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Perth, Australia on “How to Spot a Dodgy Coffee”

Posted by on 26 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Whereas we’ve written an SF-oriented post on the common cues for recognizing a good or bad espresso, today’s WAtoday (Western Australia) features an article on how to spot a dodgy coffee: Perth’s Best and Worst Coffee.

We’ll simply quote it here:

Mooba Subiaco manager Hannah Cameron told WAtoday.com.au the top five ways customers can see that the coffee you are about to buy is not going to be top quality:

1) Beans are not ground on demand. Good baristas only grind the beans when they are needed. Ground coffee goes off in no time at all, if ground coffee is sitting in the coffee beans dispenser walk away now.

2) The shot is poured out of the machine too fast. A quick coffee is not a good coffee. Don’t be impatient. If your shot gets poured into the cup from the machine in under 10 seconds it won’t be good. The best take 20-40 seconds to filter through the coffee.

3) Don’t buy it if the barista does not use a clean milk jug, if they re-heat milk, add cold milk onto already heated milk and heat again or have a massive milk jug to heat heaps at a time.

4) If the bench is not clean, there are coffee grounds everywhere, the milk wand is caked in milk or anything looks unclean get out now.

5) If their machine looks like you could buy it for $100 don’t bother. Most top-quality Perth baristas use Synessos, the best machines in the world. If your barista used one of these you have a good chance that the final product will be tasty.

All milk-frothing moves with a Synesso need to be accompanied by silky saxophoneThe online version also offers a two-minute video with Ms. Cameron. Plus a soundtrack lifted right out of the hotel cable TV channel at the New Brunswick, NJ Hyatt Regency.

We pretty much agree with all of these points. However, we’d like to add a qualifier to the last one. Using a machine that looks worth about $100 is less of the cause and more of the symptom.

In the right barista hands, we’ve had very good espresso shots pulled from older refurbs or even cheaper machines. The real cue is a place that cares so little about their espresso quality that they cut as many corners as possible. This explains SF’s problem with La Spaziale machines: it’s not the machine that’s the problem, it’s the people who are buying them.

Trip Report: Tribeca Bakery (Kalk Bay, Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 23 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Opening in Sept. 2009, this beachfront café in downtown Kalk Bay bustles with lovers of coffee and baked goods. They’ve adopted a theme based on New York City’s TriBeCa neighborhood, which is expressed in NYC imagery on the walls. The tables are pretty classy, actually, and there are often musicians in front along the sidewalk (which has some of its own sidewalk table seating). While popular for breakfast, they also serve sandwiches and dinner after 5pm.

Tribeca Bakery storefront on Kalk Bay Street performers in front of Tribeca Bakery

Cappuccinos are on the menu, instead of flat whites, and they also offer the occasional odd South African coffee cocktail, such as the honey nut crunch macchiato. In back there’s an espresso bar that also offers wine, where an older, deep red, three-group La San Marco machine pulls shots of their own espresso blend. (They also have a Mazzer grinder.)

The resulting shot has a flecked, even, medium brown crema. It’s a touch thin, but it’s hard to complain: it’s a potent espresso (surprising as a double-sized single) with a fuller body and a roasted flavor of some pepper and spices blended well. A fine example of espresso in a popular place. R13 (about $1.75).

Read the review of Tribeca Bakery in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, South Africa.

TriBeCa, NYC-themed interior of Tribeca Bakery View of the beachfront outside Tribeca Bakery

Tribeca Bakery's coffee and wine bar with La San Marco machine The Tribeca Bakery espresso

Espresso or cappuccino: perfection, perfection everywhere but not a drop to drink

Posted by on 22 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

We’ve previously lamented the abuse and overuse of the term “perfect,” particularly when it comes to espresso. For this, and for injecting the term into the media vernacular for anything we consume, we have justifiable grounds to send Martha Stewart back to prison. Until we again see Martha in an orange jumper, today our inboxes provided two more exhibits for state’s evidence.

The first concerns a pursuit of un cappuccino perfetto in San Francisco: The Sipping Point – The Bold Italic – San Francisco by Nicole Martinelli. The other comes from a coffee taster and sales manager for Caffè Umbria: Coffee Taster » Blog Archive » The perfect espresso: a caresse, not a punch. The latter covers some familiar themes on what’s lacking in restaurant espresso in America, so here we will instead focus on the former article.

For the perfect cappuccino, we're left with seven options and Milan as the gold standardMs. Martinelli’s article is written from the perspective of a San Franciscan who, for a time, left to live in Milan, Italy. She thus uses Milan as her point of reference for the “perfect” cappuccino. Yet we’ve stated for years how Milan is one of the greatest espresso underachievers in Italy, and the café ratings in Gambero Rosso’s annual Bar d’Italia back us up. (The additional irony of an interista speaking to the authentic Italian cappuccino is also not lost here, given that the Inter soccer club is about as Italian as Buenos Aires’ Boca Juniors.)

So how can you stake a legitimate claim to perfection when your reference point is anything but? It’s not by accident that of the 666 active San Francisco espresso purveyors currently listed on CoffeeRatings.com, not one of them scores higher than an 8.6 on a 10-point scale. But what is interesting is the cappuccino angle, of course. Even if the comprehensiveness of the author’s quest falls about 659 entries short of ours, we’ve historically made it a point not to rate the cappuccino. We do, however, comment on their quality in the reviews, and this does influence our Taster’s Correction score. But if they can judge a cappuccino at barista competitions, there’s reason to suggest we should.

The article also cites Giorgio Milos, who recently ruffled some American feathers by suggesting the Italian way is the only way to appreciate espresso. Back to our original “perfect” denunciation, we introduced the work of Howard Moskowitz to underscore that instead of a “perfect cappuccino”, what society really wants are the “perfect cappuccinos.” OK, i cappuccini perfetti if you want to be Italian about it.

Trip Report: Vida e Caffè @ Wembley Square (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 16 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

One of the most important, and most tragic, stories of human history since the age of the Portuguese explorers is the story of Colonialism. Today the vestiges of Colonialism are apparent everywhere from globalization to the impact of slavery and race relations around the world. For example, to look at the history of Cape Town, South Africa, is to look at the Dutch East India Company and the forced migration of slaves not from Africa but from southeast Asia — i.e., primarily modern day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Fast forward to modern times. It has been less than two decades since South Africa has been free from apartheid, and the “Rainbow Nation” has done a remarkable job at overcoming cultural differences and burying grudges over the many wrongs of the past. (Contrast this with, say, the recent history of the Balkans.) Fortunately, Colonialism in South Africa today has been reduced to more of the corporate variety. Take retail coffee chains, for example.

Vida e Caffè seating inside Wembley Square Approaching Vida e Caffè in Wembley Square from behind

Last month, coffee colonialists Starbucks blew their vuvuzelas to announce their arrival in South Africa in time for the 2010 World Cup. It was as if to tell the many global tourists to the Rainbow Nation, “Don’t worry. We will save you from the scary coffee backwaters of South Africa. Rest assured that good coffee will be made available during your stay, thanks to us — your Starbucks rescue team.”

Not unlike South Africa’s Commonwealth sisters, New Zealand and Australia, Starbucks lacks a presence here partly because a typical espresso in South Africa is better than most of what’s typically available in a Starbucks haven, such as the U.S. Hence Starbucks’ announcement elicited little more than a yawn from the locals.

Another reason why this wasn’t news was because smaller regional chains, such as Vida e Caffè (“Life and Coffee” in Portuguese), have captured the market with better coffee and a far more relevant environment. Vida e Caffè is one of the best local chain examples — branding itself through a Portuguese theme, bright red colors, and a lively, youthful image. In American cultural imagery parlance, think artsy, ethnic skateboarders gone hip hop. This is not the café chain for anti-social laptop zombies.

Vida e Caffè customer beneath their beverage menu - with WEGA Nova Some of the common Vida e Caffè branding found at all their outlets

Vida e Caffè @ Wembley Square Review

This installment of Vida e Caffè is located in the high-security Wembley Square mall. “High-security” is sort of redundant in much of South Africa, but this place takes it to another level. For those who recall the transformation of SF neighborhoods such as the eastern Mission District — where, in the 1980s, metal bars and gates once covered every street-side window and door along Bryant St. — imagine going in the complete opposite direction.

Typical private residence wall in Cape Town's relatively nice Gardens DistrictSouth Africa takes its security so seriously, to an outsider it feels like a cross between paranoia and a people under siege. Barbed wire and electrical fences are as ubiquitous as the security systems advertising “Armed Response”. Half of Cape Town’s 3.5 million residents seem employed as private security. Yet despite the ominous signs of eminent danger, and despite the country’s criminal reputation, in reality there are rarely signs that the alarm is justified. A 1970s New York felt far more dangerous. Whether their cultural response is overkill is good fodder for a separate debate.

Armed Response is the only kind of response in townThe newer Wembley Square mall, frequented by the perfect bodies entering and leaving the Virgin Active gym inside, is built like a fortress. Pedestrian entry is next to impossible to find at street level, and where it does exist there are interlocked double security doors. But once inside the fortress, in a small mall court, you’ll easily recognize Vida e Caffè by the red plastic tables and chairs along with logo parasols (what for in an indoor mall, we still don’t know). High-energy baristas/servers decked in Vida e Caffè gear will shout out the orders in their ethnic tongues while Brazilian samba plays overhead.

Using a four-group, white WEGA Nova machine, they pull shots that are also decidedly Portuguese. It has a thinner layer of a medium brown crema and a somewhat thinner body. The flavor profile is weighted more in the tobacco end of the spectrum, though they are quite excellent at producing dense microfoam with their milk. Served in a Vida e Caffè-logo Protexca cup with a 70% Lindt chocolate on the side. A decent deal at R10.50.

Read the review of Vida e Caffè at Wembley Square in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Vida e Caffè espresso in Wembley Square The Vida e Caffè cappuccino in Wembley Square

Trip Report: Origin Coffee Roasting (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 12 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Among coffee aficionados in town, quality artisan coffee originates with Origin. Opening in 2006 in a more modest space, this place changed the face of coffee in Cape Town if not South Africa. Since its expansion, it is now three transparent levels of coffee, café, roasting, regional Synesso distributor, and barista training labs. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a Nigiro Tea salon inside that will wow any tea lover. (“Nigiro” being “Origin” backwards.) It’s no mistake that the three core people behind the cool South African coffee blog, I Love Coffee, chose to meet me at this very place to discuss the local coffee culture.

One of the striking things about this three-level church of coffee is its level of transparency and open access. Through efforts such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and the organic coffee movement, transparency in the industry has become an operative word. Here that transparency comes to life — as visitors are welcome to walk throughout the building, check out their roasting operations, inspect their bags of imported beans, and tour their barista training facilities.

Hudson St. entrance to Origin, with Table Mountain in the distance Hudson St. entrance to Origin Coffee Roasting

Level 1

The service area downstairs is dark with wood slat walls — sporting an array of Hario vac pots, moka pots, drippers, home espresso machines, and beans. Sure, you could say that this place has all the same fad-driven coffee trappings at Truth., but for some reason it seems more genuine in this environment. There is plenty of seating and a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the ready for espresso drinks. Though this Hudson-Street-level downstairs entrance is a bit clubby with a lounge-like feel.

Signs announce the more interesting fresh roasts from Origin’s roasting operations, with a heavier emphasis on African-sourced-beans (Tanzania, etc.) but also some single origins from familiar terroir in Central and South America plus the occasional El Salvador Cup of Excellence. Signs also announce Origin’s place as the home of the 2007 & 2008 South African barista champions.

Entering the Hudson St. doorway into Origin First floor of Origin Coffee Roasting

Nigiro Tea occupies part of the first floor of Origin Coffee Roasting Staring down Nigiro tea pots

Level 2

Certified barista, on Origin Coffee Roasting's second levelUp the stairs past the Nigiro Tea salon, you enter their second level which consists of offices and a series of benches that form an espresso machine lab. Here, with barista certifications of employees hung on the wall, you can work with a Synesso machine, a WEGA, or a variety of other machines for training (or repair) services. Five years ago we recall Eton Tsuno of the defunct Café Organica espousing his vision for an espresso bar that offers home barista training, showcases home espresso machine models, etc. It’s been five years, and San Francisco still has yet to deliver on that vision. But here it is in Cape Town, South Africa — almost exactly as Eton described.

Wall of barista certification on the second level of Origin Coffee Roasting Synesso on display in the barista training room on Origin Coffee Roasting's second level

Level 3

Upstairs to the top floor, you encounter their main roasting operations, a lot of in-process bagging for shipment, and a soul food café. Towards the rear of the floor, there’s a brighter, glass-enclosed seating area that opens out to patio tables and chairs under parasols across from nearby modeling agencies. There’s plenty of café seating there behind the bright panes of glass with a chalkboard wall that’s something of a community chat space.

Like a few other quality places in the area, they serve their espresso shots as default doubles. There are no cappuccinos on the drink menu: only flat whites. There’s even a “3/4 flat white” for this who like theirs with less steamed milk. Staff wearing Origin “Some Like It Black” T-shirts use another two-group La Marzocco Linea machine to pull their double shots in 30ml shotglasses (for R14), placed on a saucer with a short glass of mineral water on the side. Origin used to offer ceramic demitasses for their espresso, but they’ve run out and are awaiting a new supply (they complained that those from the previous supplier chipped too easily).

US Roaster on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level Bags of greens and packing roasted coffee on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level

Seating area inside Origin Coffee Roasting's third level L to R: Francois Botha, Cindy Taylor, Andrew Franks of ILoveCoffee.co.za

Drink menu inside Origin Coffee Roasting ILoveCoffee.co.za and coffeeratings.com shares some blackboard space inside Origin Coffee Roasting

The Taste Test

Their espresso has a hefty, darker brown crema that persists, a robust body (one of the better examples in Cape Town), and a rounded, pungent, herbal-based flavor with spices and sweetness at the bottom of the cup. They also produce excellent microfoam: it’s even and not overly generous on their cappuccino (OK, “flat white”). You can readily see how inspirational Origin is — any town would be lucky to have it.

Read the review of Origin Coffee Roasting in Cape Town, South Africa.

Two-group La Marzocco Linea inside Origin Coffee Roasting The Origin Coffee Roasting espresso

The Origin Coffee Roasting flat white Seating outside on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level deck

Trip Report: Bread Milk & Honey (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 09 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

This breakfast spot near the Parliament is often frequented by well-heeled, manicured parliamentarians — and for good reason. They have excellent baked goods and very good coffee. Very, very good coffee — at least when it comes to blending with steamed milk.

Out front they have a few wooden sidewalk café tables under parasols advertising themselves and their use of Origin coffee. Inside there are many café tables that extend to a back room. The chalkboard menus provide a heavy emphasis on the coffee service here — advertising the occasional oddity like the “Big Daddy” quad shot of espresso.

Entrance to Bread Milk & Honey with shop and Origin parasols out front La San Marco and blackboard coffee menu at the entrance of Bread Milk & Honey

Bread Milk & Honey from the rear of the shop Rear of Bread Milk & Honey

Using a newer, red, two-group La San Marco behind the counter, they pull short shots with a mottled medium-brown crema (R13). The crema isn’t too distinguished, and it has a simpler flavor of mild pepper and cloves. But it has one of the richer bodies for Cape Town espresso.

Read the review of Bread Milk & Honey in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Cappuccino vs. the South African Flat White

The staff particularly excel at microfoam (and latte art), however. Their milk-frothing consists of fine, consistent bubbles, resulting in a cappuccino that’s well-blended with properly made espresso. But like the rest of Cape Town, here they make no distinction between a cappuccino and a flat white. South Africa may be part of the Commonwealth, but this slippery definition might be considered grounds for war among member nations Australia and New Zealand — where flat white purists beg to differ. A cappuccino’s third/third/third ratio of espresso/foam/steamed milk is generally considered one-third/two-thirds espresso/steamed milk (i.e., no foam) in a flat white.

Spain vs. Paraguay projected across Kloof Street by Café Sofia, with Table Mountain behindEven so, milk foam is a rarity in Cape Town — though we did find a prime (and surprisingly good) example of it on a café cortado at the quasi-Spanish local mini-chain, Café Sofia. South Africans who know their coffee tell us that ordering the flat white is a way of avoiding not just froth-ball cappuccinos but also what sounds like the curse of the overly milky gargantuan cappuccino (common in America).

In any case, Bread Milk & Honey may skirt the controversy by referring to their flat white as a cappucino [sic]. But you can’t go wrong for either breakfast or people-watching here.

The Bread Milk & Honey espresso The Bread Milk & Honey cappuccino

Trip Report: Cookshop (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 06 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

As we warned you last month, this is the first of what should be a series of espresso-related trip reports from Cape Town, South Africa.

Opening in Nov. 2009, this tiny breakfast and lunch eatery is owned and operated by Ammy Cope & Tom Sheehy, who are major food enthusiasts. They have a few tables and benches under a small, covered patio, and they specialize in fresh baked goods and good coffee from Deluxe Coffeeworks, one of the more notable roasters in South Africa.

Low-profile storefront to Cookshop Inside the Cookshop patio

A partly-sampled Cookshop cappuccino, with latte artUsing a stainless two-group WEGA, they pull shots with a medium and darker brown spotted crema. The crema may be thin in thickness, but it is visually rich. The resulting cup may run a bit thinner on body, but it has a flavor profile that’s smooth, earthy, and more body-forward.

Their milk frothing is also rather impressive, as they blend the microfoam well with the espresso crema – often producing latte art. Served in delicate Crown Professional porcelain cups. With the espresso standards in town starting to evolve beyond the routine, this cup is one of the better options around town. But there are many higher-profile places yet to try…so stay tuned.

Read the review of Cookshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

Tom working the Cookshop WEGA machine The Cookshop espresso

All You Need to Know About Steaming Milk (?)

Posted by on 18 Jun 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Quality Issues

Coffee talk in the mainstream press these days looks a bit like the telenovela: short-lived serials from specific writers with an individual point of view. One of said serials comes from Giorgio Milos of illycaffè in The Atlantic, and his installment today is on milk frothing: All You Need to Know About Steaming Milk – Food – The Atlantic.

Is a good latte really about the art?Mr. Milos injects a bit of World Cup mania in his article — which is appropriate, given that soccer (football) is unquestionably the official sport of the coffee world. (As an aside, we’ll be spending a little time ourselves in South Africa next month. Stay tuned for upcoming reviews of espresso bars and reports on the coffee culture specifically around Cape Town.)

Now there’s nothing in Mr. Milos’ short article that you couldn’t find in a standard barista book. But given that “milk” is the flavored coffee of choice in America, it’s a critical set of details for the local coffee culture. In our own home barista experience, we’ve found consistency much harder to achieve with milk frothing than with espresso shots.

Mr. Milos closes his article with an ode to latte art and a video demonstration at Mammarella’s in Napa. While we have yet to visit Mammarella’s, yesterday we were at Francis Ford Coppola’s sister café, Cafe Zoetrope. Let’s just say we were about as disappointed with their espresso as fans of Les Blues were with their 2-0 loss to Mexico.

Trip Report: Victrola Coffee and Art (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 20 May 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew

We continue our series on Seattle coffee culture with a visit to a Victrola Coffee — one of the three “V’s” Seattleites refer to when seeking decent espresso. This location is the original Victrola, though the name here emphasizes their artistic roots and continued interests.

It’s an older establishment that exudes some 1950s classicism — from the old Victrola in the corner to the metal porch chairs along the 15th Ave. sidewalk to the stand-up piano in back to many of the clientele who seemingly have been here since before 1950. Not to mention the neon signage out front.

They hold a number of musical and movie events here still, and the arty color photographs on the wall support the theme. The unisex bathrooms identified by the kitchen utensils attached to their keys don’t hurt either.

Victrola Coffee & Art: the original on E 15th Ave. Laptop zombies inside Victrola Coffee & Art

Coffee menu and retail sales at Victrola Coffee & Art Close-up of the Victrola Coffee & Art Melitta bar: metal pouring cups?

They offer a two-cup Melitta bar system that drips into metal pitchers, but the centerpiece is a three-group Synesso (all the rage in Seattle these days). They pull a very short shot of Streamline Espresso with a split crema that’s oddly half dark brown and half medium brown. It has a potent flavor of pepper, some wood, and a seriously acidic bite to the finish: it’s surprisingly heavy on the brightness.

Served in logo Inker cups & saucers (but sometimes they will use a plain white ACF cup). They offer detailed Rosetta latte art, and there’s a wall of grinders, cups, vac pots, and presses for retail sale. A pretty solid espresso shot in a semi-historic, artful hangout in a neighborhood known for its good espresso.

Read the review of Victrola Coffee & Art in Seattle.

Synesso covered in promotions at Victrola Coffee & Art The Victrola Coffee & Art espresso

Brits are being sold guff about coffee

Posted by on 30 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s bit of European coffee controversy actually has nothing to do with the undropped espresso machine name from French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently demanded a decent espresso machine of his choice while visiting Columbia University: French President Nicolas Sarkozy demands special espresson machine during Columbia University visit – NYPOST.com. (Meanwhile, the French press made news of the fact that the espresso machine made news in the U.S.: La machine à expresso de Sarkozy intrigue la presse US – Politique – 30/03/2010 – leParisien.fr.)

The abombination of British coffee, or so we've heardNo, we’re talking about the familiar call-to-arms article for bad local espresso standards. This time it came from the UK’s The Guardian: Brits are being sold guff about coffee | Julie Bindel | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk. The usual suspects?: massive drink sizes and milk tsunamis. Evidence of her despair: only the Australasians and their flat whites seem to produce a tolerable, cappuccino-like beverage.

For all the love given to the likes of recent world barista champions from the UK, we’re reminded of one of our all-time favorite coffee quotes:

“Coffee in England always tastes like a chemistry experiment.” — Agatha Christie


UPDATE: Feb. 6, 2011
The Australian gets in on the act a year late: Aussie flat white is the toast of the trendy coffee set in London and Berlin | The Australian.

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