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Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily

Posted by on 05 May 2014 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s Stanford Daily published an article on the Stanford Coffee Symposium that we held this past weekend: Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily. In addition to the featured speakers mentioned in our earlier post, the event showcased espresso drinks and coffees meticulously prepared by Mr. Espresso, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Centro Agroecológico del Café A.C. (CAFECOL, from Mexico), Coupa Café, and Café Venetia — plus an overall event coffee service provided by Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

James Freeman of Blue Bottle presents 'The Last Mile' of coffee Students at the Stanford Coffee Symposium, 2014

Vendors serving coffee at the Stanford Coffee Symposium One of the coffee evaluation sessions at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Exclusively for the event, Richard Sandlin of Fair Trade USA (and the Bay Area Coffee Community) and Stephen Vick, green coffee buyer for Blue Bottle Coffee, jointly developed a custom coffee evaluation session where some 200 students tasted three very different coffees from different regions — each personally sourced by Stephen and prepared by Blue Bottle baristas. Richard and Stephen encouraged the students to identify & associate flavor descriptors for each coffee and compare their tasting experiences with those of their own.

I was pleasantly surprised that the Stanford University team transformed the classic, 1938-built Stanford Graduate School of Education building, with its modest power & water supply, into something that could support an event of this size: with modern espresso machines and a demanding cupping-like event with three different hand-crafted coffees served simultaneously to some 70 people in three shifts.

Mr. Espresso at the Stanford Coffee Symposium Coupa Café and Café Venetia at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Blue Bottle bariste prepare coffee samples for the coffee evaluation session - in chambray of course Stephen VIck (left) and Richard Sandlin (right) explain the coffee evaluation session to attendees

Although I was mostly busy helping to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes, I still managed to learn quite a bit about coffee history, the coffee genome, the impacts of coffee on labor and certification practices in Latin America, and how to measure biodiversity and its effects on coffee production. That said, my favorite event logistics non-sequitur of the day had to be: “I found out that the golf cart wasn’t stolen.”

A big thanks to everyone who helped pull off a educational, fun, and highly caffeinated celebration of coffee that also increased our mindful appreciation of it.

Barefoot Coffee Roasters' truck at the Stanford Coffee Symposium CAFECOL at the Stanford Coffee Symposium representing growers from Veracruz, Mexico

Detailed notes from the coffee evaluation session at the Stanford Coffee Symposium A Mr. Espresso macchiato at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Dear Coffee, I Censor You : The Lost Noma Coffee Service Tapes

Posted by on 06 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee

The Internet is hardly known as a medium for civil discussion and debate. There are exceptions, of course, but today only the Internet historians will remember when flame wars and childish insults may have briefly raised eyebrows before they became too commonplace to notice anymore. What still raises eyebrows is when there actually is civil discourse online — and especially when it is abruptly shut down and censored.

Dear Coffee, I Censor You

Dear Coffee, I Censor You

Last week we exhumed the old why-is-restaurant-coffee-so-bad yarn, invoking recent social media gossip about high-end restaurants that either raised the Nespresso white flag or developed serious coffee program, such as Copenhagen’s infamous Noma — the running #1 ranked restaurant in the world. Then earlier this week, a famous coffee blog we enjoy — Dear Coffee, I Love You — posted a review of their recent meal and coffee service at Noma: Coffee at Noma, The World’s Best Restaurant « Dear Coffee, I Love You. | A Coffee Blog for Caffeinated Inspiration..

My reaction to the post split in two opposite directions. First, on the positive side, I always appreciate a good story of where someone is proving that you can make decent coffee at a restaurant. But on the negative side, I couldn’t get over the fact that here was the #1 ranked restaurant in the world that was essentially reinventing flavors and food, and yet the most thoughtful coffee service they could come up with is serving manual pour-over coffee from a Hario V60. Something you could quite readily do at home yourself, no imagination nor creativity required.

Noma: name your poison

Noma: name your poison

So I commented on the post, using one of my throwaway Facebook accounts that so many lame Web sites require to comment these days. (As socially loaded as it is these days to say, “I don’t own a TV”, I prefer the more modern variant, “I don’t have a legitimate Facebook account.”) In my comments, I noted how Noma’s rather pedestrian pour-over service was a bit of a let down — given everything else for which the place is known.

Sir Brian W. Jones (posting on Facebook as DCILY) and a certain Devon Nullz (a Facebook-allowed variant of /dev/null) held a brief, but civil, exchange in Facebook comments. But just before I was able to respond to Mr. Jones’ last reply, something very odd happened: all the Facebook-hosted comments on the post disappeared. Not just my and/or his comments, all the Facebook comments on the post.

Yes, the nuclear option.

Fortunately, through the magic of Google caching, I’ve exhumed the discussion here because it is blog-topic-worthy. Bonus for the chance to perhaps continue to discussion … since Dear Coffee, I Love You pretty much abruptly announced last call at 9pm and threw everyone out of the bar.

The Noma Coffee Service Discussion That’s Too Hot For DCILY

The forbidden Facebook discussion on Dear Coffee, I Love You about the coffee service at Noma

The forbidden Facebook discussion on Dear Coffee, I Love You about the coffee service at Noma

Devon Nullz:
This article kind of made me sad. As if high cuisine has fallen for the pour-over coffee fad rather than trying to chart its own course.
Wednesday at 7:24pm
Dear Coffee, I Love You.:
The Melitta pour over cone is 105 years old. The Chemex is 72 years old. How exactly is pour over a fad?
Yesterday at 2:42pm
Devon Nullz:
Consumption and popular culture create fads, not the inventions themselves. The caffè sospeso has been around for generations in Southern Italy, but it’s a complete fad right now. GPS has been around since the 1970s, but today we have TV shows and blogs branding themselves with “GPS” in the name as if it were futuristic alien technology that just fell from the skies last year.

Now we know we’re talking about how low the bar is set for coffee among all great restaurants. But this is a restaurant that’s making bite-explosions of flavor with fried reindeer moss, fermented crickets, etc. Normal conceptions of food have been turned inside-out, cryogenically transformed, and re-presented as something totally new.

So when the coffee service comes, what do they offer to live up to those heights? What amazing boundaries of the culinary world do they bend to the point of breaking? We get a V60 pour-over that every wannabe third wave coffee shop has been pumping on every street corner in every coffee-aware city in the world for the past several years. Something you can essentially make yourself at home with a scale and a blog post.

Pour-over coffee in a V60 is the culinary equivalent of East-meets-West fusion cuisine from a food truck. If coffee service has to live up to the new frontiers promised by a $260/head dinner, food truck cuisine isn’t how to do that.
Yesterday at 5:23pm

Dear Coffee, I Love You.:
You’re right, for $420 a head, I should get a space age über-technologically advanced Nespresso capsule instead. They also pour wine from bottles—how boring of them.
7 hours ago

And then it ended. Poof.

Of course, the Internet is all about the conversation that refuses to die…

To Mr. Jones’ credit, perhaps he quickly realized he was dealing with a complete nut job (on the Internet? Really?!) and thus he didn’t want to continue to the discussion any further. I can’t say that I blame him. But in doing so, a legitimate point has been completely whitewashed and dismissed: we readily give restaurants a pass for their coffee when it doesn’t live up to the standards set by their food. The #1 restaurant in the world serving pour-over V60 coffee might not be as bad as Nespresso, but it is still a culinary cop-out.

And when it comes to pouring wine from bottles, Sir Brian, might I remind you that coffee service isn’t merely the act of pulling a cork. Brewing coffee quite literally is cooking.

And there’s a deliberate reason why Noma’s wine list is curated for rare and special occasion wines — and not just what can be found on the shelves of any Bilka hypermarket in Denmark. Compared to a V60 pour-over, ironically a Clover brewer suddenly seems exotic again by today’s standards. Is it too much to ask to at least syphon brew for something just a little out of the ordinary?

Now we’re not saying that Korean tacos aren’t quite tasty, because they are. But they’re really not that special. (Well, at least here in California.)


Noma Restaurant’s Coffee Service: An Update

UPDATE: August 20, 2014

Given the more recent comment update history on this post, and this piece today from Sprudge, this topic is worthy of an update. Noma is currently experimenting with espresso service — which they’ve held off doing to date for all the right reasons. Furthermore, their coffee service has had a little time to mature “in the wild.” But one of the good things the aforementioned article surfaces is this talk from last year’s Nordic Barista Cup, recorded about five months after we published this original post.

The title of the presentation, “Milk and Sugar, Please!,” refers to a lesson René and his team have learned about serving highly specialized coffee to restaurant patrons with the highest expectations. They first tried the coffee Nazi route: serving it without cream or sugar and suggesting that it is best without them. Patrons revolted — perhaps out of habit, but perhaps also out of a sense of control in this I-apply-filters-to-someone-else’s-photos-on-Instagram-therefore-I’m-an-artist world we now live in. René discovered that by standing down and placing the cream and sugar at the table for just comfort alone, customers happily consumed their coffee without additives and without resistance.

The presentation opens with René saying that Noma’s head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, is the guy to give the presentation as his dedicated man to coffee — much as Noma has staff dedicated to things like berries, foraging, and moss. (This affirms what we suggested in another post.) And yet René went on for the next 47 minutes unequivocally monopolizing the microphone, spouting out the word “fuck” about every 30 seconds along the way.

The claim is that the coffee is as good as at Tim Wendelboe’s — and arguably the best restaurant coffee you can get in the world. Or at least that’s the aim. To back that claim up, René notes that preparation took eight months, 40 staff, precise bean choices, custom equipment and installation, and a repeated claim to spending tens of thousands of dollars.

Mads Kleppe preparing the V60 pour-over coffee service at Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen

Not having actually had the coffee, we can’t comment on its quality. But there’s no reason to think it isn’t great. What we still don’t understand is why some of the best coffee bars in the world do not require eight months, 40 staff, and five flights in from Tim Wendelboe to establish a stellar pour-over brewing service. It makes us wonder: just where is all that time, money, and labor going?

Despite perhaps the supposed uniqueness of new Nordic brewing to light-bodied, lightly roasted pedigree coffees for some less-traveled patrons, it’s still just a V60 pour-over bar. At that, the coffee is not exactly served to personal order: it is brewed in one-liter batches in kettles from a back room public lounge, served in custom-designed 500ml glass containers. For all the creativity and uniqueness that patrons come to expect from Chef Redzepi’s stellar food, the most inventive part of their coffee service should not be the serviceware.

Finding the best is getting a whole lot worse

Posted by on 03 Nov 2011 | Filed under: Beans, CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

In the eight years since we started CoffeeRatings.com, we’ve been patiently waiting for something better. After all, we built CoffeeRatings.com out of frustration over a lack of useful quality information about area coffeehouses in a semi-structured, objective-criteria-driven format. So you’d think we’d be encouraged by the acute rise in venture-capital-funded code monkeys who promise to solve our existential crisis of determining “the best” at anything. In reality, this flurry of new Web sites and mobile apps only seems to be making the problem worse.

A brief history of bests…

Nothing says 'quality' like food truck art projectsBesides being a First World Problem, finding the best at anything is a sisyphean effort. As Howard Moskowitz demonstrated decades ago, there is no “best” — only many bests, depending on personal tastes. But that didn’t prevent the likes of Yelp from feigning an effort. That effort is based on a completely open system where any schmuck with a keyboard can praise or bash an institution without any instruction, guidelines, nor selection criteria to speak of. Furthermore, Yelp games reviews as more of a form of social currency than any objective opinion.

As ridiculous as you might think the old school Zagat guides are by comparison, at least they offer three objective criteria to score on. Even so, Zagat recently whored themselves out to rating food trucks. Someone please explain to us again how any food truck could legitimately earn more than a zero score out of three for “ambience”.

SF Best Coffee app -- or more like SF's most convenient not-megachain coffee
On the mobile side of things, we have examples such as the San Francisco’s Best Coffee iPhone app. There the fatal flaw is that most mobile app developers treat location as of primary concern over quality — likely just because you can (with a phone’s geolocation services). Hence why we never appreciated coffee maps as anything more than eye candy.

The editors for the app are based in London, and they use whether a cafe is “independent” or not as a major reason for inclusion. (Are we supposed to ignore that Blue Bottle Coffee is technically a chain?) Furthermore, any Top 25 ratings are handled Yelp-style, resulting in very dubious cafes like Tartine Bakery getting rated in the Top 7.

New best bets… or betting on bests

Even FindTheBest can't point you in the right directionTaking a sample of the new crop of wannabees in the best-annointing market, we’ll start with FindTheBest. Let’s look at their espresso machine rankings for example:

  1. Rancilio Silvia LE 2010
  2. Mr. Coffee ECM20
  3. Mr. Coffee ECM160
  4. Rancilio Silva
  5. De Longhi EC 155

Their top choice of a Rancilio Silvia is definitely a positive move — one that keeps you out of the future landfill that primarily decks the aisles of a Williams-Sonoma. But is it truly the best? Or is it more like the least you can spend on a respectable home machine? Even so, when it is immediately followed up by two Mr. Coffee models that each cost under $35 — followed by the Rancilio Silvia again — what are we supposed to think?

Kevin Rose invented the Web 2.0 and Harvey MilkLet’s switch our attention to another find-the-best app entrant in Oink, with its iPhone app just released today. Oink is a product of Kevin Rose’s new company, Milk.

If you don’t know who Kevin Rose is, we envy you. He’s the founder of SF’s Digg.com and the closest thing to Justin Bieber for the dot-com set. Not long after the collapse of Enron, both Digg and its founder quickly became everyone’s “Web 2.0″ darling for several years — years we spent scratching and shaking our heads asking, “How is this going to make any money?”

During those years, cheerleading crowds simply put fingers in their ears, yelling “La-la-la! Can’t hear you!” as they made a cybercelebrity out of Mr. Rose — right on down to featuring him on downtown advertising kiosks. Today, Digg circles a financial drain that’s becoming ever-shallower. Everyone has pretty much since looked away, shielding their eyes from the inevitable.

Fast forward to 2011. For a guy who grew up in Redding, you’d think he’d know just enough local history to realize that calling your SF-based company “Milk” carries a lot of baggage. But whether or not that makes you think the guy is living in the closet, here’s a look at what Oink’s #coffee hashtag currently scores for “best coffee”:

  1. Drip Coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk
  2. Blue Bottle Cocktail at NOPA
  3. Coffee at Stable Cafe
  4. New Orleans Iced Coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee
  5. Gibraltar at Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk
  6. Coffee… It Gets Stuff Done at Starbucks
  7. Four Barrel
  8. Blue Bottle Drip Coffee at Cafe Divis
  9. Blue Bottle Beans at the Blue Fog Market
  10. Blue bottle coffee at Golden Bean Coffee
  11. Blue Bottle Beans at Summit Cafe

What the hell are we supposed to make of this list? Other than it is wholly unstructured and that someone has an obsessive Blue Bottle fetish, how is this list in any way useful to us? We’ve got restaurant cocktails, roasted bean duplicates, drip coffee duplicates, platitudes about coffee, and the random business name all jumbled together to make a Top 10 list.

Mr. Rose says his inspiration for Oink came from his obsessive love of fine tea. But with an app like this, any Top 10 likely includes references to the Tea Party, teabagging, and Rose’s favorite oolong repackaged seven different ways. Milk’s employees better put snorkels and fins on their Amazon wish lists this Christmas, as another whirling drain doesn’t seem far off the horizon. (UPDATE: Oink went fins-up in the tank in just four months.)

The Amen app: pray that it suggests something usefulLastly, we turn to Amen, where we learn:

Welcome to Amen, the place for battling it out over the best and the worst in life.

Amen is for all those times you think to yourself, “This is the BEST! (or WORST!)”

Of course they have an iPhone app, because apparently you cannot function in society without a 3.5-inch screen telling you how. And playing with the app, we still don’t get the point. It’s raison d’être seems centered around submitting a rousing evangelical “amen” to someone else’s proclamation of greatness. Such as “the best coffee shop ever,” which is currently listed as a toss up between Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Starbucks, and “My Ass”. (No, we’re not making that up.)

This latest round of technical and social innovations doesn’t seem to make us any smarter. In fact, it just makes us collectively a whole lot dumber with the added social commiseration of “failing with friends.”

In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for Shawn Johnson’s word for it when she says, “My tacos? The best!” in an old TV commercial just this side of child pornography…

Why CoffeeRatings.com is run by a bunch of map Luddites

Posted by on 15 Jul 2010 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

A long time ago we decided that coffee maps were an odd Internet fetish. Over the years we’ve been approached by people with special Internet maps APIs (call it Internet software for short), requests for Google maps views, and people building just about every coffee map variant under the sun. More recently, we have the local SF rag, 7×7, promoting their own “Third Wave” coffee map: Fully Caffeinated: A Citywide Map of Third Wave Coffee | 7×7. Never mind what arbitrary standards 7×7 uses to determine whether a place is “Third Wave” or not. (Arbitrary standards being one of our oldest pet peeves about anything published about coffee.)

For some coffee fans, this is the holy grail of information.And yet when it comes to coffee maps, this is still the only thing CoffeeRatings.com supports. Why is that? Are we just lazy? In a word, yes. It is minimal effort to export our database to link to mapping software. In fact, every one of our review pages have addresses auto-linked to Google maps.

But quality-ranked views of coffee shops, few and far between on the Internet, have always been more important to us than something that favors geographic proximity. Because if you are primarily driven by proximity, quality becomes secondary at best by definition. You can color-code the café markers in some mapping APIs — so that you can introduce an additional dimension of quality in a coffee map — but our experiments with that did not produce satisfying results. Furthermore, a city map with over 650 data points is information overload — and takes forever to load in a Web browser, let alone a mobile phone.

Are coffee maps useful beyond a visual exercise?

Coffee maps are far more ubiquitous on the Internet than quality-driven listings, and the criteria for including a café or not in these maps are typically arbitrary. (This is another reason why we wanted the café rankings on CoffeeRatings.com to be inclusive, to the tune of 650+ data points, rather than exclusive.) Case and point with 7×7: here some bizarrely subjective measure of “third waveness” is supposed to be a surrogate for coffee quality. And in the end, we are looking for good coffee, not good branding. We honestly don’t care what self-ordained wave a coffee shop belongs to.

Then take the typical San Francisco experience, where even the definition of proximity gets warped by things like parking availability and public transit lines. And while there are a lot of Internet beer maps for pub crawls, coffee crawls? Seriously? Who can honestly make a day of a dozen espresso drinks?

Lastly, we just don’t get the coffee map obsession. Sure, we know it exists. We just don’t understand the point beyond a visual exercise, rather than one of appreciating good coffee. In a way, we liken it to something Ian McKaye, founding guitarist of the seminal D.C. straight-edge band Fugazi, once told us long ago: “People are always asking us for Fugazi T-shirts. I honestly don’t understand the connection between music and a T-shirt.” (A position which spawned a number of unauthorized “This is not a Fugazi T-shirt” peddlers.)

UPDATE: April 19, 2013
A recent Harris Poll survey seems to back a bit of our madness here, suggesting that for most consumers quality is more important than convenience: Harris Interactive: Harris Polls > Battle of the Brew; Americans Choose Taste Over Convenience When Coffee Shops Go Head to Head. (Huff Post link.) According to their survey, people go out of their way to find coffee that tastes better. Hence all these “coffee map”-driven blogs, web sites, and mobile apps that use location as the primary discriminator between coffeeshops seem a little misguided when a quality-based ranking might serve users better.

We’re just sayin’… ;)

UPDATE: Feb. 20, 2014
Of course, none of that stops the human urge to make multiple various of coffee maps. After the New York coffee subway map came out a couple weeks ago, San Franciscans insisted on following suit: The greatest SF coffee shop map ever made – Thrillist San Francisco. You’d think GPS-enabled phones won’t be invented until the year 2125.

Trip Report: Frog Hollow Farm (under new management)

Posted by on 17 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Frog Hollow Farm reserves a rather anonymous place in the retail coffee history of San Francisco, but it was a watershed for the coffee quality in this city. As much as we roll our eyes at the hackneyed and abused third wave term, by many definitions (theirs, and definitely not ours) this was SF’s first third wave espresso bar.

But its rise to prominence and its influence was very short-lived. A variety of changes internal and external to the shop caused the quality here to plummet from #1 in our rankings to #91 in just two years — as reflected in our first Trip Report for Frog Hollow Farm posted four years ago. But the good news is that a recent change in management here has brought something of a coffee revival.

Approaching the Frog Hollow Farm service counter Frog Hollow Farm is now heavy into Verve (Coffee Roasters)

A little Frog Hollow Farm history…

The relatively brief coffee story of Frog Hollow Farm, located at the rear of the Ferry Building, is a genuinely complicated one. In its 2004 prime, this was home to the best espresso in San Francisco.

This claim may ring a little odd today now that SF is flush with the nationally acclaimed likes of Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, and many well-regarded independent coffee shops in between. But when we started research for this Web site in 2002, the answer to the question, “Where can you get the best espresso in SF?” was genuinely complicated. So complicated that most answers from the public varied from Peet’s to Starbucks to battle-of-the-bands-like ballot stuffing for neighborhood favorites such as Dolores Park Cafe.

Frog Hollow Farm opened in Oct. 2003 as an outlet for an organic peaches/specialty fruit/pastry business. For whatever reason, they decided to also take their espresso efforts very seriously. To that end, Frog Hollow Farms enlisted the help of a then-relatively-unknown James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee fame. Back then Mr. Freeman was known for his small batch, fresh coffee roasting in Oakland — for cart service oddities such as the Berkeley farmer’s market, but he had no presence in San Francisco. Even his Ferry Building cart service wasn’t yet up to speed.

With Mr. Freeman’s guidance, Frog Hollow Farms invested in a new, shiny red La Marzocco FB/70 (still in use today), deluxe wood tampers, the first commercial appearance of Blue Bottle Coffee beans across the Bay Bridge (which were also available for retail sale), and barista training from James himself. In a sense, this made Frog Hollow Farm SF’s first de facto Blue Bottle Coffee café — even if not in name. We can literally trace the decrease of our own home roasting operations to the initial sales of Blue Bottle beans here in 2003.

But by 2005, James Freeman had his own designs to open SF coffeeshops under the Blue Bottle name. He soon pulled out of this location and their coffee operations. The espresso immediately went downlhill and continued years of decline from poorly trained baristas, mishandled McLaughlin beans, and thin, watery shots.

The new Frog Hollow Farme espresso The old Frog Hollow Farm espresso in 2006

Santa Cruz to the rescue

A real measure of salvation came with a management change in Sept. 2009. Cameron White moved up from Santa Cruz to take over the coffee operations here, and he brought along Verve coffee and barista training (all baristas were trained by Chris Baca and Jared Truby). He replaced their aging Nuova Point cups with a set of classic brown ACF cups and installed a sort of bar with seating among six stools in front.

They now serve a solid, two-sip short shot of Sermon blend: with a medium brown, textured crema and a flavor that includes tobacco smoke, herbs, pepper, and a few others all well blended together. Only the body is a shade light for its pedigree. They operate two Mazzer grinders, dedicating one for Vancouver decaf, and also sell bags of Verve beans. They even talk about bringing in more grinders so that they can also showcase Streetlevel and other Verve roast varieties.

The quality change here is significant. They are currently rated tied for #17 in our SF ratings. However, with SF espresso quality standards as improved as they are these days, there’s a lot of compression at the high end: meaning, a lot depends on your personal taste. Fans of Verve’s flavor profile will not be disappointed.

Read the updated review of Frog Hollow Farm.

East Bay Express: Surfing Coffee’s “Third Wave”

Posted by on 16 Dec 2009 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Today’s East Bay Express published a good, and long-overdue, cover story on some of the quality coffee changes going on in our fair East Bay: Surfing Coffee’s “Third Wave” | Feature | East Bay Express. Its use of the Third Wave crutch is unfortunate, but also par for the course these days. Meanwhile, we will try to avoid becoming too tiresome (and absurd) by limiting our Third Wave mockery to only one post per week.

Luke Tsai's cover story on today's 'East Bay Express' is on East Bay coffee shopsLuke Tsai’s article was fair and somewhat balanced in its reporting — even if it had to make mention of two of our least favorite (and, IMO, least reliable) Web resources for café reviews: the insufferable gluttons at Chowhound.com and the social networking gamers with arbitrary standards at Yelp.com. We even made page 3 of the article for our routine Third Wave ridicule. The article touches on one of our Third Wave stereotypes, lighter roasts, and even our defense of coffee Nazis.

The notable cafés and roasters in the article include Local 123 (and their Flying Goat coffee), Remedy Coffee (Ritual Coffee Roasters), SubRosa Coffee (Four Barrel Coffee), Blue Bottle Coffee Co. (for their new Jack London Square roasting facility and café), and Awaken Cafe (Taylor Maid Farms). The article also makes mention of notable pre-Third Wavers, Cole Coffee. A number of these truly are a gaping hole in our current review database.

Mr. Tsai had originally contacted me for this article back in early October. So coincidentally, just yesterday I searched the East Bay Express Web site to see if his article had been published yet (it hadn’t). However, a search for “third wave” on the site did amusingly produce articles mentioning third-wave ska, third-wave environmentalism, and third-wave feminists.

UPDATE: Dec 23, 2009
A regular coffee column in the Seattle Times picked up this story yesterday: Coffee City | How seriously should people take their coffee? | Seattle Times Newspaper. Interestingly, the author, Melissa Allison, took upon defining “third wave coffee” this way:

A term coined around 2002 that aims to define an evolved coffee scene in which baristas, roasters and farmers know each other and are connoisseurs of a product to which they’re all passionately connected.

If you go back to our post from April 2006, our debate in the comments with Nick Cho was about how the term “Third Wave” may have been originally conceived about “letting the coffee speak for itself,” or enjoying coffee for coffee’s sake, but the phrase has since been completely co-opted for marketing purposes. That is: what started with more of a consumer-focused perspective was redefined for the convenience of business-focused uses — i.e., uses by baristas, roasters, and farmers.

Note that there is no mention of the coffee consumer in Ms. Allison’s definition above.

Common Cues for Recognizing Good and Bad Espresso

Posted by on 27 Jul 2009 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, CoffeeRatings.com, Quality Issues

For a few years now, we had an idea for a post that sat in our unpublished queue: how can you tell a good espresso shop from a bad one? (At least before sampling it.) Given the thousands of good, bad, and mediocre espresso shots we’ve reviewed over the years, we have definitely noticed some patterns worth sharing.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve recognized the value of shorthand rules. Back in the 1980s, I once (famously, in my circles) observed that the ghetto status of your neighborhood can be surmised by the fast food chicken chain nearby. (In short, Church’s Chicken = “wear Kevlar”.) Earlier this month, there were a couple of coffee-related posts from coffee professionals that inspired us to dust off this idea:

But while coffee professionals know their establishments and their industry favorites best, few have subjected themselves to the horrors of many a bad espresso bar from a consumer perspective. Not that we at CoffeeRatings.com have a taste-bud death wish. But we’ve developed a sort of sixth sense about what to expect just by walking into a coffeehouse and having a look around. This post is an attempt to articulate both the positive and negative cues we get when entering a new establishment.

Some suggested rules are more obvious — like the wine enthusiast’s equivalent of “avoid wine that comes in a box.” Other rules are more subtle or outright unusual. For example, as a news story today had it, if the aroma from the coffee machine forces your plane to make an emergency landing, you might consider tea.

Encouraging signs of decent coffee ahead

In no particular order…

  • They roast their own. Score extra points if they date-stamp their roasted beans for retail sale.
  • They bother with latte art. Latte art is more gimmick than a sign of quality per se (sorry, Aussies). But it’s almost unheard of to find a place that bothers with latte art and yet makes a lousy cappuccino.
  • A La Marzocco machine. Oh, sure, there are plenty of other great espresso machines out there. And there are places that can make great espresso from the most modest equipment choices. But shelling out the bucks for a La Marzocco is typically reserved for those who believe it will actually make a difference for them.
  • They offer more than one kind of bean for espresso. This is a rare find. But when they do, they expect you to notice that the espresso there isn’t just some generic, nameless commodity shot out of a soda gun. Many other establishments think more like Homer Simpson’s tour of the Duff Beer factory, where a single spigot fills Duff, Duff Light, and Duff Dry.
  • They serve a glass of water on the side. Despite the American obsession with the Big Gulp®, espresso should not quench your thirst. Better espresso can often be found at places that don’t expect it to.
  • They take time to make it. You could have a really new, or really slow, barista. Or they could be a little bit of a perfectionist about what they’re doing. We never encourage our baristi to rush the job.
  • Cleanliness is next to decent espresso. If the staff keeps their work areas clean, there are better chances that they clean their equipment of rancid coffee oil build-up — and that they keep their equipment properly tuned and maintained.

Ritual Roaster's Ryan Brown in the early days of their local roasting Latte art on two Ritual Roasters macchiati

The La Marzocco at Healdsburg's Flying Goat Coffee says, Blue Bottle Cafe recognizes that if you're thirsty, that's what water is for

Palo Alto's Caffé del Doge offers multiple bean choices for your espresso How many cafés view the idea of coffee varieties

Signs of when to run — don’t walk — away

Now for the cues when you know things are about to get ugly. Call it coffee’s homage to Waiter Rant’s “Signs An Establishment Isn’t Going to Deliver the Service You Expect”.

  • The roar and/or whine of poorly steamed milk. This is one of those cases where their handling of milk can translate to their handling of coffee. And milk that is steamed in the pitcher to the scalding sounds of a 747 takeoff or the squeal of a dentist’s drill is a major red flag.
  • A superautomatic espresso machine. Superautomatic machines almost never produce an espresso better than “palatable”. Hello, Starbucks.
  • The barista is wearing a company-issue hat or cap. One sure-fire way to non-verbally tell a customer, “How may I massacre your order?” is to require them to dress like fast food employees.
  • They use a two-group La Spaziale 3000 espresso machine. Ouch. Do we really have that much against La Spaziale? They honestly make some good equipment, and a few cafés are quite capable with them. But in the Bay Area, the two-group La Spaziale 3000 is the machine of choice (namely: they’re inexpensive) among cafés looking to skimp and save a few bucks.
  • America’s Best Coffee. Or Peerless coffee, should they admit it. The most common combination of the cheap-and-careless café is the two-group La Spaziale 3000 with America’s Best Coffee beans. A close second is Peerless coffee — which we’ve also found to be the coffee most likely for employees to say it’s Illy in an attempt to make up something that sounds better. Of course, almost as bad (it varies) is the café where the employees have no idea whose beans they serve. But the pattern here seems to be this: the more self-aggrandizing the coffee brand name, the worse the coffee.
  • Portafilter handles are left cooling on the drip tray. This is often the kiss of death: a café that knows nothing about the importance of stable temperature control, and they could care less.
  • Served with a lemon rind on the side. You’d be surprised how many restaurants still do this. Why? We don’t know, because it’s like a neon sign that says, “Prepare to spew.”
  • Paper cups are the only option. There are times where even we want a coffee “to go”. But those conditions are so sub-par. For a café to serve their espresso only in paper cups, you may as well be greeted by a fiberglass clown head with a speakerphone in his throat at the drive-thru entrance. If someone’s idea of quality and class is the stemware at a four-year-old’s birthday party, we emphasize the “go” part of “to go”.
  • Flavored coffees on the menu. Or the word “gourmet”. In some parts of the country, and rare corners of the Bay Area, the 1980s are still alive and well and some people are still selling chocolate macadamia nut flavored coffee. If a café sells coffee that sounds more like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, you’d be better off looking for ice cream. Same goes if they use the word “gourmet” in their branding — a word that has since become affiliated only with the mass-produced packaged foods that line the aisles of Wal-Mart, marked for quick sale to their morbidly obese loyal customers.

We really need to stop here before we are overcome with snarkiness poisoning.

Born under a bad sign: a La Spaziale 3000 at Golden Gate Perk Here's an idea: a superautomated Verismo *and* uniform hats

Nice and short, but the container is a bit lacking: from Royal Express It's 1987 night at Il Fornaio with a...lemon rind?

The Best of Yelp San Francisco Coffee & Tea or: The Uselessness of Crowds

Posted by on 21 Jul 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

As we mentioned in our last post a couple days ago, being popular and being good can be two very things. There are few places where this is more apparent than on Web sites that thrive on aggregate public user ratings and reviews. We had intended this article to be about Yelp’s top SF coffee picks — much like our annual round-up on the Best of CitySearch. However, our analysis of Yelp’s rankings became so absurdist so quickly, our story changed dramatically from what we originally intended.

Yelp not only failed at the fundamental task of telling us what other San Franciscans thought was the best coffee in town, in aggregate, but it took us down a dark and strange path into the social motivators behind the site. In essence, we found that Yelp’s rankings are a better measure of a social game among its users than as a measure of the establishments its users supposedly rate.

It’s been a good year since we last poked Yelp in the eye over its major flaws. So this time around we will take a critical look at Yelp’s actual rankings for top coffee in San Francisco based on their rather mad methods.

Arbitrary Standards

Many of you probably know that Internet users were TIME magazine’s choice for the 2006 Person of the Year. You might even be familiar with James Surowiecki’s book, Wisdom of the Crowds, which illustrates many ways in which the collective intelligence of large groups of people is greater than that of individuals. All of this is certainly wishful thinking in an election year. However, any “wisdom of crowds” has also provided us with mob behavior, witch hunts, and mass hysteria.

Fortunately, poorly biased coffee ratings should not inflict any bodily harm on espresso lovers who have been lead astray. Or at least in theory — as there have been times we’ve sampled some pretty awful espresso and still wonder about the long-term health effects. But sites such as Yelp are often utterly useless to us because the rating criteria are often completely arbitrary.

To help illustrate this point, we present a summary of Yelp’s Top 20 SF Coffee & Tea establishments as of June 5, 2008, as determined by Yelp users. (Given that the review rankings are dynamically affected by new user ratings, and that we had something of a Web hosting meltdown since the time we started penning this post, the ranks have changed a little since last month. They are also likely to change after this article is published.)

Next to each ranked establishment, we’ve listed their equivalent rank on CoffeeRatings.com (many of which are tied with others for the same ranking), real quotes from reviewers who gave the establishment a maximum rating of five stars, and our associated thoughts on the reviewers and/or the reviewed. It’s the kind of stuff that makes us think they should change their name from “Yelp” to “Wince”.

Name Yelp’s 2008 rank Our 2008 rank Yes, a 5-star Yelp reviewer really wrote this Our thoughts
Graffeo Coffee Roasting Company 1 N/A N/A Good local roaster. But they don’t do retail coffee.
Bernie’s 2 18 “I personally don’t drink coffee and generally don’t like the smell of it, but I love the aromas emanating from Bernie’s coffee shop.” Amazing how much money you can save when you don’t actually drink any of the stuff.
Trouble Coffee Company 3 7 “Blue Bottle is delicious but I don’t own the appropriate attire to hang out there.” Ball gowns, white gloves, and tiaras are so hard to come by at thrift stores these days.
Double Team Coffee 4 396 “What more could you ask for than a cute little asian dude yelling ‘strooooooong coooofffe’ while he’s completely jacked out his head on his product.” Well, you could ask for coffee that doesn’t rate in the bottom third of the entire city.
L’s Caffé 5 453 “It depends on how YOU like your coffee, but personally I drink coffee because it’s warm and it’s a vehicle for milk.” Which is why personally we drink beer because it’s foamy and it’s a vehicle for drunken, anonymous sex.
Leland Tea Company 6 N/A N/A It was the great President Lincoln who once said, “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”
MotoJava 7 294 “I haven’t tried the coffee yet, but the sandwich I had was excellent, as was the service.” The French Laundry: five stars. We didn’t try any of the food, but the coat check was fantastic.
Cafe Murano 8 240 “They serve great food (Sorry i don’t know about coffee, i don’t drink it)” And we love the softness of their toilet tissue.
Cento 9 6 Two-fer: “Hooray for yet another coffee shop serving good drinks out of a loading bay!” and “I haven’t even been there yet, but am certain it will be fabulous” If we actually stepped over the heroin-addled hookers to get to their loading bay and taste their coffee, we’re certain it would be some of the best in the city.
Danilo Bakery’s BaoNecci 10 159 “A very handsome young man behind the counter flirted with me (as only a European man can do!) and I found they are making the delicious corn bread loaves on Saturday again!” And I’ll give you six stars if you give me your phone number in an accent of whatever language they must speak in Italy.

And the next 10…

Name Yelp’s 2008 rank Our 2008 rank Yes, a 5-star Yelp reviewer really wrote this Our thoughts
Spike’s Coffees & Teas 11 13 “I just started drinking coffee, so maybe I’m not an expert, but I think their coffee is one big cup of awesome!” As long as it’s not one big cup of ashy, watery, over-extracted dreck like most places pull.
Imperial Tea Court – CLOSED 12 N/A N/A Some places are worth more dead than alive.
Philz Coffee @ Castro, 4023 18th St. 13 N/A “Have you ever tasted coffee that didn’t taste like coffee at all?” Philz Coffee: for when you want to pretend you’re drinking coffee when you really aren’t.
Java Detour 14 140 “I wouldn’t say it’s the best coffee but dammit it is convenient to the 101 and the people who work there are so friendly.” When I’m fleeing the scene after committing a felony downtown, I prefer the fast, friendly service of Java Detour.
Lupicia Fresh Tea 15 N/A N/A No retail beverages and proud of it.
Coffee Adventures 16 301 “In all honesty, their ‘regular coffee’ is horrid lol BUT BUT BUT everything else I have had is great.” Speaking of Honest Abe Lincoln, “Our American Cousin” was an awesome play.
Faye’s Video & Espresso Bar 17 301 Two-fer: “THE best place to me in the City, to get great expresso [sic]. They also are always quite generous in their servings as well. [sick]” and “I love stopping by and getting my own movie. I get to look and not be so overwhelmed with technology. plus the cute boy behind the counter, i think it is Mike is cute!” THE best place in the city to go for over-extracted expresso while fawning over Mike, or whatever his name is. At least I think it’s a “he”.
Mamá Art Cafe 18 331 Two-fer: “Best chai I’ve ever had. Don’t know how authentic it is, but it’s spicy creamy goodness in a big, fat over-sized cup.” and “there are never any ‘surprises’ showing up in my food or drink which is always a major bonus.” Any place that doesn’t put live scorpions in my coffee gets five stars!
Jackson Place Cafe 19 65 “Two words: Secret Hideout” Two words: Honeycomb Hideout
Ritual Gardens 20 3 “the lines are much shorter here than on Valencia st, the hipsters not so hip and the coffee and espresso concoctions are just as tasty. I’d rather share my coffee with a cactus any day.” And as soon as I off this *&#$% barista and silence these voices in my head, I can have my frigging espresso in peace!

The Negative Review Head-scratchers

While the above covers the excitable, five-star reviews that contribute to sometimes puzzling accolades for otherwise weak espresso purveyors, there are equally puzzling criteria reviewers use to depress the rankings of otherwise great espresso options. Below are a few more of the more bizarre rankings on the list — optionally accompanied by some classic excerpts from the Yelpers themselves who gave the places one-star reviews (with a couple two-star reviews thrown in for good prose):

  • The Hayes Valley Blue Bottle was ranked #36 of 784, below The Castro Cheesery at #24, and just below the ever-disappointing 595 Mission St. SOMA Peet’s at #34. Overheard: “OVERRATED… this spot can be such a freaking scene, filled with thirty-year-olds holding little dogs on a leash, talking about internet gossip on their iphones.” (Apparently coffee quality is dependent upon age, dogs, and iPhones.) “I don’t like coffee, except for maybe an iced one on a hot day.” “I don’t know how anyone can drink coffee if the[y] say they believe in global warming.” (Note to Al Gore: Solve global warming by shutting down Blue Bottle.)
  • Theatre Too Cafe ranked #59 with an average 4.5-star rating (Overheard: “Tasty. Juicy. Ample. Cheap.”). Meanwhile, CoffeeRatings.com gave it a 1.80 espresso rating, ranking it 584th out of 594 — or the 6th worst in all San Francisco.
  • Blue Bottle Farmer’s Market at #63 of 784 ranked below both nearby purveyors, Frog Hollow Farm at #44 and the 2 Embarcadero Peet’s Coffeeat #60
  • Coffee Bar (tied for #1 on CoffeeRatings.com) at #74 ranked below a Mission Starbucks on 2727 Mariposa St at #71. Overheard: “I wasn’t exactly inspired to try it myself” (So I gave it a one-star rating anyway.) “The MUSIC is way too loud.” “Coffee Bar has been open for about two months, but they haven’t bothered to mention that small fact on their website which still says it’s ‘coming soon.’ What gives? … So you get one star until you get your act together.”
  • Blue Bottle Cafe (tied for #1 on CoffeeRatings.com) ranked at #114. Overheard: “I asked for it to go, they made it to stay. Then they insisted on throwing that away to make it right.” (Those bastards!) “Sure it’s organic, sure it’s shade grown, sure it’s fair trade. But you needlessly spend cash on expensive coffee; but by the same token you won’t give a homeless person change?” (Note to greenies: hardworking homeless people in Nicaragua don’t count.) “I’m really more of a tea guy, myself.”
  • Ritual Roasters, Mission ranked at #145, just below Java Beach Cafe at #143. Overheard: “If you knew me at all you know I don’t drink coffee…I only went into Ritual because I was walking by and I had to pee.” (There’s grounds for a one-star review right there.) “Pffff, how incredibly lame to cover up the plugs… Whose brilliant idea was that?” (Laptop owners speak out on coffee quality.) “In all honesty, I have not tried your coffee because the masses of bug eyed yups and students clinging to their laptops and I pods makes me want to vomit.”

I don’t know what kind of parallel, warped universe some Yelpers are living in. But one that ranks Theater Too Cafe at the 92nd percentile — well above Blue Bottle Cafe, Coffee Bar, and Ritual Roasters in the Mission — must contend with questions such as, “Mommy, why do you have three heads?”

The Yelp Rating Lifecycle

To be sure, there are a few ratings on Yelp that we’d actually agree with. But take Cento, for example. It was only open one month when it was ranked #9 on Yelp — and it had a ways to go before it left the “honeymoon” stage of the Yelp rating lifecycle.

What is the Yelp rating lifecycle, you ask? Typical for a place like Cento, wannabe hipsters race to be the first to review a place they like and pump it up — particularly if it’s obscure or relatively out of the way in some back alley. Apparently, from what we observed, they believe this behavior somehow bestows upon them some form of social currency among other Yelp posters. It’s the “I’m cool because I am an insider and I found it before any of you” badge.

But then as a place gets exposed and more people know about it, this is followed by a wave of professional killjoy reviewers that love nothing more than to say, “OVERRATED! — And they’re so arrogant here” as a form of their own social currency among Yelp posters. It’s the “I’m late, but I’m cool because my tastes are way better than this” badge. Mark our words. Give things a few months and Cento’s Yelp ranking will drop like Starbucks‘ stock price.

Interestingly enough, since we originally wrote this paragraph in June, Cento’s Yelp ranking has dropped from #9 and is now currently hovering around #24. While our repeat visits haven’t produced espresso ratings as strong as our first, we sense there’s more going on than just a subtle weakening of their espresso.

Cento's early stages on the Yelp Rating Lifecycle

So what does any of this have to do with the rating of quality coffee, you ask? Absolutely nothing. But it has everything to do with how Yelp works. Which is precisely our point. Using a site like Yelp only makes us feel dumber than we already are.

If you can read this, you’re visiting us at our new home

Posted by on 14 Jul 2008 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com

This weekend’s move to a new (hopefully more reliable) Web hosting provider seemed to go rather smoothly. If you’re reading this post, you are viewing CoffeeRatings.com at it’s new home.

Since the whole ordeal to change Web hosting providers took us a full month, and since we don’t trust Web hosting providers all that much these days, we will be keeping our WordPress account at http://coffeeratings.wordpress.com/ for announcements and other emergency purposes should this site suddenly become “unavailable”.

But otherwise, we’re happy with the move (goodbye and good riddance, Burton Hosting!) and are looking forward to getting back to business as usual. Thanks for your patience throughout this transition.

Trip Report: Danilo’s Bakery BaoNecci Caffè

Posted by on 05 Jul 2008 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew

Given that our headaches with our Web hoster are resolving themselves at a snail’s pace, we’re itching to get back to business as usual. So we are carefully returning to publishing here (saving copies of our databases as frequently as possible) — even though we risk a future “blackout” at any given time. How better to do that than with a classic CoffeeRatings.com Trip Report?

This is a quiet, local place that gets many SFers worked up as if they’ve experienced the Real Italy here — or at least something that authentically makes you feel as if you’re someplace else. And they’re not entirely off the mark. There are often authentic Italians speaking the language inside. And this has been in operation since 1905 — with the Lucchese Gamdaccini family now running the place (as proudly painted on the front door). They are a very friendly lot and offer fresh-baked Italian breads, biscotti, other baked goods, and typical café lunch items.

The café itself occupies a nice corner not far off of Columbus Ave. at Bannam Pl. There are some sidewalk café tables in front, large glass windows, and several indoor café tables and chairs.

Approaching the BaoNecci caffè from Green St. Baked goods in the BaoNecci

Using a two-group La Spaziale machine, they pull shots with a thinner layer of a medium brown crema, served in modern Miscela d’Oro IPA cups. The body is a touch thin, the Miscela d’Oro flavor leans towards the smoky/tobacco side with some pepper notes, and the cup has more of a potent aftertaste than an initial flavor. But overall, it’s a decent espresso. And drinking it in a location such as this only helps.

Read the review of Danilo’s Bakery BaoNecci Caffè.

The BaoNecci La Spaziale with the photo wall of fame to the left The Danilo's Bakery BaoNecci Caffè espresso

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