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Archived Posts from this Category
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.
illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).
However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.
Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.
It’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.
Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.
There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.
Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.
Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.
As another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.
Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.
Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)
Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.
But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.
Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!
There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.
Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.
The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.
Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.
Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.
This is that insufferable time of year where reading any sort of coffee news Web site or blog means dodging an onslaught of “gift ideas for coffee lovers” advertisements feigning to be articles. These cyclical (and cynical) bits of fake journalism are often accompanied by multi-page image galleries requiring you to click through each item — to maximize tedium while inflating Web site engagement metrics and advertising exposure.
So it was with a breath of fresh air this week that I received this article from a great friend in Canada: Gift Guide: Think twice before buying a Keurig coffee maker – The Globe and Mail. The topic was simple and one we’ve long contended: if you’re thinking of buying someone a Keurig machine, here’s why not. And it inspired the subject of today’s post here: the anti-gift guide article, or what not to buy this holiday season for that special coffee lover in your life.
OK, sure, I’m a fan of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping and Buy Nothing Day (aka “#OccupyXmas”). And it seems irresponsible to further stir up the consumer feeding frenzy that inspires maiming and even deaths at Black Friday Wal-Marts just to save $20 on a TV.
But if you’re going to be purchasing holiday gifts anyway, what should you avoid wasting your money on? Well, you’ve come to the right place. With coffee’s Fourth Wave — the gadgetization of coffee — in high gear, today the consumer coffee gear marketplace is flush with stoopid money. So much so that even classic coffee equipment designs — such as the moka pot and the Chemex — are (rightfully) looking to cash in on stacks of some of dat mad cheddar with new premium gadget introductions just in time for the holidays.
So without further ado, let the dishonor roll begin…
Either spend the $25 on a stovetop moka pot or hold off until you can hit that magical $800+ mark. Everything in-between really just isn’t worth it. All those Krups, Jura, and DeLonghi machines that litter the shelves at Sur La Table are just disappointment bombs ready to explode like IEDs on their hapless new owners. And before you point out that a moka pot technically does not brew espresso, it’s no worse than what you get out of a device made by one of these vacuum cleaner and toaster oven manufacturers.
If you recall the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic 1964 Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer animated Christmas special, I fully believe that there’s an Island of Misfit Coffee Appliances where cheap, dysfunctional, and abandoned espresso machines like these pile up like a Staten Island garbage barge.
As for simple camping devices like the Handpresso, you may as well drive your car on four donut emergency spare tires. And if you can’t afford the extra $200 for a decent burr grinder, you may as well purchase a Lamborghini mounted on donuts.
Speaking of coffee and camping, stay away from those custom coffee travel kits. You barely see your friend long enough away from the Xbox in his basement. Like when’s the next time he’s really crossing the Andes Mountains on foot like some sort of airline crash survivor?
The latest “Look, there goes Elvis!” technique from the modern coffee machine marketing playbook is to appeal to technophiles through seemingly advanced technology, such as iPhone or Android application controls. Yet we know just from their price tags that whatever WiFi and electronic investments they put into these machines, none of it went to the one thing all coffee brewing equipment must achieve to avoid complete failure: holding an accurate and consistent brewing temperature.
Your basic Technivorm can barely pull that much off without any smartphone gimmicks. Thus what you’re really buying is the equivalent of a baby busy box — just designed for easily duped adults who somehow need more excuses to keep staring at their smartphones. And good luck when Apple releases iOS9 next year and you discover you can’t upgrade your coffee machine’s operating system.
Seriously, if you’re going to buy one of these, just stick a wad of your cash directly into a landfill. The inevitable result will be the same, just that you’ll achieve your goal much sooner and you’ll be much more environmentally friendly in the process.
This is an oldie, but it still applies today. I know there are a lot of coffee fans whose favorite coffee style or flavor profile is simply “hot”. But since making coffee is cooking, the concept of using a hot plate is essentially the same as putting your meal under a fast food heat lamp. Sure, you might keep the desired serving temperature longer. But you evaporate out many of coffee’s water-soluble flavor components, thus leeching out a lot of its good flavors while concentrating the remaining stale dreck in its place.
While attending CoffeeCON in SF this year, Kitchen Aid sent me their new “SCAA-approved” Pour Over brewer. The one thing I don’t like about it? Its ridiculous hot plate that I have to work around to avoid.
This is going to be a controversial one, as there are a lot of great roasts to be had by mail these days. But that’s precisely the point.
There are a lot of new coffee middlemen who operate subscription services. While they ship with regularity so you have the convenience of not having to think about it, most of them pretty much ship whatever inventory they want to unload. It changes from month to month.
This is fine if you’re a newbie coffee lover and you want every coffee experience to be a new discovery. But playing coffee roulette gets old quickly once you learn more about what you like. With just a couple of clicks on a roaster’s Web site, what you really want is on your doorstep within 48 hours: no subscription required.
There’s a reason why most people don’t stick with a wine-of-the-month club for a full year.
This is another controversial one. Because despite identifying the few reasons you should — and the many reasons you should not — roast your own some five years ago here, I’ve been home roasting about every other day for more than a year now. I can’t even remember the last time I purchased retail roasted coffee. After nearly a decade of declining use, a combination of newer equipment, outstanding green lots from Rwanda, and changes in home coffee drinking habits have me in something of a home roasting revival these days.
That said, I still have to say that it’s a hassle that’s not worth it for most people. It’s even one of the few times I wholly agree with Nick Cho.
Perhaps your gift recipient loves to make their own kombucha. Though if that’s the case, any suggestions for making flavorful coffee are probably pointless. Who can trust the taste buds of anybody who willingly drinks tea made from soiled diapers?
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. If it needs a recipe, it’s not coffee.
Would a serious, legit book on wine cram itself with recipes for kir royales and beef bourguignon?
Just as state lotteries are often called a tax on people who can’t do math, I’ve called crowdfunding services like Kickstarter a tax on people who don’t understand business loans or venture investing. If you can’t secure a decent business loan with your brilliant product idea, then throwing it out to the unwashed masses of the Internet for charitable donations doesn’t exactly make it that much more viable.
On the other hand, maybe you as the inventor could secure the bank loans, and you could establish a business that could support the product well after its first prototypes ship. But why? Especially when you can simply take the money of gullible Internet users with virtually no strings attached.
Either way, the formula isn’t so attractive on the consumer end of this equation.
The Wilfa Precision Coffee Maker… the Canadiano… the Ratio Eight … Enter the Dragon… These days an endless parade of “new, revolutionary, and even better!” coffee brewer come-ons bombard home coffee lovers seemingly every other week, suddenly relegating last week’s revolutionary brewer to the Salvation Army donation pile.
Do you have the disposable income to keep replacing your home setup every other week for the promise of a potential 0.002% quality improvement in your cup? Are you starting a collection of forgotten coffee brewing devices for the Fifteen-Minutes-of-Fame Coffee Trivia History Museum?
If your answer to both of these questions is “no”, then the $20 Bonmac dripper you’ve been knocking around with for the past several years will continue to do just fine. And it will continue to do so for years to come. If your intended gift recipient is starting from scratch, it’s worth a look at these new gadgets. But just once — and not again for probably many years.
Downtown Seattle is something of an espresso wasteland compared to most other city downtowns, especially around the touristy Pike Place Market. Which is ironic, given that it is the birthplace of the biggest coffee quality movement America has ever experienced (i.e., Starbucks).
However, that’s also part of the problem: independent specialty coffee retailers grew successful because of their craft, attracted investment, attracted expectations of scale and reach, and now many of them have evolved to become corporate coffee giants — which is now what dominates downtown Seattle. This evolution differs from most downtowns where the “corporate” part of the local coffee scene invaded from afar rather than transformed in place.
When Seattle’s coffee quality pioneers turned corporate, I fully believe that their quality has declined with that scale, as the quality bar was lowered each time with every additional 100 jobs they needed to fill and each process automation they had to adopt to meet the demand. (I still contend that the individual barista makes up 50% of the end quality in a retail espresso beverage.) Others might argue that newer independents have simply stepped in, stood on the shoulders of their predecessors, raised the quality bar further, and became the new standard-bearers of their time.
All of which sets an interesting stage for Seattle Coffee Works — a small company established several years ago by California expats. Their story suggests an arrival amidst Pike Place Market’s coffee scene with big expectations, only to encounter serious disappointment. A long story short, the team eventually opened this location right in the shadow of Pike Place Market as an expression of quality coffee, more direct relationships with farmers (they post photos of farmers on the walls and a “Coffee Manifesto” beneath the front counter/register), and trendier (i.e., post-Seattle-espresso) brew bar offerings from a “Slowbar” that offers Chemex, Hario pour-over, Aeropress, and syphon brewing.
With a Diedrich roaster in back for their on-site roasting, they produce mostly single origin roasts for retail use and retail sale. They offer an outdoor seating patio sectioned off from the sidewalk traffic. Inside it’s a wider but spare space with a bare, darker concrete slab floor, worn wooden tables and chairs, and a rear wooden bench for seating. There are shelves of antique coffee brewing equipment, which is a nice touch, and near their Slowbar there are shelves of merchandising: Aeropress, Baratza grinders, kettles, French presses, etc.
For espresso they offer their “award-winning” Seattle Space blend along with a single origin option from their two-group Synesso. With the Space Blend, rated here, they pull a shot with a very even, non-descript medium brown crema. It’s filled rather high in their Espresso Supply Cremaware demitasses from China.
As a result, the body — like the crema — is a bit thin. It has a pungent flavor with some sharper acidity of apples, some cinnamon, and other spices. It’s a classically redundant Third Wave stereotype espresso lacking much body, richness, or breadth of flavor. Served with sparking water (what the locals call “soda water”) on the side.
I had a surprisingly better shot with their single origin Panama Carmen: richer in flavor depth with more rounded, body-friendly notes. Perhaps the Slowbar is the way to go here — if not the single origin shots. The Space Blend here, despite its claimed awards, tastes a little too much like “California Third Wave” as far as my taste preferences go.
For over 8 years here, it’s been no secret that I’ve had to restrain my gag reflex every time some poseur/wannabe starts spouting off about coffee’s Third Wave. Because for every self-congratulatory, self-ordained Third Wave coffee shop that wishes to proclaim, “Oh, what a good boy am I. Look at what I just invented!,” there’s a place like Seattle’s Monorail Espresso that provides ample reason for them to shut up and sit down.
That Monorail even exists is a rubber glove slap across their face. A Pike Place Market, ice-packed, 15-pound sockeye salmon across the face. Monorail has not only been doing it longer than you, but they’ve been doing it before you were even born. And here’s the insult added to your injury: they also still do it better than you.
As not everyone is aware of America’s early espresso history, this humble but legendary espresso spot started Dec 1, 1980 as Chuck Beek’s espresso cart set up near the Westlake Center beneath the Seattle Center monorail — a 1962 construction for the World’s Fair to shuttle visitors from downtown to the iconic Space Needle in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne district. Mr. Beek’s idea was to see if he could sell espresso on the streets rather than coffeehouses, making him something of a pioneer of Seattle’s espresso cart revolution of the 1980s.
By 1997, Monorail Espresso went from a cart service to its current (and relatively permanent) location: a 100-square-foot kiosk that’s today next to a Banana Republic. While it has changed little since then, other than former barista Aimee Peck taking over its ownership, it is a global espresso institution. Seattle locals and global travelers alike come here and celebrate its praises. And they deserve all they can get.
There’s a neon “Caffeine” sign, a chalkboard sidewalk sign advertising the latest specialty drink (e.g., maple latte), and a lot of bike messengers lounging nearby smoking cloves. From a sliding glass window, they’ve been serving espresso for eons made from a custom Monorail Blend produced by the small Whidbey Island roaster, Mukilteo (which has also remained strong-but-small over the eons).
Tourists bring their own demitasses from around the world to leave at this location, and the Monorail baristi often employ some of these mismatched, saucerless demitasses in service if you’re not getting it in paper. (For example, we were served with a Richard Ginori cup.)
Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a splotchy dark and medium brown crema with old-school-quality looks. It has a creamy mouthfeel and has a robust flavor of chocolate, cloves, spice, and a great roundness in its taste profile. This is an espresso of thoughtful quality that’s unfortunately fallen out of vogue fashion among many newer coffee shops. I’d trade all the Sightglasses in SF for just one 100-square-foot Monorail. In downtown Seattle, corporate espresso is arguably the norm save for a wonderful exception such as this.
Served with a glass of sparkling water on the side. Cash only, because you can save that Apple Pay Touch ID for your proctologist.
Read the review of Monorail Espresso in Seattle.
In addition to my rather obsessive love of coffee and evaluating its various flavors and aromas, I’ve made no secret of my equally fond appreciation of good wine. How much the two are connected — though sometimes at arm’s length — has been a running topic on this blog over the years. That theme repeated itself again when earlier this month I attended a weekend course called Sensory Analysis of Wine at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa Valley’s St. Helena.
Coincidentally, this week’s new episode of the Esquire Network’s The Getaway featured the Napa Valley and was hosted by Twin Peaks “damn fine cup of coffee” legend, the actor and now winemaker Kyle MacLachlan. Here’s a spot where he visits Napa’s Oxbow Public Market with Carissa Mondavi for coffee at Ritual Coffee Roasters:
In the video short, Carissa mentions the aromatic descriptors in coffee that you also find for wine. Which brings us back to the CIA course further up-valley. Located in a beautiful campus built in the 1880s as a co-operative winery (and since handed down from the Christian Brothers on down), it was purchased by the CIA in 1993 for use as their West Coast campus.
The course was taught by John Beuchsenstein, a veteran winemaker and wine sensory evaluation expert of some 30 years. Perhaps most notably, he’s a co-author of the Standardized System of Wine Aroma Terminology, also known as the Wine Aroma Wheel. It inspired the familiar SCAA Coffee Flavor Wheel, and John remembers the time when his work influenced the Coffee Flavor Wheel’s creation.
The two-day course was both an intensive lesson on the organic chemistry behind wine aromas, flavors, and defects and a hands-on lab where students tested their skills at learning and detecting these components. Volatile organic compounds such as 4-VG, 4-EP, esters, phenols, and fusel alcohols all represent the sort of chemical cause-and-effect linkages that have been long established for wine. However coffee is only just now getting a handle on similar chemical markers and how they impact the flavors and aromas of coffee.
The good news for coffee is that the research is coming, but it will take time. As noted in the scientific paper on wine linked above, the wine industry has established standardized “recipes” for creating wine’s fundamental aromas and flavors. These form a foundation for a common sensory wine vocabulary. If you want a model for tobacco, there’s a base wine and an amount of off-the-shelf elements you can use to create that reference sensation, and you can dial it up or down in concentration to train your sensitivity to it.
Another parallel? Dr. Ann C. Noble at UC Davis had been using spider charts to model the sensory analysis of wines well over 30 years ago — something green bean buyers from SweetMaria’s would strongly identify with today. A major departure? Wine just doesn’t have coffee’s temperature-sensitive bands where different aspects of its flavor and aroma profile shift dramatically.
Also of note is that the CIA at Greystone is one of the homes of Illy‘s Università del Caffè — a fact that Illy Master Barista, Giorgio Milos, pointed out to me when I ran into him at an Illy Art in the Street event at The NwBlk in the Mission last month. (Do check out his semi-controversial article on the limited praises of pod coffee in last month’s Coffee Talk.)
Courses at the Università del Caffè are infrequent, but the CIA at Greystone has a permanent coffee outlet on exhibit in the form of The Bakery Cafe by Illy. Sure, many culinary students and staff drink watery Equator Estate Coffee from the Fetco brewers in the demonstration kitchens at the CIA. But this bakery/café opened in April 2012 as an outlet for where CIA students could serve lunch, baked goods, and café fare to the general public.
With heavy Illy branding near the De Baun Theater, it’s also next to a CIA counter behind glass walls that serves wine, charcuterie, and chocolate confections. They offer baked bread and cookies, sandwiches, soups, salads, side dishes (good French fries, btw), wines by the glass, and of course — coffee.
There are multiple indoor tables and chairs with table service (and ordering at the counter) and colorful hanging lights. Using a two-group La Cimbali XP1 chrome beauty behind the counter, fed by the big Illy can-o-beans, the same students pulled shots that varied wildly in the two times we visited for lunch over a weekend course here.
The staff wear “Illy-approved” fashionable shoes with the men sporting skinny ties like wannabe metro Europeans. With their service model carrying drinks to your table when they are ready, this clearly contributes to a lot of the variance. (Coincidentally, Giorgio Milos frequently talks about about the challenges of consistency with table service.)
On Saturday’s class day it had no crema beyond a tinge of cloudiness on the surface of what seemed like drip coffee crossed with a weak hot chocolate. It had a flat flavor with little brightness, a surprisingly decent body, but little to excite beyond that: a stale-seeming shot with no Illy woodiness, etc.: a shot that scored well on some properties but completely failed on others.
Then on Sunday the shot came with a darkly speckled brown crema, a solid aroma, and a warming flavor of mild spices and wood in balance that you come to expect of Illy. Nothing at the quality level of their European cafés (it’s always a much better product there for some reason), but an all-around shot of decent quality. So it’s very hard to tell you what you will get here, other than an erratic performance by students and a seeming lack of quality control intervening. Other than it’s served in Illy logo IPA cups.
Read the review of The Bakery Cafe by Illy in the CIA at Greystone, St. Helena, CA.
This café is the brainchild of former middle school teacher and Ritual Coffee barista, Kevin “Tex” Bohlin. Starting as a pop-up in SF’s South Park (which has since closed in Dec. 2013), this over-designed flagship café opened in Oct. 2013 to a considerable amount of gushing praise.
It took over the former Teashi spa, and the spirit of past mani/pedis and Brazilian waxings still sort of haunts the place. On the sidewalk out front there’s limited wooden café table seating. Inside in front there’s window counter seating for four on stools right next to shelves of coffee merchandising, just shy of the long service counter.
It’s a long space that is deceptively airier than its limited seating would suggest. There’s an array of a few café tables against a shared wall bench; these are typically the domain of laptop zombie squatters. Further back there’s an upstairs under bright skylights that offers two larger, semi-private tables.
Here there is an overwhelming sense of someone’s idyllic vision that a café should be more like an Apple Store. There are stark, plain walls and wood grain paneling plus a wannabe kanketsu “service philosophy” of removing as many barriers as possible between barista and customer.
This is exemplified by their unique, Modbar-like espresso machine: a two-group, under-the-counter job either called the Jepy Minim (per the engineer/designer John Ermacoff, aka Jepy) or the Ghost (per project designer Ben Kaminsky). It’s the guts of a perfectly acceptable Synesso Sabre, but Frankensteined beyond recognition as a sacrifice to form. This worship at the Holy Church of Makerdom might promise greater temperature control, etc., but what only matters to us as coffee lovers is what it produces in the cup.
They specially source limited coffees and roast them through Ritual Coffee Roasters for their own private label, and our review here is of their Little Brother Espresso — which comes at a whopping $3. (They also served a Costa Rica Los Crestones for $4.) It’s served slightly full with an even, medium brown crema. There’s a balance to the flavor with hints of bright fruit, but there’s primarily a mid-palate of herbal pungency.
In short: it’s a very good shot. But for all the pomp, technology, design, and the price, it doesn’t measure up to expectations — failing to rank in the Top 35 of SF coffee shops. We need to revisit to ensure we didn’t catch them on an off moment, but that would be surprising given they’ve been open for eight months and their machine has dialed down espresso shots to a push-button level. The good news for Saint Frank is that there are clear opportunities to improve. (That might also include banning all employees here from openly calling it “spro”, dude.)
This will read like an attack on Kevin when he’s done some very interesting things with unique coffees, and he’s certainly trying things. Yet Saint Frank is also symptomatic and emblematic of what seems so very lost and misguided with what the industry holds as the new standard of coffee shop today. Among all the toys and distractions of late, coffee quality in the cup seems to have again taken a back seat.
If you’re going to charge $3 for an espresso, it should at least break the Top 35 in the city. Among the 700 active espresso purveyors currently surveyed in SF, Saint Frank’s standard espresso shot is the most expensive in the city that’s served outside of a restaurant setting. (Presuming the Nespresso Boutique & Bar qualifies more as a restaurant, where you’re paying more for white tablecloth service and a global smoke & mirrors marketing campaign.)
We should all be paying more for coffee — but for better coffee. Based on our ratings, it’s not better. For the reported pedigree of their sourced coffees, it doesn’t even have a different or unique flavor profile. So what exactly am I paying extra for?
First, there’s the promising lure of shiny new equipment and it’s empirically consistent failure to deliver better coffee. In the past we’ve noted the likes of Sightglass who have been guilty of this for years. In Saint Frank’s case, it’s not even so much a “better brewing” sales come-on than superficial aesthetics: i.e., a low-profile workspace primarily conceived to address the First World coffee problem where my barista doesn’t get to see more of my crotch.
Fortunately the Modbar isn’t weighed down by outrageous costs — you can get a full system for under $10k. Hopefully Saint Frank’s custom lookalike (the Jepy Minim or Ghost, depending upon whom you ask) follows suit in that department. But with new, “revolutionary” ways to brew coffee even more perfectly being announced every week, we’ve often wondered if any of the takers ever get the chance to dial-in on them, with a serious dose of experience, before they roll on to the next big thing — looking to technology to bail them out from substandard practices.
This is a little of what former USBC champ Kyle Glanville recently called the “fancy equipment arms race”: “People are spending shit tons on machines to brew coffee when they should be investing in their own palates and understandings of flavor, and the knowledge of how coffee brewing actually works”
So what about making your café look like an Apple Store? Blue Bottle Coffee has been compared to the Apple of coffee shops, and they’re even sporting Apple-inspired service table designs. And CoffeeRatings.com has had plenty of good things to say about Blue Bottle.
Except Blue Bottle’s resulting coffee quality is noticeably better than Saint Frank’s. Now any café owner is entitled to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a custom espresso machine, killer grinders, and a Zenlike service design experience. But if it doesn’t translate to a better cup of coffee, those costs are being passed on to me to satisfy completely different concerns. You’d be better off having your baristas selling me $400 sweaters.
What results is a place that seems enamored with all the trappings of what’s expected of a wannabe Fourth Wave coffee place, but with no improvement in the coffee itself. Which suggests more of our cynical definition of a Fourth Wave coffee shop from four years ago. We then joked that if the Third Wave was about letting the coffee speak for itself and enjoying coffee for its own sake, the Fourth Wave was about appreciating so much of the gadgetry and trappings surrounding coffee service that any actual coffee was no longer required.
But can any of us blame Kevin? The status quo of the industry’s most popular coffee media encourage this focus. For example, a Dear Coffee, I Love You seems to care more about subway tiles than coffee roasting. While Sprudge heavily promotes their “Buildouts of the Summer” promotional series as if coffee were a construction project. And in professing “we would never grade coffee shops”, Sprudge seems too terrified to lift a judgmental finger to critique any of the coffee and potentially hurt someone’s feelings.
This leaves a massive void of any popular critical thought about retail coffee quality. Instead of learned coffee professionals, this gap is filled instead by the arbitrary standards of “top 20 coffee shops in America” lists on popular news and travel web sites — often written and compiled by interns most enamored by double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos in paper to-go tubs, whose understanding of coffee quality extends little beyond the MSRP price tags of the commercial coffee machine fad of the month.
Or worse: the void is left to the whims of the “man in the street” on review sites like Yelp!: where electrical outlets for laptops, cute baristas who flirt, and cheap extra large muffins count for more than any coffee quality.
Imagine a perverse wine world where the like likes of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast gave everything identical 90-point scores while devoting the bulk of their writing to the wood and fixtures used to build their tasting rooms and the designers of their high-tech wine openers. It’s of little surprise that we have ended up with coffee writing that reads more like an interior design arms race sponsored by Home Depot®. Meanwhile any actual quality judgement on coffee is suppressed to the level of American youth soccer: everybody is recognized with a trophy just for participating. Why even bother with the farce of barista competitions if “everyone is a winner”?
Over a decade ago, one of the major inspirations for creating CoffeeRatings.com was our immense frustration with all the existing books and online reviews of coffee houses at the time: it was impossible to find any critical reviews of coffee places that critiqued any actual coffee. Most of the attention was spent on ambiance: the style of the clientele who hung out there, what novels they read, and how good the bagels were. With all the attention now given to new machines, service counter layouts, and who makes the wooden countertops, we seem to have relapsed to those more ignorant days.
I never thought I’d miss what six years ago I called the Malaysian street food experience. Then the environmental design slight-of-hand was in making you feel like a hipster for sipping your espresso while sitting on a cinder block in an alley filled with spent heroin needles. Even so, at least the quality of the coffee still ran as the headline. Today I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it’s time to go back to those days.
Still reading? OK, here’s the long version. So what made me lob such an incendiary, sweeping, and judgmental hand grenade? This past week I came across this headline from Roast Magazine‘s news feed: Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine – Coffee Recommendations From the World’s Greatest Restaurant Chef.
The post cites a Telegraph travel article that’s completely innocuous. But it’s the loaded presumptions behind Roast‘s headline that forcibly poked me in the eye and compelled me to respond.
Because, you see, I’ve never trusted a great chef’s opinion about good coffee. And I’ve come to believe that I probably never will. This is yet another example of why all journalistic efforts and awards that classify coffee as some mutant, orphaned subdivision of food seem misguided and wholly inadequate.
Most great chefs are quite poor at even desserts — at least when compared to their hired gun pastry chefs, for example, they often reach for odd savory creations given palates that are often clueless at how to deal with sweet. Thus it shouldn’t be of great surprise that most great chefs are outright lame when it comes to quality coffee. The continually sad state of restaurant coffee being additional supporting evidence.
So why does public perception seem convinced of the complete opposite?
In recent years, food has firmly become a form of entertainment, and the highest profile chefs have morphed into something strangely akin to lifestyle consultants. As the social status of celebrity chefs has risen, so has a sort of cultural belief that these chefs have come to represent all things fine dining and living — each of them harboring great secrets of a modern illuminati. So much so, today our popular culture is immersed in this mistaken fantasy that chefs always eat out better than you, eat at home better than you, and even vacation better than you. (Yes, there are even absurd apps based on the premise that chefs eat better than anyone else on the planet.)
The reality is that even the best chefs often have terrible diets, have no time to eat well, chain smoke, marinate themselves in hard alcohol, and even shoot up with a little smack or crank now and then. (I’m looking at you, Anthony Bourdain.) And yet consumers seem overly willing to make a misguided mental leap: that just because someone is qualified to make a meal for King Louis XIV, they must therefore eat and live it up like King Louis XIV (though maybe on a slightly leaner budget).
So when American super-chef, Thomas Keller, says he can often be found eating at an In-N-Out Burger, that might help elevate public esteem for the cult favorite burger chain. But that says more to me about Thomas Keller than it says about In-N-Out Burger — which is, quite disappointingly, just another mass-produced, paper-hat, greasy-burger-on-a-bun fast food chain of a slightly different hue. It might also explain why the coffee at Mr. Keller’s restaurants is so poor.
A few years ago when we dined at Keller’s notorious French Laundry, we noted how the espresso there scored lower than a Starbucks at the SFO airport. A good friend of this Web site who ranks high in the local coffee industry (who shall remain nameless) also dined there this past weekend and reported pretty much the exact same disappointing coffee experience. And that’s quite consistent with the poor coffee service we’ve experienced at virtually all of Keller’s restaurants.
But it’s not just Keller.
On an episode of Dangerous Grounds in Rome this season, superchef Mario Batali sent Todd Carmichael to Tazza d’Oro to experience what he thinks is the best Italian espresso, period. Now I love Tazza d’Oro. A major inspiration for this site was the battle between the locals in Rome’s centro storico for who had the better espresso — Tazza d’Oro or Sant’Eustacio il Caffè. But as good as it is, there’s a lot of local legend and historical folklore behind Chef Batali’s choice.
Mr. Carmichael eyeballs Tazza d’Oro’s roasting operations and notices all the Brazilian coffee produced by mechanically harvested megafarms, suggesting how he could do better. And as I recently concluded, even the best espresso from a recent trip to Napoli — a city known even more for the quality of its Italian espresso — could not crack SF’s Top 15. Even look at the Batali-owned U.S. locations of Eataly: there are Lavazza cafés in the U.S. where any Eataly in its native Italy would never consider hosting them on the basis of Lavazza’s vast size and pedestrian quality.
Chef Batali has an impeccable palate for Italian food. But his taste for coffee seems clearly borrowed rather than personally developed. Though who can blame him given everything else he has to obsess about? Even if his habits of hanging out with that vapid sea hag in $1,000 yoga pants, Gwyneth Paltrow, and his trademark I’ve-given-up-hope footwear might suggest that not all his tastes are winners.
Speaking of that ever-popular wine analogy, let’s turn our attention to great chefs and their relationship to wine. Food and wine are like the yin and yang of fine dining. Yet nobody corners great chefs to ask their personal opinions about their favorite wines — so why would coffee even be relevant? Sure, said chefs will be asked about pairing wine with food. But almost never are they asked about their independent opinions about wine.
Why? Because all the respectable wine snobs know that’s not where these chefs excel. When Wine Enthusiast visited Chef Redzepi’s Copenhagen dining scene a few years ago, it failed to even mention wine anywhere in the article. A curious omission for a wine-obsessed magazine.
In 2007 Wine Spectator interviewed Thomas Keller and did an exceedingly rare thing: they asked him directly about his wine preferences. Did he wax about the lush qualities of his favorite vintage of Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru? No, instead he noted that his favorite wines were young Zinfandels — big fruit bombs, often heavy on alcohol, that were once most commonly known as “jug wines” not all that long ago.
There’s nothing wrong with young Zinfandels or having preferences for inexpensive wines. This isn’t to suggest that great chefs have disproportionately philistine tastes when it comes to wine (or coffee). But professing favoritism for what was once associated with wine’s misery market is hardly what the public expects when seeking the sage wisdom of Thomas Keller’s “distinguished wine palate”.
As for Mario Batali, he promotionally offers his name on a “Mario Batali Selection™” line of wines — curated by Mario and typically offered in the $15-20 range. But nobody believes that’s what he chooses to drink. In fact, Chef Batali seems too preoccupied having his team of ghostwriters come up with new material for his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine — “What I’m Drinking” — where each week Chef Mario celebrates new ways to damage his liver through the versatile elixir of hard liquor.
What Chef Redzepi, Chef Keller, and Chef Batali — and many great chefs like them — all have in common is knowing the limits of their own tastes and opinions outside of food. What they all have become quite good at is knowing how to delegate, choosing surrogates whose opinions they trust: whether that’s a pastry chef, a sommelier, or someone in charge of the coffee service at their restaurant.
All of which isn’t to say that René Redzepi has no taste for decent coffee. Coffee Collective is a Copenhagen, if not world class, coffee institution. But the loaded pretext here is that because Chef Redzepi knows how to forage and make the world’s most delicious moss, that somehow this qualifies him as some kind of coffee oracle. This when his coffee palate is likely far less informed than some 28-year-old local Copenhagen bike messenger who still lives with his parents. I’d rather hear that bike messenger’s opinion about coffee. However, Chef Redzepi has earned his respect and celebrity for what he’s accomplished with food — even if he hasn’t earned it for all things related to taste.
Being an outstanding chef does not bestow any magical abilities to divine good coffee from bad, just as being a certified Q grader doesn’t qualify you as an expert on modern Scandinavian cuisine. So let’s stop pretending that chefs are something they’re not — as if being the executive chef at the best restaurant in the world isn’t enough. They can barely cope with wine or dessert, let alone coffee.
Perhaps if we stop insisting that our food savants must also be multi-disciplinary Renaissance men and women in all matters of taste, we might start deservedly recognizing the coffee specialists for what they truly excel at.
Curiously enough, Chef Redzepi opens the presentation by giving complete credit to his head sommelier, Mads Kleppe, for Noma’s coffee program and suggests that Mr. Kleppe should give the talk. Chef Redzepi then proceeds to monopolize the presentation — with Mr. Kleppe standing on stage nearby.
Today’s Stanford Daily published an article on the Stanford Coffee Symposium that we held this past weekend: Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily. In addition to the featured speakers mentioned in our earlier post, the event showcased espresso drinks and coffees meticulously prepared by Mr. Espresso, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Centro Agroecológico del Café A.C. (CAFECOL, from Mexico), Coupa Café, and Café Venetia — plus an overall event coffee service provided by Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
Exclusively for the event, Richard Sandlin of Fair Trade USA (and the Bay Area Coffee Community) and Stephen Vick, green coffee buyer for Blue Bottle Coffee, jointly developed a custom coffee evaluation session where some 200 students tasted three very different coffees from different regions — each personally sourced by Stephen and prepared by Blue Bottle baristas. Richard and Stephen encouraged the students to identify & associate flavor descriptors for each coffee and compare their tasting experiences with those of their own.
I was pleasantly surprised that the Stanford University team transformed the classic, 1938-built Stanford Graduate School of Education building, with its modest power & water supply, into something that could support an event of this size: with modern espresso machines and a demanding cupping-like event with three different hand-crafted coffees served simultaneously to some 70 people in three shifts.
Although I was mostly busy helping to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes, I still managed to learn quite a bit about coffee history, the coffee genome, the impacts of coffee on labor and certification practices in Latin America, and how to measure biodiversity and its effects on coffee production. That said, my favorite event logistics non-sequitur of the day had to be: “I found out that the golf cart wasn’t stolen.”
A big thanks to everyone who helped pull off a educational, fun, and highly caffeinated celebration of coffee that also increased our mindful appreciation of it.