Home Brew

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High-quality espresso from low-end machines?

Posted by on 12 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine

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.

Home espresso gone ghettoGiven 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.

Of the pre-packaged variety, he tested eleven different brands and suggested that Era Ora and Sant’Eustachio came out on top.

Equator Estate Coffees wins Roast Magazine’s 2010 American Roaster of the Year Award

Posted by on 22 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

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.”

Roast Magazine recently announced their roaster of the yearOver 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.

The Nespresso CitiZ, or how McDonald’s has become the home espresso of the future

Posted by on 16 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine

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.

In case of earthquake, do not stand near the massive towers of Nespresso branding... CitiZ & Milk - our competitor from Nespresso

It’s not an espresso machine, it’s a lifestyle

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.

Choose your weapon: Nespresso continues to market coffee like Jelly Bellys The CitiZ starts off looking decent...

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.

The CitiZ is now producing a more sickly, pale beverage with large bubbles it calls a 'ristretto' The final espresso product from a CitiZ: far from appetizing

The Taste Test

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.

Nespresso and the definition of greenwashing

Posted by on 31 Jul 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew

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.

Nespresso 0.5 : Taster's Choice crystalsNespresso calls it “highest-quality premium portioned coffee”. We call it stale, pre-ground coffee left aging for weeks on trucks and shelves after roasting — and stuffed into excessive packaging.

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!

Disparaging the Third Wave, Part 3: The Cult of Baristas and Coffee Geeks

Posted by on 21 Mar 2009 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Quality Issues

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:

  • The focus on baristas
  • The role of coffee geeks

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?

The Cult of the Barista

Hold back the Zzzz's in Japanese - a televised barista competitionOne 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.”

We put the 'X' in 'extreme' like the 'X' in 'expresso'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.

What is a great barista?

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.)

Jamie McCormick behind the machine back in his Hayes Valley Blue Bottle daysNicolas 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.

Coffee Geek, R.I.P.

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.

Redefining 'wine snob'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.

If they’re not with you, they’re against you

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?

You've lived the lifestyle, now own the T-shirtWe 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.

Links to other parts of the series:

The (New) Economics of Home Coffee Roasting

Posted by on 05 Jan 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Roasting

Just a few years ago, for a variety of reasons, we were avid and regular home coffee roasters. Today we still occasionally roast our own coffee at home, but we find far fewer reasons to do so — and we find ourselves doing it much less often. The reasons for this change are partly personal. But they mostly reflect significant shifts over the past few years behind the motivations for home coffee roasting.

A little home roasting history…

Home roasting remains something of an oddity in the world of quality coffee, akin to the high school chess club even among coffee geeks. For example, there are several online communities for home roasters — most have been around for years — and yet rarely do they interact with the many other online communities devoted to baristas, consumer coffee, and the coffee trade (and vice versa). We’ve found meatspace communities to operate much the same way.

Why? We can only guess that many home roasters tend to dwell in the odd margins of prosumers: too esoteric for most layman consumers, and yet not commercial enough for the professionals to take notice. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, in many countries home coffee roasting was the norm up until World War II. In America, the convenience of coffee pre-roasted outside the home didn’t even catch on until the late 1800s.

Our old, dependable, no-tech warhorse, the Fresh Roast Plus: a $70 glorified hot air popcorn popper Samples of green coffee beans for pre- or post-roast blending

When we started home roasting around the turn of the millennium, we did so because it uniquely solved a big problem with home espresso. With espresso being particularly sensitive to the age of the roast, we needed a small-but-steady supply of fresh-roasted coffee beans that were less than a week old.

Because we consumed most of our espresso shots outside the home at the time, our home coffee turnover ran as low as a pound every 2-3 weeks — making small-batch (micro-batch?) lots rather attractive. The few roasters with relatively fresh supplies often sold by the pound. As for the decent roasters that allowed you to purchase smaller supplies in bulk? They typically stored their roasts in open bins that visually looked good in retail locations but fully exposed their coffee to days of rapid oxidation (and hence rapid staleness).

Like many other home roasters, we took the plunge for freshness, variety, and small batch sizes. And since you can typically buy green coffee beans at about half the price of their roasted versions, other home roasters pursued it as a way to save money. Or do you?

The cost savings myth

Given these economic times where industry trade mags read like a dirge for the café and quality coffee, some of the apocalyptic retail coffee prophesies out there include suggestions of a mass movement towards home roasting (e.g., Coffee Talk‘s “State of the Industry” editorial [7.8Mb pdf, pg. 10] published this month).

Of course, we’ve recently ruffled quite a few feathers among the personal finance malpractice industry — calling the bluff of a bevy of personal finance lemmings posters who regurgitated the home espresso machine savings myth. (Save that myth for the Starbucks marketing gurus hawking home espresso equipment on their cafés’ expensive retail shelf space. Someone has clearly done the math, and our money is on Starbucks determining their customer lifetime value long before any wannabe wonk thought about the economics of home espresso machines.)

Just as with the home espresso machine savings myth, the fly in home roasting’s economic ointment is labor: home roasting takes a bit of work and energy. This time investment is readily dismissed by those who love the craft, but then there’s a reason most of us don’t feel the loving zen of changing our own motor oil. Regularly flossing your teeth may seem like a small time commitment, but millions of people would gladly cough up a few bucks every month if there was a way to make the need simply go away.

As always, your mileage may vary. We started with a detailed database of each test roast (a system prototype for CoffeeRatings.com no less), adjusted various controls for time and temperature, etc. But these days, we’re more than a bit slapdash; we’re lucky to avoid getting distracted and burning the house down.

A roast progression... mostly green still Unevenly heading into a Light roast at first...

Next stop: second crack Still a bit uneven at a Full City roast

As for freshness, variety, and small batches…

Over the past few years, the financial incentives of home roasting haven’t changed. However, the freshness and variety of roasted coffees available to consumers have changed dramatically.

We had a good conversation about this with Christian of Man Seeking Coffee fame — during our joint review of Dynamo Donuts. Before the advent of Blue Bottle Coffee, almost no one dared date stamp their roasts. So the only way consumers could be sure they were getting coffee roasted less than a week old was to roast it themselves.

Today, the practice of date-stamping coffee roasts is expected among the better roasters. A week ago we walked into the Bi-Rite grocer, and we could pick up a half-pound bag of Guatemalan or Ethiopian beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters — roasted just a few days prior. A small neighborhood café such as Cafe Bello offers a daily special of a same-day roast for a mere $8 per pound.

Healdsburg’s Flying Goat Coffee, for example, will take your order online, roast it to order, and ship it to you within a couple of days. Vancouver, Canada’s 49th Parallel Roasters will FedEx roasted-to-order coffee virtually overnight to most anywhere in North America. And some roasters, such as Ritual and Blue Bottle, even offer roasted coffee subscriptions, delivered to your door.

With roasted-to-order Cup of Excellence coffees now available with the click of a mouse, what upside is left to the art of home roasting?

Uh oh, good thing we have a hood: save for Starbucks! Did we discover a third crack?! The built-in chaff collector that rests on top mostly does its job

When home roasting still matters

Today the motivations for home roasting are far less compelling than they were just a few years ago — at least for most consumers. Still, there are still solid reasons why home roasting still makes sense:

  • Pre-roasted blends and experimentation
  • Some coffee lovers want to experiment with different blends. And many coffee varietals contribute better to blends at different roast levels. This despite the current industry fad to roast most everything at a medium roast level, regardless of the type and origin of the bean involved. (If we hear one more roaster utter the brain-dead proclamation, “We only roast our coffee to medium roast, because that’s best,” we’re going to scream.)

  • Access to hard-to-find beans
  • This is one of the biggest motivators. Despite the greater variety of coffees available from quality roasters, their selection simply pales in comparison to the inventory at a Sweet Maria’s, for example. Some bean stocks, let alone roast styles, are clearly out of vogue among retail roasters. For example, today there’s a huge emphasis on single origin beans — leaving a major market gap for a variety of interesting blends to be used for espresso or other brewing methods.

    One of our favorite varietals for home roasting is Maui Moka for its intense, unrivaled chocolaty flavor. This living dinosaur of a varietal may cost $23 a pound green, but it’s worth the extra cost and roasting effort on occasion, because it’s pretty hard to find — fresh-roasted or not.

  • Convenient access to fresh-roasted coffee
  • Although fresh roasts are more widely available, you might not always want to rely on the postal service to get them. Furthermore, if your home coffee turnover rate is rather low, the expense of regularly shipping micro lots of the stuff suddenly makes the financial savings argument of home roasting much more compelling.

  • Got some spare time?
  • If you’re out of work or school and are interested in the process, home roasting becomes more appealing. When considering the labor costs, in some situations your time might be worth the investment — especially when you compare it with the costs of having a coffee subscription delivered regularly. Even so, the margins are still too thin on inexpensive green coffee beans to justify home roasting purely for financial reasons. Hence we suggest that if you’re going to bother with home roasting at all, deal only with higher quality green beans.

  • Like making your own wine or beer?
  • These days consumers have never had so much interest in quality food and yet felt so distant from its production. If you’re the type that likes to get their hands dirty to learn something new once in a while, home roasting is worth a shot. At least as a short-term strategy until you move on to your next hands-on project.

Some chaff still mixed in with the roasted beans The uneven coloration reflects blending this batch pre-roast plus uneven bean churn in the roast chamber, but it should be tasty

UPDATE: Feb. 9, 2011
Despite the fact that home coffee roasting has gone from an active Internet community on newsgroups and online forums to a trickle today of what it used to be, the mainstream media seems to have just “discovered” home roasting and continue to proclaim that it’s some growing DIY fad: The Ultimate DIY: Roasting Your Own Coffee – San Jose Mercury News.

A decade ago, many home consumers of quality coffee had no choice but to roast their own for freshly roasted coffee. Today, with so many quality options now stamped with roasting dates, the need has greatly diminished. This has lead to a long decline in the home roasting community, which is now dominated by a few new DIY curiosity seekers and a more limited handful of die-hards. Neither of which spells sustained growth for this community.

Rumors of the death of the $4 latte have been greatly exaggerated

Posted by on 17 Nov 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Not a day goes without us coming across a story about how the sky is falling on retail quality coffee. For example, ABC News laments, “How do you save on coffee in tough times?” Today the Chicago Tribune ran a semi-humorous column titled “Brother, can you spare (buying) a double latte?

Each one of these stories reference both the tougher economic times and Starbucks97% decline in their most recent quarterly profits. Posters invariably comment on these articles, claiming that pricey coffee was just a faddish aberration akin to the Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s. All of which leaves us with the impression that the era of quality coffee is over now that we’re eating canned cat food. Right?

Except that this story is a load of crap. In fact, this is precisely what Starbucks’ PR team wants us all to believe: that “it’s the economy, stupid,” and that Starbucks’ problems are all external and not internal to the company.

The truth is far different from that. Starbucks is now paying the price for selling out its soul a decade ago — by making more automated, mass-produced, and ubiquitous coffee to meet its insatiable desires to grow as gargantuan as possible, as quickly as possible. But to believe Starbucks’ version of events, we need to conveniently ignore that rival Peet’s Coffee & Tea continues to grow — and that many other Starbucks competitors, such as Café Bustelo and Lavazza (both cited in today’s news), continue to expand their operations in this economic climate. And today, the future of quality coffee has less to do with Starbucks than ever.

And please — don’t get us started on the media myth that home espresso is the way for consumers to both have great coffee and save a lot of money. At least without spending a lot of time on it. We do propose that home espresso is about better quality, saving money, or saving time. However, consumers can choose at most two of the three — and quite often they can choose only one.

UPDATE: Feb. 12, 2009
Sure enough, the day after Starbucks announced thousands of additional job cuts in the face of mounting losses, Peet’s Coffee & Tea reported a 21 percent jump in quarterly profits. And while Peet’s has stuck to their upscale espresso beverage formula, Starbucks continues to bleed as it announces more downscale plans to offer fast food value meals and instant coffee.

Talk about a Dickensian Tale of Two Coffee Fortunes…

UPDATE: Feb. 15, 2009
Apparently it’s not just competitive chains that haven’t chucked their quality standards (such as Peet’s Coffee & Tea) that are growing while Starbucks falters. According to an article from the Associated Press yesterday, many higher-end, neighborhood cafés are also enjoying double-digit profits, baffling many economists: Many small cafes holding their own in recession | Business | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle.

One theory is that this represents more of a consumer backlash against large corporations — and that consumers are more judiciously spending their dollars on what they perceive to be higher-quality coffee beverages made by the neighborhood café’s well-trained barista. Given our longtime comparison between Starbucks and Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule of the Soviet Union, could the quality revolution among mainstream coffee consumers finally have reached a Boris Yeltsin phase?

Savor the Saveur of Coffee

Posted by on 24 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Quality Issues

In the words of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: 'He's got the flavor' Saveur is one among many “gourmet” food, wine, and travel magazines (as much as we hate that hackneyed 80’s word) — but with a specific focus on international cuisines. “Saveur” being French for “flavor”. Now whether “Saveur Sav” would be a clock-and-beret-wearing member of France’s answer to Public Enemy is still up for debate. (Oui, garçon!) But the cover story for their latest (October ’08) issue is “The Breakfast Issue.” And while many of us will take issue that “coffee: it’s not just for breakfast anymore,” they feature a series of articles on coffee in the print magazine and as Web exclusives.

The main print article reviews nine different coffees from nine different specialty roasters, representing a rather broad spectrum of roasted coffee available for home brew: 9 Great Coffees – Saveur.com. And we sure do mean “broad”. It includes the usual suspects — the likes of Counter Culture, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and 49th Parallel. But there’s also the unorthodox choice of traditionalists Sant’Eustachio il caffè and even the “mass production” coffees of Green Mountain and Peet’s.

On one end of the spectrum they’ve got Newman’s Own Organics, and at the other end they’ve got Intelligentsia’s Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda (a batch of which we reviewed last year as roasted by Peet’s). Though to once again invoke the ever-tiresome wine analogy, we’ve noticed a trend where Esmeralda has become something of the Silver Oak cab of the coffee world: i.e., a great product, but one burdened with a status symbol brand name that people commonly latch on to when they know little else about the beverage. (Well, at least it isn’t kopi luwak.)

In Saveur.com’s online exclusives, they review an additional 14 coffees (More of Our Favorite Roasts – Saveur.com) and offer a coffee glossary (A Glossary of Coffee Terminology – Saveur.com). There’s even a brief interview/book promotion piece from Counter Cult member and Third Wave choir girl, Michaele Weissman: A Flawless Cup – Saveur.com.

Because we were inspired by the magazine title, and because it’s just too cool not to post on a Friday evening: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Beck “got the flavor!”

Colombian coffee icon defies Starbucks doldrums

Posted by on 17 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Home Brew

We know plenty of stories about coffee retailers and roasters going to origin, but here’s a story of origin coming here instead: Colombian coffee icon defies Starbucks doldrums – International Herald Tribune. As reported in today’s International Herald Tribune, the Bogota-based chain, Juan Valdez Cafe, is owned by thousands of Colombia coffee-growing shareholders.

We’ve written prior about Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers and their Juan Valdez-branded cafés. What’s also notable is that they are continuing their expansion plans — plans that seem to run counter to Starbucks‘ public lament that the current economy is a coffee retailer’s economic Dust Bowl.

Thanks to Starbucks, rumors of the demise of the quality coffee shop have been greatly exaggerated. And it’s not just the opinion of one Juan Valdez. Also in today’s news from London’s Evening Standard, reports that consumers aren’t retreating to the more economical options of coffee’s more recent Dark Ages: Coffee shop boom time as chains defy crunch | News. And just as some readers here suggested, consumers aren’t getting their preferred coffee fix by playing home barista more often either.

Think you’re saving a small fortune making coffee at home? Do the math.

Posted by on 27 Aug 2008 | Filed under: Home Brew

We previously wrote of our annoyance with the old and ever-popular yarn spun by wannabe personal finance gurus who constantly tell us we can become millionaires by quitting our daily coffee habit — or by replacing it with home-brewed coffee. For the record, we have a lot of coffee both out (as evidenced by CoffeeRatings.com) and in the home. But we’ve always thought that home-brewed coffee is hardly the magic path to champagne wishes and caviar dreams. This time we do a little of the math to show why.

Many of these personal finance hacks first fail to recognize that coffee, for at least some people, is one of life’s small pleasures. The idea of giving it up entirely makes about as much sense as giving up other “superfluous” things in life — such as haircuts, your child’s dance lessons, and cable TV. Once you get past that logic, the debate then becomes about the private jets you’ll be able to afford by making your own coffee or espresso at home instead of paying Starbucks each time for the mythical $32 coffee beverage. (Hey … inflation. OK, so we’re exaggerating about the $32 beverage to make a point. But then again, so are they.)

We recently came across a blog post, similar to the thousands of others just like it, where a “home savings tip” savant posted on how she saved a “small fortune” by switching from her thrice-weekly Starbucks habit to a stove top Bialetti coffee maker at home.

Let’s do the math

Small fortune, eh? Let’s do the math. A $4 bucket of Starbucks’ pumpkin-pie-flavored Cool Whip, purchased three times a week, will set our home-savings-tip heroine back about $12 a week — or about $600 a year.

A new Bialetti will set her back about $20 — which is nice and cheap compared to some of these ridiculous $1,200 hulking piles of home espresso machine plastic that typically produce shots inferior to even Starbucks’ dubious standards (Jura, anyone?). Then add a chop grinder for about $30, and her capital outlay comes out to be about $50.

Now since fresh roasted coffee is like fresh baked bread, the supply needs replenishing every couple of weeks before it goes stale. So if she’s buying Starbucks’ coffee (and it is pretty much already stale when you buy it), that should set her back about $6 for a half pound. Then add some incidental charges for milk, pumpkin pie flavoring, and tubs of Cool Whip — but for the sake of argument, we will consider it negligible (which it isn’t).

That comes to about a $50 capital outlay plus $6 every two weeks = about $200 in the first year.

Labor costs: because your time isn’t free

Now let’s factor in labor costs. Starbucks’ costs are dominated by labor, not coffee. To say that your labor comes out in the wash is deceiving yourself: your time is money. The federal minimum wage is $5.85 per hour (in SF, it is $9.36) — and let’s say her time is only as valuable as the lowest fry cook at McDonald’s at $6 an hour. And let’s say that making these coffee drinks at home takes about 15 minutes of her time — between grinding, watching the stove, steaming milk, washing dishes, cleaning the espresso machine, etc. All the work that Starbucks pays someone else to do for you. Three times a week for a year comes to about 40 hours of labor a year = $240.

Ronald gets a smoke break, but you don't...So in her first year, you compare her $600 Starbucks habit to $200 + $240 = $440. So she saved maybe a whopping $160 in the first year — minus her additional expenses for milk, pumpkin pie flavoring, and Cool Whip. And her coffee wasn’t probably nearly as good as the kind and variety she had buying out: the coffee supplies were probably more stale, the consistency wasn’t right, and she was using equipment and skills that were a fraction of what the pros have. (After all, a moka pot doesn’t even technically make espresso to begin with.)

Add that she had to put up with this inferior coffee for a whole year. Then add that she just valued her own time at the lowly wages of a fry cook working a burger joint fronted by a clown.

A small fortune? Indeed.

But what if you buy a $1,200 home espresso machine?

But at least she didn’t buy some $1,200 Jura (likely without a decent grinder, we might add) that will require her to grin and bear hundreds of inferior espresso shots before she breaks even on the purchase price alone. Or worse…

Home espresso machines, for most buyers today, are the home exercise treadmills of the previous decade. She could easily tire of the inferior shot quality she gets at home, and she could tire even more of doing all the labor herself. After all, we live in a society that can’t even be bothered to slice an apple or toss a salad because it’s too much effort. This means that not only does she return to her regular Starbucks habit, but she does so with an additional $1,200 hole burned into her pocket — now that her home espresso machine is gathering dust in the kitchen corner.

Yowza -- did someone say single origin dry-processed Ethiopian Sidamo espresso at Blue Bottle Cafe?This is why we generally recommend a home espresso setup for less than five percent of the people who ask about one. Unless you’re in it for the pursuit of higher quality shots, you’re going to be gravely disappointed. Don’t even think that you’re going to save much money with a home espresso setup unless you can make the time commitment — and if your taste buds can’t tell the difference in quality.

Sipping a double espresso at Blue Bottle Cafe earlier this afternoon, I felt like a million bucks. In fact, that espresso shot of single origin, dry-processed, Ethiopian Sidamo was so good, it deserved its own post. (To be continued…)

UPDATE: Dec. 30, 2008
As dependable as an SF Muni bus crashing into a corner storefront, someone regularly exhumes another post of home espresso machine personal finance quackery: When a $945 espresso machine makes sense – Smart Spending Blog – MSN Money.

All this talk about “doing the math”… You know who has done the math several times over, before any of us even considered it?: Starbucks’ marketing department, that’s who. You can bet your double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato that they know the lifetime value of their customers. And if Starbucks is devoting expensive retail space to selling home espresso machines in their cafés, how naïve does one have to be to think they’re doing it at a known net loss of customers and profits?

UPDATE: May 8, 2010
Yesterday we published a little research that shows some sample, third-party breakdowns of the actual costs that go into the price of a retail coffee: The social politics and economics of coffee prices | Espresso News and Reviews – TheShot.coffeeratings.com. As highlighted here, labor costs overwhelm any ingredient costs — underscoring that the economics of home coffee making are really about how much you value your own time and labor.

UPDATE: Aug. 20, 2011
Thankfully, there are occasionally sane voices out there saying, “Saving money on coffee is the most useless piece of advice that a personal finance blogger can give”: A Cup of Coffee Isn’t Just a Cup of Coffee.

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