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Espresso in Portland, Oregon

Posted by on 30 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Living on the Left Coast for so many years, it’s almost shameful that the closest I came to Portland, Oregon before 2011 was an SF Slim’s show by The Dharma Bums while on their Bliss album tour. (Yes, I was a fan.) Sure, I’d been to Crater Lake and Coos Bay even, but never Portland. By 2011, a couple of day-job-related day trips to Portland afforded the brief coffee walk through town. But it wasn’t until last month that I did a serious deep dive.

This lapse had nothing to do with the sun-spoiled Californian stereotype: wishing to avoid Portland’s damp cold, clouds, and legendary rainfall. Although I must say that arriving from the land of drought shaming that has turned neighbors into water narcs, watching local Portlanders casually hose down their sidewalks was a little like watching them blow their noses in gold leaf.

The Colombia River Gorge from Vista House at Crown Point Flowers in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square

The Portlander in their Native Habitat

Today merely the name “Portland” carries its own serious baggage and presumptions — some accurate, but many not. This post will attempt to sift through both of them from my own limited perspective with particular attention paid to the town’s much-celebrated coffee culture.

Portland — aka “Stumptown” (from the many felled trees of its development), aka “Rose City” — may have over 90% of the population of Seattle, but it feels nearly twice as sleepy. Portlanders love their runs and parades, and I arrived in time for the Starlight Parade of their annual Rose Festival — complete with marching bands and floats from many of the area’s high schools. A city like San Francisco is too cool and cynical for this kind of small town sentimentality. But the Portland locals line the downtown streets many hours before the event, parking their lawn chairs with great anticipation, social camaraderie, and a packed picnic basket.

Portland State University float at the Starlight Parade Starlight Parade of the Rose Festival, downtown Portland

Wait... sending a text at the Starlight Parade Posing with stormtroopers at the Starlight Parade

Speaking of public gatherings, not unlike Oakland’s First Fridays, Portland has its own First Thursday in the gentrified Pearl District — with its many cobblestone streets, cookie-cutter modern lofts, public storage units, and chain stores. In contrast is the artier Last Thursdays in the NE Alberta District — which is something of a front line for the town’s current gentrification battles, adjacent to one of the town’s very few hotbeds for gang violence.

From Rose City to White City

The story of gentrification is not uncommon among American cities. Some of what makes Portland a little different is how overwhelmingly, well, white the city is. So white, it’s almost blue. The last U.S. census figures may count the city’s racial breakdown as 76% white (for comparison San Francisco is 54%). But observationally throughout the city, those figures seem like an understatement.

In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.
–“Skinhead Against Skinhead“, TIME Magazine

On the TriMet streetcars that run all across town — the closest thing the locals have to the Bay Area’s BART — station stops and instructions are announced in Spanish as well as English, but there’s hardly a Latino to be found on the system. (And yet BART audio is English-only.) Thus in true stereotyped Portland politeness fashion, it eerily seems like the system goes out of its way to culturally accommodate people who aren’t even there.

Even Portland’s Chinatown seems so in name only, save for a couple of old gates spread among a district of what one local called “douchey nightclubs”.

Portland's Chinatown: as Chinese as it gets Barista PDX's Pearl District location

Portland’s lack of racial diversity may stick out like a sore thumb to someone from the Bay Area, but that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it — although some rightfully point out that it’s partly a product of historically racist state and local policies. But given that coffee ranks #1 on the list of Stuff White People Like, all that whiteness can’t be all bad, right? Except this theme of diversity — and Portland’s general lack thereof — comes up again when we talk about Portland’s coffee culture (more below).

Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? … This city is still very white. Why does that matter? According to the National Coffee Association, Caucasians drink a half cup a day more coffee than blacks or Hispanics.
— “Drip City“, Willamette Week

The Portlandia Stereotypes

Of course, we have to address the Portlandia stereotypes — a term that even the locals have amusingly embraced. Enough of them are true enough to support parody: the beards, the many yoga instructors, the dog walkers sporting discount tattoos, the animal freaks, drivers who are extremely (and charmingly) courteous, etc.

Yet there’s a distinctly higher hipster quotient in SF’s Mission District. What you don’t hear about Portland is at the roots of the city: the historically dark, weathered, slightly dirty Pacific Northwestern Gothic about the place. (Note that these are some of my favorite and most unique characteristics of the town.)

Some of 'old' Portland Portlanders enjoying the outdoors along the Willamette River

In fact, “thriving” is a word I definitely would not use to describe Portland and its anything-but-vibrant downtown. Like Porto, Portugal, I found it hard to tell if it’s on its way up or way down. Downtown there are derelict vacant lots, sometimes filled with food carts and lined with sidewalks coated in layers of mystery stickiness. Homelessness and mental illness are on prominent display along with too many strip clubs to count (and yes, there is even a vegan one).

And despite many fantastic wilderness options nearby, the bicycling stereotypes, and a trendy Pearl District that hosts a retail outlet for every outdoor enthusiast store imaginable, obesity is a noticeable problem here as in much of America. Portland does not size up to the outdoorsy fit-city-in-spandex stereotype you get in places like Boulder, CO or Austin, TX.

A pork festival in the Willamette Valley outside of PortlandA good part of Portland’s allure includes a local food scene high on the local, organic, and artisanal, an abundant beer microbrewing culture, and a location with a much cheaper cost of living than most. Although you can get the hipster/foodie/microbrew/slacker/cheap-living mix in almost equal measure in a place like Austin, TX, Portland seems to draw much of its appeal along the coast.

Most Portlandia stereotypes seem defined by the expectations of recent residents who aren’t from the area, just as the “fruits & nuts” stereotypes about Californians in the 1970s were primarily driven by refugees from the Midwest rather than the California natives themselves. It’s a little like how residents of Las Vegas lead rather normal and mundane lives, whereas its tourists feel obligated to destroy their livers and lose their minds because of preconceived expectations of behavior once they arrive.

In other words, from what I’ve observed, it’s the more recent immigrants trying to self-fulfill false stereotypes who are among the most exaggerated Portlandia examples — a lot of California and Seattle expats who came for what they thought was in the marketing brochure. (Just don’t ask me what Florida’s problem is.)

Portland the Coffee City

Street mural in downtown PortlandMany publications have made out Portland to be some magical, mythical place inhabited by barista leprechauns, where rivers of microlot espresso run down streets adorned with portafilter handles and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders. Although we’ve seriously questioned what a “coffee city” actually means in today’s environment, Travel + Leisure has regularly ranked Portland at the top among “America’s Best Coffee Cities,” and The Daily Meal recently ranked Portland #1 in the same category.

A few years ago there was a lot of professional chatter about how Portland unseated Seattle as America’s coffee capital. Then add over 60 microroasters in the city, regional champion baristas (back when that was a thing), three national coffee magazines (Fresh Cup, Barista Magazine, Roast Magazine) — plus many quality coffee shops, equipment makers, and specialty retailers — and you can justify the hype. However, there are several factors that dim the shine here.

First is the question of size. Much about the greatness of Portland’s coffee culture gets weighted relative to the town’s seemingly small size — scaled as if by an “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” disclaimer. Instead of using purely direct yardsticks such as nationally renowned quality, reputation, variety, or industry awards, Portland’s relatively low population density is often applied as that fun-house-mirror-like lens through which many gauge the local coffee scene.

Which brings us to the second factor: quality. There are some really good coffee shops and roasters here, no question. But are they standouts among the best in the country? For the most part, not exactly. Kansas City has some great roasters and cafés as well, and I wouldn’t necessarily crown Portland’s best as superior to KC’s finest.

A lot of what’s good about coffee in Portland naturally traces its influences back to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. And as much as Stumptown is one of the nation’s elite roasters and coffee chains, we’ve always felt it is a slight underachiever among its peers — whether in rival Seattle or Portland itself.

Taking the TriMet streetcar east over the Willamette River Mount Hood in the distance looms over Portland's east

Visible signs of wear in downtown Portland Hipster sock department, Powell's Books

Portland’s Coffee Monoculture

Which brings us to the third and most critical factor keeping Portland from reaching its quality potential. Stumptown may be a slight underachiever for its elite class, but they are to be commended for taking a great risk and establishing a new kind of coffee operation for the region. Most other Portland shops established since Stumptown seem rather risk-averse and are instead focused on execution, sticking with the formula, rather than taking the risk of offering new ideas of what coffee could be. This is where Portland’s lack of cultural diversity seems to also manifest itself in its coffee culture.

With few exceptions, what Portland has is a number of micro-businesses following a slightly updated Stumptown blueprint in miniature. The degree of this conformity here is palpable and even gets a little monotonous. As with the Seattle music scene in the 1990s after Nirvana made it big, nearly every notable new band in town was donning their grunge flannels and crunching the same power chords. (Nirvana coincidentally having a dubious rumored historical connection to the aforementioned Dharma Bums, btw.) Whether that was because there weren’t enough bands differentiating themselves from Nirvana or whether the market/industry was only interested in bands that sounded like Nirvana knock-offs, the effect was the same.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters' wall of cold brew A Stumptown cappuccino

Similarly, Portland “brew bars” (everything is a “bar” or “lounge” these days, whether you’re getting a coffee or getting your eyebrows waxed) tend to follow a rather narrow definition of roasting (microroasters), roasting styles, use of microlot coffees (and the inevitable Portland single origin Ethiopian shot), rather poor attempts at blends when they aren’t outright verboten, accompanied by cut-and-paste ad copy about seasonality and bean-to-cup attention to detail, etc. as if read off of a checklist.

Where’s the pour-over-only shop like a Phil’z that serves only blends and defiantly eschews the notions of geographic traceability entirely? Where’s the Latin American perspective as you get from a Cumaica Coffee? (Though Portland has a great exception with Brazil in Nossa Familia — no wonder it’s one of our favorites in town.)

There are a few multi-roaster shops, but they generally toe the party line: self-imposed rules about geographic specificity, sourcing from the same half-dozen producing countries, and roasting only well this side of the second crack. There’s always nitro (invented at Stumptown) and cold brew, but those are completely different beverages, really. (Not to mention they’re also doing it in Cleveland too.)

But where do you go for a vac pot coffee? Where’s the Third Wave coffee house co-located inside an S&M shop? Even a place such as the tiny Mountain Grounds, who prominently classifies their roasted bean stocks by growing altitude (2200m, etc.), would be guilty of heresy in this environment.

A Mecca of Conformity?

The American Barista Coffee School calls Portland a Mecca, so why not?This isn’t just Portland. We have the same issues with the restaurant scene in San Francisco; when everybody is serving locally sourced, organic, farm-to-table cuisine, a great thing quickly becomes a repetitive mantra and ultimately a self-parody.

While SF has some excellent restaurants, it is rather narrow and limited when compared to places like Chicago or New York. Places where Mexican food isn’t exclusively the same seven Taco Bell ingredients recombined for meals under $10-$15, where dangerous ideas such as offering a tasting menu based on the unique cuisine of Jalisco is even attempted.

If Portland is to ever become a coffee “Mecca”, as is often stated, such a “center of activity or interest” simply cannot play it safe with with a single formula, even if it is a great formula. It should attract diverse and even conflicting influences and nonconformist ideas from all over the world. Because what is the coffee lovers’ benefit of having 40, 60, or even 2,000 local microroasters to choose from if they all are pretty much copying each other?

In conclusion, if you like the philosophical approach to coffee that a Portland roaster or café takes, chances are that you’ll find much to love in abundance throughout this city. It’s a great thing and many people do it well. But if you want to try something different from that insular, narrow definition, you pretty much have to leave town.


Espresso Ratings in Portland
Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Public Domain 603 SW Broadway Downtown 8.00 8.00 8.000
Coava Brew Bar 300 SE Grand Ave. Central Eastside 8.30 8.00 8.150
Good Coffee 1150 SE 12th Ave. Buckman 8.30 8.50 8.400
Heart Coffee Roasters 537 12th Ave. Downtown 8.00 8.00 8.000
Nossa Espresso Bar 811 NW 13th Ave. Pearl District 8.40 7.80 8.100
Barista PDX 529 SW 3rd Ave., Unit 110 Downtown 8.20 8.00 8.100
Spella Caffè 520 SW 5th Ave. Downtown 8.50 8.00 8.250
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 128 SW 3rd Ave. Downtown 8.00 8.20 8.100

Trip Report: Spella Caffè (Portland, OR)

Posted by on 27 Jun 2015 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Approaching Stella Caffè along 5th Avenue in downtown Portland, OregonLike many Northwest espresso operations of any history, Chicago native Andrea Spella (and wife Amanda) began his business as an espresso cart. Co-located among one of many Portland-area food cart ghettos where just about anything on wheels invades a vacant lot, Andrea roasted his own beans in SE Portland once per week and served a decidedly Roman style espresso from his humble cart.

Citing frequent busted pipes and the weather sensitivity of his business in the food cart ghetto, he moved out in 2010 to open up this thumbnail-sized downtown storefront that’s barely more than a kiosk. Three or four standing customers can simultaneously fit inside, tops. Though there are three red-painted café tables and chairs on the sidewalk out front. There are tile floors, an old marble service counter top, and a layout that feels very much like a tiny bakery.

The tiny entrance to Portland's Spella CaffèLike a pre-World War II midget submarine out of water, two and only two people can operate this tiny cubbyhole. One takes orders and handles any money exchanges, while a barista operates pinned behind their three-group, hand-pumped, piston-driven lever Rancilio in back — a setup far more common to Napoli than Portland.

But don’t let the modest size and prices here fool you. The New York Times claimed theirs as the best espresso in town back in a 2009 travel article. Despite the many roasters and coffeeshops that have since blossomed in the area, I was surprised at how good the espresso is here. It would rank among San Francisco’s best.

There’s a great attention to detail. The espresso made from their own Minas Gerais, Brazil-based signature espresso blend comes with a gorgeously textured, layered crema from a very careful and deliberate shot pull. It has a complex, rich, mellow, and broad flavor of blended spices, pungency, and limited sweetness.

Ordering at the counter inside Spella Caffè Sidewalk patio seating as viewed from inside Spella Caffè

While a more medium roast, it can seem a bit more on the darker, roasted end of the spectrum when compared with many of Portland’s newcomer cafés. But they perform this blended roast extremely well — in the way that Heart Roasters pulls of light roasting well.

If we buy into the Third Wave myth, anybody who made coffee prior to 2006 is irrelevant. Having been founded in 2007, Spella might escape such outright dismissal despite not subscribing to any Third Wave trappings.

Because unlike the countless examples of the Portland coffee purveyor stereotype that have arisen since Stumptown made their mark, Spella Caffè doesn’t serve a (frequently Ethiopian) single origin shot with its cloying screams for attention. There’s a real refined elegance here in a (hold your nose) true blended espresso.

Just wow. It makes all the conformity of the single origin espresso rebellion seem, well, foolish. Served in multi-colored Nuova Point cups.

Read the review of Spella Caffè in Portland, OR.

Operating the lever Rancilio machine inside tiny Spella Caffè The ridiculously photogenic espresso at Spella Caffè

Trip Report: Ritual Coffee Roasters Redux (Mission District)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.

This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.

A new parklet under construction outside the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership Inside the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.

But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.

Art and benches at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Wall o' merch at the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)

A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.

When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.

Service counter looking towards the rear of the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Succulent garden at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.

They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.

The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.

The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters looking to the entrance from the rear 3 Fish Studios/Eric Rewitzer art design on the walls while you wait for your Ritual Coffee order

Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.

Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.

Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.

Read the updated review on Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission.

Synesso machines and Mazzer grinders at the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters service counter The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters espresso

Trip Report: Happy Girl Kitchen Co. (Pacific Grove, CA)

Posted by on 05 Mar 2015 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

This spacious café opened in the Fall of 2010. Located not far from the David Ave. border with Monterey, it’s a few blocks from the famed aquarium and can practically pass for Monterey. Out front along Central Ave. is a wooden parklet with a few café tables and two larger shared tables. The whole streetside parklet vibe should seem familiar to anyone from San Francisco.

Inside, along sherbet green walls, there’s a longer bench with a few café tables and two larger shared tables. There are shelves and shelves and tables of merchandising for sale: primarily jams, pickles, and baked goods. And yet most of the floorspace is dominated by the working bakery in the rear half of the shop (complete with mirrored disco ball). There’s a real vegetarian vibe to the place — down to the homemade kombucha for those who love sour tea made from soiled diapers.

Parklet in front of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. in Pacific Grove, CA Entrance to Happy Girl Kitchen Co.

Seating and bakery at the rear inside Happy Girl Kitchen Co. Coffee service counter and merchandising inside Happy Girl Kitchen Co.

But the coffee service — which runs later in the day than the 3pm food service hours — isn’t bad here. They use an orange, two-group manual lever La San Marco machine, Mazzer grinders, and Blue Bottle coffee to pull modestly sized shots with an even, medium brown crema of little distinction.

It’s light on the aroma, and the flavor seems a little brighter than a typical Blue Bottle cup: some spice, some sharpness, some apple acidity. There’s a decent flavor balance, but it lacks exceptionalism at just about every dimension. While Blue Bottle service is a find this far south, it’s off the standards of most of their purveyors. But the espresso sameness problem of SF doesn’t exist here (yet). Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.

For pour-over service they feature a stand with four Blue-Bottle-branded Bonmac drippers. For milk-frothing, they use Clover milk and employ decorative rosettas in their latte art (albeit a bit on the early practice end). They seem much better at milk-based drinks than the straight espresso here, as it is not too milky and exhibits good balance. Hence the generous correction score in their rating.

Read the review of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. in Pacific Grove, CA.

Project Mersh: Heavy merchandising inside Happy Girl Kitchen Co. Manual La San Marco machine behind Happy Girl Kitchen Co.'s espresso service

The Happy Girl Kitchen Co. espresso The Happy Girl Kitchen Co. cappuccino

Why I’m Just Not Feeling the ChefSteps Coffee Love

Posted by on 07 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Robusta

If you are a coffee lover, you’re probably already well aware of the online coffee courses offered by Seattle’s ChefSteps. That is, unless you’ve been holed up in Guantanamo or you avoid most social media like the time-sucking plague that it is (though I do, and yet I couldn’t avoid the subject).

This week coffee legend James Hoffman blogged about the latest ChefSteps course he’s involved with, and today we’ve already witnessed the promotional marketing for it bleeding out to publications such as Eater and Food & Wine — complete with obligatory use of the word “perfect” in their article titles.

ChefSteps offers the 5-star-rated Espresso: The Art of Extraction

To read the general press and discussion about publishers like ChefSteps, you’d think we were entering a revolutionary era of coffee education. But having taken ChefSteps’ free Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, and having a lot invested in the subject of how online education works (and does not work), I’m just not feeling the love. At least yet.

Of computer mice and men

Let me explain. To begin with, I also need to start with a little about my “day job”. For over the past three years, I’ve been the co-founder and president of an online education start-up. We raised several million dollars from Khosla Ventures, a heavy investor in education technology, where Vinod Khosla himself sat on my board of directors. The only other board he served on was Square, so we were fortunate to have so much of his attention. (Side note: Khosla Ventures has more recently purchased the start-up outright for integration within its educational portfolio that includes the CK-12 Foundation, etc.)

Coincidentally, representing this start-up at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 is how I first encountered Blossom Coffee. And for those of you who have seen the brilliant HBO show, Silicon Valley, TechCrunch Disrupt is exactly like that.

Now the mission of this start-up may have been teaching users to program rather than to make latte art, but many of the frameworks and principles apply regardless: delivering educational content online, complementing lessons with resources such as online video, embedding discussions and interactions with the faculty and other students throughout the course, etc. Thus, over some years of experience, I’ve learned a few things about what’s good, what works, what’s revolutionary, and what’s — well — not so much in online education.

Back to that latte art

First: ChefSteps’ content. Taking their Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, I didn’t come away learning anything I didn’t already know. But as an introductory course, that’s to be expected. The videos, hosted on YouTube, are slickly produced and include legit instructors: Charles Babinksi, of G&B Coffee (he’s the ‘B’) and a former USBC finalist, and Scott Callender of La Marzocco Home.

The chief questions I struggled with as I took the course: was the material any better than any book or series of online articles I’ve read before? Same question for the videos. And did all of that help me learn something? My answer was generally “no”, or at least “not really”.

CoffeeGeek legend Mark Prince chimed in last week on a little of his mixed experiences with ChefSteps — at least regarding the “Espresso Myths” videos in the course. So let’s take the video on crema myths:

Now ChefSteps’ byline is “cook smarter”, but being “smarter” usually involves a more thorough effort of evaluating multiple perspectives, checking out references, and maybe performing a little analysis on all that before drawing hard conclusions. What we have instead in this “crema myths” segment (at 1’11’) is Scott Callender saying this:

“I think one of the best examples of that is Italian roasters include robusta into their blends simply to add this really thick, dark crema on top of their shots so it looks beautiful. But if you ever just taste a single origin robusta, most people would not tell you that tastes like a very good espresso.”
— Scott Callender, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema

I can almost get past the fact that Scott has essentially stereotyped an entire coffee culture by suggesting that Italian roasters blindly add robusta to blends for the sole purpose of enhanced visuals. But what really makes my eyes roll is that Scott dismisses the idea that anyone might add a robusta component to a blend for something as insane as flavor balance or complexity.

Scott’s attitude is also rooted in the Puritanical myth — common to many myopic self-described Third Wavers — that the ultimate expression of coffee can only be found in a coffee bean’s genetically and geographically isolated single-origin, single-farm, single-row-of-shrubs heritage, unadulterated by external contaminants. This is essentially a lite version of Adolf Hitler’s purified master race doctrine as applied to coffee. And yet some of the greatest pleasures of coffee today come from an incestuously muddled history of genetic and geographic mash-ups; mash-ups that have given birth to everything from Bourbons to Catuais to Caturras to SL28s to SL34s to Typicas to even prized Gieshas transplanted to Panama as recently as 2000.

Charles Babinksi (who later uses big words like “quotidian”) then adds to this deconstructionist nonsense at 3’40” in the video:

“Also, it should be noted that crema tastes terrible. It’s one of the least enjoyable parts of drinking coffee. And more crema is not necessarily going to mean a tastier shot.”
— Charles Babinksi, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema

While Charles is factually correct, what he says reflects a deconstructionist and non-integrative approach to thinking — i.e., that any component that isn’t good individually in isolation is therefore potentially negative, detrimental to quality, and/or not important. This line of thinking borders on implying that nothing can be better than the individual sum of its parts, which is just plain wrong.

The multi-dimensional representative taste types of coffee, courtesy The Coffee Cupper's Handbook 4th Ed. from Ted Lingle

As Charles points out later in the course, in Taste the Extraction, progressively tasting an espresso extraction highlights how it transforms from sour-through-bitter notes and yet they all balance out in the end. That balance is arguably one of the most critical elements to a quality espresso and coffee in general: sour is important, sweet is important, salty is important, even bitter is important, and the balance between them all is what makes the beverage we obsess over.

I’m all for dismissing unnecessary espresso myths, but in the process you shouldn’t be creating new ones in their place.

Where ChefSteps succeeds

Where the course excels is in introducing the “three legs of the espresso stool”: brew ratio, brew time, and brew temperature. Again it’s nothing that hasn’t been repeated before dozens of times elsewhere on the Internet (despite many student comments in the course to the contrary), but it’s summarized well in a concise place and format.

Overall the course is a bit short and superficial (hey, it’s free), serving mostly to improve general awareness rather than to teach any skill, method, or technique. Segments such as Pulling a Great Shot, for example, do very little towards the mission of actually teaching. Instead, it repeats a lot of minimalist common knowledge to a soundtrack of lounge music more suitable for getting a hot stone massage at a spa:

But is it an actual “course”?

Last, we come to ChefSteps as a concept and overall learning format. Here’s where that rubbish about the day job kicks in. Is what ChefSteps offers any different or more effective than a book with a supplemental DVD of videos?

The threaded comment section to engage with the instructors and fellow students is helpful, but it feels a little wonky in the context of a course. It’s optimized more for commenting on Facebook posts than to facilitate any actual learning exchange, but it’s the easiest and most obvious thing to do in the early stages of any start-up learning platform. There are also Quartz-style contextual comments, but they barely get used.

The support component of any course — where students have questions or challenges that veer from the linear narrative of the program — is essential to its effectiveness. It is a core differentiator from merely reading a book or watching a video. One of my most critical insights was that many learning platforms are designed primarily as modified content delivery platforms, and support is often bolted on as an afterthought. My start-up’s platform was initially built around content delivery rather than support delivery, and effective learning platforms often require the reverse.

In other words: it’s the support, not the content, that’s often the primary driver of learning value. We choose university courses more for the professors and TAs than we do for the textbooks they use.

The discussion comments help, but is this a post or a course, really?

However, the primary glaring omission from ChefSteps as an effective learning platform is its complete lack of assessment or evaluation capabilities. A few years ago the Gates Foundation developed a compelling universal data model to represent learning systems and environments. While not yet made public, it was extensively shared among many tech-minded educators as a potential learning blueprint. In this fundamental data model, learning resources are paired with assessment or validation resources, and the pairs are typically combined in a sequential series. That much is so fundamental to the human learning model that the Gates Foundation proposed it as a standard.

And it makes obvious sense when you think about it. What education is there without quizzes or tests, midterms and finals? The human brain simply does not learn in the absence of useful feedback, without tightly integrating the practice of the very things you are supposedly learning.

You can only go so far learning to play a piano just by reading a book and watching videos. Hearing how you actually sound playing a piano — or better: having your piano teacher assess your performance — is the only way to know if you’re really progressing.

Hence why Charles Babinksi wisely suggested that ChefSteps streamline, if not eliminate, the course’s latte art section: teaching such a skill with the platform would be something of an abject failure. But without any assessment in the mix, you might make the same case for the entire course overall.

So it remains that ChefSteps is a nice reading resource, but it offers nothing you couldn’t recreate on Facebook other than its paywall. Accept it now for what limited reference value it provides. Any actual online education is a long, long ways off still.

Trip Report: Illy Caffè (Union St., Cow Hollow)

Posted by on 31 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).

However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.

Outside the illy caffè on Union St. Entrance to the illy caffè on Union St. - with espresso cup chandelier

Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.

illy caffè's tasting menu for the media brunchIt’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.

Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.

Blind spots in our perceived history of quality coffee

There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.

Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.

Joe Gurdock, at right, with Barry Sheldon, President and COO of illy caffè North America, at the head of the table Illy's Frisée Salad with illy coffee vinaigrette and egg on top

Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.

The converted Metro Theater on Union Street now houses an illy caffè at the near cornerAs another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.

Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.

Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)

Illy was also pioneering coffee subscription models as early as 2004, years before the Third Wavy new coffee middlemen injected themselves into the supply chain.

The illy caffè illy-Misu Housemade Tiramisu illy caffè's Jasmine Vanilla Botanical Latte

Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.

But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and Francis Ford Coppola designer cups Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and the unique Federico Fellini designer cup in the foreground

Review of illy caffè

Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!

This café is located at the edge of the former Metro Theater, which has since been converted into an insipidly boring and culturally irrelevant Equinox gym.

There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.

The illy caffè service counter with La Cimbali machine The illy caffè espresso

The illy caffè macchiato The illy caffè cappuccino

Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.

The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.

Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.

Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.

The CoffeeRatings.com 2014 Holiday Anti-Gift Guide

Posted by on 04 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

This is that insufferable time of year where reading any sort of coffee news Web site or blog means dodging an onslaught of “gift ideas for coffee lovers” advertisements feigning to be articles. These cyclical (and cynical) bits of fake journalism are often accompanied by multi-page image galleries requiring you to click through each item — to maximize tedium while inflating Web site engagement metrics and advertising exposure.

So it was with a breath of fresh air this week that I received this article from a great friend in Canada: Gift Guide: Think twice before buying a Keurig coffee maker – The Globe and Mail. The topic was simple and one we’ve long contended: if you’re thinking of buying someone a Keurig machine, here’s why not. And it inspired the subject of today’s post here: the anti-gift guide article, or what not to buy this holiday season for that special coffee lover in your life.

To Keurig or not to Keurig? Canada asks...

Reverend Billy in his natural environmentOK, sure, I’m a fan of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping and Buy Nothing Day (aka “#OccupyXmas”). And it seems irresponsible to further stir up the consumer feeding frenzy that inspires maiming and even deaths at Black Friday Wal-Marts just to save $20 on a TV.

But if you’re going to be purchasing holiday gifts anyway, what should you avoid wasting your money on? Well, you’ve come to the right place. With coffee’s Fourth Wavethe gadgetization of coffee — in high gear, today the consumer coffee gear marketplace is flush with stoopid money. So much so that even classic coffee equipment designs — such as the moka pot and the Chemex — are (rightfully) looking to cash in on stacks of some of dat mad cheddar with new premium gadget introductions just in time for the holidays.

So without further ado, let the dishonor roll begin…

  • Any espresso machine priced lower than a Rancilio Silvia + a quality burr grinder
  • Krups: coming to a landfill near youEither spend the $25 on a stovetop moka pot or hold off until you can hit that magical $800+ mark. Everything in-between really just isn’t worth it. All those Krups, Jura, and DeLonghi machines that litter the shelves at Sur La Table are just disappointment bombs ready to explode like IEDs on their hapless new owners. And before you point out that a moka pot technically does not brew espresso, it’s no worse than what you get out of a device made by one of these vacuum cleaner and toaster oven manufacturers.

    If you recall the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic 1964 Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer animated Christmas special, I fully believe that there’s an Island of Misfit Coffee Appliances where cheap, dysfunctional, and abandoned espresso machines like these pile up like a Staten Island garbage barge.

    As for simple camping devices like the Handpresso, you may as well drive your car on four donut emergency spare tires. And if you can’t afford the extra $200 for a decent burr grinder, you may as well purchase a Lamborghini mounted on donuts.

  • Coffee travel kits
  • Speaking of coffee and camping, stay away from those custom coffee travel kits. You barely see your friend long enough away from the Xbox in his basement. Like when’s the next time he’s really crossing the Andes Mountains on foot like some sort of airline crash survivor?

    Really?

    Stumptown's coffee travel kit: sleeve tattoos not included

  • Any coffee machine with WeMo or smartphone application controls
  • The latest “Look, there goes Elvis!” technique from the modern coffee machine marketing playbook is to appeal to technophiles through seemingly advanced technology, such as iPhone or Android application controls. Yet we know just from their price tags that whatever WiFi and electronic investments they put into these machines, none of it went to the one thing all coffee brewing equipment must achieve to avoid complete failure: holding an accurate and consistent brewing temperature.

    My app-powered coffeemaker makes coffee taste like ass, but I can share that more easily on Facebook nowYour basic Technivorm can barely pull that much off without any smartphone gimmicks. Thus what you’re really buying is the equivalent of a baby busy box app — just designed for easily duped adults who somehow need more excuses to keep staring at their smartphones. And good luck when Apple releases iOS9 next year and you discover you can’t upgrade your coffee machine’s operating system.

    Seriously, if you’re going to buy one of these, just stick a wad of your cash directly into a landfill. The inevitable result will be the same, just that you’ll achieve your goal much sooner and you’ll be much more environmentally friendly in the process.

  • Any brewed coffee maker with a hot plate rather than a carafe
  • This is an oldie, but it still applies today. I know there are a lot of coffee fans whose favorite coffee style or flavor profile is simply “hot”. But since making coffee is cooking, the concept of using a hot plate is essentially the same as putting your meal under a fast food heat lamp. Sure, you might keep the desired serving temperature longer. But you evaporate out many of coffee’s water-soluble flavor components, thus leeching out a lot of its good flavors while concentrating the remaining stale dreck in its place.

    While attending CoffeeCON in SF this year, Kitchen Aid sent me their new “SCAA-approved” Pour Over brewer. The one thing I don’t like about it? Its ridiculous hot plate that I have to work around to avoid.

  • Subscription delivery roasts
  • Australia's Captain Coffee says it's OK to be racist as long as you enjoy freshly delivered coffeeThis is going to be a controversial one, as there are a lot of great roasts to be had by mail these days. But that’s precisely the point.

    There are a lot of new coffee middlemen who operate subscription services. While they ship with regularity so you have the convenience of not having to think about it, most of them pretty much ship whatever inventory they want to unload. It changes from month to month.

    This is fine if you’re a newbie coffee lover and you want every coffee experience to be a new discovery. But playing coffee roulette gets old quickly once you learn more about what you like. With just a couple of clicks on a roaster’s Web site, what you really want is on your doorstep within 48 hours: no subscription required.

    There’s a reason why most people don’t stick with a wine-of-the-month club for a full year.

  • A home coffee roaster
  • This is another controversial one. Because despite identifying the few reasons you should — and the many reasons you should not — roast your own some five years ago here, I’ve been home roasting about every other day for more than a year now. I can’t even remember the last time I purchased retail roasted coffee. After nearly a decade of declining use, a combination of newer equipment, outstanding green lots from Rwanda, and changes in home coffee drinking habits have me in something of a home roasting revival these days.

    That said, I still have to say that it’s a hassle that’s not worth it for most people. It’s even one of the few times I wholly agree with Nick Cho.

    Perhaps your gift recipient loves to make their own kombucha. Though if that’s the case, any suggestions for making flavorful coffee are probably pointless. Who can trust the taste buds of anybody who willingly drinks tea made from soiled diapers?

    The HotTop roaster... most people would rather pay someone else to roast for them

  • Coffee books with recipes
  • We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. If it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee.

    Would a serious, legit book on wine cram itself with recipes for kir royales and beef bourguignon?

  • Anything off KickStarter (or indiegogo or a dozen other knockoffs)
  • Just as state lotteries are often called a tax on people who can’t do math, I’ve called crowdfunding services like Kickstarter a tax on people who don’t understand business loans or venture investing. If you can’t secure a decent business loan with your brilliant product idea, then throwing it out to the unwashed masses of the Internet for charitable donations doesn’t exactly make it that much more viable.

    On the other hand, maybe you as the inventor could secure the bank loans, and you could establish a business that could support the product well after its first prototypes ship. But why? Especially when you can simply take the money of gullible Internet users with virtually no strings attached.

    Either way, the formula isn’t so attractive on the consumer end of this equation.

  • The Even-Better Home Brewer Technology of the Week
  • I'm inta coffee from my Ratio Eight ... and whatever package you've got to show me, Mother SuperiorThe Wilfa Precision Coffee Maker… the Canadiano… the Ratio Eight … Enter the Dragon… These days an endless parade of “new, revolutionary, and even better!” coffee brewer come-ons bombard home coffee lovers seemingly every other week, suddenly relegating last week’s revolutionary brewer to the Salvation Army donation pile.

    Do you have the disposable income to keep replacing your home setup every other week for the promise of a potential 0.002% quality improvement in your cup? Are you starting a collection of forgotten coffee brewing devices for the Fifteen-Minutes-of-Fame Coffee Trivia History Museum?

    If your answer to both of these questions is “no”, then the $20 Bonmac dripper you’ve been knocking around with for the past several years will continue to do just fine. And it will continue to do so for years to come. If your intended gift recipient is starting from scratch, it’s worth a look at these new gadgets. But just once — and not again for probably many years.


UPDATE: Dec. 11, 2014
A week after writing this, I received a come-on e-mail from a New York PR agency with the headline of “Hot New Travel Press on Kickstarter!” At first I thought someone was just trolling me as a joke…

Trip Report: Seattle Coffee Works (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 03 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

Downtown Seattle is something of an espresso wasteland compared to most other city downtowns, especially around the touristy Pike Place Market. Which is ironic, given that it is the birthplace of the biggest coffee quality movement America has ever experienced (i.e., Starbucks).

However, that’s also part of the problem: independent specialty coffee retailers grew successful because of their craft, attracted investment, attracted expectations of scale and reach, and now many of them have evolved to become corporate coffee giants — which is now what dominates downtown Seattle. This evolution differs from most downtowns where the “corporate” part of the local coffee scene invaded from afar rather than transformed in place.

When Seattle’s coffee quality pioneers turned corporate, I fully believe that their quality has declined with that scale, as the quality bar was lowered each time with every additional 100 jobs they needed to fill and each process automation they had to adopt to meet the demand. (I still contend that the individual barista makes up 50% of the end quality in a retail espresso beverage.) Others might argue that newer independents have simply stepped in, stood on the shoulders of their predecessors, raised the quality bar further, and became the new standard-bearers of their time.

Morning at Pike Place Market down the block from Seattle Coffee Works Morning at Seattle Coffee Works

Porttraits of coffee farmers inside Seattle Coffee Works Before the lights go on in the morning at Seattle Coffee Works, the merchandising shelves guide the way

All of which sets an interesting stage for Seattle Coffee Works — a small company established several years ago by California expats. Their story suggests an arrival amidst Pike Place Market’s coffee scene with big expectations, only to encounter serious disappointment. A long story short, the team eventually opened this location right in the shadow of Pike Place Market as an expression of quality coffee, more direct relationships with farmers (they post photos of farmers on the walls and a “Coffee Manifesto” beneath the front counter/register), and trendier (i.e., post-Seattle-espresso) brew bar offerings from a “Slowbar” that offers Chemex, Hario pour-over, Aeropress, and syphon brewing.

With a Diedrich roaster in back for their on-site roasting, they produce mostly single origin roasts for retail use and retail sale. They offer an outdoor seating patio sectioned off from the sidewalk traffic. Inside it’s a wider but spare space with a bare, darker concrete slab floor, worn wooden tables and chairs, and a rear wooden bench for seating. There are shelves of antique coffee brewing equipment, which is a nice touch, and near their Slowbar there are shelves of merchandising: Aeropress, Baratza grinders, kettles, French presses, etc.

Inside seating, Slowbar, and merchandising inside Seattle Coffee Works Seattle Coffee Works' Slowbar

The day's single origin menu at Seattle Coffee Works Entrance to the roasting facilities behind Seattle Coffee Works

For espresso they offer their “award-winning” Seattle Space blend along with a single origin option from their two-group Synesso. With the Space Blend, rated here, they pull a shot with a very even, non-descript medium brown crema. It’s filled rather high in their Espresso Supply Cremaware demitasses from China.

As a result, the body — like the crema — is a bit thin. It has a pungent flavor with some sharper acidity of apples, some cinnamon, and other spices. It’s a classically redundant Third Wave stereotype espresso lacking much body, richness, or breadth of flavor. Served with sparking water (what the locals call “soda water”) on the side.

I had a surprisingly better shot with their single origin Panama Carmen: richer in flavor depth with more rounded, body-friendly notes. Perhaps the Slowbar is the way to go here — if not the single origin shots. The Space Blend here, despite its claimed awards, tastes a little too much like “California Third Wave” as far as my taste preferences go.

Read the review of Seattle Coffee Works in Seattle.

Seattle Coffee Works Synesso with their Coffee Manifesto The Seattle Coffee Works espresso with the Space Blend

Antique coffeemaking equipment hanging near Seattle Coffee Works' Synesso Seattle Coffee Works single origin Panama Carmen as espresso

Trip Report: Monorail Espresso (Seattle)

Posted by on 22 Nov 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

For over 8 years here, it’s been no secret that I’ve had to restrain my gag reflex every time some poseur/wannabe starts spouting off about coffee’s Third Wave. Because for every self-congratulatory, self-ordained Third Wave coffee shop that wishes to proclaim, “Oh, what a good boy am I. Look at what I just invented!,” there’s a place like Seattle’s Monorail Espresso that provides ample reason for them to shut up and sit down.

That Monorail even exists is a rubber glove slap across their face. A Pike Place Market, ice-packed, 15-pound sockeye salmon across the face. Monorail has not only been doing it longer than you, but they’ve been doing it before you were even born. And here’s the insult added to your injury: they also still do it better than you.

Monorail Espresso's original cart service in Seattle Historical photo of Monorail Espresso's cart service

As not everyone is aware of America’s early espresso history, this humble but legendary espresso spot started Dec 1, 1980 as Chuck Beek’s espresso cart set up near the Westlake Center beneath the Seattle Center monorail — a 1962 construction for the World’s Fair to shuttle visitors from downtown to the iconic Space Needle in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne district. Mr. Beek’s idea was to see if he could sell espresso on the streets rather than coffeehouses, making him something of a pioneer of Seattle’s espresso cart revolution of the 1980s.

Today's Monorail Espresso can be missed easilyBy 1997, Monorail Espresso went from a cart service to its current (and relatively permanent) location: a 100-square-foot kiosk that’s today next to a Banana Republic. While it has changed little since then, other than former barista Aimee Peck taking over its ownership, it is a global espresso institution. Seattle locals and global travelers alike come here and celebrate its praises. And they deserve all they can get.

There’s a neon “Caffeine” sign, a chalkboard sidewalk sign advertising the latest specialty drink (e.g., maple latte), and a lot of bike messengers lounging nearby smoking cloves. From a sliding glass window, they’ve been serving espresso for eons made from a custom Monorail Blend produced by the small Whidbey Island roaster, Mukilteo (which has also remained strong-but-small over the eons).

Tourists bring their own demitasses from around the world to leave at this location, and the Monorail baristi often employ some of these mismatched, saucerless demitasses in service if you’re not getting it in paper. (For example, we were served with a Richard Ginori cup.)

Monorail Espresso and their small storefront window Caffeine at Monorail Espresso? Really?

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a splotchy dark and medium brown crema with old-school-quality looks. It has a creamy mouthfeel and has a robust flavor of chocolate, cloves, spice, and a great roundness in its taste profile. This is an espresso of thoughtful quality that’s unfortunately fallen out of vogue fashion among many newer coffee shops. I’d trade all the Sightglasses in SF for just one 100-square-foot Monorail. In downtown Seattle, corporate espresso is arguably the norm save for a wonderful exception such as this.

Served with a glass of sparkling water on the side. Cash only, because you can save that Apple Pay Touch ID for your proctologist.

Read the review of Monorail Espresso in Seattle.

The Monorail Espresso espresso with a side of sparkling water

On Coffee, Wine, the Napa Valley, and CIA Greystone

Posted by on 16 Nov 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

In addition to my rather obsessive love of coffee and evaluating its various flavors and aromas, I’ve made no secret of my equally fond appreciation of good wine. How much the two are connected — though sometimes at arm’s length — has been a running topic on this blog over the years. That theme repeated itself again when earlier this month I attended a weekend course called Sensory Analysis of Wine at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa Valley’s St. Helena.

Coincidentally, this week’s new episode of the Esquire Network’s The Getaway featured the Napa Valley and was hosted by Twin Peaksdamn fine cup of coffee” legend, the actor and now winemaker Kyle MacLachlan. Here’s a spot where he visits Napa’s Oxbow Public Market with Carissa Mondavi for coffee at Ritual Coffee Roasters:

In the video short, Carissa mentions the aromatic descriptors in coffee that you also find for wine. Which brings us back to the CIA course further up-valley. Located in a beautiful campus built in the 1880s as a co-operative winery (and since handed down from the Christian Brothers on down), it was purchased by the CIA in 1993 for use as their West Coast campus.

Foggy morning driving up the Napa Valley to the CIA at Greystone Hot air balloons rise over the road to the CIA at Greystone

Through the morning fog of St. Helena to CIA at Greystone Arriving at the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena

The course was taught by John Beuchsenstein, a veteran winemaker and wine sensory evaluation expert of some 30 years. Perhaps most notably, he’s a co-author of the Standardized System of Wine Aroma Terminology, also known as the Wine Aroma Wheel. It inspired the familiar SCAA Coffee Flavor Wheel, and John remembers the time when his work influenced the Coffee Flavor Wheel’s creation.

The two-day course was both an intensive lesson on the organic chemistry behind wine aromas, flavors, and defects and a hands-on lab where students tested their skills at learning and detecting these components. Volatile organic compounds such as 4-VG, 4-EP, esters, phenols, and fusel alcohols all represent the sort of chemical cause-and-effect linkages that have been long established for wine. However coffee is only just now getting a handle on similar chemical markers and how they impact the flavors and aromas of coffee.

Main campus at the CIA at Greystone Sensory Analysis of Wine classroom at the CIA at Greystone

John Beuchsenstein teaching Sensory Analysis of Wine at CIA at Greystone Homework assignments in the Sensory Analysis of Wine at CIA at Greystone

The good news for coffee is that the research is coming, but it will take time. As noted in the scientific paper on wine linked above, the wine industry has established standardized “recipes” for creating wine’s fundamental aromas and flavors. These form a foundation for a common sensory wine vocabulary. If you want a model for tobacco, there’s a base wine and an amount of off-the-shelf elements you can use to create that reference sensation, and you can dial it up or down in concentration to train your sensitivity to it.

Another parallel? Dr. Ann C. Noble at UC Davis had been using spider charts to model the sensory analysis of wines well over 30 years ago — something green bean buyers from SweetMaria’s would strongly identify with today. A major departure? Wine just doesn’t have coffee’s temperature-sensitive bands where different aspects of its flavor and aroma profile shift dramatically.

Sweet Maria's Moka Kadir blend evaluated on a tasting card/spider graph Student demonstration kitchens inside the CIA at Greystone and their watery-to-the-point-of-being-homeopathic Equator Estate coffee in Fetco brewers

The Bakery Cafe by Illy at CIA Greystone

Also of note is that the CIA at Greystone is one of the homes of Illy‘s Università del Caffè — a fact that Illy Master Barista, Giorgio Milos, pointed out to me when I ran into him at an Illy Art in the Street event at The NwBlk in the Mission last month. (Do check out his semi-controversial article on the limited praises of pod coffee in last month’s Coffee Talk.)

Courses at the Università del Caffè are infrequent, but the CIA at Greystone has a permanent coffee outlet on exhibit in the form of The Bakery Cafe by Illy. Sure, many culinary students and staff drink watery Equator Estate Coffee from the Fetco brewers in the demonstration kitchens at the CIA. But this bakery/café opened in April 2012 as an outlet for where CIA students could serve lunch, baked goods, and café fare to the general public.

With heavy Illy branding near the De Baun Theater, it’s also next to a CIA counter behind glass walls that serves wine, charcuterie, and chocolate confections. They offer baked bread and cookies, sandwiches, soups, salads, side dishes (good French fries, btw), wines by the glass, and of course — coffee.

The Bakery Cafe by Illy at the CIA at Greystone and its La Cimbali machine Service counter at The Bakery Cafe by Illy

The Bakery Cafe by Illy's espresso on Saturday The Bakery Cafe by Illy's espresso on Sunday

There are multiple indoor tables and chairs with table service (and ordering at the counter) and colorful hanging lights. Using a two-group La Cimbali XP1 chrome beauty behind the counter, fed by the big Illy can-o-beans, the same students pulled shots that varied wildly in the two times we visited for lunch over a weekend course here.

The staff wear “Illy-approved” fashionable shoes with the men sporting skinny ties like wannabe metro Europeans. With their service model carrying drinks to your table when they are ready, this clearly contributes to a lot of the variance. (Coincidentally, Giorgio Milos frequently talks about about the challenges of consistency with table service.)

On Saturday’s class day it had no crema beyond a tinge of cloudiness on the surface of what seemed like drip coffee crossed with a weak hot chocolate. It had a flat flavor with little brightness, a surprisingly decent body, but little to excite beyond that: a stale-seeming shot with no Illy woodiness, etc.: a shot that scored well on some properties but completely failed on others.

Then on Sunday the shot came with a darkly speckled brown crema, a solid aroma, and a warming flavor of mild spices and wood in balance that you come to expect of Illy. Nothing at the quality level of their European cafés (it’s always a much better product there for some reason), but an all-around shot of decent quality. So it’s very hard to tell you what you will get here, other than an erratic performance by students and a seeming lack of quality control intervening. Other than it’s served in Illy logo IPA cups.

Read the review of The Bakery Cafe by Illy in the CIA at Greystone, St. Helena, CA.

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