Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
We’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.
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.
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?
This unusual, two-story café resides at the base of the ultra modern, five-star 15 on Orange Hotel. On the upper floor, it has a serving area with a two-group Saeco Steel SE 200 at a bar, a number of black tables and chairs, a branded lit display, a couple of Saeco home machines on display, a fashionable clothing and jewelry shop, and a few baked goods under glass. Outside there’s a patio with three plastic chairs and café tables under parasols advertising Saeco. Downstairs there’s more black tables and chairs and an array of several home Saeco machines for demonstration.
Together the place is wrapped heavily in Saeco red & black branding, giving it a Segafredo Zanetti-like feel. But this café, currently unique in the world, is Saeco’s showcase for their machines and coffee — a sort of counter to the Nespresso showrooms planted all over the world.
Despite the hip, modern feel of the place, the friendly barista leaves the portafilter handles cooling in the drip tray. But when the machine is in service (there are few customers ever in here), they pull shots of Saeco coffee (also sold here in kilo-sized bags) into plastic, transparent, double-walled Bodum cups. You can see a good 2mm layer of even, medium brown crema.
But despite the rich aroma and good looks, the flavor is a bit of a disappointment: flat, a little tarry, but otherwise pungent cloves. Served on a silver platter with a large glass of water. R12, or about $1.55.
Read the review of Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa.
Another installment in SF’s series of “espresso bars in strange places,” this one — open since 2009 — is located in a sort of gift shop. It’s a very small space identified by its bright green exterior, and there are a couple of small chairs for sidewalk seating. Inside there are mirrors, planters, birdcages, bath oils, glassware, candle holders, and other odd home gifts — with two small tables in front and an espresso bar in back.
Here they use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Ritual Roasters coffee. They were pulling shots of Ritual’s anniversary Five Candles blend when we visited — recently replacing months of their Evil Twin seasonal blend. The barista identified their Evil Twin blend as being much more forgiving than the two-second extraction range that the Five Candles could tolerate. And they do time their shots here: she sank (as in sink shot) a 17-second shot before letting a 24-second shot pass.
The espresso had a mottled medium and darker brown crema, poured rather short in white Nuova Point cups. It was bright, fruity (sour green apple fruity), and a touch thin – likely reflecting the new espresso blend more than anything else. Regarding the fruity descriptor, Ritual even uses the phrase “golden apple” – though it was more green apple. And that kind of sourness just doesn’t have a place in the flavor profile of espresso shots we like very much. Perhaps others will find it interesting.
Hollow is generally known for making some of the best espresso in the Inner Sunset, but the Five Candles blend didn’t let them shine. This is a case where a coffee bean roaster/supplier changes up their blends with the growing seasons and sometimes gets too clever — producing underwhelming results for the retail café.
Read the review of Hollow.
Coincidentally, this afternoon we were looking for a decent espresso in Yountville following the fantastic release party of a winemaker friend of ours. Walking up to the nearby Yountville Coffee Caboose, we asked what Ritual blend they used for their espresso pulls. When they answered “Five Candles,” we instead walked over to Bardessono.
The woman working the Caboose’s register may have been surprised at our reaction, but the Five Candles blend really is that disappointing. It carries many of the signature problems we’ve created when we’ve overweighted more lightly roasted Central American beans in our own home-roasted espresso blends.
In today’s, er, tomorrow’s news from London’s The Independent, classic Italian stove-top/moka pot coffee manufacturer, Bialetti, announced that they are closing shop in Italy and moving their operations to Eastern Europe: Rivals too hot for Italy’s classic coffee pot – Europe, World – The Independent. In Italy — where the Bialetti has enjoyed decades of near-ubiquitous home coffee use — opinions on the matter have apparently heated up, as Bialetti claims modern coffee maker competition necessitated the move.
The article suggests that “the little pot has helped to see off the threat of the ubiquitous, high-volume offerings of the mass-market chains.” We don’t see that at all. Mass-market chains have failed to catch on in Italy because the market for decent espresso has long been saturated with local cafés on every corner that reliably produce a good shot. The moka pot largely seemed to survive because of its simplicity: there’s no reason for a family to purchase a hulking espresso machine for home use when good stuff is always available nearby.
However, the article notes the recent popularity of coffee capsules for home use — even in places like Italy: “millions of coffee drinkers in Italy and beyond bought into the hype that the capsules provide an espresso virtually as good as one served in a coffee bar.” We agree with their use of the word hype, given that we’ve found that the best of these superautomated, capsule-based home machines produce espresso shots on par with McDonald’s quality.
That said, European consumers want to look forward to the modern. Four years ago we questioned how Nespresso shops could succeed in Europe. Sure enough, today European consumers are at least buying the coffee.
The coffee culture export trade is in high swing, whether it is Stumptown Roasters opening in Amsterdam or Blue Bottle Coffee following Intelligentsia‘s footsteps and invading L.A.: Drip Bar, a Mobile Blue Bottle Café | NBC Los Angeles. Yes, that last article cites the tiresome caffeine-riff cliché abused by many an unimaginative coffee writer — calling Bay Area Blue Bottle fans “caffeine-starved locals” — but the article notes a second attempt to bring Blue Bottle to the tanned, spackled, and collagen-injected masses down south.
Drip Bar, a mobile/portable café concept scheduled for introduction in L.A. this May, plans to pour Blue Bottle Coffee using Hario V60 drippers. Should we be surprised that in a town where you have to drive everywhere, your coffee should now come on wheels?
As we wrote last October, the spiraling Hario V60 dripper became all the rage at Intelligentsia as a Clover brewer substitute. Many other coffee shops have since followed suit in declaring the Hario V60 dripper as the greatest thing since the double boiler — including SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, who was among the first in the Bay Area to offer a Hario V60 drip bar.
We have our own Hario V60 and Buono drip kettle for home use. We even got a friend to translate all the Japanese instructions for us. Good coffee, to be sure. But the professional coffee world seems to chase short-attention-span fads on a level that rivals many Japanese consumers — with a heavy copy-cat hype that ebbs and flows with the coffee growing seasons.
When we first encountered a Hario V60 drip bar, last December at Intelligentsia’s Monadnock location in Chicago, we asked the barista if he liked it that much better than a Chemex brewer or a typical Melitta bar. While continuing his pour with a Buono kettle, he slowly responded with a resounding, “Well…?” So while the V60 is a fun new coffee toy, and it produces great coffee, let’s just say we’re not ready to throw our old Chemex brewer out the window just yet.
The Boston Globe published an article today (OK, technically tomorrow) about making great espresso with cheap home equipment: High-quality espresso from low-end machines – The Boston Globe. The author experimented by buying cheaper, used home espresso machines, and he claims to have achieved decent results. The key to his results were a good grind, good beans, and good portafilter packing.
Given some of the wretched espresso we’ve subjected ourselves to from the supposed “professionals,” how bad could it really be? While we haven’t tried going ghetto with home machines, we agree with the writer’s advice: grinders are often where home espresso first goes wrong, and you need a high-end one to produce a decent espresso grind. That’s a nice change from the endless supply of home espresso machine pushers who criminally neglect the importance of a good burr grinder.
The writer also found that having beans ground for him at a local coffee shop never produced espresso as good as the canned stuff — which may surprise many (including us). That says something about the reliability of local coffee shop coffee grinding, the freshness of their coffee, or both.
San Rafael-based Equator Estate Coffees has long been a major enigma for us. They have heavy distribution among high-end restaurants in town — and quite a few on the low-end. But despite the occasional accolades among tastemaker chefs, we just didn’t “get it.”
Over the years, we sampled the espresso at well over 30 different places serving Equator Estate coffees and purchased some roasts for our home use. We invariably found them to be too tepid in flavor depth, richness or “personality” to make them stand out from the crowd. It was only this year that we finally came across an example of their coffee we truly liked. To this day, it remains the lone exception, and we suspect that some of this has to do with a lack of quality control over their delivery chain (e.g., cafés/restaurants that let their coffee lose flavor and go stale, etc.).
But of course, we’re only one opinion with a taste palate that may radically differ from anyone else’s. For example, we’ve recently come to the conclusion that, pound-for-pound, we somewhat regularly produce better results at home with the coffee from Barefoot Coffee Roasters rather than, say, the celebrated Blue Bottle Coffee — an opinion that may count as blasphemy among so many Blue Bottle loyalists in the city.
However, there’s no question that our congratulations must go out to Equator Estate Coffees for earning Roast Magazine‘s 2010 American Roaster of the Year Award: Equator Estate Coffees and Teas Wins Coffee Industry’s Top Honor. Past winners have included the likes of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Zoka Coffee Roasters, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters — which is great company in any context. Now only if we could find a way to appreciate their coffee in the way others obviously have.
A little over two years ago, we lamented the state of populist retail home espresso by reviewing what we thought was one of the better options at the time, the Nespresso C180 Le Cube: The Home Espresso Machine Blues: Rating today’s state of consumer espresso machines. Besides having a name that sounded regrettably familiar to Renault’s Le Car of the late 1970s, we found the Le Cube to be typical of superautomated, pod-based home espresso machines at the time: the overpackaged, overpriced convenience of consistently stale coffee.
Since then we’ve had a whopper of a global recession — and all the mathematically-precise/psychologically-ignorant cost-savings come-ons for home brewing that have followed. With the Fall 2009 release of Nespresso’s new product line, the CitiZ, we wanted to test if the populist retail home espresso situation had changed through all of that.
We first wrote about the new CitiZ line a few months ago in a critique of Nestlé’s recent environmental chest-beating: Nespresso and the definition of greenwashing. If Nestlé’s primary product line goals were to deliberately maximize materials extraction, manufacturing production, and waste by-products with each coffee serving, it’s hard to imagine the Nespresso coming out much differently than it appears today.
As with the Le Cube, we approached one of these new Nespresso beasts in its native habitat: a mainstream kitchenware retailer. Upon entering the Sur La Table, we were accosted with the massive marketing expense of what looked like a cardboard Playland promoting the new CitiZ line. Nestlé is clearly wheeling up dump trucks full of money for their consumer retail marketing campaign. This flash of cash seems like Nespresso’s attempt to convince consumers of its “upscale” ambitions.
Heading to the back of the store, we opted to test with a Nespresso CitiZ & Milk — which sports a built-in milk frother that we had no intention of using. In case you’re not familiar, Nespresso takes a Jelly-Belly-style approach to the coffee varieties in its capsules. Some of these coffee capsules brandish Nespresso’s new, lofty “Grand Cru” designation. However, for consistency, we opted to stick with the scary “flavor” concept known as a Ristretto capsule.
We inserted the capsule and pushed the “espresso” button (represented with an icon of the smaller of two cups). The extraction started out promising enough: a laminar flow of medium-to-dark brown crema from the get-go. We were honestly impressed at first — maybe things have gotten better?
But then the pour kept coming. And coming. And as it did, the richer brown crema turned into a more turbulent flow of what looked like a milky, splotchy hot chocolate with uneven bubbles. Not exactly appetizing. In just several seconds, the shot rapidly turned into the meager espresso we experienced with our 2007 review of the Le Cube.
Tasting the shot, it had a much frothier and greater amount of crema than we experienced with the Le Cube. But the crema quality was a bit suspect in taste as well as appearance: thin, one-dimensional, and lacking any flavor richness nor depth. The shot was also too large, resulting in a thinner body and making us wonder what diluted mess the Nespresso would have produced if we pushed the “lungo” button.
The espresso itself had a tepid flavor still on par with an average Starbucks and not much better than a McDonald’s. Like most espresso shots made from stale, pre-ground beans packed for weeks in sealed capsules, it has a narrow flavor profile consisting primarily of some mild spices and pepper. And universally, it tastes like it is “missing something” when compared with the real thing. The company and its advocates like to point out the supposed “high-tech” vacuum-sealed freshness of these capsules, but vacuum-sealing ground coffee is a standard practice the likes of Sanka and Maxwell House have been performing since the 1980s.
Our verdict: more crema, but otherwise very little has changed from the last generation of Nespresso machines we tested. At a 5.80 coffee rating, it’s pretty much even with our C180 Le Cube review (a 5.90). We suppose something can be said for consistency. In the meantime, populist retail home espresso still seems stuck in the McDonald’s Dark Ages. (And here the McDonald’s comparison is actually a bit flattering, given that they at least grind to order.)
Read the review of the Nespresso CitiZ & Milk.
How ironic that an organization called GreeNow is now affiliated with a product line, Nespresso, that has defined a consumer lifestyle centered around maximum environmental and manufacturing waste by individually wrapping every single serving of coffee that they sell: GreeNow Powers New York Launch of New Nespresso CitiZ Machine.
It used to be enough to ridicule Nespresso’s parent company — Nestlé, a company that the UK Guardian once called “the world’s largest and most ethically questioned food and drink company” — for their Big Four coffee status and the quality of their product line, which includes the likes of Taster’s Choice and Nescafé Specialty Solutions’ bag-in-a-box system. Now we can add the “green” claim based on their use of bio-fuels to manufacture their product — when the very design of their product generated an excess demand for more fuel, more materials, and the creation of more waste by-products to support a newly defined disposable lifestyle.
This is akin to intentionally spreading swine flu, and then following up by publicly taking credit for distributing packs of tissues. You almost have to wonder if Nestlé’s product developers and engineers sat in the design room and thought up, “How can we make home coffee consumption far more environmentally wasteful than it is today? How can we get consumers to help us strip-mine and ship more raw materials, and produce more packaging in factories, with every cup of coffee?” The result was the Nespresso system.
Nestlé says: keep drinking our coffee. It’s good for you… and the environment!
For the last installment of our three-part series on How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, we wrap up by examining two major social fads that have come to identify the Third Wave:
We’ll also touch on why, if quality coffee is to progress, we must get beyond through these and the qualitative fads of the times. For good coffee to continue proliferate in convenience, access, and quality, these qualities require a healthy, growing consumer market to support them. So the question is: are these fads helping or hurting those aims?
One of the hallmarks of these coffee times (call them Third Wave if you like) is that the barista has been promoted as the focal point and pinnacle of all things quality coffee. It’s as if we now expect our barista to be picking beans at origin. This despite the fact that many coffee preparations have no need for a barista.
If we promote the barista as not only the public face of coffee but its only face, we end up with representation by many of the least experienced, most novice members in the industry. Meanwhile, many in the industry still believe that barista competitions — themselves a decidedly Third Wave construct — are just as worthy as many cooking programs when it comes to TV-ready entertainment such as “Iron Chef” or “Top Chef.”
It only takes 20 minutes of sitting through an online video feed from the USBC to convince the layman consumer otherwise. Not only that, instead of promoting executive chefs at the height of their profession, barista competitions are more akin to Top Chef de Partie (or “Top Line Cook”): highly skilled and trained individuals at specific, technical tasks, but much less so the conductors of a great, comprehensive coffee offering.
Another reason that our barista competitions are more like drills for line cooks concerns the intense technical precision and narrow focus of these competitions. Specialty drinks add an element of creativity, but they are completely irrelevant to what a retail customer can purchase in a café. Then at the other extreme you have latte art competitions where the results are little more than eye candy: no more the hallmark of a technically gifted barista than a plating contest would be for a competitive chef.
Is that to suggest that the barista should be humbled more as a mere entry-level, high turnover position for the coffee industry? Anything but. Great baristas can make or break a café and often for reasons other than the amount of grinds left in their doser — i.e., abilities and skills that just don’t rank on the current barista competition scoresheets.
Earlier this week, I had dinner with New York-based Nicolas O’Connell, an owner and Managing Partner at La Colombe Torrefaction who earned his rank starting as a barista in one of their cafés. While talking about favorite coffee places in New York City, Nicolas was quick to cite Jamie McCormick of Abraço as NYC’s best barista. (Jamie is an alum of SF’s Blue Bottle Coffee.)
Nicolas waxed poetic about Jamie’s ability to connect with people in line, to engage with his customers by name and learn/know what they want — avoiding the you’re-a-waste-of-my-time attitude common among the staff at many NYC competitors. Nicolas even went so far as to say, “People love Abraço and think its a great place just because of the coffee. But the real reason they are great is Jamie, and most of the customers don’t realize that.”
You won’t find Jamie in a barista competition. Nor will you find many of the skills he excels at valued in the structure of a competition. And yet he is as critical as anyone in New York City at introducing people to better coffee standards.
We save perhaps one of more controversial points for last: the coffee geek ethos needs to go. (Apologies to Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek.com.) We not only mean it for the amateur enthusiasts, but also among the professionals.
You can argue that coffee geeks have existed throughout previous waves, from home espresso enthusiasts to their übergeek home roaster brethren. As for the professional trade, yours truly still sports a goatee he grew as a joke while taking a summer grad school class at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1995 — the old joke being that all Seattle residents must be flannel-wearing, Nirvana-moshing Starbucks employees. But the explosion of these social archetypes came after the 1990s, and in part they have come to define the Third Wave.
So why is losing the coffee geek ethos critical? Because we believe it will improve access to better coffee for everyone. The longer that high quality coffee remains the exclusive domain of coffee geeks, hipsters, and “uniformed” coffee professionals, the longer that mainstream accessibility and acceptance will be an uphill battle. We joke about coffee’s tiresome wine analogy, but the wine industry successfully figured out how to bring mainstream wine out of the Gallo era in part by circumventing the image of the elitist, self-absorbed wine snob.
Some believe the Third Wave can build a supporting market for better coffee through an intense public education campaign. But too often, we’ve made it harder for consumers to relax and just enjoy a simple cup of coffee — without feeling the pressure to make a lot more decisions nor feeling burdened by educational materials and processes. And instead of tearing down walls to get more people asking for better coffee, we’ve instead built up a few walls.
While it’s hard for readers here to fathom the idea of Starbucks being elitist, nearly every online post that mentions Starbucks attracts a heavy level of venomous contempt for the company and its patrons. (Google it — we dare you.) This contempt seems to originate from staunch defenders of the mainstream and the “prudent” — people who take great offense that their cheaper, mainstream tastes are no longer “good enough.” Now just imagine the shock-and-awe bursting of aneurysms if these same people encountered an army of coffee geeks that look down their noses at Starbucks and its patrons?
We don’t envision a Tocqueville-like an end to stratification. And there may always be people so insecure as to feel threatened by another person’s beverage choice — as if it were a personal judgment of their self-worth — where only professional therapists stand to have any hope of changing them. But there are also many coffee geeks, amateurs and professionals alike, who would prefer to keep quality coffee as “this thing of ours.” If for no other reason than irrational fear that the mainstream popularization of quality coffee would devalue their own identities and/or constitute a commercial sell-out.
Every advancement “Third Wave” coffee has brought to bear — from the varieties of single-origin beans to roast-dated coffee to public cuppings to barista competitions — would not have been possible if not for the development of an economic market to support them. But more mainstream coffee consumers — the ones who will help build sustainable economic markets for even better coffee — will not get over their apprehension of delving deeper into coffee as long as its image is that of the self-celebrated coffee geek or judgmental coffee snob. Even the very word “geek” defies social acceptance.
If quality coffee remains trapped in its insulated niche, standards across the board will be stuck. And even we coffee geeks will eventually be stifled by Third Wave coffee’s conformity of non-conformity.