Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Particularly since the late 1980s, the plight of the coffee farmer has not been a pleasant one. Public awareness of this major problem gave rise to mitigation strategies such as Fair Trade and Direct Trade. A couple months ago, you may have seen the press releases for Traceable Coffee.org — a project of Pachamama, a global cooperative of coffee farmers, that enables consumers to trace their purchased coffee to the farmer, to hear their stories, and to offer them additional financial support in the form of a virtual tip jar.
In their own words, “TraceableCoffee.org brings consumers face-to-face with coffee farmers and lets them tip their farmer for a job well done.” While the cause is noble and the intentions are good, TraceableCoffee.org symbolizes another gross oversimplification of bean-to-cup philosophy and how the coffee industry actually works.
Much like the Tyranny of the Barista effect, which oversimplifies the coffee supply chain in consuming nations by identifying almost exclusively with the barista, there is a sort of corollary in coffee producing nations that identifies almost exclusively with the farmer. So instead of bean-to-cup, what we end up with is bean-and-cup — or an obsessive focus at both ends of the supply chain but a complete blindness to everything that goes on between the two.
On the one hand, this blindness might not seem any more harmful than creating a family tree with only yourself and Adam & Eve on it. But there are potentially harmful effects. A documentary like Black Gold laments that a farmer receives only $0.03 on a $3 cup of coffee, and the implication is that all the other contributors of coffee’s supply chain — from coffee pickers, sorters, washers, truck drivers, dockworkers, etc. — are merely parasites out to starve the noble farmer. “Let’s bypass the evil, greedy middlemen,” the Fair Trade cry implies.
Of course, a major percentage of the cost of a cup of coffee comes from the consuming country after the green beans arrive in shipping containers. But before we demonize all these shippers, dockworkers, truck drivers, buyers, roasters, and baristas, we must acknowledge the enormous cost-of-living gap between origin and consumer countries and how that affects labor costs. In fact, the very existence of this gap is a major reason why we even import coffee to begin with. Longshoremen in Guatemala and America may have vastly different costs of living and the salaries to match — even if their quality of living isn’t all that different.
With just a 1% share of the retail price on a cup of coffee, coffee farmers clearly don’t get a fair shake. But the story of the global coffee trade is much, much more than just farmers and baristas. Even if we don’t expect to see virtual tip jars for Colombian truck drivers anytime soon.
Today Tim Wendelboe — World-Barista-Champion-turned-microroaster (and major influencer of the recently reviewed Espresso Lab Microroasters) — posted a rather thorough first-thoughts review of the new La Marzocco Strada on his official blog: Tim Wendelboe » Blog Archive » La Marzocco Strada – first thoughts. Of particular interest are some of his insights about the machine’s sensitivities and peculiarities regarding pressure profiling — the holy-grail-du-jour of cutting-edge espresso machine pushers and the people who fawn over them. To briefly quote him in the post:
“I think one needs to have a clear vision of what the espresso should taste like before one starts playing with profiles.”
Recent coffee industry drooling over pressure profiling is just one of the latest examples illustrating how much the industry currently values experimentation over standards and convention. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with tradeoffs. And conventional wisdom of the quality coffee industry did not always lean this way.
For example, I use a manual lever espresso machine at home — and have for many years. And for many years, even going back to the 1990s, many respected experts at the time told you that your best espresso — whether made at home or in a professional coffeehouse — should be made with a semi-automatic machine that controlled the pressure of the pulled shots. Use a pump; set it and forget it. The conventional wisdom back then?: allowing the machine to fix the pressure made for one less variable where the barista could screw things up.
This wasn’t necessarily bad logic, considering that espresso is a notoriously fickle product of many steps where something can go terribly wrong at every turn. After all, it’s for this reason we made espresso our yardstick for judging retailers who make coffee.
But more control always seems like a good thing until you might step back and question the results. The California Initiative System may have seemed like an awesome idea until you look back and see how it’s made our state ungovernable. This philosophical flip-flop towards pressure control illustrates how much we’ve swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. Without question, at some point in the future, we will come full circle again.
Whereas we’ve written an SF-oriented post on the common cues for recognizing a good or bad espresso, today’s WAtoday (Western Australia) features an article on how to spot a dodgy coffee: Perth’s Best and Worst Coffee.
We’ll simply quote it here:
Mooba Subiaco manager Hannah Cameron told WAtoday.com.au the top five ways customers can see that the coffee you are about to buy is not going to be top quality:
1) Beans are not ground on demand. Good baristas only grind the beans when they are needed. Ground coffee goes off in no time at all, if ground coffee is sitting in the coffee beans dispenser walk away now.
2) The shot is poured out of the machine too fast. A quick coffee is not a good coffee. Don’t be impatient. If your shot gets poured into the cup from the machine in under 10 seconds it won’t be good. The best take 20-40 seconds to filter through the coffee.
3) Don’t buy it if the barista does not use a clean milk jug, if they re-heat milk, add cold milk onto already heated milk and heat again or have a massive milk jug to heat heaps at a time.
4) If the bench is not clean, there are coffee grounds everywhere, the milk wand is caked in milk or anything looks unclean get out now.
5) If their machine looks like you could buy it for $100 don’t bother. Most top-quality Perth baristas use Synessos, the best machines in the world. If your barista used one of these you have a good chance that the final product will be tasty.
We pretty much agree with all of these points. However, we’d like to add a qualifier to the last one. Using a machine that looks worth about $100 is less of the cause and more of the symptom.
In the right barista hands, we’ve had very good espresso shots pulled from older refurbs or even cheaper machines. The real cue is a place that cares so little about their espresso quality that they cut as many corners as possible. This explains SF’s problem with La Spaziale machines: it’s not the machine that’s the problem, it’s the people who are buying them.
Mention the name “Woolworths” to an American, and they’ll think “Woolworth’s” [sic] (again with that possessive thing). Woolworth was founded in 1879 as one of America’s first five-and-dime stores — even if it has become known as Foot Locker since the turn of the millennium. For those who remember Woolworth as a discount dimestore, the last thing you’d expect from something named “Woolworths” is decent espresso.
Woolworths is a South African chain of clothing stores that was founded in Cape Town in 1931. This chain has no relation to the U.S. company, other than legally stealing an inspired variant of its name (without the possessive). They also operate in Australia under this name as a clothing retailer and discount grocer, so Australians have a similar reaction to Americans. But just as the American Woolworth’s evolved into an athletic shoe store, in South Africa Woolworths has evolved into something of a fancy packaged food store. It has the wholesome, feel-good green messaging of a Whole Foods, but without any of the whole food produce — making it more akin to an upscale version of the American Trader Joe’s chain. (Woolworths identifies not only the breed of cattle on their milk cartons, but also the farmer with his/her photo.)
Cultural perspective can do a lot to screw with your head. Take the Italian sportswear label, Kappa. Most Americans look at their Adam-and-Eve Omini logo and blush red, being culturally conditioned to think instead of the Eve-and-Eve silver naked ladies on the mud flaps of 18-wheelers. Meanwhile, any Italian knows it as the image of Adam and Eve — representing equality in sports, analogous to America’s Title IX, and the complete opposite of the chauvinistic American interpretation.
What helped get us beyond our cultural conditioning about Woolworths was that their W Cafés have earned some notoriety for the quality of their cappuccinos (not flat whites, mind you). A W Café is also home to the reigning South African barista champion — stealing the crown from Origin Coffee Roasting.
This W Café is located around the corner from their corporate flagship store/corporate offices in Cape Town’s City Bowl. There are a number of W Café parasols along the Longmarket St. sidewalk for sidewalk dining, but who really wants to here? (It’s not the most inviting sidewalk seating and people-watching in town.) Inside the small space there’s loud music and a festive staff with a limited number of stools to sit at along a short window counter facing Longmarket St., plus a lone table in back. The shop specializes more in “to-go” food, which leaves few options for breakfast and more for lunch (let alone indoor seating).
Using a three-group Nuova Simonelli — and a worn, three-group La Marzocco Linea — behind the front counter, they pull shots of decidedly organic espresso with a richly textured brown crema in a short paper cup (R11).
Ugh — if only they had something besides paper here. That’s enough to get us swearing in Afrikaans. However, the cup offers more than the usual paper design: with a grippable spiral, like the inside of a Hario V60 dripper. And the resulting cup is surprisingly good: with a full crema of real thickness, and very good body, and a rounded and smooth flavor that’s mostly a blend of herbal pungency.
A good place to go for a shot, and even a pretty good cappuccino (which is more like a caffè latte) — but not too much else.
Read the review of the W Café at Longmarket St. in Cape Town, South Africa.
In the news today, researchers in Australia have decided to take a deconstructionist’s approach towards creating the ideal coffee: Australia Looks To Produce The Ultimate Cup Of Coffee | Gov Monitor. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) performed experiments to determine how picking coffee cherries at different stages in their maturity might affect their taste in a resulting cup.
From the article:
Researchers taste tested a range of roasted coffees which had their cherries harvested at different stages of their growing cycles. Their aim was to determine when is the best time to harvest coffee cherries in order to achieve the tastiest cups of coffee for the growing espresso market and the traditional plunger market.
They rated the coffees according to five criteria; sweetness, balance, body, flavour and aftertaste.
We applaud the intended goals of measurement-driven thinking in their research, even if we’ve previously debunked the confusion between measurement and science for people tinkering with coffee. However, we also cannot help but feel that the RIRDC’s approach is loaded with the self-deceptions of food science deconstructionism. Another example of this deconstructionist approach being nutritionism.
The big problem with deconstructionism is that it presumes the superposition principle. In less geeky terms, this means assuming that nature behaves as if everything you can isolate is completely independent from everything else you can isolate, and that nature follows a simple sum of all the parts. This is a naïve belief because biological systems are highly interdependent. For example, vitamin D is added to most forms of dairy milk because our absorption rates of vitamin D are much poorer if we take it separately — i.e., without milk.
Similarly, what might give coffee a better body might also adversely impact its brightness or flavor (and does, in fact). Is it any wonder why coffee blending is more of an art than a science?
In the less geeky news department, we have this post from the Seattle Times‘ regular “Coffee City” columnist, Melissa Allison: Business & Technology | Coffeemania — from the mouths of baristas | Seattle Times Newspaper.
In true tyranny of the barista fashion, Ms. Allison offers several short interviews from coffee industry notables, from Tonya Wagner of Victrola Coffee Roasters to David Schomer of Espresso Vivace to author Michaele Weissman. With her lead-in of, “We’re going behind the counter to ask baristas to talk about themselves,” clearly we have several people who either currently aren’t or never have been professional baristas.
Must we always presume that anybody doing anything for quality coffee in the industry must be a barista? Is there any better way to simultaneously lowball the qualifications of a barista while grossly oversimplifying how good coffee arrives in our cups?
Among coffee aficionados in town, quality artisan coffee originates with Origin. Opening in 2006 in a more modest space, this place changed the face of coffee in Cape Town if not South Africa. Since its expansion, it is now three transparent levels of coffee, café, roasting, regional Synesso distributor, and barista training labs. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a Nigiro Tea salon inside that will wow any tea lover. (“Nigiro” being “Origin” backwards.) It’s no mistake that the three core people behind the cool South African coffee blog, I Love Coffee, chose to meet me at this very place to discuss the local coffee culture.
One of the striking things about this three-level church of coffee is its level of transparency and open access. Through efforts such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and the organic coffee movement, transparency in the industry has become an operative word. Here that transparency comes to life — as visitors are welcome to walk throughout the building, check out their roasting operations, inspect their bags of imported beans, and tour their barista training facilities.
The service area downstairs is dark with wood slat walls — sporting an array of Hario vac pots, moka pots, drippers, home espresso machines, and beans. Sure, you could say that this place has all the same fad-driven coffee trappings at Truth., but for some reason it seems more genuine in this environment. There is plenty of seating and a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the ready for espresso drinks. Though this Hudson-Street-level downstairs entrance is a bit clubby with a lounge-like feel.
Signs announce the more interesting fresh roasts from Origin’s roasting operations, with a heavier emphasis on African-sourced-beans (Tanzania, etc.) but also some single origins from familiar terroir in Central and South America plus the occasional El Salvador Cup of Excellence. Signs also announce Origin’s place as the home of the 2007 & 2008 South African barista champions.
Up the stairs past the Nigiro Tea salon, you enter their second level which consists of offices and a series of benches that form an espresso machine lab. Here, with barista certifications of employees hung on the wall, you can work with a Synesso machine, a WEGA, or a variety of other machines for training (or repair) services. Five years ago we recall Eton Tsuno of the defunct Café Organica espousing his vision for an espresso bar that offers home barista training, showcases home espresso machine models, etc. It’s been five years, and San Francisco still has yet to deliver on that vision. But here it is in Cape Town, South Africa — almost exactly as Eton described.
Upstairs to the top floor, you encounter their main roasting operations, a lot of in-process bagging for shipment, and a soul food café. Towards the rear of the floor, there’s a brighter, glass-enclosed seating area that opens out to patio tables and chairs under parasols across from nearby modeling agencies. There’s plenty of café seating there behind the bright panes of glass with a chalkboard wall that’s something of a community chat space.
Like a few other quality places in the area, they serve their espresso shots as default doubles. There are no cappuccinos on the drink menu: only flat whites. There’s even a “3/4 flat white” for this who like theirs with less steamed milk. Staff wearing Origin “Some Like It Black” T-shirts use another two-group La Marzocco Linea machine to pull their double shots in 30ml shotglasses (for R14), placed on a saucer with a short glass of mineral water on the side. Origin used to offer ceramic demitasses for their espresso, but they’ve run out and are awaiting a new supply (they complained that those from the previous supplier chipped too easily).
Their espresso has a hefty, darker brown crema that persists, a robust body (one of the better examples in Cape Town), and a rounded, pungent, herbal-based flavor with spices and sweetness at the bottom of the cup. They also produce excellent microfoam: it’s even and not overly generous on their cappuccino (OK, “flat white”). You can readily see how inspirational Origin is — any town would be lucky to have it.
Read the review of Origin Coffee Roasting in Cape Town, South Africa.
Also known as Truth. (note the period at the end), this café and roastery opened in March 2010 — founded by “charismatic leader and coffee evangelist” David Donde. Those aren’t our words, but Mr. Donde wouldn’t disagree.
Mr. Donde, a somewhat controversial local figure, is no small fish in the South African coffee pond. In 2006, he co-founded both the ground-breaking Origin Coffee Roasters and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. He may fancy himself as a coffee cult leader, but perhaps that isn’t entirely an exaggeration. Sure, he’s a regional talk show host and an automobile columnist for the national edition of GQ — giving mirrors a rather excessive workout wherever he goes. Maybe that doesn’t make him the David Koresh of coffee, but perhaps he’s close. Fortunately, Mr. Donde’s coffee efforts largely live up to the self-constructed spectacle and hype.
His café sports some outdoor plaza seating with TRUTH.-branded parasols, and indoors the space looks as much a museum to slavery (being home to the Prestwich Memorial) as it does a roastery with bags of beans, a Probat, and a wall of merchandising that includes the necessary Clever drippers, Expobar machines, etc.
Some locals criticize the atmosphere of this place, but we criticize it less for its misgivings in social dynamics and more for its over-earnest veneer of artisan coffee legitimacy. Let’s face it: the place reeks of “Third Wave” clichés. You get the sense that someone visited a few U.S. coffee bars crowned as “Third Wave” destinations by the mainstream media and developed a checklist of brand names, devices, services, and philosophical positions. As a result, Truth. feels a little like it’s going through all the motions of a heralded Third Wave coffee bar, but yet it seems less genuine for its place. To its defense, it’s not a cliché if few others on the continent are doing it. But the resulting espresso here is particularly defensible, given the end product.
Although we knew well of this café before arriving in Cape Town, we happened upon it while walking with 149,000 of our closest friends along Cape Town’s World Cup Fan Walk for the Uruguay-Netherlands semi-final. The Fan Walk was arguably more exciting and lively than the match itself.
As the World Cup progressed over the weeks, what started as a secured three-mile-long pedestrian zone for fans to walk to Green Point Stadium organically evolved into a massively popular street carnival filled with revelers, music, dancing, vuvuzelas, and food for people with or without tickets. Given Truth.’s location right on the Fan Walk, they kept their doors open past midnight to serve World Cup revelers seeking espresso and even Boerewors rolls (the South African version of the hot dog).
Using a three-group Nuova Simonelli Aurelia and grinders from Mazzer and Anfim, they serve double shots by default for R14. The barista also rejects sink shots (also a good thing). While they offer shots in Continental fine bone china, they served us in a 30ml shotglass with a shotglass of mineral water on the side. It has a frothy, darker brown crema with a lighter center at the pour. Its body is still on the lighter side, as is typical of South Africa, but it has a robust toasted flavor, mostly an herbal pungency with a sharp brightness and some earthy body. There’s even some sweetness towards the bottom. One of the most North American-style shots in town.
Read the review of Truth. at Green Point in Cape Town, South Africa.
Clearly, America has become a Third World nation. That’s what The Daily Show‘s John Oliver said two days ago when Team USA qualified for the next round of the World Cup by dramatically defeating Algeria with a deserved injury-time goal to close the group stages. Mr. Oliver’s logic? We have the rampant unemployment, the devalued currency, the massive national debt, we can’t win a war, and now we have the capable national soccer team to prove it.
Congratulations to Mike, who has spectacularly made it to the top of the world in only his third year of being a barista.
Coffee talk in the mainstream press these days looks a bit like the telenovela: short-lived serials from specific writers with an individual point of view. One of said serials comes from Giorgio Milos of illycaffè in The Atlantic, and his installment today is on milk frothing: All You Need to Know About Steaming Milk – Food – The Atlantic.
Mr. Milos injects a bit of World Cup mania in his article — which is appropriate, given that soccer (football) is unquestionably the official sport of the coffee world. (As an aside, we’ll be spending a little time ourselves in South Africa next month. Stay tuned for upcoming reviews of espresso bars and reports on the coffee culture specifically around Cape Town.)
Now there’s nothing in Mr. Milos’ short article that you couldn’t find in a standard barista book. But given that “milk” is the flavored coffee of choice in America, it’s a critical set of details for the local coffee culture. In our own home barista experience, we’ve found consistency much harder to achieve with milk frothing than with espresso shots.
Mr. Milos closes his article with an ode to latte art and a video demonstration at Mammarella’s in Napa. While we have yet to visit Mammarella’s, yesterday we were at Francis Ford Coppola’s sister café, Cafe Zoetrope. Let’s just say we were about as disappointed with their espresso as fans of Les Blues were with their 2-0 loss to Mexico.
If the title of this post seems like the product of a copy-editor undergoing a seizure, it is intentional. It echoes the title of a new article on Esquire‘s Web site verbatim: Worst Coffee Trends – Bad Coffee Trends – Esquire. To thicken the plot, do note that this is the second article in a series written by La Colombe‘s Todd Carmichael. His first was titled: Coffee Revolution – New Ways to Roast Cofee [sic] – Esquire. ([sic] added by us.)
What’s going on here? Esquire is usually doing battle with GQ for who’s male readers have more money, power, and women (in that Scarface order). What do they care about hipster doofuses drinking beverages that cost 0.000016% the price of a new Maserati GranTurismo? Why do they list it under the strange blog topic named “food-for-men”? And if they can afford that GranTurismo, why can’t they afford a spell-checker?
Those questions remain unanswered. What also remains unanswered is, “What’s with Todd Carmichael’s stream of consciousness in these pieces?” The original post reads like not-quite-lucid reflection that should be funny and entertaining. It used phrases like “cork sniffers” and “rock star barista”, plus it made an homage to the Torrefazione Italia of old — what’s not to like? But instead, it came off like an unfocused and incoherent rant. Amp up the language a bit, give the man a shopping basket to push, and he could pass for Gary Busey cruising the Tenderloin on his way to Glide Memorial for the night. We didn’t cite his piece the first time around because, well, it didn’t make any more sense than a Frank Chu sign.
In Mr. Carmichael’s latest rant — with the subtitle of 7 Steps to Survive the Horrible Hipster Coffee Trend — he takes on $17,000 coffee machines, roasters who fawn over elitist bean crops, and baristas who don’t conform to his ideals of appearance or speech. In other words: all the stupid crap we write about. Except we’re perhaps the craziest ones of all. Because when we do it, we honestly think we’re trying to make a focused, logical point somewhere along the way.
Mr. Carmichael: we honestly like what you’re trying to say. We even like your coffee — despite the occasional coffee Nazi who wants to publicly urinate on you out of a sense of superiority combined with good-press envy. So take this as benevolently as possible: don’t give up the day job. Stick to making good coffee or crossing the Antarctic, because expressing yourself in writing just isn’t your strong suit … and Lost no longer needs writers.