Quality Issues

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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

Trip Report: Nespresso Boutique & Bar (Union Square)

Posted by on 07 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues

No, this is not a joke. If there’s one thing we do at CoffeeRatings.com, it’s test things out before we judge. What else can explain all the gut-corrosive espresso shots we’ve subjected ourselves to over the past ten years, seemingly in violation of the Nuremberg Code.

Nespresso — Nestlé’s espresso pod cash cow — is a heavily loaded topic. Our somewhat-dismissive reviews of their home espresso machine systems have attracted far more user comments than any other subject. (Many of the comments oddly coming from new home espresso machine owners seeking validation of their purchasing decisions.) And for several years, some of the world’s finer restaurants have simply punted on their coffee service and succumbed to the pod.

Entering the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF's Union Square Entrance and service counter inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar showcasing machines SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar selling single origin pods to their 'members'

Coffee-loving nations in Europe have particularly embraced Nespresso — ones you’d never associate with such a prepackaged, processed product. In Lisbon seven years ago, we asked the question why? Just a year ago, Nespresso installed its first café and boutique in Union Square backed by an immense amount of marketing money and fanfare — which itself will be the subject of a future post.

Genuine Nespresso Pomp and Circumstance

Opening in November 2012, this international chain of Nestlé-owned boutiques planted its San Francisco flag at the site of a former Guess store. There’s a ridiculous amount of pomp and pretense here for what amounts to be pre-ground pod coffee that’s been oxidizing for weeks after roasting. Walk inside, and you can tell the management has been taking notes from their favorite Apple stores. (Truth be told, Saeco and their showcase cafés and boutiques are hardly that different.)

There are staff in black suits that each talk or ask questions about you “being a member”. It all feels a bit like Scientology meets an aspirational Starbucks. They have many cream-colored leather lounge chairs paired at faux wooden-top tables, sofas, long white countertops with iPad displays (surprised?) and white metal stools. There’s also a few leather stools at the front service counter, behind which the staff use a number of their plastic Nespresso home espresso machines to produce the retail coffee beverages here. Although there are two dedicated Astra machines (made of metal even) for frothing milk.

The air is filled with lounge music circa 2001, and downstairs is their boutique — or showroom for machines and member-purchased coffee pods. Although they offer some food items and pairings, the focus is clearly on their coffee product line.

Seating space inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar Service counter inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

Design inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar café area More boutique merchandising inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Ordering their “Ristretto” shot (note the use of capitalization) for a ridiculous $4 ($5 for doubles), they inserted one of their pods into a $200 Nespresso U home machine. The experience is a bit mind-blowingly incongruous.

Makes a mean tête de cochon with just the right light bulbsHere you have everything short of a white-gloved servant offering your coffee on a silver tray with a side of Beluga caviar. Yet in the background you can hear the distinctively cheap buzzing sound of the Nespresso home espresso machine — the kind you associate with an aerating 10-gallon fish tank filled with blue tetras — when the staff push a button to produce your coffee from a prepackaged pod. It’s akin to walking into the French Laundry and having your meal prepared with a Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven.

But enough about the imagery: it is, after all, about how it tastes in the cup. The resulting shot lacks much aroma, but it has a decent-looking, even, medium brown crema. The flavor is blended well and is surprisingly mellow for a supposed “ristretto” (ranked 10 out of 10 on Nespresso’s strength scale): mild spices and tepid herbal notes. But everything about the shot is tepid: a light and vapid body, and a flavor that misses the mark on any kind of character.

This is the part we find most objectionable about the whole pretense of Nespresso to begin with. Peel back the layers of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and underneath it all Nespresso represents a step forward in convenience but a step backwards in quality. At that moment, it struck me that Nespresso was coffee’s version of farmed salmon: a flabby, bland facsimile of the real thing that’s tailored more for the needs of mass production and distribution. Except here the Nespresso comparison is more of an insult to farmed salmon.

There’s nothing wrong with liking farmed salmon. But let’s call it what it is and price it accordingly. Served in Nespresso cups with designer spoons and sugar.

Read the review of the Nespresso Boutique & Bar in SF’s Union Square.

Design inside SF's Nespresso Boutique & Bar The Nespresso Boutique & Bar espresso (Ristretto) for $4

America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013: Does Anyone Care Anymore?

Posted by on 03 Aug 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

This month’s issue of Travel + Leisure magazine once again published their updated “America’s Best Coffee Cities” rankings: America’s Best Coffee Cities 2013 – Articles | Travel + Leisure. We’ve covered these before; we’ve even used their reader survey data to rank how much locals in various cities have an overly flattering view of their own coffee culture. But this time around, our reaction to their rankings is more, “So what?”

A common American scene with more commonly decent coffeeMake no mistake: this marks a significant milestone in the evolution of coffee quality standards in the United States. Compared with several years ago, today it seems that every major city in America has one if not several really good coffee shops that are producing brews and shots within just a shade of some of the nation’s finest. So much so, it’s only raised our level of ridicule for the coffee xenophobes who advocate carrying around suitcases packed with their home coffee life support systems wherever they travel.

What were once coffee laggards such as New York City have been infiltrated by interlopers and local independent coffee culture stereotypes. Every month new quality roasters crop up around the country, many offering overnight shipping to any café on the continent that wants it. Thus today it’s almost impossible to find a city with a major league sports team that doesn’t also play host to some quality coffee.

Which all makes the notion of an “America’s Best Coffee Cities” ranking more and more pointless. Sure, the article offers readers a trendy topic to help sell travel magazines and their advertising space. But the concept is becoming as irrelevant as an “America’s Best Wine Cities” ranking: it really doesn’t require an airline ticket to get a really good cup of coffee anymore. And for that, we will raise a fine cup of this Brazil Sertão Carmo de Minas espresso we’re drinking this morning.

But if you must know, and to save you the ad-flipping pagination of their Web site, here’s the list in its entirety:

  1. Seattle
  2. Portland, OR
  3. New Orleans
  4. Providence, RI
  5. San Francisco
  6. San Juan, PR
  7. Minneapolis/St. Paul
  8. Portland, ME
  9. New York City
  10. San Diego
  11. Savannah, GA
  12. Austin, TX
  13. Honolulu
  14. Santa Fe, NM
  15. Nashville
  16. Kansas City, MO
  17. Boston
  18. Chicago
  19. Charleston, SC
  20. Philadelphia

The Controversy Over Crema

Posted by on 10 Jul 2013 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Because many of you are rightfully tired of us harping on the same topics (as are we!), today we introduce a refreshing guest post from Samantha Joyce (by way of Seattle Coffee Gear’s Brenna Ciummo) on espresso: crema, in specific. — TheShot

Crema means cream in Italian, the mother tongue of espresso. It is the light colored foam at the top of your espresso shot like the head of foam on a beer. It is also something of a misnomer, and that adds to the heated arguments surrounding it. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have in your demitasse? Some say crema is sweet and some say it is bitter. People tend to fall into three heavily fortified battle camps: mixers, scoopers and hoarders. This radical polarizing effect leads to different espresso preparations and feeds the flames of controversy.

First Let’s Drop Some Science

Espresso lovers seem to have three distinctly different reactions to crema Crema forms as water from the boiler of the espresso machine is forced through the ground coffee in the portafilter under pressure. This combines a natural post-roast out-gassing of CO2 with the magical compounds inherent in the coffee. The coffee varietal used and the way it was processed contributes to the crema yield. Crema is visible in a shot glass as a “Guinness effect” of bubbles that rise and form a head on the espresso shot. Some of the arguments presented are purely semantic over the scientific processes involved in this combination of heat, water and coffee. I’ve heard it called colloidal foam, an emulsion and micro-bubbles. Whatever words you care to use to describe the tango dance of gas, carbohydrates, proteins and oils in your espresso shot glass is fine with me. If you happen to be more scientifically inclined then by all means put on your safety goggles and start your Bunsen burner. It is the taste, not the molecular evaluation, which concerns me.

The Mixers

Some think that mixing the crema into the body of the espresso makes a more enjoyable and more homogenized taste sensation. Those who subscribe to this camp generally do not take note of the quality or quantity of the crema produced with the espresso shot. They speed up a naturally occurring phenomenon by manually re-incorporating it. To me, this is akin to putting sushi in a blender. I would like the mouth feel and complexity of the layered elements, but you may not. It is okay. We are all unique snowflakes.

The Scoopers

In some cafes they unceremoniously scoop the crema off the top and serve the espresso naked. Great! I would love to try that. I drink Americano coffee and according to 2007 World Barista Champion James Hoffman “scoopin” takes the bitterness out of that beverage. He was a big proponent of crema previously and has now joined the crema abstainers camp. Here I think that it depends on the coffee varietal, the way it was processed and the intended beverage to determine if skimming the crema off the top before it dissipates is worthwhile.

The Hoarders

For those who chase after the Holy Grail of sweet crema here is a tip: It is going to be found in the fourth dimension. No TARDIS is required to go there. It helps if you pull your own espresso shots or stand elbow to elbow with your barista. Noted coffee expert David Schomer explains,

“It is important to consider this in enjoying caffe espresso as a culinary art, for the full flavor and silky texture: you must enjoy it immediately. Two quick sips from the hand of the barista, at the bar. The first sip is bracing, all the sass with lighter body, in the final sip are the sugars, which invariably sink to the bottom of the cup.”

The fleeting nature of crema changes from one nanosecond to the next as it devolves into its component parts. Our sense of taste is unique to each of us. Exactly when we tasted the crema will also change our perception of how it tastes.

Don’t be Fooled

Crema porn with the naked portafilterThere are many caveats when it comes to the enjoyment of crema. Let me call out the shortcuts that some use to achieve (gasp!) faux crema. Pressurized portafilters and superautomatic espresso machines may aerate the coffee during extraction. Charlatans! This gives the look of crema without any taste since it is quite literally full of hot air. It’s okay to do this but don’t marvel aloud at the quality and freshness of your nondescript grocery store coffee. It is just lipstick on the pig. Real crema is impacted by the following variables: Quality coffee beans, processing method, roast date, roast color and espresso brew method. It does make for a lovely photo opportunity though, as fake crema seems to last a little longer.

It Takes All Kinds

Guaranteed in your own gustatory experience you will find espresso shots with very little crema that taste amazing and you will find thick crema that can be sweet or tangy or both. This is the wonder of espresso. There are so many variables and personal preferences involved that it is a shame to live with absolutes. I feel I can’t take sides on this debate. I need further first-person crema research. I need to visit all of the purveyors with staunchly held crema beliefs in order to taste the “proof” of their theses. Will you join me for an espresso?

Samantha Joyce is a writer for Seattle Coffee Gear and enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things coffee.

UPDATE: September 4, 2013
Yesterday Erin Meister over at Serious Eats [sic] posted a bit on the crema controversy: Should You Skim the Crema off Your Espresso? | Serious Eats: Drinks.

Eight random people rank SF coffees in a blind taste test

Posted by on 20 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

In 1980, just before the 49ers were any good, SF staple Folgers Coffee started a TV commercial blitz that quickly became a running joke in comedy circles. It began with a TV spot where diners at SF’s then-esteemed Blue Fox restaurant (located at 659 Merchant St.) were duped by replacing the Blue Fox’s “fine coffee” (yeah, right) with Folgers “Instant Coffee Crystals”. Would any of the discriminating diners notice?

The Bold Italic wants us to 'guess the loser' rather than choose good coffeeThis week one of the latest of many knock-off local online rags, The Bold Italic, published their findings of a slightly more modern — and equally irrelevant — blind taste test: Guess The Loser of Our Blind Coffee Taste Test – The Bold Italic – San Francisco. Their question?: “can city dwellers really tell the difference between premium artisanal coffee and your average cup of joe?”

The Bold Italic chose eight random people to compare and rank coffees from six different roasting sources: Ritual, Sightglass, Four Barrel, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and — back from the grave — Folgers.

Survey says… very little

The supposed big “shock” of this miniscule random sample is that, while Ritual came out on top, Dunkin’ Donuts beat out Sightglass and Four Barrel. (Folgers wasn’t rock bottom, however, as that place was reserved for Starbucks.) However, is it really any surprise that mass market coffees might appeal to the broader public tastes of a random sample? Here at CoffeeRatings.com, we never claimed to speak for anyone’s tastes but our own: it’s a very subjective thing.

The Bold Italic sets up their blind taste testThousands of people love In-N-Out Burger to a religious degree, and yet I think they are no better than a glorified Burger King. And while some people adore the brightness bombs from Sightglass, I’ve often thought their coffee tasted like an under-roasted acid bomb going off in my mouth. This is just personal taste, not a freak of statistics.

However, what we found most amusing of all about the article was the writing. We have no idea what kind of coffee fairytale-land Ms. Medina believes we San Franciscans live in — complete with unicorn baristas and rainbow coffee enemas. She offers quotes about “thousands of coffee shops offering the most freshly picked beans” (do you have any clue how many opt for cheap bean fodder such as America’s Best Coffee?) and locals accustomed to coffee “ground to perfection to form the perfect espresso” (have you actually seen our local espresso ratings over the past 10 years?).

And then this unsubstantiated hyperbole: locals “surrounded by $6 cups of coffee galore”?!? The $4 coffee myth has apparently hit major inflation. Where can you even find a cup of drip coffee for $6 around here that isn’t either the extremely rare promotional Geisha or some coffee tourist gag novelty crapped out of a Southeast Asian mammal?

We suppose if there’s anything to learn from this random anecdote disguised as a study, it’s that SF webmags have no boundaries for being unintentionally comedic.

Trip Report: Barefoot Coffee Works (Campbell, CA)

Posted by on 09 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues

How good quality, independent coffeeshops cope with growth and expansion takes multiple forms. Most follow the time-tested “slow crafting” method that many espouse for their coffee brewing: driving sales, opening new business loans, and expanding one location at a time. Other notables have recently thrown on the accelerant of venture capital to burn a bit hotter and faster than most small business owners, giving up a bit more ownership in the process.

Then there’s something of a hybrid in the franchise model, where you license out your name and coffee supplies to independent business owners. San Jose’s Barefoot Coffee Roasters adopted this model to expand its name and brand presence in the South Bay. While Barefoot recently shut down its original Santa Clara mothership, it has opened its own Roll-UP Bar at its roasting headquarters and licensed its name out to locations in Campbell and Los Gatos.

Strip mall entrance to Barefoot Coffee Works in Campbell, CA Coffee service area with Nuova Simonelli machine inside Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell

This Campbell location is one of these “licensed independent operators”, opening in Sept. 2011. Located in Campbell’s Onyx Retail Center, it’s a very local café with strong local support. The staff here are friendly and seem to know everybody. This is great for encouraging support of the locals, although having to wait through a conversation on how each family member is doing for each person in line can be a bit of a delay if you’re in a rush.

Outside there are a couple of café tables in front with parasols. Along the hallway there are a few wooden café tables with the occasional laptop zombie, and at the short serving bar there are a couple of stools seated along the service counter. It’s adorned with purple drapes and boldly painted walls with mirrors.

Barefoot Coffee Works Campbell's pour-over setup and coffee menus Servicing the pour-over bar and Nuova Simonelli machine at Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell

There’s a Hario V60 dripper pour-over bar with three different options for coffee and a white, three-group Nuova Simonelli for espresso. With it they pull shots with a mottled, spotted medium and darker brown crema. It has a very robust aroma, but a relatively thin body.

Flavorwise, The Boss here has a stronger herbaceousness and limited brightness: it seems a bit limited and insufficiently balanced, despite being a good espresso. They serve it in white ACF cups. Their milk-frothing is a bit mottled and sits on top without integrating into the liquid espresso very well.

The standards seem off here from the owned & operated Barefoot locations we’ve known, and it makes us miss their Santa Clara location. And when it comes to quality, this ain’t SF’s Epicenter Cafe either. They do offer things like their orange ginger cubano to get flashy with flavoring. But despite good coffee here, this does seem like the classic risk of when you put the quality of your brand in the hands of someone else.

Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Works in Campbell, CA.

The Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell espresso The Barefoot Coffee Works, Campbell cappuccino

CoffeeCON 2013

Posted by on 10 May 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

CoffeeCON 2013 event brandingPerhaps the biggest irony is that nobody should ever need a CoffeeCON.

As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.

And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)

CoffeeCON 2013 at the IBEW Local Union 701 with the roasting demo on the patio Entrance to CoffeeCON 2013, with Metropolis and Counter Culture Coffee off on the left

Coffee: Y U No Like Your Customers?

Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”

But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.

Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)

Regular Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Home roasting demos outside at CoffeeCON 2013

You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)

All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?

More Coffee, Less Con

CoffeeCON 2013's course listingCoincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.

CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:

CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.

Jim Schulman (L) and Kevin Sinnott (R) at CoffeeCON 2013 Baratza's course on grinding at CoffeeCON 2013

Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.

Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.

Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.

CoffeeCON’s Coffee and Personalities

Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.

The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.

Yes, the Heat Gun/Dog Bowl method being demoed at CoffeeCON 2013 Oren and son from Oren's Daily Roast at CoffeeCON 2013

Tasting cups as part of George Howell's sensory lab at CoffeeCON 2013Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.

As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.

A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.

George Howell giving his 2 1/2 hour lecture at CoffeeCON 2013 Halfwit barista raves about how the Kalita pot is at least twice as good as the Hario equivalent

Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.

Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.

Counter Culture Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Counter Culture Coffee's Finca El Puente Honduras espresso at CoffeeCON 2013

On Boston, and Little of It About Coffee

Posted by on 17 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues

For the past couple of days, I’ve resisted writing about this topic: the recent SCAA conference and the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon the following day. But I can’t escape it. Apologies in advance for adding little on the subject of coffee, but to do so exclusively would seem both disrespectful and inappropriate. This post is really more for myself in a cathartic way, as my heart goes out to everyone affected by this tragedy.

September 11, 2001

Bruins fans in downtown Boston, returning from the game

Bruins fans in downtown Boston, returning from the game – 4/13/13

You see, I have a bit of a complicated history with the city of Boston. Before my trip out there this past weekend, the last time I attempted to fly out to Boston was on the morning of September 11, 2001. At 6:30am PT (9:30am ET), I was in SFO trying to board a United flight to Boston. It was for my “day job” as a dot-com vice president, and this was back in the implosive days of the original dot-com bust. Given budget guidelines to meet for my department, I had made the hard choice of laying off my entire team of 25 people in our Cambridge, MA office. My flight to Boston was thus all about the dreaded task of informing my team in person that they no longer had jobs.

Of course, things didn’t exactly work out that way. What was originally announced in the SFO airport as an FAA delay caused by a small plane hitting the World Trade Center turned into something horrifically worse. No civilian aircraft in North America would become airborne again until a few days later.

With the fog of what just happened, who did it, and what’s coming next still on everyone’s minds, the HR department and a few coworkers told me to simply make the announcement over the phone — that my team would understand under the circumstances. But I was stubbornly determined to take personal responsibility for my decision, no matter how ugly it had to be. I owed them that much. So once air travel resumed, I caught the next flight I could get into Boston that following weekend.

Boston Logan's 9/11 memorial

Boston Logan’s 9/11 memorial

It was one of the most white-knuckled flights I’ve ever taken. Not because of any turbulence, but because everyone on that plane could not get the television images of 9/11 — and the thought of further hijacking attempts — out of their heads. Everyone was on edge, suspiciously sizing up all of their fellow passengers. You got the sense that if anybody even attempted something that looked like a false move, that person would be forcefully subdued and probably beaten to death by a plane full of anxious passengers mentally prepared to fight or die.

I had flown into Boston Logan multiple times before, but never like this. The airport was a ghost town, largely abandoned of people and planes with a skeleton crew left running things. The taxi driver who picked me up was desperate for a fare, as he told me that, “Boston Logan is still an active crime scene.” The two flights that struck the World Trade Center towers both departed from Boston, from gate areas I was eerily all too familiar with from previous travels.

I was fortunate that a few people on my newly-laid-off staff thanked me for giving them the news in person. But I did not again return to Boston until last week.

April 11, 2013

What brought me back to Boston after all these years wasn’t the SCAA Conference — at least directly. It was more an invitation from Todd Carmichael (of La Colombe) to do a shoot for the second season of his TV show, “Dangerous Grounds”. Todd was insistent on a scene in the new season that wasn’t just his “Tarzan bit” through wild coffee jungles, but rather a social cupping discussion among a few invited guests — which included the likes of Doug Zell of Intelligentsia, Aleco Chigounis of Coffee Shrub (a sort of sister to Sweet Maria’s), Mette Marie of 49th Parallel Roasters, Ryan Brown now at Tonx, Andrew Ballard of Forty Weight Coffee, and the entertaining JP Iberti (co-founder of La Colombe).

Everybody brought some coffee to showcase and discuss. (Special thanks to Justine Hollinger of Barefoot Coffee Roasters for helping me represent their great work.) Despite Todd’s worry that some snarky infighting could develop, a great camaraderie developed among the cuppers that will hopefully come out in the program when it airs later this year. (And for the record, the overall favorite was the Yukro Ethiopia coffee from George Howell Coffee, sourced by Aleco.)

L to R: Brandon Gulish (producer), Ryan Brown, Todd, Mette Marie, and Aleco Chigounis at a 'Dangerous Grounds' shoot Doug Zell (seated with hat) and Todd (right) during a shoot for 'Dangerous Grounds'

With the shoot out of the way, I had a few days to check out the SCAA conference and get reacquainted with Boston. It had been years since I had set foot in either.

For those who haven’t been to the SCAA conference, I’ll offer a perspective of someone not in the industry — and rather of just someone who really loves coffee. Like all industry conferences, it’s a great occasion to meet people and network. If you’re slinging coffee at a retail location all day, or sourcing out in the wild corners of the world, there are few occasions where you can personally meet and greet many of those coffee “greats” — or just cool people — you otherwise only read about (or from).

And there’s a lot of great coffee to be had. A barista at a complimentary La Marzocco espresso station jumbled multiple bags of Intelligentsia beans to create an impromptu blend in his Mazzer grinder. While I was watching this, he culturally noted that, “The industry people come earlier and ask for espressos, but later the ‘show’ people come and they all drink caps.” (i.e., cappuccinos).

Entrance to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center for the 2013 SCAA Getting a unique blend in the Mazzer at the La Marzocco station

But there are things about the SCAA conference I am not as enamored with. For one, it’s primarily a commercial trade show with a big emphasis on an exhibition floor of people hawking their wares. Good for a lot in the industry, but often a bit tedious if you really are more into the coffee than the latest gadgetry.

There’s the symposium topics, which I had not attended but often sounded interesting. But there’s a huge “reindeer games” aspect to the highly repetitive, three-ring circus of the Barista Championship, the Brewer’s Cup, and the US Cup Tasters Championship. Even odder now, there are members of the Barista Guild of America strutting about the place, and the city, in their official logo jackets as if part of some mutant coffee geek biker gang.

A sea of vendors at the 2013 SCAA Pete Licata's performance at the 2013 USBC finals, which he won

The 117th Boston Marathon

But the longer I was in Boston, the more I came to appreciate and became more enamored with the even bigger event in town that weekend: the 117th Boston Marathon. There was a very positive, festive, international sports vibe to the event that I hadn’t quite experienced since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Everywhere in town you ran into fit people in running gear — many not running the race but at least there in spirit and to support the other participants.

Last Saturday I walked down Boylston Street past Copley Square, just two days before the horrific bombings, soaking in the environment of fans, tourists, and the final touches of the stands and barricades being set up at the finish line for the event. Arriving back in SF only some 11 hours before those terrible events took place, the news was made all the more tragic for me having experienced just how much the Boston Marathon environment converted me into a fan.

The Boston Marathon will be back next year. Boston may not want me back, given my recent track record of tragic coincidence. But I can’t say enough to encourage those even modestly interested to attend. The coffee may not be anything near as good as at the SCAA, but it deserves every bit of your support.

As time passes, I promise to write more about the coffee. But right now, there are things far more important than coffee could ever be.

Signage at the Boston Marathon finish line - 4/13/13 Runners/tourists at the Boston Marathon finish line with a start sign - 4/13/13

That Restaurant Coffee Thing… (Yes, Again)

Posted by on 28 Mar 2013 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

OK, who ordered the double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato?As CoffeeRatings.com celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it’s hard not to feel a little jaded by some of the coffee topics that simply refuse to die. Like Jason in Friday the 13th Part 1.30E+02, some subjects are the undead zombies of the coffee world, no matter how times you try to kill them with fire. (Kopi luwak, anyone?) All of which explains a little of why our blog posting cycle has gone from a few times per week to more like once a month: you’re tired of reading about the same stuff, and we’re tired of writing about it.

However, today we were inspired to reminisce down memory lane about bad restaurant coffee and the commoditized coffee fodder known as Nespresso. This time we blame Sprudge.com and Oliver Strand for exhuming the dead: Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap » Sprudge.com. Now that the blame is out of the way, we’ll join in this zombie apocalypse fight club with the nearest chainsaw we can grab.

The premise of Mr. Strand’s article is rooted in trends towards two polar opposites of coffee service at fine dining establishments — and the TwitCon Level 3 general alert that surrounds them (i.e., don your hardhats and make for your nearest social media fallout shelter, boys).

The first concerns famed restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma (repeat finalist for best restaurant in the world, and also home of the famed norovirus cocktail) who are producing coffee with care, sourced from the likes of Tim Wendelboe. The second, counter-movement concerns a Grub Street report that 30 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants have punted on coffee service by offering Nespresso — coffee’s version of Crocs.


Nespresso: the universal symbol of a restaurant that has given up coffee hope.

The Return of the Restaurant Coffee Zombies

Given that we wrote about the trend of some high-end restaurants surrendering to Nespresso systems back in 2007, this isn’t exactly news. But our key points back then remain true as ever: introducing the mundane at an exclusive restaurant is always a losing strategy. This doesn’t matter whether your restaurant is putting Yellow Tail Cabernet on its wine list, serving San Pelligrino mineral water bought from the Costco across town, or slinging shots of Nestlé espresso served from a push-button machine: commodity products are the antithesis of why we’re paying $200-a-head and up to eat at your fine dining establishment.

A French press at Merriman's on Hawaii's Big Island has blown away most restaurant coffee experiences anywhere elseThe worst part is that stooping to Nespresso for your coffee service not only shows a lack of thought or creativity, but it is also completely unnecessary. A restaurant need not get in over its head in coffee minutia to do a memorable job of it. One of our most memorable coffee experiences anywhere involved little more than a restaurant that served fresh coffee, sourced from a unique Kona producer, and served in a French press. Simple, elegant, unique, excellent, and highly memorable.

That said, we have experienced some excellent coffee at local restaurants that have really invested in doing it right. We’re saddened by the recent demise of Bar Bambino, who once served one of San Francisco’s best restaurant espresso shots. But we were recently blown away by both the invested attention and quality of the end-product on a recent trip to Redd Restaurant in Yountville. (Great restaurant espresso?! And from Equator Estate Coffee?!?!)

In closing, we do have to politely chastise Mr. Strand’s standards of full-meal etiquette when he says, “I never order coffee at the end of a knockdown meal. Not after all of those courses and all of those wines.” (I.e., the “you’re doing it wrong” argument.) There’s no better way to close out an audacious meal with a short, well-made espresso — and perhaps this is where the volumetric studies of the latent filter drip coffee re-obsession tends to backfire — followed by the digestivo effects of a fine grappa. Though we do draw the line at cigars.

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