Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
We wrap up our brief series on Seattle’s espresso and coffee culture with a few observations.
First, it had been way, way too long since our last visit. Twelve years in fact. Which is all the more ridiculous given the kind of coffee tourists we’ve become. It was 15 years ago that I attended graduate summer classes on the UW campus (in the U District), and for the occasion I grew a goatee to mock many a stereotyped Starbucks barista in its birthplace. (Ultimately the joke was on me, as 15 years later I still sport that goatee.)
Back in 1995, despite its availability elsewhere at the time, espresso and espresso drinks (lattes, etc.) were a quintessential Seattle thing. Espresso Vivace already had 7 years of experimentation and innovation under its belt, and Starbucks had opened its first East Coast outlet just two years prior in Washington, D.C.
But just a decade later, people started looking to cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles for the next shiny new thing in coffee — with Seattle suddenly treated like some quaint, outdated reminder of coffee’s past. Interest in good coffee mutated into something that today looks more like interest in the next gimmick or fad for making good coffee: single origin espressos, the Clover, naked portafilters, cuppings, toys and gadgets, etc.
Today it isn’t enough to make good coffee. You have to invent something, or be new to the market, to get noticed — which isn’t something always equated with Seattle’s coffee culture. Restaurants suffer the same fate, as a quality stalwart like Masa’s is almost always passed up for the hot new place that opened last month or for a kitchen that starts cooking with liquid nitrogen and lasers. (Though given Masa’s espresso quality, perhaps lasers and liquid nitrogen might improve their coffee service.)
Ironically, it was Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) roasting over at Seattle’s Zoka who first coined the term “Third Wave“. But within just a few years, the coffee industry largely hijacked its meaning for marketing purposes, shoving Seattle out of any potential spotlight once again. Meanwhile, Seattle found its coffee relevancy publicly questioned as “second waver” Starbucks convinced more and more reluctant believers that it became just another mass-production fast food chain.
Sure, Seattle as a city earned a reputation for coffee quality that was not commensurate with the typical place down the street. Because, let’s face it, most of the coffee served in Seattle is godawful. But this is essentially true for any city outside of, say, Italy and Portugal. What matters for our reviewing purposes is what’s available at the top end.
And from what little we recently tested, Seattle isn’t missing a beat. With the exception of maybe Zoka and, understandably, Caffè Umbria, most of the espresso shots we had exhibited a rather “modern” New World flavor profile. Oddly, it was the local invasion of Portland’s Stumptown that was a no show — with a larger, weaker shot that didn’t quite make the grade, given expectations.
Synesso machines were all the rage in town — not surprising, given that Synesso is a Seattle-based manufacturer. And Melitta/pour-over bars were quite common. However, single origin espresso shots — and even the option for different roasts for your shot — seemed underrepresented in Seattle compared to what you find at the top end in San Francisco.
The quality at the top end is on par with SF. Yet Seattle still has the coffee culture down in spades by comparison: baristas regularly know their customers by name (and more importantly: know their preferences), and so many of the top places in town roast their own. And Seattle has Vivace, which is truly a cultural treasure for the American espresso lover.
We wish we could have reviewed many more places in our short time in Seattle, but long ago we made it a policy to never sample more than four espresso shots in one given morning or afternoon. Anything more than that, and the flavor profiles start blending together and we stop trusting our senses. Not to mention the caffeine jitters. But Seattle was so tempting that we had to bend our rules a bit, reviewing shots in two separate “shifts” on the same day.
Readers may be surprised that I typically consume an average of only about two espresso shots per day. So after the first shift, I literally developed an eye twitch. But it was nothing like my first visit to the (long gone) Café Organica in 2005, where I downed four successive shots to sample all their blends and paid dearly the rest of the day. This time, after a few hours and some hydration therapy, I was rather proud of my caffeine tolerance after being so out of practice.
|Name||Address||Neighborhood||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Cafe Juanita||9702 NE 120th Pl.||Kirkland, WA||7.30||7.20||7.250|
|Caffè Umbria||320 Occidental Ave. S||Pioneer Square||7.10||8.20||7.650|
|Caffé Vita||1005 E Pike St.||Capitol Hill||8.30||8.00||8.150|
|Espresso Vivace Brix||532 Broadway Ave. E||Capitol Hill||8.60||8.80||8.700|
|Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar||321 Broadway Ave. E||Capitol Hill||8.80||7.00||7.900|
|Stumptown Coffee Roasters||616 E Pine St.||Capitol Hill||7.40||8.00||7.700|
|Trabant Coffee & Chai||602 2nd Ave.||Pioneer Square||8.10||7.50||7.800|
|Victrola Coffee and Art||411 15th Ave. E||Capitol Hill||8.20||8.20||8.200|
|Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea||129 Central Way||Kirkland, WA||8.10||8.20||8.150|
In recent months, The Atlantic — much like the New York Times — has shown a heightened interest in coffee. Most of it has come from articles penned by Starbucks co-founder, Jerry Baldwin. But today’s article comes from Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè: A Winning Formula for Traditional Espresso – Food – The Atlantic.
Yes, Italy: the birthplace of good espresso, and the perennial underachiever at barista championships. But even so, Mr. Milos has a few critiques to offer Americans on the deficiencies of our espresso — namely:
Italians take their espresso preparation very seriously. On the whole, our palate prefers some of the best North American examples to the best that Italy has to offer. However, Italy is far more consistent, the typical standards are much higher there than here, and the process of making a decent espresso is far more codified than the free-for-all we experience in America.
It’s not uncommon, however, to find sour expressions on the faces of Italian espresso experts when they try even the best examples this continent has to offer. The Italian espresso palate may be precise, but some in the Americas might say it can be a bit too precise.
Is there anything the The Huffington Post won’t publish these days? Fortunately, this includes one of the better summaries of the US Barista Championship, completed yesterday: Todd Burbo: Intelligentsia Wins National Title, then Throws it Back. Congratulations are in order for Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Chicago, now the winner for two years running.
The article was written by Todd Burbo, himself the Director of Coffee at Intelligentsia‘s Monadnock location in downtown Chicago. But don’t mistake it for an Intelligentsia cheerleader piece, even if Intelligentsia baristas claimed half of the top six finalist spots at this year’s competition — a not uncommon occurrence, and a frequent source of competitive grumbling. The last part of the article deals with Intelligentsia’s internal decision to field no one in the 2011 competition.
Despite the shortcomings of the barista competition format, and professional coffee’s curious promotion of the Cult of the Barista, barista competitions are one of the best public celebrations of coffee knowledge, skill, and enjoyment. And full credit goes to the Intelligentsia team for figuring out what the judges want, as they have it down in spades. We can’t blame them for wanting to move on.
But while the SCAA heavily promotes the USBC as a kind of ultimate chef’s competition for the coffee world, you also have to remember that two-time champion Mike Phillips has only been a barista for just two years [pdf, 173k]. You could say he’s a boy genius, but this is not all that unusual for what is essentially an entry level position among coffee pros. Meanwhile, for comparison, it takes a budding sushi chef a good 7-8 years just to first learn how to make sushi rice properly. What do you do next when you’ve mastered your craft in the second year on the job?
Frog Hollow Farm reserves a rather anonymous place in the retail coffee history of San Francisco, but it was a watershed for the coffee quality in this city. As much as we roll our eyes at the hackneyed and abused third wave term, by many definitions (theirs, and definitely not ours) this was SF’s first third wave espresso bar.
But its rise to prominence and its influence was very short-lived. A variety of changes internal and external to the shop caused the quality here to plummet from #1 in our rankings to #91 in just two years — as reflected in our first Trip Report for Frog Hollow Farm posted four years ago. But the good news is that a recent change in management here has brought something of a coffee revival.
The relatively brief coffee story of Frog Hollow Farm, located at the rear of the Ferry Building, is a genuinely complicated one. In its 2004 prime, this was home to the best espresso in San Francisco.
This claim may ring a little odd today now that SF is flush with the nationally acclaimed likes of Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, and many well-regarded independent coffee shops in between. But when we started research for this Web site in 2002, the answer to the question, “Where can you get the best espresso in SF?” was genuinely complicated. So complicated that most answers from the public varied from Peet’s to Starbucks to battle-of-the-bands-like ballot stuffing for neighborhood favorites such as Dolores Park Cafe.
Frog Hollow Farm opened in Oct. 2003 as an outlet for an organic peaches/specialty fruit/pastry business. For whatever reason, they decided to also take their espresso efforts very seriously. To that end, Frog Hollow Farms enlisted the help of a then-relatively-unknown James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee fame. Back then Mr. Freeman was known for his small batch, fresh coffee roasting in Oakland — for cart service oddities such as the Berkeley farmer’s market, but he had no presence in San Francisco. Even his Ferry Building cart service wasn’t yet up to speed.
With Mr. Freeman’s guidance, Frog Hollow Farms invested in a new, shiny red La Marzocco FB/70 (still in use today), deluxe wood tampers, the first commercial appearance of Blue Bottle Coffee beans across the Bay Bridge (which were also available for retail sale), and barista training from James himself. In a sense, this made Frog Hollow Farm SF’s first de facto Blue Bottle Coffee café — even if not in name. We can literally trace the decrease of our own home roasting operations to the initial sales of Blue Bottle beans here in 2003.
But by 2005, James Freeman had his own designs to open SF coffeeshops under the Blue Bottle name. He soon pulled out of this location and their coffee operations. The espresso immediately went downlhill and continued years of decline from poorly trained baristas, mishandled McLaughlin beans, and thin, watery shots.
A real measure of salvation came with a management change in Sept. 2009. Cameron White moved up from Santa Cruz to take over the coffee operations here, and he brought along Verve coffee and barista training (all baristas were trained by Chris Baca and Jared Truby). He replaced their aging Nuova Point cups with a set of classic brown ACF cups and installed a sort of bar with seating among six stools in front.
They now serve a solid, two-sip short shot of Sermon blend: with a medium brown, textured crema and a flavor that includes tobacco smoke, herbs, pepper, and a few others all well blended together. Only the body is a shade light for its pedigree. They operate two Mazzer grinders, dedicating one for Vancouver decaf, and also sell bags of Verve beans. They even talk about bringing in more grinders so that they can also showcase Streetlevel and other Verve roast varieties.
The quality change here is significant. They are currently rated tied for #17 in our SF ratings. However, with SF espresso quality standards as improved as they are these days, there’s a lot of compression at the high end: meaning, a lot depends on your personal taste. Fans of Verve’s flavor profile will not be disappointed.
Read the updated review of Frog Hollow Farm.
The mainstream media barely understand that qualitative differences exist between really good coffee, good coffee, and average coffee — let alone that some of the differences might be worth shelling out a few extra bucks on. CNN is one of the more recent outlets to ponder the differences: $13 coffee worth the brew-haha? – CNN.com.
Of course, this is an old story just now washing up on the remote cultural shores of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Back in 2007, we wrote about $15 cups of Hacienda la Esmeralda and even UK restaurants that sold $14 cups of Nespresso (Nespresso! You know, the same people who brought us Taster’s Choice.) By 2008, we experienced first-hand exposure to these media biases when we were interviewed for a variety of magazine articles and TV news programs. We realized then that the common theme was a need to defend better coffee — and why we should consider paying more for it.
At least the CNN piece didn’t take a typical Bay Area approach, which was more along the bizarre logical lines of, “How can you justify a $10 cup of coffee when there are starving children in the world?” Instead, CNN seemed to think the price should translate to ridiculous levels of service — underscoring how they couldn’t differentiate Thunderbird-like rot-gut from a DRC burgundy of the coffee world.
But what triggered our gag reflex when reading this story wasn’t yet another tiresome reference to kopi luwak — the gag novelty of the coffee tourist world. Instead, it was mention of Baltimore’s Jay Caragay — a good coffee guy and one of the brains behind Portafilter.net — and how he actually named a café “Spro”.
So it ain’t so, Jay. Baristas at quality coffee shops already have their hands full trying to buck the hipster doofus stereotype.
The Annual SCAA Exposition is upon us. This month — in addition to the usual gadget marketing, major sponsorship from suspect brands, and the U.S Barista Championship — the event organizers have added a new Culinary Track: SPECIALTY COFFEE ASSOCIATION ADDS CULINARY TRACK | Articles | Beverages. To quote the SCAA press release [pdf, 27kb]:
SCAA’s Culinary Track is specifically designed to cater to the needs of gastronomic professionals, to guide them towards creating an exceptional specialty coffee menu or perfecting their existing beverage programs.
Big annual conferences are like sharks: if they don’t continue to move forward, they risk dying. After regular attendees have fatigued on Ron Popeil wannabes hawking their revolutionary coffee service inventions, and their umpteenth lather-rinse-repeat cycle of a highly routinized and somewhat arbitrary barista competition, conference organizers need to regularly introduce new blood and new ideas to keep it relevant. Enter the culinary track.
We’ve long lamented the sorry state of restaurant coffee and espresso — particularly in some of the nation’s finest dining establishments. So any legitimate attempt to improve the quality of restaurant coffee should be a good thing, right?
But here’s the root of the problem and why this move is a big FAIL: this is a coffee conference, not a culinary conference. If you want to spread the gospel of good coffee, you need to take it to the chefs and restaurateurs. You don’t expect them to come to you. Chefs and restaurateurs, working ridiculous restaurant hours, already have too many conferences that they can reasonably attend before running off to Anaheim to hang with a bunch of coffee nerds.
As a result, this effort will do little to attract the culinary world to coffee. Instead, this track will do far more to attract the coffee world to the culinary arts. And when that happens, we get worried. We get results such as ridiculous coffee pairing dinners — which have always made about as much sense to us as cigar pairing with each course.
This fear is echoed in the retail food service article cited up top:
And this year, show organizers are adding a new Culinary Track designed specifically for foodservice and culinary professionals looking to create synergy in their food and beverage programs.
Oh no, not synergy. Not starry-eyed baristas who envision the monotonous gyrations of barista competitions somehow becoming enjoyable fodder for food television. Not another overreaching extension of coffee’s misguided wine analogy — where coffee professionals hope to ride the faux glamor of the culinary world’s coattails, selling out the very things that make coffee special and unique in the process.
And then there’s “cooking with coffee” — another topic that makes us cringe. One of our biggest complaints about coffee books of yore were the pages and pages of coffee recipes. If you need a recipe, it’s not coffee. We could tear out the last half of many of these old coffee book classics and never miss them. Look no further than the coffee stout: what was supposed to be the perfect marriage between beer and coffee has amounted to the embarrassing shotgun wedding of the beverage world.
If we really are serious about educating the culinary world about good coffee, support your local restaurateurs who get it. Demand better standards from the many who don’t get it. Just be true to yourself: don’t pretend to be something else than you already are.
Today Salon magazine posted their take on this whole “Hey baby, what’s your wave?” coffee business: Baristas gone wild: meet fourth-wave coffee – Coffee and tea – Salon.com. We most appreciated that they wrote the article from a coffee consumer’s perspective. What often gets lost in this feeding frenzy of hyperbole is that none of the hype matters unless it directly translates to a better shot in the cup — something we’ve been patiently waiting for since before any of this Third Wave business began. (And yes, we were cited in the article.)
That Salon used the title of “Baristas gone wild” is telling. It’s ironic that Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) originally proposed her Third Wave treatise in a way that centered on coffee appreciation — i.e., primarily a consumer-driven phenomenon. After all, if it weren’t for the discriminating coffee consumers who support the market for Cup of Excellence coffees, better barista training, and improved brewing technology, none of this would reasonably exist.
Yet the term Third Wave was quickly commandeered by coffee purveyors for self-promotional and marketing purposes. Today, it continues to be pushed to marketing extremes by baristas, espresso machine manufacturers, and the like. The coffee consumer has been shoved aside and is almost entirely out of the picture now, despite the fact that none of this could exist without us. Hence the Third Wave stopped being about how we collectively enjoy coffee; it is now used primarily by people in the coffee business as a competitive weapon to verbally sword fight with each other.
All we ask is that whatever gets hyped, it better deliver in the cup. It must be more than new toys for baristas to play with and get excited about. The good news is that there are more and more places making better coffee through a greater awareness of the basics. The rising tide that lifts all boats, as it were. But when it comes to building the better espresso shot overall, the results are far less convincing — and far more self-congratulating.
For a few years now, we had an idea for a post that sat in our unpublished queue: how can you tell a good espresso shop from a bad one? (At least before sampling it.) Given the thousands of good, bad, and mediocre espresso shots we’ve reviewed over the years, we have definitely noticed some patterns worth sharing.
It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve recognized the value of shorthand rules. Back in the 1980s, I once (famously, in my circles) observed that the ghetto status of your neighborhood can be surmised by the fast food chicken chain nearby. (In short, Church’s Chicken = “wear Kevlar”.) Earlier this month, there were a couple of coffee-related posts from coffee professionals that inspired us to dust off this idea:
But while coffee professionals know their establishments and their industry favorites best, few have subjected themselves to the horrors of many a bad espresso bar from a consumer perspective. Not that we at CoffeeRatings.com have a taste-bud death wish. But we’ve developed a sort of sixth sense about what to expect just by walking into a coffeehouse and having a look around. This post is an attempt to articulate both the positive and negative cues we get when entering a new establishment.
Some suggested rules are more obvious — like the wine enthusiast’s equivalent of “avoid wine that comes in a box.” Other rules are more subtle or outright unusual. For example, as a news story today had it, if the aroma from the coffee machine forces your plane to make an emergency landing, you might consider tea.
In no particular order…
Now for the cues when you know things are about to get ugly. Call it coffee’s homage to Waiter Rant’s “Signs An Establishment Isn’t Going to Deliver the Service You Expect”.
We really need to stop here before we are overcome with snarkiness poisoning.
We are not the only ones who have lamented the sorry state of restaurant coffee — particularly at some of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants. The San Francisco Chronicle made poor restaurant coffee a front-page headline as early as 1963.
In some ways, the elevated coffee standards that exist outside of the restaurant world are slowly creeping in. Yet the gap is still exceedingly large: of the current Top 28 on CoffeeRatings.com, only one location, Bar Bambino, is an actual restaurant.
There is a litany of reasons for why this is. Unfortunately, much of the food service/restaurant industry seems clueless about them. Case and point is a recent article published on the culinary Web site, Behind the Burner: Interview With a Coffee Roaster – Article – Behind the Burner TM.
The author, John Grossmann, interviews Alex Roberts, master roaster at Emeryville-based Roast Coffee Co.. Roast opened in early 2008 as part of the Bacchus Management Group (love the Web site, btw), a small management team behind a handful of eclectic Bay Area restaurants. Mr. Grossmann calls Roast an “unusual startup” that’s performing a “new twist in dining” by sourcing and roasting its own beans. And that’s where the naïveté starts spilling out.
For one, roasters offering restaurants custom roasts and blends has been a common practice for decades. One potentially different angle could be in custom bean sourcing, but market economics would prevent Roast from directly sourcing beans from different farms for a single restaurant — which would be the only new ground there. Bacchus Management Group promotes Roast as unique because it is “by the restaurants, for the restaurants”, but exclusively servicing the industry’s least discriminating business customers hardly seems like a virtue.
The interview then succumbs to the ever-popular wine analogy. (It’s quite ironic that they should then do that, given that we cannot think of any restaurant-operated wineries worthy of note.) Mr. Grossmann asks, “Has the day of the coffee sommelier dawned?” To which Mr. Roberts replies:
I think so. I’d love to have the first job as a coffeelier, let’s call it. This would be somebody who understands all the single origins. All the specifications of the farm it came from, all the nuances of the coffee. Is it high grown, low grown? If there’s a blend, what each coffee in the blend contributes. The coffeelier would also suggest coffee and dessert pairings.
And therein lies the rub. Any restaurant mention of a coffee sommelier invariably glosses over the fact that a successful coffee service isn’t as simple as merely pulling a cork on a bottle of roasted beans. Just a couple weeks ago, we posted an article with the common opinion that a great barista can make magic of weak bean sources, and that superior beans and roasts can go to rot in untrained hands and poorly maintained equipment. Machine maintenance and “barista” training standards at restaurants are still woefully inadequate at best.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with dreaming of the day that restaurants offer a variety of coffee options and a guide, or coffeelier, to walk patrons through them. But while Roast can tweak their fresh bean formula until the cows come home, any lofty designs for restaurant coffee appreciation will fail miserably if they’re built upon a rotten foundation of poor training, faulty equipment maintenance, and shoddy brewing practices.
An article from last year does suggest that training is an integral part of Roast’s engagement with restaurants. However, elite Bay Area roasters have long expressed immense frustration at getting training compliance out of cafés, let alone the scattered attention of restaurants. (Some have even expressed using CoffeeRatings.com for business intelligence — to identify retailers doing unmerciful things to their roasts, pointing to our site’s reviews as evidence of the need for training.) Roast Coffee Co.’s three-person operation is hardly poised to succeed where so many larger organizations have failed.
Until these fundamentals are addressed, Mr. Roberts’s dream of being a coffeelier rings about as hollow as a dentist who waxes poetic about the latest laser teeth whitening technology but cannot be bothered with the mundane task of actually cleaning and polishing your teeth. What good are white teeth if plaque and gum disease cause them to fall out? Coffee sourcing, roasting, and a lack of coffeeliers aren’t the problem. Restaurant coffee standards will not improve until the basics of training, maintenance, storage, and a commitment to quality are fixed.
Australians are no slouches when it comes to appreciating good coffee. But last month, an opinion piece in The Australian highlighted what the author, John Lethlean, felt was a lot of misplaced fuss, pomp, and circumstance going into coffee origins these days: Just a strong one, thanks | The Australian.
A self-described “coffee-geek groupie,” Mr. Lethlean appreciates the energy and dedication behind the many nuances of “single origin”, “estate-grown”, and “cupping”. However, he refuses to play along. Why? In the end, many of these subtle shades of variation don’t make all that much difference to him — particularly when contrasted with the impact a barista can have preparing an end result espresso.
Mr. Lethlean also reaches out to the inevitable wine analogy. But even there, he points out, few wine consumers can discern subtle differences of terroir, variety, harvest condition, and method — and even fewer consumers can do the same with their coffee.
We agree with many of Mr. Lethlean’s sentiments. His article reminded us of what we recently wrote about the recent obsession with origins and “maximizing adjectives”: that it reflects a current trend intensely focused on experimentation over a more learned enjoyment. However, our society has yet to simplify a single consumable after fragmenting its market — whether soda, yogurt, or orange juice. So even as consumer interest in coffee experimentation could potentially wane, we still expect the adjective parade to live on.