Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Without question, this gran caffè is a city institution. It’s long been considered a gathering place for intellectuals, thinkers, poets, foreigners and locals alike. Opening in 1860 as Il Gran Caffè, it started as a Parisian-styled singing café — or café-chantant — before adopting its current name in 1870. It is rightfully recognized among I Locali Storici d’Italia — an association dedicated to recognizing and helping to preserve some of the historically significant establishments in Italy.
Some of this café’s great historical connections include where Edoardo Scarfoglio and Matilde Serao launched the daily paper Il Corriere di Roma in the 1880s (they later went on to establish Il Mattino in 1891), where Gabriele D’Annunzio penned the Neapolitan classic “‘A Vucchella” in 1919 (here’s a version by Enrico Caruso, famed 1906 SF earthquake survivor), and where Jean-Paul Sartre, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Benedetto Croce, and the aforementioned Giovanni Agnelli each came to sit, think, talk, and maybe even write at some time or other.
Outside there are often crowds of tourists gathering for tours of the Napoli underground. There’s outdoor seating in front under parasols against Piazza Trieste e Trento, which very much feels like the heart of the city given nearby Piazza del Plebescito, Palazzo Reale, and the San Carlo theater.
Inside, there are many rooms of slightly fading glory: stucco, marble, grande chandeliers, ornate detailing, frescoes and paintings by some of Napoli’s great artists of the 19th century, antique woodwork. The place feels almost Torinese in its classic style and sophistication. There are books on coffee making from 1836 for sale. And many of the interior rooms feel like capelle — small chapels as if in a cathedral — dedicated to the art of pastries, gelato, a grand tea salon, etc. Some of these grand rooms were cut off as part of a separate bank established under Facist rule in 1938, but in 2001 they were reunited with the main café.
The often brusque baristi here can be older veterans, but there are some newer faces in the lot. Together they might linger longer on the orders of the locals regulars while speeding up for the tourists. They will preheat their ornate, Gambrinus-detailed MPAN cups, pulling shots from their manual four-group lever La San Marco machine with a striped dark and medium brown crema.
It’s a solid effort with Caffè Moreno coffee: a pungent Napoli-friendly flavor that just edges shy of a tobacco edge. A mere €1 at the bar. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia rated them two tazzine and two chicchi, which dropped them one chicco in their coffee rating from the 2013 edition (i.e., they were previously rated the maximum of three).
Like many places in Napoli, they have their own specialty drink: the Caffè Gambrinus, consisting of espresso, cacao powder, milk foam, whipping cream, and chocolate sprinkles.
Read the review of Gran Caffè Grambrinus in Napoli, Italy.
Opening in November 2010, this café feels like it has been here for far longer. (Contrast with nearby Scaturchio, dal 1905.) The interior space is a modern, stark white with spot lighting and lounge-like space surrounded by bottles of Champagne on the walls. Outside there’s ample seating under large parasols in the enjoyable Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.
The name “Neapolis”, the original name for Napoli, means “New City” in Greek. Napoli’s civilization has Greek roots dating back to at least the 4th century B.C. Buried in the more modern building foundations just a couple blocks away beneath Piazza San Gaetano lies the (now explorable) 6,000-capacity Greek/Roman theater used by Emperor Nero to perform his operas — including a debut in 64 A.D. where Nero famously sang through an earthquake and thought it a good omen.
So perhaps on the historical scale of the neighborhood, this café is a recent hiccup. But the espresso here is good enough to have been upped from a one to a two chicchi rating between the 2013 & 2014 editions of Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Even if the space comes adorned with some semi-cheesy local (Italian) tourist decorations, such as various Pulcinella masks and ornamental cornicelli.
Behind their four-group manual lever La San Marco machine, they sport four clear cylinders of roasted coffee blend options — including Arabica, Excelsa, Liberica, and Robusta. There’s a Maestro dell’Espresso certificate on display, certified by Illycaffè, for the master barista of the house. However, for the Saturday morning shift of our visit we had two young, seemingly novice (and uneasy) women operating as bariste on duty.
Using their Arabia blend, they pulled shots with a richly textured crema of a darker brown and even slightly grayish color — filled relatively high in IPA cups of modern design. Its taste is pure pungency with no ashiness, bitterness, or even a bright end for that matter.
The milk-frothing was a bit iffy, however: bubbly and too hot, but this was likely the B team. Though note that Neapolitans don’t go for overly frilly cappuccinos and latte art beyond a dusting of cocoa. A very reasonable €0.80.
Read the review of Gran Caffè Neapolis in Napoli, Italy.
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 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.
The 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.
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.
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.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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
While 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.
Curiously 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.
We’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…
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’ 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.”
There’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.
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.
You 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.
In 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.”
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.
So 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.”
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.
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“).
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?
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.
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.
We’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)
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.
Sure, 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.
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.
So 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.
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.
Beer 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.
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 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.
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?
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.