Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Yesterday morning, KQED radio aired an hour-long Forum segment featuring a small round-table of SF coffee “luminaries”: SF’s Coffee Innovators: Forum | KQED Public Media for Northern CA. The panel included James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, Eileen Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and an unusually quiet Jeremy Tooker, of Four Barrel Coffee.
Much like the title of its associated Web page, the radio program played out like your typical coffee innovator/”third wave“/bleeding-edge routine that we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. While a bit heavy on the Coffee 101 — particularly when callers asked common FAQ-type questions that have been answered on the Internet 20,000 times over already — KQED produced a good program overall.
Some of the more interesting comments included Eileen Hassi stating that “San Francisco has better coffee than any other city in the world” — with the only potential exception being Oslo, Norway. We’d like to think so, and there’s a bit of evidence to back that up.
James Freeman noted Italy’s “industrialized system of near-universal adequacy,” which is a different but accurate way of summing up our long-held beliefs that outstanding coffee in Italy is almost as hard to find as unacceptable coffee. Other covered topics included coffeehouses eliminating WiFi, Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum inventing the latte, the Gibraltar, and even James Freeman designating home roasting as coffee’s “geeky lunatic fringe.”
While it’s worth noting that Mr. Freeman started as a home roaster, recent media coverage of home roasting has been a bit bizarre. To read it in the press these days, you’d think home roasting were at its apex rather than continuing its gradual decline towards its nadir. This despite numerous media stories covering it over five years ago as some hot new trend.
At the 2006 WRBC, we were perplexed by the complete lack of home roaster representation among the event’s attendees. (Namely, any home roaster worth his weight in greens would have been giddy over the reappearance of the Maui Moka bean. Nobody there even noticed.) And yet by 2009 we noted a real decline in online home roasting community activity, and we wrote about some of the underlying reasons for it.
Curiously enough, the first caller to the radio program (at 12’12″ in) mentions a recent trip to South India and his interest in South Indian coffee. I’m posting this from South India — Bengaluru (née Bangalore), to be precise. And I have to say, I’ve become quite fond of both South Indian coffee and the South Indian coffee culture.
Sure, they prefer it sweetened and with hot milk (that often has a skin still on it). The coffee is often cut with cheaper chicory and is brewed with a two-chambered cylindrical metal drip brewer — not unlike a Vietnamese brewer or an upside-down version of a Neapolitan flip coffee pot. But damn, if this stuff isn’t good. Even better, there’s a culture of regular coffee breaks that would be familiar to many Mediterraneans.
We’ve reported from India before, but only from the North — which isn’t known for a strong coffee culture beyond young people frequenting chains that emulate the West. Bengaluru is home to the Coffee Board of India, and this weekend I hope to head out across its state of Karnataka to visit origin at the Kodagu district. Also known as Coorg, this district grows a good amount of India’s good coffee. (Yes, they even grow really good robusta there. Just ask Tom Owens of Sweet Maria.) Details certainly to follow…
First, a Happy New Year to everyone. I may be in the camp that believes celebrating January 1 is about as arbitrary as celebrating March 6 as “New Year’s Day,” but I can still appreciate much of the sentiment behind it. Namely: leaving the past behind and trying to set a better course for the future.
Which brings us to our Trip Reports — the last of which I wrote in October. Over the past year, I’ve become embarrassingly self-aware of the kind of social monster I’ve contributed to (and even helped create). Namely: the problem of mobile device zombies. We’re written before about the cultural blight of laptop zombies, but the mobile device zombie has also reached rather epidemic proportions.
It’s become that much harder to enjoy the vibe of public spaces without an acute awareness of zombie armies staring into their mobile devices, each dutifully penning their Foursquare check-ins, Yelp reviews, and Facebook status updates — if not also photographing everything put on the table. Things sort of reached critical mass for me when I found it impossible to enjoy pupusas at my favorite neighborhood El Salvadoran dive without encountering at least one table of gringo hipsters glued to their mobile phones, penning some kind of check-in or review.
Yet my guilty streak runs long. Nine years ago I was tapping in review notes into my old Palm Vx at various cafés for this Web site. Back then, I was just a freakish novelty that my coworkers would parody. But today it seems nearly everyone is guilty of some form of mobile device zombiedom, and witnessing it is a bit like a horrific visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. Engrossing ourselves with our mobile devices has become something of a public ritual or rite by which we consume anything in the public spaces of society.
The big joke being that all this is classically a First World Problem of the highest order. Even so, there’s something to be said about making a conscious effort to be present and experience life in the first person — and not through some application on your mobile phone. Being the type that dismisses New Year’s resolutions, I really can’t say what this means for any Trip Reports here in the future. But I can say I am keenly aware of contributing to the problem.
One place that still seems relatively untouched by the mobile device zombie invasion is West Marin County. Thanks to a low population density and a rugged coastline, mobile phone networks like AT&T continue to offer one of their best services: an excuse for why you cannot be reached by the outside world while you’re out here. There are still major dead zones for voice calls, and 3G Internet access seems about as far off as astronauts landing on Mars.
It’s still Marin County, so you can’t escape the crystal healers and obsession with Westernized yoga. Stare a few locals in the eye, and you’ll undoubtedly find a few who choose to believe that Stevie Nicks is still spinning in gauzy robes as a member of Fleetwood Mac.
Not surprisingly, the coffee options in West Marin are generally heavy on the organic and Fair Trade sourcing but light on quality. One of the better exceptions is in the tiny town of Point Reyes Station.
Toby’s is something of an institution in the area. It’s a general store with a rear feed lot — complete with haystacks, bags of feed, strings of prayer flags, and — you guessed it — a neighboring yoga studio. It’s at the entrance to the feed lot, sort of sharing a wall with the town post office, that you’ll find a kiosk window branded as Toby’s Coffee Bar. There are a few picnic tables and other outdoor tables in front. You can also buy organic baked goods, newspapers, and teas.
Using a newer, two-group Nuova Simonelli machine inside their small service cubby-hole, they pull shots of Taylor Maid Farms in saucerless cups (which seems customary for West Marin). It comes with a dark brown crema, small bubbles, and a lighter heat spot. As espresso shots go, it’s deep and dark: no fruit bombs here. It has a nuttier flavor mixed with cloves and other herbal pungency and is served as a default double shot.
Read the review of Toby’s Coffee Bar in Point Reyes Station, CA.
Media profiles of Illycaffè‘s Andrea Illy are commonplace. But this one from today’s The Guardian (UK) is better than most: Andrea Illy: family businessman who’s raising the bar for premium coffee | Business | The Guardian.
For one, Mr. Illy talks about the importance of pricing and brand positioning. Regardless of what you think of Illy coffee, offering discount promotions and specials is incongruous with establishing it as a luxury item. You don’t lure customers with a come-on for a cheap fix; you lure them because they want to treat themselves. Discounts cheapen that image and position you for the coffee misery market.
He also notes how Illycaffè ensures that resellers of its coffee have the right equipment and are making it properly, retraining staff if necessary. While this is critical for the perceived quality of any roaster whose coffee beans are served in third-party establishments, our data suggests that Illycaffè has fallen far short of living up to these ideals — at least in the U.S.
Back in 2009 we made a comparison of our espresso scores among cafés with common machines, common roasters, or common chain brands, and we used the standard deviation of these scores as a measure of inconsistency. Illy coffee rated much more inconsistently than different Starbucks chain stores — which are notorious themselves for their very poor consistency.
Consistent with an interview four years ago, Mr. Illy finishes the article with a couple of good contrarian, somewhat incendiary quotes about Fair Trade. For one: “[Fairtrade] is about paying a higher price for the same goods. That is against the laws of supply and demand.” Another: “consumers pay more for Fairtrade because they want to feel good. It’s about solidarity not quality. Why not give to the Red Cross?”
All of which echoes many of our thoughts about the rather trendy role of “Corporate Social Responsibility” in business today, where consumers seem to prefer to outsource their charitable giving to third-party businesses rather than donate directly themselves. As we always ask: don’t tell us you’re going to donate 10% of the sales proceeds to charity. Give us that 10% off, and let us take responsibility and decide who and how much to donate with the extra savings. You’re my coffee roaster, not my Foundation.
Here in SF, we’re sometimes way too busy holding our noses because a coffee shop doesn’t use Blue Bottle or Fair Trade certified coffee. (In our personal case, sometimes it’s just too few places that use Barefoot.) To put things a little in perspective, here’s a story today from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Police bust Italian espresso gang – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
Police in Naples said they had smashed a lucrative mafia coffee distribution business in an operation code-named “Caffe Macchiato”, seizing assets worth 600 million euros ($797 million).
Prosecutors said the bugging tipped them off that the Mallardos were forcing cafes in the region to use a particular brand of coffee, whose sales were controlled by a relative of Feliciano Mallardo [suspected boss of a clan tied to the Napoli crime syndicate, the Camorra].
Coincidentally, we’re currently planning a trip for around this time next year to head back to Napoli and sample the local espresso among the city’s scugnizzi and the original pizzaioli. Repeat viewings of the 1963 Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni classic, Ieri, oggi, domani, will of course be required. Repeat viewings of Gamorrah being a bit harder to take.
Over the years we’ve read a lot of coffee articles. And ever since feedback forms became commonplace on the Internet, we’ve also read a lot of user comments on these posts. At least enough for us to identify 10 common archetypes among coffee article commenters on the Internet — analogous to the ever-popular coffee shop customer archetypes.
Commenters on coffee articles often fall into distinct cliques — many of them rather nonsensical. Just look at Erin Meister’s Serious Eats post last week on the cost of coffee. Not surprisingly, former U.S. barista champ, Kyle Glanville, described it simply as “great post, silly comments”
So here’s to creating a lexicon so we can all say next time, “Stop being such a #6.”
Like a mutant cross between Tourette Syndrome and a drinking game, these commenters cannot help themselves whenever someone posts something that includes “the S word.” No matter what context or circumstances for the article, we get their reflexive reply: “Starbucks tastes burnt!”
Doesn’t matter if it’s a Wall Street Journal article discussing their quarterly earnings or the latest police blotter reporting on yet another vehicle unable to resist the siren song of a Starbucks’ storefront window. This comment is also frequently offered with an air of implied revelation — akin to Charlton Heston’s infamous, “Soylent green is people!” (Sorry if we ruined that for you.)
It’s hard to believe that a someone’s self-worth could be called into question by something as trivial as another person’s choice of beverage, but these commenters face this very existential quandary. For them, coffee is still a raw, generic commodity — like kerosene. Hence 1950s truck stop coffee was good enough for grandpa and it’s good enough for us. Anyone who suggests or believes otherwise is part of a social conspiracy.
This conspiracy takes on two dimensions. The first involves separating fools from their money. Yet this is insufficient to explain why these commenters so viscerally exclaim that anybody who pays more than $1 for a cup of coffee is a moron. If it were merely this, any half-lucid person would keep their mouths shut in order to keep fleecing those fools all the way to early retirement.
Which leads us to the second dimension of the conspiracy: these commenters are also reacting to a perceived sense of class warfare. One man’s threat is another man’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.
Rather than admit that “fancy coffee” isn’t their thing and they don’t really get it — the way that some of us don’t get kombucha or Russell Brand — projecting this social unease on those “idiots” paying for expensive coffee is a means of self-affirmation. “Because I’m good enough.. I’m smart enough.. and, doggone it, people like me!”
Speaking of conspiracies, this commenter archetype believes that the entire apparatus of the coffee industry was deliberately constructed by The Man as a means of enslaving and impoverishing coffee farmers. The actual concept that someone might actually consume and enjoy the end product is irrelevant.
Which explains Fair Trade, a sacred cow among these commenters. Like the TV trope, “think of the children!,” comments from this group focus almost exclusively on “think of the coffee farmer!” What they imply is that every person who touches coffee after it leaves the farm, including the various truck drivers and dockworkers working for pittance wages in coffee-growing nations, are blood-sucking parasites profiting off the backs of noble coffee farmers.
This commenter archetype views coffee exclusively as a performance-enhancing drug. When they encounter articles suggesting that there’s good or bad coffee, or that coffee might actually have a taste or flavor, you may as well ask your grandfather what’s his favorite crunkcore band; it’s just as alien.
When they’re drinking the coffee, these commenters could not care less if their coffee tastes like battery acid, and the idea of decaffeinated coffee seems utterly pointless. They are typically attracted to the malt liquor of the coffee world: coffees branded with wake-the-dead, crystal-meth-like psychoactive properties and the sinister names to match.
And if somebody else reports to drink coffee for its flavor, these commenters discount them as merely drug addicts in denial — kind of like the guy who says he buys Shaved Asian Beaver magazine only for the articles.
Privileged white people haven’t had it easy. In today’s society of competitive victimhood and I’ve-suffered-more-than-you one-upmanship, some are lucky enough to experience the trauma of not getting into Harvard. Others aren’t so fortunate and have to resort to makeshift, bogus afflictions like “caffeine addition.”
Which brings us to the archetype of the recovered caffeine addict. These born-again commenters proselytize a lifestyle free of caffeine: “I once was a caffeine addict, but my life is so much better since I gave up coffee for yerba maté!” Like all lifestyle preachers, it’s not enough that they live with their own life choices — they must convince you to choose them too.
The dirty secret of this archetype is that, rather than face their demons, they are only hiding from the real problem in their lives — namely, their lack of self-control and inability to moderate themselves. Which makes them kind of like the gay man who joins the Catholic priesthood to “cure” himself of his homosexuality. (And we all know how well that works out.)
Home roasting has been around for over a millennium. Its latest generation, with more modern prosumer equipment, probably peaked about a decade ago. But it is a brand new phenomenon for many. Often those who have discovered home roasting in the past year seem particularly afflicted with a brand of religious zealotry when posting comments on coffee articles.
Whether the article is about the cost of coffee, a Cup of Excellence competition, or even the pour-over brewing device of the month, the comment box is an irresistible platform (read: soapbox) to preach a sort of home roasting gospel. “It’s better than you can buy!” “It’s cheaper to do it yourself!” “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it!” One popular sermon is the Legend of the $5 Hot Air Popcorn Popper: “I have seen the promised land, and it is a West Bend Poppery II!”
You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t start selling off all our worldly possessions in anticipation of the home roasting Rapture. Yes, we like home roasting. It’s kind of a fun hobby from time to time. And yes, we understand that, by golly, you really like this new home roasting thing. We also like Benecio del Toro, but we don’t use the comment thread on a Cup of Excellence article to proselytize his merits as an actor and movie producer. The key to sales is relevancy — that goes whether you’re selling mortgage-backed securities or a home roasting lifestyle.
The MacGruber represents another kind of commenter with a DIY fetish — except that this archetype sees the DIY ethos as a form of social currency. Less idealistic and more self-interested than Rev. Home Roaster, the MacGruber comments on coffee articles to boast of their exploits building traveling espresso machines out of bike parts or attaching PID controllers to portafilter handles. In this regard, they’re a bit like those guys with gold chains and silk shirts who boast of their sexual conquests in laser-filled nightclubs. The difference being that most rational people would be socially embarrassed if confused for a MacGruber.
Given the choice between spending $35,000 on a new BMW or on a used Honda Civic and tricking it out with accessories over the next four years, the MacGruber will invariably choose the Civic. This might lead others to believe there’s something fatally flawed with the Civic. But this archetype also has an obsession with reinventing the wheel. We fondly recall one MacGruber who wrote up an elaborate post on how he converted his Vacu Vin wine-stopper into a coffee preservation system — blissfully ignorant that Vacu Vin has been making “coffee saver” systems for years that are available for $10 on Amazon.com.
Like The MacGruber, posts from this commenter archetype are about establishing social currency. Except here the currency is scoring a kilo of Colombian for the ridiculously low price of $1.99 a pound at Sam’s Club. As if to jab a hot fork in the eyes of Fair Trade advocates, this archetype boasts about their competitive place in the race to zero-cost, zero-conscience, quality-free coffee.
When this archetype isn’t posting about how much they’ve saved on coffee, they’re frequently long on ideas for using spent coffee grounds to Spackle® bathroom tiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid their frequent posts about how they bought their new car with the Dumpsters® full of cash they saved by making coffee at home instead of going to Starbucks.
Whether you’ve tried the coffee at three hundred different places or just three, most people have their favorite coffee. A large number of comments on coffee articles consist of personal endorsements of the coffee from a specific roaster, coffee shop, or home brewing contraption. As an anonymous poster put it on Boing Boing this week:
Every comment thread about coffee contains: (1) someone mentioning how great their home roasted coffee is; (2) a plug for a cafe not mentioned in the article.
Maybe we could just assume the existence of these kinds of comments from now on, with no need to actually post them?
But if we all assumed that, what would there be left to talk about? Hence this archetype of commenters who actively police various online media sources, ensuring their favorite coffee sources don’t suffer the egregious injustice of being omitted from a coffee article.
Some may take the additional step of attempting to elevate their pet coffee by dissing on the various coffee sources mentioned in the article. For example, this archetype frequently engages in slagging on quoted coffee shops for their pretentiousness, for the hipsters who work there, and over the fact that the owners cover their electrical outlets. Basically: all of the ridiculous stuff that’s the irreverent lifeblood of Yelp ratings.
This archetype believes they have seen it/done it long before you even heard of it/thought about it. And despite their whiny complaints of coffee articles that dredge up old topics hashed out thousands of times before over the years, they still cannot look away and feel compelled to respond — like gawkers at a gruesome car accident.
Yes, we’re making fun of ourselves this time. Because if it sounds like we’ve seen it all before, quite sadly we literally have seen it all before. Do you realize what kind of petty life you must lead to have read every coffee article ever written on the Internet? How about so pathetic, you come up with a list of 10 types of commenters on coffee articles.
Today’s The Korea Herald published a thought-provoking (if not debatable) piece about one-time Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong: Barista bringing coffee back to basics. Internal divisions within the national barista association prevented him from representing South Korea at the 2007 WBC in Tokyo, and he dismisses the notion that a training course can make one a qualified barista.
But one of the more curious topics he brought up concerned coffee standards — and how what the Italians may have started long ago has since been hijacked and adulterated by American franchise coffee shops. From the article:
“Coffee is being globalized by the American standard. Coffee is a culture that the Italians have cultivated over hundreds of years. It’s a pride they have, but the American franchise coffee shops have completely distorted the originality ― let’s say Korean kimchi is being spread to the world with the Japanese word ‘ki-mu-chi’ ― that is not what we can call cultural diversity, but a distortion of a tradition. That is what is happening to coffee these days ― becoming like ‘ki-mu-chi.’”
– Former Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong
Earlier this year, Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè, ignited a bit of a coffee culture smackdown — taking shots at the American brightness bombs and heavily-packed shots that pass for quality espresso here. You might say Mr. Yong seems to be in a similar camp, suggesting that American coffee shops have perverted a standard that is now being spread throughout the world with America’s economic and cultural weight. (We liked his kimchi analogy.)
As we like to jokingly say with a zombie-like mantra, “Third Wave is Best Wave“.
Yet right after making that point, Mr. Yong completely loses the plot — linking the same forces distorting espresso’s cultural standard to those exploiting coffee growers to the fullest extent possible. (A bizarre accusation for some of the biggest wavers of the Fair Trade flag.) Commenting after he watched the deeply flawed documentary Black Gold, we don’t expect him to fully comprehend the cost-of-living disparity between coffee producing and consuming nations, which the documentary miserably failed to do. But any wannabe champion barista should be aware of the many links in coffee’s supply chain — not just farmers and baristas.
Worse, he claims both that coffee is “completely overpriced” and that we are not paying enough to coffee farmers in the very same article — practically a form of cognitive dissonance. All of which unfortunately devalues his opinions in the end.
Particularly since the late 1980s, the plight of the coffee farmer has not been a pleasant one. Public awareness of this major problem gave rise to mitigation strategies such as Fair Trade and Direct Trade. A couple months ago, you may have seen the press releases for Traceable Coffee.org — a project of Pachamama, a global cooperative of coffee farmers, that enables consumers to trace their purchased coffee to the farmer, to hear their stories, and to offer them additional financial support in the form of a virtual tip jar.
In their own words, “TraceableCoffee.org brings consumers face-to-face with coffee farmers and lets them tip their farmer for a job well done.” While the cause is noble and the intentions are good, TraceableCoffee.org symbolizes another gross oversimplification of bean-to-cup philosophy and how the coffee industry actually works.
Much like the Tyranny of the Barista effect, which oversimplifies the coffee supply chain in consuming nations by identifying almost exclusively with the barista, there is a sort of corollary in coffee producing nations that identifies almost exclusively with the farmer. So instead of bean-to-cup, what we end up with is bean-and-cup — or an obsessive focus at both ends of the supply chain but a complete blindness to everything that goes on between the two.
On the one hand, this blindness might not seem any more harmful than creating a family tree with only yourself and Adam & Eve on it. But there are potentially harmful effects. A documentary like Black Gold laments that a farmer receives only $0.03 on a $3 cup of coffee, and the implication is that all the other contributors of coffee’s supply chain — from coffee pickers, sorters, washers, truck drivers, dockworkers, etc. — are merely parasites out to starve the noble farmer. “Let’s bypass the evil, greedy middlemen,” the Fair Trade cry implies.
Of course, a major percentage of the cost of a cup of coffee comes from the consuming country after the green beans arrive in shipping containers. But before we demonize all these shippers, dockworkers, truck drivers, buyers, roasters, and baristas, we must acknowledge the enormous cost-of-living gap between origin and consumer countries and how that affects labor costs. In fact, the very existence of this gap is a major reason why we even import coffee to begin with. Longshoremen in Guatemala and America may have vastly different costs of living and the salaries to match — even if their quality of living isn’t all that different.
With just a 1% share of the retail price on a cup of coffee, coffee farmers clearly don’t get a fair shake. But the story of the global coffee trade is much, much more than just farmers and baristas. Even if we don’t expect to see virtual tip jars for Colombian truck drivers anytime soon.
A friend of this Web site, Andrew Hetzel, called it the best article about Kona coffee ever written. That’s a pretty tall order. But this piece, which came out a couple days ago, makes a compelling argument: Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines – Adventures in Coffeeland. It’s at least good enough to make you forget that it was published in a in-flight airline magazine (Hawaiian Airlines).
What makes this article a lot better than the others of its kind is that it looks beyond the usual marketing spin for both the good and the bad, it draws out some essential observations about the market opportunities and challenges for Kona coffee growers, and it goes into sufficient depth on some of its subjects. The author even dogs on Island Lava Java — where we cut them a little slack for some improvements on our last visit.
Another friend of this Web site, Shawn Steiman, is cited in the article and offers one of its many good quotes: “One lesson I’ve learned is that what coffee geeks consider the best coffees aren’t all that cherished by non-coffee geeks.” For another great quote from the article:
For all its urban faddishness, coffee is still a Third World crop, picked mostly by subsistence laborers in Latin America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Hawai‘i, meanwhile, is the costliest state in one of the world’s costliest nations, a tough place for an agrarian enterprise these days, as the sugar and pineapple industries can attest. With wages for Big Island pickers many times greater than those of their counterparts in developing nations, Kona coffee will always be overpriced; or perhaps the rest of the world’s coffee will always be underpriced.
Of the coffee industry insiders we’ve long known, Kona coffees have earned a reputation for both quality and for being overpriced. But there are real-world reasons behind that. It’s a good lesson for the many conscientious types who gripe about coffee companies needing to pay living wages and offering health care to their employees — but who are often the first to rebel against the coffee prices necessary to pay for all of that.
Among coffee aficionados in town, quality artisan coffee originates with Origin. Opening in 2006 in a more modest space, this place changed the face of coffee in Cape Town if not South Africa. Since its expansion, it is now three transparent levels of coffee, café, roasting, regional Synesso distributor, and barista training labs. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a Nigiro Tea salon inside that will wow any tea lover. (“Nigiro” being “Origin” backwards.) It’s no mistake that the three core people behind the cool South African coffee blog, I Love Coffee, chose to meet me at this very place to discuss the local coffee culture.
One of the striking things about this three-level church of coffee is its level of transparency and open access. Through efforts such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and the organic coffee movement, transparency in the industry has become an operative word. Here that transparency comes to life — as visitors are welcome to walk throughout the building, check out their roasting operations, inspect their bags of imported beans, and tour their barista training facilities.
The service area downstairs is dark with wood slat walls — sporting an array of Hario vac pots, moka pots, drippers, home espresso machines, and beans. Sure, you could say that this place has all the same fad-driven coffee trappings at Truth., but for some reason it seems more genuine in this environment. There is plenty of seating and a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the ready for espresso drinks. Though this Hudson-Street-level downstairs entrance is a bit clubby with a lounge-like feel.
Signs announce the more interesting fresh roasts from Origin’s roasting operations, with a heavier emphasis on African-sourced-beans (Tanzania, etc.) but also some single origins from familiar terroir in Central and South America plus the occasional El Salvador Cup of Excellence. Signs also announce Origin’s place as the home of the 2007 & 2008 South African barista champions.
Up the stairs past the Nigiro Tea salon, you enter their second level which consists of offices and a series of benches that form an espresso machine lab. Here, with barista certifications of employees hung on the wall, you can work with a Synesso machine, a WEGA, or a variety of other machines for training (or repair) services. Five years ago we recall Eton Tsuno of the defunct Café Organica espousing his vision for an espresso bar that offers home barista training, showcases home espresso machine models, etc. It’s been five years, and San Francisco still has yet to deliver on that vision. But here it is in Cape Town, South Africa — almost exactly as Eton described.
Upstairs to the top floor, you encounter their main roasting operations, a lot of in-process bagging for shipment, and a soul food café. Towards the rear of the floor, there’s a brighter, glass-enclosed seating area that opens out to patio tables and chairs under parasols across from nearby modeling agencies. There’s plenty of café seating there behind the bright panes of glass with a chalkboard wall that’s something of a community chat space.
Like a few other quality places in the area, they serve their espresso shots as default doubles. There are no cappuccinos on the drink menu: only flat whites. There’s even a “3/4 flat white” for this who like theirs with less steamed milk. Staff wearing Origin “Some Like It Black” T-shirts use another two-group La Marzocco Linea machine to pull their double shots in 30ml shotglasses (for R14), placed on a saucer with a short glass of mineral water on the side. Origin used to offer ceramic demitasses for their espresso, but they’ve run out and are awaiting a new supply (they complained that those from the previous supplier chipped too easily).
Their espresso has a hefty, darker brown crema that persists, a robust body (one of the better examples in Cape Town), and a rounded, pungent, herbal-based flavor with spices and sweetness at the bottom of the cup. They also produce excellent microfoam: it’s even and not overly generous on their cappuccino (OK, “flat white”). You can readily see how inspirational Origin is — any town would be lucky to have it.
Read the review of Origin Coffee Roasting in Cape Town, South Africa.
What is it about coffee today that makes it such a lightning rod for consumer indignation and class warfare? Nobody expresses outrage over a $400 bottle of wine, a $110,000 MSRP Mercedes-Benz, or even a $300,000 diamond-encrusted smart phone. But should someone dare sell a cup of coffee for $12, the world is coming to an end.
And it’s not just the price tag that gets people taking up torches to Frankenstein’s castle either. Bring up a $12 cup of coffee, and angry mobs start asking about how much is going back to the farmers — or how much of the perceived price gouging should be donated to charity instead. Yet this reaction never happens with expensive wine, cars, or mobile phones. (We’ve even noted how this doesn’t even happen with tea.)
People willing to splurge once in a while on a $12 cup of coffee are then invariably labeled “idiots.” But the same could be said of any passion or hobby that each of us spends our discretionary income on: wine, automobiles, NFL tickets, cable TV subscriptions, golf memberships, works of art, Disney vacations, etc. So why all the hostility as if a $12 cup of coffee were a personal threat?
In pearls before swine parlance, we are all swine about something that others deeply value. What makes coffee different is that we resent the suggestion of being “swine” when it comes to something we already relate to and experience. What could be presumed is that our taste in coffee is no longer good enough — as if what someone else drinks is somehow a value judgment about ourselves. Talk about insecurity.
One of the reasons for this cultural dissonance is that coffee is still largely perceived as a universal, utilitarian beverage of only marginal quality differences — an old notion rooted in coffee’s mass production in the 20th century. Another reason is the sense that specialty coffee has gotten too fancy for its own good. But yet another reason is that very few people in our complex society honestly know what things really cost — even if we all think we do.
Oscar Wilde once famously said that a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Most consumers know the price of everything but the cost of nothing. Coffee is a prime example. This is what makes layman reporters’ eyes bug out when they see the $18,000 MSRP price tag for a Slayer machine. They think you’re launching the thing on a mission to Mars for that price, completely oblivious of the fact that a decent — and more “pedestrian” — La Marzocco GB/5 machine runs for more than $20,000.
When people complain about the mythical $4 cup of coffee — or the “How I bought a house by making my own coffee at home” myth — they commonly operate with the false perception that retail coffee is $0.20 ingredients and $3.80 pure profit. We’ve vainly tried to explain that the biggest expense in a cup of retail coffee is labor, not coffee beans, so this time we’ll try to back it up with public data.
One major challenge is that every coffee shop is different. Another challenge is that the figures are often obscured in research reports costing thousands of dollars. We unfortunately couldn’t reproduce a recent chart for Starbucks showing how much labor costs were their biggest expense in a cup of coffee. However, here we’ve plotted data from one UK report in 2007 and a BIS Shrapnel report from 2006 showing the production costs of a retail flat white (call it a cappuccino for American purposes).
The chart at left represents the cost breakdown for a major coffee retailer, such as Starbucks. It not only includes labor, profit, and local taxes, but there’s also an administration overhead that covers things like advertising and marketing expenses, utilities, insurance, etc. The chart at right does not include the overheard of rent, administration, nor profit; it more closely represents just production costs.
The thing to note here is how little the actual coffee represents in the price of a retail coffee — and how much its price reflects labor, rent, utilities, and other costs.
So when you’re buying a specialty, limited supply, microlot coffee for $12 a cup, the cost of the coffee beans can increase by an order of magnitude. But don’t overlook the impact of labor costs on the end price. A delicate, pedigree coffee can be wasted by “normal” brewing methods. While vacuum pots and Hario drippers do a far better job of showcasing the coffee beans, they are far more labor intensive than brewing in a basic French press or generic coffee urn.
Even if you can successfully explain the constituent costs in a $12 cup of coffee, that still doesn’t explain the recent media freak-out in New York City over it. Aren’t New Yorkers supposed to be the cultural sophisticates — and not the ones stepping off the Greyhound bus on 42nd Street yelling, “Golly!!! That there sure is one tall combine!” like some wide-eyed Kansas farm boy?
Contrast New York City’s recent reaction with a $14 cup of microlot coffee that ranked no greater than a mere footnote in the Yakima Herald in 2008:
And while supplies last, you can order up a $14 cup of coffee made from Nicaraguan beans that Stumptown bought at auction for $47.06 per pound. According to buystumptowncoffee.com: “Its thick caramel notes, Granny Smith apple, kiwi and apricot flavors had us awestruck and thirsting for more.”
When it comes to coffee, it’s as if New York City keeps inventing new ways to embarrass itself.
Please repeat after me, aspiring journalists and laymen alike: when you buy food or drink retail, you’re mostly buying labor. When you drop three bills for dinner at The French Laundry, you’re not primarily paying for a grocery shopping list of ingredients. This really shouldn’t be that hard to understand.