It’s a good thing we’re no longer monitoring signs of the impending Apocalypse. But in perhaps yet another sign that quality coffee is at the end of a Golden Age, rumors today of a Stumptown Coffee Roasters buyout: Stumptown Sold Out – The Selling of Stumptown Coffee Roasters – Esquire.
Unlike the article’s author (and La Colombe staple), Todd Carmichael, we’re not exactly taking the news as reason to mourn the death of a coffee great. Despite the very un-Portlandia image of such a Wall Street buyout, a Stumptown ownership change is perhaps less of a sad loss for the quality coffee world and more of a necessary step in its progressive legitimization.
Mr. Carmichael calls Stumptown’s founder, Duane Sorenson, “the Che Guevara of the rock-star barista movement.” Coincidentally, today Mr. Guevara is known far more for his T-shirt iconography than for his political treatises. Similarly, Stumptown helped usher in the era of the Clover brewer, only for Clover to sell out to Starbucks less than two years later — ultimately inspiring today’s throwback to decades-old pour-over brewing technology.
Any reasonably successful counter-cultural movement ultimately gets co-opted by the mainstream as part of its natural evolution. And if the rumors are indeed true, Mr. Sorenson has busted his tail for many years and has earned a break. Should we feel sad?
Eight years ago, we lamented the demise of Torrefazione Italia when it sold its soul to Starbucks. And yet out of those ashes, two employees who met while working at a San Francisco Torrefazione Italia, Eileen Hassi and Jeremy Tooker, would soon go on to found Ritual Coffee Roasters. Ritual, and later Mr. Tooker’s Four Barrel Coffee, would play instrumental roles as San Francisco experienced one of the greatest quality coffee booms in its history. Instead of lamenting the end of the coffee world as we know it, a la Family Radio International, perhaps a better model is the Hindu god Shiva — who simultaneously plays roles as both the destroyer and the creator of the universe.
Last month we wrote that coffeeshop names must have more bad puns per capita than any other industry this side of porno movies. We even went so far as to say, “The words latte, grind, brew, bean, perk, and grounds should all be banned from coffeeshop names.”
The Twitterverse has picked up on this with a recently trending phenomenon with the hash tag #badcoffeeshopnames. Contributions have been made by even a few semi-recognizable comedians, such as Harry Shearer and Elaine Boozler. Some of our favorites to date?:
The scary part is it’s hard to sometimes tell the real ones from the fake ones. So join the party.
Some Mission residents are enthralled that they finally host a decent coffee shop that doesn’t require disinfectant. Opening just this month, this corner café has bright, large windows and decorative touches: wooden counter seating in front, a converted salon room in back with a marble fireplace, a decorative sofa, and ornamental flowers. Also towards the back is a handful of square tables and the occasional laptop squatter. There’s also a few wooden chairs on the sidewalk out front.
Using a red, two-group Rancillio at the front counter, they pull shots of espresso with an even, textured crema of modest thickness. Pulling (imported and thus notoriously stale) Lavazza coffee, there is some notable freshness missing in the cup: the crema runs short and the flavor profile runs more narrow.
That said, the owner/barista is methodical and improves what would otherwise be a weaker cup. It has an herbal pungency that differs from a typical Lavazza shot in this city, but it’s not necessarily that much better. It has less of the distinctive Lavazza flavor and a bit more smoke and toast. Served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. That a popular SF neighborhood, just a half-mile from the original Ritual Coffee Roasters, could be excited about a coffee shop like this proves that good coffee is far from ubiquitous, even in a town like San Francisco.
Read the review of Fiore Caffè.
It amazes us that the Internetz still hum with “serious” food-obsessed people writing about cowboy coffee. To us, that’s a bit like going to the Mayo Clinic Web site to read about cowboy surgery — involving a bottle of whiskey, a hacksaw, and stick to bite down on.
But if you insist on making coffee under harsh conditions, we are more impressed with these two recent Canadian exports of how-to coffee videos.
The first concerns making coffee in a field of Afghan insurgents. Be forewarned that this how-to video contains more expletives than the movie 44 Inch Chest. “Step one, adopt a firing position and make sure there are no fucking insurgents around. Nothing fucks-up good coffee like fucking insurgents.”
For more family-friendly viewing, and offensive use of the laugh track, here’s Canuck legend Red Green demonstrating the merits of lawnmower coffee.
Changes the meaning of the term “coffee bagging,” doesn’t it? Though I think we sampled this coffee method once at a Happy Donuts.
Here in SF, we’re sometimes way too busy holding our noses because a coffee shop doesn’t use Blue Bottle or Fair Trade certified coffee. (In our personal case, sometimes it’s just too few places that use Barefoot.) To put things a little in perspective, here’s a story today from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Police bust Italian espresso gang – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
Police in Naples said they had smashed a lucrative mafia coffee distribution business in an operation code-named “Caffe Macchiato”, seizing assets worth 600 million euros ($797 million).
Prosecutors said the bugging tipped them off that the Mallardos were forcing cafes in the region to use a particular brand of coffee, whose sales were controlled by a relative of Feliciano Mallardo [suspected boss of a clan tied to the Napoli crime syndicate, the Camorra].
Coincidentally, we’re currently planning a trip for around this time next year to head back to Napoli and sample the local espresso among the city’s scugnizzi and the original pizzaioli. Repeat viewings of the 1963 Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni classic, Ieri, oggi, domani, will of course be required. Repeat viewings of Gamorrah being a bit harder to take.
A couple weeks ago, a regular reader made a very relevant comment on our last post: “You have become very negative. When was the last positive post?” They were completely on target, and we have noticed this trend in ourselves for months now. (See: Coffee Commenter Archetype #10.) The reasons are worth a post here.
Now we’ve always been prone to sarcasm and even a certain iconoclastic streak. But that alone is insufficient to explain why we’ve even caught ourselves asking, “Are we being too negative all the time?” before posting our next missive. After all, it’s no mystery that the ebullient, sunny, and awe-inspiring posts/tweets/viral-Internet-nuggets-du-jour are what motivate people to read and share.
We’ve come to a sort of conclusion that, since we started this blog in 2005, the quality coffee world has changed a lot — and mostly for the better. The number of places capable of reaching the highest quality standards have proliferated, reaching even what were traditionally coffee’s quality wastelands (e.g., suburbia, New York City, even Paris, etc.).
However, over the same time, the best retail places for coffee have improved little over the years. It may be our humble opinion, but the absolute quality level of coffee has plateaued. This suggests that much of the perceived improvement in quality coffee over recent years was primarily driven by more coffeeshops “catching up” to what the best ones had been successfully doing for years now: emulating their good practices, their quality sourcing, their commitment to training, etc. The stagnation in our highest espresso scores also supports this hypothesis.
In other words, many retail coffeeshops exploited a quantum leap in quality that’s now very difficult to reproduce. With starry-eyed talk about “Fourth Wave” coffee and the like, much of the industry seems to be holding out for the promise of yet another, equivalent quantum leap — the likes of which we will probably never see again. If you grew up eating nothing but canned vegetables all your life, fresh organic produce might seem like something descended from the gods with endless possibilities. But good luck trying to repeat that level of improvement.
Coffee hasn’t gotten better so much as more people learned how to make it properly.
Thus quality coffee has been stuck in a kind of stasis in many ways. As the supply of great coffeeshops has grown, there’s a rampant copycat mentality among coffeeshops now imitating each other — creating a sort of rigid orthodoxy or dogma that, today, makes screwballs like Philz Coffee seem like radicals. One coffee shop replaces their Clover brewer with Hario V60s, and within months all the sheep follow. Local coffee pros echo each other’s trite Third Wave clichés across the globe in interviews. Monolithic opinions pervade about everything from roasting styles to blends. Purveyors wave the Third Wave flag as if to take full credit for the changing and more discriminating tastes of coffee consumers.
While that’s all been routinized, what’s actually growing is the business of generating hype with little substance to back it up — i.e., promising consumers a similar revolution in coffee every month that it never delivers. That it could never deliver. The business of coffee has grown a lot, and so has the marketing hype, the number of profiteers, and the haze and fog of sales & marketing spin.
Thus we find ourselves needing to (over?)compensate for the hype, needing to shine a brighter light through the haze and fog. We’re sure that makes for a real downer when reading some of our posts of late. Though if you were to follow the tweets coming out of the most recent SCAA conference in Houston last week, bad news seemed like the only news. Even if most of that bad news dealt with climate change, dwindling supplies, rising prices, and an inability to meet anticipated demand.
We wish we were a lot more optimistic rather than pessimistic about today’s state of quality coffee. Ironically, while this year’s US Barista Championship was going on in Houston, we were sipping espresso at Intelligentsia in Chicago — home of last year’s world barista champion, an organizational trophy machine at the USBC, and who was decidedly and notably absent from this year’s competition.
The espresso at the Monadnock location was as good as ever — although (surprise!) no better than usual. They had reconfigured their service counter since our last visit: taking up half the front counter-space now with their Hario V60 pour-over bar. As a bit of a throwback, the forward-thinking Intelligentsia now reminds us of coffeeshops that once prominently featured their pour-over bars back in the 1990s.
Fortunately, we occasionally catch a glimpse of other coffee cultures that have gone their own way ever so slightly, breaking from the monotony of the pack to suggest something unique is still possible. Our recent exposure to the coffee culture in South Africa being one reason to be somewhat upbeat. Perhaps as when punk rock refreshingly broke the tiresome conventions of the progressive 70s rock that preceded it, this shiftless, seemingly listless transition is a necessary step for coffee to bloom and blossom into something diverse and interesting again.
Until then, more of our delight may have to come from the occasional amusing typo, such as a New York start-up offering Mothra’s Day specials in the hopes of becoming the Starbucks of flowers. It’s about time Godzilla had to share some of the love.