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Eight random people rank SF coffees in a blind taste test

Posted by on 20 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

In 1980, just before the 49ers were any good, SF staple Folgers Coffee started a TV commercial blitz that quickly became a running joke in comedy circles. It began with a TV spot where diners at SF’s then-esteemed Blue Fox restaurant (located at 659 Merchant St.) were duped by replacing the Blue Fox’s “fine coffee” (yeah, right) with Folgers “Instant Coffee Crystals”. Would any of the discriminating diners notice?

The Bold Italic wants us to 'guess the loser' rather than choose good coffeeThis week one of the latest of many knock-off local online rags, The Bold Italic, published their findings of a slightly more modern — and equally irrelevant — blind taste test: Guess The Loser of Our Blind Coffee Taste Test – The Bold Italic – San Francisco. Their question?: “can city dwellers really tell the difference between premium artisanal coffee and your average cup of joe?”

The Bold Italic chose eight random people to compare and rank coffees from six different roasting sources: Ritual, Sightglass, Four Barrel, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and — back from the grave — Folgers.

Survey says… very little

The supposed big “shock” of this miniscule random sample is that, while Ritual came out on top, Dunkin’ Donuts beat out Sightglass and Four Barrel. (Folgers wasn’t rock bottom, however, as that place was reserved for Starbucks.) However, is it really any surprise that mass market coffees might appeal to the broader public tastes of a random sample? Here at CoffeeRatings.com, we never claimed to speak for anyone’s tastes but our own: it’s a very subjective thing.

The Bold Italic sets up their blind taste testThousands of people love In-N-Out Burger to a religious degree, and yet I think they are no better than a glorified Burger King. And while some people adore the brightness bombs from Sightglass, I’ve often thought their coffee tasted like an under-roasted acid bomb going off in my mouth. This is just personal taste, not a freak of statistics.

However, what we found most amusing of all about the article was the writing. We have no idea what kind of coffee fairytale-land Ms. Medina believes we San Franciscans live in — complete with unicorn baristas and rainbow coffee enemas. She offers quotes about “thousands of coffee shops offering the most freshly picked beans” (do you have any clue how many opt for cheap bean fodder such as America’s Best Coffee?) and locals accustomed to coffee “ground to perfection to form the perfect espresso” (have you actually seen our local espresso ratings over the past 10 years?).

And then this unsubstantiated hyperbole: locals “surrounded by $6 cups of coffee galore”?!? The $4 coffee myth has apparently hit major inflation. Where can you even find a cup of drip coffee for $6 around here that isn’t either the extremely rare promotional Geisha or some coffee tourist gag novelty crapped out of a Southeast Asian mammal?

We suppose if there’s anything to learn from this random anecdote disguised as a study, it’s that SF webmags have no boundaries for being unintentionally comedic.

CoffeeCON 2013

Posted by on 10 May 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

CoffeeCON 2013 event brandingPerhaps the biggest irony is that nobody should ever need a CoffeeCON.

As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.

And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)

CoffeeCON 2013 at the IBEW Local Union 701 with the roasting demo on the patio Entrance to CoffeeCON 2013, with Metropolis and Counter Culture Coffee off on the left

Coffee: Y U No Like Your Customers?

Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”

But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.

Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)

Regular Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Home roasting demos outside at CoffeeCON 2013

You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)

All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?

More Coffee, Less Con

CoffeeCON 2013's course listingCoincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.

CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:

CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.

Jim Schulman (L) and Kevin Sinnott (R) at CoffeeCON 2013 Baratza's course on grinding at CoffeeCON 2013

Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.

Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.

Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.

CoffeeCON’s Coffee and Personalities

Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.

The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.

Yes, the Heat Gun/Dog Bowl method being demoed at CoffeeCON 2013 Oren and son from Oren's Daily Roast at CoffeeCON 2013

Tasting cups as part of George Howell's sensory lab at CoffeeCON 2013Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.

As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.

A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.

George Howell giving his 2 1/2 hour lecture at CoffeeCON 2013 Halfwit barista raves about how the Kalita pot is at least twice as good as the Hario equivalent

Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.

Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.

Counter Culture Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Counter Culture Coffee's Finca El Puente Honduras espresso at CoffeeCON 2013

Trip Report: Model Bakery (Napa, CA)

Posted by on 07 May 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

This no-frills bakery is a sister to the St. Helena mothership that has been operating for over 80 years. We recently mentioned it as one of the cafés singled out in the recent-and-pathetic coffee listings from Zagat, but the espresso here is actually noteworthy.

There is no indoor seating, but there are outdoor benches and parasols in front — just around the corner from main building of the Oxbow Market. Obviously, breads and baked goods are the big thing here.

Entrance to Napa's Model Bakery Service area for baked goods inside Napa's Model Bakery

Several years ago, they used a two-group Grimac La Valentina La Vittoria on their supply of Peet’s Coffee. They later upgraded to a two-group La Marzocco Linea and Caffé Vita beans, making it one of the few places in the entire Bay Area we knew to offer them at the time. But in a recent blow to regional roaster diversity, in 2013 they announced they couldn’t keep up with Vita’s import costs from Seattle and were switching to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is what they serve now.

Not that we have anything bad to say about the quality of Blue Bottle Coffee. But when the diversity of local espresso options shrinks, we see that as a step backwards.

Model Bakery's Fetco Luxus coffee dispensers still show Caffé Vita brandingThe results were actually quite good dating back to their Peet’s setup, but they are even better now. The resulting shot has an even layer of medium brown crema (which was more of a swirl of a thicker layer with Vita beans), and the once-large pour sizes have fortunately become smaller. It is still sadly served primarily in paper cups, but the shot is served short and potent in the cup with a body to match and a flavor of brighter fruit. (With Vita beans, the shot offered more herbal pungency, some smoke, and molasses — something we miss.)

Brown ACF cups are now available for cappuccino-sized drinks, but even asking “for here” at the order counter doesn’t guarantee they’ll get your order right. The staff may not seem overly comfortable in their coffee-making, but the results deliver.

Milk-frothing here is not only decent, but when combined with the milk-friendlier Vita roasts of before, the cappuccino flavor here beat out the ones poured at the nearby Ritual (even if Ritual’s foam is more smoothly integrated into the cup). But now with Blue Bottle beans, the milk-espresso contrast is less dramatic. It’s still a solid cup.

Read the updated review of Model Bakery in Napa, CA.

Napa's Model Bakery espresso setup The Napa Model Bakery espresso -- sadly in a paper cup

Trip Report: Jane on Fillmore

Posted by on 05 May 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Local Brew

Opening in 2011, Jane on Fillmore took over the former Bittersweet space and changed a few things with the design. There’s an area dedicated to baking and baked goods in the back. There’s still limited seating upstairs, now just above a mounted buffalo head with an SF Giants cap. Otherwise it has retained its sunny glass storefront, several café tables and chairs, and added a large mirror behind the service area.

They formerly served Four Barrel beans, but they have since switched to Stumptown (and sell the beans retail, along with Baratza grinders and Kalita drippers). This marks a bit of a reintroduction of Stumptown to the area — after having been replaced by a number of local roasters as they’ve spun up.

Entrance to Jane on Fillmore Entering Jane on Fillmore

Inside Jane on Fillmore Local decorations inside Jane on Fillmore

They serve Hairbender and a single origin espresso option (Costa Rica Valle de Los Santos at our time of visit). Plus Chemex offerings of Panama Duncan Estate and Ethiopia Nano Challa in multiple grinders, and a drip/brew bar with a scale and dueling Baratza Virtuoso grinders.

Using a red, two-group La Marzocco FB/80, they pull shots with a darker to medium brown, even crema of decent thickness and density. The cup is no Hairbender brightness bomb, but rather a mellower yet full-flavored soft melding of cocoa powder and a melding of spice and herbal elements. Served in EspressoParts black cups (and a mismatched ACF saucer).

Their milk-frothing shows decorative latte art and even bubbles, however the foam is of minimal thickness and the resulting cup is more than a little milky with little integration between the foam and the espresso. Unless you like your caps closer to a café au lait, the espresso is the star here.

Read the review of Jane on Fillmore.

Brew bar inside Jane on Fillmore FB/70 and bar inside Jane on Fillmore

The Jane on FIllmore espresso The Jane on FIllmore cappuccino

Trip Report: Barrington Coffee Company (Boston, MA)

Posted by on 25 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Machine

Of the coffeehouses in Boston I visited this month, this was my favorite. Sure, I didn’t make it over to Barismo or Voltage, but that was somewhat deliberate. Of all the times I’ve come to Boston, I’ve always stayed in the ‘burbs like Cambridge and Somerville but never Boston proper. This time I never left Boston, and I only wanted to walk or take public transit.

View down Congress St. towards the Boston Convention Center, past Barrington Coffee CompanyThis coffeehouse is located a short walk from where the SCAA conference was held in South Boston. Despite hosting a number of tie-in events, conference attendees were surprisingly few here. It seemed most conference attendees did not venture outside of the Boston Convention Center fortress except by car or cab, and then they were immediately exiting onto a freeway headed someplace else. Because cities place their newer convention centers in undesirable places where space is cheap, and Boston is no exception.

Hence the conference area in South Boston is pretty much an industrial empty lot with fencing, abandoned railways, and other obstacles discouraging most pedestrians from ever accessing it on foot. This much was a bit maddening about Boston: while the Boston Logan airport loudspeakers continually boasted of their “green airport” status with the heavy use of public transportation, walking up to the SCAA conference from my hotel in downtown Boston was a bit like crossing the barbed-wire-laden bits of the Korean DMZ.

It’s as if Boston willfully did everything it could to treat pedestrians as second-class citizens. Moments like this give me guilty thanks for the Loma Prieta earthquake and how it got SF’s Embarcadero Freeway torn down.

The beautiful lot view out back behind the Boston Convention Center The brooding chimneys, USPS, and industrial space walking up to the Boston Convention Center

But back to the coffee…

This café — located in the much less dismal parts on the north end of South Boston — opened as a retail beverage operation to complement their roasting. And they’ve done a stellar job of it. It’s a very open space, with tall ceilings, modern light fixtures, and an exposed concrete floor. There’s a large, round central table for standing at, a few side tables, and stool seating at the Congress St. tall windows.

They earn major points for offering three different choices of coffee for their espresso. At review time it was the Barrington Gold blend (their standard), a Brazil Conquista Reserve, or a Hawaiian Maui Mokka in Anfim grinders. And anybody supporting Maui Moka gets high praise in my book. A well-travelled Yemen mocha descendant, and a favorite of home roasters at the turn of the millenium for the intensely chocolate espresso it produces (and I was one of them), the bean almost went extinct in 2002 when its Ka’anapali Estates home was nearly paved over by Maui condo developers. Every time we can experience it, it’s like seeing a coelacanth.

Entrance to Barrington Coffee Company Synesso and grinders inside the Barrington Coffee Company

Barrington Coffee Company's espresso and cappuccino Barrington Coffee Company's Maui Mokka espresso

Using a three-group Synesso (with naked portafilters, we might add), they pull shots of Barrington Gold (used in our rating linked at bottom) with an even, medium brown crema that dissipates, but it remains an integral, time-sensitive cup. It has a heavy mouthfeel and a dense body underlying flavors of tobacco smoke and molasses. Smooth, heavy, and very tasty. Though acid fruit bomb fanatics may want to steer clear.

Their milk-frothing is good, with detailed latte art, but it is a bit milky and lacks integration with the espresso.

Just to prove it can get even better than the ratings here for the Gold, their Maui Mokka shot has an even, darker brown crema, a bit of firewood in the nose, and that lovely, characteristic deep chocolate bomb flavor that made us fall in love with the bean well over a decade ago. One of our favorite shots in Boston — and one of our more favorite places to have it.

Read the review of Barrington Coffee Company in Boston.

Trip Report: Pavement Coffeehouse (Boylston St., Boston, MA)

Posted by on 24 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This coffeehouse is highly decorated by the locals. Boston Magazine named it Boston’s Best Coffee Shop 2012. It has even achieved national recognition, including listing among Food & Wine‘s America’s Best Coffee Bars and Travel + Leisure‘s America’s Coolest Coffeehouses. And you can see why: it’s a vibrant spot that serves some really good coffee.

The “main” Pavement — and there’s more than one in Back Bay — is located a couple blocks up Massachusetts Ave. from one of our favorite Boston landmarks, the Mapparium. (OK, it hasn’t hurt that we’re also big fans of the Unwound album, Challenge for a Civilized Society.) There’s patio seating along Boylston St. in front, three window counter seats along the entrance, exposed masonry painted white in back with silver, upholstered booths around many smaller tables.

Entrance to Boston's Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston St. With the SCAA in town, Pavement shows off a La Marzocco GS/3 on the Boylston St. patio

Pavement Coffeehouse's La Marzocco GB/5 and service area Inside Pavement Coffeehouse's seating area

While labelled a coffeeshop, they do a lot of business in meals (lunches, etc.) — making it more of a café. However, they prominently display their use of Counter Culture Coffee and also sell their beans. They additionally offer a “featured espresso” for $3 — which, when we visited, was Anyetsu from Denver’s Novo. (Thus Pavement did not opt in for Counter Culture Coffee’s exclusivity contracts for service and training.)

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 and the Rustico blend from Counter Culture, they pull shots with a highly textured medium-to-darker-brown crema. For its looks, it has a surprisingly lighter body. But with a nice, balanced flavor of cinnamon, cardamom, and a light sweetness and no real smokiness. The flavor profile is very expressive in the midrange, but rather absent at either end of the flavor spectrum.

All-in-all, they serve a great shot. But for all the local and national praised heaped on this coffeehouse, we’ve found at least one place in the city we liked even better. (More in a future review.) Furthermore, we also found the busy vibe here a bit too busy. The environment can be a study in Brownian motion: a bit frenetic with customers always coming, going, and bumping into each other. It made us just want to grab our shot, drink it, and leave.

Read the review of Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston St. in Boston.

Pavement Coffeehouse's GB/5 with Counter Culture branding The Pavement Coffeehouse espresso

Trip Report: Sip Café (Financial District, Boston, MA)

Posted by on 23 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew

Owner Jared Mancini learned his original trade managing a Torrefazione Italia (or “T.I.”, as some old-timers in the region like to call it), later at Boston’s Steaming Kettle Starbucks, and then George Howell Coffee before starting this shop here. Jared also lent out this space after-hours to host the Dangerous Grounds cupping shoot staged a little over a week ago.

Entrance to Sip Café in Boston's Financial District Inside Boston's Sip Café

This is an unusual spot: essentially what looks like a glass greenhouse turned into a café on the open grounds of Post Office Square/Norman Leventhal Park. There’s park bench seating outdoors for those who might brave the weather. Inside there’s a curved service counter with an assortment of black wooden tables in what does feel like a greenhouse — just without the plants.

The Sip Café cappuccino, dwarfing their espresso with vast quantities of milkThey serve George Howell Coffee (Daterra Farms Brazil Calabria Roast Espresso for espresso, plus Tarrazu Costa Rica, etc.). They even offer the Yukro Ethiopia that was the de facto “winner” of the Dangerous Grounds cupping.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 off to the side, they pull shots with a dark brown, textured crema that’s served as a thinner layer on a body-forward shot. Its flavor shows chocolate notes, some caramel and minimal brightness. Curiously, it has the texture, body, and even a bit of flavor like a bittersweet hot chocolate. Served in green “Terra” ceramics with metallic detailing (as featured in their Web site‘s graphics).

We’d score their savvy a little higher, but their medium cappuccino is a disappointing vast, milky soup bowl – swimming in milk with a light layer of blurred latte art foam. We’re scared of what the latte must be like here.

Read the review of Sip Café in Boston.

Counter inside Boston's Sip Café, with GB/5 off to the left The Sip Café espresso

On Boston, and Little of It About Coffee

Posted by on 17 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

For the past couple of days, I’ve resisted writing about this topic: the recent SCAA conference and the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon the following day. But I can’t escape it. Apologies in advance for adding little on the subject of coffee, but to do so exclusively would seem both disrespectful and inappropriate. This post is really more for myself in a cathartic way, as my heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy.

September 11, 2001

Bruins fans in downtown Boston, returning from the game

Bruins fans in downtown Boston, returning from the game – 4/13/13

You see, I have a bit of a complicated history with the city of Boston. Before my trip out there this past weekend, the last time I attempted to fly out to Boston was on the morning of September 11, 2001. At 6:30am PT (9:30am ET), I was in SFO trying to board a United flight to Boston. It was for my “day job” as a dot-com vice president, and this was back in the implosive days of the original dot-com bust. Given budget guidelines to meet for my department, I had made the hard choice of laying off my entire team of 25 people in our Cambridge, MA office. My flight to Boston was thus all about the dreaded task of informing my team in person that they no longer had jobs.

Of course, things didn’t exactly work out that way. What was originally announced in the SFO airport as an FAA delay caused by a small plane hitting the World Trade Center turned into something horrifically worse. No civilian aircraft in North America would become airborne again until a few days later.

With the fog of what just happened, who did it, and what’s coming next still on everyone’s minds, the HR department and a few coworkers told me to simply make the announcement over the phone — that my team would understand under the circumstances. But I was stubbornly determined to take personal responsibility for my decision, no matter how ugly it had to be. I owed them that much. So once air travel resumed, I caught the next flight I could get into Boston that following weekend.

Boston Logan's 9/11 memorial

Boston Logan’s 9/11 memorial

It was one of the most white-knuckled flights I’ve ever taken. Not because of any turbulence, but because everyone on that plane could not get the television images of 9/11 — and the thought of further hijacking attempts — out of their heads. Everyone was on edge, suspiciously sizing up all of their fellow passengers. You got the sense that if anybody even attempted something that looked like a false move, that person would be forcefully subdued and probably beaten to death by a plane full of anxious passengers mentally prepared to fight or die.

I had flown into Boston Logan multiple times before, but never like this. The airport was a ghost town, largely abandoned of people and planes with a skeleton crew left running things. The taxi driver who picked me up was desperate for a fare, as he told me that, “Boston Logan is still an active crime scene.” The two flights that struck the World Trade Center towers both departed from Boston, from gate areas I was eerily all too familiar with from previous travels.

I was fortunate that a few people on my newly-laid-off staff thanked me for giving them the news in person. But I did not again return to Boston until last week.

April 11, 2013

What brought me back to Boston after all these years wasn’t the SCAA Conference — at least directly. It was more an invitation from Todd Carmichael (of La Colombe) to do a shoot for the second season of his TV show, “Dangerous Grounds”. Todd was insistent on a scene in the new season that wasn’t just his “Tarzan bit” through wild coffee jungles, but rather a social cupping discussion among a few invited guests — which included the likes of Doug Zell of Intelligentsia, Aleco Chigounis of Coffee Shrub (a sort of sister to Sweet Maria’s), Mette Marie of 49th Parallel Roasters, Ryan Brown now at Tonx, Andrew Ballard of Forty Weight Coffee, and the entertaining JP Iberti (co-founder of La Colombe).

Everybody brought some coffee to showcase and discuss. (Special thanks to Justine Hollinger of Barefoot Coffee Roasters for helping me represent their great work.) Despite Todd’s worry that some snarky infighting could develop, a great camaraderie developed among the cuppers that will hopefully come out in the program when it airs later this year. (And for the record, the overall favorite was the Yukro Ethiopia coffee from George Howell Coffee, sourced by Aleco.)

L to R: Brandon Gulish (producer), Ryan Brown, Todd, Mette Marie, and Aleco Chigounis at a 'Dangerous Grounds' shoot Doug Zell (seated with hat) and Todd (right) during a shoot for 'Dangerous Grounds'

With the shoot out of the way, I had a few days to check out the SCAA conference and get reacquainted with Boston. It had been years since I had set foot in either.

For those who haven’t been to the SCAA conference, I’ll offer a perspective of someone not in the industry — and rather of just someone who really loves coffee. Like all industry conferences, it’s a great occasion to meet people and network. If you’re slinging coffee at a retail location all day, or sourcing out in the wild corners of the world, there are few occasions where you can personally meet and greet many of those coffee “greats” — or just cool people — you otherwise only read about (or from).

And there’s a lot of great coffee to be had. A barista at a complimentary La Marzocco espresso station jumbled multiple bags of Intelligentsia beans to create an impromptu blend in his Mazzer grinder. While I was watching this, he culturally noted that, “The industry people come earlier and ask for espressos, but later the ‘show’ people come and they all drink caps.” (i.e., cappuccinos).

Entrance to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center for the 2013 SCAA Getting a unique blend in the Mazzer at the La Marzocco station

But there are things about the SCAA conference I am not as enamored with. For one, it’s primarily a commercial trade show with a big emphasis on an exhibition floor of people hawking their wares. Good for a lot in the industry, but often a bit tedious if you really are more into the coffee than the latest gadgetry.

There’s the symposium topics, which I had not attended but often sounded interesting. But there’s a huge “reindeer games” aspect to the highly repetitive, three-ring circus of the Barista Championship, the Brewer’s Cup, and the US Cup Tasters Championship. Even odder now, there are members of the Barista Guild of America strutting about the place, and the city, in their official logo jackets as if part of some mutant coffee geek biker gang.

A sea of vendors at the 2013 SCAA Pete Licata's performance at the 2013 USBC finals, which he won

The 117th Boston Marathon

But the longer I was in Boston, the more I came to appreciate and became more enamored with the even bigger event in town that weekend: the 117th Boston Marathon. There was a very positive, festive, international sports vibe to the event that I hadn’t quite experienced since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Everywhere in town you ran into fit people in running gear — many not running the race but at least there in spirit and to support the other participants.

Last Saturday I walked down Boylston Street past Copley Square, just two days before the horrific bombings, soaking in the environment of fans, tourists, and the final touches of the stands and barricades being set up at the finish line for the event. Arriving back in SF only some 11 hours before those terrible events took place, the news was made all the more tragic for me having experienced just how much the Boston Marathon environment converted me into a fan.

The Boston Marathon will be back next year. Boston may not want me back, given my recent track record of tragic coincidence. But I can’t say enough to encourage those even modestly interested to attend. The coffee may not be anything near as good as at the SCAA, but it deserves every bit of your support.

As time passes, I promise to write more about the coffee. But right now, there are things far more important than coffee could ever be.

Signage at the Boston Marathon finish line - 4/13/13 Runners/tourists at the Boston Marathon finish line with a start sign - 4/13/13

The most important public face of specialty coffee today

Posted by on 26 Dec 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends

The specialty coffee industry has a strangely ambivalent, love/hate relationship with the mainstream. On the one hand, it thrives on an independent spirit rooted in independent businesses, an artisinal “craftsman” approach, an often bristling indifference to its customers, and it eschews much of anything that smells like the status quo (the stereotypes about things like sleeve tattoos and body piercings are hardly an anomaly).

And yet specialty coffee is also desperate for public approval, acceptance and validation, with many in the industry applauding virtually any public mention of decent coffee in the general media, coveting a rightful place in the pantheon of food television’s popular glow, and even going so far as to be willingly (and eagerly) exploited by TED. (And don’t get us started on the resulting Coffee Common star chamber charade.) This makes specialty coffee a bit like the high school social misfit that both publicly heaps scorn on the school’s popular cliques while secretly wishing to be a part of them.

Todd Carmichael prepares greens for an on-the-spot roast at origin on 'Dangerous Grounds'

Todd Carmichael prepares greens for an on-the-spot roast at origin on ‘Dangerous Grounds’

For the purposes of this post, we focus on the latter part: public visibility and legitimacy. And although the public mainstream today has had more than a few regular media exposures to the world of specialty coffee, the most effective and compelling by far has been Todd Carmichael’s recent Travel Channel TV program, Dangerous Grounds.

But Todd Carmichael is a *bleeeeep!*

Among some in the industry, this may seem heretical — if not unjustified. Highly respected, legendary professionals in the field such as Tom Owen (of home roasting Sweet Maria’s fame) have even created video parodies the show’s very concept — i.e., travel to coffee’s origins as a sort of danger sport — over a year ago and well before the show was even created. Others still see polar explorer and SCAA outsider Todd Carmichael, and his La Colombe Torrefaction coffee operations, as decidedly “pre-Third Wave” — akin to a shorthand for “don’t trust your coffee to anyone over 30″. (Five years ago Nick Cho, portafilter.net host and then of D.C. Murky Coffee fame, once publicly announced terminating his readership here for, among other things, a favorable post we made on La Colombe.)

However, over the years, specialty coffee has repeatedly proven itself incapable of speaking to layman consumers without trying to strong-arm them into first becoming like-minded professionals. This is a fundamental reason why Dangerous Grounds works: it hasn’t forgotten that good storytelling, even if embellished a bit, is at the heart of any legitimate mainstream media success.

Contrast an hour-long episode of Todd’s travels, trials, and tribulations with what the specialty coffee industry would otherwise celebrate as great video: sensory, stylized video montages/wannabe-TV-commercials that seem entirely designed to appeal to fellow coffee professionals. To the layman, these videos are unoriginal exercises in coffee navel-gazing — as utterly monotonous as the ubiquitous “hand-on-mouse” shots that dominated every 1990s TV show about the World Wide Web. You know it works when people who aren’t into coffee find the program entertaining, because the inconvenient truth is that video about coffee, like video about wine, is inherently boring.

Of Oliver Strand and Erin Meister

Which isn’t to say that video is the only way to bring the message of specialty coffee to the masses. Regular New York Times columnist Oliver Strand achieved a kind of patron saint status among the specialty coffee industry because a) his words were distributed in the nation’s preeminent newspaper, and b) he spoke cohesively about subjects the industry is frequently too tongue-tied to speak for itself. A rare case of a layman who reports on the specialty coffee world, industry blogs, coffee Web sites, and tweets alike eulogized the recent news of the demise of “Ristretto”, his occasional coffee column in the New York Times.

Contrary to some opinions in the specialty coffee world, Oliver Strand does put his pants on one leg at a time

Contrary to some opinions in the specialty coffee world, Oliver Strand does put his pants on one leg at a time


That said, despite good writing, Strand’s articles virtually never broke any new ground, proposed any original thought, nor provided an opinion. Of course you could say that a journalist’s core mission is to reveal the truth, regardless of opinion. But his stories typically consisted of news or trends that had been well-covered elsewhere on the Internet, often failing at the “new” part of the word “news”. As a result, and as coffee laymen ourselves, we almost never learned anything new from Ristretto. This unfortunately made Ristretto function a little more like specialty coffee’s society pages, where industry insiders wondered whether their name might feature or not in the latest edition.

A bit more of an industry insider, Erin Meister has worked in customer support for Counter Culture Coffee and has developed some of her own barista chops. She has posted coffee articles in a variety of publications, but she’s received most of her attention and accolades for her regular column at the Serious Eats Web site.

The first problem is in the Web site’s name: Eats. How can we take Serious Eats seriously about coffee when its very name excludes the subject matter? That’s like reading Men’s Health for tips on menopause. (Are you listening, Good Food Awards?)

But far more troubling is an editorial slant that seems focused on evergreen content designed for SEO rankings, with insipid article titles like “Our 5 Favorite TV Coffee Shops“, “5 Coffee Tattoos We Love“, and “5 Reasons to Hate Starbucks“. Although we’re sure Ms. Meister has no say in the copy-editing matter, it follows the old ladies’ home journal formula of the words “secrets” and “perfect” plus a numeral combined with warmed-over content that’s been posted on the Web 120,000 times prior. There’s also something creepy about reading articles written more for computerized Web crawlers than for actual humans.

Love it or hate it, this is specialty coffee’s most important public face

Todd Carmichael prepares to descend a zipline in search of coffee on 'Dangerous Grounds'

Todd Carmichael prepares to descend a zipline in search of coffee on ‘Dangerous Grounds’

By contrast, when it comes to Dangerous Grounds we do actually learn something new. Even just the legacy of Haitian coffee alone. Maybe survival tips in the jungles of Borneo aren’t very practical, but they are far from retreads — and the storytelling makes for good television. We’ll collaborate with you any time, Todd.

Curiously enough, all three personalities have had to confront the specialty coffee industry’s excesses of preciousness in recent times: Meister with barista attitudes (one of her best pieces of the past year), Strand berating industry pros for not even providing basic contact information in a speech at this year’s Nordic Barista Cup, and Carmichael’s rants against hipster coffee. That gives us strange comfort in knowing we’re not alone in trying to escape the dysfunction.

Breaking Coffee’s Genetic Monocultures or: Pay No Attention to the WSJ Copy-Editors Behind the Curtain

Posted by on 19 Jul 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Robusta

Copy-editors are strange beasts. They can take a perfectly valid story, dress it up with titles and subheds, and transform it into something that sounds completely irrelevant to the contents within. Take yesterday’s Wall Street Journal piece on efforts seeking the genetic diversification of consumable coffee: The Indiana Jones of Coffee – WSJ.com (subhed: “Companies Go Deep Into Africa in Search of Perfect Bean”).

The Orchid Thief of coffee from the WSJ articleNo, it’s not a bio piece about some swashbuckling snake-charmer in search of lost coffee gold. The Orchid Thief would be a more appropriate movie reference for just one of the characters in the article. It’s also not about Africa, as the genetic diversification effort is global. It’s not even about the ever-abused mythical “perfect bean” — as any single genetic coffee bean lineage would be just as susceptible to a mass extinction event as the limited coffee progeny we enjoy today.

But peel back the superficial layers of Hollywood pomp, general cluelessness, and deceit, and you’ll discover a decent article on efforts to develop more genetically robust and diverse options for our drinkable coffee stocks — something of a follow-up to a post we wrote six years ago. Of some 26 documented coffee species, only two are cultivated to produce something humans would actually pay money to consume. And of those two, many consider only one of them as drinkable.

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