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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For a few years now, we had an idea for a post that sat in our unpublished queue: how can you tell a good espresso shop from a bad one?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

Intelligentsia plans a groundbreaking coffee bar in Venice Beach

Posted by on 07 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune reported on a curious coffee bar concept planned for Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea‘s latest location, currently under construction in Los Angeles’ Venice Beach. The concept includes featuring five different stations where five separate baristas personally attend to each customer, individually catering to their unique coffee whims: Intelligentsia plans a groundbreaking coffee bar in Venice Beach | The Stew – A taste of Chicago’s food, wine and dining scene.

Although this proposed system will supposedly accommodate the customer that’s merely interested in a quick cup of coffee, Intelligentsia CEO Doug Zell claims, “We want the role of the barista here to be like a sommelier or a great server at a restaurant.” Hence the main emphasis of this process will be to individually educate customers about coffee varieties and brewing options, to direct customers to the kind of coffee experience they are seeking, and potentially suggesting possible pairings for the coffee along with home equipment options.

Now coffee’s wine analogy is already a beaten dead horse — particularly as many coffee bars continue their march towards becoming surrogate wine bars. But Zell’s proposed concept seems to take the barista role well beyond sommelier and into the new territory of a Nordstrom personal shopper. Will sophisticated coffee consumers welcome this as a lower barrier to delve deeper into coffee, or will they see this as more of a bloated and heavy-handed sales pitch?

The gate at Intelligentsia Venice Beach, under construction - photo courtesy of Food GPS

Is “the Ignorant Customer” a viable restaurant concept?

Sometimes we feel that the premium coffee industry is a bit over-earnest in their consumer marketing efforts. While we applaud some of Zell’s eyebrow-raising moves, such as eliminating the venti-sized drink, this latest idea smacks of trying to mold consumer behavior — rather than relaxing a little and letting consumers organically help define it a little more.

Part of the fun is figuring out things for yourself. And nobody likes the experience of dining at a restaurant with a sommelier always hovering over them. So while some hand-holding is good, too much and you risk Starbucks‘ insistence on customers speaking in their specialized drink-size language.

Which isn’t to say that we wouldn’t want to be a coffee tourist at Intelligentsia Venice Beach. And Zell and company should be commended for their out-of-the-box thinking and original approach. But this time, we wonder how long before the novelty wears off.

Intelligentsia’s concept seems founded on expectations that most coffee consumers are uneducated, that they will wax poetic about $5-a-cup Cup of Excellence beans from El Salvador if only an expert explained it to them, and that they will come to appreciate cuppings as the ultimate enjoyment of coffee.

That may be true for some of their customers — and certainly more true for Intelligentsia than for most coffee chains. But as with the current fad of experimenting with only single-origin coffees, consumer interest and the business model generated through this educational process is neither long-term nor sustainable. Consumers cannot remain ignorant forever. And in this era of simplifying our lives, enjoying coffee shouldn’t always have to be an educational chore.

UPDATE: April 28, 2009
The L.A. Times published an article on this coming café: It’s just you and your barista at Intelligentsia Venice – Los Angeles Times.

Trip Report: Café Aquarius (Emeryville, CA)

Posted by on 05 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew

When exploring the East Bay for espresso, it’s strangely easy to overlook Emeryville. The first city from San Francisco as you cross the Bay Bridge, home to America’s largest specialty coffee seaport, Emeryville boasts numerous coffee businesses, from distributors to roasters. But oddly Emeryville doesn’t boast many retail coffee shops that aren’t part of some monster chain. This location is a notable exception.

In nicer weather, they set out metal sidewalk tables under parasols. Otherwise, there’s a low wooden ceiling over several metal indoor café tables, old black & white science fiction TV/movie photographs on the walls, and all beneath two TV screens airing sports. They serve pastries (for which they have many fans), coffee, and brunch — and, soon we hear, dinner. The place has a quiet, low-key feel with very friendly staff.

Entrance and patio for Café Aquarius Inside seating are in Café Aquarius

If you seem halfway knowledgeable about your coffee, the barista will ask if you want your shot long or short. They preheat their Front of the House cups with hot water (and Vertex cups for larger, milk-based drinks) and use Sausalito roaster, Palio — and also private label the retail sales of their own beans.

Using a four-group Brasilia Portofino — which the owner claims to have won at auction from the closure of the original Torrefazione Italia chain (a machine from their old Union St. location) — they pull shots with a potent but slightly ashy aroma. It has a thin medium-brown crema that just barely coats the surface. Their espresso exhibits a light body, but it carries a robust toasted/roast flavor: with hints of wood and smokiness and some harsher spices.

Read the review of Café Aquarius in Emeryville, CA.

Café Aquarius' four-group Brasilia Portofino - rescued from the Union St. Torrefazione Italia prior to green death The Café Aquarius espresso

2009 USBC in Portland, OR

My, have we become a jaded lot when it comes to barista competitions. After a few years of monitoring them quite closely, we find ourselves quite fatigued by their highly repetitive, narrowly focused preparation routines and judging operations; their insular crowds; and their disconnectedness from the actual experience of enjoying an espresso in a café (specialty drinks, anyone?).

But don’t take our word for it. Check out the USBC for yourself this weekend via their live video feed on the Internet (complete with inline chat). All due respect to the competitors and the industry — and the fun of meeting people at the event and enjoying shots from the 4th Machine. But if you ever wondered why cable TV has not picked up this event yet, just watch it for a few hours. No further explanation necessary; it can make grown men weep for the return of “Yes, Dear.”

The Birth of the Caffè Latte: Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum in the news

Posted by on 26 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Local Brew

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.:

  1. Nick Griffith
  2. Devin Pedde
  3. Ryan Willbur

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.)

The Intelligentsia-LA WRBC winners, courtesy of Tonx

Trip Report: ZombieRunner (Palo Alto, CA)

Posted by on 21 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Foreign Brew, Roasting

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.

ZombieRunner does not sell Milk Duds, however Does this look like a great espresso bar? It does at ZombieRunner.

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 calls the shots at ZombieRunner The ZombieRunner espresso

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.

A little coffee merchandising while you sip at the coffee table 'My name is Ema Hesire, but you can call me Emmy. After close at night, I do shots with Andrew McCarthy.'

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