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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.

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 – 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 –“).

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 –

“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 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 – 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?

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