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Australia deconstructs good coffee; Seattle calls anybody who likes coffee “a barista”

Posted by on 19 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

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.

Australia's tweaking with cherry maturity in attempt to maximize coffee flavorFrom 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?

I Write, Therefore I Am A Barista

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?

Trip Report: Origin Coffee Roasting (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 12 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

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.

Hudson St. entrance to Origin, with Table Mountain in the distance Hudson St. entrance to Origin Coffee Roasting

Level 1

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.

Entering the Hudson St. doorway into Origin First floor of Origin Coffee Roasting

Nigiro Tea occupies part of the first floor of Origin Coffee Roasting Staring down Nigiro tea pots

Level 2

Certified barista, on Origin Coffee Roasting's second levelUp 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.

Wall of barista certification on the second level of Origin Coffee Roasting Synesso on display in the barista training room on Origin Coffee Roasting's second level

Level 3

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).

US Roaster on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level Bags of greens and packing roasted coffee on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level

Seating area inside Origin Coffee Roasting's third level L to R: Francois Botha, Cindy Taylor, Andrew Franks of ILoveCoffee.co.za

Drink menu inside Origin Coffee Roasting ILoveCoffee.co.za and coffeeratings.com shares some blackboard space inside Origin Coffee Roasting

The Taste Test

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.

Two-group La Marzocco Linea inside Origin Coffee Roasting The Origin Coffee Roasting espresso

The Origin Coffee Roasting flat white Seating outside on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level deck

Trip Report: TRUTH.coffeecult @ Green Point (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 07 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

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.

Entrance to Truth. - set up with Boerewors rolls vending Truth.'s Probat on display

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.

Truth.'s wall-o-merchandising The Prestwich Memorial shares space with the inside of Truth.

Truth.'s Clever drippers on full display Truth. branding out front

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).

Nearby Green Point Stadium before Uruguay vs. Netherlands The FIFA Fan Walk after the Netherlands defeated Uruguay 3-2 in the semifinal

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.

The Truth. Nuova Simonelli The Truth. espresso



UPDATE: Sept. 14, 2013
TRUTH. not only got moved a few blocks away, but the new location drips with candy for the Internet’s various steampunk fanboys too: TRUTH Coffee Shop In Cape Town, South Africa | Yatzer™.

American wins World Barista Championship?!? What’s the world coming to?

Posted by on 25 Jun 2010 | Filed under: Barista

Mike Phillips taking the prize in LondonClearly, 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.

But as if to drive this point home even further, today in London Michael Phillips did what no American has ever done before: win the World Barista Championship (WBC).

Congratulations to Mike, who has spectacularly made it to the top of the world in only his third year of being a barista.

All You Need to Know About Steaming Milk (?)

Posted by on 18 Jun 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Quality Issues

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.

Is a good latte really about the art?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.

Worst Coffee Trends – Bad Coffee Trends – Esquire

Posted by on 02 Jun 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

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.)

Coffee smelling guy picks up auditory schizophrenia with hints of dementiaWhat’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.

Gary Coleman, RIP, to Todd Bridges ... or CarmichaelIn 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.

Espresso in Seattle

Posted by on 27 May 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

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.)

Seattle Center, looking down E Harrison St. from Capitol Hill Local characters that aren't homeless in Seattle's Pioneer Square

Is Seattle still relevant to great coffee?

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.)

Seattle icon: the pink Elephant Super Car Wash Another Seattle icon: buskers in front of the original Starbucks

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.

No visit to the Fremont District is complete without saying 'hi' to the troll Vladimir Lenin, famous resident of the Fremont District

The Seattle espresso bar habitat

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.

Coffee sacks on the floor of Caffé Vita We tried to get in the Fremont Kuma, but it closes early and we were in caffeine detox


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

A Winning Formula for Traditional Espresso

Posted by on 13 May 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

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.

Illy branding at Caffè CentoYes, 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:

  • too much coffee per shot — resulting in overly concentrated shots with a narrow aroma profile,
  • coffee that is still gassing out after recent roasting — often resulting in sour flavors (akin to the brightness bomb we often mention),
  • cups that aren’t pre-heated, and
  • improper grind.

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.

Intelligentsia Wins National Title, then Throws it Back

Posted by on 19 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Barista

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 2010 USBC Finalists, courtesy of tonxThe 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?

Trip Report: Frog Hollow Farm (under new management)

Posted by on 17 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew, Quality Issues

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.

Approaching the Frog Hollow Farm service counter Frog Hollow Farm is now heavy into Verve (Coffee Roasters)

A little Frog Hollow Farm history…

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.

The new Frog Hollow Farme espresso The old Frog Hollow Farm espresso in 2006

Santa Cruz to the rescue

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.

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