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Trip Report: Sightglass Re-Redux (Version 1.0), or now with a couple more places to sit

Posted by on 15 Oct 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

As we last left our story, SOMA‘s ever-morphing Sightglass Coffee was glacially executing on its grand designs to become a major SF roastery and a spacious coffee destination. It had been over a year since we last walked among the spent heroin needles of nearby 6th Street, so much of our new Sightglass experience had been through retail brightness bombs sold throughout the Bay Area using Sightglass’ own roasts.

This past week we finally got the chance to revisit Sightglass, and we can safely say it has largely succeeded at its very ambitious goals. We say “largely”, however, because we have more than just a little qualified ambivalence for what exactly Sightglass has become.

Sightglass adds a couple of chairs over their previous dearth of seating options Sightglass Coffee's service area, with wall o' coffee in back and the observation deck above

Sightglass’ original cubbyhole is now merely the doorway entrance to a vast warehouse space dedicated to exposed wood beams and coffee production. There are a couple of split levels upstairs for staff and vast amounts of stand-up counter space all around the floor plan. But while the square footage of this coffeeshop has expanded some 100-fold, there is seating for only about a dozen more people than before. There is window counter seating along the 7th Street sidewalk. But between that and the bicycle parking at the other end of the building there is virtually no place to sit.

The deliberate scarcity of seating is a decidedly useful move to ward off the laptop zombie set. And we wish far more places catered to stand-up espresso service the way it is a cultural institution in places like Italy. But somehow a place like Four Barrel makes their zombie-warding mojo seem natural and organic to the space, whereas at Sightglass it comes off like a lack of planning.

It seems that every 30 minutes, it's time for a cupping at Sightglass CoffeeThe vibe inside is a bit unique for a Bay Area coffee shop. In some areas, children sometimes play on the floor with parents in an unusual day-care-lite-like fashion. Meanwhile, there is a noticeable bent towards employing comely female staff and an unusually high proportion of both staff and patrons wearing cycling caps. Yet there is an unusual shortage of the obligatory piercings and body art. And as if an homage to Four Barrel and its mounted boar heads, the sparse decór inside includes the occasional mounted desert animal skull.

As if to proclaim they can mimic more than just Four Barrel, there’s a trusty turntable by the coffee service area for playing vinyl copies of the Beatles’ Revolver or the Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim EP — giving it a little of that Stumptown Portland feel.

It really tied the room together

But enough about interior decorating: what about the coffee? For one, there’s an ample wall of the stuff for retail purchase. It’s not even the “$15 a pound” stuff we mentioned earlier this week: we’re talking the $19.50 for 12 ounces category. At which price, we want bottle rockets shooting out of our ears when we sip this stuff. After sampling some of their Guatemala Finca San Diego Buena Vista Yellow Bourbon at home, let’s just say we’re not giving up our Barefoot Coffee take on Edwin Martinez’ Finca Vista Hermosa — despite some recent local press love.

The general quality of barista here seems to have raised a notch with their expansion. In store they offer Chemex and Hario V60 brewing of three different cultivars — plus the usual espresso drinks, a few baked goods, and the usual Hooker’s Sweet Treats salted caramels. And to pull those shots they employ both Slayer and La Marzocco Strada machines at opposite ends of the service area. Explaining the difference between the two espresso machines to a friend who was there with us, there’s really no other polite way to say this: owners Jerad and Justin Morrison are total name brand fad whores. So we merely described the machines as “last year’s model” versus “this year’s model” — and then proceeded to pay on their iPad checkout system, established here since the week the iPad went public.

Plenty of coffee, dueling DJs at the Slayer and Strada, and a turntable straight outta Stumptown, Portland Santa Fe comes to the public sink at Sightglass Coffee

Living up to their reputation as worshippers at the altar of the brightness bomb, they pull espresso shots with a rather one-dimensional, medium brown, even crema that struggles to coat the surface. It is very bright and flavorful in a citrus-meets-malt way, but surprisingly not overwhelmingly so. Though there is a tinny, almost metallic taste in the finish where it lacks any real sweetness or molasses-like smoothness.

Of course, a lot of people in North America enjoy this flavor profile. But it becomes particularly problematic when it comes to American’s love of milk-based espresso drinks. Their cappuccino is what we might call a “supermodel” cappuccino — pretty and perfect on the outside, but vapid at the core and lacking any real substance. Despite the beautiful appearance and accompanying latte art, their cappuccinos are tepid, milky, and lack any real punch that can hold up to the milk. We honestly cannot recommend the cappuccino here, as the primary brightness notes in the espresso are lost to become something insidiously bland and rather flavorless.

The Sightglass espresso: it even looks bright Sightglass Coffee's

Sightglass’ place in SF’s coffee pantheon

It’s fair to say that by establishing both their roasting operations and a large service area, Sightglass has positioned themselves as one of the premiere coffee destinations in San Francisco. These days, that says something. However, we cannot help but feel there’s a missing attention to detail here that holds Sightglass back from being among the very best — this despite a web site that proclaims their “deep attention to detail.”

Probat roaster on display, just as workers reapply bolts without washersThere’s nothing inherently flawed in name brand fad whoring if you get the execution right. But without that execution, you risk appearing as though you’ve followed a checklist for a paint-by-numbers Third Wave coffeeshop — rather than being something with a soul and substance of its own. We don’t even mind if your interior design ideas were lifted from the Stumptown and Four Barrel catalogs as long as your attention to detail comes out in your coffee. Forget the other details for a moment: a washed-out, bland cappuccino just doesn’t cut it.

An almost poetically symbolic example of this attention-to-detail problem was evident watching the team perform maintenance on their on-site Probat roaster (aka, “the sightglass”). They re-applied the mounting bolts to their Probat … without washers. Sometimes it takes just a little extra effort to do it right.

Read the updated review of Sightglass Coffee.

Trip Report: Paris Baguette (Palo Alto, CA)

Posted by on 10 Oct 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Ever eat a hamburger at a 1950s-themed American diner? In Hong Kong? Maybe their waffles didn’t taste like fish sauce, but it’s not uncommon to discover something lost in translation. (E.g., “Why does my hamburger bun taste like rice vinegar?”) On the spectrum of authenticity, this is the culinary equivalent to finding luxury handbags in the Hong Kong night markets with designer labels like “Guchi” and “Koach”.

Which brings us to Paris Baguette. Downtown Palo Alto recently added the latest installment of a growing Korean-owned chain of French-themed bakeries. However, use of the word “chain” here is an understatement. Although there are some 15 U.S. locations scattered throughout New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and California (including Santa Clara), there are 50 locations in China and some 2,900 locations in South Korea alone.

Stacks of doughy snacks inside Paris Baguette, Palo Alto Paris Baguette's La Marzocco GB/5, Palo Alto

To put this in perspective, Starbucks operates 6,727 stores in the entire U.S. This means that, on a per capita basis, Paris Baguette locations saturate Korea some 2.75 times as much as Starbucks saturates America. Viewed purely in terms of locations per square mile, Paris Baguette locations carpet bomb Korea 41.6 times as much as Starbucks locations do the U.S. If you remember those jokes about there being another Starbucks inside a Starbucks’ bathroom, just imagine 41 of them in there.

Surprise!: unlike Paris, the coffee is decent

Paris Baguette's gaudy entrance and gaudy pastries, Palo AltoFortunately, Paris Baguette is not too freakishly Paris by way of Seoul — even if it glows like a gaudy Vegas casino from the outside. There’s some sidewalk café seating in front. On the inside (casino mirrors aside), it consists of stacks and stacks of self-service baked goods to be pinched by passersby armed with wax paper and tongs. There strangely isn’t much else to speak of for lunch options. And beneath the tall glass windows, there are clumsy, long, almost school-cafeteria-like tables — save for being topped with faux marble.

And yet this location proves that being lost in translation isn’t always a bad thing. Whereas most of the coffee in Paris is wretched, they make an honest attempt at sourcing and producing good coffee — at which they are mostly successful. Despite its gaudy flaws and cultural mistranslations, the coffee service here manages to be some of the best in Palo Alto.

They sport heavy Ritual Coffee Roasters branding and a shiny, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the service counter. They even offer Hario V60 pour-overs. They pull shots with an even, medium brown crema in black ACF cups. It has a basic warming flavor of spice and some herbs, and the coffee has the potential to be much better than it is — but it is still quite decent. They also offer healthy milk-frothing and latte art for milk-based drinks.

Read the review of Paris Baguette in Palo Alto.

The Paris Baguette espresso, Palo Alto The Paris Baguette cappuccino, Palo Alto

Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea joins Stumptown in the ownership-for-growth club

Posted by on 08 Sep 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Today’s New York Times reported on another chapter in this year’s ownership-change-for-funding-for-growth saga of quality independent coffee chains: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Asks a Friend to Help It Grow – NYTimes.com. This past May, the subject was Stumptown Coffee Roasters — generating quite a bit of angst among many loyalists who cried “sell-out!” This time the subject is Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, whose expansion plans seem to have stalled or required less-than-ideal compromises.

Hockey stick growth needs cash among today's coffee eliteIf 2010 was the year of the Great Coffee Rush — where prospecting independent roasting/coffeeshop elites in the West packed their covered wagons and migrated East to help fill a gaping quality coffee void — 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the investment, merger, and acquisition. The article notes Intelligentsia’s 2009 acquisition of Ecco Caffè — and, more importantly, how its planned Potrero Hill roasting operations have yet to materialize.

Of course, when was the last time that a major roasting operation in San Francisco didn’t materialize months, if not years, behind the original schedule? (Think Four Barrel, Sightglass, etc.) Even so, it’s becoming clear that as the quality independent coffee industry has matured, the next stage of its evolution now requires wealthier investors to fund their ambitions.

Berkeley perks up for Coffee and Tea Festival

Posted by on 07 Aug 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Local Brew

Scene from 'The Graduate' filmed at Berkeley's Caffe MediterraneumNext month Berkeley hosts its first ever coffee and tea festival, and the SF Chronicle used the opportunity to mention Berkeley’s coffee and espresso roots: Berkeley perks up for Coffee and Tea Festival. The piece adds a bit of worthy Berkeley coffee history, even if it’s a slight retread of a 2009 piece in The Daily Californian. Both articles discussed Caffe Mediterraneum’s merits as the birthplace of the caffè latte. And, hey, Berkeley is where I had my first real cappuccino way back in those ancient 1980s.

Trip Report: Cup

Posted by on 03 Aug 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew

Opening in July 2011, this new coffeehouse expands Glen Park‘s neighborhood coffee offerings. It’s located a little off the beaten path, nearest a freeway exit from the Glen Park BART station. Outside they have a couple of sidewalk tables. Inside is a modern, semi-sterile interior of orange and gray walls and exposed chrome and stainless steel.

They proudly display the bios and details of their suppliers on the walls, from Mr. Espresso coffee to the two-group, chrome Faema E61 machine to the Grass Valley artist who made the Cup sculpture that overhangs the shop’s entrance outside. They also sell Mr. Espresso coffee beans with the Cup label stuck on the package.

Entrance to Cup with the Cup sculpture hanging overhead Inside Cup, with their Faema E61

Behind Cup's Faema E61
Using their coffee and shiny E61 (and Mazzer and Macap grinders), they pull a very short shot with a potent, darker brown crema. It’s surprisingly not syrupy, given the pour size. It’s actually a little ballzy to make an espresso this short in this neighborhood, so kudos to them. It has a potent herbal flavor of cloves, etc., that’s missing a little top-end brightness in the cup. Their milk-frothing is decorative but unusual and on the thick side.

Maybe it isn’t as unique as having a Cafe Bello — which has long established its own unique flavor profile and style by locally roasting their own for a number of years. (Helping to fend off that espresso sameness issue.) And maybe the location isn’t perfect and the interior is a little sterile. But they still make a good espresso.

Read the review of Cup.

The short Cup espresso The Cup cappuccino

Trip Report: Specialty’s Café & Bakery on Pine St.

Posted by on 21 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Quality Issues

The story of coffee at Specialty’s Café & Bakery reflects the story of San Francisco’s consumer tastes for retail coffee.

In the beginning, there was Faema + Prebica — and it was weak

A decade ago, Specialty’s ran a small chain of bakery/cafés with coffee service areas. Some locations, like this one on Pine St., even dedicated a coffee bar area for customers during their morning caffeine rush. Using older Faema machines and Prebica beans (one of “The Big Four” as part of Sara Lee), they pulled espresso as double-shot defaults that, while not terrible, weren’t good either.

Outside Specialty's Café & Bakery on Pine St., overlooking the side patio Inside Specialty's Café & Bakery on Pine St.

Then something weird and unexpected happened. In the Fall of 2003 — years before Blue Bottle even existed in San Francisco, other than as the coffee force behind Frog Hollow Farm at the just-then-opened Ferry Building Marketplace — Specialty’s replaced their Prebica supplies with Intelligentsia coffee. As longtime fans of the then-Chicago-only roaster, we were rather ecstatic. We saw the introduction of Intelligentsia as the first real escalation of what we then coined “the SF coffee wars“. This despite the fact that virtually no one in San Francisco knew anything about Intelligentsia at the time.

Specialty’s got their bean sourcing right. These were, after all, the same guys who were providing beans to Canadian national barista champions at Caffè Artigiano in Vancouver at the time. But they shot themselves in the foot, quality-wise, by replacing all their semi-automatic Faema machines for push-button, super-automatic Franke machines. While this gave Specialty’s greater consistency and allowed unskilled employees to operate their espresso machines, it completely dumbed down their coffee service and squandered any quality advantages they had using Intelligentsia coffee in the first place. We experienced one anomaly where they produced “Top 20″-level espresso, but revisits proved that to be a fluke.

The coffee service area inside Specialty's Café & Bakery today on Pine St. Bold Intelligentsia signage dwarfs any Specialty's branding

Intelligentsia S.F.?

As San Francisco coffee snobbery has been on the rise, most recently Specialty’s opted to up their game another level. At this sort of “mothership” of the local Specialty’s chains, they’ve gone all-out with a full-service, manually crafted coffee bar. How often do you see places weaned off super-automatic machines and back on to “big pants” espresso machines? Not often enough, as today this location sports not only a shiny red, dual-group La Marzocco FB/70 machine and a Hario V-60 pour-over bar (plus various Intelligentsia Coffee offerings for retail sale), but they also brandish glowing Intelligentsia signage where even the Specialty’s brand name takes a back seat. It’s as if Specialty’s became more serious about coffee the more their customers became more serious about coffee.

Unlike when this location first opened with a dark interior and nice floors that looked of cherry wood, they have since brightened up the space with lighting and a more modern layout. Still, there are long lines at lunch, and paying for a coffee sometimes may require you to wind through the whole line (instead of short-cutting to a dedicated coffee service line). Inside, there’s counter window seating — with one side overlooking the sidewalk and the other overlooking courtyard seating on its Century St. side (formerly home to a Starbucks hutch and then Abigails).

Coffee menu and Specialty's La Marzocco FB/70 and pour-over bar The Specialty's Café & Bakery espresso, on Pine St.

Their switch from their Faema machines to Frankes made them dull (all that factory-produced sameness and uniformity) but more consistent: a mellow espresso with a moderately rich, medium brown crema, plus an herbal/spice flavor. The new, semi-automatic FB/70 has raised their game, but the consistency isn’t there yet. They’re still not maximizing the result, given all the pedigree going into the cup. It lacks some flavor potency and breadth: largely centering around an earthy pungency, despite the fresh-looking, medium brown mottled crema and white ACF Intelligentsia-branded cups (formerly paper only).

They have come so far, and yet still have much to go. Given the trendlines and directions for one of the more forward-thinking small chains in the area, you have to place bets on the coffee getting better more than it is likely to decline. Even so, with the occasional rumor of Intelligentsia opening an owned-and-operated location in S.F., what are the odds that Intelligentsia would do to Specialty’s what Blue Bottle Coffee did to Frog Hollow Farm several years ago?

Read the updated review of Specialty’s Café & Bakery on Pine St.

Trip Report: Hooker’s Sweet Treats

Posted by on 29 Jun 2011 | Filed under: Local Brew

With a name that sounds a lot naughtier for the neighborhood standard, Hooker’s Sweet Treats has probably disappointed more than a few thrill-seeking passersby in the Upper Tenderloin/Lower Nob Hill area. (What some realtor wannabes call the “Tendernob”.) But for those who venture here for coffee and confections, it’s something of a destination.

Opening almost exactly a year ago, this dark, small 700-square-foot chocolate/salt caramel confectioner is run by David “Hooker” Williams. It also sports an impressive coffee setup, showcasing some of the beans from friends and local, recent roasters Sightglass Coffee Roasters.

Entrance to Hooker's Sweet Treats Inside Hooker's Sweet Treats

The small space is decorated with vintage wallpaper on the walls, old wooden benches, vintage Cracker Jack boxes on display, and something of an old mariner theme with pelicans carved in wood. They have a single bench for seating on the sidewalk out front. Inside, there is a long table with a shared bench and some chairs — in addition to window counter seating among three stools.

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, the owner pulls shots of Sightglass’ Owl’s Howl espresso blend. The resulting shot is somewhat bright without being ridiculously so (as often happens in SF). It comes with a richly colored, mottled medium and dark brown crema that only comes from fresh-roasted coffee supplies. They pull doubles as a default into black ACF cups, and while the pour is of a modest size it lacks real body or heft. The flavor suggests some cedar and a touch of honey over some basic pleasant spiciness. Not particularly rounded, but not too narrow.

It isn’t even close to one of the best espresso shots you ever had, but it will do — particularly in a neighborhood not known for good coffee options. That and we celebrate the addition of another quality local roaster to the mix of options at Bay Area cafés — particularly while the risks of roaster hegemony reign high

Sir Hooker himself behind the La Marzocco Linea at Hooker's Sweet Treats Merchandising at Hooker's Sweet Treats

The Hooker's Sweet Treats espresso - and caramel

Read the review of Hooker’s Sweet Treats.

Trip Report: Dash Cafe

Posted by on 10 Jun 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

икониSince we’ve long tired of reading about Stumpgate, it’s time to change the coffee conversation. So instead of the global growth and ubiquity of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, we turn our attention to something closer to home: the growth and ubiquity of Blue Bottle coffee.

This relatively new neighborhood café caters to local UCSF medical students with a modernized coffee pedigree. There are a few sidewalk tables along Judah St. out front that are rarely used. Inside the space is a bit schizophrenic, starting with the bright, clean room with several tables upon entry with its wide windows facing Judah St. It’s typically filled with laptop zombies where conversation is almost discouraged.

Dash Cafe's storefront along Judah St. Grinders and rear seating area in Dash Cafe

Beyond that is the small serving area for waffles, lunch bites, and coffee — including a two-group La Marzocco Linea machine and a set of four Blue-Bottle-branded Bonmac drippers. In the back and somewhat below is a darker, more social, lounge-like space. It typically has fewer customers in daytime hours. They also have a wall of wine selections.

They pull espresso shots with an even medium brown crema of decent thickness. It’s served as a slightly high pour, even for a doppio, but the body is still good. It has a fresh Blue Bottle flavor that’s a cross of smokiness and stone-fruit, and it’s not overly bright. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.

A solid espresso, definitely. But one we feel we’ve tasted many times before in a consistently growing number of places in San Francisco — a city that yearns to celebrate its diversity.

Read the review of Dash Cafe.

The Dash Cafe La Marzocco Linea - plus beer on tap The Dash Cafe espresso

Trip Report: Fiore Caffè

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

Some Mission residents are enthralled that they finally host a decent coffee shop that doesn’t require disinfectant. Opening just this month, this corner café has bright, large windows and decorative touches: wooden counter seating in front, a converted salon room in back with a marble fireplace, a decorative sofa, and ornamental flowers. Also towards the back is a handful of square tables and the occasional laptop squatter. There’s also a few wooden chairs on the sidewalk out front.

Entrance to Fiore Caffè Marble fireplace inside Fiore Caffè

Using a red, two-group Rancillio at the front counter, they pull shots of espresso with an even, textured crema of modest thickness. Pulling (imported and thus notoriously stale) Lavazza coffee, there is some notable freshness missing in the cup: the crema runs short and the flavor profile runs more narrow.

That said, the owner/barista is methodical and improves what would otherwise be a weaker cup. It has an herbal pungency that differs from a typical Lavazza shot in this city, but it’s not necessarily that much better. It has less of the distinctive Lavazza flavor and a bit more smoke and toast. Served in Lavazza-logo IPA cups. That a popular SF neighborhood, just a half-mile from the original Ritual Coffee Roasters, could be excited about a coffee shop like this proves that good coffee is far from ubiquitous, even in a town like San Francisco.

Read the review of Fiore Caffè.

Fiore Caffè's front counter with two-group red Rancilio machine The Fiore Caffè espresso

Revealed: Nation’s flimsiest coffee-related press release

Posted by on 20 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Earlier this week, KRUPS, that bastion of great coffee, announced the winners of their National “Cup O’ Joe Awards”: Revealed: Nation’s best coffee shops – This Just In – Budget Travel. Now if only this announcement had anything legitimately to do with good coffee. Heck, if only KRUPS had anything legitimately to do with good coffee.

Of course, what we really have is one of the oldest tricks in the PR playbook: fabricate some kind of award (the broader the better — for potential distribution), issue your press release, and pray that it gets picked up in your target markets. The technique works, because we’re picking up the story here. Just probably not in the way KRUPS’ marketing department intended.

High density living for KRUPS coffee machinesOver the past 20 years, KRUPS has probably done more to disappoint more home espresso consumers than any other company, and a multitude of American landfills contain much of the evidence. To counter this reputation, KRUPS has resorted to associating itself with “upmarket” coffee — such as years of sponsoring barista championships. Here KRUPS created a new Cup O’ Joe Awards out of thin air to honor the nation’s best coffee places — and to remind consumers to keep filling their landfills with KRUPS coffee equipment (and not just KRUPS waffle makers and deep fryers).

One signature of the fabricated press release award is when the award winners have never heard of it. Another is carpet bombing high density population centers (i.e., home espresso machine consumers) to maximum effect. Thus KRUPS ignores Portland, OR, quality coffee’s Biggie Smalls, while New York City, quality coffee’s Jay-Z, gets awards for each of five boroughs.

Now that's quality Italian!And when it comes to the criteria for why one place inches out another in a given market for this coveted award, we learn the criteria involves “mailers, street teams and social media pages.” It’s Battle of the Bands all over again.

From their press release: “Krups USA polled 250 coffee-toting New Yorkers on the streets of each borough to discover their picks for the city’s best sips.” Can you imagine a SCAA barista champion crowned without the use of scoresheets — but instead by some quasi-magical popularity contest involving random street interviews, mailings, and Facebook Likes?

The San Francisco award went to Blue Bottle Coffee, which is hardly unwarranted. But KRUPS awarding the nation’s best coffee shops is a bit like Chef Boyardee awarding America’s best Italian restaurants.

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