Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
For a few years now, we had an idea for a post that sat in our unpublished queue: how can you tell a good espresso shop from a bad one? (At least before sampling it.) Given the thousands of good, bad, and mediocre espresso shots we’ve reviewed over the years, we have definitely noticed some patterns worth sharing.
It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve recognized the value of shorthand rules. Back in the 1980s, I once (famously, in my circles) observed that the ghetto status of your neighborhood can be surmised by the fast food chicken chain nearby. (In short, Church’s Chicken = “wear Kevlar”.) Earlier this month, there were a couple of coffee-related posts from coffee professionals that inspired us to dust off this idea:
But while coffee professionals know their establishments and their industry favorites best, few have subjected themselves to the horrors of many a bad espresso bar from a consumer perspective. Not that we at CoffeeRatings.com have a taste-bud death wish. But we’ve developed a sort of sixth sense about what to expect just by walking into a coffeehouse and having a look around. This post is an attempt to articulate both the positive and negative cues we get when entering a new establishment.
Some suggested rules are more obvious — like the wine enthusiast’s equivalent of “avoid wine that comes in a box.” Other rules are more subtle or outright unusual. For example, as a news story today had it, if the aroma from the coffee machine forces your plane to make an emergency landing, you might consider tea.
In no particular order…
Now for the cues when you know things are about to get ugly. Call it coffee’s homage to Waiter Rant’s “Signs An Establishment Isn’t Going to Deliver the Service You Expect”.
We really need to stop here before we are overcome with snarkiness poisoning.
An Op-Ed piece in Monday’s Washington Post noted the curious phenomenon of local culture that is exported, reinterpreted abroad, and then imported back again. The article’s topic was the wildly received recent openings of Starbucks cafés in cities such as Warsaw and Prague — with the backdrop of their centuries-old coffeehouse culture traditions: Anne Applebaum – A Starbucks State of Mind – washingtonpost.com.
We’ve witnessed this phenomenon before with the all-American burger joint/diner. A little over a decade ago, these establishments rose in popularity as a cultural export within a number of Southeast Asian cities, such as Taipei, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Several years later, imported versions of these Asian-flavored burger joints showed up in Southern California. (You could always tell when curry powder, pickled cucumbers, and vinegar made their way into the menu.) So why would Starbucks be greeted like coffeehouse “liberators” in Eastern Europe — while many Westerners now view the brand as an overpriced, jumped-the-shark, frivolous luxury that diluted its quality in pursuit of industrialized mass production?
The article’s author notes that the stylish Eastern European cafés of the 19th century served as island respites from dreary conditions at home and an opportunity to aspire to the comforts of the upper classes. Today, after the European café of old was exported to Seattle and transformed into a culture of vapid Sting CDs and gargantuan milkshakes sloshed into to-go paper cups, Starbucks arrival in cities such as Warsaw and Prague once again represents the opportunity to aspire to the world’s upwardly mobile classes in the shadow of Communism’s collapse.
The author also makes mention of Eastern Europe’s preceding decade of Starbucks knock-offs, which reminded me of when I visited Prague in 1995. Back then, Prague was in the throes of its post-Communism reconstruction and remodeling phase. A layer of dust covered the city, and it seemed like PVC pipe was sold on every corner. (I remember remarking at the time how I could have made a killing opening a Home Depot chain there.)
I quickly became a regular at a coffee shop in the historic Staré Město district called Pražská Káva — or, quite simply, “Prague Coffee” — located at U-Zlatého-hada (or “at the golden snake” in Prague’s historic addressing system, and today on a street named Karlova, just across the Charles Bridge). They boasted “Seattle style lattes.” While Starbucks was still largely an unknown there in 1995, the Western appeal for “Seattle style” coffee beverages was clear to anyone who collected money from American tourists. Having been in Seattle just a few months prior, I was actually quite surprised how well Pražská Káva’s lattes measured up to their Seattle counterparts — and how you could get a good espresso in town for only about 20-25 Kč (about $1 U.S. at today’s exchange rates).
Oddly, that was probably the first café I ever gravitated towards just for the quality of their espresso. Although I found the espresso quality around Prague to be generally quite decent at the time, I also suffered my worst coffee experience ever in Prague — a styrofoam cup of traditional Czech “coffee” purchased at the Vyšehrad castle, which I can only describe as grainy sawdust suspended in hot water.
Sadly, Pražská Káva was replaced years ago by a hotel and restaurant. We suspect that today’s infiltration of Starbucks there will do more to lower the imported “Seattle style” standards that Pražská Káva once held.
Yesterday, Washington DC’s local blog, We Love DC, posted an article on what they consider one of D.C.’s greatest coffee culture challenges: the survival of good independent cafés. To help remedy the problem, the post includes a few promotional suggestions for the area: We Love DC » Blog Archive » We Love Drinks: Coffee Culture.
The post’s author, Jenn Larson, is on a mission we can relate to — given that we started what eventually became CoffeeRatings.com in 2002 to raise awareness of better espresso standards and the good, independent places where you can consume it. Earlier this month, Ms. Larson also lamented the death-by-drowning-in-milk of the American cappuccino — a subject long dear to our taste buds: We Love DC » Blog Archive » “This is NOT a cappuccino”.
We’ve written previously about D.C.’s challenges with good coffee. The transitional status of Murky Coffee hasn’t helped either. Twenty years ago, I was living in the D.C. area myself. The coffee was terrible; the Starbucks invasion was still years away. But right after the first recognizable cappuccino I had — in Berkeley, CA — I immediately moved there. Coincidence?
We had originally posted this as an addendum to our recent review of the new, more permanent installment of the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. in the Ferry Building Marketplace. However, the strange phenomenon of the Gibraltar deserves its very own post. Originating here in San Francisco, the Gibraltar has since spread to Los Angeles (Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea), New York (Café Grumpy), and now London (Climpson & Sons). The purpose of this post is to demystify, debunk, and, well, defrock the Gibraltar before the misconceptions behind this invasive species are allowed to propagate any further.
So what does any of this have to do with coffee? Prior to opening Blue Bottle Coffee Co.‘s first SF café in Hayes Valley in January 2005, owner James Freeman experimented and tuned variables for his café by making cappuccinos in 4.5-oz versions of these cheap restaurant supply glasses. He offered these practice runs to his staff and to employees of the Dark Garden corset shop down the street.
Word of mouth spread, and these test beverages needed a name. Steve Ford, then a barista and roasting colleague of James at Blue Bottle (and now head roaster at Ritual Coffee Roasters), apparently found inspiration from the packaging for these glasses. Thus the Gibraltar was born out of a combination of happenstance and an inside joke. Except now the joke has gone global.
Why? Because the 4.5-oz Gibraltar glass is redundant with the regulation 4.75-oz ceramic cappuccino cup. (James obviously knew this when he started his experiments.) Both are sufficient for containing the 150-ml Italian regulation cappuccino. Except that the ceramic cup is explicitly designed with thermal and aesthetic properties for consuming a cappuccino.
The problem is that few people in America have experienced a true, regulation cappuccino. As illustrated in the photos below — comparing a medium cappuccino from Peet’s Coffee & Tea with a 4.75-oz regulation Intelligentsia-branded cappuccino cup — Americans drown their cappuccino in so much milk that the typical cappuccino technically qualifies as a caffè latte (latte being Italian for “milk”).
So when a local food & fashion magazine such as 7×7 says that the Gibraltar is a “MUST ORDER” at Blue Bottle Cafe, and that it ranks #28 on the “100 Things to Try Before You Die”, this is basically shorthand for, “We’ve never had a properly made regulation cappuccino in our lives, so we’re willing to worship it in a cheap restaurant supply glass.”
It’s things like this that make it easy to be cynical about consumer behavior, particularly among self-described foodies. We would dismiss this misplaced (and misinformed) obsession with the Gibraltar as just a lone opinion in 7×7 magazine, but we personally know too many knowledgeable people working professionally in the quality food business who also contribute to the Gibraltar’s cult-like status.
Where’s the harm in that, you say? We’ve long lamented that genius chefs are often coffee fools, but many of these food writers and bloggers serve the role of influencers and arbiters of taste. Trouble arises when they spend more energy trying to be precious than focusing on quality.
The trap of this preciousness is the illusion of exclusivity. This makes the Gibraltar a cousin of what we’ve previously called the Malaysian street food experience: cafés that serve espresso out of the alleyways of heroin deals, stripping themselves of all customer amenities, to fabricate an image of exclusivity. The Gibraltar grew out of behind-the-scenes experimentation carried out in a Hayes Valley alleyway, and to this day the Gibraltar has never been featured on a Blue Bottle coffee menu — even though Blue Bottle’s espresso machines sport stacks of Gibraltar glasses in anticipation of the inevitable orders. (Mr. Freeman doesn’t receive enough credit for his clever marketing savvy, even if the cult of the Gibraltar was far from his intentions.)
So instead of encouraging people to enjoy a proper espresso drink served in a proper cup, this desire for the illusion of exclusivity ends up proliferating ignorance (about the existence of the regulation cappuccino) and trumping a better sensory experience (drinking out of cappuccino cups instead of cheap restaurant supply glasses). The next thing you know, the Gibraltar — and not the regulation cappuccino — is being held up as a standard in London cafés.
In an article from London posted last month on this subject, Steve Ford put it this way:
I’ve never really talked about the Gibraltar for publication, partly because I think it was very much of a time and place – that being the Bay Area circa 2005. The fact that I’m talking about it now is mostly because I’ve given up on the original idea. There WAS something special about it back then. Now, it’s just another drink on the menu to me, and like so many cappuccinos, generally prepared poorly or just wrong. Every year people ask about it, so I can track how far the idea has gone, but the fact that it’s all the way in the UK and I have no idea how it got there is disappointing. And not to be too melodramatic, but I feel like the soul of the drink has been lost. It used to be something unique, and now it’s just another piece of fucking latte art.
There you have it: the Gibraltar as the Fool’s Cappuccino. James Freeman, always looking at the bright side, still offers Gibraltars in his cafés “off the menu” because he sees demand for it as a way of weaning people off paper cups and overly milky caffè lattes. But for some of us, the Gibraltar represents a faddish Band-Aid for how badly America screwed up the cappuccino.
Today’s Daily Californian, an independent student newspaper for the UC Berkeley campus, published an article on Berkeley’s venerable Caffe Mediterraneum: Historic Cafe Grounds For Coffee and Conversation – The Daily Californian. Sure, the coffee isn’t so great here. But for a place that is over 50 years old and is most often credited as the birthplace of the caffè latte, they are due some props.
Caffe Mediterraneum is also located just a few blocks from the site of last year’s Western Regional Barista Competition. Coincidentally, the 2009 version concluded yesterday in Los Angeles, with each of the top three finishers hailing from Intelligentsia L.A.:
Congratulations to the winners. Intelligentsia sure knows what they hell they’re doing, no question. Though one might suggest these results add to the theory that barista competitions have a “home field advantage”. (Last year’s runner-up at the WRBC in Berkeley, Intelligentsia L.A.’s Kyle Glanville, went on to win the 2008 USBC.)
Today the Daily Herald (Chicago suburbs) republished a Wall Street Journal story (no subscription required!) covering the growing consumer interest in home latte art: Daily Herald | Coffee drinkers show their latte love with artistic creations. The article notably takes a San Francisco bias in its choices for interviewees. However, it properly cites the founder of Seattle’s Espresso Vivace, David Schomer, as the father of modern latte art.
The article also notes how coffee shops are now offering classes in creating latte art designs and how the latte artists themselves are organizing contests (events that have been around for some time, but with new, prosumer players). But while the article fusses over the prices of home espresso machine models, it makes no mention of the equally important role of a decent grinder.
Last year we expressed how latte art is about as relevant to coffee quality as, say, bathroom towels are to a good restaurant meal. (Unlike Wikipedia, at least we don’t liken latte art to a nuclear holocaust.) So what resonated with us most in the article were closing comments from Chris Baca — barista at SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters and winner of the 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition. The article cites Chris saying that he’s “tiring of latte-art buzz”: “It’s part of what we do, but we like to focus more on the coffee. You could have a drink that’s totally beautiful with the most amazing design – and tastes like garbage.”
Don’t get us wrong: aesthetics do count. When my wife attended an advanced boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) last month (her class was also written up in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, btw), the instructors made a big point about how you eat with all of your senses — and that you typically always start with the eyes. This is why all our ratings have Presentation scores.
But coffee as a medium for art almost as an ends to itself? When we really want to perfect our art at home, we’ll skip the rosettas and leave the coffee as a drinking medium. For a legitimate art medium, paper and charcoal or pen and ink wash still do just fine.
Video: Taking the concept of latte art to its next natural (and ridiculous) stage of evolution…
Sometimes this blogging business can get far too serious. Especially when most blogs are about procrastination, wasting time, and utterly pointless exercises — such as answering the important existential question, “What kind of coffee drink best represents me?” Well today’s post is for you.
First of all, bloggers are a rather self-important, egotistical lot. You get readership of about 30 people, and soon you’re indignant about any challenge to your status as an empowered, unstoppable voice of The Truth. (As told to me once by Technorati founder and former CEO, David Sifry, the typical blog has only about three readers.) Next you’re demanding the corporate communication offices of multi-billion-dollar retailers such as Target to stand at attention and take notice of your beautifully crafted online missives.
A couple years ago, I attended a conference where these so-called power-bloggers produced an insufferable level of this misplaced arrogance. They acted as if they had just adopted the Declaration of Independence in defiance of King George III — when in reality they were just following the decades-old Usenet to its next logical evolutionary step.
Meanwhile, most bloggers don’t understand why anyone would need a journalism degree, let alone what goes into one. And instead of changing the world, most bloggers are posting the equivalent of cat photos and gold-starred, third-grade art projects — things that in an earlier technological era never made it past the kitchen refrigerator door.
One of these classic refrigerator door exercises is the “personality test.” There’s even the coffee personality test, for topical purposes. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you think that the human capacity for self-fascination must be limitless; our species spends untold hours answering random questions just to be able to think, “Wow — I really am a vanilla mocha!”
More than just idiotic quizzes, however, there’s been a recent spate of articles in Australia and the U.S. profiling coffee drinkers by their beverage of choice.
So what are these personality tests like? My morbid curiosity — the same one that lead me to places such as Lee’s Deli to sample their espresso — lead me to a couple such tests to demonstrate. One was the “What Kind of Coffee Are You?” quiz. Another was About.com’s “What Kind of Coffee Drink Are You?” quiz. (They are obviously very clever with naming these things.)
Essentially you answer a handful of ridiculous questions that might include the following:
So how do these quizzes work?… and what the heck does any of this have to do with coffee? Well, let’s first take a look at the results.
For the first quiz, my verdict was as follows:
You are a Black Coffee.
At your best, you are: low maintenance, friendly, and adaptable
At your worst, you are: cheap and angsty
You drink coffee when: you can get your hands on it
Your caffeine addiction level: high
Things only got worse with the second quiz, where I found myself pigeonholed as:
For all I can tell, these quizzes could have told me I was a muskrat and a walnut and they would have been just as relevant. But rather than proudly telling all my friends about these fine mystical revelations, I instead looked into two slightly less useless coffee personality surveys published in the Australian media last month.
The first article was an informal poll of baristas in Darebin, a northern suburb of Melbourne: You are what coffee you drink – Leader News: Melbourne community news. The second was the result of formal research conducted by Australia’s Hudsons Coffee: Classic cappuccino Australia’s drink of choice | Herald Sun. Among their findings, they discovered:
But that’s just the anecdotal. Now we get to their more bizarre findings:
Flat white drinkers:
Long black lovers:
So given that my coffee “sign” is cappuccino, if we believe these stereotypes we can conclude that I am a grandmother of eight with poor circulation, some 500 Facebook friends, and a junkie-like addiction for the latest Australian rules football scores.
It’s like holding up a mirror.
Sure, maybe that flies for cappuccino-drinking stereotypes in Australia. But what about America?
Recently I came across a blog post on SheKnows.com (“one of the top 10 most-visited websites for women“): What your Starbucks drink says about you | Sheknows.com.
But looking at its beverage descriptions and personality matches made me feel more like a grandmother of eight trying to make sense of a teenager’s MySpace page: it’s complete with verbose descriptions of esoteric quirks and pointless trivia vomited in an almost 360-degree radial pattern of adjectives and photos that I could make neither heads nor tails of. I felt like I was trying to read ancient hieroglyphics without a Rosetta Stone, missing all the cultural clues and strange rituals of an alien civilization, and yet all the individual words were somehow in recognizable English.
Just then I realized — just as when I reached my physical limits consuming that lone Lee’s Deli espresso in the name of science — I had to discontinue this personality test experiment to spare myself from certain madness. Perhaps I discovered the real test of all these personality quizzes and surveys.
Meanwhile — because so many people cannot bother to read without being entertained first and foremost — there are even infographics for this noxious cuteness: DOGHOUSE | What Your Coffee Says About You.
Just when we thought we needed to chill out a little more on the “coffee snob” factor, today’s New York Times blog includes a rant against the adulteration of coffee with any milk-based products: Coffee Pollutant No. 1: Cream – Times Topics – Topics – New York Times Blog. Calling cream or milk a “pollutant” is quite a bold statement. But while just this morning we enjoyed a cappuccino made with some exquisite microfoam, we can only say, “Sing it to the back of the chapel!”
Perhaps the milk and coffee comparison with “dab[bing] a Peter Luger porterhouse with ketchup” is a bit extreme. But if we’re drinking good coffee, we almost always drink it black. And not just because it makes for fewer non-coffee variables in our espresso reviews either.
As we’ve always said: the basic black is the foundation for everything. If you’re a pizza place that can’t make a decent cheese pizza (the California Pizza Atrocity chain, please take note), or if you’re a Thai restaurant that can’t serve a decent pad thai — why bother? Although it is all a matter of personal preference, a good coffeehouse should be able to make a basic espresso or cup of black coffee that stands up on its own.
If not, then they’re hiding something. Or, to loosely paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, it’s something we like to call, “save for a double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.”
The truth is out. What do die hard coffee drinkers in coffee-obsessed Australia really order?: Caffeine connoisseurs say lattes are the cream of the crop | Herald Sun. Yes, it’s the boorish latte. (And written by a boorish reporter: “Caffeine connoisseurs”?!? It’s been a while since we’ve seen the tiresome caffeine riff.)
Of course we’re being a bit facetious. But Australians are often cited as some of the greatest espresso connoisseurs in the world. And we at CoffeeRatings.com have heard a lot of smack talk from visiting Aussies, lamenting our national disregard for latte art and the inability to find a proper flat white (assuming anyone actually knows what one is).
The fact is — they’re right. Coffee standards are terrible in this country; they are one of the prime motivators that gave birth to CoffeeRatings.com five years ago this month. We generally serve over-extracted, bitter, watery dreck that is only made fit for human consumption after drowning it in gallons of milk and flavoring it with three kinds of syrup.
Even if that’s the rule, there are exceptions — and more exceptions thankfully appear around the nation every month. And while those exceptions are, say, easier to come by in towns like Seattle (which, as a rule of the masses, has generally terrible coffee standards as well), Australia has a coffee history and national obsession that makes these exceptions more commonplace.
But now we also know the “dirty truth”: behind every person who can drink a decent quality espresso in Australia, there are seven Aussies swigging down skinny/soy/chai lattes. Has the Australian coffee palate evolved much at all beyond our double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato? After reading this story, you’d be hard-pressed to say so.
To get another perspective on this story and the “research” behind it, we asked Michael ‘Grendel’ Carroll what he thought about the Herald Sun‘s claims. Michael runs Cafe Grendel — a coffee review blog out of Perth, Australia. Granted, Perth is half a continent away from the Herald Sun‘s Melbourne, but at least they use the same currency.
Mr. Carroll first noted that the online poll associated with this Herald Sun story should be taken with a grain of salt. Given that the article mentions The Deck, better known as a restaurant, it calls the specialty coffee/cafe credibility of the Herald Sun into question. Mr. Carroll also noted, “It sounds to me as if (to use an Aussie slang) the owner [of The Deck] was ‘having a bit of a lend of himself,’ which is another way of suggesting he sounds a bit pretentious.”
And coffee pretentiousness is something of a problem Down Under, just as it is in very limited circles in the States. “While verbose descriptions of the various flavours and aromas have their place I think we may have taken it a little too far over here at times, and our coffee snobbery drifts to ridiculous levels,” said Mr. Carroll. “So much so that I and some fellow coffee snobs have a running ‘elderberry’ joke whenever we do a cupping.” Did Counter Culture Coffee recently open an office in Perth?
As in the U.S. as Australia, consumer knowledge and awareness of specialty coffee is spreading rapidly, raising consumer expectations for the coffee they drink. This in itself is a huge accomplishment. However, knowledge often inevitably leads to a rise in pretentiousness (see: the ever-popular wine analogy) — which can undermine more populist demands for better coffee. To counter this, Mr. Carroll wrote, “We will one day stop making rules for people, I hope, and allow them to enjoy coffee as coffee without placing too many subjective demands on the experience.” We could not agree more.
French coffee cuppers seem displeased with the San Ignacio Juana Mamami Huanca from Bolivia — or maybe they’re just being French.
Brisbane, Australia’s Courier-Mail ran an article today reviewing espresso drinks at various cafés in Brisbane’s James Street Markets: Fertile ground for battle of baristas | The Courier-Mail. They rated the flat whites at five cafés on a 10-point scale.
For those unfamiliar with the flat white, it isn’t just Oceania’s lingo for a (caffè) “latte” — the way the British say “biscuit” to the American “cookie”. The flat white is mostly steamed milk, but it has a higher ratio of coffee than a typical caffè latte (but much less than a cappuccino). And unlike either an American caffè latte or cappuccino, it has a minimal layer of milk foam — even less so than the Italian cappuccino or caffè latte.
Aussies and Kiwis love the stuff, and they frequently lament the lack of good examples of the drink away from the Southern Cross. (They also seem to have an odd preoccupation with latte art, but that may just be our observation.) The flat white is generally too much milk for our general tastes (it’s more milk than coffee, after all), but it’s definitely a step up from America’s preoccupation with the gargantuan cappuccino.
Curiously enough, that Aussies and Kiwis have cultures deeply rooted in quality espresso, and no brewed coffee history to speak of, was once a source of (legitimate) pride. Now these cultural histories are something of an impediment for appreciating some of the outstanding, single estate coffees that have been coming out in recent years. As much as we love our espresso, it’s just not the best way to experience many of the subtle floral and fruity notes (coffee is a fruit, after all) that these coffees express under different brewing methods.