Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
Things 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.
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.
They 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
While 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.
Curiously 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.
We’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…
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.
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.
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.
Besides 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”.
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.
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?
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”:
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.)
Lastly, 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…
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’ 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.”
There’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So 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.”
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.
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 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.