Local Brew

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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.

SF Coffee’s “Battle of the Bands”

Posted by on 29 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Growing up as a teenager, I always hated those “Battle of the Bands” contests. Because — despite my odd musical tastes, from the Dream Syndicate to Mötorhead, at a time when most teens wanted the inoffensive sounds of Huey Lewis & the News — I quickly learned that these contests were never about talent. They always ended up awarding whomever could best rally their peeps in what was really a rather cliquish popularity contest.

What Battle of the Bands was like back in my day of sock hops and kazoos, grandpaAs I got older, I noticed that the same popularity contest problem was at work behind every “America’s favorite” marketing campaign. Seriously — like how could McDonald’s honestly be the best meal money can buy in this country? Quality and volume rarely go hand-in-hand.

Which brings us to this bit of an SF popularity contest for coffeehouses: SF’s best coffeehouse winner(s)! : On The Block: SFGate. TheFrontSteps.com, essentially a real estate sales blog, received some critical mass attention for their contest. For a more complete list of the top 65, minus a couple dozen places with single votes: Winner: The Best Coffee (House) In San Francisco, And The Rest | theFrontSteps.

Just as entertaining, perhaps, is seeing how many commenters on either post fit into our “The 10 Types of Commenters on Coffee Articles.”

The Philniks pay their tithes

The contest winner? Philz Coffee — a local chain of pour-over bars long fronted by Phil Jaber, whose shtick of fashioning himself as the Willie Wonka of coffee has long earned him something of a cult following. But despite making some of the most notoriously wretched and vile espresso in the city, we’ve always thought they made a good cup of coffee.

Philz drink menu would drive a Third Wave barista insaneIs Philz the best coffeehouse in the city? The answer sort of depends on whether you think Scientology is the best religion. But at 27.87% of the votes, with the distant #2 at 8.04%, Philz clearly mopped up the place.

Even so, part of us secretly roots for Philz — despite a cult-like atmosphere that creeps us out and keeps us from setting foot in them anymore. They’ve been a kind of MySpace to the Facebook of the self-annointed Third Wave coffee set — i.e., an out-of-favor rebel that serves as a foil to the many copy-cats who fashion themselves as the true coffee rebels and revolutionaries.

Philz has been doing the hand-made, individual pour-over coffee thing for years before many of the independent coffeeshops even acknowledged the existence of filter drip coffee. And to this date, Philz oddly sticks to their black magic blends — a stark contrast from the many aspiring coffeeshops that (mistakenly) believe coffee quality is directly proportional to the number of ethics descriptors and isolated geographic designations associated with their green beans.

“The more you can isolate a genetic strain to a handful of coffee plants, the better the cup.” Or so goes the prevailing logic at many of Philz’ competitors — and it’s a complete crock that even the ever-popular wine analogy doesn’t live up to.

Weekend at Bernie’s

Heading further down the list we encounter Bernie’s at #2. We like Bernie’s, even if we only rate their espresso as tied for 89th out of 683 rated SF coffeehouses. But going back to the Battle of the Bands analogy to start this post, anyone who knows anything about Bernie’s knows their #2 ranking has more to do about Bernie herself and the neighborhood than it does about their coffee.

We’re perhaps more perplexed by the extinguished campfires often served as espresso by Martha & Bros, listed at #6…

Trip Report: The Summit SF

Posted by on 16 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Taking up the space that was formerly Daniel Creamery and its cheese production, the Summit has tall ceilings in a wide open space converted for café and art space use. The main seating area is littered with rectangular tables and chairs with plenty of wall outlets and laptop zombies — making you feel like you just entered a community college computer lab.

Around the edges are walls of artwork (aka the Peek Gallery) that currently feature various hand-painted signs from New Bohemia mocking the abuse of “real”, “genuine”, and “authentic” labels — and making us think of SF’s Eat Real Festival. Artwork celebrating the abuse of labels here seems more than a bit ironic, given that The Summit bathes itself in the labels “local”, “seasonal”, and “craft.”

Entrance to The Summit SF Inside The Summit SF

Laptop zombies and real & authentic signage at The Summit SF Genuine and Authentic signage at The Summit SF

Ahhh, craft. Previously the domain of garbage men restyled as “sanitation engineers,” wordsmithing is a growth market in today’s coffee industry. We have kiosks now being called coffee pop ups. And this year the term “artisan coffee” has been abandoned in favor of “craft coffee.” Which is not to be confused with Kraft coffee, otherwise known as Maxwell House. Are you sure you’re following all this yet?

The Summit offers a basic (seasonal) café menu and desserts in addition to a coffee menu that features Blue Bottle, using their 17-ft Ceiling blend for espresso. The Summit also features barista Seán Wilson, who trained under Eton Tsuno at the defunct (and much missed) Café Organica — arguably SF’s first real multi-roaster café back in 2005. There’s also a front counter with stool seating and a four-group La Marzocco behind it.

The barista takes his sweet time but produces a worthy shot. It could have a more substantial body, but it has a frothy, darker brown, even crema of some thickness. It manages also to avoid being too acidic until the bottom of the cup, otherwise exhibiting a balanced, herbal-leaning flavor with some sweetness throughout. Served in colorful retro cups made in Turkey for Ikea.

They’re not performing miracles with Blue Bottle coffee here. However, they are aiming for, and succeeding at, a flavor profile that raises The Summit above most other BB resellers.

Read the review of the Summit SF.

The Summit sources locally, uses craft coffee, and insert other fabricated buzzwords here The Summit SF's La Marzocco from behind the counter seating

The Summit SF's La Marzocco and coffee menu The Summit SF espresso

Trip Report: Grand Prix

Posted by on 14 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew

Three years ago we identified something we called the low budget, ghetto chic conceptual art cafe — the said concept being consumers having to pay for full-priced espresso with the hipster privileges of having zero amenities. Last year some ad wizard decided these borderline coffee favelas should be called “coffee pop ups” (also formerly known as “kiosks”). Which is a little like calling a cardboard refrigerator box in a Tenderloin doorway a “housing pop up.”

Is this the entrance to Grand Prix? Or did Frank Chiu go on a coffee break? Oh, now we're talking... Grand Prix, this way.

Which brings us to Grand Prix — the latest in a local, faux independent chain of makeshift, Lambretta-themed kiosks that includes Vega at Langton, Special Xtra, and the original Cento. Giving the Azul Lounge a day job before it becomes a bar at night, Grand Prix has earned the title of coffee pop up in the local press.

Keep heading down the alley for coffee. No, really.Tucked away in a corner off of Grant Ave., you walk to the end of the short alley and up the few steps into the bar to find a stand-up coffee bar sporting a two-group La Marzocco Linea with Grand Prix branding. Inside it’s bar-dark, with dark wood and low lighting and typically barriers from reaching the rest of the bar.

There’s a short hallway in which to stand, but there is not much in the way of seating. Owner John Quintos is on a mission from God to make coffee lovers feel awkward and uncomfortable everywhere he possibly can — helping them to get over their shyness of ordering their coffee “to go” in paper cups, despite its many quality detriments.

Sarcasm aside, they pull shots appropriately short with a mottled medium brown crema of decent thickness. There’s almost no sweetness to the cup, however — unlike the espresso at its sister cafés. Thus it exhibits a narrower flavor profile, which also is lacking a bright edge. Not the best of the lot — Grand Prix is decidedly one of the weaker siblings — but it will do if you’re nearby. Particularly if you like drinking things out of paper containers while sitting on the sidewalk.

Read the review of Grand Prix.

Tight space inside Azul Lounge, i.e., Grand Prix The Grand Prix espresso

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

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