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A Tale of Two Beverages

Posted by on 26 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Saturday, February 25, 2012 offered a curious contrast between the very different worlds of consumer appreciation for wine and coffee. For the former, I attended La Paulée de San Francisco 2012 — arguably the most over-the-top consumer wine event in America. For the latter, my brother Vince simultaneously attended CoffeeCon 2012 — billed as the “first-ever international consumer coffee conference” — in the global coffee Mecca (and his hometown) of Warrenville, IL.

First off, I’d like to apologize for continuing to harp on the hackneyed wine analogy for coffee. However, I still often feel like one of the few people who knows just enough about both wine and coffee appreciation to make a comparison when attending events for either beverage.

Because the facts remain that we read plenty about how much coffee wants to be taken as seriously as wine. And yet the coffee industry still craps on its customers at virtually every opportunity. This weekend’s events provided evidence of that in great contrast.

La Paulée signage in the Westin St. Francis' Italian room Benjamin Laroux may look like an Alpine ski instructor, but what he pours is gold

CoffeeCon 2012

First up: the consumer coffee event. Kevin Sinnott has been a layman coffee enthusiast for years (and he also just so happens to a neighbor and friend of my brother back in the dark recesses of the Chicago suburbs). He may be an independent video production consultant for his “day job”, but coffee is far more than just a hobby for him. And more power to him, because he recognized the need for a consumer-oriented coffee event — which inspired him to put on the first ever CoffeeCon.

The best opportunity coffee consumers had to get involved with the coffee industry was to muscle in to events such as the SCAA’s annual conference — all under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since then, the policy has shifted towards outright consumer abolishment. But even if you buy the argument that the industry needs its own for its own, it has offered nothing even close to an olive branch. We hear the coffee industry give plenty of lip service to the importance of “educating the customer”, and yet opportunities to do so are turned into closed-door industry events where the consumer is treated like an unwelcome leper.

Slow Food Nation ’08 was perhaps another example, but it turned out to be a one-time event. Out of it came the Good Food Awards. But even if you look past coffee playing the red-headed stepchild under the “Food” banner, here the focus of a once-public event has again turned to industry insiders locking out consumer participation. Or take the related Coffee Common effort. Even putting my disdain for the shallowness and faux elitism of TED aside, public events that require over $1,000 in membership and registration fees to attend are hardly “consumer friendly”. This makes the steep $300 I shelled out to attend La Paulée’s Grand Tasting seem like a bargain by comparison.

Daily Herald photo of the floor at CoffeeCon Daily Herald photo of a long commuter to attend CoffeeCon

CoffeeCon suffered from an almost accidental location (Warrenville’s “IBEW Local Union 701″) and virtually zero coverage among the coffee industry — most of the industry being preoccupied with the self-absorbed, industry navel-gazing going on at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (or NERBC). But CoffeeCon managed to draw about 1,000 attendees and even pull a few coffee luminaries including the likes of George Howell, home espresso legend Jim Schulman, and Intelligentsia‘s Geoff Watts.

Attendees apparently got to taste a lot of different coffee, experiment with different brewing methods, meet a few others in the coffee industry, learn more about coffee farming and production, and even witness a poor tongue-in-cheek debate on coffee vs. wine. My brother reported that they had a huge crowd, a good representation from nationwide roasters and equipment manufacturers, and the unveiling of a new Bunn Trifecta at a “lab” event.

While not a bad event and certainly a promising attendance, this is, folks, about as good as it gets for coffee consumers today. And good luck getting anybody in the coffee industry to acknowledge that it existed.

On the coffee industry making consumers feel unwelcome…

One thing I like from the CoffeeCon FAQ — which flies in the face of Coffee Common’s “Exceptional coffee. No sugar.” byline — is this bit:

Can I take cream and sugar in my coffee or will I be asked to leave? No worries. Serious coffee lovers know how different everyone’s palate is. 80% of coffee consumed in the world is taken with milk and/or some sweetener.

Coffee Common defines itself in the negative as well as positiveThis week I had dinner again at one of my favorite SF restaurants who also makes some of the best restaurant espresso in the entire city. The two owners, in their own polite and self-depreciating ways, each relayed to me the story of a recent visit to Sightglass where they were essentially made to feel as if they were both clueless about both coffee and their flavor palates. (I’ve omitted their names as they mentioned this in personal confidence.)

Interestingly, they both felt that Sightglass’ coffee tasted “too salty.” When they asked the Sightglass barista to cut the shot pour short, as a sort of ristretto, he replied that he could not interrupt the espresso machine from running its full cycle. And when they asked for sugar, they were looked upon as if they must have walked in thinking Sightglass was a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Here were two people who grew up with high coffee standards in Italy, developed a much-loved and highly regarded regional Italian restaurant in SF, serve some of the best espresso in the city at said restaurant (and I virtually never have coffee with sugar), where one of the owners previously served as a sommelier at another Michelin-starred SF restaurant with a legendary wine list — and they were basically told that they were coffee Philistines, purely because of coffee orthodoxy. As snobbish as you might think the wine world might get, this simply does not happen with wine.

How the wine world does a consumer event: La Paulée de San Francisco 2012

Speaking of sommeliers and a barista’s desire to become an equivalent of one, let’s contrast with La Paulée’s Grand Tasting at the Westin St. Francis. Daniel Johnnes, a noted wine director for noted New York restaurants that today includes Restaurant Daniel (read: a guy who works in the industry), started the event about a decade ago, alternating between New York an San Francisco. It is based in a traditional Burgundian event, and in Mr. Johnnes’ words for the SF event:

La Paulée is my homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a convivial Burgundian fête shared by growers and their guests. At La Paulée guests will sample current releases and older vintages from nearly thirty of the most sought after Domaines of Burgundy. The wine service will be led by fifty of our nation’s most noted sommeliers.

They ain’t messing around. (Here’s a magazine write-up [PDF] on last year’s La Paulée in New York.) The Grand Tasting may cost $300, but that’s cheap compared to the $1,400 Gala Dinner (or compared to the registration fee to experience Coffee Commons at TED2012 in Long Beach).


There are people in traditional Burgundian wear, regularly breaking into traditional Burgundian drinking songs, flown in from Burgundy for this event — Les Cadets de Bourgogne. And there are many booths of elite winemakers, offering wines that you could only be lucky enough to even access a bottle to purchase, all poured by notable sommeliers. In coffee terms, this is akin to an event featuring several of the world’s Cup of Excellence microlots for tasting, each served by award-winning baristas.

And they don’t skimp on the food either, with restaurant representation from the likes of Boulevard, Farralon, Gary Danko, Napa’s Meadowood and REDD, Quince, RN74, etc. You know that the food world takes the event seriously when not only are sommeliers from New York pouring at the event, but the likes of Traci des Jardins (of Jardinière and Top Chef Masters fame) is there personally cooking up and handing out plates of food.

Traci des Jardins hustling at the catering end of La Paulée Whereas the barista expresses himself with tattooes and piercings, in wine self-expression is about the gaudy shoes & belt, rock ring, and man purse

As a consumer event, what’s not there? No hucksters promoting the latest technology in synthetic corks. No pitchmen telling you how to expand your revenue lines with wine coolers. No patent-pending bottle openers that promise to revolutionize wine consumption. Just a lot of people who want to share great wines and learn more about them and an industry that is trying to make that possible in ways it previously was not.

We can only hope just a fraction of that is possible with coffee — if only the industry would allow it, let alone participate in it. It’s beyond the time for quality coffee to get out of its insular ivory towers and to start reaching out to the many customers it so claims to love and adore.

On Kent Bakke of Seattle’s La Marzocco

Posted by on 20 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

Yesterday’s Seattle Times wrote up a decent piece on Kent Bakke of Seattle La Marzocco fame: Business & Technology | Local coffee world reveres this pioneer | Seattle Times Newspaper. Mr. Bakke’s history with espresso heralds back to the late 1970s when he began importing and distributing La Marzocco machines from Italy.

Kent Bakke of La Marzocco in SeattleThings were quiet until 1984, when Starbucks came calling for his machines and a Peet’s Coffee in San Francisco soon followed suit. (Over the years, Seattle Times columnist Melissa Allison has proven herself unable to write an article about coffee without devoting large portions of it to Starbucks, and, well, this one is no different.)

After buying 90% of La Marzocco in 1994, he helped ramp up the local La Marzocco factory in Ballard, WA to the point where they were manufacturing 140 machines each month. Then in 2004, things came crashing down when Starbucks decided to throw in the towel on quality while trying to keep up with their rampant growth plans — ultimately replacing all their “grown up” espresso machines for push-button Verismo jobs that required little more than trained monkeys to operate.

La Marzocco has since recovered somewhat, even if it is currently under competitive pressure from the likes of Synesso (lead by former Bakke employee, Mark Barnett) and Slayer. The article also attempted to make out a La Marzocco controversy over the pricing of the GS/3 prosumer home machine in 2008. However, despite some rumblings from a few devoted loyalists with a lot of cash, that episode adds little weight to the story. In the world of espresso, the consumer market is virtually ignored if not outright dismissed by much of the professional espresso world.

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. (SFMOMA Rooftop Garden)

Posted by on 15 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Machine

Opening in May 2009, this Blue Bottle Coffee outlet is located inside the SFMOMA museum on the fifth-floor Rooftop Garden. It’s a rather elite affair, given the open space and the artworks that surround it. There’s seating on concrete floors and benches among modern sculptures, but there are also white metal café tables for seating.

Outdoor patio at the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden, with Blue Bottle inside Inside the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden with Blue Bottle at the far wall

Artistic desserts at the SFMOMA Blue Bottle CoffeeThey use Mazzer and Astoria grinders, offer Bonmac filters for single origin drip, and (quite unusual for Blue Bottle) a three-group Mistral Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette with manual levers.

They pull espresso shots with a medium brown crema and darker brown spots. It’s served quite short for a doppio, but it’s the right amount of potent: very well balanced, broad flavor profile of herbs, pungency, and some tobacco and honey. They use a special SFMOMA blend of five different beans, and it is a true blend — almost something of a rarity in the U.S. It’s one of the best homogenized examples of a blend that Blue Bottle offers. Hopefully they will make a blend like this more widely available.

Served in a Heath ceramics demitasse with a side of sparkling water. About as good as museum coffee can get.

Read the review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden.

Three-group lever Mistral Triplette at the SFMOMA Blue Bottle Coffee The SFMOMA Blue Bottle Coffee espresso, in Heath ceramics

Trip Report: Coffee Bar (Financial District)

Posted by on 11 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Local Brew, Machine

Opening in October 2011, this new location of the Mission/Potrero Hill’s Coffee Bar expands their reach downtown to something you can actually walk to. The space is small and can get quite packed in a rush, but it’s clean, well-lit, and has a lab-like feel with its white countertops and lower cabinets.

They offer no indoor seating, but there is a short stand-up window counter and a few wooden sidewalk chairs and a bench in front. Even without the seating, it’s a wise choice for a new location — filling a void that many downtown patrons of decent coffee have lacked since the closure of Caffè Amici nearby. And they should clearly see this opening as a major neighborhood upgrade.

Entrance to Coffee Bar on Montgomery St. Accessories for sale in the Financial District's edition of Coffee Bar

Weighing extractions for accurate TDS in Coffee Bar, Montgomery St. Menu at Coffee Bar, Montgomery St.

The shop is set up to impress, as they offer scale-weighed hand pours — weighing being de rigeur for getting your TDS right in a shop since about 2010 — and espresso drinks from dueling two-group La Marzocco Strada machines. (To say nothing of the impressive baked goods from Sandbox Bakery.) To their credit, the menu is relatively simple and the options are focused.

They still seem to be dialing in on the quality of their espresso here, however, as it didn’t measure up yet to the standards at the Coffee Bar mothership. Using Mr. Espresso beans, they pull shots with a decent layer of a mixed medium and darker brown crema. The flavor is complex with an emphasis at the herbal pungency end. Served in black ACF cups.

Downtown SF not only again has good coffee, but the bar has been raised.

Read the review of Coffee Bar in the Financial District.

Staff working a La Marzocco Strada and some pour-overs at Coffee Bar, Montgomery St. The Coffee Bar, Montgomery St., espresso

KQED Forum gives some radio love to Bay Area coffee

Posted by on 10 Jan 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Yesterday morning, KQED radio aired an hour-long Forum segment featuring a small round-table of SF coffee “luminaries”: SF’s Coffee Innovators: Forum | KQED Public Media for Northern CA. The panel included James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, Eileen Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and an unusually quiet Jeremy Tooker, of Four Barrel Coffee.

What? Coffee talk that isn't exclusively a podcast?Much like the title of its associated Web page, the radio program played out like your typical coffee innovator/”third wave“/bleeding-edge routine that we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. While a bit heavy on the Coffee 101 — particularly when callers asked common FAQ-type questions that have been answered on the Internet 20,000 times over already — KQED produced a good program overall.

Some of the more interesting comments included Eileen Hassi stating that “San Francisco has better coffee than any other city in the world” — with the only potential exception being Oslo, Norway. We’d like to think so, and there’s a bit of evidence to back that up.

James Freeman noted Italy’s “industrialized system of near-universal adequacy,” which is a different but accurate way of summing up our long-held beliefs that outstanding coffee in Italy is almost as hard to find as unacceptable coffee. Other covered topics included coffeehouses eliminating WiFi, Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum inventing the latte, the Gibraltar, and even James Freeman designating home roasting as coffee’s “geeky lunatic fringe.”

The rumors of home coffee roasting’s meteoric rise have been greatly exaggerated…

Samples of green coffee beans for pre- or post-home-roast blendingWhile it’s worth noting that Mr. Freeman started as a home roaster, recent media coverage of home roasting has been a bit bizarre. To read it in the press these days, you’d think home roasting were at its apex rather than continuing its gradual decline towards its nadir. This despite numerous media stories covering it over five years ago as some hot new trend.

At the 2006 WRBC, we were perplexed by the complete lack of home roaster representation among the event’s attendees. (Namely, any home roaster worth his weight in greens would have been giddy over the reappearance of the Maui Moka bean. Nobody there even noticed.) And yet by 2009 we noted a real decline in online home roasting community activity, and we wrote about some of the underlying reasons for it.

South India coffee

Indira Darshini in Bengaluru makes decent South Indian coffeeCuriously enough, the first caller to the radio program (at 12’12″ in) mentions a recent trip to South India and his interest in South Indian coffee. I’m posting this from South India — Bengaluru (née Bangalore), to be precise. And I have to say, I’ve become quite fond of both South Indian coffee and the South Indian coffee culture.

Sure, they prefer it sweetened and with hot milk (that often has a skin still on it). The coffee is often cut with cheaper chicory and is brewed with a two-chambered cylindrical metal drip brewer — not unlike a Vietnamese brewer or an upside-down version of a Neapolitan flip coffee pot. But damn, if this stuff isn’t good. Even better, there’s a culture of regular coffee breaks that would be familiar to many Mediterraneans.

South Indian coffee at Indira DarshiniWe’ve reported from India before, but only from the North — which isn’t known for a strong coffee culture beyond young people frequenting chains that emulate the West. Bengaluru is home to the Coffee Board of India, and this weekend I hope to head out across its state of Karnataka to visit origin at the Kodagu district. Also known as Coorg, this district grows a good amount of India’s good coffee. (Yes, they even grow really good robusta there. Just ask Tom Owens of Sweet Maria.) Details certainly to follow…

Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin

Posted by on 09 Nov 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Starbucks

Today’s L.A. Weekly featured an interesting bio-piece on father and son L.A. espresso pioneers, Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink. You might recognize the Pasquini name for some of their excellent home espresso machines. But the Pasquini family is credited with first introducing espresso to the L.A. area.

Pasquinis on display in the L.A. WeeklySome of the more interesting details from the piece:

  • Their initial business was first frequented by espresso-starved Hungarians.
  • In the early days, they even got some of their espresso from SF’s Caffé Trieste.
  • From the beginning, only about 3% of their customers ordered espresso. The bulk was cappuccino and caffe latte.
  • Starbucks coming on the scene helped popularize their business. Well, it was good for business, but “it wasn’t good for quality.”

And while the Pasquinis are rolling with the superautomatic and Nespresso machine punches, we were particularly intrigued by their reaction to La Marzocco. To quote:

La Marzocco did a wonderful job convincing people that only certain machines can make a good coffee. … They did a wonderful job convincing the [specialty] barista that that is the state of the art.

It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment — less to their equipment-building prowess, and more to La Marzocco’s marketing ability to build anxieties and insecurities within specialty baristas.

Which explains a little of the ambivalence we feel when we witness the likes of a Sightglass fawning over the latest coffee toy fads on the market. It’s one thing to be enamored with trendy equipment. But it’s another to rely on it as a cover up for a lack of sweat and hard-work that goes into optimizing with the equipment you’ve got.

Finding the best is getting a whole lot worse

Posted by on 03 Nov 2011 | Filed under: Beans, CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

In the eight years since we started CoffeeRatings.com, we’ve been patiently waiting for something better. After all, we built CoffeeRatings.com out of frustration over a lack of useful quality information about area coffeehouses in a semi-structured, objective-criteria-driven format. So you’d think we’d be encouraged by the acute rise in venture-capital-funded code monkeys who promise to solve our existential crisis of determining “the best” at anything. In reality, this flurry of new Web sites and mobile apps only seems to be making the problem worse.

A brief history of bests…

Nothing says 'quality' like food truck art projectsBesides being a First World Problem, finding the best at anything is a sisyphean effort. As Howard Moskowitz demonstrated decades ago, there is no “best” — only many bests, depending on personal tastes. But that didn’t prevent the likes of Yelp from feigning an effort. That effort is based on a completely open system where any schmuck with a keyboard can praise or bash an institution without any instruction, guidelines, nor selection criteria to speak of. Furthermore, Yelp games reviews as more of a form of social currency than any objective opinion.

As ridiculous as you might think the old school Zagat guides are by comparison, at least they offer three objective criteria to score on. Even so, Zagat recently whored themselves out to rating food trucks. Someone please explain to us again how any food truck could legitimately earn more than a zero score out of three for “ambience”.

SF Best Coffee app -- or more like SF's most convenient not-megachain coffee
On the mobile side of things, we have examples such as the San Francisco’s Best Coffee iPhone app. There the fatal flaw is that most mobile app developers treat location as of primary concern over quality — likely just because you can (with a phone’s geolocation services). Hence why we never appreciated coffee maps as anything more than eye candy.

The editors for the app are based in London, and they use whether a cafe is “independent” or not as a major reason for inclusion. (Are we supposed to ignore that Blue Bottle Coffee is technically a chain?) Furthermore, any Top 25 ratings are handled Yelp-style, resulting in very dubious cafes like Tartine Bakery getting rated in the Top 7.

New best bets… or betting on bests

Even FindTheBest can't point you in the right directionTaking a sample of the new crop of wannabees in the best-annointing market, we’ll start with FindTheBest. Let’s look at their espresso machine rankings for example:

  1. Rancilio Silvia LE 2010
  2. Mr. Coffee ECM20
  3. Mr. Coffee ECM160
  4. Rancilio Silva
  5. De Longhi EC 155

Their top choice of a Rancilio Silvia is definitely a positive move — one that keeps you out of the future landfill that primarily decks the aisles of a Williams-Sonoma. But is it truly the best? Or is it more like the least you can spend on a respectable home machine? Even so, when it is immediately followed up by two Mr. Coffee models that each cost under $35 — followed by the Rancilio Silvia again — what are we supposed to think?

Kevin Rose invented the Web 2.0 and Harvey MilkLet’s switch our attention to another find-the-best app entrant in Oink, with its iPhone app just released today. Oink is a product of Kevin Rose’s new company, Milk.

If you don’t know who Kevin Rose is, we envy you. He’s the founder of SF’s Digg.com and the closest thing to Justin Bieber for the dot-com set. Not long after the collapse of Enron, both Digg and its founder quickly became everyone’s “Web 2.0″ darling for several years — years we spent scratching and shaking our heads asking, “How is this going to make any money?”

During those years, cheerleading crowds simply put fingers in their ears, yelling “La-la-la! Can’t hear you!” as they made a cybercelebrity out of Mr. Rose — right on down to featuring him on downtown advertising kiosks. Today, Digg circles a financial drain that’s becoming ever-shallower. Everyone has pretty much since looked away, shielding their eyes from the inevitable.

Fast forward to 2011. For a guy who grew up in Redding, you’d think he’d know just enough local history to realize that calling your SF-based company “Milk” carries a lot of baggage. But whether or not that makes you think the guy is living in the closet, here’s a look at what Oink’s #coffee hashtag currently scores for “best coffee”:

  1. Drip Coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk
  2. Blue Bottle Cocktail at NOPA
  3. Coffee at Stable Cafe
  4. New Orleans Iced Coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee
  5. Gibraltar at Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk
  6. Coffee… It Gets Stuff Done at Starbucks
  7. Four Barrel
  8. Blue Bottle Drip Coffee at Cafe Divis
  9. Blue Bottle Beans at the Blue Fog Market
  10. Blue bottle coffee at Golden Bean Coffee
  11. Blue Bottle Beans at Summit Cafe

What the hell are we supposed to make of this list? Other than it is wholly unstructured and that someone has an obsessive Blue Bottle fetish, how is this list in any way useful to us? We’ve got restaurant cocktails, roasted bean duplicates, drip coffee duplicates, platitudes about coffee, and the random business name all jumbled together to make a Top 10 list.

Mr. Rose says his inspiration for Oink came from his obsessive love of fine tea. But with an app like this, any Top 10 likely includes references to the Tea Party, teabagging, and Rose’s favorite oolong repackaged seven different ways. Milk’s employees better put snorkels and fins on their Amazon wish lists this Christmas, as another whirling drain doesn’t seem far off the horizon. (UPDATE: Oink went fins-up in the tank in just four months.)

The Amen app: pray that it suggests something usefulLastly, we turn to Amen, where we learn:

Welcome to Amen, the place for battling it out over the best and the worst in life.

Amen is for all those times you think to yourself, “This is the BEST! (or WORST!)”

Of course they have an iPhone app, because apparently you cannot function in society without a 3.5-inch screen telling you how. And playing with the app, we still don’t get the point. It’s raison d’être seems centered around submitting a rousing evangelical “amen” to someone else’s proclamation of greatness. Such as “the best coffee shop ever,” which is currently listed as a toss up between Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Starbucks, and “My Ass”. (No, we’re not making that up.)

This latest round of technical and social innovations doesn’t seem to make us any smarter. In fact, it just makes us collectively a whole lot dumber with the added social commiseration of “failing with friends.”

In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for Shawn Johnson’s word for it when she says, “My tacos? The best!” in an old TV commercial just this side of child pornography…

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: Stumptown Coffee Roasters (Downtown, Portland, OR)

Posted by on 29 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Elvis sighting, or just Voodoo Doughnut?Shockingly, it’s taken us this long to make it to Portland, Oregon — considered by many to be ground zero (no café name pun intended) of American coffee culture. And if you’re going to start sampling the offerings in Portland, it only makes sense that you start with the legendary Stumptown Coffee Roasters. This despite that a number of Portland locals might suggest that other, newer, smaller coffee vendors in the area have taken what Stumptown started and have since overtaken them.

Lucky for us, I arrived yesterday on what was informally called “the first day of summer” in Portland: the weather was warm, the skies were clear, and in the north I could even see the rounded dome of Mount St. Helens in the distance over some of the treelines (something, I was told, Portlanders get to see maybe once a year). The downtown Stumptown was easy to spot once you found the Great-Depression-era-like breadlines that wound around the sidewalk and lead up to the nearby Voodoo Doughnut — which is apparently Portlandese for “crack cocaine” among international tourists.

Entrance to Stumptown Coffee Roasters, downtown Portland Inside Stumptown Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland

The lines at this Stumptown Coffee Roasters may not have been that ridiculous, but they hold their own — even if they manage to remain inside the building. They have a couple of small sidewalk tables outside and a cavernous space inside, which includes several tables and benches along the long wall, a magazine rack, limited front window counter stool seating, a rack of coffee and accessories, and a long coffee bar. Plus a Technics turntable at the back for DJ’ing, because that’s what you do in Northwest coffeehouses, plus rear bathrooms covered in graffiti.

All sorts of Portland locals and visitors line up here: from the wandering tourist to hipsters in bright orange or pink pants. It’s odd to see a Mistral machine set off to the side and neglected here, as if it were a 1984 Chevy Impala. But that’s what happens when you install a new, three-group La Marzocco La Strada machine. Behind the service area there’s a brick wall with a large mirror to show off what happens behind the La Strada — plus some stool seating off to the side of the machine.

Seating, and line, inside Stumptown in downtown Portland Whole bean coffee offerings at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland

They offer several single cup Chemex variations. As for their espresso, they pull shots with an even, hybrid crema of darker and lighter brown that suggests some unevenness in the draw. The resulting cup is potent and has a semi-syrupy body, with a good deal of brightness that doesn’t go over the top (as you might expect for Hairbender at times). Flavorwise, it has something of a peppery edge over a kind of allspice/nutmeg spice profile and a semi-creamy mouthfeel. Served in a brown logo ACF cup.

A solid espresso, but as with other Stumptowns we’ve visited, hardly ranking among our favorites in North America. In fact, 26 places in San Francisco scored higher than this Stumptown on espresso score. The fuss does not seem generally justified, and the aforementioned locals seem to be onto something. (Which also kind of says something else, given New Yorkers’ infatuation with Stumptown.)

We also have another example where espresso machine technology has been modernized with heavy investments, with results that suggest the benefits are only for baristas and not for espresso consumers.

Read the review of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Downtown Portland, Oregon.

Strada-varius - at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in downtown Portland The Stumptown Coffee Roasters espresso in downtown Portland

R.I.P. Pour-Over Coffee: 2009-2011?

Posted by on 01 Jul 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Pardon the sensationalist headline. (Like nobody has ever done that before.) But here’s something from yesterday’s L.A. Weekly on Demitasse, one of the more anticipated new coffeeshops in the L.A. area, that questions/provokes some of the conventional coffee wisdom of the month: Demitasse Will Not Have Pourover Coffee + Other Twists on the Third Wave Coffee Shop – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink.

Fodder for the blogosphere: the under-construction storefront, this time it's L.A.'s DemitasseSo what’s different here? Anticipated “Third Wave” (ugh) coffeeshop openings have been fodder for the local presses for several years now, so it only makes sense that each might attempt to differentiate themselves from the hoard with a slightly different angle now and then. But what we have with Demitasse is yet another coffeeshop identifying itself (at least in the article) more by what it doesn’t do than by what it does do. And what it doesn’t do is pour-over coffee.

Or does it? Per the article, clearly they’re fans of the Clever full-immersion coffee dripper — which some circles might say isn’t pour-over coffee by only a slight technicality. But the reason the owner, Bobak Roshan, gives for not offering pour-over coffee is telling: “Roshan adamantly is against the method as far too dependent on the skills and utmost attention of the barista, too often to the detriment of the coffee drinker looking to have the cleanest, tastiest cup possible.”

Brewer error: the downfall of retail pour-over coffee?There you have it. The method requires too much concentrated attention, for too long, of an easily distracted barista in a retail environment. There is some truth to this, even suggesting a bit of retail reality folly in the nascent Brewers Cup. Of the few coffeeshops that have offered vac pot coffee over the years, most would only do so after the morning caffeine rush-hour. And yet vac pot brewing requires much less constant attention than pour-over brewing. And then there’s the reality that the biggest expense in retail coffee is labor.

Which isn’t to say that pour-over brewing is going away anytime soon. Despite the many efforts to convince us otherwise, retail pour-over brewing has been around for decades. However, this might suggest that many coffeeshops are starting to learn the dismissed conventional wisdom behind the once-novel-now-passé Clover brewer: that individually hand-crafted, manual brewing processes make a great cup of coffee, but they fail to scale in a retail environment supporting any kind of volume at a competitive price.

Now if only we understood the semi-conventional wisdom behind using Equator Estate Coffees — despite only a single notable retail example of it in the face of dozens of underachievers.

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