Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Today’s Daily Californian, an independent student newspaper for the UC Berkeley campus, published an article on Berkeley’s venerable Caffe Mediterraneum: Historic Cafe Grounds For Coffee and Conversation – The Daily Californian. Sure, the coffee isn’t so great here. But for a place that is over 50 years old and is most often credited as the birthplace of the caffè latte, they are due some props.
Caffe Mediterraneum is also located just a few blocks from the site of last year’s Western Regional Barista Competition. Coincidentally, the 2009 version concluded yesterday in Los Angeles, with each of the top three finishers hailing from Intelligentsia L.A.:
Congratulations to the winners. Intelligentsia sure knows what they hell they’re doing, no question. Though one might suggest these results add to the theory that barista competitions have a “home field advantage”. (Last year’s runner-up at the WRBC in Berkeley, Intelligentsia L.A.’s Kyle Glanville, went on to win the 2008 USBC.)
You have got to be kidding us. A runner’s supply store with outstanding espresso — perhaps the best in town? You bet. And a big thanks to veteran San Jose Coffee Geek, Gary Hutchison, for publicizing this unusual discovery.
This place ran as an online-only store for several years before opening this physical location in the old Fine Arts theater in the Fall of 2008. Walk past the aisles of Lycra, and in the back by the running shoes, you’ll find a small espresso bar run by serious espresso enthusiasts.
They use beans from the small and local Moksha Coffee Roasting, who roasts beans for them around four times per week. The barista here (Don, ZombieRunner‘s co-owner) is very deliberate. We ordered the first shot of the day, and he took his time working out several shots just to make sure he got it right.
Using a two-group Rancilio HX machine, he employed what’s known as the “Weiss Distribution Technique” — which is an overly fancy term for stirring grounds with a stick, held steady inside the portafilter basket with a hollowed out yogurt cup, to ensure the evenness of an extracted espresso shot.
Don pulls careful espresso shots with a highly textured, mottled medium and dark brown crema: it has the dark colors and red speckling you expect from espresso done right. The crema is also rather full and thick, and it makes a shot that’s a true emulsion between liquid and solids. It has a potent aroma, a firm-but-not-heavy body, and a robust flavor of cloves and herbal pungency with some tobacco notes. There isn’t much sweetness in the shot, but it’s done so well you don’t miss it much.
They serve it in a double-walled Bodum glass — with an aperitif glass of sparkling water on the side. Great stuff. ZombieRunner is more than just a convenient place for good espresso; this is definitely worth the trip as an espresso destination. A new vacuum pot has also arrived for other brewing options.
Read the review of ZombieRunner.
If there ever was a news article that embodied what we’ve found unsatisfying about how barista competitions are promoted, this one from today’s News Tribune (Tacoma, WA) is up there: More than another cup of joe | TheNewsTribune.com | Tacoma, WA.
Over the weekend, Tacoma hosted the Northwest Regional Barista Competition. Barista competitions may be old hat for many of us, so we have to respect efforts to simplify things for a layman audience. As much as barista competitions bring out an industry tension between keep-it-to-ourselves insiders and those with a desire for mass public appeal, public awareness and recognition are two primary goals of these events. Therefore Barista Competition 101 introductory information is critical for the public to understand why coffee professionals do all of this in the first place.
Jay Lijewski, the coffee program developer for Dillanos Coffee Roasters (the main sponsor of the event), lands two barista competition quotes in the article. In the first quote, Mr. Lijewski states, “It’s almost like an Iron Chef for coffee.” But in his very next quote, two lines later in the piece, he states, “We’re trying to elevate the name barista, to make it something like a sommelier.”
Individually, each (albeit flawed) example is backed by semi-accurate elements of truth. But combined, Mr. Lijewski offers a bad case of mixed metaphors. A mistake like this may seem innocuous, but it’s not just Mr. Lijewski. Both of his quotes are akin to industry platitudes. Which underscores just how confused even the coffee industry is on how to represent the barista and the role they play to the lay public. If the industry can’t even articulate it right, how can anyone expect the public to do that?
“It’s like wine.” “It’s like Iron Chef.” Each are examples of uncreative ways which we define coffee and baristas by what they are not, rather than by what they are. Some degree of analogy may be necessary to explain the basic concepts, but we’re not going to educate anyone by simply coming up with more and more inconsistent ways to confuse them.
The Travel section of today’s New York Times featured an article on the burgeoning cocktail scene in San Francisco’s bars: Journeys – In San Francisco Bars, a Cocktail Is Not Just a Drink – NYTimes.com. What does any of this have to do with coffee? A bit more than you might think, actually.
The cocktail may no longer capture the sophistication and elegance it once had in the 1940s and 50s, but there are those today who are committed to its comeback. This renewed appreciation for quality cocktails bears a striking resemblance to the more recent public interest in quality coffee.
Of course, the word barista is derived from the Italian word for bartender. And among many high quality cafés in Europe, you’re likely to find great cocktails at the same watering holes where you find great espresso. In America, it’s extremely rare to find them together. But what we do find here is a regional artisan approach to quality drinks.
“The West Coast does liquids well,” the article quotes an SF bar owner. Which is why, as a complement to my wife’s culinary exploits, I only half-jokingly refer to myself as The Beverage Guy of the family. Once while accompanying my wife on a screen test for the PBS cooking show, Joanne Weir’s Cooking Class, Joanne asked me on camera from her Pacific Heights kitchen, “So, Greg, do you like to cook?” To which I replied, “I’m more of a beverage guy” — eliciting audible laughter from the TV crew. Though, for the record, my wife eventually made two appearances on the program — despite my obvious on-screen chemistry with the host.
And while the Bay Area has a rich coffee history, it is no stranger to the history of good cocktails either. Just take the martini, where the article notes Martinez, Calif. as “one of the drink’s putative birthplaces”. “Martinez” being a suitable origin for the drink’s name — explaining why Roberto Cauda, upon visiting us with several kilos of Caffè Mokabar from Torino, Italy, puzzlingly stated, “Why do you call it a martini when it contains absolutely no Martini?!” (i.e., with or without Rossi)
As coffee lovers, we are encouraged by the parallel, Bay Area interest in elevating the art of the cocktail. But we close with the last words of the article: “It’s so sophisticated.”
Ah, sophistication. Unlike the cocktail renaissance, it is the one thing that, for the most part, is completely lacking from any West Coast espresso-drinking experience. The continued use of taste-altering paper cups, back-alley kiosks lacking any amenities, and the ironically conformist uniform that seems to equate the so-called Third Wave barista with looking like you woke up behind the bar — sleeping in the same clothes, in a pool of your own vomit, following an all-night bender at some of the Bay Area’s “less sophisticated” alcoholic establishments.
Perhaps James Bond isn’t going to your café to order an espresso, but there’s something to be said about the appearance of pride and self-respect in the craft and the role of a barista. And about treating the beverage with respect by serving it in an “adult” cup … and about treating customers with respect by offering them a place to sit, if not also a functional restroom. One can only hope that everything about the experience of drinking good coffee won’t be reduced to the worst common denominators. Could it get any worse?
If you love espresso, live in San Francisco, and don’t know who Thomas E. Cara is, well, shame on you. Although Caffè Trieste may be a historical West Coast espresso landmark, Thomas E. Cara goes back a decade further.
Espresso first enchanted Thomas Cara while he was stationed in Italy during WWII. So much so that when he returned home to SF in 1946, he opened an espresso machine business — with the first espresso machine west of the Mississippi River — and it remains operational to this day in Jackson Square. Entering the Thomas E. Cara shop (which is a little like being allowed into a private home/loft), you encounter a combination espresso machine salesroom (largely classic La Pavoni home espresso machines), repair shop, and historical espresso museum. Last week we made the latent discovery that, after 62 years in the business, Thomas E. Cara has long been dabbling in a little retail coffee using a “secret” recipe he also brought back from the war along with his La Pavoni.
Now we have no intention of infringing upon Kenneth Davids’ roasted-coffee rating gig. And we concur with Mark Prince’s assertion that espresso cannot be rated independent of the barista. (Even if we puzzlingly wonder why few bother to look beyond North America when asking if and how espresso should be rated.) But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to evaluate an expression of espresso from such an “institution” — despite the current vogue of dismissing any contribution to quality espresso that pre-dates the most recent Iraq War.
We’ve mentioned Sam Mogannam, owner of the Mission’s Bi-Rite Market since 1998, in a previous post. Among a number of SF locals who grew up with Mr. Mogannam, Bi-Rite is simply known as “Sammy’s” (as in, “I’m going to Sammy’s to pick up some prosciutto”). We may not have grown up with Sam, but we’re close friends with many who did — so apologies for the informal habit. And from what we’ve learned, Sammy’s is the only retail outlet that carries Thomas E. Cara’s Fine Espresso Napoletano beans other than Cara & Sons’ Jackson Square shop.
Of course, exclusivity does not equal quality. But at a whopping $15.95 a pound — priced up there with neighboring bags of De La Paz and Ritual Coffee Roasters on Sammy’s shelves — expectations have to be elevated somewhat.
Make no mistake: this is an old school coffee. There’s no freshness date posted on the bag (a shame, really). And the roast is decidedly old school, untrendy Southern Italian: a blend, roasted well beyond Full City and even beyond the realm of French Roast charring. (Have all Third Wave zealots run screaming yet?) There’s enough surface oil on the beans to be an aid for combing your hair or putting on lipstick.
We prepped and pulled shots of it using our Gaggia Factory at home. The Gaggia Factory is essentially a mutant La Pavoni Europiccola — and thus should be very familiar target brewing equipment for the likes of Cara & Sons.
But as inevitably happens with deep-second-crack roasts, the grinds in our Mazzer Mini came out black, gummy, and seemed to use up a greater volume of beans for an equivalent amount of ground coffee. (This often leaves us with the odd, unscientific impression that dark roasted coffees leave a lot of toxic build-up on our burrs.) But once we eased back on the grind quite a bit and made a few other adjustments, it produced a decent (though not great), dark crema. Even if the operating window of the coffee is not very forgiving, it was still producing a decent crema a week later — leaving us with the impression that the beans weren’t as stale as we had originally feared.
It has an earthy flavor that’s dominated by smoke and some wood. It’s rare these days to come across an espresso so focused on bass-notes (and hence so lacking in the bright note range). And although it’s well suited for milk, without publishing our usual espresso rating routine, it’s not a coffee we can recommend — even if you like that sort of charred, old school, Southern Italian roast. There are roasts just as richly bodied, and at least as fresh, for quite a bit less money out there. But then how often can you taste that kind of SF espresso history?
Today’s New York Times blogged about a new barista-as-art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum: Guggenheim Turns Coffee Into Art – City Room Blog – NYTimes.com.
Part of an art installation named Cinéma Liberté/Bar Lounge (we are told the other half is a movie), baristas behind a wooden bar serve espresso drinks from three Francis Francis machines. The concept presents the craft of, and the interaction with, the barista as art.
Not surprisingly, the coffee is supplied by Illy, which explains the espresso machines used in the exhibit. Illy has opened temporary “concept” espresso bars in New York City before — such as their Beauty Has A Taste stunt two years ago.
To qualify as art, we only hope the exhibit uses legitimate, ground-to-order fresh coffee. However, based on the pictures of the setup, “art” unfortunately seems to mean the stale, flat-tasting, pre-ground beans and environmental waste of Illy coffee pods. Talk about obscene art.
This week we came across a curious video published by Voice of America:
VOA News – Seattle: Capital of Coffee Houses. If you wonder why something called “Voice of America” produces video, you’ll question that even more after viewing this parody of a 1980′s corporate training video. But the video is essentially a review of Seattle’s notable contributions to American coffee culture: from the good (David Schomer and Espresso Vivace) to the bad (lukewarm customer responses to Starbucks) to the bikini-clad barista.
But one point from the video really stood out for us. It came from an interview with Tatiana Becker — a UC Berkeley grad, 2008 USBC competitor, and co-owner of Seattle’s Trabant Coffee & Chai (voted “Best Coffee 2008” in the Seattle CitySearch.com reader’s poll — now three years running). In the video, Ms. Becker bridges her previous high-tech career to her new role of coffee shop owner, saying, “There’s always new advances being made as far as equipment and techniques go. So it’s really challenging to stay on the cutting edge of coffee.”
Why do people make futile attempts to convince us that they’ve reinvented good coffee? Good coffee is good coffee, and what makes good coffee really hasn’t changed all that much in over a century.
Sure, many more professionals have become much better at it — leaving it much less up to chance or accident. But the idea that coffee has a “cutting edge” smacks of all the consumer marketing gimmicks for “new” coffee, such as blending it with ginseng or yerba mate and every other attempt to fashion coffee as some sort of nuevo energy drink. If your coffee has multiple ingredients, or worse — if it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee. (This is the main reason why we find the specialty beverage portion of barista competitions to be the most creative but also the most irrelevant.)
And if you visit the Trabant Coffee & Chai Web site, you’ll find it littered with references to the term “spro” (short for “espresso”). Use of the faux-word spro is yet another contrived attempt to create something new out of what is essentially old and traditional. (That and it comes off like your dad trying to speak to you in hip-hop rhymes to feign street cred.)
As for coffee equipment and techniques, look no further than the Clover brewer B-roll in Ms. Becker’s video segment. How much of the Clover is truly a coffee innovation, and how much of it is just mere kitchen gadgetry? A $300 Williams-Sonoma electronic garlic peeler might seem revolutionary, but it holds little merit when you can still produce the same results with the broad side of a chef’s knife. More often, an innovation in gadgetry is really just an innovation in spending opportunities. Is it any wonder why the Clover is known more for its cited $11,000 price tag than for any of the coffee you can produce with it?
We even argue that a Clover doesn’t produce coffee any better than an 1840′s-technology vacuum pot. What’s largely been lost among all the Clover brewer talk is that they are pointless without the appropriate bean sourcing: a Clover is only as good as the beans you put in it. And if you can’t taste it in the end product, we argue that it’s rather superfluous to the cause of good coffee.
You can call it cutting edge or Third Wave, you can call it spro, you can showcase a Clover brewer, and, in Ms. Becker’s case, you can even break out the halter tops at barista competitions for your sorority girl routine. But all of that does nothing to convince us that your coffee is somehow brand new or innovative. None of that is even about the coffee. Instead, these are all more akin to carnival barking — as if to convince us that Aunt Flo’s menopause makes her the Bearded Lady worthy of a $10 admission.
If coffee has a cutting edge, it couldn’t slice butter on a hot summer’s day.
One way to learn how important coffee is to some people is to sit in a jury room under bailiff lock & key without coffee for 7 1/2 hours. This pretty much describes my current existence at the aforementioned SF Glamour Slammer. I’m tempted to sneak in my own personal French press — if not for facing down 11 other irritable jurors who might use me to re-enact violent criminal conduct. Purely for demonstration purposes, and not necessarily to get at my coffee, of course. After all, there will be 11 witnesses.
Living in a claustrophobic box where the walls block out all possible physical and electronic contact with the outside world hasn’t afforded many opportunities to read, let alone report on, some of the latest coffee news. But this one blog post oddity from The Weekly Standard caught our eye today: More Bad News for Starbucks – The Weekly Standard.
Originally reported as a rumor by one of our readers last February (and later verified in The Washington Post), Starbucks management (read: CEO Howard Schultz) decided to introduce shotglasses in the production of their espresso drinks. Their idea was to add a little showmanship for the customer by introducing a practice we frowned upon as “anti-quality”.
The Weekly Standard‘s post suggests the practice was a quality measure. But they now cite Starbucks Gossip (a site that seems about as pointless as “Wal-Mart Gossip”) with a new corporate directive: cut out the extra five seconds of showmanship, the extra labor is costing us. The blog post interprets this shift as a move further away from quality towards cost savings, saying, “The company has decided that the quality of its product isn’t what has hurt them. Instead, the new espresso regime is an admission that it’s the economic environment that is weighing on SBUX.”
While the cited reasoning is credible — even if a jury room full of deprived caffeine addicts is direct evidence for the definition of “recession proof” — the great irony here is that eliminating another pointless device used as a “middleman” in the delivery of an espresso drink actually improves the beverage. It’s one less heat sink; it’s one less step to manhandle the espresso’s crema. So it sounds that Starbucks is unwittingly making a move towards better espresso, and they don’t even realize it.
As if there was any question left that Starbucks wasn’t already bankrupt in the quality espresso department.
It is quite a mouthful of nouns. But the key points are that Slow Food is a non-profit, its Foundation for Biodiversity is a countermeasure effort to the dwindling food product diversity in the world (e.g., today the American food supply is dependent on just 7% of the food product diversity that was once available to us in 1900 [thank you, Monsanto]), and Presidia are Slow Food groups that promote different local foods and traditions — such as coffee growing.
Monday’s event was a an educational and publicity affair among coffee professionals, showcasing some of Slow Food’s efforts to develop, enrich, and promote the coffee markets of the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium (Guatemala) and the Sierra Cafetalera Coffee Presidium (Dominican Republic). Working with local farmers and cooperatives, the Slow Food Foundation seeks to preserve the heritage of these unique crops — and elevate their quality for consumers and the quality of life for their farming communities.
While not a formal coffee cupping, French press samples were prepared to standard while representatives of the various cooperatives from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala spoke about their coffees with the help of a volunteer translator. Seeing and hearing from those who work at origin is a relatively rare experience in S.F. — and stories of life on a Guatemalan or Dominican Republic coffee farm are a humbling contrast to the criticism of “elitist food snobbery” that has often been levied against Slow Food Nation. (Between that and complaints that the $65 entrance fee to the Food Pavilions for this non-profit wasn’t an all-you-can-eat Sizzler proves that stupid people are everywhere.)
But if that doesn’t scream “elitist snob” enough for you, this Huehuetenango coffee is also roasted by prisoners at Torino, Italy’s Vallette prison through a social cooperative called Pausa Cafè. Coincidentally, last year we sampled this very same Pausa Cafè-roasted Huehuetenango coffee at Caffè Carpano in Torino’s Eataly.
Not only did some 60 coffee professionals get to enjoy conversation, coffee, and wine over a fine organic dinner prepared by chef Eskender Aseged of Radio Africa & Kitchen fame, but we were even supplied with sample greens of Huehuetenango Highland coffee. The green beans were an appropriate touch for this crowd (and fortunately I’m also a home roaster).
Included in a small media kit was a 25-minute DVD-video documentary of the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium, with its opening scene taking place in none other than Alba, Italy’s Caffè Calissano. The documentary was also set in Venice, Italy’s Caffè del Doge — whose Slow-Food-affiliated Huehuetenango San Pedro Necta single origin espresso we rated quite highly at their Palo Alto location two years ago.
I quickly learned that event chair Andrea Amato, who is in charge of the Latin American Presidia for the Slow Food Foundation, is also a big juventino — so we finished the evening with shots of limoncello and lamentations over Juventus’ last-minute falter in drawing 1-1 at Fiorentina on Sunday. Just the way they do it in Italy.
Regular readers here are familiar with our squawking about Slow Food in this blog for almost three years now. You might even recall our pilgrimage to the Slow Food mothership in Bra, Italy last October. But in case you haven’t seen the orange and black posters everywhere, next weekend Slow Food comes to America for the first time as Slow Food Nation — part expo, part celebration of good food and good food-producing practices, and part public education campaign.
Fort Mason will host the Taste Pavilions for the event, where organizers will dedicate large exposition spaces to twenty different culinary arts: spices, oils, chocolate, beer, wine, and — yes! — even coffee. (If it is anything like what we experienced at Torino, Italy’s Eataly last year, it’s going to be a blast.) The coffee pavilion itself promises to be about 2,000 square feet, curated by Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffè, Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and Tony Konecny of tonx.org fame.
Mr. Barnett was recently interviewed by CHOW, where he described the coffee pavilion as offering four different coffee tastes from four different regions/varietals/farms. You can download a podcast of his interview (5:49, 3.3 Mb), where he also helps describe some of the objectives of the event:
“It’s to turn the restaurateurs on to what a great cup of coffee tastes like. Coffee in many ways has been the bastard child of the culinary world. It was an afterthought.”
Some 50,000 attendees are expected at Slow Food Nation. The coffee pavilion alone expects to serve some 3,000-4,000 people a day — compared with the 1,100 transactions per day normally handled by Ritual Coffee Roasters.
We’ll be attending the Taste Pavilion (note: daytime tickets are sold out, but evening tickets are still available) — and we are looking forward to much more than just the coffee pavilion. We’ll also be attending the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity coffee & dinner event, held the following Monday at Coffee Bar. So expect future posts here on these topics.
In the meantime, we leave you with an artist’s rendition of some of the architectural detail planned at the event. Each taste pavilion is being designed out of repurposed materials by some of the Bay Area’s top design firms. For example, the pickle-and-chuntey booth, depicted below, will consist of walls made of pickle jars and a ceiling made of some 3,000 mason jar lids suspended from wires — all assembled just days before the event:
Photo courtesy California Home + Design magazine