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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

Trip Report: Coffee Cultures (Financial District)

Posted by on 25 Jul 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

This dedicated coffee shop opened last month courtesy of Jason Michael Paul, the entertainment-minded partner behind SF’s small Coffee Bar chain (and no, not a three-named serial killer).

It’s a tiny space that took over for the former Tully’s Coffee on this spot, located at the entrance of the East Lobby of 225 Bush office building. They have window counterspace seating among six stools, and that’s it. The rest is the service area, a rear wall of Counter Culture Coffee beans, and a wall of merchandising off to the left. And yes, finally coffee roasted on the East Coast is making its way further out West.

Coffee Cultures' front window getting muscled in by the America's Cup and dreck Nespresso marketing Service area inside Coffee Cultures

While they mostly focus on coffee (hence the name), they’re also known for locally-sourced pastries and Strauss soft-serve frozen yogurt — the latter likely being an evolution from when Coffee Bar once entertained the idea of hosting a Swiss-made Pacojet machine to produce on-demand ice creams and sorbets.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 — with The Promise Ring cranking on the soundsystem — they pull espresso shots from a couple of bean options. When we visited, it was Counter Culture Coffee’s standard Toscano blend and their (very bright) Ethiopian Idido.

The barista staffers here are far better than most places at walking you through your options. (Imagine that: great customer orientation and Counter Culture Coffee combined together!). The resulting Toscano shot is pulled on the short side with a medium, textured brown crema. It’s a proper extraction of two sips with a sharp acidity and a limited balance beyond the mid-palate, giving more flavor emphasis in the resinous/black currant realm. Definitely a refreshing option with something different to offer.

Read the review of Coffee Cultures.

Coffee Cultures' La Marzocco GB/5 and bags of Counter Culture Coffee The Coffee Cultures espresso (Toscano blend)

The Controversy Over Crema

Posted by on 10 Jul 2013 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Because many of you are rightfully tired of us harping on the same topics (as are we!), today we introduce a refreshing guest post from Samantha Joyce (by way of Seattle Coffee Gear’s Brenna Ciummo) on espresso: crema, in specific. — TheShot

Crema means cream in Italian, the mother tongue of espresso. It is the light colored foam at the top of your espresso shot like the head of foam on a beer. It is also something of a misnomer, and that adds to the heated arguments surrounding it. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have in your demitasse? Some say crema is sweet and some say it is bitter. People tend to fall into three heavily fortified battle camps: mixers, scoopers and hoarders. This radical polarizing effect leads to different espresso preparations and feeds the flames of controversy.

First Let’s Drop Some Science

Espresso lovers seem to have three distinctly different reactions to crema Crema forms as water from the boiler of the espresso machine is forced through the ground coffee in the portafilter under pressure. This combines a natural post-roast out-gassing of CO2 with the magical compounds inherent in the coffee. The coffee varietal used and the way it was processed contributes to the crema yield. Crema is visible in a shot glass as a “Guinness effect” of bubbles that rise and form a head on the espresso shot. Some of the arguments presented are purely semantic over the scientific processes involved in this combination of heat, water and coffee. I’ve heard it called colloidal foam, an emulsion and micro-bubbles. Whatever words you care to use to describe the tango dance of gas, carbohydrates, proteins and oils in your espresso shot glass is fine with me. If you happen to be more scientifically inclined then by all means put on your safety goggles and start your Bunsen burner. It is the taste, not the molecular evaluation, which concerns me.

The Mixers

Some think that mixing the crema into the body of the espresso makes a more enjoyable and more homogenized taste sensation. Those who subscribe to this camp generally do not take note of the quality or quantity of the crema produced with the espresso shot. They speed up a naturally occurring phenomenon by manually re-incorporating it. To me, this is akin to putting sushi in a blender. I would like the mouth feel and complexity of the layered elements, but you may not. It is okay. We are all unique snowflakes.

The Scoopers

In some cafes they unceremoniously scoop the crema off the top and serve the espresso naked. Great! I would love to try that. I drink Americano coffee and according to 2007 World Barista Champion James Hoffman “scoopin” takes the bitterness out of that beverage. He was a big proponent of crema previously and has now joined the crema abstainers camp. Here I think that it depends on the coffee varietal, the way it was processed and the intended beverage to determine if skimming the crema off the top before it dissipates is worthwhile.

The Hoarders

For those who chase after the Holy Grail of sweet crema here is a tip: It is going to be found in the fourth dimension. No TARDIS is required to go there. It helps if you pull your own espresso shots or stand elbow to elbow with your barista. Noted coffee expert David Schomer explains,

“It is important to consider this in enjoying caffe espresso as a culinary art, for the full flavor and silky texture: you must enjoy it immediately. Two quick sips from the hand of the barista, at the bar. The first sip is bracing, all the sass with lighter body, in the final sip are the sugars, which invariably sink to the bottom of the cup.”

The fleeting nature of crema changes from one nanosecond to the next as it devolves into its component parts. Our sense of taste is unique to each of us. Exactly when we tasted the crema will also change our perception of how it tastes.

Don’t be Fooled

Crema porn with the naked portafilterThere are many caveats when it comes to the enjoyment of crema. Let me call out the shortcuts that some use to achieve (gasp!) faux crema. Pressurized portafilters and superautomatic espresso machines may aerate the coffee during extraction. Charlatans! This gives the look of crema without any taste since it is quite literally full of hot air. It’s okay to do this but don’t marvel aloud at the quality and freshness of your nondescript grocery store coffee. It is just lipstick on the pig. Real crema is impacted by the following variables: Quality coffee beans, processing method, roast date, roast color and espresso brew method. It does make for a lovely photo opportunity though, as fake crema seems to last a little longer.

It Takes All Kinds

Guaranteed in your own gustatory experience you will find espresso shots with very little crema that taste amazing and you will find thick crema that can be sweet or tangy or both. This is the wonder of espresso. There are so many variables and personal preferences involved that it is a shame to live with absolutes. I feel I can’t take sides on this debate. I need further first-person crema research. I need to visit all of the purveyors with staunchly held crema beliefs in order to taste the “proof” of their theses. Will you join me for an espresso?

Samantha Joyce is a writer for Seattle Coffee Gear and enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things coffee.

UPDATE: September 4, 2013
Yesterday Erin Meister over at Serious Eats [sic] posted a bit on the crema controversy: Should You Skim the Crema off Your Espresso? | Serious Eats: Drinks.

Eight random people rank SF coffees in a blind taste test

Posted by on 20 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

In 1980, just before the 49ers were any good, SF staple Folgers Coffee started a TV commercial blitz that quickly became a running joke in comedy circles. It began with a TV spot where diners at SF’s then-esteemed Blue Fox restaurant (located at 659 Merchant St.) were duped by replacing the Blue Fox’s “fine coffee” (yeah, right) with Folgers “Instant Coffee Crystals”. Would any of the discriminating diners notice?

The Bold Italic wants us to 'guess the loser' rather than choose good coffeeThis week one of the latest of many knock-off local online rags, The Bold Italic, published their findings of a slightly more modern — and equally irrelevant — blind taste test: Guess The Loser of Our Blind Coffee Taste Test – The Bold Italic – San Francisco. Their question?: “can city dwellers really tell the difference between premium artisanal coffee and your average cup of joe?”

The Bold Italic chose eight random people to compare and rank coffees from six different roasting sources: Ritual, Sightglass, Four Barrel, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and — back from the grave — Folgers.

Survey says… very little

The supposed big “shock” of this miniscule random sample is that, while Ritual came out on top, Dunkin’ Donuts beat out Sightglass and Four Barrel. (Folgers wasn’t rock bottom, however, as that place was reserved for Starbucks.) However, is it really any surprise that mass market coffees might appeal to the broader public tastes of a random sample? Here at CoffeeRatings.com, we never claimed to speak for anyone’s tastes but our own: it’s a very subjective thing.

The Bold Italic sets up their blind taste testThousands of people love In-N-Out Burger to a religious degree, and yet I think they are no better than a glorified Burger King. And while some people adore the brightness bombs from Sightglass, I’ve often thought their coffee tasted like an under-roasted acid bomb going off in my mouth. This is just personal taste, not a freak of statistics.

However, what we found most amusing of all about the article was the writing. We have no idea what kind of coffee fairytale-land Ms. Medina believes we San Franciscans live in — complete with unicorn baristas and rainbow coffee enemas. She offers quotes about “thousands of coffee shops offering the most freshly picked beans” (do you have any clue how many opt for cheap bean fodder such as America’s Best Coffee?) and locals accustomed to coffee “ground to perfection to form the perfect espresso” (have you actually seen our local espresso ratings over the past 10 years?).

And then this unsubstantiated hyperbole: locals “surrounded by $6 cups of coffee galore”?!? The $4 coffee myth has apparently hit major inflation. Where can you even find a cup of drip coffee for $6 around here that isn’t either the extremely rare promotional Geisha or some coffee tourist gag novelty crapped out of a Southeast Asian mammal?

We suppose if there’s anything to learn from this random anecdote disguised as a study, it’s that SF webmags have no boundaries for being unintentionally comedic.

CoffeeCON 2013

Posted by on 10 May 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

CoffeeCON 2013 event brandingPerhaps the biggest irony is that nobody should ever need a CoffeeCON.

As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.

And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)

CoffeeCON 2013 at the IBEW Local Union 701 with the roasting demo on the patio Entrance to CoffeeCON 2013, with Metropolis and Counter Culture Coffee off on the left

Coffee: Y U No Like Your Customers?

Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”

But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.

Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)

Regular Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Home roasting demos outside at CoffeeCON 2013

You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)

All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?

More Coffee, Less Con

CoffeeCON 2013's course listingCoincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.

CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:

CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.

Jim Schulman (L) and Kevin Sinnott (R) at CoffeeCON 2013 Baratza's course on grinding at CoffeeCON 2013

Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.

Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.

Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.

CoffeeCON’s Coffee and Personalities

Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.

The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.

Yes, the Heat Gun/Dog Bowl method being demoed at CoffeeCON 2013 Oren and son from Oren's Daily Roast at CoffeeCON 2013

Tasting cups as part of George Howell's sensory lab at CoffeeCON 2013Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.

As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.

A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.

George Howell giving his 2 1/2 hour lecture at CoffeeCON 2013 Halfwit barista raves about how the Kalita pot is at least twice as good as the Hario equivalent

Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.

Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.

Counter Culture Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Counter Culture Coffee's Finca El Puente Honduras espresso at CoffeeCON 2013

Trip Report: Pavement Coffeehouse (Boylston St., Boston, MA)

Posted by on 24 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This coffeehouse is highly decorated by the locals. Boston Magazine named it Boston’s Best Coffee Shop 2012. It has even achieved national recognition, including listing among Food & Wine‘s America’s Best Coffee Bars and Travel + Leisure‘s America’s Coolest Coffeehouses. And you can see why: it’s a vibrant spot that serves some really good coffee.

The “main” Pavement — and there’s more than one in Back Bay — is located a couple blocks up Massachusetts Ave. from one of our favorite Boston landmarks, the Mapparium. (OK, it hasn’t hurt that we’re also big fans of the Unwound album, Challenge for a Civilized Society.) There’s patio seating along Boylston St. in front, three window counter seats along the entrance, exposed masonry painted white in back with silver, upholstered booths around many smaller tables.

Entrance to Boston's Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston St. With the SCAA in town, Pavement shows off a La Marzocco GS/3 on the Boylston St. patio

Pavement Coffeehouse's La Marzocco GB/5 and service area Inside Pavement Coffeehouse's seating area

While labelled a coffeeshop, they do a lot of business in meals (lunches, etc.) — making it more of a café. However, they prominently display their use of Counter Culture Coffee and also sell their beans. They additionally offer a “featured espresso” for $3 — which, when we visited, was Anyetsu from Denver’s Novo. (Thus Pavement did not opt in for Counter Culture Coffee’s exclusivity contracts for service and training.)

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 and the Rustico blend from Counter Culture, they pull shots with a highly textured medium-to-darker-brown crema. For its looks, it has a surprisingly lighter body. But with a nice, balanced flavor of cinnamon, cardamom, and a light sweetness and no real smokiness. The flavor profile is very expressive in the midrange, but rather absent at either end of the flavor spectrum.

All-in-all, they serve a great shot. But for all the local and national praised heaped on this coffeehouse, we’ve found at least one place in the city we liked even better. (More in a future review.) Furthermore, we also found the busy vibe here a bit too busy. The environment can be a study in Brownian motion: a bit frenetic with customers always coming, going, and bumping into each other. It made us just want to grab our shot, drink it, and leave.

Read the review of Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston St. in Boston.

Pavement Coffeehouse's GB/5 with Counter Culture branding The Pavement Coffeehouse espresso

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