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Home Espresso: Delving Deeper Into Coffee

Posted by on 02 Apr 2007 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Home Brew, Quality Issues

Last month I mentioned an article on David Lebovitz’s site regarding his recent training at Illy‘s Università del caffè in Trieste, Italy. David is a professionally trained pastry chef and writer, and recently he’s taken up a bit of an obsession with quality home espresso production. (Sound familiar?)

Today his site features an article and “Top 8″ list I wrote for his audience on taking home espresso to the next level: David Lebovitz: Delving Deeper Into Coffee.

Best of Citysearch San Francisco – Best San Francisco Coffee 2006

Posted by on 10 Feb 2007 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew, Quality Issues

I’m a little slow this time around, but not long ago Citysearch.com announced their 2006 readers’ poll winners for the best coffee in San Francisco: Best of Citysearch San Francisco – Best San Francisco Coffee. This is something of an annual tradition, as we reviewed Citysearch’s 2005 coffee winners. (When you think of it, naming anything “first annual” is rather non-sensical.)

So here, in summary, are their 2006 readers’ poll winners — along with their corresponding 2005 ranks and their current ranks on CoffeeRatings.com (many of which are tied with others for the same ranking, btw).

Name 2006 Citysearch rank 2005 Citysearch rank 2007 CoffeeRatings.com rank
Caffé Trieste 1 7 41 †
Café Abir 2 4 440
Peet’s Coffee & Tea 3 2 9 †
Dolores Park Cafe 4 1 89
Farley’s Coffeehouse 5 3 52
Blue Bottle Coffee ‡ 6 2 †
Caffe Greco 7 9 66
Blue Danube 8 8 204
Caffe Roma 9 31 †
Cafe Lo Cubano 10 31

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

Dropping off Citysearch’s “Best of” list in 2006 were:

  • Tartine Bakery (formerly #5) — Maybe readers finally saw through the Martha Stewart smokescreen?
  • Mr. Espresso (formerly #6) — A deserving candidate. But I’m shocked that they even listed last year, given that they don’t sell prepared coffee to the retail public.
  • The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (formerly #10) — More outlets in S.F., and around the world, and perhaps not enough votes from L.A. transplants this time around.

Perhaps the most surprising omission in all of this is Ritual Coffee Roasters, the reigning #1 on CoffeeRatings.com for almost a year now. And while I may be just one vote, hopefully that means something — because I seriously doubt any of these readers made their top picks by comparing their choices with 526 other places they’ve tried in S.F. (And I’m not even getting into the use of objective criteria and standardized comparisons.)

And thus lies the major problem with popularity polls like this. Just how many people voted for Café Abir as having the best S.F. coffee after making a serious, objective comparison with one or two dozen other places in the city — let alone finding them ranking just below 439 others on their “Best of” list? (Though I am long overdue for a revisit there.) This is why I find Citysearch’s Editorial Winner choice as the most credible piece of information about the whole exercise.

If you have ever witnessed a Battle-of-the-Bands-like popularity contest, popularity polls like Citysearch’s “Best of” or open popularity contest (“review”) sites like Yelp are no different. While there’s a chance that some trendlines emerge with multiple votes, the truth is that there is no baseline… no control set… no standards upon which to judge. As a result, all these polls do is end up re-enforcing what we collectively already know — and not exploring what we collectively don’t know, but probably should know. We learn only about ourselves and nothing about good coffee. Because unfortunately, popularity rarely equates with quality.

Personal History: My Two-Year Journey Into the Caffeine Desert

Posted by on 06 Jan 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Home Brew

John Walker, a freelance gaming journalist in the UK, wrote in his blog today about his experiences giving up coffee — on doctor’s orders to relieve anxiety symptoms: bothererblog » Diary Of A Coffee Addict. I commented in his blog about my own experiences of giving up all caffeine for a couple of years back in 2000. Clearly, from the looks of CoffeeRatings.com, I have been what you might call “off the wagon” (or is that “off the Swiss water”?) for years now. But because the story is relevant enough, I felt it worth repeating here — with a bit of my own personal coffee history.

Not trying to sound like this month’s Barista Magazine interview with David Schomer, my first memories of drinking coffee go back to when I was about eight-years-old during the 1970s. This was in an era when corporate America was not yet savvy enough to squeeze every penny of profit out of customers. Retailers, from the local A&P to the neighborhood savings & loan, frequently offered free coffee to their customers. (Contrast with today, where a recent trip to BMW of San Francisco revealed that even a potential $40,000 car buyer must carry quarters to pay for their own cup of coffee.)

From then on, I had coffee off and on, but I still didn’t quite buy into the adult mystique of it. Then in 1989, while living and working in Maryland, I visited U.C. Berkeley as a potential grad student. I was easily impressed when a professor nonchalantly invited me to talk shop over a cappuccino (“heard about them, never had one”) from one of the many espresso kiosks along Bancroft Way. It was coffee like I never had before; though by today’s standards, Starbucks was likely a step up. That year, I moved to California to start graduate school at a joint Berkeley-UCSF program. And although it wasn’t the West Coast espresso that brought me here, it was occasionally a nice convenience compared with the one-dimensional coffee served in much of the rest of the country at the time.

From Addict to Recovering Addict

It slowly evolved into a regular habit, with my awareness of better coffee growing over time. But after several years of being a daily drinker of good coffee, drip as well as the occasional espresso, some evil voice of a modern temperance movement got into my head. Noticing the caffeine headaches I would get if I went a day without coffee, I started to think that giving up the stuff — and all caffeine for that matter — might be personally purifying and a healthier alternative. (Of course, I am also a former vegetarian who gave up meat for a couple of years during grad school, so perhaps there’s a pattern in this.)

Then in early 2000, I stumbled upon the most convenient timing: I decided to quit caffeine the day I scheduled my elective sinus surgery. Oh sure, I would have a massive pounding headache for a while. But would I really notice the difference between that and having my sinuses packed with gauze during my recovery? My doc even prescribed all the Vicodin I would ever need to get through it. (Not that I was worried about going down the road of a Brett Favre or Rush Limbaugh, but I’m a bit of a masochist who prefers to endure the pain unless I really need the meds. And on the theme of personal purification, ultimately I took none of it.)

I was coffee-free for the longest time; I missed the flavor, but not immensely. And while the purification thing seemed like a nice purge, it truly had little effect on my quality of life. The caffeine never had much effect on me, other than my withdrawl headache symptoms; I could always down a couple of double-espressos an hour before bed and still sleep like it was a glass of milk. Unfortunately, I believe some people are genetically/biologically predisposed to heightened chemical sensitivity to caffeine — not unlike the way some people can fall violently ill with just the smell of perfume.

“Again, can someone explain to me why this was a good idea?”

Then came a 2002 return trip to Italy, and, as with my prior vegetarianism stint, the whole denial thing suddenly seemed absurd. And while Italian espresso suffers from a sort of sameness, their baseline was (is) so far and away better than the U.S. baseline, I revelled in the convenience of being able to go anywhere and have good espresso. I decided then that I was born to be a coffee drinker, and I was only betraying my true nature as a human being. Who am I to defy God’s gift of my caffeine insensitivity?

Of course, the rest is history. A familiar story to anyone who has caught the good coffee disease, my death spiral into the pursuit of better and better coffee only accelerated. Italy was my gateway drug to the hard stuff of home espresso, home roasting, and cries for help that lead to CoffeeRatings.com.

In the end, the caffeine angle is an amusing one — given that espresso, my coffee beverage of choice, is one of your better options. Culturally, at least in America, we errantly behold espresso as if it were an intravenous drip of pure caffeine. Writers and editors constantly riff on espresso as a euphemism for the most potent infusion of caffeine your veins can handle. Pulling an all-nighter? Six cups of coffee won’t do, but six espressos will keep you awake from now until Christ’s second coming. (For example, last year, San Francisco magazine even resorted to calling me a “caffeinista”.) Yet if made properly — i.e., without all the water-soluble muck that comes tumbling out into your typical over-extracted American espresso — it has less caffeine than your average drip coffee.

I Have Returned…

Posted by on 26 Oct 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Foreign Brew

This is as good as a General Douglas MacArthur impersionation as you’ll ever get from me. After three weeks of touring most of central and northern Portugal, I’ve finally returned to the Bay Area.

The good news? I have many stories and photos to convey on the status and quality of espresso in Portugal as a point of comparison. While Portugal might not quite be Italy per se, it is a country that loves its espresso (and soccer … how could I not enjoy a nation with such priorities?). Whether it’s 2am revellers between clubs in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, cape-wearing students holding late-night cramming sessions at the 13th century Universidade de Coimbra, or port wine ship captains heading down the Douro River to the Vila Nova de Gaia, it’s impossible to imagine this country functioning without decent espresso woven into the social fabric of daily life.

And while I did not encounter a single Starbucks or other known U.S. chain in the entire country, there were some European phenomena afoot — such as my discovery of an Illy Espressamente café located in the walls of the Praça de Touros do Campo Pequeno, a Moorish-styled bullring in the geographic center of Lisbon.

The bad news? I just caught a flight back from Lisbon at 8:30am this morning (that’s 12:30am local time). So my brain is a bit fried still, and it’s going to be several days before I can get my act back in order and post anything coherent here. But stay tuned for more on my past three weeks of espresso travels … as soon as I can dig out of all that life brings when you’re away for that long.

CoffeeRatings.com Reaches 500

Posted by on 05 Oct 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew

Every once in a while it becomes necessary to celebrate an arbitrary milestone. And we have one today: for the first time, CoffeeRatings.com reached 500 active espresso ratings for San Francisco.

What’s so arbitrary about it? For one, the 500 milestone was actually passed many months ago. While CoffeeRatings.com‘s focus has been San Francisco proper, there are a number of non-SF ratings that aren’t currently available (or readily available: e.g., Chicago) through the Web site (by design).

Another arbitrary factor? Although the ratings for CoffeeRatings.com have been compiled in just a little over three years, there has been a bit of churn created by a number of café and restaurant closures in that time. These vary from the high profile examples of Café Organica‘s closure due to labor disputes (among other matters), café ownership changes (e.g., Cafe ? to Cafe Bello and Cafe Melroy to Ajatea Café), Starbucks’ buy out and pillaging of chains such as Torrefazione Italia, and outright closures of hardly missed spots like Trans Cafe … and quite literally a guy named Joe — who sold sidewalk espresso from a mobile Verismo machine he connected by extension cord to the downtown Sherman Clay piano shop. And there are undoubtedly more closures and ownership changes I haven’t discovered yet.

Still, there are plenty of stones left unturned in SF alone. I estimate that between the various corner restaurants with espresso machines to every outlet of Peet’s or Starbucks, there are several hundred more to go. (And unfortunately, most of them are probably too foul to recommend.) So how am I celebrating? By (mostly) taking a few weeks off of posting here, for one, as CoffeeRatings.com is going on assignment. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with spare pictures from review #500: the all-glam-and-no-quality Cocola Bakery & Pastry fittingly in the newly opened cathedral to consumerism, the Westfield Centre.

All behold the Reichstag to poor espresso Looking down to look up

Machine tuning matters

Posted by on 31 Jul 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

If there’s any wonder about the importance of machine service and its impact on the quality of espresso, look no further than the home version of the espresso making game.

Over the past several weeks, my home espresso machine was showing the telltale signs of failing gaskets and seals, which need replacement about once a year with regular use. The water pressure through the group head gradually went from a heavy flow to a trickle and then to a drip. Over time, though almost too subtle to notice, I was pulling my espresso shots differently to adjust to these pressurization changes.

I was taking more and more time to force sufficient water flow in the group head — compensating so I could generate the proper water pressure through the puck of ground coffee that I inserted into the portafilter. Because of this, hot water came into contact with the surface coffee for longer periods of time, changing the extraction of my shots to something much more than desired, and resulting in an uneven shot that contained more water-soluble, bitter elements in the cup.

Readying the home machine for disassembly Opening the group head for gasket replacement

The answer, of course, was to open up my machine and replace a number of seals and gaskets. This was my project yesterday. While a few gaskets were still in good shape (my machine contains nine different gaskets, six of which are in the group head assembly), the main pair of gaskets around the group head piston showed serious wear.

These seals were worn down from regular use and no longer held the tight pressure seal needed to properly control the water flow. In the photographs below, you can see the difference between the old, smoothed-down pair of rubber gaskets on the piston and what a new pair looks like in their place. The new gaskets “poke out” from the circumference of the piston, gripping the cylindrical piston wall with a much tighter seal.

Breaking out the wrenches, universal retaining ring pliers, and food-safe lubricant, it’s enough to make you feel like you’re rebuilding a car engine. But the bottom line is that my home machine makes a far better espresso once it has been serviced like this. Even so, such a fix still requires me to greatly adjust my espresso shot pulls to account for the improved pressure control.

So whether your favorite café uses a super-automatic, semi-automatic, or manual lever espresso machine, regular, professional machine service can make a huge difference in the quality of the espresso they produce. And if your home machine is making espresso that’s a lot worse off than it was a year ago, it’s probably time for a tune-up.

Notice the smooth, flattened two gaskets on the group head piston that need replacing Here's the same piston head with new gaskets - creating a much tighter seal in the group head cavity

When the fourth wave can’t come fast enough…

Posted by on 04 Jun 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Oh, the twist of fate. The utter irony of it. PF.net‘s Nick Cho must either be pulling his hair out or laughing his pehookies off with this one.

The Lowell Sun, of Lowell, MA, published an article today on a new “third wave” (gag, cough, spew) coffee house that’s moved into town: Lowell Sun Online – Better coffee, made slower Former Starbucks managers embark on ‘third wave’ of java revolution. The amusing part? The article cites this very Web site for its information defining “third wave” coffee.

A little background for the uninitiated. A couple months ago, I posted a rather dismissive article on the contept of third wave coffee that resulted in a bit of discussion among coffee aficionados and, in particular, advocates of the term. Also in particular, Nick Cho and I exchanged a few e-mails in debate over what “third wave” means … and I noted how it is being cited and misused in ways never intended by those who were among the original proponents of the concept.

On the one hand, being cited by the Lowell Sun proves the point I’ve tried to make with Nick all along: once the genie is out of the bottle with a pretentious term like “third wave”, public use is going to mutate it into whatever it wants it to be. But on the other hand, this validation is more than just a little maddening, because I’m now being cited as an “authority” on a concept I would like to see go away.

You can’t make stuff up this good… or bad. Though I suppose if I really had half a brain, I wouldn’t be bringing “third wave” coffee up again here. At least in the hope of letting it die a swift and silent death.

Third Wave Coffee, or First Wave Pompousness?

Posted by on 22 Apr 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

I have a lot of respect for Nick Cho, owner of Washington D.C.’s murky coffee. He’s established a place that pulls some of the best espresso shots on the East Coast. He’s arguably the primary brainchild behind the Portafilter.net podcasts. And he’s also known for his quality coffee industry “altruism”: supporting aspiring baristas and café owners who want to commit their livelihoods towards making some of the best espresso on the planet.

However, Nick Cho’s reputation will unfortunately always be marred by his association with one of the most arrogant and proposterous claims ever made in America’s modern day quality espresso business. It’s the notion that quality coffee is in its Third Wave, a.k.a. the “Third Wave of Coffee”.

This is particularly unfortunate because the idea isn’t even Mr. Cho’s to begin with. As even he once pointed out, the blame lies squarely with Trish Skeie — who otherwise is one of quality coffee’s luminaries, given her role behind the Sebastopol, CA roastery, Taylor Maid Farms. (She is now Director of Coffee for Seattle’s highly respected Zoka Coffee.) In my mailbox today, I found this month’s Barista Magazine, which features an article by Trish Skeie under the self-serving title, “Third Wave In Its Third Year.”

“Hey, baby, what’s your Wave?”

To boil this whole pompous wave theory down, a few years ago Ms. Skeie postulated that coffee consumption and preparation was progressing through three distinct transformations.

The First Wave is consumption — marked by America’s early preoccupation with poor quality coffee, often instant or freeze dried, that was more a caffeine and heat delivery mechanism than anything with an enjoyable flavor. The Second Wave is about enjoyment and defining specialty coffee — characterized by the selection of arabica beans over robusta, Colombian coffee’s Juan Valdez marketing campaign, and the proliferation of espresso and Starbucks.

So where are we now? Supposedly, this Third Wave is all about letting the coffee speak for itself — or enjoying coffee for coffee’s sake. Confused yet? You should be, because here are the problems with this logic and how people in the industry are misusing and abusing it…

Quality Espresso?: Not Invented Here

The whole Third Wave concept has since been bandied about in the specialty coffee industry as a sort of pompus and self-congratulatory marketing hype about their products and services — a self-appointed seal of approval. Yet this wave theory doesn’t describe the coffee or even how it is prepared. In actuality, it most accurately describes the coffee consumer. It has little, if anything, to do with the actual businesses that are now proudly tattooing Third Wave across their chests.

And here’s another problem with all those who like to think of themselves as Third Wave: the wave theory concept essentially presumes that quality espresso simply did not exist on this planet until three years ago (e.g.: Trish Skeie’s recent Barista Magazine article). In the world of quality coffee, this is akin to saying that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America — while ignoring the brain anyeurism that must have lead to our overlooking the Lucayans who had lived in the Bahamas for centuries prior.

The facts are that great espresso has existed long before naked portafilters, single-origin bean roasts, and other gimmickry that some might associate with the Third Wave. In Italy, for example, the four Msmiscela, macchina, macinatura, and mano (or the beans/blend, the machine, the grind, and the “hand”) — have been widely recognized as the fundamental keys to great espresso for generations. Even to this day.

Even here in our backyard, businesses such as Mr. Espresso have been promoting the highest quality standards in beans, roasts, equipment, and barista training for multiple generations — i.e., since the likes of some of these self-proclaimed third wavers were still in Pampers. Quality espresso is not the sudden confluence of modern scientific discovery and magic. It’s been around for decades, and its supposed “secrets” have largely remained unchanged throughout.

Unfortunately, since people like Ms. Skeie had their first “real” espresso in recent years, many will keep on presuming it’s their own discovery and that they are at the vanguard of something new. But when we talk about any Third Wave, what constitutes quality coffee hasn’t really changed. What has changed is the education and sophistication of the American coffee consumer palate. It’s just a lot more convenient for some businesses to take credit for what rightfully belongs to their customers.


Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy of TV's The Sopranos ponder the Third Wave (WARNING: vulgar audio)

Comic relief: Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy of TV’s The Sopranos ponder the Third Wave

CoffeeRatings.com in this month’s San Francisco magazine

Posted by on 25 Feb 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew

A shout out to CoffeeRatings.com in the March 2006 issue of San Francisco magazine (page 40): THE HOT SPOTS – One-shot wonders – San Francisco magazine. (Update: someone thankfully posted a graphical version of the print story as well.)

Friends in the area have asked me since this article was published, “Did you really walk 500 miles?” What? And take MUNI instead? Even after then-mayor Willie Brown proved that it is about as fast as walking … and yet far more dangerous?

Truth be known, I have a collection of used Fast Passes dating back to 2000. (Hey, it’s not garbage — I’m supporting The Arts.) So I am no stranger to MUNI — even in its worst days of the late 1990s. (I am still haunted by nightmares of the regular hour-plus no shows of the J Church during rush hour.) But the best way to really get the lay of the land and uncover espresso shops in every dark corner of the city is to do so on foot.

Average a mile every other day for almost three years, and it adds up. Even if I don’t have the pedometer to prove it. Though the permanent damage that many of these cafés did to my taste buds and central nervous system is a different story…

SFist: The Man Who Rates Espresso: SFist Interviews The Shot’s Greg Sherwin

Posted by on 09 Jan 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew

A big thanks to Jeremy Nisen for coverage on this site (and, well, me) in SFist today: SFist: The Man Who Rates Espresso: SFist Interviews The Shot’s Greg Sherwin.

But enough about me…

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