June 2016

Monthly Archive

Trip Report: Octane Coffee / Bar (Buckhead, Atlanta, GA)

Posted by on 19 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

In the greater Mylanta area, Octane frequently ranks as one of the preeminent quality coffee chains. As an example, in December 2014 Atlanta Magazine named it the city’s best coffee chain.

This location of the seven-store, three-state chain — in Atlanta’s trendy Buckhead district — seems wedged in a building that looks like what Georgians think is the norm for Silicon Valley. Imagine if a bunch of ex-Yahoo! employees on H1-B visas decided to open a Georgia-themed biscuits and gravy shop in Sunnyvale. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

Entrance to Octane Coffee / Bar in the Atlanta Tech Village Razor scooter parking at the entrance of the Atlanta Tech Village

Coffee menu at Octane Coffee / Bar Octane Coffee's cold brew

Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village, or ATV, comes complete with airy glass-and-steel construction and designated Razor scooter parking in front (no, seriously, I am not making this up): surely 33% more startupy than the leading brand. Octane’s role here is to fit the tech worker coffee stereotype: chug coffee, write code.

Outdoors there’s patio seating in front under parasols — which don’t offer much help when Atlanta is hot enough to melt your face. (It was 100°F out, and “feels like 105°F” per my weather app, on my visit.) Inside the space curves around the outside contour of the building, with a service counter (and a King of Pops popsicle case) in front and several tables and a long, shared wooden bench towards the back. Along the glass windows there is a series of white modern stools.

They offer Japanese cold drip, a nitro-brewed iced coffee (which is rather tepid, btw), three pour-over coffee options, and espresso. Their standard blend is the Gravy Espresso.

Entering Octane Coffee / Bar in Buckhead Roasted coffee for sale at Octane Coffee / Bar

Inside the curved seating at Octane Coffee /  Bar Octane Coffee / Bar's La Marzocco Linea

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a healthy, evenly shaded medium brown crema. It has a good mouthfeel and density and exhibits excellent flavor balance in the cup: an even blend of mild spices, some wood, and some fruit. A friend who lives in the neighborhood told me that it can run a bit green-plant bitter, but I quite liked it and thought it showed great balance and restraint while still having a thick consistency.

If there’s any complaint, it’s that it’s too smooth and lacking strongly distinctive characteristics — making this more of a multiple-times-per-day Italian style espresso. Served with sparkling water on the side in Cuisinox cups by a cringe-worthy barista who calls it “spro”.

For their cappuccino they employ detailed Rosetta latte art with restricted, overly gentle milk-foam: it’s more liquid milk blended in the body and is thus too runny or liquidy. My friend also complained about the cortado here running a bit lukewarm on the serving temperature, which could be explained by their generous use of tepid milk. But despite the sterile office park location, it’s one of the better espresso bars in town.

Read the review of Octane Coffee / Bar in Atlanta’s Buckhead District.

The Octane Coffee / Bar espresso The Octane Coffee / Bar cappuccino

Trip Report: illy Caffè (Sansome St., Financial District)

Posted by on 18 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

I hadn’t seen the illy caffè North America crew since attending Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone. I’ve long admired them as a privately-owned company: run by cool people, with an attention to coffee quality and investments in coffee science long before anybody thought that made any sense, and even being named a world’s most ethical company for four years running now. So when they invited me to another San Francisco illy caffè opening last month, of course I accepted.

This is another illy Caffè in SF (and not another Espressamente) — this one located in the eastern shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, in the heart of the Financial District. Like the other illy caffè on Union St. that predated it, the food menu is a bit more involved and the service levels are just a touch higher than you’d get at an Espressamente.

Entrance to illy Caffè on Sansome St. in SF's Financial Distrcit The illy chandelier at 505 Sansome

Tricked out illy mobile cart and too many models in black at the illy opening Pastry counter at illy's 505 Sansome location

It’s a 1352 square-foot space capable of seating 32 patrons, and there’s the requisite illy Art Collection chandelier made of their designer cups as you walk in. Tall windows overlook the modern SF firehouse across the street with various café tables spread about for lingering.

Behind a large pastry counter (from City Bakery and Tout Sweet Patisserie) they operate a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. With it they’ve pulled shots with a picture-perfect, medium brown tiger-striped crema of modest thickness. The flavor profile is classic illy: mild spices, wood, and a broader flavor profile. Served in designer IPA logo cups.

Inside, the illy caffè NA crew showcase the company and menu Master Barista, Giorgio Milos, looks on at the event

illy caffè NA's Mark Romano explains their coffee sourcing illy's affogato specialty drink

Milk-frothing here is good: it may not be the prettiest, but it has a good texture and density. As illy has gotten into signature drinks lately, upon visit they were featuring their summer-ready illy Espressoda and a dessert-worthy illy Cinnamon Vanilla Affogato. For those bored with good coffee.

Read the review of illy caffè on Sansome St. in San Francisco’s Financial District.

illy Caffè's La Marzocco Strada The illy Caffè espresso

Cappuccino served at illy Caffè's 505 Sansome location

Trip Report: Cafe Virtuoso (San Diego, CA)

Posted by on 11 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

This coffee shop opened in early 2009 in San Diego’s transitional Barrio Logan. This neglected industrial and shipbuilding neighborhood, located in the shadow of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, is home to a few thousand mostly Latino residents. But that mix, and the mix of local businesses, is gradually changing with the winds of gentrification: alongside Latino murals, welding and machine shops, recycling centers, car repair joints, and grittier homes now stand microbreweries, cross-fit gyms, and hipster coffee shops.

Unlike San Francisco, where many see the arrival of an upscale coffee shop as the death of culture as we know it, in Barrio Logan most of the neighborhood friction concerns its mixed-use zoning where toxic chemicals, residents, and art studios struggle to co-exist side-by-side. A coffee shop/roaster such as Cafe Virtuoso is still industrial enough to blend in with its neighbors.

Entrance and sidewalk seating at San Diego's Cafe Virtuoso Seating just inside Cafe Virtuoso's entrance

Over the years, as San Diego laggardly opted to get serious about coffee, Cafe Virtuoso has slowly earned something of a loyal following among locals in-the-know.

There’s outdoor sidewalk seating in front with three metal tables and a parasol. Just inside the front door there’s a small room with three tables and artwork made of burlap coffee sacks on the walls. Past that is the main bay: a large industrial space with slab concrete floors that hosts coffee serving, roasting, and retail space.

In the main bay there are three additional metal tables with steel stools for seating. A baker’s rack of roasted coffee, brewing equipment, and tea dominates a section parallel to the service counter. A yellow Diedrich roaster draws attention at the center of the space (they’re San Diego’s only 100% certified organic roaster). Parked in back, when not out on the road at events, is a UNIC mobile cart.

Cafe Virtuoso's wall o' mersh Cafe Virtuoso's wall o' mersh, part 2

Cafe Virtuoso's Diedrich roaster and mobile UNIC cart at the back Roasted and packaged Cafe Virtuoso coffee

The comparatively small service area features a menu split between regular and premium espresso shot options, served from a two-group La Marzocco Strada, in addition to pour-over coffee and (nitro) cold brew.

Using their House Espresso, they pulled a shot with an event medium brown crema that ran slightly thin on thickness. It was light-bodied, fruity, and expressed some mild spice in addition to some roasted almond bitterness — a touch of which might be due to slight overextraction. It’s a solid shot, even though it shows some technical softness around the edges that could be tightened up with stricter standards and attention to detail. Served in a white notNeutral demitasse with sparkling water on the side.

Read the review of Cafe Virtuoso in San Diego, CA.

Another random space of tea and other mersh at Cafe Virtuoso Drink menu at Cafe Virtuoso

Cafe Virtuoso's La Marzocco Strada The Cafe Virtuoso espresso, with sparkling water on the side