July 2011

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Stumptown Coffee Roasters (Downtown, Portland, OR)

Posted by on 29 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Elvis sighting, or just Voodoo Doughnut?Shockingly, it’s taken us this long to make it to Portland, Oregon — considered by many to be ground zero (no café name pun intended) of American coffee culture. And if you’re going to start sampling the offerings in Portland, it only makes sense that you start with the legendary Stumptown Coffee Roasters. This despite that a number of Portland locals might suggest that other, newer, smaller coffee vendors in the area have taken what Stumptown started and have since overtaken them.

Lucky for us, I arrived yesterday on what was informally called “the first day of summer” in Portland: the weather was warm, the skies were clear, and in the north I could even see the rounded dome of Mount St. Helens in the distance over some of the treelines (something, I was told, Portlanders get to see maybe once a year). The downtown Stumptown was easy to spot once you found the Great-Depression-era-like breadlines that wound around the sidewalk and lead up to the nearby Voodoo Doughnut — which is apparently Portlandese for “crack cocaine” among international tourists.

Entrance to Stumptown Coffee Roasters, downtown Portland Inside Stumptown Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland

The lines at this Stumptown Coffee Roasters may not have been that ridiculous, but they hold their own — even if they manage to remain inside the building. They have a couple of small sidewalk tables outside and a cavernous space inside, which includes several tables and benches along the long wall, a magazine rack, limited front window counter stool seating, a rack of coffee and accessories, and a long coffee bar. Plus a Technics turntable at the back for DJ’ing, because that’s what you do in Northwest coffeehouses, plus rear bathrooms covered in graffiti.

All sorts of Portland locals and visitors line up here: from the wandering tourist to hipsters in bright orange or pink pants. It’s odd to see a Mistral machine set off to the side and neglected here, as if it were a 1984 Chevy Impala. But that’s what happens when you install a new, three-group La Marzocco La Strada machine. Behind the service area there’s a brick wall with a large mirror to show off what happens behind the La Strada — plus some stool seating off to the side of the machine.

Seating, and line, inside Stumptown in downtown Portland Whole bean coffee offerings at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland

They offer several single cup Chemex variations. As for their espresso, they pull shots with an even, hybrid crema of darker and lighter brown that suggests some unevenness in the draw. The resulting cup is potent and has a semi-syrupy body, with a good deal of brightness that doesn’t go over the top (as you might expect for Hairbender at times). Flavorwise, it has something of a peppery edge over a kind of allspice/nutmeg spice profile and a semi-creamy mouthfeel. Served in a brown logo ACF cup.

A solid espresso, but as with other Stumptowns we’ve visited, hardly ranking among our favorites in North America. In fact, 26 places in San Francisco scored higher than this Stumptown on espresso score. The fuss does not seem generally justified, and the aforementioned locals seem to be onto something. (Which also kind of says something else, given New Yorkers’ infatuation with Stumptown.)

We also have another example where espresso machine technology has been modernized with heavy investments, with results that suggest the benefits are only for baristas and not for espresso consumers.

Read the review of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Downtown Portland, Oregon.

Strada-varius - at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland The Stumptown Coffee Roasters espresso in downtown Portland

Trip Report: The French Press (Santa Barbara, CA)

Posted by on 24 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

California’s Santa Barbara County is a lot like the rest of America when it comes to coffee: it should face a tribunal for atrocities committed against the human taste bud. What makes these many crimes particularly heinous are the various local media outlets in these communities that celebrate certain local coffeehouses as some of the region’s “best” — and yet these examples turn out to be foul enough to give any self-respecting Italian or Australasian coffee fan the dry heaves. Baseline standards are completely lacking, and the local populace is kept deaf, dumb, blind, and tasteless from realizing things could be any better for them.

Not to devalue the many efforts of great coffeeshops to make their brews with exquisite care and precision. But in this day and age of quality coffee awareness, information, and access, there simply is no excuse for any community within a civilized First World nation to have local coffee standards so pathetic as to hold up a cup of mass-produced, push-button Starbucks as the gold standard. Sometimes we honestly don’t understand why entire counties simply do not rise up and riot in the streets over the horrible coffee to which they are routinely subjected.

With Starbucks listed as a runner-up finalist on SantaBarbara.com’s “Best of” list, Santa Barbara barely salvaged some of its culinary dignity with its recognition of The French Press. Because The French Press makes some great coffee that’s otherwise unheard of in this part of the country. And because naming Taco Bell as the finalist for Santa Barbara’s “Best Mexican” would be no less ridiculous.

Crowds in front of The French Press in Santa Barbara's Upper State neighborhood Just inside the entrance to The French Press in Santa Barbara

Opening in 2009, this Upper State coffeehouse puts most others in Santa Barbara County to shame. A sort of hang-out for the biking set, you can recognize this café by the gathering of young people on the sidewalk in front. They offer a few outdoor café tables and chairs under the entryway, but much of the seating is inside — zinc-topped café tables located along and past a long hallway of artwork that runs along the service area. The service area itself is decorated with painted art skateboards.

Using a shiny two-group La Marzocco GB/5 and Mazzer grinders, they pull shots of Verve (Sermon and other blends) into black ACF cups with red saucers. It comes with a lightly mottled medium brown crema with lighter heat spots.

Patrons sttudying along the long hallway inside The French PressThe espresso here has the tease of a brightness bomb, but without the full-swing delivery. This results in an acidic cup with some balance coming from the chocolate and pungent spice end. They’re also notable at milk-frothing: it’s deliberate and not overly abundant. Their caffè macchiato has a great chocolate flavor with substantial milk density. And of course, they also serve their namesake French press coffee.

All towns should aspire to have at least one coffee place this good. It’s criminal that this is still the exception rather than the rule in this country.

Read the review of The French Press in Santa Barbara, CA.

The French Press and their La Marzocco GB/5 The French Press macchiato and espresso

Trip Report: Specialty’s Café & Bakery on Pine St.

Posted by on 21 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Quality Issues

The story of coffee at Specialty’s Café & Bakery reflects the story of San Francisco’s consumer tastes for retail coffee.

In the beginning, there was Faema + Prebica — and it was weak

A decade ago, Specialty’s ran a small chain of bakery/cafés with coffee service areas. Some locations, like this one on Pine St., even dedicated a coffee bar area for customers during their morning caffeine rush. Using older Faema machines and Prebica beans (one of “The Big Four” as part of Sara Lee), they pulled espresso as double-shot defaults that, while not terrible, weren’t good either.

Outside Specialty's Café & Bakery on Pine St., overlooking the side patio Inside Specialty's Café & Bakery on Pine St.

Then something weird and unexpected happened. In the Fall of 2003 — years before Blue Bottle even existed in San Francisco, other than as the coffee force behind Frog Hollow Farm at the just-then-opened Ferry Building Marketplace — Specialty’s replaced their Prebica supplies with Intelligentsia coffee. As longtime fans of the then-Chicago-only roaster, we were rather ecstatic. We saw the introduction of Intelligentsia as the first real escalation of what we then coined “the SF coffee wars“. This despite the fact that virtually no one in San Francisco knew anything about Intelligentsia at the time.

Specialty’s got their bean sourcing right. These were, after all, the same guys who were providing beans to Canadian national barista champions at Caffè Artigiano in Vancouver at the time. But they shot themselves in the foot, quality-wise, by replacing all their semi-automatic Faema machines for push-button, super-automatic Franke machines. While this gave Specialty’s greater consistency and allowed unskilled employees to operate their espresso machines, it completely dumbed down their coffee service and squandered any quality advantages they had using Intelligentsia coffee in the first place. We experienced one anomaly where they produced “Top 20″-level espresso, but revisits proved that to be a fluke.

The coffee service area inside Specialty's Café & Bakery today on Pine St. Bold Intelligentsia signage dwarfs any Specialty's branding

Intelligentsia S.F.?

As San Francisco coffee snobbery has been on the rise, most recently Specialty’s opted to up their game another level. At this sort of “mothership” of the local Specialty’s chains, they’ve gone all-out with a full-service, manually crafted coffee bar. How often do you see places weaned off super-automatic machines and back on to “big pants” espresso machines? Not often enough, as today this location sports not only a shiny red, dual-group La Marzocco FB/70 machine and a Hario V-60 pour-over bar (plus various Intelligentsia Coffee offerings for retail sale), but they also brandish glowing Intelligentsia signage where even the Specialty’s brand name takes a back seat. It’s as if Specialty’s became more serious about coffee the more their customers became more serious about coffee.

Unlike when this location first opened with a dark interior and nice floors that looked of cherry wood, they have since brightened up the space with lighting and a more modern layout. Still, there are long lines at lunch, and paying for a coffee sometimes may require you to wind through the whole line (instead of short-cutting to a dedicated coffee service line). Inside, there’s counter window seating — with one side overlooking the sidewalk and the other overlooking courtyard seating on its Century St. side (formerly home to a Starbucks hutch and then Abigails).

Coffee menu and Specialty's La Marzocco FB/70 and pour-over bar The Specialty's Café & Bakery espresso, on Pine St.

Their switch from their Faema machines to Frankes made them dull (all that factory-produced sameness and uniformity) but more consistent: a mellow espresso with a moderately rich, medium brown crema, plus an herbal/spice flavor. The new, semi-automatic FB/70 has raised their game, but the consistency isn’t there yet. They’re still not maximizing the result, given all the pedigree going into the cup. It lacks some flavor potency and breadth: largely centering around an earthy pungency, despite the fresh-looking, medium brown mottled crema and white ACF Intelligentsia-branded cups (formerly paper only).

They have come so far, and yet still have much to go. Given the trendlines and directions for one of the more forward-thinking small chains in the area, you have to place bets on the coffee getting better more than it is likely to decline. Even so, with the occasional rumor of Intelligentsia opening an owned-and-operated location in S.F., what are the odds that Intelligentsia would do to Specialty’s what Blue Bottle Coffee did to Frog Hollow Farm several years ago?

Read the updated review of Specialty’s Café & Bakery on Pine St.

More refined coffee culture in L.A. is percolating — and apparently no one told the L.A. Times until now

Posted by on 13 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

For as long as I’ve lived in San Francisco — over two decades now — I’ve lived with laments over the sorry state of local newspapers. Living in a large Victorian shared among Berkeley graduate students many years ago, I grew accustomed to a daily house copy of one of the Timeses (i.e., either the New York or L.A. varietals) for serious news reading. The SF Chronicle, on the other hand, was always relegated to local movie times and for lining bird cages.

And yes, Cognoscenti even uses beans familiar to the locals around SFFast forward to today, and my how those once-greats have fallen. The New York Times may have performed a bit of peacock strutting last year, proclaiming, “No, New York City coffee is good. We really, really mean it this time!” But the NY Times can be forgiven compared to the sloth-like L.A. Times, who came out with this special feature just today, in freaking 2011: More refined coffee culture in L.A. is percolating – latimes.com. This more than a year after L.A.-area baristas — after cleaning up on so many awards at the regional and national barista championships — decided to quit the competition program to give someone else a try for a change.

This is akin to a 1961 L.A. Times article proclaiming that quality baseball has arrived in town — merely two seasons after the L.A. Dodgers had already won the World Series. Even so, the L.A. Times does add some useful listings of regional coffeeshops worth checking out: Specialty coffeeshops in the L.A. area – latimes.com. Plus the obligatory coffee map.

Just please don’t call ‘em “craft”.

R.I.P. Pour-Over Coffee: 2009-2011?

Posted by on 01 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Pardon the sensationalist headline. (Like nobody has ever done that before.) But here’s something from yesterday’s L.A. Weekly on Demitasse, one of the more anticipated new coffeeshops in the L.A. area, that questions/provokes some of the conventional coffee wisdom of the month: Demitasse Will Not Have Pourover Coffee + Other Twists on the Third Wave Coffee Shop – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink.

Fodder for the blogosphere: the under-construction storefront, this time it's L.A.'s DemitasseSo what’s different here? Anticipated “Third Wave” (ugh) coffeeshop openings have been fodder for the local presses for several years now, so it only makes sense that each might attempt to differentiate themselves from the hoard with a slightly different angle now and then. But what we have with Demitasse is yet another coffeeshop identifying itself (at least in the article) more by what it doesn’t do than by what it does do. And what it doesn’t do is pour-over coffee.

Or does it? Per the article, clearly they’re fans of the Clever full-immersion coffee dripper — which some circles might say isn’t pour-over coffee by only a slight technicality. But the reason the owner, Bobak Roshan, gives for not offering pour-over coffee is telling: “Roshan adamantly is against the method as far too dependent on the skills and utmost attention of the barista, too often to the detriment of the coffee drinker looking to have the cleanest, tastiest cup possible.”

Brewer error: the downfall of retail pour-over coffee?There you have it. The method requires too much concentrated attention, for too long, of an easily distracted barista in a retail environment. There is some truth to this, even suggesting a bit of retail reality folly in the nascent Brewers Cup. Of the few coffeeshops that have offered vac pot coffee over the years, most would only do so after the morning caffeine rush-hour. And yet vac pot brewing requires much less constant attention than pour-over brewing. And then there’s the reality that the biggest expense in retail coffee is labor.

Which isn’t to say that pour-over brewing is going away anytime soon. Despite the many efforts to convince us otherwise, retail pour-over brewing has been around for decades. However, this might suggest that many coffeeshops are starting to learn the dismissed conventional wisdom behind the once-novel-now-passé Clover brewer: that individually hand-crafted, manual brewing processes make a great cup of coffee, but they fail to scale in a retail environment supporting any kind of volume at a competitive price.

Now if only we understood the semi-conventional wisdom behind using Equator Estate Coffees — despite only a single notable retail example of it in the face of dozens of underachievers.