Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
But 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.)
As 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.
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.
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? 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This past weekend, Barefoot Coffee Roasters celebrated their seventh anniversary. While the San Francisco Coffee Wars have clearly overlooked the South Bay, we’ve frequently traced some of our favorite coffee experiences back to this small microroaster and their tiny chain of cafés. Besides their flagship café in Santa Clara, they have recently expanded to a couple of small kiosks in San Jose. One of which we visited this past weekend.
Having lived in Palo Alto for four years during the early 1990s, I used to joke “in Palo Alto, diversity means owning a Macintosh.” While there’s more to the Peninsula and South Bay than strip malls and residential sprawl, those are two of the reasons we don’t go back. One of the reasons we do go back is if said strip mall or residential sprawl hosts a Barefoot location. Barefoot’s Roll-Up Bar falls in the latter category.
Co-located with the Barefoot Coffee Works (the new home of Barefoot’s roasting operations), the Roll-Up Bar is literally located at the garage door at the end of a massive driveway. If that sounds rather residential, it’s because it is. Located in pretty much a house that is only lacking a basketball hoop in the wide driveway, this is a casual spot not far from the Shark Tank where locals can enjoy great coffee in what feels like someone’s gated front yard.
If you’re driving here like most people, just be prepared to look for a morning house party serving coffee. The neighbor next door currently sports a rather elaborate Halloween yard decoration, then commemorating the impending doom for the Philadelphia Phillies. (Even if San Jose has their own Giants.)
There are a few benches in front for seating, but otherwise it’s a limited set of stools at a small wooden counter bar set up for Hario V60 pour-overs plus an ornate, copper-plated, three-group Victoria Arduino lever machine. In back there are a couple of Probat roasters, a lot of storage shelves, a cupping room, and plenty of unroasted coffee.
For their 7th anniversary celebration, Barefoot did the crazy thing and gave out free coffee all day long at all of their locations. But rather than offer only their everyday, less expensive coffees, to their credit they poured a lot of their special supplies. Besides serving their Bolivia Cup of Excellence #29 Flor Rosa (with three days age) at the pour-over bar in notNeutral Bangladeshi cups, they were also serving this coffee (normally at $24/12-oz) as their single origin espresso.
The resulting cup was fragrant, with a medium brown, even layer of crema in their classic dark brown ACF cups. It’s single origin overboard — with a sharp, acidic sweetness tasting of berries, honey, and a light molasses. This is straight-out brightness bomb espresso that would make most Italians recoil in disgust. But if you’re into that sort of thing, and we sometimes are, it’s rather exceptional. However, we need to update this review at some point with a more “typical” shot from this location.
Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Roasters’ Roll-Up Bar in San Jose.
A viral video is going around these days on “The Coffee Wars of San Francisco”. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek with its Ken-Burns-documentary-style humor — though that largely reminds us of how much Ken Burns can lull us to sleep like a bottle of brandy.
While the mockumentary oscillates between the mildly funny and the painfully overwrought (and sorry, 7×7, we don’t see the connection to BlueBottleGate), we have to bite our tongue when it comes to its historical inaccuracies. Such as suggesting Ritual Coffee Roasters was the start of a new era of SF coffee snobbery. In fact, it was the touristy Ferry Building Marketplace‘s Frog Hollow Farm — then under heavy influence of Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman — that arguably first kick-started a coffee revival in this town.
Even this ignores that CoffeeRatings.com‘s #1-ranked coffee shop during that era was the defunct Café Organica, located North of the Panhandle. And that even today, on the basis of the actual coffee alone, our favorite Bay Area purveyor is based in a very hipster-unfriendly strip mall in Santa Clara, conveniently located next to various mattress shops that you’ll never need after all that caffeine.
But even if San Francisco is already so abruptly short on its memory of its recent coffee history, mockumentary or not, we’re happy that there are even jokes of a “coffee war” — i.e., that there is good enough coffee in this town to at least have a war of words over. This was a vision that still seemed well out of reach as recently as 2003.
San Francisco has elevated NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) to an art form. We can be such petty, whiny bitches in this city when it comes to the realities of business and commerce. It’s a complete wonder that anybody is allowed to make a living at all in this town — let alone that any amenities are permitted here. In addition to more recent examples like the Ike’s Place sandwich shop saga, we now have Dolores Park’s BlueBottleGate: An Open Letter from Blue Bottle to the Dolores Park Community – San Francisco Restaurants and Dining – SFoodie.
Yes, it seems that some folks in the Dolores Park community feel violated that big, bad purveyor of all things exploitative (please note sarcasm), Blue Bottle Coffee, had the outrageous gall to submit an RFP to SF’s Parks & Rec Dept. without first offering animal sacrifices in their divine honor. Blue Bottle’s crime? Offering to operate a mobile coffee cart in Dolores Park.
Why not invite Dow Chemical to set up shop and establish a future Superfund site, right? I know I will sleep better at night, knowing that our children and walked dogs will be safe from exposure to such commercial profanity and the unsightly blight of decent neighborhood coffee.
Perhaps café owners in Dolores Park can breathe a sigh of relief that they might not have to improve their coffee standards for just a little while longer…before the inevitable.
Opening in Oct. 2009, James Freeman finally established a spacious company headquarters home for his ever-growing Bay Area coffee empire here in Jack London Square. They host a surprisingly small café for retail coffee service. There’s several tall stools and tables for outdoor seating along Webster St., and indoors there is barely a four-person window counter to sit at.
Much of the space is dedicated to specialized operations such as warehousing equipment and supplies, larger batch roasting (with two large Probat roasters), daily cuppings (every day at 2pm), making baked goods for all of their outlets, barista training, and desks for buyers and all the other administrative details.
This location is part coffee lab, given the test roasts and equipment trials they perform here, but also part museum — the latter reflecting Mr. Freeman’s enthusiasm for older equipment and electronics. His blending of the two seems to put the recent media obsession with gadgetizing coffee and emphasizing coffee “firsts” in a rather conflicted state.
On the one hand, you have Mr. Freeman experimenting with the Marco Über boiler — a device the New York Times yesterday called “The Rolls-Royce of Kettles” in breaking-news fashion (“the first in New York City!”). Media outlets like the Times have recently picked up the puzzling, and frequently annoying, habit of taking the centuries-old art of making coffee and suddenly pitching it as if we were in the midst of a Cold War-era coffee-making arms race against the Russians. “Throw out that obsolete La Marzocco Linea — now it’s all about the new $22,000 Cannibal Corpse machine!”
This bizarre hyperactive emphasis is something you just don’t see for making tea or waffles or ice cream. Coffee not only seems to bring out the cause-driven kooks more than any other consumable. It also seems to bring out the misplaced desires of bleeding-edge technology news junkies — an odd lot who have been suffering withdrawal symptoms ever since the demise of manned space flight. (This before you add a fickleness and ADHD that’s normally associated with the fashion industry.)
Now juxtapose this fetish with Mr. Freeman’s obvious infatuation with things like the 1940s Altec Lansing “Voice of the Theatre” speakers at this location, an old Russian projector scope for internal office presentations, vintage stereo equipment in the barista training room, and a dual-lever La San Marco machine at the Mint Plaza Blue Bottle Cafe — nostalgically, Blue Bottle’s first espresso machine and it’s still in service for single origin coffees. Good luck geeking out on the bleeding-edge technology news in all that.
The facility emphasizes transparency: large glass panes with visibility inside Blue Bottle’s various operations. Combined with their roasting and training facilities, this makes Blue Bottle’s headquarters perhaps the closest Bay Area equivalent we have to Cape Town’s Origin Coffee Roasting complex — just with all the Cal/OSHA regulations thrown in so that transparency here means “look, but don’t touch”.
The retail coffee bar may be small at this location, but it’s capable of great things with its “oh so last year, honey” three-group La Marzocco Linea machine. The resulting shot is extra potent and short without being overly syrupy. It has a textured, richer medium brown crema and a smooth, rounded, fresh-tasting, flavorful pungency of thyme, some pepper, and traces of smoke, honey, and cedar. An outstanding shot. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.
Read the review of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company in Oakland‘s Jack London Square.
Last week we wrote about how coffee, like food, has become a primary form of consumer entertainment. We also mentioned recent experiences at newer coffee bars that have felt, well, “manipulative and artificial.” This concern over what seems real might sound trivial, but it’s at the foundation of a great deal of consumer behavior and marketing today.
Don’t believe us? Look at the immense popularity of reality television shows, the critical importance of reality to today’s video game industry, and the heavy emphasis of realness, or authenticity, in our food and drink. Social theorists suggest that our lives today are so consumed with virtual crap — crap that severs us from nature and self-sufficiency — that we now crave authenticity and reality in the things we do and the things we buy. Authors Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore heavily explored this theme in their book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.
Speaking of food and drink experiences that overtly express their realness, this past weekend we attended Oakland’s (recently) annual Eat Real Festival. Coffee featured at the event (more on that later), and the event Web site tells us, “Eat Real’s mission is to make real food as accessible and as affordable as fast food at events held in strategic communities across the United States.”
So, according to this food fest, what does real food actually mean? For one, no fewer than two separate kombucha demonstration sessions. For another, urban homesteading — with models of a backyard townhouse you can build for a chicken that’s the envy of many an East Oakland resident. And lots and lots of taco trucks. As if the mere act of serving food out of fad-friendly taco trucks makes it naturally affordable, nutritious, locally grown, and oh-so-real.
If we thought so many of our recent new coffee experiences were artificial, what could we make of the realness of this event? Planted smack in the middle of this festival was a
McDonald’s-owned Chipotle booth. With over 22,500 employees at 1,000 locations in 36 states, you can bet your kombucha that Chipotle doesn’t raise their chickens in backyard townhouses.
The festival is the brainchild of Susan Coss and Anya Fernald, organizers behind the 2008 Slow Food Nation that we highly endorsed. That event may have received heavy, but misplaced, criticism for its “elitist” price tag at the time. While there’s nothing disingenuous about dressing up a county fair with more modern food fads, slapping the real or authentic label on it hops on the express lane to Phonytown. Pine & Gilmore write about three basic rules of authenticity, and the Eat Real Festival failed at all of them. The second rule being, “It’s easier to be authentic if you don’t say you’re authentic.” Remind you of any Third Wave flag wavers you know?
Coincidentally, a few blocks away was the 23rd annual Oakland Chinatown Streetfest where they offered no kombucha demonstrations, no taco trucks, and no Chipotle booth dressed in “I’m locally grown” clothing. Your guess as to which festival felt more real and authentic.
Back to the coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee‘s James Freeman spoke about home coffee roasting at the event — focusing on his roasting roots with a basic oven (in other words: forget those newfangled popcorn poppers!).
Ritual Coffee Roasters established a presence with an event-suitable trailer-on-wheels — with La Marzocco GB/5 sticking out of one end. Going beyond our usual straight espresso shots, the cappuccino was decent but a far too milky for their usual standards.
Hands-down the most impressive coffee drinks at the festival grounds came from — surprise, surprise — Mr. Espresso. We’ve normally considered particularly fluffy espresso specialty drinks as superfluous barista competition fodder. But their Venezuelan Cappuccino — made with Mr. Espresso’s Neapolitan Espresso and Barlovento Venezuelan Hot Chocolate Truffle of “Star Anise, Orange zest, and All Spice berries” made believers out of us.
Four years ago we posted about our disappointment over high-end restaurants that offered plenty of options for tea but only one for coffee. It’s as if these celebrated houses of distinguished taste decided that coffee had all the nuance and variety of unleaded gasoline — and it showed in the product they served. And when we are buying unleaded gasoline, we at least get the typical options of regular, plus, premium, and/or ultra. So establishments known for their shotgun-wielding maître d’s and their counter displays of beef jerky actually beat out our nation’s finest restaurants in this regard.
Fast forward to today, and our finest restaurants have evolved little. However, this week we did have an experience that suggested at least some improvements are coming from retail coffeeshops. While seeking out some roasted beans at the Blue Bottle Cafe to share for pour-over this weekend, their Ethiopian Amaro Gayo caught my eye enough to purchase a half pound. Their response to my purchase request: “Washed or natural?”
Washed or natural!? What delightful music to this coffee lover’s ears. Now there will be those inevitable coffee consumers who will react to such a question with we-all-drank-Maxwell-House-in-my-day-and-that-was-good-enough-for-us uppity disdain. Not unlike the way some have made a hobby out of ranting over drink sizes named grande or venti — or being asked whether they liked a dry or wet cappuccino. But I was pleasantly surprised with the option to purchase essentially the same coffee with two different forms of processing (prior to roasting).
Which isn’t to suggest that there aren’t reasonable limits to the amount of preciousness we pour into our coffees. Reading the descriptors on Blue Bottle Coffee Web site (washed, natural), we can’t be sure whether we’re buying coffee or hallucinogens that provide us with a gateway to Total Recall. Reading the coffee’s descriptors from NY’s Gimme! Coffee (washed, sun-dried/natural) or Denver’s Novo Coffee (washed, sun-dried/natural), we get the impression that gender politics must taste better than the coffee itself.
Even with all that over-earnest prose, we’ll take the lump sum as an improvement.
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.