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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.

The 2010 Grinder Smackdown: Coffee Gets Combative

Posted by on 03 Sep 2010 | Filed under: Machine, Quality Issues

Because public coffee knowledge is in such a state of transition these days, reading mass media articles about coffee can be a little like being in a parent support group. Sometimes you’re new to a subject area, and you might find commiseration among other people going through the same new learning experiences. At other times you might already be familiar with a topic, and it’s a bit like having a two-year-old and hearing your friends gush over the experience of being the first-time parent of a newborn. (Throw in a little patronizing bit of, “Oh, how cute…”)

The aftermath of a lot of coffee tasting when testing grinders...Now whether you’re the parent of a newborn or of a teenager with a driver’s license, we’ve often liked the no-nonsense, fad-skeptical coffee articles published by the Seattle Weekly. Today’s piece explores the importance of coffee grinders: The 2010 Grinder Smackdown: Coffee Gets Combative – Seattle Restaurants and Dining – Voracious.

Comparing a La Marzocco Swift grinder and a Mahlkönig K30 Vario, the author discovers how much the choice of grinder can influence the quality and properties of the resulting espresso shot. We’ve always emphasized how a solid grinder is often more important than the quality of your espresso machine.

The author also reflects upon the wisdom of, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

Too much of a good thing? Today’s conventional coffee wisdom says “more is more”

Posted by on 11 Aug 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Machine, Quality Issues

Today Tim Wendelboe — World-Barista-Champion-turned-microroaster (and major influencer of the recently reviewed Espresso Lab Microroasters) — posted a rather thorough first-thoughts review of the new La Marzocco Strada on his official blog: Tim Wendelboe » Blog Archive » La Marzocco Strada – first thoughts. Of particular interest are some of his insights about the machine’s sensitivities and peculiarities regarding pressure profiling — the holy-grail-du-jour of cutting-edge espresso machine pushers and the people who fawn over them. To briefly quote him in the post:

“I think one needs to have a clear vision of what the espresso should taste like before one starts playing with profiles.”

Recent coffee industry drooling over pressure profiling is just one of the latest examples illustrating how much the industry currently values experimentation over standards and convention. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with tradeoffs. And conventional wisdom of the quality coffee industry did not always lean this way.

Our home Gaggia lever machine: what was once a sin is now a virtueFor example, I use a manual lever espresso machine at home — and have for many years. And for many years, even going back to the 1990s, many respected experts at the time told you that your best espresso — whether made at home or in a professional coffeehouse — should be made with a semi-automatic machine that controlled the pressure of the pulled shots. Use a pump; set it and forget it. The conventional wisdom back then?: allowing the machine to fix the pressure made for one less variable where the barista could screw things up.

This wasn’t necessarily bad logic, considering that espresso is a notoriously fickle product of many steps where something can go terribly wrong at every turn. After all, it’s for this reason we made espresso our yardstick for judging retailers who make coffee.

But more control always seems like a good thing until you might step back and question the results. The California Initiative System may have seemed like an awesome idea until you look back and see how it’s made our state ungovernable. This philosophical flip-flop towards pressure control illustrates how much we’ve swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. Without question, at some point in the future, we will come full circle again.

Espresso in Cape Town, South Africa

Posted by on 01 Aug 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Quick!: name a city that’s surrounded by the exquisite natural beauty of mountains and seas, with brightly painted houses that decorate quaint neighborhoods, with great food everywhere you turn, with a nearby wine country consisting of hundreds of vineyards and many nationally renowned restaurants, with hipsters who frequent farmers’ markets in transitional neighborhoods, with a diverse racial mix from black to white to Indian to Southeast Asian, with the nation’s most vibrant gay population, with a touristy waterfront featuring seals on piers and a ferry that takes you to a famous prison island, and with a whole lot of really good coffee.

Why, it could only be Cape Town, South Africa.

Alright, that was a trick question: San Francisco’s Pier 39 has sea lions, not seals per se. But the point being that for anyone from our fair city, many aspects of Cape Town will seem very familiar. But there are also significant differences.

Cape Town from Table Mountain Cape Town and Table Mountain from Robben Island

Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighborhood Cape Town's Victoria Harbor

Familiar and not

World Cup events in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront on the day of the Final, July 11, 2010If you’re talking liberal laws, it’s probably not a major surprise that gay marriage is legal in South Africa. What may be more of a surprise is that, for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the South African constitution had to be temporarily suspended around the soccer stadiums for FIFA security purposes. (We can’t say enough good things for how festive the South Africans were as hosts to the World Cup, btw.) Years of abuses under Apartheid made many personal searches — ones we’re quite accustomed to in the U.S. — illegal. The 14-year-old South African constitution is one of the most liberal in the world.

On the other hand, there’s the old local joke that rock and roll never dies, it just tours South Africa. (“Hey, was that really Bryan Adams I just saw in town the other day?”) And given the nation’s history of economic disparity and its 25% unemployment rate, there are the major issues of poverty and security.

Cape Town's FIFA Fan Fest for Germany vs. Argentina, July 3, 2010 Nelson Mandela mural along Church Street, Cape Town

Soccer fever hits Cape Town for the World Cup

Some expected us to witness crushing poverty and aggressive homelessness in Cape Town, but it’s hard to say that it is any worse than SF. In the month we spent around Cape Town’s central business district (CBD) — a.k.a. the City Bowl — we were approached by all of one person for money. Yet security is a big concern among the locals and it’s an even bigger industry.

Even with all the truly great options in town to satisfy any SF food snob, food is handled a bit differently here. Some of the best sushi in town can be found in Italian restaurants — sushi being a decidedly California thing in Cape Town, and less of a Japanese thing. Which also explains why the grocery stores sell flour tortillas under the name “California wraps”. (To make matters worse, in turn, one of the more famous Italian restaurants in town has a German name.) This theme of playing a bit fast and loose with labels and names will again come up with coffee later in this post.

Beach mansions in Cape Town Springbok, the national animal (and a tasty one at that), in the fields hours outside of Cape Town

To be a young black man anywhere, including Cape Town, has its issues Only the World Cup tourists needed this sign of etiquette

Coffee standards in Cape Town

Speaking of coffee, like Italy or Australia or New Zealand, the baseline quality standards in South Africa are clearly better than in the U.S. You can walk into just about any random store and trust that you’ll get a rather acceptable espresso, whereas this practice is still ill-advised even in San Francisco. But, as in places such as Italy, examples of very good espresso are a rarer find — even in the biggest cosmopolitan cities. But with a little research and a few contacts, we were able to identify some of the best places in Cape Town.

A few things come to mind specifically about the espresso here. WEGA machines are ubiquitous. The coffees tend to emphasize more rich-bodied flavor than the wilder, bright coffees you may come to expect from Africa, but there are exceptions. And the cappuccino here almost always comes with a very Portuguese dusting of cocoa powder; you quite literally ask to have for one without it.

And somewhat contrary to an earlier post of ours, you can find the cappuccino quite often on café menus — even perhaps moreso than flat whites, and especially at the cafés that are a little less obsessed about their coffee. However, most places do treat the cappuccino and flat white interchangeably. Which leads us to our next topic of discussion…

Cappuccino at Espresso Lab Microroasters Origin Coffee Roasters' drink menu

Camps Bay and the 'Twelve' Apostles, suburban Cape Town Hout Bay from Chapman's Peak, suburban Cape Town

South Africa’s wine analogy: coffee-flavored wines

After spending a month in South Africa, it made sense that this is the nation that gave us “red espresso” — or Roobios tea. Even if you like the tea, as we do, the term “red espresso” comes off as unnecessarily deceptive and has never sat well with us. Just because you can stick something into an espresso machine does not make it espresso. Which reminds us a little of eggspresso — or should that be “yellow espresso”? And yet “Red Cappuccino” is also a registered trademark.

Now if you thought coffee’s wine analogy was a bit over the top, over the past several years South Africa has developed something of a niche market for coffee-flavored wine. They’ve been growing wine grapes around Cape Town since 1655, but it wasn’t until 1925 that a Stellenbosch professor crossed the fragile pinot noir grape with the heartier cinsault (known locally as hermitage) to create a local cultivar called pinotage.

In 2001, noted pinotage maker Diemersfontein Wines came out with the original “coffee chocolate pinotage”, and they’ve popularly released one every year since. Meanwhile, imitators came to the fore in the form of Cappupinoccinotage from Boland Cellars, Café Culture from KWV, the Vrede en Lust Mocholate (a malbec), etc. The original Diemersfontein coffee pinotage wine maker, Bertus Fourie — literally nicknamed “Starbucks” for that reason — has moved on to Café Culture and now Barista Wine (we are not making this up), where he holds the title of “Head Barista” and their Web site offers a Nespresso Le Cube D180 sweepstakes.

Stellenbosch wine country, outside of Cape Town The Vida e Caffè in Stellenbosch

Coffee pinotage is sometimes called the red wine for coffee addicts, and it certainly doesn’t come without some controversy from the purists, but it’s really more the red wine for coffee drinkers who don’t like red wine. That said, there’s room for everybody’s tastes. We’ve long stated that Starbucks’ stroke of genius was in convincing millions of customers who don’t like the taste of coffee that they actually do. While coffee pinotage doesn’t use any actual coffee for flavoring, the taste aims for the consumer are the same.

Wall of coffee cups at Mugged on RoelandNow despite all the wine-growing activity around Cape Town and a number of its very good wines, many South African wines are still (IMO) global underachievers and/or acquired tastes. Having tried a 2007 Diemersfontein coffee pinotage and a 2009 Barista pinotage, we were reminded of all the beer + coffee combinations that have failed over the years … the “coffee stouts” where the results were second-rate as a beer and second-rate as coffee, rather than something better than the sum of its parts.

Of course, we live in a diverse, global culture that sometimes wants their wine (or beer) to taste like coffee, their coffee to taste like chocolate and hazelnuts, and their chocolate to taste like bacon. So why not skip the middleman and market bacon wine? Sure, it might be a curious novelty to hear Céline Dion perform an album of songs by fellow Canadians Death from Above 1979, but it’s no stretch to presume that it will optimally satisfy neither fans of Céline nor Death from Above 1979.

As Oscar Wilde famously once said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” This South African dimension to the coffee-wine analogy largely fails coming from a different angle.

Now why don’t we do that?

Origin Coffee Roasting's three stories of coffee heavenA little more towards the authentic in the African continent, in the category of “now why don’t we do that in America?”, we did enjoy the occasional Ethiopian coffee ceremony — even if it originates on the continent’s opposite side of the equator. At a restaurant such as Cape Town’s Addis in Cape, we enjoyed an odd mix of Frankincense, popcorn (?!), and coffee served from a Jabena pot.

While the coffee undergoes some of the oldest and crudest handling and brewing known to man, the resulting cup is quite flavorful. Perhaps more importantly, the ceremony uniquely resonates with coffee culture, capturing much of the wonder that’s truly native to coffee without the creatively lazy marketing contortionists who squeeze coffee’s square peg into wine tasting’s round hole through the mutant coffee cupping fad in America. But alas, Californication applies to coffee cupping here just as it does to sushi and flour tortillas in South Africa.

At the coffee chain level, Vida e Caffè serves as an example of how Starbucks and even Peet’s fall short. Even Woolworths W Café serves both espresso and cappuccino in a paper cup that run circles around Starbucks.

While at the “artisan” end, there are places like TRUTH. that seem to go through the Third Wave motions, but with much success. And then there are places like Origin Coffee Roasting, who not only broke quality coffee ground in Africa in 2006, but they established a roasting and training operation that most American coffee entrepreneurs have only talked about. And then there’s Espresso Lab Microroasters, who show some of the most cohesive and comprehensive vision for what a quality coffee operation could be — while making espresso as good as anything in SF.

The wine may have room for improvement compared to what San Franciscans are used to, but everything else about Cape Town makes it a fantastic and compelling place to be — including the coffee.

Jabena, Frankincense, popcorn - an Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Addis in Cape TRUTH.coffeecult kiosk in Cape Town's V&A Waterfront

Woolworths surprising W Café Vida e Caffè espresso with Portuguese pasteis de nata


Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
95 Keerom 95 Keerom St. Gardens 6.40 7.00 6.700
Blue Cat Cafe Shop 10a, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 6.60 5.00 5.800
Bread Milk & Honey 10 Spin St. Gardens 7.30 7.50 7.400
Café Chic 7 Breda St. Gardens 3.40 4.50 3.950
Cookshop 117 Hatfield St. Gardens 7.10 7.80 7.450
Crème Café & Espresso Bar Shop 11, Gardens Shopping Centre, Mill St. Gardens 4.60 5.00 4.800
Deluxe Coffeeworks 25 Church St. City Bowl 7.40 7.80 7.600
Depasco Café Bakery Shop 5, Buitenkloof Studios, 8 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Espressamente Shop number F&B1, Cape Town International Airport Cape Town Intl Airport 6.90 7.20 7.050
Espresso Lab Microroasters 373-375 Albert Rd. Woodstock 8.60 8.80 8.700
Fego Caffé Shop No. 6160, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.80 6.00 5.900
Jardine Bakery 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.70 6.80 6.750
Jardine Restaurant 185 Bree St. City Bowl 6.90 7.00 6.950
Melissa’s The Food Shop Shop 6195, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf V&A Waterfront 5.20 5.50 5.350
Mugged Style Cafe (aka “Mugged on Roeland”) Shop 1, Perspectives Building, 37 Roeland St. East City 6.70 7.00 6.850
Origin Coffee Roasting 28 Hudson St. De Waterkant 8.20 8.00 8.100
Osumo 49 Kloof St. Gardens 6.80 7.00 6.900
Saeco Caffè 15 Orange St. Gardens 6.70 7.50 7.100
Sevruga Restaurant Shop 4, Quay 5, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 6.80 7.00 7.200
Tribeca Bakery 106 Main Rd. Kalk Bay 7.40 8.00 7.700
TRUTH.coffeecult Depot Dock Rd., V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.60 5.50 6.550
TRUTH.coffeecult Roasterspace 1 Somerset Rd. Green Point 7.40 7.20 7.300
Vida e Caffè Wembley Square Gardens 7.00 7.50 7.250
Vida e Caffè Shop 6100, V&A Waterfront V&A Waterfront 7.00 6.80 6.900
Vida e Caffè Shop 1, Mooikloof, 34 Kloof St. Gardens 7.00 6.80 6.900
W Café 72 Longmarket St. City Bowl 8.00 6.20 7.100

Trip Report: Saeco Caffè (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 28 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting

This unusual, two-story café resides at the base of the ultra modern, five-star 15 on Orange Hotel. On the upper floor, it has a serving area with a two-group Saeco Steel SE 200 at a bar, a number of black tables and chairs, a branded lit display, a couple of Saeco home machines on display, a fashionable clothing and jewelry shop, and a few baked goods under glass. Outside there’s a patio with three plastic chairs and café tables under parasols advertising Saeco. Downstairs there’s more black tables and chairs and an array of several home Saeco machines for demonstration.

Together the place is wrapped heavily in Saeco red & black branding, giving it a Segafredo Zanetti-like feel. But this café, currently unique in the world, is Saeco’s showcase for their machines and coffee — a sort of counter to the Nespresso showrooms planted all over the world.

Branding outside the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town Inside the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town

Home espresso machine demo counter inside the Saeco Caffè What's a café without high-fashion retailing? Inside the Saeco Caffè.

Despite the hip, modern feel of the place, the friendly barista leaves the portafilter handles cooling in the drip tray. But when the machine is in service (there are few customers ever in here), they pull shots of Saeco coffee (also sold here in kilo-sized bags) into plastic, transparent, double-walled Bodum cups. You can see a good 2mm layer of even, medium brown crema.

But despite the rich aroma and good looks, the flavor is a bit of a disappointment: flat, a little tarry, but otherwise pungent cloves. Served on a silver platter with a large glass of water. R12, or about $1.55.

Read the review of Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa.

Branding and Saeco machine inside the Saeco Caffè The Saeco Caffè espresso

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