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Trip Report: Mountain Grounds (Martinez, CA)

Posted by on 17 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

As we mentioned in our last review of a remote Martinez, CA coffee house: good coffee is everywhere. In fact, the modern boom in good coffee purveyors is akin to the boom of mom & pop video rental stores in the 1980s and ’90s. And as some of these small businesses grow a little larger to form local chains, they’ve become a little like the current surge in home solar installation businesses. The local demand is there and the barriers to entry are generally low.

While the ubiquity of good coffee has its obvious benefits for coffee lovers, it also raises the spectre of market saturation and business sustainability. As good coffee houses open everywhere, they’re no longer rare nor special.

Strip mall entrance to Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA Inside Mountain Grounds with its Nuova Simonelli and 3rd Wave menu on the rear wall

Earlier this month, in response to news of Verve Coffee Roasters planning to open a future location in SF’s Castro District, SFist asked a newly valid question: “Hasn’t the Castro reached Peak Coffee”?

SFist is probably being a little alarmist before we have to worry about carpet-bombing-levels of good coffee in the neighborhood. Verve would have something a little different to say than the others already there, but the nagging old question of espresso sameness comes up. I would be particularly concerned if someone was planning to open yet another coffee shop serving Blue Bottle from La Marzocco machines just like the seven others within a three-block radius.

But in such a saturated environment, discovering a new coffee house with something a little different to offer can be a draw. Sometimes you have to go as far out as Martinez to find something that unique.

Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli machine and some of its roasted coffee menu above Pour-over brewing set up with a Chemex aside of Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli

Mountain Grounds + Revel Coffee = Something Different

Opening in the latter half of 2013, Mountain Grounds is in the middle of nowhere but is unique enough, and has high enough quality standards, to make it well worth a visit. If nothing else for the uniqueness of its coffee sourcing.

Located in a Martinez strip mall of four stores (what else are you going to find outside of old downtown Martinez?), it’s a tight space inside with window counter seating in front and hardly a few seats next to the service counter. Outside there are a few café tables along the sidewalk under the strip mall porticos — along with a couple of lounging chairs and a heat lamp.

Mountain Grounds resells Revel Coffee Roasting beans in plastic cupsOwner John Cassidy and his wife, Danielle, gregariously operate this shop. One of John’s longtime friends is Gary Theisen of Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings, Montana. Revel ships in the coffee from Montana every Monday. (The shop’s working business phone number also betrays John’s Montana roots.)

Mountain Grounds follows some creative small-town practices, such as accepting orders via SMS text in advance. (Easier to handle with low volumes.) They also offer a variety of specialty coffee drinks, including crème brûlée lattes (set aflame before being served for the crispy top) and the S’more. At one side of the cramped shop is a menu on the wall titled “A Taste of 3rd Wave Coffee Shops”, which features a double ristretto, a 1 ‘N 1, a macchiato, a cortado, a cappuccino, and a con panna.

The Mountain Grounds espressoThey pull espresso shots from a newer two-group Nuova Simonelli with a modest layer of even, medium brown crema with good coagulation. There’s a fruity brightness in the cup of cherry and berry, but a lack of the apple-like acidity that you might find with typical coffee from newer Cali roasters (e.g., Sightglass). This makes it a unique and rather balanced cup.

Milk-frothing here is pretty even. They offer weight-measured Chemex and pour-over coffee. The shop’s loyal following includes those who also take home Revel beans, which are packaged in clear plastic drinking cups with lids. With no real sink in this tiny shop, coffee drinks are served in paper only except for large ceramic logo cups for the bigger milk-based drinks.

Read the review of Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA.

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at Heath Ceramics (Mission District)

Posted by on 01 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew

One of Blue Bottle Coffee‘s great challenges today is to continue growing with the success of their coffee and café operations while avoiding becoming a commodity: a boilerplate coffee shop with a flavor profile so consistent that it becomes a little monotonous and boring, despite its obvious quality. Back in 2007 we wrote about Blue Bottle’s role in the Bay Area’s budding espresso sameness fatigue.

Coincidentally, that reference was in an article about Piccino Cafe — which has since closed, reopened to a larger restaurant space, and switched from Blue Bottle to Sightglass roasting. Sightglass has also since opened a second roasting operation in the Mission District where they immediately addressed the sameness concern by roasting and offering select coffees that aren’t available at their other locations.

Garage entrance to Heath Ceramics and the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Inside with the Blue Bottle Coffee to the left and the Heath Ceramics plant to the right

Just a few blocks from the second Sightglass roastery is this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet located inside the garage door of a Heath Ceramics production and retail warehouse. The location suits Blue Bottle’s alliance with Heath, and it also offers another unique space for them to operate. Even if Blue Bottle has yet to diversify their coffee offerings as much as the smaller-scale Sightglass.

Off to the left in this space is the in-house Blue Bottle retail café, with a decent-sized service counter, a lot of shelf space dedicated to whole bean sales, and a rear shelf of merchandising. To the center is the café seating area, adorned with the warm colors of wooden benches and chairs for seating inbetween the café and Heath’s production plant residing behind glass windows.

Open seating area for the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Heath CeramicsThe area is decorated with succulents and tall white ceilings with a lot of exposed pipes. At the service counter they employ a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. Going just a little off what was expected at the visit, they served espresso using their Colombia Las Margaritas Red Bourbon Honey single origin roast instead of their traditional three-bean blends. This gave the cup a bright fruitiness that shown throughout the cup — or disrupted the balance, however you perceive it.

The flavor is sharp: mace, cloves, and bright spices. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and is served with a small glass of sparkling water on the side in a Heath Ceramic cup (of course).

While it’s a very astringent cup, at least they are experimenting beyond the expected at some of their cafés. Even if we had to deduct a few points for the annoying hipster barista who insisted on calling our shot a “spro”. (The groan-worthy “spro” being the #yolo of coffee vernacular.)

Read the review of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company at Heath Ceramics in SF’s Mission District.

Baristi behind the La Marzocco Strada at Blue Bottle Coffee in the Heath Ceramics Espresso with a side of sparkling water at Blue Bottle Coffee in Heath Ceramics

Trip Report: Cartel Coffee Lab (Scottsdale, AZ)

Posted by on 13 Jan 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

It has been over 20 years since I last spent real time in Arizona. And back then it was either the Flagstaff or Tucson areas — deliberately not Phoenix, with its then-legendary saturation of Denny’s-per-square-mile, above-ground cemetery lifestyle, all the bad things about Los Angeles (smog, traffic) and none of the good (beaches, movie stars), and in-state locals who frequently tried to extricate those they felt were trapped in Phoenix itself.

Did I unfairly give Phoenix a bad rap without spending any first-hand time there? Absolutely. Is it for me? Phoenix can be very scenic and pretty, despite traffic landmarks like The Stack, and the people are outwardly nice in a way that would make any Bay Area resident suspicious. However, it’s probably a place I’ll visit but keep in the arm’s-length acquaintance category, even if I know and met a number of locals who love it there. One of my Über drivers raved about the area, but then he grew up in Sudan.

No matter — much like the rest of America these days, there’s good coffee to be had in town.

Panoramic of Camelback Mountain from Mummy Mountain across Paradise Valley, with Phoenix in the smog at right

Entrance to Cartel Coffee Lab in Scottsdale Inside Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale

Sola Coffee Bar previously stood on this Old Town Scottsdale location, until the owners wanted out of the business in 2011. (Scottsdale sits as a large suburb on the northeast of the Phoenix border.) Jason Silberschlag, owner of the Cartel Coffee Lab chain, loved the location and moved in immediately.

It’s a relatively modest space with exposed wooden panels and fans on the ceiling, a number of exposed supporting posts, and an open art-gallery like space. Outside there’s a sidewalk bench. Inside there is stool seating along the street windows in front and some long, cushioned seating along internal glass walls with small café tables designed like small, squat sections of tree stumps. The few real tables inside are the size of picnic benches with various red and white colored metal chairs about.

Looking back at the entrance inside Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale Cartel Coffee Lab's coffee offerings for retail sale

Various brewing devices in 2x2 formation at Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale Artisan Pop Tarts at the Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale

Off to one side they serve multiple microbrews on tap along with wines. At the back is their coffee service bar. It covers brewing using anything from Aeropress, V60, Clever, and Chemex, and they offer drinks in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 20oz sizes — a dimensioning of their coffee service that I haven’t quite exactly seen before.

Part of their bar surface is covered with these brewing devices in a sort of Noah’s-Ark-like 2×2 formation. A wall of mounted crates offers their merchandise, from roasted coffee to the devices behind any of their various brewing methods. Except one…

Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a little light on thickness. It has a sharp acidity with a flavor of citris and some cedar, though it seems a little light on body and lacks much of any rich, body-forward flavor notes. Served in a shotglass with water on the side.

Overall, it’s a good espresso that tastes inspired by many West Coast roasting stereotypes, but it has enough of its own personality to not taste like a San Francisco or Portland knock-off.

Read the review of Cartel Coffee Lab in Scottsdale, AZ.

Cartel Coffee Lab drink menu and service counter, Scottsdale Beer and wine at the side bar at Cartel Coffee Lab

La Marzocco Strada and wall of coffee and accessories at Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale The Cartel Coffee Lab espresso

The CoffeeRatings.com 2014 Holiday Anti-Gift Guide

Posted by on 04 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

This is that insufferable time of year where reading any sort of coffee news Web site or blog means dodging an onslaught of “gift ideas for coffee lovers” advertisements feigning to be articles. These cyclical (and cynical) bits of fake journalism are often accompanied by multi-page image galleries requiring you to click through each item — to maximize tedium while inflating Web site engagement metrics and advertising exposure.

So it was with a breath of fresh air this week that I received this article from a great friend in Canada: Gift Guide: Think twice before buying a Keurig coffee maker – The Globe and Mail. The topic was simple and one we’ve long contended: if you’re thinking of buying someone a Keurig machine, here’s why not. And it inspired the subject of today’s post here: the anti-gift guide article, or what not to buy this holiday season for that special coffee lover in your life.

To Keurig or not to Keurig? Canada asks...

Reverend Billy in his natural environmentOK, sure, I’m a fan of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping and Buy Nothing Day (aka “#OccupyXmas”). And it seems irresponsible to further stir up the consumer feeding frenzy that inspires maiming and even deaths at Black Friday Wal-Marts just to save $20 on a TV.

But if you’re going to be purchasing holiday gifts anyway, what should you avoid wasting your money on? Well, you’ve come to the right place. With coffee’s Fourth Wavethe gadgetization of coffee — in high gear, today the consumer coffee gear marketplace is flush with stoopid money. So much so that even classic coffee equipment designs — such as the moka pot and the Chemex — are (rightfully) looking to cash in on stacks of some of dat mad cheddar with new premium gadget introductions just in time for the holidays.

So without further ado, let the dishonor roll begin…

  • Any espresso machine priced lower than a Rancilio Silvia + a quality burr grinder
  • Krups: coming to a landfill near youEither spend the $25 on a stovetop moka pot or hold off until you can hit that magical $800+ mark. Everything in-between really just isn’t worth it. All those Krups, Jura, and DeLonghi machines that litter the shelves at Sur La Table are just disappointment bombs ready to explode like IEDs on their hapless new owners. And before you point out that a moka pot technically does not brew espresso, it’s no worse than what you get out of a device made by one of these vacuum cleaner and toaster oven manufacturers.

    If you recall the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic 1964 Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer animated Christmas special, I fully believe that there’s an Island of Misfit Coffee Appliances where cheap, dysfunctional, and abandoned espresso machines like these pile up like a Staten Island garbage barge.

    As for simple camping devices like the Handpresso, you may as well drive your car on four donut emergency spare tires. And if you can’t afford the extra $200 for a decent burr grinder, you may as well purchase a Lamborghini mounted on donuts.

  • Coffee travel kits
  • Speaking of coffee and camping, stay away from those custom coffee travel kits. You barely see your friend long enough away from the Xbox in his basement. Like when’s the next time he’s really crossing the Andes Mountains on foot like some sort of airline crash survivor?

    Really?

    Stumptown's coffee travel kit: sleeve tattoos not included

  • Any coffee machine with WeMo or smartphone application controls
  • The latest “Look, there goes Elvis!” technique from the modern coffee machine marketing playbook is to appeal to technophiles through seemingly advanced technology, such as iPhone or Android application controls. Yet we know just from their price tags that whatever WiFi and electronic investments they put into these machines, none of it went to the one thing all coffee brewing equipment must achieve to avoid complete failure: holding an accurate and consistent brewing temperature.

    My app-powered coffeemaker makes coffee taste like ass, but I can share that more easily on Facebook nowYour basic Technivorm can barely pull that much off without any smartphone gimmicks. Thus what you’re really buying is the equivalent of a baby busy box app — just designed for easily duped adults who somehow need more excuses to keep staring at their smartphones. And good luck when Apple releases iOS9 next year and you discover you can’t upgrade your coffee machine’s operating system.

    Seriously, if you’re going to buy one of these, just stick a wad of your cash directly into a landfill. The inevitable result will be the same, just that you’ll achieve your goal much sooner and you’ll be much more environmentally friendly in the process.

  • Any brewed coffee maker with a hot plate rather than a carafe
  • This is an oldie, but it still applies today. I know there are a lot of coffee fans whose favorite coffee style or flavor profile is simply “hot”. But since making coffee is cooking, the concept of using a hot plate is essentially the same as putting your meal under a fast food heat lamp. Sure, you might keep the desired serving temperature longer. But you evaporate out many of coffee’s water-soluble flavor components, thus leeching out a lot of its good flavors while concentrating the remaining stale dreck in its place.

    While attending CoffeeCON in SF this year, Kitchen Aid sent me their new “SCAA-approved” Pour Over brewer. The one thing I don’t like about it? Its ridiculous hot plate that I have to work around to avoid.

  • Subscription delivery roasts
  • Australia's Captain Coffee says it's OK to be racist as long as you enjoy freshly delivered coffeeThis is going to be a controversial one, as there are a lot of great roasts to be had by mail these days. But that’s precisely the point.

    There are a lot of new coffee middlemen who operate subscription services. While they ship with regularity so you have the convenience of not having to think about it, most of them pretty much ship whatever inventory they want to unload. It changes from month to month.

    This is fine if you’re a newbie coffee lover and you want every coffee experience to be a new discovery. But playing coffee roulette gets old quickly once you learn more about what you like. With just a couple of clicks on a roaster’s Web site, what you really want is on your doorstep within 48 hours: no subscription required.

    There’s a reason why most people don’t stick with a wine-of-the-month club for a full year.

  • A home coffee roaster
  • This is another controversial one. Because despite identifying the few reasons you should — and the many reasons you should not — roast your own some five years ago here, I’ve been home roasting about every other day for more than a year now. I can’t even remember the last time I purchased retail roasted coffee. After nearly a decade of declining use, a combination of newer equipment, outstanding green lots from Rwanda, and changes in home coffee drinking habits have me in something of a home roasting revival these days.

    That said, I still have to say that it’s a hassle that’s not worth it for most people. It’s even one of the few times I wholly agree with Nick Cho.

    Perhaps your gift recipient loves to make their own kombucha. Though if that’s the case, any suggestions for making flavorful coffee are probably pointless. Who can trust the taste buds of anybody who willingly drinks tea made from soiled diapers?

    The HotTop roaster... most people would rather pay someone else to roast for them

  • Coffee books with recipes
  • We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. If it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee.

    Would a serious, legit book on wine cram itself with recipes for kir royales and beef bourguignon?

  • Anything off KickStarter (or indiegogo or a dozen other knockoffs)
  • Just as state lotteries are often called a tax on people who can’t do math, I’ve called crowdfunding services like Kickstarter a tax on people who don’t understand business loans or venture investing. If you can’t secure a decent business loan with your brilliant product idea, then throwing it out to the unwashed masses of the Internet for charitable donations doesn’t exactly make it that much more viable.

    On the other hand, maybe you as the inventor could secure the bank loans, and you could establish a business that could support the product well after its first prototypes ship. But why? Especially when you can simply take the money of gullible Internet users with virtually no strings attached.

    Either way, the formula isn’t so attractive on the consumer end of this equation.

  • The Even-Better Home Brewer Technology of the Week
  • I'm inta coffee from my Ratio Eight ... and whatever package you've got to show me, Mother SuperiorThe Wilfa Precision Coffee Maker… the Canadiano… the Ratio Eight … Enter the Dragon… These days an endless parade of “new, revolutionary, and even better!” coffee brewer come-ons bombard home coffee lovers seemingly every other week, suddenly relegating last week’s revolutionary brewer to the Salvation Army donation pile.

    Do you have the disposable income to keep replacing your home setup every other week for the promise of a potential 0.002% quality improvement in your cup? Are you starting a collection of forgotten coffee brewing devices for the Fifteen-Minutes-of-Fame Coffee Trivia History Museum?

    If your answer to both of these questions is “no”, then the $20 Bonmac dripper you’ve been knocking around with for the past several years will continue to do just fine. And it will continue to do so for years to come. If your intended gift recipient is starting from scratch, it’s worth a look at these new gadgets. But just once — and not again for probably many years.


UPDATE: Dec. 11, 2014
A week after writing this, I received a come-on e-mail from a New York PR agency with the headline of “Hot New Travel Press on Kickstarter!” At first I thought someone was just trolling me as a joke…

More on taking your own coffee with you…

Posted by on 15 Oct 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Machine

Working my first job out of college in the Baltimore area, I encountered a summer phenomenon that the locals call “going down ocean” (Bal’mer accent required). People would flock to Ocean City, MD and the Delmarva coast to escape the heat and have a good time.

But one thing that puzzled me were the many visitors from the Baltimore-D.C. area who quite deliberately chose not to escape Margarita Maggie’s — a now-defunct chain Mexican restaurant, akin to a Chevy’s Fresh Mex, with locations in Ocean City and all over Maryland at the time. In fact, I encountered many making the escape who insisted on eating the same exact food at the same exact chain restaurants they had back home.

A few years later I was on a business trip with my boss in London. It was the first time for both of us. After acclimating for a day after 11 hours of flying, my boss suggests we grab dinner at a Pizza Hut. A Pizza Hut.

Isn’t the joy of travel about eating local foods, experiencing local customs, and expanding your horizons just a little?

Blue Bottle's coffee travel kit: don't leave home without it

When the monkey on your back carries its own suitcase

I’m reminded of these personal stories whenever I come across news about the latest strategy for taking your coffee with you wherever you go. Four years ago we derided the neurotic need for carrying a coffee suitcase. Today we received an email from Blue Bottle Coffee announcing their latest designer Travel Kit.

The email went on with their target customer profiles:

The urban traveler, weary of stale hotel selections. The weekend adventurer, gearing up for a surf session or camping trip. The road tripper, now liberated from the scorched (and sometimes blueberry-flavored) disappointments of gas station urns. Starting now, the proper tools are collected and within reach. It’s time to Brew Where You Are.

All of which begs the question: where do you draw the line at packing it in and carrying everything with you? If carrying your own coffee and coffee equipment is normal, what about carrying your own wine bottles because you don’t trust the wine lists of the local restaurants? Is packing your own meat freezer and gas grill taking it a little too far? Hotel pillows suck, so is BYOP just a little neurotic? What about the three-ply toilet paper you’re so used to at home? It’s super soft.

The issue is not even about packing light (which remains highly underrated). The issue is about being so terrified of potential disappointment that you close yourself off to new experiences and the possibility of learning something.

The Portland Trail began with supplies of Stumptown carried across the Great Plains

When the zombie apocalypse just isn’t coming fast enough

There’s a certain aspirational quality of adventure travel to these products and come-ons that reminds me of how ginormous four-wheel-drive SUVs are sold to suburban moms who never go more off-road than the church parking lot. Most people seem barely capable of surviving for two hours away from their Facebook or Twitter feeds. But to read these taglines, who among us isn’t climbing the remote wilds in the southern Andes of Patagonia later this month?

Yet the truly adventuresome pioneers leverage their resourcefulness when they get there — they don’t pack it all with them. And even if you are in the wilds, I’ve had a camping coffee kit for 20 years that consists of a manual hand-crank grinder, a red plastic Melitta filter and #2 papers (not to mention a Nalgene press pot). No news here: nothing about that has changed.

Coffee, or Emotional-Support Animal?

First World coffee problems...The far more common, and relevant, scenario is the basic business or social trip to a different town. I can’t comment on gas station and hotel room coffee other than to say, “Seriously?! That’s the best you can do before deciding you must carry it all with you?” Other than drug addicts (sorry, coffee addiction is the lamest white person’s whine around), what makes coffee the only consumable where carrying it and all of its preparation paraphernalia seemingly rational?

It’s 2014. Good coffee is ubiquitous. So much so, the antiquated idea of there being coffee cities — such as Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco — makes about as much sense today as there being wine cities. Even New Yorkers have forgotten about how bad their coffee options used to be just a few short years ago.

An Internet connection and a GPS-enabled mobile phone aren’t exactly the stuff of NASA astronauts these days. Using either of them, decent coffee can be found just about anywhere. Yes, James, even in Oklahoma City. Wasn’t it that adventuresome spirit that lead you to Blue Bottle and weaned you off of your dirty Starbucks habit in the first place?

UPDATE: Octover 29, 2014
Not to be left out, now even Stumptown is following the identical act: For the Coffee Snob Who Has Everything: Stumptown Unveils $185 Travel Brew Kit – Eater Portland. Even the nuclear holocaust survivalists are getting in on the act.

Trip Report: Saint Frank (Russian Hill)

Posted by on 10 Jun 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

This café is the brainchild of former middle school teacher and Ritual Coffee barista, Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Starting as a pop-up in SF’s South Park (which has since closed in Dec. 2013), this over-designed flagship café opened in Oct. 2013 to a considerable amount of gushing praise.

It took over the former Teashi spa, and the spirit of past mani/pedis and Brazilian waxings still sort of haunts the place. On the sidewalk out front there’s limited wooden café table seating. Inside in front there’s window counter seating for four on stools right next to shelves of coffee merchandising, just shy of the long service counter.

Entrance to Russian Hill's Saint Frank Wall o'coffee inside Saint Frank

It’s a long space that is deceptively airier than its limited seating would suggest. There’s an array of a few café tables against a shared wall bench; these are typically the domain of laptop zombie squatters. Further back there’s an upstairs under bright skylights that offers two larger, semi-private tables.

Here there is an overwhelming sense of someone’s idyllic vision that a café should be more like an Apple Store. There are stark, plain walls and wood grain paneling plus a wannabe kanketsu “service philosophy” of removing as many barriers as possible between barista and customer.

This is exemplified by their unique, Modbar-like espresso machine: a two-group, under-the-counter job either called the Jepy Minim (per the engineer/designer John Ermacoff, aka Jepy) or the Ghost (per project designer Ben Kaminsky). It’s the guts of a perfectly acceptable Synesso Sabre, but Frankensteined beyond recognition as a sacrifice to form. This worship at the Holy Church of Makerdom might promise greater temperature control, etc., but what only matters to us as coffee lovers is what it produces in the cup.

Malkhoning K30 Twin grinders at Saint Frank's service entrance Coffee menu inside Saint Frank

Laptop zombies and service counter in Saint Frank Still life at Saint Frank: just as they've designed it

They specially source limited coffees and roast them through Ritual Coffee Roasters for their own private label, and our review here is of their Little Brother Espresso — which comes at a whopping $3. (They also served a Costa Rica Los Crestones for $4.) It’s served slightly full with an even, medium brown crema. There’s a balance to the flavor with hints of bright fruit, but there’s primarily a mid-palate of herbal pungency.

In short: it’s a very good shot. But for all the pomp, technology, design, and the price, it doesn’t measure up to expectations — failing to rank in the Top 35 of SF coffee shops. We need to revisit to ensure we didn’t catch them on an off moment, but that would be surprising given they’ve been open for eight months and their machine has dialed down espresso shots to a push-button level. The good news for Saint Frank is that there are clear opportunities to improve. (That might also include banning all employees here from openly calling it “spro”, dude.)

Served in white Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups. They also offer V60 pour-overs and use Malkhöning EK 43 & K30 Twin grinders.

Read the review of Saint Frank in SF’s Russian Hill.

Closer look at Saint Frank's under-the-counter Jepy Minim or Ghost machine The Saint Frank espresso


Café Arms Races That Don’t Involve Coffee

This will read like an attack on Kevin when he’s done some very interesting things with unique coffees, and he’s certainly trying things. Yet Saint Frank is also symptomatic and emblematic of what seems so very lost and misguided with what the industry holds as the new standard of coffee shop today. Among all the toys and distractions of late, coffee quality in the cup seems to have again taken a back seat.

If you’re going to charge $3 for an espresso, it should at least break the Top 35 in the city. Among the 700 active espresso purveyors currently surveyed in SF, Saint Frank’s standard espresso shot is the most expensive in the city that’s served outside of a restaurant setting. (Presuming the Nespresso Boutique & Bar qualifies more as a restaurant, where you’re paying more for white tablecloth service and a global smoke & mirrors marketing campaign.)

We should all be paying more for coffee — but for better coffee. Based on our ratings, it’s not better. For the reported pedigree of their sourced coffees, it doesn’t even have a different or unique flavor profile. So what exactly am I paying extra for?

Ghost in the Machine

First, there’s the promising lure of shiny new equipment and it’s empirically consistent failure to deliver better coffee. In the past we’ve noted the likes of Sightglass who have been guilty of this for years. In Saint Frank’s case, it’s not even so much a “better brewing” sales come-on than superficial aesthetics: i.e., a low-profile workspace primarily conceived to address the First World coffee problem where my barista doesn’t get to see more of my crotch.

When the world's gone ModbarFortunately the Modbar isn’t weighed down by outrageous costs — you can get a full system for under $10k. Hopefully Saint Frank’s custom lookalike (the Jepy Minim or Ghost, depending upon whom you ask) follows suit in that department. But with new, “revolutionary” ways to brew coffee even more perfectly being announced every week, we’ve often wondered if any of the takers ever get the chance to dial-in on them, with a serious dose of experience, before they roll on to the next big thing — looking to technology to bail them out from substandard practices.

This is a little of what former USBC champ Kyle Glanville recently called the “fancy equipment arms race”: “People are spending shit tons on machines to brew coffee when they should be investing in their own palates and understandings of flavor, and the knowledge of how coffee brewing actually works”

When Service Design Forgets to Design for Product Quality

So what about making your café look like an Apple Store? Blue Bottle Coffee has been compared to the Apple of coffee shops, and they’re even sporting Apple-inspired service table designs. And CoffeeRatings.com has had plenty of good things to say about Blue Bottle.

Blue Bottle Oakland's Apple-inspired service table topExcept Blue Bottle’s resulting coffee quality is noticeably better than Saint Frank’s. Now any café owner is entitled to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a custom espresso machine, killer grinders, and a Zenlike service design experience. But if it doesn’t translate to a better cup of coffee, those costs are being passed on to me to satisfy completely different concerns. You’d be better off having your baristas selling me $400 sweaters.

What results is a place that seems enamored with all the trappings of what’s expected of a wannabe Fourth Wave coffee place, but with no improvement in the coffee itself. Which suggests more of our cynical definition of a Fourth Wave coffee shop from four years ago. We then joked that if the Third Wave was about letting the coffee speak for itself and enjoying coffee for its own sake, the Fourth Wave was about appreciating so much of the gadgetry and trappings surrounding coffee service that any actual coffee was no longer required.

Rewarding The Wrong Behaviors

But can any of us blame Kevin? The status quo of the industry’s most popular coffee media encourage this focus. For example, a Dear Coffee, I Love You seems to care more about subway tiles than coffee roasting. While Sprudge heavily promotes their “Buildouts of the Summer” promotional series as if coffee were a construction project. And in professing “we would never grade coffee shops”, Sprudge seems too terrified to lift a judgmental finger to critique any of the coffee and potentially hurt someone’s feelings.

In the absence of critical opinions, these become our public coffee thought-leadersThis leaves a massive void of any popular critical thought about retail coffee quality. Instead of learned coffee professionals, this gap is filled instead by the arbitrary standards of “top 20 coffee shops in America” lists on popular news and travel web sites — often written and compiled by interns most enamored by double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos in paper to-go tubs, whose understanding of coffee quality extends little beyond the MSRP price tags of the commercial coffee machine fad of the month.

Or worse: the void is left to the whims of the “man in the street” on review sites like Yelp!: where electrical outlets for laptops, cute baristas who flirt, and cheap extra large muffins count for more than any coffee quality.

Putting Coffee Quality Back at the Center

Imagine a perverse wine world where the like likes of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast gave everything identical 90-point scores while devoting the bulk of their writing to the wood and fixtures used to build their tasting rooms and the designers of their high-tech wine openers. It’s of little surprise that we have ended up with coffee writing that reads more like an interior design arms race sponsored by Home Depot®. Meanwhile any actual quality judgement on coffee is suppressed to the level of American youth soccer: everybody is recognized with a trophy just for participating. Why even bother with the farce of barista competitions if “everyone is a winner”?

Over a decade ago, one of the major inspirations for creating CoffeeRatings.com was our immense frustration with all the existing books and online reviews of coffee houses at the time: it was impossible to find any critical reviews of coffee places that critiqued any actual coffee. Most of the attention was spent on ambiance: the style of the clientele who hung out there, what novels they read, and how good the bagels were. With all the attention now given to new machines, service counter layouts, and who makes the wooden countertops, we seem to have relapsed to those more ignorant days.

The things we read while dragging on cigarettes in fashionable cafés

I never thought I’d miss what six years ago I called the Malaysian street food experience. Then the environmental design slight-of-hand was in making you feel like a hipster for sipping your espresso while sitting on a cinder block in an alley filled with spent heroin needles. Even so, at least the quality of the coffee still ran as the headline. Today I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it’s time to go back to those days.

Espresso nel caffè: Rai 3 Report

Posted by on 07 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Robusta, Starbucks

As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)

This nasty shot of an unclean espresso machine in Napoli won't qualify as coffee pornThe 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.

There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.

How a coda di topo should not look...The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.

Luigi Odello on ReportThey visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.

Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.

UPDATE: April 8, 2014
Effective communication often changes behavior. In response to Rai 3’s Report yesterday, a Campania region commissioner has come to the defense of the region’s espresso: Campania Report, Martusciello: “Il caffè napoletano è una eccellenza”.

Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.

UPDATE: April 14, 2014
Antonio Quarta, president of the Associazione Italiana Torrefattori (AIT, Italian Roasters Association), commented on the Report in today’s paper: Quarta: «Il caffè fa bene, ma è importante che sia di qualità». In short, he notes that the SCAE has its own high professional standards, but that applying them to every gas station and airport serving espresso in Italy doesn’t exactly tell the whole story either. He’s a little defensive, as you might expect, but investigative journalism thrives on finding worst-case scenarios and drawing much more widespread conclusions from them.

Trip Report: Caffè d’Epoca (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 05 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Napoli is a town of doppelgängers. Perhaps fitting with their con artist reputation, Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing.

Just take Pizzeria Sorbillo. Operated by Gino Sorbillo and considered one of the greatest and most historical pizzerias on the planet, it is located at via dei Tribunali, 32 and attracts long lines of tourists, foodie blog zombies, and multinational TV crews. Its relatively quiet neighbor at #35 to the east is also called Pizzeria Sorbillo (operated by Gino’s brother, Patrizio). The next door further down at #38 is the ever so slightly more popular place called … wait for it … Pizzeria Sorbillo (operated by Gino’s cousins, Antonio and Gigi).

Napoli's Piazza Trieste e Trento: which of these two coffee shops is Caffè del Professore? Sign for Il Vero Bar del Professore with inset showing its earlier addition to its name

This might not seem too dishonest given that there are 21 pizza-making siblings from the same Sorbillo family. But they are three distinctively different pizza places with three different owners, three different menus, and three different pizza ovens.

Easy enough, I mixed them up my first time here: it’s quite confusing. Read the reviews on TripAdvisor or Google or Yelp.it — even the ones written in Italian — and you’ll notice that some 10-20% of them undoubtedly reviewed the wrong place and to this day believe they ate somewhere else. Perhaps more accurately, they probably presumed there was only one Pizzeria Sorbillo on via dei Tribunali.

Il Falso Bar del Professore

Which brings us to Caffè del Professore, the café (or bar if you will). Many consider its espresso as some of the best in all of Napoli. Its name also refers to the Caffè del Professore roaster, based in Palermo, which is one of the most prized small roasters boasted on the front signage of many a local café in Napoli.

Given its Sicilian origins, Caffè del Professore, the roaster, is actually a little unusual for the region. Culturally speaking, the many discerning Neapolitan espresso drinkers have embraced and prized the local micro-roaster idea for generations. By contrast, New York City only started toying with the idea since around the time that Justin Bieber got his first tattoo. Many cafés in Napoli proudly post signs professing their coffee sources — and the smaller and more local, the better.

Sidewalk in front of Caffè d'Epoca Sidewalk seating from the other side in front of Caffè d'Epoca

But this is supposed to be a review about Caffè d’Epoca, right? Right. And when you walk in front of this small café and look at the bold signage above the door, in the back of the establishment, and along all the sidewalk seating in front, you’d be hard-pressed to say this wasn’t the famous Caffè del Professore on Piazza Trieste e Trento in Napoli.

But the reality is that it isn’t: that place is actually called Il Vero Bar del Professore (i.e., “The Real Professor’s Bar”) at Piazza Trieste e Trento, #46 — and this is #2, just partially around the square. Like many a Twitter handle, at some point the confusion compelled Bar del Professore to add “The Real” as part of their official name.

Confusing? It’s by design. Il Falso Bar del Professore indeed. Oh, they use Caffè del Professore coffee alright. But you will not find the name Caffè d’Epoca posted anywhere here — save for the printed register receipt. That sort of Neapolitan cultural curiosity made us want to check out this place even moreso than the three-chicchi-rated Il Vero across the way.

Inside Caffè d'EpocaDespite ample outdoor seating on the front sidewalk under Coca-Cola parasols, inside the space is very tight and quite dark. Locals do come here in addition to a few misguided souls believing they are somewhere else. The locals come largely to avoid the line of tourists across the way and to have a solid espresso shot at only €0.90. And like Il Vero nearby, they promote their own Italian-style hot chocolate: here it’s 32 flavors of Eraclea.

Using a four-group La Spaziale machine at the rear of the dark bar (what, a semi-automatic??), they pull shots of espresso with a medium brown crema that dissipates relatively quickly in the MPAN Caffè del Professore logo cups. It has a balanced flavor centered on spices and some herbal pungency, but it’s surprisingly of restrained strength.

With Pizzeria Sorbillo, even if you didn’t wait for an hour to get into il vero Gino’s, you’ll find that it may not be the world’s best, but good pizza still doesn’t fall far from the family tree. Similarly with Caffè d’Epoca, even if you are fooled by the Caffè del Professore branding (other than the suspiciously out-of-place espresso machine), the espresso is still pretty darn good.

Read the review of Caffè d’Epoca in Napoli, Italy.

La Marzocco machine at the back of Caffè d'Epoca The Caffè d'Epoca espresso - made with Caffè del Professore coffee

Trip Report: CoffeeShop_ (Bernal Heights)

Posted by on 12 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Fair Trade, Local Brew

Taking a short respite from our series on espresso in Napoli and the Amalfi Coast, we have a couple of local coffee shop reviews to catch up on. One is the obscure and eponymous CoffeeShop_.

This dive of a coffee shop has been operation since 2012, but the overwhelming majority of locals in the neighborhood wouldn’t know it. It kind of defines the term “understated”, so you pretty much have to stumble upon it.

Entrance to CoffeeShop_ on Mission St. in northwest Bernal Heights Since you may miss CoffeeShop_, you can always look for the inconspicuous Roccapulco across the street

It’s a tight space with no seating, inside nor out, though thankfully they do offer their espresso in “for here” cups anyway (Pagnossin cups with no saucer). Though even with the tight space and nothing to sit on, you’ll often find people hanging out inside.

In addition to espresso drinks they sell Hario drip coffee (they also sell the drippers) and baked goods from Batch. Their coffee is proudly sourced from Emeryville’s Ubuntu Coffee Cooperative, which also explains some of the other “hippie crap” on the drink menu such as yerba mate and matcha.

Coffee menu inside the tiny CoffeeShop_ Hario filter brewing and Promac espresso machine inside CoffeeShop_

Using a two-group Promac, they pull shots with a very creamy texture. It has an even-textured medium brown crema with a flavor of pepper and mild spice with some modestly sharp brightness (to let you know the coffee is freshly roasted). But without potent fruitiness or candy-like sweetness.

Three generous sips, and we’re still not entirely sure why the espresso shots get the nickname “Dirty” here. (As in: “I’ll have a Dirty, please.”)

Read the review of CoffeeShop_ in Bernal Heights.

The CoffeeShop_ Promac machine The CoffeeShop_ espresso - or a 'Dirty' as it's also called

The fanaticism and history of South Indian Filter Coffee

Posted by on 23 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine

Last Friday, the Economic Times posted an interesting article concerning the history, fanatics and obsessives with South Indian filter coffee: How can filter coffee be so different, yet good? – Economic Times. The Economic Times is a business paper from the Times of India — and the world’s most widely read English-language business newspaper after the Wall Street Journal.

Camp Coffee: made in ScotlandFor Westerners without much exposure to the subcontinent, you might associate India with only tea. But the story of coffee in India is older than the USA itself and arguably larger (by capita) than its consumption of coffee. South India has grown coffee since the 1670s, and the article recalls how coffee consumption was particularly introduced to the Tamil households of South India by way of Britain in the 19th century.

Varieties of Camp Coffee from Scotland by way of IndiaBack then, “Tamil Brahmins resisted the tea campaign as too down-market, giving tea a working class (and Muslim) reputation it has never entirely shrugged off in the South.” The article even makes reference to a bottled coffee-chicory essence called Camp Coffee, first made by the Scottish company Paterson & Sons in Glasgow in 1876 and featuring a Sikh bearer on the label. By the 20th century, South Indians added sugar and milk, leading to its more widespread adoption.

When “the ‘perfect’ cup” has different forms of ‘perfect’

We fell in love with the stuff on our first visit to South India. It’s made as a sort of strange middle-ground between the popular fast-brewed hot coffee of espresso/pour-overs/Mr.-Coffee-makers and the slow, slow brewing of cold press coffee.

The French and chicory coffee historyTraditionally it is made with chicory root (the article mentions a magic 15-20% range), a coffee substitute and additive known more in the West by its affiliation with New Orleans and colonial America. Here, as in India, it was introduced as a means of more cheaply cutting the more expensive pure coffee. However, in New Orleans the introduction of chicory as a coffee additive was of purely French origin: instigated by Napoleon’s initiation of the Continental Blockade of 1808 that deprived the French of much of their coffee supplies.

All of this cutting with chicory, milk, and sugar and the common use of fine coffee “powder” naturally leads most Westerners to a rather downscale impression of South Indian filter coffee. And for many examples of it, they’d be right. But that’s also the case with most coffee served here in America. However, it doesn’t help that my few attempts to make a version of it here with one of the unique South Indian filter brewers I purchased (on Mahatma Gandhi, aka “MG”, Road in Bangalore) produced some of the most undrinkable coffee I’ve ever made.

Of course, there are those who truly love coffee in its many shapes, forms, and varieties available. And then there are others who only like a rarefied, elitist, mutant sliver of coffee extract that’s possible with exacting farm origins, brewing methods, precision equipment, TDS ratios, and when the lunar tides are just right for four days out of the calendar year. While I very much admire and appreciate what can come out of the latter category, it might come as a surprise that I am a complete softie of the former variety.

South Indian coffee filter I purchased in Bangalore My South Indian coffee filter, disassembled

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