Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
For the past couple of days, I’ve resisted writing about this topic: the recent SCAA conference and the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon the following day. But I can’t escape it. Apologies in advance for adding little on the subject of coffee, but to do so exclusively would seem both disrespectful and inappropriate. This post is really more for myself in a cathartic way, as my heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy.
Of course, things didn’t exactly work out that way. What was originally announced in the SFO airport as an FAA delay caused by a small plane hitting the World Trade Center turned into something horrifically worse. No civilian aircraft in North America would become airborne again until a few days later.
With the fog of what just happened, who did it, and what’s coming next still on everyone’s minds, the HR department and a few coworkers told me to simply make the announcement over the phone — that my team would understand under the circumstances. But I was stubbornly determined to take personal responsibility for my decision, no matter how ugly it had to be. I owed them that much. So once air travel resumed, I caught the next flight I could get into Boston that following weekend.It was one of the most white-knuckled flights I’ve ever taken. Not because of any turbulence, but because everyone on that plane could not get the television images of 9/11 — and the thought of further hijacking attempts — out of their heads. Everyone was on edge, suspiciously sizing up all of their fellow passengers. You got the sense that if anybody even attempted something that looked like a false move, that person would be forcefully subdued and probably beaten to death by a plane full of anxious passengers mentally prepared to fight or die.
I had flown into Boston Logan multiple times before, but never like this. The airport was a ghost town, largely abandoned of people and planes with a skeleton crew left running things. The taxi driver who picked me up was desperate for a fare, as he told me that, “Boston Logan is still an active crime scene.” The two flights that struck the World Trade Center towers both departed from Boston, from gate areas I was eerily all too familiar with from previous travels.
I was fortunate that a few people on my newly-laid-off staff thanked me for giving them the news in person. But I did not again return to Boston until last week.
What brought me back to Boston after all these years wasn’t the SCAA Conference — at least directly. It was more an invitation from Todd Carmichael (of La Colombe) to do a shoot for the second season of his TV show, “Dangerous Grounds”. Todd was insistent on a scene in the new season that wasn’t just his “Tarzan bit” through wild coffee jungles, but rather a social cupping discussion among a few invited guests — which included the likes of Doug Zell of Intelligentsia, Aleco Chigounis of Coffee Shrub (a sort of sister to Sweet Maria’s), Mette Marie of 49th Parallel Roasters, Ryan Brown now at Tonx, Andrew Ballard of Forty Weight Coffee, and the entertaining JP Iberti (co-founder of La Colombe).
Everybody brought some coffee to showcase and discuss. (Special thanks to Justine Hollinger of Barefoot Coffee Roasters for helping me represent their great work.) Despite Todd’s worry that some snarky infighting could develop, a great camaraderie developed among the cuppers that will hopefully come out in the program when it airs later this year. (And for the record, the overall favorite was the Yukro Ethiopia coffee from George Howell Coffee, sourced by Aleco.)
With the shoot out of the way, I had a few days to check out the SCAA conference and get reacquainted with Boston. It had been years since I had set foot in either.
For those who haven’t been to the SCAA conference, I’ll offer a perspective of someone not in the industry — and rather of just someone who really loves coffee. Like all industry conferences, it’s a great occasion to meet people and network. If you’re slinging coffee at a retail location all day, or sourcing out in the wild corners of the world, there are few occasions where you can personally meet and greet many of those coffee “greats” — or just cool people — you otherwise only read about (or from).
And there’s a lot of great coffee to be had. A barista at a complimentary La Marzocco espresso station jumbled multiple bags of Intelligentsia beans to create an impromptu blend in his Mazzer grinder. While I was watching this, he culturally noted that, “The industry people come earlier and ask for espressos, but later the ‘show’ people come and they all drink caps.” (i.e., cappuccinos).
But there are things about the SCAA conference I am not as enamored with. For one, it’s primarily a commercial trade show with a big emphasis on an exhibition floor of people hawking their wares. Good for a lot in the industry, but often a bit tedious if you really are more into the coffee than the latest gadgetry.
There’s the symposium topics, which I had not attended but often sounded interesting. But there’s a huge “reindeer games” aspect to the highly repetitive, three-ring circus of the Barista Championship, the Brewer’s Cup, and the US Cup Tasters Championship. Even odder now, there are members of the Barista Guild of America strutting about the place, and the city, in their official logo jackets as if part of some mutant coffee geek biker gang.
But the longer I was in Boston, the more I came to appreciate and became more enamored with the even bigger event in town that weekend: the 117th Boston Marathon. There was a very positive, festive, international sports vibe to the event that I hadn’t quite experienced since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Everywhere in town you ran into fit people in running gear — many not running the race but at least there in spirit and to support the other participants.
Last Saturday I walked down Boylston Street past Copley Square, just two days before the horrific bombings, soaking in the environment of fans, tourists, and the final touches of the stands and barricades being set up at the finish line for the event. Arriving back in SF only some 11 hours before those terrible events took place, the news was made all the more tragic for me having experienced just how much the Boston Marathon environment converted me into a fan.
The Boston Marathon will be back next year. Boston may not want me back, given my recent track record of tragic coincidence. But I can’t say enough to encourage those even modestly interested to attend. The coffee may not be anything near as good as at the SCAA, but it deserves every bit of your support.
As time passes, I promise to write more about the coffee. But right now, there are things far more important than coffee could ever be.
Back in 2005 we wrote about Zagat’s attempt to put together a regional coffee survey based on their famed user review methods. An acquisition by Google and eight years later, that was the last anyone had ever heard of it. Until now.
Zagat has since published their first ever coffee survey. This coincides with their recent hot and heavy lust for improved search engine rankings, with Zagat spewing out a steady stream of coffee-themed blog posts brandishing inane, list-driven, come-on titles such as, “The 10 Most Annoying Coffee Trends” or the wholly derivative/regurgitative “What Your Coffee Drink Says About You.” (Kill me now, please.)
Zagat titled their 2013 study Caffeine Buzz: Hottest Coffee Shops Around the Country, and yet much of its content left us wondering if they’ve been sitting on this data for eight years. For example, just examine the 2013 Zagat reviews for San Francisco.
They list Blue Bottle Coffee among their nine Bay Area selections — but none of the other “usual suspects”. However, they chose to include the ever-underwhelming, Starbucks-slinging Carmel Bakery in the coffee wasteland of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They mention Napa’s traditional but surprisingly good Model Bakery — but ignoring that a Ritual Coffee is around the corner and making no mention of how Model Bakery is one of the few places in the entire Bay Area to offer Caffé Vita coffee. (And for those of you in L.A., good luck finding Handsome Coffee or Portola Coffee Lab, let alone the countless barista award winners from Intelligentsia.)
Unfortunately, despite the SF Gate‘s notion that Zagat has finally caught on to the coffee zeitgeist, we see no evidence that Zagat has given coffee any more serious thought than they did back in 2005. The Zagat survey’s baked-goods-leaning, ambiance-heavy, and coffee-oblivious reviews of the few places that do make their short list only prove that.
The new Google-owned Zagat seems to believe that its future lies in a daily stream of bubblegum blog posts about local coffee. But since Zagat loyalists expect some sort of review guide to anchor things, Zagat exhumed their 8-year-old research and quickly threw it up on the Web.
We’ve written about coffee in India before, but this Sunday’s piece in The Seattle Times is one of the best-researched, most thought-out pieces we’ve seen on the subject in the mainstream Western media: As India gains strength, so does its coffee | Special reports pages | The Seattle Times. At least on the growing side of things. (Coffee consumption in India is another story that’s poorly reported globally. The Seattle Times‘ Part 1 was dubious and a bit patronizing.)The article notes the long history of coffee growing and coffee consumption in India, dating back to the 1600s. This while most of the Western media has treated the news of Starbucks‘ recent entry into India as if the American fast food chain was on a mission to liberate the uncouth India masses from their coffee ignorance. (This is a little like introducing potatoes to Peruvians.)
The article also does a great service by introducing Sunalini Menon, who was formerly the head of quality at the Coffee Board of India and is credited with much of Indian coffee’s quality gains. Of particular interest is the controversy Ms. Menon raises by suggesting that robusta, when handled properly, should be eligible at Cup of Excellence competitions.
Over the past several years, far and away some of the best robusta we’ve ever tasted has come out of India. In India, robusta can be handled like the most precious of arabica beans, and we often love what a measured dose of it does to round out an espresso blend. (Insert the *gag* *spew* *hack* of professional tastemakers here.)
The original Caffè Pascucci in India was something of an anomaly: it was a truly cosmopolitan location in the thick of Bangalore that also served things like pasta and wine. (Something even the San Francisco edition does not do.) Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. But for whatever reasons, it quickly spawned three other Caffè Pascucci locations in other Bangalore neighborhoods: Indiranagar, Jayanagar, and J P Nagar.
Located on a tree-lined, semi-residential street in Bangalore’s upscale Indiranagar neighborhood, this location doesn’t carry wine nor coffee merchandising (nor half the desserts on their menus). But they do have a lot of the other trappings of an international espresso bar. They sport an outdoor patio in front with café tables and chairs — just down from a sugar cane juice vendor who frequents the cricket grounds nearby.
Inside they pump up the Western pop music amidst the classic black-and-red Pascucci motif: red and white leather chairs and loveseats, small café tables, and free WiFi. They also serve sandwiches and pastas.
Using a two-group Pascucci-branded Fiorenzato in the back, they pull shots in a Pascucci-branded glass cup with a healthy-looking medium-brown crema and a couple of lighter heat spots. It tastes a little more bitter than your typical Western espresso in India, but the body is solid. With a flavor of tobacco smoke and some cloves. At least when it comes to the coffee, it is a significant improvement over their original MG Road location. For a mere Rs 55 (about $1).
Read the review of Caffè Pascucci in Indiranagar, Bangalore, India.
Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.
If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.
That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)
All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.
And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)
But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.
What a fantastic find on the fringes of Monterey city. This location, open for a few years now, is mostly a roastery (with a roaster in back supplied by Roasters Exchange) who supplies a number of area restaurants and cafés, however they also offer kiosk-like walk-up retail beverage service.
The address will take you to their non-descript garage entrance, so you need to head around the corner to an alley with a cyclone-fence-enclosed parking lot. Even if there’s no place to sit here, there are plenty of locals who frequent this spot and all seem to know each other: women in exercise pants, hipsters, old guys with pick-ups, former employees, etc. There are two short metal counters to stand against and drink your brew, however.
There are various stickers against the front counter, plus various odd collectables on the walls and a general homage to the odd and unusual. It feels a lot like the Barefoot Coffee Roasters Coffee Works and Roll-UP Bar in San Jose, just with a lot more quirk. (And how many places do you know sell straight chicory for $3.50 a half pound?)
For coffee service they offer a pour-over bar, a two-group, turquoise Rancilio Z9 lever machine, and a very rare and less-used three-group orange Brugnetti Aurora lever machine. In addition to espresso shots with their Motor City Espresso blend, they were offering single origin shots of Guatemala Hue Hue Tenango.
They serve shots with a mottled, swirled dark and medium brown crema, a potent aroma, a rich body, and a complex, well-blended flavor of fresh spice, some tobacco, and sweeter notes. Served in a mismatched collection of ceramic espresso cups. This is one of the finest new espresso shots we’ve had in a year.
The milk-frothing leaves a lot to be desired, however, as they serve cappuccino in only paper cups and with too much coffee volume – making it more of a latte with some stiff froth. Monterey’s Café Lumiere makes a much better cap with latte art.
Opening around Thanksgiving of 2011, this downtown location of Verve clearly ups the design aesthetics and sends a signal across the street of the venerable Lulu Carpenters. If only the coffee service could live up to everything else promised by visual pageantry here.
It’s a beautiful, open space with a prime location. A former curiosity shop (fruit baskets, etc.) called “Best of Everything Santa Cruz”, this space remained vacant for a number of years prior to Verve’s move-in. There’s a lot of exposed, unfinished wood integrated in its interior design (though less wood than, say, Sightglass) and bare, decorative hanging lightbulbs.
It’s an airy space with seating concentrated at stools and window counters along Pacific Ave. and Front St. There’s also larger wooden tables with affixed, movable seating that suggests a strange cross between a McDonald’s and a German biergarten. There’s a wall of merchandising, which includes a variety of freshly roasted coffees. And not that we’re big fans of marketing literature, but they oddly offer nothing for potential consumers to discriminate their different coffees. This becomes particularly perplexing when they offer roasts from four different El Salvador farms as when we visited. (For the record, we tried some of their El Salvador La Benedición, which we randomly purchased and recommend after some home trials.)
They showcase two gleaming three-group La Marzocco Strada machines, each accompanied by three Mazzer grinders featuring three different bean stocks. It’s not like their service counter doesn’t take the appropriate time — waits for an espresso shot can be 5-10 minutes even at 3pm on a Saturday. But the resulting shot, using their Sermon blend, had a tepid serving temperature, a thin medium brown crema with some limited texture, and a watered-down body that tastes of wet tobacco leaves. Served in notNeutral cups with a side of sparkling water.
It is surprisingly disappointing, given the quality at their mothership location, although not inconsistent with most places that opt to showcase modern pressure-control machines like the Strada or Slayer. (Too often we find that new toys or aesthetics can matter more than a good end product.) It certainly could be an off barista or one that refused to sink shot when they should have. But the overall experience leaves you with the impression that the emphasis and expense here are focused on the wrong, superficial things.
A setup like this with the results they produce are as wastefully aggrevating as the guy with the $60,000 Porsche roadster driving 55mph in a 65mph zone along US 101 — using the passing lane instead as a retirement lane to mentally check-out and avoid making any driving decisions. We will take a storebought roast with a cheap, used La Spaziale machine and a barista obsessive about perfecting his/her shot — and who knows how to use the equipment properly — over this puffed-up experience anyday. It may cost a mere $2.75, but when you can get comparable quality shots for $1.25, Verve is letting their standards and their customers down. Verve is clearly capable of much better, so a revisit is mandatory.
My brother lived in Austin years ago, and the town has changed a lot since then. That is, besides the construction of a fence and pillars at the North Congress Ave. end of the Great Walk in front of the Texas state capitol — to prevent people like my brother from accidentally driving vehicles down the front steps and chipping the pavement.
But being a college down, Austin also seems to try to capitalize on its “Keep Austin Weird” vibe — and yes, they sell T-shirts that say that, just as in Santa Cruz. However, looking down on the Austin walk-of-fame sidewalk on Trinity St. between 4th & 5th Sts., you’ll find a star for Sandra Day O’Connor right next to a star for Mean Joe Greene. So who is going to argue?
Another change in Austin is the improvement of its coffee scene. Patika Coffee is one of several examples. Except this example is really a coffee cart that sits in an otherwise vacant-looking parking lot downtown, next to the beached trailers of a couple of other food purveyors. Think of it like Réveille Coffee Co. — just grittier, less mobile, and with sketchier neighbors.
The parking lot is separated from the sidewalk traffic by handrails, and there’s an outdoor table/picnic bench and an over-hanging tarp for shade.
Inside their two-person cart, two staffers run the operation with a two-group Synesso machine, using Cuvée Coffee. They are apologetically required to use paper cups by city ordinance, as they are classified as a “food truck” and thus have limitations on the vessels and utencils they can pass out. (Apparently, food trucks are required by Austin law to generate disposable waste.)
They pull shots with a rich, medium brown, even crema on a layer of a thinner-bodied, more acidic espresso than served by the Caffé Medici serving Cuvée across the street. It’s potent, narrower in flavor profile, and lighter on body: a stereotypical “third wave” North American espresso — you know, the kind that’s high on punch and low on balance and finesse.
Read the review of Patika Coffee in downtown Austin, TX.
Last week we were down in Austin, TX for the first time in over a decade. We managed to do just a little coffee exploration downtown. However, we were primarily there attending the SXSWedu conference. No, that’s not SXSW — once a cool independent music conference 20-25 years ago that’s now a bloated, corporate-sponsored wankfest that also sports “film” and “interactive” themes. SXSWedu is related to the main SXSW, but it is crawling with teachers and educators with no money and — in the spirit of teachers buying their class pencils and much unlike the gaudy entertainment bashes and freebies of SXSW — features a cash bar where attendees have to buy their own drip coffee.
Last Friday the conferences crossed over. Suddenly a cold, rainy wind kicked up as all the teachers left, and the town was invaded by an army of rich white people who dress like 8-year-olds and spend all day tweeting on Apple products about their food-trucks-for-dogs start-ups and their trips to Haiti. KMN. Arguably we couldn’t have left at a better time.
But before we did leave, we became quite enamored with the downtown location of Caffé Medici. It’s a small, three-shop chain of Austin coffee bars, and at the downtown location the coffee is excellent and the environment is also great.
They offer patio sidewalk seating in front on metal tables and chairs of what looks like a rather corporate office building. Inside, you can sit at the center bar where the barista works behind one of two red, three-group La Marzocco FB/80 MP machines. There are a few indoor tables, leather bench seating along one wall, and an upstairs for more seating. Order at the counter in back, beneath the massive red wall with Caffé Medici’s “Cosimo” on it, and your order will electronically beam over to the center barista area.
They mostly pull shots of local roaster Cuvée Coffee with a very even, medium brown crema. They serve it properly short and potent, with a rich body and a nice, blended flavor of spice, herbal pungency, even a little wood and yet a noticeable brightness over the top.
It has a complex flavor, though oddly served in cheap Delco cups and with a side of sparkling water. One day they brought in bags of Verve‘s Sermon blend, so they do a rotation at times. Though one word of warning: the Cuvée Coffee roasts sold at the bar were about three weeks old. But that’s more of a minor complaint.
Their milk-frothing is very wet and somewhat dense — there’s no real foam here — and it comes with decent rosetta latte art.
Read the review of Caffé Medici in downtown Austin, TX.
Some five years ago we wrote about the problem of espresso sameness in the SF Bay Area. At issue is the challenge for local communities to preserve a diversity of quality coffee purveyors. On that subject, today’s Washington D.C. City Paper posted an article on their city’s growing quality coffee monoculture: How Did Counter Culture Coffee Take Over D.C.? Freebies – Young & Hungry.
A regional diversity in roasting styles, bean sourcing, and even plain old philosophical approaches towards coffee (for example, industry-centric practices vs. being customer-centric) is a prerequisite for any vibrant coffee culture to exist. Too much of one philosophy or approach without a foil, and it becomes hegemony — if not also a little monotony.
Given this age of large corporate buy-outs and company financial failures — to which D.C. is no stranger — having all your eggs in one basket is also a recipe for disaster. The article also offers up some local purveyors that give hope for more of a balanced coffee economy in the area.