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Sherwin’s Paradox

Posted by on 12 Dec 2005 | Filed under:, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Or: A Good Espresso Is Hard to Find

After voluntarily drinking so many overextracted, weak, bitter, and unacceptably poor cups of espresso around the U.S., let alone the world, a few people who know me and my coffee have questioned my sanity. Meanwhile, I have often questioned why anyone should need a site like in the first place.

It’s not a ridiculous question. Since Starbucks took over city streets and suburban strip malls like a metastasizing cancer, you’d think that consumers’ standards for good coffee could only continue to rise from its 1980s Dark Ages — back when quality coffee meant dirt-in-a-can and Joe DiMaggio was its ambassador of good taste. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

So what’s the problem? Whole bean supplies of quality coffee have gotten better and more plentiful. Espresso equipment technology has improved and proliferated. Customers now regularly ask for “non-fat vanilla lattes” when ordering coffee, and, even stranger, nobody seems to laugh in response anymore.

Then why is bad espresso the norm — particularly in the face of so many reasons why the average espresso should instead be quite good? To give this phenomenon a name for discussion, for now let’s just call it Sherwin’s Paradox. I’ve always wanted my very own paradox.

The Optimist Theory

First of all, the optimist in me likes to believe in a sort of enlightenment explanation. While Starbucks helped raise the bar for the average cup of coffee for the average coffee drinker, it hasn’t introduced middle America to the possibilities of the even higher standards that have existed for decades. Therefore, despite the proliferation of better coffee, equipment, and public access to it all, a truly great espresso remains a very rare thing that few have had the opportunity to experience.

Not to equate bad espresso with an abusive home, but I’d like to believe that many of the people who make bad espresso really don’t know any better … that they cannot draw upon experience to have the expectation that things could be any different. Once enlightened to a true quality espresso — say, a visit to Victrola in Seattle, Caffè Artigiano in Vancouver, or Sant’Eustachio il caffè in Rome — it would change everything about their assumptions about what a good espresso could be.

“An espresso that’s not bitter, but rather — naturally sweet? Rich and flavorful, rather than watered down? Impossible!”

It’s always been my hope that this rude awakening would create at least a personal intolerance for what bitter swill many espresso peddlers have been passing for years under the name of “espresso”.

And yet the most renowned chefs and restaurants, the tastemakers of America, are notorious for serving some of the worst espresso available as your last memory of their exquisite meals. It’s as if a conductor, following his brilliant rendition of a Prokofiev symphony, willingly closed with the theme song to TV’s BJ & The Bear — on kazoos — as his finale.

Which brings me to an alternate, more cynical theory…

The Pessimist Theory

But countering this theory is a sort of disillusionment explanation. I make an analogy between society’s expectations for espresso quality and those for another Italian staple: the pizza. (Should I ever find a way to combine the two, I may need to propose it as my “Unified Pizza Theory.”) Like espresso, a good pizza requires the right equipment, right ingredients, and the right training. But why is it that so many places still suck so badly at pizza, making chewy cardboard disks slathered with inferior cheese and sickly toppings?

Once anyone has tasted a truly great pizza from Chicago, New York, or Napoli (for example), the mountains of bad pizza served by various shacks, huts, high school cafeterias, and national delivery chains with uniformed drivers should be rendered unnecessary, irrelevant, and a waste of calories. How could anyone go back to such rubbish on a regular basis when they’ve seen the light?

And yet, millions do — every day. Millions who have clearly had better pizza in their day, and yet they still frequent franchises that have made billions of dollars on the foundation of inferior pizza that tastes little better than anything you can get out of a supermarket freezer. And as the cash continues to roll in for the mass production of these pizza atrocities, competitors have little incentive to really improve their product. Pizza consumers are voting with their pocketbooks, and the votes are saying, “More cardboard, please.”

How might this apply to espresso? We’ve seen restaurant wine lists go from “red or white?” to “Santa Lucia Highlands pinor noir or Sonoma Valley chardonnay?” We’ve seen supermarket cheese go from “orange or white?” to “Swiss Emmental or Port Salut?” But even if Starbucks helped raise the bar, people are still willing to accept bad espresso.

We Sell No Espresso Before Its Time

Are we doomed to standards no better than the fast food approach to quality coffee known as “Starbucks”? Not exactly. For example, investors regularly pressure Peet’s Coffee CEO, Patrick J. O’Dea, to grow big … and to do it rapidly. Yet Peet’s is making a conscious, strategic decision to expand their operations without sacrificing any of their high quality standards. If their coffee and roasting supply chain, or the availability of trained and skilled employees, cannot support a newly planned outlet with the same quality standards, they just won’t do it until they can ensure those standards.

Ultimately, I think the truth behind Sherwin’s Paradox involves a little of both theories — and it is far more complicated than either. In the meantime, I will keep drinking the bad espresso … and writing about it here to help you avoid making the same mistakes. But who knows? I might even be able to tell you about a good espresso worth seeking out once in a while. But I’ll save the discussion of Sherwin’s Folly for another time.’s 2005 Best San Francisco Coffee

Posted by on 05 Dec 2005 | Filed under:, Local Brew

Celebrities are out in full regalia. Tension is in the air. It must be time to review the reviewers as we recap the winners of’s 2005 Best San Francisco Coffee.

Each year, stages regional popularity contests for establishments in different categories. And each year, they tabulate the online votes from the users of their Web sites.

Citing their Web site, let’s take it from the bottom and work our way the pinnacle of San Francisco coffee…

10. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
2201 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA
A family-run empire of cafe-shops that’s been brewing caffeinated beverages since 1963.

So you grew up in the Los Angeles basin and have been looking for a local hangout since moving to the Upper Fillmore? This is the place for you. But if you must pick a chain, this isn’t a bad one (save for their problematic new café on Market St.). Afterall, this chain is where Café Organica‘s Eton Tsuno got his start.

9. Caffe Greco
423 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA
Strong, authentic espresso draws Italian expats to this highly regarded cafe.

Like much of North beach, this café is hardly the Italian stalwart it used to be. You’re more likely to hear the barista singing Alejandro Sanz than Dean Martin. But the espresso is good, albeit inconsistent, and the atmosphere almost feels like you’re in Italy.

Big plus: recent copies of the pink La Gazzetta dello Sport are freely available on the wall near the cashier to catch up on the latest Serie A calcio (Italian soccer) scores and post-game debate.

Big minus: Their coffee is packed in cans and flown over 6,000 miles before it makes it into your cup. Illy may be the king of quality when it comes to packaged coffee, but freshness is not one of their virtues.

8. Blue Danube Coffee House
306 Clement St, San Francisco, CA
Bohemian java joint with an extensive menu of eats.

Again with the eats? Always be wary of a coffee place known for its food. Not surprisingly, Blue Danube didn’t even break my Top 150. I can only imagine they are ranked for their bohemian atmosphere and the lack of good coffee options along the Taiwanese-American Clement St. corridor. Come for the espresso, but stay for the live geoduck.

If you ever go on a quest for good espresso in Taipei, I can guarantee that this will make your Top 10 list too. (I know from personal experience.)

7. Caffe Trieste
609 Vallejo St, San Francisco, CA
Settle down with an espresso, soak up the bohemian North Beach ambience and think existential thoughts ’til sundown.

Mama mia! This café is one of the true old Italian holdouts in North Beach, down to the weekend opera. Their espresso can be a bit dark for some, but it’s still one of the better examples in the city.

And to the critics, Caffe Trieste may have evolved more to become what it used to represent rather than what it truly is today. But what better place to lay down the script to The Godfather?

6. Mr Espresso
696 3RD St, Oakland, CA had nothing to say about this lone entry outside of the SF city confines. Probably because their editors had no idea that Mr. Espresso doesn’t serve coffee. Mr. Espresso is a long time family institution in the Bay Area — as a roaster, as a supplier of machines, and as a provider of training and other coffee service. They are arguably the best full-service espresso outfit around.

I recently talked with Luigi DiRuocco, a staffer there. He lamented over the many Bay Area cafés that neglect staff training. Mr. Espresso apparently made staff training a big initiative, and they’re working to convince their customers that their shots are capable of so much more. I am the primo uomo in that choir.

Props to the users who thought to vote for this local institution, even if you can’t buy a cup of joe from them.

5. Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero St, San Francisco, CA
This small storefront bakery lights up the Mission with sophisticated French pastries and artisanal loaves.

Two major problems with this brief write up. First: that’s nice about the loaves, but what about the coffee? Second: it’s French!

That said, this is a fantastic bakery with a fiendishly original/old school espresso setup. They get bonus points for trying very hard at their espresso, and for the most part it pays off. Eventhough their espresso is more in the French style, it does not come off bitter and watery. Their espresso quality is held back most, however, by the limits of their novelty Faema machine. Sometimes you have to sacrifice form for a little function.

4. Cafe Abir
1300 Fulton St, San Francisco, CA
Loyal Western Addition regulars line up for the house blend at this neighborhood cafe.

I never understood the appeal of Café Abir… or at least the appeal of their coffee. Yes, they roast it themselves. Yes, they also won the 2003 SF Bay Guardian readers’ award for Best Independent Coffeehouse. But their espresso just barely cracked my Top 350.

I can only attribute their ranking here to the intense neighborhood loyalty of its patrons, who seem to value the commendable efforts the owners have made to improve the Divisidero neighborhood. That and they do carry a nice selection of reading material at their newsstand.

File under: I just don’t get it. Maybe if I regularly got my coffee at the Church’s Chicken down the street, I’d feel the love.

3. Farley’s Coffeehouse
1315 18th St, San Francisco, CA
Giant java drinks and a no-way-Jose policy on nonfat milk make this coffeehouse a local favorite.

Like Abir, Farley’s benefits from the strong local loyalties of a somewhat isolated city community. It’s a great hang out, but unlike Café Abir, the espresso is also quite good.

(Though as an aside, I personally like the texture qualities of nonfat milk when making my own macchiatos at home, so I don’t get their badge of honor here.)

2. Peet’s Coffee & Tea
2139 Polk St Ste C, San Francisco, CA
Even post-IPO, Peet’s celebrates its bohemian upbringing with dark-roast beans.

I have yet to sample every Peet’s in the Bay Area, and this outlet is proof of that. While I have noticed significant differences between some Peet’s cafés, I can safely assume that this one ranks among the best of the Peet’s I have reviewed. Which is a pretty great cup of espresso. Alfred should remain proud of his legacy.

Particularly with the recent demise of Torrefazione Italia — once Starbucks bought them out and mercilessly flushed their superior brand of competition down the toilet — there is no better Bay Area chain at making espresso today.

1. Dolores Park Cafe
501 Dolores Street @18th, San Francisco, CA
A clean, welcoming coffeehouse and lunch spot with a prime location next to Dolores Park.

More and more dogs in the city must be getting Internet access, because that’s my only explanation for why Dolores Park Cafe would get the nod for San Francisco’s best coffee.

This is a great spot to bring Fifi, have an omelet, and read the morning paper with a great view of nearby Dolores Park. Their espresso is a rather workman-like effort, but it mostly does the trick. But best coffee?!

It’s a fitting closing to this article, though, when I can conclude that San Francisco espresso has gone to the dogs.

Zagat’s Best Coffee & Tea Places

Posted by on 29 Nov 2005 | Filed under:, Local Brew

A Book About… Local Coffee?!

A couple years ago, after caffeinating myself to dangerously jittery levels in my quest to sample and review every espresso served in the city of San Francisco, I had the idea of publishing my findings in a book. Crazy idea? Probably. I had written and published a book before, so I certainly should have known better. But friends encouraged me, and I was weak.

Ten book proposals to targeted Bay Area publishers and ten polite rejections later, I got the message. This town wasn’t ready to do for coffee what it had already done for restaurants, wine bars, burritos, and dog walking parks. Or was it?

For years now, I’ve contributed restaurant and nightlife reviews for those slaves to group-think, Zagat Survey. Recently, I received an e-mail from them notifying me of an entirely new survey they were holding: Zagat’s Best Coffee & Tea Places. Apparently, they are holding surveys for multiple cities throughout the country, including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

But First, I Would Like to Ask You a Few Questions…

My first thought at seeing this was, “Finally — some validation that my idea is legitimate!” (Insert vision here of mad Dr. Frankenstein surrounded by lightning as his creation rises from the operating table.)

Books about local coffee are not new in many of the cities known for their coffee appreciation: Seattle, San Francisco, Rome, etc. Yet almost all of them say nothing about the quality of the coffee. Disappointingly, they instead obsess over many of the “café society” aspects: the charming decor, the leftist politics, the house salads, and what pompous literature the guy in the $400 designer glasses is reading next to you.

So I started the survey with cautiously optimistic hopes that somebody cares about the coffee … while knowing full well of the Zagat model’s terrible ratings pitfalls. (The Zagat Survey Music or Zagat Movie guides, anyone? More on that below.)

The survey begins with checkboxes for a number of pre-selected cafés, coffeehouses, and tea rooms in the greater Bay Area. In the coffee category, the nominees include (among a few other notables) Abir, Blue Bottle, Flying Goat (one of my favorite North Bay cafés), Emporio Rulli, Farley’s, Ritual, Roma, and Trieste. Notably absent is Café Organica and Frog Hollow Farm, but fortunately there is an “Other” checkbox to allow write-in votes. And while Tully’s is also listed, surprisingly they have omitted other notable large chains such as Peet’s and (dare I mention?) Starbucks.

Once you have selected the places you’ve visited, you are prompted with the following questions for them:

  • What is the BEST place to get a cup of regular coffee?
  • What is the BEST place to go for a late night cup of coffee?
  • What is the BEST place to go for an indulgent coffee experience?
  • What unexpected place or location (non-coffee house) has the BEST cup of coffee?
  • What is the BEST place to get alcoholic coffee drinks?
  • What is the BEST place to get latte?
  • What is the BEST place to get cappuccino?
  • What is the BEST place to get espresso?
  • What is the BEST place to warm up when it’s cool out with a hot cup of coffee or tea?
  • What is the BEST place to get a seasonal coffee or tea beverage?
  • What is the BEST place to get coffee or tea that offers live entertainment or activities?
  • What is the BEST coffee/tea house for finding a unique holiday gift?
  • What is the BEST place to get coffee or tea that you can visit with your pet?

What Is the BEST Thing to Do With All That Data?

I am encouraged that they asked for best coffee, latte, cappuccino, and, above all, best espresso votes. But their irrelevant questions about indulgent coffee experiences (?!), seasonal beverages, holiday gifts, and where to bring my pet are confusing at best — disturbing at worst.

Furthermore, Zagat’s fatal systemic flaw is that what’s popular is a reliably poor indicator of what is truly best — or at least, as in the case of Zagat Music and Zagat Movies, what’s truly best for you and your tastes. This fatal flaw is particularly noticeable in an area where consumers are only just starting to educate themselves and their tastes, such as quality coffee and espresso drinks.

This is why I think the educated and consistent palate of the single tastemaker approach — as Robert Parker, Jr. is to wine — is much more useful than a popularity contest when it comes to finding and learning about great coffee and espresso. It wasn’t that long ago (before Starbucks) that the public’s general idea of “good coffee” meant a caffeinated brown liquid, warmed on a Bunn burner, that didn’t make you wince.

Conjecture about what Zagat might actually do with these survey results may be in vain anyway. Oddly enough, this survey is nothing like the typical Zagat review process. Their questions only ask for your favorite place among each category, rather than the usual procedure of rating each establishment on the same criteria.

Arguably, Zagat may not be planning a book to review local coffee after all. Rather, they likely conducted this survey as merely an experiment to gauge the potential quality of their reviewer data and to test the waters for a potential new publishing market.

Given the questions they asked, it is looking like this Dr. Frankenstein needs to go back to the lab a little longer.

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