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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 CoffeeGeek.com.) 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 Ustream.tv 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.'

It’s a floor wax. No, it’s a dessert topping. No, it’s a barista.

Posted by on 11 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Barista

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.

Northwest Regional Barista Competition judges courtesy of the News Tribune Technical judges at the Northwest Regional Barista Competition, courtesy the News Tribune

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.

In San Francisco Bars, a Cocktail Is Not Just a Drink

Posted by on 28 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends

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)

Inside SF's The Alembic, courtesy the New York Times

And yet is coffee at its nadir of sophistication?

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?

Barista at Caffè Platti in Torino, Italy serves up a espresso from their La Cimbali

Coffee Review: Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano

Posted by on 23 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Local Brew, Roasting

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.

Bi-Rite Market, a.k.a. Sammy's Loose whole bean coffee selection at Bi-Rite Market, unfortunately oxidizing in open storage

Available at Sammy’s and no other fine stores…

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.

One-pound bag of Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast 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.

The taste test

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?

The shiny Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast Shot pulled from the Thomas E. Cara Fine Espresso Napoletano roast

UPDATE: March 11, 2011
Today’s SFGate opted to publish a piece on Thomas Cara’s espresso machine retailing operations: Family steam powers S.F’s oldest espresso retailer.

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