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Trip Report: Caffè Pascucci

Posted by on 14 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

In 2009, the Italy-based Caffè Pascucci chain (including its espresso school, etc.) turned over its financial management to a group that has since favored more aggressive global expansion plans. These expansion plans included bringing their first non-Italian café chain store on this spot, across of AT&T Park in a modern brick commercial complex.

The Italian bible of coffee ratings, the Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia, rates the coffee at two of this café’s many sisters in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. The location in Rimini (Viale Amerigo Vespucci, 3a) received two chicchi (coffee beans) out of a maximum of three, and the grander shop in Riccone (Via Parini) received a full three chicchi. So there’s enough reason to expect the espresso here to be pretty good (and worth exporting). Contrast this with, say, Segafredo Zanetti chain, which has always underwhelmed.

Building maintenance at the entrance to Caffè Pascucci in SF Inside Caffè Pascucci

They call themselves Rimini-based, however. The on-duty barista on our visit worked for two years in their Rimini café, and he had the appropriate accent and tattoos for someone from the area. But for the many Americans who think of Italy as Florence-Rome-Venice, saying you’re from Rimini is like telling a San Francisco tourist that you live in the Excelsior. (“Is that near the Golden Gate Bridge?”) Despite its famous beach and favorite son in Federico Fellini, we caught an American (who had traveled in Italy, mind you) asking the barista where in Italy the café was from. The barista smartly replied, “East.”

Inside the café it looks like a modern Italian furnishings store — complete with white leather seating options (sofas, chairs), angular tables and chairs, and tall stools. It’s not a particularly large space, but the mirrored wall helps.

Dueling Fiorenzato machines and a large drink menu inside Caffè Pascucci The Caffè Pascucci espresso

Front and center is a serving bar with twin, two-group, shiny Fiorenzato Ducale Tall machines — from which they produce sizable doppio shots with a sharp, potent flavor. There’s little softness to the cup’s spice, woodiness, and slight bitterness that borders on a medicinal edge (which isn’t particularly appealing). It has a nicely textured medium brown crema, however. Served in gold logo ACF cups, like the ones used in their Italian cafés.

It’s a solid Italian espresso, but not among the best examples of Italian cultural exports — i.e., better than Segafredo Zanetti, but weaker than Caffè del Doge.

Their drink menu famously has odd creations, what the Bar d’Italia calls versioni più fantasiose (“more imaginative versions”) or versioni golose (literally, “gluttonous versions”). A prefect example are their espressi confuso — where the confuso means what you think it does. These are espresso drinks made with a unique cream-like concoction served from a whipped cream maker at a premium price, suggesting the popular bucket-of-pumpkin-pie-flavored-Cool-Whip drinks that Starbucks made famous with their own ode to gluttony — but with some Italian-style modesty thrown in.

Read the review of Caffè Pascucci.



UPDATE: April 18, 2011
In case there was any question about Caffè Pascucci’s over-reaching global ambitions under new management: Caffe Pascucci launches ‘Wood?Fired’ pizza in Bangalore.

Trip Report: Réveille Coffee Co.

Posted by on 15 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

There was a time when people bored with food found that it was a lot more fun when you put it on a stick. Or freeze-dried and packed it in plastic tubes as “astronaut food”. Today’s equivalent is the glorified roach coach, where bored (and sometimes broke) foodies tell us that everything tastes better when handed out of the side of a truck. Enter the Réveille Coffee Company, where apparently the way to improve the coffee kiosk is to add a parking brake.

This big black truck, looking like something Mr. T drove the A-Team around in for a stakeout, sits at the corner of a parking lot on Sansome St. & Pacific Ave. With license plate REV COF1, and echoes of the 90′s King Missile classic “Cheesecake Truck” playing in our heads, Tommy & Christopher Newbury opened this service on Monday.

B.A. Baracus pities the fool who drinks Starbucks Coffee and espresso offerings at Réveille Coffee Co.

They serve Four Barrel Coffee and some pastries from Pâtisserie Philippe. While a new fixture in this parking lot on weekdays, on evenings and weekends all that’s left is the painted brick “outhouse” bearing their logo — where your guess is as good as ours on where to find them. There are four slated wooden stools off the side of this coffee RV. And despite the parking lot ambiance and going off the charts on the expired-trend-O-meter, the coffee is quite good.

The Réveille Coffee Co. by the dawn's early lightThey use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Friendo Blendo in small white Nuova Point espresso cups with a small glass of sparkling water on the side. Surprise! It’s not all paper cups here — which is a nice touch. (You’re out of luck on other drinks, however.) The resulting cup has that sharp Friendo Blendo acidity: a brightness bomb espresso that will make any Italian double over. But if you like immensely flavorful North American style shots, this will work for you. It comes with a textured medium brown crema and a flavor of bright pungency, some cedar, and a touch of subtle sweetness to round out the profile.

They are much weaker at milk frothing. Not only do they only serve in paper cups, but the microfoam isn’t consistent nor rich. The brightness of the coffee is muted beyond recognition. And even if the general flavor is good, the rest falls flat. It needs work, as there are better milk-based coffee drinks nearby. They also offer French press coffee and pour-over (Clever dripper) cups of several cultivars. Currently, that means coffees from Guatemala, Sulawesi, Costa Rica, and Kenya.

Yes, the roach coach with gourmet food (and occasionally gourmet prices: a $2.50 espresso is steep) may be an overblown fad. And sure, there’s great irony in that the SF coffeeshops who gave rise to a reported “Bedouin” remote worker culture might become nomads themselves. Some coffeeshops will apparently do anything to evade laptop zombies. But when the execution is this good, at least on the espresso, you can’t complain.

Read the review of Réveille Coffee Co..

The Réveille Coffee Co. espresso The Réveille Coffee Co. cappuccino

Espresso in Cape Town, South Africa

Posted by on 01 Aug 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Quick!: name a city that’s surrounded by the exquisite natural beauty of mountains and seas, with brightly painted houses that decorate quaint neighborhoods, with great food everywhere you turn, with a nearby wine country consisting of hundreds of vineyards and many nationally renowned restaurants, with hipsters who frequent farmers’ markets in transitional neighborhoods, with a diverse racial mix from black to white to Indian to Southeast Asian, with the nation’s most vibrant gay population, with a touristy waterfront featuring seals on piers and a ferry that takes you to a famous prison island, and with a whole lot of really good coffee.

Why, it could only be Cape Town, South Africa.

Alright, that was a trick question: San Francisco’s Pier 39 has sea lions, not seals per se. But the point being that for anyone from our fair city, many aspects of Cape Town will seem very familiar. But there are also significant differences.

Cape Town from Table Mountain Cape Town and Table Mountain from Robben Island

Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighborhood Cape Town's Victoria Harbor

Familiar and not

World Cup events in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront on the day of the Final, July 11, 2010If you’re talking liberal laws, it’s probably not a major surprise that gay marriage is legal in South Africa. What may be more of a surprise is that, for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the South African constitution had to be temporarily suspended around the soccer stadiums for FIFA security purposes. (We can’t say enough good things for how festive the South Africans were as hosts to the World Cup, btw.) Years of abuses under Apartheid made many personal searches — ones we’re quite accustomed to in the U.S. — illegal. The 14-year-old South African constitution is one of the most liberal in the world.

On the other hand, there’s the old local joke that rock and roll never dies, it just tours South Africa. (“Hey, was that really Bryan Adams I just saw in town the other day?”) And given the nation’s history of economic disparity and its 25% unemployment rate, there are the major issues of poverty and security.

Cape Town's FIFA Fan Fest for Germany vs. Argentina, July 3, 2010 Nelson Mandela mural along Church Street, Cape Town

Soccer fever hits Cape Town for the World Cup

Some expected us to witness crushing poverty and aggressive homelessness in Cape Town, but it’s hard to say that it is any worse than SF. In the month we spent around Cape Town’s central business district (CBD) — a.k.a. the City Bowl — we were approached by all of one person for money. Yet security is a big concern among the locals and it’s an even bigger industry.

Even with all the truly great options in town to satisfy any SF food snob, food is handled a bit differently here. Some of the best sushi in town can be found in Italian restaurants — sushi being a decidedly California thing in Cape Town, and less of a Japanese thing. Which also explains why the grocery stores sell flour tortillas under the name “California wraps”. (To make matters worse, in turn, one of the more famous Italian restaurants in town has a German name.) This theme of playing a bit fast and loose with labels and names will again come up with coffee later in this post.

Beach mansions in Cape Town Springbok, the national animal (and a tasty one at that), in the fields hours outside of Cape Town

To be a young black man anywhere, including Cape Town, has its issues Only the World Cup tourists needed this sign of etiquette

Coffee standards in Cape Town

Speaking of coffee, like Italy or Australia or New Zealand, the baseline quality standards in South Africa are clearly better than in the U.S. You can walk into just about any random store and trust that you’ll get a rather acceptable espresso, whereas this practice is still ill-advised even in San Francisco. But, as in places such as Italy, examples of very good espresso are a rarer find — even in the biggest cosmopolitan cities. But with a little research and a few contacts, we were able to identify some of the best places in Cape Town.

A few things come to mind specifically about the espresso here. WEGA machines are ubiquitous. The coffees tend to emphasize more rich-bodied flavor than the wilder, bright coffees you may come to expect from Africa, but there are exceptions. And the cappuccino here almost always comes with a very Portuguese dusting of cocoa powder; you quite literally ask to have for one without it.

And somewhat contrary to an earlier post of ours, you can find the cappuccino quite often on café menus — even perhaps moreso than flat whites, and especially at the cafés that are a little less obsessed about their coffee. However, most places do treat the cappuccino and flat white interchangeably. Which leads us to our next topic of discussion…

Cappuccino at Espresso Lab Microroasters Origin Coffee Roasters' drink menu

Camps Bay and the 'Twelve' Apostles, suburban Cape Town Hout Bay from Chapman's Peak, suburban Cape Town

South Africa’s wine analogy: coffee-flavored wines

After spending a month in South Africa, it made sense that this is the nation that gave us “red espresso” — or Roobios tea. Even if you like the tea, as we do, the term “red espresso” comes off as unnecessarily deceptive and has never sat well with us. Just because you can stick something into an espresso machine does not make it espresso. Which reminds us a little of eggspresso — or should that be “yellow espresso”? And yet “Red Cappuccino” is also a registered trademark.

Now if you thought coffee’s wine analogy was a bit over the top, over the past several years South Africa has developed something of a niche market for coffee-flavored wine. They’ve been growing wine grapes around Cape Town since 1655, but it wasn’t until 1925 that a Stellenbosch professor crossed the fragile pinot noir grape with the heartier cinsault (known locally as hermitage) to create a local cultivar called pinotage.

In 2001, noted pinotage maker Diemersfontein Wines came out with the original “coffee chocolate pinotage”, and they’ve popularly released one every year since. Meanwhile, imitators came to the fore in the form of Cappupinoccinotage from Boland Cellars, Café Culture from KWV, the Vrede en Lust Mocholate (a malbec), etc. The original Diemersfontein coffee pinotage wine maker, Bertus Fourie — literally nicknamed “Starbucks” for that reason — has moved on to Café Culture and now Barista Wine (we are not making this up), where he holds the title of “Head Barista” and their Web site offers a Nespresso Le Cube D180 sweepstakes.

Stellenbosch wine country, outside of Cape Town The Vida e Caffè in Stellenbosch

Coffee pinotage is sometimes called the red wine for coffee addicts, and it certainly doesn’t come without some controversy from the purists, but it’s really more the red wine for coffee drinkers who don’t like red wine. That said, there’s room for everybody’s tastes. We’ve long stated that Starbucks’ stroke of genius was in convincing millions of customers who don’t like the taste of coffee that they actually do. While coffee pinotage doesn’t use any actual coffee for flavoring, the taste aims for the consumer are the same.

Wall of coffee cups at Mugged on RoelandNow despite all the wine-growing activity around Cape Town and a number of its very good wines, many South African wines are still (IMO) global underachievers and/or acquired tastes. Having tried a 2007 Diemersfontein coffee pinotage and a 2009 Barista pinotage, we were reminded of all the beer + coffee combinations that have failed over the years … the “coffee stouts” where the results were second-rate as a beer and second-rate as coffee, rather than something better than the sum of its parts.

Of course, we live in a diverse, global culture that sometimes wants their wine (or beer) to taste like coffee, their coffee to taste like chocolate and hazelnuts, and their chocolate to taste like bacon. So why not skip the middleman and market bacon wine? Sure, it might be a curious novelty to hear Céline Dion perform an album of songs by fellow Canadians Death from Above 1979, but it’s no stretch to presume that it will optimally satisfy neither fans of Céline nor Death from Above 1979.

As Oscar Wilde famously once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” This South African dimension to the coffee-wine analogy largely fails coming from a different angle.

Now why don’t we do that?

Origin Coffee Roasting's three stories of coffee heavenA little more towards the authentic in the African continent, in the category of “now why don’t we do that in America?”, we did enjoy the occasional Ethiopian coffee ceremony — even if it originates on the continent’s opposite side of the equator. At a restaurant such as Cape Town’s Addis in Cape, we enjoyed an odd mix of Frankincense, popcorn (?!), and coffee served from a Jabena pot.

While the coffee undergoes some of the oldest and crudest handling and brewing known to man, the resulting cup is quite flavorful. Perhaps more importantly, the ceremony uniquely resonates with coffee culture, capturing much of the wonder that’s truly native to coffee without the creatively lazy marketing contortionists who squeeze coffee’s square peg into wine tasting’s round hole through the mutant coffee cupping fad in America. But alas, Californication applies to coffee cupping here just as it does to sushi and flour tortillas in South Africa.

At the coffee chain level, Vida e Caffè serves as an example of how Starbucks and even Peet’s fall short. Even Woolworths W Café serves both espresso and cappuccino in a paper cup that run circles around Starbucks.

While at the “artisan” end, there are places like TRUTH. that seem to go through the Third Wave motions, but with much success. And then there are places like Origin Coffee Roasting, who not only broke quality coffee ground in Africa in 2006, but they established a roasting and training operation that most American coffee entrepreneurs have only talked about. And then there’s Espresso Lab Microroasters, who show some of the most cohesive and comprehensive vision for what a quality coffee operation could be — while making espresso as good as anything in SF.

The wine may have room for improvement compared to what San Franciscans are used to, but everything else about Cape Town makes it a fantastic and compelling place to be — including the coffee.

Jabena, Frankincense, popcorn - an Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Addis in Cape TRUTH.coffeecult kiosk in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront

Woolworths surprising W Café Vida e Caffè espresso with Portuguese pasteis de nata


Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
95 Keerom 95 Keerom St. Gardens 6.40 7.00 6.700
Blue Cat Cafe Shop 10a, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 6.60 5.00 5.800
Bread Milk & Honey 10 Spin St. Gardens 7.30 7.50 7.400
Café Chic 7 Breda St. Gardens 3.40 4.50 3.950
Cookshop 117 Hatfield St. Gardens 7.10 7.80 7.450
Crème Café & Espresso Bar Shop 11, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 4.60 5.00 4.800
Deluxe Coffeeworks 25 Church St. City Bowl 7.40 7.80 7.600
Depasco Café Bakery Shop 5, Buitenkloof Studios, 8 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Espressamente Shop number F&B1, Cape Town International Airport Cape Town Intl Airport 6.90 7.20 7.050
Espresso Lab Microroasters 373-375 Albert Rd. Woodstock 8.60 8.80 8.700
Fego Caffé Shop No. 6160, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.80 6.00 5.900
Jardine Bakery 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.70 6.80 6.750
Jardine Restaurant 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.90 7.00 6.950
Melissa’s The Food Shop Shop 6195, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.20 5.50 5.350
Mugged Style Cafe (aka “Mugged on Roeland”) Shop 1, Perspectives Building, 37 Roeland St. East City 6.70 7.00 6.850
Origin Coffee Roasting 28 Hudson St. De Waterkant 8.20 8.00 8.100
Osumo 49 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Saeco Caffè 15 Orange St. Gardens 6.70 7.50 7.100
Sevruga Restaurant Shop 4, Quay 5, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 6.80 7.00 7.200
Tribeca Bakery 106 Main Rd. Kalk Bay 7.40 8.00 7.700
TRUTH.coffeecult Depot Dock Rd., V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.60 5.50 6.550
TRUTH.coffeecult Roasterspace 1 Somerset Rd. Green Point 7.40 7.20 7.300
Vida e Caffè Wembley Square Gardens 7.00 7.50 7.250
Vida e Caffè Shop 6100, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.00 6.80 6.900
Vida e Caffè Shop 1, Mooikloof, 34 Kloof St. Gardens 7.00 6.80 6.900
W Café 72 Longmarket St. City Bowl 8.00 6.20 7.100

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

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