It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Saturday, February 25, 2012 offered a curious contrast between the very different worlds of consumer appreciation for wine and coffee. For the former, I attended La Paulée de San Francisco 2012 — arguably the most over-the-top consumer wine event in America. For the latter, my brother Vince simultaneously attended CoffeeCon 2012 — billed as the “first-ever international consumer coffee conference” — in the global coffee Mecca (and his hometown) of Warrenville, IL.
First off, I’d like to apologize for continuing to harp on the hackneyed wine analogy for coffee. However, I still often feel like one of the few people who knows just enough about both wine and coffee appreciation to make a comparison when attending events for either beverage.
Because the facts remain that we read plenty about how much coffee wants to be taken as seriously as wine. And yet the coffee industry still craps on its customers at virtually every opportunity. This weekend’s events provided evidence of that in great contrast.
First up: the consumer coffee event. Kevin Sinnott has been a layman coffee enthusiast for years (and he also just so happens to a neighbor and friend of my brother back in the dark recesses of the Chicago suburbs). He may be an independent video production consultant for his “day job”, but coffee is far more than just a hobby for him. And more power to him, because he recognized the need for a consumer-oriented coffee event — which inspired him to put on the first ever CoffeeCon.
The best opportunity coffee consumers had to get involved with the coffee industry was to muscle in to events such as the SCAA’s annual conference — all under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since then, the policy has shifted towards outright consumer abolishment. But even if you buy the argument that the industry needs its own for its own, it has offered nothing even close to an olive branch. We hear the coffee industry give plenty of lip service to the importance of “educating the customer”, and yet opportunities to do so are turned into closed-door industry events where the consumer is treated like an unwelcome leper.
Slow Food Nation ’08 was perhaps another example, but it turned out to be a one-time event. Out of it came the Good Food Awards. But even if you look past coffee playing the red-headed stepchild under the “Food” banner, here the focus of a once-public event has again turned to industry insiders locking out consumer participation. Or take the related Coffee Common effort. Even putting my disdain for the shallowness and faux elitism of TED aside, public events that require over $1,000 in membership and registration fees to attend are hardly “consumer friendly”. This makes the steep $300 I shelled out to attend La Paulée’s Grand Tasting seem like a bargain by comparison.
CoffeeCon suffered from an almost accidental location (Warrenville’s “IBEW Local Union 701”) and virtually zero coverage among the coffee industry — most of the industry being preoccupied with the self-absorbed, industry navel-gazing going on at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (or NERBC). But CoffeeCon managed to draw about 1,000 attendees and even pull a few coffee luminaries including the likes of George Howell, home espresso legend Jim Schulman, and Intelligentsia‘s Geoff Watts.
Attendees apparently got to taste a lot of different coffee, experiment with different brewing methods, meet a few others in the coffee industry, learn more about coffee farming and production, and even witness a poor tongue-in-cheek debate on coffee vs. wine. My brother reported that they had a huge crowd, a good representation from nationwide roasters and equipment manufacturers, and the unveiling of a new Bunn Trifecta at a “lab” event.
While not a bad event and certainly a promising attendance, this is, folks, about as good as it gets for coffee consumers today. And good luck getting anybody in the coffee industry to acknowledge that it existed.
One thing I like from the CoffeeCon FAQ — which flies in the face of Coffee Common’s “Exceptional coffee. No sugar.” byline — is this bit:
Can I take cream and sugar in my coffee or will I be asked to leave? No worries. Serious coffee lovers know how different everyone’s palate is. 80% of coffee consumed in the world is taken with milk and/or some sweetener.
This week I had dinner again at one of my favorite SF restaurants who also makes some of the best restaurant espresso in the entire city. The two owners, in their own polite and self-depreciating ways, each relayed to me the story of a recent visit to Sightglass where they were essentially made to feel as if they were both clueless about both coffee and their flavor palates. (I’ve omitted their names as they mentioned this in personal confidence.)
Interestingly, they both felt that Sightglass’ coffee tasted “too salty.” When they asked the Sightglass barista to cut the shot pour short, as a sort of ristretto, he replied that he could not interrupt the espresso machine from running its full cycle. And when they asked for sugar, they were looked upon as if they must have walked in thinking Sightglass was a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Here were two people who grew up with high coffee standards in Italy, developed a much-loved and highly regarded regional Italian restaurant in SF, serve some of the best espresso in the city at said restaurant (and I virtually never have coffee with sugar), where one of the owners previously served as a sommelier at another Michelin-starred SF restaurant with a legendary wine list — and they were basically told that they were coffee Philistines, purely because of coffee orthodoxy. As snobbish as you might think the wine world might get, this simply does not happen with wine.
Speaking of sommeliers and a barista’s desire to become an equivalent of one, let’s contrast with La Paulée’s Grand Tasting at the Westin St. Francis. Daniel Johnnes, a noted wine director for noted New York restaurants that today includes Restaurant Daniel (read: a guy who works in the industry), started the event about a decade ago, alternating between New York an San Francisco. It is based in a traditional Burgundian event, and in Mr. Johnnes’ words for the SF event:
La Paulée is my homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a convivial Burgundian fête shared by growers and their guests. At La Paulée guests will sample current releases and older vintages from nearly thirty of the most sought after Domaines of Burgundy. The wine service will be led by fifty of our nation’s most noted sommeliers.
They ain’t messing around. (Here’s a magazine write-up [PDF] on last year’s La Paulée in New York.) The Grand Tasting may cost $300, but that’s cheap compared to the $1,400 Gala Dinner (or compared to the registration fee to experience Coffee Commons at TED2012 in Long Beach).
There are people in traditional Burgundian wear, regularly breaking into traditional Burgundian drinking songs, flown in from Burgundy for this event — Les Cadets de Bourgogne. And there are many booths of elite winemakers, offering wines that you could only be lucky enough to even access a bottle to purchase, all poured by notable sommeliers. In coffee terms, this is akin to an event featuring several of the world’s Cup of Excellence microlots for tasting, each served by award-winning baristas.
And they don’t skimp on the food either, with restaurant representation from the likes of Boulevard, Farralon, Gary Danko, Napa’s Meadowood and REDD, Quince, RN74, etc. You know that the food world takes the event seriously when not only are sommeliers from New York pouring at the event, but the likes of Traci des Jardins (of Jardinière and Top Chef Masters fame) is there personally cooking up and handing out plates of food.
As a consumer event, what’s not there? No hucksters promoting the latest technology in synthetic corks. No pitchmen telling you how to expand your revenue lines with wine coolers. No patent-pending bottle openers that promise to revolutionize wine consumption. Just a lot of people who want to share great wines and learn more about them and an industry that is trying to make that possible in ways it previously was not.
We can only hope just a fraction of that is possible with coffee — if only the industry would allow it, let alone participate in it. It’s beyond the time for quality coffee to get out of its insular ivory towers and to start reaching out to the many customers it so claims to love and adore.
With NFL fans facing a major void in their lives since the NY Giants won the NFL’s Survivor: Indianapolis competition, thankfully there are publications like Food Republic that have come up with their own “power rankings.” As if to prove just how much we’re not making this up, it took Food Republic less than two years of its short existence to apparently run out of material in the edibles category for their power rankings. Thus they have since started overreaching into beverages as “food” with “The 10 most influential people in coffee right now”: Food Republic Coffee Power Rankings | Food Republic.
Cue Casey Kasem…
Topping this dubious list is Blue Bottle Coffee‘s James Freeman at #1. Followed by Peter Giuliano — of Counter Culture Coffee (and consumers-must-cup-and-they-must-like-it) fame — and Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
Just how these people are considered “influential” is beyond anyone’s rational guess. Two more retweets than the other guys this month? James Hoffman took a few weeks off to see his family and thus dropped off the list? The guys at Food Republic ordered some coffee from Phil & Sebastian last week and also received a free plastic coffee scoop in the mail? Oh, the suspense is killing us. Just killing us!
Swedish chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Marcus Samuelsson founded Food Republic in 2010 as a food Web site “for men.” For a guy known for piling flowers on his TV dinners, he may not strike you as the voice of the machismo NASCAR set. But his publication does go out on a limb, managing to refute the Mayan calendar doomsday prophecy by citing their “previous ranking from our December 2012 [sic] rankings”.
Yesterday’s Seattle Times wrote up a decent piece on Kent Bakke of Seattle La Marzocco fame: Business & Technology | Local coffee world reveres this pioneer | Seattle Times Newspaper. Mr. Bakke’s history with espresso heralds back to the late 1970s when he began importing and distributing La Marzocco machines from Italy.
Things were quiet until 1984, when Starbucks came calling for his machines and a Peet’s Coffee in San Francisco soon followed suit. (Over the years, Seattle Times columnist Melissa Allison has proven herself unable to write an article about coffee without devoting large portions of it to Starbucks, and, well, this one is no different.)
After buying 90% of La Marzocco in 1994, he helped ramp up the local La Marzocco factory in Ballard, WA to the point where they were manufacturing 140 machines each month. Then in 2004, things came crashing down when Starbucks decided to throw in the towel on quality while trying to keep up with their rampant growth plans — ultimately replacing all their “grown up” espresso machines for push-button Verismo jobs that required little more than trained monkeys to operate.
La Marzocco has since recovered somewhat, even if it is currently under competitive pressure from the likes of Synesso (lead by former Bakke employee, Mark Barnett) and Slayer. The article also attempted to make out a La Marzocco controversy over the pricing of the GS/3 prosumer home machine in 2008. However, despite some rumblings from a few devoted loyalists with a lot of cash, that episode adds little weight to the story. In the world of espresso, the consumer market is virtually ignored if not outright dismissed by much of the professional espresso world.
Opening in May 2009, this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet is located inside the SFMOMA museum on the fifth-floor Rooftop Garden. It’s a rather elite affair, given the open space and the artworks that surround it. There’s seating on concrete floors and benches among modern sculptures, but there are also white metal café tables for seating.
They use Mazzer and Astoria grinders, offer Bonmac filters for single origin drip, and (quite unusual for Blue Bottle) a three-group
Mistral Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette with manual levers.
They pull espresso shots with a medium brown crema and darker brown spots. It’s served quite short for a doppio, but it’s the right amount of potent: very well balanced, broad flavor profile of herbs, pungency, and some tobacco and honey. They use a special SFMOMA blend of five different beans, and it is a true blend — almost something of a rarity in the U.S. It’s one of the best homogenized examples of a blend that Blue Bottle offers. Hopefully they will make a blend like this more widely available.
Served in a Heath ceramics demitasse with a side of sparkling water. About as good as museum coffee can get.
Read the review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden.
Opening in October 2011, this new location of the Mission/Potrero Hill’s Coffee Bar expands their reach downtown to something you can actually walk to. The space is small and can get quite packed in a rush, but it’s clean, well-lit, and has a lab-like feel with its white countertops and lower cabinets.
They offer no indoor seating, but there is a short stand-up window counter and a few wooden sidewalk chairs and a bench in front. Even without the seating, it’s a wise choice for a new location — filling a void that many downtown patrons of decent coffee have lacked since the closure of Caffè Amici nearby. And they should clearly see this opening as a major neighborhood upgrade.
The shop is set up to impress, as they offer scale-weighed hand pours — weighing being de rigeur for getting your TDS right in a shop since about 2010 — and espresso drinks from dueling two-group La Marzocco Strada machines. (To say nothing of the impressive baked goods from Sandbox Bakery.) To their credit, the menu is relatively simple and the options are focused.
They still seem to be dialing in on the quality of their espresso here, however, as it didn’t measure up yet to the standards at the Coffee Bar mothership. Using Mr. Espresso beans, they pull shots with a decent layer of a mixed medium and darker brown crema. The flavor is complex with an emphasis at the herbal pungency end. Served in black ACF cups.
Downtown SF not only again has good coffee, but the bar has been raised.
Some five years ago we wrote about the problem of espresso sameness in the SF Bay Area. At issue is the challenge for local communities to preserve a diversity of quality coffee purveyors. On that subject, today’s Washington D.C. City Paper posted an article on their city’s growing quality coffee monoculture: How Did Counter Culture Coffee Take Over D.C.? Freebies – Young & Hungry.
A regional diversity in roasting styles, bean sourcing, and even plain old philosophical approaches towards coffee (for example, industry-centric practices vs. being customer-centric) is a prerequisite for any vibrant coffee culture to exist. Too much of one philosophy or approach without a foil, and it becomes hegemony — if not also a little monotony.
Given this age of large corporate buy-outs and company financial failures — to which D.C. is no stranger — having all your eggs in one basket is also a recipe for disaster. The article also offers up some local purveyors that give hope for more of a balanced coffee economy in the area.
If you were to read it in the current Roast magazine article (from the Jan-Feb 2012 issue), India is a coffee consumer desert. This week TIME magazine wrote about the entrance of Starbucks in the Indian market almost as if to dismiss any prior coffee consumption there. But after spending three weeks in South India’s coffee-growing state of Karnataka last month, these articles read like front-line trip reports from Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella suggesting that the New World he just discovered is “uninhabited”.
India accurately gets the label of a tea-loving nation. But South India has a coffee-happy culture that arguably rivals most of the places we’ve visited in Europe. In fact, we found far more coffee fanatics in South India than tea lovers. And when we say “fanatics”, we mean people whose eyes light up with delight when you offer the suggestion, “Coffee?”
When we reported from Northern India four years ago, much of the coffee culture was a relatively new, youthful, cosmopolitan import of the modern global café culture. South India also has ample evidence of the modern “third place.” After all this is where Café Coffee Day, India’s largest modern coffee chain, got its start in 1996.
But South India is steeped in coffee houses and coffee culture that goes back to the fading memories of Old Bangalore — from long before the British moved out, “road widening” programs blighted the city with horrendous traffic in place of groves of majestic trees, and global high tech campuses moved in. You can somewhat neatly divide South India between its old and new coffee cultures.
Starting from the lore of the seven Yemenese coffee beans introduced by Baba Budan to the hills of Chikmagalur (a region within the state of Karnataka) in 1670, India has been a coffee producing nation. But traditionally only in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. These lush, fertile states represent much of India’s agriculture and the world’s spices.
In South Indian cities, you can still find old school bean-and-leaf stores (Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s original model, i.e. as opposed to retail coffee beverage sales) where local customers ask for coffee from their favorite Coorg farm by name. But despite this terroir-like awareness among some of South India’s older coffee fans, they typically do not buy their coffee in a whole bean format. As ground coffee, it is often purchased as “coffee powder”. And as a matter of history, economics, and/or taste preferences, coffee powder for traditional South Indian filter coffee is frequently cut with chicory.
In fact, if you were to describe the typical South Indian filter coffee preparation, it is also served with a lot of attention given to hot, manually frothed milk. New Orleans may lay claim to the chicory cafe au lait, but South India has predated that claim with a very similar traditional coffee drink by a century or more. One significant difference being that South India likes to aerate their hot milk by distributing it between metal vessels from side-to-side. Some purveyors even take this form of milk frothing to the level of theatrics, providing their customers with a version of latte art rooted more performance art than design.
This form of South Indian coffee consumption takes place in homes, offices, and in the old school restaurants typically called “hotels” that you will find throughout South India. They may be called “hotels”, but you won’t find a place to lay down — let alone private rooms. Many are vegetarian restaurants, and you’ll even find the occasional “military hotel” — which is shorthand for a diner on the cheap, typically with stand-up self service and a cafeteria-like counter for ordering. South Indians very much look forward to their coffee breaks throughout the day for both the enjoyment of the drink and to briefly discuss family, work, events, etc.
In other words, when it comes to coffee, they’re a lot like Europeans.
India is a dance in contradictions, however. Someone we met near Delhi a few years ago put it best when he told us, “everything you find to be true in India, you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.” And that includes South India’s coffee culture.
The local presses have stated, “India is low on coffee knowledge.” That is as apparent in South India as anywhere else in the country. There is a decent proliferation of modern coffee shops — including even a Caffè Pascucci in downtown Bengaluru and an Illy espressamente in its airport. However, the coffee “language” used by many of these coffee shops seemed dumbed down for a more coffee-naïve public.
For example, a very popular, local coffeehouse for the young Bengaluru professional set called Matteo Coffea outwardly brands itself as a place for consumer coffee education. However, most of this is in the form of basic historical coffee trivia and quotes you might otherwise find on a souvenir coffee mug: e.g., “Did you know that coffee was discovered by Ethiopian goat herders called kaldi?”
A non-chain place like Matteo Coffea is also a good example of the modern South Indian coffeehouse. It has all the hallmarks of a great “Third Wave” coffeehouse in the West: an outward dedication to consumer coffee education, a shiny red La Marzocco FB/70, and selective bean sourcing and roasting operations. However, the resulting espresso shots look a lot better than they taste. India is going through a lot of the motions on quality coffee, but the coffee quality itself has yet to live up to the show. Other modern coffee shops and chains in the region put a modern spin on coffee quality while still sticking to the area tradition of pre-ground coffee mixed with chicory.
High-end restaurants in the area — those guardians of gourmand tastes — seem to know enough about quality coffee to dissuade customers from ordering the traditional South Indian filter coffee, which is often made with the aforementioned “coffee powder.” It’s almost as if they are embarrassed by it. Instead they steer customers towards “black coffee,” which is barely acceptable straight espresso served in very long, but yet not diluted, pours.
And yet our experiences with traditional South Indian filter coffee there were all very positive — even if it doesn’t bow down to the gods of single origin elitism, handling attuned to maximum freshness, nor even the avoidance of milk adulteration. Perhaps the most humbling aspect was when I returned to the U.S. and tried to reproduce South Indian filter coffee at home. Using a South Indian brew pot I bought at a Bengaluru housewares store for $8 — a contraption not unlike the Neapolitan flip coffee pot — I got out my best beans, technique, and milk to ultimately produce one of the three most undrinkable cups of coffee I have ever made in my life. This is harder than it looks, folks.
Bengaluru is also home to the national Coffee Board of India, a large, multistory complex that we decided to visit on a whim. Expecting a closed-door government agency with security guards and suspicious eyes intent on keeping foreigners and trespassers out, we were surprised at how open and welcoming they were.
Showing up on their doorstep and merely expressing our love of good Indian coffee, we were directed to the offices of Dr. K. Basavaraj, who is head of the Quality Control Division. There we received an all-access tour of his lab, test batch roasters, and cupping facilities: all the trappings any Western coffee fanatic would feel right at home with.
Out at “origin,” in the coffee-growing lands of the Kodagu (aka Coorg) district of Karnataka, we visited a few coffee farms. Most were modest agricultural operations, some associated with so-called “coffee curing works” that often seemed in the general business of trading commodities. Collectively they supply the majority of India’s domestic coffee consumption — in no small part because India imposes steep tariffs on just about any imported consumable. (They impose a 100% import tariff on beer and wine, with spirits typically topping 150%.)
You could fault India for growing a lot of “cheap” robusta here — it is half the crop relative to arabica by some counts. However, India grows some of the best quality, best cared-for robusta in the world. And in typical Indian contradictory fashion, one of the more memorable modern coffeehouses we experienced in South India was a roadside hut in rural Nisargadhama, Kodagu that served, among other drinks, decorative Spanish cortados.
No matter what, there is something to be said about a coffee culture where, when you ask a restaurant or café who supplies or roasts their coffee, you invariably get the name of an individual — often with an honorary “Dr.” title — rather than the name of a business. It’s not unlike parts of Hawaii where some restaurant menus list the name of the fisherman along with the fish.
India is such a complex, diverse place it’s next to impossible to try to sum up what it is and what it isn’t, as the answer tends to be “all of the above.” We can only hope that with all the forces of modernization and globalization at play here, coffee doesn’t lose some of its cultural diversity.
When Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) first coined the term “Third Wave,” it was supposed to be about enjoying coffee for its own sake. But reading some of the articles posted about coffee in the popular presses lately, we wonder if any Third Wave is really more about purging heretics and enforcing an orthodoxy over a mythical “one, true way” to make and appreciate coffee.
There’s the Wall Street Journal heralding the abolition of any coffee roasted darker than a City roast. We’ve got coffee lovers freaking out over whether their French press tastes are all wrong and that they must be exclusively replaced with pour-over methods. And we have former baristas evangelizing that anyone who likes milk or sugar in their coffee are simply doing it wrong (or, as the article implies, they’re drinking bad coffee). We haven’t seen this many rules and regulations being imposed upon the public enjoyment of consumables since the invention of the Jewish kashrut dietary laws.
We may have defended the coffee Nazi in their time of need. But we have to draw the line when a purveyor’s personal quirks are declared as rules that extend to all coffee.
And here’s the real absurdity in all that. Coffee has thousands of flavor and aromatic components. It comes in a diverse array of varietals with unique terroir and flavor profiles reflecting its thousands of points of origin around the world. There are an untold number of ways to process it, roast it, and brew it. Yet we have pundits and experts promoting the idea that coffee is somehow this singular, monolithic commodity — like CocaCola out of a spigot — that can only be properly roasted only one way, brewed only one way, and appreciated as a consumer only one way. Getting the most out of your coffee is not the same as Obsessive-compulsive Disorder.
Coffee professionals who tell us that coffee can only be properly roasted this side of a City roast are just as narrow-minded in their thinking as the people who told us for years that dark roasts were the ideal. Some coffees shine under lighter roasting conditions, while others taste grassy and have none of the body that their pedigree would otherwise offer. Those who tell us that coffee should never be adulterated with milk not only throw our enjoyment of cappuccinos and flat whites under the bus, but they limit our appreciation to only those forms of coffee that taste good without milk.
Given all of its glorious variety, coffee is best optimized with different roasts, different brewing methods, and even different condiments (or the lack thereof) to uniquely suit its unique character — and not just its unique consumer. Celebrate its diversity, and call us heretics.