Barista

Archived Posts from this Category

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.

$13 coffee worth the brew-haha?

Posted by on 08 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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.

Ooh -- CNN spices up their article with a coffee quizAt 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.

UPDATE: May 26, 2010
Speaking of the Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda, today the New York Times joined the annual media chorus on it: Ristretto | Hacienda La Esmeralda – T Magazine Blog – NYTimes.com. There you’ll find references in that piece to both kopi luwak and DRC burgundy. Coincidence?

Specialty Coffee Association Expo Runs Off-Track

Posted by on 01 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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.

Sniff, sip, and spit - it's the SCAA Expo. Just don't cook with it.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?

The Field of Coffee Dreams: If you create a conference track, they will come

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.

Baristas gone wild: meet fourth-wave coffee

Posted by on 09 Feb 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

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.)

Salon highlights the Slayer espresso machine in their articleThat 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.

Common Cues for Recognizing Good and Bad Espresso

Posted by on 27 Jul 2009 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, CoffeeRatings.com, Quality Issues

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.

Encouraging signs of decent coffee ahead

In no particular order…

  • They roast their own. Score extra points if they date-stamp their roasted beans for retail sale.
  • They bother with latte art. Latte art is more gimmick than a sign of quality per se (sorry, Aussies). But it’s almost unheard of to find a place that bothers with latte art and yet makes a lousy cappuccino.
  • A La Marzocco machine. Oh, sure, there are plenty of other great espresso machines out there. And there are places that can make great espresso from the most modest equipment choices. But shelling out the bucks for a La Marzocco is typically reserved for those who believe it will actually make a difference for them.
  • They offer more than one kind of bean for espresso. This is a rare find. But when they do, they expect you to notice that the espresso there isn’t just some generic, nameless commodity shot out of a soda gun. Many other establishments think more like Homer Simpson’s tour of the Duff Beer factory, where a single spigot fills Duff, Duff Light, and Duff Dry.
  • They serve a glass of water on the side. Despite the American obsession with the Big Gulp®, espresso should not quench your thirst. Better espresso can often be found at places that don’t expect it to.
  • They take time to make it. You could have a really new, or really slow, barista. Or they could be a little bit of a perfectionist about what they’re doing. We never encourage our baristi to rush the job.
  • Cleanliness is next to decent espresso. If the staff keeps their work areas clean, there are better chances that they clean their equipment of rancid coffee oil build-up — and that they keep their equipment properly tuned and maintained.

Ritual Roaster's Ryan Brown in the early days of their local roasting Latte art on two Ritual Roasters macchiati

The La Marzocco at Healdsburg's Flying Goat Coffee says, Blue Bottle Cafe recognizes that if you're thirsty, that's what water is for

Palo Alto's Caffé del Doge offers multiple bean choices for your espresso How many cafés view the idea of coffee varieties

Signs of when to run — don’t walk — away

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”.

  • The roar and/or whine of poorly steamed milk. This is one of those cases where their handling of milk can translate to their handling of coffee. And milk that is steamed in the pitcher to the scalding sounds of a 747 takeoff or the squeal of a dentist’s drill is a major red flag.
  • A superautomatic espresso machine. Superautomatic machines almost never produce an espresso better than “palatable”. Hello, Starbucks.
  • The barista is wearing a company-issue hat or cap. One sure-fire way to non-verbally tell a customer, “How may I massacre your order?” is to require them to dress like fast food employees.
  • They use a two-group La Spaziale 3000 espresso machine. Ouch. Do we really have that much against La Spaziale? They honestly make some good equipment, and a few cafés are quite capable with them. But in the Bay Area, the two-group La Spaziale 3000 is the machine of choice (namely: they’re inexpensive) among cafés looking to skimp and save a few bucks.
  • America’s Best Coffee. Or Peerless coffee, should they admit it. The most common combination of the cheap-and-careless café is the two-group La Spaziale 3000 with America’s Best Coffee beans. A close second is Peerless coffee — which we’ve also found to be the coffee most likely for employees to say it’s Illy in an attempt to make up something that sounds better. Of course, almost as bad (it varies) is the café where the employees have no idea whose beans they serve. But the pattern here seems to be this: the more self-aggrandizing the coffee brand name, the worse the coffee.
  • Portafilter handles are left cooling on the drip tray. This is often the kiss of death: a café that knows nothing about the importance of stable temperature control, and they could care less.
  • Served with a lemon rind on the side. You’d be surprised how many restaurants still do this. Why? We don’t know, because it’s like a neon sign that says, “Prepare to spew.”
  • Paper cups are the only option. There are times where even we want a coffee “to go”. But those conditions are so sub-par. For a café to serve their espresso only in paper cups, you may as well be greeted by a fiberglass clown head with a speakerphone in his throat at the drive-thru entrance. If someone’s idea of quality and class is the stemware at a four-year-old’s birthday party, we emphasize the “go” part of “to go”.
  • Flavored coffees on the menu. Or the word “gourmet”. In some parts of the country, and rare corners of the Bay Area, the 1980s are still alive and well and some people are still selling chocolate macadamia nut flavored coffee. If a café sells coffee that sounds more like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, you’d be better off looking for ice cream. Same goes if they use the word “gourmet” in their branding — a word that has since become affiliated only with the mass-produced packaged foods that line the aisles of Wal-Mart, marked for quick sale to their morbidly obese loyal customers.

We really need to stop here before we are overcome with snarkiness poisoning.

Born under a bad sign: a La Spaziale 3000 at Golden Gate Perk Here's an idea: a superautomated Verismo *and* uniform hats

Nice and short, but the container is a bit lacking: from Royal Express It's 1987 night at Il Fornaio with a...lemon rind?

Bay Area restaurants still struggle with “the coffee thing”

Posted by on 27 May 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

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.

Some 46 years later and still a public disgrace 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.

Bean there, done that

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.

What’s so wrong about a restaurant coffee sommelier?

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.

The coffee sommelier makes South Korean soap opera fame as a character in 'The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince' 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.

« Previous PageNext Page »