Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
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.
By 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.)
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.
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 Peaks “damn 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This café is the brainchild of former middle school teacher and Ritual Coffee barista, Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Starting as a pop-up in SF’s South Park (which has since closed in Dec. 2013), this over-designed flagship café opened in Oct. 2013 to a considerable amount of gushing praise.
It took over the former Teashi spa, and the spirit of past mani/pedis and Brazilian waxings still sort of haunts the place. On the sidewalk out front there’s limited wooden café table seating. Inside in front there’s window counter seating for four on stools right next to shelves of coffee merchandising, just shy of the long service counter.
It’s a long space that is deceptively airier than its limited seating would suggest. There’s an array of a few café tables against a shared wall bench; these are typically the domain of laptop zombie squatters. Further back there’s an upstairs under bright skylights that offers two larger, semi-private tables.
Here there is an overwhelming sense of someone’s idyllic vision that a café should be more like an Apple Store. There are stark, plain walls and wood grain paneling plus a wannabe kanketsu “service philosophy” of removing as many barriers as possible between barista and customer.
This is exemplified by their unique, Modbar-like espresso machine: a two-group, under-the-counter job either called the Jepy Minim (per the engineer/designer John Ermacoff, aka Jepy) or the Ghost (per project designer Ben Kaminsky). It’s the guts of a perfectly acceptable Synesso Sabre, but Frankensteined beyond recognition as a sacrifice to form. This worship at the Holy Church of Makerdom might promise greater temperature control, etc., but what only matters to us as coffee lovers is what it produces in the cup.
They specially source limited coffees and roast them through Ritual Coffee Roasters for their own private label, and our review here is of their Little Brother Espresso — which comes at a whopping $3. (They also served a Costa Rica Los Crestones for $4.) It’s served slightly full with an even, medium brown crema. There’s a balance to the flavor with hints of bright fruit, but there’s primarily a mid-palate of herbal pungency.
In short: it’s a very good shot. But for all the pomp, technology, design, and the price, it doesn’t measure up to expectations — failing to rank in the Top 35 of SF coffee shops. We need to revisit to ensure we didn’t catch them on an off moment, but that would be surprising given they’ve been open for eight months and their machine has dialed down espresso shots to a push-button level. The good news for Saint Frank is that there are clear opportunities to improve. (That might also include banning all employees here from openly calling it “spro”, dude.)
This will read like an attack on Kevin when he’s done some very interesting things with unique coffees, and he’s certainly trying things. Yet Saint Frank is also symptomatic and emblematic of what seems so very lost and misguided with what the industry holds as the new standard of coffee shop today. Among all the toys and distractions of late, coffee quality in the cup seems to have again taken a back seat.
If you’re going to charge $3 for an espresso, it should at least break the Top 35 in the city. Among the 700 active espresso purveyors currently surveyed in SF, Saint Frank’s standard espresso shot is the most expensive in the city that’s served outside of a restaurant setting. (Presuming the Nespresso Boutique & Bar qualifies more as a restaurant, where you’re paying more for white tablecloth service and a global smoke & mirrors marketing campaign.)
We should all be paying more for coffee — but for better coffee. Based on our ratings, it’s not better. For the reported pedigree of their sourced coffees, it doesn’t even have a different or unique flavor profile. So what exactly am I paying extra for?
First, there’s the promising lure of shiny new equipment and it’s empirically consistent failure to deliver better coffee. In the past we’ve noted the likes of Sightglass who have been guilty of this for years. In Saint Frank’s case, it’s not even so much a “better brewing” sales come-on than superficial aesthetics: i.e., a low-profile workspace primarily conceived to address the First World coffee problem where my barista doesn’t get to see more of my crotch.
Fortunately the Modbar isn’t weighed down by outrageous costs — you can get a full system for under $10k. Hopefully Saint Frank’s custom lookalike (the Jepy Minim or Ghost, depending upon whom you ask) follows suit in that department. But with new, “revolutionary” ways to brew coffee even more perfectly being announced every week, we’ve often wondered if any of the takers ever get the chance to dial-in on them, with a serious dose of experience, before they roll on to the next big thing — looking to technology to bail them out from substandard practices.
This is a little of what former USBC champ Kyle Glanville recently called the “fancy equipment arms race”: “People are spending shit tons on machines to brew coffee when they should be investing in their own palates and understandings of flavor, and the knowledge of how coffee brewing actually works”
So what about making your café look like an Apple Store? Blue Bottle Coffee has been compared to the Apple of coffee shops, and they’re even sporting Apple-inspired service table designs. And CoffeeRatings.com has had plenty of good things to say about Blue Bottle.
Except Blue Bottle’s resulting coffee quality is noticeably better than Saint Frank’s. Now any café owner is entitled to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a custom espresso machine, killer grinders, and a Zenlike service design experience. But if it doesn’t translate to a better cup of coffee, those costs are being passed on to me to satisfy completely different concerns. You’d be better off having your baristas selling me $400 sweaters.
What results is a place that seems enamored with all the trappings of what’s expected of a wannabe Fourth Wave coffee place, but with no improvement in the coffee itself. Which suggests more of our cynical definition of a Fourth Wave coffee shop from four years ago. We then joked that if the Third Wave was about letting the coffee speak for itself and enjoying coffee for its own sake, the Fourth Wave was about appreciating so much of the gadgetry and trappings surrounding coffee service that any actual coffee was no longer required.
But can any of us blame Kevin? The status quo of the industry’s most popular coffee media encourage this focus. For example, a Dear Coffee, I Love You seems to care more about subway tiles than coffee roasting. While Sprudge heavily promotes their “Buildouts of the Summer” promotional series as if coffee were a construction project. And in professing “we would never grade coffee shops”, Sprudge seems too terrified to lift a judgmental finger to critique any of the coffee and potentially hurt someone’s feelings.
This leaves a massive void of any popular critical thought about retail coffee quality. Instead of learned coffee professionals, this gap is filled instead by the arbitrary standards of “top 20 coffee shops in America” lists on popular news and travel web sites — often written and compiled by interns most enamored by double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos in paper to-go tubs, whose understanding of coffee quality extends little beyond the MSRP price tags of the commercial coffee machine fad of the month.
Or worse: the void is left to the whims of the “man in the street” on review sites like Yelp!: where electrical outlets for laptops, cute baristas who flirt, and cheap extra large muffins count for more than any coffee quality.
Imagine a perverse wine world where the like likes of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast gave everything identical 90-point scores while devoting the bulk of their writing to the wood and fixtures used to build their tasting rooms and the designers of their high-tech wine openers. It’s of little surprise that we have ended up with coffee writing that reads more like an interior design arms race sponsored by Home Depot®. Meanwhile any actual quality judgement on coffee is suppressed to the level of American youth soccer: everybody is recognized with a trophy just for participating. Why even bother with the farce of barista competitions if “everyone is a winner”?
Over a decade ago, one of the major inspirations for creating CoffeeRatings.com was our immense frustration with all the existing books and online reviews of coffee houses at the time: it was impossible to find any critical reviews of coffee places that critiqued any actual coffee. Most of the attention was spent on ambiance: the style of the clientele who hung out there, what novels they read, and how good the bagels were. With all the attention now given to new machines, service counter layouts, and who makes the wooden countertops, we seem to have relapsed to those more ignorant days.
I never thought I’d miss what six years ago I called the Malaysian street food experience. Then the environmental design slight-of-hand was in making you feel like a hipster for sipping your espresso while sitting on a cinder block in an alley filled with spent heroin needles. Even so, at least the quality of the coffee still ran as the headline. Today I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it’s time to go back to those days.
Still reading? OK, here’s the long version. So what made me lob such an incendiary, sweeping, and judgmental hand grenade? This past week I came across this headline from Roast Magazine‘s news feed: Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine – Coffee Recommendations From the World’s Greatest Restaurant Chef.
The post cites a Telegraph travel article that’s completely innocuous. But it’s the loaded presumptions behind Roast‘s headline that forcibly poked me in the eye and compelled me to respond.
Because, you see, I’ve never trusted a great chef’s opinion about good coffee. And I’ve come to believe that I probably never will. This is yet another example of why all journalistic efforts and awards that classify coffee as some mutant, orphaned subdivision of food seem misguided and wholly inadequate.
Most great chefs are quite poor at even desserts — at least when compared to their hired gun pastry chefs, for example, they often reach for odd savory creations given palates that are often clueless at how to deal with sweet. Thus it shouldn’t be of great surprise that most great chefs are outright lame when it comes to quality coffee. The continually sad state of restaurant coffee being additional supporting evidence.
So why does public perception seem convinced of the complete opposite?
In recent years, food has firmly become a form of entertainment, and the highest profile chefs have morphed into something strangely akin to lifestyle consultants. As the social status of celebrity chefs has risen, so has a sort of cultural belief that these chefs have come to represent all things fine dining and living — each of them harboring great secrets of a modern illuminati. So much so, today our popular culture is immersed in this mistaken fantasy that chefs always eat out better than you, eat at home better than you, and even vacation better than you. (Yes, there are even absurd apps based on the premise that chefs eat better than anyone else on the planet.)
The reality is that even the best chefs often have terrible diets, have no time to eat well, chain smoke, marinate themselves in hard alcohol, and even shoot up with a little smack or crank now and then. (I’m looking at you, Anthony Bourdain.) And yet consumers seem overly willing to make a misguided mental leap: that just because someone is qualified to make a meal for King Louis XIV, they must therefore eat and live it up like King Louis XIV (though maybe on a slightly leaner budget).
So when American super-chef, Thomas Keller, says he can often be found eating at an In-N-Out Burger, that might help elevate public esteem for the cult favorite burger chain. But that says more to me about Thomas Keller than it says about In-N-Out Burger — which is, quite disappointingly, just another mass-produced, paper-hat, greasy-burger-on-a-bun fast food chain of a slightly different hue. It might also explain why the coffee at Mr. Keller’s restaurants is so poor.
A few years ago when we dined at Keller’s notorious French Laundry, we noted how the espresso there scored lower than a Starbucks at the SFO airport. A good friend of this Web site who ranks high in the local coffee industry (who shall remain nameless) also dined there this past weekend and reported pretty much the exact same disappointing coffee experience. And that’s quite consistent with the poor coffee service we’ve experienced at virtually all of Keller’s restaurants.
But it’s not just Keller.
On an episode of Dangerous Grounds in Rome this season, superchef Mario Batali sent Todd Carmichael to Tazza d’Oro to experience what he thinks is the best Italian espresso, period. Now I love Tazza d’Oro. A major inspiration for this site was the battle between the locals in Rome’s centro storico for who had the better espresso — Tazza d’Oro or Sant’Eustacio il Caffè. But as good as it is, there’s a lot of local legend and historical folklore behind Chef Batali’s choice.
Mr. Carmichael eyeballs Tazza d’Oro’s roasting operations and notices all the Brazilian coffee produced by mechanically harvested megafarms, suggesting how he could do better. And as I recently concluded, even the best espresso from a recent trip to Napoli — a city known even more for the quality of its Italian espresso — could not crack SF’s Top 15. Even look at the Batali-owned U.S. locations of Eataly: there are Lavazza cafés in the U.S. where any Eataly in its native Italy would never consider hosting them on the basis of Lavazza’s vast size and pedestrian quality.
Chef Batali has an impeccable palate for Italian food. But his taste for coffee seems clearly borrowed rather than personally developed. Though who can blame him given everything else he has to obsess about? Even if his habits of hanging out with that vapid sea hag in $1,000 yoga pants, Gwyneth Paltrow, and his trademark I’ve-given-up-hope footwear might suggest that not all his tastes are winners.
Speaking of that ever-popular wine analogy, let’s turn our attention to great chefs and their relationship to wine. Food and wine are like the yin and yang of fine dining. Yet nobody corners great chefs to ask their personal opinions about their favorite wines — so why would coffee even be relevant? Sure, said chefs will be asked about pairing wine with food. But almost never are they asked about their independent opinions about wine.
Why? Because all the respectable wine snobs know that’s not where these chefs excel. When Wine Enthusiast visited Chef Redzepi’s Copenhagen dining scene a few years ago, it failed to even mention wine anywhere in the article. A curious omission for a wine-obsessed magazine.
In 2007 Wine Spectator interviewed Thomas Keller and did an exceedingly rare thing: they asked him directly about his wine preferences. Did he wax about the lush qualities of his favorite vintage of Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru? No, instead he noted that his favorite wines were young Zinfandels — big fruit bombs, often heavy on alcohol, that were once most commonly known as “jug wines” not all that long ago.
There’s nothing wrong with young Zinfandels or having preferences for inexpensive wines. This isn’t to suggest that great chefs have disproportionately philistine tastes when it comes to wine (or coffee). But professing favoritism for what was once associated with wine’s misery market is hardly what the public expects when seeking the sage wisdom of Thomas Keller’s “distinguished wine palate”.
As for Mario Batali, he promotionally offers his name on a “Mario Batali Selection™” line of wines — curated by Mario and typically offered in the $15-20 range. But nobody believes that’s what he chooses to drink. In fact, Chef Batali seems too preoccupied having his team of ghostwriters come up with new material for his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine — “What I’m Drinking” — where each week Chef Mario celebrates new ways to damage his liver through the versatile elixir of hard liquor.
What Chef Redzepi, Chef Keller, and Chef Batali — and many great chefs like them — all have in common is knowing the limits of their own tastes and opinions outside of food. What they all have become quite good at is knowing how to delegate, choosing surrogates whose opinions they trust: whether that’s a pastry chef, a sommelier, or someone in charge of the coffee service at their restaurant.
All of which isn’t to say that René Redzepi has no taste for decent coffee. Coffee Collective is a Copenhagen, if not world class, coffee institution. But the loaded pretext here is that because Chef Redzepi knows how to forage and make the world’s most delicious moss, that somehow this qualifies him as some kind of coffee oracle. This when his coffee palate is likely far less informed than some 28-year-old local Copenhagen bike messenger who still lives with his parents. I’d rather hear that bike messenger’s opinion about coffee. However, Chef Redzepi has earned his respect and celebrity for what he’s accomplished with food — even if he hasn’t earned it for all things related to taste.
Being an outstanding chef does not bestow any magical abilities to divine good coffee from bad, just as being a certified Q grader doesn’t qualify you as an expert on modern Scandinavian cuisine. So let’s stop pretending that chefs are something they’re not — as if being the executive chef at the best restaurant in the world isn’t enough. They can barely cope with wine or dessert, let alone coffee.
Perhaps if we stop insisting that our food savants must also be multi-disciplinary Renaissance men and women in all matters of taste, we might start deservedly recognizing the coffee specialists for what they truly excel at.
Curiously enough, Chef Redzepi opens the presentation by giving complete credit to his head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, for Noma’s coffee program and suggests that Mr. Kleppe should give the talk. Chef Redzepi then proceeds to monopolize the presentation — with Mr. Kleppe standing on stage nearby.
Today’s Stanford Daily published an article on the Stanford Coffee Symposium that we held this past weekend: Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily. In addition to the featured speakers mentioned in our earlier post, the event showcased espresso drinks and coffees meticulously prepared by Mr. Espresso, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Centro Agroecológico del Café A.C. (CAFECOL, from Mexico), Coupa Café, and Café Venetia — plus an overall event coffee service provided by Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
Exclusively for the event, Richard Sandlin of Fair Trade USA (and the Bay Area Coffee Community) and Stephen Vick, green coffee buyer for Blue Bottle Coffee, jointly developed a custom coffee evaluation session where some 200 students tasted three very different coffees from different regions — each personally sourced by Stephen and prepared by Blue Bottle baristas. Richard and Stephen encouraged the students to identify & associate flavor descriptors for each coffee and compare their tasting experiences with those of their own.
I was pleasantly surprised that the Stanford University team transformed the classic, 1938-built Stanford Graduate School of Education building, with its modest power & water supply, into something that could support an event of this size: with modern espresso machines and a demanding cupping-like event with three different hand-crafted coffees served simultaneously to some 70 people in three shifts.
Although I was mostly busy helping to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes, I still managed to learn quite a bit about coffee history, the coffee genome, the impacts of coffee on labor and certification practices in Latin America, and how to measure biodiversity and its effects on coffee production. That said, my favorite event logistics non-sequitur of the day had to be: “I found out that the golf cart wasn’t stolen.”
A big thanks to everyone who helped pull off a educational, fun, and highly caffeinated celebration of coffee that also increased our mindful appreciation of it.
Long before there was Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso continually wrestled with the “last mile” of retail coffee delivery. All their quality efforts sourcing, roasting, and blending coffee could be undone by poor storage, an inexperienced barista, or a poorly maintained espresso machine. By opening Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso could take more direct control of that last mile and better showcase their coffee.
Equator Estate Coffees is another local roaster that hasn’t quite yet had the retail coffee outlet to truly show them off. This was a particularly nagging issue for us on CoffeeRatings.com, where over the years we noted their industry accolades but were continually challenged to find just one among dozens of example outlets where their roasts didn’t underwhelm us.
Equator co-founder and master roaster, Brooke McDonnell, sometimes took to the comments on our blog posts to debate the variances in personal tastes. She was right that personal tastes vary, and none are necessarily more “right” or “wrong” than others.
Sure, we’ve been known to pause over the likes of Stumptown Coffee Roasters — who while clearly in the upper echelon of coffee quality always seemed to rank in the lower end of that class. Someone certainly has to, so why not them?
But if Stumptown marked a natural statistical outcome when forced to jockey for rankings within subjective personal tastes, Equator represented nothing short of an anomaly for us. Ultimately, we had more or less come to the conclusion that our perception-of-quality disparity had less to do with our own coffee palate and more with their relatively loose controls over the supply and delivery chain at the retail end.
Opening in June 2013, Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop represents a joint venture where the roaster finally got their own “reference quality” coffee bar. Located at one of the main divides in Mill Valley between traffic into “downtown” and traffic towards Muir Woods and the California Highway 1 beaches, this red-painted wooden shack at the head of a part-gravel parking lot beckons surfers and coffee lovers alike. It seems like an odd place for a surf shop (Proof Lab, in back): sandwiched between the Bothin Marsh and Coyote Creek with no sign of sand for miles. But the surfers (and boarders) come.
There’s a cement patio in front, enclosed from the highway by standing surfboards and a surf-board-inspired outdoor table. The rear entrance to the building has seating among white-painted metal café tables and chairs — and a surfboard table. Inside there are several small wooden café tables set against a wall of Hurley surf advertising. (With surfboards in the rear.) One wall is dedicated to retail sale of various coffees and home brewing equipment.
Using a red, two-group La Marzocco Strada machine, they pull shots with a mottled, textured crema of a medium and darker brown. It looks robust and organic, has a decent body, a full aroma, and a well-blended flavor of herbal pungency mixed with some spices, heavy cherry-like fruit (perhaps just a touch too much fruit for my tastes), and some honey-like edges. Served in white logo Espresso Parts cups with very necessary sparkling water on the side.
It’s a solid cup. It has great visual appeal and seems like it has all the ingredients for excellence. However, you might say the enigma continues a little: as good as it is, it still falls on the weaker side of excellence with still some room for improvement.
As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)
The 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.
There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.
The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.
They visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.
Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.
Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.
I’ve had a long, strange history with academics. Before succumbing to the dark side of money-plundering dot-com entrepreneurs, I worked in scientific research labs at The Johns Hopkins University and at Stanford University. It was also a joint graduate PhD program in bioengineering at UC Berkeley/UCSF, with a focus on neuroscience, that first brought me out to the SF Bay Area some 25 years ago.
Thus the idea of academia is something I know well, albeit with ambivalent feelings. For me, there’s always been an inherent conflict between the practicality of “real world” grounding and the legitimate need to follow intellectual pursuits to advance any field of interest — whether that be neuroscience or coffee — even at the risk of building ivory towers.
That people in the coffee industry today swear by using measuring scales, monitor things like total dissolved solids (TDS), and continually experiment with this pressure control or that pre-infusion time are all baby-step examples of the need for an academic approach — the building of a more comprehensive coffee science, as it were.
And yet while you can earn a PhD in Coffee Science from the University of Trieste (Italy) studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy, in America you can’t even earn so much as a bachelor’s degree in the field. So it’s with encouragement that we read yesterday’s announcement: UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow – Our Region – The Sacramento Bee.
If you don’t know UC Davis, they are an amazing ag (and veterinary) school. As just a personal example, a fellow Chicago native and husband of a lifelong close friend of the family, Chris Carpenter, moved from Chicago to Napa years ago to earn a masters in Horticulture from the viticulture and enology (i.e., wine) department at UC Davis. He’s now earning 100-point scores as a winemaker and recently served four years as chairman of the board for Slow Food USA. If you can judge an academic program based on the success of its graduates, and you should, UC Davis is no slouch when it comes to food and drink.
UC Davis just formally announced their Coffee Center and their first Coffee Center Research Conference, which will take place this coming Tuesday, March 11. All initial steps, but definitely promising steps in the right direction. Unlike their world-famous viticulture program, for example, the question still remains whether such an ambitious scientific initiative can truly thrive so far from origin for an ag school — rather than in a place like Kona, Hawaii. Greenhouse coffee can only go so far in vitro.
Much of their conference agenda, like their Coffee Center, seems focused on the microbiology of coffee. However, there are also talks on coffee genetics and sensory evaluation — the latter naturally tapping into the university’s expertise on the subject in the wine world.
Coincidentally, a little over a week from now the 2014 TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and there promises to be continued servicing of TED attendees by various luminaries of the professional coffee world. Recall that an invitation from TED is what inspired the now-defunct Coffee Common.
TED fashions itself as a sort of intellectual gathering of big minds and big ideas for the betterment of the world. Sounds great for the academic and scientific advancement of good coffee, right? But if you thought I’d be a fan of TED, you could not be more wrong.
Fortunately I was able to attend a past TED conference on the tab of an ambitious dot-com entrepreneur rather than having to fork over the $7,500 hazing price myself. (I.e., “Your hedge fund must be this large to ride this attraction.”) TED has done an amazing job of marketing and self-promotion, and I felt I should have every reason to support TED and its aims on the surface. But I found the TED event and organization to be intellectually shallow and ethically dishonest.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famed author of The Black Swan, once famously called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Part of that is the event’s general preference for infotainment over substance, as exemplified in its famous 18-minute videos that run like infographics set to moving pictures — optimized for people who prefer to be entertained rather than informed.
More objectionable to me were many of the event attendees themselves. They seemed fixated more on asserting or reaffirming their own special status in the world by the company they keep — or, perhaps as Mr. Taleb would put it, by those circus performers they invite to entertain them. Imagine The Great Gatsby, but with ostentatious material wealth replaced by grand displays of intellectual vanity.
The professionals of the coffee world are some amazing, impassioned, bright people capable of making their own brave decisions of free will. Yet I cannot help but feel that TED has cynically invited many of them merely to exploit for a premium event coffee service, helping the world of TED to maintain their personal façade of elitism in the process. I wish the best for the attending coffee pros and only hope they come out unscathed, unlike myself.
Much closer to home, about a year ago Stanford University Professor of Biology, Virginia Walbott, approached me to help co-organize a Stanford Coffee Symposium to be held in the spring of 2014. Prof. Walbott organized a similar, highly successful event for chocolate in May of 2011, tapping into both the university (Depts. of Biology, Latin American Studies, Economics, etc.) and industry (Scharffen Berger, Monique’s Chocolates, etc.).
Our goal for the event is to balance some higher-minded academics with a practical, consumer-friendly grounding in what makes coffee enjoyable and fun. (Read: check your self-congratulatory intellectual elitism at the door!) To be held Saturday, May 3 at the Cubberley Building of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford Continuing Studies just published its course catalog entry last week:
WSP 172 – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between
Registration is now open at $195 per student with a deadline of April 26. The featured speakers and topics thus far are as follows:
In addition to the planned talks there will be various Bay Area coffee vendors and an interactive tasting session. My current challenge? Following a location visit last Tuesday, I’m now working with the university to get sufficient power into the 1938 building to run sufficient numbers of espresso machines and grinders.
That said, I’m genuinely excited about the event and hope many of you will be too.
Maybe it’s just me, but Napoli has come up a lot since I posted our survey of the espresso there two weeks ago.
Over the weekend I attended the comedic play Napoli! at SF’s American Conservatory Theater. I can’t remember a play where coffee played such a central role in every scene. Then last night, Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). Like any good Neapolitan, he even thanked soccer player and Napoli patron saint, Diego Maradona:
Both works of art come recommended, btw.
However, last week we also came across a great contrarian article (in Italian) about the espresso in Napoli by Andrej Godina: ANDREJ GODINA A NAPOLI – Un viaggio, una giornata alla scoperta del presunto mito del caffè di Napoli. In it, Mr. Godina tours Napoli to sample the local espresso and is mostly left with a bad taste in his mouth.
Chances are you don’t know Mr. Godina, but it’s fair to say he has credentials. He earned a PhD in Science, Technology and Economics in the Coffee Industry at the University of Trieste studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy; he is an SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) Authorized Trainer, Master Barista, and Barista Examiner; and he works at Dalla Corte — an espresso machine manufacturer in Italy whose lineage brought about the E61 group head and the company La Spaziale.
Rather than follow a quality guide, like a Bar d’Italia, he and his barista trainer, Andrea, arrived in Napoli by train and began choosing a number of coffee shops at random. In short, they found them all quite terrible despite the legend of Napoli’s great coffee — which goes back the the 18th century and is even supported by some of Illy‘s own research conducted there.
He discovers minute-and-a-half (i.e., over-) extractions, stale coffee, burnt coffee, dirty cups, grinders with oily build-up, and bitter and astringent espresso. He also dispenses a lot of the folklore behind why Napoli espresso is so “good”: it’s the water, it’s the special roasting process, etc. He even takes a pot shot or two at caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), the Neapolitan caffettiera coffee maker (la tazzulella), and the zucchero-crema. After tasting some dozen espresso shots, the best he could rate them was a 4 out of 10 — with a 6 being acceptable.
It’s one hell of a condemning indictment. Is it fair? In our reviews, it’s true that we targeted many quality caffès with advance research. But we also mixed in a number of places at random and didn’t find them to be too far off the mark. (Save for one horrid exception in the guest breakfast room of a Napoli hotel.) Mr. Godina also dismissed Gran Caffè Gambrinus with a 4/10 rating — which we found to be quite good, even if nothing in Napoli would crack our Top 15 list for San Francisco.
It just shows that a lot still comes down to individual tastes and preferences. While Mr. Godina and I may agree on how good Illy can be in Italy, his company is located in Milano — which we’ve long lamented as one of the most underachieving coffee cities in Italy with many places serving the Dunkin’ Donuts of Italian espresso. Mr. Godina also rates an espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venezia as one of the best he’s ever had. Historical, absolutely, but we would never consider the espresso quality at the likes of Caffè Florian worth writing home about.
We stand by our assessment that the random espresso in Napoli beats the typical baseline quality standards at any other city in the world to which we’ve been (and we’ve been to a lot). But as Mr. Godina’s article proves, opinions will vary.
Surprisingly, Epicurious had yet to make a notable entry in the obligatory culinary-magazine-rates-national-coffee-shops department. But that all changed this week with the rather ambitious title of “America’s 25 Best Coffee Shops — The ultimate guide to the best coffee shops across the United States”: America’s Best Coffee Shops | Epicurious.com.
We do have to give them an iota of credit. Unlike most of their ilk, they cover coffee without a brand name that suggests an exclusive concern for food, eating, meals, or anything else at the expense of beverages as some kind of frivolous, second-class diversion. But then they did have to ruin it a little by filing the article under their “Where to Eat Around the Globe” category. Facepalm indeed.
Writer Colleen Clark also falls for many of the usual suspects among coffee house article tropes. Like a rapper with mad rhyming skillz just this side of 2 Chainz, she employed several examples of the journalistically lazy caffeine riff and liberally used the trite words “java” or “joe” as substitutes for “coffee”. Imagine if writers playfully used the term “alcoholics” when talking about wine lovers they way they effusively use “caffeine junkies” whenever talking about coffee lovers. Double standard, anyone?
Then there’s the tiresome barista-as-sommelier analogy. She also made several references to the rather dated topic of regional coffee “scenes”: the concept where which urban metropolis you’re in determines whether you can access quality coffee or not is becoming rapidly irrelevant if not already extinct. Now that even the world’s last holdout for terrible coffee — Paris, France — has worthy and redeemable coffee shops, there are no more “coffee cities” anymore than there are wine or tea cities.
All these negatives aside, the article is actually a rather decent assessment of great coffee shops — given Epicurious‘ magazine peers. (Even Forbes tried to get in on the act of reviewing the nation’s best coffee shops.) It might suggest that “it’s hard to separate the real-deal java joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsters” — a problem that we honestly never knew needed solving. But they at least drew a line in the sand, laying down some of their criteria by which some coffee shops should or should not be included in their list:
So we’ve combed the country for the coffee shops that combine craft with hospitality, for inviting spaces that spark creativity, and for roasters who know how to make your morning brew tell a story. These are our picks for the USA’s top 25 coffee shops.
This beats most of the random nonsense we’ve seen in past magazine lists of this type. Even if some of these criteria are precisely the sort of fluff that frustrated us as distractions from a focus on the actual coffee as far back as 2003: telling stories, named architects, hospitality, etc.
So that you don’t have to turn 25 pages of ads on the Epicurious Web site, we’ve summarized their list here in one place as something useful (and as listed in no particular order):
Risks of the No Coffee Left Behind Act aside, this is a solid list. We will be the first to admit that it is over-represented by San Francisco. But most curiously, although it does well to call out a few smaller independents such as Daylight Mind and Barista Parlor, this list is heavily represented by chains. For a Top 25 list, it’s actually cheating a bit as it actually represents a total of 85 coffee shops.
Has quality coffee in the U.S. reached a tipping point where the independents have come to be outnumbered by the chains? That’s hard to say just yet, but you can’t argue with the quality represented here.