Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
An article in yesterday’s Dublin Independent perhaps thought it was exalting the Nespresso espresso. However, it did more to underscore how clueless high-end restaurants are when it comes to espresso quality: The cult of Nespresso – Food & Drink, Lifestyle – Independent.ie. Pre-ground coffee that has aged for weeks in plastic pods since the second crack of roasting, idiot-proof brewing systems run by barista idiots, packaged coffee “flavors” such as “ristretto” or “cosi” (as in “sto così così”, or “I’m feeling so-so, but it’s better than when Mussolini was dictator”) — that’s the hallmark of quality in a £7 ($14) cup at heralded UK restaurants such as Fat Duck and Sketch.Forget the Fair Trade controversies in the article for a moment. Despite the clean and convenient system, the Nespresso espresso tastes very bland and comes with a thin, monochromatic crema and a body just this side of tea. But as long as the designators of good restaurant food taste believe their superpowers naturally extend to coffee service as well as amuses bouche, restaurant patrons are doomed to bland, underwhelming coffee at exorbitant prices. It’s surprising they haven’t hired sommeliers who choose the finest boxed wine selections to go with their $400 prix fixe meals.
Oddly enough, this was one of the things I appreciated about Coi restaurant in SF. I took my wife there for her birthday last week, and they didn’t even bother with espresso service. Instead, they served Blue Bottle Coffee in individual French presses — that’s it. They scored points for acknowledging what they didn’t know and couldn’t do well, instead of merely pretending that they did (and failing miserably) like so many other high-end restaurants.
Today Bloomberg published an article about the latest generation of restaurant and home espresso machines, designed with the idiot in mind: Idiot-Proof Espresso Machines End Excuses, Target U.S. Market – Bloomberg.com: Spend.
Andrea Illy of Illycaffè has to be very careful not to speak out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, today Illy is big on promoting a retail line of restaurant and home espresso machines designed for idiots and incompetents. On the other hand, he has to keep tight-lipped about the shortcomings of super-automated home espresso machines. Because the very safeguards that prevent espresso system owners from doing something terribly wrong or stupid are often the very same things that prevent these devices from producing great espresso.
“In the U.S., they don’t clean the machines correctly, they don’t heat the cups, they serve it with lemon peel,” Illy is quoted in the article. His answer? Illy’s push-button ESE system (for “Easy Serving Espresso”), which uses pre-measured capsules of pre-ground coffee — not unlike their Nespresso competition from Nestlé.
The article’s author was impressed by these ESE devices, saying they produce “not only an impeccably made espresso with a lingering taste of delicious, complex coffee on the palate, but after several minutes the crema had not dissipated”. The crema that wouldn’t die? I’m not sure if I should be excited or mortified.
And while the retail claim is that these machines make it hard for anyone to screw up a good Italian espresso, the fact remains that by “good” we’re still only talking Starbucks quality. A gold standard in 1995 suburban Virginia, perhaps, but irrelevant to anyone who has developed an espresso palate to know better. Or at least a palate for something capable of being a revelation espresso.
And although I don’t expect to be blown away at the high end of the espresso scale, I am off to Piemonte this week — armed with Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Lucky you that my postings should slow down a bit while I’m travelling.
Today’s Wall Street Journal features an article on a new home espresso machine/system being introduced by Illycaffè next month: Re-Engineering Espresso – WSJ.com. Illy’s new coffee-pod-based machine/system is called Hyper Espresso — ‘hyper’ being a sort of European equivalent of ‘super’ (as in hypermarket shopping). The system consists of a custom machine (produced by Illy for about $600-$800 for the home version). Instead of coffee pods the machine will use coffee-filled plastic capsules developed, and sold, by Illy for about 75¢ each (or about $50 per pound of coffee!).
Unlike other single-serving, home espresso systems, Illy’s new system promises to enable the home barista to tweak their espresso shots — for example, allowing owners to alter brewing temperature and pressure to produce different espresso strengths and nuanced flavor changes. While the ability to alter espresso shots is a step in the right direction, the system will still be constrained by using only stale, pre-ground coffee roasted weeks earlier, it is obviously beset by high coffee prices, and it will still create a huge amount of environmental waste per shot. You can read more about these capsules on the Illy Web site.
The article concludes by reviewing Illy’s research on all the complex variables and factors that go into making a quality espresso.
Today Earthtimes.org published an article on the evolving consumer coffee market in Vienna, Austria: Vienna’s coffee makers take on the convenience cup : Health. While Vienna is steeped in a long tradition of contemplative coffee-drinking in elegant cafés, modern trends such as espresso drinks, big international coffee chains, “to go” coffee, and home espresso machines are changing the landscape and competing for the hearts and minds of the local Weiners (Vienna being “Wein” in the local language).
Vienna’s roots are in filter coffee, but some of the traditional cafés have seen the exploding interest in espresso drinks as a growth opportunity. Small, local roasters also have to contend with the proliferation of home espresso machines and the coffee pod/single-serve-coffee phenomenon. However, they also cite the limited quality these pods often provide — not to mention the extensive environmental waste they produce.
And while many local cafés were thought to be under threat when Starbucks first arrived in 2001, to date Starbucks represents only 11 of some 2,600 coffee outlets in Vienna.
A Peninsula people-watching Mecca, typically filled with large crowds throughout the day and skirmishes over available outdoor tables. It’s been that way here since I first entered this place 15 years ago. They have large indoor and outdoor seating areas, local art, occasional musicians, and obligatory patrons in bike shorts.
One of the most indelible memories I have of this place is from a dozen years ago. A friend of a friend, who was visiting fresh from her compulsory military duty in Israel, asked us about it as we drove by. My other friend, himself a native of India, answered her, “It’s our local Eurotrash hangout.” To which she replied, “Oh, I love Eurotrash.” It may not be as Eurotrashy anymore, but the cyclist motif is still in full swing here.
They serve espresso with a very pale, blonde crema of mediocre thickness. Good Lavazza aroma. But with a pour to the rim of their Lavazza-logo IPA cups, it’s dominated by a weak body and a watery drip coffee flavor with some woody notes. Fortunately for most lactose-loving patrons, the milk frothing is much better — as everyone seems to particularly bathe in milk-based drinks here. The weak espresso can be hidden rather easily underneath it all.
Read the updated review of Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park.
This week, The Guardian (UK) posted an article on the elusive quality cappuccino: How’s your crapuccino? from Guardian Unlimited: Word of Mouth. While the Brits may disparage the “dirty dishwater” that is American coffee, even in London you’re helpless to find a cappuccino that isn’t served in a gargantuan bowl, filled mostly with milk, and gurgling with immensely sized bubbles (and yes, he includes Starbucks Coffee in this category).
The author suggests that home brew is the best option. But given the paltry pressures most home espresso machines can generate, I find good milk frothing to be one of the hardest things to produce at home.
One of the odder, and better, espresso adventures in San Francisco is the outdoor Blue Bottle Coffee tent that descends on the Ferry Building Marketplace every week like a traveling Burning Man exhibition. Starting in 2004, East Bay artisan roaster James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee brought his coffee cart out to the weekend farmers’ market at this location.
James has long (and accurately) recognized the dire neglect of quality coffee by restaurants and cafés, so he’s been big on freshness since the beginning of his days at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. He won’t sell beans roasted more than 48 hours ago, and he’s always bucked the local trend of charred roasts by promoting more moderate roast profiles. Not surprisingly, Blue Bottle was the 2004 coffee winner of the SF Bay Guardian‘s “Best of the Bay,” and they’ve received numerous awards ever since.
More controversially, before establishing a greater Blue-Bottle-branded footprint in SF proper, James also provided the original coffee service and training for the once-excellent Frog Hollow Farm inside the Ferry Building. Frog Hollow Farm’s espresso hasn’t been the same since they dissolved their business relationship, but more on that below.
Blue Bottle operates two temporary locations here: one electrified kiosk on the West (arcade) side using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, and the other kiosk on the South side running off propane and marine batteries using two Astoria manual/lever machines (a four-group and a two-group). (Coincidentally, last week we hinted at James Freeman’s pragmatism this week, and his choice of Astoria machines in the field at this location speaks volumes.)
The lever machines give it the feel of the Toy Boat Dessert Café. Though the off-the-grid nature of this spot reminds me of perhaps my favorite lever machine espresso experience: in a fog bank atop Mt. Vesuvius, just before reaching the crater wall.
The lines here have always been long. But the fresh coffee pilgrims have made it so that I now recommend making up a unique, fictitious name for your order. I heard orders for ‘Greg’ called up four times within the 15-minute wait after ordering, which made things very confusing. This despite the larger pit crew James now fields here (James rarely makes appearances himself now). This location has a couple of benches, but most customers drink it standing up or order “to go”.
They pull shots with a speckled, textured mixture of dark and darker brown crema that is surprisingly thin — at least on warm weather. (James told me their favorite days for consistency are socked-in August Saturdays.) Double shot ristretti are the default, and so are the paper cups — so order it in the traditional brown Nuova Point cups before they run out. For a ristretto, the body is a bit too thin, however — at least with the warm day of my last spot check. It has a flavor of smoke and smooth tobacco combined with a little honey, nectar-like sweetness. The brightness in the coffee shines through, but not as much as their Hayes Valley location. They also offer custom drip filter coffees.
While the overall quality of the espresso here is quite good, this location has never matched Frog Hollow Farm‘s espresso at its best in 2003-2004 — before James pulled out. Frog Hollow Farm seemed to bring together the best of James’ coffee and training with a fixed location and great equipment. Independently, both have suffered a loss of quality at this location since the split.
Following my farmers’ market visit, I headed home to compare my morning Blue Bottle experience with my own home espresso setup — using an espresso blend I made from “micro batches” of four different beans I had roasted with my Fresh Roast+ three days earlier. While it was clear I couldn’t create anything close to the milk microfoam Blue Bottle could produce, my espresso shots had a richer, thicker, and more colorful crema, a slightly weaker aroma, but a more robust flavor profile, greater brightness, and a thicker body. The Bay Area espresso elite should always give my home espresso a run for the money, and in the past three years this cart service has yet to do that.
Read the updated review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the Ferry Building Marketplace.
Last week, C. Clairborne Ray of the New York Times answered this question as part of the paper’s Q&A feature: bookofjoe: What makes coffee bitter?. (I’m citing it on another blogger’s post instead of the original NY Times source — in case you are religiously opposed to NYT logins.)
As the article states, coffee is a “complex chemical soup”. So complex, in fact, that the answer they offer is a complex alphabet soup.
The digestible short of it is that a little bitterness isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the overall balance of coffee, as it cuts down on its acidity. However, you can cut back on the perceived bitterness of the cup by avoiding distilled water, by brewing at higher temperatures, and laying off the robusta. The Coffee Research Institute also recommends medium roasts, drip-brewed systems, and using a coarser grind.
Today’s Zaman is published in English in Istanbul. So when someone writes an article there about Turkish coffee, you better believe I’m going to pay attention: TODAY’S ZAMAN – Time for a coffee break!.
The article offers some excellent tips for brewing your own Turkish coffee … right at home, without risking Your Own Private Midnight Express: how to make it, the four degrees of sweetness (sade, az şekerli, orta şekerli, and çok şekerli for all you sugar junkies out there), Turkish customs for serving it, etc.
And to think I once had a Turkish housemate who never bothered to teach me this. But I’m not bitter. (You hear that, Levent?! And thanks again for all the times you accidentally dialed “9-1-1″ instead of “0-1-1″ when making calls back home to Diyarbakir at 6am on a Saturday morning…)
I’ve written both here and elsewhere on how the state of home espresso has both improved and become worse at the same time. While home espresso is mostly out of the Krups Dark Ages, its future is uncertain:
Looking at things from the supply end, I spent some of this past Memorial Day weekend surveying the state of home espresso retail sales where most layman consumers in the Bay Area would naturally look: SF’s metrosexual retail capital of Union Square. This is my report.
I checked out the appliance offerings at two major retailers that consumers equate with finer home cuisine: the Williams-Sonoma flagship store and the Maiden Lane Sur La Table. I also checked out the nearby Crate & Barrel and The Sharper Image outlets for yuks. Williams-Sonoma carried just three espresso machine models: Nespresso, Jura, and Breville, all ranging from a modest $229 to a bank-busting $3,249 Jura (excluding a lone La Pavoni, perhaps best of the lot, that was essentially hidden). Sur La Table added Francis Francis, Keurig, and a couple of token Krups machines. (Crate & Barrel carried Krups and De’Longhi exclusively, and The Sharper Image had only Keurig and Flavia.)
A few weeks ago at the Carmel-by-the-Sea Sur La Table, I was inspired to do a taste comparison for myself (and was thus inspired to write this article). So in SF it was time for a run-off election. After sampling espresso made from a number of their floor model machines (and a serious caffeine overdose), I disliked the Nespresso espresso the least of the bunch. Of the lot of them, the Nespresso seemed to have the most potent flavor and generated some of the best crema.
This was a bit surprising on a few levels. For one — unlike the stale, pre-ground coffee packed in mail-order capsules that are required for the $299 Nespresso machine — the $2,400 Jura I sampled could use fresh, whole beans. Perhaps Sur La Table’s bean supplies were that old (likely) or the Jura machine itself did unholy things during the grinding and brewing process (also likely). But no consumer should pay $2,400 for an espresso machine that makes $150-machine espresso.
You could argue that unlike the Nespresso, yes, the Jura can actually froth milk. But for the $2,000 price tag difference, you could literally buy your own dairy cow. You could also attempt to argue that the Swiss-made Jura, while made mostly of cheap plastic, offers unparalleled robotic convenience. But for that price difference, that robot better be shooting lasers out of its eyes at unsuspecting burglars and cockroaches. Especially if it can’t make a decent cup of coffee.
I’ve always advocated that the truly best home machines aren’t sold at these “gourmet” retailers. You typically have to go to specialty coffee retailers on the Internet to find even a basic Rancilio Silvia — for the past decade, the gold standard by which all home espresso machines should be measured. But middle America isn’t buying Silvias. They are shopping at these retailers.
While the Jura most closely represents the style and quality of home espresso machine that the latest high-end kitchens are featuring as built-in appliances, the Nespresso C180 Le Cube won the bake-off. Which, if you’ve done any research on the reviews of home espresso machines, should not be surprising after all. The Nespresso has earned accolades from Consumer Reports, praise from various knock-off gadget blogs, and even highly favorable ratings on the respectable CoffeeGeek.com.
Yet despite all its praise — and the jazz music soundtrack and luxury car TV advert polish on the device’s Web site — I’ve always felt the Nespresso to be woefully inadequate as a home espresso machine. It is one step forward in convenience (self-contained, push-button), but two steps backwards in quality (stale, pre-ground beans in mail-order capsules).
So I had to question myself: did I just not get it? Did I carry some irrational, resentful bias against the device’s encroachment on the handmade craft of artisan espresso through automated coffee technology? But then I surely don’t feel that way about roasters. Am I missing something transcendent that dozens of Coffee Geeks clearly experienced? It was time for a patented CoffeeRatings.com test.
So, at the Maiden Lane Sur La Table just as the one in Carmel, I applied the same techniques to the espresso made with the Nespresso C180 Le Cube as I would to any other café. Always using the black Ristretto capsule (always beware when the names of espresso drinks become “flavors”), my repeat tests confirmed my bewilderment in what the fuss was all about. Which leads me to ask: have we become so conditioned to expect so little from home espresso that this is what we’ve come to regard as “quality”?
The pour starts out with a full crema right away — which is impressive until you notice how sickly pale, mottled, and bubbly it looks. I actually found it downright unappetizing. Compare the color and texture of the espresso crema in the photos below of the Nespresso Ristretto shot and a typical shot I made at home. While a good, healthy looking crema isn’t a guarantee of a great espresso, I’ve almost never had a good espresso with a sickly or absent crema. But, unlike the Krups Dark Ages, I suppose that a crema even exists at all is a step up.
The cup has a decent aroma, though its body is a touch thin (yet nowhere near as thin as the body I had from espresso made from the second-mortgage Jura machines). While there are some hints of brightness in the cup, and the flavor is neither diluted nor watery, its flavor clearly lacks the robustness that comes with fresh coffee. Though there are some pleasant spice elements, the flavor profile is undeniably flat from age and lacking multiple elements of a typical espresso flavor spectrum.
Although the Nespresso’s 5.90 coffee rating compares well with most Starbucks, the most disheartening part is that the Nespresso ensures that this is as good as your espresso will ever get — by design, since the system was developed with the ultimate consistency in mind. So if you want milk or the chance of a better espresso, you’re much better off shelling out another $300 to get a Rancilio Silvia and a decent burr grinder. Otherwise, I’d prefer a much cheaper Moka pot/stovetop coffee made with fresh beans — even without the crema.
Read the review of the Nespresso C180 Le Cube.