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Archived Posts from this Category
Living on the Left Coast for so many years, it’s almost shameful that the closest I came to Portland, Oregon before 2011 was an SF Slim’s show by The Dharma Bums while on their Bliss album tour. (Yes, I was a fan.) Sure, I’d been to Crater Lake and Coos Bay even, but never Portland. By 2011, a couple of day-job-related day trips to Portland afforded the brief coffee walk through town. But it wasn’t until last month that I did a serious deep dive.
This lapse had nothing to do with the sun-spoiled Californian stereotype: wishing to avoid Portland’s damp cold, clouds, and legendary rainfall. Although I must say that arriving from the land of drought shaming that has turned neighbors into water narcs, watching local Portlanders casually hose down their sidewalks was a little like watching them blow their noses in gold leaf.
Today merely the name “Portland” carries its own serious baggage and presumptions — some accurate, but many not. This post will attempt to sift through both of them from my own limited perspective with particular attention paid to the town’s much-celebrated coffee culture.
Portland — aka “Stumptown” (from the many felled trees of its development), aka “Rose City” — may have over 90% of the population of Seattle, but it feels nearly twice as sleepy. Portlanders love their runs and parades, and I arrived in time for the Starlight Parade of their annual Rose Festival — complete with marching bands and floats from many of the area’s high schools. A city like San Francisco is too cool and cynical for this kind of small town sentimentality. But the Portland locals line the downtown streets many hours before the event, parking their lawn chairs with great anticipation, social camaraderie, and a packed picnic basket.
Speaking of public gatherings, not unlike Oakland’s First Fridays, Portland has its own First Thursday in the gentrified Pearl District — with its many cobblestone streets, cookie-cutter modern lofts, public storage units, and chain stores. In contrast is the artier Last Thursdays in the NE Alberta District — which is something of a front line for the town’s current gentrification battles, adjacent to one of the town’s very few hotbeds for gang violence.
The story of gentrification is not uncommon among American cities. Some of what makes Portland a little different is how overwhelmingly, well, white the city is. So white, it’s almost blue. The last U.S. census figures may count the city’s racial breakdown as 76% white (for comparison San Francisco is 54%). But observationally throughout the city, those figures seem like an understatement.
In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.
–“Skinhead Against Skinhead“, TIME Magazine
On the TriMet streetcars that run all across town — the closest thing the locals have to the Bay Area’s BART — station stops and instructions are announced in Spanish as well as English, but there’s hardly a Latino to be found on the system. (And yet BART audio is English-only.) Thus in true stereotyped Portland politeness fashion, it eerily seems like the system goes out of its way to culturally accommodate people who aren’t even there.
Even Portland’s Chinatown seems so in name only, save for a couple of old gates spread among a district of what one local called “douchey nightclubs”.
Portland’s lack of racial diversity may stick out like a sore thumb to someone from the Bay Area, but that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it — although some rightfully point out that it’s partly a product of historically racist state and local policies. But given that coffee ranks #1 on the list of Stuff White People Like, all that whiteness can’t be all bad, right? Except this theme of diversity — and Portland’s general lack thereof — comes up again when we talk about Portland’s coffee culture (more below).
Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? … This city is still very white. Why does that matter? According to the National Coffee Association, Caucasians drink a half cup a day more coffee than blacks or Hispanics.
— “Drip City“, Willamette Week
Of course, we have to address the Portlandia stereotypes — a term that even the locals have amusingly embraced. Enough of them are true enough to support parody: the beards, the many yoga instructors, the dog walkers sporting discount tattoos, the animal freaks, drivers who are extremely (and charmingly) courteous, etc.
Yet there’s a distinctly higher hipster quotient in SF’s Mission District. What you don’t hear about Portland is at the roots of the city: the historically dark, weathered, slightly dirty Pacific Northwestern Gothic about the place. (Note that these are some of my favorite and most unique characteristics of the town.)
In fact, “thriving” is a word I definitely would not use to describe Portland and its anything-but-vibrant downtown. Like Porto, Portugal, I found it hard to tell if it’s on its way up or way down. Downtown there are derelict vacant lots, sometimes filled with food carts and lined with sidewalks coated in layers of mystery stickiness. Homelessness and mental illness are on prominent display along with too many strip clubs to count (and yes, there is even a vegan one).
And despite many fantastic wilderness options nearby, the bicycling stereotypes, and a trendy Pearl District that hosts a retail outlet for every outdoor enthusiast store imaginable, obesity is a noticeable problem here as in much of America. Portland does not size up to the outdoorsy fit-city-in-spandex stereotype you get in places like Boulder, CO or Austin, TX.
A good part of Portland’s allure includes a local food scene high on the local, organic, and artisanal, an abundant beer microbrewing culture, and a location with a much cheaper cost of living than most. Although you can get the hipster/foodie/microbrew/slacker/cheap-living mix in almost equal measure in a place like Austin, TX, Portland seems to draw much of its appeal along the coast.
Most Portlandia stereotypes seem defined by the expectations of recent residents who aren’t from the area, just as the “fruits & nuts” stereotypes about Californians in the 1970s were primarily driven by refugees from the Midwest rather than the California natives themselves. It’s a little like how residents of Las Vegas lead rather normal and mundane lives, whereas its tourists feel obligated to destroy their livers and lose their minds because of preconceived expectations of behavior once they arrive.
In other words, from what I’ve observed, it’s the more recent immigrants trying to self-fulfill false stereotypes who are among the most exaggerated Portlandia examples — a lot of California and Seattle expats who came for what they thought was in the marketing brochure. (Just don’t ask me what Florida’s problem is.)
Many publications have made out Portland to be some magical, mythical place inhabited by barista leprechauns, where rivers of microlot espresso run down streets adorned with portafilter handles and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders. Although we’ve seriously questioned what a “coffee city” actually means in today’s environment, Travel + Leisure has regularly ranked Portland at the top among “America’s Best Coffee Cities,” and The Daily Meal recently ranked Portland #1 in the same category.
A few years ago there was a lot of professional chatter about how Portland unseated Seattle as America’s coffee capital. Then add over 60 microroasters in the city, regional champion baristas (back when that was a thing), three national coffee magazines (Fresh Cup, Barista Magazine, Roast Magazine) — plus many quality coffee shops, equipment makers, and specialty retailers — and you can justify the hype. However, there are several factors that dim the shine here.
First is the question of size. Much about the greatness of Portland’s coffee culture gets weighted relative to the town’s seemingly small size — scaled as if by an “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” disclaimer. Instead of using purely direct yardsticks such as nationally renowned quality, reputation, variety, or industry awards, Portland’s relatively low population density is often applied as that fun-house-mirror-like lens through which many gauge the local coffee scene.
Which brings us to the second factor: quality. There are some really good coffee shops and roasters here, no question. But are they standouts among the best in the country? For the most part, not exactly. Kansas City has some great roasters and cafés as well, and I wouldn’t necessarily crown Portland’s best as superior to KC’s finest.
A lot of what’s good about coffee in Portland naturally traces its influences back to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. And as much as Stumptown is one of the nation’s elite roasters and coffee chains, we’ve always felt it is a slight underachiever among its peers — whether in rival Seattle or Portland itself.
Which brings us to the third and most critical factor keeping Portland from reaching its quality potential. Stumptown may be a slight underachiever for its elite class, but they are to be commended for taking a great risk and establishing a new kind of coffee operation for the region. Most other Portland shops established since Stumptown seem rather risk-averse and are instead focused on execution, sticking with the formula, rather than taking the risk of offering new ideas of what coffee could be. This is where Portland’s lack of cultural diversity seems to also manifest itself in its coffee culture.
With few exceptions, what Portland has is a number of micro-businesses following a slightly updated Stumptown blueprint in miniature. The degree of this conformity here is palpable and even gets a little monotonous. As with the Seattle music scene in the 1990s after Nirvana made it big, nearly every notable new band in town was donning their grunge flannels and crunching the same power chords. (Nirvana coincidentally having a dubious rumored historical connection to the aforementioned Dharma Bums, btw.) Whether that was because there weren’t enough bands differentiating themselves from Nirvana or whether the market/industry was only interested in bands that sounded like Nirvana knock-offs, the effect was the same.
Similarly, Portland “brew bars” (everything is a “bar” or “lounge” these days, whether you’re getting a coffee or getting your eyebrows waxed) tend to follow a rather narrow definition of roasting (microroasters), roasting styles, use of microlot coffees (and the inevitable Portland single origin Ethiopian shot), rather poor attempts at blends when they aren’t outright verboten, accompanied by cut-and-paste ad copy about seasonality and bean-to-cup attention to detail, etc. as if read off of a checklist.
Where’s the pour-over-only shop like a Phil’z that serves only blends and defiantly eschews the notions of geographic traceability entirely? Where’s the Latin American perspective as you get from a Cumaica Coffee? (Though Portland has a great exception with Brazil in Nossa Familia — no wonder it’s one of our favorites in town.)
There are a few multi-roaster shops, but they generally toe the party line: self-imposed rules about geographic specificity, sourcing from the same half-dozen producing countries, and roasting only well this side of the second crack. There’s always nitro (invented at Stumptown) and cold brew, but those are completely different beverages, really. (Not to mention they’re also doing it in Cleveland too.)
But where do you go for a vac pot coffee? Where’s the Third Wave coffee house co-located inside an S&M shop? Even a place such as the tiny Mountain Grounds, who prominently classifies their roasted bean stocks by growing altitude (2200m, etc.), would be guilty of heresy in this environment.
This isn’t just Portland. We have the same issues with the restaurant scene in San Francisco; when everybody is serving locally sourced, organic, farm-to-table cuisine, a great thing quickly becomes a repetitive mantra and ultimately a self-parody.
While SF has some excellent restaurants, it is rather narrow and limited when compared to places like Chicago or New York. Places where Mexican food isn’t exclusively the same seven Taco Bell ingredients recombined for meals under $10-$15, where dangerous ideas such as offering a tasting menu based on the unique cuisine of Jalisco is even attempted.
If Portland is to ever become a coffee “Mecca”, as is often stated, such a “center of activity or interest” simply cannot play it safe with with a single formula, even if it is a great formula. It should attract diverse and even conflicting influences and nonconformist ideas from all over the world. Because what is the coffee lovers’ benefit of having 40, 60, or even 2,000 local microroasters to choose from if they all are pretty much copying each other?
In conclusion, if you like the philosophical approach to coffee that a Portland roaster or café takes, chances are that you’ll find much to love in abundance throughout this city. It’s a great thing and many people do it well. But if you want to try something different from that insular, narrow definition, you pretty much have to leave town.
|Name||Address||Neighborhood||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Public Domain||603 SW Broadway||Downtown||8.00||8.00||8.000|
|Coava Brew Bar||300 SE Grand Ave.||Central Eastside||8.30||8.00||8.150|
|Good Coffee||1150 SE 12th Ave.||Buckman||8.30||8.50||8.400|
|Heart Coffee Roasters||537 12th Ave.||Downtown||8.00||8.00||8.000|
|Nossa Espresso Bar||811 NW 13th Ave.||Pearl District||8.40||7.80||8.100|
|Barista PDX||529 SW 3rd Ave., Unit 110||Downtown||8.20||8.00||8.100|
|Spella Caffè||520 SW 5th Ave.||Downtown||8.50||8.00||8.250|
|Stumptown Coffee Roasters||128 SW 3rd Ave.||Downtown||8.00||8.20||8.100|
Like many Northwest espresso operations of any history, Chicago native Andrea Spella (and wife Amanda) began his business as an espresso cart. Co-located among one of many Portland-area food cart ghettos where just about anything on wheels invades a vacant lot, Andrea roasted his own beans in SE Portland once per week and served a decidedly Roman style espresso from his humble cart.
Citing frequent busted pipes and the weather sensitivity of his business in the food cart ghetto, he moved out in 2010 to open up this thumbnail-sized downtown storefront that’s barely more than a kiosk. Three or four standing customers can simultaneously fit inside, tops. Though there are three red-painted café tables and chairs on the sidewalk out front. There are tile floors, an old marble service counter top, and a layout that feels very much like a tiny bakery.
Like a pre-World War II midget submarine out of water, two and only two people can operate this tiny cubbyhole. One takes orders and handles any money exchanges, while a barista operates pinned behind their three-group, hand-pumped, piston-driven lever Rancilio in back — a setup far more common to Napoli than Portland.
But don’t let the modest size and prices here fool you. The New York Times claimed theirs as the best espresso in town back in a 2009 travel article. Despite the many roasters and coffeeshops that have since blossomed in the area, I was surprised at how good the espresso is here. It would rank among San Francisco’s best.
There’s a great attention to detail. The espresso made from their own Minas Gerais, Brazil-based signature espresso blend comes with a gorgeously textured, layered crema from a very careful and deliberate shot pull. It has a complex, rich, mellow, and broad flavor of blended spices, pungency, and limited sweetness.
While a more medium roast, it can seem a bit more on the darker, roasted end of the spectrum when compared with many of Portland’s newcomer cafés. But they perform this blended roast extremely well — in the way that Heart Roasters pulls of light roasting well.
If we buy into the Third Wave myth, anybody who made coffee prior to 2006 is irrelevant. Having been founded in 2007, Spella might escape such outright dismissal despite not subscribing to any Third Wave trappings.
Because unlike the countless examples of the Portland coffee purveyor stereotype that have arisen since Stumptown made their mark, Spella Caffè doesn’t serve a (frequently Ethiopian) single origin shot with its cloying screams for attention. There’s a real refined elegance here in a (hold your nose) true blended espresso.
Just wow. It makes all the conformity of the single origin espresso rebellion seem, well, foolish. Served in multi-colored Nuova Point cups.
Read the review of Spella Caffè in Portland, OR.
Despite his honored barista status and tattoo coverage, three-time Northwest Barista Champ, Billy Wilson, is one of those rare Portland baristas who truly cares a lot about customer experience — and it shows in his shops. Barista (not to be confused with the Barista Coffee Company and other variants of their generic and Google-unfriendly name) is Mr. Wilson’s brainchild. They are a small chain of Portland-based cafés that are uniquely and elegantly designed, elevating the coffee drinking environment to more of a luxury. Barista is also one of the first dedicated coffeehouses in Portland to go the multi-roaster route.
This Barista location — aka Barista 3, or the third of what is now four Portland cafés — opened in the historic Hamilton Building in July 2012. The design theme at this location is more old school sophisticated, and its environment truly does elevate the coffee-drinking experience to something more elevated: there is a white penny round tile floor, a distinctive bar decorated with darkly stained wood, marble countertops, and tall windows in front for window counter seating. It reminds us a little of Caffe Trinity on SF’s Market Street — just newer, more polish, and better coffee. There’s also limited sidewalk metal café table seating in front, which helps given that seating is otherwise a little limited inside.
Going that multi-roaster route, here they offered Coava‘s Meaza, Verve‘s Kokanna, and Roseline‘s Catapult for espresso. For retail sale they offered Coava, Verve, Roseline, and Bows & Arrows (in Victoria, BC).
Using a custom black matte three-group La Marzocco Strada MP, they pulled shots of Roseline Catapult with a medium brown, textured, even crema of decent thickness. It had the flavor of some brighter fruit, some spice, but more an emphasis on the coffee’s brightness overall. It’s a solid shot, served in white notNeutral cups, in an elegant setting.
Read the review of Barista PDX in downtown Portland, OR.
Pro snowboarder and Finnish native Wille Yli-Luoma established this local Portland roaster and two-shop, starkly designed coffeehouse chain in 2009. Inspired by the Swedish fika coffee break, he wanted to bring it to his adopted home town of Portland. (Maybe he’s not Swedish, but remember that Fins are the worlds biggest coffee drinkers.)
Heart says it draws its coffee influences from Scandinavia and the local Portland scene — using its rebuilt Probat to roast its beans to the “lightest degree possible” while fully developing the flavors in what each bean has to offer. Now this sounds like utter nonsense when I think of all the grassy, under-roasted, under-developed coffees I’ve abused my taste buds with under the guise of “Third Wave” roasting. However, Heart exhibits enough prowess at bean sourcing and roasting to offer more than just a trendy cliché in the cup.
This newer West Side Portland location has dark hexagonal tile floors, tall windows with lots of light, white-painted walls, a wall o’ mersh, and wood surfaces everywhere: benches, long shared picnic bench seating, small café tables, and window counter seating. Overall, the seating is a bit scarce for the space — it helps if you can sit on the sidewalk benches outside. Especially as you often find in town: they have the de rigueur uncomfortable-and-over-designed chairs that Portlanders must love.
As I mentioned above, Heart is also known for its exclusively light roasts, which they do well in a Nordic style — even if that means high acidity with every cup. These factors combined with a reputation for aloof service and a clientele of the popular people from class have made it highly divisive among Portlanders: they say you either love it or hate it.
They offer bread, pastries, and espresso drinks. No pour-overs, unlike their East Side mothership location. Using a custom three-group Mistral machine, they offered two options for espresso: an Ethiopian Dabub Mateyba single origin and their Stereo blend.
The Stereo blend comes with a even, medium brown crema of modest thickness. The shot fills rather high in the cup, seemingly influencing the weaknesses in its slightly thin body. There’s a woodiness plus cloves and cinnamon with a fading acidic sharpness at the finish. Heart does a good job of sticking to a light roast stereotype without stumbling into grassy, almost raw coffee. They actually get light roasting right. Served in white logo ANCAP cups with a shot of sparkling water on the side.
Yes, it’s a lighter style and the emphasis is on a high acidity in the cup — essentially making them a sort of one-note player for how they philosophically approach coffee. But their light roasts are balanced enough on a knife’s edge to avoid the horrid grassy yellow beans that barely make it to the first crack. This is probably the pro skateboarder in Wille coming out in his coffees.
The influences of Copenhagen’s The Coffee Collective and Norway’s Tim Wendelboe show through. Most of their bean sources come from Africa and Latin America in search of a bigger, balanced acidity that works best with their roasting style. This puts them in contention with a lot of Scandinavian roasters for specialty lots.
Their cappuccino comes with rosetta latte art and a decent job of milk-frothing: good consistency and heft but not overly milky overall as can be common in Portland. But the lightness of the roasts offers little for the milk to contrast with, resulting in more of a muddled flavor in the cup.
Love it or hate it? Oddly, we’re in the rare middle ground camp: a very good place, but not exactly one I’d seek out in Portland above a few others.
Read the review of Heart Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland, OR.
Portland Brothers Sam and Nick Purvis were quite busy last year. In addition to opening a bar and general market, they opened (with partner Dustin Evans) two locations of Good Coffee. The first began as a coffee cart service for several months until the café formally opened. A few months later they opened this sister spot.
Both brothers bring coffee credibility to the table. Older brother Sam worked a number of Portland area cafés: working alongside Matt Higgins when he was separately starting Coava, working at a Barista PDX location alongside eventual 2014 USBC champ Laila Ghambari, and working at Coava where he won the 2011 Northwestern Regional Barista Competition. Younger brother Nick worked at Santa Barbara’s French Press and was trained by Chris Baca and crew at Verve Coffee Roasters, eventually going on to compete at the USBC level himself.
It’s a small, bright space with tall windows on the two edges of the corner shop. There’s rough wood-paneled floors, corner seating at metal chairs and wood slat café tables, and a mix of small inner tables with odd choices for uncomfortable, impractical chairs. The design aesthetic of a few newer newer Portland coffee houses seems strangely drawn to uncomfortable, over-designed chairs.
There’s a large central rack of coffee and coffee accessory sales, and the place seems to have a clientele heavy on spandex yoga pants — partly due to a nearby gym.
Good Coffee is dedicated as a multi-roaster café — serving Madcap, Roseline, Coava, and Heart at the time of our visit. They offer cortados and mochas, but no pour-over coffee — just batch-brewed and espresso drinks.
Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea PB Classic and showcased white Mahlkönig grinders, they pulled shots of Madcap Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (they offer no blends) that came with a pale blonde, relatively thin crema. It had a complex aroma and a narrow flavor profile that you’d classically expect from a single origin shot, but it surprisingly wasn’t a brightness bomb. There was some balance in the narrower profile as three quite flavorful sips: vanilla, butter, and some turpeny elements that stretched into cedar.
It was a pleasant surprise in that the shot defied my usual heuristics for what makes a great espresso, still delivering an interesting and flavorful shot anyway. And to his credit, the barista made at least four sink shots before dialing in the shot he served me. Served in notNeutral white cups.
Given Portland’s vaunted status as an American coffee capital of sorts, this is one of the more well-regarded coffee houses in downtown Portland. It opened in the Spring of 2010 near the Pioneer Courthouse Square — replacing the former Portland Coffee House.
Public Domain is the brainchild of the much bigger Coffee Bean International as a way to showcase some of their specialty, seasonal roasts and in a retail space to properly serve it. Think a little of Coffee Bar vis-à-vis Mr. Espresso. A major difference being that Coffee Bean International used to receive a lot of flack for squeezing out smaller players in the roasting market. In a sense, Public Domain is their response to being squeezed by the growth of small, independent roasters in Portland. How the times have changed.
It’s a clean, well-lit space with tall, diner-like windows wrapping around its corner location (allowing sunlight in when available — this is Portland, after all). It’s not a terribly large space, but there are a number of smaller tables indoors wrapped around a central service counter that juts out.
There’s the wall of merchandising as you enter (primarily Chemex gear and mugs plus t-shirts), blonde wood floors, and retail roasted coffee offered beneath the central service counter — which displays two two-group Synesso machines in operation and some six commercial grinders for their various bean stock options. Pastries are about the only food service here. They also offer pour-over coffees, including an intriguing Colombia Finca La Esperanza — a 2014 Cup of Excellence winner — at our visit.
For espresso they offer a single origin option, but this review is based on their core Prometheus Espresso blend. They pull shots with an even, medium brown crema with finer microbubbles. It has a strong, potent flavor centered around herbal pungency and some spice, but it has limited sweetness and lacks any real fruit. Good, but not exactly outstanding. Served in a non-descript white ceramic cup with a side of sparkling water.
They serve their cappuccino in a proper classic brown Espresso Parts 5.5-oz tulip cup with a little rosetta latte art. It lacks much texture in the milk, and the overall cap is a bit too milky and weak despite its proper size.
Being a beloved coffee house in Portland sets expectations quite high. While it is a very good place overall, it’s also nothing we haven’t found in many other cities.
Read the review of Public Domain in Portland, OR.
A couple years ago I referenced the ZPM Espresso Kickstarter campaign — an effort to develop a PID-controlled consumer espresso machine. And just as state lotteries are often called “a tax on people who can’t do math,” I’ve long called crowdfunding services such as Kickstarter “a tax on people who don’t understand business loans or venture investing“.
Today the New York Times brought the two together in a good article on ZPM Espresso’s crash and burn — and some of their delusional crowdfunders who somehow expected things to operate more like a consumer e-commerce shopping site: ZPM Espresso and the Rage of the Jilted Crowdfunder – NYTimes.com. It still begs the question: what were these people seriously thinking they were getting into?
If you are a coffee lover, you’re probably already well aware of the online coffee courses offered by Seattle’s ChefSteps. That is, unless you’ve been holed up in Guantanamo or you avoid most social media like the time-sucking plague that it is (though I do, and yet I couldn’t avoid the subject).
This week coffee legend James Hoffman blogged about the latest ChefSteps course he’s involved with, and today we’ve already witnessed the promotional marketing for it bleeding out to publications such as Eater and Food & Wine — complete with obligatory use of the word “perfect” in their article titles.
To read the general press and discussion about publishers like ChefSteps, you’d think we were entering a revolutionary era of coffee education. But having taken ChefSteps’ free Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, and having a lot invested in the subject of how online education works (and does not work), I’m just not feeling the love. At least yet.
Let me explain. To begin with, I also need to start with a little about my “day job”. For over the past three years, I’ve been the co-founder and president of an online education start-up. We raised several million dollars from Khosla Ventures, a heavy investor in education technology, where Vinod Khosla himself sat on my board of directors. The only other board he served on was Square, so we were fortunate to have so much of his attention. (Side note: Khosla Ventures has more recently purchased the start-up outright for integration within its educational portfolio that includes the CK-12 Foundation, etc.)
Coincidentally, representing this start-up at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 is how I first encountered Blossom Coffee. And for those of you who have seen the brilliant HBO show, Silicon Valley, TechCrunch Disrupt is exactly like that.
Now the mission of this start-up may have been teaching users to program rather than to make latte art, but many of the frameworks and principles apply regardless: delivering educational content online, complementing lessons with resources such as online video, embedding discussions and interactions with the faculty and other students throughout the course, etc. Thus, over some years of experience, I’ve learned a few things about what’s good, what works, what’s revolutionary, and what’s — well — not so much in online education.
First: ChefSteps’ content. Taking their Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, I didn’t come away learning anything I didn’t already know. But as an introductory course, that’s to be expected. The videos, hosted on YouTube, are slickly produced and include legit instructors: Charles Babinksi, of G&B Coffee (he’s the ‘B’) and a former USBC finalist, and Scott Callender of La Marzocco Home.
The chief questions I struggled with as I took the course: was the material any better than any book or series of online articles I’ve read before? Same question for the videos. And did all of that help me learn something? My answer was generally “no”, or at least “not really”.
CoffeeGeek legend Mark Prince chimed in last week on a little of his mixed experiences with ChefSteps — at least regarding the “Espresso Myths” videos in the course. So let’s take the video on crema myths:
Now ChefSteps’ byline is “cook smarter”, but being “smarter” usually involves a more thorough effort of evaluating multiple perspectives, checking out references, and maybe performing a little analysis on all that before drawing hard conclusions. What we have instead in this “crema myths” segment (at 1’11’) is Scott Callender saying this:
“I think one of the best examples of that is Italian roasters include robusta into their blends simply to add this really thick, dark crema on top of their shots so it looks beautiful. But if you ever just taste a single origin robusta, most people would not tell you that tastes like a very good espresso.”
— Scott Callender, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
I can almost get past the fact that Scott has essentially stereotyped an entire coffee culture by suggesting that Italian roasters blindly add robusta to blends for the sole purpose of enhanced visuals. But what really makes my eyes roll is that Scott dismisses the idea that anyone might add a robusta component to a blend for something as insane as flavor balance or complexity.
Scott’s attitude is also rooted in the Puritanical myth — common to many myopic self-described Third Wavers — that the ultimate expression of coffee can only be found in a coffee bean’s genetically and geographically isolated single-origin, single-farm, single-row-of-shrubs heritage, unadulterated by external contaminants. This is essentially a lite version of Adolf Hitler’s purified master race doctrine as applied to coffee. And yet some of the greatest pleasures of coffee today come from an incestuously muddled history of genetic and geographic mash-ups; mash-ups that have given birth to everything from Bourbons to Catuais to Caturras to SL28s to SL34s to Typicas to even prized Gieshas transplanted to Panama as recently as 2000.
Charles Babinksi (who later uses big words like “quotidian”) then adds to this deconstructionist nonsense at 3’40” in the video:
“Also, it should be noted that crema tastes terrible. It’s one of the least enjoyable parts of drinking coffee. And more crema is not necessarily going to mean a tastier shot.”
— Charles Babinksi, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
While Charles is factually correct, what he says reflects a deconstructionist and non-integrative approach to thinking — i.e., that any component that isn’t good individually in isolation is therefore potentially negative, detrimental to quality, and/or not important. This line of thinking borders on implying that nothing can be better than the individual sum of its parts, which is just plain wrong.
As Charles points out later in the course, in Taste the Extraction, progressively tasting an espresso extraction highlights how it transforms from sour-through-bitter notes and yet they all balance out in the end. That balance is arguably one of the most critical elements to a quality espresso and coffee in general: sour is important, sweet is important, salty is important, even bitter is important, and the balance between them all is what makes the beverage we obsess over.
I’m all for dismissing unnecessary espresso myths, but in the process you shouldn’t be creating new ones in their place.
Where the course excels is in introducing the “three legs of the espresso stool”: brew ratio, brew time, and brew temperature. Again it’s nothing that hasn’t been repeated before dozens of times elsewhere on the Internet (despite many student comments in the course to the contrary), but it’s summarized well in a concise place and format.
Overall the course is a bit short and superficial (hey, it’s free), serving mostly to improve general awareness rather than to teach any skill, method, or technique. Segments such as Pulling a Great Shot, for example, do very little towards the mission of actually teaching. Instead, it repeats a lot of minimalist common knowledge to a soundtrack of lounge music more suitable for getting a hot stone massage at a spa:
Last, we come to ChefSteps as a concept and overall learning format. Here’s where that rubbish about the day job kicks in. Is what ChefSteps offers any different or more effective than a book with a supplemental DVD of videos?
The threaded comment section to engage with the instructors and fellow students is helpful, but it feels a little wonky in the context of a course. It’s optimized more for commenting on Facebook posts than to facilitate any actual learning exchange, but it’s the easiest and most obvious thing to do in the early stages of any start-up learning platform. There are also Quartz-style contextual comments, but they barely get used.
The support component of any course — where students have questions or challenges that veer from the linear narrative of the program — is essential to its effectiveness. It is a core differentiator from merely reading a book or watching a video. One of my most critical insights was that many learning platforms are designed primarily as modified content delivery platforms, and support is often bolted on as an afterthought. My start-up’s platform was initially built around content delivery rather than support delivery, and effective learning platforms often require the reverse.
In other words: it’s the support, not the content, that’s often the primary driver of learning value. We choose university courses more for the professors and TAs than we do for the textbooks they use.
However, the primary glaring omission from ChefSteps as an effective learning platform is its complete lack of assessment or evaluation capabilities. A few years ago the Gates Foundation developed a compelling universal data model to represent learning systems and environments. While not yet made public, it was extensively shared among many tech-minded educators as a potential learning blueprint. In this fundamental data model, learning resources are paired with assessment or validation resources, and the pairs are typically combined in a sequential series. That much is so fundamental to the human learning model that the Gates Foundation proposed it as a standard.
And it makes obvious sense when you think about it. What education is there without quizzes or tests, midterms and finals? The human brain simply does not learn in the absence of useful feedback, without tightly integrating the practice of the very things you are supposedly learning.
You can only go so far learning to play a piano just by reading a book and watching videos. Hearing how you actually sound playing a piano — or better: having your piano teacher assess your performance — is the only way to know if you’re really progressing.
Hence why Charles Babinksi wisely suggested that ChefSteps streamline, if not eliminate, the course’s latte art section: teaching such a skill with the platform would be something of an abject failure. But without any assessment in the mix, you might make the same case for the entire course overall.
So it remains that ChefSteps is a nice reading resource, but it offers nothing you couldn’t recreate on Facebook other than its paywall. Accept it now for what limited reference value it provides. Any actual online education is a long, long ways off still.
“You can find good coffee just about anywhere these days.” That’s been something of a mantra of ours over the past few years — whether it’s to question the point of archaic-yet-always-cited “America’s Best Coffee Cities” surveys in popular media or the need for coffee travel kits. Yet another case in point is my brother’s longtime home town… the Contra Costa County outpost of Martinez, CA.
Martinez is an old Gold Rush town, located some 35 miles from San Francisco on the south side of the Carquinez Strait. Its small-town legacy includes John Muir’s home from 1890 (and home to the John Muir National Historic Site) and unconfirmed rumors as the birthplace of the Martini. There are also confirmed rumors of Martinez as the birthplace of Joe DiMaggio — before he came to be known for/as Mr. Coffee … and for his slugging percentage as a New York Yankee and an abusively jealous husband.
I’ve found at least two notable places to get coffee in Martinez in recent months. The first, Barrelista, was formerly a coffeeshop named Legal Grounds. This downtown Martinez corner coffee house was opened in February 2014 by the owners of the popular Barrel Aged bar/restaurant across the street.
The place has a funky, independent coffeeshop vibe — but without being run-down, cheap, and skanky as is the case with many less-than-urban independent coffee shops. (And many in cities for that matter.) There are a couple of benches for seating outside in front on a Main St. parklet. Otherwise, inside it’s a cozy spot with a lot of decorative, unique tables and chairs.
It’s not as stuffy as a stereotypical downtown Martinez antiques shop, but it’s much nicer than your typical thrift store. There are mirrored walls, there’s an old bicycle on the wall, and there’s even a shiny metal National cash register at the service counter. A collection of board games keeps some of the locals occupied.
They sell panini, pastries, and sweets in addition to their coffee, which comes from Four Barrel (they also sell their beans retail). Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the side of the service area, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema of little detailed texture but yet good thickness.
It’s a modest pour, and it has some of the characteristic Four Barrel brightness but without it being overwhelming. There’s a pleasant roundness to the cup — a fuller mouthfeel accompanied by a decent blend of flavors from herbal pungency to mild spices and cinnamon to some apple-like acidity on the finish. Served in multi-colored Cost Plus World Market cups and saucers. The milk-frothing here is a bit wet and restrained, and yet their cappuccino runs very milky here — like a latte. They also do a decent job of trying their hand at latte art.
A solid espresso that would be worthy most anywhere. But there’s another notable Martinez coffee shop review to come…
Read the review of Barrelista in Martinez, CA.
It has been over 20 years since I last spent real time in Arizona. And back then it was either the Flagstaff or Tucson areas — deliberately not Phoenix, with its then-legendary saturation of Denny’s-per-square-mile, above-ground cemetery lifestyle, all the bad things about Los Angeles (smog, traffic) and none of the good (beaches, movie stars), and in-state locals who frequently tried to extricate those they felt were trapped in Phoenix itself.
Did I unfairly give Phoenix a bad rap without spending any first-hand time there? Absolutely. Is it for me? Phoenix can be very scenic and pretty, despite traffic landmarks like The Stack, and the people are outwardly nice in a way that would make any Bay Area resident suspicious. However, it’s probably a place I’ll visit but keep in the arm’s-length acquaintance category, even if I know and met a number of locals who love it there. One of my Über drivers raved about the area, but then he grew up in Sudan.
No matter — much like the rest of America these days, there’s good coffee to be had in town.
Sola Coffee Bar previously stood on this Old Town Scottsdale location, until the owners wanted out of the business in 2011. (Scottsdale sits as a large suburb on the northeast of the Phoenix border.) Jason Silberschlag, owner of the Cartel Coffee Lab chain, loved the location and moved in immediately.
It’s a relatively modest space with exposed wooden panels and fans on the ceiling, a number of exposed supporting posts, and an open art-gallery like space. Outside there’s a sidewalk bench. Inside there is stool seating along the street windows in front and some long, cushioned seating along internal glass walls with small café tables designed like small, squat sections of tree stumps. The few real tables inside are the size of picnic benches with various red and white colored metal chairs about.
Off to one side they serve multiple microbrews on tap along with wines. At the back is their coffee service bar. It covers brewing using anything from Aeropress, V60, Clever, and Chemex, and they offer drinks in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 20oz sizes — a dimensioning of their coffee service that I haven’t quite exactly seen before.
Part of their bar surface is covered with these brewing devices in a sort of Noah’s-Ark-like 2×2 formation. A wall of mounted crates offers their merchandise, from roasted coffee to the devices behind any of their various brewing methods. Except one…
Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a little light on thickness. It has a sharp acidity with a flavor of citris and some cedar, though it seems a little light on body and lacks much of any rich, body-forward flavor notes. Served in a shotglass with water on the side.
Overall, it’s a good espresso that tastes inspired by many West Coast roasting stereotypes, but it has enough of its own personality to not taste like a San Francisco or Portland knock-off.
Read the review of Cartel Coffee Lab in Scottsdale, AZ.