that coffee is far less relevant to cuisine than wine. Coffee may have far more aromatic and flavor components than wine, but it can never be paired to complement food the way wine can. The world is steeped with centuries-old culinary traditions of pairing local wines with the food of the region. And yet in the many centuries that coffee cultures have had to pair coffee with cuisine, to this date the combination simply does not exist the world over — despite the many failed, recent attempts to shoehorn them together. This is not by accident.

The Brewers' Association's craft beer and food pairing chartBeer pairings, for example, are far more relevant to cuisine; we received no fewer than two beer pairings as part of a recent tasting menu at Atelier Crenn. And yet there’s no beer chapter in Modernist Cuisine. The same is even true for the modern phenomenon of pairing food with different varieties of salt. Thus this leaves coffee no more relevant and integral to the science of actual cuisine than, say, tea, after-dinner cordials, or even cigars or tobacco. None of which either have chapters in Modernist Cuisine, by the way.

We can make all sorts of excuses about the coffee in restaurants — such as how the “last mile” in the serving chain for coffee is far more technical and sensitive than that for serving tea or wine. But even if you solve that last mile problem, that doesn’t change coffee’s very limited relevance to cuisine overall. And the less relevant coffee is to cuisine, the less relevant good coffee becomes to the overall restaurant experience.

And the award for best supporting culinary actor again goes to … wine!

This might come as a slap in the face to a number of coffee professionals who are riding a revolutionary wave in coffee consumerism. (Note that we deliberately didn’t call it a revolution in coffee.) In the past decade, some have even envisioned the role of the barista on the same pedestal that food television bestows upon celebrity chefs — or at least the expectation of rivaling the wine sommelier.

This video game is hard to win by the rulesThis belief is fed by a steady stream of people selling coffee technology and pitching media stories inspired by the major changes in coffee consumerism. All of which has given modern coffee a little bit of an egotistical head case — an occasional sense of entitlement to a rightful place in the pantheon of restaurant gods alongside pedestals for wine pairings, cheese courses, and dessert menus.

But baristas aren’t at all like chefs, and that’s a good thing. (If anything, they’re a bit more like line cooks.) Baristas aren’t like sommeliers either, and that’s also probably a good thing. Specialization exists in a modern society for good reason: we don’t want our mixologists making our pork belly, and we really don’t want waiters and host/esses pulling our espresso shots. And just as head chefs rely on sommeliers and pastry chefs, we honestly don’t want our chefs obsessing over our coffee service.

Either play by coffee’s rules, or we don’t play at all

The SCAA conference’s “Culinary Track” is one of the better examples of how distorted the coffee industry views itself within the culinary world’s hierarchy of needs. The SCAA might partner with the Texas Restaurant Association for its annual conference in Houston at the end of this month, but it is still as if the SCAA expects Mohammad to come to the mountain — not the other way around (i.e., establishing a coffee track at a restaurateur conference, such as done at Fancy Food shows).

For each annual industry conference for tea, aperitifs, cordials, cheese, and salumi, does the SCAA expect that restaurateurs will take time out from their relentless schedules to attend a restaurateur-dedicated culinary track at each of these events? Is coffee so egotistical as to believe that it is entitled to a role more prominent than any of its sister components to an overall restaurant meal?

The future fate of restaurant coffee

CoffeeGeek’s legendary Mark Prince may have gotten excited by reading Modernist Cuisine‘s slagging of restaurant coffee standards, but there is absolutely nothing modern about this phenomenon. General consumer standards for coffee may have improved over the past decade, but restaurants on this continent are forever doomed to be laggards for the reasons outlined above. It’s a pattern that has persisted for decades.

Why it has taken us this long to write off restaurant coffee as a second-class culinary citizen is a bit of a mystery. But like everyone else, it’s time to get over it. Reliably good restaurant coffee will never happen. Not in our lifetimes. And probably not ever. And the sooner we can stop pretending that coffee is some elite offshoot of the culinary arts, the better.