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America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013: Does Anyone Care Anymore?

Posted by on 03 Aug 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

This month’s issue of Travel + Leisure magazine once again published their updated “America’s Best Coffee Cities” rankings: America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013 – Articles | Travel + Leisure. We’ve covered these before; we’ve even used their reader survey data to rank how much locals in various cities have an overly flattering view of their own coffee culture. But this time around, our reaction to their rankings is more, “So what?”

A common American scene with more commonly decent coffeeMake no mistake: this marks a significant milestone in the evolution of coffee quality standards in the United States. Compared with several years ago, today it seems that every major city in America has one if not several really good coffee shops that are producing brews and shots within just a shade of some of the nation’s finest. So much so, it’s only raised our level of ridicule for the coffee xenophobes who advocate carrying around suitcases packed with their home coffee life support systems wherever they travel.

What were once coffee laggards such as New York City have been infiltrated by interlopers and local independent coffee culture stereotypes. Every month new quality roasters crop up around the country, many offering overnight shipping to any café on the continent that wants it. Thus today it’s almost impossible to find a city with a major league sports team that doesn’t also play host to some quality coffee.

Which all makes the notion of an “America’s Best Coffee Cities” ranking more and more pointless. Sure, the article offers readers a trendy topic to help sell travel magazines and their advertising space. But the concept is becoming as irrelevant as an “America’s Best Wine Cities” ranking: it really doesn’t require an airline ticket to get a really good cup of coffee anymore. And for that, we will raise a fine cup of this Brazil Sertão Carmo de Minas espresso we’re drinking this morning.

But if you must know, and to save you the ad-flipping pagination of their Web site, here’s the list in its entirety:

  1. Seattle
  2. Portland, OR
  3. New Orleans
  4. Providence, RI
  5. San Francisco
  6. San Juan, PR
  7. Minneapolis/St. Paul
  8. Portland, ME
  9. New York City
  10. San Diego
  11. Savannah, GA
  12. Austin, TX
  13. Honolulu
  14. Santa Fe, NM
  15. Nashville
  16. Kansas City, MO
  17. Boston
  18. Chicago
  19. Charleston, SC
  20. Philadelphia

Trip Report: Coffee Cultures (Financial District)

Posted by on 25 Jul 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

This dedicated coffee shop opened last month courtesy of Jason Michael Paul, the entertainment-minded partner behind SF’s small Coffee Bar chain (and no, not a three-named serial killer).

It’s a tiny space that took over for the former Tully’s Coffee on this spot, located at the entrance of the East Lobby of 225 Bush office building. They have window counterspace seating among six stools, and that’s it. The rest is the service area, a rear wall of Counter Culture Coffee beans, and a wall of merchandising off to the left. And yes, finally coffee roasted on the East Coast is making its way further out West.

Coffee Cultures' front window getting muscled in by the America's Cup and dreck Nespresso marketing Service area inside Coffee Cultures

While they mostly focus on coffee (hence the name), they’re also known for locally-sourced pastries and Strauss soft-serve frozen yogurt — the latter likely being an evolution from when Coffee Bar once entertained the idea of hosting a Swiss-made Pacojet machine to produce on-demand ice creams and sorbets.

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 — with The Promise Ring cranking on the soundsystem — they pull espresso shots from a couple of bean options. When we visited, it was Counter Culture Coffee’s standard Toscano blend and their (very bright) Ethiopian Idido.

The barista staffers here are far better than most places at walking you through your options. (Imagine that: great customer orientation and Counter Culture Coffee combined together!). The resulting Toscano shot is pulled on the short side with a medium, textured brown crema. It’s a proper extraction of two sips with a sharp acidity and a limited balance beyond the mid-palate, giving more flavor emphasis in the resinous/black currant realm. Definitely a refreshing option with something different to offer.

Read the review of Coffee Cultures.

Coffee Cultures' La Marzocco GB/5 and bags of Counter Culture Coffee The Coffee Cultures espresso (Toscano blend)

Trip Report: Cafe St. Jorge

Posted by on 15 Jul 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

Entrance to Cafe St. Jorge on Mission St.In the space that was formerly Nervous Dog Coffee, Andrea de Francisco brings her culture from São Jorge island in the Azores to San Francisco. She’s the former manager of the Lower Haight‘s Grind Cafe, so she also brings an emphasis on coffee and not just food.

The Kickstarter Bubble?

But first, a minor detour on financing. Last month we wrote about some of the funding options coffee businesses take on to expand their operations: venture capital, franchising, business loans, good old-fashioned profit re-investment, etc. However, cafés and device-makers alike have recently turned heavily to crowd-sourcing options, such as Kickstarter. Cafe St. Jorge opened by raising some $30,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.

If this trend hasn’t raised eyebrows by now, it should. Kickstarter has rapidly become a funder of last resort, charity disguised as investment. Kickstarter funders enter agreements with no expectation of getting their money back, which has great appeal for the project. But the strings that come attached with business loans and more traditional funding models have their advantages too; e.g., someone is vetting your business plan for financial sustainability, incentivized investors may have access and can open doors for its growth.

Of course, local SF restaurant openings have long embraced the habit of taking on private investors who generally assume they’ll never see their money again in exchange for some regular discounts and privileges. This isn’t that different from what Kickstarter offers. But we get the sense that the risks and rewards are much less clear in a new model like Kickstarter, and any business scheme of seemingly “free money” smacks of all the things in our human financial history that have ended quite badly. Even if you just might get a RoboCop statue out of it.

Inside Cafe St. Jorge Menu inside Cafe St. Jorge

Back to the café…

Adopting its Azores theme, the place is well-branded with a classic Portuguese blue tile (azulezos) motif. There are benches and narrow café tables, white walls, and dark wood floors to match the tables. Old family photos adorn one wall, along with a shelf of logo cups, Portuguese olive oil, honey, and Stumptown Coffee for retail sale. They sell toast, salad, sandwiches, and some Portuguese pastries (especies, pasteis de nata, bolo de arroz, etc.).

As for the espresso (or bica, being the Lisboeta word), it’s deliberate and well thought-out: meticulous shot pulls from a light blue, three-group La Marzocco FB/80. It’s a short shot with an even medium brown crema and a potent Stumptown finish of bright, acidic herbal notes.

Seating at the front of Cafe St. Jorge Andrea de Francisco pouring milk at Cafe St. Jorge

They rotate the blend here (Holler Mountain, etc.) so the result can vary a little. Served in Espresso Parts cups. They even acknowledge the less-than-ideal-but-sometimes-necessary special to-go espresso on their menu.

A little pricey for the neighborhood, but worth the end product. Milk-frothing tends to show decent microfoam in reserved proportions (and served in Tuxton cups).

Read the review of Cafe St. Jorge.

The Cafe St. Jorge espresso The Cafe St. Jorge cappuccino

Trip Report: Barefoot Coffee Works (Campbell, CA)

Posted by on 09 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

How good quality, independent coffeeshops cope with growth and expansion takes multiple forms. Most follow the time-tested “slow crafting” method that many espouse for their coffee brewing: driving sales, opening new business loans, and expanding one location at a time. Other notables have recently thrown on the accelerant of venture capital to burn a bit hotter and faster than most small business owners, giving up a bit more ownership in the process.

Then there’s something of a hybrid in the franchise model, where you license out your name and coffee supplies to independent business owners. San Jose’s Barefoot Coffee Roasters adopted this model to expand its name and brand presence in the South Bay. While Barefoot recently shut down its original Santa Clara mothership, it has opened its own Roll-UP Bar at its roasting headquarters and licensed its name out to locations in Campbell and Los Gatos.

Strip mall entrance to Barefoot Coffee Works in Campbell, CA Coffee service area with Nuova Simonelli machine inside Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell

This Campbell location is one of these “licensed independent operators”, opening in Sept. 2011. Located in Campbell’s Onyx Retail Center, it’s a very local café with strong local support. The staff here are friendly and seem to know everybody. This is great for encouraging support of the locals, although having to wait through a conversation on how each family member is doing for each person in line can be a bit of a delay if you’re in a rush.

Outside there are a couple of café tables in front with parasols. Along the hallway there are a few wooden café tables with the occasional laptop zombie, and at the short serving bar there are a couple of stools seated along the service counter. It’s adorned with purple drapes and boldly painted walls with mirrors.

Barefoot Coffee Works Campbell's pour-over setup and coffee menus Servicing the pour-over bar and Nuova Simonelli machine at Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell

There’s a Hario V60 dripper pour-over bar with three different options for coffee and a white, three-group Nuova Simonelli for espresso. With it they pull shots with a mottled, spotted medium and darker brown crema. It has a very robust aroma, but a relatively thin body.

Flavorwise, The Boss here has a stronger herbaceousness and limited brightness: it seems a bit limited and insufficiently balanced, despite being a good espresso. They serve it in white ACF cups. Their milk-frothing is a bit mottled and sits on top without integrating into the liquid espresso very well.

The standards seem off here from the owned & operated Barefoot locations we’ve known, and it makes us miss their Santa Clara location. And when it comes to quality, this ain’t SF’s Epicenter Cafe either. They do offer things like their orange ginger cubano to get flashy with flavoring. But despite good coffee here, this does seem like the classic risk of when you put the quality of your brand in the hands of someone else.

Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Works in Campbell, CA.

The Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell espresso The Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell cappuccino

Trip Report: Model Bakery (Napa, CA)

Posted by on 07 May 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew

This no-frills bakery is a sister to the St. Helena mothership that has been operating for over 80 years. We recently mentioned it as one of the cafés singled out in the recent-and-pathetic coffee listings from Zagat, but the espresso here is actually noteworthy.

There is no indoor seating, but there are outdoor benches and parasols in front — just around the corner from main building of the Oxbow Market. Obviously, breads and baked goods are the big thing here.

Entrance to Napa's Model Bakery Service area for baked goods inside Napa's Model Bakery

Several years ago, they used a two-group Grimac La Valentina La Vittoria on their supply of Peet’s Coffee. They later upgraded to a two-group La Marzocco Linea and Caffé Vita beans, making it one of the few places in the entire Bay Area we knew to offer them at the time. But in a recent blow to regional roaster diversity, in 2013 they announced they couldn’t keep up with Vita’s import costs from Seattle and were switching to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is what they serve now.

Not that we have anything bad to say about the quality of Blue Bottle Coffee. But when the diversity of local espresso options shrinks, we see that as a step backwards.

Model Bakery's Fetco Luxus coffee dispensers still show Caffé Vita brandingThe results were actually quite good dating back to their Peet’s setup, but they are even better now. The resulting shot has an even layer of medium brown crema (which was more of a swirl of a thicker layer with Vita beans), and the once-large pour sizes have fortunately become smaller. It is still sadly served primarily in paper cups, but the shot is served short and potent in the cup with a body to match and a flavor of brighter fruit. (With Vita beans, the shot offered more herbal pungency, some smoke, and molasses — something we miss.)

Brown ACF cups are now available for cappuccino-sized drinks, but even asking “for here” at the order counter doesn’t guarantee they’ll get your order right. The staff may not seem overly comfortable in their coffee-making, but the results deliver.

Milk-frothing here is not only decent, but when combined with the milk-friendlier Vita roasts of before, the cappuccino flavor here beat out the ones poured at the nearby Ritual (even if Ritual’s foam is more smoothly integrated into the cup). But now with Blue Bottle beans, the milk-espresso contrast is less dramatic. It’s still a solid cup.

Read the updated review of Model Bakery in Napa, CA.

Napa's Model Bakery espresso setup The Napa Model Bakery espresso -- sadly in a paper cup

Trip Report: Jane on Fillmore

Posted by on 05 May 2013 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Local Brew

Opening in 2011, Jane on Fillmore took over the former Bittersweet space and changed a few things with the design. There’s an area dedicated to baking and baked goods in the back. There’s still limited seating upstairs, now just above a mounted buffalo head with an SF Giants cap. Otherwise it has retained its sunny glass storefront, several café tables and chairs, and added a large mirror behind the service area.

They formerly served Four Barrel beans, but they have since switched to Stumptown (and sell the beans retail, along with Baratza grinders and Kalita drippers). This marks a bit of a reintroduction of Stumptown to the area — after having been replaced by a number of local roasters as they’ve spun up.

Entrance to Jane on Fillmore Entering Jane on Fillmore

Inside Jane on Fillmore Local decorations inside Jane on Fillmore

They serve Hairbender and a single origin espresso option (Costa Rica Valle de Los Santos at our time of visit). Plus Chemex offerings of Panama Duncan Estate and Ethiopia Nano Challa in multiple grinders, and a drip/brew bar with a scale and dueling Baratza Virtuoso grinders.

Using a red, two-group La Marzocco FB/80, they pull shots with a darker to medium brown, even crema of decent thickness and density. The cup is no Hairbender brightness bomb, but rather a mellower yet full-flavored soft melding of cocoa powder and a melding of spice and herbal elements. Served in EspressoParts black cups (and a mismatched ACF saucer).

Their milk-frothing shows decorative latte art and even bubbles, however the foam is of minimal thickness and the resulting cup is more than a little milky with little integration between the foam and the espresso. Unless you like your caps closer to a café au lait, the espresso is the star here.

Read the review of Jane on Fillmore.

Brew bar inside Jane on Fillmore FB/70 and bar inside Jane on Fillmore

The Jane on FIllmore espresso The Jane on FIllmore cappuccino

Eight years later, Zagat finally publishes their coffee survey

Posted by on 26 Feb 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Back in 2005 we wrote about Zagat’s attempt to put together a regional coffee survey based on their famed user review methods. An acquisition by Google and eight years later, that was the last anyone had ever heard of it. Until now.

Zagat 2013 Caffeine Buzz: worth the paper it's printed onZagat has since published their first ever coffee survey. This coincides with their recent hot and heavy lust for improved search engine rankings, with Zagat spewing out a steady stream of coffee-themed blog posts brandishing inane, list-driven, come-on titles such as, “The 10 Most Annoying Coffee Trends” or the wholly derivative/regurgitativeWhat Your Coffee Drink Says About You.” (Kill me now, please.)

Zagat titled their 2013 study Caffeine Buzz: Hottest Coffee Shops Around the Country, and yet much of its content left us wondering if they’ve been sitting on this data for eight years. For example, just examine the 2013 Zagat reviews for San Francisco.

They list Blue Bottle Coffee among their nine Bay Area selections — but none of the other “usual suspects”. However, they chose to include the ever-underwhelming, Starbucks-slinging Carmel Bakery in the coffee wasteland of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They mention Napa’s traditional but surprisingly good Model Bakery — but ignoring that a Ritual Coffee is around the corner and making no mention of how Model Bakery is one of the few places in the entire Bay Area to offer Caffé Vita coffee. (And for those of you in L.A., good luck finding Handsome Coffee or Portola Coffee Lab, let alone the countless barista award winners from Intelligentsia.)

Unfortunately, despite the SF Gate‘s notion that Zagat has finally caught on to the coffee zeitgeist, we see no evidence that Zagat has given coffee any more serious thought than they did back in 2005. The Zagat survey’s baked-goods-leaning, ambiance-heavy, and coffee-oblivious reviews of the few places that do make their short list only prove that.

The new Google-owned Zagat seems to believe that its future lies in a daily stream of bubblegum blog posts about local coffee. But since Zagat loyalists expect some sort of review guide to anchor things, Zagat exhumed their 8-year-old research and quickly threw it up on the Web.

Trip Report: The Station S.F.

Posted by on 01 Jan 2013 | Filed under: Local Brew

This corner espresso bar and retail space opened in August 2012, taking over a space that was formerly Bentley Carpet Mills. (It is also currently housing a pop-up clothing store called Taylor Stitch.) Large windows allow a lot of light in. The inside is also marked by a stark black + white color scheme. They offer breakfasts and panini and a relatively ample shelf of coffee merchandising. And why not? They know what they’re doing here. There’s large Blue Bottle signage on the front window, and they serve pour-overs using Blue-Bottle-logo Bonmac ceramics.

Corner view of The Station S.F. Inside The Station S.F.

Their espresso machine is a three-group, heat-exchanger BFC, which is an unusual (and decidedly knowledgeable) choice. Word has it that it’s a loaner and will eventually be replaced with a La Marzocco, but they’re not hurting for a switch by any means.

Using their BFC and Blue Bottle’s 17ft Ceiling blend, they pull properly short shots of espresso with a sweet aroma and a glass of sparkling water on the side. It has a mottled medium and darker brown crema with a subtle flavor that’s moderately potent: not too sweet, but far from any earthier notes. More spices and light on the herbalness with almost no tobacco. Definitely improving the coffee in the neighborhood, even with the new (and brick & mortar) Réveille Coffee Co. location opened up across the street.

Read the review of The Station S.F.

Front counter with BFC machine and Heath cups at The Station S.F. The Station S.F. espresso

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Trip Report: Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters

Posted by on 25 Nov 2012 | Filed under: Café Society, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

Trish Rothgeb and Nick Cho are coffee notables from the Northwest and D.C. area, respectively, and they’ve combined forces in recent years as the roasting/brewing partnership behind Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters. Nearly seven years ago on this Web site, Trish and Nick became a rather infamous pairing ever since Trish was first credited with coining the coffee term “third wave” — i.e., before it was immediately co-opted by coffee hucksters and carnival barkers.

The idea behind Wrecking Ball is that Trish — a former Director of Coffee for Seattle’s Zoka — focuses on the coffee roasting. Meanwhile, Nick — portafilter.net podcast host, former Murky Coffee owner, and famous wannabe cockpuncher — focuses on the brewing and coffee service.

Entrance to Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters Entering the Firehouse 8 space with Wrecking Ball way in the back

Even past Wrecking Ball in the Firehouse 8 space, you can see the old fire pole Museum-like display shelves inside Firehouse 8/Wrecking Ball

While their roasting operations are near Redwood City, they have a lone retail café in SF in the Firehouse 8 event space. A former firehouse (there’s even a brass fire pole towards the back), it’s a vast, airy space that’s frequently inhabited by pop-ups that sell jewelry & clothing or weekend waffles. There are occasional display cases to show off some of these wares (giving it a slight museum feel), plus brick masonry at the entrance, stone floors, tall ceilings, and a row of simple café tables lined up at the entrance. Wrecking Ball is something of a permanent fixture here, however — just opening earlier this month.

In a rear corner they sport Kalita Japanese brewers (Nick has long been quite a fanboy) and scales for measuring coffee grounds precisely. They also sport a two-group La Marzocco Strada and a La Marzocco Vulcano grinder. For their espresso they use their 1UP blend ($2.25 for a doppio) and pull shots with a dark, even, textured crema. There’s a strong herbacity to it, and fortunately it tastes more like coffee and less like blueberries and flower petals like many new roasters seem to profile too heavily.

Solid stuff: this is definitely one of the finer (if not quieter) places for an espresso in the city. And credit to Trish, as the take-home 1UP beans worked great on our home espresso setup as well. We only wish the roast dates weren’t approaching two weeks old when we bought it.

Read the review of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters.

Homage to the old firehouse at the entrance to Wrecking Ball Piles of beans and Kalita gear at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters

Wrecking Ball's La Marzocco Strada The Wrecking Ball espresso

Trip Report: Verve Coffee Roasters (downtown Santa Cruz, CA)

Posted by on 03 Jun 2012 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Opening around Thanksgiving of 2011, this downtown location of Verve clearly ups the design aesthetics and sends a signal across the street of the venerable Lulu Carpenters. If only the coffee service could live up to everything else promised by visual pageantry here.

It’s a beautiful, open space with a prime location. A former curiosity shop (fruit baskets, etc.) called “Best of Everything Santa Cruz”, this space remained vacant for a number of years prior to Verve’s move-in. There’s a lot of exposed, unfinished wood integrated in its interior design (though less wood than, say, Sightglass) and bare, decorative hanging lightbulbs.

Pacific Ave. entrance to Verve Coffee Roasters in downtown Santa Cruz Service counter and Strada machine in the downtown Santa Cruz Verve Coffee Roasters

Wall of Merchandising, Verve Coffee Roasters in downtown Santa Cruz Another Strada and another three Mazzers, Verve Coffee Roasters in downtown Santa Cruz

It’s an airy space with seating concentrated at stools and window counters along Pacific Ave. and Front St. There’s also larger wooden tables with affixed, movable seating that suggests a strange cross between a McDonald’s and a German biergarten. There’s a wall of merchandising, which includes a variety of freshly roasted coffees. And not that we’re big fans of marketing literature, but they oddly offer nothing for potential consumers to discriminate their different coffees. This becomes particularly perplexing when they offer roasts from four different El Salvador farms as when we visited. (For the record, we tried some of their El Salvador La Benedición, which we randomly purchased and recommend after some home trials.)

They showcase two gleaming three-group La Marzocco Strada machines, each accompanied by three Mazzer grinders featuring three different bean stocks. It’s not like their service counter doesn’t take the appropriate time — waits for an espresso shot can be 5-10 minutes even at 3pm on a Saturday. But the resulting shot, using their Sermon blend, had a tepid serving temperature, a thin medium brown crema with some limited texture, and a watered-down body that tastes of wet tobacco leaves. Served in notNeutral cups with a side of sparkling water.

The Verve Coffee Roasters espresso in downtown Santa Cruz: leaving a little to be desired The Verve Coffee Roasters macchiato, downtown Santa Cruz

It is surprisingly disappointing, given the quality at their mothership location, although not inconsistent with most places that opt to showcase modern pressure-control machines like the Strada or Slayer. (Too often we find that new toys or aesthetics can matter more than a good end product.) It certainly could be an off barista or one that refused to sink shot when they should have. But the overall experience leaves you with the impression that the emphasis and expense here are focused on the wrong, superficial things.

Verve Coffee Roasters showcases their awards, and yet its not on display in the cupA setup like this with the results they produce are as wastefully aggrevating as the guy with the $60,000 Porsche roadster driving 55mph in a 65mph zone along US 101 — using the passing lane instead as a retirement lane to mentally check-out and avoid making any driving decisions. We will take a storebought roast with a cheap, used La Spaziale machine and a barista obsessive about perfecting his/her shot — and who knows how to use the equipment properly — over this puffed-up experience anyday. It may cost a mere $2.75, but when you can get comparable quality shots for $1.25, Verve is letting their standards and their customers down. Verve is clearly capable of much better, so a revisit is mandatory.

Read the review of Verve Coffee Roasters in downtown Santa Cruz.

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