Café Society

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Trip Report: La Brezza Net Art Café (Positano, Italy)

Posted by on 02 Dec 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Positano is an impossible town. By that, I mean that the place even exists — grafted vertically onto cliffs overlooking a gorgeous sea — defies belief. Glimpsing just a single photo of the place was all I needed to convince me that I had to first come here nearly 12 years ago. And I certainly am not the only one.

John Steinbeck visited Positano on multiple occasions. His essay in the May 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar is said to have put Positano on the tourist map. Which then lead to inspiring Patricia Highsmith to write The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955. Her novel became a 1999 film that was also partly shot in Positano.

The impossible town of Positano. La Brezza resides to the lower left of the domed church. Looking out to the sea from Positano

Positano clinging to the cliffs as seen from the small hamlet of Montepertuso Ominous skies along the beach in front of La Brezza Net Art Café

A decade later, Positano inspired a visiting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones to pen the song “Midnight Rambler” — from the brilliant 1969 Let It Bleed album — in its cafés. La Brezza Net Art Café wasn’t around at the time for Jagger and Richards, but there’s a high probability that one of the cafés where they did write it stood in La Brezza’s place back then.

Because La Brezza makes the most of its prime beach location in fashionable Positano. There are two floors inside that feel a little bit cramped, but most of the activity of its patrons naturally takes place on the front patio under canvases or among the sidewalk tables along the paved walkway down to the beach.

Corner entrance to La Brezza Net Art Café Curious clientele at Positano's La Brezza Net Art Café

They serve beachside gelato and various lunch items with a view over the sand and the small, wooden fishing boats beached on the shore. Inside their espresso machine might look like a chrome Fiorenzato, but it is a two-group Esprèsso by SAB.

Using Irio Caffé from just over the Amalfi Coast mountain range, they pull shots with a darker, rich-looking crema with the occasional lighter medium brown heat spot. Not surprising given Irio’s wood-roasting processes, it has a woody and smooth flavor of mild spices but a body that runs a little thinner than expected. At €1.50, it’s a little pricey — but half the cost of table service (which is still worth it, given the hangout).

And good enough for Gambero Rosso’s 2014 Bar d’Italia to rate it 2 tazzine and 2 chicchi.

Read the review of La Brezza Net Art Café in Positano, Italy.

La Brezza Net Art Café's two-group Esprèsso by SAB machine The La Brezza Net Art Café espresso

Positano is known as the vertical town The La Brezza Net Art Café cappuccino

Trip Report: Bar Al San Domingo (Ravello, Italy)

Posted by on 25 Nov 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This bar/café on the main Piazza Vescovado is something of a local Ravello institution. Founded as a family business in 1929, it is now operated in the hands of three Schiavo brothers who are part of the successive generation.

Gianni Agnelli, L, and first lady Jackie Kennedy, R, enjoying themselves at Al San Domingo in RavelloWith its name inspired by a Neapolitan coffee roaster of the time, the writer Gore Vidal is said to have made a habit of hanging out near its glass entrance — chatting it up with a visiting Sting or Bruce Springsteen over a glass of Chivas Regal. There are also classic photos about of former first lady Jackie Kennedy hanging out at this café with “Godfather of Style” and head of FIAT, Gianni Agnelli, from August 1962. While these may be events from only this past century, they still give you a sense of time and place.

By contrast, in America we seem so enamored with new, shiny things that we encourage a disposable culture that extends to our own history. At five years, you’re overlooked; at ten, you’re forgotten; at twenty, you’re a candidate for a wrecking ball. Trendy pop-up coffee shops and restaurants seem like a natural outcome of our disposable culture. (We recently read an historical revisionist comment from Ritual’s Eileen Hassi suggesting that only Ritual and Blue Bottle were doing the things they were doing in SF when they started up eight years ago — completely dismissing the forgotten likes of Café Organica, who was already making better coffee at the time and doing more “third wave” things those two hadn’t even dreamed of yet.)

Ravello's Piazza Vescovado at dusk, with Al San Domingo's outdoor seating on the left Bar Al San Domingo in the rain from the seats at Ravello's Caffè Duomo

Getting back to Mrs. Kennedy’s Summer of ’62 stay in Ravello, it’s odd today to think of the wife of a standing U.S. president spending three weeks cavorting about with one of the world’s most notorious playboys in Gianni Agnelli — all the while JFK (himself an international playboy wannabe by comparison) stayed back in Washington, DC. But these are facts that were undoubtedly kept from American public eyes at the time.

Mr. Agnelli reportedly made a number of visits to this café over the years, which reportedly stirred up friendly barbs with its owners. Because you see, the Schiavo family are granata — i.e., devout fans of the Torino football club, Torino FC. There are still supporter signs inside the café to this day. Among various other titles, Mr. Angelli was also something of the patron saint of their cross-town rivals and sworn enemies, Juventus FC.

La Cimbali M39 inside Al San Domingo - with Torino FC signage The Bar Al San Domingo espresso

The café itself seems to have evolved and grown in distinct stages. It re-opened in July of 2013 after a three-year renovation hiatus, covered in scaffolding. In front there are awnings and seats in the main piazza. Inside there are several tables and a service area, and off to one side it expands into a café space next door (Humphrey’s Room) that looks like a glass greenhouse.

Besides serving Chivas Regal, a lot of good gelato, and lunch items, their coffee service uses a three-group La Cimbali M39 and coffee from Cafè Sombrero in nearby Vietri sul Mare. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and tastes of a milder blend of spices. Served in larger, patterned Thomas cups.

Maybe not legendary espresso, but it’s still good.

Read the review of Bar Al San Domingo in Ravello, Italy.

Trip Report: Andrea Pansa (Amalfi, Italy)

Posted by on 15 Nov 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

The town of Amalfi gives the Coast its name. Dating back to the 9th century, it is one of the four key Maritime Republics of Italy, and it is still represented on the flag of the Italian Navy to this day. Unlike the sleepier Ravello up the nearby cliffs, Amalfi is heavily overrun with tourists during the high season.

The town of Amalfi, which gives the Amalfi Coast its name (credit to Wikipedia)

Amalfi's Duomo Entrance to Andrea Pansa on Piazza Duomo

Andrea Pansa first opened as a café in 1830. It is thus is quite legendary on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It’s known primarily for its chocolate (there are many resellers who use the Pansa name in town on their storefronts) and its confections. Located right on the most popular public square in town, it attracts a lot of foot-traffic plus tourists/locals who lounge on the café tables beneath the sun umbrellas out front. They sell a lot of tourist-friendly limoncello as well.

The reputation here isn’t unfounded. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia awarded it 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi — making it one of their most exceptional coffee bars in the Campania region. Yet despite the obvious signs of entitlement, the staff here are exceptionally friendly and engaging.

Formal interior of Andrea Pansa Andrea Pansa merchandising

Pastries and confections inside Andrea Pansa Some of the more formal seating inside Andrea Pansa

Among the towns and cities of Campania, Amalfi is one of the few outposts we’ve found for Portioli coffee from up north — and Pansa makes the most of it. They use a three-group GIME Sinfonia (from Portioli’s espresso machine arm) to pull shots with a medium brown, even crema. The shot is balanced — and brighter and not as dark or pungent as most in the region. Perhaps owing to its northern Italian blends. The flavor is weighted more towards spices and light pepper. Cheap at a mere €0.80.

Read the review of Andrea Pansa in Amalfi, Italy.

The three-group GIME Sinfonia at Andrea Pansa The Andrea Pansa espresso

Trip Report: Gran Caffè Neapolis (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 26 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Opening in November 2010, this café feels like it has been here for far longer. (Contrast with nearby Scaturchio, dal 1905.) The interior space is a modern, stark white with spot lighting and lounge-like space surrounded by bottles of Champagne on the walls. Outside there’s ample seating under large parasols in the enjoyable Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.

Entrance to Gran Caffè Neapolis Inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The name “Neapolis”, the original name for Napoli, means “New City” in Greek. Napoli’s civilization has Greek roots dating back to at least the 4th century B.C. Buried in the more modern building foundations just a couple blocks away beneath Piazza San Gaetano lies the (now explorable) 6,000-capacity Greek/Roman theater used by Emperor Nero to perform his operas — including a debut in 64 A.D. where Nero famously sang through an earthquake and thought it a good omen.

So perhaps on the historical scale of the neighborhood, this café is a recent hiccup. But the espresso here is good enough to have been upped from a one to a two chicchi rating between the 2013 & 2014 editions of Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Even if the space comes adorned with some semi-cheesy local (Italian) tourist decorations, such as various Pulcinella masks and ornamental cornicelli.

Cheesy tourist decorations at the base of the Gran Caffè Neapolis bar Four-group La San Marco inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The Maestro dell'Espresso certification on display at Gran Caffè NeapolisBehind their four-group manual lever La San Marco machine, they sport four clear cylinders of roasted coffee blend options — including Arabica, Excelsa, Liberica, and Robusta. There’s a Maestro dell’Espresso certificate on display, certified by Illycaffè, for the master barista of the house. However, for the Saturday morning shift of our visit we had two young, seemingly novice (and uneasy) women operating as bariste on duty.

Using their Arabia blend, they pulled shots with a richly textured crema of a darker brown and even slightly grayish color — filled relatively high in IPA cups of modern design. Its taste is pure pungency with no ashiness, bitterness, or even a bright end for that matter.

The milk-frothing was a bit iffy, however: bubbly and too hot, but this was likely the B team. Though note that Neapolitans don’t go for overly frilly cappuccinos and latte art beyond a dusting of cocoa. A very reasonable €0.80.

Read the review of Gran Caffè Neapolis in Napoli, Italy.

The Gran Caffè Neapolis espresso The Gran Caffè Neapolis cappuccino

Trip Report: Caffè Mexico (Piazza Dante, Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 21 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Welcome to a new series of coffeehouse profiles from Napoli (Naples), Italy and its environs. Unlike previous regional series we’ve posted over the years, this time we’re starting off with individual café reviews and saving the summary for the end.

So why Napoli? It’s one of the most influential, if not the most influential, cities in the world for espresso. And although we’ve explored the Napoli espresso scene before, that was 11 years ago — a year before we even started CoffeeRatings.com. This time, over some two weeks in Napoli and its environs, we generated formal reviews of 28 places: most of notable local regard, but some not to mix things up.

There are many great places to check out in Napoli. But Caffè (or Bar) Mexico is a sentimental, beloved favorite among the locals; many consider their coffee the best in town. Hence it is one of the best places to start.

Entrance to Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante, Napoli The Passalacqua roasters logo to the left of the Mexico sign on Piazza Dante

Bar Mexico

This is a popular location of a small, Napoli-based chain of cafés designed to showcase the coffees of Napoli-based Passalacqua roasting. If that sounds a little like Coffee Bar‘s relationship to Mr. Espresso, that’s not purely by coincidence. Carlo Di Ruocco, Mr. Espresso himself, has frequently cited Mexico among his favorite espresso bars in Napoli.

Passalacqua is a somewhat typically classic coffee roaster of the region. With family-owned-and-operated origins dating back to 1948, a company like this in America would be burdened carrying huckersterish “artisan” and “craft roaster” labels whenever their name appeared. Not so in Napoli, as they are more typically the norm than the exception.

This small storefront is located on the popular gathering spot of Piazza Dante. Like others in the Mexico chain, everything seems to have an orange hue due to the interior design and color scheme of the place. In addition to the quasi-Mexican tile work. Why they chose the name “Mexico” is something we haven’t deciphered.

'La cassa' inside Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante Caffè Mexico's internal tile work on Piazza Dante

The emphasis here is on “casual”, however, as there is very little visually that would tip off Mexico’s esteem and perceived greatness. Hence there is stand-up service at the bar and no seating. The Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia has given the Mexico location at Napoli’s Via Alessandro Scarlatti, 69 a rating of zero tazzine (i.e. little in the way of environment) and two chicchi (i.e., excellent coffee) every year in the annual guides we’ve had since 2007 — including the 2014 edition we just purchased in Italy.

But beware: this location in specific also caught the attention of PBS European travel man and cult leader, Rick Steves. By “cult”, we don’t mean the crank-up-the-Nancy-Sinatra-because-Janet-Reno’s-gonna-burn-your-house-down variety. That’s more Philz Coffee. But we have run into Mr. Steves in Vernazza where Steveniks were literally prostrate before him, exclaiming, “We’re not worthy!” Wayne’s-World-style. Fortunately we encountered none of that here.

The uniformed baristas pull shots from an orange, four-group, manual lever La San Marco machine — also typical of the finest coffee spots in Napoli. Mexico offers two primary types of espresso, or caffè caldo per their menu: zuccherato and amaro. The former comes pre-sweetened with a little sugar, and the latter without any.

On the infantilization of the in-vogue coffee palate…

Amaro roughly means “bitter” in Italian, but in American marketing lingo it would be called “unsweetened”. In America, the word “bitter” has purely negative connotations, whereas an amaro, for example, is also the name of a desirable class of after-dinner drinks in Italy (think Fernet Branca).

Walking up to the bar inside Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante The La San Marco lever machine at Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante: anyone for yelling, 'Norm!'?

The context of the amaro is actually a rather critical cultural distinction when it comes to coffee, and it is a topic worthy of its own future post. (I’ve already written a lengthy comment on it.) The trendy flavor profiling of coffees more towards the sweet and even sour end of the spectrum in recent years has as much to do with catering to more child-friendly, simple-carbohydrate-craving tastes as it does a reaction to the heinous dark roasting practices of the past that masked too many potential flavors.

Perhaps this sounds like a trumped-up conspiracy, but the concept has direct precedence in things such as the proliferation of sweet cigars that have been tailored more for younger people. Thus coffee now has more candy-like characteristics. And there are folks like James Hoffmann scooping off espresso crema under the premise that anything “bitter” is universally bad — as if the very idea of bitterness has no redeeming value nor role in the human appreciation of taste.

What you’ll find in Mexico’s — and almost every other Neapolitan — espresso is a decided nod towards a more (dare we say?) “adult” flavor profile that’s exceptionally light on fruit. And yet it is never ashy, rarely smoky, and not at all bitter in the most culturally common sense of the word.

Off the amaro soapbox…

We found that the zuccherato added little sweetness over the amaro, but we rated the amaro here: a flavor of mostly pepper and pungent spice with a little bit of brightness and — as common to the Neapolitan espresso style — little in the midrange of the palate. It has a healthy, richly textured medium brown crema that occasionally comes with the mark of a heat spot. Served in Passalacqua-branded IPA cups for €0.95.

We’re not saying it was the best espresso we had in Napoli. But we’re not saying it wasn’t either.

Read the review of Caffè Mexico in Piazza Dante, Napoli, Italy.

The Caffè Mexico espresso - amaro - on Piazza Dante Caffè Mexico's Passalacqua-branded IPA cup

Trip Report: Nespresso Boutique & Bar (Union Square)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genuine Nespresso Pomp and Circumstance

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trip Report: Workshop Cafe

Posted by on 29 Aug 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

For about the past five years in particular, relations have frayed between coffeeshop patrons who find them a great place to get their work done (aka the laptop zombie), other coffeeshop patrons who want a place to sit or might actually want to socially interact with others, and coffeeshop owners who cannot stay solvent supporting free office space for their patrons with little income to show for it. I knew things were particularly bad about four years ago — when I first noticed a former co-worker regularly squatting with three other programmers at the (then) Caffé Trieste on New Montgomery St. for several months, launching their new start-up company.

Entrance to Workshop Cafe Some of the more appealing seating in the Workshop Cafe

Surely there had to be a business model that better satisfied everyone. Which brings us to last week’s opening of the Workshop Cafe in SF’s Financial District. This large space attempts to address the needs of coffeeshop owners and their WiFi-loving patrons simultaneously. For those seeking a library-like surrogate where you can be surrounded by the social activity of strangers you can ignore around you, there are plenty of office trappings: powerstrips, fabricated office paneling, a concierge, a mobile app to use the space, and most everything you’d want in Cubicle-land short of the actual cubicles. For the proprietor, in addition to coffee service and light snacks, there are hourly charges to cover the sustainable costs of having many patrons camp out as if awaiting an electronic Grateful Dead show.

Pour-over setup at the Workspace CafeAlthough we’re not surprised that someone finally came up with the concept for this space, we are surprised at how problematic it is. And this is the rub: it fails as a café, and largely because those places succeed at getting us to enjoy a respite from the office. Here you feel like you should be paid at least a minimum wage to hang out.

It’s a little akin to a lunch spot that chooses “eating alone at your desk” as a dining theme, with the café providing the desks. (There’s a joke in France that Americans eat at their desks at work. Then they come here and discover it’s actually true.) The environment is so functional here, it’s devoid of any pretense of enjoying the experience of the place.



Initech-logo coffee mugs not yet provided, but that would be great.

Fewer TPS Reports, More TDS Reports

But hey — if poverty can be a successful restaurant concept, why not Office Space? So how’s the coffee?

They have Mazzer grinders, Hario V60 pour-overs, Stumptown coffee, and a two-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the entrance service counter — which all sound promising. But beyond a visually appealing medium brown crema with dark brown cheetah spots, it has a thinner body and a subdued heft and flavor: some pungency and spice but limited depth and breadth of flavor. This is an underachiever, served in notNeutral Lino cups.

Points for trying, but the execution here as a coffee house just seems all wrong.

Read the review of Workshop Cafe in SF’s Financial District.

Workshop Cafe's La Marzocco GB/5 and service area The Workshop Cafe espresso: looks better than it tastes

America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013: Does Anyone Care Anymore?

Posted by on 03 Aug 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

This month’s issue of Travel + Leisure magazine once again published their updated “America’s Best Coffee Cities” rankings: America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013 – Articles | Travel + Leisure. We’ve covered these before; we’ve even used their reader survey data to rank how much locals in various cities have an overly flattering view of their own coffee culture. But this time around, our reaction to their rankings is more, “So what?”

A common American scene with more commonly decent coffeeMake no mistake: this marks a significant milestone in the evolution of coffee quality standards in the United States. Compared with several years ago, today it seems that every major city in America has one if not several really good coffee shops that are producing brews and shots within just a shade of some of the nation’s finest. So much so, it’s only raised our level of ridicule for the coffee xenophobes who advocate carrying around suitcases packed with their home coffee life support systems wherever they travel.

What were once coffee laggards such as New York City have been infiltrated by interlopers and local independent coffee culture stereotypes. Every month new quality roasters crop up around the country, many offering overnight shipping to any café on the continent that wants it. Thus today it’s almost impossible to find a city with a major league sports team that doesn’t also play host to some quality coffee.

Which all makes the notion of an “America’s Best Coffee Cities” ranking more and more pointless. Sure, the article offers readers a trendy topic to help sell travel magazines and their advertising space. But the concept is becoming as irrelevant as an “America’s Best Wine Cities” ranking: it really doesn’t require an airline ticket to get a really good cup of coffee anymore. And for that, we will raise a fine cup of this Brazil Sertão Carmo de Minas espresso we’re drinking this morning.

But if you must know, and to save you the ad-flipping pagination of their Web site, here’s the list in its entirety:

  1. Seattle
  2. Portland, OR
  3. New Orleans
  4. Providence, RI
  5. San Francisco
  6. San Juan, PR
  7. Minneapolis/St. Paul
  8. Portland, ME
  9. New York City
  10. San Diego
  11. Savannah, GA
  12. Austin, TX
  13. Honolulu
  14. Santa Fe, NM
  15. Nashville
  16. Kansas City, MO
  17. Boston
  18. Chicago
  19. Charleston, SC
  20. Philadelphia

Trip Report: Barefoot Coffee Works (Campbell, CA)

Posted by on 09 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

How good quality, independent coffeeshops cope with growth and expansion takes multiple forms. Most follow the time-tested “slow crafting” method that many espouse for their coffee brewing: driving sales, opening new business loans, and expanding one location at a time. Other notables have recently thrown on the accelerant of venture capital to burn a bit hotter and faster than most small business owners, giving up a bit more ownership in the process.

Then there’s something of a hybrid in the franchise model, where you license out your name and coffee supplies to independent business owners. San Jose’s Barefoot Coffee Roasters adopted this model to expand its name and brand presence in the South Bay. While Barefoot recently shut down its original Santa Clara mothership, it has opened its own Roll-UP Bar at its roasting headquarters and licensed its name out to locations in Campbell and Los Gatos.

Strip mall entrance to Barefoot Coffee Works in Campbell, CA Coffee service area with Nuova Simonelli machine inside Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell

This Campbell location is one of these “licensed independent operators”, opening in Sept. 2011. Located in Campbell’s Onyx Retail Center, it’s a very local café with strong local support. The staff here are friendly and seem to know everybody. This is great for encouraging support of the locals, although having to wait through a conversation on how each family member is doing for each person in line can be a bit of a delay if you’re in a rush.

Outside there are a couple of café tables in front with parasols. Along the hallway there are a few wooden café tables with the occasional laptop zombie, and at the short serving bar there are a couple of stools seated along the service counter. It’s adorned with purple drapes and boldly painted walls with mirrors.

Barefoot Coffee Works Campbell's pour-over setup and coffee menus Servicing the pour-over bar and Nuova Simonelli machine at Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell

There’s a Hario V60 dripper pour-over bar with three different options for coffee and a white, three-group Nuova Simonelli for espresso. With it they pull shots with a mottled, spotted medium and darker brown crema. It has a very robust aroma, but a relatively thin body.

Flavorwise, The Boss here has a stronger herbaceousness and limited brightness: it seems a bit limited and insufficiently balanced, despite being a good espresso. They serve it in white ACF cups. Their milk-frothing is a bit mottled and sits on top without integrating into the liquid espresso very well.

The standards seem off here from the owned & operated Barefoot locations we’ve known, and it makes us miss their Santa Clara location. And when it comes to quality, this ain’t SF’s Epicenter Cafe either. They do offer things like their orange ginger cubano to get flashy with flavoring. But despite good coffee here, this does seem like the classic risk of when you put the quality of your brand in the hands of someone else.

Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Works in Campbell, CA.

The Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell espresso The Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell cappuccino

CoffeeCON 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee: Y U No Like Your Customers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Coffee, Less Con

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

CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

CoffeeCON’s Coffee and Personalities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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