Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
The specialty coffee industry has a strangely ambivalent, love/hate relationship with the mainstream. On the one hand, it thrives on an independent spirit rooted in independent businesses, an artisinal “craftsman” approach, an often bristling indifference to its customers, and it eschews much of anything that smells like the status quo (the stereotypes about things like sleeve tattoos and body piercings are hardly an anomaly).
And yet specialty coffee is also desperate for public approval, acceptance and validation, with many in the industry applauding virtually any public mention of decent coffee in the general media, coveting a rightful place in the pantheon of food television’s popular glow, and even going so far as to be willingly (and eagerly) exploited by TED. (And don’t get us started on the resulting Coffee Common star chamber charade.) This makes specialty coffee a bit like the high school social misfit that both publicly heaps scorn on the school’s popular cliques while secretly wishing to be a part of them.For the purposes of this post, we focus on the latter part: public visibility and legitimacy. And although the public mainstream today has had more than a few regular media exposures to the world of specialty coffee, the most effective and compelling by far has been Todd Carmichael’s recent Travel Channel TV program, Dangerous Grounds.
Among some in the industry, this may seem heretical — if not unjustified. Highly respected, legendary professionals in the field such as Tom Owen (of home roasting Sweet Maria’s fame) have even created video parodies the show’s very concept — i.e., travel to coffee’s origins as a sort of danger sport — over a year ago and well before the show was even created. Others still see polar explorer and SCAA outsider Todd Carmichael, and his La Colombe Torrefaction coffee operations, as decidedly “pre-Third Wave” — akin to a shorthand for “don’t trust your coffee to anyone over 30″. (Five years ago Nick Cho, portafilter.net host and then of D.C. Murky Coffee fame, once publicly announced terminating his readership here for, among other things, a favorable post we made on La Colombe.)
However, over the years, specialty coffee has repeatedly proven itself incapable of speaking to layman consumers without trying to strong-arm them into first becoming like-minded professionals. This is a fundamental reason why Dangerous Grounds works: it hasn’t forgotten that good storytelling, even if embellished a bit, is at the heart of any legitimate mainstream media success.
Contrast an hour-long episode of Todd’s travels, trials, and tribulations with what the specialty coffee industry would otherwise celebrate as great video: sensory, stylized video montages/wannabe-TV-commercials that seem entirely designed to appeal to fellow coffee professionals. To the layman, these videos are unoriginal exercises in coffee navel-gazing — as utterly monotonous as the ubiquitous “hand-on-mouse” shots that dominated every 1990s TV show about the World Wide Web. You know it works when people who aren’t into coffee find the program entertaining, because the inconvenient truth is that video about coffee, like video about wine, is inherently boring.
Which isn’t to say that video is the only way to bring the message of specialty coffee to the masses. Regular New York Times columnist Oliver Strand achieved a kind of patron saint status among the specialty coffee industry because a) his words were distributed in the nation’s preeminent newspaper, and b) he spoke cohesively about subjects the industry is frequently too tongue-tied to speak for itself. A rare case of a layman who reports on the specialty coffee world, industry blogs, coffee Web sites, and tweets alike eulogized the recent news of the demise of “Ristretto”, his occasional coffee column in the New York Times.
A bit more of an industry insider, Erin Meister has worked in customer support for Counter Culture Coffee and has developed some of her own barista chops. She has posted coffee articles in a variety of publications, but she’s received most of her attention and accolades for her regular column at the Serious Eats Web site.
The first problem is in the Web site’s name: Eats. How can we take Serious Eats seriously about coffee when its very name excludes the subject matter? That’s like reading Men’s Health for tips on menopause. (Are you listening, Good Food Awards?)
But far more troubling is an editorial slant that seems focused on evergreen content designed for SEO rankings, with insipid article titles like “Our 5 Favorite TV Coffee Shops“, “5 Coffee Tattoos We Love“, and “5 Reasons to Hate Starbucks“. Although we’re sure Ms. Meister has no say in the copy-editing matter, it follows the old ladies’ home journal formula of the words “secrets” and “perfect” plus a numeral combined with warmed-over content that’s been posted on the Web 120,000 times prior. There’s also something creepy about reading articles written more for computerized Web crawlers than for actual humans.
Curiously enough, all three personalities have had to confront the specialty coffee industry’s excesses of preciousness in recent times: Meister with barista attitudes (one of her best pieces of the past year), Strand berating industry pros for not even providing basic contact information in a speech at this year’s Nordic Barista Cup, and Carmichael’s rants against hipster coffee. That gives us strange comfort in knowing we’re not alone in trying to escape the dysfunction.
The original Caffè Pascucci in India was something of an anomaly: it was a truly cosmopolitan location in the thick of Bangalore that also served things like pasta and wine. (Something even the San Francisco edition does not do.) Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. But for whatever reasons, it quickly spawned three other Caffè Pascucci locations in other Bangalore neighborhoods: Indiranagar, Jayanagar, and J P Nagar.
Located on a tree-lined, semi-residential street in Bangalore’s upscale Indiranagar neighborhood, this location doesn’t carry wine nor coffee merchandising (nor half the desserts on their menus). But they do have a lot of the other trappings of an international espresso bar. They sport an outdoor patio in front with café tables and chairs — just down from a sugar cane juice vendor who frequents the cricket grounds nearby.
Inside they pump up the Western pop music amidst the classic black-and-red Pascucci motif: red and white leather chairs and loveseats, small café tables, and free WiFi. They also serve sandwiches and pastas.
Using a two-group Pascucci-branded Fiorenzato in the back, they pull shots in a Pascucci-branded glass cup with a healthy-looking medium-brown crema and a couple of lighter heat spots. It tastes a little more bitter than your typical Western espresso in India, but the body is solid. With a flavor of tobacco smoke and some cloves. At least when it comes to the coffee, it is a significant improvement over their original MG Road location. For a mere Rs 55 (about $1).
Read the review of Caffè Pascucci in Indiranagar, Bangalore, India.
Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.
If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.
That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)
All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.
And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)
But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.
Trish Rothgeb and Nick Cho are coffee notables from the Northwest and D.C. area, respectively, and they’ve combined forces in recent years as the roasting/brewing partnership behind Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters. Nearly seven years ago on this Web site, Trish and Nick became a rather infamous pairing ever since Trish was first credited with coining the coffee term “third wave” — i.e., before it was immediately co-opted by coffee hucksters and carnival barkers.
The idea behind Wrecking Ball is that Trish — a former Director of Coffee for Seattle’s Zoka — focuses on the coffee roasting. Meanwhile, Nick — portafilter.net podcast host, former Murky Coffee owner, and famous wannabe cockpuncher — focuses on the brewing and coffee service.
While their roasting operations are near Redwood City, they have a lone retail café in SF in the Firehouse 8 event space. A former firehouse (there’s even a brass fire pole towards the back), it’s a vast, airy space that’s frequently inhabited by pop-ups that sell jewelry & clothing or weekend waffles. There are occasional display cases to show off some of these wares (giving it a slight museum feel), plus brick masonry at the entrance, stone floors, tall ceilings, and a row of simple café tables lined up at the entrance. Wrecking Ball is something of a permanent fixture here, however — just opening earlier this month.
In a rear corner they sport Kalita Japanese brewers (Nick has long been quite a fanboy) and scales for measuring coffee grounds precisely. They also sport a two-group La Marzocco Strada and a La Marzocco Vulcano grinder. For their espresso they use their 1UP blend ($2.25 for a doppio) and pull shots with a dark, even, textured crema. There’s a strong herbacity to it, and fortunately it tastes more like coffee and less like blueberries and flower petals like many new roasters seem to profile too heavily.
Solid stuff: this is definitely one of the finer (if not quieter) places for an espresso in the city. And credit to Trish, as the take-home 1UP beans worked great on our home espresso setup as well. We only wish the roast dates weren’t approaching two weeks old when we bought it.
Read the review of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters.
Flying under our radar last month was a great cover story on the evolution and pitfalls of a quality local coffee business in Milwaukee Magazine: MilwaukeeMag.com – Coffee Wars.
As in many other mid-market cities across America over the past decade-plus, quality coffee has infiltrated even the most staunch communes of Starbucks drones. The Milwaukee coffee market is no exception, with Alterra Coffee serving as something of Milwaukee’s analogue to Blue Bottle.
But the story of Alterra Coffee could be the story of any pioneering quality coffee purveyor in America: local start-up business makes great coffee and changes local tastes and expectations, business success translates into growth of operations (roasting, retail, and distribution) and ambition, continued growth brings the company to a crossroads when they must answer where continued growth hurts product quality and company values, and the inspiration and spawning of newer, more nimble local competition.
That major crossroads for Alterra came in 2010 when Mars Corporation — the self-proclaimed “world’s leading petcare, chocolate, confection, food & drink company” (from their Web site) — approached them with an offer to include their coffee in Mars’ owned Flavia packets in exchange for revenue sharing and distribution rights.
Some 27 years ago in nearby Minneapolis, The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg croaked the words, “Time for decisions to be made: crack up in the sun, or lose it in the shade.” Do you reach for greater distribution and more revenues to expand your mission of good coffee? Or are you diluting your product and your brand, all the while inviting customer criticisms of going too “corporate” and selling out? (As the article quotes the local criticisms: “Alterra is the ‘Microsoft of coffee in Milwaukee’.”)
Like the Facebook status says: it’s complicated. And a cautionary tale worth the read.
The Internet is so overstuffed with information, it suffers from a kind of amnesia. Something may have been posted 20,000 times before, but that 20,001st time — as if we all really needed it — might still be worth a mention because Internet users have either forgotten or have yet to notice.
Which explains the endless rehashing of tired, old coffee topics on brain-dead sites like SeriousEats and LifeHacker: Should you freeze coffee for storage? How to steam milk at home? How do you draw rosetta latte art? How does coffee go from cherry to bean? Basically, a plagiarized recycling of stale information written more for search engines than for any human reader yet to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease.
But just because we crave original thought once in a while doesn’t mean that history has no value. However, if you’re digging up old bodies, who better than The Smithsonian? — who recently published this great piece on the history of the espresso machine: The Long History of the Espresso Machine | Design Decoded. Angelo Moriondo, Luigi Bezzerri, Desiderio Pavoni, Pier Teresio Arduino, Achille Gaggia, and Ernesto Valente’s Faema E61 — it’s all there, just as we like it.
Now is that rare time of year where being way out in the Avenues doesn’t feel like being a political prisoner living in exile. For a few weeks out of the year — before the blanket of cold fog transforms the western half of San Francisco into nature’s largest refrigerator — tourists and locals alike experience a brief hallucination where places like SF’s Richmond District seem like attractive, undervalued beachfront property.
Just above the ruins of the old Sutro Baths, the recently opened Lands End Lookout may serve the always-frightful Peerless Coffee in its mini café. But don’t let this neighborhood’s lack of Third Wave self-congratulation get your coffee taste buds down. Even if a bit of the Old West still seems alive here, it boasts some interesting — if not also eclectic — coffee bars.
Take Simple Pleasures Cafe. Its name might suggest a sex toy store if it were in some SF neighborhood a few miles East. Here it is a coffeehouse that claims to be the oldest in the Richmond District, in operation since 1978. Two doors down is their roasting facilities. It’s a social place that serves as an active community center. On these rare fair-weather days, the sidewalk out front can be populated with many of the eclectic local characters conversing on café tables and chairs.
Inside they have the typical colored chalkboard menus that characterized SF cafes in the 1980s. Seating is among big wooden tables in front on numerous odd chairs in back. They offer live music, beer on tap, and espresso shots pulled from a two-group La San Marco machine. The pour is a bit large with a dark to medium brown, healthy crema. Yet the body is robust, with a bold, body-forward flavor of earthiness, chocolate, and tobacco. It’s a flavor profile that practically says, “Screw you and your hipster coffee.” We like that once in a while.
The experience here may feel a bit like you transported yourself to an SF café circa 1987, but that’s not always such a bad thing. Especially when you come to expect a little bit of weird when hanging out near San Francisco’s normally tourist-repellant oceanfront.
Read the review of Simple Pleasures Cafe.
This bakery/café first opened in 2010 as a joint venture of the Goody Goodie bakery and John Quintos, who’s behind Cento, Special Xtra, and Vega. It was originally named “StarStream,” and the coffee routinely followed the Quintos rubber-stamp formula of small La Marzocco Linea espresso machines and Blue Bottle Coffee. However, as the location developed it became less a café and more the relocated headquarters of the Goody Goodie bakery from their sidewalk window — hence the name change.
Coinciding with that change, the coffee service also started taking on its own identity. They serve (dessert) waffles, cookies, and other goods that have earned the quirky bakery its deserved reputation, but the coffee here is no less serious — despite the flowery, heavy-on-pink flea market motif inside. There are two metal garden café tables and chairs along the front Harrison St. sidewalk and a collection of odd items in the interior: patio tables, a whimsical wooden bench, colorfully painted walls, and an odd collection of signage and curiosities that’s mildly reminiscent of Trouble Coffee.
Like Trouble Coffee, they deliberately toss sink shots that don’t measure up to their standards (always a good sign). But what’s particularly impressive is that they have a clear coffee philosophy that comes through: namely, with their switch to Emeryville’s Roast Coffee Co., they want to emphasize balance in their coffee flavor profile without all the overbearing citrus that’s become a tiresome trademark among many new coffee purveyors (see: brightness bomb).
Of course, seeing this philosophy in practice is music to our taste buds. Most North American coffee roasters of note have proven themselves incapable of creating dynamic coffee blends of much merit or finesse. It kills us how the typical Torino, Italy-based blend still runs circles around the Americans. Of all the new coffees we tried out in the past year for home espresso use, almost apologetically the imported Caffè Bomrad topped the lot of them.
But should we really be surprised that the brightness bomb has come to define the quality espresso in North America? To raise that specter of the ever-popular wine analogy again (hey, it’s been at least two weeks), North American wines have run a similar course. Over the past couple of decades, big, bold, fruit-driven, and overly oaky wines with the subtlety and grace of a ball-peen hammer have become the popular choice for American consumers. So much so that wine producers with a different palate in mind have had to circle the wagons with interest groups such as In Pursuit of Balance
Goody Goodie is still tuning in their custom blend with Roast, but for now it has a nice, restrained citric brightness that complements (rather than overwhelms) other notes like chocolate and caramel and some herbal pungency. (Perhaps very appropriate for a dessert café?) They pull modest-sized shots from a two-group Linea with a mottled medium and lighter brown crema in colorful Nuova Point cups. It’s great to witness someone trying to lead instead of following with their coffee.
With NFL fans facing a major void in their lives since the NY Giants won the NFL’s Survivor: Indianapolis competition, thankfully there are publications like Food Republic that have come up with their own “power rankings.” As if to prove just how much we’re not making this up, it took Food Republic less than two years of its short existence to apparently run out of material in the edibles category for their power rankings. Thus they have since started overreaching into beverages as “food” with “The 10 most influential people in coffee right now”: Food Republic Coffee Power Rankings | Food Republic.
Cue Casey Kasem…
Topping this dubious list is Blue Bottle Coffee‘s James Freeman at #1. Followed by Peter Giuliano — of Counter Culture Coffee (and consumers-must-cup-and-they-must-like-it) fame — and Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
Just how these people are considered “influential” is beyond anyone’s rational guess. Two more retweets than the other guys this month? James Hoffman took a few weeks off to see his family and thus dropped off the list? The guys at Food Republic ordered some coffee from Phil & Sebastian last week and also received a free plastic coffee scoop in the mail? Oh, the suspense is killing us. Just killing us!
Swedish chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Marcus Samuelsson founded Food Republic in 2010 as a food Web site “for men.” For a guy known for piling flowers on his TV dinners, he may not strike you as the voice of the machismo NASCAR set. But his publication does go out on a limb, managing to refute the Mayan calendar doomsday prophecy by citing their “previous ranking from our December 2012 [sic] rankings”.
Some five years ago we wrote about the problem of espresso sameness in the SF Bay Area. At issue is the challenge for local communities to preserve a diversity of quality coffee purveyors. On that subject, today’s Washington D.C. City Paper posted an article on their city’s growing quality coffee monoculture: How Did Counter Culture Coffee Take Over D.C.? Freebies – Young & Hungry.
A regional diversity in roasting styles, bean sourcing, and even plain old philosophical approaches towards coffee (for example, industry-centric practices vs. being customer-centric) is a prerequisite for any vibrant coffee culture to exist. Too much of one philosophy or approach without a foil, and it becomes hegemony — if not also a little monotony.
Given this age of large corporate buy-outs and company financial failures — to which D.C. is no stranger — having all your eggs in one basket is also a recipe for disaster. The article also offers up some local purveyors that give hope for more of a balanced coffee economy in the area.