Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Yes, it is that Thrillist — the same one that gave us such cringeworthy coffee listicles as “19 Things You Didn’t Know About Coffee” (who doesn’t love an article that starts by presuming you’re ignorant?), “The 8 Best Coffee Cities in America, Ranked” (which again begs the question: what is a “coffee city” anyway?), “12 Ways You’re Making Coffee Wrong” (you ignorant slut), and the gold mine that is “Every Coffee Shop Chain’s Pumpkin Latte, Ranked“.
It is also an article to which I contributed as a reviewer. Author Jack Houston pulled together an end product that is quite good, and the list is one I can comfortably endorse… down to the top spot ranking of the frequently overlooked Chromatic Coffee.
What is also noteworthy is the untold story of how this listicle came to be: the challenge of creating it in the first place. Mr. Houston started soliciting input for the piece in early July of this year. The reason it took three months to publish was, to quote Mr. Houston, “whether it was affiliations with certain roasters, distaste for the scene (had multiple people tell me they couldn’t think of any, let alone 11), reluctance about attaching their name to rankings, travel or just a plain lack of knowledge, it’s been difficult to find people willing to speak on Bay Area coffee.”
Given both the quantity and quality of Bay Area roasters available, this should be more than a little concerning. On the one hand, you have the “our friends and partners at ___” cronyism of a Sprudge — a Lake Wobegone land where every roaster mentioned is above average, and yet no one dares to utter the suggestion that one might be better than another.
On the other hand, you have industry people careful to avoid conflicts of interest — or at least unwilling to risk hurting the feelings of business partners and associates. However, I also suspect that more than a few in the industry have not done enough to comparatively study more than a handful of (competitive) area roasters outside of controlled cuppings for singular origins and/or focused industry events. As a contrast to similarly qualified palates in the wine industry, I get the impression that wine professionals are generally more keenly aware of what everybody else is up to.
The result is the author spent months scrounging enough souls who were both qualified and brave enough to go on record with a qualitative ranking of Bay Area roasters. For all the lip-service given to consumer education and transparency of quality scoring, etc., honest public discussions of comparative coffee quality still seem taboo in many contexts. Which is why we hope exceptions such as Pete Licata‘s RoastRatings.com will hopefully shatter some of that. (Kenneth Davids‘ CoffeeReview is also in that category, but they continue to keep much of their content hidden behind a paywall.)
Another backstory oddity about the article is that a number of the reviewers included Counter Culture Coffee in their lists, which Mr. Houston correctly pointed out is anything but a Bay Area roaster.
Oddly, I quite often come across educated coffee professionals convinced that I only drink espresso or that I only follow espresso culture. This despite the fact that 12 years ago I deliberately registered the coffeeratings.com domain and not espressoratings.com. (Pete Licata, eat your heart out.) This despite a Tasting Methodology page off of our home page, describing why I chose espresso as a yardstick, that hasn’t changed in 11 years. This despite being a home roaster for over 15 years — and that our Twitter avatar for the past few years is of a Madras-style South Indian filter coffee with “CoffeeRatings.com” written in Devanāgarī.
All said, the biggest challenge of comparatively ranking coffee roasters — compared with prepared espresso — is that there are many more uncontrolled variables when comparing two roasters head-to-head: their green bean sources are different, their roast styles vary, but also the eventual brewing and preparation steps are out of their hands.
And while I never professed to be a coffee cupping expert, scientific measurement and comparison has been in my blood for a long time. By the age of 16, I was quantitatively comparing chemistry samples in a professional lab (albeit for industrial adhesives). By the age of 18, I was performing similar comparisons in a professional food lab (for a spice company). So the general practice was somewhat old hat to me before I started formally and quantitatively reviewing espresso shots 12 years ago.
But because of the great lack of common controls to compare roasters as opposed to espresso shots, I was forced to be less “scientific” in my approach for the Thrillist article. I succumbed to a much more primitive, overly subjective scale of whatever seemed to generally please my palate for home use coffee. And particularly at the moment of being asked. A week or two later, and I may have snuck Andytown or even Josuma Coffee in my list.
For the complete record, here’s how I filled out my “ballot” form for the Thrillist piece:
List your favorite Bay Area coffee roasters, starting with No. 1 (most favorite) to No. 11 (11th most favorite).
Why? These guys have always had great coffee shops, but it’s the coffee itself that’s the star. When using their roasts at home, they regularly produce subtle and surprising flavors I’ve been able to create with the coffee of few other roasters. Even if I sent some to an Intelligentsia loyalist friend of mine in Chicago who called it “dessert coffee”.
Signature drink: Guatemala Finca Hermosa
Why? Jen St. Hilaire exhibits a great deal of skill and experience as a roaster. She has even taught a few big names among roasters in the industry today. And yet she continues to follow her own path, aware of but not swayed by the many roasting fads and trends that surround her. She primarily roasts to develop the sugars inside the beans so that they are fully caramelized, creating fully developed roasts that avoid the sour fruit flavors so adored by many of today’s roasters. The coffee world desperately needs more women like Jen.
Signature drink: Warp Drive Espresso Blend
Why? James Freeman’s company has been pioneering new ideas about quality coffee in the Bay Area for over a decade now. They offer some excellent single origins and Cup of Excellence coffees in addition to OK blends, and do so in a rather impressive range of origins and styles. And despite their skyrocketing and bloated growth fueled by venture capital and M&A, at least for now the quality has remained very high.
Signature drink: Mexico La Cañada Cup of Excellence
Why? Co-founder Trish Rothgeb may have coined the coffee term “Third Wave“, but her roasts exhibit an accumulation of coffee roasting knowledge and experience –- rather than a knee-jerk reaction purely defined by rejecting the fads of previous “waves”. Whether selective single origins or solid blends, this is what Third Wave coffee should be once it evolves beyond being such a conformist, angst-ridden teenager.
Signature drink: 1Up Espresso Blend
Why? Founder Jeremy Tooker anguishes over the details. When he started up his shop’s roasting operations six years ago, I had pointed out some of the rough patches and he would send me heartfelt emails always seeking thoughts about how he could improve. Today the results of a lot of obsessing and optimization speak for themselves, as they’ve dialed in their quality on roasting styles that suit them. It’s heavy on fruit and acid and a bit lighter on body and breadth of flavor profile, but they’ve hit their stride with a good vein of green sources from Africa and Central & South America.
Signature drink: Rwanda Cotecaga Bourbon
Why? This art-inspired group of roasters is relatively new on the local roasting scene, but in a short time they have made a major impact. They custom modify everything about their “coffee delivery systems”, from roaster mods even down to the dissolved solids in the water they brew with at their Santa Clara café. Their single origins and blends are inspired, tweaked, and frequently taste a bit different than the rest -– often aiming for “liveliness” in the end product. Applying what they call “The Radio Approach”, they’ve taken the Scandinavian roasting style and darkened it somewhat to account for the greater hardness of the water here.
Signature drink: Papua New Guinea Kunjin
Why? “The Goat”, as the Sonoma County locals refer to it, is often overlooked in the Bay Area due to its remote North Bay locations. But for some 23 years under co-founder and green coffee buyer, Phil Anacker, they have exhibited excellent quality and a longer tradition of seasonally rotated coffees. Style-wise, they’ve long aimed for a bean sweetness and body to wean their customers off of demanding milk, but more than anything they’ve specialized in adapting the roasting style to the qualities of a given bean supply they are working with.
Signature drink: Panama Finca Don K
Why? Since their founding in 1978, they’ve adopted a traditional oak wood roasting style inherited from their Salerno roots and its nearby — and globally recognized — Naples, Italy coffee culture. This alone is akin to finding a Bay Area sushi place that serves real baran leaves instead of the green plastic cutouts to which we’ve become accustomed. While the roasting profiles that predominate here may not be in vogue today, they exhibit great balance, care, and quality. The newer local chain of Coffee Bar shops showcases their quality along with some of their single origins. And whenever I’ve attended (or organized) coffee events where they have served, I invariably line up for more shots of theirs than anybody.
Signature drink: Neapolitan Espresso blend
Why? Originally promoted by the Bacchus Management Group as “by the restaurants, for the restaurants”, RoastCo has expanded their vision of small batch, microlot roasting exclusively for the restaurant industry to include other “projects” and even home subscriptions. Using a 1960s cast iron Probat, they source their beans from farms or co-ops and aim for more fully developed roasts with a balance between acidity and sweetness.
Signature drink: Kenya Nyeri
Why? The three friends who founded this roasting business in 2011 are perhaps too humble for their impressive coffee pedigrees. The short version of their roasting approach is probably “balance” -– which is probably the inspiration for their name. They aim for balanced coffees that walk that highwire between the origin characteristics of the bean and a roast that brings out a fully developed coffee. They partly achieve this through cupping constantly. When it comes to espresso blends, they adhere to an approach of dividing each bean source for either “hot blending” or “cold blending”, typically optimizing among no more than three bean sources to dial in the right balance.
Signature drink: Ethiopia Kochere
Why? Fairly or unfairly, Ritual could be stereotyped for roasting a lot of coffee that tastes like baked apple pie. Adhering to a rather strict lighter roasting style, they excel at bright, acidic coffees with origins typically in Central America, South America, and Africa. Floral and citric flavors often predominate. And while they may not be at their best when they venture outside of this profile, they know where their strengths are and execute to it very well.
Signature drink: Fazenda do Sertão, Brazil
As an ambitious new coffeeshop in SF’s Financial District, they immediately joined the $3 club — i.e., representing the basic price of admission for a single shot (or double shot) of espresso. While other notable SF openings have failed to live up to these lofty new expectations, this one manages to justify much of its expense.
Mazarine Coffee is named after the Bibliothèque Mazarine — the oldest library in Paris. Now that might sound cultured and sophisticated enough on the surface in an I-Love-Eurotrash manner. But given the coffee quality in Paris until just recently, that’s like naming your sushi restaurant after your favorite Nebraska landmark. (Though my coffee insiders have it that the founder’s working title for the café in 2013 was “Bravo Java”, in which case the name is still a huge step up.)
That said, founder/CEO Hamid Rafati switched from his electrical and mechanical engineering roots to professionally commit himself to the art of making great coffee. While the café’s name might seem a bit of a faux pas, he built this place with inspiration from quality sources — including the Southland’s Klatch Coffee, where he even recruited multi-USBC champ Heather Perry to lead the barista training. In addition to committing to offering a rotation of sources as a multi-roaster café, they also offer salads and sandwiches with wine and beer on tap.
There’s fenced-in sidewalk café table seating along Market St., front window counter seating, a lot of grey concrete, a white marble counter, a blueish subway tile backsplash to the service area, and bench seating with burgundy cushions at thick wood-finished café tables. The place is usually packed with patrons ordering nitro coffee and other requisite coffee fads. (Sorry, but nitro coffee, coffee beer, and coffee cocktails are no more “craft coffee” than sangria is “craft wine”.) The service counter is divided between pour-over (Kalita Waves and Baratza grinders) and espresso (Nuova Simonelli grinders) stations.
For espresso they use a customized three-group Kees van der Westen Spirit and were serving their private-labelled summer Belle Espresso blend from Klatch. They also served Ritual Coffee for some of their other drink formats.
They pull espresso shots with a mottled split between a medium and darker brown crema. It’s not voluminous but weighty. Served three-sips short, it has a thick body and a fully developed roast flavor with molasses sweet edges and some acidic apple brightness at the front of the sip — centered around pungency but rounded and not overly so. Served in Heath ceramic cups with sparkling water on the side.
The use of Klatch coffee is rather unique for the area, and it’s about time. It lends itself to a more complex and balanced espresso than is typically available from many of the area’s Third Wave cliché cafés. And as I believe it is written in a dusty book somewhere inside the original Bibliothèque Mazarine: Joe Bob says check it out.
Read the review of Mazarine Coffee in the Financial District of San Francisco.
Blue Bottle Coffee‘s attention to details and quality should have fueled its growth under most any circumstances. But the interest from, and infusion of, venture capital have given that growth a nitro boost: new cafés are opening around the world, and various related services (e.g., Handsome Coffee and Tonx Coffee) and small business chains (e.g., Tartine Bakery) are being gobbled up in the vortex.
That venture capitalists most familiar with the “virtual” tech world (e.g., Google Ventures) are also investing in very brick-and-mortar coffee businesses doesn’t entirely add up to me. Why not Krispy Kreme donuts for that matter?
Of course, the tech world believes it has a special and unique relationship with coffee, identifying with coffee-fueled programmers as it does. But coffee is weird in that 83% of American adults drink coffee, and yet just about every social group seems to identify with coffee and claim it as their own unique and special secret: cyclists, salesmen, radio DJs, writers, chefs, physicians, police officers, etc.
Unlike the virtual world where the word scalability almost knows no bounds, the very physical world of coffee is much more challenging. At one end, its roots are in the ancient art and science of farming. And at the other end, despite all the robotics and artificial intelligence brought to bear through superautomatic coffee brewing systems, the best stuff served in a cup still requires the efforts of a lot of human hands.
So what happens when investors seek hockey stick growth projections for a coffee chain when they are otherwise used to scaling metrics such as billions of selfies and Facebook likes? The pressure and expectations of these growth projections frequently leads to quality trade-offs. Before Starbucks coped with their growth demands by essentially becoming a global fast food chain, with push-button-automated machines operated by an ever-growing army of low skilled button-pushing employees, recall that the original coffee they often produced by true baristas operating La Marzocco machines wasn’t all bad.
Hence the big question for Blue Bottle remains: for how long can they march towards world domination before the quality tanks? James Freeman firmly believes its a fate he can avoid. But as you take on more and more investors and give away more and more ownership of the company, a tipping point edges ever closer as the VC interests in money inevitably weigh down the scales against coffee idealism.
That strange bedfellow relationship between VCs, tech, and coffee is on full display at one of the latest Blue Bottle Coffee Co. openings in Palo Alto. This former Varsity Theater (and Borders books) has been revived as the “SAP Hanahaus” workspace with an attached Blue Bottle Coffee service.
The historic building offers a unique outdoor courtyard in front, with various secluded café tables and benches, leading to a hall of merchandising (home brewing equipment, bags of roasted coffee) before you reach the front service counter and bulk of the interior tables. Past the service counter is the leasable workspace by the hour for all your start-up needs.
Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada, they pulled a thick, shorter shot with a mottled medium-brown crema. It had a potent aroma, a good body and mouthfeel, and a rich and complex blend of flavors that included dark chocolate, molasses sweetness, and some honey. The shortness of the pull brings out concentrated complexity: this is not your typical pale, narrowband, watery single origin shot pulled by Third Wave sheep. Served in designer logo Kinto cups with sparkling water on the side.
So has Blue Bottle reached the tipping point yet? Based the quality of the espresso here, not in the least bit. However, an espresso-loving friend (whom I converted years ago into a home roasting devotee) was not impressed by it, saying he’s often had better.
Based on that one shot, I rarely have better. But it is extremely rare that you find shots consistently pulled of this style and density, so this will require repeat visits to verify if this just wasn’t a one-off.
Read the review of Blue Bottle Coffee at Hanahaus, Palo Alto, CA.
I never understood Third Wave coffee’s War on Blends. Instead of advocating improved access to great coffees and all the flavors they have to offer us, it’s as if a coffee Taliban were telling us what tastes are heretical and forbidden. That if a flavor doesn’t occur in nature, it is an affront to both God’s will and our dogmatic coffee religion.
Today single origins are elevated as the ultimate expression of coffee, only to be surpassed by single microlot coffees. But here’s a major problem: there are good microlots and there are not-so-good microlots. Geographic specificity isn’t a measure of quality — as if the more “micro” the lot, the better the coffee. Nor is micro-geographic purity an actual flavor. But we all seem to act like these were true.
Thus there are many industry advocates for coffee’s version of racial hygiene and Jim Crow laws: worshipping at the altar of coffee’s genetic and geographic purity. This despite most of today’s prized microlot coffees being the result of deliberate genetic cross-breeding and geographic transplanting (e.g.: Kenyan SL-28s grown in El Salvador, Ethiopian Geisha grown in Panama, etc.).
Meanwhile, many of the same Third Wave segregationists are now fawning over uses of high-grade coffees in coffee cocktails, stout beers, flavored liqueurs, and shelf-stable iced coffee concoctions where brewed coffee strangely never goes bad… essentially the debasement of elite coffees as a flavoring ingredient. What does this say about respecting the coffee and how it is carefully procured, processed, and prepared? Would advocates of Grand Cru Échézeaux honor mixing it with fruit juice to make a refreshing summer sangria? Or putting it in a saucepan with honey, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise to make a crowd-pleasing spiced mulled wine for the winter holidays?
On the one hand, I don’t get the point of pineapple mango guava juice. But when it comes to the breadth and complexity of coffee flavor profiles, exclusively relying on microlot coffees is like following Olympic sport where the athletes can set world-record leg presses but lack the upper body strength to do more than three chin-ups and get winded on 200m jogs for lack of any cardio training. While not every sporting event has to be an epic of decathlete cross-training, a microlot espresso is woefully inadequate if you value that sort of balance and well-roundedness.
The vanguard of quality coffee standards today have often abandoned making coffee blends, and the few who still invest in making blends have not taken them seriously enough to do them well — at least in North America. This has created a quality coffee flavor profile vacuum. It’s a much bigger vacuum than the one for quality merlot wines that developed around the time of the 2004 movie Sideways, when public tastes faddishly swayed away from the grape.
Like a blast out of 1994, King’s Row Coffee (KRC) — through their CEO, Sam Sabky — approached me with their stated ideals about coffee that seemed both unfashionably dated and radically new & novel at the same time. They are committed to producing multiple high quality blends with flavor profiles targeted for specific environments and purposes, all roasted to order. Encountering such a counter-cultural approach to coffee was a breath of fresh air.
They begin with a James Beard award-winning master chef in Craig Shelton. That Craig also has legit sommelier chops helps with his role as KRC’s taste-maker and recipe man, approaching coffee much as you might a Bordeaux or Rhone blend.
For the roasting itself, KRC relies on the legendary Oren Bloostein of Oren’s Daily Roast fame (based in NY, but always coming to a CoffeeCON near you). Using beans sourced from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Sumatra, and Celebes, KRC applies a post-blending approach where the five or six varietals in a given blend are optimally roasted separately in small batches. (Other roasters sometimes favor a pre-blending approach — which often espouses the idea that component-based roasting loses some of the potential aggregate characteristics of the blend, as if making a pot of stew or spaghetti sauce.)
As for their recipes…
|Blend||Aroma [info]||Brightness [info]||Body [info]||Flavor [info]||Overall|
|The Espresso Blend||8.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.50|
|The Shelton Signature Blend||7.0||7.0||8.0||8.0||7.50|
|The Coastal Blend||6.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||6.75|
|The Bonbon Blend||7.0||7.0||6.0||7.0||6.75|
|The Mountain Blend||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.0||7.00|
I made this as an espresso in my usual Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine setup with a Mazzer Mini grinder. The marketing literature calls it “European Style”, which can be quite dubious if by “Europe” you mean France.
They cup it as a “full-bodied, crisp and balanced dark roast”, and there’s clearly some spots of second-crack oils. It’s not as full-bodied as we expected, but there’s a cohesion to it. “Toffee and toasted nuts”? Check. “Bright and clean with no burned aftertaste”? Check. “Great when used with milk”? Quite good.
My shots pulled with a dark to medium brown textured crema — a good sign — with a slightly thin body. The crema was strong enough (we’d rate it an 8.0) to bump the score as our favorite of the lot. Pungent, some spice, some limited sweetness, but no smoke nor ashiness for sure. And some bittersweet chocolate in the base, of which we’re always a fan.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. KRC recommends #4 filters for the V60, and I used Hario’s own #2 filters for all the examples here.
This is Craig’s original coffee and the KRC benchmark, which they call “The World’s Most Sophisticated Coffee”. Talk about a serious billing to live up to.
As described, it’s “an all-day blend for the connoisseur or everyday drinker who takes his coffee black”…”racy, sophisticated and powerful, this coffee is in perfect balance with a lively acidity”… “A ‘Broadband’ medium roast with a remarkable sweetness, large creamy body and smooth finish. Massive complexity and mouthfeel.”
For the most part, the blend delivered on many of its promises. It appears as a slightly dark roast with some second-crack surface oil: few in today’s lightness-obsessed coffee world would call this a medium roast. But the cocoa is there, as is the broadband flavor and balance. However, any acidity is very subdued, but there is a great aftertaste as it truly coats the tongue with sweeter oils. Can we say it?: an excellent blend.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They call this, “A Robust Taste for Marine Environments” — so brewing in the fog of San Francisco seemed a rather appropriate challenge.
In their words, “The brine in the salty ocean air deadens the palate, resulting in a flat, dull tasting experience, no matter the quality of the coffee” and call this blend “a darker roast and bold, in your face coffee that rises above ambient smells in salty air while preserving a refined and balanced taste”.
It is a more traditional darker roast style with minimal fruit, some smoke, more pungency, but also a pleasant — albeit not great — mouthfeel. Perhaps a touch harsher than the Shelton Signature Blend, but it is still enjoyable. However, I’m not sure I got out as much of its optimization for the ambient marine air.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder, KRC labels this “The Ultimate Coffee for Foodies”. Why? They say “we designed the Bonbon Blend to reach peak taste profile when paired with sweet and savory delights, making it an ideal accompaniment to any meal, especially breakfast and dessert.” Sweet and savory covers pretty much all types of food, so we’ll call it a coffee for food pairing.
We’ve never bought into the more recent coffee pairing with food gimmick — suggesting that it is mostly wishful thinking by those attempting to graft wine tasting experiences onto coffee. Food and wine pairings go back centuries if not millennia with the old “if it grows together, it goes together” adage. As for a coffee equivalent, it was originally balled up with animal fats as a trail snack — a kind of Paleo energy bar. Hardly the historical stuff of gourmands.
Now some might make the case that coffee previously had only “one flavor” (their words, not mine) and thus there historically wasn’t a diversity of food pairings to draw from. But we have yet to experience coffee as any more magical or practical for food pairing than, say, cigars.
The KRC Bonbon blend is a lighter roast than the others, but it is still on the edges of second-crack oil. Otherwise it’s more of a medium brown.
Their cupping notes call it “a bold coffee, characterized by a balanced body, a vibrant acidity and a smooth and crisp finish to keep the palate refreshed.” The story is you should try it before and after eating something sweet for a comparison, demonstrating how its acidity balances with your “tainted” flavor palate after eating a chocolate bonbon (hence the name).
Before my chocolate croissant, it seemed rather light-bodied with some acidity and salt. But it was balanced and lacked any harsher elements. After the croissant the acidity was more subdued, the body was enhanced, but the flavor profile of the coffee seemed to flatten out. The difference was subtle, and it turned out to be a good coffee before and after eating something.
Made as a V60 pour-over with my Mazzer Mini grinder. They define it as “Designed for High Altitude Brewing”, noting that “brewing at higher altitudes over-extracts bitter alkaloids and under-extracts desirable oils.” To compensate, KRC blended in a bean with oils that extract at a lower than normal brewing temperature.
Their cupping notes call it “a medium roast with a creamy body and remarkable sweetness. Bright, balanced and smooth at altitude.” I found it to be a medium to dark roast with clear edges of second-crack oils. It has a somewhat thicker body and a little of that felt-like mouthfeel that’s almost part particulate, part oils. And there’s a sweeter finish to the cup.
Brewing this at 90m/300-ft, I didn’t stand to benefit from how the blend was tailored for high-altitude brewing. But it was a good cup of coffee in any case.
Targeting specific environments for coffee enjoyment is an interesting and rather unique approach. I enjoyed all of the coffees, and in particular their flagship Shelton Signature Blend — which is the foundation for all their varieties. And IMO, a good blend is a rare find among newer North American roasters these days.
However, I did not notice major differences in the different blends overall: they were all good, all somewhat similar in roasting style and flavor profile, but not radically that different from each other.
The environmental benefits of one blend versus another seemed incremental, but perhaps not enough to convince a coffee lover in Denver, for example, to forgo their Espresso Novo habit for the KRC Mountain Blend. Not all palates are that sensitive. Still, I have to give them credit for trying something new and not following the herd of Third Wave sheep.
Through King’s Row Coffee, I can also pass along a 20% off discount code of theshot20 if you’d like to try something yourself.
Earlier this year I attended Illy‘s Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone in St. Helena, CA for a course titled Coffee Expert: From Plant to the Cup. Effectively it was a slightly updated and “Americanized” version of the introductory Illy course I first wrote about eight years ago when the famed food writer, David Lebovitz, attended it at their headquarters in Trieste, Italy. (Following a few mutual-admiration-society-type exchanges with David, I later wrote a guest post on David’s blog the following month.)
Flash forward to April of this year (if you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to post this, I really have no excuse), and I finally had the opportunity to attend this two-day course myself in the Napa Valley.
Despite what many Third Wave fanboys might consider an “establishment” coffee company, I’ve long admired the detailed science, style, ethics, and quality controls behind illycaffè. I’ve also been a fan of their coffee — particularly in Europe more than in any other continent for yet-to-be-explained reasons. In more recent times I’ve also come to know a few members of the illy caffè North America team and have become a real fan. Connecting with them opened a door to attend one of their professional courses — held at one of two Culinary Institute of America locations in the U.S., typically a couple times each year.
Held at CIA Greystone’s Rudd Wine Center, it’s a facility and environment designed expressly for educating the sensory evaluation of wine… or also, as it turns out, coffee. Students sit at curved, lab-like tables surrounding an instructor equipped with various A/V controls. Each student station has access to a sink, running water, and multiple counters for performing sensory evaluations and comparisons.
Key illy caffè North America instructors included Mark Romano, their Senior Director of Education, Quality and Sustainability. There was also Giorgio Milos, their Master Barista & Instructor and famed coffee blogger. I learned his mother was an Illy employee for 35 years and his father was a dairyman: how’s that for barista pedigree? And there was also the Seattle-based Heidi Rasmussen, their Senior Manager Education and Quality … and chief wise-cracker. Also on-site to both serve attendees excellent espresso drinks and assist with the hands-on training was Carlos Chavez, 22-year veteran of SF’s Caffè Greco.
Student attendees included a number of coffee industry professionals, including a contingent from Seattle’s Caffè Umbria (such as Stefano Bizzari, son of Caffè Umbria founder, Emanuele Bizzari, and grandson of Umberto Bizzari of Torrefazione Italia fame). Other students — there was a total of about 25-30 — were either in the food or restaurant industry but typically humbly called themselves “coffee enthusiasts”.
The course covered the usual suspects of coffee history, processing, brewing, demand issues, trends, sustainability and supply chain concerns. Much of the material was already familiar to me, but even so it was worth experiencing it in a cohesive course. Even if you’re not a complete novice, there are always details that add something — such as learning a lot more of the nuances that go into making a proper Moka pot. (Or, what Heidi exemplified: “Bad Moka vs. Good Moka”)
Interspersed among the more textbook lessons were various sensory evaluations of coffee: blind tastings of different preparation methods (including blind triangular studies), arabicas vs. robustas, different geographies, decaffeination comparisons, different roasting levels, and different extraction levels. Or even just noticing the flaws in espresso as it cools.
After a couple of days of all that great coffee — for both enjoyment and evaluation — the absurdity of the term “coffee addict” came clearly to mind. The classic definition of addiction requires ever more of a substance to achieve the same desired physical effects after building up a tolerance. However, there was not a single coffee lover attending the course who could reach the late afternoon without saying, “no more, please” to the continual onslaught of more coffee.
On the final day I probably learned the most with a bit of hands-on labwork among three coffee stations:
The high level of hands-on feedback provided in this format was of particular benefit — something where the educational format of a Chef Steps falls flat.
In summary, the course probably won’t revolutionize how you think about coffee. However, it’s a methodical approach towards ensuring that you have the basics covered, from bean to cup. I found the hands-on aspects of the course particularly beneficial, and you’ll also get to hang out with some pretty cool fellow coffee fans. The price tag is quite steep unless it’s a business expense, but it is in line with other layman culinary courses offered at the CIA. All said, I really enjoyed the entire experience.
Living on the Left Coast for so many years, it’s almost shameful that the closest I came to Portland, Oregon before 2011 was an SF Slim’s show by The Dharma Bums while on their Bliss album tour. (Yes, I was a fan.) Sure, I’d been to Crater Lake and Coos Bay even, but never Portland. By 2011, a couple of day-job-related day trips to Portland afforded the brief coffee walk through town. But it wasn’t until last month that I did a serious deep dive.
This lapse had nothing to do with the sun-spoiled Californian stereotype: wishing to avoid Portland’s damp cold, clouds, and legendary rainfall. Although I must say that arriving from the land of drought shaming that has turned neighbors into water narcs, watching local Portlanders casually hose down their sidewalks was a little like watching them blow their noses in gold leaf.
Today merely the name “Portland” carries its own serious baggage and presumptions — some accurate, but many not. This post will attempt to sift through both of them from my own limited perspective with particular attention paid to the town’s much-celebrated coffee culture.
Portland — aka “Stumptown” (from the many felled trees of its development), aka “Rose City” — may have over 90% of the population of Seattle, but it feels nearly twice as sleepy. Portlanders love their runs and parades, and I arrived in time for the Starlight Parade of their annual Rose Festival — complete with marching bands and floats from many of the area’s high schools. A city like San Francisco is too cool and cynical for this kind of small town sentimentality. But the Portland locals line the downtown streets many hours before the event, parking their lawn chairs with great anticipation, social camaraderie, and a packed picnic basket.
Speaking of public gatherings, not unlike Oakland’s First Fridays, Portland has its own First Thursday in the gentrified Pearl District — with its many cobblestone streets, cookie-cutter modern lofts, public storage units, and chain stores. In contrast is the artier Last Thursdays in the NE Alberta District — which is something of a front line for the town’s current gentrification battles, adjacent to one of the town’s very few hotbeds for gang violence.
The story of gentrification is not uncommon among American cities. Some of what makes Portland a little different is how overwhelmingly, well, white the city is. So white, it’s almost blue. The last U.S. census figures may count the city’s racial breakdown as 76% white (for comparison San Francisco is 54%). But observationally throughout the city, those figures seem like an understatement.
In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.
–“Skinhead Against Skinhead“, TIME Magazine
On the TriMet streetcars that run all across town — the closest thing the locals have to the Bay Area’s BART — station stops and instructions are announced in Spanish as well as English, but there’s hardly a Latino to be found on the system. (And yet BART audio is English-only.) Thus in true stereotyped Portland politeness fashion, it eerily seems like the system goes out of its way to culturally accommodate people who aren’t even there.
Even Portland’s Chinatown seems so in name only, save for a couple of old gates spread among a district of what one local called “douchey nightclubs”.
Portland’s lack of racial diversity may stick out like a sore thumb to someone from the Bay Area, but that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it — although some rightfully point out that it’s partly a product of historically racist state and local policies. But given that coffee ranks #1 on the list of Stuff White People Like, all that whiteness can’t be all bad, right? Except this theme of diversity — and Portland’s general lack thereof — comes up again when we talk about Portland’s coffee culture (more below).
Why is Portland, of all places, the capital of American coffee culture? … This city is still very white. Why does that matter? According to the National Coffee Association, Caucasians drink a half cup a day more coffee than blacks or Hispanics.
— “Drip City“, Willamette Week
Of course, we have to address the Portlandia stereotypes — a term that even the locals have amusingly embraced. Enough of them are true enough to support parody: the beards, the many yoga instructors, the dog walkers sporting discount tattoos, the animal freaks, drivers who are extremely (and charmingly) courteous, etc.
Yet there’s a distinctly higher hipster quotient in SF’s Mission District. What you don’t hear about Portland is at the roots of the city: the historically dark, weathered, slightly dirty Pacific Northwestern Gothic about the place. (Note that these are some of my favorite and most unique characteristics of the town.)
In fact, “thriving” is a word I definitely would not use to describe Portland and its anything-but-vibrant downtown. Like Porto, Portugal, I found it hard to tell if it’s on its way up or way down. Downtown there are derelict vacant lots, sometimes filled with food carts and lined with sidewalks coated in layers of mystery stickiness. Homelessness and mental illness are on prominent display along with too many strip clubs to count (and yes, there is even a vegan one).
And despite many fantastic wilderness options nearby, the bicycling stereotypes, and a trendy Pearl District that hosts a retail outlet for every outdoor enthusiast store imaginable, obesity is a noticeable problem here as in much of America. Portland does not size up to the outdoorsy fit-city-in-spandex stereotype you get in places like Boulder, CO or Austin, TX.
A good part of Portland’s allure includes a local food scene high on the local, organic, and artisanal, an abundant beer microbrewing culture, and a location with a much cheaper cost of living than most. Although you can get the hipster/foodie/microbrew/slacker/cheap-living mix in almost equal measure in a place like Austin, TX, Portland seems to draw much of its appeal along the coast.
Most Portlandia stereotypes seem defined by the expectations of recent residents who aren’t from the area, just as the “fruits & nuts” stereotypes about Californians in the 1970s were primarily driven by refugees from the Midwest rather than the California natives themselves. It’s a little like how residents of Las Vegas lead rather normal and mundane lives, whereas its tourists feel obligated to destroy their livers and lose their minds because of preconceived expectations of behavior once they arrive.
In other words, from what I’ve observed, it’s the more recent immigrants trying to self-fulfill false stereotypes who are among the most exaggerated Portlandia examples — a lot of California and Seattle expats who came for what they thought was in the marketing brochure. (Just don’t ask me what Florida’s problem is.)
Many publications have made out Portland to be some magical, mythical place inhabited by barista leprechauns, where rivers of microlot espresso run down streets adorned with portafilter handles and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders. Although we’ve seriously questioned what a “coffee city” actually means in today’s environment, Travel + Leisure has regularly ranked Portland at the top among “America’s Best Coffee Cities,” and The Daily Meal recently ranked Portland #1 in the same category.
A few years ago there was a lot of professional chatter about how Portland unseated Seattle as America’s coffee capital. Then add over 60 microroasters in the city, regional champion baristas (back when that was a thing), three national coffee magazines (Fresh Cup, Barista Magazine, Roast Magazine) — plus many quality coffee shops, equipment makers (though Able since moved to CA), and specialty retailers — and you can justify the hype. However, there are several factors that dim the shine here.
First is the question of size. Much about the greatness of Portland’s coffee culture gets weighted relative to the town’s seemingly small size — scaled as if by an “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” disclaimer. Instead of using purely direct yardsticks such as nationally renowned quality, reputation, variety, or industry awards, Portland’s relatively low population density is often applied as that fun-house-mirror-like lens through which many gauge the local coffee scene.
Which brings us to the second factor: quality. There are some really good coffee shops and roasters here, no question. But are they standouts among the best in the country? For the most part, not exactly. Kansas City has some great roasters and cafés as well, and I wouldn’t necessarily crown Portland’s best as superior to KC’s finest.
A lot of what’s good about coffee in Portland naturally traces its influences back to Stumptown Coffee Roasters. And as much as Stumptown is one of the nation’s elite roasters and coffee chains, we’ve always felt it is a slight underachiever among its peers — whether in rival Seattle or Portland itself.
Which brings us to the third and most critical factor keeping Portland from reaching its quality potential. Stumptown may be a slight underachiever for its elite class, but they are to be commended for taking a great risk and establishing a new kind of coffee operation for the region. Most other Portland shops established since Stumptown seem rather risk-averse and are instead focused on execution, sticking with the formula, rather than taking the risk of offering new ideas of what coffee could be. This is where Portland’s lack of cultural diversity seems to also manifest itself in its coffee culture.
With few exceptions, what Portland has is a number of micro-businesses following a slightly updated Stumptown blueprint in miniature. The degree of this conformity here is palpable and even gets a little monotonous. As with the Seattle music scene in the 1990s after Nirvana made it big, nearly every notable new band in town was donning their grunge flannels and crunching the same power chords. (Nirvana coincidentally having a dubious rumored historical connection to the aforementioned Dharma Bums, btw.) Whether that was because there weren’t enough bands differentiating themselves from Nirvana or whether the market/industry was only interested in bands that sounded like Nirvana knock-offs, the effect was the same.
Similarly, Portland “brew bars” (everything is a “bar” or “lounge” these days, whether you’re getting a coffee or getting your eyebrows waxed) tend to follow a rather narrow definition of roasting (microroasters), roasting styles, use of microlot coffees (and the inevitable Portland single origin Ethiopian shot), rather poor attempts at blends when they aren’t outright verboten, accompanied by cut-and-paste ad copy about seasonality and bean-to-cup attention to detail, etc. as if read off of a checklist.
Where’s the pour-over-only shop like a Phil’z that serves only blends and defiantly eschews the notions of geographic traceability entirely? Where’s the Latin American perspective as you get from a Cumaica Coffee? (Though Portland has a great exception with Brazil in Nossa Familia — no wonder it’s one of our favorites in town.)
There are a few multi-roaster shops, but they generally toe the party line: self-imposed rules about geographic specificity, sourcing from the same half-dozen producing countries, and roasting only well this side of the second crack. There’s always nitro (invented at Stumptown) and cold brew, but those are completely different beverages, really. (Not to mention they’re also doing it in Cleveland too.)
But where do you go for a vac pot coffee? Where’s the Third Wave coffee house co-located inside an S&M shop? Even a place such as the tiny Mountain Grounds, who prominently classifies their roasted bean stocks by growing altitude (2200m, etc.), would be guilty of heresy in this environment.
This isn’t just Portland. We have the same issues with the restaurant scene in San Francisco; when everybody is serving locally sourced, organic, farm-to-table cuisine, a great thing quickly becomes a repetitive mantra and ultimately a self-parody.
While SF has some excellent restaurants, it is rather narrow and limited when compared to places like Chicago or New York. Places where Mexican food isn’t exclusively the same seven Taco Bell ingredients recombined for meals under $10-$15, where dangerous ideas such as offering a tasting menu based on the unique cuisine of Jalisco is even attempted.
If Portland is to ever become a coffee “Mecca”, as is often stated, such a “center of activity or interest” simply cannot play it safe with with a single formula, even if it is a great formula. It should attract diverse and even conflicting influences and nonconformist ideas from all over the world. Because what is the coffee lovers’ benefit of having 40, 60, or even 2,000 local microroasters to choose from if they all are pretty much copying each other?
In conclusion, if you like the philosophical approach to coffee that a Portland roaster or café takes, chances are that you’ll find much to love in abundance throughout this city. It’s a great thing and many people do it well. But if you want to try something different from that insular, narrow definition, you pretty much have to leave town.
|Name||Address||Neighborhood||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Public Domain||603 SW Broadway||Downtown||8.00||8.00||8.000|
|Coava Brew Bar||300 SE Grand Ave.||Central Eastside||8.30||8.00||8.150|
|Good Coffee||1150 SE 12th Ave.||Buckman||8.30||8.50||8.400|
|Heart Coffee Roasters||537 12th Ave.||Downtown||8.00||8.00||8.000|
|Nossa Espresso Bar||811 NW 13th Ave.||Pearl District||8.40||7.80||8.100|
|Barista PDX||529 SW 3rd Ave., Unit 110||Downtown||8.20||8.00||8.100|
|Spella Caffè||520 SW 5th Ave.||Downtown||8.50||8.00||8.250|
|Stumptown Coffee Roasters||128 SW 3rd Ave.||Downtown||8.00||8.20||8.100|
Like many Northwest espresso operations of any history, Chicago native Andrea Spella (and wife Amanda) began his business as an espresso cart. Co-located among one of many Portland-area food cart ghettos where just about anything on wheels invades a vacant lot, Andrea roasted his own beans in SE Portland once per week and served a decidedly Roman style espresso from his humble cart.
Citing frequent busted pipes and the weather sensitivity of his business in the food cart ghetto, he moved out in 2010 to open up this thumbnail-sized downtown storefront that’s barely more than a kiosk. Three or four standing customers can simultaneously fit inside, tops. Though there are three red-painted café tables and chairs on the sidewalk out front. There are tile floors, an old marble service counter top, and a layout that feels very much like a tiny bakery.
Like a pre-World War II midget submarine out of water, two and only two people can operate this tiny cubbyhole. One takes orders and handles any money exchanges, while a barista operates pinned behind their three-group, hand-pumped, piston-driven lever Rancilio in back — a setup far more common to Napoli than Portland.
But don’t let the modest size and prices here fool you. The New York Times claimed theirs as the best espresso in town back in a 2009 travel article. Despite the many roasters and coffeeshops that have since blossomed in the area, I was surprised at how good the espresso is here. It would rank among San Francisco’s best.
There’s a great attention to detail. The espresso made from their own Minas Gerais, Brazil-based signature espresso blend comes with a gorgeously textured, layered crema from a very careful and deliberate shot pull. It has a complex, rich, mellow, and broad flavor of blended spices, pungency, and limited sweetness.
While a more medium roast, it can seem a bit more on the darker, roasted end of the spectrum when compared with many of Portland’s newcomer cafés. But they perform this blended roast extremely well — in the way that Heart Roasters pulls of light roasting well.
If we buy into the Third Wave myth, anybody who made coffee prior to 2006 is irrelevant. Having been founded in 2007, Spella might escape such outright dismissal despite not subscribing to any Third Wave trappings.
Because unlike the countless examples of the Portland coffee purveyor stereotype that have arisen since Stumptown made their mark, Spella Caffè doesn’t serve a (frequently Ethiopian) single origin shot with its cloying screams for attention. There’s a real refined elegance here in a (hold your nose) true blended espresso.
Just wow. It makes all the conformity of the single origin espresso rebellion seem, well, foolish. Served in multi-colored Nuova Point cups.
Read the review of Spella Caffè in Portland, OR.
It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.
This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.
Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.
But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.
Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)
A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.
When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.
One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.
They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.
The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.
Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.
Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.
Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.
This spacious café opened in the Fall of 2010. Located not far from the David Ave. border with Monterey, it’s a few blocks from the famed aquarium and can practically pass for Monterey. Out front along Central Ave. is a wooden parklet with a few café tables and two larger shared tables. The whole streetside parklet vibe should seem familiar to anyone from San Francisco.
Inside, along sherbet green walls, there’s a longer bench with a few café tables and two larger shared tables. There are shelves and shelves and tables of merchandising for sale: primarily jams, pickles, and baked goods. And yet most of the floorspace is dominated by the working bakery in the rear half of the shop (complete with mirrored disco ball). There’s a real vegetarian vibe to the place — down to the homemade kombucha for those who love sour tea made from soiled diapers.
But the coffee service — which runs later in the day than the 3pm food service hours — isn’t bad here. They use an orange, two-group manual lever La San Marco machine, Mazzer grinders, and Blue Bottle coffee to pull modestly sized shots with an even, medium brown crema of little distinction.
It’s light on the aroma, and the flavor seems a little brighter than a typical Blue Bottle cup: some spice, some sharpness, some apple acidity. There’s a decent flavor balance, but it lacks exceptionalism at just about every dimension. While Blue Bottle service is a find this far south, it’s off the standards of most of their purveyors. But the espresso sameness problem of SF doesn’t exist here (yet). Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.
For pour-over service they feature a stand with four Blue-Bottle-branded Bonmac drippers. For milk-frothing, they use Clover milk and employ decorative rosettas in their latte art (albeit a bit on the early practice end). They seem much better at milk-based drinks than the straight espresso here, as it is not too milky and exhibits good balance. Hence the generous correction score in their rating.
Read the review of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. in Pacific Grove, CA.
If you are a coffee lover, you’re probably already well aware of the online coffee courses offered by Seattle’s ChefSteps. That is, unless you’ve been holed up in Guantanamo or you avoid most social media like the time-sucking plague that it is (though I do, and yet I couldn’t avoid the subject).
This week coffee legend James Hoffman blogged about the latest ChefSteps course he’s involved with, and today we’ve already witnessed the promotional marketing for it bleeding out to publications such as Eater and Food & Wine — complete with obligatory use of the word “perfect” in their article titles.
To read the general press and discussion about publishers like ChefSteps, you’d think we were entering a revolutionary era of coffee education. But having taken ChefSteps’ free Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, and having a lot invested in the subject of how online education works (and does not work), I’m just not feeling the love. At least yet.
Let me explain. To begin with, I also need to start with a little about my “day job”. For over the past three years, I’ve been the co-founder and president of an online education start-up. We raised several million dollars from Khosla Ventures, a heavy investor in education technology, where Vinod Khosla himself sat on my board of directors. The only other board he served on was Square, so we were fortunate to have so much of his attention. (Side note: Khosla Ventures has more recently purchased the start-up outright for integration within its educational portfolio that includes the CK-12 Foundation, etc.)
Coincidentally, representing this start-up at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 is how I first encountered Blossom Coffee. And for those of you who have seen the brilliant HBO show, Silicon Valley, TechCrunch Disrupt is exactly like that.
Now the mission of this start-up may have been teaching users to program rather than to make latte art, but many of the frameworks and principles apply regardless: delivering educational content online, complementing lessons with resources such as online video, embedding discussions and interactions with the faculty and other students throughout the course, etc. Thus, over some years of experience, I’ve learned a few things about what’s good, what works, what’s revolutionary, and what’s — well — not so much in online education.
First: ChefSteps’ content. Taking their Espresso: The Art of Extraction course, I didn’t come away learning anything I didn’t already know. But as an introductory course, that’s to be expected. The videos, hosted on YouTube, are slickly produced and include legit instructors: Charles Babinksi, of G&B Coffee (he’s the ‘B’) and a former USBC finalist, and Scott Callender of La Marzocco Home.
The chief questions I struggled with as I took the course: was the material any better than any book or series of online articles I’ve read before? Same question for the videos. And did all of that help me learn something? My answer was generally “no”, or at least “not really”.
CoffeeGeek legend Mark Prince chimed in last week on a little of his mixed experiences with ChefSteps — at least regarding the “Espresso Myths” videos in the course. So let’s take the video on crema myths:
Now ChefSteps’ byline is “cook smarter”, but being “smarter” usually involves a more thorough effort of evaluating multiple perspectives, checking out references, and maybe performing a little analysis on all that before drawing hard conclusions. What we have instead in this “crema myths” segment (at 1’11’) is Scott Callender saying this:
“I think one of the best examples of that is Italian roasters include robusta into their blends simply to add this really thick, dark crema on top of their shots so it looks beautiful. But if you ever just taste a single origin robusta, most people would not tell you that tastes like a very good espresso.”
— Scott Callender, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
I can almost get past the fact that Scott has essentially stereotyped an entire coffee culture by suggesting that Italian roasters blindly add robusta to blends for the sole purpose of enhanced visuals. But what really makes my eyes roll is that Scott dismisses the idea that anyone might add a robusta component to a blend for something as insane as flavor balance or complexity.
Scott’s attitude is also rooted in the Puritanical myth — common to many myopic self-described Third Wavers — that the ultimate expression of coffee can only be found in a coffee bean’s genetically and geographically isolated single-origin, single-farm, single-row-of-shrubs heritage, unadulterated by external contaminants. This is essentially a lite version of Adolf Hitler’s purified master race doctrine as applied to coffee. And yet some of the greatest pleasures of coffee today come from an incestuously muddled history of genetic and geographic mash-ups; mash-ups that have given birth to everything from Bourbons to Catuais to Caturras to SL28s to SL34s to Typicas to even prized Gieshas transplanted to Panama as recently as 2000.
Charles Babinksi (who later uses big words like “quotidian”) then adds to this deconstructionist nonsense at 3’40” in the video:
“Also, it should be noted that crema tastes terrible. It’s one of the least enjoyable parts of drinking coffee. And more crema is not necessarily going to mean a tastier shot.”
— Charles Babinksi, Espresso Myths: Magical Crema
While Charles is factually correct, what he says reflects a deconstructionist and non-integrative approach to thinking — i.e., that any component that isn’t good individually in isolation is therefore potentially negative, detrimental to quality, and/or not important. This line of thinking borders on implying that nothing can be better than the individual sum of its parts, which is just plain wrong.
As Charles points out later in the course, in Taste the Extraction, progressively tasting an espresso extraction highlights how it transforms from sour-through-bitter notes and yet they all balance out in the end. That balance is arguably one of the most critical elements to a quality espresso and coffee in general: sour is important, sweet is important, salty is important, even bitter is important, and the balance between them all is what makes the beverage we obsess over.
I’m all for dismissing unnecessary espresso myths, but in the process you shouldn’t be creating new ones in their place.
Where the course excels is in introducing the “three legs of the espresso stool”: brew ratio, brew time, and brew temperature. Again it’s nothing that hasn’t been repeated before dozens of times elsewhere on the Internet (despite many student comments in the course to the contrary), but it’s summarized well in a concise place and format.
Overall the course is a bit short and superficial (hey, it’s free), serving mostly to improve general awareness rather than to teach any skill, method, or technique. Segments such as Pulling a Great Shot, for example, do very little towards the mission of actually teaching. Instead, it repeats a lot of minimalist common knowledge to a soundtrack of lounge music more suitable for getting a hot stone massage at a spa:
Last, we come to ChefSteps as a concept and overall learning format. Here’s where that rubbish about the day job kicks in. Is what ChefSteps offers any different or more effective than a book with a supplemental DVD of videos?
The threaded comment section to engage with the instructors and fellow students is helpful, but it feels a little wonky in the context of a course. It’s optimized more for commenting on Facebook posts than to facilitate any actual learning exchange, but it’s the easiest and most obvious thing to do in the early stages of any start-up learning platform. There are also Quartz-style contextual comments, but they barely get used.
The support component of any course — where students have questions or challenges that veer from the linear narrative of the program — is essential to its effectiveness. It is a core differentiator from merely reading a book or watching a video. One of my most critical insights was that many learning platforms are designed primarily as modified content delivery platforms, and support is often bolted on as an afterthought. My start-up’s platform was initially built around content delivery rather than support delivery, and effective learning platforms often require the reverse.
In other words: it’s the support, not the content, that’s often the primary driver of learning value. We choose university courses more for the professors and TAs than we do for the textbooks they use.
However, the primary glaring omission from ChefSteps as an effective learning platform is its complete lack of assessment or evaluation capabilities. A few years ago the Gates Foundation developed a compelling universal data model to represent learning systems and environments. While not yet made public, it was extensively shared among many tech-minded educators as a potential learning blueprint. In this fundamental data model, learning resources are paired with assessment or validation resources, and the pairs are typically combined in a sequential series. That much is so fundamental to the human learning model that the Gates Foundation proposed it as a standard.
And it makes obvious sense when you think about it. What education is there without quizzes or tests, midterms and finals? The human brain simply does not learn in the absence of useful feedback, without tightly integrating the practice of the very things you are supposedly learning.
You can only go so far learning to play a piano just by reading a book and watching videos. Hearing how you actually sound playing a piano — or better: having your piano teacher assess your performance — is the only way to know if you’re really progressing.
Hence why Charles Babinksi wisely suggested that ChefSteps streamline, if not eliminate, the course’s latte art section: teaching such a skill with the platform would be something of an abject failure. But without any assessment in the mix, you might make the same case for the entire course overall.
So it remains that ChefSteps is a nice reading resource, but it offers nothing you couldn’t recreate on Facebook other than its paywall. Accept it now for what limited reference value it provides. Any actual online education is a long, long ways off still.
Skillshare, as with Chefsteps, fails to integrate a feedback loop for students to gauge and measure their progress and success — thus making Skillshare also no more of a learning platform than a Facebook page sitting behind a paywall.