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Espresso in Napoli, Italy

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and Intimidation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napoli, Not Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neapolitan Coffee Culture and the Soulful Espresso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes a Neapolitan espresso?

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

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

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

Obligatory Neapolitan fish monger shot Napoli at sunrise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Espresso Preparation

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

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

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

Travel Tip

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

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

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


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

Trip Report: Moccia (Napoli, Italy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where ‘old’ isn’t the enemy of ‘good’

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

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

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

Read the review of Moccia in Napoli, Italy.

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

Where Coffee is not Food and Transparency is not Quality

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

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

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

What’s In A Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, it will be amazing, alright...

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

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

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

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

On Traceability and Micro-lot Terroir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Origin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roast

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brew

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

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

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

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

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

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