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Archived Posts from this Category
Surprisingly, Epicurious had yet to make a notable entry in the obligatory culinary-magazine-rates-national-coffee-shops department. But that all changed this week with the rather ambitious title of “America’s 25 Best Coffee Shops — The ultimate guide to the best coffee shops across the United States”: America’s Best Coffee Shops | Epicurious.com.
We do have to give them an iota of credit. Unlike most of their ilk, they cover coffee without a brand name that suggests an exclusive concern for food, eating, meals, or anything else at the expense of beverages as some kind of frivolous, second-class diversion. But then they did have to ruin it a little by filing the article under their “Where to Eat Around the Globe” category. Facepalm indeed.
Writer Colleen Clark also falls for many of the usual suspects among coffee house article tropes. Like a rapper with mad rhyming skillz just this side of 2 Chainz, she employed several examples of the journalistically lazy caffeine riff and liberally used the trite words “java” or “joe” as substitutes for “coffee”. Imagine if writers playfully used the term “alcoholics” when talking about wine lovers they way they effusively use “caffeine junkies” whenever talking about coffee lovers. Double standard, anyone?
Then there’s the tiresome barista-as-sommelier analogy. She also made several references to the rather dated topic of regional coffee “scenes”: the concept where which urban metropolis you’re in determines whether you can access quality coffee or not is becoming rapidly irrelevant if not already extinct. Now that even the world’s last holdout for terrible coffee — Paris, France — has worthy and redeemable coffee shops, there are no more “coffee cities” anymore than there are wine or tea cities.
All these negatives aside, the article is actually a rather decent assessment of great coffee shops — given Epicurious‘ magazine peers. (Even Forbes tried to get in on the act of reviewing the nation’s best coffee shops.) It might suggest that “it’s hard to separate the real-deal java joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsters” — a problem that we honestly never knew needed solving. But they at least drew a line in the sand, laying down some of their criteria by which some coffee shops should or should not be included in their list:
So we’ve combed the country for the coffee shops that combine craft with hospitality, for inviting spaces that spark creativity, and for roasters who know how to make your morning brew tell a story. These are our picks for the USA’s top 25 coffee shops.
This beats most of the random nonsense we’ve seen in past magazine lists of this type. Even if some of these criteria are precisely the sort of fluff that frustrated us as distractions from a focus on the actual coffee as far back as 2003: telling stories, named architects, hospitality, etc.
So that you don’t have to turn 25 pages of ads on the Epicurious Web site, we’ve summarized their list here in one place as something useful (and as listed in no particular order):
Risks of the No Coffee Left Behind Act aside, this is a solid list. We will be the first to admit that it is over-represented by San Francisco. But most curiously, although it does well to call out a few smaller independents such as Daylight Mind and Barista Parlor, this list is heavily represented by chains. For a Top 25 list, it’s actually cheating a bit as it actually represents a total of 85 coffee shops.
Has quality coffee in the U.S. reached a tipping point where the independents have come to be outnumbered by the chains? That’s hard to say just yet, but you can’t argue with the quality represented here.
Without question, this gran caffè is a city institution. It’s long been considered a gathering place for intellectuals, thinkers, poets, foreigners and locals alike. Opening in 1860 as Il Gran Caffè, it started as a Parisian-styled singing café — or café-chantant — before adopting its current name in 1870. It is rightfully recognized among I Locali Storici d’Italia — an association dedicated to recognizing and helping to preserve some of the historically significant establishments in Italy.
Some of this café’s great historical connections include where Edoardo Scarfoglio and Matilde Serao launched the daily paper Il Corriere di Roma in the 1880s (they later went on to establish Il Mattino in 1891), where Gabriele D’Annunzio penned the Neapolitan classic “‘A Vucchella” in 1919 (here’s a version by Enrico Caruso, famed 1906 SF earthquake survivor), and where Jean-Paul Sartre, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Benedetto Croce, and the aforementioned Giovanni Agnelli each came to sit, think, talk, and maybe even write at some time or other.
Outside there are often crowds of tourists gathering for tours of the Napoli underground. There’s outdoor seating in front under parasols against Piazza Trieste e Trento, which very much feels like the heart of the city given nearby Piazza del Plebescito, Palazzo Reale, and the San Carlo theater.
Inside, there are many rooms of slightly fading glory: stucco, marble, grande chandeliers, ornate detailing, frescoes and paintings by some of Napoli’s great artists of the 19th century, antique woodwork. The place feels almost Torinese in its classic style and sophistication. There are books on coffee making from 1836 for sale. And many of the interior rooms feel like capelle — small chapels as if in a cathedral — dedicated to the art of pastries, gelato, a grand tea salon, etc. Some of these grand rooms were cut off as part of a separate bank established under Facist rule in 1938, but in 2001 they were reunited with the main café.
The often brusque baristi here can be older veterans, but there are some newer faces in the lot. Together they might linger longer on the orders of the locals regulars while speeding up for the tourists. They will preheat their ornate, Gambrinus-detailed MPAN cups, pulling shots from their manual four-group lever La San Marco machine with a striped dark and medium brown crema.
It’s a solid effort with Caffè Moreno coffee: a pungent Napoli-friendly flavor that just edges shy of a tobacco edge. A mere €1 at the bar. The 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia rated them two tazzine and two chicchi, which dropped them one chicco in their coffee rating from the 2013 edition (i.e., they were previously rated the maximum of three).
Like many places in Napoli, they have their own specialty drink: the Caffè Gambrinus, consisting of espresso, cacao powder, milk foam, whipping cream, and chocolate sprinkles.
Read the review of Gran Caffè Grambrinus in Napoli, Italy.
News like this tends to elicit a mixture of validation (i.e., “Good coffee is serious business!”) and a little envy (i.e., “My business makes great coffee, so where’s my $25 million?”). So why Blue Bottle?
To read some of the explanations out there, it’s an investment in “slow coffee” or “craft coffee” (the latter term we avoid for potential confusion with “Kraft coffee” — aka, Maxwell House). We read about their “brand cache” and their “commitment to freshness” — which aren’t exactly unique.
Like any business, Blue Bottle also has it’s problems and flaws — over-extension beyond the reach of their quality controls being one big example (e.g., see our recent review of Fraîche.) But Blue Bottle is doing a number of things right, and we’re surprised that some of them aren’t being reported.
How most roasters sell coffee to consumers is broken and outright wrong. This is rooted in an old industry problem we’ve long lamented here, which is approaching customers from an inside-out approach instead of an outside-in one. Past examples of this discussed here on this blog include coffee cuppings for layman consumers; we’ve gotten into long, drag-out debates on this topic with the likes of Peter Giuliano — co-owner and Director of Coffee at Counter Culture Coffee and Director of Symposium at the SCAA.
But it is symbolic of the coffee industry’s chronic inability to adopt a consumer-centric approach. Rather than think about how coffee is experienced by consumers, many coffee purveyors first try to shoehorn consumers into the perspective of industry insiders. Thus most coffee people today sell as if only to other coffee people — not to consumers.
Blue Bottle, on the other hand, exhibits one of the better examples of a coffee company that’s trying to fix that. One way to clearly see this is on their Web site. Last year, Blue Bottle sat down with the Google Ventures design team and an agency in Montreal to rethink their Web site. What they found is that most retail coffee Web sites emphasize things like a coffee’s origin — stuff that’s of great relevance to how people in the industry think about coffee but is often a meaningless descriptor to a consumer. That’s not how consumers buy coffee.
They discovered that primarily selling a coffee under the “Kenya” designation is a little like the early days of selling personal computers, where PC dealers emphasized things like processor clock speeds, memory cache sizes, and PCI slots. All of which made great sense to the way industry insiders thought about computers but were just gibberish to most layman consumers. Today’s ubiquitous Apple retail stores are successful, in part, because Apple addresses consumer needs without weighing it down with superfluous industry insider gibberish.
This could explain some of the popularity of Philz Coffee‘s Harry-Potter-like alchemy: the nonsensical labels on their coffee blends (e.g., “Ambrosia Coffee of God” or “Silken Splendor”) might be at least as meaningful to consumers as calling something “Kenya Nyeri Gatomboya AA”.
If you look at Blue Bottle’s Web site redesign, notice how it leads with the things that are most meaningful to consumers: how they brew their coffee and what devices they might have at home to brew it. Their Web site also emphasizes consumer brewing guides to complement this cause.
I’m not the only one who has either avoided or abandoned the long lines at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco’s touristy Ferry Building Marketplace location. But some may be surprised that these lines aren’t entirely by accident.
Another smart thing Blue Bottle does (and they’re far from the only ones) is apply queuing psychology at such a publicly visible location to influence perceived demand and value — or what FastCompany last year called “The Wisdom of the Cronut.”
The painful morning wait for cronuts is likely to be contributing to the product’s popularity. The fact that people are waiting signals to others that they too should be in on the trend.
–FastCompany, “The Wisdom of the Cronut: Why Long Lines Are Worth The Wait”
What’s worse than a line that’s too long? A line that’s too short. We’re talking some Disneyland mental mojo here.
Think of all the tourists walking by in the Ferry Building, saying, “Do you see that line? That must be some pretty good coffee!” Or even the revenue-per-customer-transaction winner of, “If we’re going to wait in line this long, we may as well also pick up a Blue Bottle hoodie, a Hario Buono kettle, and a coffee subscription.”
On the subject of coffee subscriptions and how they’ve reportedly reached “trendy” status finally, Blue Bottle has been at it for quite a while. We may not get the point of adding another middleman for the brief window consumers play the field before settling down more with their favorite coffee purveyors. But we do like the longer-term prospects of buying direct from the roasters you do come to enjoy, which suits Blue Bottle extremely well.
For Blue Bottle, coffee subscriptions have become where they make most of their money. Although revenue-per-customer is higher with prepared retail coffee beverages, so are the underlying costs. Because when you drink that latte, the main ingredient — and biggest contributor to the price of the beverage — is labor costs. For selling coffee subscriptions as a bean & leaf shop, the additional costs are little more than drop shipping.
This has transformed how Blue Bottle approaches coffee sales, as most coffee businesses still sell to consumers like most other real-estate-based point-of-sale businesses. Thus at tourist-friendly locations such as the Ferry Building, Blue Bottle is no longer suggesting that visitors take home a freshly roasted 12-ounce pack. Rather, they suggest that they sign up for a running coffee subscription shipped regularly to their home.
And when it comes to venture capitalists who are most familiar with funding software companies, investing in a subscription business gets them very excited. After all, virtually every software business has spent the past decade trying to shift consumers from retail purchases to subscription models.
Taking a short respite from our series on espresso in Napoli and the Amalfi Coast, we have a couple of local coffee shop reviews to catch up on. One is the obscure and eponymous CoffeeShop_.
This dive of a coffee shop has been operation since 2012, but the overwhelming majority of locals in the neighborhood wouldn’t know it. It kind of defines the term “understated”, so you pretty much have to stumble upon it.
It’s a tight space with no seating, inside nor out, though thankfully they do offer their espresso in “for here” cups anyway (Pagnossin cups with no saucer). Though even with the tight space and nothing to sit on, you’ll often find people hanging out inside.
In addition to espresso drinks they sell Hario drip coffee (they also sell the drippers) and baked goods from Batch. Their coffee is proudly sourced from Emeryville’s Ubuntu Coffee Cooperative, which also explains some of the other “hippie crap” on the drink menu such as yerba mate and matcha.
Using a two-group Promac, they pull shots with a very creamy texture. It has an even-textured medium brown crema with a flavor of pepper and mild spice with some modestly sharp brightness (to let you know the coffee is freshly roasted). But without potent fruitiness or candy-like sweetness.
Three generous sips, and we’re still not entirely sure why the espresso shots get the nickname “Dirty” here. (As in: “I’ll have a Dirty, please.”)
Read the review of CoffeeShop_ in Bernal Heights.
This bar/café and restaurant is located within the ruins of a Ravello palace, the Palazzo della Marra, built in the 12th century. Opening in the late 1990s, the brothers Giuseppe and Gerardo Foti dedicated it to their father (and hence its name).
In 2002, we first encountered it as the Palazzo della Marra restaurant: the cuisine aimed high, and it was arguably one of the best, most innovative restaurants in Ravello. The brothers have since reformulated it, however, and now the original name belongs only to the next-door bed & breakfast. In its place, the Figli di Papà name has come with a decidedly more casual restaurant that is still one of the better options in town. (Bay Area restaurants are no strangers to the concept of downscaling their ambitions for populist, recession-friendly burger and pizza joints.)
Most importantly, the espresso here is also some of the best in town.
There are a couple of outdoor seats out front along Via della Marra with an upstairs gelateria/bar area. Downstairs there a number of restaurant tables and also outdoor patio seating along Rampa Gambardella. The upstairs bar is so casual, you might not even realize you’re in it — mistaking it instead for a transition to a stairway. But look and you’ll likely find a couple of locals standing at the tiny bar, watching the day’s news on TV. Let them know you’re not just passing through to the stairs, and you’ll get service.
Behind the bar, there’s a two-group chrome Fiorenzato lever espresso machine at the ready. The barista is conscientious and methodical with the machine’s levers, and he pulls a shot of Caffè Toraldo with a darker brown crema and the occasional lighter, medium brown heat spot.
It has the flavor of cloves and spices and the most exquisitely textured crema we’ve had in the area. Served in Caffè Toraldo-logo MPAN cups. And to show their soccer club alliance, “Forza Napoli” is even printed on the receipts.
Read the review of Figli di Papà in Ravello, Italy.
Tommy & Christopher Newbury did enough business with their mobile coffee truck service over the years to finally go all “establishment”, opening this brick & mortar shop in Nov. 2012. Its proximity to North Beach makes it a pull if the traditional Italian-style espressos with 1950s roots along Columbus Ave. doesn’t do it for you.
It’s an attractive space on an angular corner off Columbus Ave., with long counters along large, sunny windows with stool seating around the perimeter of the space. At the center is their main service area, with dueling two-group La Marzocco Linea machines and glass Hario V60 drippers. At this location, they also get to offer some breakfast and lunch fare, but the focus is still primarily on the coffee.
They serve their espresso shots a little high with a perfectly even, medium brown crema. The body is a touch thin, and the flavor is expectedly bright given their Four Barrel affiliation: a sharper pungency complemented with fruitiness. Served in Réveille-logo black Espresso Parts cups with a glass of mineral water on the side.
Instead of reviewing this location early on, we gave them time to work out their service. And it’s definitely a solid cup. However, it surprisingly doesn’t go much beyond their truck service and thus leaves a little room to improve itself. This coming from someone who is informally credited with coining the phrase, “and the food truck you rode in on.”
For about the past five years in particular, relations have frayed between coffeeshop patrons who find them a great place to get their work done (aka the laptop zombie), other coffeeshop patrons who want a place to sit or might actually want to socially interact with others, and coffeeshop owners who cannot stay solvent supporting free office space for their patrons with little income to show for it. I knew things were particularly bad about four years ago — when I first noticed a former co-worker regularly squatting with three other programmers at the (then) Caffé Trieste on New Montgomery St. for several months, launching their new start-up company.
Surely there had to be a business model that better satisfied everyone. Which brings us to last week’s opening of the Workshop Cafe in SF’s Financial District. This large space attempts to address the needs of coffeeshop owners and their WiFi-loving patrons simultaneously. For those seeking a library-like surrogate where you can be surrounded by the social activity of strangers you can ignore around you, there are plenty of office trappings: powerstrips, fabricated office paneling, a concierge, a mobile app to use the space, and most everything you’d want in Cubicle-land short of the actual cubicles. For the proprietor, in addition to coffee service and light snacks, there are hourly charges to cover the sustainable costs of having many patrons camp out as if awaiting an electronic Grateful Dead show.
Although we’re not surprised that someone finally came up with the concept for this space, we are surprised at how problematic it is. And this is the rub: it fails as a café, and largely because those places succeed at getting us to enjoy a respite from the office. Here you feel like you should be paid at least a minimum wage to hang out.
It’s a little akin to a lunch spot that chooses “eating alone at your desk” as a dining theme, with the café providing the desks. (There’s a joke in France that Americans eat at their desks at work. Then they come here and discover it’s actually true.) The environment is so functional here, it’s devoid of any pretense of enjoying the experience of the place.
Initech-logo coffee mugs not yet provided, but that would be great.
They have Mazzer grinders, Hario V60 pour-overs, Stumptown coffee, and a two-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the entrance service counter — which all sound promising. But beyond a visually appealing medium brown crema with dark brown cheetah spots, it has a thinner body and a subdued heft and flavor: some pungency and spice but limited depth and breadth of flavor. This is an underachiever, served in notNeutral Lino cups.
Points for trying, but the execution here as a coffee house just seems all wrong.
Opening earlier this summer, this third location of the Mission/Potrero Hill’s Coffee Bar takes up space at the entrance of the St. Mary’s Square Garage, across of Kearny St. from the Bank of America tower. It is yet another solid coffee option for downtown workers, whom typically had very few not long ago. We know a number of “financial services types” (“bankers” being a dirty word these days) who have already come to name it as their local favorite.
Located at the top of downtown’s stretch of Kearny St., which has seen a lot of retail establishment investment and activity in recent years, you might not notice it while passing by. It’s just off the left side of the main garage entrance. Once inside, you’ll recognize the design: it feels a lot like their Montgomery St. location. There’s a more open space here, but there’s also the cement floor, black & white painted wood surfaces, and stark, fluorescent lighting.
A lone sidewalk bench for two sits out front, which coincidentally constitutes all the seating options available here. (On the plus side: no laptop zombies.) A number of pastries are on display, but like window-shopping for sushi in Japantown they are all specifically marked “not for eating”.
Speaking of Japan, there’s quite a bit of Kalita merchandising here in addition to their own Mr. Espresso beans and logo cups. From 8am-2pm, they offer handcrafted, single-origin pour-overs. Their coffee menu also sports some oddities such as a cortado, a Havana latte, and Vietnamese iced coffee.
Using Mazzer grinders and dueling two-group Strada machines, they pull a well-proportioned double shot with an even, medium brown crema of good depth and thickness with some microbubbles suspended in it. There’s a strong brightness to the cup, but it doesn’t overpower on fruitiness: it’s pungent, with a flavor that includes some sharper spices and some woodiness. Served in black Espresso Parts cups, which have become ubiquitous around the city these days.
Read the review of Coffee Bar in SF’s Chinatown.
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?”
Make 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:
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.
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.