Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
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.
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.”)
To 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?
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.
There 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?
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.
As 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?
In 2009, the Italy-based Caffè Pascucci chain (including its espresso school, etc.) turned over its financial management to a group that has since favored more aggressive global expansion plans. These expansion plans included bringing their first non-Italian café chain store on this spot, across of AT&T Park in a modern brick commercial complex.
The Italian bible of coffee ratings, the Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia, rates the coffee at two of this café’s many sisters in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. The location in Rimini (Viale Amerigo Vespucci, 3a) received two chicchi (coffee beans) out of a maximum of three, and the grander shop in Riccone (Via Parini) received a full three chicchi. So there’s enough reason to expect the espresso here to be pretty good (and worth exporting). Contrast this with, say, Segafredo Zanetti chain, which has always underwhelmed.
They call themselves Rimini-based, however. The on-duty barista on our visit worked for two years in their Rimini café, and he had the appropriate accent and tattoos for someone from the area. But for the many Americans who think of Italy as Florence-Rome-Venice, saying you’re from Rimini is like telling a San Francisco tourist that you live in the Excelsior. (“Is that near the Golden Gate Bridge?”) Despite its famous beach and favorite son in Federico Fellini, we caught an American (who had traveled in Italy, mind you) asking the barista where in Italy the café was from. The barista smartly replied, “East.”
Inside the café it looks like a modern Italian furnishings store — complete with white leather seating options (sofas, chairs), angular tables and chairs, and tall stools. It’s not a particularly large space, but the mirrored wall helps.
Front and center is a serving bar with twin, two-group, shiny Fiorenzato Ducale Tall machines — from which they produce sizable doppio shots with a sharp, potent flavor. There’s little softness to the cup’s spice, woodiness, and slight bitterness that borders on a medicinal edge (which isn’t particularly appealing). It has a nicely textured medium brown crema, however. Served in gold logo ACF cups, like the ones used in their Italian cafés.
Their drink menu famously has odd creations, what the Bar d’Italia calls versioni più fantasiose (“more imaginative versions”) or versioni golose (literally, “gluttonous versions”). A prefect example are their espressi confuso — where the confuso means what you think it does. These are espresso drinks made with a unique cream-like concoction served from a whipped cream maker at a premium price, suggesting the popular bucket-of-pumpkin-pie-flavored-Cool-Whip drinks that Starbucks made famous with their own ode to gluttony — but with some Italian-style modesty thrown in.
Read the review of Caffè Pascucci.
This more informal, osteria sister to the Quince restaurant next door (its name is Italian for “quince”) offers a mighty fine, albeit still somewhat pricey, Italian meal. (The old Quince relocated to Pacific Ave. here about a year ago.)
The space showcases many wide glass windows, exposed woods (everything seems brown in here), and a wood-fired oven (with spare wood surrounding the entrance). It attracts an older, old money Jackson Square set. But to remind you of their more modest aspirations, they offer dishtowels for napkins and an unusual wine menu where everything is priced at $40/bottle.
This is a very rare restaurant where the great attention to their very good food is matched by the attention they give to their very good coffee service. They’ve always been somewhat up on their coffee; when in their old Quince location, they used Barefoot Coffee when virtually no one else was in San Francisco. Back then Quince fell apart at the barista end, but not here.
They use a two-group Synesso — one of the few you’ll ever find in restaurant service — behind a zinc bar. Cleverly, they also employ a doserless Mazzer grinder, enforcing good practices among their staff to ensure that everything is ground to order. But it’s not like they would have to, as this restaurant seems to dedicate an employee to barista duties. In fact, they seem to do this more than just about any other restaurant we’ve ever visited anywhere.
Using coffee from Roast Coffee Co. in Emeryville, they pull shots with a richly colored, mottled, medium and lighter brown crema with irregular suspended bubbles. It’s served a little high, but not overly so for a doppio. It has a good, solid mouthfeel, with a roundness to its flavor — which is more focused in the pepper and cloves area.
At $4, it’s seriously expensive. But we like to reward good restaurant espresso service too, and there’s a lot of good practices going on here. This is one of the few American places we’ve been to where the coffee doesn’t give away that you’re having it in a restaurant.
Read the review of Cotogna.
Call it coffee’s version of Hubble’s Law: the rate at which a local coffee scene evolves is inversely proportional to its maturity. What?!? Let us explain. Seattle and San Francisco are examples of well-established coffee cultures, and the rate of evolution and improvement we see in the coffee there tends to nudge along at a rather lumbering pace. Contrast this with what we’ve found on our recent return to Cape Town, South Africa. The local coffee culture there today is noticeably different from our last visit in July.
Cape Town may be much further along than, say, Dallas, Texas — where earlier last week we learned that a single new espresso machine in town is all that’s required to “earn us a little gold star on the national coffee map.” Cape Town boasts generally high espresso standards overall, plus a few exceptional cases such as Origin, TRUTH., and Espresso Lab Microroasters. But changes at just those three were significant enough.
So what has changed? Over at Origin, they’ve reworked their retail model so that customers can now opt for any variety of their roasted coffee, rotated every two weeks, in any of four (five?) ways. This is not unlike SF’s recently opened Ma’velous.
They offer any of their coffees as plunger (i.e., French press, at R17, or about $2.50), Turkish (R17), pour-over (using a Hario V60, at R20), and siphon (also Hario, at R22). Additionally there’s the espresso option (now R16, up from R14 a few months ago) — which can also accommodate any coffee as a single-origin or blend option through the use of their new doserless Compak grinders. Cup of Excellence coffees are additionally available for a R10 surcharge.
Origin’s upstairs “dining” area is being reworked with a new La Marzocco GB/5 placed at a new espresso bar that’s front-and-center, and downstairs they replaced their Linea with a three-group Synesso (Origin being South Africa’s Synesso distributor).
Origin is also emphasizing their recent triumphs at Cape Town’s 2011 regional barista championships, where Joanne Berry, Origin’s barista trainer, won for the second year running. It inspired Origin to offer the signature drinks of their competing baristas on the menu for R25 — save for the spun sugar cups made for Ms. Berry’s drink at the competition. Although we’ve always questioned the relevancy of the specialty drink category of barista competitions, Origin has at least created a retail outlet to make it more relevant.
Oh, and the Kenya Makwa AA 2010 here, made of a typical SL28 & K7 Kenyan cultivar mutation, was excellent.
David Donde is quite a local force of personality. He founded Cape Town’s TRUTH.coffeecult and co-founded Origin (TRUTH. being part of the stereotypical local coffee scene “divorce,” a la Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel) and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. This when he’s not doing a local radio program on sports cars.
We had missed connecting with David a number of times on our last visit, so we lucked out finding him having breakfast when visiting TRUTH.’s main location. David always has several different ideas going on in the fire — not all of them coffee related. But in our discussions about coffee, he was clearly obsessing over flavor. For one, he’s adamant about getting the “roast flavor out of coffee” and having it rely more on acidity and body. He also expanded on some of the assumption-busting experimentation he’s thought about since meeting James Hoffman in London to play with coffee — akin to how some musicians cross paths and hold a private jam session. (In David’s words, he “spent day with James tasting bad coffee and trying to fix it”.)
One big topic was the whole “crema is bad for coffee” debate that originated from the Coffee Collective guys in Copenhagen a couple years ago. Mr. Hoffman took a year to succumb to the idea, and just yesterday we had Eater interviewing Chris Young and touching on the subject.
The idea is that crema is a necessary by-product of good espresso extraction. But while we’ve all been indoctrinated that “crema is good,” further inspection suggests that the crema actually makes espresso taste bad. That without crema, or even skimming it off as David demonstrated for me, your espresso is a cleaner, sweeter shot.
We still came to the conclusion that the idea is very subjective. Yes, the crema by itself was bitter, and the crema-less espresso was cleaner and sweeter. Not that we’re big fans of bitter coffee, but we’re much bigger critics of deconstructionism — i.e., the belief that the quality and integrity of the whole is merely an aggregation of the quality of its constituent parts in isolation. But even ignoring that we value deconstructionism as a barely more reputable cousin of homeopathy, the subjectivity of this evaluation is grounds enough to be skeptical: some people are clearly on a mission to make all of our coffee taste like berries, and not everybody thinks this is a good idea … us included.
Experimentation is high these days in coffee, and David is a major advocate. Still, we can’t help but be a little jaded when people start bandying about the science word in relation to all of this, invoking misplaced implications of high technology. Lacking a basic control or null hypothesis, the simple act of measurement is no more science than a three-year-old who crawls the floor looking for things to stick in his mouth. Just because the Taiwanese chain 85℃ puts salt in their coffee, and experimenters learn that salt masks bitterness in coffee, should that honestly make 85℃ eligible for a future Nobel Prize?
Science or no science, experimentation and challenging assumptions still has merit. David also demonstrated how latte art was possible without crema, explained how he came to appreciate the caffè americano only when the espresso + hot water order was switched (a la the Aussie long black), and related that cold portafilter handles (frozen even, in his own test) do prove to make terrible espresso. We also saw very much eye-to-eye on things like the relevance of specialty drinks in barista competitions (what are you really judging?) and the limits of “cause coffee” when quality isn’t your primary goal (Jo’berg’s Bean There being an example).
Last but not least is Espresso Lab Microroasters. While still working with their four core sources for beans, they have expanded a bit of their small storage area for greens and even added an additional GB/5 for Saturday market traffic. Apparently their business nearby doubled since our last post, so here’s to supporting good coffee.
But talk about a memory — the team remembered what we last sampled from them four months ago. They also follow a coffee buying strategy we’ve long advocated: buying runners up at Cup of Excellence competitions at a major discount to the winner. Should a couple of subjective points in CoE taste test really justify one coffee selling at multiples of its runner up? The Lab’s organic-farmed Serra do Boné came in second in Brazil’s 2010 CoE competition, and we missed nothing but a much higher price for a stellar, balanced coffee with a sweetness of fruit and honey.
Last week the Lab recently added an Xmas blend (35% Karimikui Kenya, 35% Adado Ethiopia, 30% Mocha Harazi Yemen) as a “dessert” coffee: it has a noticeable lack of body, by design, but with a brightness and lightness for finishing off a big holiday meal. Still, with the great number of South Africans who prefer the moka pot for home use (despite being able to buy every variant of Aeropress, Hario V60 dripper, etc., while here), we like the fact that they optimize some of their roasts for the underappreciated Moka pot.
And on the “is crema bad for espresso” controversy, btw, co-owner Renato thinks crema is integral but sets the stage wrong as the first taste on a consumer’s palate.
We can only manage what we might find in Cape Town again next year.
Today’s The Korea Herald published a thought-provoking (if not debatable) piece about one-time Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong: Barista bringing coffee back to basics. Internal divisions within the national barista association prevented him from representing South Korea at the 2007 WBC in Tokyo, and he dismisses the notion that a training course can make one a qualified barista.
But one of the more curious topics he brought up concerned coffee standards — and how what the Italians may have started long ago has since been hijacked and adulterated by American franchise coffee shops. From the article:
“Coffee is being globalized by the American standard. Coffee is a culture that the Italians have cultivated over hundreds of years. It’s a pride they have, but the American franchise coffee shops have completely distorted the originality ― let’s say Korean kimchi is being spread to the world with the Japanese word ‘ki-mu-chi’ ― that is not what we can call cultural diversity, but a distortion of a tradition. That is what is happening to coffee these days ― becoming like ‘ki-mu-chi.'”
— Former Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong
Earlier this year, Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè, ignited a bit of a coffee culture smackdown — taking shots at the American brightness bombs and heavily-packed shots that pass for quality espresso here. You might say Mr. Yong seems to be in a similar camp, suggesting that American coffee shops have perverted a standard that is now being spread throughout the world with America’s economic and cultural weight. (We liked his kimchi analogy.)
As we like to jokingly say with a zombie-like mantra, “Third Wave is Best Wave“.
Yet right after making that point, Mr. Yong completely loses the plot — linking the same forces distorting espresso’s cultural standard to those exploiting coffee growers to the fullest extent possible. (A bizarre accusation for some of the biggest wavers of the Fair Trade flag.) Commenting after he watched the deeply flawed documentary Black Gold, we don’t expect him to fully comprehend the cost-of-living disparity between coffee producing and consuming nations, which the documentary miserably failed to do. But any wannabe champion barista should be aware of the many links in coffee’s supply chain — not just farmers and baristas.
Worse, he claims both that coffee is “completely overpriced” and that we are not paying enough to coffee farmers in the very same article — practically a form of cognitive dissonance. All of which unfortunately devalues his opinions in the end.
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?