Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Nobody enjoys paying 83% more for something than they paid for it last year. That is, unless you’re living in Zimbabwe under a 89.7 sextillion percent inflation rate. Earlier this year, the media were hot and heavy with news stories about surging coffee prices. However, some such stories are still trickling in — such as this local piece published earlier today where a number of local roasters are all but cheering the price increases: Coffee Beans at $15 a Pound OK for Some – Mission Loc@l : News From San Francisco’s Mission District.
The price of coffee has always struck a weird public nerve. So back in April, when the headlines threatened an apocalyptic future filled with fixed budgets and Folger’s crystals replacing our bags of Four Barrel, we learned that coffee prices reached a 34-year high.
This sounded alarmingly ominous — if not for the fact that this was also the equivalent of saying that coffee prices today were the same as they were in 1977. Think about it: how many things can you buy today at 1977 prices? A gallon of gas cost an average of $0.65. A 1.2-oz Hershey bar cost $0.20. You could buy a brand new BMW 320i for under $8,000.
We wish we could pay 1977 prices for a lot more things in life. So when you look at the price of coffee, the problem hasn’t been that the prices are far too high. The problem is that coffee prices have been so depressed for so long that we’ve had to come up with Hail-Mary passes like Fair Trade just to desperately try to keep coffee farmers solvent — still dirt poor, but at least not losing net money with every harvest. The article cited above quotes a few area roasters noting how economically unsustainable the coffee market has been for so many years.
It may hurt a little more to pay for good coffee when compared to last year. But this is perhaps the first time in a long, long time that coffee prices are about at what coffee should really cost. At least to support an economically viable and sustainable market for the good stuff.
That’s the question UK-based marketing consultancy tried to answer on their blog recently: Coffee Marketing: Why So Romantic? | Market Sentinel. The firm was approached by a company attempting to launch a new brand of coffee, and they wanted to know the subjects of public conversations concerning coffee in social media and other public contexts.
The image above represents a some of their findings. The larger the circle, the bigger the conversation. The closer the circle is to the center (i.e., “coffee”), the more relevant the topic is to coffee. What they discovered is that, unlike the romantic coffee spots typically offered on TV and in print, most people relate to drinking coffee when they talk about work, energy, or socializing.
Curious data and a pretty picture. Whether it’s useful or not is another story. From a marketer’s perspective, knowing the existing conversations about coffee can help them formulate a position for the new coffee brand — so that its brand attributes are relevant to consumers. That said, how much value you lend to a product’s “social media currency” (their term, not ours) reminds us of all the recent cheerleading that posting on Twitter will instantly double the demand for the rancid coffee served at your coffeehouse.
Ever eat a hamburger at a 1950s-themed American diner? In Hong Kong? Maybe their waffles didn’t taste like fish sauce, but it’s not uncommon to discover something lost in translation. (E.g., “Why does my hamburger bun taste like rice vinegar?”) On the spectrum of authenticity, this is the culinary equivalent to finding luxury handbags in the Hong Kong night markets with designer labels like “Guchi” and “Koach”.
Which brings us to Paris Baguette. Downtown Palo Alto recently added the latest installment of a growing Korean-owned chain of French-themed bakeries. However, use of the word “chain” here is an understatement. Although there are some 15 U.S. locations scattered throughout New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and California (including Santa Clara), there are 50 locations in China and some 2,900 locations in South Korea alone.
To put this in perspective, Starbucks operates 6,727 stores in the entire U.S. This means that, on a per capita basis, Paris Baguette locations saturate Korea some 2.75 times as much as Starbucks saturates America. Viewed purely in terms of locations per square mile, Paris Baguette locations carpet bomb Korea 41.6 times as much as Starbucks locations do the U.S. If you remember those jokes about there being another Starbucks inside a Starbucks’ bathroom, just imagine 41 of them in there.
Fortunately, Paris Baguette is not too freakishly Paris by way of Seoul — even if it glows like a gaudy Vegas casino from the outside. There’s some sidewalk café seating in front. On the inside (casino mirrors aside), it consists of stacks and stacks of self-service baked goods to be pinched by passersby armed with wax paper and tongs. There strangely isn’t much else to speak of for lunch options. And beneath the tall glass windows, there are clumsy, long, almost school-cafeteria-like tables — save for being topped with faux marble.
And yet this location proves that being lost in translation isn’t always a bad thing. Whereas most of the coffee in Paris is wretched, they make an honest attempt at sourcing and producing good coffee — at which they are mostly successful. Despite its gaudy flaws and cultural mistranslations, the coffee service here manages to be some of the best in Palo Alto.
They sport heavy Ritual Coffee Roasters branding and a shiny, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the service counter. They even offer Hario V60 pour-overs. They pull shots with an even, medium brown crema in black ACF cups. It has a basic warming flavor of spice and some herbs, and the coffee has the potential to be much better than it is — but it is still quite decent. They also offer healthy milk-frothing and latte art for milk-based drinks.
Read the review of Paris Baguette in Palo Alto.
Media profiles of Illycaffè‘s Andrea Illy are commonplace. But this one from today’s The Guardian (UK) is better than most: Andrea Illy: family businessman who’s raising the bar for premium coffee | Business | The Guardian.
For one, Mr. Illy talks about the importance of pricing and brand positioning. Regardless of what you think of Illy coffee, offering discount promotions and specials is incongruous with establishing it as a luxury item. You don’t lure customers with a come-on for a cheap fix; you lure them because they want to treat themselves. Discounts cheapen that image and position you for the coffee misery market.
He also notes how Illycaffè ensures that resellers of its coffee have the right equipment and are making it properly, retraining staff if necessary. While this is critical for the perceived quality of any roaster whose coffee beans are served in third-party establishments, our data suggests that Illycaffè has fallen far short of living up to these ideals — at least in the U.S.
Back in 2009 we made a comparison of our espresso scores among cafés with common machines, common roasters, or common chain brands, and we used the standard deviation of these scores as a measure of inconsistency. Illy coffee rated much more inconsistently than different Starbucks chain stores — which are notorious themselves for their very poor consistency.
Consistent with an interview four years ago, Mr. Illy finishes the article with a couple of good contrarian, somewhat incendiary quotes about Fair Trade. For one: “[Fairtrade] is about paying a higher price for the same goods. That is against the laws of supply and demand.” Another: “consumers pay more for Fairtrade because they want to feel good. It’s about solidarity not quality. Why not give to the Red Cross?”
All of which echoes many of our thoughts about the rather trendy role of “Corporate Social Responsibility” in business today, where consumers seem to prefer to outsource their charitable giving to third-party businesses rather than donate directly themselves. As we always ask: don’t tell us you’re going to donate 10% of the sales proceeds to charity. Give us that 10% off, and let us take responsibility and decide who and how much to donate with the extra savings. You’re my coffee roaster, not my Foundation.
We used to write more regularly about the steady stream of meaningless, unscientific coffee polls that frequently fill the pages of magazines, newspapers, and Web sites. We got tired of writing incessant rants about how the polls were poorly constructed and lacked any stated criteria nor methodology, and most assuredly you all certainly tired of reading them. What’s different this time — with Travel + Leisure magazine’s recent “America’s Favorite Cities” poll — is that they’ve provided just enough data for us to reexamine and draw some different conclusions.
You may recall Travel + Leisure‘s America’s Best Coffee Cities poll earlier this year. The magazine also conducts an annual reader poll to appeal to the insatiable human appetite for what is essentially a city-by-city dick measuring contest. Coffee is one of their polls’ rated subjects, and Seattle couldn’t wait three hours yesterday before bragging about their measurements.
However, that’s not the interesting part of this story. Although it may be just another popularity contest, Travel + Leisure not only compiled numeric polling scores for each city, but they also segmented the scoring between “residents” and “visitors“. Our idea was to simply compare a city’s score between the two audiences and rank cities along those lines. We call it, “Which U.S. cities are the most delusional about the quality of their local coffee?”
The winner of this dubious honor, by a significant margin, was Anchorage, Alaska. There visitors ranked the town’s coffee nearly two-thirds of a point lower, on a five-point scale, than what residents rated it. At the other end of the spectrum, Miami clearly ranked tops in the “locals just don’t appreciate you enough” category. Perhaps all those Cuban expats still believe that the coffee tastes that much better in their former homeland, and yet the tourists wonder why they are complaining.
San Francisco ranked in the middle of the pack at 17th out of 35 cities for most overrated by the locals. However, the most telling figure was that 28 of 35 cities were rated lower by tourists than by the locals. Just look at all the red in the right-most column in the table below.
Of course, local residents should know best where to get the good coffee. Meanwhile, tourists often either have no clue, play it safe by frequenting only the bland-but-recognizable coffee chains, or never venture into the good coffee neighborhoods. For example: when is the last time any of our SF resident readers actually visited Fisherman’s Wharf? And do you realize how bad the coffee is there?
Another major pattern in the data is — with the exception of Anchorage and Portland, ME at the very bottom — much of the American South got General-Sherman-style ravaged by their tourist scores, suggesting that tourists think the locals are a bit full of themselves. In any case, here are the numbers…from the most underrated by the locals to the most overrated:
|Rank||City||Visitor Rank||Visitor Score||Resident Rank||Resident Score||Vis – Res Rank||Vis – Res Score|
|8.||New York City||5||4.34||11||4.37||-6||-0.03|
|16.||San Juan, P.R.||14||4.05||17||4.19||-3||-0.14|
|31.||Salt Lake City||30||3.54||23||3.93||+7||-0.39|
|32.||Santa Fe, NM||22||3.85||15||4.26||+7||-0.41|
For this installment of comic relief Friday, we bring you the coffee critic wheel. You’re probably well aware of the coffee flavor wheel, which borrowed heavily from the wine aroma wheel in the wine tasting world. However, you might not be aware of wine vintner Janet Trefethen’s (of Trefethen Family Vineyards) Standardized System of Wine Critic Terminology, which became a somewhat infamous joke among winemakers a decade ago: Wine critics’ rating system gets mixed reviews – SFGate.
This wheel divides reviewers into two camps: those who “gave us good review” and those who “gave us bad review.” Because the act of critically evaluating wine is so subjective, from there the wheel gets into descriptors such as the celebrated “Gifted Palate / Brilliant” to the less flattering “Acerbic / Half-Witty” to the absurd “Wordy / Sesquipedalian”. The great thing about this wheel is that you can merely replace the word “wine” with “coffee,” and the wheel stills suits any of us foolish enough to judge the merits of a given coffee.
We were recently reminded of this wheel by one of our favorite California winemakers, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards. A former school teacher, Wes takes a highly academic approach to his very low profile, small-estate wine growing operations in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. (He gives a killer vineyard tour if you’re ever in the area.)
Wes also appreciates a flavor profile in his wine similar to what we appreciate in coffee: less of an overbearing emphasis on bold fruit and sharp tannin flavors (think Sightglass, Stumptown‘s Hairbender, etc.), and a greater appreciation for subtlety and more secondary characteristics that lurk beneath the surface (think maybe 49th Parallel). Given his appreciation for the poetic, Wes likens this philosophy to what makes a beautiful woman. Some are of the supermodel variety: absolutely stunning on the surface, but vapid on the inside (and given few social reasons to develop otherwise). Whereas a perhaps less outrageously stunning woman with charm, wit, culture, and heart can ultimately outshine the supermodel lot.
Although not entirely accurate, the world’s most famous wine critic, Robert Parker, is sometimes characterized as something of a connoisseur of “supermodels.” His palate is so influential that his scores have been known to make or break wineries. So much so that many winemakers and wine lovers have often complained about the Parkerification of wines — i.e., the monotonous tailoring of wines specifically to Robert Parker’s palate in the hopes of earning a higher score from him.
Because Mr. Hagen emphasizes more secondary characteristics in his estate wines, it had been several years since he submitted a vintage for review to Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate newsletter — namely because Mr. Parker’s palate just didn’t “get” what his wines were about. But with a new, highly respected reviewer at The Wine Advocate who might appreciate his wines (Antonio Galloni), Wes submitted his most recent vintage and scored exceptionally well. This inspired his recirculation of the wine critic terminology wheel.
The lesson here is that no palate is right or wrong; it’s about calibrating your own tastes to the known preferences of others. For example, we have some readers of CoffeeRatings.com who will scout out coffeeshops we haven’t yet reviewed and they often guess what we would later rate it — typically coming within 0.2 rating points of accuracy from what we would later rate it. That kind of consistency is perhaps the best we can hope to achieve here.
Next month Berkeley hosts its first ever coffee and tea festival, and the SF Chronicle used the opportunity to mention Berkeley’s coffee and espresso roots: Berkeley perks up for Coffee and Tea Festival. The piece adds a bit of worthy Berkeley coffee history, even if it’s a slight retread of a 2009 piece in The Daily Californian. Both articles discussed Caffe Mediterraneum’s merits as the birthplace of the caffè latte. And, hey, Berkeley is where I had my first real cappuccino way back in those ancient 1980s.
Yesterday we came across a post where a Boston Globe writer implored winemakers to be more like their coffee counterparts: A lesson in winemaking – straight from the espresso bar . . . – By the glass – Wine News, Views & Reviews – Boston.com. It wouldn’t be the first time coffee’s wine analogy ran in reverse. We’ve also written how we wish coffee was more like wine. But a recent wine country experience in California’s Santa Ynez Valley highlighted how the coffee world could maybe learn a few lessons from the wine world.
The SYV, as some of the locals call it, gained a little notoriety a few years ago as the location of the popular indie wine flick Sideways. Like many popular wine-growing regions in California, local businesses lure the wine tourist through things like winery tours, barrel tastings, tastings rooms at wineries, independent tasting rooms for sampling wines from different area vintners, and even bars and restaurants that offer wine tasting flights of the local product.
Consumer behavior at these various SYV establishments mirrored what we observed at other wine growing regions throughout California. Tastings at the wineries themselves were tremendously popular. And yet neighboring independent tasting rooms — often additionally offering hard-to-get cult wines from boutique area growers with limited public hours or facilities — were largely neglected by the wine-drinking public. Meanwhile, famously wine-friendly cafés with their extensive wine bars and tasting flights — such as the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe (a Sideways star) — did a brisk business on food and dining but very little business in tastings or flights.
It may be difficult to draw many accurate, let alone useful, conclusions from these consumer behaviors in the SYV and elsewhere. But what’s crystal clear is that wine tourists greatly prefer the experience of dealing directly with the winegrowers at their own tasting rooms. It’s quite likely that a more direct connection between a wine consumer and the wine grower, and the land they toil over, plays a major role in this consumer preference. What’s also quite clear is the serial act of sampling and comparing wines loses its appeal the further removed it becomes from its source of production.
Wine lovers and coffee lovers are hardly the same — let alone are the circumstances of their beloved product’s creation. But it was difficult not to draw parallels between wine consumers and their coffee counterparts. The affinity for winery tours and tastings reflected a consumer desire for a more personal connection to the roots of production. Wine lovers can ask direct questions of the staff, understand its specific terroir, and engage in discussions about their wine-making philosophy.
Coffee reflects this preference in coffee consumers’ interest in Direct Trade, buying microlot coffees from a single farm, and even a desire to go to origin. All forces of which seem to run counter to the nascent coffee middleman model adopted by the likes of Craft Coffee, GoCoffeeGo, ROASTe, and other retail intermediaries. Each of these actors serves more like the independent tasting rooms and bars that wine lovers largely ignored — taking coffee lovers one step further away from the product they love and where it comes from instead of one step closer.
Another parallel rises with the act of consumer sampling and comparing itself. Enjoying various tastings at a vineyard, wine consumers can directly connect the act of debating the merits of a specific vintage with a wine grower to also taking a bottle home for an equivalent tasting experience. With coffee, and particularly with the shoehorned concept of consumer coffee cupping rather than comparative tasting, that connection is completely severed.
When we encounter public cuppings at coffeeshops, it’s almost as if we have to ask, “Is this a bar or an educational center?” Am I here to relax and enjoy, or am I here because I am being tested? And tested for something I don’t reasonably experience at home. There’s an irony in that when Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) coined the term “Third Wave,” she described it as enjoying coffee for its own sake. This effectively eliminates cuppings from any “Third Wave” classification — because cuppers are experiencing their coffee, with its crust-breaking and spoon-slurping ceremony, for completely different purposes than pure enjoyment.
The last parallel concerns where there’s money to be made. For wine, while tastings and winery visits add a dimension to consumer enjoyment, the money is in consumers finding what they like and shelling out for regular habits. Wine tastings are a money loser for vintners; hence why they’ve developed a habit of charging for them in recent decades. (See the 2008 movie Bottle Shock for how radical an idea this was for Napa Valley wineries back in the 1970s.)
Coffee cuppings largely fail to create new customer habits because the experience is so far removed from how they’d regularly consume coffee at home. If wineries merely offered visitors the opportunity to stick their nose and fingers into bowls of grape must, how many more bottles do you think they’d sell? Meanwhile retail coffee middlemen promote the ability for consumers to easily swap out roasters as part of their experimentation, but experimentation isn’t a constant consumer state. And it isn’t where you make your money.
Several months after we declared that coffee’s golden age is over, famed Illy barista-in-chief, Giorgio Milos, posted this in The Atlantic today: America’s Golden Age of Coffee: Remarkably Like Italy’s Past – Giorgio Milos – Life – The Atlantic.
You might recall Mr. Milos ruffling a few New World coffee feathers last year in The Atlantic, when he roughly suggested that “the Italian way” is the only way to appreciate espresso. Among other things he called out the brightness bomb, where many Western baristas have fallen in love with espresso shots that taste like a mouthful of Sour Patch Kids.
In his latest piece, Mr. Milos has made something of a curious about-face. Has all his time around Western espresso started to change his palate? More specifically, he rightfully called out the enthusiasm and passion for coffee quality in the American barista community — something that has been stagnant in Italy for decades. He also drew a number of parallels between “coffee innovation” in America today and in Italy a century ago.
(We’ll try to restrain our gag reflex whenever we hear a term like “coffee innovation”. This is another area where — to quote Mr. Milos — the “oft-cited parallels between specialty coffee and wine break down” in that no one has talked about “wine innovation” with a straight face for many generations.)
Mr. Milos also raised a red flag for the American barista’s “tendency to keep consumers out of the R&D process” — something we similarly called out earlier this year. And he also spoke our language when he wrote, “Italy, where it’s easy to find a very good cup of coffee and tough to find something undrinkable — and about equally tough to find something outstanding.”
Shockingly, it’s taken us this long to make it to Portland, Oregon — considered by many to be ground zero (no café name pun intended) of American coffee culture. And if you’re going to start sampling the offerings in Portland, it only makes sense that you start with the legendary Stumptown Coffee Roasters. This despite that a number of Portland locals might suggest that other, newer, smaller coffee vendors in the area have taken what Stumptown started and have since overtaken them.
Lucky for us, I arrived yesterday on what was informally called “the first day of summer” in Portland: the weather was warm, the skies were clear, and in the north I could even see the rounded dome of Mount St. Helens in the distance over some of the treelines (something, I was told, Portlanders get to see maybe once a year). The downtown Stumptown was easy to spot once you found the Great-Depression-era-like breadlines that wound around the sidewalk and lead up to the nearby Voodoo Doughnut — which is apparently Portlandese for “crack cocaine” among international tourists.
The lines at this Stumptown Coffee Roasters may not have been that ridiculous, but they hold their own — even if they manage to remain inside the building. They have a couple of small sidewalk tables outside and a cavernous space inside, which includes several tables and benches along the long wall, a magazine rack, limited front window counter stool seating, a rack of coffee and accessories, and a long coffee bar. Plus a Technics turntable at the back for DJ’ing, because that’s what you do in Northwest coffeehouses, plus rear bathrooms covered in graffiti.
All sorts of Portland locals and visitors line up here: from the wandering tourist to hipsters in bright orange or pink pants. It’s odd to see a Mistral machine set off to the side and neglected here, as if it were a 1984 Chevy Impala. But that’s what happens when you install a new, three-group La Marzocco
La Strada machine. Behind the service area there’s a brick wall with a large mirror to show off what happens behind the La Strada — plus some stool seating off to the side of the machine.
They offer several single cup Chemex variations. As for their espresso, they pull shots with an even, hybrid crema of darker and lighter brown that suggests some unevenness in the draw. The resulting cup is potent and has a semi-syrupy body, with a good deal of brightness that doesn’t go over the top (as you might expect for Hairbender at times). Flavorwise, it has something of a peppery edge over a kind of allspice/nutmeg spice profile and a semi-creamy mouthfeel. Served in a brown logo ACF cup.
A solid espresso, but as with other Stumptowns we’ve visited, hardly ranking among our favorites in North America. In fact, 26 places in San Francisco scored higher than this Stumptown on espresso score. The fuss does not seem generally justified, and the aforementioned locals seem to be onto something. (Which also kind of says something else, given New Yorkers’ infatuation with Stumptown.)
We also have another example where espresso machine technology has been modernized with heavy investments, with results that suggest the benefits are only for baristas and not for espresso consumers.
Read the review of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Downtown Portland, Oregon.