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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of “independent chains”?

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

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

Espresso in Napoli, Italy

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and Intimidation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napoli, Not Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neapolitan Coffee Culture and the Soulful Espresso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes a Neapolitan espresso?

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

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

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

Obligatory Neapolitan fish monger shot Napoli at sunrise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Espresso Preparation

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

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

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

Travel Tip

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

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

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


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

Trip Report: Moccia (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 07 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Giuseppina Moccia started this family bakery in Napoli in 1920. It has stood at this location since 1941. What began as a business baking bread — a panificio — has grown to include an exquisite pasticceria baking classic Neapolitan pastries and desserts, famous small pizzas (pizzette), a rosticceria serving meats, a gelateria, and a full-service bar.

Today three of Giuseppina’s grandchildren — Antonio, Enzo, and Pasquale — now take care of the business operations, which is closer to being more of a restaurant given all that they do. Some picky locals might complain that the quality isn’t the same as it used to be and that the prices here have rapidly outpaced the neighborhood over the years. But they do a lot of things really well, and you can’t argue with the quality of the espresso here.

Entrance to Moccia along Napoli's via San Pasquale a Chiaia Rear bar and lounge-like feel inside Napoli's Pasticceria Moccia

Located across the street from the bustling Liceo Umberto high school and with many Italian scooters parked out front, it’s a relatively sizeable space (at least for a bakery) with a long bar at one end of the establishment and window counter seating at the other. They offer a few metal café tables of modern design inside plus some stool seating at the windows, but don’t expect to access them: this place is notorious for its lack of seating. It’s a great spot for a delicious, albeit uncomfortable, breakfast break.

The Moccia espresso - with their own roasted coffee beans sprinkled on the saucer for my benefitDespite the location’s age, it has a modern, lounge-like feel inside — especially at night. The staff here are young, outgoing, friendly, and quite funny. For example, to emphasize how they roast their own coffee, they even placed a handful of their beans on my saucer for effect as I photographed inside. They serve their espresso in an IPA demitasse with a glass of sparkling water on the side for €1.

Using an old La San Marco 85-LEVA-4 four-group lever machine, they pull shots with a textured, thick crema. It has a beautifully pungent taste with no smoke and a limited range on the bright end of the flavor scale. But the balance and tone of the coffee is outstanding.

Unassumingly, it’s one of the best shots we had in Napoli and rates one tazzina and two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.

Where ‘old’ isn’t the enemy of ‘good’

In fact, looking back at all our ratings for this last trip to Napoli and its environs, it had the best rating we gave out anywhere. More on that in a future summary post, but consider the implications of when a 94-year-old family business serves some of the best espresso in a city that’s globally renowned for its coffee.

Then contrast this with American coffee culture where we generally believe the newer the place, the better the coffee. It’s as if the only means of making better coffee in the U.S. is to first start a new construction project. This is just another example of America’s warped fascination with disposable culture.

One of the things to love about Italy is that, unlike the U.S., history isn’t positioned as a natural enemy of good food and drink. I’ll take that over a pop-up restaurant any day and how it caters to our need to be enthralled with the new, to consume, to throw it away, and then to forget.

Read the review of Moccia in Napoli, Italy.

Staff working Moccia's four-group La San Marco lever machine The Moccia espresso with a side of sparkling water

Trip Report: Caffè d’Epoca (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 05 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Napoli is a town of doppelgängers. Perhaps fitting with their con artist reputation, Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing.

Just take Pizzeria Sorbillo. Operated by Gino Sorbillo and considered one of the greatest and most historical pizzerias on the planet, it is located at via dei Tribunali, 32 and attracts long lines of tourists, foodie blog zombies, and multinational TV crews. Its relatively quiet neighbor at #35 to the east is also called Pizzeria Sorbillo (operated by Gino’s brother, Patrizio). The next door further down at #38 is the ever so slightly more popular place called … wait for it … Pizzeria Sorbillo (operated by Gino’s cousins, Antonio and Gigi).

Napoli's Piazza Trieste e Trento: which of these two coffee shops is Caffè del Professore? Sign for Il Vero Bar del Professore with inset showing its earlier addition to its name

This might not seem too dishonest given that there are 21 pizza-making siblings from the same Sorbillo family. But they are three distinctively different pizza places with three different owners, three different menus, and three different pizza ovens.

Easy enough, I mixed them up my first time here: it’s quite confusing. Read the reviews on TripAdvisor or Google or Yelp.it — even the ones written in Italian — and you’ll notice that some 10-20% of them undoubtedly reviewed the wrong place and to this day believe they ate somewhere else. Perhaps more accurately, they probably presumed there was only one Pizzeria Sorbillo on via dei Tribunali.

Il Falso Bar del Professore

Which brings us to Caffè del Professore, the café (or bar if you will). Many consider its espresso as some of the best in all of Napoli. Its name also refers to the Caffè del Professore roaster, based in Palermo, which is one of the most prized small roasters boasted on the front signage of many a local café in Napoli.

Given its Sicilian origins, Caffè del Professore, the roaster, is actually a little unusual for the region. Culturally speaking, the many discerning Neapolitan espresso drinkers have embraced and prized the local micro-roaster idea for generations. By contrast, New York City only started toying with the idea since around the time that Justin Bieber got his first tattoo. Many cafés in Napoli proudly post signs professing their coffee sources — and the smaller and more local, the better.

Sidewalk in front of Caffè d'Epoca Sidewalk seating from the other side in front of Caffè d'Epoca

But this is supposed to be a review about Caffè d’Epoca, right? Right. And when you walk in front of this small café and look at the bold signage above the door, in the back of the establishment, and along all the sidewalk seating in front, you’d be hard-pressed to say this wasn’t the famous Caffè del Professore on Piazza Trieste e Trento in Napoli.

But the reality is that it isn’t: that place is actually called Il Vero Bar del Professore (i.e., “The Real Professor’s Bar”) at Piazza Trieste e Trento, #46 — and this is #2, just partially around the square. Like many a Twitter handle, at some point the confusion compelled Bar del Professore to add “The Real” as part of their official name.

Confusing? It’s by design. Il Falso Bar del Professore indeed. Oh, they use Caffè del Professore coffee alright. But you will not find the name Caffè d’Epoca posted anywhere here — save for the printed register receipt. That sort of Neapolitan cultural curiosity made us want to check out this place even moreso than the three-chicchi-rated Il Vero across the way.

Inside Caffè d'EpocaDespite ample outdoor seating on the front sidewalk under Coca-Cola parasols, inside the space is very tight and quite dark. Locals do come here in addition to a few misguided souls believing they are somewhere else. The locals come largely to avoid the line of tourists across the way and to have a solid espresso shot at only €0.90. And like Il Vero nearby, they promote their own Italian-style hot chocolate: here it’s 32 flavors of Eraclea.

Using a four-group La Spaziale machine at the rear of the dark bar (what, a semi-automatic??), they pull shots of espresso with a medium brown crema that dissipates relatively quickly in the MPAN Caffè del Professore logo cups. It has a balanced flavor centered on spices and some herbal pungency, but it’s surprisingly of restrained strength.

With Pizzeria Sorbillo, even if you didn’t wait for an hour to get into il vero Gino’s, you’ll find that it may not be the world’s best, but good pizza still doesn’t fall far from the family tree. Similarly with Caffè d’Epoca, even if you are fooled by the Caffè del Professore branding (other than the suspiciously out-of-place espresso machine), the espresso is still pretty darn good.

Read the review of Caffè d’Epoca in Napoli, Italy.

La Marzocco machine at the back of Caffè d'Epoca The Caffè d'Epoca espresso - made with Caffè del Professore coffee

So why Blue Bottle Coffee?

Posted by on 30 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

Big-name capital investments in coffee businesses are old news. The newest of this old news is an additional $25.75 million of investment secured by Blue Bottle Coffee (SF Gate, Business Insider).

James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee, looking like a colorized photo from the 1800sNews like this tends to elicit a mixture of validation (i.e., “Good coffee is serious business!”) and a little envy (i.e., “My business makes great coffee, so where’s my $25 million?”). So why Blue Bottle?

To read some of the explanations out there, it’s an investment in “slow coffee” or “craft coffee” (the latter term we avoid for potential confusion with “Kraft coffee” — aka, Maxwell House). We read about their “brand cache” and their “commitment to freshness” — which aren’t exactly unique.

Like any business, Blue Bottle also has it’s problems and flaws — over-extension beyond the reach of their quality controls being one big example (e.g., see our recent review of Fraîche.) But Blue Bottle is doing a number of things right, and we’re surprised that some of them aren’t being reported.

Outside-In vs. Inside-Out

How most roasters sell coffee to consumers is broken and outright wrong. This is rooted in an old industry problem we’ve long lamented here, which is approaching customers from an inside-out approach instead of an outside-in one. Past examples of this discussed here on this blog include coffee cuppings for layman consumers; we’ve gotten into long, drag-out debates on this topic with the likes of Peter Giuliano — co-owner and Director of Coffee at Counter Culture Coffee and Director of Symposium at the SCAA.

But it is symbolic of the coffee industry’s chronic inability to adopt a consumer-centric approach. Rather than think about how coffee is experienced by consumers, many coffee purveyors first try to shoehorn consumers into the perspective of industry insiders. Thus most coffee people today sell as if only to other coffee people — not to consumers.

The Blue Bottle Coffee Web site coffee listings circa 2012

Blue Bottle, on the other hand, exhibits one of the better examples of a coffee company that’s trying to fix that. One way to clearly see this is on their Web site. Last year, Blue Bottle sat down with the Google Ventures design team and an agency in Montreal to rethink their Web site. What they found is that most retail coffee Web sites emphasize things like a coffee’s origin — stuff that’s of great relevance to how people in the industry think about coffee but is often a meaningless descriptor to a consumer. That’s not how consumers buy coffee.

They discovered that primarily selling a coffee under the “Kenya” designation is a little like the early days of selling personal computers, where PC dealers emphasized things like processor clock speeds, memory cache sizes, and PCI slots. All of which made great sense to the way industry insiders thought about computers but were just gibberish to most layman consumers. Today’s ubiquitous Apple retail stores are successful, in part, because Apple addresses consumer needs without weighing it down with superfluous industry insider gibberish.

Blue Bottle Coffee's Web site redesign from 2013: so you have an Aeropress...

This could explain some of the popularity of Philz Coffee‘s Harry-Potter-like alchemy: the nonsensical labels on their coffee blends (e.g., “Ambrosia Coffee of God” or “Silken Splendor”) might be at least as meaningful to consumers as calling something “Kenya Nyeri Gatomboya AA”.

If you look at Blue Bottle’s Web site redesign, notice how it leads with the things that are most meaningful to consumers: how they brew their coffee and what devices they might have at home to brew it. Their Web site also emphasizes consumer brewing guides to complement this cause.

Queuing Psychology

Soup kitchen or Blue Bottle Coffee line?I’m not the only one who has either avoided or abandoned the long lines at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco’s touristy Ferry Building Marketplace location. But some may be surprised that these lines aren’t entirely by accident.

Another smart thing Blue Bottle does (and they’re far from the only ones) is apply queuing psychology at such a publicly visible location to influence perceived demand and value — or what FastCompany last year called “The Wisdom of the Cronut.”

The painful morning wait for cronuts is likely to be contributing to the product’s popularity. The fact that people are waiting signals to others that they too should be in on the trend.

–FastCompany, “The Wisdom of the Cronut: Why Long Lines Are Worth The Wait”

What’s worse than a line that’s too long? A line that’s too short. We’re talking some Disneyland mental mojo here.

Think of all the tourists walking by in the Ferry Building, saying, “Do you see that line? That must be some pretty good coffee!” Or even the revenue-per-customer-transaction winner of, “If we’re going to wait in line this long, we may as well also pick up a Blue Bottle hoodie, a Hario Buono kettle, and a coffee subscription.”

Breaking Out of the Retail Point-of-Sale Model

On the subject of coffee subscriptions and how they’ve reportedly reached “trendy” status finally, Blue Bottle has been at it for quite a while. We may not get the point of adding another middleman for the brief window consumers play the field before settling down more with their favorite coffee purveyors. But we do like the longer-term prospects of buying direct from the roasters you do come to enjoy, which suits Blue Bottle extremely well.

Coffee subscriptions get Blue Bottle Coffee to Phase 3For Blue Bottle, coffee subscriptions have become where they make most of their money. Although revenue-per-customer is higher with prepared retail coffee beverages, so are the underlying costs. Because when you drink that latte, the main ingredient — and biggest contributor to the price of the beverage — is labor costs. For selling coffee subscriptions as a bean & leaf shop, the additional costs are little more than drop shipping.

This has transformed how Blue Bottle approaches coffee sales, as most coffee businesses still sell to consumers like most other real-estate-based point-of-sale businesses. Thus at tourist-friendly locations such as the Ferry Building, Blue Bottle is no longer suggesting that visitors take home a freshly roasted 12-ounce pack. Rather, they suggest that they sign up for a running coffee subscription shipped regularly to their home.

And when it comes to venture capitalists who are most familiar with funding software companies, investing in a subscription business gets them very excited. After all, virtually every software business has spent the past decade trying to shift consumers from retail purchases to subscription models.

Where Coffee is not Food and Transparency is not Quality

Posted by on 20 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

The 2014 Good Food Awards in SF's Ferry Building, courtesy Daily Coffee NewsWords can mean a lot. When it comes to coffee, that can mean words like “food” or “transparency”. We’ve noticed both of these words coming up a lot in recent public discussions about coffee quality, and yet neither word really belongs in the conversation.

Today’s Daily Coffee News from Roast Magazine registered examples of each in an article on the recent Good Food Awards held annually here in San Francisco. In case you’re not familiar with “the GFAs,” they were born out of the Slow Food Nation event held here in 2008 with many of the same key players at the helm (at least on the coffee side of things). The goal of the awards is to recognize “outstanding American food producers and the farmers who provide their ingredients.”

What’s In A Name?

This is how one eats coffee as foodAll worthy goals. But here’s one of our long-time pet peeves, albeit a small one: coffee is labeled as “food”. Perhaps it seems innocent enough. But while the coffee industry has spent years belaboring the point of trying to be taken as seriously as wine, there’s is simply no way wine would ever be classified as “food” at an awards event.

It has none of the nutritional values of food; you do not eat it. What are we, civets? Sure, you could say that both food and coffee are consumed, but you could say the same for unleaded gasoline.

Restaurant coffee will surely suck as long as coffee is treated as food’s red-headed stepchild — and not something worth recognition outside of food’s long shadow the way wine enjoys. And because the “food media” provide only superficial and patronizing cover of beverages is why Karen Foley, formerly of Fresh Cup, started Imbibe magazine. There are reasons they are called “barista” — the Italian word for bartender — and not “waiter” or “waitress”.

However, let’s turn to a topic that’s a bit more controversial: transparency.

Just Because It’s Transparent Doesn’t Mean You’ll Like What You’ll See

You can roughly define coffee transparency as visibility into its entire supply chain: from seed to cup. It’s about assigning the proper credit (or blame) wherever deserved and exposing just’s in the bag and behind its pricing.

Oh, it will be amazing, alright...

It’s critical stuff. So much so that international coffee guru, roaster, and former barista champion, Tim Wendelboe, had this to say about transparency some three years ago:

A lot of high quality driven roasters, including ourselves, preach that transparency is the most important part of our trade.

There are a number of good reasons for this. One is sustainability of coffee growing and business practices — i.e., ensuring that not only can you find your favorite coffee sources, but that you can reward and encourage all of those behind its proper growing, harvesting, processing, storage, and shipping practices. Another virtue is the reproducibility of results, so that growing season after growing season you can ensure that you get a similar if not better product each time.

But what transparency is not is a measure of quality, and this is where we see a lot of coffee consumers — and even some purveyors — confusing the two. Just as Fair Trade is an economic program but not a quality certification, transparency has everything to do with the means of achieving your results but it is not a measure of quality in those results. The means are being confused with their ends.

On Traceability and Micro-lot Terroir

Which is why we appreciated that Jen Apodaca, 2014 GFA Coffee Committee chair, didn’t take the bait when Daily Coffee News asked in their article, “Are there specific benchmarks for criteria like traceability, transparency…” [etc.]. Because the fact is that transparency doesn’t have a flavor — I can’t taste it directly in my cup. The GFAs are trying to recognize sensory qualities more than intellectualized ones.

Even more to the point, the fact that one coffee is more traceable than another does not mean it is of any better quality: your coffee could be highly traceable but still taste like ass.

Kermit Lynch says, 'Your terroir sucks!'One of the most common ways coffee consumers experience transparency and traceability is through labels such as single origin (Serious Eats?: yet another coffee-is-food reference!) or micro-lot coffees. There’s a misplaced sense that having greater precision in where your coffee comes from somehow naturally means it’s of higher quality. It does not.

The merits of this precision are more psychological than sensory. We’ve seen a lot of coffee professionals donning their best Mr. Yuk faces when someone dares to dilute the pedigree of a single row of coffee shrubs by blending coffees to achieve a specific flavor profile.

We can overlook that this kind of “master race” obsession with purified gene pools has gotten our species into deep trouble in the past. But when that geographic precision becomes the primary goal of a coffee in itself, you’re no longer seeking the best taste outcome in the cup but rather some intellectual notion of a purist expression of its terroir. You’re not thinking about optimizing for flavors as much as you’re thinking about pinning your pristine collection of butterfly species inside a museum case.

And coffee has a lot of bad terroir. Kermit Lynch, the infamous Berkeley-based wine importer and maker, recently said this about terroir:

Look, there’s great terroir and there’s lousy terroir. A wine showing terroir doesn’t mean it’s good.”

I guess we all can put that in our ever-popular wine analogy and smoke it.

Trip Report: Espresso in Eataly Chicago

Posted by on 23 Dec 2013 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Six years ago we wrote about the original Eataly in Torino, Italy. Since then, Eataly crossed the Atlantic with a wildly successful New York City opening in August 2010. Earlier this month, Eataly Chicago opened — and boy, did it open. Within its first week of operation, it had to shut down for two days just to retrench for the customer demand onslaught.

At 63,000 square feet, Eataly Chicago is a little larger than the one in New York City, but still only about half the size of the original in Torino. (It actually seems small by comparison to that former Carpano factory.) But surprisingly, despite the many cultural and personnel differences from Italy, Eataly Chicago mostly stays true to its roots at the original.

Eataly Chicago beckons the tourists off Mag Mile Inside Eataly Chicago

Eataly Chicago sticks to recognizably common branding with its mothership. Food slogans are prominently offered in English and Italian. Even its supply chain has a lot in common — from Lurisia water, to exquisite wines from Prunotto and Albino Rocca, to Baratti & Milano chocolates.

And yet there are distribution anomalies. Nutella crêpes and Lavazza bars are totally incongruous from the Slow Food-driven, small producer focus as in Eataly in Italy. And what American supermarket doesn’t carry Barilla pasta? Meanwhile, Eataly Torino would promote meat from a specific breed of rabbit that would die out if not for the careful and deliberate cultivation of its species.

Eataly Chicago's sponsors - with a noticeable lack of some of the core team from Italy Meat counter inside Eataly Chicago

Of course, encouraging patrons to “eat local” is naturally going to be incongruous with being a massive Italian import store. We recognize that some concessions must be made to remain commercially viable. Hence why American-friendly celebrity chefs, such as Mario Batali and Lidia & Joe Bastianich, are prominently featured — whereas Italian restauranteur geniuses behind the original Eataly, such as Piero Alciati, are not. The shelves of food books by Batali-buddy Gwyneth Paltrow may have made us throw up in our mouths a little, but we understand why she’s there.

There are two coffee purveyors within Eataly Chicago. Unlike Eataly Torino, they may not showcase the use of Slow Food coffee bean stocks from Huehuetenango, Guatemala as roasted by Torinese prison inmates. But they chose two purveyors that are recognizably Piemontese: Lavazza and Caffè Vergnano.

Lavazza

Lavazza is no stranger to Chicago, so it’s a little odd that they were chosen as one of two coffee purveyors in Eataly Chicago. Especially since Eataly was founded on small, local purveyors within the radar of the Slow Food movement, and Lavazza is the largest coffee distributor in Italy.

Located next to the Nutella crêpe bar on first floor of Eataly Chicago, they offer decorative baked items in addition to a hot and cold “Dolcezze Lavazza” specialty drinks menu. They offer seating along a curved window counter in the main corner of Eataly Chicago.

Main counter at Eataly Chicago's Lavazza bar Curved serving and consuming counters at Eataly Chicago's Lavazza bar

Using dueling three-group La Cimbali machines, they pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema. They serve them properly short — but not too strongly flavored of a fresher Lavazza flavor profile of toasted spices and pungency. For milk-frothing, they produce a rich and creamy microform with token latte art. Surprisingly rather solid.

Read the review of Lavazza at Eataly Chicago.

The Eataly Chicago Lavazza espresso and cappuccino Close-up of the Eataly Chicago Lavazza espresso

Caffè Vergnano

This is Chicago’s installment of a series of chain roasters and cafés based in Italy’s Piemonte region, but with multiple locations in international locations such as London.

Located on the second floor of Eataly Chicago, it’s a no-frills affair with six coffee blends available for purchase and only two different kinds of prepared coffee drinks for retail purchase: an espresso and a caffè macchiato in single and doppio sizes. Not even the cappuccino makes the list here, and we admire them for sticking to their guns and ensuring it’s about the coffee and not the milk.

Caffè Vergnano at Eataly Chicago Caffè Vergnano's Elektra Belle Epoque Verticale at Eataly Chicago

A walk-up bar service with three marble countertops in front, they use a gorgeous, chrome, three-group Elektra Belle Epoque Verticale to pull shots with an even, darker brown crema with a small heat spot. It has a heartier aroma of darker flavors with a flavor profile consisting of chocolate and some herbal pungency all in balance.

Served with a packaged Caffè Vergnano 1882 biscoffee biscuit on the side, it is surprisingly better than its Italian equivalent — although we may have caught their Alba location on an off day. With a small glass of still water optionally served on the side of their logo block IPA cups.

Read the review of Caffè Vergnano at Eataly Chicago.

The Caffè Vergnano espresso and macchiato at Eataly Chicago Close-up of the Caffè Vergnano espresso at Eataly Chicago

Service area at the Eataly Chicago Lavazza bar Service and seating area near the Eataly Chicago Caffè Vergnano

Trip Report: Caffè Mexico (Piazza Dante, Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 21 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Welcome to a new series of coffeehouse profiles from Napoli (Naples), Italy and its environs. Unlike previous regional series we’ve posted over the years, this time we’re starting off with individual café reviews and saving the summary for the end.

So why Napoli? It’s one of the most influential, if not the most influential, cities in the world for espresso. And although we’ve explored the Napoli espresso scene before, that was 11 years ago — a year before we even started CoffeeRatings.com. This time, over some two weeks in Napoli and its environs, we generated formal reviews of 28 places: most of notable local regard, but some not to mix things up.

There are many great places to check out in Napoli. But Caffè (or Bar) Mexico is a sentimental, beloved favorite among the locals; many consider their coffee the best in town. Hence it is one of the best places to start.

Entrance to Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante, Napoli The Passalacqua roasters logo to the left of the Mexico sign on Piazza Dante

Bar Mexico

This is a popular location of a small, Napoli-based chain of cafés designed to showcase the coffees of Napoli-based Passalacqua roasting. If that sounds a little like Coffee Bar‘s relationship to Mr. Espresso, that’s not purely by coincidence. Carlo Di Ruocco, Mr. Espresso himself, has frequently cited Mexico among his favorite espresso bars in Napoli.

Passalacqua is a somewhat typically classic coffee roaster of the region. With family-owned-and-operated origins dating back to 1948, a company like this in America would be burdened carrying huckersterish “artisan” and “craft roaster” labels whenever their name appeared. Not so in Napoli, as they are more typically the norm than the exception.

This small storefront is located on the popular gathering spot of Piazza Dante. Like others in the Mexico chain, everything seems to have an orange hue due to the interior design and color scheme of the place. In addition to the quasi-Mexican tile work. Why they chose the name “Mexico” is something we haven’t deciphered.

'La cassa' inside Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante Caffè Mexico's internal tile work on Piazza Dante

The emphasis here is on “casual”, however, as there is very little visually that would tip off Mexico’s esteem and perceived greatness. Hence there is stand-up service at the bar and no seating. The Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia has given the Mexico location at Napoli’s Via Alessandro Scarlatti, 69 a rating of zero tazzine (i.e. little in the way of environment) and two chicchi (i.e., excellent coffee) every year in the annual guides we’ve had since 2007 — including the 2014 edition we just purchased in Italy.

But beware: this location in specific also caught the attention of PBS European travel man and cult leader, Rick Steves. By “cult”, we don’t mean the crank-up-the-Nancy-Sinatra-because-Janet-Reno’s-gonna-burn-your-house-down variety. That’s more Philz Coffee. But we have run into Mr. Steves in Vernazza where Steveniks were literally prostrate before him, exclaiming, “We’re not worthy!” Wayne’s-World-style. Fortunately we encountered none of that here.

The uniformed baristas pull shots from an orange, four-group, manual lever La San Marco machine — also typical of the finest coffee spots in Napoli. Mexico offers two primary types of espresso, or caffè caldo per their menu: zuccherato and amaro. The former comes pre-sweetened with a little sugar, and the latter without any.

On the infantilization of the in-vogue coffee palate…

Amaro roughly means “bitter” in Italian, but in American marketing lingo it would be called “unsweetened”. In America, the word “bitter” has purely negative connotations, whereas an amaro, for example, is also the name of a desirable class of after-dinner drinks in Italy (think Fernet Branca).

Walking up to the bar inside Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante The La San Marco lever machine at Caffè Mexico on Piazza Dante: anyone for yelling, 'Norm!'?

The context of the amaro is actually a rather critical cultural distinction when it comes to coffee, and it is a topic worthy of its own future post. (I’ve already written a lengthy comment on it.) The trendy flavor profiling of coffees more towards the sweet and even sour end of the spectrum in recent years has as much to do with catering to more child-friendly, simple-carbohydrate-craving tastes as it does a reaction to the heinous dark roasting practices of the past that masked too many potential flavors.

Perhaps this sounds like a trumped-up conspiracy, but the concept has direct precedence in things such as the proliferation of sweet cigars that have been tailored more for younger people. Thus coffee now has more candy-like characteristics. And there are folks like James Hoffmann scooping off espresso crema under the premise that anything “bitter” is universally bad — as if the very idea of bitterness has no redeeming value nor role in the human appreciation of taste.

What you’ll find in Mexico’s — and almost every other Neapolitan — espresso is a decided nod towards a more (dare we say?) “adult” flavor profile that’s exceptionally light on fruit. And yet it is never ashy, rarely smoky, and not at all bitter in the most culturally common sense of the word.

Off the amaro soapbox…

We found that the zuccherato added little sweetness over the amaro, but we rated the amaro here: a flavor of mostly pepper and pungent spice with a little bit of brightness and — as common to the Neapolitan espresso style — little in the midrange of the palate. It has a healthy, richly textured medium brown crema that occasionally comes with the mark of a heat spot. Served in Passalacqua-branded IPA cups for €0.95.

We’re not saying it was the best espresso we had in Napoli. But we’re not saying it wasn’t either.

Read the review of Caffè Mexico in Piazza Dante, Napoli, Italy.

The Caffè Mexico espresso - amaro - on Piazza Dante Caffè Mexico's Passalacqua-branded IPA cup

Trip Report: Nespresso Boutique & Bar (Union Square)

Posted by on 07 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

No, this is not a joke. If there’s one thing we do at CoffeeRatings.com, it’s test things out before we judge. What else can explain all the gut-corrosive espresso shots we’ve subjected ourselves to over the past ten years, seemingly in violation of the Nuremberg Code.

Nespresso — Nestlé’s espresso pod cash cow — is a heavily loaded topic. Our somewhat-dismissive reviews of their home espresso machine systems have attracted far more user comments than any other subject. (Many of the comments oddly coming from new home espresso machine owners seeking validation of their purchasing decisions.) And for several years, some of the world’s finer restaurants have simply punted on their coffee service and succumbed to the pod.

Entering the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF's Union Square Entrance and service counter inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar showcasing machines SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar selling single origin pods to their 'members'

Coffee-loving nations in Europe have particularly embraced Nespresso — ones you’d never associate with such a prepackaged, processed product. In Lisbon seven years ago, we asked the question why? Just a year ago, Nespresso installed its first café and boutique in Union Square backed by an immense amount of marketing money and fanfare — which itself will be the subject of a future post.

Genuine Nespresso Pomp and Circumstance

Opening in November 2012, this international chain of Nestlé-owned boutiques planted its San Francisco flag at the site of a former Guess store. There’s a ridiculous amount of pomp and pretense here for what amounts to be pre-ground pod coffee that’s been oxidizing for weeks after roasting. Walk inside, and you can tell the management has been taking notes from their favorite Apple stores. (Truth be told, Saeco and their showcase cafés and boutiques are hardly that different.)

There are staff in black suits that each talk or ask questions about you “being a member”. It all feels a bit like Scientology meets an aspirational Starbucks. They have many cream-colored leather lounge chairs paired at faux wooden-top tables, sofas, long white countertops with iPad displays (surprised?) and white metal stools. There’s also a few leather stools at the front service counter, behind which the staff use a number of their plastic Nespresso home espresso machines to produce the retail coffee beverages here. Although there are two dedicated Astra machines (made of metal even) for frothing milk.

The air is filled with lounge music circa 2001, and downstairs is their boutique — or showroom for machines and member-purchased coffee pods. Although they offer some food items and pairings, the focus is clearly on their coffee product line.

Seating space inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar Service counter inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

Design inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar café area More boutique merchandising inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Ordering their “Ristretto” shot (note the use of capitalization) for a ridiculous $4 ($5 for doubles), they inserted one of their pods into a $200 Nespresso U home machine. The experience is a bit mind-blowingly incongruous.

Makes a mean tête de cochon with just the right light bulbsHere you have everything short of a white-gloved servant offering your coffee on a silver tray with a side of Beluga caviar. Yet in the background you can hear the distinctively cheap buzzing sound of the Nespresso home espresso machine — the kind you associate with an aerating 10-gallon fish tank filled with blue tetras — when the staff push a button to produce your coffee from a prepackaged pod. It’s akin to walking into the French Laundry and having your meal prepared with a Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven.

But enough about the imagery: it is, after all, about how it tastes in the cup. The resulting shot lacks much aroma, but it has a decent-looking, even, medium brown crema. The flavor is blended well and is surprisingly mellow for a supposed “ristretto” (ranked 10 out of 10 on Nespresso’s strength scale): mild spices and tepid herbal notes. But everything about the shot is tepid: a light and vapid body, and a flavor that misses the mark on any kind of character.

This is the part we find most objectionable about the whole pretense of Nespresso to begin with. Peel back the layers of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and underneath it all Nespresso represents a step forward in convenience but a step backwards in quality. At that moment, it struck me that Nespresso was coffee’s version of farmed salmon: a flabby, bland facsimile of the real thing that’s tailored more for the needs of mass production and distribution. Except here the Nespresso comparison is more of an insult to farmed salmon.

There’s nothing wrong with liking farmed salmon. But let’s call it what it is and price it accordingly. Served in Nespresso cups with designer spoons and sugar.

Read the review of the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF’s Union Square.

Design inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar The Nespresso Boutique & Bar espresso (Ristretto) for $4

Trip Report: Workshop Cafe

Posted by on 29 Aug 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

For about the past five years in particular, relations have frayed between coffeeshop patrons who find them a great place to get their work done (aka the laptop zombie), other coffeeshop patrons who want a place to sit or might actually want to socially interact with others, and coffeeshop owners who cannot stay solvent supporting free office space for their patrons with little income to show for it. I knew things were particularly bad about four years ago — when I first noticed a former co-worker regularly squatting with three other programmers at the (then) Caffé Trieste on New Montgomery St. for several months, launching their new start-up company.

Entrance to Workshop Cafe Some of the more appealing seating in the Workshop Cafe

Surely there had to be a business model that better satisfied everyone. Which brings us to last week’s opening of the Workshop Cafe in SF’s Financial District. This large space attempts to address the needs of coffeeshop owners and their WiFi-loving patrons simultaneously. For those seeking a library-like surrogate where you can be surrounded by the social activity of strangers you can ignore around you, there are plenty of office trappings: powerstrips, fabricated office paneling, a concierge, a mobile app to use the space, and most everything you’d want in Cubicle-land short of the actual cubicles. For the proprietor, in addition to coffee service and light snacks, there are hourly charges to cover the sustainable costs of having many patrons camp out as if awaiting an electronic Grateful Dead show.

Pour-over setup at the Workspace CafeAlthough we’re not surprised that someone finally came up with the concept for this space, we are surprised at how problematic it is. And this is the rub: it fails as a café, and largely because those places succeed at getting us to enjoy a respite from the office. Here you feel like you should be paid at least a minimum wage to hang out.

It’s a little akin to a lunch spot that chooses “eating alone at your desk” as a dining theme, with the café providing the desks. (There’s a joke in France that Americans eat at their desks at work. Then they come here and discover it’s actually true.) The environment is so functional here, it’s devoid of any pretense of enjoying the experience of the place.



Initech-logo coffee mugs not yet provided, but that would be great.

Fewer TPS Reports, More TDS Reports

But hey — if poverty can be a successful restaurant concept, why not Office Space? So how’s the coffee?

They have Mazzer grinders, Hario V60 pour-overs, Stumptown coffee, and a two-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the entrance service counter — which all sound promising. But beyond a visually appealing medium brown crema with dark brown cheetah spots, it has a thinner body and a subdued heft and flavor: some pungency and spice but limited depth and breadth of flavor. This is an underachiever, served in notNeutral Lino cups.

Points for trying, but the execution here as a coffee house just seems all wrong.

Read the review of Workshop Cafe in SF’s Financial District.

Workshop Cafe's La Marzocco GB/5 and service area The Workshop Cafe espresso: looks better than it tastes

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