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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?

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

Coffee Quality When Growing Your Own, or: What Coffee Was Like Before the Coffee Industry

Posted by on 10 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

The Internet sags from a surfeit of posts from Do-It-Yourself (DIY) types. But at the risk of seeming like we’re piling on, we’re posting some of our bean-to-cup experiences with coffee grown quite literally in a family backyard.

But this coffee isn’t the result of an obsession where home roasting just didn’t take things far enough. Instead, it’s an isolated glimpse into a casual family production of green coffee — much in the same way your extended family might grow its own garden tomatoes or cucumbers. It arrived hand-delivered by a family friend in a Ziploc bag, some 5,000 miles from its origin.

Dairy in the bucolic setting of São Jorge island Igreja de São Mateus, with the crowds anticipating rowdy bulls in the streets

The Origin

While there have been multiple efforts to commercially grow coffee in California’s Santa Barbara County since the 1850s, the coffee for our story was grown on the island of São Jorge in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. The subtropical, volcanic islands of the Azores are the only real coffee growing region in Europe. Although bucolic São Jorge produces agricultural exports such as its famed cheese, its coffee production is dominated by personal rather than commercial use (with very rare and minuscule exceptions, such as Café Nunes in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes).

Our mini coffee lot originates from a few acres of property that stretches from the center of town in Urzelina to the Atlantic Ocean. More than once over the years, my wife and I climbed a ladder and sat on a wall of this property — located across the street of the Igreja de São Mateus church where my in-laws were married in the Sixties — safely observing one of the many crazy street bullfights in the central Azores, called touradas à corda, that took place below our dangling feet. Thus we’ll jokingly name the coffee’s origin as Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus.

Bull at Igreja de São Mateus in tourada à corda Bull walking along a wall over which our coffee originated

It neighbors similar lots where other families grow, pick, dry, and sort their own coffee for home use. Isabel graciously offered a few pounds of the stuff from her property, and we played no role in its processing nor pedigree. Thus the goal was to experience what home-grown coffee in the Azores might truly be like. I’m no botanist, so I can’t tell you if it’s Typica or Bourbon or Caturra (highly unlikely). It most resembles a Yemen-like Typica variant or a shortberry harrar, which also explains a little of why it is dry-processed rather than washed.

As for any screening and hand-sorting, well, this is, after all, a family farm operation. Fortunately the sorting was clean enough that I did not have to worry about my burr grinder gagging on any obvious stones or twigs.

The first thing you notice about the processed beans is how darkly colored and irregular they are compared to commercial coffees. This is hardly unique to dry-processed coffees, but this takes the commercial grade stuff a step further.

And the beans themselves are quite small, and the screening used on the family farm isn’t very stringent. But to their credit, there are few major irregularities in size. Everything is larger than a sunflower kernel and there’s only the occasional large and/or off-colored bean. Even so, we resisted the temptation to further sort the coffee to keep it true to its personal use in the Azores. Long before commercial buyers, processors, roasters, and coffeehouses existed, this is how most people experienced coffee.

A ZipLoc bag of the dark and somewhat irregular Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus Left: a three-bean Malabar Gold blend; Right:  Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

Closer inspection of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus The tiny bean size of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

The Roast

Pan roasting is typical among families who grow their own green coffee beans. Even James Freeman started Blue Bottle Coffee with a baking sheet in his oven. Although I could have reverted to some of these very original and primitive roasting methods, I’m no good at any of them and have no real practice. All of which spells trouble if you’ve only got a couple of pounds of coffee to work through to get it right.

Instead, I made a slight nod to modern convenience and opted for my old, trusty Fresh Roast+ roaster. It is essentially a glorified hot air popcorn popper with a chaff collector that I purchased over a decade ago, and I’ve had years of practice making pretty decent roasts with it. And unlike the newer Fresh Roast models with larger roasting chambers (normally a big plus), its tiny two-ounce batch size lent well to dialing in a target roast profile quickly with a limited supply of green coffee beans.

The first thing I noticed is that the coffee lacked a real discernible first or even second crack. Without the sound or a temperature gauge on my roaster, I thus had to determine my target roast levels by sight (color) and smell (and smoke) entirely. The second thing I noticed is that the bean size inconsistencies and bean shape irregularities required a lot of post-roast culling to even out the result. The third thing I noticed was that the chaff looked a lot like bird food.

After a trial with several roasting levels and tasting the results (after a couple days rest for the CO2 to escape), I rediscovered what all commercial coffee roasters have known for eons: by roasting cheaper grade coffee more darkly, you can hide a lot of problems.

Which isn’t to say that we believe dark roasting is universally bad; there are some good body-heavy coffees from Indonesia that shine best under darker roasting conditions. But dark roasting is the lazy roaster’s shortcut to consistency. We could only imagine how uneven pan roasting would contribute to this effect.

Roasting Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus The chaff of the Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus looks mixed with bird seed

The Brew

Any bean and roasting irregularities of course came out in the resulting brew, as a few under-roasted beans would lend a grassy or sometimes downright wonky taste that could spoil the entire cup. (This is a big reason why Ernesto Illy was religious about Illy‘s screening process.) Fortunately the combination of a darker roast profile and post-roast bean culling mitigated these problems quite a lot.

So how best to brew this beast? Espresso would be too sensitive to the bean quality and irregularities. We tried a small French press pot, but the inconsistent beans somehow imparted a little too much grit in the cup to our liking. Not surprisingly, the Moka stovetop produced some of the best results — mirroring what many families have used for years to brew coffee in the Azores. But we also did have a little success with an Aeropress, which seems to lend well for this type of coffee profile: a body-centric cup with little to offer at the bright ends and a flavor of smoke, spice, and the unfortunate edge of ashiness.

The resulting cup was definitely drinkable, but far from anything we’d write home about (save for this post here I suppose). The experience served as both of an appreciation of what coffee was informally like for consumers before the advent of the commercial coffee industry. It was also an exercise in appreciating the many quality and process improvements we enjoy from that same coffee industry today.

The roasted end product of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus Aeropress brewing of the  Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

Trip Report: Nespresso Boutique & Bar (Union Square)

Posted by on 07 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

No, this is not a joke. If there’s one thing we do at CoffeeRatings.com, it’s test things out before we judge. What else can explain all the gut-corrosive espresso shots we’ve subjected ourselves to over the past ten years, seemingly in violation of the Nuremberg Code.

Nespresso — Nestlé’s espresso pod cash cow — is a heavily loaded topic. Our somewhat-dismissive reviews of their home espresso machine systems have attracted far more user comments than any other subject. (Many of the comments oddly coming from new home espresso machine owners seeking validation of their purchasing decisions.) And for several years, some of the world’s finer restaurants have simply punted on their coffee service and succumbed to the pod.

Entering the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF's Union Square Entrance and service counter inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar showcasing machines SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar selling single origin pods to their 'members'

Coffee-loving nations in Europe have particularly embraced Nespresso — ones you’d never associate with such a prepackaged, processed product. In Lisbon seven years ago, we asked the question why? Just a year ago, Nespresso installed its first café and boutique in Union Square backed by an immense amount of marketing money and fanfare — which itself will be the subject of a future post.

Genuine Nespresso Pomp and Circumstance

Opening in November 2012, this international chain of Nestlé-owned boutiques planted its San Francisco flag at the site of a former Guess store. There’s a ridiculous amount of pomp and pretense here for what amounts to be pre-ground pod coffee that’s been oxidizing for weeks after roasting. Walk inside, and you can tell the management has been taking notes from their favorite Apple stores. (Truth be told, Saeco and their showcase cafés and boutiques are hardly that different.)

There are staff in black suits that each talk or ask questions about you “being a member”. It all feels a bit like Scientology meets an aspirational Starbucks. They have many cream-colored leather lounge chairs paired at faux wooden-top tables, sofas, long white countertops with iPad displays (surprised?) and white metal stools. There’s also a few leather stools at the front service counter, behind which the staff use a number of their plastic Nespresso home espresso machines to produce the retail coffee beverages here. Although there are two dedicated Astra machines (made of metal even) for frothing milk.

The air is filled with lounge music circa 2001, and downstairs is their boutique — or showroom for machines and member-purchased coffee pods. Although they offer some food items and pairings, the focus is clearly on their coffee product line.

Seating space inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar Service counter inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

Design inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar café area More boutique merchandising inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Ordering their “Ristretto” shot (note the use of capitalization) for a ridiculous $4 ($5 for doubles), they inserted one of their pods into a $200 Nespresso U home machine. The experience is a bit mind-blowingly incongruous.

Makes a mean tête de cochon with just the right light bulbsHere you have everything short of a white-gloved servant offering your coffee on a silver tray with a side of Beluga caviar. Yet in the background you can hear the distinctively cheap buzzing sound of the Nespresso home espresso machine — the kind you associate with an aerating 10-gallon fish tank filled with blue tetras — when the staff push a button to produce your coffee from a prepackaged pod. It’s akin to walking into the French Laundry and having your meal prepared with a Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven.

But enough about the imagery: it is, after all, about how it tastes in the cup. The resulting shot lacks much aroma, but it has a decent-looking, even, medium brown crema. The flavor is blended well and is surprisingly mellow for a supposed “ristretto” (ranked 10 out of 10 on Nespresso’s strength scale): mild spices and tepid herbal notes. But everything about the shot is tepid: a light and vapid body, and a flavor that misses the mark on any kind of character.

This is the part we find most objectionable about the whole pretense of Nespresso to begin with. Peel back the layers of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and underneath it all Nespresso represents a step forward in convenience but a step backwards in quality. At that moment, it struck me that Nespresso was coffee’s version of farmed salmon: a flabby, bland facsimile of the real thing that’s tailored more for the needs of mass production and distribution. Except here the Nespresso comparison is more of an insult to farmed salmon.

There’s nothing wrong with liking farmed salmon. But let’s call it what it is and price it accordingly. Served in Nespresso cups with designer spoons and sugar.

Read the review of the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF’s Union Square.

Design inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar The Nespresso Boutique & Bar espresso (Ristretto) for $4

Trip Report: Coffee Cultures (Financial District)

Posted by on 25 Jul 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

This dedicated coffee shop opened last month courtesy of Jason Michael Paul, the entertainment-minded partner behind SF’s small Coffee Bar chain (and no, not a three-named serial killer).

It’s a tiny space that took over for the former Tully’s Coffee on this spot, located at the entrance of the East Lobby of 225 Bush office building. They have window counterspace seating among six stools, and that’s it. The rest is the service area, a rear wall of Counter Culture Coffee beans, and a wall of merchandising off to the left. And yes, finally coffee roasted on the East Coast is making its way further out West.

Coffee Cultures' front window getting muscled in by the America's Cup and dreck Nespresso marketing Service area inside Coffee Cultures

While they mostly focus on coffee (hence the name), they’re also known for locally-sourced pastries and Strauss soft-serve frozen yogurt — the latter likely being an evolution from when Coffee Bar once entertained the idea of hosting a Swiss-made Pacojet machine to produce on-demand ice creams and sorbets.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 — with The Promise Ring cranking on the soundsystem — they pull espresso shots from a couple of bean options. When we visited, it was Counter Culture Coffee’s standard Toscano blend and their (very bright) Ethiopian Idido.

The barista staffers here are far better than most places at walking you through your options. (Imagine that: great customer orientation and Counter Culture Coffee combined together!). The resulting Toscano shot is pulled on the short side with a medium, textured brown crema. It’s a proper extraction of two sips with a sharp acidity and a limited balance beyond the mid-palate, giving more flavor emphasis in the resinous/black currant realm. Definitely a refreshing option with something different to offer.

Read the review of Coffee Cultures.

Coffee Cultures' La Marzocco GB/5 and bags of Counter Culture Coffee The Coffee Cultures espresso (Toscano blend)

Trip Report: Cafe St. Jorge

Posted by on 15 Jul 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

Entrance to Cafe St. Jorge on Mission St.In the space that was formerly Nervous Dog Coffee, Andrea de Francisco brings her culture from São Jorge island in the Azores to San Francisco. She’s the former manager of the Lower Haight‘s Grind Cafe, so she also brings an emphasis on coffee and not just food.

The Kickstarter Bubble?

But first, a minor detour on financing. Last month we wrote about some of the funding options coffee businesses take on to expand their operations: venture capital, franchising, business loans, good old-fashioned profit re-investment, etc. However, cafés and device-makers alike have recently turned heavily to crowd-sourcing options, such as Kickstarter. Cafe St. Jorge opened by raising some $30,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.

If this trend hasn’t raised eyebrows by now, it should. Kickstarter has rapidly become a funder of last resort, charity disguised as investment. Kickstarter funders enter agreements with no expectation of getting their money back, which has great appeal for the project. But the strings that come attached with business loans and more traditional funding models have their advantages too; e.g., someone is vetting your business plan for financial sustainability, incentivized investors may have access and can open doors for its growth.

Of course, local SF restaurant openings have long embraced the habit of taking on private investors who generally assume they’ll never see their money again in exchange for some regular discounts and privileges. This isn’t that different from what Kickstarter offers. But we get the sense that the risks and rewards are much less clear in a new model like Kickstarter, and any business scheme of seemingly “free money” smacks of all the things in our human financial history that have ended quite badly. Even if you just might get a RoboCop statue out of it.

Inside Cafe St. Jorge Menu inside Cafe St. Jorge

Back to the café…

Adopting its Azores theme, the place is well-branded with a classic Portuguese blue tile (azulezos) motif. There are benches and narrow café tables, white walls, and dark wood floors to match the tables. Old family photos adorn one wall, along with a shelf of logo cups, Portuguese olive oil, honey, and Stumptown Coffee for retail sale. They sell toast, salad, sandwiches, and some Portuguese pastries (especies, pasteis de nata, bolo de arroz, etc.).

As for the espresso (or bica, being the Lisboeta word), it’s deliberate and well thought-out: meticulous shot pulls from a light blue, three-group La Marzocco FB/80. It’s a short shot with an even medium brown crema and a potent Stumptown finish of bright, acidic herbal notes.

Seating at the front of Cafe St. Jorge Andrea de Francisco pouring milk at Cafe St. Jorge

They rotate the blend here (Holler Mountain, etc.) so the result can vary a little. Served in Espresso Parts cups. They even acknowledge the less-than-ideal-but-sometimes-necessary special to-go espresso on their menu.

A little pricey for the neighborhood, but worth the end product. Milk-frothing tends to show decent microfoam in reserved proportions (and served in Tuxton cups).

Read the review of Cafe St. Jorge.

The Cafe St. Jorge espresso The Cafe St. Jorge cappuccino

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