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Archived Posts from this Category
Words can mean a lot. When it comes to coffee, that can mean words like “food” or “transparency”. We’ve noticed both of these words coming up a lot in recent public discussions about coffee quality, and yet neither word really belongs in the conversation.
Today’s Daily Coffee News from Roast Magazine registered examples of each in an article on the recent Good Food Awards held annually here in San Francisco. In case you’re not familiar with “the GFAs,” they were born out of the Slow Food Nation event held here in 2008 with many of the same key players at the helm (at least on the coffee side of things). The goal of the awards is to recognize “outstanding American food producers and the farmers who provide their ingredients.”
All worthy goals. But here’s one of our long-time pet peeves, albeit a small one: coffee is labeled as “food”. Perhaps it seems innocent enough. But while the coffee industry has spent years belaboring the point of trying to be taken as seriously as wine, there’s is simply no way wine would ever be classified as “food” at an awards event.
It has none of the nutritional values of food; you do not eat it. What are we, civets? Sure, you could say that both food and coffee are consumed, but you could say the same for unleaded gasoline.
Restaurant coffee will surely suck as long as coffee is treated as food’s red-headed stepchild — and not something worth recognition outside of food’s long shadow the way wine enjoys. And because the “food media” provide only superficial and patronizing cover of beverages is why Karen Foley, formerly of Fresh Cup, started Imbibe magazine. There are reasons they are called “barista” — the Italian word for bartender — and not “waiter” or “waitress”.
However, let’s turn to a topic that’s a bit more controversial: transparency.
You can roughly define coffee transparency as visibility into its entire supply chain: from seed to cup. It’s about assigning the proper credit (or blame) wherever deserved and exposing just’s in the bag and behind its pricing.
It’s critical stuff. So much so that international coffee guru, roaster, and former barista champion, Tim Wendelboe, had this to say about transparency some three years ago:
A lot of high quality driven roasters, including ourselves, preach that transparency is the most important part of our trade.
There are a number of good reasons for this. One is sustainability of coffee growing and business practices — i.e., ensuring that not only can you find your favorite coffee sources, but that you can reward and encourage all of those behind its proper growing, harvesting, processing, storage, and shipping practices. Another virtue is the reproducibility of results, so that growing season after growing season you can ensure that you get a similar if not better product each time.
But what transparency is not is a measure of quality, and this is where we see a lot of coffee consumers — and even some purveyors — confusing the two. Just as Fair Trade is an economic program but not a quality certification, transparency has everything to do with the means of achieving your results but it is not a measure of quality in those results. The means are being confused with their ends.
Which is why we appreciated that Jen Apodaca, 2014 GFA Coffee Committee chair, didn’t take the bait when Daily Coffee News asked in their article, “Are there specific benchmarks for criteria like traceability, transparency…” [etc.]. Because the fact is that transparency doesn’t have a flavor — I can’t taste it directly in my cup. The GFAs are trying to recognize sensory qualities more than intellectualized ones.
Even more to the point, the fact that one coffee is more traceable than another does not mean it is of any better quality: your coffee could be highly traceable but still taste like ass.
One of the most common ways coffee consumers experience transparency and traceability is through labels such as single origin (Serious Eats?: yet another coffee-is-food reference!) or micro-lot coffees. There’s a misplaced sense that having greater precision in where your coffee comes from somehow naturally means it’s of higher quality. It does not.
The merits of this precision are more psychological than sensory. We’ve seen a lot of coffee professionals donning their best Mr. Yuk faces when someone dares to dilute the pedigree of a single row of coffee shrubs by blending coffees to achieve a specific flavor profile.
We can overlook that this kind of “master race” obsession with purified gene pools has gotten our species into deep trouble in the past. But when that geographic precision becomes the primary goal of a coffee in itself, you’re no longer seeking the best taste outcome in the cup but rather some intellectual notion of a purist expression of its terroir. You’re not thinking about optimizing for flavors as much as you’re thinking about pinning your pristine collection of butterfly species inside a museum case.
Look, there’s great terroir and there’s lousy terroir. A wine showing terroir doesn’t mean it’s good.”
I guess we all can put that in our ever-popular wine analogy and smoke it.
Taking a short respite from our series on espresso in Napoli and the Amalfi Coast, we have a couple of local coffee shop reviews to catch up on. One is the obscure and eponymous CoffeeShop_.
This dive of a coffee shop has been operation since 2012, but the overwhelming majority of locals in the neighborhood wouldn’t know it. It kind of defines the term “understated”, so you pretty much have to stumble upon it.
It’s a tight space with no seating, inside nor out, though thankfully they do offer their espresso in “for here” cups anyway (Pagnossin cups with no saucer). Though even with the tight space and nothing to sit on, you’ll often find people hanging out inside.
In addition to espresso drinks they sell Hario drip coffee (they also sell the drippers) and baked goods from Batch. Their coffee is proudly sourced from Emeryville’s Ubuntu Coffee Cooperative, which also explains some of the other “hippie crap” on the drink menu such as yerba mate and matcha.
Using a two-group Promac, they pull shots with a very creamy texture. It has an even-textured medium brown crema with a flavor of pepper and mild spice with some modestly sharp brightness (to let you know the coffee is freshly roasted). But without potent fruitiness or candy-like sweetness.
Three generous sips, and we’re still not entirely sure why the espresso shots get the nickname “Dirty” here. (As in: “I’ll have a Dirty, please.”)
Read the review of CoffeeShop_ in Bernal Heights.
The town of Forio on Ischia’s west coast has about 17,000 inhabitants and faces a wide-open Tyrrhenian Sea. Because of its exposed location, it boasts numerous coastal watchtowers dating back to the Middle Ages as protection against invading Saracen and African pirates. By the 1950s, the marauding pirates were replaced by an invasion of marauding artists, turning Forio into something of a global artists’ retreat. Rape and pillage comes in many forms.
Yet it remains a beautiful location. There are narrow streets, working painters and ceramic workshops, idyllic views of the volcanic rocks and sea, and Saracen architectural details around town dating back to some of its earliest invaders. Divino Cafè resides near the center of town on a (mostly) pedestrian walkway between fashionable shops and restaurants — with the occasional disturbing breast-implant disaster parading by courtesy of an aging local fashionista. (Prepare about an hour for your scalded eyes to recover.)
It’s a rather small space with a couple of tables in front, an angular serving bar, and a semi-private upstairs lounge (when open). Unlike most coffee shops in the area, they proudly brand themselves with the decidedly not-local Lavazza. Like a number of cafés around Napoli, they proudly offer their own version of a zucchero-crema concoction (literally, “sugar-cream”) — which they call Cremina di Caffè — to optionally add a formulated syrupy sweetness to their variations of espresso drinks. And also like a number of notable coffee shops around Napoli, their list of coffee drinks is long.
Sticking to the basics for review purposes here, they use a three-group La San Marco lever machine to pull shots with an even, medium brown crema. It has a pungent flavor that’s a bit narrow, and its served in Lavazza-logo cups from Cup & Saucer. Rated two chicchi and one tazzina in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.
Read the review of Divino Cafè in Forio d’Ischia, Italy.
Despite being a relatively large island, you can get around most of Ischia through a combination of walking and its rather dubious-yet-functional public bus system. Starting from the island’s main transportation hub of Ischia Porto (i.e., the actual ferry port) and the nearby bus terminal, walk east, towards Ischia Ponte, for about a half-mile and you’ll encounter Bar Calise a Ischia.
This massive café resides along a more suburban-looking stretch of Ischia’s Via Antonio Sogliuzzo. The Bar Calise owners started their business nearly a century ago in nearby Casamicciola Terme. But in 1960, as the neighborhoods east of Ischia Porto experienced a great deal of expansion and development, the owners branched out to this flagship location on Piazza degli Eroi.
It has several signs off the main road to flag down drivers and an assortment of pedestrians. It also has a rather extensive parking lot (for Italy), a wide swath of outdoor garden seating, and some indoor seating inside the huge café and bar. Besides the various panini, pizza, pastries, and many other edibles, they also serve a decent espresso.
Using dueling three-group La Cimbali machines with a gold patina at the rear bar, the professionally dressed baristi pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a bit full in the (Porland) cup for the region. (Though it is still only about three sips.) It’s a dark, rich pour with a good body and some smokiness over that characteristic Passalacqua pungency that characterizes much of Napoli.
Order at the bar for only €1 — though most patrons order the table service version for €3 with a relatively flavorless cookie served over the top of the cup. Rated two tazzine and one chicco in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.
Read the review of Bar Calise a Ischia in Ischia, Italy.
Like it’s more famous and cosmopolitan sister, the island of Ischia resides in the Gulf of Naples. But that’s where the similarities end.
Capri draws mostly international tourists on day trips seeking the fashionable high-life. Years ago while hiking Capri’s (highly recommended) Villa Jovis around 8am one Sunday morning, a peek over a cliff’s edge revealed a marine invasion of ferries and tour boats from all directions that must have rivaled D-Day on the beaches of Normandy.
By contrast, Ischia draws far more tourists and yet has a completely different feel. For one, 80% of the tourists are Italians — most of whom stay overnight. Ischia is a larger island and supports a much greater number of local residents, giving it a strong sense of community. The island feels more like a connected suburb of Napoli (despite the one-hour-plus boat ride). And then there are the spas and hot springs.
As for Ristorante e Bar Cocò: what a complete scene. It’s hard to overstate how much this local café resides at the center of an entire island’s social fabric. A combination bar and restaurant, this Ischia institution opened in 1951. The island locals who flock here partly do so out of the quality of the place, but perhaps moreso because of its stunning location: along the shores at the base of the footpath that leads to the dramatic Castello Aragonese.
Built by Hiero I, tyrant of Sicily, in 474 B.C., the site of this castle has since been alternatively sacked/occupied/expanded by Parthenopeans, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Goths, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the Angioini, English, and the Bourbons.
Mornings, afternoons, and (in particular) evenings, people gather at this watering hole at the base of the footpath to eat, drink, and mostly socialize beneath the shadow of the castle. There are many Italians sitting out front for table service beneath a thatched roof (where they serve €1.70 espresso instead of the in-bar €1). Inside there’s only a cashier and standing at the bar — other than seating inside the neighboring restaurant with shorter hours.
At the bar they use a four-group lever La San Marco machine to pull dense, syrupy shots of Caffè Moreno. It has a dense thickness and outstanding body with an even, dark brown crema that looks a bit like a dark brown egg yolk at times.
Read the review of Bar Cocò in Ischia Ponte, Italy.
Along the Amalfi Coast, Maiori is the larger counterpart to nearby Minori. Like Minori, its roots date back before the Romans: it was founded by the Etruscans under the name “Reghinna Major” (with Minori as “Reghinna Minor”). Unlike Minori, Maiori is a larger, “L”-shaped town and boasts the longest unbroken stretch of beach along the Amalfi Coast.
The place where that “L” draws back from the coastline and climbs inland is the broad Corso Regina, marking the social and commercial heart of Maiori separate from the town’s attractive beachfront promenade. Pasticceria Napoli is located along that Corso Regina — a few blocks up from the beach. It is a tiny, local establishment. While it lacks the service volume, finesse, and notoriety of a Sal de Riso (in nearby Minori), it’s an excellent local example of a neighborhood pastry and espresso shop.
The small, non-descript space has a few indoor, colorful-plastic-backed café tables. There’s often a number of tasty baked goods on display, and behind the bar (with its prominent Illy branding) is a two-group La Cimbali machine.
With it, they preheat the Illy-logo SPAL cups and pull shots with an even medium brown crema of good thickness and no heat spots. It has an Illy flavor of wood and spice, but with a robustness typical to Illy when consumed in Italy. The barista here can be a character but extremely friendly: the staff here are known for their exceptional friendliness.
Rated a respectable two tazzine and two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia. A solid effort for a mere €0.80.
Read the review of Pasticceria Napoli in Maiori, Italy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Behind 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.