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Trip Report: La Zagara (Positano, Italy)

Posted by on 07 Dec 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Positano may be a gorgeous place, but it is overrun with tourists. But given all there is to look at and experience, Positano is one of those rare places where you don’t seem to mind it too much. It’s frequently one of the costs of a beautiful place.

Opening in 1950 as a pastry shop, La Zagara resides along a pedestrian walkway that leads to the famous and fashionable Positano beach. The location shows a bit of its worn age — especially in the wood paneling in the (full) bar area.

Entrance to La Zagara along a Positano pedestrian walkway to the beach La Zagara breaks out the fine grappa for the tourists

For the tourists, they offer a great selection of high-end grappe (Berta Roccanivo, etc.). While the entirely Napoli region loves to partake in a digestivo, cafés on the Amalfi Coast seem to have particularly taken to selling high-end grappa as take-home gifts and mementos.

La Zagara still offers notable pastries — including an excellent cannoli. Cannoli may have been put on the map by the Sicilians, but the Neapolitans have made their own variant somewhat famous. There’s also a large garden bar with outdoor views under canopies that overlook one of Positano’s many canyon-like features. It’s a tempting place to kill time, having done that ourselves 11 years ago.

Entrance to La Zagara's garden patio La Zagara's time-killing patio

Using dueling two-group La Cimbali machines at the bar, they pull shots of Caffè Maresca with a medium brown crema with lighter heat spot and some small bubbling. It’s served short in Güral Porselen logo cups. It has a flavor of some tobacco layered with Maresca’s wood-roasting.

An old fashioned €1 for tourist central. Rated 2 tazzine and 1 chicco in the 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia.

Read the review of La Zagara in Positano, Italy.

La Cimbali machine and packed bar at La Zagara The La Zagara espresso

Trip Report: La Brezza Net Art Café (Positano, Italy)

Posted by on 02 Dec 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

Positano is an impossible town. By that, I mean that the place even exists — grafted vertically onto cliffs overlooking a gorgeous sea — defies belief. Glimpsing just a single photo of the place was all I needed to convince me that I had to first come here nearly 12 years ago. And I certainly am not the only one.

John Steinbeck visited Positano on multiple occasions. His essay in the May 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar is said to have put Positano on the tourist map. Which then lead to inspiring Patricia Highsmith to write The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955. Her novel became a 1999 film that was also partly shot in Positano.

The impossible town of Positano. La Brezza resides to the lower left of the domed church. Looking out to the sea from Positano

Positano clinging to the cliffs as seen from the small hamlet of Montepertuso Ominous skies along the beach in front of La Brezza Net Art Café

A decade later, Positano inspired a visiting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones to pen the song “Midnight Rambler” — from the brilliant 1969 Let It Bleed album — in its cafés. La Brezza Net Art Café wasn’t around at the time for Jagger and Richards, but there’s a high probability that one of the cafés where they did write it stood in La Brezza’s place back then.

Because La Brezza makes the most of its prime beach location in fashionable Positano. There are two floors inside that feel a little bit cramped, but most of the activity of its patrons naturally takes place on the front patio under canvases or among the sidewalk tables along the paved walkway down to the beach.

Corner entrance to La Brezza Net Art Café Curious clientele at Positano's La Brezza Net Art Café

They serve beachside gelato and various lunch items with a view over the sand and the small, wooden fishing boats beached on the shore. Inside their espresso machine might look like a chrome Fiorenzato, but it is a two-group Esprèsso by SAB.

Using Irio Caffé from just over the Amalfi Coast mountain range, they pull shots with a darker, rich-looking crema with the occasional lighter medium brown heat spot. Not surprising given Irio’s wood-roasting processes, it has a woody and smooth flavor of mild spices but a body that runs a little thinner than expected. At €1.50, it’s a little pricey — but half the cost of table service (which is still worth it, given the hangout).

And good enough for Gambero Rosso’s 2014 Bar d’Italia to rate it 2 tazzine and 2 chicchi.

Read the review of La Brezza Net Art Café in Positano, Italy.

La Brezza Net Art Café's two-group Esprèsso by SAB machine The La Brezza Net Art Café espresso

Positano is known as the vertical town The La Brezza Net Art Café cappuccino

Trip Report: Bar Al San Domingo (Ravello, Italy)

Posted by on 25 Nov 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

This bar/café on the main Piazza Vescovado is something of a local Ravello institution. Founded as a family business in 1929, it is now operated in the hands of three Schiavo brothers who are part of the successive generation.

Gianni Agnelli, L, and first lady Jackie Kennedy, R, enjoying themselves at Al San Domingo in RavelloWith its name inspired by a Neapolitan coffee roaster of the time, the writer Gore Vidal is said to have made a habit of hanging out near its glass entrance — chatting it up with a visiting Sting or Bruce Springsteen over a glass of Chivas Regal. There are also classic photos about of former first lady Jackie Kennedy hanging out at this café with “Godfather of Style” and head of FIAT, Gianni Agnelli, from August 1962. While these may be events from only this past century, they still give you a sense of time and place.

By contrast, in America we seem so enamored with new, shiny things that we encourage a disposable culture that extends to our own history. At five years, you’re overlooked; at ten, you’re forgotten; at twenty, you’re a candidate for a wrecking ball. Trendy pop-up coffee shops and restaurants seem like a natural outcome of our disposable culture. (We recently read an historical revisionist comment from Ritual’s Eileen Hassi suggesting that only Ritual and Blue Bottle were doing the things they were doing in SF when they started up eight years ago — completely dismissing the forgotten likes of Café Organica, who was already making better coffee at the time and doing more “third wave” things those two hadn’t even dreamed of yet.)

Ravello's Piazza Vescovado at dusk, with Al San Domingo's outdoor seating on the left Bar Al San Domingo in the rain from the seats at Ravello's Caffè Duomo

Getting back to Mrs. Kennedy’s Summer of ’62 stay in Ravello, it’s odd today to think of the wife of a standing U.S. president spending three weeks cavorting about with one of the world’s most notorious playboys in Gianni Agnelli — all the while JFK (himself an international playboy wannabe by comparison) stayed back in Washington, DC. But these are facts that were undoubtedly kept from American public eyes at the time.

Mr. Agnelli reportedly made a number of visits to this café over the years, which reportedly stirred up friendly barbs with its owners. Because you see, the Schiavo family are granata — i.e., devout fans of the Torino football club, Torino FC. There are still supporter signs inside the café to this day. Among various other titles, Mr. Angelli was also something of the patron saint of their cross-town rivals and sworn enemies, Juventus FC.

La Cimbali M39 inside Al San Domingo - with Torino FC signage The Bar Al San Domingo espresso

The café itself seems to have evolved and grown in distinct stages. It re-opened in July of 2013 after a three-year renovation hiatus, covered in scaffolding. In front there are awnings and seats in the main piazza. Inside there are several tables and a service area, and off to one side it expands into a café space next door (Humphrey’s Room) that looks like a glass greenhouse.

Besides serving Chivas Regal, a lot of good gelato, and lunch items, their coffee service uses a three-group La Cimbali M39 and coffee from Cafè Sombrero in nearby Vietri sul Mare. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and tastes of a milder blend of spices. Served in larger, patterned Thomas cups.

Maybe not legendary espresso, but it’s still good.

Read the review of Bar Al San Domingo in Ravello, Italy.

Trip Report: Andrea Pansa (Amalfi, Italy)

Posted by on 15 Nov 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

The town of Amalfi gives the Coast its name. Dating back to the 9th century, it is one of the four key Maritime Republics of Italy, and it is still represented on the flag of the Italian Navy to this day. Unlike the sleepier Ravello up the nearby cliffs, Amalfi is heavily overrun with tourists during the high season.

The town of Amalfi, which gives the Amalfi Coast its name (credit to Wikipedia)

Amalfi's Duomo Entrance to Andrea Pansa on Piazza Duomo

Andrea Pansa first opened as a café in 1830. It is thus is quite legendary on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It’s known primarily for its chocolate (there are many resellers who use the Pansa name in town on their storefronts) and its confections. Located right on the most popular public square in town, it attracts a lot of foot-traffic plus tourists/locals who lounge on the café tables beneath the sun umbrellas out front. They sell a lot of tourist-friendly limoncello as well.

The reputation here isn’t unfounded. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia awarded it 3 tazzine and 2 chicchi — making it one of their most exceptional coffee bars in the Campania region. Yet despite the obvious signs of entitlement, the staff here are exceptionally friendly and engaging.

Formal interior of Andrea Pansa Andrea Pansa merchandising

Pastries and confections inside Andrea Pansa Some of the more formal seating inside Andrea Pansa

Among the towns and cities of Campania, Amalfi is one of the few outposts we’ve found for Portioli coffee from up north — and Pansa makes the most of it. They use a three-group GIME Sinfonia (from Portioli’s espresso machine arm) to pull shots with a medium brown, even crema. The shot is balanced — and brighter and not as dark or pungent as most in the region. Perhaps owing to its northern Italian blends. The flavor is weighted more towards spices and light pepper. Cheap at a mere €0.80.

Read the review of Andrea Pansa in Amalfi, Italy.

The three-group GIME Sinfonia at Andrea Pansa The Andrea Pansa espresso

Trip Report: Caffè Duomo (Ravello, Italy)

Posted by on 07 Nov 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

For many years, this tiny doorway was once home to the Ravello post office in the heart of town. We know, because we tried to ship three bottles of a great Taurasi back to the U.S. from there. To this day, some 11 years later, it still hasn’t made it, and we don’t suspect it was lost in the mail. Unless if by “lost” you mean consumed in an afternoon of drunken debauchery by the local postman.

But in the Spring of 2011, owners Antonio Di Martino, the local restauranteur Rispoli family, and sommelier Angela Donatatonio opened this space up as the new Caffè Duomo. It’s now a somewhat cramped café (as it was a post office): two small tables inside seat three. But it’s the outside space in the main square under parasols that matters.

Brooding skies over Caffè Duomo's outdoor seating in Piazza Vescovado, Ravello, Italy A former post office, this is the entrance to Caffè Duomo with the cordial Antonio sitting just to the left of the steps

It is popular with the locals and tourists alike: well-heeled locals stop here for a quick caffè, while enough tourists stop by for to-go cup lattes to justify a paper sign in English on bathroom use etiquette when the wedding season is high. Antonio is always about, and he’s a great, friendly guy to get to know: regular customers get the warmest of greetings.

Using a three-group manual lever La San Marco behind the small bar, they pull shots of Qualeat (from the Perrella brothers near Avellino) that are properly short, concentrated, and modestly fill a Duomo-logo regulation IPA tazzina.

The crema is an even darker brown with some texture. Flavorwise, the shot is balanced, heavy on pungency, but yet not the typically heavy dark you get in much of Campania. Caffè Duomo is arguably the new gold standard in town for caffè and fresh cornetti. (Sorry, Caffè Calce.) An even €1.

Read the review of Caffè Duomo in Ravello, Italy.

The tiny space inside Caffè Duomo with their La San Marco lever machine in the corner The Caffè Duomo espresso in a logo cup: a fine one indeed

Trip Report: Caffè Calce (Ravello, Italy)

Posted by on 30 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine

Before our current series of trip reports again returns to Napoli, we’re taking a detour through the nearby Amalfi Coast. For better or worse, most tourists arrive in Napoli only on their way someplace else. So rather than argue with tradition, we set up base for a week in an apartment in Ravello, Italy — arguably one of our favorite towns in the world, perched high on a mountain plateau above the coast.

Coastal residents of the region established Ravello in the 5th century — largely seeking shelter from the various barbarian invasions that followed the fall of the Roman empire. The most similar challenge San Francisco faces today is, perhaps, weekend brunch. Over the following centuries, the medieval town of Ravello has been something of a magnet for artists, writers, and musicians: from Richard Wagner to Gore Vidal to M. C. Escher to Edvard Grieg.

View of the Amalfi Coast from our Ravello apartment Foggy road (Via San Giovanni del Toro) atop old Ravello

Postcard view from Ravello overlooking Chiesa dell'Annunziata Yet another postcard view from Ravello's Villa Cimbrone

There are even telltale signs of “St. Francis of Assisi slept here” in the Gothic Chiesa di San Francesco, so named in honor of his passing through Ravello to Amalfi in 1222 to venerate relics of St. Andrew the Apostle. If you think that was a bit of a stretch, remember that St. Francis came nowhere near San Francisco and yet they named an entire city after him. Though some say even he couldn’t get around the two-plus-hour wait for a table in town for a weekend brunch. (What gives, San Francisco? It’s just eggs.)

Being a small town of a mere 2,500 residents, Ravello previously had a rather lightweight café culture. We first visited Caffè Calce in 2002, and then they held a commanding presence as an arguable gold standard in town to get an espresso and a cornetto. Back then, we often ran into Woody Harrelson and his family there, as they was staying at a five-star hotel down the road from our last apartment.

Fast forward to 2013: not only is Woody gone, but so is Caffè Calce’s once commanding presence over the town. Which isn’t to say they haven’t been successful: they’ve expanded with a bed & breakfast at the nearby Giardini Caffè Calce and even opened a sister location as Caffè Calce 2 at Via Boccaccio, 11. Yet perhaps influenced by their growth, local competition has invaded like barbarians and flourished. Even so, Caffè Calce is still a worthy stop — earning 1(/3) chiccho and 1(/3) tazzina as the only Ravello café listed in the 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia.

The Ravello Duomo on Piazza Vescovado Parasols of Caffè Calce (right) and Caffè Duomo (left) on Piazza Vescovado

This café is located conveniently in the corner of Ravello’s Piazza Vescovado (aka Piazza Duomo). Today Piazza Vescovado now hosts no fewer than four different competing cafés, each sectioned off in the piazza with ample seating under high-tech Italian awning devices. Thus today the piazza more closely resembles Capri’s Piazza Umberto I.

Inside, Caffè Calce is a sizable space with ample display counters devoted to the various pastries that come out throughout the day. Towards the back are a couple of levels of café table seating, which are great for catching late Sunday night soccer matches and sipping a decent grappa for a mere €6.

Caffè Calce off Via Roma, advertising their English proficiency to the tourists Seating inside Caffè Calce

Behind the bar is a three-group La Cimbali M39 Classic. La Cimbali being the other ubiquitous espresso machine manufacturer in Napoli and the Amalfi Coast besides La San Marco. (What?! No manual lever machine espresso? What a ripoff!)

Using it and their Caffè Toraldo coffee, they pull shots with a modestly decent-looking crema that occasionally comes with a heat spot and some larger bubbles. They serve the shot short, despite their wider-mouthed Güral Porselen cups from Turkey. It has a typical Caffè Toraldo pungent flavor of potent herbs and some spice. A round €1 and certainly decent, but today Ravello offers better.

Read the review of Caffè Calce in Ravello, Italy.

Caffè Calce's La Cimbali M39 Classic The Caffè Calce espresso

Trip Report: Gran Caffè Neapolis (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 26 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew

Opening in November 2010, this café feels like it has been here for far longer. (Contrast with nearby Scaturchio, dal 1905.) The interior space is a modern, stark white with spot lighting and lounge-like space surrounded by bottles of Champagne on the walls. Outside there’s ample seating under large parasols in the enjoyable Piazza San Domenico Maggiore.

Entrance to Gran Caffè Neapolis Inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The name “Neapolis”, the original name for Napoli, means “New City” in Greek. Napoli’s civilization has Greek roots dating back to at least the 4th century B.C. Buried in the more modern building foundations just a couple blocks away beneath Piazza San Gaetano lies the (now explorable) 6,000-capacity Greek/Roman theater used by Emperor Nero to perform his operas — including a debut in 64 A.D. where Nero famously sang through an earthquake and thought it a good omen.

So perhaps on the historical scale of the neighborhood, this café is a recent hiccup. But the espresso here is good enough to have been upped from a one to a two chicchi rating between the 2013 & 2014 editions of Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Even if the space comes adorned with some semi-cheesy local (Italian) tourist decorations, such as various Pulcinella masks and ornamental cornicelli.

Cheesy tourist decorations at the base of the Gran Caffè Neapolis bar Four-group La San Marco inside Gran Caffè Neapolis

The Maestro dell'Espresso certification on display at Gran Caffè NeapolisBehind their four-group manual lever La San Marco machine, they sport four clear cylinders of roasted coffee blend options — including Arabica, Excelsa, Liberica, and Robusta. There’s a Maestro dell’Espresso certificate on display, certified by Illycaffè, for the master barista of the house. However, for the Saturday morning shift of our visit we had two young, seemingly novice (and uneasy) women operating as bariste on duty.

Using their Arabia blend, they pulled shots with a richly textured crema of a darker brown and even slightly grayish color — filled relatively high in IPA cups of modern design. Its taste is pure pungency with no ashiness, bitterness, or even a bright end for that matter.

The milk-frothing was a bit iffy, however: bubbly and too hot, but this was likely the B team. Though note that Neapolitans don’t go for overly frilly cappuccinos and latte art beyond a dusting of cocoa. A very reasonable €0.80.

Read the review of Gran Caffè Neapolis in Napoli, Italy.

The Gran Caffè Neapolis espresso The Gran Caffè Neapolis cappuccino

Trip Report: Giovanni Scaturchio (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 24 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

This bakery in the heart of Napoli has been a family operation since its founding by its namesake in 1905. They are mostly known for their baked goods: a pasticceria filled with sweets, pastries, and cakes. One of their more comical creations is a Vesuvio cake on display that comes in the shape of the famed volcano that looms on the horizon. Though who wouldn’t want a cake to celebrate your impending fiery death in a vaporizing cloud of molten ash?

Entrance to Giovanni Scaturchio Seating outside in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore

Scaturchio cakes - including the Vesuvio (center) Tight quarters inside Giovanni Scaturchio

Scaturchio also makes their own gelato and roasts their own supply of coffee offsite in small, personal batches. They also sell their coffee on request. Of course as in much of Napoli, most families only have stovetop Moka pots — so the coffee is sold pre-ground and in tins.

Scaturchio also resells their roasted coffeeThis is a traditionally tight space with no seating inside. If you want a caffè at the bar during a popular hour, be prepared to muscle in or wait patiently a bit. However, if the weather is decent, there’s ample outdoor seating under parasols across the entrance to the shop in one of Napoli’s great piazzas. The people-watching there alone is worth the price of admission.

Using a three-group manual lever La San Marco machine behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, almost a dark grey, ochre-looking crema — unlike any crema we have even seen prior. (The lighting in the attached images don’t do it justice.) But be not afraid: it’s a solid, good espresso.

There’s a lot of life to the cup: there’s some smoke, but it’s not too smoky. Flavorwise, it is primarily a mixture of potent spice and some herbal notes in good balance. Served with water on the side for €0.90. They scored a 1(/3) tazzina and 1(/3) chiccho in the 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia.

Read the review of Giovanni Scaturchio in Napoli, Italy.

Barista working Scaturchio's lever La San Marco The Scaturchio espresso - and it's bizarrely greyish matte crema

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

The fanaticism and history of South Indian Filter Coffee

Posted by on 23 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine

Last Friday, the Economic Times posted an interesting article concerning the history, fanatics and obsessives with South Indian filter coffee: How can filter coffee be so different, yet good? – Economic Times. The Economic Times is a business paper from the Times of India — and the world’s most widely read English-language business newspaper after the Wall Street Journal.

Camp Coffee: made in ScotlandFor Westerners without much exposure to the subcontinent, you might associate India with only tea. But the story of coffee in India is older than the USA itself and arguably larger (by capita) than its consumption of coffee. South India has grown coffee since the 1670s, and the article recalls how coffee consumption was particularly introduced to the Tamil households of South India by way of Britain in the 19th century.

Varieties of Camp Coffee from Scotland by way of IndiaBack then, “Tamil Brahmins resisted the tea campaign as too down-market, giving tea a working class (and Muslim) reputation it has never entirely shrugged off in the South.” The article even makes reference to a bottled coffee-chicory essence called Camp Coffee, first made by the Scottish company Paterson & Sons in Glasgow in 1876 and featuring a Sikh bearer on the label. By the 20th century, South Indians added sugar and milk, leading to its more widespread adoption.

When “the ‘perfect’ cup” has different forms of ‘perfect’

We fell in love with the stuff on our first visit to South India. It’s made as a sort of strange middle-ground between the popular fast-brewed hot coffee of espresso/pour-overs/Mr.-Coffee-makers and the slow, slow brewing of cold press coffee.

The French and chicory coffee historyTraditionally it is made with chicory root (the article mentions a magic 15-20% range), a coffee substitute and additive known more in the West by its affiliation with New Orleans and colonial America. Here, as in India, it was introduced as a means of more cheaply cutting the more expensive pure coffee. However, in New Orleans the introduction of chicory as a coffee additive was of purely French origin: instigated by Napoleon’s initiation of the Continental Blockade of 1808 that deprived the French of much of their coffee supplies.

All of this cutting with chicory, milk, and sugar and the common use of fine coffee “powder” naturally leads most Westerners to a rather downscale impression of South Indian filter coffee. And for many examples of it, they’d be right. But that’s also the case with most coffee served here in America. However, it doesn’t help that my few attempts to make a version of it here with one of the unique South Indian filter brewers I purchased (on Mahatma Gandhi, aka “MG”, Road in Bangalore) produced some of the most undrinkable coffee I’ve ever made.

Of course, there are those who truly love coffee in its many shapes, forms, and varieties available. And then there are others who only like a rarefied, elitist, mutant sliver of coffee extract that’s possible with exacting farm origins, brewing methods, precision equipment, TDS ratios, and when the lunar tides are just right for four days out of the calendar year. While I very much admire and appreciate what can come out of the latter category, it might come as a surprise that I am a complete softie of the former variety.

South Indian coffee filter I purchased in Bangalore My South Indian coffee filter, disassembled

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