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Trip Report: Grand Coffee

Posted by on 07 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Local Brew

Locals rave about this coffee cubbyhole, which opened in July 2010, and you can see why. This colorful stretch of Mission St., in the heart of the Mission, has a dearth of decent coffee shops. At least ones that don’t serve ashy, overextracted dreck.

This tiny shop offers four metal stools at a short counter at the far side of the entrance. Otherwise this place is mostly serving space behind the counter and a small area to walk inside to order. It operates as a one-man coffee bar courtesy of the engaging neighborhood owner/barista, Nabeel Silmi. There’s little to eat, save a few pastries and chocolate bars, so the focus is on the coffee. They also sell French press coffee, Hario drippers, etc.

Grand Coffee's prime SF ¿Qué onde Grand Coffee?

Grand Coffee's coffee menu Not much to look at in Grand Coffee's tight space, save the mobile overhead

Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea, Nabeel uses Four Barrel beans to pull modest-sized shots with a mottled lighter and darker brown crema in classic brown Nuova Point cups. It’s not quite the brightness bomb you might expect from Four Barrel, but it is a strictly acidity-forward cup that’s lacking some body and balance. That imbalance is undoubtedly coming from Four Barrel’s roasting and blending preferences rather than how the shot itself is pulled. It has a good herbal pungency with some cloves and a bright molasses-like edge of sweetness.

While the shot lacks some breadth of flavor and the space is tiny, this is clearly one of the best options for a good quality espresso along Mission St.

Read the review of Grand Coffee.

Grand Coffee's three-group La Marzocco Linea The Grand Coffee espresso, with sparkling water nicely served on the side

Trip Report: Brown Owl Coffee

Posted by on 20 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

Good coffee is not only a rare treat in the Outer Sunset, but it is often a rather uplifting social experience. (Though some will call this neighborhood “Central Sunset” or “Parkside”.) This adage remains true at this tiny coffee shop, which looks more like an old barber shop from the outside — save for the wooden owl in the tree out front next to the Muni L-line stop.

Inside it has a woodsy, camp-like feel with decorative logs and wood-cuttings, lacquered wood-cut tables, and mosaic arts decorating the walls. Opening in January 2011 (a big opening month for many area cafés), this shop is the brainchild of Ariana Akbar — who has to be one of the most genuinely friendly and engaging people we’ve ever met in the coffee world. You may be in the Outer Sunset, but you’ll feel like you’re in a friendly Alaskan outpost.

The humble storefront of Brown Owl Coffee - with wooden owl in tree The wooden interior of Brown Owl Coffee

Ariana got into the business by roasting her own coffee (now as Hearth Coffee Roasters, where she time shares at a Peninsula roasting facility) and deciding to open a shop here, rather than the much more expensive and competitive North Beach. Her local friendships show in the mosaic art on the walls and the John Campbell baked goods. Engaging her patrons with stories and conversation, she’s generously been known to offer a cookie or two, pour some Pelligrino with your espresso, etc.

The not-so-brown wooden owl out front of Brown Owl CoffeeHer coffee emphasis is supported by Clever drippers and a four-group La Marzocco Linea. For her espresso, she’s using Flores Island (Indonesia) Blue Dragon, which exhibits a surprisingly broad flavor profile for a single origin. She produces it in classic brown ACF cups with a healthy mottled dark and medium brown crema, plus a brief acidic sharpness followed by a more rounded herbal profile.

It’s a great espresso of truly personal-crafted origins, and the location is a real asset to the neighborhood — which is otherwise dominated both positively by the character of a true working class SF neighborhood and by the pitfalls of its many 40-year-old, forgettable food establishments. But this is the very kind of local place many of us would like to see supported in SF — and the kind of place where something like a disloyalty card program fails at its mission just where it is needed most. A few coffee shops have tried and failed on this spot before, including the E Surf Café and Cafe Benalli. But this one is doing something different enough, and with enough pride, that it definitely deserves the support of the locals.

Read the review of Brown Owl Coffee.

Ariana Akbar working the La Marzocco Linea at Brown Owl Coffee The Brown Owl Coffee espresso

San Francisco gets a disloyalty card, but we kinda still don’t

Posted by on 21 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Local Brew, Starbucks

If you’re not aware of the disloyalty card concept, it originated a couple years ago in the UK from former world barista champ, Gwilym Davies. The kicker is that it’s supposed to be the opposite of a customer loyalty card, where consumers are given financial incentives for repeat business. Like the kind you get from the big chains such as Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee.

The SF Disloyalty CardInstead, the informal disloyalty “card” offers financial incentives for consumers to sample the coffee at a variety of independent coffee shops in town — using something of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink informal honor system. The concept has since been mimicked in Seattle, Atlanta, Calgary, and elsewhere, and now it’s apparently come to San Francisco: San Francisco Gets a Dis*Loyalty Card | ShotZombies. Participants in the SF card program include Stable Café, Epicenter Cafe, Coffee Bar, Sightglass, Ma’velous, Farm:Table, Four Barrel, and Ritual Roasters.

The idea has not only spread around the world, but it has even earned a few accolades of genius marketing from a few notables in the industry. We may have groaned in full-facepalm position when Gwilym Davies started spouting from the Gospel according to the Third Wave after winning the WBC crown. But he deserves credit for coming up with a cute concept. But beyond a cute concept, that’s where we never really quite got it.

What dampens our enthusiasm for the concept is that it just moves the goalposts a little further back — rather than refute them altogether. So instead of locking repeat consumer zombies into one chain, we spread them over a few more cash registers. It essentially suggests replacing a monopoly with a cartel. To be truly effective, a program should encourage people to go beyond even the boundaries of something like the participants on a disloyalty card. But then again, we’ve gone beyond boundaries that any sane person ever should…

UPDATE: March 2, 2011
Here’s a curious refinement on the disloyalty card concept: Explore Chicago’s Independent Coffee Shops with Tour de Cafe – Chicagoist. Here the emphasis is on making it a $20 pre-paid card.

UPDATE: Sept. 13, 2011
Toronto’s version of the $25 pre-paid card has been renewed for a second year with new participants (and a few drop-outs): Indie Coffee Passport returns for year two.

UPDATE: Jan. 10, 2014
Three years later in Washington D.C., would you believe there are still people treating this idea as if it’s ingenious and brand new?: Curious coffee drinker? This (dis)loyalty card is for you. With dozens of cities creating disloyalty cards over the past several years (more recently Boston and Baltimore), one can only conclude that the surprised reaction over D.C.’s disloyalty card just proves how these programs have mostly failed in obscurity for all previous markets.

Trip Report: Citizen Cake

Posted by on 18 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Let’s hear it for counter-programming. Starbucks made good on last year’s Plenta threat this week, announcing a new beverage size that targets the gluttony market, called the Trenta. As in Godzilla vs. the Trenta. Taking advantage of a news lull, Starbucks’ press onslaught has the media lapping it up. So naturally, we’re going to talk about the return of Citizen Cake.

This is the long-awaited revival of Elizabeth Falkner’s since-defunct Hayes Valley original namesake shop. Opening in November 2010 on the spot of the former Vivande Porta Via, it’s decorated with a lot of black-painted wood with red highlights. Inside there’s a bar with stool seating and a number of black wooden tables and booths for more formal dining. However, the pastries are, not surprisingly, showcased in front.

Let them eat Citizen Cake Pastries inside Citizen Cake

The staff here are, well, rather quirky — even by SF standards. They operate a rather restaurant-pedestrian UNIC Phoenix Twin behind the bar to pull shots of Equator Estate Coffee. We’ve long been ambivalent about Equator Estate coffees served in a retail environment; the lack of quality controls at the customer delivery end have produced an inordinate amount of underwhelming cups, given their industry regard. But in this restaurant-like environment, it’s surprisingly decent — though not great.

The resulting shots have a thinner but healthy-looking darker brown crema. It has a limited body and not much sweetness, despite its rather short two-sip serving size. With a darker, heartier herbal flavor of cloves, there is limited brightness in the shot. Served in classic brown ACF cups.

The milk frothing here is dodgy at best, and they also offer coffee in metal French presses. But at least unlike their former Citizen Cupcake location, they’re not hinging their business on the health of a record store.

Read the review of Citizen Cake.

The Citizen Cake UNIC Phoenix Twin The Citizen Cake espresso and sketchy-looking cappuccino

Trip Report: Caffè Pascucci

Posted by on 14 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

In 2009, the Italy-based Caffè Pascucci chain (including its espresso school, etc.) turned over its financial management to a group that has since favored more aggressive global expansion plans. These expansion plans included bringing their first non-Italian café chain store on this spot, across of AT&T Park in a modern brick commercial complex.

The Italian bible of coffee ratings, the Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia, rates the coffee at two of this café’s many sisters in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. The location in Rimini (Viale Amerigo Vespucci, 3a) received two chicchi (coffee beans) out of a maximum of three, and the grander shop in Riccone (Via Parini) received a full three chicchi. So there’s enough reason to expect the espresso here to be pretty good (and worth exporting). Contrast this with, say, Segafredo Zanetti chain, which has always underwhelmed.

Building maintenance at the entrance to Caffè Pascucci in SF Inside Caffè Pascucci

They call themselves Rimini-based, however. The on-duty barista on our visit worked for two years in their Rimini café, and he had the appropriate accent and tattoos for someone from the area. But for the many Americans who think of Italy as Florence-Rome-Venice, saying you’re from Rimini is like telling a San Francisco tourist that you live in the Excelsior. (“Is that near the Golden Gate Bridge?”) Despite its famous beach and favorite son in Federico Fellini, we caught an American (who had traveled in Italy, mind you) asking the barista where in Italy the café was from. The barista smartly replied, “East.”

Inside the café it looks like a modern Italian furnishings store — complete with white leather seating options (sofas, chairs), angular tables and chairs, and tall stools. It’s not a particularly large space, but the mirrored wall helps.

Dueling Fiorenzato machines and a large drink menu inside Caffè Pascucci The Caffè Pascucci espresso

Front and center is a serving bar with twin, two-group, shiny Fiorenzato Ducale Tall machines — from which they produce sizable doppio shots with a sharp, potent flavor. There’s little softness to the cup’s spice, woodiness, and slight bitterness that borders on a medicinal edge (which isn’t particularly appealing). It has a nicely textured medium brown crema, however. Served in gold logo ACF cups, like the ones used in their Italian cafés.

It’s a solid Italian espresso, but not among the best examples of Italian cultural exports — i.e., better than Segafredo Zanetti, but weaker than Caffè del Doge.

Their drink menu famously has odd creations, what the Bar d’Italia calls versioni più fantasiose (“more imaginative versions”) or versioni golose (literally, “gluttonous versions”). A prefect example are their espressi confuso — where the confuso means what you think it does. These are espresso drinks made with a unique cream-like concoction served from a whipped cream maker at a premium price, suggesting the popular bucket-of-pumpkin-pie-flavored-Cool-Whip drinks that Starbucks made famous with their own ode to gluttony — but with some Italian-style modesty thrown in.

Read the review of Caffè Pascucci.



UPDATE: April 18, 2011
In case there was any question about Caffè Pascucci’s over-reaching global ambitions under new management: Caffe Pascucci launches ‘Wood?Fired’ pizza in Bangalore.

Trip Report: Contraband Coffee Bar

Posted by on 06 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

This neighborhood coffee bar had been unusually hyped in the local presses, and on Facebook, for more than six months before it opened. This in a town where online foodie blogs make daily fodder of vacant, stripped-to-the-studs restaurant and café spaces with indefinite opening dates slated sometime before the next presidential administration.

We can attribute some of the hype to Contraband taking over the same spot as the former John Barleycorn bar, a local bar that developed a Nob Hill neighborhood love affair before closing in 2007. Contraband already had several 5-star Yelp reviews well before its opening on Christmas Eve 2010. (Underscoring one of the reasons why Yelp’s ratings are, well, stoopid.) But it’s hard to blame the locals when there aren’t a lot of great coffee bars nearby — even if co-owner Josh Magnani looks to Oakland for his coffee bar’s off-site roasting operations.

Entrance to Contraband Coffee Bar Contraband Coffee Bar's interior

They have a couple of sidewalk tables in front. Inside there’s a short counter lining the front window for stool seating, two seats at the coffee serving bar, and a few inside chairs centered around a long, tall table with flowers growing out of its center. They offer 3-4 different coffees for Hario V60 pour-over (Ethiopia, Guatemala, etc.) plus two kinds of espresso from their two-group Synesso Hydra machine.

They have a Compak grinder for their regular espresso blend (rated in our linked review below), which uses a Costa Rican base among some 5-6 other varietals. It comes with a good thickness of heady medium brown crema and is served in a shotglass to show it off. It is lighter bodied for an espresso and has a molasses-like sweetness (very much in the North American style).

Contraband's Compak and Versalab grinders and Synesso Hydra The Contraband Coffee espresso

Their Organic Kintimani Bali ($3) is more of their single-origin espresso treat — and a favorite of Mr. Magnani. They grind it with a separate Versalab M3 grinder, with its alternating dosing hoppers, and pull shots with a ridiculously bountiful crema. The resulting cup is practically effervescent, like a prosecco, and its lightness and subtle brightness spins the dark, heavy-bodied stereotype of Indonesian coffees on its head. They have access to a few hundred pounds of the stuff, so it’s bound to be in supply for a while.

In all, Contraband is a great local coffee bar — even if it doesn’t quite rank among the city’s elite.

Read the review of Contraband Coffee Bar.

Contraband Coffee's Organic Bali Kintimani data sheet Contraband Coffee's single-origin Bali espresso

While you were staring at that Coava Kone in a box, you missed the Versalab M3

Contraband’s Versalab M3 is worth a passing mention. Much of the local press has zeroed in on Contraband’s use of a Coava Kone. Now we love what the Coava guys are doing. They may yet even displace the Hario V60 this year for all we know. Be we still don’t quite get the industry hype over the Kone.

Contraband Coffee's unusual Versalab M3 grinderSure, it’s clever in that it sort of takes a Finite Element Analysis approach to emulating a paper filter out of stainless steel. But that makes it a second-rate imitation of a paper filter. In our experimentation, and we’re not alone, the Kone hasn’t improved the taste of Chemex-brewed coffee. In fact, the one of the better complements we’ve heard about it was, “It’s almost as good as with a paper filter.” Not that less waste doesn’t have its merits and virtues, but the Michelin guides don’t hand out extra rating stars if a restaurant uses a more water-efficient dishwashing machine.

Yet the local press fails to make any mention of the Versalab M3 here. At least we should expect articles with naïve headlines like, “The $1,700 grinder!” The M3 may not be the greatest grinder on the market — or just maybe it could be. You have to give it serious points for grind consistency. In any case, it is quite a novelty — made by a Florida-based geek who makes only speakers, turntables and coffee grinders. And it’s about time grinders got their due over espresso machines and the pour-over method du jour.

Trip Report: Cotogna

Posted by on 05 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Local Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

This more informal, osteria sister to the Quince restaurant next door (its name is Italian for “quince”) offers a mighty fine, albeit still somewhat pricey, Italian meal. (The old Quince relocated to Pacific Ave. here about a year ago.)

The space showcases many wide glass windows, exposed woods (everything seems brown in here), and a wood-fired oven (with spare wood surrounding the entrance). It attracts an older, old money Jackson Square set. But to remind you of their more modest aspirations, they offer dishtowels for napkins and an unusual wine menu where everything is priced at $40/bottle.

Glassy entrance to Cotogna Inside Cotogna

This is a very rare restaurant where the great attention to their very good food is matched by the attention they give to their very good coffee service. They’ve always been somewhat up on their coffee; when in their old Quince location, they used Barefoot Coffee when virtually no one else was in San Francisco. Back then Quince fell apart at the barista end, but not here.

They use a two-group Synesso — one of the few you’ll ever find in restaurant service — behind a zinc bar. Cleverly, they also employ a doserless Mazzer grinder, enforcing good practices among their staff to ensure that everything is ground to order. But it’s not like they would have to, as this restaurant seems to dedicate an employee to barista duties. In fact, they seem to do this more than just about any other restaurant we’ve ever visited anywhere.

Barista behind Cotogna's zinc bar operating a two-group Synesso and a doserless grinder The Cotogna espresso

Using coffee from Roast Coffee Co. in Emeryville, they pull shots with a richly colored, mottled, medium and lighter brown crema with irregular suspended bubbles. It’s served a little high, but not overly so for a doppio. It has a good, solid mouthfeel, with a roundness to its flavor — which is more focused in the pepper and cloves area.

At $4, it’s seriously expensive. But we like to reward good restaurant espresso service too, and there’s a lot of good practices going on here. This is one of the few American places we’ve been to where the coffee doesn’t give away that you’re having it in a restaurant.

Read the review of Cotogna.

Trip Report: Réveille Coffee Co.

Posted by on 15 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

There was a time when people bored with food found that it was a lot more fun when you put it on a stick. Or freeze-dried and packed it in plastic tubes as “astronaut food”. Today’s equivalent is the glorified roach coach, where bored (and sometimes broke) foodies tell us that everything tastes better when handed out of the side of a truck. Enter the Réveille Coffee Company, where apparently the way to improve the coffee kiosk is to add a parking brake.

This big black truck, looking like something Mr. T drove the A-Team around in for a stakeout, sits at the corner of a parking lot on Sansome St. & Pacific Ave. With license plate REV COF1, and echoes of the 90′s King Missile classic “Cheesecake Truck” playing in our heads, Tommy & Christopher Newbury opened this service on Monday.

B.A. Baracus pities the fool who drinks Starbucks Coffee and espresso offerings at Réveille Coffee Co.

They serve Four Barrel Coffee and some pastries from Pâtisserie Philippe. While a new fixture in this parking lot on weekdays, on evenings and weekends all that’s left is the painted brick “outhouse” bearing their logo — where your guess is as good as ours on where to find them. There are four slated wooden stools off the side of this coffee RV. And despite the parking lot ambiance and going off the charts on the expired-trend-O-meter, the coffee is quite good.

The Réveille Coffee Co. by the dawn's early lightThey use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Friendo Blendo in small white Nuova Point espresso cups with a small glass of sparkling water on the side. Surprise! It’s not all paper cups here — which is a nice touch. (You’re out of luck on other drinks, however.) The resulting cup has that sharp Friendo Blendo acidity: a brightness bomb espresso that will make any Italian double over. But if you like immensely flavorful North American style shots, this will work for you. It comes with a textured medium brown crema and a flavor of bright pungency, some cedar, and a touch of subtle sweetness to round out the profile.

They are much weaker at milk frothing. Not only do they only serve in paper cups, but the microfoam isn’t consistent nor rich. The brightness of the coffee is muted beyond recognition. And even if the general flavor is good, the rest falls flat. It needs work, as there are better milk-based coffee drinks nearby. They also offer French press coffee and pour-over (Clever dripper) cups of several cultivars. Currently, that means coffees from Guatemala, Sulawesi, Costa Rica, and Kenya.

Yes, the roach coach with gourmet food (and occasionally gourmet prices: a $2.50 espresso is steep) may be an overblown fad. And sure, there’s great irony in that the SF coffeeshops who gave rise to a reported “Bedouin” remote worker culture might become nomads themselves. Some coffeeshops will apparently do anything to evade laptop zombies. But when the execution is this good, at least on the espresso, you can’t complain.

Read the review of Réveille Coffee Co..

The Réveille Coffee Co. espresso The Réveille Coffee Co. cappuccino

Is America distorting coffee’s tradition?

Posted by on 15 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Today’s The Korea Herald published a thought-provoking (if not debatable) piece about one-time Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong: Barista bringing coffee back to basics. Internal divisions within the national barista association prevented him from representing South Korea at the 2007 WBC in Tokyo, and he dismisses the notion that a training course can make one a qualified barista.

Former South Korean barista champ, Jeon YongBut one of the more curious topics he brought up concerned coffee standards — and how what the Italians may have started long ago has since been hijacked and adulterated by American franchise coffee shops. From the article:

“Coffee is being globalized by the American standard. Coffee is a culture that the Italians have cultivated over hundreds of years. It’s a pride they have, but the American franchise coffee shops have completely distorted the originality ― let’s say Korean kimchi is being spread to the world with the Japanese word ‘ki-mu-chi’ ― that is not what we can call cultural diversity, but a distortion of a tradition. That is what is happening to coffee these days ― becoming like ‘ki-mu-chi.’”
– Former Korea Barista Champion, Jeon Yong

Earlier this year, Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè, ignited a bit of a coffee culture smackdown — taking shots at the American brightness bombs and heavily-packed shots that pass for quality espresso here. You might say Mr. Yong seems to be in a similar camp, suggesting that American coffee shops have perverted a standard that is now being spread throughout the world with America’s economic and cultural weight. (We liked his kimchi analogy.)

License to Kim Jong-il might question if Third Wave is Best Wave, howeverAs we like to jokingly say with a zombie-like mantra, “Third Wave is Best Wave“.

Yet right after making that point, Mr. Yong completely loses the plot — linking the same forces distorting espresso’s cultural standard to those exploiting coffee growers to the fullest extent possible. (A bizarre accusation for some of the biggest wavers of the Fair Trade flag.) Commenting after he watched the deeply flawed documentary Black Gold, we don’t expect him to fully comprehend the cost-of-living disparity between coffee producing and consuming nations, which the documentary miserably failed to do. But any wannabe champion barista should be aware of the many links in coffee’s supply chain — not just farmers and baristas.

Worse, he claims both that coffee is “completely overpriced” and that we are not paying enough to coffee farmers in the very same article — practically a form of cognitive dissonance. All of which unfortunately devalues his opinions in the end.

Trip Report: Ma’velous

Posted by on 11 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine

The name is “Ma’velous”. We’re not sure if this is a New Yorker thing — like when Monday Night Football legend, Al Michaels, tries to pronounce the ‘h’ in the word “huge.” But the owner, Phillip Ma, is a self-fashioned coffee geek with apparently enough money for high-end coffeemaking toys but no real prior training in a formal retail coffee environment.

Is this a liability? Definitely in the beginning, but it’s hard to say in the long run, as Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman got his start as a coffee hobbyist. Even the legendary Alice Waters started her influential empire of local, organic California cuisine with no formal culinary schooling nor restaurant management training.

Entrance to Ma'velous on Market St. Setting up inside Ma'velous

Located in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood — just one block from SF’s amputee panhandler Mecca along the base of South Van Ness Avenue — this spot is part night club, part wine bar, part coffee lounge. Among the many unusual things about this place is that it is a night-time coffee lounge.

Yours truly may recall fond memories of late-night, up-and-coming jazz acts at the long-since-defunct (and increasingly legendary) Ajax Lounge in San Jose, where I would down a couple of sub-par double espresso shots after midnight and still sleep soundly by 2am. But for most people, the caffeine jolt of the ideal coffee experience is decidedly a morning thing.

Coffee six ways?

Coffee six ways? That’s what they offer between an espresso machine, Hario V60 pour-overs, Chemex, French Press, a Japanese siphon bar, and a Kyoto slow-drip coffee maker. “This will allow aficionados to taste the full complexity of each coffee, its natural sweet, fruity, acidic or buttery finish without cream or sugar. No bitterness here,” claims their Web site.

As for the coffees themselves, they offer everything from Intelligentsia‘s Black Cat, Intelligentsia’s Bay Area acquisition of Ecco Caffè (their Kenya, Ethiopia, Honduras, Guatemala El Tambor, and El Salvador roasts, to name a few), and coffee from Tim Wendelboe. Which makes the opening of this café rather exciting for us: even if they have only three different grinders, this is the first notable espresso bar in San Francisco to offer coffees from multiple roasters since the untimely death of Café Organica in 2006.

Mural inside Ma'velous A shelf of coffee options for three grinders inside Ma'velous

As for the espresso machine, they spared no expense… calling it the “Musashi 4“, it’s a one-of-a-kind four-group La Marzocco customized by Olympia, WA’s Espresso Parts. (We love their tampers, btw.)

Yes, they spared no expense here — down to the Dyson hand dryers for the staff behind the counter. The interior is dark with artistic murals, a few red leather booths, painted black wood walls, a high ceiling, red acrylic chairs, and a short bar seating area at the front entrance. They have a wine list and a cheese list in addition to their “caffeine list,” and the table service even pours water out of a Chemex.

Opening night jitters

After a few dry runs on private media openings in the past couple of weeks, last night (Thursday) was their informal public opening night. So service was bound to be sketchy, and it most certainly was: six people squirming behind the tiny counter, customers trying to squirm past the narrow pathway by the front of the counter, limp-wristed espresso tamps, slow-moving lines, and a pre-infusion-controlled espresso machine that required a bit of time to calibrate and was only yet dialed-in for a handful of their available coffees.

Local street artist, Eddie Colla, whose mural decorates the wall and the staff T-shirts, was present for the opening event, adding to the mob scene. But even for all the confusion and early kinks, there’s a lot here worth checking out.

La Marzocco machine inside Ma'velous Transparent glass side panel of Ma'velous' La Marzocco Musashi 4

For the most part, the Intelligentsia Black Cat is their default espresso (rated in the linked review at bottom). But as with these pressure-controlled espresso machines, don’t think that there’s only one flavor profile per coffee. Our first shot of the Black Cat was set at a 199-degree brewing temperature with four pounds bar of pre-infusion pressure. The resulting shot was an even, lighter, medium-brown-colored crema with a nose that was slightly tarry.

The flavor was primarily sweet tobacco, with some edges across the flavor profile to remind you that this was a blend and not a single origin shot. Still, it is a far cry from the Black Cat shots we’re used to at Chicago’s Intelligentsia — with it’s textured, darker crema that practically leaves a blackened ring around the cup and a pungency-heavy flavor to match.

But as if to prove a point, Phillip offered me a follow-up shot of Black Cat made at a different profile: a 200.5-degree brewing temperature with six pounds bar of pre-infusion pressure. This shot was a bit closer to the Black Cat “at origin” we’re used to: a much headier crema, more caramel flavors, and a more traditional, more rounded flavor and a slightly darker crema.

Their machine was also tuned for the Ecco Caffè Guatemala El Tambor single origin shot, which came with a mellow aroma, a lighter crema, and served sweet and bright with just a touch of sourness — very much in the tropical fruit vein. We originally thought they managed to manipulate a shot of Black Cat to taste like a Central American single origin shot until we discovered it actually was a Central American single origin shot. (Whew.) Served in classic brown ACF cups.

Ecco Caffè El Tambor single origin shot at Ma'velous Ma'velous' Intelligentsia Black Cat shot served at a sweet tobacco setting (199-degree brewing/4-lb pre-infusion pressure)

One of the more notable SF coffee bar openings in years

It’s hard, and unfair, to judge a place entirely on its opening day to the public. There’s a bit of tuning that’s still needed in the espresso shots, and there’s currently a high emphasis on tuning for brighter shots with coffees that sometimes perform better with greater fidelity at less acidic flavor profiles.

Sure, the place is overly enamored with coffee’s gadgetry du jour. But just the ability to sample some Black Cat — forget even at different extractions, or even the yet-to-be-readied Wendelboe coffee or the five other brewing methods available — makes this worth a return visit if for no other reason. Then add that it’s the rare coffee bar offering beans from multiple sources, the novelty of a coffee nightclub, and a decent opportunity to compare pressure profiling on the same coffees — even if it isn’t necessarily making better shots.

Read the review of Ma’velous.

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