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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

Spray-on coffee: for the person too busy to drink it

Posted by on 20 Aug 2013 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

We’re in the midst of a massive energy crisis. No, we don’t mean a revisit to the 1973 days of gasoline rationing and the introduction of daylight savings time. But it seems that everywhere you turn, someone is telling us about how we’re so chronically short of energy … how we’re so tired all the time. Just how do we actually manage to get through the day?

Inventors of the coffee body spray claim it's made from Hario V60s with hints of hibiscus and wild blueberriesEnergy drinks & products are now a ridiculously gargantuan $40 billion industry. That’s more than the gross domestic product of Wyoming, which itself is fracking enough energy to virtually power Kanye West’s ego. So is it really any surprise when we hear about get-rich-quick schemers hawking spray-on coffee?: No Time for Coffee? Spray Caffeine On Your Skin | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

In a way, coffee gets a bad rap. Society acts as if it is the only caffeinated product in existence despite our intimate familiarity with soda, tea, chocolate, candy, energy drinks, cake mixes, pain medications, and even chewing gum and ice cream. And for anybody who consumes coffee purely for the biochemical effects, we tell them that they’re doing it wrong.

But as to the energy crisis at hand, there’s something deeply ungenuine about it all. Our forefathers plowed fields for 15-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week and never groused about how they were just too tired and needed chemical supplements to keep them going. By contrast, today we’re playing Call of Duty or catching up on our Facebook feeds until 4am and crying ‘uncle’. Well break out the chain gang prison stripes. Is it humanly possible to be any more wuissified?

We’re certainly catching a big whiff of something these days, but it definitely ain’t coffee.

America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013: Does Anyone Care Anymore?

Posted by on 03 Aug 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

This month’s issue of Travel + Leisure magazine once again published their updated “America’s Best Coffee Cities” rankings: America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013 – Articles | Travel + Leisure. We’ve covered these before; we’ve even used their reader survey data to rank how much locals in various cities have an overly flattering view of their own coffee culture. But this time around, our reaction to their rankings is more, “So what?”

A common American scene with more commonly decent coffeeMake no mistake: this marks a significant milestone in the evolution of coffee quality standards in the United States. Compared with several years ago, today it seems that every major city in America has one if not several really good coffee shops that are producing brews and shots within just a shade of some of the nation’s finest. So much so, it’s only raised our level of ridicule for the coffee xenophobes who advocate carrying around suitcases packed with their home coffee life support systems wherever they travel.

What were once coffee laggards such as New York City have been infiltrated by interlopers and local independent coffee culture stereotypes. Every month new quality roasters crop up around the country, many offering overnight shipping to any café on the continent that wants it. Thus today it’s almost impossible to find a city with a major league sports team that doesn’t also play host to some quality coffee.

Which all makes the notion of an “America’s Best Coffee Cities” ranking more and more pointless. Sure, the article offers readers a trendy topic to help sell travel magazines and their advertising space. But the concept is becoming as irrelevant as an “America’s Best Wine Cities” ranking: it really doesn’t require an airline ticket to get a really good cup of coffee anymore. And for that, we will raise a fine cup of this Brazil Sertão Carmo de Minas espresso we’re drinking this morning.

But if you must know, and to save you the ad-flipping pagination of their Web site, here’s the list in its entirety:

  1. Seattle
  2. Portland, OR
  3. New Orleans
  4. Providence, RI
  5. San Francisco
  6. San Juan, PR
  7. Minneapolis/St. Paul
  8. Portland, ME
  9. New York City
  10. San Diego
  11. Savannah, GA
  12. Austin, TX
  13. Honolulu
  14. Santa Fe, NM
  15. Nashville
  16. Kansas City, MO
  17. Boston
  18. Chicago
  19. Charleston, SC
  20. Philadelphia

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