Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
As 2010 heads towards a close, we reflect on some of the more interesting coffee bars we’ve stumbled across for the first time in the past year. Cape Town’s Origin Coffee Roasting is clearly a new global favorite. Closer to home, the opening of Ma’velous promises a new evolutionary direction for the coffee bar. But oddly one of the most memorable coffee bars we visited in the past year, and one we had yet to write a Trip Report for, was Moby Dick II on the island of Pico in the Portuguese Azores.
First, a little background. The theme gimmick coffee bar is old hat. But the Moby Dick II, easily one of the most unique cafés you will ever encounter, works it on another level. This has to do with its sense of place.
Since the 1980s, the local economy of this small island of Pico may have successfully made the shift from open-boat whaling to whale watching. Yet the place remains respectfully steeped in the legacy of whaling culture — a balancing act that isn’t necessarily easy, given the revisionist temptations rooted in the modern “save the whales” ethos. Pico boasts whaling museums and former whale-processing plants that still carry a lingering smell of what was once the horrible stench of the whaling industry.
It’s easy to overlook the critical, albeit momentary, importance of whaling in world history. At its mid-1800s peak, Nantucket, MA was the Silicon Valley of its era — flush with big money, speculative investors, gargantuan risk-taking, state-of-the-art technology, and workers eager to earn their share of the spoils by living in the extreme. The whaling ships of the time were the grandfathers of space exploration. The worldwide commercial nature of the whaling industry also marked the birth of modern globalization. It is within this context that you have to appreciate one of the greatest works of American literature, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Our visit to Pico made us reread the novel for the first time since high school, which we enjoyed a lot more this time around.)
As reflected in the novel, the Portuguese Azores were a favorite port of call for the Nantucket whalers in the early stages of their global quests. Provisions were cheaper on the islands than in New England (early shades of Wal-Mart buying cheaper goods from China). The local population of the Azores also provided a healthy supply of ready and capable whalers. And nowhere in the Azores has whaling meant more than on Pico island and, in specific, the small town of Lajes do Pico.
This is a seriously heavy thematic backdrop for what is a whimsical art project and coffee bar. But with its location on the seaside esplanada of Lajes do Pico, the Moby Dick II café fits thematically better with its place than any other gimmick coffee spot we’ve experienced prior.
This coffee bar is really a service kiosk made out of a mini Airstream-like trailer decorated to look curiously like a sperm whale — from the eyes to the skin and down to the whale tail that suspends above it. The side of the whale opens out onto the street corner with a number of chairs and tables under parasols at a wooden deck, illuminated by fluorescent lights at night, overlooking the ocean and the harbor.
Here they play modern music and employ younger baristas. Given the general lack of signage, you wouldn’t know the name of the place if not for the staff T-shirts. This is sidewalk café offers some of the best views in town while keeping the locals happy with a rather full bar (including a wide assortment of Portuguese liqueurs), made-to-order sandwiches and light edibles, and as almost required by Portuguese law: espresso.
Inside the whale by the register is a two-group Fiamma machine. They use the Azores-ubiquitous Sical beans, and with their Fiamma they produce shots with a good layer of even, medium brown crema with a smoothness and pepper and mild spice flavor. Served in BonVida cups with Sical branding for a mere €0.50.
It’s far from the best espresso you’ve ever had. And while it’s almost as hard to find an outstanding espresso in the Azores as it is to find a poor one, this is one of the more memorable options of the lot on its quality merits alone.
Read the review of Moby Dick II in Lajes do Pico in the Azores.
Today’s Metro Pulse (Knoxville, TN) published a lengthy-but-interesting piece on Knoxville’s budding local coffee scene: Revenge of the Knoxville (Coffee) Nerds » Metro Pulse.
The article includes plenty of common themes we’ve seen many times before — pour-over bars, direct trade, the wine analogy. However, the article succeeds by being non-judgmental while going beyond the usual coffee platitudes. For example, we learn that coffee isn’t actually the second most valuable commodity traded in the world, behind petroleum, and that 18th-century London slang once compared coffeehouses to a method of birth control.
Call it coffee’s version of Hubble’s Law: the rate at which a local coffee scene evolves is inversely proportional to its maturity. What?!? Let us explain. Seattle and San Francisco are examples of well-established coffee cultures, and the rate of evolution and improvement we see in the coffee there tends to nudge along at a rather lumbering pace. Contrast this with what we’ve found on our recent return to Cape Town, South Africa. The local coffee culture there today is noticeably different from our last visit in July.
Cape Town may be much further along than, say, Dallas, Texas — where earlier last week we learned that a single new espresso machine in town is all that’s required to “earn us a little gold star on the national coffee map.” Cape Town boasts generally high espresso standards overall, plus a few exceptional cases such as Origin, TRUTH., and Espresso Lab Microroasters. But changes at just those three were significant enough.
So what has changed? Over at Origin, they’ve reworked their retail model so that customers can now opt for any variety of their roasted coffee, rotated every two weeks, in any of four (five?) ways. This is not unlike SF’s recently opened Ma’velous.
They offer any of their coffees as plunger (i.e., French press, at R17, or about $2.50), Turkish (R17), pour-over (using a Hario V60, at R20), and siphon (also Hario, at R22). Additionally there’s the espresso option (now R16, up from R14 a few months ago) — which can also accommodate any coffee as a single-origin or blend option through the use of their new doserless Compak grinders. Cup of Excellence coffees are additionally available for a R10 surcharge.
Origin’s upstairs “dining” area is being reworked with a new La Marzocco GB/5 placed at a new espresso bar that’s front-and-center, and downstairs they replaced their Linea with a three-group Synesso (Origin being South Africa’s Synesso distributor).
Origin is also emphasizing their recent triumphs at Cape Town’s 2011 regional barista championships, where Joanne Berry, Origin’s barista trainer, won for the second year running. It inspired Origin to offer the signature drinks of their competing baristas on the menu for R25 — save for the spun sugar cups made for Ms. Berry’s drink at the competition. Although we’ve always questioned the relevancy of the specialty drink category of barista competitions, Origin has at least created a retail outlet to make it more relevant.
Oh, and the Kenya Makwa AA 2010 here, made of a typical SL28 & K7 Kenyan cultivar mutation, was excellent.
David Donde is quite a local force of personality. He founded Cape Town’s TRUTH.coffeecult and co-founded Origin (TRUTH. being part of the stereotypical local coffee scene “divorce,” a la Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel) and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. This when he’s not doing a local radio program on sports cars.
We had missed connecting with David a number of times on our last visit, so we lucked out finding him having breakfast when visiting TRUTH.’s main location. David always has several different ideas going on in the fire — not all of them coffee related. But in our discussions about coffee, he was clearly obsessing over flavor. For one, he’s adamant about getting the “roast flavor out of coffee” and having it rely more on acidity and body. He also expanded on some of the assumption-busting experimentation he’s thought about since meeting James Hoffman in London to play with coffee — akin to how some musicians cross paths and hold a private jam session. (In David’s words, he “spent day with James tasting bad coffee and trying to fix it”.)
One big topic was the whole “crema is bad for coffee” debate that originated from the Coffee Collective guys in Copenhagen a couple years ago. Mr. Hoffman took a year to succumb to the idea, and just yesterday we had Eater interviewing Chris Young and touching on the subject.
The idea is that crema is a necessary by-product of good espresso extraction. But while we’ve all been indoctrinated that “crema is good,” further inspection suggests that the crema actually makes espresso taste bad. That without crema, or even skimming it off as David demonstrated for me, your espresso is a cleaner, sweeter shot.
We still came to the conclusion that the idea is very subjective. Yes, the crema by itself was bitter, and the crema-less espresso was cleaner and sweeter. Not that we’re big fans of bitter coffee, but we’re much bigger critics of deconstructionism — i.e., the belief that the quality and integrity of the whole is merely an aggregation of the quality of its constituent parts in isolation. But even ignoring that we value deconstructionism as a barely more reputable cousin of homeopathy, the subjectivity of this evaluation is grounds enough to be skeptical: some people are clearly on a mission to make all of our coffee taste like berries, and not everybody thinks this is a good idea … us included.
Experimentation is high these days in coffee, and David is a major advocate. Still, we can’t help but be a little jaded when people start bandying about the science word in relation to all of this, invoking misplaced implications of high technology. Lacking a basic control or null hypothesis, the simple act of measurement is no more science than a three-year-old who crawls the floor looking for things to stick in his mouth. Just because the Taiwanese chain 85℃ puts salt in their coffee, and experimenters learn that salt masks bitterness in coffee, should that honestly make 85℃ eligible for a future Nobel Prize?
Science or no science, experimentation and challenging assumptions still has merit. David also demonstrated how latte art was possible without crema, explained how he came to appreciate the caffè americano only when the espresso + hot water order was switched (a la the Aussie long black), and related that cold portafilter handles (frozen even, in his own test) do prove to make terrible espresso. We also saw very much eye-to-eye on things like the relevance of specialty drinks in barista competitions (what are you really judging?) and the limits of “cause coffee” when quality isn’t your primary goal (Jo’berg’s Bean There being an example).
Last but not least is Espresso Lab Microroasters. While still working with their four core sources for beans, they have expanded a bit of their small storage area for greens and even added an additional GB/5 for Saturday market traffic. Apparently their business nearby doubled since our last post, so here’s to supporting good coffee.
But talk about a memory — the team remembered what we last sampled from them four months ago. They also follow a coffee buying strategy we’ve long advocated: buying runners up at Cup of Excellence competitions at a major discount to the winner. Should a couple of subjective points in CoE taste test really justify one coffee selling at multiples of its runner up? The Lab’s organic-farmed Serra do Boné came in second in Brazil’s 2010 CoE competition, and we missed nothing but a much higher price for a stellar, balanced coffee with a sweetness of fruit and honey.
Last week the Lab recently added an Xmas blend (35% Karimikui Kenya, 35% Adado Ethiopia, 30% Mocha Harazi Yemen) as a “dessert” coffee: it has a noticeable lack of body, by design, but with a brightness and lightness for finishing off a big holiday meal. Still, with the great number of South Africans who prefer the moka pot for home use (despite being able to buy every variant of Aeropress, Hario V60 dripper, etc., while here), we like the fact that they optimize some of their roasts for the underappreciated Moka pot.
And on the “is crema bad for espresso” controversy, btw, co-owner Renato thinks crema is integral but sets the stage wrong as the first taste on a consumer’s palate.
We can only manage what we might find in Cape Town again next year.
We love a good dose of sarcasm now and then. We’ve also been known to slag on McCafés while praising the coffee standards in Australia. So we had to highlight this sarcastic gem from Australia’s The Punch today: G’day from the McCafe…. Have a nice day! | Article | The Punch.
Apparently Oprah Winfrey is taking her 25-year-old TV show on a pre-retirement tour through Australia. In anticipation of her Aussie tour, Oprah slanders much of Australia for American audiences with a sponsored TV segment laden with outdated and exaggerated stereotypes.
One of her more egregious offenses? Making the McDonald’s-sponsored claim that Aussies just love McCafés. Millions of Aussies can only reply, “What’s a McCafé?”
Well, at least it’s not a crappy Oprah rehash of kopi luwak. (Pun honestly not intended.)
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.
This past weekend, Barefoot Coffee Roasters celebrated their seventh anniversary. While the San Francisco Coffee Wars have clearly overlooked the South Bay, we’ve frequently traced some of our favorite coffee experiences back to this small microroaster and their tiny chain of cafés. Besides their flagship café in Santa Clara, they have recently expanded to a couple of small kiosks in San Jose. One of which we visited this past weekend.
Having lived in Palo Alto for four years during the early 1990s, I used to joke “in Palo Alto, diversity means owning a Macintosh.” While there’s more to the Peninsula and South Bay than strip malls and residential sprawl, those are two of the reasons we don’t go back. One of the reasons we do go back is if said strip mall or residential sprawl hosts a Barefoot location. Barefoot’s Roll-Up Bar falls in the latter category.
Co-located with the Barefoot Coffee Works (the new home of Barefoot’s roasting operations), the Roll-Up Bar is literally located at the garage door at the end of a massive driveway. If that sounds rather residential, it’s because it is. Located in pretty much a house that is only lacking a basketball hoop in the wide driveway, this is a casual spot not far from the Shark Tank where locals can enjoy great coffee in what feels like someone’s gated front yard.
If you’re driving here like most people, just be prepared to look for a morning house party serving coffee. The neighbor next door currently sports a rather elaborate Halloween yard decoration, then commemorating the impending doom for the Philadelphia Phillies. (Even if San Jose has their own Giants.)
There are a few benches in front for seating, but otherwise it’s a limited set of stools at a small wooden counter bar set up for Hario V60 pour-overs plus an ornate, copper-plated, three-group Victoria Arduino lever machine. In back there are a couple of Probat roasters, a lot of storage shelves, a cupping room, and plenty of unroasted coffee.
For their 7th anniversary celebration, Barefoot did the crazy thing and gave out free coffee all day long at all of their locations. But rather than offer only their everyday, less expensive coffees, to their credit they poured a lot of their special supplies. Besides serving their Bolivia Cup of Excellence #29 Flor Rosa (with three days age) at the pour-over bar in notNeutral Bangladeshi cups, they were also serving this coffee (normally at $24/12-oz) as their single origin espresso.
The resulting cup was fragrant, with a medium brown, even layer of crema in their classic dark brown ACF cups. It’s single origin overboard — with a sharp, acidic sweetness tasting of berries, honey, and a light molasses. This is straight-out brightness bomb espresso that would make most Italians recoil in disgust. But if you’re into that sort of thing, and we sometimes are, it’s rather exceptional. However, we need to update this review at some point with a more “typical” shot from this location.
Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Roasters’ Roll-Up Bar in San Jose.
Today’s The Age (Melbourne, Australia) published a less-than-convinced article on the experimental fad of pairing coffees with a meal: Claire’s roast: Coffee matching leaves bitter taste. And Melbourne is a town that famously knows its coffee.
For me, the lingering question had been whether the concept of matching food to coffee would work…and based on my experience last week, I think the answer to that question is no. [The coffee] … didn’t bring out the best in what we were eating. Nor did the food bring out the best in the coffee.
–Claire Winton Burn in The Age, 19-Oct-2010
Individual efforts can fall short where others might succeed. But as a general rule, we’ve long thought that this coffee pairing concept made about as much sense as pairing cigars with a meal. (Though we always ask for coffee after dessert anyway.) It’s yet another shoehorned manifestation of the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee.
For all the folly of marketing coffee like wine — instead of like, well, coffee — there are times we wish coffee professionals would treat coffee more like wine. For example, single vineyard wines are often very expressive and interesting. But there’s nothing wrong with a rich, traditional Bordeaux — or what a négociant does for a Burgundy wine. On the more modern side, the same is true for a good GSM Rhône blend.
But unlike wine, blending remains a very bad word in quality coffee these days — what we’ve referred to as Death by Single Origin. Blends are treated as if no sane person of any reputable taste in coffee would ever ask for them. That blends only exist as a crutch to create consistent tastes from crop to crop — and not to offer a broader, more complex flavor profile. You may as well ask your barista for vanilla hazelnut flavored coffee.
Then take coffee roasting levels. Insisting exclusively on a specific lighter/medium roast level (aka, Medium Röaster Cult) — and those origin greens best expressed at those roast levels — is akin to only offering pinot noir on a restaurant wine list. Pinot noir is easily my favorite wine varietal, but what if I wanted a Cabernet Sauvignon? A Riesling? Even a Barbera? It’s as if many microroasters were wine stewards telling us, “Sorry, all we got is pinot noir, because it’s the best.”
Public coffee standards experienced a significant leap in quality over the past decade because there was a lot that needed improvement. This gave the impression that the sky was the limit — that new doors of quality could be opened at any turn — thus even innovation-obsessed magazines such as Wired started writing about coffee as if it were on some space-bound quality trajectory. Gadget hounds, and a gadget-obsessed media, followed suit.
On the other hand, wine hasn’t improved much at all over the same period. Wine has already experienced centuries of improvement and refinement, so winemakers have instead focused on tailoring it to public tastes at specific price points. Wine has plenty of gadget advocates, but you will never find a Wired article on making Bordeaux, for example.
Lacking the centuries of obsessive quality practices that wine has experienced, coffee still has room to improve. However, that space-bound quality trajectory? Let’s face it: there’s been a major leap on some dysfunctional foundational basics to reach a new quality plateau — basics like quality bean sourcing, freshly roasted coffee, and trained baristas — but the rest has been incremental at best. Some supposed improvements, like machine pressure profiling, have materialized as more lateral moves than any quality advancement per se.
Unlike trajectories, plateaus lack any of the hype and exhilaration to keep an audience fully engaged. But there should still be plenty of interesting, rational things to write about without proclaiming the arrival of fourth- and fifth-wave coffee. Winemakers may not have to face the naïve and presumptuous question of “What is the future of wine?” with every interview — as if modern man might not recognize what we call wine in the year 2020 — but there’s still plenty to say.
It had been eleven years since I last visited the Azores. A remote archipelago of Portugal, this small group of volcanic islands — isolated in the middle of the Atlantic — is the very verdant-but-austere birthplace of my in-laws. Since my last visit, Portugal converted from the escudo to the Euro, tying the country more closely to other Western European standards of living. A number of Azorean emigrants to America found its spartan island lifestyle of stone houses and no utilities now forgiving and modern enough to move back. And I started coffee ratings Web site.
A blog post was inevitable.
“I think the Azores must be very little known in America. Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them.”
–Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), 1877
Mention the Azores to most people, and they might think you’re talking about the Ozarks. Discovered in the 1400s by Portuguese explorers, the isolation and remoteness of these islands gave rise to resilient settlers and, later, some value as a transatlantic weigh station. Some locals still speak Portuguese with an accent that might be more familiar to a 15th century Portuguese explorer than a 21st century lisboeta.
However, there are a few references to these islands in popular culture. Besides an economy predominantly based on agriculture and fishing, the Azores once supported an active open-boat whaling economy until the practice was outlawed in 1984. Herman Melville, in his infamous 1851 novel Moby-Dick, wrote about the many hardy whalers from these islands aboard Capt. Ahab’s Pequod — a ship that almost gave Starbucks its name until a co-founder vetoed it in favor of the Pequod’s first mate. (You knew there had to be a coffee tie-in somewhere.)
“No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores.”
– Herman Mellville on the crew of the Pequod, Moby-Dick, Chapter XXVII
Turning their underdeveloped remoteness in the Atlantic to an advantage, these islands have more recently begun to focus on ecotourism. One can often think of the Azores as Portugal’s equivalent to Hawai’i, but a Hawai’i long before its tourist economy appeared. In one of the world’s better examples of economy conversion, open-boat whaling has given way to open-boat whale watching. Meanwhile, the maritime themes that inspired Moby-Dick still live on in local imagery, the names of commercial establishments, and even a local version of the mobile coffee cart.
The presence of whales and the history of whaling is most acutely felt on the Azores’ Pico Island. In addition to visiting Pico (a first for me), I spent more extensive time eleven miles across the ocean channel on my return to nearby São Jorge Island (aka, Land of My In-Laws). This narrow, 35-mile-long island has only about twice the land mass of San Francisco and is home to a mere 10,000 residents — plus some 20,000 cows who contribute to the island’s famous cheese production.
If the Azores are remote to begin with, the quiet island of São Jorge is even more isolated — even if some bloggers might unknowingly recognize its distinctive landscape from a semi-popular WordPress theme. In the previous season of his food/travel TV show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visited São Jorge and dined in the tiny fishing community of Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo — a town that is still only accessible by foot, by fishing boat, and (only just recently) by ATV. Mr. Bourdain wrote of the village, “Totally remote, no power, no running water, no TV, no phone … gorgeous. Best meal of the trip but hairy getting there.”
“When I say this place is isolated, I mean end-of-the-world isolated … 2100 miles from New York City, 900 miles from Portugal, and God only knows how far from anything resembling civilization. It feels about as far from any place as you can possibly be.”
–Anthony Bourdain on Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Island; No Reservations, Season 6, Episode 4
For centuries, São Jorge, like the rest of the Azores, has been characterized by austere, maritime frontier living carved into rock and sea … and by its self-sufficient country folk living in simple-but-immaculate dwellings overlooking beautiful green cliffs and blue ocean. But there were noticeable changes since my last stay. Some of these changes were welcome progress. Other changes — particularly those from expats returning from America with a little too much cash to flaunt — weren’t as good.
In 1999, many buildings in the main village of Velas looked worn and run down. Today they show signs of reconstruction and a fresh coat of paint. A number of municipal buildings and facilities have been either modernized or recently constructed — newly paved roads, modernized island airports with free Wi-Fi (sometimes the only place on the island), investments in wind power, etc. In 1999, the Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo looked largely abandoned, in slow decay, and “governed” by feral children (Lord of the Flies style) whom I then jokingly called “The Children of the Clams” — in reference to the locally famed amêijoas de São Jorge clams that come only from its tiny lake. Today there’s an influx of people, adults even, with a number of surfers who have since spruced things up a bit and made it their home.
From the same seaside cabin I stayed in 11 years ago along the tiny Porto dos Terreiros, I again heard the familiar yet bizarre nighttime call of the cagarro, a regional seabird. But on Friday nights that sound is now mixed with the sounds of Portuguese karaoke down at the new unnamed bar at the shore.
Surprisingly, the food has gotten much better here too. Dining in the Azores has always been a regular repeat of the same, limited, local-but-good menu items. However, this time I got the sense that the global standards and awareness for food quality have somehow made their way ashore here: the food seems more flavorful and slightly more varied than it did 11 years ago. I even encountered the publicized concept of do prado ao prato — or “from the meadow to the plate”.
The coffee, on the other hand, has not changed much at all. You can look at this as either good or not so good. Combine this with the islands’ isolation, and exploring the coffee here becomes a bit of an anthropological study — not entirely unlike chain-free Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are virtually no chain stores of any kind on the Azores.
The coffee stasis here can be considered “good” because the local standards were never half-bad to begin with. This is Portugal, after all, where the tradition of good coffee and a public obsession over it is almost as strong as Italy’s. The stasis here is also good because the convenient, quality-stunted, environmentally regressive consumer fad of single serving coffeemakers has not yet arrived from continental Europe.
Yet clear opportunities for improvement exist. While the Azoreans drink their café several times a day as a fact of life and a matter of social discourse like any other good Portuguese citizen, there is something of a cultural split over milder coffee served at home in the morning and the more serious, big pants coffee served in the afternoon or evening. Morning coffee at home is often café cevada (café de cebada in Spanish) — a sort of mild, granular instant coffee made primarily from grain (literally: barley) and typically served with larger quantities of milk. While not terrible, it’s not at all like the serious coffee served in homes from Moka pots (and the occasional pour-over) later in the day. All separate from the many commercial cafés selling the various Portuguese coffee drink staples — from the bica (the typical espresso shot cost €0.50, or about $0.70) to café pingado to the garoto to the galão.
The more cautionary tale when being invited to someone’s Azorean home is that it’s customary to break out delicious pastries but also the family moonshine — typically a homemade angelica fortified wine or an aguardente brandy. Often very good, often served from a re-purposed liter-sized plastic soda bottle, and often something to make one pace themselves and their social calendar.
Like any other import, the distribution of roasted coffee and espresso machines is severely limited in the Azores. Portuguese machine manufacturers, such as Fiamma, were far more prevalent than in continental Portugal — despite the occasional two-group La Spaziale. And while we’re huge fans of Portugal’s Café Nicola coffee, it is essentially unavailable on the islands of Pico and São Jorge. The much busier, more cosmopolitan Azorean island of Terçeira hosts a number of Nicola-branded cafés — plus the lone international airport in the area — but that almost seems wasted on the locals; as a local saying goes, “Terçeira drinks tea, São Jorge drinks coffee.”
On the islands, Sical is the king of coffee — both in cafés and on retail store shelves, in whole bean and ground forms (5 Estrellas Clássico at €6.90/kg, or about $4.35/lb). I repeatedly came across Sical so often that I got music stuck in my head — disturbingly, it was the otherwise-unintelligible opening chants in the French Tecktonik remixes, and 2007 Eurotrash fad, of Yelle’s “A Cause Des Garçons.” While not necessarily poor coffee, Nestlé acquired Sical in 1987, and nothing of artisan value has ever survived in Nestlé’s mass production clutches. Otherwise, there were a number of Torrié cafés and the occasional Delta Café.
While it is generally quite difficult to find poor espresso on the Azores, it is next to impossible to find a café that stands out from the crowd as anything exemplary. Hence why all the café reviews are left here as a list rather than individual blog posts. About the only stand-out you might find are the places that end-to-end grow their own green coffee (rather unique for Europe), process the beans, roast them, and serve them to their café customers — a true bean-to-cup example, as it were. Café Nunes, in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes, being one such example.
|Name||Address||Island||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Aeroporto de São Jorge Café||Aeroporto de São Jorge, Estrada Regional R1-2a, Fajã de Santo Amaro||São Jorge||6.50||6.00||6.250|
|Águas Cristalinas||Rua das Poças, São Roque do Pico||Pico||5.80||6.20||6.000|
|Café Ilhéis||Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Urzelina||São Jorge||6.90||6.80||6.700|
|Café Nunes||Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Fajã dos Vimes||São Jorge||6.70||6.50||6.600|
|Cafe Restaurante Velense||Rua Conselheiro Doutor José Pereira, 5, Velas||São Jorge||5.40||6.00||5.700|
|Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo||Largo do Cais, 4, Calheta||São Jorge||6.00||6.20||6.100|
|Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo||Av. do Livramento, Velas||São Jorge||6.40||5.20||5.800|
|Fornos de Lava||Travessa de São Tiago, 46, Santo Amaro||São Jorge||6.60||6.20||6.400|
|Lajes Airport Café||Aerogare Civil das Lajes, Pedreira – Lajes||Terçeira||7.30||6.20||6.750|
|Manézinho Restaurante||Caminho do Açougue, Urzelina||São Jorge||6.40||7.00||6.700|
|Moby Dick II||Rua Manuel Vieira Soares & Rua Engenheiro Arantes Oliveira, Lajes do Pico||Pico||7.20||6.80||7.000|
|O Milénio Snack-Bar||Rua do Corpo Santo, 21, Velas||São Jorge||6.70||7.00||6.850|
|Pastelaria Aroma & Sabores||Rua do Capitão-Mor, 9, Lajes do Pico||Pico||7.10||7.00||7.050|
|Restaurante Castelinho||Caminho das Ávores, Urzelina||São Jorge||6.70||6.80||6.750|
|Restaurante Lagos||Largo de São Pedro, 2, Lajes do Pico||Pico||6.70||7.20||6.950|
|Restaurante “O Baleeiro”||Rua São Pedro, Topo||São Jorge||6.70||6.80||6.750|
It wasn’t long ago that the word obsession conjured up much more negative connotations in society. Today obsession is practically treated like a virtue — something to aspire to — and it can apply to something as neurotically trivial as the cup of coffee you drink when you are traveling.
Case and point with an article posted today on Boing Boing: My quest for the ultimate travel coffee setup – Boing Boing. And you can overlook Boing Boing’s nerd factor; it’s not like they’re the only ones covering obsessive travel coffee setups. (This also published today: How to Have Good Coffee While Traveling | Serious Eats.)
So when does obsession go from a cute hobby to seek out the “perfect” coffee to a Sisyphean road to Lithium treatment? One unhealthy sign is when you’re carrying a suitcase dedicated to your home coffee.
A big reason why we’ve been quiet around here of late is that we recently spent a few weeks traveling in the remote Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. In particular, we spent the bulk of our time on the sleepy island of São Jorge — where, on an island about twice the size of San Francisco, there are less than 10,000 residents, more than twice as many cows, and Internet access barely exists beyond its tiny airport.
Friends planning to visit us while we were there asked, “Should we bring coffee?” Even in the middle of nowhere, this is still Portugal. And the typical coffee was better than anything you can typically get in the U.S. (Expect a coffee-related article on the Azores in the near future.)
This recent example illustrates what’s lost when people insist on taking their lives with them everywhere. What happened to the joy of discovery in travel? Why go to places like the Azores to ensure that you have your daily supply of Chipotle burritos and Intelligentsia coffee? Why demand the same exact dining experiences you can get back home in your suburban backyard? Call it the “When in Rome, why seek out an Olive Garden?” rule.
Yes, a lot of coffee in the American backwoods, and the rest of the world, is terrible. But with a little research with this thing called the Internet, you can actually learn something new in the process. I may have stumbled on some of the most foul and unrecognizable coffee in the world when I was traveling outside of Prague’s Vyšehrad back in 1995 — it was like large-grit sawdust suspended in boiling water. But the fact is I can still remember that experience. Fondly even (albeit comically). That’s more than I can say for the hundreds of Intelligentsia shots I’ve had over the years.
But set aside any xenophobia diagnoses for a moment. Obsession over coffee travel setups also raises the question of whether these people actually like coffee to begin with. For example, we could argue that the author of the Boing Boing article doesn’t really like coffee. Because when the only coffee you can tolerate is a very specific kind made a very specific way, reduced to an obsessed miniature slice of the wide spectrum of experiences that coffee has to offer, it’s only that tiny bit that you actually enjoy. And that’s not coffee — that’s some other craving you’re feeding.
Quick!: name a city that’s surrounded by the exquisite natural beauty of mountains and seas, with brightly painted houses that decorate quaint neighborhoods, with great food everywhere you turn, with a nearby wine country consisting of hundreds of vineyards and many nationally renowned restaurants, with hipsters who frequent farmers’ markets in transitional neighborhoods, with a diverse racial mix from black to white to Indian to Southeast Asian, with the nation’s most vibrant gay population, with a touristy waterfront featuring seals on piers and a ferry that takes you to a famous prison island, and with a whole lot of really good coffee.
Why, it could only be Cape Town, South Africa.
Alright, that was a trick question: San Francisco’s Pier 39 has sea lions, not seals per se. But the point being that for anyone from our fair city, many aspects of Cape Town will seem very familiar. But there are also significant differences.
If you’re talking liberal laws, it’s probably not a major surprise that gay marriage is legal in South Africa. What may be more of a surprise is that, for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the South African constitution had to be temporarily suspended around the soccer stadiums for FIFA security purposes. (We can’t say enough good things for how festive the South Africans were as hosts to the World Cup, btw.) Years of abuses under Apartheid made many personal searches — ones we’re quite accustomed to in the U.S. — illegal. The 14-year-old South African constitution is one of the most liberal in the world.
On the other hand, there’s the old local joke that rock and roll never dies, it just tours South Africa. (“Hey, was that really Bryan Adams I just saw in town the other day?”) And given the nation’s history of economic disparity and its 25% unemployment rate, there are the major issues of poverty and security.
Some expected us to witness crushing poverty and aggressive homelessness in Cape Town, but it’s hard to say that it is any worse than SF. In the month we spent around Cape Town’s central business district (CBD) — a.k.a. the City Bowl — we were approached by all of one person for money. Yet security is a big concern among the locals and it’s an even bigger industry.
Even with all the truly great options in town to satisfy any SF food snob, food is handled a bit differently here. Some of the best sushi in town can be found in Italian restaurants — sushi being a decidedly California thing in Cape Town, and less of a Japanese thing. Which also explains why the grocery stores sell flour tortillas under the name “California wraps”. (To make matters worse, in turn, one of the more famous Italian restaurants in town has a German name.) This theme of playing a bit fast and loose with labels and names will again come up with coffee later in this post.
Speaking of coffee, like Italy or Australia or New Zealand, the baseline quality standards in South Africa are clearly better than in the U.S. You can walk into just about any random store and trust that you’ll get a rather acceptable espresso, whereas this practice is still ill-advised even in San Francisco. But, as in places such as Italy, examples of very good espresso are a rarer find — even in the biggest cosmopolitan cities. But with a little research and a few contacts, we were able to identify some of the best places in Cape Town.
A few things come to mind specifically about the espresso here. WEGA machines are ubiquitous. The coffees tend to emphasize more rich-bodied flavor than the wilder, bright coffees you may come to expect from Africa, but there are exceptions. And the cappuccino here almost always comes with a very Portuguese dusting of cocoa powder; you quite literally ask to have for one without it.
And somewhat contrary to an earlier post of ours, you can find the cappuccino quite often on café menus — even perhaps moreso than flat whites, and especially at the cafés that are a little less obsessed about their coffee. However, most places do treat the cappuccino and flat white interchangeably. Which leads us to our next topic of discussion…
After spending a month in South Africa, it made sense that this is the nation that gave us “red espresso” — or Roobios tea. Even if you like the tea, as we do, the term “red espresso” comes off as unnecessarily deceptive and has never sat well with us. Just because you can stick something into an espresso machine does not make it espresso. Which reminds us a little of eggspresso — or should that be “yellow espresso”? And yet “Red Cappuccino” is also a registered trademark.
Now if you thought coffee’s wine analogy was a bit over the top, over the past several years South Africa has developed something of a niche market for coffee-flavored wine. They’ve been growing wine grapes around Cape Town since 1655, but it wasn’t until 1925 that a Stellenbosch professor crossed the fragile pinot noir grape with the heartier cinsault (known locally as hermitage) to create a local cultivar called pinotage.
In 2001, noted pinotage maker Diemersfontein Wines came out with the original “coffee chocolate pinotage”, and they’ve popularly released one every year since. Meanwhile, imitators came to the fore in the form of Cappupinoccinotage from Boland Cellars, Café Culture from KWV, the Vrede en Lust Mocholate (a malbec), etc. The original Diemersfontein coffee pinotage wine maker, Bertus Fourie — literally nicknamed “Starbucks” for that reason — has moved on to Café Culture and now Barista Wine (we are not making this up), where he holds the title of “Head Barista” and their Web site offers a Nespresso Le Cube D180 sweepstakes.
Coffee pinotage is sometimes called the red wine for coffee addicts, and it certainly doesn’t come without some controversy from the purists, but it’s really more the red wine for coffee drinkers who don’t like red wine. That said, there’s room for everybody’s tastes. We’ve long stated that Starbucks’ stroke of genius was in convincing millions of customers who don’t like the taste of coffee that they actually do. While coffee pinotage doesn’t use any actual coffee for flavoring, the taste aims for the consumer are the same.
Now despite all the wine-growing activity around Cape Town and a number of its very good wines, many South African wines are still (IMO) global underachievers and/or acquired tastes. Having tried a 2007 Diemersfontein coffee pinotage and a 2009 Barista pinotage, we were reminded of all the beer + coffee combinations that have failed over the years … the “coffee stouts” where the results were second-rate as a beer and second-rate as coffee, rather than something better than the sum of its parts.
Of course, we live in a diverse, global culture that sometimes wants their wine (or beer) to taste like coffee, their coffee to taste like chocolate and hazelnuts, and their chocolate to taste like bacon. So why not skip the middleman and market bacon wine? Sure, it might be a curious novelty to hear Céline Dion perform an album of songs by fellow Canadians Death from Above 1979, but it’s no stretch to presume that it will optimally satisfy neither fans of Céline nor Death from Above 1979.
As Oscar Wilde famously once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” This South African dimension to the coffee-wine analogy largely fails coming from a different angle.
A little more towards the authentic in the African continent, in the category of “now why don’t we do that in America?”, we did enjoy the occasional Ethiopian coffee ceremony — even if it originates on the continent’s opposite side of the equator. At a restaurant such as Cape Town’s Addis in Cape, we enjoyed an odd mix of Frankincense, popcorn (?!), and coffee served from a Jabena pot.
While the coffee undergoes some of the oldest and crudest handling and brewing known to man, the resulting cup is quite flavorful. Perhaps more importantly, the ceremony uniquely resonates with coffee culture, capturing much of the wonder that’s truly native to coffee without the creatively lazy marketing contortionists who squeeze coffee’s square peg into wine tasting’s round hole through the mutant coffee cupping fad in America. But alas, Californication applies to coffee cupping here just as it does to sushi and flour tortillas in South Africa.
At the coffee chain level, Vida e Caffè serves as an example of how Starbucks and even Peet’s fall short. Even Woolworths W Café serves both espresso and cappuccino in a paper cup that run circles around Starbucks.
While at the “artisan” end, there are places like TRUTH. that seem to go through the Third Wave motions, but with much success. And then there are places like Origin Coffee Roasting, who not only broke quality coffee ground in Africa in 2006, but they established a roasting and training operation that most American coffee entrepreneurs have only talked about. And then there’s Espresso Lab Microroasters, who show some of the most cohesive and comprehensive vision for what a quality coffee operation could be — while making espresso as good as anything in SF.
The wine may have room for improvement compared to what San Franciscans are used to, but everything else about Cape Town makes it a fantastic and compelling place to be — including the coffee.
|Name||Address||Neighborhood||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|95 Keerom||95 Keerom St.||Gardens||6.40||7.00||6.700|
|Blue Cat Cafe||Shop 10a, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St.||Gardens||6.60||5.00||5.800|
|Bread Milk & Honey||10 Spin St.||Gardens||7.30||7.50||7.400|
|Café Chic||7 Breda St.||Gardens||3.40||4.50||3.950|
|Cookshop||117 Hatfield St.||Gardens||7.10||7.80||7.450|
|Crème Café & Espresso Bar||Shop 11, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St.||Gardens||4.60||5.00||4.800|
|Deluxe Coffeeworks||25 Church St.||City Bowl||7.40||7.80||7.600|
|Depasco Café Bakery||Shop 5, Buitenkloof Studios, 8 Kloof St.||Gardens||6.80||7.00||6.900|
|Espressamente||Shop number F&B1, Cape Town International Airport||Cape Town Intl Airport||6.90||7.20||7.050|
|Espresso Lab Microroasters||373-375 Albert Rd.||Woodstock||8.60||8.80||8.700|
|Fego Caffé||Shop No. 6160, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf||V&A Waterfront||5.80||6.00||5.900|
|Jardine Bakery||185 Bree St.||City Bowl||6.70||6.80||6.750|
|Jardine Restaurant||185 Bree St.||City Bowl||6.90||7.00||6.950|
|Melissa’s The Food Shop||Shop 6195, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf||V&A Waterfront||5.20||5.50||5.350|
|Mugged Style Cafe (aka “Mugged on Roeland”)||Shop 1, Perspectives Building, 37 Roeland St.||East City||6.70||7.00||6.850|
|Origin Coffee Roasting||28 Hudson St.||De Waterkant||8.20||8.00||8.100|
|Osumo||49 Kloof St.||Gardens||6.80||7.00||6.900|
|Saeco Caffè||15 Orange St.||Gardens||6.70||7.50||7.100|
|Sevruga Restaurant||Shop 4, Quay 5, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront||V&A Waterfront||6.80||7.00||7.200|
|Tribeca Bakery||106 Main Rd.||Kalk Bay||7.40||8.00||7.700|
|TRUTH.coffeecult Depot||Dock Rd., V&A Waterfront||V&A Waterfront||7.60||5.50||6.550|
|TRUTH.coffeecult Roasterspace||1 Somerset Rd.||Green Point||7.40||7.20||7.300|
|Vida e Caffè||Wembley Square||Gardens||7.00||7.50||7.250|
|Vida e Caffè||Shop 6100, V&A Waterfront||V&A Waterfront||7.00||6.80||6.900|
|Vida e Caffè||Shop 1, Mooikloof, 34 Kloof St.||Gardens||7.00||6.80||6.900|
|W Café||72 Longmarket St.||City Bowl||8.00||6.20||7.100|