October 2011

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Sightglass Re-Redux (Version 1.0), or now with a couple more places to sit

Posted by on 15 Oct 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

As we last left our story, SOMA‘s ever-morphing Sightglass Coffee was glacially executing on its grand designs to become a major SF roastery and a spacious coffee destination. It had been over a year since we last walked among the spent heroin needles of nearby 6th Street, so much of our new Sightglass experience had been through retail brightness bombs sold throughout the Bay Area using Sightglass’ own roasts.

This past week we finally got the chance to revisit Sightglass, and we can safely say it has largely succeeded at its very ambitious goals. We say “largely”, however, because we have more than just a little qualified ambivalence for what exactly Sightglass has become.

Sightglass adds a couple of chairs over their previous dearth of seating options Sightglass Coffee's service area, with wall o' coffee in back and the observation deck above

Sightglass’ original cubbyhole is now merely the doorway entrance to a vast warehouse space dedicated to exposed wood beams and coffee production. There are a couple of split levels upstairs for staff and vast amounts of stand-up counter space all around the floor plan. But while the square footage of this coffeeshop has expanded some 100-fold, there is seating for only about a dozen more people than before. There is window counter seating along the 7th Street sidewalk. But between that and the bicycle parking at the other end of the building there is virtually no place to sit.

The deliberate scarcity of seating is a decidedly useful move to ward off the laptop zombie set. And we wish far more places catered to stand-up espresso service the way it is a cultural institution in places like Italy. But somehow a place like Four Barrel makes their zombie-warding mojo seem natural and organic to the space, whereas at Sightglass it comes off like a lack of planning.

It seems that every 30 minutes, it's time for a cupping at Sightglass CoffeeThe vibe inside is a bit unique for a Bay Area coffee shop. In some areas, children sometimes play on the floor with parents in an unusual day-care-lite-like fashion. Meanwhile, there is a noticeable bent towards employing comely female staff and an unusually high proportion of both staff and patrons wearing cycling caps. Yet there is an unusual shortage of the obligatory piercings and body art. And as if an homage to Four Barrel and its mounted boar heads, the sparse decór inside includes the occasional mounted desert animal skull.

As if to proclaim they can mimic more than just Four Barrel, there’s a trusty turntable by the coffee service area for playing vinyl copies of the Beatles’ Revolver or the Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim EP — giving it a little of that Stumptown Portland feel.

It really tied the room together

But enough about interior decorating: what about the coffee? For one, there’s an ample wall of the stuff for retail purchase. It’s not even the “$15 a pound” stuff we mentioned earlier this week: we’re talking the $19.50 for 12 ounces category. At which price, we want bottle rockets shooting out of our ears when we sip this stuff. After sampling some of their Guatemala Finca San Diego Buena Vista Yellow Bourbon at home, let’s just say we’re not giving up our Barefoot Coffee take on Edwin Martinez’ Finca Vista Hermosa — despite some recent local press love.

The general quality of barista here seems to have raised a notch with their expansion. In store they offer Chemex and Hario V60 brewing of three different cultivars — plus the usual espresso drinks, a few baked goods, and the usual Hooker’s Sweet Treats salted caramels. And to pull those shots they employ both Slayer and La Marzocco Strada machines at opposite ends of the service area. Explaining the difference between the two espresso machines to a friend who was there with us, there’s really no other polite way to say this: owners Jerad and Justin Morrison are total name brand fad whores. So we merely described the machines as “last year’s model” versus “this year’s model” — and then proceeded to pay on their iPad checkout system, established here since the week the iPad went public.

Plenty of coffee, dueling DJs at the Slayer and Strada, and a turntable straight outta Stumptown, Portland Santa Fe comes to the public sink at Sightglass Coffee

Living up to their reputation as worshippers at the altar of the brightness bomb, they pull espresso shots with a rather one-dimensional, medium brown, even crema that struggles to coat the surface. It is very bright and flavorful in a citrus-meets-malt way, but surprisingly not overwhelmingly so. Though there is a tinny, almost metallic taste in the finish where it lacks any real sweetness or molasses-like smoothness.

Of course, a lot of people in North America enjoy this flavor profile. But it becomes particularly problematic when it comes to American’s love of milk-based espresso drinks. Their cappuccino is what we might call a “supermodel” cappuccino — pretty and perfect on the outside, but vapid at the core and lacking any real substance. Despite the beautiful appearance and accompanying latte art, their cappuccinos are tepid, milky, and lack any real punch that can hold up to the milk. We honestly cannot recommend the cappuccino here, as the primary brightness notes in the espresso are lost to become something insidiously bland and rather flavorless.

The Sightglass espresso: it even looks bright Sightglass Coffee's

Sightglass’ place in SF’s coffee pantheon

It’s fair to say that by establishing both their roasting operations and a large service area, Sightglass has positioned themselves as one of the premiere coffee destinations in San Francisco. These days, that says something. However, we cannot help but feel there’s a missing attention to detail here that holds Sightglass back from being among the very best — this despite a web site that proclaims their “deep attention to detail.”

Probat roaster on display, just as workers reapply bolts without washersThere’s nothing inherently flawed in name brand fad whoring if you get the execution right. But without that execution, you risk appearing as though you’ve followed a checklist for a paint-by-numbers Third Wave coffeeshop — rather than being something with a soul and substance of its own. We don’t even mind if your interior design ideas were lifted from the Stumptown and Four Barrel catalogs as long as your attention to detail comes out in your coffee. Forget the other details for a moment: a washed-out, bland cappuccino just doesn’t cut it.

An almost poetically symbolic example of this attention-to-detail problem was evident watching the team perform maintenance on their on-site Probat roaster (aka, “the sightglass”). They re-applied the mounting bolts to their Probat … without washers. Sometimes it takes just a little extra effort to do it right.

Read the updated review of Sightglass Coffee.

Are we really still fussing over coffee prices?

Posted by on 13 Oct 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends

Nobody enjoys paying 83% more for something than they paid for it last year. That is, unless you’re living in Zimbabwe under a 89.7 sextillion percent inflation rate. Earlier this year, the media were hot and heavy with news stories about surging coffee prices. However, some such stories are still trickling in — such as this local piece published earlier today where a number of local roasters are all but cheering the price increases: Coffee Beans at $15 a Pound OK for Some – Mission Loc@l : News From San Francisco’s Mission District.

Misson Loc@l B-roll: the old coffee cup shotThe price of coffee has always struck a weird public nerve. So back in April, when the headlines threatened an apocalyptic future filled with fixed budgets and Folger’s crystals replacing our bags of Four Barrel, we learned that coffee prices reached a 34-year high.

This sounded alarmingly ominous — if not for the fact that this was also the equivalent of saying that coffee prices today were the same as they were in 1977. Think about it: how many things can you buy today at 1977 prices? A gallon of gas cost an average of $0.65. A 1.2-oz Hershey bar cost $0.20. You could buy a brand new BMW 320i for under $8,000.

We wish we could pay 1977 prices for a lot more things in life. So when you look at the price of coffee, the problem hasn’t been that the prices are far too high. The problem is that coffee prices have been so depressed for so long that we’ve had to come up with Hail-Mary passes like Fair Trade just to desperately try to keep coffee farmers solvent — still dirt poor, but at least not losing net money with every harvest. The article cited above quotes a few area roasters noting how economically unsustainable the coffee market has been for so many years.

It may hurt a little more to pay for good coffee when compared to last year. But this is perhaps the first time in a long, long time that coffee prices are about at what coffee should really cost. At least to support an economically viable and sustainable market for the good stuff.

What do we talk about when we talk about coffee?

Posted by on 11 Oct 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

That’s the question UK-based marketing consultancy tried to answer on their blog recently: Coffee Marketing: Why So Romantic? | Market Sentinel. The firm was approached by a company attempting to launch a new brand of coffee, and they wanted to know the subjects of public conversations concerning coffee in social media and other public contexts.

Coffeespace: from the spoken, and online, word

The image above represents a some of their findings. The larger the circle, the bigger the conversation. The closer the circle is to the center (i.e., “coffee”), the more relevant the topic is to coffee. What they discovered is that, unlike the romantic coffee spots typically offered on TV and in print, most people relate to drinking coffee when they talk about work, energy, or socializing.

Curious data and a pretty picture. Whether it’s useful or not is another story. From a marketer’s perspective, knowing the existing conversations about coffee can help them formulate a position for the new coffee brand — so that its brand attributes are relevant to consumers. That said, how much value you lend to a product’s “social media currency” (their term, not ours) reminds us of all the recent cheerleading that posting on Twitter will instantly double the demand for the rancid coffee served at your coffeehouse.

Trip Report: Paris Baguette (Palo Alto, CA)

Posted by on 10 Oct 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Ever eat a hamburger at a 1950s-themed American diner? In Hong Kong? Maybe their waffles didn’t taste like fish sauce, but it’s not uncommon to discover something lost in translation. (E.g., “Why does my hamburger bun taste like rice vinegar?”) On the spectrum of authenticity, this is the culinary equivalent to finding luxury handbags in the Hong Kong night markets with designer labels like “Guchi” and “Koach”.

Which brings us to Paris Baguette. Downtown Palo Alto recently added the latest installment of a growing Korean-owned chain of French-themed bakeries. However, use of the word “chain” here is an understatement. Although there are some 15 U.S. locations scattered throughout New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and California (including Santa Clara), there are 50 locations in China and some 2,900 locations in South Korea alone.

Stacks of doughy snacks inside Paris Baguette, Palo Alto Paris Baguette's La Marzocco GB/5, Palo Alto

To put this in perspective, Starbucks operates 6,727 stores in the entire U.S. This means that, on a per capita basis, Paris Baguette locations saturate Korea some 2.75 times as much as Starbucks saturates America. Viewed purely in terms of locations per square mile, Paris Baguette locations carpet bomb Korea 41.6 times as much as Starbucks locations do the U.S. If you remember those jokes about there being another Starbucks inside a Starbucks’ bathroom, just imagine 41 of them in there.

Surprise!: unlike Paris, the coffee is decent

Paris Baguette's gaudy entrance and gaudy pastries, Palo AltoFortunately, Paris Baguette is not too freakishly Paris by way of Seoul — even if it glows like a gaudy Vegas casino from the outside. There’s some sidewalk café seating in front. On the inside (casino mirrors aside), it consists of stacks and stacks of self-service baked goods to be pinched by passersby armed with wax paper and tongs. There strangely isn’t much else to speak of for lunch options. And beneath the tall glass windows, there are clumsy, long, almost school-cafeteria-like tables — save for being topped with faux marble.

And yet this location proves that being lost in translation isn’t always a bad thing. Whereas most of the coffee in Paris is wretched, they make an honest attempt at sourcing and producing good coffee — at which they are mostly successful. Despite its gaudy flaws and cultural mistranslations, the coffee service here manages to be some of the best in Palo Alto.

They sport heavy Ritual Coffee Roasters branding and a shiny, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the service counter. They even offer Hario V60 pour-overs. They pull shots with an even, medium brown crema in black ACF cups. It has a basic warming flavor of spice and some herbs, and the coffee has the potential to be much better than it is — but it is still quite decent. They also offer healthy milk-frothing and latte art for milk-based drinks.

Read the review of Paris Baguette in Palo Alto.

The Paris Baguette espresso, Palo Alto The Paris Baguette cappuccino, Palo Alto