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Espresso nel caffè: Rai 3 Report

Posted by on 07 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Robusta, Starbucks

As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)

This nasty shot of an unclean espresso machine in Napoli won't qualify as coffee pornThe 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.

There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.

How a coda di topo should not look...The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.

Luigi Odello on ReportThey visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.

Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.

UPDATE: April 8, 2014
Effective communication often changes behavior. In response to Rai 3′s Report yesterday, a Campania region commissioner has come to the defense of the region’s espresso: Campania Report, Martusciello: “Il caffè napoletano è una eccellenza”.

Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.

UPDATE: April 14, 2014
Antonio Quarta, president of the Associazione Italiana Torrefattori (AIT, Italian Roasters Association), commented on the Report in today’s paper: Quarta: «Il caffè fa bene, ma è importante che sia di qualità». In short, he notes that the SCAE has its own high professional standards, but that applying them to every gas station and airport serving espresso in Italy doesn’t exactly tell the whole story either. He’s a little defensive, as you might expect, but investigative journalism thrives on finding worst-case scenarios and drawing much more widespread conclusions from them.

Coffee, Academically — and announcing the Stanford University Coffee Symposium

Posted by on 08 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

I’ve had a long, strange history with academics. Before succumbing to the dark side of money-plundering dot-com entrepreneurs, I worked in scientific research labs at The Johns Hopkins University and at Stanford University. It was also a joint graduate PhD program in bioengineering at UC Berkeley/UCSF, with a focus on neuroscience, that first brought me out to the SF Bay Area some 25 years ago.

Thus the idea of academia is something I know well, albeit with ambivalent feelings. For me, there’s always been an inherent conflict between the practicality of “real world” grounding and the legitimate need to follow intellectual pursuits to advance any field of interest — whether that be neuroscience or coffee — even at the risk of building ivory towers.

The University of Coffee in Trieste, ItalyThat people in the coffee industry today swear by using measuring scales, monitor things like total dissolved solids (TDS), and continually experiment with this pressure control or that pre-infusion time are all baby-step examples of the need for an academic approach — the building of a more comprehensive coffee science, as it were.

UC Davis Coffee Center

And yet while you can earn a PhD in Coffee Science from the University of Trieste (Italy) studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy, in America you can’t even earn so much as a bachelor’s degree in the field. So it’s with encouragement that we read yesterday’s announcement: UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow – Our Region – The Sacramento Bee.

UC Davis Coffee Conference - March 11, 2014If you don’t know UC Davis, they are an amazing ag (and veterinary) school. As just a personal example, a fellow Chicago native and husband of a lifelong close friend of the family, Chris Carpenter, moved from Chicago to Napa years ago to earn a masters in Horticulture from the viticulture and enology (i.e., wine) department at UC Davis. He’s now earning 100-point scores as a winemaker and recently served four years as chairman of the board for Slow Food USA. If you can judge an academic program based on the success of its graduates, and you should, UC Davis is no slouch when it comes to food and drink.

UC Davis just formally announced their Coffee Center and their first Coffee Center Research Conference, which will take place this coming Tuesday, March 11. All initial steps, but definitely promising steps in the right direction. Unlike their world-famous viticulture program, for example, the question still remains whether such an ambitious scientific initiative can truly thrive so far from origin for an ag school — rather than in a place like Kona, Hawaii. Greenhouse coffee can only go so far in vitro.

Much of their conference agenda, like their Coffee Center, seems focused on the microbiology of coffee. However, there are also talks on coffee genetics and sensory evaluation — the latter naturally tapping into the university’s expertise on the subject in the wine world.

TED 2014 Coffee Service

Coincidentally, a little over a week from now the 2014 TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and there promises to be continued servicing of TED attendees by various luminaries of the professional coffee world. Recall that an invitation from TED is what inspired the now-defunct Coffee Common.

TED 2014TED fashions itself as a sort of intellectual gathering of big minds and big ideas for the betterment of the world. Sounds great for the academic and scientific advancement of good coffee, right? But if you thought I’d be a fan of TED, you could not be more wrong.

Fortunately I was able to attend a past TED conference on the tab of an ambitious dot-com entrepreneur rather than having to fork over the $7,500 hazing price myself. (I.e., “Your hedge fund must be this large to ride this attraction.”) TED has done an amazing job of marketing and self-promotion, and I felt I should have every reason to support TED and its aims on the surface. But I found the TED event and organization to be intellectually shallow and ethically dishonest.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famed author of The Black Swan, once famously called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Part of that is the event’s general preference for infotainment over substance, as exemplified in its famous 18-minute videos that run like infographics set to moving pictures — optimized for people who prefer to be entertained rather than informed.

How most TED attendees view its coffee serviceMore objectionable to me were many of the event attendees themselves. They seemed fixated more on asserting or reaffirming their own special status in the world by the company they keep — or, perhaps as Mr. Taleb would put it, by those circus performers they invite to entertain them. Imagine The Great Gatsby, but with ostentatious material wealth replaced by grand displays of intellectual vanity.

The professionals of the coffee world are some amazing, impassioned, bright people capable of making their own brave decisions of free will. Yet I cannot help but feel that TED has cynically invited many of them merely to exploit for a premium event coffee service, helping the world of TED to maintain their personal façade of elitism in the process. I wish the best for the attending coffee pros and only hope they come out unscathed, unlike myself.

The Stanford Coffee Symposium

Location of the 2014 Stanford Coffee SymposiumMuch closer to home, about a year ago Stanford University Professor of Biology, Virginia Walbott, approached me to help co-organize a Stanford Coffee Symposium to be held in the spring of 2014. Prof. Walbott organized a similar, highly successful event for chocolate in May of 2011, tapping into both the university (Depts. of Biology, Latin American Studies, Economics, etc.) and industry (Scharffen Berger, Monique’s Chocolates, etc.).

Our goal for the event is to balance some higher-minded academics with a practical, consumer-friendly grounding in what makes coffee enjoyable and fun. (Read: check your self-congratulatory intellectual elitism at the door!) To be held Saturday, May 3 at the Cubberley Building of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford Continuing Studies just published its course catalog entry last week:

WSP 172 – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between
https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/course.php?cid=20133_WSP+172

Registration is now open at $195 per student with a deadline of April 26. The featured speakers and topics thus far are as follows:

  • From Tree to Bean to CupJames Freeman – Founder and CEO, Blue Bottle Coffee [see their blog post]
  • The History of Coffee – Denise Gigante – Professor of English, Stanford
    How to Evaluate Coffee Flavors (includes a tasting session) – Richard Sandlin – Fair Trade USA (SCAA cupping trainer ninja and co-founder of the Bay Area Coffee Community, I might add)
  • Caffeine and Health: Myths and Mysteries – Christopher D. Gardner – Professor, Stanford School of Medicine
  • Colombian Coffee Landscapes – Eric Lambin – George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor, Stanford Department of Earth System Science; Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Coffee in Veracruz: Linking Quality of Coffee to Quality of Life – Madeline R. Weeks – Fulbright-García Robles Scholar
  • Fair Trade and Sustainability – Christopher Bacon – Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University
  • Coffee Genome and Defense Against Pathogens – Lukas A. Mueller – Assistant Professor, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell
  • Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Costa Rica – Chase D. Mendenhall and Daniel Karp – Department of Biology, Stanford

In addition to the planned talks there will be various Bay Area coffee vendors and an interactive tasting session. My current challenge? Following a location visit last Tuesday, I’m now working with the university to get sufficient power into the 1938 building to run sufficient numbers of espresso machines and grinders.

That said, I’m genuinely excited about the event and hope many of you will be too.



UPDATE: April 6, 2014
The Sacramento Bee featured some of the research coming out of the UC Davis Coffee Center: UC Davis geneticist tries to build a better cup of coffee – Food & Drink – The Sacramento Bee.

Another expert look at the espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 03 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Maybe it’s just me, but Napoli has come up a lot since I posted our survey of the espresso there two weeks ago.

Over the weekend I attended the comedic play Napoli! at SF’s American Conservatory Theater. I can’t remember a play where coffee played such a central role in every scene. Then last night, Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). Like any good Neapolitan, he even thanked soccer player and Napoli patron saint, Diego Maradona:

Both works of art come recommended, btw.

However, last week we also came across a great contrarian article (in Italian) about the espresso in Napoli by Andrej Godina: ANDREJ GODINA A NAPOLI – Un viaggio, una giornata alla scoperta del presunto mito del caffè di Napoli. In it, Mr. Godina tours Napoli to sample the local espresso and is mostly left with a bad taste in his mouth.

Andrej Godina prepping machines at the Nordic Barista CupChances are you don’t know Mr. Godina, but it’s fair to say he has credentials. He earned a PhD in Science, Technology and Economics in the Coffee Industry at the University of Trieste studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy; he is an SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) Authorized Trainer, Master Barista, and Barista Examiner; and he works at Dalla Corte — an espresso machine manufacturer in Italy whose lineage brought about the E61 group head and the company La Spaziale.

Rather than follow a quality guide, like a Bar d’Italia, he and his barista trainer, Andrea, arrived in Napoli by train and began choosing a number of coffee shops at random. In short, they found them all quite terrible despite the legend of Napoli’s great coffee — which goes back the the 18th century and is even supported by some of Illy‘s own research conducted there.

Oily beans in a grimy grinder in NapoliHe discovers minute-and-a-half (i.e., over-) extractions, stale coffee, burnt coffee, dirty cups, grinders with oily build-up, and bitter and astringent espresso. He also dispenses a lot of the folklore behind why Napoli espresso is so “good”: it’s the water, it’s the special roasting process, etc. He even takes a pot shot or two at caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), the Neapolitan caffettiera coffee maker (la tazzulella), and the zucchero-crema. After tasting some dozen espresso shots, the best he could rate them was a 4 out of 10 — with a 6 being acceptable.

It’s one hell of a condemning indictment. Is it fair? In our reviews, it’s true that we targeted many quality caffès with advance research. But we also mixed in a number of places at random and didn’t find them to be too far off the mark. (Save for one horrid exception in the guest breakfast room of a Napoli hotel.) Mr. Godina also dismissed Gran Caffè Gambrinus with a 4/10 rating — which we found to be quite good, even if nothing in Napoli would crack our Top 15 list for San Francisco.

A random restaurant espresso at the Il Monastero restaurant in the Castello Aragonese, IschiaIt just shows that a lot still comes down to individual tastes and preferences. While Mr. Godina and I may agree on how good Illy can be in Italy, his company is located in Milano — which we’ve long lamented as one of the most underachieving coffee cities in Italy with many places serving the Dunkin’ Donuts of Italian espresso. Mr. Godina also rates an espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venezia as one of the best he’s ever had. Historical, absolutely, but we would never consider the espresso quality at the likes of Caffè Florian worth writing home about.

We stand by our assessment that the random espresso in Napoli beats the typical baseline quality standards at any other city in the world to which we’ve been (and we’ve been to a lot). But as Mr. Godina’s article proves, opinions will vary.

UPDATE: March 26, 2014
It looks like the Milan newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has picked up on Mr. Godina’s story: La sorpresa: a Napoli un caffè pessimo – Corriere.it. A series of these vignettes about the coffee across Italy seems planned for a coming video report on Rai 3.

UPDATE: April 2, 2014
And the intrigue continues to build: Aj: Press release – Andrej Godina’s reply: ready to debate with other expert coffee tasters. Mr. Godina is accused by some of slandering the coffee in Napoli, while his defense is that he’s raising awareness of better standards across all of Italy. This is all good, popcorn-munchworthy stuff, folks.

UPDATE: May 13, 2014
Mr. Godina takes his coffee tasting tour to the Trieste of his graduate school days and discovers much better espresso: SCRIVE ANDREJ GODINA – Ma anche nella mia Trieste… Ecco il diario, tutti i voti, le valutazioni, l’analisi degli errori nei principali bar del capoluogo giuliano, even awarding the historic Caffè San Marco in Trieste an 8.8 score.

Espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 17 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Napoli is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Globally, it is the city most associated with coffee — and certainly espresso. (Sorry, Seattle.) Yet despite this reputation and Napoli’s many cultural treasures, most tourists avoid it like the 1656 outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Many will pass through Napoli to see the stunning sights of the nearby Amalfi Coast, the islands of Capri or Ischia, or the volcanic graveyards of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But few stay for more than a namesake pizza. Because Napoli has the reputation for a bit too much bustle and way too much hustle. Most of all, Napoli can’t shake its reputation for crime — with legends about the Camorra and Napoli’s scugnizzi street kids abound.

Atrani at dusk on the Amalfi Coast The shores of Forio, Ischia

Tourists more often come to Napoli to get to views like this one from Ravello Castello Aragonese overlooking Ischia Ponte

Fear and Intimidation

The first time I visited Napoli a dozen years ago, I too was just passing through. And Napoli immediately intimidated me with what seemed like hustlers on the make at every corner: taxi drivers, store owners, people who come up to you on the street. I felt like I had to watch my back at every moment.

I should note that hustlers and crime do not spook me easily. I went to college for four years in the inner city of Chicago at what’s considered the birthplace of Chicago Blues, where John Lee Hooker performed in the streets in the movie The Blues Brothers just a few years earlier, before the Maxwell Street market area was swept up by redevelopment in the 1990s. And in the early ’90s I lived at the intersection of Alcatraz & Sacramento in West Berkeley, where gunfire rang out almost nightly in front of the nearby liquor stores and the black & white Berkeley Police mobile drug enforcement bus — nicknamed “Orca” by the locals — had to set up a near-permanent camp.

Garbage fires warm Chicago's Maxwell Street at Halsted, Dec. 1988. The building at left was replaced with a Caribou Coffee. Some of my homies at 16th & Halsted near Chicago's Maxwell Street, Dec. 1988. Four years here didn't prepare me for Napoli.

The dark streets of old Napoli Peering through the tight streets of old Napoli's Spaccanapoli

But friends more recently travelled to Napoli and told me how much they enjoyed the city — and not just its surrounding environs. What did I miss? This time, I had to “conquer” Napoli: I wasn’t just passing through, and I psyched myself up to face an expected onslaught. But to my bewildered surprise and delight, this time it was nothing like the Napoli I last experienced.

What was different? I’ve come to believe everything had to do with where I was. Before when I was just passing through Napoli, I entered the chaos of Piazza Garibaldi and the main train station or swam against the tide of humanity at the Molo Beverello port: two massive transportation hubs where tourists passing through are easy and plentiful targets for Napoli’s infamous scavenger class.

This time, immersing myself in the various neighborhoods alongside the locals, the Neapolitans seemed much more friendly — in addition to being generally casual, expressive, and proud. They may hold their stares a bit longer than is considered polite in the rest of Italy, but they were no more “threatening” than most Londoners. I managed to completely relax among them, even if my Italian accent betrayed the toscanaccia (or Tuscan snobbery) of my most recent Italian teacher.

Neapolitan saints glow in the night in Spaccanapoli The shadows of saints along Napoli's Via San Biagio Dei Librai

Supermodels join the Napoli police force to wear Armani to work everyday Sunset along Napoli's Via Francesco Caracciolo

Napoli, Not Italy

The significance of Italian regionalism is particularly acute in Napoli — something called il campanilismo that connotes a strong identity and affiliation with the town campanile from where one is from. Because the Neapolitans are a proud people with a proud history distinctly separate from the rest of Italy, and many wear a chip on their shoulder about it to this day. Since animosities are rarely one-sided, the rest of Italy — particularly the northern, more affluent regions — responds in kind.

A good bit of this internal animosity traces back to the 19th century unification of Italy, the Risorgimento, that gave Napoli and the rest of Southern Italy the short end of the economic, political, and cultural stick. The grudge continues to this day.

As with many other soccer-crazed nations, Italian football (or calcio) serves as a proxy war for the clash of cultures. This past September, Milan-based AC Milan had their stadium shut down because of anti-Napoli abuse by their fans at a match against Neapolitan club heroes SSC Napoli. In today’s papers, now the Rome stadium risks closure for anti-Neapolitan chants outside of their stadium last night.

Bar Nilo's shrine to Diego Maradona Family shrine in the streets of Napoli

Mural of Diego Maradona in Quartieri Spagnoli, Napoli Napoli scooter decorated with Diego Maradona decal

A common stadium banner in the north at matches against SSC Napoli pleads for nearby Mt. Vesuvius to “lavali col fuoco,” or “wash it with fire,” as Vesuvius did to Pompeii in 79 A.D. Italian soccer fans are Michelangelos of sick, black humor. SF stadium chants of “L.A. sucks!” are childish by comparison.

As an example riposte, while we were in Napoli on October 15, the city hosted a 2014 World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Italy. A vocal number of local fans loudly booed whenever an Italian player touched the ball — with the lone exception of forward Lorenzo Insigne, SSC Napoli player and native of Napoli. That’s how ugly this thing gets, with Neapolitans practically cheering for the other country.

Juventus fans cheer on Mt. Vesuvius to reclaim the city of NapoliSupport for SSC Napoli represents a way for locals to “stick it to the man” up North. While Napoli may have over 50 patron saints, there are perhaps none more celebrated than all-time soccer great, Diego Maradona. Playing for Napoli in the late ’80s, Maradona all but singlehandedly upset the northern dominance of Italian football — leading Napoli to shock championships in 1987 and 1990.

A tough kid from the slums of Buenos Aires, Neapolitans identified with Maradona and accepted him as one of their own scugnizzi. To this day, there are still many painted murals and saintly votive shrines dedicated to Maradona in the streets of Napoli, and his occasional returns to town are as venerated as visits from the Pope.

Despite il campanilismo, Napoli is a city of immigrants — dating back from its Greek settlement roots some 3,000 years ago through to today’s South Asian, Eastern European, and North African communities. But it’s not all gritty slums like the Quartieri Spagnoli either. There are also the Chiaia and Vomero districts — each dotted with luxury boutiques, fine restaurants, grand caffès, and the smell of old money and some new. But what we really like about Napoli, as with Torino, is that unlike Firenze (Florence) it feels left to the locals and nothing like a Disneyland for American tourists.

Narrow alleyways of Napoli Neighborhood meeting place: a crucifix at Via Concordia and Vico Colonne a Cariati

Napoli: where high fashion can sometimes be a bit scary Mt. Vesuvius from Castel dell'Ovo, Napoli

Neapolitan Coffee Culture and the Soulful Espresso

Napoli is the world’s most important city for espresso. There, I said it. How un-Third Wave of me. Without previously exploring Napoli enough, we had rated Torino and Piemonte as having the best baseline quality standards in Italy (if not the world). But upon further review, Napoli seems to have the edge: virtually everywhere you go rates solid 7s and 8s.

That’s not to say they are the best-of-the-best. Our highest-rated Napoli caffè wouldn’t make SF’s top 15 list. But unlike SF, that caffè is a 94-year-old family business in the same location for 73 years.

In Napoli, old is not the enemy of good. Now what is new, and the act of exploring and discovery, has value. But take a newer, world-renowned restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea and its molecular gastronomy counterparts for example. As outstanding and experimental as its food is, part of its appeal is a kind of gimmick, a fleeting conceptual art project bound to fall out of vogue within the next decade — unlike the soulfully satisfying cuisine that has stayed with us for generations. Novelty has a relatively short shelf-life.

Napoli's Galleria Umberto I, almost a carbon copy of  Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan Graffiti near Napoli's Via Toledo

In recent years, I have suffered a kind of fatigue over new café openings around the world. Not that I don’t love the continual investments in an improved end-product. And news has the word “new” right in it, hence why all the attention is there. But lately café openings seem much more about their physical place or their gadgetry than they seem about their actual coffee.

There’s a growing emphasis on named space designers and architects or on nameless machines with custom modifications (e.g., “That Modbar looks cool, but have you tried your coffee from it?”). All these superficial trappings have new cafés trying to distinguish themselves on everything but the resulting shot in the cup. It feels more like an arms race to feature in Architectural Digest or Popular Mechanics, as if they’ve overlooked the actual coffee in their mission.

But it’s not just coffee. Much of the West seems obsessed with a disposable culture of everything new, everything trendy, and nothing that’s built to last. If you really want to talk about “slow coffee”, immerse yourself in a place where respect comes measured not in the number of tweets and blog citations this week but rather in generations of customers who have come to expect high standards.

Because we’d honestly like to believe that some of today’s standard bearers of quality — such as Blue Bottle and Four Barrel — somehow manage to survive and stay relevant for at least another generation of customers. At least without succumbing to a fad-of-the-month that replaces them within a decade. Perhaps that seems unnecessarily nostalgic. The reality is that in 10-20 years the likes of Blue Bottle or Four Barrel will be swept up in mergers and acquisitions and become unrecognizable. Which makes us appreciate Napoli’s coffee culture even more.

In Napoli, nobody hits you over the head proclaiming that they are “craft” or “artisinal” — even if they often are by most Western definitions. Nobody tries to distract you with the exotic pedigree of their coffee equipment. There’s something soulfully satisfying about their focus on a solid espresso backed by tradition and, well, craft.

Guy Fawkes makes his appearance in Napoli's Spaccanapoli Napoli supports both a very young and a very old population

Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo Inside Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo

What makes a Neapolitan espresso?

That aforementioned il campanilismo extends to how Neapolitans think about their coffee, and in particular their roasters. They can be fiercely local and independent in their coffee loyalties, often proudly professing their roaster affiliation on street-level signage. Furthermore, wood-fired coffee roasting is often highly revered here for its tradition and flavor profile.

When it comes to roasting, the tendency is towards second-crack darkness. Back in the ’90s, Torrefazione Italia did a clever thing by offering different roast-level blends named after towns that geographically represented lighter to darker roasts from north to south: Venezia, Milano, Perugia, Roma, Napoli, Sardegna, Palermo. Napoli was one of the darker roasts as is more of the norm for Southern Italy.

This darker roasting can be a dubious quality practice. However, the beans here tend not to have a heavy sheen of oil, and the darker roasts redemptively manage to be neither bitter nor ashy. They rarely even verge into smoky territory.

Obligatory Neapolitan fish monger shot Napoli at sunrise

Of the classic four Ms of espresso quality — miscela (bean blend), macinatura (grind), macchina (machine), and mano (the hand of the barista) — I’ve often said that half of the espresso quality comes down to the barista. But because the Neapolitan barista standards are so consistently good, I found the biggest quality difference between Napoli caffès comes down to their choice of roaster.

When it comes to espresso machines, La Cimbali is very popular along with La San Marco. Manual lever La San Marco machines are held in almost universal high regard among Napoli’s best caffès — as if to skeptically say, “I’ve got your pre-infusion and variable pressure control right here!” while making an obscene arm gesture. The only Rancilio I came across was in an airport Mozzarella bar. The only Gaggia I encountered was in a hotel bar, and it made the worst cappuccino I had on the entire trip.

Although the sample sizes were small, some my favorite roasters at caffès in the area (of which I experienced multiple shots) included:

  1. Caffè Moreno,
  2. Caffè del Professore,
  3. Passalacqua,
  4. Caffè Toraldo,
  5. Illy — northern roaster but always done well in Italy,
  6. Kimbo,
  7. Caffè Borbone — rockin’ tune on that Web site, btw,
  8. Portioli — northern roaster more prevalent in Amalfi and Maiori,
  9. Lavazza — this northern roaster is supposedly “Italy’s favorite coffee”.

Note that this list disqualifies many of the independent, more obscure roasters that are the pride of the caffès that serve their coffee.

Ravello overlooking the Amalfi Coast in a storm As with many hours in Italy, sometimes they are always closed

Sunset over the Bay of Naples Napoli's Piazza dei Martiri at dusk

Espresso Preparation

Neapolitan caffès will often offer espresso as “zuccherato” or “amaro” — that is, presweetened or without sugar. And that’s where the coffee drink menu begins. Napoli caffès frequently offer dozens of variants to a degree unmatched in the rest of Italy. Many are rooted in a given caffè’s own secret formula of zucchero-crema or cremina di caffè — a sugar/cream/espresso concoction used to sweeten up and add volume to their espresso drinks.

Despite these concoctions, Neapolitan cuisine is about simplicity and celebrating the core ingredients. After all, Napoli belongs to the region of Campania, which means “country”. So it is extremely rare if you find any latte art here.

Culturally, latte art is perceived as an almost childish playing with your food — like serving pancakes covered with a smiley face made of whipped cream. Neapolitans don’t have the patience for that nonsense. A dusting of cocoa on a morning cappuccino is about as fanciful as they get. Your espresso will always come with a glass of water served on the side. And you won’t find a single laptop zombie.

Travel Tip

If you go, one bit of travel advice: lose your American habits and don’t trust Google Maps at all. It’s not just because the Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing either. Many cities and towns in Italy follow non-serial, seemingly Byzantine address numbering systems. The piazze that frequently appear also often throw off Google Maps’ overly simplistic addressing assumptions.

Just being one city block off of your destination means four square city blocks of searching back-and-forth, sometimes leading you down streets and neighborhoods where you don’t want to be. For example, a Google Maps search for Ravello’s Caffè Calce at Via Roma, 2 will take you 400 feet away from the square you should be on. A search for Napoli’s Cafè Amadeus will lead you 4 miles away from its nearby Amedeo Metro station. Virtually all the caffè reviews linked below required me to manually enter their GPS coordinates in their maps at the bottom for accuracy, rather than relying on Google’s addressing look-up.

A frequently better option is to use TuttoCittà, which additionally shows street address numbers on many of its maps.


Espresso Ratings in Napoli, Ischia, and the Amalfi Coast
Name Address City/Neighborhood 2014 Bar d’Italia [info] Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Gran Caffè La Caffettiera Piazza dei Martiri, 26 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 7.80 8.00 7.900
Moccia Via San Pasquale a Chiaia, 24 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 8.20 7.80 8.000
Caffè d’Epoca Piazza Trieste e Trento, 2 Napoli / Toledo NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Gran Caffè Grambrinus Via Chiaia, 1 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 8.10 8.50 8.300
Cafè Amadeus Piazza Amedeo, 5 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 7.90 8.20 8.050
Gran Caffè Cimmino Via Gaetano Filamgieri, 12/13 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 3 7.80 8.00 7.900
Calise al Porto Via Iasolino, 19 Ischia / Ischia Porto NR 7.40 7.50 7.450
Gran Caffè Vittoria Corso Vittoria Colonna, 110 Ischia / Ischia Porto 1 / 2 7.80 8.20 8.000
Arago Via Luigi Mazzella, 75 Ischia / Ischia Ponte NR 7.80 7.80 7.800
Dal Pescatore Piazza Ottorino Troia, 12 Ischia / Sant’Angelo d’Ischia NR 7.60 7.50 7.550
Divino Cafè Via Erasmo di Lustro, 6 Ischia / Forio 1 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Calise a Ischia Via Antonio Sogliuzzo, 69 Ischia / Ischia Porto 2 / 1 7.90 8.20 8.050
Bar Cocò Piazzale Aragonese, 1 Ischia / Ischia Ponte 1 / 2 7.80 7.80 7.800
Pasticceria Napoli Corso Regina, 64 Maiori 2 / 2 8.00 7.80 7.900
Sal de Riso Piazza Ettore Gaetano Cantilena, 28 Minori 2 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Il Panino Piazza Duomo, 7 Ravello NR 8.00 7.80 7.900
Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 Corso Sant’Agata, 11 Sant’Agata sui due Golfi NR 8.00 8.00 8.000
La Zagara Via dei Mulini, 8/10 Positano 2 / 1 7.00 7.80 7.400
La Brezza Net Art Café Via del Brigantino, 1 Positano 2 / 2 8.00 8.00 8.000
Bar Al San Domingo Piazza Duomo, 2 Ravello NR 7.60 7.20 7.400
Figli di Papà Via della Marra, 7 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Andrea Pansa Piazza Duomo, 40 Amalfi 3 / 2 7.90 8.00 7.950
La Vecchia Cantina Via della Marra, 15/19 Ravello NR 7.50 7.20 7.350
Caffè Duomo Piazza Duomo, 15 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Caffè Calce Via Roma, 2 Ravello 1 / 1 7.70 7.00 7.350
Gran Caffè Neapolis Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 14/15 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 2 7.80 7.20 7.500
Giovanni Scaturchio Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 19 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 1 7.90 7.50 7.700
Caffè Mexico Piazza Dante, 86 Napoli / Decumano Maggiore NR 8.00 7.50 7.750

Trip Report: Gran Caffè Grambrinus (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 31 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Local Brew

Without question, this gran caffè is a city institution. It’s long been considered a gathering place for intellectuals, thinkers, poets, foreigners and locals alike. Opening in 1860 as Il Gran Caffè, it started as a Parisian-styled singing café — or café-chantant — before adopting its current name in 1870. It is rightfully recognized among I Locali Storici d’Italia — an association dedicated to recognizing and helping to preserve some of the historically significant establishments in Italy.

Some of this café’s great historical connections include where Edoardo Scarfoglio and Matilde Serao launched the daily paper Il Corriere di Roma in the 1880s (they later went on to establish Il Mattino in 1891), where Gabriele D’Annunzio penned the Neapolitan classic “‘A Vucchella” in 1919 (here’s a version by Enrico Caruso, famed 1906 SF earthquake survivor), and where Jean-Paul Sartre, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Benedetto Croce, and the aforementioned Giovanni Agnelli each came to sit, think, talk, and maybe even write at some time or other.

Entrance to Gran Caffè Grambrinus View just past Gran Caffè Grambrinus between the Palazzo Reale at left and the Piazza del Plebescito at right

The tea salon inside Gran Caffè Grambrinus Call it a mini gelato salon inside Gran Caffè Grambrinus

Outside there are often crowds of tourists gathering for tours of the Napoli underground. There’s outdoor seating in front under parasols against Piazza Trieste e Trento, which very much feels like the heart of the city given nearby Piazza del Plebescito, Palazzo Reale, and the San Carlo theater.

Inside, there are many rooms of slightly fading glory: stucco, marble, grande chandeliers, ornate detailing, frescoes and paintings by some of Napoli’s great artists of the 19th century, antique woodwork. The place feels almost Torinese in its classic style and sophistication. There are books on coffee making from 1836 for sale. And many of the interior rooms feel like capelle — small chapels as if in a cathedral — dedicated to the art of pastries, gelato, a grand tea salon, etc. Some of these grand rooms were cut off as part of a separate bank established under Facist rule in 1938, but in 2001 they were reunited with the main café.

Gran Caffè Grambrinus puts their Bar d'Italia cred on display in their windowThe often brusque baristi here can be older veterans, but there are some newer faces in the lot. Together they might linger longer on the orders of the locals regulars while speeding up for the tourists. They will preheat their ornate, Gambrinus-detailed MPAN cups, pulling shots from their manual four-group lever La San Marco machine with a striped dark and medium brown crema.

It’s a solid effort with Caffè Moreno coffee: a pungent Napoli-friendly flavor that just edges shy of a tobacco edge. A mere €1 at the bar. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia rated them two tazzine and two chicchi, which dropped them one chicco in their coffee rating from the 2013 edition (i.e., they were previously rated the maximum of three).

Like many places in Napoli, they have their own specialty drink: the Caffè Gambrinus, consisting of espresso, cacao powder, milk foam, whipping cream, and chocolate sprinkles.

Read the review of Gran Caffè Grambrinus in Napoli, Italy.

Inside the main entrance of Gran Caffè Grambrinus The Gran Caffè Grambrinus chapel of pastries

Baristi socializing with each other inside Gran Caffè Grambrinus with their four-group lever La San Marco in back The Gran Caffè Grambrinus espresso

Trip Report: Gran Caffè Neapolis (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 26 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Opening in November 2010, this café feels like it has been here for far longer. (Contrast with nearby Scaturchio, dal 1905.) The interior space is a modern, stark white with spot lighting and lounge-like space surrounded by bottles of Champagne on the walls. Outside there’s ample seating under large parasols in the enjoyable Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.

Entrance to Gran Caffè Neapolis Inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The name “Neapolis”, the original name for Napoli, means “New City” in Greek. Napoli’s civilization has Greek roots dating back to at least the 4th century B.C. Buried in the more modern building foundations just a couple blocks away beneath Piazza San Gaetano lies the (now explorable) 6,000-capacity Greek/Roman theater used by Emperor Nero to perform his operas — including a debut in 64 A.D. where Nero famously sang through an earthquake and thought it a good omen.

So perhaps on the historical scale of the neighborhood, this café is a recent hiccup. But the espresso here is good enough to have been upped from a one to a two chicchi rating between the 2013 & 2014 editions of Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Even if the space comes adorned with some semi-cheesy local (Italian) tourist decorations, such as various Pulcinella masks and ornamental cornicelli.

Cheesy tourist decorations at the base of the Gran Caffè Neapolis bar Four-group La San Marco inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The Maestro dell'Espresso certification on display at Gran Caffè NeapolisBehind their four-group manual lever La San Marco machine, they sport four clear cylinders of roasted coffee blend options — including Arabica, Excelsa, Liberica, and Robusta. There’s a Maestro dell’Espresso certificate on display, certified by Illycaffè, for the master barista of the house. However, for the Saturday morning shift of our visit we had two young, seemingly novice (and uneasy) women operating as bariste on duty.

Using their Arabia blend, they pulled shots with a richly textured crema of a darker brown and even slightly grayish color — filled relatively high in IPA cups of modern design. Its taste is pure pungency with no ashiness, bitterness, or even a bright end for that matter.

The milk-frothing was a bit iffy, however: bubbly and too hot, but this was likely the B team. Though note that Neapolitans don’t go for overly frilly cappuccinos and latte art beyond a dusting of cocoa. A very reasonable €0.80.

Read the review of Gran Caffè Neapolis in Napoli, Italy.

The Gran Caffè Neapolis espresso The Gran Caffè Neapolis cappuccino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thinking Cup espresso The Thinking Cup cappuccino

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

On Boston, and Little of It About Coffee

Posted by on 17 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

For the past couple of days, I’ve resisted writing about this topic: the recent SCAA conference and the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon the following day. But I can’t escape it. Apologies in advance for adding little on the subject of coffee, but to do so exclusively would seem both disrespectful and inappropriate. This post is really more for myself in a cathartic way, as my heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy.

September 11, 2001

Bruins fans in downtown Boston, returning from the game

Bruins fans in downtown Boston, returning from the game – 4/13/13

You see, I have a bit of a complicated history with the city of Boston. Before my trip out there this past weekend, the last time I attempted to fly out to Boston was on the morning of September 11, 2001. At 6:30am PT (9:30am ET), I was in SFO trying to board a United flight to Boston. It was for my “day job” as a dot-com vice president, and this was back in the implosive days of the original dot-com bust. Given budget guidelines to meet for my department, I had made the hard choice of laying off my entire team of 25 people in our Cambridge, MA office. My flight to Boston was thus all about the dreaded task of informing my team in person that they no longer had jobs.

Of course, things didn’t exactly work out that way. What was originally announced in the SFO airport as an FAA delay caused by a small plane hitting the World Trade Center turned into something horrifically worse. No civilian aircraft in North America would become airborne again until a few days later.

With the fog of what just happened, who did it, and what’s coming next still on everyone’s minds, the HR department and a few coworkers told me to simply make the announcement over the phone — that my team would understand under the circumstances. But I was stubbornly determined to take personal responsibility for my decision, no matter how ugly it had to be. I owed them that much. So once air travel resumed, I caught the next flight I could get into Boston that following weekend.

Boston Logan's 9/11 memorial

Boston Logan’s 9/11 memorial

It was one of the most white-knuckled flights I’ve ever taken. Not because of any turbulence, but because everyone on that plane could not get the television images of 9/11 — and the thought of further hijacking attempts — out of their heads. Everyone was on edge, suspiciously sizing up all of their fellow passengers. You got the sense that if anybody even attempted something that looked like a false move, that person would be forcefully subdued and probably beaten to death by a plane full of anxious passengers mentally prepared to fight or die.

I had flown into Boston Logan multiple times before, but never like this. The airport was a ghost town, largely abandoned of people and planes with a skeleton crew left running things. The taxi driver who picked me up was desperate for a fare, as he told me that, “Boston Logan is still an active crime scene.” The two flights that struck the World Trade Center towers both departed from Boston, from gate areas I was eerily all too familiar with from previous travels.

I was fortunate that a few people on my newly-laid-off staff thanked me for giving them the news in person. But I did not again return to Boston until last week.

April 11, 2013

What brought me back to Boston after all these years wasn’t the SCAA Conference — at least directly. It was more an invitation from Todd Carmichael (of La Colombe) to do a shoot for the second season of his TV show, “Dangerous Grounds”. Todd was insistent on a scene in the new season that wasn’t just his “Tarzan bit” through wild coffee jungles, but rather a social cupping discussion among a few invited guests — which included the likes of Doug Zell of Intelligentsia, Aleco Chigounis of Coffee Shrub (a sort of sister to Sweet Maria’s), Mette Marie of 49th Parallel Roasters, Ryan Brown now at Tonx, Andrew Ballard of Forty Weight Coffee, and the entertaining JP Iberti (co-founder of La Colombe).

Everybody brought some coffee to showcase and discuss. (Special thanks to Justine Hollinger of Barefoot Coffee Roasters for helping me represent their great work.) Despite Todd’s worry that some snarky infighting could develop, a great camaraderie developed among the cuppers that will hopefully come out in the program when it airs later this year. (And for the record, the overall favorite was the Yukro Ethiopia coffee from George Howell Coffee, sourced by Aleco.)

L to R: Brandon Gulish (producer), Ryan Brown, Todd, Mette Marie, and Aleco Chigounis at a 'Dangerous Grounds' shoot Doug Zell (seated with hat) and Todd (right) during a shoot for 'Dangerous Grounds'

With the shoot out of the way, I had a few days to check out the SCAA conference and get reacquainted with Boston. It had been years since I had set foot in either.

For those who haven’t been to the SCAA conference, I’ll offer a perspective of someone not in the industry — and rather of just someone who really loves coffee. Like all industry conferences, it’s a great occasion to meet people and network. If you’re slinging coffee at a retail location all day, or sourcing out in the wild corners of the world, there are few occasions where you can personally meet and greet many of those coffee “greats” — or just cool people — you otherwise only read about (or from).

And there’s a lot of great coffee to be had. A barista at a complimentary La Marzocco espresso station jumbled multiple bags of Intelligentsia beans to create an impromptu blend in his Mazzer grinder. While I was watching this, he culturally noted that, “The industry people come earlier and ask for espressos, but later the ‘show’ people come and they all drink caps.” (i.e., cappuccinos).

Entrance to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center for the 2013 SCAA Getting a unique blend in the Mazzer at the La Marzocco station

But there are things about the SCAA conference I am not as enamored with. For one, it’s primarily a commercial trade show with a big emphasis on an exhibition floor of people hawking their wares. Good for a lot in the industry, but often a bit tedious if you really are more into the coffee than the latest gadgetry.

There’s the symposium topics, which I had not attended but often sounded interesting. But there’s a huge “reindeer games” aspect to the highly repetitive, three-ring circus of the Barista Championship, the Brewer’s Cup, and the US Cup Tasters Championship. Even odder now, there are members of the Barista Guild of America strutting about the place, and the city, in their official logo jackets as if part of some mutant coffee geek biker gang.

A sea of vendors at the 2013 SCAA Pete Licata's performance at the 2013 USBC finals, which he won

The 117th Boston Marathon

But the longer I was in Boston, the more I came to appreciate and became more enamored with the even bigger event in town that weekend: the 117th Boston Marathon. There was a very positive, festive, international sports vibe to the event that I hadn’t quite experienced since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Everywhere in town you ran into fit people in running gear — many not running the race but at least there in spirit and to support the other participants.

Last Saturday I walked down Boylston Street past Copley Square, just two days before the horrific bombings, soaking in the environment of fans, tourists, and the final touches of the stands and barricades being set up at the finish line for the event. Arriving back in SF only some 11 hours before those terrible events took place, the news was made all the more tragic for me having experienced just how much the Boston Marathon environment converted me into a fan.

The Boston Marathon will be back next year. Boston may not want me back, given my recent track record of tragic coincidence. But I can’t say enough to encourage those even modestly interested to attend. The coffee may not be anything near as good as at the SCAA, but it deserves every bit of your support.

As time passes, I promise to write more about the coffee. But right now, there are things far more important than coffee could ever be.

Signage at the Boston Marathon finish line - 4/13/13 Runners/tourists at the Boston Marathon finish line with a start sign - 4/13/13

KQED Forum gives some radio love to Bay Area coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South India coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really tied the room together

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sightglass’ place in SF’s coffee pantheon

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

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

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

Read the updated review of Sightglass Coffee.

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