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Trip Report: Temple Coffee Roasters (Downtown – Sacramento, CA)

Posted by on 23 Feb 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

When it came to coffee in Sacramento during the 1990s, Java City ruled the earth. Starbucks made their imprint like every other market in America, but Sacramento was Java City. Even longtime Sacramento coffee institutions like The Weatherstone — now part of Old Soul — once fell under the Java City spell in the years since its 1974 opening.

Java City eventually closed all of their retail locations by 2012 to focus on wholesale bean distribution. As local coffee entrepreneur, Sean Kohmescher, put it: “Java City’s lack of focus on its retail end hurt its café location(s)”.

Approaching Temple Coffee Roasters in downtown Sacramento Inside Temple Coffee Roasters, downtown Sacramento

Who is Mr. Kohmescher? The founder and original barista of Temple Coffee Roasters, which was established in 2005 in Midtown Sacramento. Exemplifying Sacramento’s newer generation of independent coffee roasters that first came to prominence in the mid-2000s, Temple has since expanded to several Sacramento area shops (including one in nearby Davis, CA) and a nationally recognized roastery.

This downtown location opened in early 2006. Located between the homeless encampments/tents in Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Plaza and the random screams of doorway-dwelling street people along the K Street Mall (an area that has always been a little sketchy), this shop attracts a decidedly student-oriented clientele.

Out front there’s fenced-in sidewalk seating, consisting of a long wooden counter and chairs under parasols along 9th St. Inside they painted the ceiling ducts black, left crude cement slab floors, with a painted coffee menu on the cement block rear wall espousing espresso, French press, and pour-over options (using clear Hario V60s).

Students zoning out along the side-wall bench at Temple Coffee Roasters Downtown Temple Coffee Roasters' wall o' mersh

They have two long, live-edge wood tables for shared seating plus a side bench with various students plugged in to earbuds and laptops. On the opposite wall is a significant wall o’ merch (pots, drippers, brewers, T-shirts, beanies, mugs). They offer a plethora of roasts for sale, and for their espresso at the time of our visit they offered their Dharma Blend, Ethiopia Limmu Burka Gudina, and a Colombia San Jose decaf in different grinders.

Ordering an espresso with their Dharma Blend, they served it from a four-group La Marzocco Linea PB. Despite the stripped-down environment, they brought the espresso to our seat with a small wooden tray containing the espresso in a white notNeutral demitasse and a small glass beaker of sparkling water. Thoughtful and classy. It came with a mottled darker and medium brown crema with a good coagulation and thickness.

Ample roasted coffees for sale at Temple Coffee Roasters along with their La Marzocco Linea PB The Temple Coffee Roasters service counter, backed by their menu

The flavor is “dark” with a full-bodied mouthfeel: there’s molasses, chocolate, and caramel. As an espresso I didn’t get much of the stated cherry, but as a macchiato the cherry comes through more. This is a robust, untrendy espresso that still believes in dark, body-driven complexity — a well-blended coffee that’s just about as good as you can get anywhere. Their milk-frothing is dense and quite good also.

Read the review of Temple Coffee Roasters in Downtown Sacramento, CA.

The Temple Coffee Roasters espresso from a serving tray The Temple Coffee Roasters macchiato

Some blends are created equal: Allann Bros. Maestro’s Blend

Posted by on 30 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

With the National Felon League coming to town for SuperBloat SuperBore SuperBowl 50, and the entire Bay Area overrun with corporate sponsorship, it’s a good time to shelter in place with some good coffee, right?

Allann Bros. Coffee Maestro's BlendThankfully the folks over at Allann Bros. Coffee in Albany, OR shipped us a pound of their Maestro’s Blend for evaluation. Founded in 1972 by their Roast Master, Allan Stuart, Allann Bros. Coffee opened a chain of eight coffee houses beginning in Ashland, Oregon — ye of the Shakespeare Festival fame.

When it comes to bean stocks, they claim to have developed Direct Trade partnerships and use of only high-altitude grown varietals. They fire-roast their coffee in a 1939 Jabez Burns Roaster and apply post-roast blending. Allann Bros. notes that the Maestro’s Blend is their most popular, signature espresso blend, describing it with a “dark, smoky flavor, coupled with a buttery crema and nutty flavor”.

Visually, it’s a seriously scary dark roast with what seems like enough surface oil to comb your hair in the reflection. It probably has an Agtron reading in the 25-30 range, which is akin to a Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend. This ain’t your conformist Third Wave coffee roasted with a brief puff of hot air just this side of grassy.

As such, it will elicit knee-jerk reactions much in the same way a light New England roast did for many Berkeley coffee fiends in the 1980s. But being a long-time believer in the versatility of coffee among its various roasting styles and brewing methods, I wanted to check out any of its merits.

Dark roast and heavy oils on the Maestro's Blend Tiny 51mm portafilter with some Maestro's Blend grinds

Brewing it many times as an espresso with my usual Mazzer Mini and Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine, it produced a rather healthy crema: generous, albeit not too coagulated. The resulting cup had a crema with a swirl of darker and medium brown crema. Buttery? Perhaps.

It had a decent but not remarkable body, and one would expect more body from coffees roasted in this style. Flavorwise, there wasn’t any ashiness or even bitterness. However there was a notably dryness to the palate — a kind of astringency. As expected, sweetness was mostly an afterthought with barely discernible caramelization of sugar starches of a molasses-like quality. It’s a pungent cup with a flavor dominated by tobacco and smoke, and I couldn’t pick up much of their nuttier flavor descriptors.


Allann Bros. Coffee
Blend Aroma [info] Brightness [info] Body [info] Crema [info] Flavor [info] Overall
Maestro’s Blend 6.0 5.0 7.0 8.0

6.0 6.40

Ultimately as a pulled shot it looks much better than it tastes. Which isn’t a bad taste by any means, but it isn’t very flavorful either. And while there’s some balance for the flavors that are actually present in the cup, it lacked large parts of coffee’s flavor spectrum.

It’s unfortunate when the best things I can say about a coffee are more about the negative qualities it lacks rather than the positive qualities it possesses. Unsurprisingly, the coffee serves better as a complement to steamed milk than straight on its own — and there’s a place for that among coffee styles. But I couldn’t find enough qualities that distinguished it from most other dark roasted blends, which is always a challenge.

Although it has one thing going for it: compared with Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, it costs about a third less.

Pulling a shot with the Maestro's Blend An espresso pulled from the Maestro's Blend

Trip Report: Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 02 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Founded in 2009, Asado Coffee Company first opened in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood — the same neighborhood that served as Intelligentsia’s birthplace some 20 years ago. Founder Kevin Ashtari started the business by roasting his own with a makeshift roaster: a rotisserie motor rotated a drum over a barbecue grill.

Things blew up in 2010 when Chicago Magazine named theirs the city’s best cup of coffee, and the independent weekly Chicago Reader named them best coffee roaster. Kevin later took on a partner, Jeff Liberman, upgraded to a 12-kilo roaster, and they’ve since expanded with roasting operations in each of three Chicago area cafés. However, they still focus on somewhat unusual, small coffee farms around the world and only roast two days worth of coffee at a time.

Walkway towards Asado Coffee Roasters, Pickwick, in Chicago Front door entrance to Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

One of their newer locations is this historic Loop building, though you might say it’s more of an anachronism than an actual Loop building. Called the Pickwick Stable, it is located in a tight, private alley once called Pickwick Place. This tiny (19 ft x 19 ft) building sits nestled and recessed between two skyscrapers, the Gibbons Building and the Steigler Building. It survived the 1871 Great Chicago Fire — serving as a horse stable and restaurant at various periods throughout its lifetime. It remains one of downtown Chicago’s oldest and smallest buildings.

The long passageway leads up to rather large sign exclaiming “COFFEE”. There is outdoor seating among metal tables and chairs in the alleyway, which would be a great urban respite if not for visiting during the sleet storm of Winter Storm Goliath (and the typical Chicago weather between November and April). The only sheltered seating was a lone chair inside the building next to the service counter.

Entrance to 22 E Jackson when it was Colonel Abson’s Chop House in the 1890s Asado Coffee Roasters' chalkboard menu

Have I mentioned that the place is tiny? Like Spella Caffé in Portland tiny. Their chalkboard menu displays their offerings of drip, pour-over (no batch-brewed here, folks), coldbrew (trendboys be trendboys even in a winter blizzard), and espresso drinks — plus scones, alfajores, and other pastries. They also offer some of their limited roasts for direct retail sale.

Using a three-group spring-lever driven Mirage Idrocompresso (their standard among all outlets), they pull shots of their Especiales blend with a lightly speckled medium brown crema with lighter thickness but decent density. It’s a long cup. Too long, actually, but it still manages not to be runny.

Retail shelf and rear area of tiny Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick Working the three-group Mirage at Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

The Especiales is Asado’s lone blend: a mix of their two Mt. Meru Tanzania coffees (one a peaberry), each roasted at a medium and at a cliché-busting dark level. The result creates a body-forward, almost Brazil-like taste which is refreshingly distinctive, a little retro, but of unquestionable quality. Asado prides itself on seeking out unusual small lot coffee farms to work with. Combined with their roasting styles, they thankfully ignore many of the monolithic Third Wave clichés.

The milk-frothing here is velvety, but beyond excessive. Their cappuccino comes in what’s arguably a serving bowl that’s nearly the size of your head, suggestive of 1980s wannabe French cafés that focused more on bladder-busting than flavor. Or at least coffee flavor; I never understood why some coffee shops see to adding a sprinkle of coffee flavor to their cappuccino as they would nutmeg or cocoa.

It’s an awesome, historic location with great coffee and a solid espresso. But for milk-based drinks, the resulting coffee flavor is washed out in a sea of milk — so we recommend avoiding those.

Read the review of Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick in downtown Chicago, IL.

The Asado Coffee Roasters espresso The Asado Coffee Roasters cappuccino

Trip Report: Coava Brew Bar (Portland, OR)

Posted by on 09 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Led Zeppelin fanatic Matt Higgins truly started his career in coffee at Walnut Creek’s Pacific Bay Coffee Company — first as an apprentice, and later as their roaster. Back then in the early-mid ’00s, Pacific Bay was a very different business, with different owners, than it is today. But it was the kind of combination café and roastery that attracted a number of like-minded, budding coffee professionals that would come to make their mark on American coffee over the following decade. (Another example includes Gabriel Boscana — now of Paramo Coffee Roasters, but back then a USBC competitor with Pacific Bay before joining the initial crew at Ritual Roasters.)

Taking his trade back to Portland, Matt began Coava in his garage in 2008. While working at a coffee bar in North Portland, he met Keith Gehrke and the two co-founded Coava as a real business by 2009. The name is a collective noun for green, unroasted coffee beans, spoken as if by someone who enjoys coffee a little too much. (It’s pronounced as the two-syllable “co-VUH” — it’s Turkish for green coffee.)

Coava Brew Bar from SE Main St. Garage doors along Portland's Grand Ave. open to the Coava Brew Bar

Coava expanded to open this location, their first “Brew Bar”, in the Summer of 2010. It’s a vast space in Portland’s Central Eastside industrial district, which they share with the Bamboo Revolution showroom. Hence the stylish all-bamboo bathroom that feels like a modern ice fishing hut.

Inside there are seemingly acres of open showroom space — 10,000 square feet: you could operate a roller rink in here on weekends — with a machine shop feel. With roll-up doors along the Grand Ave. entrance, they also offer limited metal café table seating along the SE Main St. sidewalk.

Acres of space inside Coava Brew Bar in the Bamboo Revolution showroom Inside the Coava Brew Bar

Coava's roasted beans for retail sale on display Seating inside Coava Brew Bar looking out over the corner of SE Main St. and SE Grand Ave.

Inside you’ll hear more than just the Led Zeppelin stereotype — such as the sounds of SchoolBoy Q to the Jesus & Mary Chain combined with the occasional TriMet streetcar rattling up Grand Ave., locomotives running nearer to the Willamette River, and all with obstructed views of downtown Portland just beyond the river.

There’s exposed wood everywhere along with concrete slab flooring. Seating is very limited for its space, consisting of a few shared large tables and benches with chairs plus additional counter seating at one side furthest from the windows. A functioning 1980s 5-kilo Probat roaster sits proudly next to the service counter along with various coffee roasts for retail sale.

They admirably offer an incredibly simplistic menu in the manner of doing just a few things really well, including offering some excellent pastries. Using a matte gray refinished two-group La Marzocco Linea (a technique that La Marzocco admired so much they adopted the practice themselves), we rated shots of their Ethiopia Meaza. With Matt reacting a bit to his time at Pacific Bay, Coava doesn’t do blends.

Coava's on-site Probat roaster inside the Brew Bar Coava's La Marzocco Linea for espresso service

The Meaza came as a compact shot, two sips short, with a mottled medium brown crema of decent thickness. Served in a white ANCAP cup, it has a sharper, astringent, acidic bite that finishes off a mostly pungent shot with sweeter edges of candies and syrup. A solid, quality espresso shot within the confines of what’s possible with single origin Ethiopian coffee (a habit that’s practically ubiquitous among Portland coffee bars).

Their cappuccino is modestly sized with detailed latte art, a good layer of microfoam, and a decent balance without being too milky. They also have excellent pour-overs, exclusively using their own Kone metal filters over Chemex brewers. (Yes, they eat their own dog food.)

Bonus points for their baristas’ customer-focused attitudes about coffee. They stash their milk in an ice chest in a way that it’s almost hidden. My wife felt sheepish asking for milk to add to her pour-over, but she was greeted with a very non-judgmental “You should have your coffee the way you like it.” Definitely one of the best coffee destinations in all of Portland.

Read the review of Coava Brew Bar in Portland’s Central Eastside.

Coava's coffee menu of the day Coava's Chemex pour-over bar showcases their Kone filters

The Coava espresso - from their Ethiopia Meaza The Coava cappuccino

Trip Report: Bow Truss Coffee Roasters (River North, Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 08 May 2015 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

I first came across Bow Truss coffee a few years ago at Chicago’s Gilt Bar, across the street from the massive Merchandise Mart — a building so large that it inspired Soviet envy and had its own ZIP code up until 2008. The coffee was particularly good for a gastropub, and Lakeview-based Bow Truss was in the process of papering up the windows of their planned downtown Chicago shop just around the corner.

Bow Truss coffee shop openings haven’t come quietly. Earlier this year, their Pilsen opening was the target of much publicized anti-gentrification protests. (West Oakland’s Kilovolt Coffee suffered a similar welcome several months earlier with barely a media mention.) In a story not all too unfamiliar to San Franciscans who recently witnessed bus rage, some Pilsen residents apparently preferred the historical charm of street signage penned by the Latin Kings, Vice Lords, and the Insane Gangsta Satan Disciples. Though I can personally attest that back in the days before consumer GPS and FourSquare, gang tags provided a relatively reliable form of geolocation in Chicago’s South and West sides.

Bow Truss Coffee Roasters at the Merchandise Mart Brown Line 'L' exit Entrance to Bow Truss Coffee Roasters in Chicago's River North

People standing around as you enter the River North Bow Truss Coffee Roasters Looking back at the entrance inside River North's Bow Truss Coffee Roasters

This tiny location opened in the winter of 2013, sitting beneath a Ravenswood Brown Line “L” stop. It’s also incredibly busy with a constantly slamming front door (they need to fix that).

The interior is a victim of poor space planning, making the seating situation much more scarce than it needs to be. For example, one exposed brick wall is covered with a large chalkboard artwork for Bow Truss — which could be better served as counter space with stool seating.

Bow Truss Coffee Roasters' half kayak filled with roasted coffee for retail saleIt has a dark interior with one central round table and a mismatch of stools at a counter on the opposite wall, a front window table, and there’s a handful of chairs strewn about the place. Plus a lot of people standing around because, well, there’s no place to sit.

Behind the counter there’s a decent amount of service space, with luggage in a shipper’s net hung from a ceiling pulley above. Roasted beans for sale are on display in an upright half canoe that’s split back-to-back. There are also oars beneath the wooden counter, two sleds, and a ViewMaster at the retail accessories and “coffee accoutrements” stand with slides of Vegas hotels. Thus there’s little theme here beyond “garage sale”.

They offer V-60 pour-overs, batch brewed coffee, cold brew coffee, and espresso. They also adopt the language here of “take-away” versus “to-stay”. Using their Foundation blend — the barista tunes a Mahlkönig grinder and the two-group Rancilio Xcelsius to it — they pull shots of a true doppio size in white Espresso Parts cups.

It has a darker, textured crema and a deep, rich flavor of darker spices, herbs, and some molasses sweetness with some acid in the finish but not a major bite. It predominantly exhibits flavors of cherry and 85% dark bitter chocolate, served with sparkling water on the side. For $3.25 they offer an “alternate espresso” (Colombia Nariño single origin on our visit).

They also make a very milky cappuccino: a large volume of liquid and with a scant, thinner surface of microfoam with latte art. As with many Chicago coffee shops, try to avoid the milk-based drinks and get the straight shots here for the best results. This town is drowning in milk.

Read the review of Bow Truss Coffee Roasters in Chicago’s River North.

Bow Truss chalkboard signage and the 'accoutrement' and accessory bar Mahlkönig grinders and a Rancilio Xcelsius inside River North's Bow Truss Coffee Roasters

The River North Bow Truss Coffee Roasters espresso The River North Bow Truss Coffee Roasters cappuccino: bring fins and a swimming cap

Trip Report: Plein Air Café & Eatery (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 21 Apr 2015 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This café is located in the middle of the University of Chicago campus in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Its next door neighbor is the historic Frederick C. Robie House — designed by famed area architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and influential enough to inspire a $371 Lego kit you can still buy off Amazon.com. Just two blocks down in the opposite direction is a monument to the world’s first nuclear reactor, assembled under Enrico Fermi’s supervision as part of the Manhattan Project.

With a neighborhood pedigree like that, you expect decent coffee. (Even with the frequency of nearby shootings in the surrounding area.) Fortunately this place largely delivers.

University of Chicago campus neaby Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy sculpture marks the spot of the first nuclear chain reaction

Entrance to the Plein Air Café building, shared with the CoOp bookstore Signage for the interior entrance to the Plein Air Café

Sharing a building with the campus Seminary CoOp Bookstore, owner Soo Choi conceived of this café in 2012 as “a French atelier-inspired café and eatery seeking to provide a warm, serene environment where guests can savor coffee, food, and design.” It did not open until March 2014, snagging on permits, chef churn, and other delays.

The wait seems worth it, as it’s been rather packed ever since. For a campus café, and perhaps reflecting the well-heeled and intellectual UChicago demographic, it is often crowded with a mix of UChicago grad students, faculty and staff, and educational tourists (they do have a few good museums on UChicago campus).

Inside they offer several café tables, a couple of long shared tables, and a series of stools at a long window counter. Outdoor patio seating facing the Robie House also exists among wooden benches and tables when weather permits. They serve salads, soups, and baguette sandwiches along with coffee service from a pick-up window. Complimentary taps of cold, sparkling and still water you can pull in jelly jars.

Inside the Plein Air Café Odd table art inside the Plein Air Café

Ordering at the Plein Air Café service window Windows and outdoor seating at the Plein Air Café overlooks the Robie House

Pastries on display at the Plein Air Café Metric Coffee for retail sale at Plein Air Café

As for the coffee service, they are one of the few retail locations serving Metric Coffee. Metric Coffee has received plenty of accolades and a dump truck load of buzz since its 2013 inception. At a San Francisco ceremony in January, they received a Good Food Award for their Kenya Kayu coffee. (Just don’t get us started on coffee being classified as “food” given that heroin better fits the dictionary definition.)

In the cramped space behind the service window glass (showing off the latest pastries), they operate a two-group La Marzocco GB/5. They sell Metric Coffee beans for retail sale at the counter and use their Quantum Espresso to pull shots served properly short with a congealed, medium brown crema with darker brown spots. The shot is full-bodied, potent, and has an acid bite in the long finish over some herbal and molasses flavor notes. Served in a mismatch of ITI China saucers and decorative Front of the House demitasses with a thumb grip at the top.

Is Metric Coffee magically delicious? I’m not sure I’d go chasing a leprechaun for it, but it’s up there.

The milk-frothing here shows good texture, and they do a decent pass at latte art. However, they are heavy-handed with the milk ratio on their cappuccino (served in Vertex mugs). Stick with the double shots. In fact, a lot of quality Chicago coffee shops seem to drown their standard cappuccino in milk, so that’s wise advice anywhere in town.

The Plein Air Café's workhorse: a La Marzocco GB/5 Pick-up counter at the Plein Air Café

The Plein Air Café espresso The Plein Air Café cappuccino

Trip Report: Illy Caffè (Union St., Cow Hollow)

Posted by on 31 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).

However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.

Outside the illy caffè on Union St. Entrance to the illy caffè on Union St. - with espresso cup chandelier

Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.

illy caffè's tasting menu for the media brunchIt’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.

Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.

Blind spots in our perceived history of quality coffee

There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.

Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.

Joe Gurdock, at right, with Barry Sheldon, President and COO of illy caffè North America, at the head of the table Illy's Frisée Salad with illy coffee vinaigrette and egg on top

Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.

The converted Metro Theater on Union Street now houses an illy caffè at the near cornerAs another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.

Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.

Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)

Illy was also pioneering coffee subscription models as early as 2004, years before the Third Wavy new coffee middlemen injected themselves into the supply chain.

The illy caffè illy-Misu Housemade Tiramisu illy caffè's Jasmine Vanilla Botanical Latte

Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.

But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and Francis Ford Coppola designer cups Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and the unique Federico Fellini designer cup in the foreground

Review of illy caffè

Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!

This café is located at the edge of the former Metro Theater, which has since been converted into an insipidly boring and culturally irrelevant Equinox gym.

There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.

The illy caffè service counter with La Cimbali machine The illy caffè espresso

The illy caffè macchiato The illy caffè cappuccino

Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.

The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.

Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.

Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.

Trip Report: Pinhole Coffee (Bernal Heights)

Posted by on 29 Oct 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

JoEllen Depakakibo got her start in coffee at the North Side Chicago Intelligentsia mothership before moving to the Bay Area and working for nine years with Blue Bottle Coffee. In Sept. 2014 she opened this coffee shop in an 1890s building that was once a neighborhood butcher shop (curiously enough with Avedano’s butchers nearby).

There is popular bench seating along the front Cortland sidewalk, warm wooden flooring inside, acacia stump stools, a mural by JoEllen’s brother, Joey D, and a wall of colorful stripes by local artist Leah Rosenberg. Older soul tunes filled the space on our visit, which really worked (Otis Redding, Ray Charles, etc.) There aren’t many tables (one large one), but the cozy seating works. And as any Bernal shop does de rigueur, there are dog treats for “guests”.

Entrance to Pinhole Coffee on Cortland Ave. Leah Rosenberg wall inside Pinhole Coffee

They use three different bean sources for various brew types: Verve Streetlevel for espresso, a Linea Caffè Brazil for pour-over, and Blue Bottle in a Fetco for “quick drip” (James Freeman would probably roll his eyes). They also have a rather unique brew bar setup, employing a handmade copper kettle and cherrywood drip bar as part of their collaboration with Toronto-based Monarch Methods.

Using a 1989 two-group La Marzocco Linea that JoEllen first used at Blue Bottle (since refinished), they pull shots of Streetlevel with a mottled even and lighter brown crema. It’s potent and short — barely two sips — but elegant, bold, and quite a pleasant blend of herbal pungency, some spice, and an edge of fruitiness. Served in custom ceramics with sparkling water on the side.

The Pinhole Coffee refurbed 1989 La Marzocco Linea The Pinhole Coffee espresso

They also offer a Chemex for two ($8), a very-Brooklyn kiduccino (made with cinnamon, $2), and something she calls a piccolo ($3). The piccolo is not inspired so much by its size (nor Sammy Piccolo of Canadian barista fame), but more by JoEllen’s Piccolo Plumbing landlord. It’s a short shot with more milk than a macchiato (served as a 1:1 ratio) served in a logo glass, modeled after the Intelligentsia mothership’s since-vanished cortado. (It is still a bit milky for our tastes.)

All that aside, one of the best things about this place is that they are truly trying to be an integrated neighborhood café. This ain’t no fly-by-night pop-up.

Read the review of Pinhole Coffee in Bernal Heights.

View of the house drink menu inside Pinhole Coffee The Pinhole Coffee piccolo


UPDATE: October 31, 2014
Curiously enough, today Australia’s GoodFood posted an article about the piccolo latte as a Sydney invention and something suggestively close to the cortado as well: Good Food – Mugshot: The Piccolo latte. But here the ration of espresso to milk is stated as 3:5, not 1:1, so it’s even milkier.

Trip Report: Bancarella (Union Square)

Posted by on 18 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

Gary Rulli apparently wasn’t quite satisfied by operating the Emporio Rulli café along the Stockton St. side of Union Square. He expanded to the Powell Street side of the square around the holidays of 2012 with this addition, branded distinctly separate from the rest of the Emporio Rulli chain. Bancarella means “stand” in Italian — as in a coffee stand. But it’s much more than that, located in a pleasant, almost exclusively outdoor space next to the discount theater ticket outlet, across of the Westin St. Francis hotel.

Bancarella sits in the southwest corner of Union Square Service area inside Bancarella

There’s outdoor sidewalk patio seating under canvas parasols in the Union Square courtyard, enclosing the handful of tourists here (typically) by short plexiglass barriers. Everything is branded Bancarella here, down to their bags of La Piazza Blend coffee, so it’s almost as if they’re hiding any Rulli connections here. But the quality is pretty good regardless.

Bancarella's service window with La Marzocco Strada: as if they were serving hot dogsInside the small service area there’s a small counter offering desserts, sandwiches, salads, and Italian wines. Behind the counter is a three-group, white La Marzocco Strada and a Mahlkönig K30 twin grinder — next to a service window that hands out orders like an ice cream truck.

They pull modestly sized shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has a well-blended flavor that’s smooth, carries some wood, but is mostly spices and light pepper. There was a somewhat foul or off aftertaste when we sampled it, which is probably not something we presume as consistent. It seemed like a coffee defect — like a squonky bean or two made it past sorting and into our shot. But the effect was mild, and our ratings only accounted for that a little bit. Otherwise, the body is a touch weaker than it should be, but the cup overall is made pretty well.

Served in Barcarella-logo Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups. They also offer good latte art and higher-quality milk frothing. There is little to distinguish Bancarella much from its Emporio Rulli brethren, but who cares about branding when the coffee is good.

Read the review of Bancarella in SF’s Union Square.

Patrons queuing up for food and drinks at Bancarella The Bancarella espresso

Trip Report: Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea (Inner Richmond)

Posted by on 10 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Local Brew

This small café on Geary Blvd. opened in early 2013 with the most unlikely of ambitions: serving quality coffee in this part of town, where value is normally prized heavily over quality. It’s hardly unique in this regard, as that’s also something that’s been attempted years before — e.g., Velo Rouge Cafe (and its now hackneyed bicycle theme). Even so, it’s been years since we’ve seen someone successfully repeated it.

And whereas Velo Rouge stands to serve Blue Bottle for SF’s Inner Richmond neighborhood, this café showcases near-reference-quality Ritual Coffee.

Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea at the corner of Geary and Spruce, SF Inside Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea

View from the rear of Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea Fifty/Fifty's La Marzocco Strada and service counter

It’s a bright, quiet space indoors with white walls and tall windows along Geary Blvd. In front there’s window counter seating, and along Spruce St. there are three smaller tables — often occupied by laptop zombies. Thus seating in this small place is at a premium. Besides coffee, they also offer Dynamo Donuts (on weekends only) and baked goods from Devil’s Teeth Baking Co.

In addition to pour-overs of some Ritual single origins, they serve espresso from a two-group La Marzocco Strada at the bar with an even, textured medium brown crema over a shorter two-sip shot. Using Ritual’s seasonal The Golden Bough blend (nice Virgil reference, btw) on our visit, the shot has a modest body with a bright flavor of apple and roasted hazelnut.

There’s a sharp acidity with some midrange but little offered at the low end of the flavor spectrum. Served in Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a small Ball jar of tap water on the side.

They also offer good, even milk frothing with rosetta latte art: it runs a bit milky for a cappuccino, but it’s hard to complain when it’s made well otherwise. The small crew of attentive baristas help make the place stand out.

Read the review of Fifty/Fifty Coffee & Tea in SF’s Inner Richmond.

The Fifty/Fifty espresso - with Ball jar of tap water Milky but good: the Fifty/Fifty cappuccino

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