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America’s Golden Age of Coffee: Remarkably Like Italy’s Past

Posted by on 03 Aug 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Quality Issues

Several months after we declared that coffee’s golden age is over, famed Illy barista-in-chief, Giorgio Milos, posted this in The Atlantic today: America’s Golden Age of Coffee: Remarkably Like Italy’s Past – Giorgio Milos – Life – The Atlantic.

Obligatory coffee art from The AtlanticYou might recall Mr. Milos ruffling a few New World coffee feathers last year in The Atlantic, when he roughly suggested that “the Italian way” is the only way to appreciate espresso. Among other things he called out the brightness bomb, where many Western baristas have fallen in love with espresso shots that taste like a mouthful of Sour Patch Kids.

Great acidity and citric-like brightness in this espresso profileIn his latest piece, Mr. Milos has made something of a curious about-face. Has all his time around Western espresso started to change his palate? More specifically, he rightfully called out the enthusiasm and passion for coffee quality in the American barista community — something that has been stagnant in Italy for decades. He also drew a number of parallels between “coffee innovation” in America today and in Italy a century ago.

(We’ll try to restrain our gag reflex whenever we hear a term like “coffee innovation”. This is another area where — to quote Mr. Milos — the “oft-cited parallels between specialty coffee and wine break down” in that no one has talked about “wine innovation” with a straight face for many generations.)

Mr. Milos also raised a red flag for the American barista’s “tendency to keep consumers out of the R&D process” — something we similarly called out earlier this year. And he also spoke our language when he wrote, “Italy, where it’s easy to find a very good cup of coffee and tough to find something undrinkable — and about equally tough to find something outstanding.”

UPDATE: Aug. 4, 2011
Is that hell freezing over, or is that just summer in San Francisco? Either way, the cited article is even getting nods in the wine world: A lesson in winemaking – straight from the espresso bar . . . – By the glass – Wine News, Views & Reviews – Boston.com. Take that, all ye winemaking slaves to the big-fruit/big-oak palate.

R.I.P. Pour-Over Coffee: 2009-2011?

Posted by on 01 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Pardon the sensationalist headline. (Like nobody has ever done that before.) But here’s something from yesterday’s L.A. Weekly on Demitasse, one of the more anticipated new coffeeshops in the L.A. area, that questions/provokes some of the conventional coffee wisdom of the month: Demitasse Will Not Have Pourover Coffee + Other Twists on the Third Wave Coffee Shop – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink.

Fodder for the blogosphere: the under-construction storefront, this time it's L.A.'s DemitasseSo what’s different here? Anticipated “Third Wave” (ugh) coffeeshop openings have been fodder for the local presses for several years now, so it only makes sense that each might attempt to differentiate themselves from the hoard with a slightly different angle now and then. But what we have with Demitasse is yet another coffeeshop identifying itself (at least in the article) more by what it doesn’t do than by what it does do. And what it doesn’t do is pour-over coffee.

Or does it? Per the article, clearly they’re fans of the Clever full-immersion coffee dripper — which some circles might say isn’t pour-over coffee by only a slight technicality. But the reason the owner, Bobak Roshan, gives for not offering pour-over coffee is telling: “Roshan adamantly is against the method as far too dependent on the skills and utmost attention of the barista, too often to the detriment of the coffee drinker looking to have the cleanest, tastiest cup possible.”

Brewer error: the downfall of retail pour-over coffee?There you have it. The method requires too much concentrated attention, for too long, of an easily distracted barista in a retail environment. There is some truth to this, even suggesting a bit of retail reality folly in the nascent Brewers Cup. Of the few coffeeshops that have offered vac pot coffee over the years, most would only do so after the morning caffeine rush-hour. And yet vac pot brewing requires much less constant attention than pour-over brewing. And then there’s the reality that the biggest expense in retail coffee is labor.

Which isn’t to say that pour-over brewing is going away anytime soon. Despite the many efforts to convince us otherwise, retail pour-over brewing has been around for decades. However, this might suggest that many coffeeshops are starting to learn the dismissed conventional wisdom behind the once-novel-now-passé Clover brewer: that individually hand-crafted, manual brewing processes make a great cup of coffee, but they fail to scale in a retail environment supporting any kind of volume at a competitive price.

Now if only we understood the semi-conventional wisdom behind using Equator Estate Coffees — despite only a single notable retail example of it in the face of dozens of underachievers.

Fear and Loathing in Portland, OR and Toronto, ON

Posted by on 07 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine

This week the pipes and tubes of the Internetz delivered a couple of noteworthy articles on local coffee scenes. The first is a cover story in Portland’s Willamette Week (“Drip City: Everything old is new again in Portland’s coffee scene”). The other is a next-generation rehash of a “favorite coffeehouses” list from the Toronto Star (“Espresso yourself: Find your perfect café – thestar.com“).

Portland = Drip City?!

First, Portland. Can we call Portland “the capital of American coffee culture” as the article claims? The idea has its merits. But “Drip City“? Or the even worse subtitle, “The Rise of Nerd Coffee.” Huh? What nerd wouldn’t prefer working with machines that cost as much as a Toyota Prius over playing with plastic cups and paper cut-outs like a poor man’s woodshop class?

Willamette Week's cover story: Drip City?!?But they are right about the claim that “old is new again.” (Didn’t we just write that piece a couple months ago?) Does that make the current pour-over fad akin to bell-bottoms making another comeback, albeit made with very 21st century recycled materials? That might also explain the unfashionables who have been sporting their coffee “bell-bottoms” (i.e., offering individual pour-over coffee) since the 1970s, such as Monmouth Coffee in London, only to discover that they are suddenly in fashion again.

More telling is perhaps this quote from the piece: “I think a huge part of its value is that it’s just fun.” There you have it. One of the greatest motivators behind pressure-profiling machines that add little in the cup and the exhuming of decades-old pour-over technology: never underestimate the power of barista boredom. Given the repetitive stress injuries they risk in a given day, day after day, who can really blame them?

We’d have sued Willamette Week for plagiarism, given how it finishes the piece with a rehash of the evolution from Clover brewer -> Hario V60 -> Williams-Sonoma -> Precision Pour Over — something we posted New Years Day earlier this year. But given how much the rest of the piece is overwrought with Martha Stewartesque abuse of the word “perfect,” we’re distancing ourselves as much as possible.

However, we could use another dose of 90′s rehashed bell-bottoms, JSBX style. Anthony Bourdain need not apply.

Blame Toronto

Speaking of Martha Stewartesque abuse of the word “perfect,” the Toronto Star gave us another groan for the coffee industry with the article title “Espresso yourself: Find your perfect café.”

What is it with coffee and coffeeshop names? Coffee must have more bad puns per capita than any other industry this side of porno movies. The words latte, grind, brew, bean, perk, and grounds should all be banned from coffeeshop names. Though we just might change our minds if someone flaunted it by naming a café “Grounds for Divorce” or something of that ilk.

Toronto's Mercury Espresso BarWe’ve probably given Toronto a bit more coffee love here than they’ve deserved — likely because the squeaky media wheel gets the grease, and the Toronto Star has needed a chassis lube for years now. But despite having rehashed the local Toronto café round-up for more times than we can count, the article does a nice job of starting its latest incarnation with the vital baseball card statistics: listing coffeeshops with their opening dates, machines, beans, costs, and specialties.

It gets a bit flowery by qualifying things such as “impressions” and “music,” but that matters to many customers too. They also went a little doll house design crazy by building their ultimate coffee bar in this related article: Raising the bar: Toronto’s ultimate café – thestar.com.

“No, no, no. Alright? No coffee places with names involving metaphors, jokes, or any wordplay whatsoever. No ‘Sufficient Grounds’. No ‘Sacred Grounds’. No ‘Espresso Yourself’.
– Officer John Cooper, Southland (TV), “Identity” (Season 4, Episode 4)

America will never make good restaurant coffee

Posted by on 03 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

We’ve been lamenting the sorry state of restaurant coffee in these pages since 2005. But let it be known that, as of this moment forward, we have officially given up on the possibility of ever being reliably served good coffee in American restaurants.

Modernist Cuisine's five-volume series for a mere $625Sure, there have been a few successes and battles won along the way. There has even been the occasional restaurant that made us think about what’s possible. But reliably good coffee — the way you can safely expect at any restaurant in, say, Portugal — is a pipe dream. We’ve finally come to the stark realization that the war is effectively unwinnable … a lost cause. To deny this is to blindly ignore an overwhelming display of evidence.

Oddly, the bit of news that finally killed the dream for us — what finally broke the camel’s back — was a post in the New York Times about Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine five-volume encyclopedia set and Mark Prince’s review of its coffee chapter on CoffeeGeek.com. We’ll explain in a moment.

Restaurants’ running coffee joke

Bad restaurant coffee has been the norm long, long before many of us were even born. There are even front-page references to this topic in the San Francisco Chronicle going back to 1963. Among long-anticipated social revolutions that ain’t never gonna happen, this places reliably good restaurant coffee somewhere between professional soccer making it big in the U.S. and the coming of the Jewish Messiah.

The San Francisco Chronicle, above-the-fold, Monday, February 18, 1963So what about those two articles triggered such absolute futility about restaurant coffee? Both pieces were written with a kind of presumptuous expectation that quality coffee somehow deserves a place in the discussion of “modernist cuisine.” As much as we love coffee, the idea is both audacious and completely misplaced. Located in Volume 4 of the series (“Ingredients and Preparation”), the coffee chapter follows a roughly equivalent chapter on wine. And that’s where the comparisons begin to fall apart.

When wine, beer, cheese, and even salt have a lot more to do with cuisine than coffee

It is not even a question that coffee is far less relevant to cuisine than wine. Coffee may have far more aromatic and flavor components than wine, but it can never be paired to complement food the way wine can. The world is steeped with centuries-old culinary traditions of pairing local wines with the food of the region. And yet in the many centuries that coffee cultures have had to pair coffee with cuisine, to this date the combination simply does not exist the world over — despite the many failed, recent attempts to shoehorn them together. This is not by accident.

The Brewers' Association's craft beer and food pairing chartBeer pairings, for example, are far more relevant to cuisine; we received no fewer than two beer pairings as part of a recent tasting menu at Atelier Crenn. And yet there’s no beer chapter in Modernist Cuisine. The same is even true for the modern phenomenon of pairing food with different varieties of salt. Thus this leaves coffee no more relevant and integral to the science of actual cuisine than, say, tea, after-dinner cordials, or even cigars or tobacco. None of which either have chapters in Modernist Cuisine, by the way.

We can make all sorts of excuses about the coffee in restaurants — such as how the “last mile” in the serving chain for coffee is far more technical and sensitive than that for serving tea or wine. But even if you solve that last mile problem, that doesn’t change coffee’s very limited relevance to cuisine overall. And the less relevant coffee is to cuisine, the less relevant good coffee becomes to the overall restaurant experience.

And the award for best supporting culinary actor again goes to … wine!

This might come as a slap in the face to a number of coffee professionals who are riding a revolutionary wave in coffee consumerism. (Note that we deliberately didn’t call it a revolution in coffee.) In the past decade, some have even envisioned the role of the barista on the same pedestal that food television bestows upon celebrity chefs — or at least the expectation of rivaling the wine sommelier.

This video game is hard to win by the rulesThis belief is fed by a steady stream of people selling coffee technology and pitching media stories inspired by the major changes in coffee consumerism. All of which has given modern coffee a little bit of an egotistical head case — an occasional sense of entitlement to a rightful place in the pantheon of restaurant gods alongside pedestals for wine pairings, cheese courses, and dessert menus.

But baristas aren’t at all like chefs, and that’s a good thing. (If anything, they’re a bit more like line cooks.) Baristas aren’t like sommeliers either, and that’s also probably a good thing. Specialization exists in a modern society for good reason: we don’t want our mixologists making our pork belly, and we really don’t want waiters and host/esses pulling our espresso shots. And just as head chefs rely on sommeliers and pastry chefs, we honestly don’t want our chefs obsessing over our coffee service.

Either play by coffee’s rules, or we don’t play at all

The SCAA conference’s “Culinary Track” is one of the better examples of how distorted the coffee industry views itself within the culinary world’s hierarchy of needs. The SCAA might partner with the Texas Restaurant Association for its annual conference in Houston at the end of this month, but it is still as if the SCAA expects Mohammad to come to the mountain — not the other way around (i.e., establishing a coffee track at a restaurateur conference, such as done at Fancy Food shows).

For each annual industry conference for tea, aperitifs, cordials, cheese, and salumi, does the SCAA expect that restaurateurs will take time out from their relentless schedules to attend a restaurateur-dedicated culinary track at each of these events? Is coffee so egotistical as to believe that it is entitled to a role more prominent than any of its sister components to an overall restaurant meal?

The future fate of restaurant coffee

CoffeeGeek’s legendary Mark Prince may have gotten excited by reading Modernist Cuisine‘s slagging of restaurant coffee standards, but there is absolutely nothing modern about this phenomenon. General consumer standards for coffee may have improved over the past decade, but restaurants on this continent are forever doomed to be laggards for the reasons outlined above. It’s a pattern that has persisted for decades.

Why it has taken us this long to write off restaurant coffee as a second-class culinary citizen is a bit of a mystery. But like everyone else, it’s time to get over it. Reliably good restaurant coffee will never happen. Not in our lifetimes. And probably not ever. And the sooner we can stop pretending that coffee is some elite offshoot of the culinary arts, the better.

Coffee’s Slow Dance, or Pop Will Repeat Itself

Posted by on 12 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends

The New York Times published an article this week (due in the NY Times Magazine tomorrow) from its coffee beat regular, Oliver Strand: Japan’s Pour-Over Coffee Wins Converts – NYTimes.com. It’s a relatively effective trend piece — dealing more with pop culture and a sort of social anthropology than anything it says about coffee. But coffee’s story over the past decade is primarily about an evolution of pop culture rather than any evolution in coffee itself.

What's old is new again: NY Times on the pour-over coffee fadThe article introduces the notion of national coffee cultures and how Japan has finally earned some long overdue recognition. Giving credit to Japan’s long history of quality coffee is a refreshing change from the usual mainstream media take, as coffee reporting is rife with historical revisionism.

Just last week, the San Jose Mercury News reported that “there’s a new DIY trend afoot in the world of coffee lovers … they’re roasting their own coffee beans — at home.” This despite a good decade of noticeable decline in activity on home roasting newsgroups, online forums, and mailing lists — in response to the increasing consumer availability of high quality, fresh-roasted, date-stamped coffees.

Pour-over coffee is new if it’s new to you

But while Mr. Strand does a great job in recognizing that Japanese quality coffee culture wasn’t born yesterday, he isn’t nearly as successful with doing the same for the very old, very un-trendy practice of pour-over coffee brewing. To quote his article:

“…Cooking isn’t stuck in 1990, or we would still be sitting down to menus with honey-mustard glaze and sun-dried tomatoes. Why should coffee be any different? ”

And yet the article goes on to discuss pour-over coffee. Except that pour-over is a holdover from the 1990s, with coffee shops such as Oakland’s Cole Coffee (née Royal Coffee) and Monterey’s Plumes offering handmade, individual serving pour-over coffee since the halcyon days of car phone antennas and rollerblading along the Embarcadero. Long before Phil Jabar, of Philz Coffee fame, even thought about coffee.

Monmouth Coffee in London - serving individual pour-over coffee since 1978But even 1990 doesn’t go far back enough. Monmouth Coffee in London has been offering individual pour-over coffee since 1978 — the days of the very fondue sets that Mr. Strand mentions in his article. And yet we have food blog posts announcing those “high-tech Chemex brewers” that were actually invented in the 1930s, and the original Melitta pour-over filter design was patented around the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series (1908).

Is it any wonder why we roll our eyes whenever someone brings up the popular (and misused) form of the “Third Wave” tag — as if nobody had thought of making quality coffee until they just invented it three years ago? Even the Japanese Hario dripper kettle Mr. Strand cites in the article represents a simple modification of the hot water pot — i.e., hardly something revolutionary. Consumer toaster manufacturers change their designs every couple of years, introducing new features like bagel settings, and yet nobody speaks of toast experiencing a “Third Wave” or radical quality revolution.

Understanding the need for (perceived) speed

Which all makes us wonder why coffee has a tendency to put a new coat of paint on the Vatican and tell us it’s new and revolutionary architecture. Perhaps we all innately need to believe that we live in accelerated and interesting times to get us out of bed in the morning. A cultural environment that promotes a kind of faux anxiety is probably good for jobs, good for product marketing, good for filling conference seats, and even good for book authors, newspaper columnists, and, well, blog posters.

However you look at it, hand-pour coffee is old. Japanese coffee culture is even older. But the Western recognition of and appreciation for pour-over coffee and Japanese coffee culture is definitely new. Or at least new to enough of us to warrant a worthy trend piece in the Times.

Why is the coffee industry so indifferent to its customers?

Posted by on 03 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine

Many in the coffee industry speak volumes about wanting to market themselves to the public as the “new wine.” But if we examine the practices the industry has taken on to accomplish any of this, it has failed miserably on nearly all fronts. What becomes all too clear is that the coffee industry either doesn’t want to engage with its customers or awkwardly has no clue how to do it — despite the many hints and clues left by the wine industry it supposedly looks up to.

Let’s examine the closest things the coffee industry offers in terms of public outreach, contrasting them with similar practices in the wine industry.

Death by barista competition

The new season of barista competitions is upon us once again (this is the original inspiration behind this post). Barista championships are widely considered one of the prouder, most marketable achievements of the specialty coffee industry. And yet they exhibit all the hallmarks of a navel-gazing insider event that feigns courting but really disregards the coffee consuming public.

Does this look anything like what café customers can relate to?Whether in person or via online video streams, following a few seasons of them creates its own form of repetitive stress injury. Bear witness to a few consecutive seasons, and it’s little wonder that people in the coffee business for any length of time simply stop attending. And despite a frequently-stated desire for a TV-ready, Top Chef-like equivalent for the coffee industry, these competitions are even more tedious for the coffee consuming public.

The competitions demonstrate a form of precision gymnastics to which no retail coffee consumer can relate. Glowing red timers on the walls; a dog-show-like presentation complete with mic’ed up headset and mood music; a hunched-over team of clipboard carriers who scurry like roaches as they inspect spent pucks and leftover grinds in the hopper. Even the specialty drinks compulsories are completely disconnected from anything resembling coffee in a retail environment. (As we’ve always liked to say, “if it requires a recipe, it’s not coffee.”)

Coffee lovers are sure to swoon over the USBC Brewers CupTo make matters worse — or at least more puzzling to consumers — the USBC has now introduced the concept of the Brewers Cup: to exhalt the art of pouring hot water over coffee grounds. Then throw on more formal recognition of latte art competitions — the industry’s push to elevate coffee not so much as a consumable, but as an art medium not entirely unlike pen & ink wash or watercolors. Huh?

Can the coffee industry produce a public event that isn’t a game show?

If we look over to the wine industry, just how many of their public events are modeled after reality TV game shows? A competitive sommelier beat-down, perhaps? Painting with wine contests? PBS surprisingly opted to renew The Winemakers for a second season, but microscopically few wine fans have ever heard of it.

The SF International Wine Competition: maybe engaging with consumers isn't such a horrible idea after allThere are competitive events such as the SF International Wine Competition, but they actively engage public participation, offer public education, and generally prevent these events from becoming industry navel-gazing or a mere spectator sport. However, the wine industry frequently engages with consumers through targeted consumer appreciation events as varied as the Rhone Rangers or the Family Winemakers of California or even cultural attaché marketing arms such as local chapters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.

And coffee has… well… the SCAA conference. The conference made recent overtures to invite the culinary world to their events. But that’s still just business-to-business marketing that completely ignores consumers. With coffee, it’s as if the trade is all that matters. This is also reflected in the industry’s most popular publications — i.e., magazines such as Roast, Fresh Cup, Barista, etc.

Yet when you compare the number of coffee consumers to wine consumers, and the frequency that each consumes their respective products, doesn’t this suggest gaping holes in the coffee industry’s consumer outreach strategy?

Making consumers bend to the industry vs. the other way around

How could any coffee consumer resist this?Even when the coffee industry makes a direct attempt to engage consumers, it can blow up on the launchpad. When it tried to court consumers with the concept of comparative coffee tastings, it instead opted for the industry trade practice of cupping — with all its obscene slurps, crust making-and-breaking, and spinning a lot of defect detection as if it were a social event (meat inspection, anyone?). As such, coffee cupping resembles nothing like the experiences that made your average coffee consumer a fan of the stuff to begin with.

The idea of using coffee “disloyalty cards” to introduce consumers to new coffee houses is a more clever consumer outreach program that has caught on in a number of cities. But none of these programs have had much impact beyond a small audience enthralled with their initial novelty and a few local press releases.

And if you look at the way quality coffee is marketed in the press today to consumers, it’s as if the industry is hell-bent on a mission to prevent good coffee from being consumer-friendly and approachable. If you purchase a retail coffee beverage in a shop, consumers are barraged with price-tag hype and the programmed obsolescence of the latest espresso machine. Consumers brewing at home are bewildered by the pour-over arms race.

Wine may have more than its fair share of gadget hawkers — e.g., the next Rube Goldberg-esque cork pull or aerator gadget. However, wine consumers aren’t inundated by a monthly one-upsmanship competition telling them that how they appreciated wine last month is now wrong, outdated, and no longer expensive enough. We cannot say that about quality coffee, whose public marketing strategy has more in common with 4G smartphones than with wine.

What we’d like to see as coffee consumers

No, really -- just imagine itAs much as the coffee industry has promoted the idea, we’ve always felt comparing itself to the wine industry was generally a bad idea. Even so, there are simple things the coffee industry could be doing that might include consumers in their success — rather than putting up barriers, refusing to accommodate consumers, and yet still hoping they still find a way to engage themselves to keep their industry afloat.

Given the belief in coffee terroir, why not demonstrate and educate consumers on it? For example, we’d love to see a coffee-growing-nation-sponsored, consumer-focused event that explores the various roaster expressions of the latest crops from, say, Guatemala. Or if not a tasting event based on regions, how about growing seasons? The Cup of Excellence program has elements that can be applied here. However, it is modeled as purely a trade event and many coffee growing nations aren’t even represented.

Come on, guys. We love your stuff. Why do you have to make it so ridiculously hard to participate, let alone enjoy it?

Trip Report: Caffè Pascucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the review of Caffè Pascucci.



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

Trip Report: Cotogna

Posted by on 05 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Local Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

This more informal, osteria sister to the Quince restaurant next door (its name is Italian for “quince”) offers a mighty fine, albeit still somewhat pricey, Italian meal. (The old Quince relocated to Pacific Ave. here about a year ago.)

The space showcases many wide glass windows, exposed woods (everything seems brown in here), and a wood-fired oven (with spare wood surrounding the entrance). It attracts an older, old money Jackson Square set. But to remind you of their more modest aspirations, they offer dishtowels for napkins and an unusual wine menu where everything is priced at $40/bottle.

Glassy entrance to Cotogna Inside Cotogna

This is a very rare restaurant where the great attention to their very good food is matched by the attention they give to their very good coffee service. They’ve always been somewhat up on their coffee; when in their old Quince location, they used Barefoot Coffee when virtually no one else was in San Francisco. Back then Quince fell apart at the barista end, but not here.

They use a two-group Synesso — one of the few you’ll ever find in restaurant service — behind a zinc bar. Cleverly, they also employ a doserless Mazzer grinder, enforcing good practices among their staff to ensure that everything is ground to order. But it’s not like they would have to, as this restaurant seems to dedicate an employee to barista duties. In fact, they seem to do this more than just about any other restaurant we’ve ever visited anywhere.

Barista behind Cotogna's zinc bar operating a two-group Synesso and a doserless grinder The Cotogna espresso

Using coffee from Roast Coffee Co. in Emeryville, they pull shots with a richly colored, mottled, medium and lighter brown crema with irregular suspended bubbles. It’s served a little high, but not overly so for a doppio. It has a good, solid mouthfeel, with a roundness to its flavor — which is more focused in the pepper and cloves area.

At $4, it’s seriously expensive. But we like to reward good restaurant espresso service too, and there’s a lot of good practices going on here. This is one of the few American places we’ve been to where the coffee doesn’t give away that you’re having it in a restaurant.

Read the review of Cotogna.

What a difference four months makes: Cape Town, South Africa redux

Posted by on 11 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Call it coffee’s version of Hubble’s Law: the rate at which a local coffee scene evolves is inversely proportional to its maturity. What?!? Let us explain. Seattle and San Francisco are examples of well-established coffee cultures, and the rate of evolution and improvement we see in the coffee there tends to nudge along at a rather lumbering pace. Contrast this with what we’ve found on our recent return to Cape Town, South Africa. The local coffee culture there today is noticeably different from our last visit in July.

Cape Town may be much further along than, say, Dallas, Texas — where earlier last week we learned that a single new espresso machine in town is all that’s required to “earn us a little gold star on the national coffee map.” Cape Town boasts generally high espresso standards overall, plus a few exceptional cases such as Origin, TRUTH., and Espresso Lab Microroasters. But changes at just those three were significant enough.

Origin Coffee Roasters

The summer fog creeping over Table Mountain from the Origin entrance on Hudson St. The Origin cappuccino - I was looking forward to this much of the flight here

So what has changed? Over at Origin, they’ve reworked their retail model so that customers can now opt for any variety of their roasted coffee, rotated every two weeks, in any of four (five?) ways. This is not unlike SF’s recently opened Ma’velous.

They offer any of their coffees as plunger (i.e., French press, at R17, or about $2.50), Turkish (R17), pour-over (using a Hario V60, at R20), and siphon (also Hario, at R22). Additionally there’s the espresso option (now R16, up from R14 a few months ago) — which can also accommodate any coffee as a single-origin or blend option through the use of their new doserless Compak grinders. Cup of Excellence coffees are additionally available for a R10 surcharge.

Origin's Synesso and Compak grinder in the downstairs service area Origin's new coffee menu

Origin’s upstairs “dining” area is being reworked with a new La Marzocco GB/5 placed at a new espresso bar that’s front-and-center, and downstairs they replaced their Linea with a three-group Synesso (Origin being South Africa’s Synesso distributor).

Origin is also emphasizing their recent triumphs at Cape Town’s 2011 regional barista championships, where Joanne Berry, Origin’s barista trainer, won for the second year running. It inspired Origin to offer the signature drinks of their competing baristas on the menu for R25 — save for the spun sugar cups made for Ms. Berry’s drink at the competition. Although we’ve always questioned the relevancy of the specialty drink category of barista competitions, Origin has at least created a retail outlet to make it more relevant.

Oh, and the Kenya Makwa AA 2010 here, made of a typical SL28 & K7 Kenyan cultivar mutation, was excellent.

Origin promotes their specialty drinks from the recent Cape Town barista competition More Origin specialty drinks

The TRUTH. about espresso crema

David Donde is quite a local force of personality. He founded Cape Town’s TRUTH.coffeecult and co-founded Origin (TRUTH. being part of the stereotypical local coffee scene “divorce,” a la Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel) and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. This when he’s not doing a local radio program on sports cars.

We had missed connecting with David a number of times on our last visit, so we lucked out finding him having breakfast when visiting TRUTH.’s main location. David always has several different ideas going on in the fire — not all of them coffee related. But in our discussions about coffee, he was clearly obsessing over flavor. For one, he’s adamant about getting the “roast flavor out of coffee” and having it rely more on acidity and body. He also expanded on some of the assumption-busting experimentation he’s thought about since meeting James Hoffman in London to play with coffee — akin to how some musicians cross paths and hold a private jam session. (In David’s words, he “spent day with James tasting bad coffee and trying to fix it”.)

TRUTH.coffeecult TRUTH.coffeecult's Probat inside

One big topic was the whole “crema is bad for coffee” debate that originated from the Coffee Collective guys in Copenhagen a couple years ago. Mr. Hoffman took a year to succumb to the idea, and just yesterday we had Eater interviewing Chris Young and touching on the subject.

The idea is that crema is a necessary by-product of good espresso extraction. But while we’ve all been indoctrinated that “crema is good,” further inspection suggests that the crema actually makes espresso taste bad. That without crema, or even skimming it off as David demonstrated for me, your espresso is a cleaner, sweeter shot.

We still came to the conclusion that the idea is very subjective. Yes, the crema by itself was bitter, and the crema-less espresso was cleaner and sweeter. Not that we’re big fans of bitter coffee, but we’re much bigger critics of deconstructionism — i.e., the belief that the quality and integrity of the whole is merely an aggregation of the quality of its constituent parts in isolation. But even ignoring that we value deconstructionism as a barely more reputable cousin of homeopathy, the subjectivity of this evaluation is grounds enough to be skeptical: some people are clearly on a mission to make all of our coffee taste like berries, and not everybody thinks this is a good idea … us included.

David Donde skims crema for us at TRUTH.coffeecult TRUTH.coffeecult's manifesto

Experimentation is high these days in coffee, and David is a major advocate. Still, we can’t help but be a little jaded when people start bandying about the science word in relation to all of this, invoking misplaced implications of high technology. Lacking a basic control or null hypothesis, the simple act of measurement is no more science than a three-year-old who crawls the floor looking for things to stick in his mouth. Just because the Taiwanese chain 85℃ puts salt in their coffee, and experimenters learn that salt masks bitterness in coffee, should that honestly make 85℃ eligible for a future Nobel Prize?

Science or no science, experimentation and challenging assumptions still has merit. David also demonstrated how latte art was possible without crema, explained how he came to appreciate the caffè americano only when the espresso + hot water order was switched (a la the Aussie long black), and related that cold portafilter handles (frozen even, in his own test) do prove to make terrible espresso. We also saw very much eye-to-eye on things like the relevance of specialty drinks in barista competitions (what are you really judging?) and the limits of “cause coffee” when quality isn’t your primary goal (Jo’berg’s Bean There being an example).

David prepares an espresso with skimmed crema for producing latte art Latte art achieved with skimmed crema - even if the drink was far too milky as such

Espresso Lab Microroasters

Last but not least is Espresso Lab Microroasters. While still working with their four core sources for beans, they have expanded a bit of their small storage area for greens and even added an additional GB/5 for Saturday market traffic. Apparently their business nearby doubled since our last post, so here’s to supporting good coffee.

Espresso Lab Microroasters added a second La Marzocco GB/5 Espresso Lab Microroaster's espresso shot of El Meridiano, Tolima, Colombia

But talk about a memory — the team remembered what we last sampled from them four months ago. They also follow a coffee buying strategy we’ve long advocated: buying runners up at Cup of Excellence competitions at a major discount to the winner. Should a couple of subjective points in CoE taste test really justify one coffee selling at multiples of its runner up? The Lab’s organic-farmed Serra do Boné came in second in Brazil’s 2010 CoE competition, and we missed nothing but a much higher price for a stellar, balanced coffee with a sweetness of fruit and honey.

Last week the Lab recently added an Xmas blend (35% Karimikui Kenya, 35% Adado Ethiopia, 30% Mocha Harazi Yemen) as a “dessert” coffee: it has a noticeable lack of body, by design, but with a brightness and lightness for finishing off a big holiday meal. Still, with the great number of South Africans who prefer the moka pot for home use (despite being able to buy every variant of Aeropress, Hario V60 dripper, etc., while here), we like the fact that they optimize some of their roasts for the underappreciated Moka pot.

And on the “is crema bad for espresso” controversy, btw, co-owner Renato thinks crema is integral but sets the stage wrong as the first taste on a consumer’s palate.

Espresso Lab's 2010 CoE Brazil runner-up: Serra do Boné Renato at Espresso Lab Microroasters readying another batch

We can only manage what we might find in Cape Town again next year.

Is America distorting coffee’s tradition?

Posted by on 15 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s The Korea Herald published a thought-provoking (if not debatable) piece about one-time Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong: Barista bringing coffee back to basics. Internal divisions within the national barista association prevented him from representing South Korea at the 2007 WBC in Tokyo, and he dismisses the notion that a training course can make one a qualified barista.

Former South Korean barista champ, Jeon YongBut one of the more curious topics he brought up concerned coffee standards — and how what the Italians may have started long ago has since been hijacked and adulterated by American franchise coffee shops. From the article:

“Coffee is being globalized by the American standard. Coffee is a culture that the Italians have cultivated over hundreds of years. It’s a pride they have, but the American franchise coffee shops have completely distorted the originality ― let’s say Korean kimchi is being spread to the world with the Japanese word ‘ki-mu-chi’ ― that is not what we can call cultural diversity, but a distortion of a tradition. That is what is happening to coffee these days ― becoming like ‘ki-mu-chi.’”
– Former Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong

Earlier this year, Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè, ignited a bit of a coffee culture smackdown — taking shots at the American brightness bombs and heavily-packed shots that pass for quality espresso here. You might say Mr. Yong seems to be in a similar camp, suggesting that American coffee shops have perverted a standard that is now being spread throughout the world with America’s economic and cultural weight. (We liked his kimchi analogy.)

License to Kim Jong-il might question if Third Wave is Best Wave, howeverAs we like to jokingly say with a zombie-like mantra, “Third Wave is Best Wave“.

Yet right after making that point, Mr. Yong completely loses the plot — linking the same forces distorting espresso’s cultural standard to those exploiting coffee growers to the fullest extent possible. (A bizarre accusation for some of the biggest wavers of the Fair Trade flag.) Commenting after he watched the deeply flawed documentary Black Gold, we don’t expect him to fully comprehend the cost-of-living disparity between coffee producing and consuming nations, which the documentary miserably failed to do. But any wannabe champion barista should be aware of the many links in coffee’s supply chain — not just farmers and baristas.

Worse, he claims both that coffee is “completely overpriced” and that we are not paying enough to coffee farmers in the very same article — practically a form of cognitive dissonance. All of which unfortunately devalues his opinions in the end.

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