Archived Posts from this Category

While we were out…

Posted by on 23 Jun 2008 | Filed under:

Thought went belly up there for a while, didn’t you? If not, we certainly did.

On Saturday, June 14, our subscription with our Web hosting provider (Burton Hosting: avoid like the plague) automatically renewed after a credit card payment cleared. The next thing you know, the DNS to route traffic to (and all e-mail, etc.) was completely botched up for over a week.

Which is when we learned how bad things can get when a Web hosting provider slowly pulls their own plug without telling you anything: emergency tickets go unanswered for more than a week, you discover support phone lines have been disconnected since you last used them, and all e-mails to former e-mail contacts there go unanswered as well.

Essentially, our current Web hosting provider appears to be a sinking ship, so we’re trying to refrain from posting much here with the expectation that the lights could go out at any moment. Databases have been backed up in triplicate, and we’re in the process of planning a switchover to a new host that might actually have a live human or two behind the operation.

You can read more about it at – Our Nomadic Home (, which we’ve designated as an alternate information source while we go through this transition.

Thanks for hanging in there, and sorry for the mess. The mops are out, and we’re going to be in a bit of a tussle trying to wrest control of our domain name from a business that apparently exists only as an answering machine in a broom closet somewhere in England.

San Francisco magazine feature on local coffee: A new buzz

Posted by on 07 May 2008 | Filed under:, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

As we hinted in a previous post, San Francisco magazine just published Josh Sens’ story on the more recent evolution of San Francisco’s local coffee scene in its most recent issue: A new buzz | San Francisco online. (There’s even an article featuring on the back page: The coffee bard | San Francisco online.)

The article features Coffee Bar, Blue Bottle Cafe, Ritual Coffee Roasters (including some great quotes from one of our favorite area baristas and coffee writers, Gabe Boscana), and Trouble Coffee. A couple of interesting points Mr. Sens raises in his article include:

  • “It’s just coffee” — Running a business that really cares about the details involved with good coffee often requires a thick skin — especially in the face of the many knee-jerk reactionaries who ridicule what they see as coffee elitism. (I.e., “Folgers’ Crystals was good enough for my parents, and it should be good enough for you too.”)
  • The Caffeine Factor — Trouble Coffee’s Giulietta Carrelli directly addressed the role caffeine plays in good coffee, which Mr. Sens found unorthodox and refreshing. In many ways, we appreciate the decaffeinated coffee drinker as a sort of “true” lover of coffee, independent of its psycho-chemical effects (i.e., its about “enjoyment” rather than “usage”). But there’s a reason why Duncan Hines is the #3 consumer of purified caffeine: the caffeine enhances the “mouth-watering taste” (OK, that’s a bit subjective) of their brownie mixes.

Photographer Michael Jang photographing his subject at Higher Grounds, SF

Pursuit of the ‘God shot’ and the home espresso agnostic

Posted by on 25 Mar 2008 | Filed under:, Home Brew, Machine

Last week, the Guardian (UK) published an article on a home espresso enthusiast’s journey to obsession: In pursuit of the ‘God shot’ | Food and drink | Life and Health. Having reviewed almost 600 espresso shots in SF proper ourselves — most of them pretty bad — we’d like to believe we know a thing or two (a thing or two too many) about obsession. But the pursuit of the “God shot” — the unachievable attainment of the perfect espresso — is a common story among home espresso enthusiasts.

As highlighted in the article, the story typically starts with a “starter” espresso machine — the gateway drug. It then soon leads to machine upgrades, grinder upgrades, and tampers. Conversations with fellow home enthusiasts via online forums (what they were known as before “social networking” became the phrase du jour — and the beginning of the end of the Internet’s second bubble) lead to more areas for obsession, lost kitchen counter space, and financial ruin. These typically include home roasting, naked portafilters, and the point of no return: PIDs.

PIDs, or Proportional-Integral-Derivative devices, are a programmable digital control unit, relay, and a temperature probe combined into one. They enable owners to control the temperature of a boiler to one-tenth of a degree for maximum brewing precision. Now I may be an electrical engineer by way of college degree, but I’ve always seen the PID as the first step of the descent into espresso madness. The point of no return.

My home espresso setup for the past 5 years: a Gaggia G106 and Mazzer Mini

Fact is that my home machine is a “simple” manual Gaggia G106 — the modest, illegitimate sister to the author’s original La Pavoni Europiccola. And OK, I also own a Mazzer Mini (pre-doserless model). I’m obviously part way to madness there. But why haven’t I been lured by the siren song of the “God shot”?

I could easily improve my home espresso set up. But there’s this thing called the law of diminishing returns. There comes a point where after every few hundred dollars of investment, how much better does your home espresso really get? And what is the dividing line between simply “enjoying coffee” — and enjoying only something that requires the equipment and budget of a high-energy physics lab that recreates the first few microseconds of the universe’s Big Bang? (My apologies to James: I like that you own a $20,000 siphon bar — so I don’t have to!)

I’m sure I’m missing out on something by not taking my obsession further. But then there’s a lot else in life I could be missing out on too.

In defense of better coffee, Or: What I did on my 15 minutes of fame

Posted by on 04 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Café Society,, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Dealing with the media can often feel like waiting for a Muni bus. Just when it’s been so long that you forgot that they exist, suddenly three pull up in a row over the span of a few minutes. This time the media frenzy surrounded the recent openings of Blue Bottle Cafe and Coffee Bar — with additional curiosity spent on filter coffee from the Clover brewer and James Freeman’s $20,000 siphon bar.

Trouble is that there are a lot of eyes that roll when they see things like $20,000 siphon bars and $11,000 Clover machines. “It’s just coffee!,” they mockingly say. “These pompous coffee snobs are rightfully getting ripped off.”

So we at wanted to put our 15 minutes of media fame to good use: to help promote better coffee in the Bay Area. (By saying “we” instead of “I”, it at least helps me to believe there’s more than one Bay Area resident who wants better coffee standards in town.)

James Freeman on camera describes how his infamous siphon bar works James and Amy Hollyfield on camera for ABC 7 TV Morning News

Coffee Achievers, Coffee Believers, and Coffee Agnostics

Fortunately, I didn’t encounter much “are you out of your caffeinated mind?!” reporting. ABC 7 TV (KGO) Morning News, for example, had a lot of fun doing a recent coffee story — as I did shooting it with them: San Francisco coffee bars offer unique, expensive brew 2/08/08. This wasn’t entirely surprising, given that Amy Hollyfield and the rest of the morning TV crew has to get out of bed at 3 a.m. every day for the 5 o’clock News. Let’s just say they have developed a deep appreciation for chemical stimulants, yet they’re rather particular about their morning coffee. (Big Peet’s fans — they thumbed their noses at Starbucks.)

Last month they brought me along as their “expert taster” (their words, not mine) for a TV segment ride-along to Blue Bottle Cafe and Coffee Bar to evaluate some of the newer technologies in brewed coffee. (Classically, at Blue Bottle Cafe the next day, James Freeman asked me if I saw the piece that aired on TV that morning — as he doesn’t own a television.)

Blue Bottle Cafe's cold-brewed coffee setup Coffee Bar's coffee menu

Jason Paul of Coffee Bar on camera with Amy Hollyfield Luigi DiRuocco demonstrates Coffee Bar's Clover brewer for the camera

Then last weekend I hooked up with Josh Sens, a reporter writing a story on Bay Area coffee for San Francisco magazine, and his food-writing/TV-show-producing friend, Sarah Alder, for a coffee-tasting ride-along in San Francisco. Also quite a caffeinated road trip blast, we visited Blue Bottle Cafe, Trouble Coffee, Ritual Roasters, and Caffe Bello. They particularly enjoyed Trouble Coffee for its off-the-wall quirkiness and good macchiati — but they were most impressed with Trouble’s “build your own damn house happy meal” consisting of coffee, toast, and a coconut (the entire shop menu) for $7. (Sarah gets the credit for all of the Trouble Coffee photos, save for the Happy Meal sign, associated with this post below.)

Given their mutual appreciation for good food and wine, my obsessive coffee habits weren’t too off-putting. Josh asked a lot of intelligent, detailed questions about coffee production, preparation, and the industry, and I’ve put him through a bit of my address book for follow-up interviews. It promises to be an interesting piece that should come out in the next 2-3 months.

Trouble Coffee is in Trouble Coffee advertises their own Happy Meal

Coffee shop or found art installation? It's Trouble Coffee The Trouble Coffee Happy Meal: coffee, toast, and coconut

It’s Just Coffee!

A bit more unusual was my interview with Joe Eskenazi, who wrote a similar story for the SF Weekly a couple weeks ago: San Francisco – News – SF’s $12 Cup of Coffee at Blue Bottle Cafe. (Their Web site even included a brief bio piece: News & Politics: The Snitch – Too-Much-Coffee Man: San Franciscan’s Java Obsession Has Led Him to Rate Every Last Cafe in The City (From 1 to 587).)

From that experience, I learned a little more about the art of the media misquote. In the article, Joe quoted me as saying of Blue Bottle Cafe’s siphon bar coffee, “It’s probably not something I’d pay for more than once a month.” However, just as the article’s title misleadingly mistakes a $12 pot for a $12 cup, I was referring to a personally drinking an entire pot of the stuff by myself. Simple mistakes, or examples of poetic license to amp up a story intended to expose the excess of coffee gluttony? You be the judge.

The question is valid — but more for the line of questioning that (thankfully) never made it in the article. In typical SF Weekly socialist bias fashion, I was asked, “There are a lot of homeless people living around the Blue Bottle Cafe’s neighborhood. How can you justify a $10 cup [sic] of coffee when you have to step over the homeless to get it?”

Champagne ethics on a beer budget

Forget for a moment the illogic of buying a $1 cup of dreck at Lee’s Deli as a cure for homelessness. Some people in this town will whine to no end demanding the purest organics, sustainable farms, and well-paid workers with living wages and health benefits … and yet have a coronary if somebody actually expects them to pay for all of that.

One could argue that you could save the spare change from buying cheaper coffee (though screw the workers exploited to grow, store, ship, and serve it to you) and donate the difference to the needy. But what is it about good coffee that is somehow less ethical than buying your clothes somewhere other than Goodwill or relying on a mode of transit other than a bicycle?

Of course, getting this line of questioning from a publication largely funded by its final few pages loaded weekly with ads for escort services and every other form of female sexploitation imaginable raises a whole other set of ethical questions, but let’s stick to coffee.

Even Dante’s Hell puts good coffee in only the third circle

Is premium coffee at a premium price so self-indulgent as to corrupt the moral fiber of our nation? Every time I think that I’m getting too obsessive, elitist, or pretentious about coffee, all I have to do is look at a site like Chowhound and read users’ “trip reports” of restaurant meals, their price tags, and their insular critiques of citrus foam or xiao long bao. Believe you me — we had better hope One Laptop per Child doesn’t succeed at connecting much of the Third World to the Internet. Otherwise hoards of outraged, starving villagers will want to suicide bomb the living crap out of this country after reading sites like Chowhound.

The critical consumptionism of is already shaky ground. But when you elevate that to competitive criticism of consumption — while seeming so blissfully unaware of how offensive that might be perceived by anyone else — you may as well hand out duct tape, bags of nails, and explosives.

Yet another reason why might never solicit open user reviews…

The Art of the Italian Espresso | PRI’s The World

Posted by on 28 Feb 2008 | Filed under: Barista,, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

Yesterday Public Radio International’s (PRI) The World aired a broadcast on the Italian espresso: Espresso | PRI’s The World. While every news outlet in America was regurgitating Starbucks‘ publicity over their token three-hour store closure for employee training, reporter David Leveille took a different approach by interviewing the art of the espresso from a distinctly Italian perspective.

(David Leveille tried to contact me for an interview for this story yesterday morning — he was particularly interested because this blog regularly cites the Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia. But alas, that day job thing kept me from getting back to him in time for his deadline.)

The radio story gets a few details wrong — for example, a proper espresso is produced with near-boiling water, not steam as reported in the story. But the story outlines how Italian baristas “perfect their craft over the period of years, not hours”. It even includes an interview with the head barista at Sant’Eustachio il caffè, who is as comically arrogant and opaque about their methods and materials as you’d expect from this beloved café. (There’s something about Europeans and the ceremony of the safely guarded culinary secret, such as the Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon.)

Starbucks baristas undergo reprogramming at 2nd & Market Sts. on Feb 26 Tough times for Starbucks customers: at 5th and Market Sts.

You can’t get that from here: Caffè Mokabar

Posted by on 23 Feb 2008 | Filed under: Beans,, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Occasionally this Web site can be the source of a real life story, and the story of Caffè Mokabar is a good one. For a little background, after a couple weeks of espresso research in Piemonte, Italy last October, we were most duly impressed with Caffè Mokabar among all the coffee roasters we encountered. So when I wanted an authentic regional import to serve with a Piemontese meal my wife was planning for the private supper club she operates in the city, I scoured the Internet for Caffè Mokabar…but to no avail. Back then (unlike now) they didn’t even have a public Web site. So I settled on a U.S. distributor of Caffè Costadoro that I found.

Not long after, a comment appeared on this blog from Andrea Bertolino, Marketing Manager at Caffè Mokabar and grandson of company founder, Ermenegildo Bertolino. We later connected over e-mail and exchanged our mutual appreciations for great coffee — and immediately discovered that we were both are rabid fans of the Torino-based soccer club, Juventus F.C.. (In fact, Andrea descends a long family line of season-ticket-holding juventini.)

My Caffè Mokabar contraband stash, courtesy of Roberto Cauda Second choice: Caffè Costadoro, as purchased via A&A Coffee Importers of Santa Ana, CA

No coffee hooliganism allowed

Andrea then introduced me over e-mail to his childhood friend from the ‘hood, Roberto Cauda, who was swinging by SF as part of his travels to a Las Vegas technical conference and could bring me a stash of Caffè Mokabar — which is unavailable in the U.S. However, there was one catch. Roberto was born an avid Torino F.C. fan, a granata, the cross-city rivals who would love nothing more than to see Juventus burnt to the ground in flames if not for the fact that both clubs have shared Torino’s Stadio Olimpico (i.e., 2006 Olympic Stadium) for the past couple of seasons (and for many, many years prior to 1990).

For a little context, a lifelong friendship with an inherent football (soccer) rivalry like that is not far off from the Montagues and Capulets of nearby Shakespearean Verona fame. It’s ten times worse than the 49ers vs. Raiders fan rivalry. And just before our October travels to Piemonte, Juventus played Torino at the Stadio Olimpico for the first leg of the season’s Derby della Mole — which was spectacularly won by Juventus with a last-minute thriller of a goal by David Trezeguet that had me jumping on my sofa at home (but also ruing that I didn’t schedule my trip for a week earlier so I could attend the match).

Last month I met Roberto at SF’s Grand Hyatt, and Roberto unloaded a kilo and a half of precious Caffè Mokabar on me. And upon seeing me in my Juventus jacket (of course I had to wear it, as much as Andrea wished he could have witnessed that), Roberto made it clear under no uncertain terms that no word nor photographic evidence of himself fraternizing with a guy in a Juventus jacket could ever come back to Italy. (So hopefully there are no granata reading this. 😉 )

In all seriousness, Roberto was great company and I showed him around town for the evening. Being on neutral turf in America, perhaps it’s a bit like the truce between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David. After all, I have good friends in Italy who are granata (“some of by best friends are…”). Though Roby shot me an e-mail upon returning to Malpensa afterwards: “P.S. you need a decent jacket :-)”.

Andrea on the left with his father, uncles, and grandfather -- all Juventus fans Caffè Mokabar beans

Now about the coffee…

Given my home use of Caffè Mokabar’s best arabica-only blend, did it compare favorably with my experiences in Piemonte? One rule of thumb we’ve long held is that virtually any locally roasted coffee can be superior to even the best imports — given the freshness difference. Illy is a perfect example of quality that is outstanding in Europe but yet doesn’t translate as well in the U.S. — once shipped for many days and thousands of miles to SF as an oxidizing roast. This no matter how much inert gas or other freshness measures the roasters might take.

However, we were surprised with how full its flavor was — and how much it held up, including its volume of crema it produces (the canary in the mine for coffee freshness), over time. Given that it was an all-arabica blend (as is Illy), it produced a surprising amount of crema and managed to have a rather well-rounded flavor profile. (The typical Italian coffee blend for espresso leverages some quality robusta for these merits.)

Andrea was quick to acknowledge Illy as a great quality product for anyone to aspire to. And he was quick to mention how it was worthy of its considerable expense — just as Mark Prince mentioned in comments here how Ernesto Illy would have wanted it that way. But price even aside, I’d take this stuff over Illy beans in a heartbeat every time.

The coffee holds up to a finer grind well. I tightened up my Mazzer Mini on it without the grinds “gumming up” together in the portafilter. Part of that is certainly due to the more modest roast depth of the blend. And as far as the flavor of the blend goes, that’s completely subjective — many people simply cannot stand the flavor of Lavazza, for example, regardless of freshness. But there are a few blends that really “wow” me in flavor even after the freshness fades, and this is one of them.

Caffè Mokabar needs a distributor in the U.S. — so if we don’t pick that job up ourselves, you’ll at least have us as customers. Because unfortunately we’re all out! A big thanks to Roberto, Andrea, and the Bertolino family for underwriting this post with great coffee carried thousands of miles to reach us. I’ll be thinking of them when the next Derby della Mole takes place this Tuesday.

Roberto Cauda, at the top of the BofA building after dropping off 'the package' The proof is in the cup: a Caffè Mokabar home espresso

A machine with a taste for espresso

Posted by on 09 Feb 2008 | Filed under:, Quality Issues

What will those wacky Swiss think up next? Apparently, it’s an espresso-tasting machine: A machine with a taste-for espresso.

Yes, it’s the latest invention from the people who brought us yodeling and clandestine overseas bank accounts. But with the Swiss, it’s not all good stuff. They have also brought us brain-dead, monkey-operated, superautomated espresso machines — such as those manufactured by Franke, Nespresso, the Schaerer. (The latter of which is responsible for the dreaded Verismo, part of a secret Swiss plot to bring about the downfall of Starbucks.)

So the nation that has built robots to do everything from stacking wheels of cheese to pumping out sickly cups of espresso has turned its attention to espresso tasting. (More sophisticated coffee industry robots that also wear hoodies and bike messenger bags, collect tatts, and listen to Cat Power on iPods are apparently still in the works.)

The machine operates by analyzing gases released by a heat­ed es­pres­so sam­ple. By evaluating some of the over 1,500 aromatic and flavor compounds in a brewed espresso, the developers hope to replace a lot of the human profiling that still goes on in coffee production. A study on the effectiveness of the device, which is rumored to be nearly as ac­cu­rate as a pan­el of trained hu­man es­pres­so tasters, is planned for publication in the March issue of An­a­lyt­i­cal Chem­is­try.

Robots to brew, robots to drink

The coffee industry still relies heavily on human senses for evaluating what makes a good cup. While some day a Swiss-made, espresso-tasting robot may put out of business, I was also struck by something James Freeman told me yesterday at his new Blue Bottle Cafe. He took a moment to sample his siphon bar coffee after serving it — noting how he was impressed with how the bartenders at his neighborhood Nopa often sample their cocktails from the ends of stirring straws as a way to keep tabs on the resulting product.

Technology can go a long way towards modeling the physical world. But until coffee is served by robots for robots, chances are that some things just can’t be replaced without the human touch.

UPDATE: Feb. 12, 2008
More news of this story is starting to hit the presses. This includes the Royal Society of Chemistry, which uses espresso-tasting profile charts as illustrated by the Centro Studi e Formazione Assaggiatori: Machines get a taste for espresso. There’s also the actual ACS publication: When Machine Tastes Coffee: Instrumental Approach To Predict the Sensory Profile of Espresso Coffee, where other blogs have excerpted some of its illustrations. Plus a weak, one-minute audio spot from Scientific American: Scientific American: Coffee Tasting Machine Stirs Industry.

It’s 2008. Why are we still reviewing coffee houses as if they were gas stations?

Posted by on 28 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Café Society,, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Every time we think about how far we’ve come with the mass cultural awareness and appreciation of specialty coffee in this country, we’re slapped in the face with reminders of how far we still have to go. One perfect example of this is the sorry, antiquated state of the coffee house review — whether in newspapers, on TV, online, or even by bloggers.

It’s been more than a decade since the popular proliferation of Starbucks, and yet everyone from the food editors at big newspapers to local bloggers still approach reviewing coffee bars as if they were gas stations. Sure, we get plenty of information about what they charge for Corn Nuts, bathroom cleanliness, if they carry six-packs of Fat Tire beer, and the freshness of their nachos … but why would anyone in their right mind comment on the quality of their gas? Or at least that seems to be the logic.

Meanwhile, newspaper readers apparently can’t get enough smack talk comparing Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks coffee. And yet our society is more critical and discerning about the quality, variety, and flavors of cat food than it is about coffee. got your tongue?

If only it were just the espresso backwaters — towns that greeted the opening of their first hometown Starbucks like the arrival of the Pony Express. (For a textbook example from today’s Florida State University newspaper: Wake up and smell the coffee – Arts & Life – A guide to local coffee shops in Tallahassee. Please, tell us more about pre-packaged macaroni & cheese and walks around the lake.) But recently even New York magazine openly admitted they were befuddled on how to review a coffee bar.

Last week, the New York Times — provider of detailed food and wine reviews for decades — could only go far enough in their review of the new Blue Bottle Cafe to obsess over the price tag on a coffee brewer. But turn to TIME magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year for an opinion, and you still can’t get a straight, useful answer. Yelp reviewers, for example, proved yet again that they aren’t concerned with the quality of the coffee as much as employee attire, paper to-go cups, and garage ambiance (what the ?) — or that they are more discriminating about their gasoline than their coffee.

Coffee isn’t the new wine … it’s the new gasoline is in its fifth year of publishing on the Internet, and yet we’re surprised that we are still one of the few resources out there that has given this subject any service. It’s not like we had to invent the SCAA coffee tasting criteria or the IIAC espresso tasting cards either — all of this has existed for years prior. We keep reading about how coffee is supposed to be the new wine, and wine has reviewers and ratings in spades. So why are we all still brain-dead about coffee quality?

Can someone else please pick up the ball here and help lead us out of the coffee Dark Ages? As much as we might try, we can’t do this all ourselves. We can barely cover most of San Francisco. Because if we’re going to be expected to drop $4 for a double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato in Anytown, U.S.A., is it too much to ask for some thoughtful evaluation of the coffee quality?

Best of Citysearch San Francisco 2007 – Best San Francisco Coffee

Posted by on 11 Aug 2007 | Filed under:, Local Brew, Quality Issues

This week, announced that the votes have been tallied once again for their annual “Best Coffee” poll: Best of Citysearch San Francisco 2007 – Best San Francisco Coffee. And is there anything more effective than the annual readers poll for highlighting all the anomalies and flaws of open user review systems? I know I like being reminded every year that Chevy’s is the best Mexican restaurant this metropolis, with its proud Latino heritage, has to offer.

So, without further ado, here is a summary of their 2007 readers’ poll winners — along with their corresponding 2006 rankings and their current ranks on (many of which are tied with others for the same ranking, btw).

Name 2007 Citysearch rank 2006 Citysearch rank 2007 rank
Cafe Lo Cubano 1 10 36
Peet’s Coffee & Tea 2 3 14 †
Caffé Trieste 3 1 45 †
Café Abir 4 2 478
Dolores Park Cafe 5 4 99
Farley’s Coffeehouse 6 5 57
Tartine Bakery 7 302
Blue Bottle Coffee Company 8 6 1
Sugar Café 9 221
Gallery Café 10 99

† — Highest-rated of multiple cafés in the chain chosen for ranking
‡ — 2007 Citysearch Editorial Winner (also 2006 Editorial Winner)

Like the Citysearch editors at least, we do love Blue Bottle. Even if they make up crack-pot drinks like the Gibraltar — named after the glass it comes in, and said to be a cross between a latte and a cappuccino. (Given that most San Francisco cappuccini are more like voluminous, full-on caffè latti in Italy, I’m really not sure of the point. This would be like 7-Eleven offering a 32-oz Big Gulp as a step down from their 44-oz Super Big Gulp®.)

But dropping off Citysearch’s “Best of” list in 2007 were:

Out with the old, in with the new, perhaps? Well, if by “new” you mean being replaced by three entries that don’t quite rank in the Top 100 for SF. (There are currently 25 places tied for 99th, and it’s unlikely that Gallery Café could come out on top in a tie-breaker.) Of course, that says nothing of the neighborhood lobbyists who haven’t ventured very far and consistently rank Café Abir and Tartine Bakery on this poll.

Speaking of Tartine Bakery, after taking a year off the list, Citysearch reviewers once again lost their minds and returned it for an appearance in 2007 — the only returnee to Citysearch’s Top 10 list. This despite the fact that their sister restaurant, Bar Tartine, serves espresso good enough to crack the Top 100 and yet doesn’t rank on Citysearch. Ah, those cruel anomalies…

If I ever begin to think that has become redundant and superfluous for Bay Area espresso lovers, annual reader polls like this do wonders to keep me putting off “retirement.”

Why a five-star restaurant serves one-star food, Or: Why I don’t use Yelp

Posted by on 13 Jun 2007 | Filed under:, Local Brew

Today a Salon magazine blog touched on the flaws of the many online review sites: Why a five-star restaurant serves one-star food – Machinist: Tech Blog, Tech News, Technology Articles – Salon.

The writer opens with an anecdote about Yelp — a review site that, in my experience, has long epitomized these flaws (see my lone Yelp review). The writer stepped into a weekend breakfast café that thirty-eight Yelp reviewers gave an average rating of 4.5 stars (out of 5 possible stars), and yet he perplexingly “gulped down limp slabs of two-star French toast, sipped at one-star coffee, and took in the ordinary two-star ambience.” What gives?

In the case of Yelp, I believe it’s the form of the “popularity contest” they’ve created, the nature of Yelp reviewers, and the dynamics Yelp has created to incent these reviewers. (Some readers here may recall that Yelp approached me in their very early days to write café reviews for them, and my reply was that I created back in 2003 directly out of my frustration with sites like Yelp.)

Sites like Yelp have a tendency for reviewers to weigh unusual biases — such as a perceived value for the money (“all-you-can-eat soggy French toast for $2?!…Five stars!”), extra credit for obscurity and the hipness quotient that bestows on the establishment as well as the reviewer (“Frank Chu‘s mom doesn’t make French toast for everybody, but we go way back and she deserves to be Yelped…Five stars!”), etc. It has since gotten to the point where I find CitySearch‘s restaurant user reviews more useful than Yelp’s.

While you might say that Yelp is CitySearch’s user reviews with the “Web2.0” veneer of social networking, unfortunately that social element creates a competition between Yelp users and serves as a major underlying driver for the reviewing process. Too often the game isn’t about good, fair, and accurate reviews (externally focused) — it’s about ego and online social posturing (internally focused).

Response bias

But none of that is mentioned by the writer of the Salon article. Rather, he pursues the problem of what’s called response bias. It manifests itself in skewed ratings where, as often happens, most everybody is better than the average — a mathematical impossibility. For example, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told the writer that “85 percent of local businesses on the site get a three-star or better average rating.”

But it’s not just star inflation either — user ratings on sites like show compression at the high and low ends of the scale, and relatively few ratings inbetween. Perhaps ambivalent, middle-of-the-road reviews just don’t inspire any of us to submit our thoughts to a Web site. We have to love it or hate it.

All of this comes back to my motivations for personally reviewing as many cups of espresso as I could find in this town. Sure, nobody can review everything with consistency. But just how valuable is my four-star rating for a Burmese restaurant if I’ve been to very few for comparison?

So in the interest of full disclosure of my own espresso reviews here, some self-examination was in order. Evaluating my 595 (and counting) espresso ratings in San Francisco alone (which includes establishments since closed), what follows here are the average ratings for a variety of different rating criteria — each made on a scale of 0-10:

Criteria Avg. Rating Notes
aroma 5.339
brightness 5.533 This was a touch higher than I expected
body 5.316
crema 5.237
flavor 5.427 This was also surprisingly a touch high
correction -0.105 Cupper’s correction was slightly negative
coffee rating 5.2654

And then there is the similar question of my café rating criteria:

Criteria Avg. Rating Notes
ambiance 5.939 Serious inflation!
barista 4.834 Here is where I held the toughest standards
presentation 5.602 I gotta get tougher on paper cups
savvy 4.946 Not too generous here either
cafe rating 5.3302 Saved by ambiance!
net rating 5.2978
price $1.699 That comes to $1,010.91 for 595 espressos

All things considered — outside of my clearly biased ambiance ratings — I’m pretty happy with the results of this spot check. If you consider that 5.0 should be about the center point, these averages aren’t out of whack. And I dare you to find many 10s or 0s on our reviews.

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