Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
For over 8 years here, it’s been no secret that I’ve had to restrain my gag reflex every time some poseur/wannabe starts spouting off about coffee’s Third Wave. Because for every self-congratulatory, self-ordained Third Wave coffee shop that wishes to proclaim, “Oh, what a good boy am I. Look at what I just invented!,” there’s a place like Seattle’s Monorail Espresso that provides ample reason for them to shut up and sit down.
That Monorail even exists is a rubber glove slap across their face. A Pike Place Market, ice-packed, 15-pound sockeye salmon across the face. Monorail has not only been doing it longer than you, but they’ve been doing it before you were even born. And here’s the insult added to your injury: they also still do it better than you.
As not everyone is aware of America’s early espresso history, this humble but legendary espresso spot started Dec 1, 1980 as Chuck Beek’s espresso cart set up near the Westlake Center beneath the Seattle Center monorail — a 1962 construction for the World’s Fair to shuttle visitors from downtown to the iconic Space Needle in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne district. Mr. Beek’s idea was to see if he could sell espresso on the streets rather than coffeehouses, making him something of a pioneer of Seattle’s espresso cart revolution of the 1980s.
By 1997, Monorail Espresso went from a cart service to its current (and relatively permanent) location: a 100-square-foot kiosk that’s today next to a Banana Republic. While it has changed little since then, other than former barista Aimee Peck taking over its ownership, it is a global espresso institution. Seattle locals and global travelers alike come here and celebrate its praises. And they deserve all they can get.
There’s a neon “Caffeine” sign, a chalkboard sidewalk sign advertising the latest specialty drink (e.g., maple latte), and a lot of bike messengers lounging nearby smoking cloves. From a sliding glass window, they’ve been serving espresso for eons made from a custom Monorail Blend produced by the small Whidbey Island roaster, Mukilteo (which has also remained strong-but-small over the eons).
Tourists bring their own demitasses from around the world to leave at this location, and the Monorail baristi often employ some of these mismatched, saucerless demitasses in service if you’re not getting it in paper. (For example, we were served with a Richard Ginori cup.)
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a splotchy dark and medium brown crema with old-school-quality looks. It has a creamy mouthfeel and has a robust flavor of chocolate, cloves, spice, and a great roundness in its taste profile. This is an espresso of thoughtful quality that’s unfortunately fallen out of vogue fashion among many newer coffee shops. I’d trade all the Sightglasses in SF for just one 100-square-foot Monorail. In downtown Seattle, corporate espresso is arguably the norm save for a wonderful exception such as this.
Served with a glass of sparkling water on the side. Cash only, because you can save that Apple Pay Touch ID for your proctologist.
Read the review of Monorail Espresso in Seattle.
Working my first job out of college in the Baltimore area, I encountered a summer phenomenon that the locals call “going down ocean” (Bal’mer accent required). People would flock to Ocean City, MD and the Delmarva coast to escape the heat and have a good time.
But one thing that puzzled me were the many visitors from the Baltimore-D.C. area who quite deliberately chose not to escape Margarita Maggie’s — a now-defunct chain Mexican restaurant, akin to a Chevy’s Fresh Mex, with locations in Ocean City and all over Maryland at the time. In fact, I encountered many making the escape who insisted on eating the same exact food at the same exact chain restaurants they had back home.
A few years later I was on a business trip with my boss in London. It was the first time for both of us. After acclimating for a day after 11 hours of flying, my boss suggests we grab dinner at a Pizza Hut. A Pizza Hut.
Isn’t the joy of travel about eating local foods, experiencing local customs, and expanding your horizons just a little?
I’m reminded of these personal stories whenever I come across news about the latest strategy for taking your coffee with you wherever you go. Four years ago we derided the neurotic need for carrying a coffee suitcase. Today we received an email from Blue Bottle Coffee announcing their latest designer Travel Kit.
The email went on with their target customer profiles:
The urban traveler, weary of stale hotel selections. The weekend adventurer, gearing up for a surf session or camping trip. The road tripper, now liberated from the scorched (and sometimes blueberry-flavored) disappointments of gas station urns. Starting now, the proper tools are collected and within reach. It’s time to Brew Where You Are.
All of which begs the question: where do you draw the line at packing it in and carrying everything with you? If carrying your own coffee and coffee equipment is normal, what about carrying your own wine bottles because you don’t trust the wine lists of the local restaurants? Is packing your own meat freezer and gas grill taking it a little too far? Hotel pillows suck, so is BYOP just a little neurotic? What about the three-ply toilet paper you’re so used to at home? It’s super soft.
The issue is not even about packing light (which remains highly underrated). The issue is about being so terrified of potential disappointment that you close yourself off to new experiences and the possibility of learning something.
There’s a certain aspirational quality of adventure travel to these products and come-ons that reminds me of how ginormous four-wheel-drive SUVs are sold to suburban moms who never go more off-road than the church parking lot. Most people seem barely capable of surviving for two hours away from their Facebook or Twitter feeds. But to read these taglines, who among us isn’t climbing the remote wilds in the southern Andes of Patagonia later this month?
Yet the truly adventuresome pioneers leverage their resourcefulness when they get there — they don’t pack it all with them. And even if you are in the wilds, I’ve had a camping coffee kit for 20 years that consists of a manual hand-crank grinder, a red plastic Melitta filter and #2 papers (not to mention a Nalgene press pot). No news here: nothing about that has changed.
The far more common, and relevant, scenario is the basic business or social trip to a different town. I can’t comment on gas station and hotel room coffee other than to say, “Seriously?! That’s the best you can do before deciding you must carry it all with you?” Other than drug addicts (sorry, coffee addiction is the lamest white person’s whine around), what makes coffee the only consumable where carrying it and all of its preparation paraphernalia seemingly rational?
It’s 2014. Good coffee is ubiquitous. So much so, the antiquated idea of there being coffee cities — such as Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco — makes about as much sense today as there being wine cities. Even New Yorkers have forgotten about how bad their coffee options used to be just a few short years ago.
An Internet connection and a GPS-enabled mobile phone aren’t exactly the stuff of NASA astronauts these days. Using either of them, decent coffee can be found just about anywhere. Yes, James, even in Oklahoma City. Wasn’t it that adventuresome spirit that lead you to Blue Bottle and weaned you off of your dirty Starbucks habit in the first place?
Today This Thing We Call Coffee (substitute “third wave” or “craft coffee” or whatever nonsense marketingspeak one prefers here) seems to have discovered a new toy. It’s called design. Although around since the first coffee retailer opened in Damascus in 1530, lately design has become a rather acutely faddish obsession that has permeated café design, espresso machine design, and even the package design of retail coffee bags.
So much so, the coffee industry has lately given off the impression that it’s become bored or satiated (if not both) with its prior focus on coffee quality. Evidence of that has already started to come out in the cup. We’ve noticed some coffee bars missing the point that while we love great design and ambiance from our best restaurants, it’s not why we primarily want to eat there.
It’s not hard to see how we got here. Today’s Internet is fueled by a Pinterest- and Instagram-inspired obsession with superficial looks, celebrating form over function. Social sharing, mainstream coverage, and Kickstarter hype have all elevated interest in coffee accoutrement based on visuals rather than performance. After all, who wants to dig into the gritty details when you can look at a pretty infographic?
As with today’s world of pop celebrities, elaborate visuals and outrageous price tags — rather than talent — are what capture the fickle attention spans of layman consumers. Like everything else, perhaps it isn’t surprising that quality coffee is giving in to the temptations of Kim Kardashian’s asp. (You see what we did there.)
This isn’t to understate the many virtues of good design, not all of which are visual decoration. Design is a way of bringing art into the everyday things of life, but it is also a means of eliminating the friction and the senseless from how things work.
Nor am I a stranger to the values of design. My father is a retired commercial artist and designer of some 45 years, and long ago I even pulled a stint as a graphic designer whose work appeared in the displays of a national chain of department stores. While I see design as a very useful tool, I stop well short of treating it as a religion.
Because one man’s Apple logo sticker on the rear of their vehicle is another man’s Jesus fish. There are those who so subscribe to the “Better Life Through Design” mantra, they believe the crisis in Gaza could be averted if only someone designed an Israeli wall that was user-friendly enough.
When coffee’s current love affair with design becomes this noticeable, it borders on religion. As with all religions, when the object of its focused attention drifts from its original premise, things can get ugly.
Bringing the high-minded topic of coffee and design down to the level of cups, the folks at notNeutral recently reached out to us to pay a closer look at their coffee line. In the 11+ years that CoffeeRatings.com has been posting formal coffee and café reviews, many other blogs and Web sites picked up on the habit of noting espresso machines and other brewing equipment. But for whatever reasons, we still haven’t found any other online coffee review resources to date that have been logging cups unless they’re made as custom one-off designs.
So as a CoffeeRatings.com first, what do we look for in coffee cups? Our 2007 post citing the Espresso Italiano Tasting manual outlines some of the key qualities. But the primary objective is this: does it enhance my coffee drinking experience?
Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an award-winning multidisciplinary L.A. design firm, founded notNeutral as something of a retail consumer arm for their designs. They do a lot of commercial buildings, parks, water projects, train stations, homes, and landscaping, and through notNeutral they get to do pillows, rugs, furnishings, and housewares such as coffee cups.
De rigueur of many designers today, they make overtures to sustainability and “green living,” but it’s not heavy-handed. One of our pet peeves is the hypocrisy of some retailers and media properties that are devoted to the concept of saving the planet by consuming more things (instead of, say, picking something up from a garage sale or a second-hand store).
notNeutral’s coffee home page opens to a photo of their cups beneath the group head of a Modbar, today’s patron saint of form-over-function in coffee, reenforcing design-aware aesthetics. We tested their cappuccino cups since we have collected dozens of espresso cups from cafés around the world.
First, the white, handled LINO cups. These were the cups they designed in partnership with Intelligentsia. Made in Bangladesh, they have good heft and a relatively compact size: filled to the rim, they can hold up to 6-oz/175ml. Design-wise, they clearly take on a modernization of the ACF or Nuova Point classics.
There are a lot of curves, including the saucers, with an inverted-dome-like rounded bottom and tapering up the sides of the cup: there are no edges inside. The handles are distinctive — sticking out in a wider loop, but cleverly flush to the top edge of the cup, allowing the coffee drinker to place their thumb over the top.
We also checked out their black matte, no-handle MENO cups. These suggest the form and function of more elegant Japanese-style tea cups. Made in Sri Lanka, they are also curved inside with no edges — although not as rounded as the LINO cups. The longer basin also means it can hold up to 7-oz/200ml of liquid to the rim (despite their product graphic to the contrary).
The MINOs have a glaze on the matte finish, as these cups are meant to be handled to experience any heat within them. Without the handle, of course, drinking requires you to rotate your hand further back to angle it when you bring it to your mouth: something you’re either used to or will have to accommodate.
We wouldn’t say the LINO and MINO cups are our absolute favorite cappuccino cups. With all its comparatively under-designed flaws, the classic ACF M66 5.5-oz/150ml tulip cup is still something of a sentimental favorite — even if they no longer make them and they’re increasingly hard to come by. But both the LINO and MINO cups are real good — very good. They are thought out in detail, modern, attractive, and also (and here’s the important part) quite functional at what they’re supposed to do. We prefer them over the many modern ACF replacement knockoffs that have appeared since ACF’s demise — such as Cremaware or those from Espresso Parts.
We also asked Hannah Bartholomew Block, who runs noNeutral’s coffee division, a few questions about these cups.
CoffeeRatings.com: With the LINO cups, some design objectives are clear – such as ensuring that the handle is flush with the rim, allowing the user to place their thumb comfortably across the top of the cup when they bring it to their lips. What design problems/solutions were you seeking to address with the LINO cups?
notNeutral: A lot of thought went into that handle. We tried a variety of forms that extended from the cup in different ways, but the final shape provided the most control for the barista and the most comfort for the user. Our design team considered the entire sensory experience of drinking coffee: the diameter of the cup was kept wide so drinker could enjoy the aroma, not just the taste of the espresso. The cup walls are thinnest at the lip for the best mouthfeel, and thickest at the bottom to retain heat. The bottom of the cup is rounded for optimal fluid dynamics, making it easier for baristas to pour latte art. Beyond those functional aspects, of course we wanted the cups to look modern, unique, and interesting.
CR: In contrast to the previous question, where do you feel most coffee cups fall short in offering customers a better coffee-drinking experience?
nN: The most important consideration is comfort of the user. Are the cup walls thick enough to protect the user’s hand from heat? Is the handle comfortable and stable to hold? Will the shape of the lip cause coffee to drip down the outside? When you swirl an espresso shot in a demitasse, is it going to slosh over the sides? We consider all these factors when designing or choosing cups for a café.
CR: At CoffeeRatings.com, we’re an odd lot who have also liked using traditional Asian tea cups for brewed coffee service at times: no handles, matte black finish. So in that way, the MENO cups remind us of some classic tea cups. Was the MENO design inspired by those cups?
nN: Yes. We did look at Asian tea cups as precedents. We looked at Japanese ceramic glazes and liked the way the matte black got distressed over time. We also liked the way the dark, non-reflective finish not only drew attention to the graceful cup profile, but also felt warm and satiny to the touch.
CR: Whether inspired by Asian tea cups or not, you’ve clearly labeled your MENO cups as part of your coffee line. Anything about the experience of these cups, or the experience of drinking tea, did you want to carry over with these cups over the traditional cups?
nN: The handle-less cup completely changes the sensory experience of holding and drinking a cup of coffee. There’s a comfort in savoring the warmth of the cup directly in the palm of your hand. That’s a little unexpected for coffee. It makes you reconsider the ritual. We definitely envision MENO crossing over from specialty coffee service to vessels for tea.
You may not have noticed it through most of the usual “coffee media” channels, but this past Saturday San Francisco hosted CoffeeCon‘s first-ever road tour. You might recall our coverage last year of CoffeeCon 2013, held at its Warrenville, IL mothership. In its fourth year, CoffeeCon has been enough of a success at addressing unmet coffee consumer interest to take the show nationally for the first time — with SF on July 26, NY on October 11, and finally in L.A. on November 8.
CoffeeCon is somewhat unique as a consumer-oriented coffee event, where layman coffee lovers and enthusiasts can participate without being overlooked for coffee professionals or shunned by trade show hucksters. We may have derided the widespread abuse of the term “Third Wave” as self-promotional marketing babble for some eight years now. But if there was ever an experience that epitomized coffee lovers “enjoying coffee for its own sake,” this has to rank right up there.
They held it in SOMA’s Terra Galleries art gallery/event space, which operated with a surprisingly heavy security detail. A great number of area coffee purveyors came to show off their goods to attendees — including roast-to-order Artís in Berkeley, Blue Bottle, Chromatic, De La Paz, Equator, Flywheel, Four Barrel, George Howell (from MA), Henry’s House of Coffee, Mr. Espresso, Old Soul Co. (a gem from Sacramento), Peerless, Ritual Roasters, Sightglass, and Verve. A favorite overheard non-sequitur of the day reflected the variety on display: “Oh, there’s Blue Bottle… but I can get that anywhere.”
Besides sampling a lot of coffee, attendees could also take courses, experience hands-on demonstrations of consumer equipment, hear talks from professionals (CoffeeCon has contractually locked up much of George Howell‘s speaking tours), and even check out home roasting equipment in the outdoor space.
We caught Mr. Espresso’s Luigi di Ruocco‘s “Italian Espresso” talk and even had an epiphany or two. For example, the Italian art of balance in espresso blends makes all the more sense when you think of how many each Italian sips in a given day. Punchy, overbearing brightness bomb shots would create more palate fatigue if experienced multiple times daily. It also dawned on us how important a rounded espresso flavor profile is to end a meal on as a complement, rather than competitor, to the food you’ve just eaten.
KitchenAid was one of the event’s key sponsors, and they announced a new home coffee brewer currently in factory production. It attempts to automate manual pour-over coffeemaking with an enclosed system of water-pulsing that follows a programmable pour-vs.-steep algorithm. In that sense, it seems a little like a consumer version of Clover‘s Precision Pour Over concept, which has seemingly gone dark over the past couple of years.
While KitchenAid has been long known for its mixers, it first got into the coffee business with the A-9 and A-10 coffee mills back in 1937. They still do amateurish things, such as exclusives with Williams-Sonoma (who notoriously offer some of the most overpriced and most substandard/landfill-bound consumer coffee appliances on the market). But in recent years KitchenAid has introduced decent-for-the-price-point Pro-line Burr grinders and other worthy consumer coffee products targeting what they now, unfortunately, call the craft coffee market.
Side note: the term “craft coffee”, appropriated from the beer world, is really just a pound-for-pound stupidity surrogate for the ever-more-embarrassing “Third Wave” term these days. Use of the term is made all the worse by the decades-old homonym, “Kraft coffee“: i.e., the Big Four coffee purveyor more commonly known as “Maxwell House.” This is akin to the craft beer market calling itself the “blue ribbon beer market”. *Facepalm*
So it’s with curious irony, lost on KitchenAid, that they’re now offering an appliance that push-button automates a manual pour-over in the name of craft coffee. (And not an Alanis Morissette “irony” either.)
As a home-grown event with little professional event staffing, CoffeeCon seemed to experience a bit of chaos outside of its mothership confines for the first time: running out of badge-holders, a lack of pre-event press, some improv when an occasional speaker didn’t show on time, and a couple of classrooms separated only by a hospital-room-like thin cloth barrier. The last one generated audible cacophony when the class next door would roar with coffee grinders. But all in all, the event was anything but disappointing.
We even reconnected with Aleco Chigounis, whose coffee sourcing we’ve long been big fans of. He’s since established Red Fox Coffee Merchants. (No relation, however, to “This is the Big One. Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you, honey!“.)
This café is the brainchild of former middle school teacher and Ritual Coffee barista, Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Starting as a pop-up in SF’s South Park (which has since closed in Dec. 2013), this over-designed flagship café opened in Oct. 2013 to a considerable amount of gushing praise.
It took over the former Teashi spa, and the spirit of past mani/pedis and Brazilian waxings still sort of haunts the place. On the sidewalk out front there’s limited wooden café table seating. Inside in front there’s window counter seating for four on stools right next to shelves of coffee merchandising, just shy of the long service counter.
It’s a long space that is deceptively airier than its limited seating would suggest. There’s an array of a few café tables against a shared wall bench; these are typically the domain of laptop zombie squatters. Further back there’s an upstairs under bright skylights that offers two larger, semi-private tables.
Here there is an overwhelming sense of someone’s idyllic vision that a café should be more like an Apple Store. There are stark, plain walls and wood grain paneling plus a wannabe kanketsu “service philosophy” of removing as many barriers as possible between barista and customer.
This is exemplified by their unique, Modbar-like espresso machine: a two-group, under-the-counter job either called the Jepy Minim (per the engineer/designer John Ermacoff, aka Jepy) or the Ghost (per project designer Ben Kaminsky). It’s the guts of a perfectly acceptable Synesso Sabre, but Frankensteined beyond recognition as a sacrifice to form. This worship at the Holy Church of Makerdom might promise greater temperature control, etc., but what only matters to us as coffee lovers is what it produces in the cup.
They specially source limited coffees and roast them through Ritual Coffee Roasters for their own private label, and our review here is of their Little Brother Espresso — which comes at a whopping $3. (They also served a Costa Rica Los Crestones for $4.) It’s served slightly full with an even, medium brown crema. There’s a balance to the flavor with hints of bright fruit, but there’s primarily a mid-palate of herbal pungency.
In short: it’s a very good shot. But for all the pomp, technology, design, and the price, it doesn’t measure up to expectations — failing to rank in the Top 35 of SF coffee shops. We need to revisit to ensure we didn’t catch them on an off moment, but that would be surprising given they’ve been open for eight months and their machine has dialed down espresso shots to a push-button level. The good news for Saint Frank is that there are clear opportunities to improve. (That might also include banning all employees here from openly calling it “spro”, dude.)
This will read like an attack on Kevin when he’s done some very interesting things with unique coffees, and he’s certainly trying things. Yet Saint Frank is also symptomatic and emblematic of what seems so very lost and misguided with what the industry holds as the new standard of coffee shop today. Among all the toys and distractions of late, coffee quality in the cup seems to have again taken a back seat.
If you’re going to charge $3 for an espresso, it should at least break the Top 35 in the city. Among the 700 active espresso purveyors currently surveyed in SF, Saint Frank’s standard espresso shot is the most expensive in the city that’s served outside of a restaurant setting. (Presuming the Nespresso Boutique & Bar qualifies more as a restaurant, where you’re paying more for white tablecloth service and a global smoke & mirrors marketing campaign.)
We should all be paying more for coffee — but for better coffee. Based on our ratings, it’s not better. For the reported pedigree of their sourced coffees, it doesn’t even have a different or unique flavor profile. So what exactly am I paying extra for?
First, there’s the promising lure of shiny new equipment and it’s empirically consistent failure to deliver better coffee. In the past we’ve noted the likes of Sightglass who have been guilty of this for years. In Saint Frank’s case, it’s not even so much a “better brewing” sales come-on than superficial aesthetics: i.e., a low-profile workspace primarily conceived to address the First World coffee problem where my barista doesn’t get to see more of my crotch.
Fortunately the Modbar isn’t weighed down by outrageous costs — you can get a full system for under $10k. Hopefully Saint Frank’s custom lookalike (the Jepy Minim or Ghost, depending upon whom you ask) follows suit in that department. But with new, “revolutionary” ways to brew coffee even more perfectly being announced every week, we’ve often wondered if any of the takers ever get the chance to dial-in on them, with a serious dose of experience, before they roll on to the next big thing — looking to technology to bail them out from substandard practices.
This is a little of what former USBC champ Kyle Glanville recently called the “fancy equipment arms race”: “People are spending shit tons on machines to brew coffee when they should be investing in their own palates and understandings of flavor, and the knowledge of how coffee brewing actually works”
So what about making your café look like an Apple Store? Blue Bottle Coffee has been compared to the Apple of coffee shops, and they’re even sporting Apple-inspired service table designs. And CoffeeRatings.com has had plenty of good things to say about Blue Bottle.
Except Blue Bottle’s resulting coffee quality is noticeably better than Saint Frank’s. Now any café owner is entitled to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a custom espresso machine, killer grinders, and a Zenlike service design experience. But if it doesn’t translate to a better cup of coffee, those costs are being passed on to me to satisfy completely different concerns. You’d be better off having your baristas selling me $400 sweaters.
What results is a place that seems enamored with all the trappings of what’s expected of a wannabe Fourth Wave coffee place, but with no improvement in the coffee itself. Which suggests more of our cynical definition of a Fourth Wave coffee shop from four years ago. We then joked that if the Third Wave was about letting the coffee speak for itself and enjoying coffee for its own sake, the Fourth Wave was about appreciating so much of the gadgetry and trappings surrounding coffee service that any actual coffee was no longer required.
But can any of us blame Kevin? The status quo of the industry’s most popular coffee media encourage this focus. For example, a Dear Coffee, I Love You seems to care more about subway tiles than coffee roasting. While Sprudge heavily promotes their “Buildouts of the Summer” promotional series as if coffee were a construction project. And in professing “we would never grade coffee shops”, Sprudge seems too terrified to lift a judgmental finger to critique any of the coffee and potentially hurt someone’s feelings.
This leaves a massive void of any popular critical thought about retail coffee quality. Instead of learned coffee professionals, this gap is filled instead by the arbitrary standards of “top 20 coffee shops in America” lists on popular news and travel web sites — often written and compiled by interns most enamored by double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos in paper to-go tubs, whose understanding of coffee quality extends little beyond the MSRP price tags of the commercial coffee machine fad of the month.
Or worse: the void is left to the whims of the “man in the street” on review sites like Yelp!: where electrical outlets for laptops, cute baristas who flirt, and cheap extra large muffins count for more than any coffee quality.
Imagine a perverse wine world where the like likes of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast gave everything identical 90-point scores while devoting the bulk of their writing to the wood and fixtures used to build their tasting rooms and the designers of their high-tech wine openers. It’s of little surprise that we have ended up with coffee writing that reads more like an interior design arms race sponsored by Home Depot®. Meanwhile any actual quality judgement on coffee is suppressed to the level of American youth soccer: everybody is recognized with a trophy just for participating. Why even bother with the farce of barista competitions if “everyone is a winner”?
Over a decade ago, one of the major inspirations for creating CoffeeRatings.com was our immense frustration with all the existing books and online reviews of coffee houses at the time: it was impossible to find any critical reviews of coffee places that critiqued any actual coffee. Most of the attention was spent on ambiance: the style of the clientele who hung out there, what novels they read, and how good the bagels were. With all the attention now given to new machines, service counter layouts, and who makes the wooden countertops, we seem to have relapsed to those more ignorant days.
I never thought I’d miss what six years ago I called the Malaysian street food experience. Then the environmental design slight-of-hand was in making you feel like a hipster for sipping your espresso while sitting on a cinder block in an alley filled with spent heroin needles. Even so, at least the quality of the coffee still ran as the headline. Today I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it’s time to go back to those days.
Still reading? OK, here’s the long version. So what made me lob such an incendiary, sweeping, and judgmental hand grenade? This past week I came across this headline from Roast Magazine‘s news feed: Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine – Coffee Recommendations From the World’s Greatest Restaurant Chef.
The post cites a Telegraph travel article that’s completely innocuous. But it’s the loaded presumptions behind Roast‘s headline that forcibly poked me in the eye and compelled me to respond.
Because, you see, I’ve never trusted a great chef’s opinion about good coffee. And I’ve come to believe that I probably never will. This is yet another example of why all journalistic efforts and awards that classify coffee as some mutant, orphaned subdivision of food seem misguided and wholly inadequate.
Most great chefs are quite poor at even desserts — at least when compared to their hired gun pastry chefs, for example, they often reach for odd savory creations given palates that are often clueless at how to deal with sweet. Thus it shouldn’t be of great surprise that most great chefs are outright lame when it comes to quality coffee. The continually sad state of restaurant coffee being additional supporting evidence.
So why does public perception seem convinced of the complete opposite?
In recent years, food has firmly become a form of entertainment, and the highest profile chefs have morphed into something strangely akin to lifestyle consultants. As the social status of celebrity chefs has risen, so has a sort of cultural belief that these chefs have come to represent all things fine dining and living — each of them harboring great secrets of a modern illuminati. So much so, today our popular culture is immersed in this mistaken fantasy that chefs always eat out better than you, eat at home better than you, and even vacation better than you. (Yes, there are even absurd apps based on the premise that chefs eat better than anyone else on the planet.)
The reality is that even the best chefs often have terrible diets, have no time to eat well, chain smoke, marinate themselves in hard alcohol, and even shoot up with a little smack or crank now and then. (I’m looking at you, Anthony Bourdain.) And yet consumers seem overly willing to make a misguided mental leap: that just because someone is qualified to make a meal for King Louis XIV, they must therefore eat and live it up like King Louis XIV (though maybe on a slightly leaner budget).
So when American super-chef, Thomas Keller, says he can often be found eating at an In-N-Out Burger, that might help elevate public esteem for the cult favorite burger chain. But that says more to me about Thomas Keller than it says about In-N-Out Burger — which is, quite disappointingly, just another mass-produced, paper-hat, greasy-burger-on-a-bun fast food chain of a slightly different hue. It might also explain why the coffee at Mr. Keller’s restaurants is so poor.
A few years ago when we dined at Keller’s notorious French Laundry, we noted how the espresso there scored lower than a Starbucks at the SFO airport. A good friend of this Web site who ranks high in the local coffee industry (who shall remain nameless) also dined there this past weekend and reported pretty much the exact same disappointing coffee experience. And that’s quite consistent with the poor coffee service we’ve experienced at virtually all of Keller’s restaurants.
But it’s not just Keller.
On an episode of Dangerous Grounds in Rome this season, superchef Mario Batali sent Todd Carmichael to Tazza d’Oro to experience what he thinks is the best Italian espresso, period. Now I love Tazza d’Oro. A major inspiration for this site was the battle between the locals in Rome’s centro storico for who had the better espresso — Tazza d’Oro or Sant’Eustacio il Caffè. But as good as it is, there’s a lot of local legend and historical folklore behind Chef Batali’s choice.
Mr. Carmichael eyeballs Tazza d’Oro’s roasting operations and notices all the Brazilian coffee produced by mechanically harvested megafarms, suggesting how he could do better. And as I recently concluded, even the best espresso from a recent trip to Napoli — a city known even more for the quality of its Italian espresso — could not crack SF’s Top 15. Even look at the Batali-owned U.S. locations of Eataly: there are Lavazza cafés in the U.S. where any Eataly in its native Italy would never consider hosting them on the basis of Lavazza’s vast size and pedestrian quality.
Chef Batali has an impeccable palate for Italian food. But his taste for coffee seems clearly borrowed rather than personally developed. Though who can blame him given everything else he has to obsess about? Even if his habits of hanging out with that vapid sea hag in $1,000 yoga pants, Gwyneth Paltrow, and his trademark I’ve-given-up-hope footwear might suggest that not all his tastes are winners.
Speaking of that ever-popular wine analogy, let’s turn our attention to great chefs and their relationship to wine. Food and wine are like the yin and yang of fine dining. Yet nobody corners great chefs to ask their personal opinions about their favorite wines — so why would coffee even be relevant? Sure, said chefs will be asked about pairing wine with food. But almost never are they asked about their independent opinions about wine.
Why? Because all the respectable wine snobs know that’s not where these chefs excel. When Wine Enthusiast visited Chef Redzepi’s Copenhagen dining scene a few years ago, it failed to even mention wine anywhere in the article. A curious omission for a wine-obsessed magazine.
In 2007 Wine Spectator interviewed Thomas Keller and did an exceedingly rare thing: they asked him directly about his wine preferences. Did he wax about the lush qualities of his favorite vintage of Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru? No, instead he noted that his favorite wines were young Zinfandels — big fruit bombs, often heavy on alcohol, that were once most commonly known as “jug wines” not all that long ago.
There’s nothing wrong with young Zinfandels or having preferences for inexpensive wines. This isn’t to suggest that great chefs have disproportionately philistine tastes when it comes to wine (or coffee). But professing favoritism for what was once associated with wine’s misery market is hardly what the public expects when seeking the sage wisdom of Thomas Keller’s “distinguished wine palate”.
As for Mario Batali, he promotionally offers his name on a “Mario Batali Selection™” line of wines — curated by Mario and typically offered in the $15-20 range. But nobody believes that’s what he chooses to drink. In fact, Chef Batali seems too preoccupied having his team of ghostwriters come up with new material for his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine — “What I’m Drinking” — where each week Chef Mario celebrates new ways to damage his liver through the versatile elixir of hard liquor.
What Chef Redzepi, Chef Keller, and Chef Batali — and many great chefs like them — all have in common is knowing the limits of their own tastes and opinions outside of food. What they all have become quite good at is knowing how to delegate, choosing surrogates whose opinions they trust: whether that’s a pastry chef, a sommelier, or someone in charge of the coffee service at their restaurant.
All of which isn’t to say that René Redzepi has no taste for decent coffee. Coffee Collective is a Copenhagen, if not world class, coffee institution. But the loaded pretext here is that because Chef Redzepi knows how to forage and make the world’s most delicious moss, that somehow this qualifies him as some kind of coffee oracle. This when his coffee palate is likely far less informed than some 28-year-old local Copenhagen bike messenger who still lives with his parents. I’d rather hear that bike messenger’s opinion about coffee. However, Chef Redzepi has earned his respect and celebrity for what he’s accomplished with food — even if he hasn’t earned it for all things related to taste.
Being an outstanding chef does not bestow any magical abilities to divine good coffee from bad, just as being a certified Q grader doesn’t qualify you as an expert on modern Scandinavian cuisine. So let’s stop pretending that chefs are something they’re not — as if being the executive chef at the best restaurant in the world isn’t enough. They can barely cope with wine or dessert, let alone coffee.
Perhaps if we stop insisting that our food savants must also be multi-disciplinary Renaissance men and women in all matters of taste, we might start deservedly recognizing the coffee specialists for what they truly excel at.
Curiously enough, Chef Redzepi opens the presentation by giving complete credit to his head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, for Noma’s coffee program and suggests that Mr. Kleppe should give the talk. Chef Redzepi then proceeds to monopolize the presentation — with Mr. Kleppe standing on stage nearby.
When not on my best of days, I’ll be the first to admit that I can sometimes be a sarcastic jerk. But even the most acrid sarcasm can be neutralized by a shocking dose of absurd reality. Case and point with this story in today’s Daily Mail: Grower’s Cup, World’s first DISPOSABLE ‘coffee machine’ lets you brew on the move | Mail Online.
You see, there’s long been a lot of consumer environmental angst when it comes to single serving coffee made from pods and capsules. That angst is not at all misplaced, but it’s largely viewed from the wrong end of the telescope. Virtually all discussions that cite the environmental impact of coffee pods obsess exclusively over recycling. Meanwhile, they throw “reduce” and “reuse” under the bus — completely ignoring them.
If we remember our Environmentalism 101, the ranked order of efficacy is this: reduce, reuse, and then recycle. Thus the great environmental atrocity of pod coffee machines isn’t throwing the pods away. It’s that, by design, these coffee systems seem to maximize the amount of materials extraction from the earth, materials processing, machine energy consumption, manufacturing waste by-products, excess packaging and shipping weight, and additional transportation fuel consumption with each and every serving of coffee. The introduction of coffee pods created incremental new demands for all of these, where none existed prior for “traditional” coffee formats.
To sarcastically illustrate this point over the years, I often go from zero to ridiculous in one sentence: that if they manufactured an entire life-sized, pop-up, disposable Starbucks with every coffee serving, the entire system would earn a green “pass” by most consumer definitions if the disposable Starbucks were made of recyclable materials. Imagine a cardboard Starbucks with 1,800 square feet of indoor space, including cardboard men’s and women’s bathrooms, thrown away with every serving of coffee. Can you recycle it? Say “yes” and planet earth and a choir of bluebirds will thank you.
So imagine my shock and horror — and the death of my sarcasm — when I learned that the first step towards creating the disposable Starbucks had already been made with the 2012 introduction of the world’s first disposable coffee machine. Sure, you could say that the proliferation of pop-ups marked the first introduction of the disposable café, but the holy grail here is the single serving disposable café.
Homer facepalm indeed…
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.
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.
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.
Haight Street has taken decades to emerge from its Summer of Love bender. Despite locals declaring “the Death of the Hippie” and the end of an idealized Haight-Ashbury by October 1967, runaway teens and drug addicts continued to flock to the neighborhood seeking social escape while lacking any support networks.
By the time I first visited the area in the late 1980s, the stories of wars between drug dealers, crime epidemics, and kids on LSD falling to their deaths out of Victorian windows had long since vanished. But the chronic problems of homelessness and drug addiction remained. Other than seeing live music at the I-Beam or experiencing the camp of Rock & Bowl (now Amoeba Records), this part of the neighborhood was something you generally avoided after dark.
Today, things are very different. In place of the sketchy Cala Foods (whose closing was celebrated by locals), there’s now a Whole Foods. Gentrification hasn’t scrubbed everything clean, but at least the Golden Gate Park area across the street no longer looks like a refugee camp from a condemned methadone clinic.
And located in a large, tall space adjacent to the Whole Foods parking lot — at what used to be the San Francisco Cyclery — is Flywheel Coffee Roasters, opening in April 2012. They have added to the growing coffee legitimacy of the Upper Haight by roasting their own beans — using a Portuguese Joper Roaster in the back.
The space has a sunny entrance with tall windows facing west over Stanyan St. Inside there is counter seating along the windows, simple stool seating at taller tables, and several other tables indoors. Out back there’s something of an enclosed deck that’s exposed to a little bit of the occasional outdoor breeze. Up wooden stairs is a low-ceiling space with a bit of coffee roasting supply storage.
The laptop zombie quotient is on the high side here (ah, the price of gentrification). This gives it a rather cavernous, library-like feel. They offer cold brew drippers ($4), syphon-brewed coffee ($5), Hario V60 pour-overs, and a new three-group Faema Enova for espresso drinks.
They pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema of some coagulated thickness. It tastes of cloves and other, deeper herbal pungency without much spice nor tobacco: it’s actually a rather narrow, limited flavor profile with little roundedness. This perhaps reflects their usual choice of single origin coffees from Colombia, Kenya, Ethiopia, etc. Served in black Espresso Parts cups with a short glass of mineral water on the side.
It may be far from the better espresso shots in town. However, that a decent coffee house serving decent coffee could exist here was difficult to imagine 25 years ago. At least that much is progress, and we always have a soft spot for truly independent cafés.
As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)
The 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.
There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.
The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.
They visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.
Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.
Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.