Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
The Internet is hardly known as a medium for civil discussion and debate. There are exceptions, of course, but today only the Internet historians will remember when flame wars and childish insults may have briefly raised eyebrows before they became too commonplace to notice anymore. What still raises eyebrows is when there actually is civil discourse online — and especially when it is abruptly shut down and censored.Last week we exhumed the old why-is-restaurant-coffee-so-bad yarn, invoking recent social media gossip about high-end restaurants that either raised the Nespresso white flag or developed serious coffee program, such as Copenhagen’s infamous Noma — the running #1 ranked restaurant in the world. Then earlier this week, a famous coffee blog we enjoy — Dear Coffee, I Love You — posted a review of their recent meal and coffee service at Noma: Coffee at Noma, The World’s Best Restaurant « Dear Coffee, I Love You. | A Coffee Blog for Caffeinated Inspiration..
My reaction to the post split in two opposite directions. First, on the positive side, I always appreciate a good story of where someone is proving that you can make decent coffee at a restaurant. But on the negative side, I couldn’t get over the fact that here was the #1 ranked restaurant in the world that was essentially reinventing flavors and food, and yet the most thoughtful coffee service they could come up with is serving manual pour-over coffee from a Hario V60. Something you could quite readily do at home yourself, no imagination nor creativity required.So I commented on the post, using one of my throwaway Facebook accounts that so many lame Web sites require to comment these days. (As socially loaded as it is these days to say, “I don’t own a TV”, I prefer the more modern variant, “I don’t have a legitimate Facebook account.”) In my comments, I noted how Noma’s rather pedestrian pour-over service was a bit of a let down — given everything else for which the place is known.
Sir Brian W. Jones (posting on Facebook as DCILY) and a certain Devon Nullz (a Facebook-allowed variant of /dev/null) held a brief, but civil, exchange in Facebook comments. But just before I was able to respond to Mr. Jones’ last reply, something very odd happened: all the Facebook-hosted comments on the post disappeared. Not just my and/or his comments, all the Facebook comments on the post.
Yes, the nuclear option.
Fortunately, through the magic of Google caching, I’ve exhumed the discussion here because it is blog-topic-worthy. Bonus for the chance to perhaps continue to discussion … since Dear Coffee, I Love You pretty much abruptly announced last call at 9pm and threw everyone out of the bar.
Now we know we’re talking about how low the bar is set for coffee among all great restaurants. But this is a restaurant that’s making bite-explosions of flavor with fried reindeer moss, fermented crickets, etc. Normal conceptions of food have been turned inside-out, cryogenically transformed, and re-presented as something totally new.
So when the coffee service comes, what do they offer to live up to those heights? What amazing boundaries of the culinary world do they bend to the point of breaking? We get a V60 pour-over that every wannabe third wave coffee shop has been pumping on every street corner in every coffee-aware city in the world for the past several years. Something you can essentially make yourself at home with a scale and a blog post.
Pour-over coffee in a V60 is the culinary equivalent of East-meets-West fusion cuisine from a food truck. If coffee service has to live up to the new frontiers promised by a $260/head dinner, food truck cuisine isn’t how to do that.
Yesterday at 5:23pm
And then it ended. Poof.
To Mr. Jones’ credit, perhaps he quickly realized he was dealing with a complete nut job (on the Internet? Really?!) and thus he didn’t want to continue to the discussion any further. I can’t say that I blame him. But in doing so, a legitimate point has been completely whitewashed and dismissed: we readily give restaurants a pass for their coffee when it doesn’t live up to the standards set by their food. The #1 restaurant in the world serving pour-over V60 coffee might not be as bad as Nespresso, but it is still a culinary cop-out.
And when it comes to pouring wine from bottles, Sir Brian, might I remind you that coffee service isn’t merely the act of pulling a cork. Brewing coffee quite literally is cooking.
And there’s a deliberate reason why Noma’s wine list is curated for rare and special occasion wines — and not just what can be found on the shelves of any Bilka hypermarket in Denmark. Compared to a V60 pour-over, ironically a Clover brewer suddenly seems exotic again by today’s standards. Is it too much to ask to at least syphon brew for something just a little out of the ordinary?
Now we’re not saying that Korean tacos aren’t quite tasty, because they are. But they’re really not that special. (Well, at least here in California.)
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.
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.
The 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.
If you were to read it in the current Roast magazine article (from the Jan-Feb 2012 issue), India is a coffee consumer desert. This week TIME magazine wrote about the entrance of Starbucks in the Indian market almost as if to dismiss any prior coffee consumption there. But after spending three weeks in South India’s coffee-growing state of Karnataka last month, these articles read like front-line trip reports from Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella suggesting that the New World he just discovered is “uninhabited”.
India accurately gets the label of a tea-loving nation. But South India has a coffee-happy culture that arguably rivals most of the places we’ve visited in Europe. In fact, we found far more coffee fanatics in South India than tea lovers. And when we say “fanatics”, we mean people whose eyes light up with delight when you offer the suggestion, “Coffee?”
When we reported from Northern India four years ago, much of the coffee culture was a relatively new, youthful, cosmopolitan import of the modern global café culture. South India also has ample evidence of the modern “third place.” After all this is where Café Coffee Day, India’s largest modern coffee chain, got its start in 1996.
But South India is steeped in coffee houses and coffee culture that goes back to the fading memories of Old Bangalore — from long before the British moved out, “road widening” programs blighted the city with horrendous traffic in place of groves of majestic trees, and global high tech campuses moved in. You can somewhat neatly divide South India between its old and new coffee cultures.
Starting from the lore of the seven Yemenese coffee beans introduced by Baba Budan to the hills of Chikmagalur (a region within the state of Karnataka) in 1670, India has been a coffee producing nation. But traditionally only in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. These lush, fertile states represent much of India’s agriculture and the world’s spices.
In South Indian cities, you can still find old school bean-and-leaf stores (Peet’s Coffee & Tea‘s original model, i.e. as opposed to retail coffee beverage sales) where local customers ask for coffee from their favorite Coorg farm by name. But despite this terroir-like awareness among some of South India’s older coffee fans, they typically do not buy their coffee in a whole bean format. As ground coffee, it is often purchased as “coffee powder”. And as a matter of history, economics, and/or taste preferences, coffee powder for traditional South Indian filter coffee is frequently cut with chicory.
In fact, if you were to describe the typical South Indian filter coffee preparation, it is also served with a lot of attention given to hot, manually frothed milk. New Orleans may lay claim to the chicory cafe au lait, but South India has predated that claim with a very similar traditional coffee drink by a century or more. One significant difference being that South India likes to aerate their hot milk by distributing it between metal vessels from side-to-side. Some purveyors even take this form of milk frothing to the level of theatrics, providing their customers with a version of latte art rooted more performance art than design.
This form of South Indian coffee consumption takes place in homes, offices, and in the old school restaurants typically called “hotels” that you will find throughout South India. They may be called “hotels”, but you won’t find a place to lay down — let alone private rooms. Many are vegetarian restaurants, and you’ll even find the occasional “military hotel” — which is shorthand for a diner on the cheap, typically with stand-up self service and a cafeteria-like counter for ordering. South Indians very much look forward to their coffee breaks throughout the day for both the enjoyment of the drink and to briefly discuss family, work, events, etc.
In other words, when it comes to coffee, they’re a lot like Europeans.
India is a dance in contradictions, however. Someone we met near Delhi a few years ago put it best when he told us, “everything you find to be true in India, you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.” And that includes South India’s coffee culture.
The local presses have stated, “India is low on coffee knowledge.” That is as apparent in South India as anywhere else in the country. There is a decent proliferation of modern coffee shops — including even a Caffè Pascucci in downtown Bengaluru and an Illy espressamente in its airport. However, the coffee “language” used by many of these coffee shops seemed dumbed down for a more coffee-naïve public.
For example, a very popular, local coffeehouse for the young Bengaluru professional set called Matteo Coffea outwardly brands itself as a place for consumer coffee education. However, most of this is in the form of basic historical coffee trivia and quotes you might otherwise find on a souvenir coffee mug: e.g., “Did you know that coffee was discovered by Ethiopian goat herders called kaldi?”
A non-chain place like Matteo Coffea is also a good example of the modern South Indian coffeehouse. It has all the hallmarks of a great “Third Wave” coffeehouse in the West: an outward dedication to consumer coffee education, a shiny red La Marzocco FB/70, and selective bean sourcing and roasting operations. However, the resulting espresso shots look a lot better than they taste. India is going through a lot of the motions on quality coffee, but the coffee quality itself has yet to live up to the show. Other modern coffee shops and chains in the region put a modern spin on coffee quality while still sticking to the area tradition of pre-ground coffee mixed with chicory.
High-end restaurants in the area — those guardians of gourmand tastes — seem to know enough about quality coffee to dissuade customers from ordering the traditional South Indian filter coffee, which is often made with the aforementioned “coffee powder.” It’s almost as if they are embarrassed by it. Instead they steer customers towards “black coffee,” which is barely acceptable straight espresso served in very long, but yet not diluted, pours.
And yet our experiences with traditional South Indian filter coffee there were all very positive — even if it doesn’t bow down to the gods of single origin elitism, handling attuned to maximum freshness, nor even the avoidance of milk adulteration. Perhaps the most humbling aspect was when I returned to the U.S. and tried to reproduce South Indian filter coffee at home. Using a South Indian brew pot I bought at a Bengaluru housewares store for $8 — a contraption not unlike the Neapolitan flip coffee pot — I got out my best beans, technique, and milk to ultimately produce one of the three most undrinkable cups of coffee I have ever made in my life. This is harder than it looks, folks.
Bengaluru is also home to the national Coffee Board of India, a large, multistory complex that we decided to visit on a whim. Expecting a closed-door government agency with security guards and suspicious eyes intent on keeping foreigners and trespassers out, we were surprised at how open and welcoming they were.
Showing up on their doorstep and merely expressing our love of good Indian coffee, we were directed to the offices of Dr. K. Basavaraj, who is head of the Quality Control Division. There we received an all-access tour of his lab, test batch roasters, and cupping facilities: all the trappings any Western coffee fanatic would feel right at home with.
Out at “origin,” in the coffee-growing lands of the Kodagu (aka Coorg) district of Karnataka, we visited a few coffee farms. Most were modest agricultural operations, some associated with so-called “coffee curing works” that often seemed in the general business of trading commodities. Collectively they supply the majority of India’s domestic coffee consumption — in no small part because India imposes steep tariffs on just about any imported consumable. (They impose a 100% import tariff on beer and wine, with spirits typically topping 150%.)
You could fault India for growing a lot of “cheap” robusta here — it is half the crop relative to arabica by some counts. However, India grows some of the best quality, best cared-for robusta in the world. And in typical Indian contradictory fashion, one of the more memorable modern coffeehouses we experienced in South India was a roadside hut in rural Nisargadhama, Kodagu that served, among other drinks, decorative Spanish cortados.
No matter what, there is something to be said about a coffee culture where, when you ask a restaurant or café who supplies or roasts their coffee, you invariably get the name of an individual — often with an honorary “Dr.” title — rather than the name of a business. It’s not unlike parts of Hawaii where some restaurant menus list the name of the fisherman along with the fish.
India is such a complex, diverse place it’s next to impossible to try to sum up what it is and what it isn’t, as the answer tends to be “all of the above.” We can only hope that with all the forces of modernization and globalization at play here, coffee doesn’t lose some of its cultural diversity.
Media profiles of Illycaffè‘s Andrea Illy are commonplace. But this one from today’s The Guardian (UK) is better than most: Andrea Illy: family businessman who’s raising the bar for premium coffee | Business | The Guardian.
For one, Mr. Illy talks about the importance of pricing and brand positioning. Regardless of what you think of Illy coffee, offering discount promotions and specials is incongruous with establishing it as a luxury item. You don’t lure customers with a come-on for a cheap fix; you lure them because they want to treat themselves. Discounts cheapen that image and position you for the coffee misery market.
He also notes how Illycaffè ensures that resellers of its coffee have the right equipment and are making it properly, retraining staff if necessary. While this is critical for the perceived quality of any roaster whose coffee beans are served in third-party establishments, our data suggests that Illycaffè has fallen far short of living up to these ideals — at least in the U.S.
Back in 2009 we made a comparison of our espresso scores among cafés with common machines, common roasters, or common chain brands, and we used the standard deviation of these scores as a measure of inconsistency. Illy coffee rated much more inconsistently than different Starbucks chain stores — which are notorious themselves for their very poor consistency.
Consistent with an interview four years ago, Mr. Illy finishes the article with a couple of good contrarian, somewhat incendiary quotes about Fair Trade. For one: “[Fairtrade] is about paying a higher price for the same goods. That is against the laws of supply and demand.” Another: “consumers pay more for Fairtrade because they want to feel good. It’s about solidarity not quality. Why not give to the Red Cross?”
All of which echoes many of our thoughts about the rather trendy role of “Corporate Social Responsibility” in business today, where consumers seem to prefer to outsource their charitable giving to third-party businesses rather than donate directly themselves. As we always ask: don’t tell us you’re going to donate 10% of the sales proceeds to charity. Give us that 10% off, and let us take responsibility and decide who and how much to donate with the extra savings. You’re my coffee roaster, not my Foundation.
We’ve been lamenting the sorry state of restaurant coffee in these pages since 2005. But let it be known that, as of this moment forward, we have officially given up on the possibility of ever being reliably served good coffee in American restaurants.
Sure, there have been a few successes and battles won along the way. There has even been the occasional restaurant that made us think about what’s possible. But reliably good coffee — the way you can safely expect at any restaurant in, say, Portugal — is a pipe dream. We’ve finally come to the stark realization that the war is effectively unwinnable … a lost cause. To deny this is to blindly ignore an overwhelming display of evidence.
Oddly, the bit of news that finally killed the dream for us — what finally broke the camel’s back — was a post in the New York Times about Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine five-volume encyclopedia set and Mark Prince’s review of its coffee chapter on CoffeeGeek.com. We’ll explain in a moment.
Bad restaurant coffee has been the norm long, long before many of us were even born. There are even front-page references to this topic in the San Francisco Chronicle going back to 1963. Among long-anticipated social revolutions that ain’t never gonna happen, this places reliably good restaurant coffee somewhere between professional soccer making it big in the U.S. and the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
So what about those two articles triggered such absolute futility about restaurant coffee? Both pieces were written with a kind of presumptuous expectation that quality coffee somehow deserves a place in the discussion of “modernist cuisine.” As much as we love coffee, the idea is both audacious and completely misplaced. Located in Volume 4 of the series (“Ingredients and Preparation”), the coffee chapter follows a roughly equivalent chapter on wine. And that’s where the comparisons begin to fall apart.
It is not even a question that coffee is far less relevant to cuisine than wine. Coffee may have far more aromatic and flavor components than wine, but it can never be paired to complement food the way wine can. The world is steeped with centuries-old culinary traditions of pairing local wines with the food of the region. And yet in the many centuries that coffee cultures have had to pair coffee with cuisine, to this date the combination simply does not exist the world over — despite the many failed, recent attempts to shoehorn them together. This is not by accident.
Beer pairings, for example, are far more relevant to cuisine; we received no fewer than two beer pairings as part of a recent tasting menu at Atelier Crenn. And yet there’s no beer chapter in Modernist Cuisine. The same is even true for the modern phenomenon of pairing food with different varieties of salt. Thus this leaves coffee no more relevant and integral to the science of actual cuisine than, say, tea, after-dinner cordials, or even cigars or tobacco. None of which either have chapters in Modernist Cuisine, by the way.
We can make all sorts of excuses about the coffee in restaurants — such as how the “last mile” in the serving chain for coffee is far more technical and sensitive than that for serving tea or wine. But even if you solve that last mile problem, that doesn’t change coffee’s very limited relevance to cuisine overall. And the less relevant coffee is to cuisine, the less relevant good coffee becomes to the overall restaurant experience.
This might come as a slap in the face to a number of coffee professionals who are riding a revolutionary wave in coffee consumerism. (Note that we deliberately didn’t call it a revolution in coffee.) In the past decade, some have even envisioned the role of the barista on the same pedestal that food television bestows upon celebrity chefs — or at least the expectation of rivaling the wine sommelier.
This belief is fed by a steady stream of people selling coffee technology and pitching media stories inspired by the major changes in coffee consumerism. All of which has given modern coffee a little bit of an egotistical head case — an occasional sense of entitlement to a rightful place in the pantheon of restaurant gods alongside pedestals for wine pairings, cheese courses, and dessert menus.
But baristas aren’t at all like chefs, and that’s a good thing. (If anything, they’re a bit more like line cooks.) Baristas aren’t like sommeliers either, and that’s also probably a good thing. Specialization exists in a modern society for good reason: we don’t want our mixologists making our pork belly, and we really don’t want waiters and host/esses pulling our espresso shots. And just as head chefs rely on sommeliers and pastry chefs, we honestly don’t want our chefs obsessing over our coffee service.
The SCAA conference’s “Culinary Track” is one of the better examples of how distorted the coffee industry views itself within the culinary world’s hierarchy of needs. The SCAA might partner with the Texas Restaurant Association for its annual conference in Houston at the end of this month, but it is still as if the SCAA expects Mohammad to come to the mountain — not the other way around (i.e., establishing a coffee track at a restaurateur conference, such as done at Fancy Food shows).
For each annual industry conference for tea, aperitifs, cordials, cheese, and salumi, does the SCAA expect that restaurateurs will take time out from their relentless schedules to attend a restaurateur-dedicated culinary track at each of these events? Is coffee so egotistical as to believe that it is entitled to a role more prominent than any of its sister components to an overall restaurant meal?
CoffeeGeek’s legendary Mark Prince may have gotten excited by reading Modernist Cuisine‘s slagging of restaurant coffee standards, but there is absolutely nothing modern about this phenomenon. General consumer standards for coffee may have improved over the past decade, but restaurants on this continent are forever doomed to be laggards for the reasons outlined above. It’s a pattern that has persisted for decades.
Why it has taken us this long to write off restaurant coffee as a second-class culinary citizen is a bit of a mystery. But like everyone else, it’s time to get over it. Reliably good restaurant coffee will never happen. Not in our lifetimes. And probably not ever. And the sooner we can stop pretending that coffee is some elite offshoot of the culinary arts, the better.
Let’s hear it for counter-programming. Starbucks made good on last year’s Plenta threat this week, announcing a new beverage size that targets the gluttony market, called the Trenta. As in Godzilla vs. the Trenta. Taking advantage of a news lull, Starbucks’ press onslaught has the media lapping it up. So naturally, we’re going to talk about the return of Citizen Cake.
This is the long-awaited revival of Elizabeth Falkner’s since-defunct Hayes Valley original namesake shop. Opening in November 2010 on the spot of the former Vivande Porta Via, it’s decorated with a lot of black-painted wood with red highlights. Inside there’s a bar with stool seating and a number of black wooden tables and booths for more formal dining. However, the pastries are, not surprisingly, showcased in front.
The staff here are, well, rather quirky — even by SF standards. They operate a rather restaurant-pedestrian UNIC Phoenix Twin behind the bar to pull shots of Equator Estate Coffee. We’ve long been ambivalent about Equator Estate coffees served in a retail environment; the lack of quality controls at the customer delivery end have produced an inordinate amount of underwhelming cups, given their industry regard. But in this restaurant-like environment, it’s surprisingly decent — though not great.
The resulting shots have a thinner but healthy-looking darker brown crema. It has a limited body and not much sweetness, despite its rather short two-sip serving size. With a darker, heartier herbal flavor of cloves, there is limited brightness in the shot. Served in classic brown ACF cups.
The milk frothing here is dodgy at best, and they also offer coffee in metal French presses. But at least unlike their former Citizen Cupcake location, they’re not hinging their business on the health of a record store.
Read the review of Citizen Cake.
This more informal, osteria sister to the Quince restaurant next door (its name is Italian for “quince”) offers a mighty fine, albeit still somewhat pricey, Italian meal. (The old Quince relocated to Pacific Ave. here about a year ago.)
The space showcases many wide glass windows, exposed woods (everything seems brown in here), and a wood-fired oven (with spare wood surrounding the entrance). It attracts an older, old money Jackson Square set. But to remind you of their more modest aspirations, they offer dishtowels for napkins and an unusual wine menu where everything is priced at $40/bottle.
This is a very rare restaurant where the great attention to their very good food is matched by the attention they give to their very good coffee service. They’ve always been somewhat up on their coffee; when in their old Quince location, they used Barefoot Coffee when virtually no one else was in San Francisco. Back then Quince fell apart at the barista end, but not here.
They use a two-group Synesso — one of the few you’ll ever find in restaurant service — behind a zinc bar. Cleverly, they also employ a doserless Mazzer grinder, enforcing good practices among their staff to ensure that everything is ground to order. But it’s not like they would have to, as this restaurant seems to dedicate an employee to barista duties. In fact, they seem to do this more than just about any other restaurant we’ve ever visited anywhere.
Using coffee from Roast Coffee Co. in Emeryville, they pull shots with a richly colored, mottled, medium and lighter brown crema with irregular suspended bubbles. It’s served a little high, but not overly so for a doppio. It has a good, solid mouthfeel, with a roundness to its flavor — which is more focused in the pepper and cloves area.
At $4, it’s seriously expensive. But we like to reward good restaurant espresso service too, and there’s a lot of good practices going on here. This is one of the few American places we’ve been to where the coffee doesn’t give away that you’re having it in a restaurant.
Read the review of Cotogna.
Four years ago we posted about our disappointment over high-end restaurants that offered plenty of options for tea but only one for coffee. It’s as if these celebrated houses of distinguished taste decided that coffee had all the nuance and variety of unleaded gasoline — and it showed in the product they served. And when we are buying unleaded gasoline, we at least get the typical options of regular, plus, premium, and/or ultra. So establishments known for their shotgun-wielding maître d’s and their counter displays of beef jerky actually beat out our nation’s finest restaurants in this regard.
Fast forward to today, and our finest restaurants have evolved little. However, this week we did have an experience that suggested at least some improvements are coming from retail coffeeshops. While seeking out some roasted beans at the Blue Bottle Cafe to share for pour-over this weekend, their Ethiopian Amaro Gayo caught my eye enough to purchase a half pound. Their response to my purchase request: “Washed or natural?”
Washed or natural!? What delightful music to this coffee lover’s ears. Now there will be those inevitable coffee consumers who will react to such a question with we-all-drank-Maxwell-House-in-my-day-and-that-was-good-enough-for-us uppity disdain. Not unlike the way some have made a hobby out of ranting over drink sizes named grande or venti — or being asked whether they liked a dry or wet cappuccino. But I was pleasantly surprised with the option to purchase essentially the same coffee with two different forms of processing (prior to roasting).
Which isn’t to suggest that there aren’t reasonable limits to the amount of preciousness we pour into our coffees. Reading the descriptors on Blue Bottle Coffee Web site (washed, natural), we can’t be sure whether we’re buying coffee or hallucinogens that provide us with a gateway to Total Recall. Reading the coffee’s descriptors from NY’s Gimme! Coffee (washed, sun-dried/natural) or Denver’s Novo Coffee (washed, sun-dried/natural), we get the impression that gender politics must taste better than the coffee itself.
Even with all that over-earnest prose, we’ll take the lump sum as an improvement.
We’ve previously lamented the abuse and overuse of the term “perfect,” particularly when it comes to espresso. For this, and for injecting the term into the media vernacular for anything we consume, we have justifiable grounds to send Martha Stewart back to prison. Until we again see Martha in an orange jumper, today our inboxes provided two more exhibits for state’s evidence.
The first concerns a pursuit of un cappuccino perfetto in San Francisco: The Sipping Point – The Bold Italic – San Francisco by Nicole Martinelli. The other comes from a coffee taster and sales manager for Caffè Umbria: Coffee Taster » Blog Archive » The perfect espresso: a caresse, not a punch. The latter covers some familiar themes on what’s lacking in restaurant espresso in America, so here we will instead focus on the former article.
Ms. Martinelli’s article is written from the perspective of a San Franciscan who, for a time, left to live in Milan, Italy. She thus uses Milan as her point of reference for the “perfect” cappuccino. Yet we’ve stated for years how Milan is one of the greatest espresso underachievers in Italy, and the café ratings in Gambero Rosso’s annual Bar d’Italia back us up. (The additional irony of an interista speaking to the authentic Italian cappuccino is also not lost here, given that the Inter soccer club is about as Italian as Buenos Aires’ Boca Juniors.)
So how can you stake a legitimate claim to perfection when your reference point is anything but? It’s not by accident that of the 666 active San Francisco espresso purveyors currently listed on CoffeeRatings.com, not one of them scores higher than an 8.6 on a 10-point scale. But what is interesting is the cappuccino angle, of course. Even if the comprehensiveness of the author’s quest falls about 659 entries short of ours, we’ve historically made it a point not to rate the cappuccino. We do, however, comment on their quality in the reviews, and this does influence our Taster’s Correction score. But if they can judge a cappuccino at barista competitions, there’s reason to suggest we should.
The article also cites Giorgio Milos, who recently ruffled some American feathers by suggesting the Italian way is the only way to appreciate espresso. Back to our original “perfect” denunciation, we introduced the work of Howard Moskowitz to underscore that instead of a “perfect cappuccino”, what society really wants are the “perfect cappuccinos.” OK, i cappuccini perfetti if you want to be Italian about it.
The mainstream media barely understand that qualitative differences exist between really good coffee, good coffee, and average coffee — let alone that some of the differences might be worth shelling out a few extra bucks on. CNN is one of the more recent outlets to ponder the differences: $13 coffee worth the brew-haha? – CNN.com.
Of course, this is an old story just now washing up on the remote cultural shores of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Back in 2007, we wrote about $15 cups of Hacienda la Esmeralda and even UK restaurants that sold $14 cups of Nespresso (Nespresso! You know, the same people who brought us Taster’s Choice.) By 2008, we experienced first-hand exposure to these media biases when we were interviewed for a variety of magazine articles and TV news programs. We realized then that the common theme was a need to defend better coffee — and why we should consider paying more for it.
At least the CNN piece didn’t take a typical Bay Area approach, which was more along the bizarre logical lines of, “How can you justify a $10 cup of coffee when there are starving children in the world?” Instead, CNN seemed to think the price should translate to ridiculous levels of service — underscoring how they couldn’t differentiate Thunderbird-like rot-gut from a DRC burgundy of the coffee world.
But what triggered our gag reflex when reading this story wasn’t yet another tiresome reference to kopi luwak — the gag novelty of the coffee tourist world. Instead, it was mention of Baltimore’s Jay Caragay — a good coffee guy and one of the brains behind Portafilter.net — and how he actually named a café “Spro”.
So it ain’t so, Jay. Baristas at quality coffee shops already have their hands full trying to buck the hipster doofus stereotype.