This original Stanza Coffee location opened in April 2012 with the explicit purpose of showcasing coffee roasted from outside the Bay Area. As such, it’s unfortunately another example of a coffee shop that has defined itself in the negative: i.e., not by what it does and what it stands for, but rather its identity is wrapped up in what it does not do.
We’re big believers that the best coffee shops — or the best of anything, really — simply chart their own course instead of reacting to what others are doing. Defining your own identity as a foil against what others are up to unwittingly puts your own business strategy into your competitors’ hands. That’s driving from your rear-view mirror.
But if anything, that we now have coffee bars specializing in exclusively imported coffee is a healthy sign for local roasters.
Formerly the confectioner, Coco-luxes Haight Street Boutique, this is a small space along Haight St. with dark raspberry walls, dark wood, beat-up upholstered black chairs, and tables in front converted from the tops of barrels. Further back past the short service counter is an almost diner-like lunch counter where laptop zombies crouch over electrical outlets, sucking much of the life out of the place.
Using a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/80 at the bar, they pulled shots of Intelligentsia’s Black Cat that came with a very even, medium brown crema. While it smelled like it could have been an undetonated brightness bomb, it pleasantly (and not surprisingly) was not: a softer Black Cat flavor of some mild spices and some herbalness in a rounded balance. They serve it with a short glass of still water on the side of their white notNeutral cups.
Despite its good qualities, it is far from the more flavorful and best espresso shots in town. With a mission to showcase roasts from outside the area, they modestly live up to the task but do not take it over the line of excellence. It’s hard to say if the results would be significantly better if they focused more on themselves and looked over their shoulders a little less.
That said, we continually wish we could conveniently sample more coffees roasted outside of the area. We’ve been fans of the multi-roaster concept for years — from Ma’velous through the defunct likes of Café Organica. Hopefully Stanza Coffee will continue to fine-tune their operations to better showcase these imports.
This coffee shop opening in Sept. 2013 received an almost inordinate amount of fanfare. It still gets some of it. One of the latest examples being the New York Times Travel section with a recent piece by their former coffee scribe, Oliver Strand.
Andrew Barnett (of Ecco Caffè fame — now Intelligentsia SF — and currently the Good Food Awards and Cup of Excellence judging) established the coffee side of the operations, starting with his own micro-batch coffee roasts. So there’s some definite reason to get excited about that.
But here’s where things get convoluted. Grafted onto this perfectly good coffee bar is GreenSalads.org. Overlooking the folly of naming your brick & mortar business after your electronic address (e.g., “1800 Flowers? But I only need a dozen.”), they serve salads that read like a checklist of 2013’s most trendy and overdone ingredients: kale, quinoa, Brussels sprouts. Is a cauliflower salad in the cards for 2014? It’s honestly hard to tell if the menu here is meant as a self-parody of SF salad menus or not.
But wait — that’s not all. Also grafted onto this place is Lt. Waffle, offering sweet and savory Brussels-style waffles. One even garnered local 7×7 cover press as the #1 item of their “The Big Eat 2014″ list of 100 things we absolutely must eat before we die. (I know I’m holding off on including that DNR in my advanced health care directive until I eat one.) The salad and waffle offerings come courtesy of Anthony Myint, who partnered up with Mr. Barnett while he was a regular customer at Mr. Myint’s Mission Chinese Food.
We may be established fans of Mr. Myint’s Commonwealth and certainly of Mr. Barnett’s coffee. But the resulting café is a bit of a Kickstarter Frankenstein: an odd fusion of waffles, salad, and coffee with the feel of a schizophrenic food consignment shop.
Even so, that hasn’t deterred SF foodies any. Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, the restaurant world has been downsizing their menu ambitions while simultaneously upsizing their revenue-per-plate on lunch fare for the common man. Out are top-dollar amuse-bouches, tasting menus, and culinary foams. In are glorified comfort foods: pimped out burgers, pizza, grilled cheese, and salads offered at twice the price we used to pay, and demonstrating less than half of the culinary creativity pre-2008.
If SF diners proved financially apprehensive about splashing out for a new BMW, they’ve proven more than happy to spend almost as much on a tricked out Honda Civic. The fetishized $4 toast was only a matter of time.
But enough about salads and waffles. While good, we’ll leave those details to Mr. Strand’s quoted restaurant review. The coffee side of the house has its act in order even if it doesn’t quite “wow” for the area. It’s a small corner space with virtually only outdoor sidewalk seating along San Carlos. Inside the wide windows open out to the street and there’s a tiny bench for two.
Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea namesake and Mazzer grinders, they pull shots of espresso with an even medium brown crema and a potent aroma. It’s two-sips short and has a moderate body with a flavor profile of some spice and a slightly bright fruity edge. Served in red Heath cups for espresso (white for caps), Illy spoons, and sparkling water on the side.
Things get a little more unusual when milk is involved. Their macchiato has a dense and creamy milkiness that borders on cappuccino territory, despite its diminutive size. It comes with a latte-art heart. We do like the fact that Linea ruffles some coffee fad feathers in not offering any drip coffee options at the small bar here.
I’ve had a long, strange history with academics. Before succumbing to the dark side of money-plundering dot-com entrepreneurs, I worked in scientific research labs at The Johns Hopkins University and at Stanford University. It was also a joint graduate PhD program in bioengineering at UC Berkeley/UCSF, with a focus on neuroscience, that first brought me out to the SF Bay Area some 25 years ago.
Thus the idea of academia is something I know well, albeit with ambivalent feelings. For me, there’s always been an inherent conflict between the practicality of “real world” grounding and the legitimate need to follow intellectual pursuits to advance any field of interest — whether that be neuroscience or coffee — even at the risk of building ivory towers.
That people in the coffee industry today swear by using measuring scales, monitor things like total dissolved solids (TDS), and continually experiment with this pressure control or that pre-infusion time are all baby-step examples of the need for an academic approach — the building of a more comprehensive coffee science, as it were.
And yet while you can earn a PhD in Coffee Science from the University of Trieste (Italy) studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy, in America you can’t even earn so much as a bachelor’s degree in the field. So it’s with encouragement that we read yesterday’s announcement: UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow – Our Region – The Sacramento Bee.
If you don’t know UC Davis, they are an amazing ag (and veterinary) school. As just a personal example, a fellow Chicago native and husband of a lifelong close friend of the family, Chris Carpenter, moved from Chicago to Napa years ago to earn a masters in Horticulture from the viticulture and enology (i.e., wine) department at UC Davis. He’s now earning 100-point scores as a winemaker and recently served four years as chairman of the board for Slow Food USA. If you can judge an academic program based on the success of its graduates, and you should, UC Davis is no slouch when it comes to food and drink.
UC Davis just formally announced their Coffee Center and their first Coffee Center Research Conference, which will take place this coming Tuesday, March 11. All initial steps, but definitely promising steps in the right direction. Unlike their world-famous viticulture program, for example, the question still remains whether such an ambitious scientific initiative can truly thrive so far from origin for an ag school — rather than in a place like Kona, Hawaii. Greenhouse coffee can only go so far in vitro.
Much of their conference agenda, like their Coffee Center, seems focused on the microbiology of coffee. However, there are also talks on coffee genetics and sensory evaluation — the latter naturally tapping into the university’s expertise on the subject in the wine world.
Coincidentally, a little over a week from now the 2014 TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and there promises to be continued servicing of TED attendees by various luminaries of the professional coffee world. Recall that an invitation from TED is what inspired the now-defunct Coffee Common.
TED fashions itself as a sort of intellectual gathering of big minds and big ideas for the betterment of the world. Sounds great for the academic and scientific advancement of good coffee, right? But if you thought I’d be a fan of TED, you could not be more wrong.
Fortunately I was able to attend a past TED conference on the tab of an ambitious dot-com entrepreneur rather than having to fork over the $7,500 hazing price myself. (I.e., “Your hedge fund must be this large to ride this attraction.”) TED has done an amazing job of marketing and self-promotion, and I felt I should have every reason to support TED and its aims on the surface. But I found the TED event and organization to be intellectually shallow and ethically dishonest.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famed author of The Black Swan, once famously called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Part of that is the event’s general preference for infotainment over substance, as exemplified in its famous 18-minute videos that run like infographics set to moving pictures — optimized for people who prefer to be entertained rather than informed.
More objectionable to me were many of the event attendees themselves. They seemed fixated more on asserting or reaffirming their own special status in the world by the company they keep — or, perhaps as Mr. Taleb would put it, by those circus performers they invite to entertain them. Imagine The Great Gatsby, but with ostentatious material wealth replaced by grand displays of intellectual vanity.
The professionals of the coffee world are some amazing, impassioned, bright people capable of making their own brave decisions of free will. Yet I cannot help but feel that TED has cynically invited many of them merely to exploit for a premium event coffee service, helping the world of TED to maintain their personal façade of elitism in the process. I wish the best for the attending coffee pros and only hope they come out unscathed, unlike myself.
Much closer to home, about a year ago Stanford University Professor of Biology, Virginia Walbott, approached me to help co-organize a Stanford Coffee Symposium to be held in the spring of 2014. Prof. Walbott organized a similar, highly successful event for chocolate in May of 2011, tapping into both the university (Depts. of Biology, Latin American Studies, Economics, etc.) and industry (Scharffen Berger, Monique’s Chocolates, etc.).
Our goal for the event is to balance some higher-minded academics with a practical, consumer-friendly grounding in what makes coffee enjoyable and fun. (Read: check your self-congratulatory intellectual elitism at the door!) To be held Saturday, May 3 at the Cubberley Building of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford Continuing Studies just published its course catalog entry last week:
WSP 172 – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between
Registration is now open at $195 per student with a deadline of April 26. The featured speakers and topics thus far are as follows:
In addition to the planned talks there will be various Bay Area coffee vendors and an interactive tasting session. My current challenge? Following a location visit last Tuesday, I’m now working with the university to get sufficient power into the 1938 building to run sufficient numbers of espresso machines and grinders.
That said, I’m genuinely excited about the event and hope many of you will be too.
Maybe it’s just me, but Napoli has come up a lot since I posted our survey of the espresso there two weeks ago.
Over the weekend I attended the comedic play Napoli! at SF’s American Conservatory Theater. I can’t remember a play where coffee played such a central role in every scene. Then last night, Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). Like any good Neapolitan, he even thanked soccer player and Napoli patron saint, Diego Maradona:
Both works of art come recommended, btw.
However, last week we also came across a great contrarian article (in Italian) about the espresso in Napoli by Andrej Godina: ANDREJ GODINA A NAPOLI – Un viaggio, una giornata alla scoperta del presunto mito del caffè di Napoli. In it, Mr. Godina tours Napoli to sample the local espresso and is mostly left with a bad taste in his mouth.
Chances are you don’t know Mr. Godina, but it’s fair to say he has credentials. He earned a PhD in Science, Technology and Economics in the Coffee Industry at the University of Trieste studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy; he is an SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) Authorized Trainer, Master Barista, and Barista Examiner; and he works at Dalla Corte — an espresso machine manufacturer in Italy whose lineage brought about the E61 group head and the company La Spaziale.
Rather than follow a quality guide, like a Bar d’Italia, he and his barista trainer, Andrea, arrived in Napoli by train and began choosing a number of coffee shops at random. In short, they found them all quite terrible despite the legend of Napoli’s great coffee — which goes back the the 18th century and is even supported by some of Illy‘s own research conducted there.
He discovers minute-and-a-half (i.e., over-) extractions, stale coffee, burnt coffee, dirty cups, grinders with oily build-up, and bitter and astringent espresso. He also dispenses a lot of the folklore behind why Napoli espresso is so “good”: it’s the water, it’s the special roasting process, etc. He even takes a pot shot or two at caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), the Neapolitan caffettiera coffee maker (la tazzulella), and the zucchero-crema. After tasting some dozen espresso shots, the best he could rate them was a 4 out of 10 — with a 6 being acceptable.
It’s one hell of a condemning indictment. Is it fair? In our reviews, it’s true that we targeted many quality caffès with advance research. But we also mixed in a number of places at random and didn’t find them to be too far off the mark. (Save for one horrid exception in the guest breakfast room of a Napoli hotel.) Mr. Godina also dismissed Gran Caffè Gambrinus with a 4/10 rating — which we found to be quite good, even if nothing in Napoli would crack our Top 15 list for San Francisco.
It just shows that a lot still comes down to individual tastes and preferences. While Mr. Godina and I may agree on how good Illy can be in Italy, his company is located in Milano — which we’ve long lamented as one of the most underachieving coffee cities in Italy with many places serving the Dunkin’ Donuts of Italian espresso. Mr. Godina also rates an espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venezia as one of the best he’s ever had. Historical, absolutely, but we would never consider the espresso quality at the likes of Caffè Florian worth writing home about.
We stand by our assessment that the random espresso in Napoli beats the typical baseline quality standards at any other city in the world to which we’ve been (and we’ve been to a lot). But as Mr. Godina’s article proves, opinions will vary.
Surprisingly, Epicurious had yet to make a notable entry in the obligatory culinary-magazine-rates-national-coffee-shops department. But that all changed this week with the rather ambitious title of “America’s 25 Best Coffee Shops — The ultimate guide to the best coffee shops across the United States”: America’s Best Coffee Shops | Epicurious.com.
We do have to give them an iota of credit. Unlike most of their ilk, they cover coffee without a brand name that suggests an exclusive concern for food, eating, meals, or anything else at the expense of beverages as some kind of frivolous, second-class diversion. But then they did have to ruin it a little by filing the article under their “Where to Eat Around the Globe” category. Facepalm indeed.
Writer Colleen Clark also falls for many of the usual suspects among coffee house article tropes. Like a rapper with mad rhyming skillz just this side of 2 Chainz, she employed several examples of the journalistically lazy caffeine riff and liberally used the trite words “java” or “joe” as substitutes for “coffee”. Imagine if writers playfully used the term “alcoholics” when talking about wine lovers they way they effusively use “caffeine junkies” whenever talking about coffee lovers. Double standard, anyone?
Then there’s the tiresome barista-as-sommelier analogy. She also made several references to the rather dated topic of regional coffee “scenes”: the concept where which urban metropolis you’re in determines whether you can access quality coffee or not is becoming rapidly irrelevant if not already extinct. Now that even the world’s last holdout for terrible coffee — Paris, France — has worthy and redeemable coffee shops, there are no more “coffee cities” anymore than there are wine or tea cities.
All these negatives aside, the article is actually a rather decent assessment of great coffee shops — given Epicurious‘ magazine peers. (Even Forbes tried to get in on the act of reviewing the nation’s best coffee shops.) It might suggest that “it’s hard to separate the real-deal java joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsters” — a problem that we honestly never knew needed solving. But they at least drew a line in the sand, laying down some of their criteria by which some coffee shops should or should not be included in their list:
So we’ve combed the country for the coffee shops that combine craft with hospitality, for inviting spaces that spark creativity, and for roasters who know how to make your morning brew tell a story. These are our picks for the USA’s top 25 coffee shops.
This beats most of the random nonsense we’ve seen in past magazine lists of this type. Even if some of these criteria are precisely the sort of fluff that frustrated us as distractions from a focus on the actual coffee as far back as 2003: telling stories, named architects, hospitality, etc.
So that you don’t have to turn 25 pages of ads on the Epicurious Web site, we’ve summarized their list here in one place as something useful (and as listed in no particular order):
Risks of the No Coffee Left Behind Act aside, this is a solid list. We will be the first to admit that it is over-represented by San Francisco. But most curiously, although it does well to call out a few smaller independents such as Daylight Mind and Barista Parlor, this list is heavily represented by chains. For a Top 25 list, it’s actually cheating a bit as it actually represents a total of 85 coffee shops.
Has quality coffee in the U.S. reached a tipping point where the independents have come to be outnumbered by the chains? That’s hard to say just yet, but you can’t argue with the quality represented here.