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Trip Report: Saint Frank (Russian Hill)

Posted by on 10 Jun 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

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.

Entrance to Russian Hill's Saint Frank Wall o'coffee inside Saint Frank

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.

Malkhoning K30 Twin grinders at Saint Frank's service entrance Coffee menu inside Saint Frank

Laptop zombies and service counter in Saint Frank Still life at Saint Frank: just as they've designed it

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.)

Served in white Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups. They also offer V60 pour-overs and use Malkhöning EK 43 & K30 Twin grinders.

Read the review of Saint Frank in SF’s Russian Hill.

Closer look at Saint Frank's under-the-counter Jepy Minim or Ghost machine The Saint Frank espresso


Café Arms Races That Don’t Involve Coffee

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?

Ghost in the Machine

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.

When the world's gone ModbarFortunately 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”

When Service Design Forgets to Design for Product Quality

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.

Blue Bottle Oakland's Apple-inspired service table topExcept 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.

Rewarding The Wrong Behaviors

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.

In the absence of critical opinions, these become our public coffee thought-leadersThis 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.

Putting Coffee Quality Back at the Center

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.

The things we read while dragging on cigarettes in fashionable cafés

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.

What great chefs can tell us about good coffee

Posted by on 10 May 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Is René Redzepi gonna school us on coffee? Roast Magazine believes so.The short answer: absolutely nothing.

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?

The Celebrity Chef as Martha Stewart

Because chefs eat better than you ever couldIn 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.

Of Chefs and Coffee

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.

Top Chef's Ladma Lakshmi says, 'Bring on the Nespresso!' Wolfgang Puck's approach to quality coffee: pre-grind it and shove it in a pod

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.

As David Kinch, chef at Manresa, once said about coffee: “I focus on the caffeine.” Which, if coffee were analogous to wine, would be like saying, “I focus on the alcohol”. Connoisseurs indeed.

The French Laundry espresso: why, just why? Mario Batali and Todd Carmichael at Tazza d'Oro's roasting area

Of Chefs and Sommeliers

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.

Because everything in America is better by the jug-fullIn 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”.

Poor, poor Mario's liverAs 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.

Celebrating the Coffee Specialists

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.

Mission Accomplished: Mankind’s first major step towards the disposable café

Posted by on 06 May 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Starbucks

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.

The Grower's Cup: the next dimension in environmental coffee atrocities

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.

It ruins the joke if they really do that...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…

Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily

Posted by on 05 May 2014 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Local Brew, Quality Issues

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.

James Freeman of Blue Bottle presents 'The Last Mile' of coffee Students at the Stanford Coffee Symposium, 2014

Vendors serving coffee at the Stanford Coffee Symposium One of the coffee evaluation sessions at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

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.

Mr. Espresso at the Stanford Coffee Symposium Coupa Café and Café Venetia at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Blue Bottle bariste prepare coffee samples for the coffee evaluation session - in chambray of course Stephen VIck (left) and Richard Sandlin (right) explain the coffee evaluation session to attendees

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.

Barefoot Coffee Roasters' truck at the Stanford Coffee Symposium CAFECOL at the Stanford Coffee Symposium representing growers from Veracruz, Mexico

Detailed notes from the coffee evaluation session at the Stanford Coffee Symposium A Mr. Espresso macchiato at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Trip Report: Flywheel Coffee Roasters (Upper Haight)

Posted by on 22 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

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.

Stanyan St. entrance to Flywheel Coffee Entering Flywheel Coffee with service bar on the left

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.

Coffee menu and drippers at Flywheel Coffee Joper roaster at the rear of Flywheel Coffee

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.

Read the review of Flywheel Coffee Roasters in the Upper Haight.

Service bar inside Flywheel Coffee The Flywheel Coffee espresso

Espresso nel caffè: Rai 3 Report

Posted by on 07 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Robusta, Starbucks

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.)

This nasty shot of an unclean espresso machine in Napoli won't qualify as coffee pornThe 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.

How a coda di topo should not look...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.

Luigi Odello on ReportThey 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.

UPDATE: April 8, 2014
Effective communication often changes behavior. In response to Rai 3′s Report yesterday, a Campania region commissioner has come to the defense of the region’s espresso: Campania Report, Martusciello: “Il caffè napoletano è una eccellenza”.

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.

UPDATE: April 14, 2014
Antonio Quarta, president of the Associazione Italiana Torrefattori (AIT, Italian Roasters Association), commented on the Report in today’s paper: Quarta: «Il caffè fa bene, ma è importante che sia di qualità». In short, he notes that the SCAE has its own high professional standards, but that applying them to every gas station and airport serving espresso in Italy doesn’t exactly tell the whole story either. He’s a little defensive, as you might expect, but investigative journalism thrives on finding worst-case scenarios and drawing much more widespread conclusions from them.

Trip Report: Linea Caffe (Mission District)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

This coffee shop opening in Sept. 2013 received an almost inordinate amount of fanfare. It still gets some of it. One of the latest examples being the New York Times Travel section with a recent piece by their former coffee scribe, Oliver Strand.

Andrew Barnett (of Ecco Caffè fame — now Intelligentsia SF — and currently the Good Food Awards and Cup of Excellence judging) established the coffee side of the operations, starting with his own micro-batch coffee roasts. So there’s some definite reason to get excited about that.

Entrance to Linea Caffe from 18th Street Linea Caffe at the corner of 18th St. & San Carlos with sidewalk seating along the latter

Frankenstarter

But here’s where things get convoluted. Grafted onto this perfectly good coffee bar is GreenSalads.org. Overlooking the folly of naming your brick & mortar business after your electronic address (e.g., “1800 Flowers? But I only need a dozen.”), they serve salads that read like a checklist of 2013′s most trendy and overdone ingredients: kale, quinoa, Brussels sprouts. Is a cauliflower salad in the cards for 2014? It’s honestly hard to tell if the menu here is meant as a self-parody of SF salad menus or not.

But wait — that’s not all. Also grafted onto this place is Lt. Waffle, offering sweet and savory Brussels-style waffles. One even garnered local 7×7 cover press as the #1 item of their “The Big Eat 2014″ list of 100 things we absolutely must eat before we die. (I know I’m holding off on including that DNR in my advanced health care directive until I eat one.) The salad and waffle offerings come courtesy of Anthony Myint, who partnered up with Mr. Barnett while he was a regular customer at Mr. Myint’s Mission Chinese Food.

We may be established fans of Mr. Myint’s Commonwealth and certainly of Mr. Barnett’s coffee. But the resulting café is a bit of a Kickstarter Frankenstein: an odd fusion of waffles, salad, and coffee with the feel of a schizophrenic food consignment shop.

Even so, that hasn’t deterred SF foodies any. Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, the restaurant world has been downsizing their menu ambitions while simultaneously upsizing their revenue-per-plate on lunch fare for the common man. Out are top-dollar amuse-bouches, tasting menus, and culinary foams. In are glorified comfort foods: pimped out burgers, pizza, grilled cheese, and salads offered at twice the price we used to pay, and demonstrating less than half of the culinary creativity pre-2008.

If SF diners proved financially apprehensive about splashing out for a new BMW, they’ve proven more than happy to spend almost as much on a tricked out Honda Civic. The fetishized $4 toast was only a matter of time.

GreenSalads.org - or is that Lt. Waffle? Who knows Linea Caffe's La Marzocco Linea

About that coffee…

But enough about salads and waffles. While good, we’ll leave those details to Mr. Strand’s quoted restaurant review. The coffee side of the house has its act in order even if it doesn’t quite “wow” for the area. It’s a small corner space with virtually only outdoor sidewalk seating along San Carlos. Inside the wide windows open out to the street and there’s a tiny bench for two.

Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea namesake and Mazzer grinders, they pull shots of espresso with an even medium brown crema and a potent aroma. It’s two-sips short and has a moderate body with a flavor profile of some spice and a slightly bright fruity edge. Served in red Heath cups for espresso (white for caps), Illy spoons, and sparkling water on the side.

Things get a little more unusual when milk is involved. Their macchiato has a dense and creamy milkiness that borders on cappuccino territory, despite its diminutive size. It comes with a latte-art heart. We do like the fact that Linea ruffles some coffee fad feathers in not offering any drip coffee options at the small bar here.

Read the review of Linea Caffe in the Mission District.

The Linea Caffe espresso The Linea Caffe macchiato: the abundance of thick milk even blurred our visual focus

Coffee, Academically — and announcing the Stanford University Coffee Symposium

Posted by on 08 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

I’ve had a long, strange history with academics. Before succumbing to the dark side of money-plundering dot-com entrepreneurs, I worked in scientific research labs at The Johns Hopkins University and at Stanford University. It was also a joint graduate PhD program in bioengineering at UC Berkeley/UCSF, with a focus on neuroscience, that first brought me out to the SF Bay Area some 25 years ago.

Thus the idea of academia is something I know well, albeit with ambivalent feelings. For me, there’s always been an inherent conflict between the practicality of “real world” grounding and the legitimate need to follow intellectual pursuits to advance any field of interest — whether that be neuroscience or coffee — even at the risk of building ivory towers.

The University of Coffee in Trieste, ItalyThat people in the coffee industry today swear by using measuring scales, monitor things like total dissolved solids (TDS), and continually experiment with this pressure control or that pre-infusion time are all baby-step examples of the need for an academic approach — the building of a more comprehensive coffee science, as it were.

UC Davis Coffee Center

And yet while you can earn a PhD in Coffee Science from the University of Trieste (Italy) studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy, in America you can’t even earn so much as a bachelor’s degree in the field. So it’s with encouragement that we read yesterday’s announcement: UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow – Our Region – The Sacramento Bee.

UC Davis Coffee Conference - March 11, 2014If you don’t know UC Davis, they are an amazing ag (and veterinary) school. As just a personal example, a fellow Chicago native and husband of a lifelong close friend of the family, Chris Carpenter, moved from Chicago to Napa years ago to earn a masters in Horticulture from the viticulture and enology (i.e., wine) department at UC Davis. He’s now earning 100-point scores as a winemaker and recently served four years as chairman of the board for Slow Food USA. If you can judge an academic program based on the success of its graduates, and you should, UC Davis is no slouch when it comes to food and drink.

UC Davis just formally announced their Coffee Center and their first Coffee Center Research Conference, which will take place this coming Tuesday, March 11. All initial steps, but definitely promising steps in the right direction. Unlike their world-famous viticulture program, for example, the question still remains whether such an ambitious scientific initiative can truly thrive so far from origin for an ag school — rather than in a place like Kona, Hawaii. Greenhouse coffee can only go so far in vitro.

Much of their conference agenda, like their Coffee Center, seems focused on the microbiology of coffee. However, there are also talks on coffee genetics and sensory evaluation — the latter naturally tapping into the university’s expertise on the subject in the wine world.

TED 2014 Coffee Service

Coincidentally, a little over a week from now the 2014 TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and there promises to be continued servicing of TED attendees by various luminaries of the professional coffee world. Recall that an invitation from TED is what inspired the now-defunct Coffee Common.

TED 2014TED fashions itself as a sort of intellectual gathering of big minds and big ideas for the betterment of the world. Sounds great for the academic and scientific advancement of good coffee, right? But if you thought I’d be a fan of TED, you could not be more wrong.

Fortunately I was able to attend a past TED conference on the tab of an ambitious dot-com entrepreneur rather than having to fork over the $7,500 hazing price myself. (I.e., “Your hedge fund must be this large to ride this attraction.”) TED has done an amazing job of marketing and self-promotion, and I felt I should have every reason to support TED and its aims on the surface. But I found the TED event and organization to be intellectually shallow and ethically dishonest.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famed author of The Black Swan, once famously called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Part of that is the event’s general preference for infotainment over substance, as exemplified in its famous 18-minute videos that run like infographics set to moving pictures — optimized for people who prefer to be entertained rather than informed.

How most TED attendees view its coffee serviceMore objectionable to me were many of the event attendees themselves. They seemed fixated more on asserting or reaffirming their own special status in the world by the company they keep — or, perhaps as Mr. Taleb would put it, by those circus performers they invite to entertain them. Imagine The Great Gatsby, but with ostentatious material wealth replaced by grand displays of intellectual vanity.

The professionals of the coffee world are some amazing, impassioned, bright people capable of making their own brave decisions of free will. Yet I cannot help but feel that TED has cynically invited many of them merely to exploit for a premium event coffee service, helping the world of TED to maintain their personal façade of elitism in the process. I wish the best for the attending coffee pros and only hope they come out unscathed, unlike myself.

The Stanford Coffee Symposium

Location of the 2014 Stanford Coffee SymposiumMuch closer to home, about a year ago Stanford University Professor of Biology, Virginia Walbott, approached me to help co-organize a Stanford Coffee Symposium to be held in the spring of 2014. Prof. Walbott organized a similar, highly successful event for chocolate in May of 2011, tapping into both the university (Depts. of Biology, Latin American Studies, Economics, etc.) and industry (Scharffen Berger, Monique’s Chocolates, etc.).

Our goal for the event is to balance some higher-minded academics with a practical, consumer-friendly grounding in what makes coffee enjoyable and fun. (Read: check your self-congratulatory intellectual elitism at the door!) To be held Saturday, May 3 at the Cubberley Building of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford Continuing Studies just published its course catalog entry last week:

WSP 172 – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between
https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/course.php?cid=20133_WSP+172

Registration is now open at $195 per student with a deadline of April 26. The featured speakers and topics thus far are as follows:

  • From Tree to Bean to CupJames Freeman – Founder and CEO, Blue Bottle Coffee [see their blog post]
  • The History of Coffee – Denise Gigante – Professor of English, Stanford
    How to Evaluate Coffee Flavors (includes a tasting session) – Richard Sandlin – Fair Trade USA (SCAA cupping trainer ninja and co-founder of the Bay Area Coffee Community, I might add)
  • Caffeine and Health: Myths and Mysteries – Christopher D. Gardner – Professor, Stanford School of Medicine
  • Colombian Coffee Landscapes – Eric Lambin – George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor, Stanford Department of Earth System Science; Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Coffee in Veracruz: Linking Quality of Coffee to Quality of Life – Madeline R. Weeks – Fulbright-García Robles Scholar
  • Fair Trade and Sustainability – Christopher Bacon – Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University
  • Coffee Genome and Defense Against Pathogens – Lukas A. Mueller – Assistant Professor, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell
  • Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Costa Rica – Chase D. Mendenhall and Daniel Karp – Department of Biology, Stanford

In addition to the planned talks there will be various Bay Area coffee vendors and an interactive tasting session. My current challenge? Following a location visit last Tuesday, I’m now working with the university to get sufficient power into the 1938 building to run sufficient numbers of espresso machines and grinders.

That said, I’m genuinely excited about the event and hope many of you will be too.



UPDATE: April 6, 2014
The Sacramento Bee featured some of the research coming out of the UC Davis Coffee Center: UC Davis geneticist tries to build a better cup of coffee – Food & Drink – The Sacramento Bee.

It’s Epicurious’ turn for “America’s Best Coffee Shops”

Posted by on 01 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Surprisingly, Epicurious had yet to make a notable entry in the obligatory culinary-magazine-rates-national-coffee-shops department. But that all changed this week with the rather ambitious title of “America’s 25 Best Coffee Shops — The ultimate guide to the best coffee shops across the United States”: America’s Best Coffee Shops | Epicurious.com.

Daylight Mind in Kona, HI, courtesy Epicurious.comWe do have to give them an iota of credit. Unlike most of their ilk, they cover coffee without a brand name that suggests an exclusive concern for food, eating, meals, or anything else at the expense of beverages as some kind of frivolous, second-class diversion. But then they did have to ruin it a little by filing the article under their “Where to Eat Around the Globe” category. Facepalm indeed.

If it’s about quality, why do we still write about it as a crude caffeine fix?

Writer Colleen Clark also falls for many of the usual suspects among coffee house article tropes. Like a rapper with mad rhyming skillz just this side of 2 Chainz, she employed several examples of the journalistically lazy caffeine riff and liberally used the trite words “java” or “joe” as substitutes for “coffee”. Imagine if writers playfully used the term “alcoholics” when talking about wine lovers they way they effusively use “caffeine junkies” whenever talking about coffee lovers. Double standard, anyone?

Barista Parlor in Nashville, TN, courtesy of Epicurious.comThen there’s the tiresome barista-as-sommelier analogy. She also made several references to the rather dated topic of regional coffee “scenes”: the concept where which urban metropolis you’re in determines whether you can access quality coffee or not is becoming rapidly irrelevant if not already extinct. Now that even the world’s last holdout for terrible coffee — Paris, France — has worthy and redeemable coffee shops, there are no more “coffee cities” anymore than there are wine or tea cities.

All these negatives aside, the article is actually a rather decent assessment of great coffee shops — given Epicurious‘ magazine peers. (Even Forbes tried to get in on the act of reviewing the nation’s best coffee shops.) It might suggest that “it’s hard to separate the real-deal java joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsters” — a problem that we honestly never knew needed solving. But they at least drew a line in the sand, laying down some of their criteria by which some coffee shops should or should not be included in their list:

So we’ve combed the country for the coffee shops that combine craft with hospitality, for inviting spaces that spark creativity, and for roasters who know how to make your morning brew tell a story. These are our picks for the USA’s top 25 coffee shops.

This beats most of the random nonsense we’ve seen in past magazine lists of this type. Even if some of these criteria are precisely the sort of fluff that frustrated us as distractions from a focus on the actual coffee as far back as 2003: telling stories, named architects, hospitality, etc.

So that you don’t have to turn 25 pages of ads on the Epicurious Web site, we’ve summarized their list here in one place as something useful (and as listed in no particular order):

The rise of “independent chains”?

Blacksmith in Houston, TX, courtesy of Epicurious.comRisks of the No Coffee Left Behind Act aside, this is a solid list. We will be the first to admit that it is over-represented by San Francisco. But most curiously, although it does well to call out a few smaller independents such as Daylight Mind and Barista Parlor, this list is heavily represented by chains. For a Top 25 list, it’s actually cheating a bit as it actually represents a total of 85 coffee shops.

Has quality coffee in the U.S. reached a tipping point where the independents have come to be outnumbered by the chains? That’s hard to say just yet, but you can’t argue with the quality represented here.

Espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 17 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Napoli is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Globally, it is the city most associated with coffee — and certainly espresso. (Sorry, Seattle.) Yet despite this reputation and Napoli’s many cultural treasures, most tourists avoid it like the 1656 outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Many will pass through Napoli to see the stunning sights of the nearby Amalfi Coast, the islands of Capri or Ischia, or the volcanic graveyards of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But few stay for more than a namesake pizza. Because Napoli has the reputation for a bit too much bustle and way too much hustle. Most of all, Napoli can’t shake its reputation for crime — with legends about the Camorra and Napoli’s scugnizzi street kids abound.

Atrani at dusk on the Amalfi Coast The shores of Forio, Ischia

Tourists more often come to Napoli to get to views like this one from Ravello Castello Aragonese overlooking Ischia Ponte

Fear and Intimidation

The first time I visited Napoli a dozen years ago, I too was just passing through. And Napoli immediately intimidated me with what seemed like hustlers on the make at every corner: taxi drivers, store owners, people who come up to you on the street. I felt like I had to watch my back at every moment.

I should note that hustlers and crime do not spook me easily. I went to college for four years in the inner city of Chicago at what’s considered the birthplace of Chicago Blues, where John Lee Hooker performed in the streets in the movie The Blues Brothers just a few years earlier, before the Maxwell Street market area was swept up by redevelopment in the 1990s. And in the early ’90s I lived at the intersection of Alcatraz & Sacramento in West Berkeley, where gunfire rang out almost nightly in front of the nearby liquor stores and the black & white Berkeley Police mobile drug enforcement bus — nicknamed “Orca” by the locals — had to set up a near-permanent camp.

Garbage fires warm Chicago's Maxwell Street at Halsted, Dec. 1988. The building at left was replaced with a Caribou Coffee. Some of my homies at 16th & Halsted near Chicago's Maxwell Street, Dec. 1988. Four years here didn't prepare me for Napoli.

The dark streets of old Napoli Peering through the tight streets of old Napoli's Spaccanapoli

But friends more recently travelled to Napoli and told me how much they enjoyed the city — and not just its surrounding environs. What did I miss? This time, I had to “conquer” Napoli: I wasn’t just passing through, and I psyched myself up to face an expected onslaught. But to my bewildered surprise and delight, this time it was nothing like the Napoli I last experienced.

What was different? I’ve come to believe everything had to do with where I was. Before when I was just passing through Napoli, I entered the chaos of Piazza Garibaldi and the main train station or swam against the tide of humanity at the Molo Beverello port: two massive transportation hubs where tourists passing through are easy and plentiful targets for Napoli’s infamous scavenger class.

This time, immersing myself in the various neighborhoods alongside the locals, the Neapolitans seemed much more friendly — in addition to being generally casual, expressive, and proud. They may hold their stares a bit longer than is considered polite in the rest of Italy, but they were no more “threatening” than most Londoners. I managed to completely relax among them, even if my Italian accent betrayed the toscanaccia (or Tuscan snobbery) of my most recent Italian teacher.

Neapolitan saints glow in the night in Spaccanapoli The shadows of saints along Napoli's Via San Biagio Dei Librai

Supermodels join the Napoli police force to wear Armani to work everyday Sunset along Napoli's Via Francesco Caracciolo

Napoli, Not Italy

The significance of Italian regionalism is particularly acute in Napoli — something called il campanilismo that connotes a strong identity and affiliation with the town campanile from where one is from. Because the Neapolitans are a proud people with a proud history distinctly separate from the rest of Italy, and many wear a chip on their shoulder about it to this day. Since animosities are rarely one-sided, the rest of Italy — particularly the northern, more affluent regions — responds in kind.

A good bit of this internal animosity traces back to the 19th century unification of Italy, the Risorgimento, that gave Napoli and the rest of Southern Italy the short end of the economic, political, and cultural stick. The grudge continues to this day.

As with many other soccer-crazed nations, Italian football (or calcio) serves as a proxy war for the clash of cultures. This past September, Milan-based AC Milan had their stadium shut down because of anti-Napoli abuse by their fans at a match against Neapolitan club heroes SSC Napoli. In today’s papers, now the Rome stadium risks closure for anti-Neapolitan chants outside of their stadium last night.

Bar Nilo's shrine to Diego Maradona Family shrine in the streets of Napoli

Mural of Diego Maradona in Quartieri Spagnoli, Napoli Napoli scooter decorated with Diego Maradona decal

A common stadium banner in the north at matches against SSC Napoli pleads for nearby Mt. Vesuvius to “lavali col fuoco,” or “wash it with fire,” as Vesuvius did to Pompeii in 79 A.D. Italian soccer fans are Michelangelos of sick, black humor. SF stadium chants of “L.A. sucks!” are childish by comparison.

As an example riposte, while we were in Napoli on October 15, the city hosted a 2014 World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Italy. A vocal number of local fans loudly booed whenever an Italian player touched the ball — with the lone exception of forward Lorenzo Insigne, SSC Napoli player and native of Napoli. That’s how ugly this thing gets, with Neapolitans practically cheering for the other country.

Juventus fans cheer on Mt. Vesuvius to reclaim the city of NapoliSupport for SSC Napoli represents a way for locals to “stick it to the man” up North. While Napoli may have over 50 patron saints, there are perhaps none more celebrated than all-time soccer great, Diego Maradona. Playing for Napoli in the late ’80s, Maradona all but singlehandedly upset the northern dominance of Italian football — leading Napoli to shock championships in 1987 and 1990.

A tough kid from the slums of Buenos Aires, Neapolitans identified with Maradona and accepted him as one of their own scugnizzi. To this day, there are still many painted murals and saintly votive shrines dedicated to Maradona in the streets of Napoli, and his occasional returns to town are as venerated as visits from the Pope.

Despite il campanilismo, Napoli is a city of immigrants — dating back from its Greek settlement roots some 3,000 years ago through to today’s South Asian, Eastern European, and North African communities. But it’s not all gritty slums like the Quartieri Spagnoli either. There are also the Chiaia and Vomero districts — each dotted with luxury boutiques, fine restaurants, grand caffès, and the smell of old money and some new. But what we really like about Napoli, as with Torino, is that unlike Firenze (Florence) it feels left to the locals and nothing like a Disneyland for American tourists.

Narrow alleyways of Napoli Neighborhood meeting place: a crucifix at Via Concordia and Vico Colonne a Cariati

Napoli: where high fashion can sometimes be a bit scary Mt. Vesuvius from Castel dell'Ovo, Napoli

Neapolitan Coffee Culture and the Soulful Espresso

Napoli is the world’s most important city for espresso. There, I said it. How un-Third Wave of me. Without previously exploring Napoli enough, we had rated Torino and Piemonte as having the best baseline quality standards in Italy (if not the world). But upon further review, Napoli seems to have the edge: virtually everywhere you go rates solid 7s and 8s.

That’s not to say they are the best-of-the-best. Our highest-rated Napoli caffè wouldn’t make SF’s top 15 list. But unlike SF, that caffè is a 94-year-old family business in the same location for 73 years.

In Napoli, old is not the enemy of good. Now what is new, and the act of exploring and discovery, has value. But take a newer, world-renowned restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea and its molecular gastronomy counterparts for example. As outstanding and experimental as its food is, part of its appeal is a kind of gimmick, a fleeting conceptual art project bound to fall out of vogue within the next decade — unlike the soulfully satisfying cuisine that has stayed with us for generations. Novelty has a relatively short shelf-life.

Napoli's Galleria Umberto I, almost a carbon copy of  Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan Graffiti near Napoli's Via Toledo

In recent years, I have suffered a kind of fatigue over new café openings around the world. Not that I don’t love the continual investments in an improved end-product. And news has the word “new” right in it, hence why all the attention is there. But lately café openings seem much more about their physical place or their gadgetry than they seem about their actual coffee.

There’s a growing emphasis on named space designers and architects or on nameless machines with custom modifications (e.g., “That Modbar looks cool, but have you tried your coffee from it?”). All these superficial trappings have new cafés trying to distinguish themselves on everything but the resulting shot in the cup. It feels more like an arms race to feature in Architectural Digest or Popular Mechanics, as if they’ve overlooked the actual coffee in their mission.

But it’s not just coffee. Much of the West seems obsessed with a disposable culture of everything new, everything trendy, and nothing that’s built to last. If you really want to talk about “slow coffee”, immerse yourself in a place where respect comes measured not in the number of tweets and blog citations this week but rather in generations of customers who have come to expect high standards.

Because we’d honestly like to believe that some of today’s standard bearers of quality — such as Blue Bottle and Four Barrel — somehow manage to survive and stay relevant for at least another generation of customers. At least without succumbing to a fad-of-the-month that replaces them within a decade. Perhaps that seems unnecessarily nostalgic. The reality is that in 10-20 years the likes of Blue Bottle or Four Barrel will be swept up in mergers and acquisitions and become unrecognizable. Which makes us appreciate Napoli’s coffee culture even more.

In Napoli, nobody hits you over the head proclaiming that they are “craft” or “artisinal” — even if they often are by most Western definitions. Nobody tries to distract you with the exotic pedigree of their coffee equipment. There’s something soulfully satisfying about their focus on a solid espresso backed by tradition and, well, craft.

Guy Fawkes makes his appearance in Napoli's Spaccanapoli Napoli supports both a very young and a very old population

Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo Inside Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo

What makes a Neapolitan espresso?

That aforementioned il campanilismo extends to how Neapolitans think about their coffee, and in particular their roasters. They can be fiercely local and independent in their coffee loyalties, often proudly professing their roaster affiliation on street-level signage. Furthermore, wood-fired coffee roasting is often highly revered here for its tradition and flavor profile.

When it comes to roasting, the tendency is towards second-crack darkness. Back in the ’90s, Torrefazione Italia did a clever thing by offering different roast-level blends named after towns that geographically represented lighter to darker roasts from north to south: Venezia, Milano, Perugia, Roma, Napoli, Sardegna, Palermo. Napoli was one of the darker roasts as is more of the norm for Southern Italy.

This darker roasting can be a dubious quality practice. However, the beans here tend not to have a heavy sheen of oil, and the darker roasts redemptively manage to be neither bitter nor ashy. They rarely even verge into smoky territory.

Obligatory Neapolitan fish monger shot Napoli at sunrise

Of the classic four Ms of espresso quality — miscela (bean blend), macinatura (grind), macchina (machine), and mano (the hand of the barista) — I’ve often said that half of the espresso quality comes down to the barista. But because the Neapolitan barista standards are so consistently good, I found the biggest quality difference between Napoli caffès comes down to their choice of roaster.

When it comes to espresso machines, La Cimbali is very popular along with La San Marco. Manual lever La San Marco machines are held in almost universal high regard among Napoli’s best caffès — as if to skeptically say, “I’ve got your pre-infusion and variable pressure control right here!” while making an obscene arm gesture. The only Rancilio I came across was in an airport Mozzarella bar. The only Gaggia I encountered was in a hotel bar, and it made the worst cappuccino I had on the entire trip.

Although the sample sizes were small, some my favorite roasters at caffès in the area (of which I experienced multiple shots) included:

  1. Caffè Moreno,
  2. Caffè del Professore,
  3. Passalacqua,
  4. Caffè Toraldo,
  5. Illy — northern roaster but always done well in Italy,
  6. Kimbo,
  7. Caffè Borbone — rockin’ tune on that Web site, btw,
  8. Portioli — northern roaster more prevalent in Amalfi and Maiori,
  9. Lavazza — this northern roaster is supposedly “Italy’s favorite coffee”.

Note that this list disqualifies many of the independent, more obscure roasters that are the pride of the caffès that serve their coffee.

Ravello overlooking the Amalfi Coast in a storm As with many hours in Italy, sometimes they are always closed

Sunset over the Bay of Naples Napoli's Piazza dei Martiri at dusk

Espresso Preparation

Neapolitan caffès will often offer espresso as “zuccherato” or “amaro” — that is, presweetened or without sugar. And that’s where the coffee drink menu begins. Napoli caffès frequently offer dozens of variants to a degree unmatched in the rest of Italy. Many are rooted in a given caffè’s own secret formula of zucchero-crema or cremina di caffè — a sugar/cream/espresso concoction used to sweeten up and add volume to their espresso drinks.

Despite these concoctions, Neapolitan cuisine is about simplicity and celebrating the core ingredients. After all, Napoli belongs to the region of Campania, which means “country”. So it is extremely rare if you find any latte art here.

Culturally, latte art is perceived as an almost childish playing with your food — like serving pancakes covered with a smiley face made of whipped cream. Neapolitans don’t have the patience for that nonsense. A dusting of cocoa on a morning cappuccino is about as fanciful as they get. Your espresso will always come with a glass of water served on the side. And you won’t find a single laptop zombie.

Travel Tip

If you go, one bit of travel advice: lose your American habits and don’t trust Google Maps at all. It’s not just because the Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing either. Many cities and towns in Italy follow non-serial, seemingly Byzantine address numbering systems. The piazze that frequently appear also often throw off Google Maps’ overly simplistic addressing assumptions.

Just being one city block off of your destination means four square city blocks of searching back-and-forth, sometimes leading you down streets and neighborhoods where you don’t want to be. For example, a Google Maps search for Ravello’s Caffè Calce at Via Roma, 2 will take you 400 feet away from the square you should be on. A search for Napoli’s Cafè Amadeus will lead you 4 miles away from its nearby Amedeo Metro station. Virtually all the caffè reviews linked below required me to manually enter their GPS coordinates in their maps at the bottom for accuracy, rather than relying on Google’s addressing look-up.

A frequently better option is to use TuttoCittà, which additionally shows street address numbers on many of its maps.


Espresso Ratings in Napoli, Ischia, and the Amalfi Coast
Name Address City/Neighborhood 2014 Bar d’Italia [info] Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Gran Caffè La Caffettiera Piazza dei Martiri, 26 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 7.80 8.00 7.900
Moccia Via San Pasquale a Chiaia, 24 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 8.20 7.80 8.000
Caffè d’Epoca Piazza Trieste e Trento, 2 Napoli / Toledo NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Gran Caffè Grambrinus Via Chiaia, 1 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 8.10 8.50 8.300
Cafè Amadeus Piazza Amedeo, 5 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 7.90 8.20 8.050
Gran Caffè Cimmino Via Gaetano Filamgieri, 12/13 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 3 7.80 8.00 7.900
Calise al Porto Via Iasolino, 19 Ischia / Ischia Porto NR 7.40 7.50 7.450
Gran Caffè Vittoria Corso Vittoria Colonna, 110 Ischia / Ischia Porto 1 / 2 7.80 8.20 8.000
Arago Via Luigi Mazzella, 75 Ischia / Ischia Ponte NR 7.80 7.80 7.800
Dal Pescatore Piazza Ottorino Troia, 12 Ischia / Sant’Angelo d’Ischia NR 7.60 7.50 7.550
Divino Cafè Via Erasmo di Lustro, 6 Ischia / Forio 1 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Calise a Ischia Via Antonio Sogliuzzo, 69 Ischia / Ischia Porto 2 / 1 7.90 8.20 8.050
Bar Cocò Piazzale Aragonese, 1 Ischia / Ischia Ponte 1 / 2 7.80 7.80 7.800
Pasticceria Napoli Corso Regina, 64 Maiori 2 / 2 8.00 7.80 7.900
Sal de Riso Piazza Ettore Gaetano Cantilena, 28 Minori 2 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Il Panino Piazza Duomo, 7 Ravello NR 8.00 7.80 7.900
Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 Corso Sant’Agata, 11 Sant’Agata sui due Golfi NR 8.00 8.00 8.000
La Zagara Via dei Mulini, 8/10 Positano 2 / 1 7.00 7.80 7.400
La Brezza Net Art Café Via del Brigantino, 1 Positano 2 / 2 8.00 8.00 8.000
Bar Al San Domingo Piazza Duomo, 2 Ravello NR 7.60 7.20 7.400
Figli di Papà Via della Marra, 7 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Andrea Pansa Piazza Duomo, 40 Amalfi 3 / 2 7.90 8.00 7.950
La Vecchia Cantina Via della Marra, 15/19 Ravello NR 7.50 7.20 7.350
Caffè Duomo Piazza Duomo, 15 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Caffè Calce Via Roma, 2 Ravello 1 / 1 7.70 7.00 7.350
Gran Caffè Neapolis Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 14/15 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 2 7.80 7.20 7.500
Giovanni Scaturchio Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 19 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 1 7.90 7.50 7.700
Caffè Mexico Piazza Dante, 86 Napoli / Decumano Maggiore NR 8.00 7.50 7.750

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