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.
We’d apologize for the lack of postings this past month, but that’s partly the result of good editing. The trouble is that we typically board up our windows and hide from most coffee blogs this time of year, as most become inundated by insipid annual round-ups of coffee gift ideas to help cash in on the season.
Not that we’re into role playing a disgruntled Scrooge McCafé for the holidays. We love coffee. But loving coffee and willingly wading through endless coffee advertisements, Clockwork-Orange-style, are two entirely different things.
However, like the trusty annual newspaper article on how different cultures around the world celebrate Christmas, one recent exception caught our eyes. It’s an article on how different cultures around the world like their coffee: A Caffeine Addict’s Guide to the World | Travel Deals, Travel Tips, Vacation Ideas | Budget Travel. Argentina, Spain, Austria, Mexico, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Japan… each location comes with a description of a unique local coffee experience, a tip for trying it, and a suggested place for it. Plus a slideshow to boot.
But before we forget: a public service message to all wannabe coffee journalists out there. Please don’t make the hackneyed, lazy, and bogus equality between coffee and caffeine. One of the most offensive things a journalist can do to insult a coffee lover is to equate them to a “caffeine addict”. We’ve always felt this is the equivalent of calling wine lovers “alcoholics”.
So, please… just don’t. It’s insulting, it’s unimaginative, and it’s been beaten to death. It makes you sound like some overly perky, bubble-gum-chewing dolt writing for the high school newspaper. And we promise we won’t be offended by the term “coffee lovers”.
Today’s L.A. Weekly featured an interesting bio-piece on father and son L.A. espresso pioneers, Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink. You might recognize the Pasquini name for some of their excellent home espresso machines. But the Pasquini family is credited with first introducing espresso to the L.A. area.
La Marzocco did a wonderful job convincing people that only certain machines can make a good coffee. … They did a wonderful job convincing the [specialty] barista that that is the state of the art.
It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment — less to their equipment-building prowess, and more to La Marzocco’s marketing ability to build anxieties and insecurities within specialty baristas.
Which explains a little of the ambivalence we feel when we witness the likes of a Sightglass fawning over the latest coffee toy fads on the market. It’s one thing to be enamored with trendy equipment. But it’s another to rely on it as a cover up for a lack of sweat and hard-work that goes into optimizing with the equipment you’ve got.
We used to write more regularly about the steady stream of meaningless, unscientific coffee polls that frequently fill the pages of magazines, newspapers, and Web sites. We got tired of writing incessant rants about how the polls were poorly constructed and lacked any stated criteria nor methodology, and most assuredly you all certainly tired of reading them. What’s different this time — with Travel + Leisure magazine’s recent “America’s Favorite Cities” poll — is that they’ve provided just enough data for us to reexamine and draw some different conclusions.
You may recall Travel + Leisure‘s America’s Best Coffee Cities poll earlier this year. The magazine also conducts an annual reader poll to appeal to the insatiable human appetite for what is essentially a city-by-city dick measuring contest. Coffee is one of their polls’ rated subjects, and Seattle couldn’t wait three hours yesterday before bragging about their measurements.
However, that’s not the interesting part of this story. Although it may be just another popularity contest, Travel + Leisure not only compiled numeric polling scores for each city, but they also segmented the scoring between “residents” and “visitors“. Our idea was to simply compare a city’s score between the two audiences and rank cities along those lines. We call it, “Which U.S. cities are the most delusional about the quality of their local coffee?”
The winner of this dubious honor, by a significant margin, was Anchorage, Alaska. There visitors ranked the town’s coffee nearly two-thirds of a point lower, on a five-point scale, than what residents rated it. At the other end of the spectrum, Miami clearly ranked tops in the “locals just don’t appreciate you enough” category. Perhaps all those Cuban expats still believe that the coffee tastes that much better in their former homeland, and yet the tourists wonder why they are complaining.
San Francisco ranked in the middle of the pack at 17th out of 35 cities for most overrated by the locals. However, the most telling figure was that 28 of 35 cities were rated lower by tourists than by the locals. Just look at all the red in the right-most column in the table below.
Of course, local residents should know best where to get the good coffee. Meanwhile, tourists often either have no clue, play it safe by frequenting only the bland-but-recognizable coffee chains, or never venture into the good coffee neighborhoods. For example: when is the last time any of our SF resident readers actually visited Fisherman’s Wharf? And do you realize how bad the coffee is there?
Another major pattern in the data is — with the exception of Anchorage and Portland, ME at the very bottom — much of the American South got General-Sherman-style ravaged by their tourist scores, suggesting that tourists think the locals are a bit full of themselves. In any case, here are the numbers…from the most underrated by the locals to the most overrated:
|Rank||City||Visitor Rank||Visitor Score||Resident Rank||Resident Score||Vis – Res Rank||Vis – Res Score|
|8.||New York City||5||4.34||11||4.37||-6||-0.03|
|16.||San Juan, P.R.||14||4.05||17||4.19||-3||-0.14|
|31.||Salt Lake City||30||3.54||23||3.93||+7||-0.39|
|32.||Santa Fe, NM||22||3.85||15||4.26||+7||-0.41|
Today’s New York Times reported on another chapter in this year’s ownership-change-for-funding-for-growth saga of quality independent coffee chains: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Asks a Friend to Help It Grow – NYTimes.com. This past May, the subject was Stumptown Coffee Roasters — generating quite a bit of angst among many loyalists who cried “sell-out!” This time the subject is Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, whose expansion plans seem to have stalled or required less-than-ideal compromises.
If 2010 was the year of the Great Coffee Rush — where prospecting independent roasting/coffeeshop elites in the West packed their covered wagons and migrated East to help fill a gaping quality coffee void — 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the investment, merger, and acquisition. The article notes Intelligentsia’s 2009 acquisition of Ecco Caffè — and, more importantly, how its planned Potrero Hill roasting operations have yet to materialize.
Of course, when was the last time that a major roasting operation in San Francisco didn’t materialize months, if not years, behind the original schedule? (Think Four Barrel, Sightglass, etc.) Even so, it’s becoming clear that as the quality independent coffee industry has matured, the next stage of its evolution now requires wealthier investors to fund their ambitions.
Shockingly, it’s taken us this long to make it to Portland, Oregon — considered by many to be ground zero (no café name pun intended) of American coffee culture. And if you’re going to start sampling the offerings in Portland, it only makes sense that you start with the legendary Stumptown Coffee Roasters. This despite that a number of Portland locals might suggest that other, newer, smaller coffee vendors in the area have taken what Stumptown started and have since overtaken them.
Lucky for us, I arrived yesterday on what was informally called “the first day of summer” in Portland: the weather was warm, the skies were clear, and in the north I could even see the rounded dome of Mount St. Helens in the distance over some of the treelines (something, I was told, Portlanders get to see maybe once a year). The downtown Stumptown was easy to spot once you found the Great-Depression-era-like breadlines that wound around the sidewalk and lead up to the nearby Voodoo Doughnut — which is apparently Portlandese for “crack cocaine” among international tourists.
The lines at this Stumptown Coffee Roasters may not have been that ridiculous, but they hold their own — even if they manage to remain inside the building. They have a couple of small sidewalk tables outside and a cavernous space inside, which includes several tables and benches along the long wall, a magazine rack, limited front window counter stool seating, a rack of coffee and accessories, and a long coffee bar. Plus a Technics turntable at the back for DJ’ing, because that’s what you do in Northwest coffeehouses, plus rear bathrooms covered in graffiti.
All sorts of Portland locals and visitors line up here: from the wandering tourist to hipsters in bright orange or pink pants. It’s odd to see a Mistral machine set off to the side and neglected here, as if it were a 1984 Chevy Impala. But that’s what happens when you install a new, three-group La Marzocco
La Strada machine. Behind the service area there’s a brick wall with a large mirror to show off what happens behind the La Strada — plus some stool seating off to the side of the machine.
They offer several single cup Chemex variations. As for their espresso, they pull shots with an even, hybrid crema of darker and lighter brown that suggests some unevenness in the draw. The resulting cup is potent and has a semi-syrupy body, with a good deal of brightness that doesn’t go over the top (as you might expect for Hairbender at times). Flavorwise, it has something of a peppery edge over a kind of allspice/nutmeg spice profile and a semi-creamy mouthfeel. Served in a brown logo ACF cup.
A solid espresso, but as with other Stumptowns we’ve visited, hardly ranking among our favorites in North America. In fact, 26 places in San Francisco scored higher than this Stumptown on espresso score. The fuss does not seem generally justified, and the aforementioned locals seem to be onto something. (Which also kind of says something else, given New Yorkers’ infatuation with Stumptown.)
We also have another example where espresso machine technology has been modernized with heavy investments, with results that suggest the benefits are only for baristas and not for espresso consumers.
Read the review of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Downtown Portland, Oregon.
California’s Santa Barbara County is a lot like the rest of America when it comes to coffee: it should face a tribunal for atrocities committed against the human taste bud. What makes these many crimes particularly heinous are the various local media outlets in these communities that celebrate certain local coffeehouses as some of the region’s “best” — and yet these examples turn out to be foul enough to give any self-respecting Italian or Australasian coffee fan the dry heaves. Baseline standards are completely lacking, and the local populace is kept deaf, dumb, blind, and tasteless from realizing things could be any better for them.
Not to devalue the many efforts of great coffeeshops to make their brews with exquisite care and precision. But in this day and age of quality coffee awareness, information, and access, there simply is no excuse for any community within a civilized First World nation to have local coffee standards so pathetic as to hold up a cup of mass-produced, push-button Starbucks as the gold standard. Sometimes we honestly don’t understand why entire counties simply do not rise up and riot in the streets over the horrible coffee to which they are routinely subjected.
With Starbucks listed as a runner-up finalist on SantaBarbara.com’s “Best of” list, Santa Barbara barely salvaged some of its culinary dignity with its recognition of The French Press. Because The French Press makes some great coffee that’s otherwise unheard of in this part of the country. And because naming Taco Bell as the finalist for Santa Barbara’s “Best Mexican” would be no less ridiculous.
Opening in 2009, this Upper State coffeehouse puts most others in Santa Barbara County to shame. A sort of hang-out for the biking set, you can recognize this café by the gathering of young people on the sidewalk in front. They offer a few outdoor café tables and chairs under the entryway, but much of the seating is inside — zinc-topped café tables located along and past a long hallway of artwork that runs along the service area. The service area itself is decorated with painted art skateboards.
Using a shiny two-group La Marzocco GB/5 and Mazzer grinders, they pull shots of Verve (Sermon and other blends) into black ACF cups with red saucers. It comes with a lightly mottled medium brown crema with lighter heat spots.
The espresso here has the tease of a brightness bomb, but without the full-swing delivery. This results in an acidic cup with some balance coming from the chocolate and pungent spice end. They’re also notable at milk-frothing: it’s deliberate and not overly abundant. Their caffè macchiato has a great chocolate flavor with substantial milk density. And of course, they also serve their namesake French press coffee.
All towns should aspire to have at least one coffee place this good. It’s criminal that this is still the exception rather than the rule in this country.
Read the review of The French Press in Santa Barbara, CA.
For as long as I’ve lived in San Francisco — over two decades now — I’ve lived with laments over the sorry state of local newspapers. Living in a large Victorian shared among Berkeley graduate students many years ago, I grew accustomed to a daily house copy of one of the Timeses (i.e., either the New York or L.A. varietals) for serious news reading. The SF Chronicle, on the other hand, was always relegated to local movie times and for lining bird cages.
Fast forward to today, and my how those once-greats have fallen. The New York Times may have performed a bit of peacock strutting last year, proclaiming, “No, New York City coffee is good. We really, really mean it this time!” But the NY Times can be forgiven compared to the sloth-like L.A. Times, who came out with this special feature just today, in freaking 2011: More refined coffee culture in L.A. is percolating – latimes.com. This more than a year after L.A.-area baristas — after cleaning up on so many awards at the regional and national barista championships — decided to quit the competition program to give someone else a try for a change.
This is akin to a 1961 L.A. Times article proclaiming that quality baseball has arrived in town — merely two seasons after the L.A. Dodgers had already won the World Series. Even so, the L.A. Times does add some useful listings of regional coffeeshops worth checking out: Specialty coffeeshops in the L.A. area – latimes.com. Plus the obligatory coffee map.
Just please don’t call ‘em “craft”.
Pardon the sensationalist headline. (Like nobody has ever done that before.) But here’s something from yesterday’s L.A. Weekly on Demitasse, one of the more anticipated new coffeeshops in the L.A. area, that questions/provokes some of the conventional coffee wisdom of the month: Demitasse Will Not Have Pourover Coffee + Other Twists on the Third Wave Coffee Shop – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink.
So what’s different here? Anticipated “Third Wave” (ugh) coffeeshop openings have been fodder for the local presses for several years now, so it only makes sense that each might attempt to differentiate themselves from the hoard with a slightly different angle now and then. But what we have with Demitasse is yet another coffeeshop identifying itself (at least in the article) more by what it doesn’t do than by what it does do. And what it doesn’t do is pour-over coffee.
Or does it? Per the article, clearly they’re fans of the Clever full-immersion coffee dripper — which some circles might say isn’t pour-over coffee by only a slight technicality. But the reason the owner, Bobak Roshan, gives for not offering pour-over coffee is telling: “Roshan adamantly is against the method as far too dependent on the skills and utmost attention of the barista, too often to the detriment of the coffee drinker looking to have the cleanest, tastiest cup possible.”
There you have it. The method requires too much concentrated attention, for too long, of an easily distracted barista in a retail environment. There is some truth to this, even suggesting a bit of retail reality folly in the nascent Brewers Cup. Of the few coffeeshops that have offered vac pot coffee over the years, most would only do so after the morning caffeine rush-hour. And yet vac pot brewing requires much less constant attention than pour-over brewing. And then there’s the reality that the biggest expense in retail coffee is labor.
Which isn’t to say that pour-over brewing is going away anytime soon. Despite the many efforts to convince us otherwise, retail pour-over brewing has been around for decades. However, this might suggest that many coffeeshops are starting to learn the dismissed conventional wisdom behind the once-novel-now-passé Clover brewer: that individually hand-crafted, manual brewing processes make a great cup of coffee, but they fail to scale in a retail environment supporting any kind of volume at a competitive price.
Now if only we understood the semi-conventional wisdom behind using Equator Estate Coffees — despite only a single notable retail example of it in the face of dozens of underachievers.