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Archived Posts from this Category
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.
Now 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?
Which 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
It’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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
As 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.
Nor 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.
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?
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’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.
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.
We also asked Hannah Bartholomew Block, who runs noNeutral’s coffee division, a few questions about these cups.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inside 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.
This café is the brainchild of former middle school teacher and Ritual Coffee barista, Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Starting as a pop-up in SF’s South Park (which has since closed in Dec. 2013), this over-designed flagship café opened in Oct. 2013 to a considerable amount of gushing praise.
It took over the former Teashi spa, and the spirit of past mani/pedis and Brazilian waxings still sort of haunts the place. On the sidewalk out front there’s limited wooden café table seating. Inside in front there’s window counter seating for four on stools right next to shelves of coffee merchandising, just shy of the long service counter.
It’s a long space that is deceptively airier than its limited seating would suggest. There’s an array of a few café tables against a shared wall bench; these are typically the domain of laptop zombie squatters. Further back there’s an upstairs under bright skylights that offers two larger, semi-private tables.
Here there is an overwhelming sense of someone’s idyllic vision that a café should be more like an Apple Store. There are stark, plain walls and wood grain paneling plus a wannabe kanketsu “service philosophy” of removing as many barriers as possible between barista and customer.
This is exemplified by their unique, Modbar-like espresso machine: a two-group, under-the-counter job either called the Jepy Minim (per the engineer/designer John Ermacoff, aka Jepy) or the Ghost (per project designer Ben Kaminsky). It’s the guts of a perfectly acceptable Synesso Sabre, but Frankensteined beyond recognition as a sacrifice to form. This worship at the Holy Church of Makerdom might promise greater temperature control, etc., but what only matters to us as coffee lovers is what it produces in the cup.
They specially source limited coffees and roast them through Ritual Coffee Roasters for their own private label, and our review here is of their Little Brother Espresso — which comes at a whopping $3. (They also served a Costa Rica Los Crestones for $4.) It’s served slightly full with an even, medium brown crema. There’s a balance to the flavor with hints of bright fruit, but there’s primarily a mid-palate of herbal pungency.
In short: it’s a very good shot. But for all the pomp, technology, design, and the price, it doesn’t measure up to expectations — failing to rank in the Top 35 of SF coffee shops. We need to revisit to ensure we didn’t catch them on an off moment, but that would be surprising given they’ve been open for eight months and their machine has dialed down espresso shots to a push-button level. The good news for Saint Frank is that there are clear opportunities to improve. (That might also include banning all employees here from openly calling it “spro”, dude.)
This will read like an attack on Kevin when he’s done some very interesting things with unique coffees, and he’s certainly trying things. Yet Saint Frank is also symptomatic and emblematic of what seems so very lost and misguided with what the industry holds as the new standard of coffee shop today. Among all the toys and distractions of late, coffee quality in the cup seems to have again taken a back seat.
If you’re going to charge $3 for an espresso, it should at least break the Top 35 in the city. Among the 700 active espresso purveyors currently surveyed in SF, Saint Frank’s standard espresso shot is the most expensive in the city that’s served outside of a restaurant setting. (Presuming the Nespresso Boutique & Bar qualifies more as a restaurant, where you’re paying more for white tablecloth service and a global smoke & mirrors marketing campaign.)
We should all be paying more for coffee — but for better coffee. Based on our ratings, it’s not better. For the reported pedigree of their sourced coffees, it doesn’t even have a different or unique flavor profile. So what exactly am I paying extra for?
First, there’s the promising lure of shiny new equipment and it’s empirically consistent failure to deliver better coffee. In the past we’ve noted the likes of Sightglass who have been guilty of this for years. In Saint Frank’s case, it’s not even so much a “better brewing” sales come-on than superficial aesthetics: i.e., a low-profile workspace primarily conceived to address the First World coffee problem where my barista doesn’t get to see more of my crotch.
Fortunately the Modbar isn’t weighed down by outrageous costs — you can get a full system for under $10k. Hopefully Saint Frank’s custom lookalike (the Jepy Minim or Ghost, depending upon whom you ask) follows suit in that department. But with new, “revolutionary” ways to brew coffee even more perfectly being announced every week, we’ve often wondered if any of the takers ever get the chance to dial-in on them, with a serious dose of experience, before they roll on to the next big thing — looking to technology to bail them out from substandard practices.
This is a little of what former USBC champ Kyle Glanville recently called the “fancy equipment arms race”: “People are spending shit tons on machines to brew coffee when they should be investing in their own palates and understandings of flavor, and the knowledge of how coffee brewing actually works”
So what about making your café look like an Apple Store? Blue Bottle Coffee has been compared to the Apple of coffee shops, and they’re even sporting Apple-inspired service table designs. And CoffeeRatings.com has had plenty of good things to say about Blue Bottle.
Except Blue Bottle’s resulting coffee quality is noticeably better than Saint Frank’s. Now any café owner is entitled to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a custom espresso machine, killer grinders, and a Zenlike service design experience. But if it doesn’t translate to a better cup of coffee, those costs are being passed on to me to satisfy completely different concerns. You’d be better off having your baristas selling me $400 sweaters.
What results is a place that seems enamored with all the trappings of what’s expected of a wannabe Fourth Wave coffee place, but with no improvement in the coffee itself. Which suggests more of our cynical definition of a Fourth Wave coffee shop from four years ago. We then joked that if the Third Wave was about letting the coffee speak for itself and enjoying coffee for its own sake, the Fourth Wave was about appreciating so much of the gadgetry and trappings surrounding coffee service that any actual coffee was no longer required.
But can any of us blame Kevin? The status quo of the industry’s most popular coffee media encourage this focus. For example, a Dear Coffee, I Love You seems to care more about subway tiles than coffee roasting. While Sprudge heavily promotes their “Buildouts of the Summer” promotional series as if coffee were a construction project. And in professing “we would never grade coffee shops”, Sprudge seems too terrified to lift a judgmental finger to critique any of the coffee and potentially hurt someone’s feelings.
This leaves a massive void of any popular critical thought about retail coffee quality. Instead of learned coffee professionals, this gap is filled instead by the arbitrary standards of “top 20 coffee shops in America” lists on popular news and travel web sites — often written and compiled by interns most enamored by double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos in paper to-go tubs, whose understanding of coffee quality extends little beyond the MSRP price tags of the commercial coffee machine fad of the month.
Or worse: the void is left to the whims of the “man in the street” on review sites like Yelp!: where electrical outlets for laptops, cute baristas who flirt, and cheap extra large muffins count for more than any coffee quality.
Imagine a perverse wine world where the like likes of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast gave everything identical 90-point scores while devoting the bulk of their writing to the wood and fixtures used to build their tasting rooms and the designers of their high-tech wine openers. It’s of little surprise that we have ended up with coffee writing that reads more like an interior design arms race sponsored by Home Depot®. Meanwhile any actual quality judgement on coffee is suppressed to the level of American youth soccer: everybody is recognized with a trophy just for participating. Why even bother with the farce of barista competitions if “everyone is a winner”?
Over a decade ago, one of the major inspirations for creating CoffeeRatings.com was our immense frustration with all the existing books and online reviews of coffee houses at the time: it was impossible to find any critical reviews of coffee places that critiqued any actual coffee. Most of the attention was spent on ambiance: the style of the clientele who hung out there, what novels they read, and how good the bagels were. With all the attention now given to new machines, service counter layouts, and who makes the wooden countertops, we seem to have relapsed to those more ignorant days.
I never thought I’d miss what six years ago I called the Malaysian street food experience. Then the environmental design slight-of-hand was in making you feel like a hipster for sipping your espresso while sitting on a cinder block in an alley filled with spent heroin needles. Even so, at least the quality of the coffee still ran as the headline. Today I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it’s time to go back to those days.