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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.

Trip Report: Cotogna

Posted by on 05 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Barista, Local Brew, Machine, Restaurant Coffee

This more informal, osteria sister to the Quince restaurant next door (its name is Italian for “quince”) offers a mighty fine, albeit still somewhat pricey, Italian meal. (The old Quince relocated to Pacific Ave. here about a year ago.)

The space showcases many wide glass windows, exposed woods (everything seems brown in here), and a wood-fired oven (with spare wood surrounding the entrance). It attracts an older, old money Jackson Square set. But to remind you of their more modest aspirations, they offer dishtowels for napkins and an unusual wine menu where everything is priced at $40/bottle.

Glassy entrance to Cotogna Inside Cotogna

This is a very rare restaurant where the great attention to their very good food is matched by the attention they give to their very good coffee service. They’ve always been somewhat up on their coffee; when in their old Quince location, they used Barefoot Coffee when virtually no one else was in San Francisco. Back then Quince fell apart at the barista end, but not here.

They use a two-group Synesso — one of the few you’ll ever find in restaurant service — behind a zinc bar. Cleverly, they also employ a doserless Mazzer grinder, enforcing good practices among their staff to ensure that everything is ground to order. But it’s not like they would have to, as this restaurant seems to dedicate an employee to barista duties. In fact, they seem to do this more than just about any other restaurant we’ve ever visited anywhere.

Barista behind Cotogna's zinc bar operating a two-group Synesso and a doserless grinder The Cotogna espresso

Using coffee from Roast Coffee Co. in Emeryville, they pull shots with a richly colored, mottled, medium and lighter brown crema with irregular suspended bubbles. It’s served a little high, but not overly so for a doppio. It has a good, solid mouthfeel, with a roundness to its flavor — which is more focused in the pepper and cloves area.

At $4, it’s seriously expensive. But we like to reward good restaurant espresso service too, and there’s a lot of good practices going on here. This is one of the few American places we’ve been to where the coffee doesn’t give away that you’re having it in a restaurant.

Read the review of Cotogna.

Clover has got your Hario V60 right here, pal

Posted by on 01 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

In what’s starting to look like a Spy-vs-Spy-like dance between a Starbucks acquisition and the unStarbucks set, Starbucks’ Clover Equipment Company’s latest move is the Precision Pour Over: Clover Pour Over « Why Not? Coffee. (Courtesy of Seattle’s Why Not? Coffee.)

Why Not? Coffee shows us a prototype of the Clover Precision Pour Over at Roy Street Coffee and TeaAs we left off in our story, the once-independent Clover Equipment Company made waves with its brewer back in 2007. With its splashy introduction on the market, half lead by its fictitious price tag, lot of people bored with the espresso routine saw brewed coffee as fertile new ground for coffee exploration. But then Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz discovered it, got his hands on it in 2008, and said he was taking all the toys for himself and didn’t want to share.

Many independent cafés were suddenly locked out of the device, and others still thumbed their nose at the machine’s “sell-out” to Starbucks. In retaliation, many independent cafés replaced thoughts of the Clover brewer with an obsession over Hario V-60s drippers — essentially exhuming the 1908 invention of the Melitta coffee filter with a little spit shine.

Clover vs. unStarbucks cafés: a new Cold War?Clover’s latest move is a prototype that co-opts the Hario V60 in a new design that stay’s true to Clover’s hands-off, mass-production mission. Between that and even Williams-Sonoma now carrying the Hario drippers (a jump the shark moment?), we can only wait and see how the unStarbucks set will counter.

Any way it goes, there’s still no end in sight for the filter drip faux arms race — with coffee consumers caught in the crossfire.

What a difference four months makes: Cape Town, South Africa redux

Posted by on 11 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Call it coffee’s version of Hubble’s Law: the rate at which a local coffee scene evolves is inversely proportional to its maturity. What?!? Let us explain. Seattle and San Francisco are examples of well-established coffee cultures, and the rate of evolution and improvement we see in the coffee there tends to nudge along at a rather lumbering pace. Contrast this with what we’ve found on our recent return to Cape Town, South Africa. The local coffee culture there today is noticeably different from our last visit in July.

Cape Town may be much further along than, say, Dallas, Texas — where earlier last week we learned that a single new espresso machine in town is all that’s required to “earn us a little gold star on the national coffee map.” Cape Town boasts generally high espresso standards overall, plus a few exceptional cases such as Origin, TRUTH., and Espresso Lab Microroasters. But changes at just those three were significant enough.

Origin Coffee Roasters

The summer fog creeping over Table Mountain from the Origin entrance on Hudson St. The Origin cappuccino - I was looking forward to this much of the flight here

So what has changed? Over at Origin, they’ve reworked their retail model so that customers can now opt for any variety of their roasted coffee, rotated every two weeks, in any of four (five?) ways. This is not unlike SF’s recently opened Ma’velous.

They offer any of their coffees as plunger (i.e., French press, at R17, or about $2.50), Turkish (R17), pour-over (using a Hario V60, at R20), and siphon (also Hario, at R22). Additionally there’s the espresso option (now R16, up from R14 a few months ago) — which can also accommodate any coffee as a single-origin or blend option through the use of their new doserless Compak grinders. Cup of Excellence coffees are additionally available for a R10 surcharge.

Origin's Synesso and Compak grinder in the downstairs service area Origin's new coffee menu

Origin’s upstairs “dining” area is being reworked with a new La Marzocco GB/5 placed at a new espresso bar that’s front-and-center, and downstairs they replaced their Linea with a three-group Synesso (Origin being South Africa’s Synesso distributor).

Origin is also emphasizing their recent triumphs at Cape Town’s 2011 regional barista championships, where Joanne Berry, Origin’s barista trainer, won for the second year running. It inspired Origin to offer the signature drinks of their competing baristas on the menu for R25 — save for the spun sugar cups made for Ms. Berry’s drink at the competition. Although we’ve always questioned the relevancy of the specialty drink category of barista competitions, Origin has at least created a retail outlet to make it more relevant.

Oh, and the Kenya Makwa AA 2010 here, made of a typical SL28 & K7 Kenyan cultivar mutation, was excellent.

Origin promotes their specialty drinks from the recent Cape Town barista competition More Origin specialty drinks

The TRUTH. about espresso crema

David Donde is quite a local force of personality. He founded Cape Town’s TRUTH.coffeecult and co-founded Origin (TRUTH. being part of the stereotypical local coffee scene “divorce,” a la Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel) and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. This when he’s not doing a local radio program on sports cars.

We had missed connecting with David a number of times on our last visit, so we lucked out finding him having breakfast when visiting TRUTH.’s main location. David always has several different ideas going on in the fire — not all of them coffee related. But in our discussions about coffee, he was clearly obsessing over flavor. For one, he’s adamant about getting the “roast flavor out of coffee” and having it rely more on acidity and body. He also expanded on some of the assumption-busting experimentation he’s thought about since meeting James Hoffman in London to play with coffee — akin to how some musicians cross paths and hold a private jam session. (In David’s words, he “spent day with James tasting bad coffee and trying to fix it”.)

TRUTH.coffeecult TRUTH.coffeecult's Probat inside

One big topic was the whole “crema is bad for coffee” debate that originated from the Coffee Collective guys in Copenhagen a couple years ago. Mr. Hoffman took a year to succumb to the idea, and just yesterday we had Eater interviewing Chris Young and touching on the subject.

The idea is that crema is a necessary by-product of good espresso extraction. But while we’ve all been indoctrinated that “crema is good,” further inspection suggests that the crema actually makes espresso taste bad. That without crema, or even skimming it off as David demonstrated for me, your espresso is a cleaner, sweeter shot.

We still came to the conclusion that the idea is very subjective. Yes, the crema by itself was bitter, and the crema-less espresso was cleaner and sweeter. Not that we’re big fans of bitter coffee, but we’re much bigger critics of deconstructionism — i.e., the belief that the quality and integrity of the whole is merely an aggregation of the quality of its constituent parts in isolation. But even ignoring that we value deconstructionism as a barely more reputable cousin of homeopathy, the subjectivity of this evaluation is grounds enough to be skeptical: some people are clearly on a mission to make all of our coffee taste like berries, and not everybody thinks this is a good idea … us included.

David Donde skims crema for us at TRUTH.coffeecult TRUTH.coffeecult's manifesto

Experimentation is high these days in coffee, and David is a major advocate. Still, we can’t help but be a little jaded when people start bandying about the science word in relation to all of this, invoking misplaced implications of high technology. Lacking a basic control or null hypothesis, the simple act of measurement is no more science than a three-year-old who crawls the floor looking for things to stick in his mouth. Just because the Taiwanese chain 85℃ puts salt in their coffee, and experimenters learn that salt masks bitterness in coffee, should that honestly make 85℃ eligible for a future Nobel Prize?

Science or no science, experimentation and challenging assumptions still has merit. David also demonstrated how latte art was possible without crema, explained how he came to appreciate the caffè americano only when the espresso + hot water order was switched (a la the Aussie long black), and related that cold portafilter handles (frozen even, in his own test) do prove to make terrible espresso. We also saw very much eye-to-eye on things like the relevance of specialty drinks in barista competitions (what are you really judging?) and the limits of “cause coffee” when quality isn’t your primary goal (Jo’berg’s Bean There being an example).

David prepares an espresso with skimmed crema for producing latte art Latte art achieved with skimmed crema - even if the drink was far too milky as such

Espresso Lab Microroasters

Last but not least is Espresso Lab Microroasters. While still working with their four core sources for beans, they have expanded a bit of their small storage area for greens and even added an additional GB/5 for Saturday market traffic. Apparently their business nearby doubled since our last post, so here’s to supporting good coffee.

Espresso Lab Microroasters added a second La Marzocco GB/5 Espresso Lab Microroaster's espresso shot of El Meridiano, Tolima, Colombia

But talk about a memory — the team remembered what we last sampled from them four months ago. They also follow a coffee buying strategy we’ve long advocated: buying runners up at Cup of Excellence competitions at a major discount to the winner. Should a couple of subjective points in CoE taste test really justify one coffee selling at multiples of its runner up? The Lab’s organic-farmed Serra do Boné came in second in Brazil’s 2010 CoE competition, and we missed nothing but a much higher price for a stellar, balanced coffee with a sweetness of fruit and honey.

Last week the Lab recently added an Xmas blend (35% Karimikui Kenya, 35% Adado Ethiopia, 30% Mocha Harazi Yemen) as a “dessert” coffee: it has a noticeable lack of body, by design, but with a brightness and lightness for finishing off a big holiday meal. Still, with the great number of South Africans who prefer the moka pot for home use (despite being able to buy every variant of Aeropress, Hario V60 dripper, etc., while here), we like the fact that they optimize some of their roasts for the underappreciated Moka pot.

And on the “is crema bad for espresso” controversy, btw, co-owner Renato thinks crema is integral but sets the stage wrong as the first taste on a consumer’s palate.

Espresso Lab's 2010 CoE Brazil runner-up: Serra do Boné Renato at Espresso Lab Microroasters readying another batch

We can only manage what we might find in Cape Town again next year.

The Secret History Of: Moka Express coffee maker

Posted by on 03 Dec 2010 | Filed under: Machine

Today’s Independent (UK) published a curious article on the history of the Moka Express pot: The Secret History Of: Moka Express coffee maker – Interiors, House & Home – The Independent.

Makes coffee - and keeps your whites looking brightEarlier this year, we noted how the original manufacturer named after its inventor, Alfonso Bialetti, was moving out of Italy. But this time we learn that the inspiration for its design came from Italian washing machines at the turn of the 20th century. There’s also historical reason for why they are made of aluminum rather than stainless steel.

UPDATE: Sep. 2, 2011
The New York Times gets in on the act: Who Made That Moka Express? – NYTimes.com.

If your coffee ain’t broke, should you fix it?

Posted by on 24 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Thanks to friend of this blog, Shawn Steiman, for pointing out this somewhat amusing article from today’s New York Times: Loving Coffee Without Being a Drip – NYTimes.com. In something of an ode to the Mr. Coffee automatic filter drip machine, the author — Times food critic, Frank Bruni — laments the many overly precious methods of coffee-making he experiences as friends try to raise his coffee game.

'You call that a radar screen? No sir, we call it Mr. Coffee.' -- SpaceballsWe’re still at a loss for how someone could spray themselves in the eye with a Chemex brewer. The physics defies anything we can diagram and anything we have ever received in a college physics exam. (You know the kind: “Person A is driving a car at 55 mph on a surface with a coefficient of friction of 0.78. What color is his tie?”)

But even if you can make the argument that your choice of brewing method should factor in proportionate personal risks of scalding and blindness, far be it from us to dispute that coffee has become too fussy for its own good. Mr. Bruni cites “just how much self-identity and self-definition go into every aspect of ingestion these days.” He’s singing our song.

When does tricking out a Honda Civic imply a defective car?

Personal coffee travel suitcases aside, another telling example comes from a friend of ours who just returned after living a few years in London. He’s no coffee slouch, having used French presses for decades and a manual La Pavoni Europiccola while in London. In asking me about a home espresso machine, we concluded that a standard Rancilio Silvia would be a good fit.

Pimp My Silvia? Or defective espresso machine?What made him hesitate about purchasing one? All the Web pages dedicated to Silvia owners who outfitted their machines with PID controllers. A simple Google search produces 256,000 results. Here the coffee geek ethos of graduating from temperature surfing to PID-fitting created a potential customer who believed something was horribly wrong with the Silvia machine’s temperature control — something so defective that he wondered why it did not go through a necessary and massive product recall.

They say that good is the enemy of great, and that’s certainly true if you’re trying to improve your standards. However, that’s not the same as having an intolerance for good — which ironically, by definition, isn’t always a good thing. We love improved standards. But how enjoyable is a walk in the park when you’re always measuring it against Olympic speed records?

Trip Report: Ma’velous

Posted by on 11 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine

The name is “Ma’velous”. We’re not sure if this is a New Yorker thing — like when Monday Night Football legend, Al Michaels, tries to pronounce the ‘h’ in the word “huge.” But the owner, Phillip Ma, is a self-fashioned coffee geek with apparently enough money for high-end coffeemaking toys but no real prior training in a formal retail coffee environment.

Is this a liability? Definitely in the beginning, but it’s hard to say in the long run, as Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman got his start as a coffee hobbyist. Even the legendary Alice Waters started her influential empire of local, organic California cuisine with no formal culinary schooling nor restaurant management training.

Entrance to Ma'velous on Market St. Setting up inside Ma'velous

Located in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood — just one block from SF’s amputee panhandler Mecca along the base of South Van Ness Avenue — this spot is part night club, part wine bar, part coffee lounge. Among the many unusual things about this place is that it is a night-time coffee lounge.

Yours truly may recall fond memories of late-night, up-and-coming jazz acts at the long-since-defunct (and increasingly legendary) Ajax Lounge in San Jose, where I would down a couple of sub-par double espresso shots after midnight and still sleep soundly by 2am. But for most people, the caffeine jolt of the ideal coffee experience is decidedly a morning thing.

Coffee six ways?

Coffee six ways? That’s what they offer between an espresso machine, Hario V60 pour-overs, Chemex, French Press, a Japanese siphon bar, and a Kyoto slow-drip coffee maker. “This will allow aficionados to taste the full complexity of each coffee, its natural sweet, fruity, acidic or buttery finish without cream or sugar. No bitterness here,” claims their Web site.

As for the coffees themselves, they offer everything from Intelligentsia‘s Black Cat, Intelligentsia’s Bay Area acquisition of Ecco Caffè (their Kenya, Ethiopia, Honduras, Guatemala El Tambor, and El Salvador roasts, to name a few), and coffee from Tim Wendelboe. Which makes the opening of this café rather exciting for us: even if they have only three different grinders, this is the first notable espresso bar in San Francisco to offer coffees from multiple roasters since the untimely death of Café Organica in 2006.

Mural inside Ma'velous A shelf of coffee options for three grinders inside Ma'velous

As for the espresso machine, they spared no expense… calling it the “Musashi 4“, it’s a one-of-a-kind four-group La Marzocco customized by Olympia, WA’s Espresso Parts. (We love their tampers, btw.)

Yes, they spared no expense here — down to the Dyson hand dryers for the staff behind the counter. The interior is dark with artistic murals, a few red leather booths, painted black wood walls, a high ceiling, red acrylic chairs, and a short bar seating area at the front entrance. They have a wine list and a cheese list in addition to their “caffeine list,” and the table service even pours water out of a Chemex.

Opening night jitters

After a few dry runs on private media openings in the past couple of weeks, last night (Thursday) was their informal public opening night. So service was bound to be sketchy, and it most certainly was: six people squirming behind the tiny counter, customers trying to squirm past the narrow pathway by the front of the counter, limp-wristed espresso tamps, slow-moving lines, and a pre-infusion-controlled espresso machine that required a bit of time to calibrate and was only yet dialed-in for a handful of their available coffees.

Local street artist, Eddie Colla, whose mural decorates the wall and the staff T-shirts, was present for the opening event, adding to the mob scene. But even for all the confusion and early kinks, there’s a lot here worth checking out.

La Marzocco machine inside Ma'velous Transparent glass side panel of Ma'velous' La Marzocco Musashi 4

For the most part, the Intelligentsia Black Cat is their default espresso (rated in the linked review at bottom). But as with these pressure-controlled espresso machines, don’t think that there’s only one flavor profile per coffee. Our first shot of the Black Cat was set at a 199-degree brewing temperature with four pounds bar of pre-infusion pressure. The resulting shot was an even, lighter, medium-brown-colored crema with a nose that was slightly tarry.

The flavor was primarily sweet tobacco, with some edges across the flavor profile to remind you that this was a blend and not a single origin shot. Still, it is a far cry from the Black Cat shots we’re used to at Chicago’s Intelligentsia — with it’s textured, darker crema that practically leaves a blackened ring around the cup and a pungency-heavy flavor to match.

But as if to prove a point, Phillip offered me a follow-up shot of Black Cat made at a different profile: a 200.5-degree brewing temperature with six pounds bar of pre-infusion pressure. This shot was a bit closer to the Black Cat “at origin” we’re used to: a much headier crema, more caramel flavors, and a more traditional, more rounded flavor and a slightly darker crema.

Their machine was also tuned for the Ecco Caffè Guatemala El Tambor single origin shot, which came with a mellow aroma, a lighter crema, and served sweet and bright with just a touch of sourness — very much in the tropical fruit vein. We originally thought they managed to manipulate a shot of Black Cat to taste like a Central American single origin shot until we discovered it actually was a Central American single origin shot. (Whew.) Served in classic brown ACF cups.

Ecco Caffè El Tambor single origin shot at Ma'velous Ma'velous' Intelligentsia Black Cat shot served at a sweet tobacco setting (199-degree brewing/4-lb pre-infusion pressure)

One of the more notable SF coffee bar openings in years

It’s hard, and unfair, to judge a place entirely on its opening day to the public. There’s a bit of tuning that’s still needed in the espresso shots, and there’s currently a high emphasis on tuning for brighter shots with coffees that sometimes perform better with greater fidelity at less acidic flavor profiles.

Sure, the place is overly enamored with coffee’s gadgetry du jour. But just the ability to sample some Black Cat — forget even at different extractions, or even the yet-to-be-readied Wendelboe coffee or the five other brewing methods available — makes this worth a return visit if for no other reason. Then add that it’s the rare coffee bar offering beans from multiple sources, the novelty of a coffee nightclub, and a decent opportunity to compare pressure profiling on the same coffees — even if it isn’t necessarily making better shots.

Read the review of Ma’velous.

Saving today’s tech-obsessed coffee from itself

Posted by on 06 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

Lately we’ve been thinking about quality coffee’s current obsession with all-things-technology. While there’s arguably more science than art to making good coffee, the current climate seems to have pushed any art aside. It reminds us of civilization at the turn of the 20th century, when society held a common belief that technology was going to solve all our problems. Right before the mechanized killing of World War I, the Industrial Revolution giving way to the Great Depression, and the invention of the atomic bomb.

Coffeemaking for the information ageSo today we witness a lot of obsession over incessant measurement — sometimes merely in the pursuit of more measurement, and even to the level of confusing the act of measurement for actual science. This technological obsession also manifests itself by a holy-grail-like belief in the new espresso machine that will revolutionize coffee. All of which creates a lot of interest in coffee but has rarely created better coffee — or at least better coffee experiences.

As a result, quality coffee feels a bit soulless and sterile these days. This sterility has even gone mainstream in a mass-produced way, at least at the general consumer end, most notably in the form of espresso pods, single-serving coffee devices, and superautomatic espresso machines. Hence this reactionary article in last week’s New York Times: In Defense of Old-Fashioned Espresso – NYTimes.com.

Can good coffee be saved from itself?

How might we overcome this clinical obsession and save the soul of good coffee? A few months ago, Ben over at Chemically Imbalanced proposed a very thought-provoking (and discussion-provoking) idea of Le Coffeeing — a sort of coffee variant on France’s recent and reactionary Le Fooding culinary movement. Le Fooding may be a weak analog for what coffee needs, but the inspiration behind Le Coffeeing carries a lot of merit.

We’ve recently been thinking about the potentially constructive parallels between the wine and coffee industries (at least where they make sense), and today’s coffee vanguard has a lot more in common with Napa winemakers than they do with the stodgy-but-vaunted restaurant establishment of France. This is why we caught a glimpse of potential quality coffee salvation in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article on Napa Valley Wine’s Retro Dudes | Jay McInerney on Wine – WSJ.com.

We love James Freeman's siphon bar, but does good coffee have to be such an amusement park?The Retro Dudes of Napa are more than familiar with Napa’s cathedrals to perfectly manipulated premium wines — for example, high-performance Cabernets that smack you in the face like a plumber’s wrench made of fruit and oak. What makes the The Retro Dudes interesting is their “passion for quirky, individualistic, artisanal wines” — pursuing neglected wine varietals, blending their wines in Old World ways, keeping the skins on their grapes for natural fermentation rather than the modern technology of controlled yeast additions, and generally “rejecting some of the technological winemaking of the modern era in search of wine authenticity (and presumably, drinkability)”.

Today coffee lovers are bombarded with hype about the pressure profiling technology of new $18,000 espresso machines, $20,000 Japanese siphon bars, $11,000 superautomatic Clover brewers (i.e., until Starbucks purchase of the company made them uncool), disproportionate fawning over $100-per-pound Cup of Excellence microlot winners that devalues all runners-up, and $400+ gadgets providing digital readouts of your total dissolved solids and extraction yields that risk making statistical gymnastics the ends rather than the means to better coffee. The pursuit of the mythical perfect coffee may be giving us more to learn and experience, but it’s also sapping the soul and even the enjoyment out of the beverage.

Here’s to hoping that a generation of Coffee Retro Dudes can come to the rescue before its too late.

Ultimate travel coffee setup or cry for help? You decide.

Posted by on 30 Sep 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

It wasn’t long ago that the word obsession conjured up much more negative connotations in society. Today obsession is practically treated like a virtue — something to aspire to — and it can apply to something as neurotically trivial as the cup of coffee you drink when you are traveling.

A cry for help: when you cannot have coffee out of the house without bringing a suitcaseCase and point with an article posted today on Boing Boing: My quest for the ultimate travel coffee setup – Boing Boing. And you can overlook Boing Boing’s nerd factor; it’s not like they’re the only ones covering obsessive travel coffee setups. (This also published today: How to Have Good Coffee While Traveling | Serious Eats.)

So when does obsession go from a cute hobby to seek out the “perfect” coffee to a Sisyphean road to Lithium treatment? One unhealthy sign is when you’re carrying a suitcase dedicated to your home coffee.

Good coffee can even be found in the middle of nowhere

A big reason why we’ve been quiet around here of late is that we recently spent a few weeks traveling in the remote Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. In particular, we spent the bulk of our time on the sleepy island of São Jorge — where, on an island about twice the size of San Francisco, there are less than 10,000 residents, more than twice as many cows, and Internet access barely exists beyond its tiny airport.

Friends planning to visit us while we were there asked, “Should we bring coffee?” Even in the middle of nowhere, this is still Portugal. And the typical coffee was better than anything you can typically get in the U.S. (Expect a coffee-related article on the Azores in the near future.)

Yes, decent coffee can even be found in São Jorge's remote Fajã dos Cubres and Fajã da Caldeira de Santo CristoThis recent example illustrates what’s lost when people insist on taking their lives with them everywhere. What happened to the joy of discovery in travel? Why go to places like the Azores to ensure that you have your daily supply of Chipotle burritos and Intelligentsia coffee? Why demand the same exact dining experiences you can get back home in your suburban backyard? Call it the “When in Rome, why seek out an Olive Garden?” rule.

Yes, a lot of coffee in the American backwoods, and the rest of the world, is terrible. But with a little research with this thing called the Internet, you can actually learn something new in the process. I may have stumbled on some of the most foul and unrecognizable coffee in the world when I was traveling outside of Prague’s Vyšehrad back in 1995 — it was like large-grit sawdust suspended in boiling water. But the fact is I can still remember that experience. Fondly even (albeit comically). That’s more than I can say for the hundreds of Intelligentsia shots I’ve had over the years.

But set aside any xenophobia diagnoses for a moment. Obsession over coffee travel setups also raises the question of whether these people actually like coffee to begin with. For example, we could argue that the author of the Boing Boing article doesn’t really like coffee. Because when the only coffee you can tolerate is a very specific kind made a very specific way, reduced to an obsessed miniature slice of the wide spectrum of experiences that coffee has to offer, it’s only that tiny bit that you actually enjoy. And that’s not coffee — that’s some other craving you’re feeding.

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