Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
For the past couple of days, I’ve resisted writing about this topic: the recent SCAA conference and the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon the following day. But I can’t escape it. Apologies in advance for adding little on the subject of coffee, but to do so exclusively would seem both disrespectful and inappropriate. This post is really more for myself in a cathartic way, as my heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy.
Of course, things didn’t exactly work out that way. What was originally announced in the SFO airport as an FAA delay caused by a small plane hitting the World Trade Center turned into something horrifically worse. No civilian aircraft in North America would become airborne again until a few days later.
With the fog of what just happened, who did it, and what’s coming next still on everyone’s minds, the HR department and a few coworkers told me to simply make the announcement over the phone — that my team would understand under the circumstances. But I was stubbornly determined to take personal responsibility for my decision, no matter how ugly it had to be. I owed them that much. So once air travel resumed, I caught the next flight I could get into Boston that following weekend.It was one of the most white-knuckled flights I’ve ever taken. Not because of any turbulence, but because everyone on that plane could not get the television images of 9/11 — and the thought of further hijacking attempts — out of their heads. Everyone was on edge, suspiciously sizing up all of their fellow passengers. You got the sense that if anybody even attempted something that looked like a false move, that person would be forcefully subdued and probably beaten to death by a plane full of anxious passengers mentally prepared to fight or die.
I had flown into Boston Logan multiple times before, but never like this. The airport was a ghost town, largely abandoned of people and planes with a skeleton crew left running things. The taxi driver who picked me up was desperate for a fare, as he told me that, “Boston Logan is still an active crime scene.” The two flights that struck the World Trade Center towers both departed from Boston, from gate areas I was eerily all too familiar with from previous travels.
I was fortunate that a few people on my newly-laid-off staff thanked me for giving them the news in person. But I did not again return to Boston until last week.
What brought me back to Boston after all these years wasn’t the SCAA Conference — at least directly. It was more an invitation from Todd Carmichael (of La Colombe) to do a shoot for the second season of his TV show, “Dangerous Grounds”. Todd was insistent on a scene in the new season that wasn’t just his “Tarzan bit” through wild coffee jungles, but rather a social cupping discussion among a few invited guests — which included the likes of Doug Zell of Intelligentsia, Aleco Chigounis of Coffee Shrub (a sort of sister to Sweet Maria’s), Mette Marie of 49th Parallel Roasters, Ryan Brown now at Tonx, Andrew Ballard of Forty Weight Coffee, and the entertaining JP Iberti (co-founder of La Colombe).
Everybody brought some coffee to showcase and discuss. (Special thanks to Justine Hollinger of Barefoot Coffee Roasters for helping me represent their great work.) Despite Todd’s worry that some snarky infighting could develop, a great camaraderie developed among the cuppers that will hopefully come out in the program when it airs later this year. (And for the record, the overall favorite was the Yukro Ethiopia coffee from George Howell Coffee, sourced by Aleco.)
With the shoot out of the way, I had a few days to check out the SCAA conference and get reacquainted with Boston. It had been years since I had set foot in either.
For those who haven’t been to the SCAA conference, I’ll offer a perspective of someone not in the industry — and rather of just someone who really loves coffee. Like all industry conferences, it’s a great occasion to meet people and network. If you’re slinging coffee at a retail location all day, or sourcing out in the wild corners of the world, there are few occasions where you can personally meet and greet many of those coffee “greats” — or just cool people — you otherwise only read about (or from).
And there’s a lot of great coffee to be had. A barista at a complimentary La Marzocco espresso station jumbled multiple bags of Intelligentsia beans to create an impromptu blend in his Mazzer grinder. While I was watching this, he culturally noted that, “The industry people come earlier and ask for espressos, but later the ‘show’ people come and they all drink caps.” (i.e., cappuccinos).
But there are things about the SCAA conference I am not as enamored with. For one, it’s primarily a commercial trade show with a big emphasis on an exhibition floor of people hawking their wares. Good for a lot in the industry, but often a bit tedious if you really are more into the coffee than the latest gadgetry.
There’s the symposium topics, which I had not attended but often sounded interesting. But there’s a huge “reindeer games” aspect to the highly repetitive, three-ring circus of the Barista Championship, the Brewer’s Cup, and the US Cup Tasters Championship. Even odder now, there are members of the Barista Guild of America strutting about the place, and the city, in their official logo jackets as if part of some mutant coffee geek biker gang.
But the longer I was in Boston, the more I came to appreciate and became more enamored with the even bigger event in town that weekend: the 117th Boston Marathon. There was a very positive, festive, international sports vibe to the event that I hadn’t quite experienced since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Everywhere in town you ran into fit people in running gear — many not running the race but at least there in spirit and to support the other participants.
Last Saturday I walked down Boylston Street past Copley Square, just two days before the horrific bombings, soaking in the environment of fans, tourists, and the final touches of the stands and barricades being set up at the finish line for the event. Arriving back in SF only some 11 hours before those terrible events took place, the news was made all the more tragic for me having experienced just how much the Boston Marathon environment converted me into a fan.
The Boston Marathon will be back next year. Boston may not want me back, given my recent track record of tragic coincidence. But I can’t say enough to encourage those even modestly interested to attend. The coffee may not be anything near as good as at the SCAA, but it deserves every bit of your support.
As time passes, I promise to write more about the coffee. But right now, there are things far more important than coffee could ever be.
The Internet is hardly known as a medium for civil discussion and debate. There are exceptions, of course, but today only the Internet historians will remember when flame wars and childish insults may have briefly raised eyebrows before they became too commonplace to notice anymore. What still raises eyebrows is when there actually is civil discourse online — and especially when it is abruptly shut down and censored.Last week we exhumed the old why-is-restaurant-coffee-so-bad yarn, invoking recent social media gossip about high-end restaurants that either raised the Nespresso white flag or developed serious coffee program, such as Copenhagen’s infamous Noma — the running #1 ranked restaurant in the world. Then earlier this week, a famous coffee blog we enjoy — Dear Coffee, I Love You — posted a review of their recent meal and coffee service at Noma: Coffee at Noma, The World’s Best Restaurant « Dear Coffee, I Love You. | A Coffee Blog for Caffeinated Inspiration..
My reaction to the post split in two opposite directions. First, on the positive side, I always appreciate a good story of where someone is proving that you can make decent coffee at a restaurant. But on the negative side, I couldn’t get over the fact that here was the #1 ranked restaurant in the world that was essentially reinventing flavors and food, and yet the most thoughtful coffee service they could come up with is serving manual pour-over coffee from a Hario V60. Something you could quite readily do at home yourself, no imagination nor creativity required.So I commented on the post, using one of my throwaway Facebook accounts that so many lame Web sites require to comment these days. (As socially loaded as it is these days to say, “I don’t own a TV”, I prefer the more modern variant, “I don’t have a legitimate Facebook account.”) In my comments, I noted how Noma’s rather pedestrian pour-over service was a bit of a let down — given everything else for which the place is known.
Sir Brian W. Jones (posting on Facebook as DCILY) and a certain Devon Nullz (a Facebook-allowed variant of /dev/null) held a brief, but civil, exchange in Facebook comments. But just before I was able to respond to Mr. Jones’ last reply, something very odd happened: all the Facebook-hosted comments on the post disappeared. Not just my and/or his comments, all the Facebook comments on the post.
Yes, the nuclear option.
Fortunately, through the magic of Google caching, I’ve exhumed the discussion here because it is blog-topic-worthy. Bonus for the chance to perhaps continue to discussion … since Dear Coffee, I Love You pretty much abruptly announced last call at 9pm and threw everyone out of the bar.
Now we know we’re talking about how low the bar is set for coffee among all great restaurants. But this is a restaurant that’s making bite-explosions of flavor with fried reindeer moss, fermented crickets, etc. Normal conceptions of food have been turned inside-out, cryogenically transformed, and re-presented as something totally new.
So when the coffee service comes, what do they offer to live up to those heights? What amazing boundaries of the culinary world do they bend to the point of breaking? We get a V60 pour-over that every wannabe third wave coffee shop has been pumping on every street corner in every coffee-aware city in the world for the past several years. Something you can essentially make yourself at home with a scale and a blog post.
Pour-over coffee in a V60 is the culinary equivalent of East-meets-West fusion cuisine from a food truck. If coffee service has to live up to the new frontiers promised by a $260/head dinner, food truck cuisine isn’t how to do that.
Yesterday at 5:23pm
And then it ended. Poof.
To Mr. Jones’ credit, perhaps he quickly realized he was dealing with a complete nut job (on the Internet? Really?!) and thus he didn’t want to continue to the discussion any further. I can’t say that I blame him. But in doing so, a legitimate point has been completely whitewashed and dismissed: we readily give restaurants a pass for their coffee when it doesn’t live up to the standards set by their food. The #1 restaurant in the world serving pour-over V60 coffee might not be as bad as Nespresso, but it is still a culinary cop-out.
And when it comes to pouring wine from bottles, Sir Brian, might I remind you that coffee service isn’t merely the act of pulling a cork. Brewing coffee quite literally is cooking.
And there’s a deliberate reason why Noma’s wine list is curated for rare and special occasion wines — and not just what can be found on the shelves of any Bilka hypermarket in Denmark. Compared to a V60 pour-over, ironically a Clover brewer suddenly seems exotic again by today’s standards. Is it too much to ask to at least syphon brew for something just a little out of the ordinary?
Now we’re not saying that Korean tacos aren’t quite tasty, because they are. But they’re really not that special. (Well, at least here in California.)
As CoffeeRatings.com celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it’s hard not to feel a little jaded by some of the coffee topics that simply refuse to die. Like Jason in Friday the 13th Part 1.30E+02, some subjects are the undead zombies of the coffee world, no matter how times you try to kill them with fire. (Kopi luwak, anyone?) All of which explains a little of why our blog posting cycle has gone from a few times per week to more like once a month: you’re tired of reading about the same stuff, and we’re tired of writing about it.
However, today we were inspired to reminisce down memory lane about bad restaurant coffee and the commoditized coffee fodder known as Nespresso. This time we blame Sprudge.com and Oliver Strand for exhuming the dead: Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap » Sprudge.com. Now that the blame is out of the way, we’ll join in this zombie apocalypse fight club with the nearest chainsaw we can grab.
The premise of Mr. Strand’s article is rooted in trends towards two polar opposites of coffee service at fine dining establishments — and the TwitCon Level 3 general alert that surrounds them (i.e., don your hardhats and make for your nearest social media fallout shelter, boys).
The first concerns famed restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma (repeat finalist for best restaurant in the world, and also home of the famed norovirus cocktail) who are producing coffee with care, sourced from the likes of Tim Wendelboe. The second, counter-movement concerns a Grub Street report that 30 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants have punted on coffee service by offering Nespresso — coffee’s version of Crocs.
Nespresso: the universal symbol of a restaurant that has given up coffee hope.
Given that we wrote about the trend of some high-end restaurants surrendering to Nespresso systems back in 2007, this isn’t exactly news. But our key points back then remain true as ever: introducing the mundane at an exclusive restaurant is always a losing strategy. This doesn’t matter whether your restaurant is putting Yellow Tail Cabernet on its wine list, serving San Pelligrino mineral water bought from the Costco across town, or slinging shots of Nestlé espresso served from a push-button machine: commodity products are the antithesis of why we’re paying $200-a-head and up to eat at your fine dining establishment.
The worst part is that stooping to Nespresso for your coffee service not only shows a lack of thought or creativity, but it is also completely unnecessary. A restaurant need not get in over its head in coffee minutia to do a memorable job of it. One of our most memorable coffee experiences anywhere involved little more than a restaurant that served fresh coffee, sourced from a unique Kona producer, and served in a French press. Simple, elegant, unique, excellent, and highly memorable.
That said, we have experienced some excellent coffee at local restaurants that have really invested in doing it right. We’re saddened by the recent demise of Bar Bambino, who once served one of San Francisco’s best restaurant espresso shots. But we were recently blown away by both the invested attention and quality of the end-product on a recent trip to Redd Restaurant in Yountville. (Great restaurant espresso?! And from Equator Estate Coffee?!?!)
In closing, we do have to politely chastise Mr. Strand’s standards of full-meal etiquette when he says, “I never order coffee at the end of a knockdown meal. Not after all of those courses and all of those wines.” (I.e., the “you’re doing it wrong” argument.) There’s no better way to close out an audacious meal with a short, well-made espresso — and perhaps this is where the volumetric studies of the latent filter drip coffee re-obsession tends to backfire — followed by the digestivo effects of a fine grappa. Though we do draw the line at cigars.
Back in 2005 we wrote about Zagat’s attempt to put together a regional coffee survey based on their famed user review methods. An acquisition by Google and eight years later, that was the last anyone had ever heard of it. Until now.
Zagat has since published their first ever coffee survey. This coincides with their recent hot and heavy lust for improved search engine rankings, with Zagat spewing out a steady stream of coffee-themed blog posts brandishing inane, list-driven, come-on titles such as, “The 10 Most Annoying Coffee Trends” or the wholly derivative/regurgitative “What Your Coffee Drink Says About You.” (Kill me now, please.)
Zagat titled their 2013 study Caffeine Buzz: Hottest Coffee Shops Around the Country, and yet much of its content left us wondering if they’ve been sitting on this data for eight years. For example, just examine the 2013 Zagat reviews for San Francisco.
They list Blue Bottle Coffee among their nine Bay Area selections — but none of the other “usual suspects”. However, they chose to include the ever-underwhelming, Starbucks-slinging Carmel Bakery in the coffee wasteland of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They mention Napa’s traditional but surprisingly good Model Bakery — but ignoring that a Ritual Coffee is around the corner and making no mention of how Model Bakery is one of the few places in the entire Bay Area to offer Caffé Vita coffee. (And for those of you in L.A., good luck finding Handsome Coffee or Portola Coffee Lab, let alone the countless barista award winners from Intelligentsia.)
Unfortunately, despite the SF Gate‘s notion that Zagat has finally caught on to the coffee zeitgeist, we see no evidence that Zagat has given coffee any more serious thought than they did back in 2005. The Zagat survey’s baked-goods-leaning, ambiance-heavy, and coffee-oblivious reviews of the few places that do make their short list only prove that.
The new Google-owned Zagat seems to believe that its future lies in a daily stream of bubblegum blog posts about local coffee. But since Zagat loyalists expect some sort of review guide to anchor things, Zagat exhumed their 8-year-old research and quickly threw it up on the Web.
LaCoppa has had a strange history for such a relatively “young” espresso roaster and café chain. Owner/founder Arnold V. Spinelli is the one constant — as he developed this endeavor after selling off his 14-store Spinelli Coffee chain (founded in 1986 San Francisco) to Tully’s Coffee back in 1998. (Curiously enough, Tully’s Coffee has since run aground from a chronic lack of cash flow and recently turned to Grey’s Anatomy hearththrob Patrick Dempsey to either save or sink them faster.)
Arnold had a period where he collaborated with Sal Bonavita and where the combined enterprise shared Sal’s last name. But today it’s all Mr. Spinelli, and LaCoppa Coffee sits proudly on Mill Valley’s main Lytton Square off on a corner — roasting their own but also serving retail coffee drinks.
They sport outdoor bench and French café chair seating along the Throckmorton Ave. sidewalk for maximum people-watching. There’s also covered outdoor seating overlooking Lytton Square along Miller Ave. Inside it’s a small space with mostly bench seating and a couple of tiny, zinc-topped café tables. There’s a dessert counter and bean sales for their many blends (they use their Espresso Speciale for their espresso drinks). They also offer a true Melitta bar service, reminiscient of a time a decade ago when the few pour-over bars in the Bay Area were decidedly German and not Japanese — as current trends dictate.
Their four-group Pasquini machine at the entrance shows its age, and the staff show their unawareness by leaving the portafilters cooling outside of the machine’s group heads. (Doh!) Espresso shots are served as gargantuan doubles by default: with a thin, paltry layer of crema on a huge surface of a wide-mouthed, classic brown ACF cup. It tastes of tobacco smoke and some of that old-style dark SF-style roasting (i.e., Spinelli) with a touch of ash. The milk-frothing is generally decent, even microfoam. In any case, it’s not your best coffee shop but it’s a likeable one — even if it’s a complete throwback to espresso in 1980s San Francisco.
Read the review of LaCoppa Coffee in Mill Valley.
The specialty coffee industry has a strangely ambivalent, love/hate relationship with the mainstream. On the one hand, it thrives on an independent spirit rooted in independent businesses, an artisinal “craftsman” approach, an often bristling indifference to its customers, and it eschews much of anything that smells like the status quo (the stereotypes about things like sleeve tattoos and body piercings are hardly an anomaly).
And yet specialty coffee is also desperate for public approval, acceptance and validation, with many in the industry applauding virtually any public mention of decent coffee in the general media, coveting a rightful place in the pantheon of food television’s popular glow, and even going so far as to be willingly (and eagerly) exploited by TED. (And don’t get us started on the resulting Coffee Common star chamber charade.) This makes specialty coffee a bit like the high school social misfit that both publicly heaps scorn on the school’s popular cliques while secretly wishing to be a part of them.For the purposes of this post, we focus on the latter part: public visibility and legitimacy. And although the public mainstream today has had more than a few regular media exposures to the world of specialty coffee, the most effective and compelling by far has been Todd Carmichael’s recent Travel Channel TV program, Dangerous Grounds.
Among some in the industry, this may seem heretical — if not unjustified. Highly respected, legendary professionals in the field such as Tom Owen (of home roasting Sweet Maria’s fame) have even created video parodies the show’s very concept — i.e., travel to coffee’s origins as a sort of danger sport — over a year ago and well before the show was even created. Others still see polar explorer and SCAA outsider Todd Carmichael, and his La Colombe Torrefaction coffee operations, as decidedly “pre-Third Wave” — akin to a shorthand for “don’t trust your coffee to anyone over 30″. (Five years ago Nick Cho, portafilter.net host and then of D.C. Murky Coffee fame, once publicly announced terminating his readership here for, among other things, a favorable post we made on La Colombe.)
However, over the years, specialty coffee has repeatedly proven itself incapable of speaking to layman consumers without trying to strong-arm them into first becoming like-minded professionals. This is a fundamental reason why Dangerous Grounds works: it hasn’t forgotten that good storytelling, even if embellished a bit, is at the heart of any legitimate mainstream media success.
Contrast an hour-long episode of Todd’s travels, trials, and tribulations with what the specialty coffee industry would otherwise celebrate as great video: sensory, stylized video montages/wannabe-TV-commercials that seem entirely designed to appeal to fellow coffee professionals. To the layman, these videos are unoriginal exercises in coffee navel-gazing — as utterly monotonous as the ubiquitous “hand-on-mouse” shots that dominated every 1990s TV show about the World Wide Web. You know it works when people who aren’t into coffee find the program entertaining, because the inconvenient truth is that video about coffee, like video about wine, is inherently boring.
Which isn’t to say that video is the only way to bring the message of specialty coffee to the masses. Regular New York Times columnist Oliver Strand achieved a kind of patron saint status among the specialty coffee industry because a) his words were distributed in the nation’s preeminent newspaper, and b) he spoke cohesively about subjects the industry is frequently too tongue-tied to speak for itself. A rare case of a layman who reports on the specialty coffee world, industry blogs, coffee Web sites, and tweets alike eulogized the recent news of the demise of “Ristretto”, his occasional coffee column in the New York Times.
A bit more of an industry insider, Erin Meister has worked in customer support for Counter Culture Coffee and has developed some of her own barista chops. She has posted coffee articles in a variety of publications, but she’s received most of her attention and accolades for her regular column at the Serious Eats Web site.
The first problem is in the Web site’s name: Eats. How can we take Serious Eats seriously about coffee when its very name excludes the subject matter? That’s like reading Men’s Health for tips on menopause. (Are you listening, Good Food Awards?)
But far more troubling is an editorial slant that seems focused on evergreen content designed for SEO rankings, with insipid article titles like “Our 5 Favorite TV Coffee Shops“, “5 Coffee Tattoos We Love“, and “5 Reasons to Hate Starbucks“. Although we’re sure Ms. Meister has no say in the copy-editing matter, it follows the old ladies’ home journal formula of the words “secrets” and “perfect” plus a numeral combined with warmed-over content that’s been posted on the Web 120,000 times prior. There’s also something creepy about reading articles written more for computerized Web crawlers than for actual humans.
Curiously enough, all three personalities have had to confront the specialty coffee industry’s excesses of preciousness in recent times: Meister with barista attitudes (one of her best pieces of the past year), Strand berating industry pros for not even providing basic contact information in a speech at this year’s Nordic Barista Cup, and Carmichael’s rants against hipster coffee. That gives us strange comfort in knowing we’re not alone in trying to escape the dysfunction.
Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.
If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.
That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)
All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.
And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)
But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.
Two months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.
The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.
First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.
However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.
Pod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.
Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.
To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.
Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.
Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.
As if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”
Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.
After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)
While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.
This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?
Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.
Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.
The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.
This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.
All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.
Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.
Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbucks‘ home Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.
This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.
Flying under our radar last month was a great cover story on the evolution and pitfalls of a quality local coffee business in Milwaukee Magazine: MilwaukeeMag.com – Coffee Wars.
As in many other mid-market cities across America over the past decade-plus, quality coffee has infiltrated even the most staunch communes of Starbucks drones. The Milwaukee coffee market is no exception, with Alterra Coffee serving as something of Milwaukee’s analogue to Blue Bottle.
But the story of Alterra Coffee could be the story of any pioneering quality coffee purveyor in America: local start-up business makes great coffee and changes local tastes and expectations, business success translates into growth of operations (roasting, retail, and distribution) and ambition, continued growth brings the company to a crossroads when they must answer where continued growth hurts product quality and company values, and the inspiration and spawning of newer, more nimble local competition.
That major crossroads for Alterra came in 2010 when Mars Corporation — the self-proclaimed “world’s leading petcare, chocolate, confection, food & drink company” (from their Web site) — approached them with an offer to include their coffee in Mars’ owned Flavia packets in exchange for revenue sharing and distribution rights.
Some 27 years ago in nearby Minneapolis, The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg croaked the words, “Time for decisions to be made: crack up in the sun, or lose it in the shade.” Do you reach for greater distribution and more revenues to expand your mission of good coffee? Or are you diluting your product and your brand, all the while inviting customer criticisms of going too “corporate” and selling out? (As the article quotes the local criticisms: “Alterra is the ‘Microsoft of coffee in Milwaukee’.”)
Like the Facebook status says: it’s complicated. And a cautionary tale worth the read.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Saturday, February 25, 2012 offered a curious contrast between the very different worlds of consumer appreciation for wine and coffee. For the former, I attended La Paulée de San Francisco 2012 — arguably the most over-the-top consumer wine event in America. For the latter, my brother Vince simultaneously attended CoffeeCon 2012 — billed as the “first-ever international consumer coffee conference” — in the global coffee Mecca (and his hometown) of Warrenville, IL.
First off, I’d like to apologize for continuing to harp on the hackneyed wine analogy for coffee. However, I still often feel like one of the few people who knows just enough about both wine and coffee appreciation to make a comparison when attending events for either beverage.
Because the facts remain that we read plenty about how much coffee wants to be taken as seriously as wine. And yet the coffee industry still craps on its customers at virtually every opportunity. This weekend’s events provided evidence of that in great contrast.
First up: the consumer coffee event. Kevin Sinnott has been a layman coffee enthusiast for years (and he also just so happens to a neighbor and friend of my brother back in the dark recesses of the Chicago suburbs). He may be an independent video production consultant for his “day job”, but coffee is far more than just a hobby for him. And more power to him, because he recognized the need for a consumer-oriented coffee event — which inspired him to put on the first ever CoffeeCon.
The best opportunity coffee consumers had to get involved with the coffee industry was to muscle in to events such as the SCAA’s annual conference — all under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since then, the policy has shifted towards outright consumer abolishment. But even if you buy the argument that the industry needs its own for its own, it has offered nothing even close to an olive branch. We hear the coffee industry give plenty of lip service to the importance of “educating the customer”, and yet opportunities to do so are turned into closed-door industry events where the consumer is treated like an unwelcome leper.
Slow Food Nation ’08 was perhaps another example, but it turned out to be a one-time event. Out of it came the Good Food Awards. But even if you look past coffee playing the red-headed stepchild under the “Food” banner, here the focus of a once-public event has again turned to industry insiders locking out consumer participation. Or take the related Coffee Common effort. Even putting my disdain for the shallowness and faux elitism of TED aside, public events that require over $1,000 in membership and registration fees to attend are hardly “consumer friendly”. This makes the steep $300 I shelled out to attend La Paulée’s Grand Tasting seem like a bargain by comparison.
CoffeeCon suffered from an almost accidental location (Warrenville’s “IBEW Local Union 701″) and virtually zero coverage among the coffee industry — most of the industry being preoccupied with the self-absorbed, industry navel-gazing going on at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (or NERBC). But CoffeeCon managed to draw about 1,000 attendees and even pull a few coffee luminaries including the likes of George Howell, home espresso legend Jim Schulman, and Intelligentsia‘s Geoff Watts.
Attendees apparently got to taste a lot of different coffee, experiment with different brewing methods, meet a few others in the coffee industry, learn more about coffee farming and production, and even witness a poor tongue-in-cheek debate on coffee vs. wine. My brother reported that they had a huge crowd, a good representation from nationwide roasters and equipment manufacturers, and the unveiling of a new Bunn Trifecta at a “lab” event.
While not a bad event and certainly a promising attendance, this is, folks, about as good as it gets for coffee consumers today. And good luck getting anybody in the coffee industry to acknowledge that it existed.
One thing I like from the CoffeeCon FAQ — which flies in the face of Coffee Common’s “Exceptional coffee. No sugar.” byline — is this bit:
Can I take cream and sugar in my coffee or will I be asked to leave? No worries. Serious coffee lovers know how different everyone’s palate is. 80% of coffee consumed in the world is taken with milk and/or some sweetener.
This week I had dinner again at one of my favorite SF restaurants who also makes some of the best restaurant espresso in the entire city. The two owners, in their own polite and self-depreciating ways, each relayed to me the story of a recent visit to Sightglass where they were essentially made to feel as if they were both clueless about both coffee and their flavor palates. (I’ve omitted their names as they mentioned this in personal confidence.)
Interestingly, they both felt that Sightglass’ coffee tasted “too salty.” When they asked the Sightglass barista to cut the shot pour short, as a sort of ristretto, he replied that he could not interrupt the espresso machine from running its full cycle. And when they asked for sugar, they were looked upon as if they must have walked in thinking Sightglass was a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Here were two people who grew up with high coffee standards in Italy, developed a much-loved and highly regarded regional Italian restaurant in SF, serve some of the best espresso in the city at said restaurant (and I virtually never have coffee with sugar), where one of the owners previously served as a sommelier at another Michelin-starred SF restaurant with a legendary wine list — and they were basically told that they were coffee Philistines, purely because of coffee orthodoxy. As snobbish as you might think the wine world might get, this simply does not happen with wine.
Speaking of sommeliers and a barista’s desire to become an equivalent of one, let’s contrast with La Paulée’s Grand Tasting at the Westin St. Francis. Daniel Johnnes, a noted wine director for noted New York restaurants that today includes Restaurant Daniel (read: a guy who works in the industry), started the event about a decade ago, alternating between New York an San Francisco. It is based in a traditional Burgundian event, and in Mr. Johnnes’ words for the SF event:
La Paulée is my homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a convivial Burgundian fête shared by growers and their guests. At La Paulée guests will sample current releases and older vintages from nearly thirty of the most sought after Domaines of Burgundy. The wine service will be led by fifty of our nation’s most noted sommeliers.
They ain’t messing around. (Here’s a magazine write-up [PDF] on last year’s La Paulée in New York.) The Grand Tasting may cost $300, but that’s cheap compared to the $1,400 Gala Dinner (or compared to the registration fee to experience Coffee Commons at TED2012 in Long Beach).
There are people in traditional Burgundian wear, regularly breaking into traditional Burgundian drinking songs, flown in from Burgundy for this event — Les Cadets de Bourgogne. And there are many booths of elite winemakers, offering wines that you could only be lucky enough to even access a bottle to purchase, all poured by notable sommeliers. In coffee terms, this is akin to an event featuring several of the world’s Cup of Excellence microlots for tasting, each served by award-winning baristas.
And they don’t skimp on the food either, with restaurant representation from the likes of Boulevard, Farralon, Gary Danko, Napa’s Meadowood and REDD, Quince, RN74, etc. You know that the food world takes the event seriously when not only are sommeliers from New York pouring at the event, but the likes of Traci des Jardins (of Jardinière and Top Chef Masters fame) is there personally cooking up and handing out plates of food.
As a consumer event, what’s not there? No hucksters promoting the latest technology in synthetic corks. No pitchmen telling you how to expand your revenue lines with wine coolers. No patent-pending bottle openers that promise to revolutionize wine consumption. Just a lot of people who want to share great wines and learn more about them and an industry that is trying to make that possible in ways it previously was not.
We can only hope just a fraction of that is possible with coffee — if only the industry would allow it, let alone participate in it. It’s beyond the time for quality coffee to get out of its insular ivory towers and to start reaching out to the many customers it so claims to love and adore.