Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.
If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.
That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)
All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.
And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)
But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.
Two months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.
The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.
First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.
However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.
Pod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.
Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.
To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.
Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.
Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.
As if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”
Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.
After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)
While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.
This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?
Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.
Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.
The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.
This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.
All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.
Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.
Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbucks‘ home Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.
This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.
Flying under our radar last month was a great cover story on the evolution and pitfalls of a quality local coffee business in Milwaukee Magazine: MilwaukeeMag.com – Coffee Wars.
As in many other mid-market cities across America over the past decade-plus, quality coffee has infiltrated even the most staunch communes of Starbucks drones. The Milwaukee coffee market is no exception, with Alterra Coffee serving as something of Milwaukee’s analogue to Blue Bottle.
But the story of Alterra Coffee could be the story of any pioneering quality coffee purveyor in America: local start-up business makes great coffee and changes local tastes and expectations, business success translates into growth of operations (roasting, retail, and distribution) and ambition, continued growth brings the company to a crossroads when they must answer where continued growth hurts product quality and company values, and the inspiration and spawning of newer, more nimble local competition.
That major crossroads for Alterra came in 2010 when Mars Corporation — the self-proclaimed “world’s leading petcare, chocolate, confection, food & drink company” (from their Web site) — approached them with an offer to include their coffee in Mars’ owned Flavia packets in exchange for revenue sharing and distribution rights.
Some 27 years ago in nearby Minneapolis, The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg croaked the words, “Time for decisions to be made: crack up in the sun, or lose it in the shade.” Do you reach for greater distribution and more revenues to expand your mission of good coffee? Or are you diluting your product and your brand, all the while inviting customer criticisms of going too “corporate” and selling out? (As the article quotes the local criticisms: “Alterra is the ‘Microsoft of coffee in Milwaukee’.”)
Like the Facebook status says: it’s complicated. And a cautionary tale worth the read.
The sad state of home espresso machines is a topic we’ve tried to avoid for long stretches. After our last depressing installment in 2009, we’ve been blissfully ignorant — ratcheting up the solid-but-rarely-outstanding shot pulls on our relatively decent home espresso setup of a Gaggia G106 Factory manual lever machine and a Mazzer Mini grinder.
That is until May, when disaster struck. After 10 years of abuse — where I tuned the coffee grind to the limits of what my “one-armed bandit” could handle before it choked — the central piston finally gave out with one fateful pull. Feeling the physical resistance of its lever vanish in one quick slip, I knew right away it was more than just the final, releasing grasp of an dying gasket.
Upon disassembly and inspection, part of the otherwise-durable Ryton plastic molding that holds the piston gaskets in place had clearly broken away. It’s no surprise that Gaggia discontinued this part and now only produces a brass version. While replacement parts are easy to look up, my replacement piston was put on back-order from Italy until who-knows-when.
Now I like my Hario V60 or Chemex as much as the next guy. But a steady and exclusive diet of coffee masquerading as tea — i.e., tasting primarily of berries and flower gardens and lawn clippings — is most unsatisfying. Sure, I had the perfect excuse to have more espresso out again, but sometimes you want your quality espresso without leaving the house. Fortunately, life’s misfortune sometimes creates the occasional unexpected opportunity. It arrived in June in the form of an email to coffeeratings.com from a Philips Saeco rep, with the subject-line come-on of “The Perfect Espresso from Philips Saeco”:
Searching for the perfect espresso? We believe you can make it yourself, in the convenience of your home. I’m working closely with my client, Philips Saeco, to share their espresso machines with coffee experts like you. If it’s a good fit, we’d like for you to send you one of these machines.
The normal Greg would have spewed out his home-roasted espresso blend across the kitchen table upon reading that. (“Perfect espresso“? Have they read my blog?) But home espresso beggars can’t be choosers. And if there was ever an opportunity where I could dedicate my time and attention to make an honest attempt at decent espresso with one of these dubious, hulking plastic, overpriced, and underachieving superautomatic home espresso machines, this was it.
So last week, without notice, a giant Saeco box arrived on my front porch. Opening it up, I felt a little like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story. But inside wasn’t a glowing leg lamp. Rather, it was a Saeco Syntia HD8833. To my surprise, rather than sending a throwaway economy job, Saeco sent one of their better models — listing for about $1,000 retail.
If we are going to be outraged about the poor espresso quality from a superautomatic home machine, all the better not to dismiss the verdict on the basis of a cheap machine. We may have seen some of this machine’s siblings in the showroom at the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa — and the espresso there may not have been too shabby. But our experience with superautomatic home espresso machines like it has been flattering to the Nespresso machine, and we don’t like Nespresso.
While I am no home espresso novice, the contents of the Saeco box seemed practically alien. What’s with all the plastic? Where’s the metal? You mean there’s more to today’s home espresso machine electronics than a heating element? And what’s that vibrating noise that sounds like a cheap home aquarium filter?
The device seems large, and yet it’s considered “compact” by many of today’s standards. Its side opens up like an ink jet printer — not exactly the mental analogy you want to be making for consumables. And it’s ridiculously robotic. Everything has been automated to death: coffee grinding, dosing, tamping, extraction. Hope still lied in the fact that a number of its automated tasks were adjustable: fineness of the grind, the volume of coffee, and the extraction time. But I am leery of any coffee machine that tries to be smarter than you.
I gained back a little confidence when much of its accompanying printed documentation emphasized the importance of descaling and cleaning. I’ve lost count of how many horrific, Exxon-Valdez-sized coffee oil Superfund sites we’ve stumbled upon in various Nespresso machine kitchens — with their delusional, convenience-obsessed owners believing that these devices also automated their cleaning and maintenance.
The machine required an extended “priming” operation, where the machine went through a series of button pushes, water cycles, and its display performed its best rendition of a Pink Floyd laser light show. Once primed and good beans (a nice Full City+ roast on Guatemala Antigua beans with ~ 1 week since roasting) were added to the hopper, we pushed the button for out first shot — with the maximum dosing (“aroma” in its manual’s parlance) and the smallest-sized shot from the factory presets.
The resulting shot was very large (at the rim of a regulation IPA demitasse), with a shockingly white thin crema, and a watery body. It tasted like what most horrible espresso shots tasted like in San Francisco back in the 1980s: overdrawn, over-extracted, and lacking any potency, body, or creaminess. The spent puck it spewed out was well-shaped but thoroughly soggy; gently touching the puck caused it to disintegrate into wet sludge.
Our immediate reaction was to head to the “Troubleshooting” section of the manual. It said much about the “Saeco Adapting System” and why your first shots might, well, suck. For example: “coffee is too weak” states that it is a “Rare event that occurs when the machine is automatically adjusting the dose. Brew a few coffees as described in section ‘Saeco Adapting System’.” Another measure of assurance was in the notes: “Note: These problems can be considered normal if the coffee blend has been changed or if the machine has just been installed.”
The first shot was followed by a second identical espresso shot … followed by a third identical shot. Yes, superautomatic consistency alright. Which is great if the espresso is good, but it’s a horrible curse and a waste of good coffee beans when the espresso sucks. We barely resisted the compelling urge to change practically every possible adjustment right away. Part of the reason was to let the machine invoke its “Adapting System” as advertised, and another part was to minimize the chaos of changing multiple variables at the same time.
Even so, how could an Italian company claim that such a machine is normally factory-tuned to produce “the perfect Italian espresso” right out of the box? I’ve been to Italy numerous times, and the espresso is never close to this bad — anywhere. Worse, Saeco’s documentation warns that you might find some residual coffee grounds on your new machine, as they have been put through testing before packaging. Testing for what? The taste of watery 1980s San Francisco espresso made by clueless minimum-wage employees?
It’s not just Saeco: we’ve found every other manufacturer of four-figure superautomatic home espresso machines guilty of the exact same failures. Yet despite this distasteful — but not unexpected — start, in our next installment we will write about the adjustments we made and how it may, or may not, have affected the quality of the resulting espresso shots.
“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. And it’s how to make decent espresso out of me.”
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Saturday, February 25, 2012 offered a curious contrast between the very different worlds of consumer appreciation for wine and coffee. For the former, I attended La Paulée de San Francisco 2012 — arguably the most over-the-top consumer wine event in America. For the latter, my brother Vince simultaneously attended CoffeeCon 2012 — billed as the “first-ever international consumer coffee conference” — in the global coffee Mecca (and his hometown) of Warrenville, IL.
First off, I’d like to apologize for continuing to harp on the hackneyed wine analogy for coffee. However, I still often feel like one of the few people who knows just enough about both wine and coffee appreciation to make a comparison when attending events for either beverage.
Because the facts remain that we read plenty about how much coffee wants to be taken as seriously as wine. And yet the coffee industry still craps on its customers at virtually every opportunity. This weekend’s events provided evidence of that in great contrast.
First up: the consumer coffee event. Kevin Sinnott has been a layman coffee enthusiast for years (and he also just so happens to a neighbor and friend of my brother back in the dark recesses of the Chicago suburbs). He may be an independent video production consultant for his “day job”, but coffee is far more than just a hobby for him. And more power to him, because he recognized the need for a consumer-oriented coffee event — which inspired him to put on the first ever CoffeeCon.
The best opportunity coffee consumers had to get involved with the coffee industry was to muscle in to events such as the SCAA’s annual conference — all under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since then, the policy has shifted towards outright consumer abolishment. But even if you buy the argument that the industry needs its own for its own, it has offered nothing even close to an olive branch. We hear the coffee industry give plenty of lip service to the importance of “educating the customer”, and yet opportunities to do so are turned into closed-door industry events where the consumer is treated like an unwelcome leper.
Slow Food Nation ’08 was perhaps another example, but it turned out to be a one-time event. Out of it came the Good Food Awards. But even if you look past coffee playing the red-headed stepchild under the “Food” banner, here the focus of a once-public event has again turned to industry insiders locking out consumer participation. Or take the related Coffee Common effort. Even putting my disdain for the shallowness and faux elitism of TED aside, public events that require over $1,000 in membership and registration fees to attend are hardly “consumer friendly”. This makes the steep $300 I shelled out to attend La Paulée’s Grand Tasting seem like a bargain by comparison.
CoffeeCon suffered from an almost accidental location (Warrenville’s “IBEW Local Union 701″) and virtually zero coverage among the coffee industry — most of the industry being preoccupied with the self-absorbed, industry navel-gazing going on at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition (or NERBC). But CoffeeCon managed to draw about 1,000 attendees and even pull a few coffee luminaries including the likes of George Howell, home espresso legend Jim Schulman, and Intelligentsia‘s Geoff Watts.
Attendees apparently got to taste a lot of different coffee, experiment with different brewing methods, meet a few others in the coffee industry, learn more about coffee farming and production, and even witness a poor tongue-in-cheek debate on coffee vs. wine. My brother reported that they had a huge crowd, a good representation from nationwide roasters and equipment manufacturers, and the unveiling of a new Bunn Trifecta at a “lab” event.
While not a bad event and certainly a promising attendance, this is, folks, about as good as it gets for coffee consumers today. And good luck getting anybody in the coffee industry to acknowledge that it existed.
One thing I like from the CoffeeCon FAQ — which flies in the face of Coffee Common’s “Exceptional coffee. No sugar.” byline — is this bit:
Can I take cream and sugar in my coffee or will I be asked to leave? No worries. Serious coffee lovers know how different everyone’s palate is. 80% of coffee consumed in the world is taken with milk and/or some sweetener.
This week I had dinner again at one of my favorite SF restaurants who also makes some of the best restaurant espresso in the entire city. The two owners, in their own polite and self-depreciating ways, each relayed to me the story of a recent visit to Sightglass where they were essentially made to feel as if they were both clueless about both coffee and their flavor palates. (I’ve omitted their names as they mentioned this in personal confidence.)
Interestingly, they both felt that Sightglass’ coffee tasted “too salty.” When they asked the Sightglass barista to cut the shot pour short, as a sort of ristretto, he replied that he could not interrupt the espresso machine from running its full cycle. And when they asked for sugar, they were looked upon as if they must have walked in thinking Sightglass was a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Here were two people who grew up with high coffee standards in Italy, developed a much-loved and highly regarded regional Italian restaurant in SF, serve some of the best espresso in the city at said restaurant (and I virtually never have coffee with sugar), where one of the owners previously served as a sommelier at another Michelin-starred SF restaurant with a legendary wine list — and they were basically told that they were coffee Philistines, purely because of coffee orthodoxy. As snobbish as you might think the wine world might get, this simply does not happen with wine.
Speaking of sommeliers and a barista’s desire to become an equivalent of one, let’s contrast with La Paulée’s Grand Tasting at the Westin St. Francis. Daniel Johnnes, a noted wine director for noted New York restaurants that today includes Restaurant Daniel (read: a guy who works in the industry), started the event about a decade ago, alternating between New York an San Francisco. It is based in a traditional Burgundian event, and in Mr. Johnnes’ words for the SF event:
La Paulée is my homage to La Paulée de Meursault, a convivial Burgundian fête shared by growers and their guests. At La Paulée guests will sample current releases and older vintages from nearly thirty of the most sought after Domaines of Burgundy. The wine service will be led by fifty of our nation’s most noted sommeliers.
They ain’t messing around. (Here’s a magazine write-up [PDF] on last year’s La Paulée in New York.) The Grand Tasting may cost $300, but that’s cheap compared to the $1,400 Gala Dinner (or compared to the registration fee to experience Coffee Commons at TED2012 in Long Beach).
There are people in traditional Burgundian wear, regularly breaking into traditional Burgundian drinking songs, flown in from Burgundy for this event — Les Cadets de Bourgogne. And there are many booths of elite winemakers, offering wines that you could only be lucky enough to even access a bottle to purchase, all poured by notable sommeliers. In coffee terms, this is akin to an event featuring several of the world’s Cup of Excellence microlots for tasting, each served by award-winning baristas.
And they don’t skimp on the food either, with restaurant representation from the likes of Boulevard, Farralon, Gary Danko, Napa’s Meadowood and REDD, Quince, RN74, etc. You know that the food world takes the event seriously when not only are sommeliers from New York pouring at the event, but the likes of Traci des Jardins (of Jardinière and Top Chef Masters fame) is there personally cooking up and handing out plates of food.
As a consumer event, what’s not there? No hucksters promoting the latest technology in synthetic corks. No pitchmen telling you how to expand your revenue lines with wine coolers. No patent-pending bottle openers that promise to revolutionize wine consumption. Just a lot of people who want to share great wines and learn more about them and an industry that is trying to make that possible in ways it previously was not.
We can only hope just a fraction of that is possible with coffee — if only the industry would allow it, let alone participate in it. It’s beyond the time for quality coffee to get out of its insular ivory towers and to start reaching out to the many customers it so claims to love and adore.
If you were to read it in the current Roast magazine article (from the Jan-Feb 2012 issue), India is a coffee consumer desert. This week TIME magazine wrote about the entrance of Starbucks in the Indian market almost as if to dismiss any prior coffee consumption there. But after spending three weeks in South India’s coffee-growing state of Karnataka last month, these articles read like front-line trip reports from Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella suggesting that the New World he just discovered is “uninhabited”.
India accurately gets the label of a tea-loving nation. But South India has a coffee-happy culture that arguably rivals most of the places we’ve visited in Europe. In fact, we found far more coffee fanatics in South India than tea lovers. And when we say “fanatics”, we mean people whose eyes light up with delight when you offer the suggestion, “Coffee?”
When we reported from Northern India four years ago, much of the coffee culture was a relatively new, youthful, cosmopolitan import of the modern global café culture. South India also has ample evidence of the modern “third place.” After all this is where Café Coffee Day, India’s largest modern coffee chain, got its start in 1996.
But South India is steeped in coffee houses and coffee culture that goes back to the fading memories of Old Bangalore — from long before the British moved out, “road widening” programs blighted the city with horrendous traffic in place of groves of majestic trees, and global high tech campuses moved in. You can somewhat neatly divide South India between its old and new coffee cultures.
Starting from the lore of the seven Yemenese coffee beans introduced by Baba Budan to the hills of Chikmagalur (a region within the state of Karnataka) in 1670, India has been a coffee producing nation. But traditionally only in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. These lush, fertile states represent much of India’s agriculture and the world’s spices.
In South Indian cities, you can still find old school bean-and-leaf stores (Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s original model, i.e. as opposed to retail coffee beverage sales) where local customers ask for coffee from their favorite Coorg farm by name. But despite this terroir-like awareness among some of South India’s older coffee fans, they typically do not buy their coffee in a whole bean format. As ground coffee, it is often purchased as “coffee powder”. And as a matter of history, economics, and/or taste preferences, coffee powder for traditional South Indian filter coffee is frequently cut with chicory.
In fact, if you were to describe the typical South Indian filter coffee preparation, it is also served with a lot of attention given to hot, manually frothed milk. New Orleans may lay claim to the chicory cafe au lait, but South India has predated that claim with a very similar traditional coffee drink by a century or more. One significant difference being that South India likes to aerate their hot milk by distributing it between metal vessels from side-to-side. Some purveyors even take this form of milk frothing to the level of theatrics, providing their customers with a version of latte art rooted more performance art than design.
This form of South Indian coffee consumption takes place in homes, offices, and in the old school restaurants typically called “hotels” that you will find throughout South India. They may be called “hotels”, but you won’t find a place to lay down — let alone private rooms. Many are vegetarian restaurants, and you’ll even find the occasional “military hotel” — which is shorthand for a diner on the cheap, typically with stand-up self service and a cafeteria-like counter for ordering. South Indians very much look forward to their coffee breaks throughout the day for both the enjoyment of the drink and to briefly discuss family, work, events, etc.
In other words, when it comes to coffee, they’re a lot like Europeans.
India is a dance in contradictions, however. Someone we met near Delhi a few years ago put it best when he told us, “everything you find to be true in India, you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.” And that includes South India’s coffee culture.
The local presses have stated, “India is low on coffee knowledge.” That is as apparent in South India as anywhere else in the country. There is a decent proliferation of modern coffee shops — including even a Caffè Pascucci in downtown Bengaluru and an Illy espressamente in its airport. However, the coffee “language” used by many of these coffee shops seemed dumbed down for a more coffee-naïve public.
For example, a very popular, local coffeehouse for the young Bengaluru professional set called Matteo Coffea outwardly brands itself as a place for consumer coffee education. However, most of this is in the form of basic historical coffee trivia and quotes you might otherwise find on a souvenir coffee mug: e.g., “Did you know that coffee was discovered by Ethiopian goat herders called kaldi?”
A non-chain place like Matteo Coffea is also a good example of the modern South Indian coffeehouse. It has all the hallmarks of a great “Third Wave” coffeehouse in the West: an outward dedication to consumer coffee education, a shiny red La Marzocco FB/70, and selective bean sourcing and roasting operations. However, the resulting espresso shots look a lot better than they taste. India is going through a lot of the motions on quality coffee, but the coffee quality itself has yet to live up to the show. Other modern coffee shops and chains in the region put a modern spin on coffee quality while still sticking to the area tradition of pre-ground coffee mixed with chicory.
High-end restaurants in the area — those guardians of gourmand tastes — seem to know enough about quality coffee to dissuade customers from ordering the traditional South Indian filter coffee, which is often made with the aforementioned “coffee powder.” It’s almost as if they are embarrassed by it. Instead they steer customers towards “black coffee,” which is barely acceptable straight espresso served in very long, but yet not diluted, pours.
And yet our experiences with traditional South Indian filter coffee there were all very positive — even if it doesn’t bow down to the gods of single origin elitism, handling attuned to maximum freshness, nor even the avoidance of milk adulteration. Perhaps the most humbling aspect was when I returned to the U.S. and tried to reproduce South Indian filter coffee at home. Using a South Indian brew pot I bought at a Bengaluru housewares store for $8 — a contraption not unlike the Neapolitan flip coffee pot — I got out my best beans, technique, and milk to ultimately produce one of the three most undrinkable cups of coffee I have ever made in my life. This is harder than it looks, folks.
Bengaluru is also home to the national Coffee Board of India, a large, multistory complex that we decided to visit on a whim. Expecting a closed-door government agency with security guards and suspicious eyes intent on keeping foreigners and trespassers out, we were surprised at how open and welcoming they were.
Showing up on their doorstep and merely expressing our love of good Indian coffee, we were directed to the offices of Dr. K. Basavaraj, who is head of the Quality Control Division. There we received an all-access tour of his lab, test batch roasters, and cupping facilities: all the trappings any Western coffee fanatic would feel right at home with.
Out at “origin,” in the coffee-growing lands of the Kodagu (aka Coorg) district of Karnataka, we visited a few coffee farms. Most were modest agricultural operations, some associated with so-called “coffee curing works” that often seemed in the general business of trading commodities. Collectively they supply the majority of India’s domestic coffee consumption — in no small part because India imposes steep tariffs on just about any imported consumable. (They impose a 100% import tariff on beer and wine, with spirits typically topping 150%.)
You could fault India for growing a lot of “cheap” robusta here — it is half the crop relative to arabica by some counts. However, India grows some of the best quality, best cared-for robusta in the world. And in typical Indian contradictory fashion, one of the more memorable modern coffeehouses we experienced in South India was a roadside hut in rural Nisargadhama, Kodagu that served, among other drinks, decorative Spanish cortados.
No matter what, there is something to be said about a coffee culture where, when you ask a restaurant or café who supplies or roasts their coffee, you invariably get the name of an individual — often with an honorary “Dr.” title — rather than the name of a business. It’s not unlike parts of Hawaii where some restaurant menus list the name of the fisherman along with the fish.
India is such a complex, diverse place it’s next to impossible to try to sum up what it is and what it isn’t, as the answer tends to be “all of the above.” We can only hope that with all the forces of modernization and globalization at play here, coffee doesn’t lose some of its cultural diversity.
When Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) first coined the term “Third Wave,” it was supposed to be about enjoying coffee for its own sake. But reading some of the articles posted about coffee in the popular presses lately, we wonder if any Third Wave is really more about purging heretics and enforcing an orthodoxy over a mythical “one, true way” to make and appreciate coffee.
There’s the Wall Street Journal heralding the abolition of any coffee roasted darker than a City roast. We’ve got coffee lovers freaking out over whether their French press tastes are all wrong and that they must be exclusively replaced with pour-over methods. And we have former baristas evangelizing that anyone who likes milk or sugar in their coffee are simply doing it wrong (or, as the article implies, they’re drinking bad coffee). We haven’t seen this many rules and regulations being imposed upon the public enjoyment of consumables since the invention of the Jewish kashrut dietary laws.
We may have defended the coffee Nazi in their time of need. But we have to draw the line when a purveyor’s personal quirks are declared as rules that extend to all coffee.
And here’s the real absurdity in all that. Coffee has thousands of flavor and aromatic components. It comes in a diverse array of varietals with unique terroir and flavor profiles reflecting its thousands of points of origin around the world. There are an untold number of ways to process it, roast it, and brew it. Yet we have pundits and experts promoting the idea that coffee is somehow this singular, monolithic commodity — like CocaCola out of a spigot — that can only be properly roasted only one way, brewed only one way, and appreciated as a consumer only one way. Getting the most out of your coffee is not the same as Obsessive-compulsive Disorder.
Coffee professionals who tell us that coffee can only be properly roasted this side of a City roast are just as narrow-minded in their thinking as the people who told us for years that dark roasts were the ideal. Some coffees shine under lighter roasting conditions, while others taste grassy and have none of the body that their pedigree would otherwise offer. Those who tell us that coffee should never be adulterated with milk not only throw our enjoyment of cappuccinos and flat whites under the bus, but they limit our appreciation to only those forms of coffee that taste good without milk.
Given all of its glorious variety, coffee is best optimized with different roasts, different brewing methods, and even different condiments (or the lack thereof) to uniquely suit its unique character — and not just its unique consumer. Celebrate its diversity, and call us heretics.
Yesterday morning, KQED radio aired an hour-long Forum segment featuring a small round-table of SF coffee “luminaries”: SF’s Coffee Innovators: Forum | KQED Public Media for Northern CA. The panel included James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, Eileen Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, and an unusually quiet Jeremy Tooker, of Four Barrel Coffee.
Much like the title of its associated Web page, the radio program played out like your typical coffee innovator/”third wave“/bleeding-edge routine that we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. While a bit heavy on the Coffee 101 — particularly when callers asked common FAQ-type questions that have been answered on the Internet 20,000 times over already — KQED produced a good program overall.
Some of the more interesting comments included Eileen Hassi stating that “San Francisco has better coffee than any other city in the world” — with the only potential exception being Oslo, Norway. We’d like to think so, and there’s a bit of evidence to back that up.
James Freeman noted Italy’s “industrialized system of near-universal adequacy,” which is a different but accurate way of summing up our long-held beliefs that outstanding coffee in Italy is almost as hard to find as unacceptable coffee. Other covered topics included coffeehouses eliminating WiFi, Berkeley’s Caffe Mediterraneum inventing the latte, the Gibraltar, and even James Freeman designating home roasting as coffee’s “geeky lunatic fringe.”
While it’s worth noting that Mr. Freeman started as a home roaster, recent media coverage of home roasting has been a bit bizarre. To read it in the press these days, you’d think home roasting were at its apex rather than continuing its gradual decline towards its nadir. This despite numerous media stories covering it over five years ago as some hot new trend.
At the 2006 WRBC, we were perplexed by the complete lack of home roaster representation among the event’s attendees. (Namely, any home roaster worth his weight in greens would have been giddy over the reappearance of the Maui Moka bean. Nobody there even noticed.) And yet by 2009 we noted a real decline in online home roasting community activity, and we wrote about some of the underlying reasons for it.
Curiously enough, the first caller to the radio program (at 12’12″ in) mentions a recent trip to South India and his interest in South Indian coffee. I’m posting this from South India — Bengaluru (née Bangalore), to be precise. And I have to say, I’ve become quite fond of both South Indian coffee and the South Indian coffee culture.
Sure, they prefer it sweetened and with hot milk (that often has a skin still on it). The coffee is often cut with cheaper chicory and is brewed with a two-chambered cylindrical metal drip brewer — not unlike a Vietnamese brewer or an upside-down version of a Neapolitan flip coffee pot. But damn, if this stuff isn’t good. Even better, there’s a culture of regular coffee breaks that would be familiar to many Mediterraneans.
We’ve reported from India before, but only from the North — which isn’t known for a strong coffee culture beyond young people frequenting chains that emulate the West. Bengaluru is home to the Coffee Board of India, and this weekend I hope to head out across its state of Karnataka to visit origin at the Kodagu district. Also known as Coorg, this district grows a good amount of India’s good coffee. (Yes, they even grow really good robusta there. Just ask Tom Owens of Sweet Maria.) Details certainly to follow…
In the eight years since we started CoffeeRatings.com, we’ve been patiently waiting for something better. After all, we built CoffeeRatings.com out of frustration over a lack of useful quality information about area coffeehouses in a semi-structured, objective-criteria-driven format. So you’d think we’d be encouraged by the acute rise in venture-capital-funded code monkeys who promise to solve our existential crisis of determining “the best” at anything. In reality, this flurry of new Web sites and mobile apps only seems to be making the problem worse.
Besides being a First World Problem, finding the best at anything is a sisyphean effort. As Howard Moskowitz demonstrated decades ago, there is no “best” — only many bests, depending on personal tastes. But that didn’t prevent the likes of Yelp from feigning an effort. That effort is based on a completely open system where any schmuck with a keyboard can praise or bash an institution without any instruction, guidelines, nor selection criteria to speak of. Furthermore, Yelp games reviews as more of a form of social currency than any objective opinion.
As ridiculous as you might think the old school Zagat guides are by comparison, at least they offer three objective criteria to score on. Even so, Zagat recently whored themselves out to rating food trucks. Someone please explain to us again how any food truck could legitimately earn more than a zero score out of three for “ambience”.
On the mobile side of things, we have examples such as the San Francisco’s Best Coffee iPhone app. There the fatal flaw is that most mobile app developers treat location as of primary concern over quality — likely just because you can (with a phone’s geolocation services). Hence why we never appreciated coffee maps as anything more than eye candy.
The editors for the app are based in London, and they use whether a cafe is “independent” or not as a major reason for inclusion. (Are we supposed to ignore that Blue Bottle Coffee is technically a chain?) Furthermore, any Top 25 ratings are handled Yelp-style, resulting in very dubious cafes like Tartine Bakery getting rated in the Top 7.
Their top choice of a Rancilio Silvia is definitely a positive move — one that keeps you out of the future landfill that primarily decks the aisles of a Williams-Sonoma. But is it truly the best? Or is it more like the least you can spend on a respectable home machine? Even so, when it is immediately followed up by two Mr. Coffee models that each cost under $35 — followed by the Rancilio Silvia again — what are we supposed to think?
If you don’t know who Kevin Rose is, we envy you. He’s the founder of SF’s Digg.com and the closest thing to Justin Bieber for the dot-com set. Not long after the collapse of Enron, both Digg and its founder quickly became everyone’s “Web 2.0″ darling for several years — years we spent scratching and shaking our heads asking, “How is this going to make any money?”
During those years, cheerleading crowds simply put fingers in their ears, yelling “La-la-la! Can’t hear you!” as they made a cybercelebrity out of Mr. Rose — right on down to featuring him on downtown advertising kiosks. Today, Digg circles a financial drain that’s becoming ever-shallower. Everyone has pretty much since looked away, shielding their eyes from the inevitable.
Fast forward to 2011. For a guy who grew up in Redding, you’d think he’d know just enough local history to realize that calling your SF-based company “Milk” carries a lot of baggage. But whether or not that makes you think the guy is living in the closet, here’s a look at what Oink’s #coffee hashtag currently scores for “best coffee”:
What the hell are we supposed to make of this list? Other than it is wholly unstructured and that someone has an obsessive Blue Bottle fetish, how is this list in any way useful to us? We’ve got restaurant cocktails, roasted bean duplicates, drip coffee duplicates, platitudes about coffee, and the random business name all jumbled together to make a Top 10 list.
Mr. Rose says his inspiration for Oink came from his obsessive love of fine tea. But with an app like this, any Top 10 likely includes references to the Tea Party, teabagging, and Rose’s favorite oolong repackaged seven different ways. Milk’s employees better put snorkels and fins on their Amazon wish lists this Christmas, as another whirling drain doesn’t seem far off the horizon. (UPDATE: Oink went fins-up in the tank in just four months.)
Lastly, we turn to Amen, where we learn:
Welcome to Amen, the place for battling it out over the best and the worst in life.
Amen is for all those times you think to yourself, “This is the BEST! (or WORST!)”
Of course they have an iPhone app, because apparently you cannot function in society without a 3.5-inch screen telling you how. And playing with the app, we still don’t get the point. It’s raison d’être seems centered around submitting a rousing evangelical “amen” to someone else’s proclamation of greatness. Such as “the best coffee shop ever,” which is currently listed as a toss up between Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Starbucks, and “My Ass”.
This latest round of technical and social innovations doesn’t seem to make us any smarter. In fact, it just makes us collectively a whole lot dumber with the added social commiseration of “failing with friends.”
In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for Shawn Johnson’s word for it when she says, “My tacos? The best!” in an old TV commercial just this side of child pornography…
Ever eat a hamburger at a 1950s-themed American diner? In Hong Kong? Maybe their waffles didn’t taste like fish sauce, but it’s not uncommon to discover something lost in translation. (E.g., “Why does my hamburger bun taste like rice vinegar?”) On the spectrum of authenticity, this is the culinary equivalent to finding luxury handbags in the Hong Kong night markets with designer labels like “Guchi” and “Koach”.
Which brings us to Paris Baguette. Downtown Palo Alto recently added the latest installment of a growing Korean-owned chain of French-themed bakeries. However, use of the word “chain” here is an understatement. Although there are some 15 U.S. locations scattered throughout New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and California (including Santa Clara), there are 50 locations in China and some 2,900 locations in South Korea alone.
To put this in perspective, Starbucks operates 6,727 stores in the entire U.S. This means that, on a per capita basis, Paris Baguette locations saturate Korea some 2.75 times as much as Starbucks saturates America. Viewed purely in terms of locations per square mile, Paris Baguette locations carpet bomb Korea 41.6 times as much as Starbucks locations do the U.S. If you remember those jokes about there being another Starbucks inside a Starbucks’ bathroom, just imagine 41 of them in there.
Fortunately, Paris Baguette is not too freakishly Paris by way of Seoul — even if it glows like a gaudy Vegas casino from the outside. There’s some sidewalk café seating in front. On the inside (casino mirrors aside), it consists of stacks and stacks of self-service baked goods to be pinched by passersby armed with wax paper and tongs. There strangely isn’t much else to speak of for lunch options. And beneath the tall glass windows, there are clumsy, long, almost school-cafeteria-like tables — save for being topped with faux marble.
And yet this location proves that being lost in translation isn’t always a bad thing. Whereas most of the coffee in Paris is wretched, they make an honest attempt at sourcing and producing good coffee — at which they are mostly successful. Despite its gaudy flaws and cultural mistranslations, the coffee service here manages to be some of the best in Palo Alto.
They sport heavy Ritual Coffee Roasters branding and a shiny, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 at the service counter. They even offer Hario V60 pour-overs. They pull shots with an even, medium brown crema in black ACF cups. It has a basic warming flavor of spice and some herbs, and the coffee has the potential to be much better than it is — but it is still quite decent. They also offer healthy milk-frothing and latte art for milk-based drinks.
Read the review of Paris Baguette in Palo Alto.