Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Perhaps the biggest irony is that nobody should ever need a CoffeeCON.
As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.
And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)
Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”
But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.
Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)
You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)
All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?
Coincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.
CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:
CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.
Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.
Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.
Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.
Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.
The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.
Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.
As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.
A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.
Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.
Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.
For the past couple of days, I’ve resisted writing about this topic: the recent SCAA conference and the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon the following day. But I can’t escape it. Apologies in advance for adding little on the subject of coffee, but to do so exclusively would seem both disrespectful and inappropriate. This post is really more for myself in a cathartic way, as my heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy.
Of course, things didn’t exactly work out that way. What was originally announced in the SFO airport as an FAA delay caused by a small plane hitting the World Trade Center turned into something horrifically worse. No civilian aircraft in North America would become airborne again until a few days later.
With the fog of what just happened, who did it, and what’s coming next still on everyone’s minds, the HR department and a few coworkers told me to simply make the announcement over the phone — that my team would understand under the circumstances. But I was stubbornly determined to take personal responsibility for my decision, no matter how ugly it had to be. I owed them that much. So once air travel resumed, I caught the next flight I could get into Boston that following weekend.It was one of the most white-knuckled flights I’ve ever taken. Not because of any turbulence, but because everyone on that plane could not get the television images of 9/11 — and the thought of further hijacking attempts — out of their heads. Everyone was on edge, suspiciously sizing up all of their fellow passengers. You got the sense that if anybody even attempted something that looked like a false move, that person would be forcefully subdued and probably beaten to death by a plane full of anxious passengers mentally prepared to fight or die.
I had flown into Boston Logan multiple times before, but never like this. The airport was a ghost town, largely abandoned of people and planes with a skeleton crew left running things. The taxi driver who picked me up was desperate for a fare, as he told me that, “Boston Logan is still an active crime scene.” The two flights that struck the World Trade Center towers both departed from Boston, from gate areas I was eerily all too familiar with from previous travels.
I was fortunate that a few people on my newly-laid-off staff thanked me for giving them the news in person. But I did not again return to Boston until last week.
What brought me back to Boston after all these years wasn’t the SCAA Conference — at least directly. It was more an invitation from Todd Carmichael (of La Colombe) to do a shoot for the second season of his TV show, “Dangerous Grounds”. Todd was insistent on a scene in the new season that wasn’t just his “Tarzan bit” through wild coffee jungles, but rather a social cupping discussion among a few invited guests — which included the likes of Doug Zell of Intelligentsia, Aleco Chigounis of Coffee Shrub (a sort of sister to Sweet Maria’s), Mette Marie of 49th Parallel Roasters, Ryan Brown now at Tonx, Andrew Ballard of Forty Weight Coffee, and the entertaining JP Iberti (co-founder of La Colombe).
Everybody brought some coffee to showcase and discuss. (Special thanks to Justine Hollinger of Barefoot Coffee Roasters for helping me represent their great work.) Despite Todd’s worry that some snarky infighting could develop, a great camaraderie developed among the cuppers that will hopefully come out in the program when it airs later this year. (And for the record, the overall favorite was the Yukro Ethiopia coffee from George Howell Coffee, sourced by Aleco.)
With the shoot out of the way, I had a few days to check out the SCAA conference and get reacquainted with Boston. It had been years since I had set foot in either.
For those who haven’t been to the SCAA conference, I’ll offer a perspective of someone not in the industry — and rather of just someone who really loves coffee. Like all industry conferences, it’s a great occasion to meet people and network. If you’re slinging coffee at a retail location all day, or sourcing out in the wild corners of the world, there are few occasions where you can personally meet and greet many of those coffee “greats” — or just cool people — you otherwise only read about (or from).
And there’s a lot of great coffee to be had. A barista at a complimentary La Marzocco espresso station jumbled multiple bags of Intelligentsia beans to create an impromptu blend in his Mazzer grinder. While I was watching this, he culturally noted that, “The industry people come earlier and ask for espressos, but later the ‘show’ people come and they all drink caps.” (i.e., cappuccinos).
But there are things about the SCAA conference I am not as enamored with. For one, it’s primarily a commercial trade show with a big emphasis on an exhibition floor of people hawking their wares. Good for a lot in the industry, but often a bit tedious if you really are more into the coffee than the latest gadgetry.
There’s the symposium topics, which I had not attended but often sounded interesting. But there’s a huge “reindeer games” aspect to the highly repetitive, three-ring circus of the Barista Championship, the Brewer’s Cup, and the US Cup Tasters Championship. Even odder now, there are members of the Barista Guild of America strutting about the place, and the city, in their official logo jackets as if part of some mutant coffee geek biker gang.
But the longer I was in Boston, the more I came to appreciate and became more enamored with the even bigger event in town that weekend: the 117th Boston Marathon. There was a very positive, festive, international sports vibe to the event that I hadn’t quite experienced since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Everywhere in town you ran into fit people in running gear — many not running the race but at least there in spirit and to support the other participants.
Last Saturday I walked down Boylston Street past Copley Square, just two days before the horrific bombings, soaking in the environment of fans, tourists, and the final touches of the stands and barricades being set up at the finish line for the event. Arriving back in SF only some 11 hours before those terrible events took place, the news was made all the more tragic for me having experienced just how much the Boston Marathon environment converted me into a fan.
The Boston Marathon will be back next year. Boston may not want me back, given my recent track record of tragic coincidence. But I can’t say enough to encourage those even modestly interested to attend. The coffee may not be anything near as good as at the SCAA, but it deserves every bit of your support.
As time passes, I promise to write more about the coffee. But right now, there are things far more important than coffee could ever be.
As CoffeeRatings.com celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it’s hard not to feel a little jaded by some of the coffee topics that simply refuse to die. Like Jason in Friday the 13th Part 1.30E+02, some subjects are the undead zombies of the coffee world, no matter how times you try to kill them with fire. (Kopi luwak, anyone?) All of which explains a little of why our blog posting cycle has gone from a few times per week to more like once a month: you’re tired of reading about the same stuff, and we’re tired of writing about it.
However, today we were inspired to reminisce down memory lane about bad restaurant coffee and the commoditized coffee fodder known as Nespresso. This time we blame Sprudge.com and Oliver Strand for exhuming the dead: Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap » Sprudge.com. Now that the blame is out of the way, we’ll join in this zombie apocalypse fight club with the nearest chainsaw we can grab.
The premise of Mr. Strand’s article is rooted in trends towards two polar opposites of coffee service at fine dining establishments — and the TwitCon Level 3 general alert that surrounds them (i.e., don your hardhats and make for your nearest social media fallout shelter, boys).
The first concerns famed restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma (repeat finalist for best restaurant in the world, and also home of the famed norovirus cocktail) who are producing coffee with care, sourced from the likes of Tim Wendelboe. The second, counter-movement concerns a Grub Street report that 30 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants have punted on coffee service by offering Nespresso — coffee’s version of Crocs.
Nespresso: the universal symbol of a restaurant that has given up coffee hope.
Given that we wrote about the trend of some high-end restaurants surrendering to Nespresso systems back in 2007, this isn’t exactly news. But our key points back then remain true as ever: introducing the mundane at an exclusive restaurant is always a losing strategy. This doesn’t matter whether your restaurant is putting Yellow Tail Cabernet on its wine list, serving San Pelligrino mineral water bought from the Costco across town, or slinging shots of Nestlé espresso served from a push-button machine: commodity products are the antithesis of why we’re paying $200-a-head and up to eat at your fine dining establishment.
The worst part is that stooping to Nespresso for your coffee service not only shows a lack of thought or creativity, but it is also completely unnecessary. A restaurant need not get in over its head in coffee minutia to do a memorable job of it. One of our most memorable coffee experiences anywhere involved little more than a restaurant that served fresh coffee, sourced from a unique Kona producer, and served in a French press. Simple, elegant, unique, excellent, and highly memorable.
That said, we have experienced some excellent coffee at local restaurants that have really invested in doing it right. We’re saddened by the recent demise of Bar Bambino, who once served one of San Francisco’s best restaurant espresso shots. But we were recently blown away by both the invested attention and quality of the end-product on a recent trip to Redd Restaurant in Yountville. (Great restaurant espresso?! And from Equator Estate Coffee?!?!)
In closing, we do have to politely chastise Mr. Strand’s standards of full-meal etiquette when he says, “I never order coffee at the end of a knockdown meal. Not after all of those courses and all of those wines.” (I.e., the “you’re doing it wrong” argument.) There’s no better way to close out an audacious meal with a short, well-made espresso — and perhaps this is where the volumetric studies of the latent filter drip coffee re-obsession tends to backfire — followed by the digestivo effects of a fine grappa. Though we do draw the line at cigars.
Back in 2005 we wrote about Zagat’s attempt to put together a regional coffee survey based on their famed user review methods. An acquisition by Google and eight years later, that was the last anyone had ever heard of it. Until now.
Zagat has since published their first ever coffee survey. This coincides with their recent hot and heavy lust for improved search engine rankings, with Zagat spewing out a steady stream of coffee-themed blog posts brandishing inane, list-driven, come-on titles such as, “The 10 Most Annoying Coffee Trends” or the wholly derivative/regurgitative “What Your Coffee Drink Says About You.” (Kill me now, please.)
Zagat titled their 2013 study Caffeine Buzz: Hottest Coffee Shops Around the Country, and yet much of its content left us wondering if they’ve been sitting on this data for eight years. For example, just examine the 2013 Zagat reviews for San Francisco.
They list Blue Bottle Coffee among their nine Bay Area selections — but none of the other “usual suspects”. However, they chose to include the ever-underwhelming, Starbucks-slinging Carmel Bakery in the coffee wasteland of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They mention Napa’s traditional but surprisingly good Model Bakery — but ignoring that a Ritual Coffee is around the corner and making no mention of how Model Bakery is one of the few places in the entire Bay Area to offer Caffé Vita coffee. (And for those of you in L.A., good luck finding Handsome Coffee or Portola Coffee Lab, let alone the countless barista award winners from Intelligentsia.)
Unfortunately, despite the SF Gate‘s notion that Zagat has finally caught on to the coffee zeitgeist, we see no evidence that Zagat has given coffee any more serious thought than they did back in 2005. The Zagat survey’s baked-goods-leaning, ambiance-heavy, and coffee-oblivious reviews of the few places that do make their short list only prove that.
The new Google-owned Zagat seems to believe that its future lies in a daily stream of bubblegum blog posts about local coffee. But since Zagat loyalists expect some sort of review guide to anchor things, Zagat exhumed their 8-year-old research and quickly threw it up on the Web.
Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.
If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.
That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)
All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.
And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)
But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.
Two months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.
The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.
First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.
However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.
Pod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.
Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.
To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.
Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.
Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.
As if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”
Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.
After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)
While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.
This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?
Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.
Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.
The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.
This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.
All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.
Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.
Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbucks‘ home Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.
This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.
Flying under our radar last month was a great cover story on the evolution and pitfalls of a quality local coffee business in Milwaukee Magazine: MilwaukeeMag.com – Coffee Wars.
As in many other mid-market cities across America over the past decade-plus, quality coffee has infiltrated even the most staunch communes of Starbucks drones. The Milwaukee coffee market is no exception, with Alterra Coffee serving as something of Milwaukee’s analogue to Blue Bottle.
But the story of Alterra Coffee could be the story of any pioneering quality coffee purveyor in America: local start-up business makes great coffee and changes local tastes and expectations, business success translates into growth of operations (roasting, retail, and distribution) and ambition, continued growth brings the company to a crossroads when they must answer where continued growth hurts product quality and company values, and the inspiration and spawning of newer, more nimble local competition.
That major crossroads for Alterra came in 2010 when Mars Corporation — the self-proclaimed “world’s leading petcare, chocolate, confection, food & drink company” (from their Web site) — approached them with an offer to include their coffee in Mars’ owned Flavia packets in exchange for revenue sharing and distribution rights.
Some 27 years ago in nearby Minneapolis, The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg croaked the words, “Time for decisions to be made: crack up in the sun, or lose it in the shade.” Do you reach for greater distribution and more revenues to expand your mission of good coffee? Or are you diluting your product and your brand, all the while inviting customer criticisms of going too “corporate” and selling out? (As the article quotes the local criticisms: “Alterra is the ‘Microsoft of coffee in Milwaukee’.”)
Like the Facebook status says: it’s complicated. And a cautionary tale worth the read.
The sad state of home espresso machines is a topic we’ve tried to avoid for long stretches. After our last depressing installment in 2009, we’ve been blissfully ignorant — ratcheting up the solid-but-rarely-outstanding shot pulls on our relatively decent home espresso setup of a Gaggia G106 Factory manual lever machine and a Mazzer Mini grinder.
That is until May, when disaster struck. After 10 years of abuse — where I tuned the coffee grind to the limits of what my “one-armed bandit” could handle before it choked — the central piston finally gave out with one fateful pull. Feeling the physical resistance of its lever vanish in one quick slip, I knew right away it was more than just the final, releasing grasp of an dying gasket.
Upon disassembly and inspection, part of the otherwise-durable Ryton plastic molding that holds the piston gaskets in place had clearly broken away. It’s no surprise that Gaggia discontinued this part and now only produces a brass version. While replacement parts are easy to look up, my replacement piston was put on back-order from Italy until who-knows-when.
Now I like my Hario V60 or Chemex as much as the next guy. But a steady and exclusive diet of coffee masquerading as tea — i.e., tasting primarily of berries and flower gardens and lawn clippings — is most unsatisfying. Sure, I had the perfect excuse to have more espresso out again, but sometimes you want your quality espresso without leaving the house. Fortunately, life’s misfortune sometimes creates the occasional unexpected opportunity. It arrived in June in the form of an email to coffeeratings.com from a Philips Saeco rep, with the subject-line come-on of “The Perfect Espresso from Philips Saeco”:
Searching for the perfect espresso? We believe you can make it yourself, in the convenience of your home. I’m working closely with my client, Philips Saeco, to share their espresso machines with coffee experts like you. If it’s a good fit, we’d like for you to send you one of these machines.
The normal Greg would have spewed out his home-roasted espresso blend across the kitchen table upon reading that. (“Perfect espresso“? Have they read my blog?) But home espresso beggars can’t be choosers. And if there was ever an opportunity where I could dedicate my time and attention to make an honest attempt at decent espresso with one of these dubious, hulking plastic, overpriced, and underachieving superautomatic home espresso machines, this was it.
So last week, without notice, a giant Saeco box arrived on my front porch. Opening it up, I felt a little like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story. But inside wasn’t a glowing leg lamp. Rather, it was a Saeco Syntia HD8833. To my surprise, rather than sending a throwaway economy job, Saeco sent one of their better models — listing for about $1,000 retail.
If we are going to be outraged about the poor espresso quality from a superautomatic home machine, all the better not to dismiss the verdict on the basis of a cheap machine. We may have seen some of this machine’s siblings in the showroom at the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa — and the espresso there may not have been too shabby. But our experience with superautomatic home espresso machines like it has been flattering to the Nespresso machine, and we don’t like Nespresso.
While I am no home espresso novice, the contents of the Saeco box seemed practically alien. What’s with all the plastic? Where’s the metal? You mean there’s more to today’s home espresso machine electronics than a heating element? And what’s that vibrating noise that sounds like a cheap home aquarium filter?
The device seems large, and yet it’s considered “compact” by many of today’s standards. Its side opens up like an ink jet printer — not exactly the mental analogy you want to be making for consumables. And it’s ridiculously robotic. Everything has been automated to death: coffee grinding, dosing, tamping, extraction. Hope still lied in the fact that a number of its automated tasks were adjustable: fineness of the grind, the volume of coffee, and the extraction time. But I am leery of any coffee machine that tries to be smarter than you.
I gained back a little confidence when much of its accompanying printed documentation emphasized the importance of descaling and cleaning. I’ve lost count of how many horrific, Exxon-Valdez-sized coffee oil Superfund sites we’ve stumbled upon in various Nespresso machine kitchens — with their delusional, convenience-obsessed owners believing that these devices also automated their cleaning and maintenance.
The machine required an extended “priming” operation, where the machine went through a series of button pushes, water cycles, and its display performed its best rendition of a Pink Floyd laser light show. Once primed and good beans (a nice Full City+ roast on Guatemala Antigua beans with ~ 1 week since roasting) were added to the hopper, we pushed the button for out first shot — with the maximum dosing (“aroma” in its manual’s parlance) and the smallest-sized shot from the factory presets.
The resulting shot was very large (at the rim of a regulation IPA demitasse), with a shockingly white thin crema, and a watery body. It tasted like what most horrible espresso shots tasted like in San Francisco back in the 1980s: overdrawn, over-extracted, and lacking any potency, body, or creaminess. The spent puck it spewed out was well-shaped but thoroughly soggy; gently touching the puck caused it to disintegrate into wet sludge.
Our immediate reaction was to head to the “Troubleshooting” section of the manual. It said much about the “Saeco Adapting System” and why your first shots might, well, suck. For example: “coffee is too weak” states that it is a “Rare event that occurs when the machine is automatically adjusting the dose. Brew a few coffees as described in section ‘Saeco Adapting System’.” Another measure of assurance was in the notes: “Note: These problems can be considered normal if the coffee blend has been changed or if the machine has just been installed.”
The first shot was followed by a second identical espresso shot … followed by a third identical shot. Yes, superautomatic consistency alright. Which is great if the espresso is good, but it’s a horrible curse and a waste of good coffee beans when the espresso sucks. We barely resisted the compelling urge to change practically every possible adjustment right away. Part of the reason was to let the machine invoke its “Adapting System” as advertised, and another part was to minimize the chaos of changing multiple variables at the same time.
Even so, how could an Italian company claim that such a machine is normally factory-tuned to produce “the perfect Italian espresso” right out of the box? I’ve been to Italy numerous times, and the espresso is never close to this bad — anywhere. Worse, Saeco’s documentation warns that you might find some residual coffee grounds on your new machine, as they have been put through testing before packaging. Testing for what? The taste of watery 1980s San Francisco espresso made by clueless minimum-wage employees?
It’s not just Saeco: we’ve found every other manufacturer of four-figure superautomatic home espresso machines guilty of the exact same failures. Yet despite this distasteful — but not unexpected — start, in our next installment we will write about the adjustments we made and how it may, or may not, have affected the quality of the resulting espresso shots.
“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. And it’s how to make decent espresso out of me.”
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Saturday, February 25, 2012 offered a curious contrast between the very different worlds of consumer appreciation for wine and coffee. For the former, I attended La Paulée de San Francisco 2012 — arguably the most over-the-top consumer wine event in America. For the latter, my brother Vince simultaneously attended CoffeeCon 2012 — billed as the “first-ever international consumer coffee conference” — in the global coffee Mecca (and his hometown) of Warrenville, IL.
First off, I’d like to apologize for continuing to harp on the hackneyed wine analogy for coffee. However, I still often feel like one of the few people who knows just enough about both wine and coffee appreciation to make a comparison when attending events for either beverage.
Because the facts remain that we read plenty about how much coffee wants to be taken as seriously as wine. And yet the coffee industry still craps on its customers at virtually every opportunity. This weekend’s events provided evidence of that in great contrast.
First up: the consumer coffee event. Kevin Sinnott has been a layman coffee enthusiast for years (and he also just so happens to a neighbor and friend of my brother back in the dark recesses of the Chicago suburbs). He may be an independent video production consultant for his “day job”, but coffee is far more than just a hobby for him. And more power to him, because he recognized the need for a consumer-oriented coffee event — which inspired him to put on the first ever CoffeeCon.
The best opportunity coffee consumers had to get involved with the coffee industry was to muscle in to events such as the SCAA’s annual conference — all under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since then, the policy has shifted towards outright consumer abolishment. But even if you buy the argument that the industry needs its own for its own, it has offered nothing even close to an olive branch. We hear the coffee industry give plenty of lip service to the importance of “educating the customer”, and yet opportunities to do so are turned into closed-door industry events where the consumer is treated like an unwelcome leper.
Slow Food Nation ’08 was perhaps another example, but it turned out to be a one-time event. Out of it came the Good Food Awards. But even if you look past coffee playing the red-headed stepchild under the “Food” banner, here the focus of a once-public event has again turned to industry insiders locking out consumer participation. Or take the related Coffee Common effort. Even putting my disdain for the shallowness and faux elitism of TED aside, public events that require over $1,000 in membership and registration fees to attend are hardly “consumer friendly”. This makes the steep $300 I shelled out to attend La Paulée’s Grand Tasting seem like a bargain by comparison.
CoffeeCon suffered from an almost accidental location (Warrenville’s “IBEW Local Union 701″) and virtually zero coverage among the coffee industry — most of the industry being preoccupied with the self-absorbed, industry navel-gazing going on at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (or NERBC). But CoffeeCon managed to draw about 1,000 attendees and even pull a few coffee luminaries including the likes of George Howell, home espresso legend Jim Schulman, and Intelligentsia‘s Geoff Watts.
Attendees apparently got to taste a lot of different coffee, experiment with different brewing methods, meet a few others in the coffee industry, learn more about coffee farming and production, and even witness a poor tongue-in-cheek debate on coffee vs. wine. My brother reported that they had a huge crowd, a good representation from nationwide roasters and equipment manufacturers, and the unveiling of a new Bunn Trifecta at a “lab” event.
While not a bad event and certainly a promising attendance, this is, folks, about as good as it gets for coffee consumers today. And good luck getting anybody in the coffee industry to acknowledge that it existed.
One thing I like from the CoffeeCon FAQ — which flies in the face of Coffee Common’s “Exceptional coffee. No sugar.” byline — is this bit:
Can I take cream and sugar in my coffee or will I be asked to leave? No worries. Serious coffee lovers know how different everyone’s palate is. 80% of coffee consumed in the world is taken with milk and/or some sweetener.
This week I had dinner again at one of my favorite SF restaurants who also makes some of the best restaurant espresso in the entire city. The two owners, in their own polite and self-depreciating ways, each relayed to me the story of a recent visit to Sightglass where they were essentially made to feel as if they were both clueless about both coffee and their flavor palates. (I’ve omitted their names as they mentioned this in personal confidence.)
Interestingly, they both felt that Sightglass’ coffee tasted “too salty.” When they asked the Sightglass barista to cut the shot pour short, as a sort of ristretto, he replied that he could not interrupt the espresso machine from running its full cycle. And when they asked for sugar, they were looked upon as if they must have walked in thinking Sightglass was a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Here were two people who grew up with high coffee standards in Italy, developed a much-loved and highly regarded regional Italian restaurant in SF, serve some of the best espresso in the city at said restaurant (and I virtually never have coffee with sugar), where one of the owners previously served as a sommelier at another Michelin-starred SF restaurant with a legendary wine list — and they were basically told that they were coffee Philistines, purely because of coffee orthodoxy. As snobbish as you might think the wine world might get, this simply does not happen with wine.
Speaking of sommeliers and a barista’s desire to become an equivalent of one, let’s contrast with La Paulée’s Grand Tasting at the Westin St. Francis. Daniel Johnnes, a noted wine director for noted New York restaurants that today includes Restaurant Daniel (read: a guy who works in the industry), started the event about a decade ago, alternating between New York an San Francisco. It is based in a traditional Burgundian event, and in Mr. Johnnes’ words for the SF event:
La Paulée is my homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a convivial Burgundian fête shared by growers and their guests. At La Paulée guests will sample current releases and older vintages from nearly thirty of the most sought after Domaines of Burgundy. The wine service will be led by fifty of our nation’s most noted sommeliers.
They ain’t messing around. (Here’s a magazine write-up [PDF] on last year’s La Paulée in New York.) The Grand Tasting may cost $300, but that’s cheap compared to the $1,400 Gala Dinner (or compared to the registration fee to experience Coffee Commons at TED2012 in Long Beach).
There are people in traditional Burgundian wear, regularly breaking into traditional Burgundian drinking songs, flown in from Burgundy for this event — Les Cadets de Bourgogne. And there are many booths of elite winemakers, offering wines that you could only be lucky enough to even access a bottle to purchase, all poured by notable sommeliers. In coffee terms, this is akin to an event featuring several of the world’s Cup of Excellence microlots for tasting, each served by award-winning baristas.
And they don’t skimp on the food either, with restaurant representation from the likes of Boulevard, Farralon, Gary Danko, Napa’s Meadowood and REDD, Quince, RN74, etc. You know that the food world takes the event seriously when not only are sommeliers from New York pouring at the event, but the likes of Traci des Jardins (of Jardinière and Top Chef Masters fame) is there personally cooking up and handing out plates of food.
As a consumer event, what’s not there? No hucksters promoting the latest technology in synthetic corks. No pitchmen telling you how to expand your revenue lines with wine coolers. No patent-pending bottle openers that promise to revolutionize wine consumption. Just a lot of people who want to share great wines and learn more about them and an industry that is trying to make that possible in ways it previously was not.
We can only hope just a fraction of that is possible with coffee — if only the industry would allow it, let alone participate in it. It’s beyond the time for quality coffee to get out of its insular ivory towers and to start reaching out to the many customers it so claims to love and adore.
If you were to read it in the current Roast magazine article (from the Jan-Feb 2012 issue), India is a coffee consumer desert. This week TIME magazine wrote about the entrance of Starbucks in the Indian market almost as if to dismiss any prior coffee consumption there. But after spending three weeks in South India’s coffee-growing state of Karnataka last month, these articles read like front-line trip reports from Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella suggesting that the New World he just discovered is “uninhabited”.
India accurately gets the label of a tea-loving nation. But South India has a coffee-happy culture that arguably rivals most of the places we’ve visited in Europe. In fact, we found far more coffee fanatics in South India than tea lovers. And when we say “fanatics”, we mean people whose eyes light up with delight when you offer the suggestion, “Coffee?”
When we reported from Northern India four years ago, much of the coffee culture was a relatively new, youthful, cosmopolitan import of the modern global café culture. South India also has ample evidence of the modern “third place.” After all this is where Café Coffee Day, India’s largest modern coffee chain, got its start in 1996.
But South India is steeped in coffee houses and coffee culture that goes back to the fading memories of Old Bangalore — from long before the British moved out, “road widening” programs blighted the city with horrendous traffic in place of groves of majestic trees, and global high tech campuses moved in. You can somewhat neatly divide South India between its old and new coffee cultures.
Starting from the lore of the seven Yemenese coffee beans introduced by Baba Budan to the hills of Chikmagalur (a region within the state of Karnataka) in 1670, India has been a coffee producing nation. But traditionally only in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. These lush, fertile states represent much of India’s agriculture and the world’s spices.
In South Indian cities, you can still find old school bean-and-leaf stores (Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s original model, i.e. as opposed to retail coffee beverage sales) where local customers ask for coffee from their favorite Coorg farm by name. But despite this terroir-like awareness among some of South India’s older coffee fans, they typically do not buy their coffee in a whole bean format. As ground coffee, it is often purchased as “coffee powder”. And as a matter of history, economics, and/or taste preferences, coffee powder for traditional South Indian filter coffee is frequently cut with chicory.
In fact, if you were to describe the typical South Indian filter coffee preparation, it is also served with a lot of attention given to hot, manually frothed milk. New Orleans may lay claim to the chicory cafe au lait, but South India has predated that claim with a very similar traditional coffee drink by a century or more. One significant difference being that South India likes to aerate their hot milk by distributing it between metal vessels from side-to-side. Some purveyors even take this form of milk frothing to the level of theatrics, providing their customers with a version of latte art rooted more performance art than design.
This form of South Indian coffee consumption takes place in homes, offices, and in the old school restaurants typically called “hotels” that you will find throughout South India. They may be called “hotels”, but you won’t find a place to lay down — let alone private rooms. Many are vegetarian restaurants, and you’ll even find the occasional “military hotel” — which is shorthand for a diner on the cheap, typically with stand-up self service and a cafeteria-like counter for ordering. South Indians very much look forward to their coffee breaks throughout the day for both the enjoyment of the drink and to briefly discuss family, work, events, etc.
In other words, when it comes to coffee, they’re a lot like Europeans.
India is a dance in contradictions, however. Someone we met near Delhi a few years ago put it best when he told us, “everything you find to be true in India, you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.” And that includes South India’s coffee culture.
The local presses have stated, “India is low on coffee knowledge.” That is as apparent in South India as anywhere else in the country. There is a decent proliferation of modern coffee shops — including even a Caffè Pascucci in downtown Bengaluru and an Illy espressamente in its airport. However, the coffee “language” used by many of these coffee shops seemed dumbed down for a more coffee-naïve public.
For example, a very popular, local coffeehouse for the young Bengaluru professional set called Matteo Coffea outwardly brands itself as a place for consumer coffee education. However, most of this is in the form of basic historical coffee trivia and quotes you might otherwise find on a souvenir coffee mug: e.g., “Did you know that coffee was discovered by Ethiopian goat herders called kaldi?”
A non-chain place like Matteo Coffea is also a good example of the modern South Indian coffeehouse. It has all the hallmarks of a great “Third Wave” coffeehouse in the West: an outward dedication to consumer coffee education, a shiny red La Marzocco FB/70, and selective bean sourcing and roasting operations. However, the resulting espresso shots look a lot better than they taste. India is going through a lot of the motions on quality coffee, but the coffee quality itself has yet to live up to the show. Other modern coffee shops and chains in the region put a modern spin on coffee quality while still sticking to the area tradition of pre-ground coffee mixed with chicory.
High-end restaurants in the area — those guardians of gourmand tastes — seem to know enough about quality coffee to dissuade customers from ordering the traditional South Indian filter coffee, which is often made with the aforementioned “coffee powder.” It’s almost as if they are embarrassed by it. Instead they steer customers towards “black coffee,” which is barely acceptable straight espresso served in very long, but yet not diluted, pours.
And yet our experiences with traditional South Indian filter coffee there were all very positive — even if it doesn’t bow down to the gods of single origin elitism, handling attuned to maximum freshness, nor even the avoidance of milk adulteration. Perhaps the most humbling aspect was when I returned to the U.S. and tried to reproduce South Indian filter coffee at home. Using a South Indian brew pot I bought at a Bengaluru housewares store for $8 — a contraption not unlike the Neapolitan flip coffee pot — I got out my best beans, technique, and milk to ultimately produce one of the three most undrinkable cups of coffee I have ever made in my life. This is harder than it looks, folks.
Bengaluru is also home to the national Coffee Board of India, a large, multistory complex that we decided to visit on a whim. Expecting a closed-door government agency with security guards and suspicious eyes intent on keeping foreigners and trespassers out, we were surprised at how open and welcoming they were.
Showing up on their doorstep and merely expressing our love of good Indian coffee, we were directed to the offices of Dr. K. Basavaraj, who is head of the Quality Control Division. There we received an all-access tour of his lab, test batch roasters, and cupping facilities: all the trappings any Western coffee fanatic would feel right at home with.
Out at “origin,” in the coffee-growing lands of the Kodagu (aka Coorg) district of Karnataka, we visited a few coffee farms. Most were modest agricultural operations, some associated with so-called “coffee curing works” that often seemed in the general business of trading commodities. Collectively they supply the majority of India’s domestic coffee consumption — in no small part because India imposes steep tariffs on just about any imported consumable. (They impose a 100% import tariff on beer and wine, with spirits typically topping 150%.)
You could fault India for growing a lot of “cheap” robusta here — it is half the crop relative to arabica by some counts. However, India grows some of the best quality, best cared-for robusta in the world. And in typical Indian contradictory fashion, one of the more memorable modern coffeehouses we experienced in South India was a roadside hut in rural Nisargadhama, Kodagu that served, among other drinks, decorative Spanish cortados.
No matter what, there is something to be said about a coffee culture where, when you ask a restaurant or café who supplies or roasts their coffee, you invariably get the name of an individual — often with an honorary “Dr.” title — rather than the name of a business. It’s not unlike parts of Hawaii where some restaurant menus list the name of the fisherman along with the fish.
India is such a complex, diverse place it’s next to impossible to try to sum up what it is and what it isn’t, as the answer tends to be “all of the above.” We can only hope that with all the forces of modernization and globalization at play here, coffee doesn’t lose some of its cultural diversity.