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Trip Report: Ritual Coffee Roasters Redux (Mission District)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.

This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.

A new parklet under construction outside the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership Inside the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.

But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.

Art and benches at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Wall o' merch at the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)

A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.

When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.

Service counter looking towards the rear of the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Succulent garden at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.

They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.

The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.

The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters looking to the entrance from the rear 3 Fish Studios/Eric Rewitzer art design on the walls while you wait for your Ritual Coffee order

Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.

Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.

Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.

Read the updated review on Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission.

Synesso machines and Mazzer grinders at the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters service counter The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters espresso

Trip Report: Mountain Grounds (Martinez, CA)

Posted by on 17 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

As we mentioned in our last review of a remote Martinez, CA coffee house: good coffee is everywhere. In fact, the modern boom in good coffee purveyors is akin to the boom of mom & pop video rental stores in the 1980s and ’90s. And as some of these small businesses grow a little larger to form local chains, they’ve become a little like the current surge in home solar installation businesses. The local demand is there and the barriers to entry are generally low.

While the ubiquity of good coffee has its obvious benefits for coffee lovers, it also raises the spectre of market saturation and business sustainability. As good coffee houses open everywhere, they’re no longer rare nor special.

Strip mall entrance to Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA Inside Mountain Grounds with its Nuova Simonelli and 3rd Wave menu on the rear wall

Earlier this month, in response to news of Verve Coffee Roasters planning to open a future location in SF’s Castro District, SFist asked a newly valid question: “Hasn’t the Castro reached Peak Coffee”?

SFist is probably being a little alarmist before we have to worry about carpet-bombing-levels of good coffee in the neighborhood. Verve would have something a little different to say than the others already there, but the nagging old question of espresso sameness comes up. I would be particularly concerned if someone was planning to open yet another coffee shop serving Blue Bottle from La Marzocco machines just like the seven others within a three-block radius.

But in such a saturated environment, discovering a new coffee house with something a little different to offer can be a draw. Sometimes you have to go as far out as Martinez to find something that unique.

Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli machine and some of its roasted coffee menu above Pour-over brewing set up with a Chemex aside of Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli

Mountain Grounds + Revel Coffee = Something Different

Opening in the latter half of 2013, Mountain Grounds is in the middle of nowhere but is unique enough, and has high enough quality standards, to make it well worth a visit. If nothing else for the uniqueness of its coffee sourcing.

Located in a Martinez strip mall of four stores (what else are you going to find outside of old downtown Martinez?), it’s a tight space inside with window counter seating in front and hardly a few seats next to the service counter. Outside there are a few café tables along the sidewalk under the strip mall porticos — along with a couple of lounging chairs and a heat lamp.

Mountain Grounds resells Revel Coffee Roasting beans in plastic cupsOwner John Cassidy and his wife, Danielle, gregariously operate this shop. One of John’s longtime friends is Gary Theisen of Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings, Montana. Revel ships in the coffee from Montana every Monday. (The shop’s working business phone number also betrays John’s Montana roots.)

Mountain Grounds follows some creative small-town practices, such as accepting orders via SMS text in advance. (Easier to handle with low volumes.) They also offer a variety of specialty coffee drinks, including crème brûlée lattes (set aflame before being served for the crispy top) and the S’more. At one side of the cramped shop is a menu on the wall titled “A Taste of 3rd Wave Coffee Shops”, which features a double ristretto, a 1 ‘N 1, a macchiato, a cortado, a cappuccino, and a con panna.

The Mountain Grounds espressoThey pull espresso shots from a newer two-group Nuova Simonelli with a modest layer of even, medium brown crema with good coagulation. There’s a fruity brightness in the cup of cherry and berry, but a lack of the apple-like acidity that you might find with typical coffee from newer Cali roasters (e.g., Sightglass). This makes it a unique and rather balanced cup.

Milk-frothing here is pretty even. They offer weight-measured Chemex and pour-over coffee. The shop’s loyal following includes those who also take home Revel beans, which are packaged in clear plastic drinking cups with lids. With no real sink in this tiny shop, coffee drinks are served in paper only except for large ceramic logo cups for the bigger milk-based drinks.

Read the review of Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA.

Trip Report: Barrelista (Martinez, CA)

Posted by on 04 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

“You can find good coffee just about anywhere these days.” That’s been something of a mantra of ours over the past few years — whether it’s to question the point of archaic-yet-always-cited “America’s Best Coffee Cities” surveys in popular media or the need for coffee travel kits. Yet another case in point is my brother’s longtime home town… the Contra Costa County outpost of Martinez, CA.

Joe DiMaggio pitching Mr. Coffee in the 1970s on the little screenMartinez is an old Gold Rush town, located some 35 miles from San Francisco on the south side of the Carquinez Strait. Its small-town legacy includes John Muir’s home from 1890 (and home to the John Muir National Historic Site) and unconfirmed rumors as the birthplace of the Martini. There are also confirmed rumors of Martinez as the birthplace of Joe DiMaggio — before he came to be known for/as Mr. Coffee … and for his slugging percentage as a New York Yankee and an abusively jealous husband.

I’ve found at least two notable places to get coffee in Martinez in recent months. The first, Barrelista, was formerly a coffeeshop named Legal Grounds. This downtown Martinez corner coffee house was opened in February 2014 by the owners of the popular Barrel Aged bar/restaurant across the street.

The place has a funky, independent coffeeshop vibe — but without being run-down, cheap, and skanky as is the case with many less-than-urban independent coffee shops. (And many in cities for that matter.) There are a couple of benches for seating outside in front on a Main St. parklet. Otherwise, inside it’s a cozy spot with a lot of decorative, unique tables and chairs.

It’s not as stuffy as a stereotypical downtown Martinez antiques shop, but it’s much nicer than your typical thrift store. There are mirrored walls, there’s an old bicycle on the wall, and there’s even a shiny metal National cash register at the service counter. A collection of board games keeps some of the locals occupied.

Entrance to Barrelista in a 1905 building in downtown Martinez, CA The chaos inside Barrelista in downtown Martinez

Barrelista's shiny National cash register with Four Barrel beans for retail sale on the side Barrelista's La Marzocco Linea, and Mahlkönig EK 43, behind the counter

They sell panini, pastries, and sweets in addition to their coffee, which comes from Four Barrel (they also sell their beans retail). Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the side of the service area, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema of little detailed texture but yet good thickness.

It’s a modest pour, and it has some of the characteristic Four Barrel brightness but without it being overwhelming. There’s a pleasant roundness to the cup — a fuller mouthfeel accompanied by a decent blend of flavors from herbal pungency to mild spices and cinnamon to some apple-like acidity on the finish. Served in multi-colored Cost Plus World Market cups and saucers. The milk-frothing here is a bit wet and restrained, and yet their cappuccino runs very milky here — like a latte. They also do a decent job of trying their hand at latte art.

A solid espresso that would be worthy most anywhere. But there’s another notable Martinez coffee shop review to come…

Read the review of Barrelista in Martinez, CA.

The Barrelista espresso The more latte-like Barrelista cappuccino

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at Heath Ceramics (Mission District)

Posted by on 01 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew

One of Blue Bottle Coffee‘s great challenges today is to continue growing with the success of their coffee and café operations while avoiding becoming a commodity: a boilerplate coffee shop with a flavor profile so consistent that it becomes a little monotonous and boring, despite its obvious quality. Back in 2007 we wrote about Blue Bottle’s role in the Bay Area’s budding espresso sameness fatigue.

Coincidentally, that reference was in an article about Piccino Cafe — which has since closed, reopened to a larger restaurant space, and switched from Blue Bottle to Sightglass roasting. Sightglass has also since opened a second roasting operation in the Mission District where they immediately addressed the sameness concern by roasting and offering select coffees that aren’t available at their other locations.

Garage entrance to Heath Ceramics and the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Inside with the Blue Bottle Coffee to the left and the Heath Ceramics plant to the right

Just a few blocks from the second Sightglass roastery is this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet located inside the garage door of a Heath Ceramics production and retail warehouse. The location suits Blue Bottle’s alliance with Heath, and it also offers another unique space for them to operate. Even if Blue Bottle has yet to diversify their coffee offerings as much as the smaller-scale Sightglass.

Off to the left in this space is the in-house Blue Bottle retail café, with a decent-sized service counter, a lot of shelf space dedicated to whole bean sales, and a rear shelf of merchandising. To the center is the café seating area, adorned with the warm colors of wooden benches and chairs for seating inbetween the café and Heath’s production plant residing behind glass windows.

Open seating area for the Blue Bottle Coffee inside Heath CeramicsThe area is decorated with succulents and tall white ceilings with a lot of exposed pipes. At the service counter they employ a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. Going just a little off what was expected at the visit, they served espresso using their Colombia Las Margaritas Red Bourbon Honey single origin roast instead of their traditional three-bean blends. This gave the cup a bright fruitiness that shown throughout the cup — or disrupted the balance, however you perceive it.

The flavor is sharp: mace, cloves, and bright spices. It comes with a mottled medium brown crema and is served with a small glass of sparkling water on the side in a Heath Ceramic cup (of course).

While it’s a very astringent cup, at least they are experimenting beyond the expected at some of their cafés. Even if we had to deduct a few points for the annoying hipster barista who insisted on calling our shot a “spro”. (The groan-worthy “spro” being the #yolo of coffee vernacular.)

Read the review of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company at Heath Ceramics in SF’s Mission District.

Baristi behind the La Marzocco Strada at Blue Bottle Coffee in the Heath Ceramics Espresso with a side of sparkling water at Blue Bottle Coffee in Heath Ceramics

Trip Report: Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar (Healdsburg, CA)

Posted by on 27 Jan 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew

This renowned pie bar (/bakery) and ice cream shop opened in May 2014 to a lot of wine country accolades. And although coffee isn’t in their name, they also give a significant nod to their coffee service.

It’s a simplistic storefront off of the historic Healdsburg Town Square. Everything is covered in white-painted wood — or at least so it seems — giving it a turn-of-the-20th-century medical office feel. Or something from the set of The Knick.

They have a few metal stools and chairs with window counter seating and a couple of café tables. There are pies, there is ice cream, there’s merchandising on two wall shelves, and there’s the coffee service.

Entrance to Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar in Healdsburg, CA Seating with a wall of merchandising inside Noble Folk

Pies at the Noble Folk Pie Bar register Coffee and other merchandising at Noble Folk's opposite wall

Coffee menu and La Marzocco Linea at Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie BarUsing a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots of Stumptown with a modestly thin, even brown crema. It has a flavor of simple spices with a more balanced finish of some light pepper and chocolatey notes. Even so, it’s a little bit of an underachiever for its pedigree. And yet it works anyway. Served in black Espresso Parts cups.

Their macchiato runs a bit creamy without a clear milk-to-espresso definition in the cup. The milk-frothing runs a bit dry and not well integrated into their drinks.

Overall, it’s a viable alternative to The Goat: even if the quality isn’t quite there, the Stumptown beans give it something of an alternative flavor profile for the town.

Read the review of Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar in Healdsburg, CA.

Noble Folk is a femine place, and it's reflected in its patrons The Noble Folk espresso

Trip Report: Illy Caffè (Union St., Cow Hollow)

Posted by on 31 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).

However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.

Outside the illy caffè on Union St. Entrance to the illy caffè on Union St. - with espresso cup chandelier

Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.

illy caffè's tasting menu for the media brunchIt’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.

Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.

Blind spots in our perceived history of quality coffee

There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.

Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.

Joe Gurdock, at right, with Barry Sheldon, President and COO of illy caffè North America, at the head of the table Illy's Frisée Salad with illy coffee vinaigrette and egg on top

Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.

The converted Metro Theater on Union Street now houses an illy caffè at the near cornerAs another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.

Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.

Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)

Illy was also pioneering coffee subscription models as early as 2004, years before the Third Wavy new coffee middlemen injected themselves into the supply chain.

The illy caffè illy-Misu Housemade Tiramisu illy caffè's Jasmine Vanilla Botanical Latte

Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.

But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and Francis Ford Coppola designer cups Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and the unique Federico Fellini designer cup in the foreground

Review of illy caffè

Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!

This café is located at the edge of the former Metro Theater, which has since been converted into an insipidly boring and culturally irrelevant Equinox gym.

There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.

The illy caffè service counter with La Cimbali machine The illy caffè espresso

The illy caffè macchiato The illy caffè cappuccino

Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.

The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.

Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.

Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.

Trip Report: Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (Union St., Cow Hollow)

Posted by on 29 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

Taking its name from the 2013 hit single by Miley Cyrus…

OK, no, seriously.

While the dynamic duo of Trish Rothgeb’s roasting combined with Nick Cho’s barista and service know-how (and hopefully someone else’s tax accounting) has been in the Bay Area for quite a few years, tracking their coffee house openings and closings has been a bit like playing Whac-A-Mole. Seemingly married to the disposable, throwaway culture of pop-ups, you could be excused for mistaking Wrecking Ball for a roving coffee art exhibit meant to simulate the transience and vagrancy of America’s foster care system.

Under the stairwell lies the latest Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters Close-up of Wrecking Ball's entrance

Pineapple wallpaper in the Wrecking Ball entrance Merchandising inside Wrecking Ball

This latest location opened in August 2014 in a former That Takes the Cake. It appears as a converted in-law unit at the base of a Victorian home (or law office). In front there is some quaint yard furniture with miniature table and chair seating along the sidewalk — along with a sign to notify the staff for clean-up when you’re done.

Kalita pour-over bar inside Wrecking BallInside everything seems whitewashed as was vogue with San Francisco home interiors of the 1950s — save for the blue pineapple wallpaper at the entrance and black wood flooring. There are three chairs sitting at their Kalita pour over bar and long bench seating along the entryway.

They offer baked goods from Marla, they sport some antique brewing equipment along their shelves, and during the day they seem to be frequented by a disproportionate number of snobby expat Europeans wearing designer jeans and sportcoats that work in the neighborhood.

Using a white, two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the small counter, they pull shots of their 1UP blend with an even but richly textured medium brown crema. It has a balanced flavor of spices of cinnamon, a little allspice, some sharp acidity, and the suggestion — but not implementation — of deeper, richer body notes. As such, the flavor profile seemed a touch incomplete relative to the last pop-up shop that served us. However, it’s still distinctive as far as San Francisco espresso styles go. Served in a white Inker demitasse.

Visit now before it closes.

Read the review of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters on Union St. in Cow Hollow.

Wrecking Ball's La Marzocco Strada The Wrecking Ball espresso

On Coffee, Wine, the Napa Valley, and CIA Greystone

Posted by on 16 Nov 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

In addition to my rather obsessive love of coffee and evaluating its various flavors and aromas, I’ve made no secret of my equally fond appreciation of good wine. How much the two are connected — though sometimes at arm’s length — has been a running topic on this blog over the years. That theme repeated itself again when earlier this month I attended a weekend course called Sensory Analysis of Wine at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa Valley’s St. Helena.

Coincidentally, this week’s new episode of the Esquire Network’s The Getaway featured the Napa Valley and was hosted by Twin Peaksdamn fine cup of coffee” legend, the actor and now winemaker Kyle MacLachlan. Here’s a spot where he visits Napa’s Oxbow Public Market with Carissa Mondavi for coffee at Ritual Coffee Roasters:

In the video short, Carissa mentions the aromatic descriptors in coffee that you also find for wine. Which brings us back to the CIA course further up-valley. Located in a beautiful campus built in the 1880s as a co-operative winery (and since handed down from the Christian Brothers on down), it was purchased by the CIA in 1993 for use as their West Coast campus.

Foggy morning driving up the Napa Valley to the CIA at Greystone Hot air balloons rise over the road to the CIA at Greystone

Through the morning fog of St. Helena to CIA at Greystone Arriving at the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena

The course was taught by John Beuchsenstein, a veteran winemaker and wine sensory evaluation expert of some 30 years. Perhaps most notably, he’s a co-author of the Standardized System of Wine Aroma Terminology, also known as the Wine Aroma Wheel. It inspired the familiar SCAA Coffee Flavor Wheel, and John remembers the time when his work influenced the Coffee Flavor Wheel’s creation.

The two-day course was both an intensive lesson on the organic chemistry behind wine aromas, flavors, and defects and a hands-on lab where students tested their skills at learning and detecting these components. Volatile organic compounds such as 4-VG, 4-EP, esters, phenols, and fusel alcohols all represent the sort of chemical cause-and-effect linkages that have been long established for wine. However coffee is only just now getting a handle on similar chemical markers and how they impact the flavors and aromas of coffee.

Main campus at the CIA at Greystone Sensory Analysis of Wine classroom at the CIA at Greystone

John Beuchsenstein teaching Sensory Analysis of Wine at CIA at Greystone Homework assignments in the Sensory Analysis of Wine at CIA at Greystone

The good news for coffee is that the research is coming, but it will take time. As noted in the scientific paper on wine linked above, the wine industry has established standardized “recipes” for creating wine’s fundamental aromas and flavors. These form a foundation for a common sensory wine vocabulary. If you want a model for tobacco, there’s a base wine and an amount of off-the-shelf elements you can use to create that reference sensation, and you can dial it up or down in concentration to train your sensitivity to it.

Another parallel? Dr. Ann C. Noble at UC Davis had been using spider charts to model the sensory analysis of wines well over 30 years ago — something green bean buyers from SweetMaria’s would strongly identify with today. A major departure? Wine just doesn’t have coffee’s temperature-sensitive bands where different aspects of its flavor and aroma profile shift dramatically.

Sweet Maria's Moka Kadir blend evaluated on a tasting card/spider graph Student demonstration kitchens inside the CIA at Greystone and their watery-to-the-point-of-being-homeopathic Equator Estate coffee in Fetco brewers

The Bakery Cafe by Illy at CIA Greystone

Also of note is that the CIA at Greystone is one of the homes of Illy‘s Università del Caffè — a fact that Illy Master Barista, Giorgio Milos, pointed out to me when I ran into him at an Illy Art in the Street event at The NwBlk in the Mission last month. (Do check out his semi-controversial article on the limited praises of pod coffee in last month’s Coffee Talk.)

Courses at the Università del Caffè are infrequent, but the CIA at Greystone has a permanent coffee outlet on exhibit in the form of The Bakery Cafe by Illy. Sure, many culinary students and staff drink watery Equator Estate Coffee from the Fetco brewers in the demonstration kitchens at the CIA. But this bakery/café opened in April 2012 as an outlet for where CIA students could serve lunch, baked goods, and café fare to the general public.

With heavy Illy branding near the De Baun Theater, it’s also next to a CIA counter behind glass walls that serves wine, charcuterie, and chocolate confections. They offer baked bread and cookies, sandwiches, soups, salads, side dishes (good French fries, btw), wines by the glass, and of course — coffee.

The Bakery Cafe by Illy at the CIA at Greystone and its La Cimbali machine Service counter at The Bakery Cafe by Illy

The Bakery Cafe by Illy's espresso on Saturday The Bakery Cafe by Illy's espresso on Sunday

There are multiple indoor tables and chairs with table service (and ordering at the counter) and colorful hanging lights. Using a two-group La Cimbali XP1 chrome beauty behind the counter, fed by the big Illy can-o-beans, the same students pulled shots that varied wildly in the two times we visited for lunch over a weekend course here.

The staff wear “Illy-approved” fashionable shoes with the men sporting skinny ties like wannabe metro Europeans. With their service model carrying drinks to your table when they are ready, this clearly contributes to a lot of the variance. (Coincidentally, Giorgio Milos frequently talks about about the challenges of consistency with table service.)

On Saturday’s class day it had no crema beyond a tinge of cloudiness on the surface of what seemed like drip coffee crossed with a weak hot chocolate. It had a flat flavor with little brightness, a surprisingly decent body, but little to excite beyond that: a stale-seeming shot with no Illy woodiness, etc.: a shot that scored well on some properties but completely failed on others.

Then on Sunday the shot came with a darkly speckled brown crema, a solid aroma, and a warming flavor of mild spices and wood in balance that you come to expect of Illy. Nothing at the quality level of their European cafés (it’s always a much better product there for some reason), but an all-around shot of decent quality. So it’s very hard to tell you what you will get here, other than an erratic performance by students and a seeming lack of quality control intervening. Other than it’s served in Illy logo IPA cups.

Read the review of The Bakery Cafe by Illy in the CIA at Greystone, St. Helena, CA.

Trip Report: Pinhole Coffee (Bernal Heights)

Posted by on 29 Oct 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

JoEllen Depakakibo got her start in coffee at the North Side Chicago Intelligentsia mothership before moving to the Bay Area and working for nine years with Blue Bottle Coffee. In Sept. 2014 she opened this coffee shop in an 1890s building that was once a neighborhood butcher shop (curiously enough with Avedano’s butchers nearby).

There is popular bench seating along the front Cortland sidewalk, warm wooden flooring inside, acacia stump stools, a mural by JoEllen’s brother, Joey D, and a wall of colorful stripes by local artist Leah Rosenberg. Older soul tunes filled the space on our visit, which really worked (Otis Redding, Ray Charles, etc.) There aren’t many tables (one large one), but the cozy seating works. And as any Bernal shop does de rigueur, there are dog treats for “guests”.

Entrance to Pinhole Coffee on Cortland Ave. Leah Rosenberg wall inside Pinhole Coffee

They use three different bean sources for various brew types: Verve Streetlevel for espresso, a Linea Caffè Brazil for pour-over, and Blue Bottle in a Fetco for “quick drip” (James Freeman would probably roll his eyes). They also have a rather unique brew bar setup, employing a handmade copper kettle and cherrywood drip bar as part of their collaboration with Toronto-based Monarch Methods.

Using a 1989 two-group La Marzocco Linea that JoEllen first used at Blue Bottle (since refinished), they pull shots of Streetlevel with a mottled even and lighter brown crema. It’s potent and short — barely two sips — but elegant, bold, and quite a pleasant blend of herbal pungency, some spice, and an edge of fruitiness. Served in custom ceramics with sparkling water on the side.

The Pinhole Coffee refurbed 1989 La Marzocco Linea The Pinhole Coffee espresso

They also offer a Chemex for two ($8), a very-Brooklyn kiduccino (made with cinnamon, $2), and something she calls a piccolo ($3). The piccolo is not inspired so much by its size (nor Sammy Piccolo of Canadian barista fame), but more by JoEllen’s Piccolo Plumbing landlord. It’s a short shot with more milk than a macchiato (served as a 1:1 ratio) served in a logo glass, modeled after the Intelligentsia mothership’s since-vanished cortado. (It is still a bit milky for our tastes.)

All that aside, one of the best things about this place is that they are truly trying to be an integrated neighborhood café. This ain’t no fly-by-night pop-up.

Read the review of Pinhole Coffee in Bernal Heights.

View of the house drink menu inside Pinhole Coffee The Pinhole Coffee piccolo


UPDATE: October 31, 2014
Curiously enough, today Australia’s GoodFood posted an article about the piccolo latte as a Sydney invention and something suggestively close to the cortado as well: Good Food – Mugshot: The Piccolo latte. But here the ration of espresso to milk is stated as 3:5, not 1:1, so it’s even milkier.

Trip Report: Red Door Coffee (SOMA)

Posted by on 23 Oct 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

111 Minna has long been something of an art gallery space and night club, frequently packing long lines of SOMA patrons seeking out the DJ set. It’s what happens during the daytime that’s changed here.

They’ve closed up their previous efforts as an informal daytime bar and coffee shop (serving Illy beans from a Faema machine as a dubious coffee service). They have since reopened (by 2014) as a more formal daytime bar and coffee shop. Oh, sure, they’re still a gallery by day and a DJ-fueled disco bar for people far cooler than you by night. But the coffee service is now front-and-center during daylight hours rather than just an afterthought.

Entrance to 111 Minna, which by day now goes as Red Door Coffee Entering inside 111 Minna/Red Door Coffee

Seating and gallery space inside 111 Minna More gallery space and the rear bar at 111 Minna/Red Door Coffee

Decorative side door at 111 Minna/Red Door Coffee (the red door we presume?)It’s a large space with tall ceilings, wood floors, wood benches, a front bar and a decorative rear bar towards the back with a more secluded space to studiously delve into laptop zombiehood beneath art installations. At the front bar they now use a two-group La Marzocco Linea, pulling shots of Four Barrel (also for sale).

Using the Friendo Blendo blend, it’s a significantly better shot than before — with a sharper edge of acidity on a mostly pungent flavor of herbs, spices, and a touch of sourness at the finish. Now served in notNeutral cups.

A worthy upgrade to the coffee standards here. You can see why they now expect to capitalize on those investments. (After all, they invested enough to give the coffee bar its own separate name here.)

Read the review of Red Door Coffee in SOMA.

111 Minna branding over the central bar Inside the rear bar at 111 Minna: beware of laptop zombies

La Marzocco Linea at the counter of Red Door Coffee inside 111 Minna The Red Door Coffee espresso

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