Quality Issues

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Stanford Continuing Studies hosts coffee symposium | Stanford Daily

Posted by on 05 May 2014 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Local Brew, Quality Issues

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.

James Freeman of Blue Bottle presents 'The Last Mile' of coffee Students at the Stanford Coffee Symposium, 2014

Vendors serving coffee at the Stanford Coffee Symposium One of the coffee evaluation sessions at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

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.

Mr. Espresso at the Stanford Coffee Symposium Coupa Café and Café Venetia at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Blue Bottle bariste prepare coffee samples for the coffee evaluation session - in chambray of course Stephen VIck (left) and Richard Sandlin (right) explain the coffee evaluation session to attendees

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.

Barefoot Coffee Roasters' truck at the Stanford Coffee Symposium CAFECOL at the Stanford Coffee Symposium representing growers from Veracruz, Mexico

Detailed notes from the coffee evaluation session at the Stanford Coffee Symposium A Mr. Espresso macchiato at the Stanford Coffee Symposium

Trip Report: Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop (Mill Valley, CA)

Posted by on 27 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Long before there was Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso continually wrestled with the “last mile” of retail coffee delivery. All their quality efforts sourcing, roasting, and blending coffee could be undone by poor storage, an inexperienced barista, or a poorly maintained espresso machine. By opening Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso could take more direct control of that last mile and better showcase their coffee.

Equator Estate Coffees is another local roaster that hasn’t quite yet had the retail coffee outlet to truly show them off. This was a particularly nagging issue for us on CoffeeRatings.com, where over the years we noted their industry accolades but were continually challenged to find just one among dozens of example outlets where their roasts didn’t underwhelm us.

Entrance to Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop Rear patio at Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop

Equator co-founder and master roaster, Brooke McDonnell, sometimes took to the comments on our blog posts to debate the variances in personal tastes. She was right that personal tastes vary, and none are necessarily more “right” or “wrong” than others.

Sure, we’ve been known to pause over the likes of Stumptown Coffee Roasters — who while clearly in the upper echelon of coffee quality always seemed to rank in the lower end of that class. Someone certainly has to, so why not them?

But if Stumptown marked a natural statistical outcome when forced to jockey for rankings within subjective personal tastes, Equator represented nothing short of an anomaly for us. Ultimately, we had more or less come to the conclusion that our perception-of-quality disparity had less to do with our own coffee palate and more with their relatively loose controls over the supply and delivery chain at the retail end.

Seating inside Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop Cashier and retail walls inside Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop

Opening in June 2013, Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop represents a joint venture where the roaster finally got their own “reference quality” coffee bar. Located at one of the main divides in Mill Valley between traffic into “downtown” and traffic towards Muir Woods and the California Highway 1 beaches, this red-painted wooden shack at the head of a part-gravel parking lot beckons surfers and coffee lovers alike. It seems like an odd place for a surf shop (Proof Lab, in back): sandwiched between the Bothin Marsh and Coyote Creek with no sign of sand for miles. But the surfers (and boarders) come.

There’s a cement patio in front, enclosed from the highway by standing surfboards and a surf-board-inspired outdoor table. The rear entrance to the building has seating among white-painted metal café tables and chairs — and a surfboard table. Inside there are several small wooden café tables set against a wall of Hurley surf advertising. (With surfboards in the rear.) One wall is dedicated to retail sale of various coffees and home brewing equipment.

Using a red, two-group La Marzocco Strada machine, they pull shots with a mottled, textured crema of a medium and darker brown. It looks robust and organic, has a decent body, a full aroma, and a well-blended flavor of herbal pungency mixed with some spices, heavy cherry-like fruit (perhaps just a touch too much fruit for my tastes), and some honey-like edges. Served in white logo Espresso Parts cups with very necessary sparkling water on the side.

It’s a solid cup. It has great visual appeal and seems like it has all the ingredients for excellence. However, you might say the enigma continues a little: as good as it is, it still falls on the weaker side of excellence with still some room for improvement.

Read the review of Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop in Mill Valley, CA.

Operating the Strada inside Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop The picturesque Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop espresso

Espresso nel caffè: Rai 3 Report

Posted by on 07 Apr 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Robusta, Starbucks

As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)

This nasty shot of an unclean espresso machine in Napoli won't qualify as coffee pornThe 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.

There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.

How a coda di topo should not look...The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.

Luigi Odello on ReportThey visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.

Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.

UPDATE: April 8, 2014
Effective communication often changes behavior. In response to Rai 3’s Report yesterday, a Campania region commissioner has come to the defense of the region’s espresso: Campania Report, Martusciello: “Il caffè napoletano è una eccellenza”.

Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.

UPDATE: April 14, 2014
Antonio Quarta, president of the Associazione Italiana Torrefattori (AIT, Italian Roasters Association), commented on the Report in today’s paper: Quarta: «Il caffè fa bene, ma è importante che sia di qualità». In short, he notes that the SCAE has its own high professional standards, but that applying them to every gas station and airport serving espresso in Italy doesn’t exactly tell the whole story either. He’s a little defensive, as you might expect, but investigative journalism thrives on finding worst-case scenarios and drawing much more widespread conclusions from them.

Coffee, Academically — and announcing the Stanford University Coffee Symposium

Posted by on 08 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues

I’ve had a long, strange history with academics. Before succumbing to the dark side of money-plundering dot-com entrepreneurs, I worked in scientific research labs at The Johns Hopkins University and at Stanford University. It was also a joint graduate PhD program in bioengineering at UC Berkeley/UCSF, with a focus on neuroscience, that first brought me out to the SF Bay Area some 25 years ago.

Thus the idea of academia is something I know well, albeit with ambivalent feelings. For me, there’s always been an inherent conflict between the practicality of “real world” grounding and the legitimate need to follow intellectual pursuits to advance any field of interest — whether that be neuroscience or coffee — even at the risk of building ivory towers.

The University of Coffee in Trieste, ItalyThat people in the coffee industry today swear by using measuring scales, monitor things like total dissolved solids (TDS), and continually experiment with this pressure control or that pre-infusion time are all baby-step examples of the need for an academic approach — the building of a more comprehensive coffee science, as it were.

UC Davis Coffee Center

And yet while you can earn a PhD in Coffee Science from the University of Trieste (Italy) studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy, in America you can’t even earn so much as a bachelor’s degree in the field. So it’s with encouragement that we read yesterday’s announcement: UC Davis establishes center for coffee science study center; possible major to follow – Our Region – The Sacramento Bee.

UC Davis Coffee Conference - March 11, 2014If you don’t know UC Davis, they are an amazing ag (and veterinary) school. As just a personal example, a fellow Chicago native and husband of a lifelong close friend of the family, Chris Carpenter, moved from Chicago to Napa years ago to earn a masters in Horticulture from the viticulture and enology (i.e., wine) department at UC Davis. He’s now earning 100-point scores as a winemaker and recently served four years as chairman of the board for Slow Food USA. If you can judge an academic program based on the success of its graduates, and you should, UC Davis is no slouch when it comes to food and drink.

UC Davis just formally announced their Coffee Center and their first Coffee Center Research Conference, which will take place this coming Tuesday, March 11. All initial steps, but definitely promising steps in the right direction. Unlike their world-famous viticulture program, for example, the question still remains whether such an ambitious scientific initiative can truly thrive so far from origin for an ag school — rather than in a place like Kona, Hawaii. Greenhouse coffee can only go so far in vitro.

Much of their conference agenda, like their Coffee Center, seems focused on the microbiology of coffee. However, there are also talks on coffee genetics and sensory evaluation — the latter naturally tapping into the university’s expertise on the subject in the wine world.

TED 2014 Coffee Service

Coincidentally, a little over a week from now the 2014 TED Conference will take place in Vancouver, and there promises to be continued servicing of TED attendees by various luminaries of the professional coffee world. Recall that an invitation from TED is what inspired the now-defunct Coffee Common.

TED 2014TED fashions itself as a sort of intellectual gathering of big minds and big ideas for the betterment of the world. Sounds great for the academic and scientific advancement of good coffee, right? But if you thought I’d be a fan of TED, you could not be more wrong.

Fortunately I was able to attend a past TED conference on the tab of an ambitious dot-com entrepreneur rather than having to fork over the $7,500 hazing price myself. (I.e., “Your hedge fund must be this large to ride this attraction.”) TED has done an amazing job of marketing and self-promotion, and I felt I should have every reason to support TED and its aims on the surface. But I found the TED event and organization to be intellectually shallow and ethically dishonest.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famed author of The Black Swan, once famously called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Part of that is the event’s general preference for infotainment over substance, as exemplified in its famous 18-minute videos that run like infographics set to moving pictures — optimized for people who prefer to be entertained rather than informed.

How most TED attendees view its coffee serviceMore objectionable to me were many of the event attendees themselves. They seemed fixated more on asserting or reaffirming their own special status in the world by the company they keep — or, perhaps as Mr. Taleb would put it, by those circus performers they invite to entertain them. Imagine The Great Gatsby, but with ostentatious material wealth replaced by grand displays of intellectual vanity.

The professionals of the coffee world are some amazing, impassioned, bright people capable of making their own brave decisions of free will. Yet I cannot help but feel that TED has cynically invited many of them merely to exploit for a premium event coffee service, helping the world of TED to maintain their personal façade of elitism in the process. I wish the best for the attending coffee pros and only hope they come out unscathed, unlike myself.

The Stanford Coffee Symposium

Location of the 2014 Stanford Coffee SymposiumMuch closer to home, about a year ago Stanford University Professor of Biology, Virginia Walbott, approached me to help co-organize a Stanford Coffee Symposium to be held in the spring of 2014. Prof. Walbott organized a similar, highly successful event for chocolate in May of 2011, tapping into both the university (Depts. of Biology, Latin American Studies, Economics, etc.) and industry (Scharffen Berger, Monique’s Chocolates, etc.).

Our goal for the event is to balance some higher-minded academics with a practical, consumer-friendly grounding in what makes coffee enjoyable and fun. (Read: check your self-congratulatory intellectual elitism at the door!) To be held Saturday, May 3 at the Cubberley Building of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford Continuing Studies just published its course catalog entry last week:

WSP 172 – Coffee: From Tree to Beans to Brew and Everything in Between
https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/course.php?cid=20133_WSP+172

Registration is now open at $195 per student with a deadline of April 26. The featured speakers and topics thus far are as follows:

  • From Tree to Bean to CupJames Freeman – Founder and CEO, Blue Bottle Coffee [see their blog post]
  • The History of Coffee – Denise Gigante – Professor of English, Stanford
    How to Evaluate Coffee Flavors (includes a tasting session) – Richard Sandlin – Fair Trade USA (SCAA cupping trainer ninja and co-founder of the Bay Area Coffee Community, I might add)
  • Caffeine and Health: Myths and Mysteries – Christopher D. Gardner – Professor, Stanford School of Medicine
  • Colombian Coffee Landscapes – Eric Lambin – George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor, Stanford Department of Earth System Science; Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Coffee in Veracruz: Linking Quality of Coffee to Quality of Life – Madeline R. Weeks – Fulbright-García Robles Scholar
  • Fair Trade and Sustainability – Christopher Bacon – Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University
  • Coffee Genome and Defense Against Pathogens – Lukas A. Mueller – Assistant Professor, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell
  • Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Costa Rica – Chase D. Mendenhall and Daniel Karp – Department of Biology, Stanford

In addition to the planned talks there will be various Bay Area coffee vendors and an interactive tasting session. My current challenge? Following a location visit last Tuesday, I’m now working with the university to get sufficient power into the 1938 building to run sufficient numbers of espresso machines and grinders.

That said, I’m genuinely excited about the event and hope many of you will be too.



UPDATE: April 6, 2014
The Sacramento Bee featured some of the research coming out of the UC Davis Coffee Center: UC Davis geneticist tries to build a better cup of coffee – Food & Drink – The Sacramento Bee.

Another expert look at the espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 03 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Barista, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Maybe it’s just me, but Napoli has come up a lot since I posted our survey of the espresso there two weeks ago.

Over the weekend I attended the comedic play Napoli! at SF’s American Conservatory Theater. I can’t remember a play where coffee played such a central role in every scene. Then last night, Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). Like any good Neapolitan, he even thanked soccer player and Napoli patron saint, Diego Maradona:

Both works of art come recommended, btw.

However, last week we also came across a great contrarian article (in Italian) about the espresso in Napoli by Andrej Godina: ANDREJ GODINA A NAPOLI – Un viaggio, una giornata alla scoperta del presunto mito del caffè di Napoli. In it, Mr. Godina tours Napoli to sample the local espresso and is mostly left with a bad taste in his mouth.

Andrej Godina prepping machines at the Nordic Barista CupChances are you don’t know Mr. Godina, but it’s fair to say he has credentials. He earned a PhD in Science, Technology and Economics in the Coffee Industry at the University of Trieste studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy; he is an SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) Authorized Trainer, Master Barista, and Barista Examiner; and he works at Dalla Corte — an espresso machine manufacturer in Italy whose lineage brought about the E61 group head and the company La Spaziale.

Rather than follow a quality guide, like a Bar d’Italia, he and his barista trainer, Andrea, arrived in Napoli by train and began choosing a number of coffee shops at random. In short, they found them all quite terrible despite the legend of Napoli’s great coffee — which goes back the the 18th century and is even supported by some of Illy‘s own research conducted there.

Oily beans in a grimy grinder in NapoliHe discovers minute-and-a-half (i.e., over-) extractions, stale coffee, burnt coffee, dirty cups, grinders with oily build-up, and bitter and astringent espresso. He also dispenses a lot of the folklore behind why Napoli espresso is so “good”: it’s the water, it’s the special roasting process, etc. He even takes a pot shot or two at caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), the Neapolitan caffettiera coffee maker (la tazzulella), and the zucchero-crema. After tasting some dozen espresso shots, the best he could rate them was a 4 out of 10 — with a 6 being acceptable.

It’s one hell of a condemning indictment. Is it fair? In our reviews, it’s true that we targeted many quality caffès with advance research. But we also mixed in a number of places at random and didn’t find them to be too far off the mark. (Save for one horrid exception in the guest breakfast room of a Napoli hotel.) Mr. Godina also dismissed Gran Caffè Gambrinus with a 4/10 rating — which we found to be quite good, even if nothing in Napoli would crack our Top 15 list for San Francisco.

A random restaurant espresso at the Il Monastero restaurant in the Castello Aragonese, IschiaIt just shows that a lot still comes down to individual tastes and preferences. While Mr. Godina and I may agree on how good Illy can be in Italy, his company is located in Milano — which we’ve long lamented as one of the most underachieving coffee cities in Italy with many places serving the Dunkin’ Donuts of Italian espresso. Mr. Godina also rates an espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venezia as one of the best he’s ever had. Historical, absolutely, but we would never consider the espresso quality at the likes of Caffè Florian worth writing home about.

We stand by our assessment that the random espresso in Napoli beats the typical baseline quality standards at any other city in the world to which we’ve been (and we’ve been to a lot). But as Mr. Godina’s article proves, opinions will vary.

UPDATE: March 26, 2014
It looks like the Milan newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has picked up on Mr. Godina’s story: La sorpresa: a Napoli un caffè pessimo – Corriere.it. A series of these vignettes about the coffee across Italy seems planned for a coming video report on Rai 3.

UPDATE: April 2, 2014
And the intrigue continues to build: Aj: Press release – Andrej Godina’s reply: ready to debate with other expert coffee tasters. Mr. Godina is accused by some of slandering the coffee in Napoli, while his defense is that he’s raising awareness of better standards across all of Italy. This is all good, popcorn-munchworthy stuff, folks.

UPDATE: May 13, 2014
Mr. Godina takes his coffee tasting tour to the Trieste of his graduate school days and discovers much better espresso: SCRIVE ANDREJ GODINA – Ma anche nella mia Trieste… Ecco il diario, tutti i voti, le valutazioni, l’analisi degli errori nei principali bar del capoluogo giuliano, even awarding the historic Caffè San Marco in Trieste an 8.8 score.

It’s Epicurious’ turn for “America’s Best Coffee Shops”

Posted by on 01 Mar 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

Surprisingly, Epicurious had yet to make a notable entry in the obligatory culinary-magazine-rates-national-coffee-shops department. But that all changed this week with the rather ambitious title of “America’s 25 Best Coffee Shops — The ultimate guide to the best coffee shops across the United States”: America’s Best Coffee Shops | Epicurious.com.

Daylight Mind in Kona, HI, courtesy Epicurious.comWe do have to give them an iota of credit. Unlike most of their ilk, they cover coffee without a brand name that suggests an exclusive concern for food, eating, meals, or anything else at the expense of beverages as some kind of frivolous, second-class diversion. But then they did have to ruin it a little by filing the article under their “Where to Eat Around the Globe” category. Facepalm indeed.

If it’s about quality, why do we still write about it as a crude caffeine fix?

Writer Colleen Clark also falls for many of the usual suspects among coffee house article tropes. Like a rapper with mad rhyming skillz just this side of 2 Chainz, she employed several examples of the journalistically lazy caffeine riff and liberally used the trite words “java” or “joe” as substitutes for “coffee”. Imagine if writers playfully used the term “alcoholics” when talking about wine lovers they way they effusively use “caffeine junkies” whenever talking about coffee lovers. Double standard, anyone?

Barista Parlor in Nashville, TN, courtesy of Epicurious.comThen there’s the tiresome barista-as-sommelier analogy. She also made several references to the rather dated topic of regional coffee “scenes”: the concept where which urban metropolis you’re in determines whether you can access quality coffee or not is becoming rapidly irrelevant if not already extinct. Now that even the world’s last holdout for terrible coffee — Paris, France — has worthy and redeemable coffee shops, there are no more “coffee cities” anymore than there are wine or tea cities.

All these negatives aside, the article is actually a rather decent assessment of great coffee shops — given Epicurious‘ magazine peers. (Even Forbes tried to get in on the act of reviewing the nation’s best coffee shops.) It might suggest that “it’s hard to separate the real-deal java joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsters” — a problem that we honestly never knew needed solving. But they at least drew a line in the sand, laying down some of their criteria by which some coffee shops should or should not be included in their list:

So we’ve combed the country for the coffee shops that combine craft with hospitality, for inviting spaces that spark creativity, and for roasters who know how to make your morning brew tell a story. These are our picks for the USA’s top 25 coffee shops.

This beats most of the random nonsense we’ve seen in past magazine lists of this type. Even if some of these criteria are precisely the sort of fluff that frustrated us as distractions from a focus on the actual coffee as far back as 2003: telling stories, named architects, hospitality, etc.

So that you don’t have to turn 25 pages of ads on the Epicurious Web site, we’ve summarized their list here in one place as something useful (and as listed in no particular order):

The rise of “independent chains”?

Blacksmith in Houston, TX, courtesy of Epicurious.comRisks of the No Coffee Left Behind Act aside, this is a solid list. We will be the first to admit that it is over-represented by San Francisco. But most curiously, although it does well to call out a few smaller independents such as Daylight Mind and Barista Parlor, this list is heavily represented by chains. For a Top 25 list, it’s actually cheating a bit as it actually represents a total of 85 coffee shops.

Has quality coffee in the U.S. reached a tipping point where the independents have come to be outnumbered by the chains? That’s hard to say just yet, but you can’t argue with the quality represented here.

Espresso in Napoli, Italy

Posted by on 17 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Napoli is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Globally, it is the city most associated with coffee — and certainly espresso. (Sorry, Seattle.) Yet despite this reputation and Napoli’s many cultural treasures, most tourists avoid it like the 1656 outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Many will pass through Napoli to see the stunning sights of the nearby Amalfi Coast, the islands of Capri or Ischia, or the volcanic graveyards of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But few stay for more than a namesake pizza. Because Napoli has the reputation for a bit too much bustle and way too much hustle. Most of all, Napoli can’t shake its reputation for crime — with legends about the Camorra and Napoli’s scugnizzi street kids abound.

Atrani at dusk on the Amalfi Coast The shores of Forio, Ischia

Tourists more often come to Napoli to get to views like this one from Ravello Castello Aragonese overlooking Ischia Ponte

Fear and Intimidation

The first time I visited Napoli a dozen years ago, I too was just passing through. And Napoli immediately intimidated me with what seemed like hustlers on the make at every corner: taxi drivers, store owners, people who come up to you on the street. I felt like I had to watch my back at every moment.

I should note that hustlers and crime do not spook me easily. I went to college for four years in the inner city of Chicago at what’s considered the birthplace of Chicago Blues, where John Lee Hooker performed in the streets in the movie The Blues Brothers just a few years earlier, before the Maxwell Street market area was swept up by redevelopment in the 1990s. And in the early ’90s I lived at the intersection of Alcatraz & Sacramento in West Berkeley, where gunfire rang out almost nightly in front of the nearby liquor stores and the black & white Berkeley Police mobile drug enforcement bus — nicknamed “Orca” by the locals — had to set up a near-permanent camp.

Garbage fires warm Chicago's Maxwell Street at Halsted, Dec. 1988. The building at left was replaced with a Caribou Coffee. Some of my homies at 16th & Halsted near Chicago's Maxwell Street, Dec. 1988. Four years here didn't prepare me for Napoli.

The dark streets of old Napoli Peering through the tight streets of old Napoli's Spaccanapoli

But friends more recently travelled to Napoli and told me how much they enjoyed the city — and not just its surrounding environs. What did I miss? This time, I had to “conquer” Napoli: I wasn’t just passing through, and I psyched myself up to face an expected onslaught. But to my bewildered surprise and delight, this time it was nothing like the Napoli I last experienced.

What was different? I’ve come to believe everything had to do with where I was. Before when I was just passing through Napoli, I entered the chaos of Piazza Garibaldi and the main train station or swam against the tide of humanity at the Molo Beverello port: two massive transportation hubs where tourists passing through are easy and plentiful targets for Napoli’s infamous scavenger class.

This time, immersing myself in the various neighborhoods alongside the locals, the Neapolitans seemed much more friendly — in addition to being generally casual, expressive, and proud. They may hold their stares a bit longer than is considered polite in the rest of Italy, but they were no more “threatening” than most Londoners. I managed to completely relax among them, even if my Italian accent betrayed the toscanaccia (or Tuscan snobbery) of my most recent Italian teacher.

Neapolitan saints glow in the night in Spaccanapoli The shadows of saints along Napoli's Via San Biagio Dei Librai

Supermodels join the Napoli police force to wear Armani to work everyday Sunset along Napoli's Via Francesco Caracciolo

Napoli, Not Italy

The significance of Italian regionalism is particularly acute in Napoli — something called il campanilismo that connotes a strong identity and affiliation with the town campanile from where one is from. Because the Neapolitans are a proud people with a proud history distinctly separate from the rest of Italy, and many wear a chip on their shoulder about it to this day. Since animosities are rarely one-sided, the rest of Italy — particularly the northern, more affluent regions — responds in kind.

A good bit of this internal animosity traces back to the 19th century unification of Italy, the Risorgimento, that gave Napoli and the rest of Southern Italy the short end of the economic, political, and cultural stick. The grudge continues to this day.

As with many other soccer-crazed nations, Italian football (or calcio) serves as a proxy war for the clash of cultures. This past September, Milan-based AC Milan had their stadium shut down because of anti-Napoli abuse by their fans at a match against Neapolitan club heroes SSC Napoli. In today’s papers, now the Rome stadium risks closure for anti-Neapolitan chants outside of their stadium last night.

Bar Nilo's shrine to Diego Maradona Family shrine in the streets of Napoli

Mural of Diego Maradona in Quartieri Spagnoli, Napoli Napoli scooter decorated with Diego Maradona decal

A common stadium banner in the north at matches against SSC Napoli pleads for nearby Mt. Vesuvius to “lavali col fuoco,” or “wash it with fire,” as Vesuvius did to Pompeii in 79 A.D. Italian soccer fans are Michelangelos of sick, black humor. SF stadium chants of “L.A. sucks!” are childish by comparison.

As an example riposte, while we were in Napoli on October 15, the city hosted a 2014 World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Italy. A vocal number of local fans loudly booed whenever an Italian player touched the ball — with the lone exception of forward Lorenzo Insigne, SSC Napoli player and native of Napoli. That’s how ugly this thing gets, with Neapolitans practically cheering for the other country.

Juventus fans cheer on Mt. Vesuvius to reclaim the city of NapoliSupport for SSC Napoli represents a way for locals to “stick it to the man” up North. While Napoli may have over 50 patron saints, there are perhaps none more celebrated than all-time soccer great, Diego Maradona. Playing for Napoli in the late ’80s, Maradona all but singlehandedly upset the northern dominance of Italian football — leading Napoli to shock championships in 1987 and 1990.

A tough kid from the slums of Buenos Aires, Neapolitans identified with Maradona and accepted him as one of their own scugnizzi. To this day, there are still many painted murals and saintly votive shrines dedicated to Maradona in the streets of Napoli, and his occasional returns to town are as venerated as visits from the Pope.

Despite il campanilismo, Napoli is a city of immigrants — dating back from its Greek settlement roots some 3,000 years ago through to today’s South Asian, Eastern European, and North African communities. But it’s not all gritty slums like the Quartieri Spagnoli either. There are also the Chiaia and Vomero districts — each dotted with luxury boutiques, fine restaurants, grand caffès, and the smell of old money and some new. But what we really like about Napoli, as with Torino, is that unlike Firenze (Florence) it feels left to the locals and nothing like a Disneyland for American tourists.

Narrow alleyways of Napoli Neighborhood meeting place: a crucifix at Via Concordia and Vico Colonne a Cariati

Napoli: where high fashion can sometimes be a bit scary Mt. Vesuvius from Castel dell'Ovo, Napoli

Neapolitan Coffee Culture and the Soulful Espresso

Napoli is the world’s most important city for espresso. There, I said it. How un-Third Wave of me. Without previously exploring Napoli enough, we had rated Torino and Piemonte as having the best baseline quality standards in Italy (if not the world). But upon further review, Napoli seems to have the edge: virtually everywhere you go rates solid 7s and 8s.

That’s not to say they are the best-of-the-best. Our highest-rated Napoli caffè wouldn’t make SF’s top 15 list. But unlike SF, that caffè is a 94-year-old family business in the same location for 73 years.

In Napoli, old is not the enemy of good. Now what is new, and the act of exploring and discovery, has value. But take a newer, world-renowned restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea and its molecular gastronomy counterparts for example. As outstanding and experimental as its food is, part of its appeal is a kind of gimmick, a fleeting conceptual art project bound to fall out of vogue within the next decade — unlike the soulfully satisfying cuisine that has stayed with us for generations. Novelty has a relatively short shelf-life.

Napoli's Galleria Umberto I, almost a carbon copy of  Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan Graffiti near Napoli's Via Toledo

In recent years, I have suffered a kind of fatigue over new café openings around the world. Not that I don’t love the continual investments in an improved end-product. And news has the word “new” right in it, hence why all the attention is there. But lately café openings seem much more about their physical place or their gadgetry than they seem about their actual coffee.

There’s a growing emphasis on named space designers and architects or on nameless machines with custom modifications (e.g., “That Modbar looks cool, but have you tried your coffee from it?”). All these superficial trappings have new cafés trying to distinguish themselves on everything but the resulting shot in the cup. It feels more like an arms race to feature in Architectural Digest or Popular Mechanics, as if they’ve overlooked the actual coffee in their mission.

But it’s not just coffee. Much of the West seems obsessed with a disposable culture of everything new, everything trendy, and nothing that’s built to last. If you really want to talk about “slow coffee”, immerse yourself in a place where respect comes measured not in the number of tweets and blog citations this week but rather in generations of customers who have come to expect high standards.

Because we’d honestly like to believe that some of today’s standard bearers of quality — such as Blue Bottle and Four Barrel — somehow manage to survive and stay relevant for at least another generation of customers. At least without succumbing to a fad-of-the-month that replaces them within a decade. Perhaps that seems unnecessarily nostalgic. The reality is that in 10-20 years the likes of Blue Bottle or Four Barrel will be swept up in mergers and acquisitions and become unrecognizable. Which makes us appreciate Napoli’s coffee culture even more.

In Napoli, nobody hits you over the head proclaiming that they are “craft” or “artisinal” — even if they often are by most Western definitions. Nobody tries to distract you with the exotic pedigree of their coffee equipment. There’s something soulfully satisfying about their focus on a solid espresso backed by tradition and, well, craft.

Guy Fawkes makes his appearance in Napoli's Spaccanapoli Napoli supports both a very young and a very old population

Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo Inside Napoli's Castel dell'Ovo

What makes a Neapolitan espresso?

That aforementioned il campanilismo extends to how Neapolitans think about their coffee, and in particular their roasters. They can be fiercely local and independent in their coffee loyalties, often proudly professing their roaster affiliation on street-level signage. Furthermore, wood-fired coffee roasting is often highly revered here for its tradition and flavor profile.

When it comes to roasting, the tendency is towards second-crack darkness. Back in the ’90s, Torrefazione Italia did a clever thing by offering different roast-level blends named after towns that geographically represented lighter to darker roasts from north to south: Venezia, Milano, Perugia, Roma, Napoli, Sardegna, Palermo. Napoli was one of the darker roasts as is more of the norm for Southern Italy.

This darker roasting can be a dubious quality practice. However, the beans here tend not to have a heavy sheen of oil, and the darker roasts redemptively manage to be neither bitter nor ashy. They rarely even verge into smoky territory.

Obligatory Neapolitan fish monger shot Napoli at sunrise

Of the classic four Ms of espresso quality — miscela (bean blend), macinatura (grind), macchina (machine), and mano (the hand of the barista) — I’ve often said that half of the espresso quality comes down to the barista. But because the Neapolitan barista standards are so consistently good, I found the biggest quality difference between Napoli caffès comes down to their choice of roaster.

When it comes to espresso machines, La Cimbali is very popular along with La San Marco. Manual lever La San Marco machines are held in almost universal high regard among Napoli’s best caffès — as if to skeptically say, “I’ve got your pre-infusion and variable pressure control right here!” while making an obscene arm gesture. The only Rancilio I came across was in an airport Mozzarella bar. The only Gaggia I encountered was in a hotel bar, and it made the worst cappuccino I had on the entire trip.

Although the sample sizes were small, some my favorite roasters at caffès in the area (of which I experienced multiple shots) included:

  1. Caffè Moreno,
  2. Caffè del Professore,
  3. Passalacqua,
  4. Caffè Toraldo,
  5. Illy — northern roaster but always done well in Italy,
  6. Kimbo,
  7. Caffè Borbone — rockin’ tune on that Web site, btw,
  8. Portioli — northern roaster more prevalent in Amalfi and Maiori,
  9. Lavazza — this northern roaster is supposedly “Italy’s favorite coffee”.

Note that this list disqualifies many of the independent, more obscure roasters that are the pride of the caffès that serve their coffee.

Ravello overlooking the Amalfi Coast in a storm As with many hours in Italy, sometimes they are always closed

Sunset over the Bay of Naples Napoli's Piazza dei Martiri at dusk

Espresso Preparation

Neapolitan caffès will often offer espresso as “zuccherato” or “amaro” — that is, presweetened or without sugar. And that’s where the coffee drink menu begins. Napoli caffès frequently offer dozens of variants to a degree unmatched in the rest of Italy. Many are rooted in a given caffè’s own secret formula of zucchero-crema or cremina di caffè — a sugar/cream/espresso concoction used to sweeten up and add volume to their espresso drinks.

Despite these concoctions, Neapolitan cuisine is about simplicity and celebrating the core ingredients. After all, Napoli belongs to the region of Campania, which means “country”. So it is extremely rare if you find any latte art here.

Culturally, latte art is perceived as an almost childish playing with your food — like serving pancakes covered with a smiley face made of whipped cream. Neapolitans don’t have the patience for that nonsense. A dusting of cocoa on a morning cappuccino is about as fanciful as they get. Your espresso will always come with a glass of water served on the side. And you won’t find a single laptop zombie.

Travel Tip

If you go, one bit of travel advice: lose your American habits and don’t trust Google Maps at all. It’s not just because the Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing either. Many cities and towns in Italy follow non-serial, seemingly Byzantine address numbering systems. The piazze that frequently appear also often throw off Google Maps’ overly simplistic addressing assumptions.

Just being one city block off of your destination means four square city blocks of searching back-and-forth, sometimes leading you down streets and neighborhoods where you don’t want to be. For example, a Google Maps search for Ravello’s Caffè Calce at Via Roma, 2 will take you 400 feet away from the square you should be on. A search for Napoli’s Cafè Amadeus will lead you 4 miles away from its nearby Amedeo Metro station. Virtually all the caffè reviews linked below required me to manually enter their GPS coordinates in their maps at the bottom for accuracy, rather than relying on Google’s addressing look-up.

A frequently better option is to use TuttoCittà, which additionally shows street address numbers on many of its maps.


Espresso Ratings in Napoli, Ischia, and the Amalfi Coast
Name Address City/Neighborhood 2014 Bar d’Italia [info] Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Gran Caffè La Caffettiera Piazza dei Martiri, 26 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 7.80 8.00 7.900
Moccia Via San Pasquale a Chiaia, 24 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 8.20 7.80 8.000
Caffè d’Epoca Piazza Trieste e Trento, 2 Napoli / Toledo NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Gran Caffè Grambrinus Via Chiaia, 1 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 2 8.10 8.50 8.300
Cafè Amadeus Piazza Amedeo, 5 Napoli / Chiaia 1 / 2 7.90 8.20 8.050
Gran Caffè Cimmino Via Gaetano Filamgieri, 12/13 Napoli / Chiaia 2 / 3 7.80 8.00 7.900
Calise al Porto Via Iasolino, 19 Ischia / Ischia Porto NR 7.40 7.50 7.450
Gran Caffè Vittoria Corso Vittoria Colonna, 110 Ischia / Ischia Porto 1 / 2 7.80 8.20 8.000
Arago Via Luigi Mazzella, 75 Ischia / Ischia Ponte NR 7.80 7.80 7.800
Dal Pescatore Piazza Ottorino Troia, 12 Ischia / Sant’Angelo d’Ischia NR 7.60 7.50 7.550
Divino Cafè Via Erasmo di Lustro, 6 Ischia / Forio 1 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Calise a Ischia Via Antonio Sogliuzzo, 69 Ischia / Ischia Porto 2 / 1 7.90 8.20 8.050
Bar Cocò Piazzale Aragonese, 1 Ischia / Ischia Ponte 1 / 2 7.80 7.80 7.800
Pasticceria Napoli Corso Regina, 64 Maiori 2 / 2 8.00 7.80 7.900
Sal de Riso Piazza Ettore Gaetano Cantilena, 28 Minori 2 / 2 7.60 7.80 7.700
Bar Il Panino Piazza Duomo, 7 Ravello NR 8.00 7.80 7.900
Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 Corso Sant’Agata, 11 Sant’Agata sui due Golfi NR 8.00 8.00 8.000
La Zagara Via dei Mulini, 8/10 Positano 2 / 1 7.00 7.80 7.400
La Brezza Net Art Café Via del Brigantino, 1 Positano 2 / 2 8.00 8.00 8.000
Bar Al San Domingo Piazza Duomo, 2 Ravello NR 7.60 7.20 7.400
Figli di Papà Via della Marra, 7 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Andrea Pansa Piazza Duomo, 40 Amalfi 3 / 2 7.90 8.00 7.950
La Vecchia Cantina Via della Marra, 15/19 Ravello NR 7.50 7.20 7.350
Caffè Duomo Piazza Duomo, 15 Ravello NR 7.90 7.80 7.850
Caffè Calce Via Roma, 2 Ravello 1 / 1 7.70 7.00 7.350
Gran Caffè Neapolis Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 14/15 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 2 7.80 7.20 7.500
Giovanni Scaturchio Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 19 Napoli / Spaccanapoli 1 / 1 7.90 7.50 7.700
Caffè Mexico Piazza Dante, 86 Napoli / Decumano Maggiore NR 8.00 7.50 7.750

Trip Report: Moccia (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 07 Feb 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

Giuseppina Moccia started this family bakery in Napoli in 1920. It has stood at this location since 1941. What began as a business baking bread — a panificio — has grown to include an exquisite pasticceria baking classic Neapolitan pastries and desserts, famous small pizzas (pizzette), a rosticceria serving meats, a gelateria, and a full-service bar.

Today three of Giuseppina’s grandchildren — Antonio, Enzo, and Pasquale — now take care of the business operations, which is closer to being more of a restaurant given all that they do. Some picky locals might complain that the quality isn’t the same as it used to be and that the prices here have rapidly outpaced the neighborhood over the years. But they do a lot of things really well, and you can’t argue with the quality of the espresso here.

Entrance to Moccia along Napoli's via San Pasquale a Chiaia Rear bar and lounge-like feel inside Napoli's Pasticceria Moccia

Located across the street from the bustling Liceo Umberto high school and with many Italian scooters parked out front, it’s a relatively sizeable space (at least for a bakery) with a long bar at one end of the establishment and window counter seating at the other. They offer a few metal café tables of modern design inside plus some stool seating at the windows, but don’t expect to access them: this place is notorious for its lack of seating. It’s a great spot for a delicious, albeit uncomfortable, breakfast break.

The Moccia espresso - with their own roasted coffee beans sprinkled on the saucer for my benefitDespite the location’s age, it has a modern, lounge-like feel inside — especially at night. The staff here are young, outgoing, friendly, and quite funny. For example, to emphasize how they roast their own coffee, they even placed a handful of their beans on my saucer for effect as I photographed inside. They serve their espresso in an IPA demitasse with a glass of sparkling water on the side for €1.

Using an old La San Marco 85-LEVA-4 four-group lever machine, they pull shots with a textured, thick crema. It has a beautifully pungent taste with no smoke and a limited range on the bright end of the flavor scale. But the balance and tone of the coffee is outstanding.

Unassumingly, it’s one of the best shots we had in Napoli and rates one tazzina and two chicchi in the 2014 Bar d’Italia.

Where ‘old’ isn’t the enemy of ‘good’

In fact, looking back at all our ratings for this last trip to Napoli and its environs, it had the best rating we gave out anywhere. More on that in a future summary post, but consider the implications of when a 94-year-old family business serves some of the best espresso in a city that’s globally renowned for its coffee.

Then contrast this with American coffee culture where we generally believe the newer the place, the better the coffee. It’s as if the only means of making better coffee in the U.S. is to first start a new construction project. This is just another example of America’s warped fascination with disposable culture.

One of the things to love about Italy is that, unlike the U.S., history isn’t positioned as a natural enemy of good food and drink. I’ll take that over a pop-up restaurant any day and how it caters to our need to be enthralled with the new, to consume, to throw it away, and then to forget.

Read the review of Moccia in Napoli, Italy.

Staff working Moccia's four-group La San Marco lever machine The Moccia espresso with a side of sparkling water

Where Coffee is not Food and Transparency is not Quality

Posted by on 20 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues

The 2014 Good Food Awards in SF's Ferry Building, courtesy Daily Coffee NewsWords can mean a lot. When it comes to coffee, that can mean words like “food” or “transparency”. We’ve noticed both of these words coming up a lot in recent public discussions about coffee quality, and yet neither word really belongs in the conversation.

Today’s Daily Coffee News from Roast Magazine registered examples of each in an article on the recent Good Food Awards held annually here in San Francisco. In case you’re not familiar with “the GFAs,” they were born out of the Slow Food Nation event held here in 2008 with many of the same key players at the helm (at least on the coffee side of things). The goal of the awards is to recognize “outstanding American food producers and the farmers who provide their ingredients.”

What’s In A Name?

This is how one eats coffee as foodAll worthy goals. But here’s one of our long-time pet peeves, albeit a small one: coffee is labeled as “food”. Perhaps it seems innocent enough. But while the coffee industry has spent years belaboring the point of trying to be taken as seriously as wine, there’s is simply no way wine would ever be classified as “food” at an awards event.

It has none of the nutritional values of food; you do not eat it. What are we, civets? Sure, you could say that both food and coffee are consumed, but you could say the same for unleaded gasoline.

Restaurant coffee will surely suck as long as coffee is treated as food’s red-headed stepchild — and not something worth recognition outside of food’s long shadow the way wine enjoys. And because the “food media” provide only superficial and patronizing cover of beverages is why Karen Foley, formerly of Fresh Cup, started Imbibe magazine. There are reasons they are called “barista” — the Italian word for bartender — and not “waiter” or “waitress”.

However, let’s turn to a topic that’s a bit more controversial: transparency.

Just Because It’s Transparent Doesn’t Mean You’ll Like What You’ll See

You can roughly define coffee transparency as visibility into its entire supply chain: from seed to cup. It’s about assigning the proper credit (or blame) wherever deserved and exposing just’s in the bag and behind its pricing.

Oh, it will be amazing, alright...

It’s critical stuff. So much so that international coffee guru, roaster, and former barista champion, Tim Wendelboe, had this to say about transparency some three years ago:

A lot of high quality driven roasters, including ourselves, preach that transparency is the most important part of our trade.

There are a number of good reasons for this. One is sustainability of coffee growing and business practices — i.e., ensuring that not only can you find your favorite coffee sources, but that you can reward and encourage all of those behind its proper growing, harvesting, processing, storage, and shipping practices. Another virtue is the reproducibility of results, so that growing season after growing season you can ensure that you get a similar if not better product each time.

But what transparency is not is a measure of quality, and this is where we see a lot of coffee consumers — and even some purveyors — confusing the two. Just as Fair Trade is an economic program but not a quality certification, transparency has everything to do with the means of achieving your results but it is not a measure of quality in those results. The means are being confused with their ends.

On Traceability and Micro-lot Terroir

Which is why we appreciated that Jen Apodaca, 2014 GFA Coffee Committee chair, didn’t take the bait when Daily Coffee News asked in their article, “Are there specific benchmarks for criteria like traceability, transparency…” [etc.]. Because the fact is that transparency doesn’t have a flavor — I can’t taste it directly in my cup. The GFAs are trying to recognize sensory qualities more than intellectualized ones.

Even more to the point, the fact that one coffee is more traceable than another does not mean it is of any better quality: your coffee could be highly traceable but still taste like ass.

Kermit Lynch says, 'Your terroir sucks!'One of the most common ways coffee consumers experience transparency and traceability is through labels such as single origin (Serious Eats?: yet another coffee-is-food reference!) or micro-lot coffees. There’s a misplaced sense that having greater precision in where your coffee comes from somehow naturally means it’s of higher quality. It does not.

The merits of this precision are more psychological than sensory. We’ve seen a lot of coffee professionals donning their best Mr. Yuk faces when someone dares to dilute the pedigree of a single row of coffee shrubs by blending coffees to achieve a specific flavor profile.

We can overlook that this kind of “master race” obsession with purified gene pools has gotten our species into deep trouble in the past. But when that geographic precision becomes the primary goal of a coffee in itself, you’re no longer seeking the best taste outcome in the cup but rather some intellectual notion of a purist expression of its terroir. You’re not thinking about optimizing for flavors as much as you’re thinking about pinning your pristine collection of butterfly species inside a museum case.

And coffee has a lot of bad terroir. Kermit Lynch, the infamous Berkeley-based wine importer and maker, recently said this about terroir:

Look, there’s great terroir and there’s lousy terroir. A wine showing terroir doesn’t mean it’s good.”

I guess we all can put that in our ever-popular wine analogy and smoke it.

Coffee Quality When Growing Your Own, or: What Coffee Was Like Before the Coffee Industry

Posted by on 10 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

The Internet sags from a surfeit of posts from Do-It-Yourself (DIY) types. But at the risk of seeming like we’re piling on, we’re posting some of our bean-to-cup experiences with coffee grown quite literally in a family backyard.

But this coffee isn’t the result of an obsession where home roasting just didn’t take things far enough. Instead, it’s an isolated glimpse into a casual family production of green coffee — much in the same way your extended family might grow its own garden tomatoes or cucumbers. It arrived hand-delivered by a family friend in a Ziploc bag, some 5,000 miles from its origin.

Dairy in the bucolic setting of São Jorge island Igreja de São Mateus, with the crowds anticipating rowdy bulls in the streets

The Origin

While there have been multiple efforts to commercially grow coffee in California’s Santa Barbara County since the 1850s, the coffee for our story was grown on the island of São Jorge in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. The subtropical, volcanic islands of the Azores are the only real coffee growing region in Europe. Although bucolic São Jorge produces agricultural exports such as its famed cheese, its coffee production is dominated by personal rather than commercial use (with very rare and minuscule exceptions, such as Café Nunes in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes).

Our mini coffee lot originates from a few acres of property that stretches from the center of town in Urzelina to the Atlantic Ocean. More than once over the years, my wife and I climbed a ladder and sat on a wall of this property — located across the street of the Igreja de São Mateus church where my in-laws were married in the Sixties — safely observing one of the many crazy street bullfights in the central Azores, called touradas à corda, that took place below our dangling feet. Thus we’ll jokingly name the coffee’s origin as Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus.

Bull at Igreja de São Mateus in tourada à corda Bull walking along a wall over which our coffee originated

It neighbors similar lots where other families grow, pick, dry, and sort their own coffee for home use. Isabel graciously offered a few pounds of the stuff from her property, and we played no role in its processing nor pedigree. Thus the goal was to experience what home-grown coffee in the Azores might truly be like. I’m no botanist, so I can’t tell you if it’s Typica or Bourbon or Caturra (highly unlikely). It most resembles a Yemen-like Typica variant or a shortberry harrar, which also explains a little of why it is dry-processed rather than washed.

As for any screening and hand-sorting, well, this is, after all, a family farm operation. Fortunately the sorting was clean enough that I did not have to worry about my burr grinder gagging on any obvious stones or twigs.

The first thing you notice about the processed beans is how darkly colored and irregular they are compared to commercial coffees. This is hardly unique to dry-processed coffees, but this takes the commercial grade stuff a step further.

And the beans themselves are quite small, and the screening used on the family farm isn’t very stringent. But to their credit, there are few major irregularities in size. Everything is larger than a sunflower kernel and there’s only the occasional large and/or off-colored bean. Even so, we resisted the temptation to further sort the coffee to keep it true to its personal use in the Azores. Long before commercial buyers, processors, roasters, and coffeehouses existed, this is how most people experienced coffee.

A ZipLoc bag of the dark and somewhat irregular Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus Left: a three-bean Malabar Gold blend; Right:  Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

Closer inspection of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus The tiny bean size of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

The Roast

Pan roasting is typical among families who grow their own green coffee beans. Even James Freeman started Blue Bottle Coffee with a baking sheet in his oven. Although I could have reverted to some of these very original and primitive roasting methods, I’m no good at any of them and have no real practice. All of which spells trouble if you’ve only got a couple of pounds of coffee to work through to get it right.

Instead, I made a slight nod to modern convenience and opted for my old, trusty Fresh Roast+ roaster. It is essentially a glorified hot air popcorn popper with a chaff collector that I purchased over a decade ago, and I’ve had years of practice making pretty decent roasts with it. And unlike the newer Fresh Roast models with larger roasting chambers (normally a big plus), its tiny two-ounce batch size lent well to dialing in a target roast profile quickly with a limited supply of green coffee beans.

The first thing I noticed is that the coffee lacked a real discernible first or even second crack. Without the sound or a temperature gauge on my roaster, I thus had to determine my target roast levels by sight (color) and smell (and smoke) entirely. The second thing I noticed is that the bean size inconsistencies and bean shape irregularities required a lot of post-roast culling to even out the result. The third thing I noticed was that the chaff looked a lot like bird food.

After a trial with several roasting levels and tasting the results (after a couple days rest for the CO2 to escape), I rediscovered what all commercial coffee roasters have known for eons: by roasting cheaper grade coffee more darkly, you can hide a lot of problems.

Which isn’t to say that we believe dark roasting is universally bad; there are some good body-heavy coffees from Indonesia that shine best under darker roasting conditions. But dark roasting is the lazy roaster’s shortcut to consistency. We could only imagine how uneven pan roasting would contribute to this effect.

Roasting Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus The chaff of the Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus looks mixed with bird seed

The Brew

Any bean and roasting irregularities of course came out in the resulting brew, as a few under-roasted beans would lend a grassy or sometimes downright wonky taste that could spoil the entire cup. (This is a big reason why Ernesto Illy was religious about Illy‘s screening process.) Fortunately the combination of a darker roast profile and post-roast bean culling mitigated these problems quite a lot.

So how best to brew this beast? Espresso would be too sensitive to the bean quality and irregularities. We tried a small French press pot, but the inconsistent beans somehow imparted a little too much grit in the cup to our liking. Not surprisingly, the Moka stovetop produced some of the best results — mirroring what many families have used for years to brew coffee in the Azores. But we also did have a little success with an Aeropress, which seems to lend well for this type of coffee profile: a body-centric cup with little to offer at the bright ends and a flavor of smoke, spice, and the unfortunate edge of ashiness.

The resulting cup was definitely drinkable, but far from anything we’d write home about (save for this post here I suppose). The experience served as both of an appreciation of what coffee was informally like for consumers before the advent of the commercial coffee industry. It was also an exercise in appreciating the many quality and process improvements we enjoy from that same coffee industry today.

The roasted end product of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus Aeropress brewing of the  Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

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