Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
As the local T-shirts put it, “New Mexico: It’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”
Even the food here is its own thing. Between sopapillas, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Hatch Valley chiles (and ordering things “red”, “green”, or “Christmas”): it’s not Mexican, and it’s not Tex-Mex either.
New Mexico can probably even lay claim to its own state of mind, defining the term high desert. Anywhere you turn starts from at least 6,000 feet of altitude. The combination of the altitude and arid climate can leave you with mild headaches and nosebleeds for days after arriving. Any notable breeze will result in red dust and grit in your teeth.
I last visited this region one winter in the 1990s, passing through one bleary-eyed day in the high-desert driving across I-40 from Flagstaff, AZ to Oklahoma City as part of a marathon trek across the country. Even back then I found Albuquerque more than a little odd, with the entire stretch of the town littered with “experimental speed limit” caution road signs. Experiencing it close up two decades later, it’s far stranger than I could have imagined.
It seems rather apropos that humanity’s nuclear era started in the neighborhood, just up the road at Los Alamos. The town of Albuquerque strikes you as a post-apocalyptic world where someone entered a typo in their nuclear launch codes and accidentally overlooked this place. Add the many locals who convincingly impress you as veterans of earlier (and multiple) alien abductions, and to this day there is perhaps no better movie that captures the essence of Albuquerque than the 1984 cult film Repo Man:
Repo Man:This could easily have been set in Albuquerque, NM
Yes, even more than No Country for Old Men and the excellent TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While New Mexico may not directly feature in Repo Man, it’s the film’s origin story and its influence permeates throughout. (Sorry, L.A.)
The residential areas are typically a criss-cross of wide East-West-bound boulevards littered with strip malls, with North-South streets (like Washington St. NE) jaggedly intersecting like misfit puzzle pieces so there’s never a continuous line through the many lots of ranch homes, covered car ports, and gravel landscaping.
On the subject of food, simply eating here reminds you that Albuquerque is not your typical American city. The most exclusive restaurant in town — universally voted the biggest “splurge” restaurant in ABQ — is run by a three-time James Beard nominee. In true ABQ style, it resides in a local strip mall, next door to a hydroponics shop and across the street from a drive-thru emergency loan shark/cash station called Fastbucks. That’s how ABQ rolls.
Among friends I’m known for identifying the TV trope of the generic “fancy restaurant”: high-end dining establishments that have zero distinguishable interior design. Meanwhile, real-life restauranteurs often bleed ridiculous amounts of money to heavily brand their high-end dining room experiences so you always know exactly where you’re eating. For all that Better Call Saul gets right about the town, there was a scene in an episode last month where they dine at one such generic “fancy restaurant” in Albuquerque. If you spend any time in ABQ, you’d immediately recognize that no such place could exist in town.
Better Call Saul does, however, nail the region on lawyers. Albuquerque is overflowing with courthouses and law offices, with the billboards of personal injury attorneys lining Interstates 25 & 40 with come-ons such as, “Hurt? Call Bert”. Is it any wonder why Bugs Bunny should have turned left?
Downtown ABQ gets even stranger. There’s a vast sea of multi-story parking garages, largely filled with cars, scattered among the remains of aging U.S. Route 66 kitsch and the tinted glass monoliths of more modern-yet-nondescript bank and energy company towers. And yet walk the downtown streets on a weekday afternoon a couple hours before rush hour and it is eerily devoid of pedestrians or even traffic. Which gives downtown ABQ the feel of a giant long-term airport parking lot for alien abductions: nobody is here, and yet everyone has left their cars behind.
We’ve written before about Austin, TX and their “Keep Austin Weird” motto. But the people here, although very friendly, are simply just too weird for Austin. More to the point: they’re blissfully unaware of their weirdness, thriving as an amalgamation of teen and adult runaways, Native Americans, silver-toothed street urchins, and the progeny of prior vehicle breakdowns along U.S. Route 66 to California.
All of this makes Albuquerque a more than unusual base for developing a quality coffee culture, which most cities typically identify with urban hipsters. The bizarro culture of ABQ essentially renders a hipster’s raison d’être as pointless and irrelevant. If anybody from Portland, OR ever ended up here, I’d put them on a suicide watch.
Quality coffee is a relatively new thing in this town that normally celebrates commodities, down to its streets named after mining and minerals. Hence it is surprising to see a few $3 espresso shots here without the “moral outrage” you’d normally expect from most cities that love to gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee.
In Albuquerque, the espresso shots tended to run a bit thin on body and were often served in various presentation contraptions involving carved wooden blocks (or serving trays) and sparkling water on the side.
One of the local oddities I came across was piñon coffee. Much as New Orleans has been known for blending regular coffee with chicory for a unique local variation, piñon coffee is made by combining regular coffee with nuts of the piñon pine tree (the official state tree). Native Americans traditionally harvested these pine nuts. Once roasted and brewed, it exhibits a sweet, spiced smell like an amped up Arabic coffee, but it tastes more like regular coffee with an earthy, nutty edge to it.
An hour up I-25 from Albuquerque is the town of Santa Fe. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonialists, the New Mexico state capital carries a lot more history — including one of the oldest houses and the oldest church in the U.S.
Very much unlike Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a deliberately preserved town. This makes the stark contrast between the two not unlike the city of Napa versus St. Helena in the Napa Valley: one grows through big-box-store sprawl and lower costs of living while the other prefers a controlled aesthetic gentrification that makes it attractive to tourists with money.
This means that Santa Fe, like New Orleans, is one of the few places in the U.S. where you know exactly where you are — i.e., not in some random urban center lined with all the same chain stores. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants and massive hotels and spas about town, but everything is harmoniously dressed up in Pueblo or Spanish style. Every building is some variation of an earthtone and the architecture is remarkably consistent.
Despite the million-dollar Pueblo homes near the old city center, there are still plenty of tourists parading through town in rumbling two-story pickup trucks with tinted windows, Oklahoma or Texas plates, and blasting some variation on death metal out their windows. Yet at the same time there’s an extensive arts community and even the relocation of many Tibetan expatriates in town.
Although Santa Fe is where locally roasted coffee was first introduced to New Mexico, the coffee culture here has generally been slow to evolve — with more options growing in just the past few years. Like Albuquerque, there’s often an unusual emphasis on an inventive rotation of specialty drinks. But here there is also a strange validation of the Paleo diet as something more than the snake oil fad that it is: a few places place their own buttered coffee knockoffs prominently on drink menus.
Synesso espresso machines can be found in uncommon locations — cart services, ice cream shops, etc. — which makes us suspect there’s a local distributor with service and influence in the area. If you’re going to cover this high desert service area, my advice — based on ample empirical evidence — is to listen to a lot of Guadalupe Plata on the car stereo:
Guadalupe Plata may be from Andalucía, Spain, but if it was good enough for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…
I originally noted a lack of sweetness in the coffee of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which I partly blamed on the altitude at first. But I eventually found examples that broke that stereotype, such as the excellent Iconik Coffee Roasters — easily one of my more favorite coffee house finds of the past couple of years.
In conclusion, fallout from the Manhattan Project and Trinity tests may have left behind one unusual place and its residents, but the global advance of good coffee has infiltrated even here in just the past few years. Though for the record: Los Alamos scientists still drink pretty crummy coffee for the most part.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Deep Space Coffee||504 Central Ave. SW||Albuquerque||8.10||7.50||7.800|
|Humble Coffee Company||4200 Lomas Blvd. NE, Ste C||Albuquerque||7.50||7.80||7.650|
|Zendo Coffee||413 2nd St. SW||Albuquerque||7.50||7.50||7.500|
|35° North Coffee||60 E. San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.40||5.50||6.450|
|Holy Spirit Espresso||225 W San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.10||6.50||6.800|
|Iconik Coffee Roasters||1600 Lena St., Ste A2||Santa Fe||8.10||8.20||8.150|
|Ohori’s Coffee Roasters||505 Cerrillos Rd., Ste B103||Santa Fe||5.80||5.50||5.650|
|Santa Fe Espresso Co.||56 E. San Francisco St.||Santa Fe||7.30||7.00||7.150|
This art café is located where downtown Albuquerque gets more industrial the further south you get. Opened by Trevor Lucero, a self-proclaimed “coffee guy”, in June 2013, this 1,000-sq-ft space and 600-sq-ft outdoor covered patio serves as much as a community gathering space as it does a coffee bar or art space. Third places are apparently a more natural setting in Albuquerque than they are in Santa Fe.
There’s a short, wooden high counter with stools at the front windows. The white-painted brick wall in the rear is adorned with color photographs. Larger wooden block tables and a bench scatter about in the in-between spaces for contemplating with headphones or laptops under a white-painted wood ceiling. The laptop zombie quotient being higher as it is in ABQ.
The Zendo name apparently refers to an international feng-shui-like term for the supposed spacial zen-like state of the joint. Or so we’re told.
Whatever you call it, the place is packed with locals. It seems heavily frequented by a younger, more female clientele who take to eating take-out lunches at the bar stools and conversing with friends for the day. Rather than mistaking them for UNM students from the campus across the I-25 freeway, like much of downtown Albuquerque there’s little indication that the folks hanging out here do much of anything professionally besides, well, hanging out here.
Señor Lucero bought a three-group manual Victoria Arduino Athena Classic for $6k that’s used at the bar. They originally relied on independent roasters but have since started roasting their own at a facility further down 2nd Street, though they do feature a rotation of guest roasters Denver’s Boxcar was featured on my visit.
Using the Zendo Espresso blend, they pulled a shot with an medium brown, even crema with lighter heat spots from the spouts. It tastes of an edge of tobacco over more spices and herbal pungency. Good, but there are noticeable flaws.
Served on a custom wooden block with even a spoon holder as well as sparkling water — like you do in ABQ — in a World Market China cup with no saucer. Cheap at $2 though.
And like a number of ABQ coffee shops, they offer their own inventive specialty coffee drinks — except here they go a bit crazy with it: the London Fog, the Sweet Bonnie, the Maroccino, the Golden, the Regis, Red Cappuccino, Lapsang Latte, etc. Mixologists Gone Wild.
Read the review of Zendo Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.
This is a coffee shop fitting for downtown Albuquerque, which feels like it’s at the fringes of the known universe. (More on that in a later post.)
Its interior is stark black and white, frequently adorned in stripes, with cement or brick walls, scuffed square tile floors, and a worn wooden service counter littered with woodcut puzzle pieces of their logo (aka, their “business card”). There are several tables inside, often attended by students and/or laptop zombies, with window counter seating in front beneath glass block windows.
They work closely with Chad Morris, roastmaster at the Las Cruces, NM Picacho Coffee Roasters – one of the best roasters in the state. They serve V60 pour-overs in addition to espresso drinks.
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the back of the rectangular space they pulled shots of Picacho’s Sidami Ardi Natural to produce a cup with a mottled medium-to-darker brown crema. As a single origin Ethiopian, it exhibits a broader flavor profile than you might expect — with some bright fruit balanced with body and darker herbal elements with more spice and warming elements at its core. Served in a cheap Tuxton cup with a glass of sparkling water on the side.
It’s a pretty solid espresso shot: not exceptional, but worthy in a town ruled by the odd and bizarre — albeit pricey at $3.
Read the review of Deep Space Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.
This is a difficult trip report to author. Because on the one hand, we have to pay respects to what Ohori’s Coffee Roasters pioneered in Santa Fe, NM. But on the other hand, we have to call out product failures as we experience them.
Like Peet’s, Ohori’s Coffee started as a take-home bean sales store. Also like Peet’s, as consumer preferences changed over the years, it evolved into a retail coffee beverage shop. This was particularly innovative in Santa Fe, where communal “third places” are rare and most social gatherings take place in private homes. Susan Ohori sold the company to her longtime accountant in 2002, and the tiny chain has operated rather consistently to this day under the “newer” ownership.
This location on Cerrillos Road was the second retail shop they opened, and of the two it is designed to be more of a social gathering space. As I entered, even without knowing Ohori’s Peet’s origin story, I felt like I was in another Peet’s chain café. There are four café tables offering sparse seating in a vast space with tall ceilings with exposed wooden framing. There’s a service counter setup with a heavy emphasis on bean and leaf sales that looks lifted out of the Peet’s interior design catalog. And as for the roasted coffees themselves, many hearken back to a flavor profile of dark roasted ashiness popularized by Peet’s some 40 years ago.
There’s a wall of merchandising (cups, machines, Chemex and pour-over paraphernalia), and the art on the walls here is generously showcased without commission.
As for the retail coffee service, they may have dated roots but have not missed out on many coffee fads. They offer pour-overs, buttered coffee for those most recently into Paleo snake oil, and as a sort of health thing they avoid syrups and artificial sweeteners. Ask for a flat white, which is still not yet on the menu, and they will know how to make you one.
Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli machine, they pull espresso shots in a short paper cup (what’s that the deal with that?) with a creamy-looking medium brown crema of a smooth texture that’s relatively thin. There’s a definite ashy edge to the cup: it’s very harsh with a flavor combination of smoke and ash. This is not a pleasant espresso, and we have consumed hundreds of cups of outright rot-gut espresso before.
And yet Ohori’s has won the “Best of Santa Fe” by the Santa Fe Reporter for 7 of the last 10 years, and even the New York Times recently recommended this location in a 36-Hours piece. At first this lead me to believe that many local fans of the place must rarely ever drink the espresso straight here.
But if that were only the case. The milk-frothing here is dishwater-like: thin with irregular bubbles, producing what seems like little more than milk-flavored air. My wife found the macchiato to be simply undrinkable and abandoned it after the first sip. She never does that. I tried it and sympathized with her assessment. I’ve never experienced this at a Peet’s Coffee, for example.
Thus we can’t be sure that the coffee adoration here is rooted in local loyalty, nostalgia, or layers of milk and natural sweeteners that disguise the raw taste of their espresso. There may be other product lines worth trying besides their straight espresso and macchiato. Ohori’s offers medium- and even light-roasted coffees, even though they believe you often need a medium roast to at least develop the coffee’s flavor more fully — of which I am generally in agreement.
But when the core espresso is this dubious for a best-in-town consideration, something is clearly wrong. And I would be the last person some might accuse of being a Third Wave apologist. Unless you are a die hard, dark roasted Peet’s Coffee fan, we have to recommend that you seek your coffee elsewhere in Santa Fe.
Here in that other SF, this postage-stamp-sized espresso kiosk has a very outsized reputation, and why not? The husband and wife team of Bill and Helen Deutsch got their espresso start in Seattle back in the early 1990s era of ubiquitous coffee carts. They brought that same spirit to Santa Fe and have been operating here since 1993.
Which makes Holy Spirit Espresso akin to an archeological find designed to puzzle future anthropologists; it’s like finding 1990s Seattle espresso cart DNA in the middle of the New Mexico high desert. And like an origin story, its name is the English name for the town.
Out in front of the cart cubbyhole are four four metal chairs and two small tables along the sidewalk with a lone parasol above them. Inside is essentially a parked mobile cart dominated by a two-group Synesso machine (formerly a La Marzocco) — surrounded in a bizarro motif of various postcards, photographs, foreign money, and travel tchotchkes covering every one of the few square inches inside the tiny space.
There’s even St. Drogo, the patron saint of coffee. (He’s also the patron saint of ugly people, but we’re not going to infer anything from that.)
Using old Astoria grinders and very-Seattle Caffé d’Arte bags of coffee, Bill or Helen pulls a shot with a medium brown striped crema of modest thickness. The doppio ($2.25) is filled extra high in the cup. It has an old world Italian-leaning flavor profile of mild tobacco smokiness, spices, and some woodiness and is served in mismatched ceramic cups without saucers when you ask “for here”.
The milk-frothing is dense, not too airy, and with uneven microfoam bubbles. Posted as a “Best of Santa Fe 2012” winner, Bill was awarded for best local barista. No matter when, they’re still pretty good and you have to do something right for such a tiny business to remain in operation this long.
Read the review of Holy Spirit Espresso in Santa Fe, NM.
This central Santa Fe coffee house resides in the Santa Fe Arcade on the 2nd Floor. Opening in December 2015, it was developed as a new coffee house “concept” by an area restaurant group lead by Gerald Peters called Santa Fe Dining Inc.
Yes, apparently coffee has become a restaurant theme in America, with this concept being self-described as “full-service third wave coffee house”. Which only underscores how the term third wave has become the modern coffee equivalent of the hackneyed gourmet label from the 1980s.
We’ve been mocking the wannabe hipster use of third wave for a decade now, so most of you are probably glad we’ve largely given it a rest over the years. But ten years later and we’re still surprised that so many relative newbie coffee lovers come to its defense — and so much so that desperate marketers continue to use it.
For the many Millennials who were too young to know the 1980s, a little social history lesson about the term gourmet may provide context. As Wikipedia notes for the word:
In the United States, a 1980s gourmet food movement evolved from a long-term division between elitist (or “gourmet”) tastes and a populist aversion to fancy foods.
Sound anything like the many curmudgeons today who seem offended by the mere existence of “fancy coffee”? Also note that this transformation followed the establishment of supposed “second wave coffee” stalwarts such as Starbucks and Peet’s.
The 1980s saw the popularization of many otherwise commodity foodstuffs to an elevated status with an obligatory gourmet label. Orville Redenbacher became synonymous with gourmet popcorn. Jelly Belly popularized the concept of gourmet jelly beans. Lather, rinse, repeat. Thus at the time, the word gourmet became a sort of shorthand nudge-and-wink to let consumers know that this wasn’t your father’s foodstuff and that its distinguished quality commanded a higher price.
Compared to our coffee wave, your coffee wave is tough and chewy.
Problem was that the term gourmet wasn’t backed by any real definition, guarantee of quality, nor certification. This left the barn doors open for every profit-minded copycat and charlatan to rush in and lay claim to its meaning.
Thus today the term gourmet has since been relegated to downmarket product come-ons in the aisles at commodity goods stores such as Wal-Mart; meanwhile the premium quality/price vanguard has moved on to terms like artisan. Just this week at the ABQ Sunport (airport), I walked up to a Comida Buena with bold “gourmet deli” branding that served me a soggy croissant sandwich wrapped in tin foil and left under a heat lamp for who knows how long. What does gourmet really mean when this happens?
The same is true today of third wave coffee, which has become an unqualified label boasted by wannabes in an attempt to claim some sort of false legitimacy. Meanwhile, virtually all of the top-quality roasters and coffee shops in the world distance themselves from the term. What does third wave really mean when this happens?
Which brings us back to the 35° North Coffee concept. Their slogan, coined by restaurant vet and manager Rob Rittmeyer, is “Find your latitude”. Its name refers to Santa Fe’s latitude as well as the number of grams of coffee used in their pour-overs.
As part of a concept restaurant chain, the food gets a bit more of the attention here. They serve beignets, a croque monsieur, and banh mi sandwiches as a sort of French-influenced theme — even if French is a poor choice for a coffee affiliation.
Accessed from inside the mall, there are five nicer faux marble café tables along a back booth and a marble rear counter with a half-dozen stools. There’s also a separate seating room (the “War Room”) with more and larger tables across of the main entrance. The kitchen, and its vent, are massive: these are clearly food people. And the food sensibilities don’t stop with edibles, as they even offer (as is creative coffee in New Mexico) an oatmeal latte: complete with actual oatmeal, brown sugar, and granola as influenced by Colorado ski bums.
They do roast their own coffee on-site with all the space they have, but any labeling of blend, coffee origin, or other pedigree is virtually absent from a supposed third wave coffee house. They offer drip, pour-overs (supposedly single origin, but how could you tell?), nitro coffee, and espresso service. And yes, they even offer something called a “Latitude Adjustment”: a nod to the Paleo snake oil types seeking a Bulletproof Coffee(tm) knock-off.
All said, they use the three-group La Marzocco Linea behind the counter on shots of their “dark roast blend” to produce an even, medium-to-darker-brown crema of decent thickness. Whatever wave they are supposed to belong to, I have had identical coffee experiences in the late 1990s. But to their credit the espresso body is good, and despite being served in a short paper cup the results are better than expected. It has a darker flavor profile of herbal pungency with some tobacco but no ashiness.
Read the review of 35° North Coffee in Santa Fe, NM.
Opening in August 2014, this independent coffee shop is a casual space located in the strip-mall avenues of NE Albuquerque. It’s in an odd part of town (like what isn’t odd in ABQ?) … located in something of a no-name neighborhood.
However, just a mile and a half further down Lomas Blvd. NE this weekend will be the sixth annual Southwest Coffee & Chocolate Fest at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds — a 135-vendor consumer coffee and chocolate event that has inspired more than a few New Mexico roasters and cafés. Yes, this is a true Southwestern coffee fest and not the grotesquely bloated, shark-jumped SXSW affair simultaneously going on in Austin, TX.
Driving eastbound on Lomas Blvd. NE, you can’t miss it for the dayglow orange painted building out front — a space (and a Web site) it shares with Baker Architecture + Design. Pull into any one of its five parking spots in the front lot, and you’ll notice a couple of café tables on the sidewalk out front. There are a few simple café tables inside for seating.
There is a turquoise-painted, weathered wood counter with a three-group UNIC Stella di Caffè machine for serving their espresso shots. No pour-overs here, folks, but they’re also known for their cold brew — as is required in these high desert parts. Bottles of which also make an appearance on their wall of coffee merchandising.
They promote their heavy use of local food and drink producers (e.g., Rasband Dairies for milk, etc.), and they’ve ventured into burritos and pastries such as the notorious “pie tart” — a sort of less unnatural version of the Pop Tart.
Their coffee — while private labeled as Honest Coffee — is roasted by Prosum Roasters in town. They also feature a guest roaster as an alternative, and on this visit it was Arizona’s Cartel Coffee Lab. (Speaking of artisan Pop Tarts…)
Pulling a shot of a three-bean Central American/Ethiopian blend with a darker roast on it, they served the shot a little hot with a modest body and multi-colored crema that thinned out. The flavor was a bit weaker on first sip but oddly strengthened with greater concentration towards the bottom of the cup — with chocolate, some caramel, some woodiness and a bit of cherry brightness for a darker roast espresso.
Served in a quadrilateral-cut wooden block with two holes for a sparkling water glass and the espresso shotglass. It’s particularly a New Mexico thing. Milk-frothing here can be a little uneven, but the quality is generally good.
It’s a good introduction to New Mexico’s newer breed of coffee shop, which we’ll review more over the coming weeks.
Read the review of Humble Coffee Company in Albuquerque, NM.
Sometimes the headline gives all the spin you need to know. Our spin here is on the same story published yesterday in the NY Times Business section: Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs – The New York Times. Except we’d like to think our spin has a slightly different, less investor-relations-for-PR take.
The good news for Starbucks is that they’ve returned to financial growth after years of stagnation. But make no mistake about Starbucks’ brand extension failure after failure in getting here. They’ve failed at virtually all of their major market expansion attempts beyond coffee: movies and books, music, beer & wine, food (ZOMG, BBQ?). These failures are major blows to Starbucks’ continued growth plans. Because just like their mature fast food brethren, Starbucks has reached a saturation point with their core (coffee) products.
For example, let’s compare Starbucks with Taco Bell. Starbucks is expected to maintain same-store sales through the old marketing hack of continually introducing new products, such as cold brew coffee or the Chestnut Praline Latte. (Hence why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee.) This is their equivalent of when Taco Bell introduces DareDevil Loaded Grillers in Mild Chipotle, Hot Habanero and Fiery Ghost Pepper flavors. But to truly grow their business, Starbucks needs to do more than just coffee. In Taco Bell terms, this is akin to their recent mad foray into breakfast menus.
Thus reading that “Starbucks Prospers by Keeping Pace With the Coffee Snobs” through their Starbucks Reserve program is akin to defeat. Eight years ago we pondered Starbucks introducing “Starbucks Select” concept stores as part of their eventual desire to claw their way back into the quality coffee market — the very market they so wantonly abandoned for the mass-market race to the bottom over a decade ago. This would be like Taco Bell saying that they are going to focus more on up-market tacos for growth.
Thus instead of expanding into new categories, Starbucks is retreating to its original basics. But with the commodity-quality coffee market already saturated and its growth stagnating, Starbucks is now seeking growth by going up-market and competing with smaller, more nimble, and ever-more established independents in a higher quality market they conceded long ago. Except since it is Starbucks we’re talking about, it is more likely aiming to compete with the indie-turned-corporate darlings of Stumptown or Intelligentsia.
Keep reading the NY Times piece, and you’ll encounter absurdities such as, “Starbucks’s size gives it an edge in securing the best beans. They can do what the smaller competitors can’t.” Oh really? As a bigger company, they are actually at a disadvantage at dealing with smaller family farms producing higher quality beans. For them, working with Starbucks is akin to trying to do business with NASA. And for Starbucks, dealing with such small, piddly providers is grossly inefficient and expensive compared to the supply chains they’ve optimized to supply tens of thousands of global coffee shops with near-identical products.
The piece even ends with an ode to mobile payments and delivery services — which have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with quantity, convenience, and transaction volume.
It just goes to show you how the same data can be interpreted so differently, depending on your perspective. Even if Jim Cramer would be proud.
Unless you’re wearing a tinfoil hat and staying off the grid (except for this blog), you probably know that Peet’s Coffee & Tea — through JAB Holding — bought out both Intelligentsia and Stumptown last month. Predictably, there was much hipster angst on social media (as if that isn’t the whole point of social media), and at first I didn’t see the need to cover the story again.
After all, it is essentially an updated rehash of a post I wrote four years ago. This time around there was an enormous amount of mainstream media coverage as well. But prodded some here, there’s probably another chapter on this topic.
Some of the mainstream media have come to the defense of the acquired, noting the dual standards of how an Instagram sells for billions of dollars to Facebook and its founders are congratulated while Intelligentsia and Stumptown are showered with “sellout” scorn on social media.
However, most Silicon Valley startups scale by merely replicating data and code. With many leveraging Metcalfe’s Law, these businesses naturally improve the customer experience with scale. Contrast this with the business of coffee, which scales through the much higher friction of skilled labor and quality coffee sourcing.
These two factors are subject to a sort of inverse Metcalfe’s Law: the bigger the scale, or the more customers they serve, the poorer the quality of what they serve. Starbucks didn’t dumb down their baristas and throw out their La Marzocco machines for brain-dead, push-button Verismos because it would improve their coffee quality. They did it out of the necessity to scale to thousands of outlets in the face of a dearth of skilled baristas to hire en masse (and less expensive ones at that).
Thus do not be fooled by any of the founder rhetoric about how joining Peet’s provides access to better supply chains and whatnot. I cannot think of a single coffee purveyor that has improved with scale — at least from the consumer’s perspective of a quality end product. Investors and shareholders are a different story, however. It’s also worth remembering that Starbucks’ scaling genius was in getting millions of people who don’t like coffee to believe that they did — through flavored milkshakes and the like.
But I don’t begrudge the founders of Stumptown and Intelligentsia for taking a great risk in the marketplace when much fewer cared as much about coffee quality, for making a great product, for working hard at it, and for growing their businesses. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and for helping to popularize better coffee. I thank them heartily, but make no mistake: effectively this is their stop. This is where they get off.
You could argue Stumptown got off earlier than Intelligentsia. While Intelligentsia was still producing barista champions, Stumptown was already downgrading itself as a bottled coffee purveyor as its founder preoccupied himself with becoming a restauranteur. Stumptown counter-intuitively went beyond producing wholesome basics to embarking on the packaged foods path of processed, shelf-stable consumables — just as much of the food world was headed in the opposite direction. In other words: more pumpkin spice latte in a can, less Cup of Excellence.
In fact, the world of coffee today seems obsessed with the brewing-gadget-of-the-week and “new and exciting” coffee beverage concepts as a complete distraction from the basic quality of the fundamentals. These fads and come-ons hint at the side-show desperation of coffee in the 1980s when the emphasis was on faddish gimmicks such as flavored coffees (French vanilla, mocha creme, hazelnut whatever, anyone?).
Every time I see the words “new” or “innovation” associated with coffee, I know they have completely lost the plot. Those are the marketing buzzwords of factory production and packaging. Coffee is an agricultural product, and there’s a reason why we don’t seek out “new” and “innovation” when buying other agricultural products such as asparagus or pork.
“New” beverage concept introductions such as cold brew and nitro coffee (another thing to thank Stumptown for) are just a page lifted from the Jack-In-The-Box food fad marketing playbook for the Spicy Sriracha Burger. May as well package nitro coffee in a cardboard box along with an action figure from the next Star Wars movie and call it a Happy Pack. Offer good while supplies last.
I do hope both Intelligentsia and Stumptown have a ways to go still under their new ownership. But then I look no further than Starbucks and how its buyout strategy of competitors with better product played out. Whether Torrefazione Italia, Teavana, or the Clover Equipment Company, Starbucks seems to have taken a deliberate scorched earth approach that ultimately eliminates consumer access to better end product.
Thus I recommend fans get their Intelligentsia and Stumptown fixes while they still can, because there really is only one direction for them to go from here.
Opening earlier this year, this daytime coffee cubbyhole/pop-up might remind you of the Cafe Lambretta chain of miniscule coffee shops that dot the South of Market. But instead of Blue Bottle Coffee they serve Ritual Coffee Roasters.
As a daytime front to the Romper Room bar, they also offer the option to spike your coffee drink as a variety of caffè corretti (Italian for corrected coffee). All of which seems suitable for a bar, even if it now seems to follow the current fad of serving coffee in formats that degrade or mask its core quality — e.g., nitro brews, coffee cocktails, partially extracted cold brews with two-week shelf-lives — under the false pretense of “craft coffee”.
You’ll find Iron Horse Coffee Bar in the pedestrian-friendly Maiden Lane alleyway by the “Coffee that doesn’t suck” signs — perhaps a less lame version of “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” for a modern era — placed around the feeding streets and walkways on its perimeter. You’ll also notice it by the two baby blue café tables in the middle of the street out front of the Romper Room entrance.
Named after the restaurant that stood here in 1950, the service counter barely takes up the front entrance with a sign, a two-group La Marzocco GB5, large bags of Ritual, alcohol bottles, and a few Lucky Charms cereal bowls. For indoor seating you can sit at one of the barstools at a counter that runs along the opposite wall.
Using Ritual’s Ursa Major blend, they pulled shots with a striped darker and medium brown crema. It’s pulled as a rather long shot, but it still holds up in body — so they’re definitely not stinging on their portafilter dosing. Even so, at $3 served in a paper cup at a pop-up with no amenities (hello, $3 club), there is absolutely no reason they should be charging the exorbitantly highest rates for espresso shots in all of SF. This is a temporary coffee dive along Maiden Lane — not some tourist fleecing station inside the gates of DisneyWorld.
The quality is decent but nothing special. It has flavors of pungent herbs and some spice and surprisingly limited acidic brightness for Ritual. Unless you want to “correct” your coffee, enjoy sitting in Maiden Lane, or it’s just too convenient, I would keep walking.