Home Brew

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Domo Arigato, Mr. Saeco

Posted by on 02 Aug 2012 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

The sad state of home espresso machines is a topic we’ve tried to avoid for long stretches. After our last depressing installment in 2009, we’ve been blissfully ignorant — ratcheting up the solid-but-rarely-outstanding shot pulls on our relatively decent home espresso setup of a Gaggia G106 Factory manual lever machine and a Mazzer Mini grinder.

Dead soldier: a Ryton piston gives way to a tested pair of piston gaskets after 10 years of useThat is until May, when disaster struck. After 10 years of abuse — where I tuned the coffee grind to the limits of what my “one-armed bandit” could handle before it choked — the central piston finally gave out with one fateful pull. Feeling the physical resistance of its lever vanish in one quick slip, I knew right away it was more than just the final, releasing grasp of an dying gasket.

Upon disassembly and inspection, part of the otherwise-durable Ryton plastic molding that holds the piston gaskets in place had clearly broken away. It’s no surprise that Gaggia discontinued this part and now only produces a brass version. While replacement parts are easy to look up, my replacement piston was put on back-order from Italy until who-knows-when.

The Saeco Challenge

Now I like my Hario V60 or Chemex as much as the next guy. But a steady and exclusive diet of coffee masquerading as tea — i.e., tasting primarily of berries and flower gardens and lawn clippings — is most unsatisfying. Sure, I had the perfect excuse to have more espresso out again, but sometimes you want your quality espresso without leaving the house. Fortunately, life’s misfortune sometimes creates the occasional unexpected opportunity. It arrived in June in the form of an email to coffeeratings.com from a Philips Saeco rep, with the subject-line come-on of “The Perfect Espresso from Philips Saeco”:

Dear Greg,

Searching for the perfect espresso? We believe you can make it yourself, in the convenience of your home. I’m working closely with my client, Philips Saeco, to share their espresso machines with coffee experts like you. If it’s a good fit, we’d like for you to send you one of these machines.

The normal Greg would have spewed out his home-roasted espresso blend across the kitchen table upon reading that. (“Perfect espresso“? Have they read my blog?) But home espresso beggars can’t be choosers. And if there was ever an opportunity where I could dedicate my time and attention to make an honest attempt at decent espresso with one of these dubious, hulking plastic, overpriced, and underachieving superautomatic home espresso machines, this was it.

It ain't marked 'FRAGILE', and yet it is from Italy Notice the happy couple on the box. Clearly they haven't tried the espresso yet

So last week, without notice, a giant Saeco box arrived on my front porch. Opening it up, I felt a little like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story. But inside wasn’t a glowing leg lamp. Rather, it was a Saeco Syntia HD8833. To my surprise, rather than sending a throwaway economy job, Saeco sent one of their better models — listing for about $1,000 retail.

If we are going to be outraged about the poor espresso quality from a superautomatic home machine, all the better not to dismiss the verdict on the basis of a cheap machine. We may have seen some of this machine’s siblings in the showroom at the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa — and the espresso there may not have been too shabby. But our experience with superautomatic home espresso machines like it has been flattering to the Nespresso machine, and we don’t like Nespresso.

The Alien from Planet ‘Brain-Dead Espresso’

While I am no home espresso novice, the contents of the Saeco box seemed practically alien. What’s with all the plastic? Where’s the metal? You mean there’s more to today’s home espresso machine electronics than a heating element? And what’s that vibrating noise that sounds like a cheap home aquarium filter?

Dafuq is my ink jet printer making espresso?The device seems large, and yet it’s considered “compact” by many of today’s standards. Its side opens up like an ink jet printer — not exactly the mental analogy you want to be making for consumables. And it’s ridiculously robotic. Everything has been automated to death: coffee grinding, dosing, tamping, extraction. Hope still lied in the fact that a number of its automated tasks were adjustable: fineness of the grind, the volume of coffee, and the extraction time. But I am leery of any coffee machine that tries to be smarter than you.

I gained back a little confidence when much of its accompanying printed documentation emphasized the importance of descaling and cleaning. I’ve lost count of how many horrific, Exxon-Valdez-sized coffee oil Superfund sites we’ve stumbled upon in various Nespresso machine kitchens — with their delusional, convenience-obsessed owners believing that these devices also automated their cleaning and maintenance.

The machine required an extended “priming” operation, where the machine went through a series of button pushes, water cycles, and its display performed its best rendition of a Pink Floyd laser light show. Once primed and good beans (a nice Full City+ roast on Guatemala Antigua beans with ~ 1 week since roasting) were added to the hopper, we pushed the button for out first shot — with the maximum dosing (“aroma” in its manual’s parlance) and the smallest-sized shot from the factory presets.

Results in the tazza

The resulting shot was very large (at the rim of a regulation IPA demitasse), with a shockingly white thin crema, and a watery body. It tasted like what most horrible espresso shots tasted like in San Francisco back in the 1980s: overdrawn, over-extracted, and lacking any potency, body, or creaminess. The spent puck it spewed out was well-shaped but thoroughly soggy; gently touching the puck caused it to disintegrate into wet sludge.

Small hopper for its built-in grinder The spent pucks come out soggier than wet snow

Our immediate reaction was to head to the “Troubleshooting” section of the manual. It said much about the “Saeco Adapting System” and why your first shots might, well, suck. For example: “coffee is too weak” states that it is a “Rare event that occurs when the machine is automatically adjusting the dose. Brew a few coffees as described in section ‘Saeco Adapting System’.” Another measure of assurance was in the notes: “Note: These problems can be considered normal if the coffee blend has been changed or if the machine has just been installed.”

The first shot was followed by a second identical espresso shot … followed by a third identical shot. Yes, superautomatic consistency alright. Which is great if the espresso is good, but it’s a horrible curse and a waste of good coffee beans when the espresso sucks. We barely resisted the compelling urge to change practically every possible adjustment right away. Part of the reason was to let the machine invoke its “Adapting System” as advertised, and another part was to minimize the chaos of changing multiple variables at the same time.

Even so, how could an Italian company claim that such a machine is normally factory-tuned to produce “the perfect Italian espresso” right out of the box? I’ve been to Italy numerous times, and the espresso is never close to this bad — anywhere. Worse, Saeco’s documentation warns that you might find some residual coffee grounds on your new machine, as they have been put through testing before packaging. Testing for what? The taste of watery 1980s San Francisco espresso made by clueless minimum-wage employees?

It’s not just Saeco: we’ve found every other manufacturer of four-figure superautomatic home espresso machines guilty of the exact same failures. Yet despite this distasteful — but not unexpected — start, in our next installment we will write about the adjustments we made and how it may, or may not, have affected the quality of the resulting espresso shots.

Starting a shot with the Saeco Syntia HD8833 Things go from thin to pale with the Saeco Syntia HD8833

Things going from pale to full and thin with the  Saeco Syntia HD8833 What did this Saeco Syntia HD8833 do to my good coffee?

“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. And it’s how to make decent espresso out of me.”

A Tale of Two Beverages

Posted by on 26 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Saturday, February 25, 2012 offered a curious contrast between the very different worlds of consumer appreciation for wine and coffee. For the former, I attended La Paulée de San Francisco 2012 — arguably the most over-the-top consumer wine event in America. For the latter, my brother Vince simultaneously attended CoffeeCon 2012 — billed as the “first-ever international consumer coffee conference” — in the global coffee Mecca (and his hometown) of Warrenville, IL.

First off, I’d like to apologize for continuing to harp on the hackneyed wine analogy for coffee. However, I still often feel like one of the few people who knows just enough about both wine and coffee appreciation to make a comparison when attending events for either beverage.

Because the facts remain that we read plenty about how much coffee wants to be taken as seriously as wine. And yet the coffee industry still craps on its customers at virtually every opportunity. This weekend’s events provided evidence of that in great contrast.

La Paulée signage in the Westin St. Francis' Italian room Benjamin Laroux may look like an Alpine ski instructor, but what he pours is gold

CoffeeCon 2012

First up: the consumer coffee event. Kevin Sinnott has been a layman coffee enthusiast for years (and he also just so happens to a neighbor and friend of my brother back in the dark recesses of the Chicago suburbs). He may be an independent video production consultant for his “day job”, but coffee is far more than just a hobby for him. And more power to him, because he recognized the need for a consumer-oriented coffee event — which inspired him to put on the first ever CoffeeCon.

The best opportunity coffee consumers had to get involved with the coffee industry was to muscle in to events such as the SCAA’s annual conference — all under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since then, the policy has shifted towards outright consumer abolishment. But even if you buy the argument that the industry needs its own for its own, it has offered nothing even close to an olive branch. We hear the coffee industry give plenty of lip service to the importance of “educating the customer”, and yet opportunities to do so are turned into closed-door industry events where the consumer is treated like an unwelcome leper.

Slow Food Nation ’08 was perhaps another example, but it turned out to be a one-time event. Out of it came the Good Food Awards. But even if you look past coffee playing the red-headed stepchild under the “Food” banner, here the focus of a once-public event has again turned to industry insiders locking out consumer participation. Or take the related Coffee Common effort. Even putting my disdain for the shallowness and faux elitism of TED aside, public events that require over $1,000 in membership and registration fees to attend are hardly “consumer friendly”. This makes the steep $300 I shelled out to attend La Paulée’s Grand Tasting seem like a bargain by comparison.

Daily Herald photo of the floor at CoffeeCon Daily Herald photo of a long commuter to attend CoffeeCon

CoffeeCon suffered from an almost accidental location (Warrenville’s “IBEW Local Union 701″) and virtually zero coverage among the coffee industry — most of the industry being preoccupied with the self-absorbed, industry navel-gazing going on at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (or NERBC). But CoffeeCon managed to draw about 1,000 attendees and even pull a few coffee luminaries including the likes of George Howell, home espresso legend Jim Schulman, and Intelligentsia‘s Geoff Watts.

Attendees apparently got to taste a lot of different coffee, experiment with different brewing methods, meet a few others in the coffee industry, learn more about coffee farming and production, and even witness a poor tongue-in-cheek debate on coffee vs. wine. My brother reported that they had a huge crowd, a good representation from nationwide roasters and equipment manufacturers, and the unveiling of a new Bunn Trifecta at a “lab” event.

While not a bad event and certainly a promising attendance, this is, folks, about as good as it gets for coffee consumers today. And good luck getting anybody in the coffee industry to acknowledge that it existed.

On the coffee industry making consumers feel unwelcome…

One thing I like from the CoffeeCon FAQ — which flies in the face of Coffee Common’s “Exceptional coffee. No sugar.” byline — is this bit:

Can I take cream and sugar in my coffee or will I be asked to leave? No worries. Serious coffee lovers know how different everyone’s palate is. 80% of coffee consumed in the world is taken with milk and/or some sweetener.

Coffee Common defines itself in the negative as well as positiveThis week I had dinner again at one of my favorite SF restaurants who also makes some of the best restaurant espresso in the entire city. The two owners, in their own polite and self-depreciating ways, each relayed to me the story of a recent visit to Sightglass where they were essentially made to feel as if they were both clueless about both coffee and their flavor palates. (I’ve omitted their names as they mentioned this in personal confidence.)

Interestingly, they both felt that Sightglass’ coffee tasted “too salty.” When they asked the Sightglass barista to cut the shot pour short, as a sort of ristretto, he replied that he could not interrupt the espresso machine from running its full cycle. And when they asked for sugar, they were looked upon as if they must have walked in thinking Sightglass was a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Here were two people who grew up with high coffee standards in Italy, developed a much-loved and highly regarded regional Italian restaurant in SF, serve some of the best espresso in the city at said restaurant (and I virtually never have coffee with sugar), where one of the owners previously served as a sommelier at another Michelin-starred SF restaurant with a legendary wine list — and they were basically told that they were coffee Philistines, purely because of coffee orthodoxy. As snobbish as you might think the wine world might get, this simply does not happen with wine.

How the wine world does a consumer event: La Paulée de San Francisco 2012

Speaking of sommeliers and a barista’s desire to become an equivalent of one, let’s contrast with La Paulée’s Grand Tasting at the Westin St. Francis. Daniel Johnnes, a noted wine director for noted New York restaurants that today includes Restaurant Daniel (read: a guy who works in the industry), started the event about a decade ago, alternating between New York an San Francisco. It is based in a traditional Burgundian event, and in Mr. Johnnes’ words for the SF event:

La Paulée is my homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a convivial Burgundian fête shared by growers and their guests. At La Paulée guests will sample current releases and older vintages from nearly thirty of the most sought after Domaines of Burgundy. The wine service will be led by fifty of our nation’s most noted sommeliers.

They ain’t messing around. (Here’s a magazine write-up [PDF] on last year’s La Paulée in New York.) The Grand Tasting may cost $300, but that’s cheap compared to the $1,400 Gala Dinner (or compared to the registration fee to experience Coffee Commons at TED2012 in Long Beach).


There are people in traditional Burgundian wear, regularly breaking into traditional Burgundian drinking songs, flown in from Burgundy for this event — Les Cadets de Bourgogne. And there are many booths of elite winemakers, offering wines that you could only be lucky enough to even access a bottle to purchase, all poured by notable sommeliers. In coffee terms, this is akin to an event featuring several of the world’s Cup of Excellence microlots for tasting, each served by award-winning baristas.

And they don’t skimp on the food either, with restaurant representation from the likes of Boulevard, Farralon, Gary Danko, Napa’s Meadowood and REDD, Quince, RN74, etc. You know that the food world takes the event seriously when not only are sommeliers from New York pouring at the event, but the likes of Traci des Jardins (of Jardinière and Top Chef Masters fame) is there personally cooking up and handing out plates of food.

Traci des Jardins hustling at the catering end of La Paulée Whereas the barista expresses himself with tattooes and piercings, in wine self-expression is about the gaudy shoes & belt, rock ring, and man purse

As a consumer event, what’s not there? No hucksters promoting the latest technology in synthetic corks. No pitchmen telling you how to expand your revenue lines with wine coolers. No patent-pending bottle openers that promise to revolutionize wine consumption. Just a lot of people who want to share great wines and learn more about them and an industry that is trying to make that possible in ways it previously was not.

We can only hope just a fraction of that is possible with coffee — if only the industry would allow it, let alone participate in it. It’s beyond the time for quality coffee to get out of its insular ivory towers and to start reaching out to the many customers it so claims to love and adore.

Coffee in South India

Posted by on 03 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

If you were to read it in the current Roast magazine article (from the Jan-Feb 2012 issue), India is a coffee consumer desert. This week TIME magazine wrote about the entrance of Starbucks in the Indian market almost as if to dismiss any prior coffee consumption there. But after spending three weeks in South India’s coffee-growing state of Karnataka last month, these articles read like front-line trip reports from Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella suggesting that the New World he just discovered is “uninhabited”.

India accurately gets the label of a tea-loving nation. But South India has a coffee-happy culture that arguably rivals most of the places we’ve visited in Europe. In fact, we found far more coffee fanatics in South India than tea lovers. And when we say “fanatics”, we mean people whose eyes light up with delight when you offer the suggestion, “Coffee?”

Celebrations for Pongal, Mysore, India Shri Chamundeshwari Hindu temple, Mysore, India

Temple door, Mysore, India Night market activity, Brindivan Gardens, Mysore, India

When we reported from Northern India four years ago, much of the coffee culture was a relatively new, youthful, cosmopolitan import of the modern global café culture. South India also has ample evidence of the modern “third place.” After all this is where Café Coffee Day, India’s largest modern coffee chain, got its start in 1996.

But South India is steeped in coffee houses and coffee culture that goes back to the fading memories of Old Bangalore — from long before the British moved out, “road widening” programs blighted the city with horrendous traffic in place of groves of majestic trees, and global high tech campuses moved in. You can somewhat neatly divide South India between its old and new coffee cultures.

Don't dare tell us that South India has no coffee culture Hatti Kaapi, a newer South Indian coffee outlet features man-boobs and cup-to-cup aeration of coffee

Old South India Coffee

Oil lamps decorating the Ranganatha Swamy Temple, Srirangapatna, IndiaStarting from the lore of the seven Yemenese coffee beans introduced by Baba Budan to the hills of Chikmagalur (a region within the state of Karnataka) in 1670, India has been a coffee producing nation. But traditionally only in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. These lush, fertile states represent much of India’s agriculture and the world’s spices.

In South Indian cities, you can still find old school bean-and-leaf stores (Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s original model, i.e. as opposed to retail coffee beverage sales) where local customers ask for coffee from their favorite Coorg farm by name. But despite this terroir-like awareness among some of South India’s older coffee fans, they typically do not buy their coffee in a whole bean format. As ground coffee, it is often purchased as “coffee powder”. And as a matter of history, economics, and/or taste preferences, coffee powder for traditional South Indian filter coffee is frequently cut with chicory.

The Airport Hotel - Old Bangalore and good South Indian filter coffee South Indian filter coffee at the Airport Hotel, Bengaluru

They call them hotels, but you can't sleep there Old Bangalore, with Koshy's - a local favorite old school restaurant

In fact, if you were to describe the typical South Indian filter coffee preparation, it is also served with a lot of attention given to hot, manually frothed milk. New Orleans may lay claim to the chicory cafe au lait, but South India has predated that claim with a very similar traditional coffee drink by a century or more. One significant difference being that South India likes to aerate their hot milk by distributing it between metal vessels from side-to-side. Some purveyors even take this form of milk frothing to the level of theatrics, providing their customers with a version of latte art rooted more performance art than design.

This form of South Indian coffee consumption takes place in homes, offices, and in the old school restaurants typically called “hotels” that you will find throughout South India. They may be called “hotels”, but you won’t find a place to lay down — let alone private rooms. Many are vegetarian restaurants, and you’ll even find the occasional “military hotel” — which is shorthand for a diner on the cheap, typically with stand-up self service and a cafeteria-like counter for ordering. South Indians very much look forward to their coffee breaks throughout the day for both the enjoyment of the drink and to briefly discuss family, work, events, etc.

In other words, when it comes to coffee, they’re a lot like Europeans.

Entrance to the old school India Coffee House Ordering coffee inside the India Coffee House

South Indian filter coffee at Indira Darshini, Bengaluru Hindu temple at night in Bengaluru - they aren't nearly as colorful in North India

New South India Coffee

India is a dance in contradictions, however. Someone we met near Delhi a few years ago put it best when he told us, “everything you find to be true in India, you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.” And that includes South India’s coffee culture.

The local presses have stated, “India is low on coffee knowledge.” That is as apparent in South India as anywhere else in the country. There is a decent proliferation of modern coffee shops — including even a Caffè Pascucci in downtown Bengaluru and an Illy espressamente in its airport. However, the coffee “language” used by many of these coffee shops seemed dumbed down for a more coffee-naïve public.

Barista Crème, Bengaluru Barista Crème espresso, Bengaluru

Caffè Pascucci, Bengaluru Caffè Pascucci espresso, Bengaluru

For example, a very popular, local coffeehouse for the young Bengaluru professional set called Matteo Coffea outwardly brands itself as a place for consumer coffee education. However, most of this is in the form of basic historical coffee trivia and quotes you might otherwise find on a souvenir coffee mug: e.g., “Did you know that coffee was discovered by Ethiopian goat herders called kaldi?”

A non-chain place like Matteo Coffea is also a good example of the modern South Indian coffeehouse. It has all the hallmarks of a great “Third Wave” coffeehouse in the West: an outward dedication to consumer coffee education, a shiny red La Marzocco FB/70, and selective bean sourcing and roasting operations. However, the resulting espresso shots look a lot better than they taste. India is going through a lot of the motions on quality coffee, but the coffee quality itself has yet to live up to the show. Other modern coffee shops and chains in the region put a modern spin on coffee quality while still sticking to the area tradition of pre-ground coffee mixed with chicory.

'Black coffee' as recommended by high-end South Indian restaurantsHigh-end restaurants in the area — those guardians of gourmand tastes — seem to know enough about quality coffee to dissuade customers from ordering the traditional South Indian filter coffee, which is often made with the aforementioned “coffee powder.” It’s almost as if they are embarrassed by it. Instead they steer customers towards “black coffee,” which is barely acceptable straight espresso served in very long, but yet not diluted, pours.

And yet our experiences with traditional South Indian filter coffee there were all very positive — even if it doesn’t bow down to the gods of single origin elitism, handling attuned to maximum freshness, nor even the avoidance of milk adulteration. Perhaps the most humbling aspect was when I returned to the U.S. and tried to reproduce South Indian filter coffee at home. Using a South Indian brew pot I bought at a Bengaluru housewares store for $8 — a contraption not unlike the Neapolitan flip coffee pot — I got out my best beans, technique, and milk to ultimately produce one of the three most undrinkable cups of coffee I have ever made in my life. This is harder than it looks, folks.

Matteo Coffea in Bengaluru La Marzocco FB/70 at Matteo Coffea in Bengaluru

Inside Matteo Coffea in Bengaluru The Matteo Coffea espresso, Bengaluru

The South Indian Business of Coffee

Bengaluru is also home to the national Coffee Board of India, a large, multistory complex that we decided to visit on a whim. Expecting a closed-door government agency with security guards and suspicious eyes intent on keeping foreigners and trespassers out, we were surprised at how open and welcoming they were.

Showing up on their doorstep and merely expressing our love of good Indian coffee, we were directed to the offices of Dr. K. Basavaraj, who is head of the Quality Control Division. There we received an all-access tour of his lab, test batch roasters, and cupping facilities: all the trappings any Western coffee fanatic would feel right at home with.

Inside the Coffee Board of India Cupping inside the Coffee Board of India quality lab

Coffees highlighting regions of India, Coffee Board of India Barrel roasters for sampling at the Coffee Board of India

Inside the Coffee Board of India quality lab Sample green coffees, Coffee Board of India

Out at “origin,” in the coffee-growing lands of the Kodagu (aka Coorg) district of Karnataka, we visited a few coffee farms. Most were modest agricultural operations, some associated with so-called “coffee curing works” that often seemed in the general business of trading commodities. Collectively they supply the majority of India’s domestic coffee consumption — in no small part because India imposes steep tariffs on just about any imported consumable. (They impose a 100% import tariff on beer and wine, with spirits typically topping 150%.)

Coffee menu at Coffee Cup, Nisargadhama, IndiaYou could fault India for growing a lot of “cheap” robusta here — it is half the crop relative to arabica by some counts. However, India grows some of the best quality, best cared-for robusta in the world. And in typical Indian contradictory fashion, one of the more memorable modern coffeehouses we experienced in South India was a roadside hut in rural Nisargadhama, Kodagu that served, among other drinks, decorative Spanish cortados.

No matter what, there is something to be said about a coffee culture where, when you ask a restaurant or café who supplies or roasts their coffee, you invariably get the name of an individual — often with an honorary “Dr.” title — rather than the name of a business. It’s not unlike parts of Hawaii where some restaurant menus list the name of the fisherman along with the fish.

India is such a complex, diverse place it’s next to impossible to try to sum up what it is and what it isn’t, as the answer tends to be “all of the above.” We can only hope that with all the forces of modernization and globalization at play here, coffee doesn’t lose some of its cultural diversity.

Bota Coffee Traders, Coorg, India Countryside near Coorg, India

Tibetan students in exile, Coorg, India Riverside among the Coorg coffeelands

Coffee Cup's espresso preparation, Nisargadhama, India The Coffee Cup Spanish cortado, Nisargadhama, India

KQED Forum gives some radio love to Bay Area coffee

Posted by on 10 Jan 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

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.

What? Coffee talk that isn't exclusively a podcast?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.”

The rumors of home coffee roasting’s meteoric rise have been greatly exaggerated…

Samples of green coffee beans for pre- or post-home-roast blendingWhile 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.

South India coffee

Indira Darshini in Bengaluru makes decent South Indian coffeeCuriously 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.

South Indian coffee at Indira DarshiniWe’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…

Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin

Posted by on 09 Nov 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Starbucks

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.

Pasquinis on display in the L.A. WeeklySome of the more interesting details from the piece:

  • Their initial business was first frequented by espresso-starved Hungarians.
  • In the early days, they even got some of their espresso from SF’s Caffé Trieste.
  • From the beginning, only about 3% of their customers ordered espresso. The bulk was cappuccino and caffe latte.
  • Starbucks coming on the scene helped popularize their business. Well, it was good for business, but “it wasn’t good for quality.”

And while the Pasquinis are rolling with the superautomatic and Nespresso machine punches, we were particularly intrigued by their reaction to La Marzocco. To quote:

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.

Cowboy coffee? How passé. Try Afghanistan insurgent coffee and lawnmower coffee.

Posted by on 17 May 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

It amazes us that the Internetz still hum with “serious” food-obsessed people writing about cowboy coffee. To us, that’s a bit like going to the Mayo Clinic Web site to read about cowboy surgery — involving a bottle of whiskey, a hacksaw, and stick to bite down on.

But if you insist on making coffee under harsh conditions, we are more impressed with these two recent Canadian exports of how-to coffee videos.

The first concerns making coffee in a field of Afghan insurgents. Be forewarned that this how-to video contains more expletives than the movie 44 Inch Chest. “Step one, adopt a firing position and make sure there are no fucking insurgents around. Nothing fucks-up good coffee like fucking insurgents.”

For more family-friendly viewing, and offensive use of the laugh track, here’s Canuck legend Red Green demonstrating the merits of lawnmower coffee.

Changes the meaning of the term “coffee bagging,” doesn’t it? Though I think we sampled this coffee method once at a Happy Donuts.

Revealed: Nation’s flimsiest coffee-related press release

Posted by on 20 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Earlier this week, KRUPS, that bastion of great coffee, announced the winners of their National “Cup O’ Joe Awards”: Revealed: Nation’s best coffee shops – This Just In – Budget Travel. Now if only this announcement had anything legitimately to do with good coffee. Heck, if only KRUPS had anything legitimately to do with good coffee.

Of course, what we really have is one of the oldest tricks in the PR playbook: fabricate some kind of award (the broader the better — for potential distribution), issue your press release, and pray that it gets picked up in your target markets. The technique works, because we’re picking up the story here. Just probably not in the way KRUPS’ marketing department intended.

High density living for KRUPS coffee machinesOver the past 20 years, KRUPS has probably done more to disappoint more home espresso consumers than any other company, and a multitude of American landfills contain much of the evidence. To counter this reputation, KRUPS has resorted to associating itself with “upmarket” coffee — such as years of sponsoring barista championships. Here KRUPS created a new Cup O’ Joe Awards out of thin air to honor the nation’s best coffee places — and to remind consumers to keep filling their landfills with KRUPS coffee equipment (and not just KRUPS waffle makers and deep fryers).

One signature of the fabricated press release award is when the award winners have never heard of it. Another is carpet bombing high density population centers (i.e., home espresso machine consumers) to maximum effect. Thus KRUPS ignores Portland, OR, quality coffee’s Biggie Smalls, while New York City, quality coffee’s Jay-Z, gets awards for each of five boroughs.

Now that's quality Italian!And when it comes to the criteria for why one place inches out another in a given market for this coveted award, we learn the criteria involves “mailers, street teams and social media pages.” It’s Battle of the Bands all over again.

From their press release: “Krups USA polled 250 coffee-toting New Yorkers on the streets of each borough to discover their picks for the city’s best sips.” Can you imagine a SCAA barista champion crowned without the use of scoresheets — but instead by some quasi-magical popularity contest involving random street interviews, mailings, and Facebook Likes?

The San Francisco award went to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is hardly unwarranted. But KRUPS awarding the nation’s best coffee shops is a bit like Chef Boyardee awarding America’s best Italian restaurants.

The 10 Types of Commenters on Coffee Articles

Posted by on 02 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting, Starbucks

Over the years we’ve read a lot of coffee articles. And ever since feedback forms became commonplace on the Internet, we’ve also read a lot of user comments on these posts. At least enough for us to identify 10 common archetypes among coffee article commenters on the Internet — analogous to the ever-popular coffee shop customer archetypes.

Commenters on coffee articles often fall into distinct cliques — many of them rather nonsensical. Just look at Erin Meister’s Serious Eats post last week on the cost of coffee. Not surprisingly, former U.S. barista champ, Kyle Glanville, described it simply as “great post, silly comments

So here’s to creating a lexicon so we can all say next time, “Stop being such a #6.”

1. The Starbucks Fire Marshall

Tastes like... burning!Like a mutant cross between Tourette Syndrome and a drinking game, these commenters cannot help themselves whenever someone posts something that includes “the S word.” No matter what context or circumstances for the article, we get their reflexive reply: “Starbucks tastes burnt!”

Doesn’t matter if it’s a Wall Street Journal article discussing their quarterly earnings or the latest police blotter reporting on yet another vehicle unable to resist the siren song of a Starbucks’ storefront window. This comment is also frequently offered with an air of implied revelation — akin to Charlton Heston’s infamous, “Soylent green is people!” (Sorry if we ruined that for you.)

2. The Daily Coffee Affirmation with Senator Stuart Smalley

It’s hard to believe that a someone’s self-worth could be called into question by something as trivial as another person’s choice of beverage, but these commenters face this very existential quandary. For them, coffee is still a raw, generic commodity — like kerosene. Hence 1950s truck stop coffee was good enough for grandpa and it’s good enough for us. Anyone who suggests or believes otherwise is part of a social conspiracy.

This conspiracy takes on two dimensions. The first involves separating fools from their money. Yet this is insufficient to explain why these commenters so viscerally exclaim that anybody who pays more than $1 for a cup of coffee is a moron. If it were merely this, any half-lucid person would keep their mouths shut in order to keep fleecing those fools all the way to early retirement.

Senator Smalley approves of your coffee choicesWhich leads us to the second dimension of the conspiracy: these commenters are also reacting to a perceived sense of class warfare. One man’s threat is another man’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

Rather than admit that “fancy coffee” isn’t their thing and they don’t really get it — the way that some of us don’t get kombucha or Russell Brand — projecting this social unease on those “idiots” paying for expensive coffee is a means of self-affirmation. “Because I’m good enough.. I’m smart enough.. and, doggone it, people like me!”

3. Coffee Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Speaking of conspiracies, this commenter archetype believes that the entire apparatus of the coffee industry was deliberately constructed by The Man as a means of enslaving and impoverishing coffee farmers. The actual concept that someone might actually consume and enjoy the end product is irrelevant.

Which explains Fair Trade, a sacred cow among these commenters. Like the TV trope, “think of the children!,” comments from this group focus almost exclusively on “think of the coffee farmer!” What they imply is that every person who touches coffee after it leaves the farm, including the various truck drivers and dockworkers working for pittance wages in coffee-growing nations, are blood-sucking parasites profiting off the backs of noble coffee farmers.

4. The Junkie

This commenter archetype views coffee exclusively as a performance-enhancing drug. When they encounter articles suggesting that there’s good or bad coffee, or that coffee might actually have a taste or flavor, you may as well ask your grandfather what’s his favorite crunkcore band; it’s just as alien.

Appealing to the malt liquor drinkers of the coffee worldWhen they’re drinking the coffee, these commenters could not care less if their coffee tastes like battery acid, and the idea of decaffeinated coffee seems utterly pointless. They are typically attracted to the malt liquor of the coffee world: coffees branded with wake-the-dead, crystal-meth-like psychoactive properties and the sinister names to match.

And if somebody else reports to drink coffee for its flavor, these commenters discount them as merely drug addicts in denial — kind of like the guy who says he buys Shaved Asian Beaver magazine only for the articles.

5. The Born-Again Junkie

Privileged white people haven’t had it easy. In today’s society of competitive victimhood and I’ve-suffered-more-than-you one-upmanship, some are lucky enough to experience the trauma of not getting into Harvard. Others aren’t so fortunate and have to resort to makeshift, bogus afflictions like “caffeine addition.”

Which brings us to the archetype of the recovered caffeine addict. These born-again commenters proselytize a lifestyle free of caffeine: “I once was a caffeine addict, but my life is so much better since I gave up coffee for yerba maté!” Like all lifestyle preachers, it’s not enough that they live with their own life choices — they must convince you to choose them too.

The dirty secret of this archetype is that, rather than face their demons, they are only hiding from the real problem in their lives — namely, their lack of self-control and inability to moderate themselves. Which makes them kind of like the gay man who joins the Catholic priesthood to “cure” himself of his homosexuality. (And we all know how well that works out.)

6. Reverend Home Roaster

Rev. Billy discovers the Gene Cafe coffee roasterHome roasting has been around for over a millennium. Its latest generation, with more modern prosumer equipment, probably peaked about a decade ago. But it is a brand new phenomenon for many. Often those who have discovered home roasting in the past year seem particularly afflicted with a brand of religious zealotry when posting comments on coffee articles.

Whether the article is about the cost of coffee, a Cup of Excellence competition, or even the pour-over brewing device of the month, the comment box is an irresistible platform (read: soapbox) to preach a sort of home roasting gospel. “It’s better than you can buy!” “It’s cheaper to do it yourself!” “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it!” One popular sermon is the Legend of the $5 Hot Air Popcorn Popper: “I have seen the promised land, and it is a West Bend Poppery II!”

You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t start selling off all our worldly possessions in anticipation of the home roasting Rapture. Yes, we like home roasting. It’s kind of a fun hobby from time to time. And yes, we understand that, by golly, you really like this new home roasting thing. We also like Benecio del Toro, but we don’t use the comment thread on a Cup of Excellence article to proselytize his merits as an actor and movie producer. The key to sales is relevancy — that goes whether you’re selling mortgage-backed securities or a home roasting lifestyle.

7. The MacGruber

Somewhere coffee comes out of the end of this contraptionThe MacGruber represents another kind of commenter with a DIY fetish — except that this archetype sees the DIY ethos as a form of social currency. Less idealistic and more self-interested than Rev. Home Roaster, the MacGruber comments on coffee articles to boast of their exploits building traveling espresso machines out of bike parts or attaching PID controllers to portafilter handles. In this regard, they’re a bit like those guys with gold chains and silk shirts who boast of their sexual conquests in laser-filled nightclubs. The difference being that most rational people would be socially embarrassed if confused for a MacGruber.

Given the choice between spending $35,000 on a new BMW or on a used Honda Civic and tricking it out with accessories over the next four years, the MacGruber will invariably choose the Civic. This might lead others to believe there’s something fatally flawed with the Civic. But this archetype also has an obsession with reinventing the wheel. We fondly recall one MacGruber who wrote up an elaborate post on how he converted his Vacu Vin wine-stopper into a coffee preservation system — blissfully ignorant that Vacu Vin has been making “coffee saver” systems for years that are available for $10 on Amazon.com.

8. The Dumpster® Diver

Coffee sale!!!Like The MacGruber, posts from this commenter archetype are about establishing social currency. Except here the currency is scoring a kilo of Colombian for the ridiculously low price of $1.99 a pound at Sam’s Club. As if to jab a hot fork in the eyes of Fair Trade advocates, this archetype boasts about their competitive place in the race to zero-cost, zero-conscience, quality-free coffee.

When this archetype isn’t posting about how much they’ve saved on coffee, they’re frequently long on ideas for using spent coffee grounds to Spackle® bathroom tiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid their frequent posts about how they bought their new car with the Dumpsters® full of cash they saved by making coffee at home instead of going to Starbucks.

9. The No Coffee Left Behind Act

Whether you’ve tried the coffee at three hundred different places or just three, most people have their favorite coffee. A large number of comments on coffee articles consist of personal endorsements of the coffee from a specific roaster, coffee shop, or home brewing contraption. As an anonymous poster put it on Boing Boing this week:

Every comment thread about coffee contains: (1) someone mentioning how great their home roasted coffee is; (2) a plug for a cafe not mentioned in the article.

Maybe we could just assume the existence of these kinds of comments from now on, with no need to actually post them?

But if we all assumed that, what would there be left to talk about? Hence this archetype of commenters who actively police various online media sources, ensuring their favorite coffee sources don’t suffer the egregious injustice of being omitted from a coffee article.

Some may take the additional step of attempting to elevate their pet coffee by dissing on the various coffee sources mentioned in the article. For example, this archetype frequently engages in slagging on quoted coffee shops for their pretentiousness, for the hipsters who work there, and over the fact that the owners cover their electrical outlets. Basically: all of the ridiculous stuff that’s the irreverent lifeblood of Yelp ratings.

10. The Jaded, Crotchety Blogger

This archetype believes they have seen it/done it long before you even heard of it/thought about it. And despite their whiny complaints of coffee articles that dredge up old topics hashed out thousands of times before over the years, they still cannot look away and feel compelled to respond — like gawkers at a gruesome car accident.

Yes, we’re making fun of ourselves this time. Because if it sounds like we’ve seen it all before, quite sadly we literally have seen it all before. Do you realize what kind of petty life you must lead to have read every coffee article ever written on the Internet? How about so pathetic, you come up with a list of 10 types of commenters on coffee articles.

Australia rates home espresso machines as the most unreliable appliances

Posted by on 05 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Home espresso machines have been rated the most unreliable consumer appliance in a survey by Australia’s Choice: Brewing a great big cuppa strife | Herald Sun. Choice is akin to America’s Consumer Reports magazine — just without the bitter socialists at the Consumers Union behind it.

Over the years, Krups is responsible for more sponsored barista champions and more disgruntled home machine buyers than any other brand.One major contributor is likely the recent opportunistic flood of home appliance manufacturers: makers of toaster ovens and vacuum cleaners who suddenly smelled a cash cow in home espresso machines as Starbucks‘ stock price increased. (Okay, so that last part was way back in the Clinton era.)

Yet Australians aren’t that gullible; they’re some of the world’s most enlightened espresso consumers. But perhaps that very savviness is at the root of Australian’s dissatisfaction with home espresso machines: their standards are simply higher, and there are a lot of landfill-bound appliances on the marketplace that call themselves espresso machines in name only.

Another factor is undoubtedly the inescapable need for machine maintenance and tuning. The concept of regularly cleaning and tuning an appliance makes no sense to a lazy consumer who compares it to televisions, PVRs, and mobile phones.

Undoubtedly very few of us realize that we’re likely in violation of our refrigerator warranties if we do not dust or vaccuum the coils every month. Clearly no one does this. The difference being that a poorly maintained refrigerator still keeps food cool while it consumes more energy until finally blowing a compressor months or years later. A poorly maintained espresso machine makes foul espresso right away.

If your coffee ain’t broke, should you fix it?

Posted by on 24 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Thanks to friend of this blog, Shawn Steiman, for pointing out this somewhat amusing article from today’s New York Times: Loving Coffee Without Being a Drip – NYTimes.com. In something of an ode to the Mr. Coffee automatic filter drip machine, the author — Times food critic, Frank Bruni — laments the many overly precious methods of coffee-making he experiences as friends try to raise his coffee game.

'You call that a radar screen? No sir, we call it Mr. Coffee.' -- SpaceballsWe’re still at a loss for how someone could spray themselves in the eye with a Chemex brewer. The physics defies anything we can diagram and anything we have ever received in a college physics exam. (You know the kind: “Person A is driving a car at 55 mph on a surface with a coefficient of friction of 0.78. What color is his tie?”)

But even if you can make the argument that your choice of brewing method should factor in proportionate personal risks of scalding and blindness, far be it from us to dispute that coffee has become too fussy for its own good. Mr. Bruni cites “just how much self-identity and self-definition go into every aspect of ingestion these days.” He’s singing our song.

When does tricking out a Honda Civic imply a defective car?

Personal coffee travel suitcases aside, another telling example comes from a friend of ours who just returned after living a few years in London. He’s no coffee slouch, having used French presses for decades and a manual La Pavoni Europiccola while in London. In asking me about a home espresso machine, we concluded that a standard Rancilio Silvia would be a good fit.

Pimp My Silvia? Or defective espresso machine?What made him hesitate about purchasing one? All the Web pages dedicated to Silvia owners who outfitted their machines with PID controllers. A simple Google search produces 256,000 results. Here the coffee geek ethos of graduating from temperature surfing to PID-fitting created a potential customer who believed something was horribly wrong with the Silvia machine’s temperature control — something so defective that he wondered why it did not go through a necessary and massive product recall.

They say that good is the enemy of great, and that’s certainly true if you’re trying to improve your standards. However, that’s not the same as having an intolerance for good — which ironically, by definition, isn’t always a good thing. We love improved standards. But how enjoyable is a walk in the park when you’re always measuring it against Olympic speed records?

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