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Trip Report: Sip Café (Financial District, Boston, MA)

Posted by on 23 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew

Owner Jared Mancini learned his original trade managing a Torrefazione Italia (or “T.I.”, as some old-timers in the region like to call it), later at Boston’s Steaming Kettle Starbucks, and then George Howell Coffee before starting this shop here. Jared also lent out this space after-hours to host the Dangerous Grounds cupping shoot staged a little over a week ago.

Entrance to Sip Café in Boston's Financial District Inside Boston's Sip Café

This is an unusual spot: essentially what looks like a glass greenhouse turned into a café on the open grounds of Post Office Square/Norman Leventhal Park. There’s park bench seating outdoors for those who might brave the weather. Inside there’s a curved service counter with an assortment of black wooden tables in what does feel like a greenhouse — just without the plants.

The Sip Café cappuccino, dwarfing their espresso with vast quantities of milkThey serve George Howell Coffee (Daterra Farms Brazil Calabria Roast Espresso for espresso, plus Tarrazu Costa Rica, etc.). They even offer the Yukro Ethiopia that was the de facto “winner” of the Dangerous Grounds cupping.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 off to the side, they pull shots with a dark brown, textured crema that’s served as a thinner layer on a body-forward shot. Its flavor shows chocolate notes, some caramel and minimal brightness. Curiously, it has the texture, body, and even a bit of flavor like a bittersweet hot chocolate. Served in green “Terra” ceramics with metallic detailing (as featured in their Web site‘s graphics).

We’d score their savvy a little higher, but their medium cappuccino is a disappointing vast, milky soup bowl – swimming in milk with a light layer of blurred latte art foam. We’re scared of what the latte must be like here.

Read the review of Sip Café in Boston.

Counter inside Boston's Sip Café, with GB/5 off to the left The Sip Café espresso

Trip Report: Thinking Cup (Boston Common, Boston, MA)

Posted by on 21 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Foreign Brew

This downtown coffeehouse opened in 2010 right across of Boston Common and was Boston’s first to exclusively feature Stumptown Coffee beans — even identifying Stumptown with a sign out front. (They’ve since opened an additional nearby location in Boston’s North End.)

This may have been a bit of Boston looking towards New York City for inspiration, even as NYC looked way out West themselves. But in Boston, as in other less “cosmopolitan” U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, justifying a $4.50 latte is a major leap of business faith. It’s also a surefire way to offend local sensibilities about what should remain a low-cost utilitarian beverage.

Thinking Cup sits across the Boston Massacre memorial in the Boston Common Thinking Cup entrance on Tremont St.

Menu inside Thinking Cup Customers seated at the front of Thinking Cup

Thinking Cup offers window counter seating facing out across Tremont St., overlooking the Boston Massacre memorial in the Boston Common. There’s a lot of aged, exposed wood, brick, and many small, shared café tables with old newsprint themes inside. Inside you might hear multiple languages and lounge music like it’s still 1998, but it’s a good vibe.

Cabell Tice's Latte Art award at Thinking CupThe owner is proud of one of his baristas (Cabell Tice) for recently winning the World Latte Art competition at Coffee Fest NYC 2013. (There’s an award on display.) They have an assortment of (good) baked goods and sweets in front and the sale of Stumptown coffee, pour-over devices, and logo mugs in the back.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 in the back, they pull shots as default doppios with a thin layer of medium brown crema with little density. It’s a slightly larger pour, but it manages to keep a solid, proper body. It has flavors of caramel and tobacco, but for Hairbender it lacks the acid bomb sweetness and sharpness we’re used to — which isn’t entirely a bad thing.

Served in classic brown ACF cups. Milk-frothing is solid, and arguably some of the best in Boston — but that really isn’t saying much given what we’ve seen of the local standards. Despite the World Latte Art award.

Read the review of Thinking Cup in downtown Boston, MA.

The Thinking Cup espresso The Thinking Cup cappuccino

Thinking Cup's La Marzocco GB/5 Thinking Cup's North End location

Automating Mediocrity: The Saeco Syntia Focus Home Espresso Machine, Part II

Posted by on 23 Oct 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Group head inside the Saeco Syntia FocusTwo months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.

The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.

The Robots Aren’t Winning

First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.

However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.

Pakma Lakshmi pimps Nespresso for the massesPod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.

Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.

Genesis of a sickly pale espresso shot with the Saeco Syntia Focus

The Sickly Pale Crema: Bane to All Superautomatic Home Machines

To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.

Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.

Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.

Espresso shots pulled of a 4-day-old roast of The Boss: left with the Gaggia, right with the SaecoAs if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”

Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.

After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)

While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.

This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?

Shot of The Boss made from the Gaggia G106 Factory One of the best shots we could pull with the Saeco Syntia Focus

And yet we continue to use the Saeco quite a lot

Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.

Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.

Spent grounds caking up inside the Saeco Syntia FocusBut speaking of spent grounds, the Saeco is far from “self-cleaning”. It’s a bit like automating your own sloppy minimum wage employee, given the internal mess you have to clean up every few days.

The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.

This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.

Surprisingly decent milk frothing from the Saeco Syntia FocusOne surprise was that its milk frothing, with its wacky pannarello wand attachment, is surprisingly good — blowing away my Gaggia G106 Factory in terms of steam pressure and foam consistency.

All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.

Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.

Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbuckshome Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.


UPDATE: November 16, 2012
Because we will still continue to experiment despite expecting the least encouraging results, we finally discovered a coffee that really excelled in the Saeco Syntia Focus: Stumptown Coffee Roasters‘ Grand Cru Guatemala Finca La Injerto – La Cima.

This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.

Trip Report: Caffé Medici (Austin, TX / downtown)

Posted by on 12 Mar 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew

Last week we were down in Austin, TX for the first time in over a decade. We managed to do just a little coffee exploration downtown. However, we were primarily there attending the SXSWedu conference. No, that’s not SXSW — once a cool independent music conference 20-25 years ago that’s now a bloated, corporate-sponsored wankfest that also sports “film” and “interactive” themes. SXSWedu is related to the main SXSW, but it is crawling with teachers and educators with no money and — in the spirit of teachers buying their class pencils and much unlike the gaudy entertainment bashes and freebies of SXSW — features a cash bar where attendees have to buy their own drip coffee.

Last Friday the conferences crossed over. Suddenly a cold, rainy wind kicked up as all the teachers left, and the town was invaded by an army of rich white people who dress like 8-year-olds and spend all day tweeting on Apple products about their food-trucks-for-dogs start-ups and their trips to Haiti. KMN. Arguably we couldn’t have left at a better time.

Downtown Austin from near the convention center, where SXSW is held Austin's 6th Street welcomes SXSW

But before we did leave, we became quite enamored with the downtown location of Caffé Medici. It’s a small, three-shop chain of Austin coffee bars, and at the downtown location the coffee is excellent and the environment is also great.

They offer patio sidewalk seating in front on metal tables and chairs of what looks like a rather corporate office building. Inside, you can sit at the center bar where the barista works behind one of two red, three-group La Marzocco FB/80 MP machines. There are a few indoor tables, leather bench seating along one wall, and an upstairs for more seating. Order at the counter in back, beneath the massive red wall with Caffé Medici’s “Cosimo” on it, and your order will electronically beam over to the center barista area.

Entrance to Caffé Medici downtown Caffé Medici's center bar and red La Marzocco FB/80 MP

Inside Caffé Medici, downtown Cosimo at Caffé Medici

They mostly pull shots of local roaster Cuvée Coffee with a very even, medium brown crema. They serve it properly short and potent, with a rich body and a nice, blended flavor of spice, herbal pungency, even a little wood and yet a noticeable brightness over the top.

It has a complex flavor, though oddly served in cheap Delco cups and with a side of sparkling water. One day they brought in bags of Verve‘s Sermon blend, so they do a rotation at times. Though one word of warning: the Cuvée Coffee roasts sold at the bar were about three weeks old. But that’s more of a minor complaint.

Their milk-frothing is very wet and somewhat dense — there’s no real foam here — and it comes with decent rosetta latte art.

Read the review of Caffé Medici in downtown Austin, TX.

The Caffé Medici espresso, downtown The Caffé Medici cappuccino: wet, no foam, with bags of Verve Sermon in the background

Coffee in South India

Posted by on 03 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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?”

Celebrations for Pongal, Mysore, India Shri Chamundeshwari Hindu temple, Mysore, India

Temple door, Mysore, India Night market activity, Brindivan Gardens, Mysore, India

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.

Don't dare tell us that South India has no coffee culture Hatti Kaapi, a newer South Indian coffee outlet features man-boobs and cup-to-cup aeration of coffee

Old South India Coffee

Oil lamps decorating the Ranganatha Swamy Temple, Srirangapatna, IndiaStarting 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.

The Airport Hotel - Old Bangalore and good South Indian filter coffee South Indian filter coffee at the Airport Hotel, Bengaluru

They call them hotels, but you can't sleep there Old Bangalore, with Koshy's - a local favorite old school restaurant

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.

Entrance to the old school India Coffee House Ordering coffee inside the India Coffee House

South Indian filter coffee at Indira Darshini, Bengaluru Hindu temple at night in Bengaluru - they aren't nearly as colorful in North India

New South India Coffee

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.

Barista Crème, Bengaluru Barista Crème espresso, Bengaluru

Caffè Pascucci, Bengaluru Caffè Pascucci espresso, Bengaluru

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.

'Black coffee' as recommended by high-end South Indian restaurantsHigh-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.

Matteo Coffea in Bengaluru La Marzocco FB/70 at Matteo Coffea in Bengaluru

Inside Matteo Coffea in Bengaluru The Matteo Coffea espresso, Bengaluru

The South Indian Business of Coffee

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.

Inside the Coffee Board of India Cupping inside the Coffee Board of India quality lab

Coffees highlighting regions of India, Coffee Board of India Barrel roasters for sampling at the Coffee Board of India

Inside the Coffee Board of India quality lab Sample green coffees, Coffee Board of India

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%.)

Coffee menu at Coffee Cup, Nisargadhama, IndiaYou 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.

Bota Coffee Traders, Coorg, India Countryside near Coorg, India

Tibetan students in exile, Coorg, India Riverside among the Coorg coffeelands

Coffee Cup's espresso preparation, Nisargadhama, India The Coffee Cup Spanish cortado, Nisargadhama, India

In defense of coffee heretics

Posted by on 01 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

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.

Put down that milk, heathen!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.

orthodoxy: 1580s, from Gk. orthodoxos “having the right opinion,” from orthos “right, true, straight” + doxa “opinion, praise”

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.

KQED Forum gives some radio love to Bay Area coffee

Posted by on 10 Jan 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Yesterday morning, KQED radio aired an hour-long Forum segment featuring a small round-table of SF coffee “luminaries”: SF’s Coffee Innovators: Forum | KQED Public Media for Northern CA. The panel included James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, Eileen Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and an unusually quiet Jeremy Tooker, of Four Barrel Coffee.

What? Coffee talk that isn't exclusively a podcast?Much like the title of its associated Web page, the radio program played out like your typical coffee innovator/”third wave“/bleeding-edge routine that we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. While a bit heavy on the Coffee 101 — particularly when callers asked common FAQ-type questions that have been answered on the Internet 20,000 times over already — KQED produced a good program overall.

Some of the more interesting comments included Eileen Hassi stating that “San Francisco has better coffee than any other city in the world” — with the only potential exception being Oslo, Norway. We’d like to think so, and there’s a bit of evidence to back that up.

James Freeman noted Italy’s “industrialized system of near-universal adequacy,” which is a different but accurate way of summing up our long-held beliefs that outstanding coffee in Italy is almost as hard to find as unacceptable coffee. Other covered topics included coffeehouses eliminating WiFi, Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum inventing the latte, the Gibraltar, and even James Freeman designating home roasting as coffee’s “geeky lunatic fringe.”

The rumors of home coffee roasting’s meteoric rise have been greatly exaggerated…

Samples of green coffee beans for pre- or post-home-roast blendingWhile it’s worth noting that Mr. Freeman started as a home roaster, recent media coverage of home roasting has been a bit bizarre. To read it in the press these days, you’d think home roasting were at its apex rather than continuing its gradual decline towards its nadir. This despite numerous media stories covering it over five years ago as some hot new trend.

At the 2006 WRBC, we were perplexed by the complete lack of home roaster representation among the event’s attendees. (Namely, any home roaster worth his weight in greens would have been giddy over the reappearance of the Maui Moka bean. Nobody there even noticed.) And yet by 2009 we noted a real decline in online home roasting community activity, and we wrote about some of the underlying reasons for it.

South India coffee

Indira Darshini in Bengaluru makes decent South Indian coffeeCuriously enough, the first caller to the radio program (at 12’12” in) mentions a recent trip to South India and his interest in South Indian coffee. I’m posting this from South India — Bengaluru (née Bangalore), to be precise. And I have to say, I’ve become quite fond of both South Indian coffee and the South Indian coffee culture.

Sure, they prefer it sweetened and with hot milk (that often has a skin still on it). The coffee is often cut with cheaper chicory and is brewed with a two-chambered cylindrical metal drip brewer — not unlike a Vietnamese brewer or an upside-down version of a Neapolitan flip coffee pot. But damn, if this stuff isn’t good. Even better, there’s a culture of regular coffee breaks that would be familiar to many Mediterraneans.

South Indian coffee at Indira DarshiniWe’ve reported from India before, but only from the North — which isn’t known for a strong coffee culture beyond young people frequenting chains that emulate the West. Bengaluru is home to the Coffee Board of India, and this weekend I hope to head out across its state of Karnataka to visit origin at the Kodagu district. Also known as Coorg, this district grows a good amount of India’s good coffee. (Yes, they even grow really good robusta there. Just ask Tom Owens of Sweet Maria.) Details certainly to follow…

Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin

Posted by on 09 Nov 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Starbucks

Today’s L.A. Weekly featured an interesting bio-piece on father and son L.A. espresso pioneers, Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink. You might recognize the Pasquini name for some of their excellent home espresso machines. But the Pasquini family is credited with first introducing espresso to the L.A. area.

Pasquinis on display in the L.A. WeeklySome of the more interesting details from the piece:

  • Their initial business was first frequented by espresso-starved Hungarians.
  • In the early days, they even got some of their espresso from SF’s Caffé Trieste.
  • From the beginning, only about 3% of their customers ordered espresso. The bulk was cappuccino and caffe latte.
  • Starbucks coming on the scene helped popularize their business. Well, it was good for business, but “it wasn’t good for quality.”

And while the Pasquinis are rolling with the superautomatic and Nespresso machine punches, we were particularly intrigued by their reaction to La Marzocco. To quote:

La Marzocco did a wonderful job convincing people that only certain machines can make a good coffee. … They did a wonderful job convincing the [specialty] barista that that is the state of the art.

It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment — less to their equipment-building prowess, and more to La Marzocco’s marketing ability to build anxieties and insecurities within specialty baristas.

Which explains a little of the ambivalence we feel when we witness the likes of a Sightglass fawning over the latest coffee toy fads on the market. It’s one thing to be enamored with trendy equipment. But it’s another to rely on it as a cover up for a lack of sweat and hard-work that goes into optimizing with the equipment you’ve got.

Trip Report: Sightglass Re-Redux (Version 1.0), or now with a couple more places to sit

Posted by on 15 Oct 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

As we last left our story, SOMA‘s ever-morphing Sightglass Coffee was glacially executing on its grand designs to become a major SF roastery and a spacious coffee destination. It had been over a year since we last walked among the spent heroin needles of nearby 6th Street, so much of our new Sightglass experience had been through retail brightness bombs sold throughout the Bay Area using Sightglass’ own roasts.

This past week we finally got the chance to revisit Sightglass, and we can safely say it has largely succeeded at its very ambitious goals. We say “largely”, however, because we have more than just a little qualified ambivalence for what exactly Sightglass has become.

Sightglass adds a couple of chairs over their previous dearth of seating options Sightglass Coffee's service area, with wall o' coffee in back and the observation deck above

Sightglass’ original cubbyhole is now merely the doorway entrance to a vast warehouse space dedicated to exposed wood beams and coffee production. There are a couple of split levels upstairs for staff and vast amounts of stand-up counter space all around the floor plan. But while the square footage of this coffeeshop has expanded some 100-fold, there is seating for only about a dozen more people than before. There is window counter seating along the 7th Street sidewalk. But between that and the bicycle parking at the other end of the building there is virtually no place to sit.

The deliberate scarcity of seating is a decidedly useful move to ward off the laptop zombie set. And we wish far more places catered to stand-up espresso service the way it is a cultural institution in places like Italy. But somehow a place like Four Barrel makes their zombie-warding mojo seem natural and organic to the space, whereas at Sightglass it comes off like a lack of planning.

It seems that every 30 minutes, it's time for a cupping at Sightglass CoffeeThe vibe inside is a bit unique for a Bay Area coffee shop. In some areas, children sometimes play on the floor with parents in an unusual day-care-lite-like fashion. Meanwhile, there is a noticeable bent towards employing comely female staff and an unusually high proportion of both staff and patrons wearing cycling caps. Yet there is an unusual shortage of the obligatory piercings and body art. And as if an homage to Four Barrel and its mounted boar heads, the sparse decór inside includes the occasional mounted desert animal skull.

As if to proclaim they can mimic more than just Four Barrel, there’s a trusty turntable by the coffee service area for playing vinyl copies of the Beatles’ Revolver or the Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim EP — giving it a little of that Stumptown Portland feel.

It really tied the room together

But enough about interior decorating: what about the coffee? For one, there’s an ample wall of the stuff for retail purchase. It’s not even the “$15 a pound” stuff we mentioned earlier this week: we’re talking the $19.50 for 12 ounces category. At which price, we want bottle rockets shooting out of our ears when we sip this stuff. After sampling some of their Guatemala Finca San Diego Buena Vista Yellow Bourbon at home, let’s just say we’re not giving up our Barefoot Coffee take on Edwin Martinez’ Finca Vista Hermosa — despite some recent local press love.

The general quality of barista here seems to have raised a notch with their expansion. In store they offer Chemex and Hario V60 brewing of three different cultivars — plus the usual espresso drinks, a few baked goods, and the usual Hooker’s Sweet Treats salted caramels. And to pull those shots they employ both Slayer and La Marzocco Strada machines at opposite ends of the service area. Explaining the difference between the two espresso machines to a friend who was there with us, there’s really no other polite way to say this: owners Jerad and Justin Morrison are total name brand fad whores. So we merely described the machines as “last year’s model” versus “this year’s model” — and then proceeded to pay on their iPad checkout system, established here since the week the iPad went public.

Plenty of coffee, dueling DJs at the Slayer and Strada, and a turntable straight outta Stumptown, Portland Santa Fe comes to the public sink at Sightglass Coffee

Living up to their reputation as worshippers at the altar of the brightness bomb, they pull espresso shots with a rather one-dimensional, medium brown, even crema that struggles to coat the surface. It is very bright and flavorful in a citrus-meets-malt way, but surprisingly not overwhelmingly so. Though there is a tinny, almost metallic taste in the finish where it lacks any real sweetness or molasses-like smoothness.

Of course, a lot of people in North America enjoy this flavor profile. But it becomes particularly problematic when it comes to American’s love of milk-based espresso drinks. Their cappuccino is what we might call a “supermodel” cappuccino — pretty and perfect on the outside, but vapid at the core and lacking any real substance. Despite the beautiful appearance and accompanying latte art, their cappuccinos are tepid, milky, and lack any real punch that can hold up to the milk. We honestly cannot recommend the cappuccino here, as the primary brightness notes in the espresso are lost to become something insidiously bland and rather flavorless.

The Sightglass espresso: it even looks bright Sightglass Coffee's

Sightglass’ place in SF’s coffee pantheon

It’s fair to say that by establishing both their roasting operations and a large service area, Sightglass has positioned themselves as one of the premiere coffee destinations in San Francisco. These days, that says something. However, we cannot help but feel there’s a missing attention to detail here that holds Sightglass back from being among the very best — this despite a web site that proclaims their “deep attention to detail.”

Probat roaster on display, just as workers reapply bolts without washersThere’s nothing inherently flawed in name brand fad whoring if you get the execution right. But without that execution, you risk appearing as though you’ve followed a checklist for a paint-by-numbers Third Wave coffeeshop — rather than being something with a soul and substance of its own. We don’t even mind if your interior design ideas were lifted from the Stumptown and Four Barrel catalogs as long as your attention to detail comes out in your coffee. Forget the other details for a moment: a washed-out, bland cappuccino just doesn’t cut it.

An almost poetically symbolic example of this attention-to-detail problem was evident watching the team perform maintenance on their on-site Probat roaster (aka, “the sightglass”). They re-applied the mounting bolts to their Probat … without washers. Sometimes it takes just a little extra effort to do it right.

Read the updated review of Sightglass Coffee.

Berkeley perks up for Coffee and Tea Festival

Posted by on 07 Aug 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

Scene from 'The Graduate' filmed at Berkeley's Caffe MediterraneumNext month Berkeley hosts its first ever coffee and tea festival, and the SF Chronicle used the opportunity to mention Berkeley’s coffee and espresso roots: Berkeley perks up for Coffee and Tea Festival. The piece adds a bit of worthy Berkeley coffee history, even if it’s a slight retread of a 2009 piece in The Daily Californian. Both articles discussed Caffe Mediterraneum’s merits as the birthplace of the caffè latte. And, hey, Berkeley is where I had my first real cappuccino way back in those ancient 1980s.

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