August 2014

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Trip Report: Sogni di Dolci (St. Helena, CA)

Posted by on 25 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This weekend’s Bay Area shakeout…

We managed to review this café a few hours before, and again a few hours after, the Napa earthquake that struck early yesterday morning. Staying overnight with friends in St. Helena on Saturday, some 20 miles from the epicenter, we experienced it as a moderately strong, somewhat lengthy shake.

Many in the house — half-awake at 3:30am after the shaking subsided — exclaimed, “That was a big one!” Tragic damages and injuries aside, it was not very big. Despite it being the largest earthquake in Northern California in 25 years and causing an up to $1 billion in damages, it was a minor jolt in comparison to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. That one I experienced from the ground floor of UC Berkeley’s then-brand-new LSA building. Whereas yesterday’s quake was rather silent, the Loma Prieta quake came with an unmistakably monstrous roar that sounded like a large truck was slowly scraping a 10-ton Dumpster across a nearby parking lot.

Entrance to Sogni di Dolci with front patio Inside Sogni di Dolci

Hopefully this weekend’s quake will serve as a good emergency preparedness opportunity for the many Bay Area residents whom have experienced nothing like that in at least a generation. But my guess is most have no idea what’s coming.

For all of today’s protests over tech workers driving up housing costs and bringing giant buses to their neighborhoods, few could probably fathom 1989’s mass exodus of “undesirables” from that era — then colloquially called yuppies. Within a few months after the 1989 quake, many sold their homes at a loss, fleeing in fear for states like Arizona and Nevada because they could no longer trust the ground they stood upon here.

Sogni di energia elettrica

After reviewing Sogni di Dolci on Saturday afternoon, we had intended to check out the St. Helena edition of Model Bakery Sunday morning. That plan was thwarted when the western half of St. Helena’s Main Street was left without power. Model Bakery may have been open for business — and still had lines for their baked goods — but there were no working cash registers, no working credit card systems, and certainly no working espresso machines.

Sogni di Dolci was more fortunate, with power long since restored to the east side of the street. The lines were longer, given how the power outage limited options for downtown’s morning coffee zombies, and they processed the queue quite slowly.

Opening in May 2010, this Italian-themed espresso bar/gelato shop/panini bar/booze bar expanded into the next door space at 1144 Main St. in 2012 to grow from 17 to 47 seats. The growth plan included an expanded menu to also cover dinner items, but the place still functions better as a full-service bar & café than as a full-service restaurant. Behind the 1144 doorway is their new full bar, with its long counter of upholstered stools and a variety of unique beers on tap and in bottles (in addition to wine).

Interior of Sogni di Dolci from the back Sogni di Dolci's La Marzocco FB/80 and HDTV

At the center as you enter is their three-group, red La Marzocco FB/80, so they’re making the right coffee investments — even if they’re using Lavazza beans (which, btw, we surprisingly like). Above that is an HDTV often showing soccer matches (e.g., a Ligue 1 match between Saint-Étienne and Rennes on our last visit). There’s also a short, stand-up piano, a number of dining tables in back in addition to their café tables in front plus an enclosed outdoor sidewalk patio with metal café tables under parasols. At the service counter they have a good selection of gelato.

The interior décor is aspirationally upscale: with mirrored walls, dark-painted wood, Italian light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and darkly painted wood bench seating lining the entire entrance perimeter. But despite the owner’s wife studying art in Florence, the hallway of black & white photos she brought from all over Italy combined with a patchwork of sometimes-incongruous Italian-themed décor makes it a bit like Italy by way of suburban New Jersey. For example, we may love Amalfi, but the big illuminated postcard photo is a bit much. (Having started watching the great new Italian TV series Gomorra, adapted from the 2008 movie Gomorrah, I was subtly reminded of the decorations within Immacolata Savastano’s home.)

For espresso, they pull surprisingly (and pleasantly) short shots with an even, medium brown crema. It’s potent with a good body: one area where the owners wisely decided to buck the New Jersey Italian stereotypes. It has a blend of traditional Lavazza flavors of mild spice and herbal pungency and is served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. Their milk-frothing tends to be light and airy but consistent. Overall, a worthy espresso.

Read the review of Sogni di Dolci in St. Helena, CA.

The Sogni di Dolci espresso The Sogni di Dolci triple and double-shot cappuccini

On Coffee and Design — and a Cup Review: notNeutral’s LINO and MENO

Posted by on 09 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

Today This Thing We Call Coffee (substitute “third wave” or “craft coffee” or whatever nonsense marketingspeak one prefers here) seems to have discovered a new toy. It’s called design. Although around since the first coffee retailer opened in Damascus in 1530, lately design has become a rather acutely faddish obsession that has permeated café design, espresso machine design, and even the package design of retail coffee bags.

So much so, the coffee industry has lately given off the impression that it’s become bored or satiated (if not both) with its prior focus on coffee quality. Evidence of that has already started to come out in the cup. We’ve noticed some coffee bars missing the point that while we love great design and ambiance from our best restaurants, it’s not why we primarily want to eat there.

Opening in 2013, Truth. coffee's steampunk cafe in Cape Town, South Africa Packaging design for Origin coffee in Cornwall, England

It’s not hard to see how we got here. Today’s Internet is fueled by a Pinterest- and Instagram-inspired obsession with superficial looks, celebrating form over function. Social sharing, mainstream coverage, and Kickstarter hype have all elevated interest in coffee accoutrement based on visuals rather than performance. After all, who wants to dig into the gritty details when you can look at a pretty infographic?

Sometimes design is overdone like the self-indulgent noodling of a 14-minute Neil Peart drum soloAs with today’s world of pop celebrities, elaborate visuals and outrageous price tags — rather than talent — are what capture the fickle attention spans of layman consumers. Like everything else, perhaps it isn’t surprising that quality coffee is giving in to the temptations of Kim Kardashian’s asp. (You see what we did there.)

This isn’t to understate the many virtues of good design, not all of which are visual decoration. Design is a way of bringing art into the everyday things of life, but it is also a means of eliminating the friction and the senseless from how things work.

We all need espresso machines shaped like V-12 enginesNor am I a stranger to the values of design. My father is a retired commercial artist and designer of some 45 years, and long ago I even pulled a stint as a graphic designer whose work appeared in the displays of a national chain of department stores. While I see design as a very useful tool, I stop well short of treating it as a religion.

Because one man’s Apple logo sticker on the rear of their vehicle is another man’s Jesus fish. There are those who so subscribe to the “Better Life Through Design” mantra, they believe the crisis in Gaza could be averted if only someone designed an Israeli wall that was user-friendly enough.

When coffee’s current love affair with design becomes this noticeable, it borders on religion. As with all religions, when the object of its focused attention drifts from its original premise, things can get ugly.

To make my meal in a box taste better, I decided to tweak the logo rather than the ingredients

notNeutral Cappuccino Cups

notNeutral offices in L.A.Bringing the high-minded topic of coffee and design down to the level of cups, the folks at notNeutral recently reached out to us to pay a closer look at their coffee line. In the 11+ years that CoffeeRatings.com has been posting formal coffee and café reviews, many other blogs and Web sites picked up on the habit of noting espresso machines and other brewing equipment. But for whatever reasons, we still haven’t found any other online coffee review resources to date that have been logging cups unless they’re made as custom one-off designs.

So as a CoffeeRatings.com first, what do we look for in coffee cups? Our 2007 post citing the Espresso Italiano Tasting manual outlines some of the key qualities. But the primary objective is this: does it enhance my coffee drinking experience?

LINO cappuccino cup on two saucers MENO cappuccino cup on two saucers

Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an award-winning multidisciplinary L.A. design firm, founded notNeutral as something of a retail consumer arm for their designs. They do a lot of commercial buildings, parks, water projects, train stations, homes, and landscaping, and through notNeutral they get to do pillows, rugs, furnishings, and housewares such as coffee cups.

De rigueur of many designers today, they make overtures to sustainability and “green living,” but it’s not heavy-handed. One of our pet peeves is the hypocrisy of some retailers and media properties that are devoted to the concept of saving the planet by consuming more things (instead of, say, picking something up from a garage sale or a second-hand store).

notNeutral Coffee even promotes the Modbar design on their home page

notNeutral’s coffee home page opens to a photo of their cups beneath the group head of a Modbar, today’s patron saint of form-over-function in coffee, reenforcing design-aware aesthetics. We tested their cappuccino cups since we have collected dozens of espresso cups from cafés around the world.

First, the white, handled LINO cups. These were the cups they designed in partnership with Intelligentsia. Made in Bangladesh, they have good heft and a relatively compact size: filled to the rim, they can hold up to 6-oz/175ml. Design-wise, they clearly take on a modernization of the ACF or Nuova Point classics.

There are a lot of curves, including the saucers, with an inverted-dome-like rounded bottom and tapering up the sides of the cup: there are no edges inside. The handles are distinctive — sticking out in a wider loop, but cleverly flush to the top edge of the cup, allowing the coffee drinker to place their thumb over the top.

notNeutral's LINO cappuccino cup notNeutral's MENO cappuccino cup

We also checked out their black matte, no-handle MENO cups. These suggest the form and function of more elegant Japanese-style tea cups. Made in Sri Lanka, they are also curved inside with no edges — although not as rounded as the LINO cups. The longer basin also means it can hold up to 7-oz/200ml of liquid to the rim (despite their product graphic to the contrary).

The MINOs have a glaze on the matte finish, as these cups are meant to be handled to experience any heat within them. Without the handle, of course, drinking requires you to rotate your hand further back to angle it when you bring it to your mouth: something you’re either used to or will have to accommodate.

We wouldn’t say the LINO and MINO cups are our absolute favorite cappuccino cups. With all its comparatively under-designed flaws, the classic ACF M66 5.5-oz/150ml tulip cup is still something of a sentimental favorite — even if they no longer make them and they’re increasingly hard to come by. But both the LINO and MINO cups are real good — very good. They are thought out in detail, modern, attractive, and also (and here’s the important part) quite functional at what they’re supposed to do. We prefer them over the many modern ACF replacement knockoffs that have appeared since ACF’s demise — such as Cremaware or those from Espresso Parts.

The inverted dome inside the LINO cappuccino cup A MENO cappuccino nicely complements Silkworm

We also asked Hannah Bartholomew Block, who runs noNeutral’s coffee division, a few questions about these cups.

Q & A with Hannah Block of notNeutral

CoffeeRatings.com: With the LINO cups, some design objectives are clear – such as ensuring that the handle is flush with the rim, allowing the user to place their thumb comfortably across the top of the cup when they bring it to their lips. What design problems/solutions were you seeking to address with the LINO cups?

notNeutral: A lot of thought went into that handle. We tried a variety of forms that extended from the cup in different ways, but the final shape provided the most control for the barista and the most comfort for the user. Our design team considered the entire sensory experience of drinking coffee: the diameter of the cup was kept wide so drinker could enjoy the aroma, not just the taste of the espresso. The cup walls are thinnest at the lip for the best mouthfeel, and thickest at the bottom to retain heat. The bottom of the cup is rounded for optimal fluid dynamics, making it easier for baristas to pour latte art. Beyond those functional aspects, of course we wanted the cups to look modern, unique, and interesting.

The design advantages of the LINO cup

CR: In contrast to the previous question, where do you feel most coffee cups fall short in offering customers a better coffee-drinking experience?

nN: The most important consideration is comfort of the user. Are the cup walls thick enough to protect the user’s hand from heat? Is the handle comfortable and stable to hold? Will the shape of the lip cause coffee to drip down the outside? When you swirl an espresso shot in a demitasse, is it going to slosh over the sides? We consider all these factors when designing or choosing cups for a café.

CR: At CoffeeRatings.com, we’re an odd lot who have also liked using traditional Asian tea cups for brewed coffee service at times: no handles, matte black finish. So in that way, the MENO cups remind us of some classic tea cups. Was the MENO design inspired by those cups?

nN: Yes. We did look at Asian tea cups as precedents. We looked at Japanese ceramic glazes and liked the way the matte black got distressed over time. We also liked the way the dark, non-reflective finish not only drew attention to the graceful cup profile, but also felt warm and satiny to the touch.

CR: Whether inspired by Asian tea cups or not, you’ve clearly labeled your MENO cups as part of your coffee line. Anything about the experience of these cups, or the experience of drinking tea, did you want to carry over with these cups over the traditional cups?

nN: The handle-less cup completely changes the sensory experience of holding and drinking a cup of coffee. There’s a comfort in savoring the warmth of the cup directly in the palm of your hand. That’s a little unexpected for coffee. It makes you reconsider the ritual. We definitely envision MENO crossing over from specialty coffee service to vessels for tea.

Trip Report: Taylor Maid Farms (Sebastopol, CA)

Posted by on 06 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

Taylor Maid Farms has been a Sonoma County coffee institution since 1993. When the overused term “third wave coffee” was first coined by Wrecking Ball‘s Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) many years ago, she was roasting here at the time. With locations in “downtown” Sebastopol and inside Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, in 2013 they moved their Sebastopol flagship café and roasting operations to The Barlow as part of its reinvention and reopening.

The Barlow

The Barlow is a grand attempt at rural renewal. Originally opened in the 1940s as the extensive Barlow apple factory and processing plant, the fortunes of Sebastapol — and its apples — changed with the times. As apples yielded merely a fraction of the crop value when compared to grapes for Sonoma County wines, the apple industry (and the Barlow apple factory) all but perished in the region.

Entrance to Taylor Maid Farms Some of the grounds of The Barlow in Sebastopol, CA

For example, Sebastopol’s infamous Gravenstein apple — a flavorful but not the most supermarket-shelf-friendly apple — had to be rescued from extinction by one of the few Slow Food presidia in the country, an annual apple fair, and other public awareness measures to shore up the county’s agricultural biodiversity.

Meanwhile, the economic changes to the region also created something of a jobs crisis. One solution to the problem arose in the 2013 construction and opening of the nearby Graton Resort & Casino — a nearly $1 billion investment that brought some 1,600 new local jobs. A stark contrast to this approach, and one perhaps much more fitting for the area, was the reinvention of The Barlow.

Inspired by the opening of San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace and Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, The Barlow was reopened in 2013 as a consumer-friendly home to artisinal food, wine, and even coffee production. It’s a vast campus with an extensive network of modernized warehouses, dwarfing the Ferry Building and Oxbow markets. And word from the locals has it that anything served on its grounds carries a number of local production requirements.

Front counter inside Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol Taylor Maid Farms logo inside

From the rear of Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol Roasting operations at the rear of Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol

Taylor Maid Farms at The Barlow

In front of the shop along McKinley St., Taylor Maid Farms offers some rather extensive front patio seating. Inside there are two levels of café tables and chairs, a wall of coffee and equipment for retail, and a lot of counter and stool seating near open glass garage “delivery” doors. There’s a lot of rough, reclaimed wood paneling, concrete floors, and a large rear space dedicated to their coffee greens and roasting operations.

They cover the electrical outlets here, and the environment responds in social kind by being a somewhat vibrant community space where locals and tourists alike tend to talk to each other instead of zoning out in front of screens. Given the region’s many denizens who look like a Phish tour bus just crashed down the road and scattered the occupants everywhere, this should not come as a surprise.

For retail coffee equipment, they sell everything from a Rancilio Silvia, Aeropress, Clever and Hario drippers, Baratza grinders, and their own trademark cans of roasted coffee (but they also sell it to measure in bags). They offer five different pour-over menu coffees to choose from for either “Brew Bar Hot” (five methods at different prices) and “Brew Bar Cold” (two methods).

Brew station at Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol Merchandising on the walls at Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol

A café coffee plant? Sure enough in Taylor Maid Farms Filter coffee menu inside Taylor Maid Farms, Sebastopol

Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada (and three Mazzer grinders), they pull shots with a darker-to-medium brown, even crema and a flavor that blends in bright notes but is otherwise dominated by molasses and chocolate tones. The thinner body is about the only complaint.

Served in black Cremaware cups with a glass of still water on the side. Their milk-frothing can be a little crude, and their drinks tend to run wet/milky rather than dry/foamy. While the macchiato might be a little heavy on milk, the 6-oz cups for their cappuccino keeps it balanced.

Read the review of Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol, CA.

Working the Strada at Taylor Maid Farms, a barista whom locals suggest is a double for Scarlett Johansson The Taylor Maid Farms espresso

A Taylor Maid Farms cappuccino Alleyway alongside the Taylor Maid Farms entrance at The Barlow