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Trip Report: Frog Hollow Farm (under new management)

Posted by on 17 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans,, 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? –

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 — 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 – 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 – 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,, 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 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, 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 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.

Death by origin: an Australian’s contrarian view

Posted by on 09 May 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

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.

Trip Report: The Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge (Santa Cruz, CA)

Posted by on 31 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew

In the nearly two decades that we’ve been visiting Santa Cruz, they’ve arguably lacked a vibrant café that excels at both coffee and as a student hang out. Recent café openings in town, such as Verve Coffee Roasters, have helped tremendously — but at Verve the focus is squarely on the coffee. (Not necessarily a bad thing.)

With the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge, Santa Cruz has a solid contender at both — though a bit unexpectedly in the form of a non-profit operated by the Vintage Faith Church. Open since mid-2008, their slogan is “made with love.” And given the quality that goes into the coffee and the commitment of the staff, it’s hard to argue with that.

Approaching the entrance to the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge Inside the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge

We liked how the Abbey offered samples of Verve for sniffing Even the coffee menu keeps the religious theme of the Abbey

The staff here, volunteers, are incredibly friendly and coffee enthusiasts to boot. Inside it’s a packed scene of collegiate youth, with occasional jazz performances at night. The space is vast and somewhat dark, with an odd, edgy feel of someone’s old antique store: mismatched sofas, tables, chairs, church benches, hanging window panes, pianos, candles, light fixtures, and found art.

Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli at the front bar, they serve Verve‘s Sermon blend (how appropriate) with a dark brown swirl of modest crema in traditional brown ACF cups. (Date-stamped Verve coffee is also available for retail sale.)

The resulting shot is a little light on body, but it carries a lot of flavor in an appropriately sized shot: some dark caramel notes over a pungent flavor of cloves and herbs with a sharp brightness at the bottom of the cup. Sermon blend never knocks you over, but it has a nice balance of spice with just a hint of sweetness. Served with a small cookie on the side.

Their cappuccino is typically “traditional”: lighter on the milk and volume (so you can taste the espresso) with thick and creamy milk just barely frothed in as a thinner layer. Maybe not the best Verve shot you’ve ever had, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place to enjoy one.

Some of the 'art' in the Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge The Abbey's Nuova Simonelli at the front counter

The Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge espresso The Abbey's espresso, cappuccino, and a pack of Verve to go

As for negatives, while our espresso drinks were solid, rumors among the locals have it that consistency can be a problem. Quality control could be an extra challenge with their volunteer staff.

And when we purchased some of the Sermon blend here for home use (from beans they packaged for us out of the supply they were using at the coffee bar), we audibly encountered the first bit of rocky debris in our Mazzer Mini in the seven years that we’ve owned it. There are few more alarming sounds than a pebble coming into contact with your burrs; small pebbles make big, bad noises. We wouldn’t think much of it, but after seven years of home roasted and retail roasted coffee in our Mazzer, it’s very unusual that a “defect” like that came through in their coffee supply.

Read the review of The Abbey Coffee, Art & Music Lounge.

More of the interior inside the Abbey A little pebble in your beans is like floating space junk

Disparaging the Third Wave, Part 3: The Cult of Baristas and Coffee Geeks

Posted by on 21 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Quality Issues

For the last installment of our three-part series on How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, we wrap up by examining two major social fads that have come to identify the Third Wave:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks

We’ll also touch on why, if quality coffee is to progress, we must get beyond through these and the qualitative fads of the times. For good coffee to continue proliferate in convenience, access, and quality, these qualities require a healthy, growing consumer market to support them. So the question is: are these fads helping or hurting those aims?

The Cult of the Barista

Hold back the Zzzz's in Japanese - a televised barista competitionOne of the hallmarks of these coffee times (call them Third Wave if you like) is that the barista has been promoted as the focal point and pinnacle of all things quality coffee. It’s as if we now expect our barista to be picking beans at origin. This despite the fact that many coffee preparations have no need for a barista.

If we promote the barista as not only the public face of coffee but its only face, we end up with representation by many of the least experienced, most novice members in the industry. Meanwhile, many in the industry still believe that barista competitions — themselves a decidedly Third Wave construct — are just as worthy as many cooking programs when it comes to TV-ready entertainment such as “Iron Chef” or “Top Chef.”

We put the 'X' in 'extreme' like the 'X' in 'expresso'It only takes 20 minutes of sitting through an online video feed from the USBC to convince the layman consumer otherwise. Not only that, instead of promoting executive chefs at the height of their profession, barista competitions are more akin to Top Chef de Partie (or “Top Line Cook”): highly skilled and trained individuals at specific, technical tasks, but much less so the conductors of a great, comprehensive coffee offering.

Another reason that our barista competitions are more like drills for line cooks concerns the intense technical precision and narrow focus of these competitions. Specialty drinks add an element of creativity, but they are completely irrelevant to what a retail customer can purchase in a café. Then at the other extreme you have latte art competitions where the results are little more than eye candy: no more the hallmark of a technically gifted barista than a plating contest would be for a competitive chef.

What is a great barista?

Is that to suggest that the barista should be humbled more as a mere entry-level, high turnover position for the coffee industry? Anything but. Great baristas can make or break a café and often for reasons other than the amount of grinds left in their doser — i.e., abilities and skills that just don’t rank on the current barista competition scoresheets.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with New York-based Nicolas O’Connell, an owner and Managing Partner at La Colombe Torrefaction who earned his rank starting as a barista in one of their cafés. While talking about favorite coffee places in New York City, Nicolas was quick to cite Jamie McCormick of Abraço as NYC’s best barista. (Jamie is an alum of SF’s Blue Bottle Coffee.)

Jamie McCormick behind the machine back in his Hayes Valley Blue Bottle daysNicolas waxed poetic about Jamie’s ability to connect with people in line, to engage with his customers by name and learn/know what they want — avoiding the you’re-a-waste-of-my-time attitude common among the staff at many NYC competitors. Nicolas even went so far as to say, “People love Abraço and think its a great place just because of the coffee. But the real reason they are great is Jamie, and most of the customers don’t realize that.”

You won’t find Jamie in a barista competition. Nor will you find many of the skills he excels at valued in the structure of a competition. And yet he is as critical as anyone in New York City at introducing people to better coffee standards.

Coffee Geek, R.I.P.

We save perhaps one of more controversial points for last: the coffee geek ethos needs to go. (Apologies to Mark Prince of We not only mean it for the amateur enthusiasts, but also among the professionals.

You can argue that coffee geeks have existed throughout previous waves, from home espresso enthusiasts to their übergeek home roaster brethren. As for the professional trade, yours truly still sports a goatee he grew as a joke while taking a summer grad school class at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1995 — the old joke being that all Seattle residents must be flannel-wearing, Nirvana-moshing Starbucks employees. But the explosion of these social archetypes came after the 1990s, and in part they have come to define the Third Wave.

Redefining 'wine snob'So why is losing the coffee geek ethos critical? Because we believe it will improve access to better coffee for everyone. The longer that high quality coffee remains the exclusive domain of coffee geeks, hipsters, and “uniformed” coffee professionals, the longer that mainstream accessibility and acceptance will be an uphill battle. We joke about coffee’s tiresome wine analogy, but the wine industry successfully figured out how to bring mainstream wine out of the Gallo era in part by circumventing the image of the elitist, self-absorbed wine snob.

Some believe the Third Wave can build a supporting market for better coffee through an intense public education campaign. But too often, we’ve made it harder for consumers to relax and just enjoy a simple cup of coffee — without feeling the pressure to make a lot more decisions nor feeling burdened by educational materials and processes. And instead of tearing down walls to get more people asking for better coffee, we’ve instead built up a few walls.

If they’re not with you, they’re against you

While it’s hard for readers here to fathom the idea of Starbucks being elitist, nearly every online post that mentions Starbucks attracts a heavy level of venomous contempt for the company and its patrons. (Google it — we dare you.) This contempt seems to originate from staunch defenders of the mainstream and the “prudent” — people who take great offense that their cheaper, mainstream tastes are no longer “good enough.” Now just imagine the shock-and-awe bursting of aneurysms if these same people encountered an army of coffee geeks that look down their noses at Starbucks and its patrons?

You've lived the lifestyle, now own the T-shirtWe don’t envision a Tocqueville-like an end to stratification. And there may always be people so insecure as to feel threatened by another person’s beverage choice — as if it were a personal judgment of their self-worth — where only professional therapists stand to have any hope of changing them. But there are also many coffee geeks, amateurs and professionals alike, who would prefer to keep quality coffee as “this thing of ours.” If for no other reason than irrational fear that the mainstream popularization of quality coffee would devalue their own identities and/or constitute a commercial sell-out.

Every advancement “Third Wave” coffee has brought to bear — from the varieties of single-origin beans to roast-dated coffee to public cuppings to barista competitions — would not have been possible if not for the development of an economic market to support them. But more mainstream coffee consumers — the ones who will help build sustainable economic markets for even better coffee — will not get over their apprehension of delving deeper into coffee as long as its image is that of the self-celebrated coffee geek or judgmental coffee snob. Even the very word “geek” defies social acceptance.

If quality coffee remains trapped in its insulated niche, standards across the board will be stuck. And even we coffee geeks will eventually be stifled by Third Wave coffee’s conformity of non-conformity.

Links to other parts of the series:

Costa Coffee’s taster has tongue insured for £10 million … and the 2009 USBC winner

Posted by on 09 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Oh, sure, it’s a rather frivolous promotional piece. Today’s Telegraph (UK) gives us a glimpse into how quality coffee is marketed in the UK versus here: Costa Coffee’s taster has tongue insured for £10 million – Telegraph. Whereas American coffee pros seem to go ga-ga at the altar of Q grader certification, the UK opts for a little more of the populist Hollywood glam route: i.e, my-tongue-as-Michael-Flatley‘s-legs.

“Coffee taster Gennaro Pelliccia, who samples products for Costa Coffee, has had his tongue insured for £10 million with Lloyd’s of London,” opens the article. Now does that include fire and theft? Costa Coffee runs a globally ambitious, sizeable coffee chain — not unlike the UK’s answer to Starbucks. (Last year we posted a trip report on a Costa Coffee outlet in the heart of New Delhi, India.)

The article goes on to list a variety of past “body part insurance policies.” However, it oddly missed making any mention of Angela Mount, whose taste buds were also insured for £10 million earlier this decade — though as a wine taster. In 2007, we reported on her foray into coffee tasting for enviro/ethical touchy-feely roaster, Percol.

Thus Costa Coffee seems to have missed that their press release wasn’t entirely original. Still, the investment could have been worse: they could have insured his taste buds through A.I.G.

At Costa Coffee, a slip of the tongue could cost $14 million

2009 USBC: Can you feel the Intelligentsia love?

As we mentioned Friday, over the weekend we occasionally peeked at the 2009 U.S. Barista Championship on the live feed. Which, unfortunately, makes for viewing that is about as dynamic as watching 50 successive mini-episodes of “Iron Chef” — a TV show to which many USBC advocates compare the event — with the added twists that the featured ingredient in every episode is coffee and that the event organizers suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But what a weekend for Intelligentsia. As if sweeping the top three prizes at the 2009 WRBC wasn’t enough, four of the top five finishers at the USBC hailed from Intelligentsia. Talk about a juggernaut.

Congratulations to Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Chicago who won the overall competition. He has our condolences as well — for being crowned the U.S. champion the same unfortunate year that the winner earned an all-expenses-paid trip to compete at the World Barista Championship in exotic … Atlanta, GA (or, as we like to call it, Mylanta).

Top three USBC finishers, courtesy Barista Magazine

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