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Trip Report: Monorail Espresso (Seattle)

Posted by on 22 Nov 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

For over 8 years here, it’s been no secret that I’ve had to restrain my gag reflex every time some poseur/wannabe starts spouting off about coffee’s Third Wave. Because for every self-congratulatory, self-ordained Third Wave coffee shop that wishes to proclaim, “Oh, what a good boy am I. Look at what I just invented!,” there’s a place like Seattle’s Monorail Espresso that provides ample reason for them to shut up and sit down.

That Monorail even exists is a rubber glove slap across their face. A Pike Place Market, ice-packed, 15-pound sockeye salmon across the face. Monorail has not only been doing it longer than you, but they’ve been doing it before you were even born. And here’s the insult added to your injury: they also still do it better than you.

Monorail Espresso's original cart service in Seattle Historical photo of Monorail Espresso's cart service

As not everyone is aware of America’s early espresso history, this humble but legendary espresso spot started Dec 1, 1980 as Chuck Beek’s espresso cart set up near the Westlake Center beneath the Seattle Center monorail — a 1962 construction for the World’s Fair to shuttle visitors from downtown to the iconic Space Needle in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne district. Mr. Beek’s idea was to see if he could sell espresso on the streets rather than coffeehouses, making him something of a pioneer of Seattle’s espresso cart revolution of the 1980s.

Today's Monorail Espresso can be missed easilyBy 1997, Monorail Espresso went from a cart service to its current (and relatively permanent) location: a 100-square-foot kiosk that’s today next to a Banana Republic. While it has changed little since then, other than former barista Aimee Peck taking over its ownership, it is a global espresso institution. Seattle locals and global travelers alike come here and celebrate its praises. And they deserve all they can get.

There’s a neon “Caffeine” sign, a chalkboard sidewalk sign advertising the latest specialty drink (e.g., maple latte), and a lot of bike messengers lounging nearby smoking cloves. From a sliding glass window, they’ve been serving espresso for eons made from a custom Monorail Blend produced by the small Whidbey Island roaster, Mukilteo (which has also remained strong-but-small over the eons).

Tourists bring their own demitasses from around the world to leave at this location, and the Monorail baristi often employ some of these mismatched, saucerless demitasses in service if you’re not getting it in paper. (For example, we were served with a Richard Ginori cup.)

Monorail Espresso and their small storefront window Caffeine at Monorail Espresso? Really?

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a splotchy dark and medium brown crema with old-school-quality looks. It has a creamy mouthfeel and has a robust flavor of chocolate, cloves, spice, and a great roundness in its taste profile. This is an espresso of thoughtful quality that’s unfortunately fallen out of vogue fashion among many newer coffee shops. I’d trade all the Sightglasses in SF for just one 100-square-foot Monorail. In downtown Seattle, corporate espresso is arguably the norm save for a wonderful exception such as this.

Served with a glass of sparkling water on the side. Cash only, because you can save that Apple Pay Touch ID for your proctologist.

Read the review of Monorail Espresso in Seattle.

The Monorail Espresso espresso with a side of sparkling water

Harlem Preacher Claims Starbucks Flavors Coffee with “Semen of Sodomites”

Posted by on 07 Nov 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Starbucks

How about that for a title?

Living a modern life immersed in so much technological wonder, we are often shocked by those triggers reminding us of how very little we have evolved from the rest of the animal kingdom. Typically these responses originate from our fight-or-flight lower brain in response to threats that we perceive and yet don’t fully understand.

Pastor James David Manning of the ATLAH World Missionary Church in Harlem says if you don't want Ebola, avoid StarbucksNow I’m no fan of ISIS. But last month I was listening to an NPR talk show where investigative reporters from the Wall Street Journal reported — with breathless incredulity, I might add — that ISIS employed people in its ranks to do something so mundane as direct traffic. The journalists acted as if they observed a zombie apocalypse when shockingly some zombies arrived in trucks from Streets & Sanitation to take care of garbage collection.

We get that ISIS is evil incarnate. We also get that the first victim of war is the truth. But it’s as if the Wall Street Journalists were asking where does ISIS find the time — between their overworked schedule of beheading journalists and raping Kurds 24×7 — to take care of directing traffic?

Point is that while it’s important to recognize the threat, and to recognize that psychological warfare may have both its foreign and domestic casualties, is it really better to distort the reality of such threats into the territory of paranoia and cartoon caricatures?

A Sword of God named “Ebola”

Propaganda works both waysWhich brings us to our title subject. We all know the horrible reports of the Ebola virus in West Africa. High mortality rates, impoverished communities ill-equipped to combat the virus, and even superstitions and distrust that has made affected communities physically attack medical aid workers risking their lives to help them. Here in the U.S. there are many reports of people being treated as social lepers just because others believe they’re from Africa. This despite the fact that 56,000 Americans die every year of the flu, but there is only one recorded death from Ebola.

Last week the Benin-born international singer, Angélique Kidjo, publicly spoke (and performed) on the tragedy. She even went so far to say that the paranoid response to Ebola was rooted in racism. But there are plenty of convenient boogeymen that mask the real problem, and that real problem resides in the fear response of all of our lower brain stems ever since the time of our lizard ancestors. Just as this Harlem preacher claims that Starbucks stores are ground zero for spreading Ebola: CONTROVERSIAL VIDEO: Harlem Preacher Claims Starbucks Flavors Coffee with “Semen of Sodomites” « KRON4 – San Francisco Bay Area News.

Now much of the public learned earlier this year that the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte (or PSL, for its religious followers) contains no pumpkin. That news in itself might have started a few new doomsday cults. But to claim Starbucks makes a semen latte?

Not to give any nut job on the planet a bigger platform than they ever deserve. But it’s important that we recognize these responses and remind ourselves of the real motivators behind why these crazy things happen — and why they are said and believed — in uncertain times. Better to arm ourselves with the truth than lizard brain fantasy.

It’s no wonder why some our country’s most vocal religious leaders don’t believe in evolution … they’re still waiting to experience it themselves.

Trip Report: Pinhole Coffee (Bernal Heights)

Posted by on 29 Oct 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

JoEllen Depakakibo got her start in coffee at the North Side Chicago Intelligentsia mothership before moving to the Bay Area and working for nine years with Blue Bottle Coffee. In Sept. 2014 she opened this coffee shop in an 1890s building that was once a neighborhood butcher shop (curiously enough with Avedano’s butchers nearby).

There is popular bench seating along the front Cortland sidewalk, warm wooden flooring inside, acacia stump stools, a mural by JoEllen’s brother, Joey D, and a wall of colorful stripes by local artist Leah Rosenberg. Older soul tunes filled the space on our visit, which really worked (Otis Redding, Ray Charles, etc.) There aren’t many tables (one large one), but the cozy seating works. And as any Bernal shop does de rigueur, there are dog treats for “guests”.

Entrance to Pinhole Coffee on Cortland Ave. Leah Rosenberg wall inside Pinhole Coffee

They use three different bean sources for various brew types: Verve Streetlevel for espresso, a Linea Caffè Brazil for pour-over, and Blue Bottle in a Fetco for “quick drip” (James Freeman would probably roll his eyes). They also have a rather unique brew bar setup, employing a handmade copper kettle and cherrywood drip bar as part of their collaboration with Toronto-based Monarch Methods.

Using a 1989 two-group La Marzocco Linea that JoEllen first used at Blue Bottle (since refinished), they pull shots of Streetlevel with a mottled even and lighter brown crema. It’s potent and short — barely two sips — but elegant, bold, and quite a pleasant blend of herbal pungency, some spice, and an edge of fruitiness. Served in custom ceramics with sparkling water on the side.

The Pinhole Coffee refurbed 1989 La Marzocco Linea The Pinhole Coffee espresso

They also offer a Chemex for two ($8), a very-Brooklyn kiduccino (made with cinnamon, $2), and something she calls a piccolo ($3). The piccolo is not inspired so much by its size (nor Sammy Piccolo of Canadian barista fame), but more by JoEllen’s Piccolo Plumbing landlord. It’s a short shot with more milk than a macchiato (served as a 1:1 ratio) served in a logo glass, modeled after the Intelligentsia mothership’s since-vanished cortado. (It is still a bit milky for our tastes.)

All that aside, one of the best things about this place is that they are truly trying to be an integrated neighborhood café. This ain’t no fly-by-night pop-up.

Read the review of Pinhole Coffee in Bernal Heights.

View of the house drink menu inside Pinhole Coffee The Pinhole Coffee piccolo


UPDATE: October 31, 2014
Curiously enough, today Australia’s GoodFood posted an article about the piccolo latte as a Sydney invention and something suggestively close to the cortado as well: Good Food – Mugshot: The Piccolo latte. But here the ration of espresso to milk is stated as 3:5, not 1:1, so it’s even milkier.

Trip Report: Red Door Coffee (SOMA)

Posted by on 23 Oct 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

111 Minna has long been something of an art gallery space and night club, frequently packing long lines of SOMA patrons seeking out the DJ set. It’s what happens during the daytime that’s changed here.

They’ve closed up their previous efforts as an informal daytime bar and coffee shop (serving Illy beans from a Faema machine as a dubious coffee service). They have since reopened (by 2014) as a more formal daytime bar and coffee shop. Oh, sure, they’re still a gallery by day and a DJ-fueled disco bar for people far cooler than you by night. But the coffee service is now front-and-center during daylight hours rather than just an afterthought.

Entrance to 111 Minna, which by day now goes as Red Door Coffee Entering inside 111 Minna/Red Door Coffee

Seating and gallery space inside 111 Minna More gallery space and the rear bar at 111 Minna/Red Door Coffee

Decorative side door at 111 Minna/Red Door Coffee (the red door we presume?)It’s a large space with tall ceilings, wood floors, wood benches, a front bar and a decorative rear bar towards the back with a more secluded space to studiously delve into laptop zombiehood beneath art installations. At the front bar they now use a two-group La Marzocco Linea, pulling shots of Four Barrel (also for sale).

Using the Friendo Blendo blend, it’s a significantly better shot than before — with a sharper edge of acidity on a mostly pungent flavor of herbs, spices, and a touch of sourness at the finish. Now served in notNeutral cups.

A worthy upgrade to the coffee standards here. You can see why they now expect to capitalize on those investments. (After all, they invested enough to give the coffee bar its own separate name here.)

Read the review of Red Door Coffee in SOMA.

111 Minna branding over the central bar Inside the rear bar at 111 Minna: beware of laptop zombies

La Marzocco Linea at the counter of Red Door Coffee inside 111 Minna The Red Door Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Red Rock (Mountain View, CA)

Posted by on 13 Oct 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew

This downtown Mountain View coffee bar has been around for what seems like ages. While they’ve upped their roasted coffee pedigree in recent years (Four Barrel in SF) and improved their barista training as well, the place suffers a bit because of what it offers.

As a non-profit space, they promote a lot of good community events. There’s a whiteboard at the entrance listing all of the live musical events held there. It also serves as a little of a community arts center — particularly on the second floor above, they showcase a number of visual art pieces on exhibit.

Corner entrance to Red Rock in Mountain View Inside Red Rock's entrance

The downside is that they offer free WiFi, which actually attracts the worst kind of customer here: laptop zombies intent on camping out and exploiting a free community resource as much as possible. Fortunately there’s enough seating to accommodate others who are here to drink coffee and socialize, but the upstairs in particular is a zombie apocalypse.

Its interior is a bit worn-down, dusty, and dark — with a red and black color scheme, red hanging lights, and a number of smaller café tables and chairs downstairs with more, larger tables upstairs. Since this is located in an historic stone-exterior building with wide windows overlooking the Villa St., some light does get in.

They have a bar marked “Single Origin Bar” (note the sign with the big finger) that serves single origin coffees with a dedicated three-group Synesso machine. They mostly use a three-group La Marzocco FB/80 at the corner of the bar to serve most drinks. The default blend is Friendo Blendo, but they also typically offer a single origin espresso.

Service counter with La Marzocco and Synesso machines - inside Red Rock, Mountain View The Red Rock espresso

The shot comes with an even, medium brown crema that’s a bit thin on structure. It’s served short for a double shot, and it’s a complete Four Barrel brightness bomb: bright herbal notes of citrus and apples and some molasses and some modest body underneath it. Served in black classic Nuova Point cups.

This is not your every-day espresso, and it’s almost obnoxious as some of the generally disaffected baristi who work here.

Read the review of Red Rock in Mountain View, CA.

Trip Report: The Interval at The Long Now Foundation (Marina)

Posted by on 20 Sep 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

The Interval is the bar, coffee shop, and meeting space at the headquarters of The Long Now Foundation, which publicly strives to think in terms of 10,000 year timeframes. So it’s a particularly rational thing that this isn’t a pop-up café given our current obsession with disposable culture. Which is a lot more than we can say for the regular Off The Grid food truck encampment, as it now has a permanent, very much on-the-grid sign for itself at the Ft. Mason Center. (Don’t get us started on the authenticity of food truck culture.)

Entrance to The Interval at The Long Now Foundation in Fort Mason Not your typical bar - inside The Interval

Bookcases and rear bar inside The Interval Private rooms against the Bay inside The Interval

The Interval is an engaging, well-designed space with a full service bar, curious machinery throughout the décor, and lots of bookcases with a spiral iron staircase up the middle of it all. There’s a long glass shared table over an extended metal block of gears.

Rows of glass flasks for St. George spirits on the bar ceiling of The IntervalIt’s a great bar space above all. The ceiling also contains a collection of flasks — to be personally managed with the infusion of St. George spirits (for the small reservation fee of “just” $500). There’s also booth seating in the back towards the Bay plus a write-your-ideas community blackboard that reminded us of Origin Coffee Roasting in Cape Town.

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the bar, they pull shots with a rich-looking, even, medium brown crema. It has a strong, potent flavor but doesn’t come across too sharp — which is rare for Sightglass coffee. It has the pungency of cloves, some honey-like edges, and a lot of cherry in its flavor. Served in green hand pottery thrown by the über-trendy folks at Atelier Dion.

Read the review of The Interval at The Long Now Foundation in SF’s Marina District.

The Interval's La Marzocco Linea behind the bar Espresso at The Interval

Trip Report: Sogni di Dolci (St. Helena, CA)

Posted by on 25 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This weekend’s Bay Area shakeout…

We managed to review this café a few hours before, and again a few hours after, the Napa earthquake that struck early yesterday morning. Staying overnight with friends in St. Helena on Saturday, some 20 miles from the epicenter, we experienced it as a moderately strong, somewhat lengthy shake.

Many in the house — half-awake at 3:30am after the shaking subsided — exclaimed, “That was a big one!” Tragic damages and injuries aside, it was not very big. Despite it being the largest earthquake in Northern California in 25 years and causing an up to $1 billion in damages, it was a minor jolt in comparison to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. That one I experienced from the ground floor of UC Berkeley’s then-brand-new LSA building. Whereas yesterday’s quake was rather silent, the Loma Prieta quake came with an unmistakably monstrous roar that sounded like a large truck was slowly scraping a 10-ton Dumpster across a nearby parking lot.

Entrance to Sogni di Dolci with front patio Inside Sogni di Dolci

Hopefully this weekend’s quake will serve as a good emergency preparedness opportunity for the many Bay Area residents whom have experienced nothing like that in at least a generation. But my guess is most have no idea what’s coming.

For all of today’s protests over tech workers driving up housing costs and bringing giant buses to their neighborhoods, few could probably fathom 1989’s mass exodus of “undesirables” from that era — then colloquially called yuppies. Within a few months after the 1989 quake, many sold their homes at a loss, fleeing in fear for states like Arizona and Nevada because they could no longer trust the ground they stood upon here.

Sogni di energia elettrica

After reviewing Sogni di Dolci on Saturday afternoon, we had intended to check out the St. Helena edition of Model Bakery Sunday morning. That plan was thwarted when the western half of St. Helena’s Main Street was left without power. Model Bakery may have been open for business — and still had lines for their baked goods — but there were no working cash registers, no working credit card systems, and certainly no working espresso machines.

Sogni di Dolci was more fortunate, with power long since restored to the east side of the street. The lines were longer, given how the power outage limited options for downtown’s morning coffee zombies, and they processed the queue quite slowly.

Opening in May 2010, this Italian-themed espresso bar/gelato shop/panini bar/booze bar expanded into the next door space at 1144 Main St. in 2012 to grow from 17 to 47 seats. The growth plan included an expanded menu to also cover dinner items, but the place still functions better as a full-service bar & café than as a full-service restaurant. Behind the 1144 doorway is their new full bar, with its long counter of upholstered stools and a variety of unique beers on tap and in bottles (in addition to wine).

Interior of Sogni di Dolci from the back Sogni di Dolci's La Marzocco FB/80 and HDTV

At the center as you enter is their three-group, red La Marzocco FB/80, so they’re making the right coffee investments — even if they’re using Lavazza beans (which, btw, we surprisingly like). Above that is an HDTV often showing soccer matches (e.g., a Ligue 1 match between Saint-Étienne and Rennes on our last visit). There’s also a short, stand-up piano, a number of dining tables in back in addition to their café tables in front plus an enclosed outdoor sidewalk patio with metal café tables under parasols. At the service counter they have a good selection of gelato.

The interior décor is aspirationally upscale: with mirrored walls, dark-painted wood, Italian light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and darkly painted wood bench seating lining the entire entrance perimeter. But despite the owner’s wife studying art in Florence, the hallway of black & white photos she brought from all over Italy combined with a patchwork of sometimes-incongruous Italian-themed décor makes it a bit like Italy by way of suburban New Jersey. For example, we may love Amalfi, but the big illuminated postcard photo is a bit much. (Having started watching the great new Italian TV series Gomorra, adapted from the 2008 movie Gomorrah, I was subtly reminded of the decorations within Immacolata Savastano’s home.)

For espresso, they pull surprisingly (and pleasantly) short shots with an even, medium brown crema. It’s potent with a good body: one area where the owners wisely decided to buck the New Jersey Italian stereotypes. It has a blend of traditional Lavazza flavors of mild spice and herbal pungency and is served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. Their milk-frothing tends to be light and airy but consistent. Overall, a worthy espresso.

Read the review of Sogni di Dolci in St. Helena, CA.

The Sogni di Dolci espresso The Sogni di Dolci triple and double-shot cappuccini

On Coffee and Design — and a Cup Review: notNeutral’s LINO and MENO

Posted by on 09 Aug 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends

Today This Thing We Call Coffee (substitute “third wave” or “craft coffee” or whatever nonsense marketingspeak one prefers here) seems to have discovered a new toy. It’s called design. Although around since the first coffee retailer opened in Damascus in 1530, lately design has become a rather acutely faddish obsession that has permeated café design, espresso machine design, and even the package design of retail coffee bags.

So much so, the coffee industry has lately given off the impression that it’s become bored or satiated (if not both) with its prior focus on coffee quality. Evidence of that has already started to come out in the cup. We’ve noticed some coffee bars missing the point that while we love great design and ambiance from our best restaurants, it’s not why we primarily want to eat there.

Opening in 2013, Truth. coffee's steampunk cafe in Cape Town, South Africa Packaging design for Origin coffee in Cornwall, England

It’s not hard to see how we got here. Today’s Internet is fueled by a Pinterest- and Instagram-inspired obsession with superficial looks, celebrating form over function. Social sharing, mainstream coverage, and Kickstarter hype have all elevated interest in coffee accoutrement based on visuals rather than performance. After all, who wants to dig into the gritty details when you can look at a pretty infographic?

Sometimes design is overdone like the self-indulgent noodling of a 14-minute Neil Peart drum soloAs with today’s world of pop celebrities, elaborate visuals and outrageous price tags — rather than talent — are what capture the fickle attention spans of layman consumers. Like everything else, perhaps it isn’t surprising that quality coffee is giving in to the temptations of Kim Kardashian’s asp. (You see what we did there.)

This isn’t to understate the many virtues of good design, not all of which are visual decoration. Design is a way of bringing art into the everyday things of life, but it is also a means of eliminating the friction and the senseless from how things work.

We all need espresso machines shaped like V-12 enginesNor am I a stranger to the values of design. My father is a retired commercial artist and designer of some 45 years, and long ago I even pulled a stint as a graphic designer whose work appeared in the displays of a national chain of department stores. While I see design as a very useful tool, I stop well short of treating it as a religion.

Because one man’s Apple logo sticker on the rear of their vehicle is another man’s Jesus fish. There are those who so subscribe to the “Better Life Through Design” mantra, they believe the crisis in Gaza could be averted if only someone designed an Israeli wall that was user-friendly enough.

When coffee’s current love affair with design becomes this noticeable, it borders on religion. As with all religions, when the object of its focused attention drifts from its original premise, things can get ugly.

To make my meal in a box taste better, I decided to tweak the logo rather than the ingredients

notNeutral Cappuccino Cups

notNeutral offices in L.A.Bringing the high-minded topic of coffee and design down to the level of cups, the folks at notNeutral recently reached out to us to pay a closer look at their coffee line. In the 11+ years that CoffeeRatings.com has been posting formal coffee and café reviews, many other blogs and Web sites picked up on the habit of noting espresso machines and other brewing equipment. But for whatever reasons, we still haven’t found any other online coffee review resources to date that have been logging cups unless they’re made as custom one-off designs.

So as a CoffeeRatings.com first, what do we look for in coffee cups? Our 2007 post citing the Espresso Italiano Tasting manual outlines some of the key qualities. But the primary objective is this: does it enhance my coffee drinking experience?

LINO cappuccino cup on two saucers MENO cappuccino cup on two saucers

Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an award-winning multidisciplinary L.A. design firm, founded notNeutral as something of a retail consumer arm for their designs. They do a lot of commercial buildings, parks, water projects, train stations, homes, and landscaping, and through notNeutral they get to do pillows, rugs, furnishings, and housewares such as coffee cups.

De rigueur of many designers today, they make overtures to sustainability and “green living,” but it’s not heavy-handed. One of our pet peeves is the hypocrisy of some retailers and media properties that are devoted to the concept of saving the planet by consuming more things (instead of, say, picking something up from a garage sale or a second-hand store).

notNeutral Coffee even promotes the Modbar design on their home page

notNeutral’s coffee home page opens to a photo of their cups beneath the group head of a Modbar, today’s patron saint of form-over-function in coffee, reenforcing design-aware aesthetics. We tested their cappuccino cups since we have collected dozens of espresso cups from cafés around the world.

First, the white, handled LINO cups. These were the cups they designed in partnership with Intelligentsia. Made in Bangladesh, they have good heft and a relatively compact size: filled to the rim, they can hold up to 6-oz/175ml. Design-wise, they clearly take on a modernization of the ACF or Nuova Point classics.

There are a lot of curves, including the saucers, with an inverted-dome-like rounded bottom and tapering up the sides of the cup: there are no edges inside. The handles are distinctive — sticking out in a wider loop, but cleverly flush to the top edge of the cup, allowing the coffee drinker to place their thumb over the top.

notNeutral's LINO cappuccino cup notNeutral's MENO cappuccino cup

We also checked out their black matte, no-handle MENO cups. These suggest the form and function of more elegant Japanese-style tea cups. Made in Sri Lanka, they are also curved inside with no edges — although not as rounded as the LINO cups. The longer basin also means it can hold up to 7-oz/200ml of liquid to the rim (despite their product graphic to the contrary).

The MINOs have a glaze on the matte finish, as these cups are meant to be handled to experience any heat within them. Without the handle, of course, drinking requires you to rotate your hand further back to angle it when you bring it to your mouth: something you’re either used to or will have to accommodate.

We wouldn’t say the LINO and MINO cups are our absolute favorite cappuccino cups. With all its comparatively under-designed flaws, the classic ACF M66 5.5-oz/150ml tulip cup is still something of a sentimental favorite — even if they no longer make them and they’re increasingly hard to come by. But both the LINO and MINO cups are real good — very good. They are thought out in detail, modern, attractive, and also (and here’s the important part) quite functional at what they’re supposed to do. We prefer them over the many modern ACF replacement knockoffs that have appeared since ACF’s demise — such as Cremaware or those from Espresso Parts.

The inverted dome inside the LINO cappuccino cup A MENO cappuccino nicely complements Silkworm

We also asked Hannah Bartholomew Block, who runs noNeutral’s coffee division, a few questions about these cups.

Q & A with Hannah Block of notNeutral

CoffeeRatings.com: With the LINO cups, some design objectives are clear – such as ensuring that the handle is flush with the rim, allowing the user to place their thumb comfortably across the top of the cup when they bring it to their lips. What design problems/solutions were you seeking to address with the LINO cups?

notNeutral: A lot of thought went into that handle. We tried a variety of forms that extended from the cup in different ways, but the final shape provided the most control for the barista and the most comfort for the user. Our design team considered the entire sensory experience of drinking coffee: the diameter of the cup was kept wide so drinker could enjoy the aroma, not just the taste of the espresso. The cup walls are thinnest at the lip for the best mouthfeel, and thickest at the bottom to retain heat. The bottom of the cup is rounded for optimal fluid dynamics, making it easier for baristas to pour latte art. Beyond those functional aspects, of course we wanted the cups to look modern, unique, and interesting.

The design advantages of the LINO cup

CR: In contrast to the previous question, where do you feel most coffee cups fall short in offering customers a better coffee-drinking experience?

nN: The most important consideration is comfort of the user. Are the cup walls thick enough to protect the user’s hand from heat? Is the handle comfortable and stable to hold? Will the shape of the lip cause coffee to drip down the outside? When you swirl an espresso shot in a demitasse, is it going to slosh over the sides? We consider all these factors when designing or choosing cups for a café.

CR: At CoffeeRatings.com, we’re an odd lot who have also liked using traditional Asian tea cups for brewed coffee service at times: no handles, matte black finish. So in that way, the MENO cups remind us of some classic tea cups. Was the MENO design inspired by those cups?

nN: Yes. We did look at Asian tea cups as precedents. We looked at Japanese ceramic glazes and liked the way the matte black got distressed over time. We also liked the way the dark, non-reflective finish not only drew attention to the graceful cup profile, but also felt warm and satiny to the touch.

CR: Whether inspired by Asian tea cups or not, you’ve clearly labeled your MENO cups as part of your coffee line. Anything about the experience of these cups, or the experience of drinking tea, did you want to carry over with these cups over the traditional cups?

nN: The handle-less cup completely changes the sensory experience of holding and drinking a cup of coffee. There’s a comfort in savoring the warmth of the cup directly in the palm of your hand. That’s a little unexpected for coffee. It makes you reconsider the ritual. We definitely envision MENO crossing over from specialty coffee service to vessels for tea.

Trip Report: Back Yard Coffee Co. (Redwood City, CA)

Posted by on 25 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

Originally opened as Caffe Sportivo circa 2008 with a strange homage to a fitness joint (due to a physical trainer who ran the place), this independent coffeehouse introduced better coffee standards to Redwood City — a Peninsula town that locals often jokingly call “Deadwood City.” (…If you must compete with “Shallow Alto” — i.e., Palo Alto.)

In 2012 the same owner changed the name and the vibe of this place to something closer what it is today: a darker corner coffeehouse with a focus on coffee, wine & beer (and minimalist food items), and live music nights. Perhaps in this game of perpetuating bad puns, this place could carry the nickname “Black Yard Coffee Co.” Basic black is sort of the theme here.

Entrance to Back Yard Coffee Co. in Redwood City Service counter inside Back Yard Coffee Co.

The focus here on coffee now is oddly fortuitous given its address (Brewster Ave.). While there is some token outdoor café table seating under parasols along two sides of the building with limited parking in the rear, the vibe is really inside this place. It’s dark: the interior has long sofas and counter seating beneath tinted windows. And black everything: tables, floors, chairs, painted wall sections, etc. The laptop zombie presence is noticeable without being overwhelming — perhaps due to the emphasis on live and recorded music.

Seating area inside Back Yard Coffee Co.They emphasize their Stumptown Coffee supplies, using multiple roasts for their V60 pour-over service. For espresso they use a highly customized three-group Synesso machine at the bar, pulling shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has the expected Stumptown brightness and a flavor of apples, spices, herbal pungency, and some molasses with a potent body as well. Served in black (of course) classic ACF cups with no saucer.

This is solid coffee for an area where that can be still a bit hard to find.

Read the review of Back Yard Coffee Co. in Redwood City, CA.

Synesso machine and service counter inside Back Yard Coffee Co. The Back Yard Coffee Co. espresso

Trip Report: Bancarella (Union Square)

Posted by on 18 Jul 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

Gary Rulli apparently wasn’t quite satisfied by operating the Emporio Rulli café along the Stockton St. side of Union Square. He expanded to the Powell Street side of the square around the holidays of 2012 with this addition, branded distinctly separate from the rest of the Emporio Rulli chain. Bancarella means “stand” in Italian — as in a coffee stand. But it’s much more than that, located in a pleasant, almost exclusively outdoor space next to the discount theater ticket outlet, across of the Westin St. Francis hotel.

Bancarella sits in the southwest corner of Union Square Service area inside Bancarella

There’s outdoor sidewalk patio seating under canvas parasols in the Union Square courtyard, enclosing the handful of tourists here (typically) by short plexiglass barriers. Everything is branded Bancarella here, down to their bags of La Piazza Blend coffee, so it’s almost as if they’re hiding any Rulli connections here. But the quality is pretty good regardless.

Bancarella's service window with La Marzocco Strada: as if they were serving hot dogsInside the small service area there’s a small counter offering desserts, sandwiches, salads, and Italian wines. Behind the counter is a three-group, white La Marzocco Strada and a Mahlkönig K30 twin grinder — next to a service window that hands out orders like an ice cream truck.

They pull modestly sized shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has a well-blended flavor that’s smooth, carries some wood, but is mostly spices and light pepper. There was a somewhat foul or off aftertaste when we sampled it, which is probably not something we presume as consistent. It seemed like a coffee defect — like a squonky bean or two made it past sorting and into our shot. But the effect was mild, and our ratings only accounted for that a little bit. Otherwise, the body is a touch weaker than it should be, but the cup overall is made pretty well.

Served in Barcarella-logo Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups. They also offer good latte art and higher-quality milk frothing. There is little to distinguish Bancarella much from its Emporio Rulli brethren, but who cares about branding when the coffee is good.

Read the review of Bancarella in SF’s Union Square.

Patrons queuing up for food and drinks at Bancarella The Bancarella espresso

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