Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series continues with a return to Torino’s Piazza San Carlo. Caffè San Carlo may not be among Gambero Rosso‘s top 18 cafés in all of Italy, but they rated it with a very respectable 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi in its 2008 guide.
With so much competition on this piazza, it may be a little surprising that the Caffè San Carlo holds its own. Its espresso may be weaker than its neighbors’, but they offer the best pastries and best milk-frothing for cappuccini on the square. It has seating out front on the piazza and decorative touches inside, with a small mirrored bar with a monstrous glass chandelier. In the morning, they set out their great pastries in the middle of the place.
Using a four-group E92 Faema, they pull espresso shots with a thin layer of a lighter brown crema speckled with dark brown. The pour is relatively large for the region, and thus not very potent. Still, it’s pretty good and comes with more of an herbal flavor of cloves and spice. Served in delicate IPA cups with the Caffè San Carlo logo.
When it comes to cappuccini, there’s no real latte art beyond a basic swirl. But their milk frothing and consistency in their cappuccini is perhaps the best on the square — earning them something of a bonus score. Still a pretty good deal at €0.90.
Read the review of Caffè San Carlo.
Today’s Isthmus (Madison, WI) published an article discussing the classic Italian espresso, its merits, and how most of its American purveyors fail so miserably at it: Isthmus | The Daily Page – In search of a good (small) cup.
Going on a cappuccino crawl among twelve Madison, WI espresso bars, the article started with the local Starbucks‘ cappuccino standard: “no ceramic cups”…”12-ounce ‘tall’s”…”this is a latte”…”the milk was scalded”…”the color was like dishwater.” Surprised? Hardly.
The article pointed out how a proper cappuccino should be a mere five ounces — a point duly noted here before. Also noted by the author is our long-time lament about the importance of cups: “Indeed, the problems of American espresso have much to do with cups.” … “The smallest available cups were much larger than five ounces, and the baristas filled them to the rim.”
Our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series next takes us to quite a historical café — and the closest thing to a tourist trap in Torino this side of the Holy Shroud. Caffè Al Bicerin was founded in 1763 as an apothecary shop and later remodeled as a café. But over the centuries it has remained a tiny, dark place with simple furnishings of wooden tables and benches.
We first wrote about this café for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. And it is no stranger to accolades — winning the coveted Gambero Rosso award for the best bar in Italy in 2000. In the Bar d’Italia del Gambero Rosso 2008, however, it rates 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi — dropping it just out of their top 18 and reflecting an absolutely justifiable downward correction on their espresso quality (though I would even take it a step further).
The most recent proprietor of Caffè Al Bicerin is Maritè Costa, who represents the latest in a series of women who have operated this café since it was first opened by a man. But this café owes its notoriety to its namesake drink, the bicerin. By around 1700, you could easily argue that the bavareisa was the official breakfast of the Torinese — a fashionable drink served in large glasses and consisting of coffee, chocolate, milk and syrup. (Chocolate was exclusively a beverage until the Torinese later popularized it in its present day solid form in chocolate bars, etc.)
Traditionally, these three ingredients were served separately, and the bavareisa initially combined them in three different variations: pur e fiur (today’s cappuccino), pur e barba (coffee and chocolate), and poc ‘d tut (a little of everything), which mixed all three. This last formula quickly became the most popular combination. A century later, this hot drink was named for the container in which it was most commonly served: a small glass with a metal base and handle known as bicerin. Though today it is served in small glasses throughout the city without handles.
Today the bicerin is served as a hot beverage with layers of coffee, liquid chocolate, and fior de latte (€4,50 at Caffè Al Bicerin) — the latter of which is much like the cream on the Irish Coffee at Buena Vista (but with better coffee and no booze). Although here they suggest that you do not stir (girare) it much, if at all, you’ll end up with a chocolate bomb at the bottom.
As for the space itself, it is in an odd piazza — just behind the impressive Basilica della Consolata and just a couple blocks south of the shady street urchins along Corso Regina Margherita. The café itself is incredibly tight on indoor space — a few tables in a wooden, mirrored, cramped room — with more spacious outdoor seating under a couple of parasols in the pleasant piazza.
Using a new, two-group Faema at the bar/register, they serve espresso with a medium brown crema — mottled with a darker brown and with white heat spot. The resulting cup is a bit thin and tastes a little scorched (along with its relatively hot serving temperature). It tastes a little watery too, but at its base it has a pepper flavor with a slightly ashy edge. Served with a slightly large pour with a chocolate square on the side. A highway robbery at €1.70, since it also rated as one of the worst espresso examples we had in Torino — let alone Piemonte.
Read the review of Al Bicerin.
The News & Advance of Lynchburg, VA recently published a brief review of the area’s independent coffeehouses. Like many smaller towns in America that have come to similar conclusions about themselves, “In the past two years, Lynchburg has become a mini-mecca for coffee.”
But unlike many articles of its kind, the author doesn’t dote over the ambiance of these various coffeehouses — nor the baked goods and sandwiches they serve. Instead, she focuses more on the coffee — albeit using a rather unscientific approach with the caffè latte as the yardstick (please reserve your sexual stereotypes!): NewsAdvance.com | Whole lotta latte.
Seattle’s Coffee Fest trade show ended yesterday. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article announcing the winners of its “Millrock Free Pour Latte Art competition” (isn’t that a mouthful?): Artistic cup of joe brings home $5,000 prize.
Top honors and $5,000 of prize money went to Layla Emily Osberg of Vancouver, BC’s Blenz Coffee — where I first discovered that the default “macchiato” can be colloquially defined as something far scarier than I ever imagined. (Second place for “Draw Tippy the Turtle in milk foam” went to the award-winning Canadian barista, Colter Jones.)
Now I generally find it difficult to get excited about latte art — or even the US Barista Championship these days. However, the best suggestion for any kind of barista competition came from April Pollard, a finalist from Seattle’s Espresso Vivace with “real world” sensibilities about the spectacle. From the article:
She compared the event to a “beautiful baby” contest, and she added that a “real barista contest” would include having 10 customers in a line, one person being a jerk, something going wrong and a person a wanting a muffin while talking on a cell phone.
“They should make it like a normal day,” Pollard said.
Bravo, April. Now we’re talking. Oh, but wait — I first gotta take this call.