Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
It has been over 20 years since I last spent real time in Arizona. And back then it was either the Flagstaff or Tucson areas — deliberately not Phoenix, with its then-legendary saturation of Denny’s-per-square-mile, above-ground cemetery lifestyle, all the bad things about Los Angeles (smog, traffic) and none of the good (beaches, movie stars), and in-state locals who frequently tried to extricate those they felt were trapped in Phoenix itself.
Did I unfairly give Phoenix a bad rap without spending any first-hand time there? Absolutely. Is it for me? Phoenix can be very scenic and pretty, despite traffic landmarks like The Stack, and the people are outwardly nice in a way that would make any Bay Area resident suspicious. However, it’s probably a place I’ll visit but keep in the arm’s-length acquaintance category, even if I know and met a number of locals who love it there. One of my Über drivers raved about the area, but then he grew up in Sudan.
No matter — much like the rest of America these days, there’s good coffee to be had in town.
Sola Coffee Bar previously stood on this Old Town Scottsdale location, until the owners wanted out of the business in 2011. (Scottsdale sits as a large suburb on the northeast of the Phoenix border.) Jason Silberschlag, owner of the Cartel Coffee Lab chain, loved the location and moved in immediately.
It’s a relatively modest space with exposed wooden panels and fans on the ceiling, a number of exposed supporting posts, and an open art-gallery like space. Outside there’s a sidewalk bench. Inside there is stool seating along the street windows in front and some long, cushioned seating along internal glass walls with small café tables designed like small, squat sections of tree stumps. The few real tables inside are the size of picnic benches with various red and white colored metal chairs about.
Off to one side they serve multiple microbrews on tap along with wines. At the back is their coffee service bar. It covers brewing using anything from Aeropress, V60, Clever, and Chemex, and they offer drinks in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 20oz sizes — a dimensioning of their coffee service that I haven’t quite exactly seen before.
Part of their bar surface is covered with these brewing devices in a sort of Noah’s-Ark-like 2×2 formation. A wall of mounted crates offers their merchandise, from roasted coffee to the devices behind any of their various brewing methods. Except one…
Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a little light on thickness. It has a sharp acidity with a flavor of citris and some cedar, though it seems a little light on body and lacks much of any rich, body-forward flavor notes. Served in a shotglass with water on the side.
Overall, it’s a good espresso that tastes inspired by many West Coast roasting stereotypes, but it has enough of its own personality to not taste like a San Francisco or Portland knock-off.
Read the review of Cartel Coffee Lab in Scottsdale, AZ.
illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).
However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.
Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.
It’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.
Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.
There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.
Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.
Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.
As another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.
Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.
Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)
Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.
But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.
Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!
There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.
Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.
The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.
Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.
Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.
Yesterday’s New York Times surely went for a low-hanging-fruit holiday cheer story in covering the hackneyed caffè sospeso in Napoli: In Naples, Gift of Coffee to Strangers Never Seen – NYTimes.com.
However — unlike the untold copycat fluff stories over recent years that bought into Starbucks‘ corporate co-opting of the practice as their Pay-It-Forward viral marketing campaign — the Times did some actual research on the history, cultural context, and economic backdrop of the gesture. This is, of course, what we love about the New York Times. (Though certainly the comments on the Times article suggest that Starbucks’ campaign continues to strongly influence laymen coffee consumers.)
First there’s the context of coffee culture in Napoli, visiting a classic Napoli gran caffè in the Gran Caffè Grambrinus, interviewing the legendary Andrea Illy, and referencing La rete del caffè sospeso (the “Suspended Coffee Network”).
It’s a reminder of how much work it sometimes takes to get it right.
There are a few great things about the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (or SeaTac). One is a SubPop retail shop that opened in May 2014. Another is a Beecher’s Cheese shop. And next door to Beecher’s is a full-on legitimate (not just for the airport-weary) Caffé Vita.
This ain’t your ordinary airport espresso. Ignore the Hall of Shame Starbucks alley of Concourse B and head for Concourse C, near Gate C3. Surprise!: no superautomated Schaerer machine with barely employable baristas under airport union contracts and under a licensed Caffé Vita brand name.
Here there are legit baristas and a three-group Synesso machine. They sell baked goods and coffee only here with stand-up kiosk service only — so keep a free hand while lugging your luggage.
They pull shots with a picture-perfect reddish brown tiger-striped crema of solid thickness and mouthfeel. The cup has a decent body and a great balance of some herbal pungency, citric brightness, and heavy body elements. Served in a white Caffé Vita logo Nuova Point cup. The milk-frothing can be a bit dry and airy, but it’s even and good — albeit only available in paper cups.
This is a coffee oasis for any airport in the world. While my intel has it that the Klatch Roasting at LAX can seriously compete for the title (and I have yet to visit), this is arguably the best airport espresso I’ve ever had to date.
This is that insufferable time of year where reading any sort of coffee news Web site or blog means dodging an onslaught of “gift ideas for coffee lovers” advertisements feigning to be articles. These cyclical (and cynical) bits of fake journalism are often accompanied by multi-page image galleries requiring you to click through each item — to maximize tedium while inflating Web site engagement metrics and advertising exposure.
So it was with a breath of fresh air this week that I received this article from a great friend in Canada: Gift Guide: Think twice before buying a Keurig coffee maker – The Globe and Mail. The topic was simple and one we’ve long contended: if you’re thinking of buying someone a Keurig machine, here’s why not. And it inspired the subject of today’s post here: the anti-gift guide article, or what not to buy this holiday season for that special coffee lover in your life.
OK, sure, I’m a fan of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping and Buy Nothing Day (aka “#OccupyXmas”). And it seems irresponsible to further stir up the consumer feeding frenzy that inspires maiming and even deaths at Black Friday Wal-Marts just to save $20 on a TV.
But if you’re going to be purchasing holiday gifts anyway, what should you avoid wasting your money on? Well, you’ve come to the right place. With coffee’s Fourth Wave — the gadgetization of coffee — in high gear, today the consumer coffee gear marketplace is flush with stoopid money. So much so that even classic coffee equipment designs — such as the moka pot and the Chemex — are (rightfully) looking to cash in on stacks of some of dat mad cheddar with new premium gadget introductions just in time for the holidays.
So without further ado, let the dishonor roll begin…
Either spend the $25 on a stovetop moka pot or hold off until you can hit that magical $800+ mark. Everything in-between really just isn’t worth it. All those Krups, Jura, and DeLonghi machines that litter the shelves at Sur La Table are just disappointment bombs ready to explode like IEDs on their hapless new owners. And before you point out that a moka pot technically does not brew espresso, it’s no worse than what you get out of a device made by one of these vacuum cleaner and toaster oven manufacturers.
If you recall the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic 1964 Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer animated Christmas special, I fully believe that there’s an Island of Misfit Coffee Appliances where cheap, dysfunctional, and abandoned espresso machines like these pile up like a Staten Island garbage barge.
As for simple camping devices like the Handpresso, you may as well drive your car on four donut emergency spare tires. And if you can’t afford the extra $200 for a decent burr grinder, you may as well purchase a Lamborghini mounted on donuts.
Speaking of coffee and camping, stay away from those custom coffee travel kits. You barely see your friend long enough away from the Xbox in his basement. Like when’s the next time he’s really crossing the Andes Mountains on foot like some sort of airline crash survivor?
The latest “Look, there goes Elvis!” technique from the modern coffee machine marketing playbook is to appeal to technophiles through seemingly advanced technology, such as iPhone or Android application controls. Yet we know just from their price tags that whatever WiFi and electronic investments they put into these machines, none of it went to the one thing all coffee brewing equipment must achieve to avoid complete failure: holding an accurate and consistent brewing temperature.
Your basic Technivorm can barely pull that much off without any smartphone gimmicks. Thus what you’re really buying is the equivalent of a baby busy box app — just designed for easily duped adults who somehow need more excuses to keep staring at their smartphones. And good luck when Apple releases iOS9 next year and you discover you can’t upgrade your coffee machine’s operating system.
Seriously, if you’re going to buy one of these, just stick a wad of your cash directly into a landfill. The inevitable result will be the same, just that you’ll achieve your goal much sooner and you’ll be much more environmentally friendly in the process.
This is an oldie, but it still applies today. I know there are a lot of coffee fans whose favorite coffee style or flavor profile is simply “hot”. But since making coffee is cooking, the concept of using a hot plate is essentially the same as putting your meal under a fast food heat lamp. Sure, you might keep the desired serving temperature longer. But you evaporate out many of coffee’s water-soluble flavor components, thus leeching out a lot of its good flavors while concentrating the remaining stale dreck in its place.
While attending CoffeeCON in SF this year, Kitchen Aid sent me their new “SCAA-approved” Pour Over brewer. The one thing I don’t like about it? Its ridiculous hot plate that I have to work around to avoid.
This is going to be a controversial one, as there are a lot of great roasts to be had by mail these days. But that’s precisely the point.
There are a lot of new coffee middlemen who operate subscription services. While they ship with regularity so you have the convenience of not having to think about it, most of them pretty much ship whatever inventory they want to unload. It changes from month to month.
This is fine if you’re a newbie coffee lover and you want every coffee experience to be a new discovery. But playing coffee roulette gets old quickly once you learn more about what you like. With just a couple of clicks on a roaster’s Web site, what you really want is on your doorstep within 48 hours: no subscription required.
There’s a reason why most people don’t stick with a wine-of-the-month club for a full year.
This is another controversial one. Because despite identifying the few reasons you should — and the many reasons you should not — roast your own some five years ago here, I’ve been home roasting about every other day for more than a year now. I can’t even remember the last time I purchased retail roasted coffee. After nearly a decade of declining use, a combination of newer equipment, outstanding green lots from Rwanda, and changes in home coffee drinking habits have me in something of a home roasting revival these days.
That said, I still have to say that it’s a hassle that’s not worth it for most people. It’s even one of the few times I wholly agree with Nick Cho.
Perhaps your gift recipient loves to make their own kombucha. Though if that’s the case, any suggestions for making flavorful coffee are probably pointless. Who can trust the taste buds of anybody who willingly drinks tea made from soiled diapers?
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. If it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee.
Would a serious, legit book on wine cram itself with recipes for kir royales and beef bourguignon?
Just as state lotteries are often called a tax on people who can’t do math, I’ve called crowdfunding services like Kickstarter a tax on people who don’t understand business loans or venture investing. If you can’t secure a decent business loan with your brilliant product idea, then throwing it out to the unwashed masses of the Internet for charitable donations doesn’t exactly make it that much more viable.
On the other hand, maybe you as the inventor could secure the bank loans, and you could establish a business that could support the product well after its first prototypes ship. But why? Especially when you can simply take the money of gullible Internet users with virtually no strings attached.
Either way, the formula isn’t so attractive on the consumer end of this equation.
The Wilfa Precision Coffee Maker… the Canadiano… the Ratio Eight … Enter the Dragon… These days an endless parade of “new, revolutionary, and even better!” coffee brewer come-ons bombard home coffee lovers seemingly every other week, suddenly relegating last week’s revolutionary brewer to the Salvation Army donation pile.
Do you have the disposable income to keep replacing your home setup every other week for the promise of a potential 0.002% quality improvement in your cup? Are you starting a collection of forgotten coffee brewing devices for the Fifteen-Minutes-of-Fame Coffee Trivia History Museum?
If your answer to both of these questions is “no”, then the $20 Bonmac dripper you’ve been knocking around with for the past several years will continue to do just fine. And it will continue to do so for years to come. If your intended gift recipient is starting from scratch, it’s worth a look at these new gadgets. But just once — and not again for probably many years.
For over 8 years here, it’s been no secret that I’ve had to restrain my gag reflex every time some poseur/wannabe starts spouting off about coffee’s Third Wave. Because for every self-congratulatory, self-ordained Third Wave coffee shop that wishes to proclaim, “Oh, what a good boy am I. Look at what I just invented!,” there’s a place like Seattle’s Monorail Espresso that provides ample reason for them to shut up and sit down.
That Monorail even exists is a rubber glove slap across their face. A Pike Place Market, ice-packed, 15-pound sockeye salmon across the face. Monorail has not only been doing it longer than you, but they’ve been doing it before you were even born. And here’s the insult added to your injury: they also still do it better than you.
As not everyone is aware of America’s early espresso history, this humble but legendary espresso spot started Dec 1, 1980 as Chuck Beek’s espresso cart set up near the Westlake Center beneath the Seattle Center monorail — a 1962 construction for the World’s Fair to shuttle visitors from downtown to the iconic Space Needle in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne district. Mr. Beek’s idea was to see if he could sell espresso on the streets rather than coffeehouses, making him something of a pioneer of Seattle’s espresso cart revolution of the 1980s.
By 1997, Monorail Espresso went from a cart service to its current (and relatively permanent) location: a 100-square-foot kiosk that’s today next to a Banana Republic. While it has changed little since then, other than former barista Aimee Peck taking over its ownership, it is a global espresso institution. Seattle locals and global travelers alike come here and celebrate its praises. And they deserve all they can get.
There’s a neon “Caffeine” sign, a chalkboard sidewalk sign advertising the latest specialty drink (e.g., maple latte), and a lot of bike messengers lounging nearby smoking cloves. From a sliding glass window, they’ve been serving espresso for eons made from a custom Monorail Blend produced by the small Whidbey Island roaster, Mukilteo (which has also remained strong-but-small over the eons).
Tourists bring their own demitasses from around the world to leave at this location, and the Monorail baristi often employ some of these mismatched, saucerless demitasses in service if you’re not getting it in paper. (For example, we were served with a Richard Ginori cup.)
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a splotchy dark and medium brown crema with old-school-quality looks. It has a creamy mouthfeel and has a robust flavor of chocolate, cloves, spice, and a great roundness in its taste profile. This is an espresso of thoughtful quality that’s unfortunately fallen out of vogue fashion among many newer coffee shops. I’d trade all the Sightglasses in SF for just one 100-square-foot Monorail. In downtown Seattle, corporate espresso is arguably the norm save for a wonderful exception such as this.
Served with a glass of sparkling water on the side. Cash only, because you can save that Apple Pay Touch ID for your proctologist.
Read the review of Monorail Espresso in Seattle.
Working my first job out of college in the Baltimore area, I encountered a summer phenomenon that the locals call “going down ocean” (Bal’mer accent required). People would flock to Ocean City, MD and the Delmarva coast to escape the heat and have a good time.
But one thing that puzzled me were the many visitors from the Baltimore-D.C. area who quite deliberately chose not to escape Margarita Maggie’s — a now-defunct chain Mexican restaurant, akin to a Chevy’s Fresh Mex, with locations in Ocean City and all over Maryland at the time. In fact, I encountered many making the escape who insisted on eating the same exact food at the same exact chain restaurants they had back home.
A few years later I was on a business trip with my boss in London. It was the first time for both of us. After acclimating for a day after 11 hours of flying, my boss suggests we grab dinner at a Pizza Hut. A Pizza Hut.
Isn’t the joy of travel about eating local foods, experiencing local customs, and expanding your horizons just a little?
I’m reminded of these personal stories whenever I come across news about the latest strategy for taking your coffee with you wherever you go. Four years ago we derided the neurotic need for carrying a coffee suitcase. Today we received an email from Blue Bottle Coffee announcing their latest designer Travel Kit.
The email went on with their target customer profiles:
The urban traveler, weary of stale hotel selections. The weekend adventurer, gearing up for a surf session or camping trip. The road tripper, now liberated from the scorched (and sometimes blueberry-flavored) disappointments of gas station urns. Starting now, the proper tools are collected and within reach. It’s time to Brew Where You Are.
All of which begs the question: where do you draw the line at packing it in and carrying everything with you? If carrying your own coffee and coffee equipment is normal, what about carrying your own wine bottles because you don’t trust the wine lists of the local restaurants? Is packing your own meat freezer and gas grill taking it a little too far? Hotel pillows suck, so is BYOP just a little neurotic? What about the three-ply toilet paper you’re so used to at home? It’s super soft.
The issue is not even about packing light (which remains highly underrated). The issue is about being so terrified of potential disappointment that you close yourself off to new experiences and the possibility of learning something.
There’s a certain aspirational quality of adventure travel to these products and come-ons that reminds me of how ginormous four-wheel-drive SUVs are sold to suburban moms who never go more off-road than the church parking lot. Most people seem barely capable of surviving for two hours away from their Facebook or Twitter feeds. But to read these taglines, who among us isn’t climbing the remote wilds in the southern Andes of Patagonia later this month?
Yet the truly adventuresome pioneers leverage their resourcefulness when they get there — they don’t pack it all with them. And even if you are in the wilds, I’ve had a camping coffee kit for 20 years that consists of a manual hand-crank grinder, a red plastic Melitta filter and #2 papers (not to mention a Nalgene press pot). No news here: nothing about that has changed.
The far more common, and relevant, scenario is the basic business or social trip to a different town. I can’t comment on gas station and hotel room coffee other than to say, “Seriously?! That’s the best you can do before deciding you must carry it all with you?” Other than drug addicts (sorry, coffee addiction is the lamest white person’s whine around), what makes coffee the only consumable where carrying it and all of its preparation paraphernalia seemingly rational?
It’s 2014. Good coffee is ubiquitous. So much so, the antiquated idea of there being coffee cities — such as Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco — makes about as much sense today as there being wine cities. Even New Yorkers have forgotten about how bad their coffee options used to be just a few short years ago.
An Internet connection and a GPS-enabled mobile phone aren’t exactly the stuff of NASA astronauts these days. Using either of them, decent coffee can be found just about anywhere. Yes, James, even in Oklahoma City. Wasn’t it that adventuresome spirit that lead you to Blue Bottle and weaned you off of your dirty Starbucks habit in the first place?
Today This Thing We Call Coffee (substitute “third wave” or “craft coffee” or whatever nonsense marketingspeak one prefers here) seems to have discovered a new toy. It’s called design. Although around since the first coffee retailer opened in Damascus in 1530, lately design has become a rather acutely faddish obsession that has permeated café design, espresso machine design, and even the package design of retail coffee bags.
So much so, the coffee industry has lately given off the impression that it’s become bored or satiated (if not both) with its prior focus on coffee quality. Evidence of that has already started to come out in the cup. We’ve noticed some coffee bars missing the point that while we love great design and ambiance from our best restaurants, it’s not why we primarily want to eat there.
It’s not hard to see how we got here. Today’s Internet is fueled by a Pinterest- and Instagram-inspired obsession with superficial looks, celebrating form over function. Social sharing, mainstream coverage, and Kickstarter hype have all elevated interest in coffee accoutrement based on visuals rather than performance. After all, who wants to dig into the gritty details when you can look at a pretty infographic?
As with today’s world of pop celebrities, elaborate visuals and outrageous price tags — rather than talent — are what capture the fickle attention spans of layman consumers. Like everything else, perhaps it isn’t surprising that quality coffee is giving in to the temptations of Kim Kardashian’s asp. (You see what we did there.)
This isn’t to understate the many virtues of good design, not all of which are visual decoration. Design is a way of bringing art into the everyday things of life, but it is also a means of eliminating the friction and the senseless from how things work.
Nor am I a stranger to the values of design. My father is a retired commercial artist and designer of some 45 years, and long ago I even pulled a stint as a graphic designer whose work appeared in the displays of a national chain of department stores. While I see design as a very useful tool, I stop well short of treating it as a religion.
Because one man’s Apple logo sticker on the rear of their vehicle is another man’s Jesus fish. There are those who so subscribe to the “Better Life Through Design” mantra, they believe the crisis in Gaza could be averted if only someone designed an Israeli wall that was user-friendly enough.
When coffee’s current love affair with design becomes this noticeable, it borders on religion. As with all religions, when the object of its focused attention drifts from its original premise, things can get ugly.
Bringing the high-minded topic of coffee and design down to the level of cups, the folks at notNeutral recently reached out to us to pay a closer look at their coffee line. In the 11+ years that CoffeeRatings.com has been posting formal coffee and café reviews, many other blogs and Web sites picked up on the habit of noting espresso machines and other brewing equipment. But for whatever reasons, we still haven’t found any other online coffee review resources to date that have been logging cups unless they’re made as custom one-off designs.
So as a CoffeeRatings.com first, what do we look for in coffee cups? Our 2007 post citing the Espresso Italiano Tasting manual outlines some of the key qualities. But the primary objective is this: does it enhance my coffee drinking experience?
Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an award-winning multidisciplinary L.A. design firm, founded notNeutral as something of a retail consumer arm for their designs. They do a lot of commercial buildings, parks, water projects, train stations, homes, and landscaping, and through notNeutral they get to do pillows, rugs, furnishings, and housewares such as coffee cups.
De rigueur of many designers today, they make overtures to sustainability and “green living,” but it’s not heavy-handed. One of our pet peeves is the hypocrisy of some retailers and media properties that are devoted to the concept of saving the planet by consuming more things (instead of, say, picking something up from a garage sale or a second-hand store).
notNeutral’s coffee home page opens to a photo of their cups beneath the group head of a Modbar, today’s patron saint of form-over-function in coffee, reenforcing design-aware aesthetics. We tested their cappuccino cups since we have collected dozens of espresso cups from cafés around the world.
First, the white, handled LINO cups. These were the cups they designed in partnership with Intelligentsia. Made in Bangladesh, they have good heft and a relatively compact size: filled to the rim, they can hold up to 6-oz/175ml. Design-wise, they clearly take on a modernization of the ACF or Nuova Point classics.
There are a lot of curves, including the saucers, with an inverted-dome-like rounded bottom and tapering up the sides of the cup: there are no edges inside. The handles are distinctive — sticking out in a wider loop, but cleverly flush to the top edge of the cup, allowing the coffee drinker to place their thumb over the top.
We also checked out their black matte, no-handle MENO cups. These suggest the form and function of more elegant Japanese-style tea cups. Made in Sri Lanka, they are also curved inside with no edges — although not as rounded as the LINO cups. The longer basin also means it can hold up to 7-oz/200ml of liquid to the rim (despite their product graphic to the contrary).
The MINOs have a glaze on the matte finish, as these cups are meant to be handled to experience any heat within them. Without the handle, of course, drinking requires you to rotate your hand further back to angle it when you bring it to your mouth: something you’re either used to or will have to accommodate.
We wouldn’t say the LINO and MINO cups are our absolute favorite cappuccino cups. With all its comparatively under-designed flaws, the classic ACF M66 5.5-oz/150ml tulip cup is still something of a sentimental favorite — even if they no longer make them and they’re increasingly hard to come by. But both the LINO and MINO cups are real good — very good. They are thought out in detail, modern, attractive, and also (and here’s the important part) quite functional at what they’re supposed to do. We prefer them over the many modern ACF replacement knockoffs that have appeared since ACF’s demise — such as Cremaware or those from Espresso Parts.
We also asked Hannah Bartholomew Block, who runs noNeutral’s coffee division, a few questions about these cups.
CoffeeRatings.com: With the LINO cups, some design objectives are clear – such as ensuring that the handle is flush with the rim, allowing the user to place their thumb comfortably across the top of the cup when they bring it to their lips. What design problems/solutions were you seeking to address with the LINO cups?
notNeutral: A lot of thought went into that handle. We tried a variety of forms that extended from the cup in different ways, but the final shape provided the most control for the barista and the most comfort for the user. Our design team considered the entire sensory experience of drinking coffee: the diameter of the cup was kept wide so drinker could enjoy the aroma, not just the taste of the espresso. The cup walls are thinnest at the lip for the best mouthfeel, and thickest at the bottom to retain heat. The bottom of the cup is rounded for optimal fluid dynamics, making it easier for baristas to pour latte art. Beyond those functional aspects, of course we wanted the cups to look modern, unique, and interesting.
CR: In contrast to the previous question, where do you feel most coffee cups fall short in offering customers a better coffee-drinking experience?
nN: The most important consideration is comfort of the user. Are the cup walls thick enough to protect the user’s hand from heat? Is the handle comfortable and stable to hold? Will the shape of the lip cause coffee to drip down the outside? When you swirl an espresso shot in a demitasse, is it going to slosh over the sides? We consider all these factors when designing or choosing cups for a café.
CR: At CoffeeRatings.com, we’re an odd lot who have also liked using traditional Asian tea cups for brewed coffee service at times: no handles, matte black finish. So in that way, the MENO cups remind us of some classic tea cups. Was the MENO design inspired by those cups?
nN: Yes. We did look at Asian tea cups as precedents. We looked at Japanese ceramic glazes and liked the way the matte black got distressed over time. We also liked the way the dark, non-reflective finish not only drew attention to the graceful cup profile, but also felt warm and satiny to the touch.
CR: Whether inspired by Asian tea cups or not, you’ve clearly labeled your MENO cups as part of your coffee line. Anything about the experience of these cups, or the experience of drinking tea, did you want to carry over with these cups over the traditional cups?
nN: The handle-less cup completely changes the sensory experience of holding and drinking a cup of coffee. There’s a comfort in savoring the warmth of the cup directly in the palm of your hand. That’s a little unexpected for coffee. It makes you reconsider the ritual. We definitely envision MENO crossing over from specialty coffee service to vessels for tea.
You may not have noticed it through most of the usual “coffee media” channels, but this past Saturday San Francisco hosted CoffeeCon‘s first-ever road tour. You might recall our coverage last year of CoffeeCon 2013, held at its Warrenville, IL mothership. In its fourth year, CoffeeCon has been enough of a success at addressing unmet coffee consumer interest to take the show nationally for the first time — with SF on July 26, NY on October 11, and finally in L.A. on November 8.
CoffeeCon is somewhat unique as a consumer-oriented coffee event, where layman coffee lovers and enthusiasts can participate without being overlooked for coffee professionals or shunned by trade show hucksters. We may have derided the widespread abuse of the term “Third Wave” as self-promotional marketing babble for some eight years now. But if there was ever an experience that epitomized coffee lovers “enjoying coffee for its own sake,” this has to rank right up there.
They held it in SOMA’s Terra Galleries art gallery/event space, which operated with a surprisingly heavy security detail. A great number of area coffee purveyors came to show off their goods to attendees — including roast-to-order Artís in Berkeley, Blue Bottle, Chromatic, De La Paz, Equator, Flywheel, Four Barrel, George Howell (from MA), Henry’s House of Coffee, Mr. Espresso, Old Soul Co. (a gem from Sacramento), Peerless, Ritual Roasters, Sightglass, and Verve. A favorite overheard non-sequitur of the day reflected the variety on display: “Oh, there’s Blue Bottle… but I can get that anywhere.”
Besides sampling a lot of coffee, attendees could also take courses, experience hands-on demonstrations of consumer equipment, hear talks from professionals (CoffeeCon has contractually locked up much of George Howell‘s speaking tours), and even check out home roasting equipment in the outdoor space.
We caught Mr. Espresso’s Luigi di Ruocco‘s “Italian Espresso” talk and even had an epiphany or two. For example, the Italian art of balance in espresso blends makes all the more sense when you think of how many each Italian sips in a given day. Punchy, overbearing brightness bomb shots would create more palate fatigue if experienced multiple times daily. It also dawned on us how important a rounded espresso flavor profile is to end a meal on as a complement, rather than competitor, to the food you’ve just eaten.
KitchenAid was one of the event’s key sponsors, and they announced a new home coffee brewer currently in factory production. It attempts to automate manual pour-over coffeemaking with an enclosed system of water-pulsing that follows a programmable pour-vs.-steep algorithm. In that sense, it seems a little like a consumer version of Clover‘s Precision Pour Over concept, which has seemingly gone dark over the past couple of years.
While KitchenAid has been long known for its mixers, it first got into the coffee business with the A-9 and A-10 coffee mills back in 1937. They still do amateurish things, such as exclusives with Williams-Sonoma (who notoriously offer some of the most overpriced and most substandard/landfill-bound consumer coffee appliances on the market). But in recent years KitchenAid has introduced decent-for-the-price-point Pro-line Burr grinders and other worthy consumer coffee products targeting what they now, unfortunately, call the craft coffee market.
Side note: the term “craft coffee”, appropriated from the beer world, is really just a pound-for-pound stupidity surrogate for the ever-more-embarrassing “Third Wave” term these days. Use of the term is made all the worse by the decades-old homonym, “Kraft coffee“: i.e., the Big Four coffee purveyor more commonly known as “Maxwell House.” This is akin to the craft beer market calling itself the “blue ribbon beer market”. *Facepalm*
So it’s with curious irony, lost on KitchenAid, that they’re now offering an appliance that push-button automates a manual pour-over in the name of craft coffee. (And not an Alanis Morissette “irony” either.)
As a home-grown event with little professional event staffing, CoffeeCon seemed to experience a bit of chaos outside of its mothership confines for the first time: running out of badge-holders, a lack of pre-event press, some improv when an occasional speaker didn’t show on time, and a couple of classrooms separated only by a hospital-room-like thin cloth barrier. The last one generated audible cacophony when the class next door would roar with coffee grinders. But all in all, the event was anything but disappointing.
We even reconnected with Aleco Chigounis, whose coffee sourcing we’ve long been big fans of. He’s since established Red Fox Coffee Merchants. (No relation, however, to “This is the Big One. Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you, honey!“.)
This café is the brainchild of former middle school teacher and Ritual Coffee barista, Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Starting as a pop-up in SF’s South Park (which has since closed in Dec. 2013), this over-designed flagship café opened in Oct. 2013 to a considerable amount of gushing praise.
It took over the former Teashi spa, and the spirit of past mani/pedis and Brazilian waxings still sort of haunts the place. On the sidewalk out front there’s limited wooden café table seating. Inside in front there’s window counter seating for four on stools right next to shelves of coffee merchandising, just shy of the long service counter.
It’s a long space that is deceptively airier than its limited seating would suggest. There’s an array of a few café tables against a shared wall bench; these are typically the domain of laptop zombie squatters. Further back there’s an upstairs under bright skylights that offers two larger, semi-private tables.
Here there is an overwhelming sense of someone’s idyllic vision that a café should be more like an Apple Store. There are stark, plain walls and wood grain paneling plus a wannabe kanketsu “service philosophy” of removing as many barriers as possible between barista and customer.
This is exemplified by their unique, Modbar-like espresso machine: a two-group, under-the-counter job either called the Jepy Minim (per the engineer/designer John Ermacoff, aka Jepy) or the Ghost (per project designer Ben Kaminsky). It’s the guts of a perfectly acceptable Synesso Sabre, but Frankensteined beyond recognition as a sacrifice to form. This worship at the Holy Church of Makerdom might promise greater temperature control, etc., but what only matters to us as coffee lovers is what it produces in the cup.
They specially source limited coffees and roast them through Ritual Coffee Roasters for their own private label, and our review here is of their Little Brother Espresso — which comes at a whopping $3. (They also served a Costa Rica Los Crestones for $4.) It’s served slightly full with an even, medium brown crema. There’s a balance to the flavor with hints of bright fruit, but there’s primarily a mid-palate of herbal pungency.
In short: it’s a very good shot. But for all the pomp, technology, design, and the price, it doesn’t measure up to expectations — failing to rank in the Top 35 of SF coffee shops. We need to revisit to ensure we didn’t catch them on an off moment, but that would be surprising given they’ve been open for eight months and their machine has dialed down espresso shots to a push-button level. The good news for Saint Frank is that there are clear opportunities to improve. (That might also include banning all employees here from openly calling it “spro”, dude.)
This will read like an attack on Kevin when he’s done some very interesting things with unique coffees, and he’s certainly trying things. Yet Saint Frank is also symptomatic and emblematic of what seems so very lost and misguided with what the industry holds as the new standard of coffee shop today. Among all the toys and distractions of late, coffee quality in the cup seems to have again taken a back seat.
If you’re going to charge $3 for an espresso, it should at least break the Top 35 in the city. Among the 700 active espresso purveyors currently surveyed in SF, Saint Frank’s standard espresso shot is the most expensive in the city that’s served outside of a restaurant setting. (Presuming the Nespresso Boutique & Bar qualifies more as a restaurant, where you’re paying more for white tablecloth service and a global smoke & mirrors marketing campaign.)
We should all be paying more for coffee — but for better coffee. Based on our ratings, it’s not better. For the reported pedigree of their sourced coffees, it doesn’t even have a different or unique flavor profile. So what exactly am I paying extra for?
First, there’s the promising lure of shiny new equipment and it’s empirically consistent failure to deliver better coffee. In the past we’ve noted the likes of Sightglass who have been guilty of this for years. In Saint Frank’s case, it’s not even so much a “better brewing” sales come-on than superficial aesthetics: i.e., a low-profile workspace primarily conceived to address the First World coffee problem where my barista doesn’t get to see more of my crotch.
Fortunately the Modbar isn’t weighed down by outrageous costs — you can get a full system for under $10k. Hopefully Saint Frank’s custom lookalike (the Jepy Minim or Ghost, depending upon whom you ask) follows suit in that department. But with new, “revolutionary” ways to brew coffee even more perfectly being announced every week, we’ve often wondered if any of the takers ever get the chance to dial-in on them, with a serious dose of experience, before they roll on to the next big thing — looking to technology to bail them out from substandard practices.
This is a little of what former USBC champ Kyle Glanville recently called the “fancy equipment arms race”: “People are spending shit tons on machines to brew coffee when they should be investing in their own palates and understandings of flavor, and the knowledge of how coffee brewing actually works”
So what about making your café look like an Apple Store? Blue Bottle Coffee has been compared to the Apple of coffee shops, and they’re even sporting Apple-inspired service table designs. And CoffeeRatings.com has had plenty of good things to say about Blue Bottle.
Except Blue Bottle’s resulting coffee quality is noticeably better than Saint Frank’s. Now any café owner is entitled to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a custom espresso machine, killer grinders, and a Zenlike service design experience. But if it doesn’t translate to a better cup of coffee, those costs are being passed on to me to satisfy completely different concerns. You’d be better off having your baristas selling me $400 sweaters.
What results is a place that seems enamored with all the trappings of what’s expected of a wannabe Fourth Wave coffee place, but with no improvement in the coffee itself. Which suggests more of our cynical definition of a Fourth Wave coffee shop from four years ago. We then joked that if the Third Wave was about letting the coffee speak for itself and enjoying coffee for its own sake, the Fourth Wave was about appreciating so much of the gadgetry and trappings surrounding coffee service that any actual coffee was no longer required.
But can any of us blame Kevin? The status quo of the industry’s most popular coffee media encourage this focus. For example, a Dear Coffee, I Love You seems to care more about subway tiles than coffee roasting. While Sprudge heavily promotes their “Buildouts of the Summer” promotional series as if coffee were a construction project. And in professing “we would never grade coffee shops”, Sprudge seems too terrified to lift a judgmental finger to critique any of the coffee and potentially hurt someone’s feelings.
This leaves a massive void of any popular critical thought about retail coffee quality. Instead of learned coffee professionals, this gap is filled instead by the arbitrary standards of “top 20 coffee shops in America” lists on popular news and travel web sites — often written and compiled by interns most enamored by double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos in paper to-go tubs, whose understanding of coffee quality extends little beyond the MSRP price tags of the commercial coffee machine fad of the month.
Or worse: the void is left to the whims of the “man in the street” on review sites like Yelp!: where electrical outlets for laptops, cute baristas who flirt, and cheap extra large muffins count for more than any coffee quality.
Imagine a perverse wine world where the like likes of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast gave everything identical 90-point scores while devoting the bulk of their writing to the wood and fixtures used to build their tasting rooms and the designers of their high-tech wine openers. It’s of little surprise that we have ended up with coffee writing that reads more like an interior design arms race sponsored by Home Depot®. Meanwhile any actual quality judgement on coffee is suppressed to the level of American youth soccer: everybody is recognized with a trophy just for participating. Why even bother with the farce of barista competitions if “everyone is a winner”?
Over a decade ago, one of the major inspirations for creating CoffeeRatings.com was our immense frustration with all the existing books and online reviews of coffee houses at the time: it was impossible to find any critical reviews of coffee places that critiqued any actual coffee. Most of the attention was spent on ambiance: the style of the clientele who hung out there, what novels they read, and how good the bagels were. With all the attention now given to new machines, service counter layouts, and who makes the wooden countertops, we seem to have relapsed to those more ignorant days.
I never thought I’d miss what six years ago I called the Malaysian street food experience. Then the environmental design slight-of-hand was in making you feel like a hipster for sipping your espresso while sitting on a cinder block in an alley filled with spent heroin needles. Even so, at least the quality of the coffee still ran as the headline. Today I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it’s time to go back to those days.