Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Near SF’s Flatiron Building (yeah, we got one too), this one-time Starbucks kiosk arguably put the then-next-door All Star Cafe & Bakery at 550 Market St. out of business in its first year of existence. Yet despite morning lines of commuters waiting for their lattes, and an overworked crew of three in tight quarters with an overworked Verismo machine, Starbucks abruptly closed up shop here.
In came Giorgio Milos, Illy‘s head barista and a former Italian champ, to help reopen this space as an Illy-branded café a couple months back. It’s a real improvement for the location, as the old All Star Cafe even beat out the Starbucks that once resided here. But even so — it painfully seems that you still can only do so much with Illy coffee in America.
They offer espresso, panini, and pastries — plus cans of Illy (with Francis Francis machines) on display in the modern, tight space. There’s a lone iron bench on the sidewalk in front, but that’s it for seating. Using a seriously polished, chrome, new, two-group La Carimali machine, they pull shots with a textured medium brown crema that look generally good. But the crema here lacks a real thickness and volume — as you can classically expect from exported Illy coffee.
It has a generally bolder flavor than most American Illy shots: bolder spice and a sharper bite to it without much of the typical woodiness. Served in Illy-logo IPA cups. The milk frothing here shows some care. But as the photo illustrates, the results can be a little suspect.
Read the review of Prima Cosa Caffe.
Another installment in SF’s series of “espresso bars in strange places,” this one — open since 2009 — is located in a sort of gift shop. It’s a very small space identified by its bright green exterior, and there are a couple of small chairs for sidewalk seating. Inside there are mirrors, planters, birdcages, bath oils, glassware, candle holders, and other odd home gifts — with two small tables in front and an espresso bar in back.
Here they use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Ritual Roasters coffee. They were pulling shots of Ritual’s anniversary Five Candles blend when we visited — recently replacing months of their Evil Twin seasonal blend. The barista identified their Evil Twin blend as being much more forgiving than the two-second extraction range that the Five Candles could tolerate. And they do time their shots here: she sank (as in sink shot) a 17-second shot before letting a 24-second shot pass.
The espresso had a mottled medium and darker brown crema, poured rather short in white Nuova Point cups. It was bright, fruity (sour green apple fruity), and a touch thin – likely reflecting the new espresso blend more than anything else. Regarding the fruity descriptor, Ritual even uses the phrase “golden apple” – though it was more green apple. And that kind of sourness just doesn’t have a place in the flavor profile of espresso shots we like very much. Perhaps others will find it interesting.
Hollow is generally known for making some of the best espresso in the Inner Sunset, but the Five Candles blend didn’t let them shine. This is a case where a coffee bean roaster/supplier changes up their blends with the growing seasons and sometimes gets too clever — producing underwhelming results for the retail café.
Read the review of Hollow.
Coincidentally, this afternoon we were looking for a decent espresso in Yountville following the fantastic release party of a winemaker friend of ours. Walking up to the nearby Yountville Coffee Caboose, we asked what Ritual blend they used for their espresso pulls. When they answered “Five Candles,” we instead walked over to Bardessono.
The woman working the Caboose’s register may have been surprised at our reaction, but the Five Candles blend really is that disappointing. It carries many of the signature problems we’ve created when we’ve overweighted more lightly roasted Central American beans in our own home-roasted espresso blends.
In recent months, The Atlantic — much like the New York Times — has shown a heightened interest in coffee. Most of it has come from articles penned by Starbucks co-founder, Jerry Baldwin. But today’s article comes from Giorgio Milos, Master Barista for illycaffè: A Winning Formula for Traditional Espresso – Food – The Atlantic.
Yes, Italy: the birthplace of good espresso, and the perennial underachiever at barista championships. But even so, Mr. Milos has a few critiques to offer Americans on the deficiencies of our espresso — namely:
Italians take their espresso preparation very seriously. On the whole, our palate prefers some of the best North American examples to the best that Italy has to offer. However, Italy is far more consistent, the typical standards are much higher there than here, and the process of making a decent espresso is far more codified than the free-for-all we experience in America.
It’s not uncommon, however, to find sour expressions on the faces of Italian espresso experts when they try even the best examples this continent has to offer. The Italian espresso palate may be precise, but some in the Americas might say it can be a bit too precise.
This industrial art space café opened in late 2009 and is easy to miss — despite its size and being across the street from AT&T Park. There are a few French café tables among the front patio and also inside, but inside it is primarily a large art space with white walls and a number of pieces of various media, including lawn chairs on a real patch of lawn.
At the center of the airy space is a coffee bar that doesn’t mess with food items: the focus here is on the coffee. They use a two-group Laranzato ME-2, which is the only one we’ve seen outside of the Big Island of Hawaii. There are also a number of plastic Clever drippers from Sweet Maria’s and a number of Pelligrino bottles lining the long serving countertops.
The SF Weekly highlighted the introduction of these Clever drippers earlier this month — as they now are available for retail coffee use in SF beyond Four Barrel Coffee. The SFoodie crew at SF Weekly were also quick to anoint them as a “Third Wave coffee shop” in the article’s first sentence, but that (meaningless) claim rings hollow when paper cups are the only option available. To us, this is akin to comparing a restaurant to a James Beard Award winner while it only serves on paper plates.
But let’s forget the coffee toy du jour for a moment: of course, our reviews focus on the espresso.
They proudly feature coffee from Equator Coffees & Teas, which we’ve long been ambivalent about — particularly in a retail environment. Equator receives tremendous accolades as a roaster, but virtually all of the cafés they supply produce decent but ultimately forgettable results. Here they used Equator’s Arabian Mocha Java blend for espresso, but they also featured an organic Brazil Chapada Diamantina, a Colombia La Josefina, and a Costa Rica Montes de Oro (for the Clever drippers).
They pull espresso as sizable shots served in larger, drip-coffee-sized paper cups (unfortunately). It has a healthy looking, mottled, medium brown crema of average thickness and a flavor of a light tobacco smokiness. There are some herbal notes and pleasant spices in the mix, but the shot has a somewhat narrow flavor profile.
The crowds are light and the art space makes for an interesting place to linger over a coffee. And the coffee itself is pretty good — just again not the place to showcase Equator beans. But then that isn’t surprising for Equator coffee in a retail environment.
Read the review of Sohberts.
We honestly don’t like repeating ourselves, but we will anyway. No, this has nothing to do with the Cafe Grumpy $12 cup of coffee scuttlebutt going around — where New Yorkers once again find something in their backyard and therefore presume they must have invented it. (Curiously, this came up one month after CNN reported on a $13 cup of coffee in Baltimore. Let alone the $15 cups we wrote about in 2007.)
Food & Wine magazine publishes an annual “Go List” [pdf, 1.34Mb] of their Top 100 “New Food & Drink Experiences,” and the 2010 version that came out in this month’s issue includes the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee (#20) and Four Barrel Coffee (#21). Rounding out their coffee obsession: cult roasters section is Copenhagen’s Coffee Collective (#19) and Melbourne, Australia’s Seven Seeds (#22).
What makes this a repeat? Flashback to our recent posts on Bon Appétit’s Top 10 Boutique Coffee Shops or MSN City Guide’s choices for coffee roasters for a moment. Not that Blue Bottle and Four Barrel wouldn’t be on our short list, but we sometimes wonder if said article researchers do little more than read each other’s Top 10 magazine lists. We also wonder why a list of supposedly “new” hot spots includes roasters who have been established for a few years now.
What we do appreciate is that a magazine called Food & Wine noticeably changed their tone with a decidedly Food & Drink list — so that they may include beverages such as coffee. Well, that and it was also interesting to see Ceretto‘s new wine tasting room in Piemonte at #6 — having experienced some of the modern glass architecture of Ceretto’s Bricco Rocche estate when we last visited in 2007.
Good coffee cultures are exported. Starbucks grew by churning out a mutant strain of Italian coffee culture by the thousands. Fifteen years ago, we saw cafés in Prague that boasted “Seattle style lattes.” And while New York City is beating its chest lately over its recent coffee prowess — emulating one of its most famous tourists of the Great Depression — most of what’s boast-worthy has been imported from the coffee cultures of places such as Portland and San Francisco (or even Australia).
Wait? Did we just say San Francisco? Despite this town’s long coffee history, ten years ago SF lacked any quality focal points that were honestly worth exporting. A lot, however, has changed since then — even to the point where the term “San Francisco” has become something of a coffee branding strategy.
Atlanta, GA, for example, has a local, independent coffee house and roaster known as the San Francisco Coffee Roasting Company (not to be confused with the Pier 39 place with the same name). There’s the San Francisco Coffee Company in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (not to be confused with a local roaster). Malaysia and Singapore even have a 27-outlet chain called San Francisco Coffee.
Of course, the quality at most coffee shops in San Francisco is suspect at best. So there’s clearly no need to get into the protectionism of regional labeling that we’ve seen in products such as champagne or Vidalia onions. But whenever parts in the rest of the world take notice, that’s usually a good thing.
Frog Hollow Farm reserves a rather anonymous place in the retail coffee history of San Francisco, but it was a watershed for the coffee quality in this city. As much as we roll our eyes at the hackneyed and abused third wave term, by many definitions (theirs, and definitely not ours) this was SF’s first third wave espresso bar.
But its rise to prominence and its influence was very short-lived. A variety of changes internal and external to the shop caused the quality here to plummet from #1 in our rankings to #91 in just two years — as reflected in our first Trip Report for Frog Hollow Farm posted four years ago. But the good news is that a recent change in management here has brought something of a coffee revival.
The relatively brief coffee story of Frog Hollow Farm, located at the rear of the Ferry Building, is a genuinely complicated one. In its 2004 prime, this was home to the best espresso in San Francisco.
This claim may ring a little odd today now that SF is flush with the nationally acclaimed likes of Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, and many well-regarded independent coffee shops in between. But when we started research for this Web site in 2002, the answer to the question, “Where can you get the best espresso in SF?” was genuinely complicated. So complicated that most answers from the public varied from Peet’s to Starbucks to battle-of-the-bands-like ballot stuffing for neighborhood favorites such as Dolores Park Cafe.
Frog Hollow Farm opened in Oct. 2003 as an outlet for an organic peaches/specialty fruit/pastry business. For whatever reason, they decided to also take their espresso efforts very seriously. To that end, Frog Hollow Farms enlisted the help of a then-relatively-unknown James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee fame. Back then Mr. Freeman was known for his small batch, fresh coffee roasting in Oakland — for cart service oddities such as the Berkeley farmer’s market, but he had no presence in San Francisco. Even his Ferry Building cart service wasn’t yet up to speed.
With Mr. Freeman’s guidance, Frog Hollow Farms invested in a new, shiny red La Marzocco FB/70 (still in use today), deluxe wood tampers, the first commercial appearance of Blue Bottle Coffee beans across the Bay Bridge (which were also available for retail sale), and barista training from James himself. In a sense, this made Frog Hollow Farm SF’s first de facto Blue Bottle Coffee café — even if not in name. We can literally trace the decrease of our own home roasting operations to the initial sales of Blue Bottle beans here in 2003.
But by 2005, James Freeman had his own designs to open SF coffeeshops under the Blue Bottle name. He soon pulled out of this location and their coffee operations. The espresso immediately went downlhill and continued years of decline from poorly trained baristas, mishandled McLaughlin beans, and thin, watery shots.
A real measure of salvation came with a management change in Sept. 2009. Cameron White moved up from Santa Cruz to take over the coffee operations here, and he brought along Verve coffee and barista training (all baristas were trained by Chris Baca and Jared Truby). He replaced their aging Nuova Point cups with a set of classic brown ACF cups and installed a sort of bar with seating among six stools in front.
They now serve a solid, two-sip short shot of Sermon blend: with a medium brown, textured crema and a flavor that includes tobacco smoke, herbs, pepper, and a few others all well blended together. Only the body is a shade light for its pedigree. They operate two Mazzer grinders, dedicating one for Vancouver decaf, and also sell bags of Verve beans. They even talk about bringing in more grinders so that they can also showcase Streetlevel and other Verve roast varieties.
The quality change here is significant. They are currently rated tied for #17 in our SF ratings. However, with SF espresso quality standards as improved as they are these days, there’s a lot of compression at the high end: meaning, a lot depends on your personal taste. Fans of Verve’s flavor profile will not be disappointed.
Read the updated review of Frog Hollow Farm.
We published our first trip report for Sightglass last July: Sightglass Coffee, Version 0.3. Back then, Sightglass was a tiny espresso-serving kiosk at the front of a vast, 4,000-sq-ft space with a 14-kg Probat roasting operation planned to start in the Fall of 2009. We revisited Sightglass this week to see how much things have changed.
It’s perhaps both bad and good news that things haven’t changed much at all since our first visit. They still operate as a tiny kiosk of a service station in front, offering espresso, Chemex brewing, and some salt caramels. Their roasting operations are still being built out; the current completion estimate is now June 2010. Instead of facing the permit issues that delayed Four Barrel’s roasting operations, the delays at Sightglass were primarily zoning: given that there are two other notable roasters in the SOMA district, the environmental impact of another neighborhood roaster required a rather thorough evaluation.
One other major change here was a highly publicized switch of their espresso machine. What was a beautiful, rare, refurbished, two-group La Marzocco GS2 espresso machine — straight out of the 1970s, and a sister to the one recently installed at Intelligentsia‘s fabled Venice Beach location — has since been replaced with a two-group Slayer machine. (Just like the one at Matching Half Cafe.)
Ah, the infamous, fetish du jour: the Slayer. While the verdict is still out on the merits of the Slayer as an espresso machine, its merits as a hype machine are unquestionable. For example, two months ago one barista/blogger made the ludicrous claim in Serious Eats that, with the Slayer, “fourth wave coffee has arrived”.
First of all, remember that the term third wave was originally coined to describe a level of consumer appreciation for coffee. Thus, the author literally suggested that an espresso machine will single-handedly make consumers appreciate coffee in such a significantly novel way as to change consumer culture. By comparing waves, her statement suggested that once consumers compare a Slayer-made espresso with a run-of-the-mill Blue Bottle shot, for example, public coffee-drinking habits will change as dramatically as when people raised on cups of Sanka brewed in 1950s percolators discovered the espresso made at Rome’s Sant’Eustachio il caffè.
Wow. Talk about Mother of All Hyperbole. We’re honestly incredulous at how someone could make such an absurdist claim.
Thankfully, the New York Times tempered the post’s price-tag-based hype: the Serious Eats post lead with sensationalist $18,000 price tag headline, completely oblivious to the fact that a decent, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 will set you back more than that. But then Salon magazine echoed that piece with a post titled “Baristas gone wild”, and local culture & clique rag, 7×7, anointed the Slayer at Sightglass as “ushering in coffee’s fourth wave”.
We love a taste test challenge. But to make a fair and reasonable comparison, a number of variables must be held in check: location, barista, coffee roast, grind, ambient temperature and humidity, etc. Unfortunately, controlling all of these is a next to impossible task. However, there are a few things in our favor: the same place (Sightglass) using the same roast (a Sightglass blend made at Verve Coffee Roasters) and the same grinding equipment.
On the negative side, the baristas were different (but were hopefully trained to the same standards), the weather may have been different, the age of the roasts could be different, etc. But since we couldn’t reasonably get lab time to compare a Slayer with a La Marzocco GB/5, we’ll have to settle for a taste comparison made months apart.
The other thing in our favor is that we’ve historically found our own espresso tasting descriptors and rating system to be very consistent between visits at cafés with good standards and consistency. We’ve been surprised many times when, having a “blind” test at a place we haven’t visited in over a year, we’ve compared our notes and scores with our previous visit and discovered that they completely agree. And if the Slayer truly created an entirely new wave of consumer coffee appreciation over the old standards, our lack of precision should theoretically matter little.
We found our Slayer-pulled Sightglass shot to have a dark crema. Comparing it with the La Marzocco-made shot of old, the crema is a little darker but a little less substantial. The body is a touch thin, but that was true before here also. One greater difference was the focus of the flavor profile: instead of a potent flavor dominated more in the pungent range of the flavor spectrum (more of cloves, herbs, etc.), the Slayer-made shot had a darker, more earthy flavor dominated more in the smoky/muted tobacco end of the spectrum. And while their La Marzocco shot had a pretty limited dynamic range of flavors that were still executed well, the newer shot had the same limited range with the exception of a surprisingly acidic bite to its finish.
Even so, these differences were subtle. We noticed the $0.50 increase in their shot prices more than any tasting differences (namely: more smokiness than pungency plus a brighter finish). In fact, when we tallied our espresso rating scores, they were identical with the GS2 shot from last July.
So does that mean the Slayer isn’t a great machine? No. But it does suggest that the 2010 issue Slayer, for all its hype, imparted no noticeable difference to the resulting shot in the cup — from a 1970′s-made La Marzocco. At least from our espresso consumer’s perspective, this supposed fourth wave looks identical to the so-called third. We honestly couldn’t tell them apart.
Sure, we have taken a bit of poetic license to its literal extreme with this semi-facetious comparison. But if you are going make audacious claims, we ask that you back them up.
Of course, the Slayer’s prime advantages are manual pressure control and pre-infusion capabilities that are perhaps best suited for single origin coffees rather than blends. The reason we found little difference from the Slayer at Sightglass could be due to the coffee being a blend, or because they’ve tuned it to produce shots that meet their previous flavor profiles, or because their baristas haven’t yet learned how to take advantage of the additional controls.
But perhaps the biggest telltale sign as to why Sightglass switched from a perfectly reasonable GS2 to a Slayer can be found in their most recent cash register system, which is now based on the Apple iPad released just this week. Is there any better way to indicate how much you’re enamored with the new and less with the reasons why behind a switch?
Read the updated review of Sightglass.
The New York Times today published a piece on the Bay Area roaster land grab going on out East: West Coast Coffee Roasters Are Lengthening Their Reach – NYTimes.com. Ritual Coffee Roasters, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Four Barrel Coffee are each mentioned — lugging their roasting equipment over the Rocky Mountains and through the Great Plains of our nation’s mid-section, panning for retail gold as prospectors in the uncivilized coffee wilderness of our nation’s Atlantic Coast.
Who knows what obstacles they might find among the savage tastes and customs of the local natives? But these brave men and women are taking our nation’s pioneer spirit to heart, from sea to shining sea, spreading our Manifest Destiny of good coffee for all.
Seems a lot like it, doesn’t it?
On a more serious note, we did learn something from the article — such as the word “java” was first coined on the coffee docks of San Francisco. Otherwise there’s Ritual’s Eileen Hassi mentioning the importance of green bean seasonality, Intelligentsia taking over Ecco Caffè and establishing a roaster in Potrero Hill, and of course some of the obligatory third wave gibberish.
I particularly liked The Age‘s comments about the flat white — i.e., “they’re considered uncool back home” — and yet they’re appearing all over New York. Last night I had dinner with a friend living in London, and he says the coffee shops there are crawling with flat whites these days.
Last night we attended a quasi-annual Portuguese wine tasting event sponsored by ViniPortugal. We’ve attended this event a few times prior (last at the Palace Hotel in 2008), and this was by far the worst: completely cramped quarters atop the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis, vendors who ran out of wine and bailed within the first 30 minutes of the event, and passed hors d’oeuvres that had more in common with Thailand or Italy than Portugal.
One of the co-branded offerings of the public event was a free copy of Marcia Gagliardi’s recently published The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco — and the opportunity to get the author’s signature. We’ve written about tablehopper prior. She may not know much about food, but she’s made a career out of knowing people who know food and providing a useful service out of that. She also may not be much of a writer, but she’s great at pithy — something we honestly respect.
Setting aside the bizarre reality that makes new media specialists turn to old media distribution platforms to make a little coin, her pithy section on SF espresso quotes something like this (pp 147-148):
Espresso is the nude beach of coffee making — there is just no hiding. You can tell with one look whether that shot is tight or flabby. [Hence our mandatory photos.] These are places whose shots can proudly walk along the shore in the unforgiving light of day.
Well said, tablehopper. She then proceeds to rank Blue Bottle Coffee and Four Barrel Coffee. With a lot to choose from these days, it’s still hard to knock these two. Yes, Jeremy Tooker: I know you’ve thought we’ve had it out for you for so long, but congrats on really improving your roasting operations over the past couple of years. You guys have since earned your top-notch accolades after a rougher start.
tablehopper then makes mention of Philz Coffee (even if they have nothing to do with espresso), Ritual Roasters, and Coffee Bar. But, playing her hand, she also pulls out an editorial bubble on the Gibraltar. Which is pretty much shorthand to us for, “I don’t know coffee, but I know clique.”
Not that we are honestly surprised. Even industry gossipers can’t help themselves: it’s in their nature.