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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.

Australia’s Good Cafe Guides 2011

Posted by on 13 Jun 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

As many of you may know, we started CoffeeRatings.com in 2003 with the idea of making a printed, local, quantitative guide to San Francisco’s best coffee. Our fair city still lacks its own printed guide, but that hasn’t stopped cities such as Sydney and Melbourne in Australia from forging ahead: Mecca Espresso Ultimo Cafe of the Year In SMH Good Cafe Guide 2011, and The winners of The Age Good Cafe Guide Awards 2011.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Good Cafe Guide 2011The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne) have each just released inaugural Good Cafe Guide publications to promote the best coffeeshops in their respective hometowns. In Sydney, Mecca Espresso in Ultimo took top café honors while Auction Rooms in North Melbourne did the same for its mother city. Coffee Alchemy in Marrickville and Seven Seeds in Carlton each took their city’s respective top coffee prizes. (Note to Californians: Melbourne is sometimes referred as San Francisco to Sydney’s L.A.)

Each guide boasts around 250 reviewed cafés that make the cut, awarding points primarily for coffee quality. But the guides also reward a “café’s commitment to quality beans and a great experience.” As noted in the SMH article cited above, a number of cafés are rated with one, two, or three stars. In the printed guide, they are rated up to three “coffee cups” (rather than stars) — making them not unlike the chicchi awarded in the Gambero Rosso’s annual Bar d’Italia. (The Bar d’Italia uses up to three chicchi, or coffee beans, to rate an establishment’s coffee. Not to confuse things, but it additionally uses up to three coffee cups to rate these places for qualities other than their coffee.)

The SMH article also mentions some emerging trends for area coffeeshops, including naked portafilters, local microroasting, tasting rooms/cupping schools, new contraptions to showcase single origins, bone china cups (here here!), and economy-sized drinks such as the piccolo latte or mezzo-mezzo. In other words: today’s Sydney coffee culture sounds a lot like San Francisco circa 2008. But you have to forgive them, considering that Australia lacks a filter-brewed coffee culture and history.

While both of these printed guides are new, they enter a saturating market for printed city coffee guides in Australia.

Cowboy coffee? How passé. Try Afghanistan insurgent coffee and lawnmower coffee.

Posted by on 17 May 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

It amazes us that the Internetz still hum with “serious” food-obsessed people writing about cowboy coffee. To us, that’s a bit like going to the Mayo Clinic Web site to read about cowboy surgery — involving a bottle of whiskey, a hacksaw, and stick to bite down on.

But if you insist on making coffee under harsh conditions, we are more impressed with these two recent Canadian exports of how-to coffee videos.

The first concerns making coffee in a field of Afghan insurgents. Be forewarned that this how-to video contains more expletives than the movie 44 Inch Chest. “Step one, adopt a firing position and make sure there are no fucking insurgents around. Nothing fucks-up good coffee like fucking insurgents.”

For more family-friendly viewing, and offensive use of the laugh track, here’s Canuck legend Red Green demonstrating the merits of lawnmower coffee.

Changes the meaning of the term “coffee bagging,” doesn’t it? Though I think we sampled this coffee method once at a Happy Donuts.

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.

Fear and Loathing in Portland, OR and Toronto, ON

Posted by on 07 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine

This week the pipes and tubes of the Internetz delivered a couple of noteworthy articles on local coffee scenes. The first is a cover story in Portland’s Willamette Week (“Drip City: Everything old is new again in Portland’s coffee scene”). The other is a next-generation rehash of a “favorite coffeehouses” list from the Toronto Star (“Espresso yourself: Find your perfect café – thestar.com“).

Portland = Drip City?!

First, Portland. Can we call Portland “the capital of American coffee culture” as the article claims? The idea has its merits. But “Drip City“? Or the even worse subtitle, “The Rise of Nerd Coffee.” Huh? What nerd wouldn’t prefer working with machines that cost as much as a Toyota Prius over playing with plastic cups and paper cut-outs like a poor man’s woodshop class?

Willamette Week's cover story: Drip City?!?But they are right about the claim that “old is new again.” (Didn’t we just write that piece a couple months ago?) Does that make the current pour-over fad akin to bell-bottoms making another comeback, albeit made with very 21st century recycled materials? That might also explain the unfashionables who have been sporting their coffee “bell-bottoms” (i.e., offering individual pour-over coffee) since the 1970s, such as Monmouth Coffee in London, only to discover that they are suddenly in fashion again.

More telling is perhaps this quote from the piece: “I think a huge part of its value is that it’s just fun.” There you have it. One of the greatest motivators behind pressure-profiling machines that add little in the cup and the exhuming of decades-old pour-over technology: never underestimate the power of barista boredom. Given the repetitive stress injuries they risk in a given day, day after day, who can really blame them?

We’d have sued Willamette Week for plagiarism, given how it finishes the piece with a rehash of the evolution from Clover brewer -> Hario V60 -> Williams-Sonoma -> Precision Pour Over — something we posted New Years Day earlier this year. But given how much the rest of the piece is overwrought with Martha Stewartesque abuse of the word “perfect,” we’re distancing ourselves as much as possible.

However, we could use another dose of 90′s rehashed bell-bottoms, JSBX style. Anthony Bourdain need not apply.

Blame Toronto

Speaking of Martha Stewartesque abuse of the word “perfect,” the Toronto Star gave us another groan for the coffee industry with the article title “Espresso yourself: Find your perfect café.”

What is it with coffee and coffeeshop names? Coffee must have more bad puns per capita than any other industry this side of porno movies. The words latte, grind, brew, bean, perk, and grounds should all be banned from coffeeshop names. Though we just might change our minds if someone flaunted it by naming a café “Grounds for Divorce” or something of that ilk.

Toronto's Mercury Espresso BarWe’ve probably given Toronto a bit more coffee love here than they’ve deserved — likely because the squeaky media wheel gets the grease, and the Toronto Star has needed a chassis lube for years now. But despite having rehashed the local Toronto café round-up for more times than we can count, the article does a nice job of starting its latest incarnation with the vital baseball card statistics: listing coffeeshops with their opening dates, machines, beans, costs, and specialties.

It gets a bit flowery by qualifying things such as “impressions” and “music,” but that matters to many customers too. They also went a little doll house design crazy by building their ultimate coffee bar in this related article: Raising the bar: Toronto’s ultimate café – thestar.com.

“No, no, no. Alright? No coffee places with names involving metaphors, jokes, or any wordplay whatsoever. No ‘Sufficient Grounds’. No ‘Sacred Grounds’. No ‘Espresso Yourself’.
– Officer John Cooper, Southland (TV), “Identity” (Season 4, Episode 4)

The 10 Types of Commenters on Coffee Articles

Posted by on 02 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting, Starbucks

Over the years we’ve read a lot of coffee articles. And ever since feedback forms became commonplace on the Internet, we’ve also read a lot of user comments on these posts. At least enough for us to identify 10 common archetypes among coffee article commenters on the Internet — analogous to the ever-popular coffee shop customer archetypes.

Commenters on coffee articles often fall into distinct cliques — many of them rather nonsensical. Just look at Erin Meister’s Serious Eats post last week on the cost of coffee. Not surprisingly, former U.S. barista champ, Kyle Glanville, described it simply as “great post, silly comments

So here’s to creating a lexicon so we can all say next time, “Stop being such a #6.”

1. The Starbucks Fire Marshall

Tastes like... burning!Like a mutant cross between Tourette Syndrome and a drinking game, these commenters cannot help themselves whenever someone posts something that includes “the S word.” No matter what context or circumstances for the article, we get their reflexive reply: “Starbucks tastes burnt!”

Doesn’t matter if it’s a Wall Street Journal article discussing their quarterly earnings or the latest police blotter reporting on yet another vehicle unable to resist the siren song of a Starbucks’ storefront window. This comment is also frequently offered with an air of implied revelation — akin to Charlton Heston’s infamous, “Soylent green is people!” (Sorry if we ruined that for you.)

2. The Daily Coffee Affirmation with Senator Stuart Smalley

It’s hard to believe that a someone’s self-worth could be called into question by something as trivial as another person’s choice of beverage, but these commenters face this very existential quandary. For them, coffee is still a raw, generic commodity — like kerosene. Hence 1950s truck stop coffee was good enough for grandpa and it’s good enough for us. Anyone who suggests or believes otherwise is part of a social conspiracy.

This conspiracy takes on two dimensions. The first involves separating fools from their money. Yet this is insufficient to explain why these commenters so viscerally exclaim that anybody who pays more than $1 for a cup of coffee is a moron. If it were merely this, any half-lucid person would keep their mouths shut in order to keep fleecing those fools all the way to early retirement.

Senator Smalley approves of your coffee choicesWhich leads us to the second dimension of the conspiracy: these commenters are also reacting to a perceived sense of class warfare. One man’s threat is another man’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

Rather than admit that “fancy coffee” isn’t their thing and they don’t really get it — the way that some of us don’t get kombucha or Russell Brand — projecting this social unease on those “idiots” paying for expensive coffee is a means of self-affirmation. “Because I’m good enough.. I’m smart enough.. and, doggone it, people like me!”

3. Coffee Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Speaking of conspiracies, this commenter archetype believes that the entire apparatus of the coffee industry was deliberately constructed by The Man as a means of enslaving and impoverishing coffee farmers. The actual concept that someone might actually consume and enjoy the end product is irrelevant.

Which explains Fair Trade, a sacred cow among these commenters. Like the TV trope, “think of the children!,” comments from this group focus almost exclusively on “think of the coffee farmer!” What they imply is that every person who touches coffee after it leaves the farm, including the various truck drivers and dockworkers working for pittance wages in coffee-growing nations, are blood-sucking parasites profiting off the backs of noble coffee farmers.

4. The Junkie

This commenter archetype views coffee exclusively as a performance-enhancing drug. When they encounter articles suggesting that there’s good or bad coffee, or that coffee might actually have a taste or flavor, you may as well ask your grandfather what’s his favorite crunkcore band; it’s just as alien.

Appealing to the malt liquor drinkers of the coffee worldWhen they’re drinking the coffee, these commenters could not care less if their coffee tastes like battery acid, and the idea of decaffeinated coffee seems utterly pointless. They are typically attracted to the malt liquor of the coffee world: coffees branded with wake-the-dead, crystal-meth-like psychoactive properties and the sinister names to match.

And if somebody else reports to drink coffee for its flavor, these commenters discount them as merely drug addicts in denial — kind of like the guy who says he buys Shaved Asian Beaver magazine only for the articles.

5. The Born-Again Junkie

Privileged white people haven’t had it easy. In today’s society of competitive victimhood and I’ve-suffered-more-than-you one-upmanship, some are lucky enough to experience the trauma of not getting into Harvard. Others aren’t so fortunate and have to resort to makeshift, bogus afflictions like “caffeine addition.”

Which brings us to the archetype of the recovered caffeine addict. These born-again commenters proselytize a lifestyle free of caffeine: “I once was a caffeine addict, but my life is so much better since I gave up coffee for yerba maté!” Like all lifestyle preachers, it’s not enough that they live with their own life choices — they must convince you to choose them too.

The dirty secret of this archetype is that, rather than face their demons, they are only hiding from the real problem in their lives — namely, their lack of self-control and inability to moderate themselves. Which makes them kind of like the gay man who joins the Catholic priesthood to “cure” himself of his homosexuality. (And we all know how well that works out.)

6. Reverend Home Roaster

Rev. Billy discovers the Gene Cafe coffee roasterHome roasting has been around for over a millennium. Its latest generation, with more modern prosumer equipment, probably peaked about a decade ago. But it is a brand new phenomenon for many. Often those who have discovered home roasting in the past year seem particularly afflicted with a brand of religious zealotry when posting comments on coffee articles.

Whether the article is about the cost of coffee, a Cup of Excellence competition, or even the pour-over brewing device of the month, the comment box is an irresistible platform (read: soapbox) to preach a sort of home roasting gospel. “It’s better than you can buy!” “It’s cheaper to do it yourself!” “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it!” One popular sermon is the Legend of the $5 Hot Air Popcorn Popper: “I have seen the promised land, and it is a West Bend Poppery II!”

You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t start selling off all our worldly possessions in anticipation of the home roasting Rapture. Yes, we like home roasting. It’s kind of a fun hobby from time to time. And yes, we understand that, by golly, you really like this new home roasting thing. We also like Benecio del Toro, but we don’t use the comment thread on a Cup of Excellence article to proselytize his merits as an actor and movie producer. The key to sales is relevancy — that goes whether you’re selling mortgage-backed securities or a home roasting lifestyle.

7. The MacGruber

Somewhere coffee comes out of the end of this contraptionThe MacGruber represents another kind of commenter with a DIY fetish — except that this archetype sees the DIY ethos as a form of social currency. Less idealistic and more self-interested than Rev. Home Roaster, the MacGruber comments on coffee articles to boast of their exploits building traveling espresso machines out of bike parts or attaching PID controllers to portafilter handles. In this regard, they’re a bit like those guys with gold chains and silk shirts who boast of their sexual conquests in laser-filled nightclubs. The difference being that most rational people would be socially embarrassed if confused for a MacGruber.

Given the choice between spending $35,000 on a new BMW or on a used Honda Civic and tricking it out with accessories over the next four years, the MacGruber will invariably choose the Civic. This might lead others to believe there’s something fatally flawed with the Civic. But this archetype also has an obsession with reinventing the wheel. We fondly recall one MacGruber who wrote up an elaborate post on how he converted his Vacu Vin wine-stopper into a coffee preservation system — blissfully ignorant that Vacu Vin has been making “coffee saver” systems for years that are available for $10 on Amazon.com.

8. The Dumpster® Diver

Coffee sale!!!Like The MacGruber, posts from this commenter archetype are about establishing social currency. Except here the currency is scoring a kilo of Colombian for the ridiculously low price of $1.99 a pound at Sam’s Club. As if to jab a hot fork in the eyes of Fair Trade advocates, this archetype boasts about their competitive place in the race to zero-cost, zero-conscience, quality-free coffee.

When this archetype isn’t posting about how much they’ve saved on coffee, they’re frequently long on ideas for using spent coffee grounds to Spackle® bathroom tiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid their frequent posts about how they bought their new car with the Dumpsters® full of cash they saved by making coffee at home instead of going to Starbucks.

9. The No Coffee Left Behind Act

Whether you’ve tried the coffee at three hundred different places or just three, most people have their favorite coffee. A large number of comments on coffee articles consist of personal endorsements of the coffee from a specific roaster, coffee shop, or home brewing contraption. As an anonymous poster put it on Boing Boing this week:

Every comment thread about coffee contains: (1) someone mentioning how great their home roasted coffee is; (2) a plug for a cafe not mentioned in the article.

Maybe we could just assume the existence of these kinds of comments from now on, with no need to actually post them?

But if we all assumed that, what would there be left to talk about? Hence this archetype of commenters who actively police various online media sources, ensuring their favorite coffee sources don’t suffer the egregious injustice of being omitted from a coffee article.

Some may take the additional step of attempting to elevate their pet coffee by dissing on the various coffee sources mentioned in the article. For example, this archetype frequently engages in slagging on quoted coffee shops for their pretentiousness, for the hipsters who work there, and over the fact that the owners cover their electrical outlets. Basically: all of the ridiculous stuff that’s the irreverent lifeblood of Yelp ratings.

10. The Jaded, Crotchety Blogger

This archetype believes they have seen it/done it long before you even heard of it/thought about it. And despite their whiny complaints of coffee articles that dredge up old topics hashed out thousands of times before over the years, they still cannot look away and feel compelled to respond — like gawkers at a gruesome car accident.

Yes, we’re making fun of ourselves this time. Because if it sounds like we’ve seen it all before, quite sadly we literally have seen it all before. Do you realize what kind of petty life you must lead to have read every coffee article ever written on the Internet? How about so pathetic, you come up with a list of 10 types of commenters on coffee articles.

Australia rates home espresso machines as the most unreliable appliances

Posted by on 05 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Home espresso machines have been rated the most unreliable consumer appliance in a survey by Australia’s Choice: Brewing a great big cuppa strife | Herald Sun. Choice is akin to America’s Consumer Reports magazine — just without the bitter socialists at the Consumers Union behind it.

Over the years, Krups is responsible for more sponsored barista champions and more disgruntled home machine buyers than any other brand.One major contributor is likely the recent opportunistic flood of home appliance manufacturers: makers of toaster ovens and vacuum cleaners who suddenly smelled a cash cow in home espresso machines as Starbucks‘ stock price increased. (Okay, so that last part was way back in the Clinton era.)

Yet Australians aren’t that gullible; they’re some of the world’s most enlightened espresso consumers. But perhaps that very savviness is at the root of Australian’s dissatisfaction with home espresso machines: their standards are simply higher, and there are a lot of landfill-bound appliances on the marketplace that call themselves espresso machines in name only.

Another factor is undoubtedly the inescapable need for machine maintenance and tuning. The concept of regularly cleaning and tuning an appliance makes no sense to a lazy consumer who compares it to televisions, PVRs, and mobile phones.

Undoubtedly very few of us realize that we’re likely in violation of our refrigerator warranties if we do not dust or vaccuum the coils every month. Clearly no one does this. The difference being that a poorly maintained refrigerator still keeps food cool while it consumes more energy until finally blowing a compressor months or years later. A poorly maintained espresso machine makes foul espresso right away.

Why is the coffee industry so indifferent to its customers?

Posted by on 03 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine

Many in the coffee industry speak volumes about wanting to market themselves to the public as the “new wine.” But if we examine the practices the industry has taken on to accomplish any of this, it has failed miserably on nearly all fronts. What becomes all too clear is that the coffee industry either doesn’t want to engage with its customers or awkwardly has no clue how to do it — despite the many hints and clues left by the wine industry it supposedly looks up to.

Let’s examine the closest things the coffee industry offers in terms of public outreach, contrasting them with similar practices in the wine industry.

Death by barista competition

The new season of barista competitions is upon us once again (this is the original inspiration behind this post). Barista championships are widely considered one of the prouder, most marketable achievements of the specialty coffee industry. And yet they exhibit all the hallmarks of a navel-gazing insider event that feigns courting but really disregards the coffee consuming public.

Does this look anything like what café customers can relate to?Whether in person or via online video streams, following a few seasons of them creates its own form of repetitive stress injury. Bear witness to a few consecutive seasons, and it’s little wonder that people in the coffee business for any length of time simply stop attending. And despite a frequently-stated desire for a TV-ready, Top Chef-like equivalent for the coffee industry, these competitions are even more tedious for the coffee consuming public.

The competitions demonstrate a form of precision gymnastics to which no retail coffee consumer can relate. Glowing red timers on the walls; a dog-show-like presentation complete with mic’ed up headset and mood music; a hunched-over team of clipboard carriers who scurry like roaches as they inspect spent pucks and leftover grinds in the hopper. Even the specialty drinks compulsories are completely disconnected from anything resembling coffee in a retail environment. (As we’ve always liked to say, “if it requires a recipe, it’s not coffee.”)

Coffee lovers are sure to swoon over the USBC Brewers CupTo make matters worse — or at least more puzzling to consumers — the USBC has now introduced the concept of the Brewers Cup: to exhalt the art of pouring hot water over coffee grounds. Then throw on more formal recognition of latte art competitions — the industry’s push to elevate coffee not so much as a consumable, but as an art medium not entirely unlike pen & ink wash or watercolors. Huh?

Can the coffee industry produce a public event that isn’t a game show?

If we look over to the wine industry, just how many of their public events are modeled after reality TV game shows? A competitive sommelier beat-down, perhaps? Painting with wine contests? PBS surprisingly opted to renew The Winemakers for a second season, but microscopically few wine fans have ever heard of it.

The SF International Wine Competition: maybe engaging with consumers isn't such a horrible idea after allThere are competitive events such as the SF International Wine Competition, but they actively engage public participation, offer public education, and generally prevent these events from becoming industry navel-gazing or a mere spectator sport. However, the wine industry frequently engages with consumers through targeted consumer appreciation events as varied as the Rhone Rangers or the Family Winemakers of California or even cultural attaché marketing arms such as local chapters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.

And coffee has… well… the SCAA conference. The conference made recent overtures to invite the culinary world to their events. But that’s still just business-to-business marketing that completely ignores consumers. With coffee, it’s as if the trade is all that matters. This is also reflected in the industry’s most popular publications — i.e., magazines such as Roast, Fresh Cup, Barista, etc.

Yet when you compare the number of coffee consumers to wine consumers, and the frequency that each consumes their respective products, doesn’t this suggest gaping holes in the coffee industry’s consumer outreach strategy?

Making consumers bend to the industry vs. the other way around

How could any coffee consumer resist this?Even when the coffee industry makes a direct attempt to engage consumers, it can blow up on the launchpad. When it tried to court consumers with the concept of comparative coffee tastings, it instead opted for the industry trade practice of cupping — with all its obscene slurps, crust making-and-breaking, and spinning a lot of defect detection as if it were a social event (meat inspection, anyone?). As such, coffee cupping resembles nothing like the experiences that made your average coffee consumer a fan of the stuff to begin with.

The idea of using coffee “disloyalty cards” to introduce consumers to new coffee houses is a more clever consumer outreach program that has caught on in a number of cities. But none of these programs have had much impact beyond a small audience enthralled with their initial novelty and a few local press releases.

And if you look at the way quality coffee is marketed in the press today to consumers, it’s as if the industry is hell-bent on a mission to prevent good coffee from being consumer-friendly and approachable. If you purchase a retail coffee beverage in a shop, consumers are barraged with price-tag hype and the programmed obsolescence of the latest espresso machine. Consumers brewing at home are bewildered by the pour-over arms race.

Wine may have more than its fair share of gadget hawkers — e.g., the next Rube Goldberg-esque cork pull or aerator gadget. However, wine consumers aren’t inundated by a monthly one-upsmanship competition telling them that how they appreciated wine last month is now wrong, outdated, and no longer expensive enough. We cannot say that about quality coffee, whose public marketing strategy has more in common with 4G smartphones than with wine.

What we’d like to see as coffee consumers

No, really -- just imagine itAs much as the coffee industry has promoted the idea, we’ve always felt comparing itself to the wine industry was generally a bad idea. Even so, there are simple things the coffee industry could be doing that might include consumers in their success — rather than putting up barriers, refusing to accommodate consumers, and yet still hoping they still find a way to engage themselves to keep their industry afloat.

Given the belief in coffee terroir, why not demonstrate and educate consumers on it? For example, we’d love to see a coffee-growing-nation-sponsored, consumer-focused event that explores the various roaster expressions of the latest crops from, say, Guatemala. Or if not a tasting event based on regions, how about growing seasons? The Cup of Excellence program has elements that can be applied here. However, it is modeled as purely a trade event and many coffee growing nations aren’t even represented.

Come on, guys. We love your stuff. Why do you have to make it so ridiculously hard to participate, let alone enjoy it?

Trip Report: Contraband Coffee Bar

Posted by on 06 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

This neighborhood coffee bar had been unusually hyped in the local presses, and on Facebook, for more than six months before it opened. This in a town where online foodie blogs make daily fodder of vacant, stripped-to-the-studs restaurant and café spaces with indefinite opening dates slated sometime before the next presidential administration.

We can attribute some of the hype to Contraband taking over the same spot as the former John Barleycorn bar, a local bar that developed a Nob Hill neighborhood love affair before closing in 2007. Contraband already had several 5-star Yelp reviews well before its opening on Christmas Eve 2010. (Underscoring one of the reasons why Yelp’s ratings are, well, stoopid.) But it’s hard to blame the locals when there aren’t a lot of great coffee bars nearby — even if co-owner Josh Magnani looks to Oakland for his coffee bar’s off-site roasting operations.

Entrance to Contraband Coffee Bar Contraband Coffee Bar's interior

They have a couple of sidewalk tables in front. Inside there’s a short counter lining the front window for stool seating, two seats at the coffee serving bar, and a few inside chairs centered around a long, tall table with flowers growing out of its center. They offer 3-4 different coffees for Hario V60 pour-over (Ethiopia, Guatemala, etc.) plus two kinds of espresso from their two-group Synesso Hydra machine.

They have a Compak grinder for their regular espresso blend (rated in our linked review below), which uses a Costa Rican base among some 5-6 other varietals. It comes with a good thickness of heady medium brown crema and is served in a shotglass to show it off. It is lighter bodied for an espresso and has a molasses-like sweetness (very much in the North American style).

Contraband's Compak and Versalab grinders and Synesso Hydra The Contraband Coffee espresso

Their Organic Kintimani Bali ($3) is more of their single-origin espresso treat — and a favorite of Mr. Magnani. They grind it with a separate Versalab M3 grinder, with its alternating dosing hoppers, and pull shots with a ridiculously bountiful crema. The resulting cup is practically effervescent, like a prosecco, and its lightness and subtle brightness spins the dark, heavy-bodied stereotype of Indonesian coffees on its head. They have access to a few hundred pounds of the stuff, so it’s bound to be in supply for a while.

In all, Contraband is a great local coffee bar — even if it doesn’t quite rank among the city’s elite.

Read the review of Contraband Coffee Bar.

Contraband Coffee's Organic Bali Kintimani data sheet Contraband Coffee's single-origin Bali espresso

While you were staring at that Coava Kone in a box, you missed the Versalab M3

Contraband’s Versalab M3 is worth a passing mention. Much of the local press has zeroed in on Contraband’s use of a Coava Kone. Now we love what the Coava guys are doing. They may yet even displace the Hario V60 this year for all we know. Be we still don’t quite get the industry hype over the Kone.

Contraband Coffee's unusual Versalab M3 grinderSure, it’s clever in that it sort of takes a Finite Element Analysis approach to emulating a paper filter out of stainless steel. But that makes it a second-rate imitation of a paper filter. In our experimentation, and we’re not alone, the Kone hasn’t improved the taste of Chemex-brewed coffee. In fact, the one of the better complements we’ve heard about it was, “It’s almost as good as with a paper filter.” Not that less waste doesn’t have its merits and virtues, but the Michelin guides don’t hand out extra rating stars if a restaurant uses a more water-efficient dishwashing machine.

Yet the local press fails to make any mention of the Versalab M3 here. At least we should expect articles with naïve headlines like, “The $1,700 grinder!” The M3 may not be the greatest grinder on the market — or just maybe it could be. You have to give it serious points for grind consistency. In any case, it is quite a novelty — made by a Florida-based geek who makes only speakers, turntables and coffee grinders. And it’s about time grinders got their due over espresso machines and the pour-over method du jour.

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