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Archived Posts from this Category
Before we start reviewing the espresso in India, it’s about time we wrap things up on our recent coffee excursion to Hawaii’s Big Island. Hawaii is the only coffee-growing state of the Union (as they say: sorry, Puerto Rico is a territory), which makes it a uniquely American place to both sample the local espresso and visit coffee farms. Hawaii also gives us the opportunity to bore you with vacation photos, which we will spread liberally throughout this post.
The last time we were on the Big Island, Hurricane Katrina was unfolding its tragedy around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. While it made for riveting television news drama, things back in the mainland U.S. seem so far away from here that it might as well have been on the moon.
But what also gives you a sense of being on the moon are some of the locals. Besides the Polynesian and European immigrants to the area from hundreds of years ago, and besides the throngs of ankle-free tourists from the mainland, Hawaii seems to have attracted residents in the past few decades of some of the more…unusual mainland castoffs. Many haole Hawaiian residents look like contestants (refugees?) from 1970s game shows like “Matchgame ’75” or “Password” who fled the set and used their meager winnings as down payments on run-down Hawaiian condos. (You can recognize them by their leathery, over-tanned, sea-turtle-like skin — sporting hairstyles not seen since the original “Brady Bunch” filmed on these islands.)
Hawaii may be famous for its Kona estate coffees, but the much wetter, eastern side of the Big Island is also home to many fertile, less famous coffee farms that grow Puna, Ku’a, and Hamakua estate coffees (read our post on the Hilo Coffee Mill). What’s interesting is to contrast the differences terroir brings to the coffee, and the Big Island has enough variations in terroir to make you feel you’re on a Hawaiian beach, on a cattle ranch in Montana Big Sky country, in an Australian Eucalyptus forest, in a tropical rain forest, or on Himalayan foothills — all within an hour’s drive of each other.
Visiting a couple of Kona coffee farms in March (Greenwell Farms and Fike Farms Coffee), the coffee trees were just starting to bloom between seasons. But you still can tour the washing, drying, processing, and production facilities as harvested cherries are brought in as imports. At farms set up for the coffee tourists, such as Greenwell Farms, you can sample many variations of the local product.
The Big Island has a lot to rightfully be proud of in their local coffee. Sure, some critics will say that they grow a great product but not for the expense. But sustainable coffee growing with sustainable wages by the local cost of living standard doesn’t come at a discount.
The ubiquitous espresso beverage bug has not passed over these islands. Unfortunately, the local pride in Hawaiian beans has lead to many cafés serving Hawaiian-only espresso blends. This is like visiting Italy or Australia for their French press coffee — the reverse side of the argument we made against a singular approach of coffee appreciation through the Clover brewer.
Here’s where we like to break from theme: the best espresso in the area is typically made with anything but Hawaiian beans, such as the espresso at the Hilo Coffee Mill. (Similarly, I may have had Don Ho and Polynesian drum songs on my mp3 player, but I inevitably listened most to the ear-damaging sounds of “Luau” by Drive Like Jehu.)
But sampling some of the local stuff in a French press can be sublime. Many of the better Big Island restaurants offer a coffee menu featuring Kona beans from various local estates. A French press of Harens Old Tree Estate at Merriman’s, for example, was one of the best coffee experience I’ve ever had. Soon afterwards I had memorized the Hawaiian phrase, “E ‘olu’olu ‘oe, makemake au i ka kope“, or “Please, I’d like some coffee”.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Café Pesto||308 Kamehameha Ave.||Hilo, HI||4.70||6.20||5.450|
|Hilo Coffee Mill||17-995 Volcano Hwy.||Mountain View, HI||7.50||7.80||7.650|
|Island Lava Java||75-5799 Ali’i Dr, Suite A1||Kailua-Kona, HI||6.90||7.00||6.950|
|Waimea Coffee Company||65-1279 Kawaihae Rd. #114||Kamuela, HI||6.90||7.80||7.350|
Having a wife who runs her own private supper club (for which I am the front-of-the-house/”beverage guy”), I’ve been known to occasionally read the goings-on in the food world. This week, my wife introduced me to a post from a renowned food writer, Michael Ruhlman, who recently wrote about the virtues of percolator coffee: ruhlman.com: Percolator Love. It’s the thinking behind posts such as Mr. Ruhlman’s that are contributing to the Philistine state of coffee in American restaurants.
Mr. Ruhlman has made a culinary career out of “writing about food and the work of professional cooking,” including co-authoring The French Laundry Cookbook with Thomas Keller (himself representative of the odd food savant/coffee idiot phenomenon) and authoring The Making of a Chef, a narrative about life in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). (The CIA thankfully just announced a new coffee program to help dispel coffee quality ignorance among so many budding star chefs.) Combine this with a call this afternoon from Josh Sens, of San Francisco magazine — who asked for clarification on the issues with percolator coffee for his article deadline looming tomorrow — and the subject of percolator coffee seems worth a mention.
Mr. Ruhlman’s post laments the demise of the percolator, a 1940s and 1950s staple which fell out of favor once the prototype Mr. Coffee machine and the ensuing family of filter drip coffee machines rose to prominence in the 1970s. So why was the percolator brushed aside so abruptly? It wasn’t a manufacturing conspiracy — percolators were one of the greatest atrocities modern man ever committed upon good coffee. Coffee is cooking. It’s about using the right temperature, time, and pressure to extract the right flavors from the beans and to leave the nasty stuff behind.
And based on these merits, using a percolator on coffee is akin to baking a cake with a blow dryer. It’s surgery with a shovel. Take ground coffee; scald it with boiling water unevenly sprayed on some exposed grounds and not the rest; guess when the heating element kills itself off; hope for the best; serves 12.
Nostalgia makes some people long for the flavors and smells of their youth, but it also gets Communist Party members re-elected in Russia and sends divorcées back to bad marriages. While most home filter drip coffee machines even today suffer from temperature control problems (their #1 deficiency), they are still largely a step up from our culinary Dark Ages that were characterized by Potato Buds, instant Tang, instant coffee, and percolators.
Promising news for anyone who takes the gamble of ordering prepared coffee in restaurants: the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) has recently announced a partnership with Durham, NC’s Counter Culture Coffee to develop a coffee curriculum: newsobserver.com | Coffee partnership forms. (Press release from last week.)
Unlike the closer-to-home CCA (California Culinary Academy) — which has made overtures to become the “Draw Tippy the Turtle” of cooking schools by reportedly whoring itself out to every Food TV watcher/wannabe chef with a checking account — the CIA is held in the highest esteem among America’s top culinary pros. We still feel that many notable chefs suffer a kind of hubris: that demonstrating a mastery in cuisine naturally confers an equivalent expertise with anything put into your mouth (i.e., coffee — let’s keep it clean here, folks!). The fact that the CIA is giving it serious treatment is a real step forward given how far coffee quality standards at restaurants have to improve.
Now we’ve expressed our ambivalence over some of Counter Culture’s Fair-Trade-club-to-the-head marketing, even if their heart is in the right place. (And the next simpleton who says that an argument against Fair Trade is an argument for poverty should be clubbed in the head.) We have even questioned their habit of shoehorning “coffee cupping” into some perverse wine-tasting proxy; even Peet’s has the sense to offer “Comparative Tastings” instead. But by all accounts, they sure do know their beans. Unfortunately they didn’t exist when I lived in Durham briefly back in 1991. (Time to hit my Linden Terrace crew up on my ghettro for a kilo, yo.)
This morning we came across an article in Convenience Store Decisions (how often have you heard that in a sentence?). The convenience store chain, 7-Eleven, has launched a new, multi-million-dollar marketing blitz this month, emphasizing the “guaranteed freshness” of their coffee: Convenience Store Decisions – 7-Eleven Promotes Fresh-Brewed Coffee.
Before reading this article/press release, we weren’t entirely sure who to blame for inventing “to-go” coffee. Second only to perhaps the percolator as the worst atrocity committed upon coffee quality in the past 50 years, 7-Eleven proudly claims the invention of to-go coffee some 40 years ago. In the process, they helped proliferate the dreadful paper coffee cup and turned the coffee-drinking ritual into something akin to a water stop in a long-distance race. (Shouldn’t we just be dumping disposable cups of hot coffee on our heads to wake up in the morning?) 7-Eleven also gave us the Super Big Gulp® — which epitomizes the “bigger is always better” cultural mentality that has helped make us obese and tolerant of extra-long, over-extracted bitter espresso shots.
However, 7-Eleven’s coffee freshness campaign at least raises public awareness of a major problem with retail brewed coffee. It may not be the one-minute-old, custom brew from a Clover machine. But then who is going for a cup of Guatemala Cup of Excellence San Jose Ocana to go with their 40-oz Miller High Life, a package of Slim Jims, and a SuperLotto Plus ticket?
Using taglines such as “Our coffee’s fresher than your average Joe” and “Guaranteed fresh or we’ll brew it new,” 7-Eleven says they plan to educate coffee drinkers about the chain’s commitment to quality. Sound like something new? Well, check out this 7-Eleven TV commercial from 1980:
Nothing says “fresh coffee” like Bunn warmers.
But wait until coffee drinkers ask about the freshness of the roast. We all know that pot sitting on the burner is a recipe for bitter taste bud death, but what about roasted coffee that has been oxidizing for weeks, leeching its flavor out into thin air as it sits in inventory? Or the residue of stale coffee oils imparted by brewing equipment that has been either poorly maintained or infrequently cleaned? Going down that freshness path can be a double-edged sword if you plan on only going part way.
Earlier this week, the SF Chronicle ran a piece on the escalating coffee wars among area restaurants: What’s New: Restaurants brewing up gourmet blends. With the likes of the SJ Mercury News running front-page stories this week on the coffee war between McDonald’s and Starbucks, hopefully places that sell $18 hamburgers might try to outdo the quality of the coffee sold with $3 Big Macs®. (Though is it really front page “news” if the story is as old as 2006?)
The article cited a growing use of Blue Bottle coffee, which is now served in some 40 area restaurants. Even the French Laundry got a mention for their short-lived Panama Esmeralda coffee program, which was apparently 90% press release and 10% actual product.
But the article also made a regrettable mention of coffee’s greatest and most expensive novelty gag, kopi luwak, at Silks restaurant at the Mandarin Hotel. Kopi luwak is regularly cited in the media and on blogs as a premiere choice among “coffee connoisseurs” — and yet oddly we have not encountered a single one of these people in our lifetimes. That the reporter, Tara Duggan, attributed the digestive processing of this bean to lizards rather than a mammal, the Indonesian civet, we are not at all surprised.
Overall, this story is good news for restaurant coffee. But, as Blue Bottle’s James Freeman suggests at the end of the article, this may not be any better news for restaurant espresso. Hey — if it has to come out of the digestive system of a Salvadoran dishwasher named Alejandro, we’re all for it if it makes a better restaurant espresso.
One of the worst-kept secrets of the past few years is that McDonald’s has been trying to get into the espresso business. Today, news services such as Reuters and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that McDonald’s plans to launch coffee bars with the new employee position of “barista”: McDonald’s coffee bars to take on Starbucks: report | Reuters.
Undoubtedly, McDonald’s will hire or convert thousands minimum wage employees who couldn’t tell a robusta from a McSkillet, give them about two hours of training, and place them behind boxy, push-button, superautomated espresso machines producing paper cups full of a rather watered-down, ashy brew that barely resembles espresso. In turn, some of them will then master the art of “dishwater” milk frothing and graduate to making cappuccinos and lattes. In other words, McDonald’s is going to follow in Starbucks‘ footsteps.
Well, more power to the clown. Even if we still think McDonald’s is misguided in trying to refashion Ronald into a Happy-Meal-peddling pusher of lowest common denominator espresso. Starbucks, who in the past has verbally invited the McDonald’s challenge, will now truly discover how far their espresso quality — and ability to differentiate their product — has fallen after years of massive tradeoffs made to support their insanely ambitious expansion plans. Maybe not enough to shake off Starbucks’ most loyal customers, but enough to keep them bleeding. (Though if McDonald’s adds Wi-Fi at their Playlands, who knows?)
The downside is that we’re not looking forward to having to sample a few of McDonald’s offerings — the sacrifice required for the sake of research and completeness of our database of comparative espresso reviews. Well, that and paper-hatted employees with bad acne telling us in their pubescent cracking voices, “Would you like four pumps of vanilla and caramel syrup with that?”
Now just because their national holiday ad campaign has ended, don’t think that Starbucks has given up their Pass The Cheer spirit. They will Pay It Forward on Mr. Donald’s golden parachute for some time to come.
Power to the espressophiles in New Zealand. A story in today’s news from New Zealand supports our longtime lament that cups really do matter when it comes to coffee quality: Burger King burned over coffee advertisement – New Zealand, world, sport, business & entertainment news on Stuff.co.nz.
A New Zealand consumer, B Hay, recently complained that advertising posters within (and company brochures from) New Zealand’s various Burger King outlets prominently featured their offering of “Illy Branded Coffee” — picturing the coffee in an Illy-branded porcelain cup and saucer. Mr. Hay noted that the coffee ordered was served in a “horrible” paper cup, and thus the advertisements were misleading. Burger King claimed that the coffee was only available in paper cups and that they were required to use the image of the demitasse under an Illy licensing agreement.
Mr. Hay was clearly being a pain in the ass about issue. However, the New Zealand Complaints Board upheld Mr. Hay’s complaint, saying that “the serving vessel was an integral part of the enjoyment of certain beverages such as coffee, wine and tea, and drinking any of these from a paper or plastic vessel would be likely to diminish the experience considerably.” The Complaints Board thus found Burger King “in breach of Rule 2 of the Code of Ethics, relating to truthful presentation.”
To which CoffeeRatings.com can only reply, “My (burger) kingdom for an adult cup!”
This installment of our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series comes from the very small town of Pollenzo, practically in the middle of nowhere. At least geographically speaking. But on the food map of Italy, this place is one of the country’s brightest stars.
One of the reasons is that it is home to the the Slow Food-affiliated Università di Scienze Gastronomiche — the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the first of its kind in the world. Another reason is that it hosts a restaurant, Guido Ristorante Pollenzo, that served the best meal we had in this most over-the-top of food adventure travels we’ve ever been on.
It’s here on these vast castle grounds that we met Piero Alciati, who, along with his brother Ugo, established this destination restaurant in homage to the cooking of their mother, Mama Lidia Vanzino Alciati — a living legend in Piemonte cuisine (who, along with her husband Guido, opened the original Guido da Costigliole restaurant in the small Piemontese town of Costiglole d’Asti in 1961). The restaurant is rightfully known for its quite outrageously good food — much of it modern interpretations of Lidia’s classic Piemontese recipes.
Piero is an outstanding host at the front of the house while Ugo spends most of his time in the kitchen. Talking with Piero, you really sense his all-consuming passion for good food and wine.
In Piemonte we met master chefs who will take your reservation, unlock the door to let you in (it’s quite common to arrive at restaurants in Piemonte with locked doors, needing to ring the doorbell to be allowed in), take your order, recommend wines from their personal favorite vineyards, and cook your meal. But in Piero, we received a formal invitation to visit his massive fine food project at Torino’s Eataly — complete with a business card with his mobile phone number, an arranged tour, and a comped lunch there. And he didn’t know us from anyone. But we’ll save more on Eataly for a future Trip Report.
(Another observation about Piemonte restaurants: the dinner crowd fills in around 8:30pm-9pm, and that’s it. Whoever dines there rents the table for the night — there is no such thing as “turning tables” as there is in the U.S.)
So what’s with all the food talk? This is a coffee site, right?! Of course. But it’s important to understand the context in which an appreciation for great espresso comes. A good espresso is expected as an accompaniment to a great Italian meal. So consider this a representative tribute to the espresso standards of a fine Italian restaurant — unlike America’s finest restaurants, which require public shaming in lieu of doing the right thing. By showing us what is clearly possible, places like Guido further expose the excuseless farce that is espresso at American restaurants.
Did we mention that the setting is exquisite? The food here is equally so, and the espresso is no major let down either. (We hope you’re reading this, Thomas Keller.) Using a three-group Faema in the back kitchen, they pull espresso shots with a coagulated but thinner medium brown crema. It has a splotchy consistency with some of the espresso surface exposed — a definite flaw for most Italian establishments. But the shot is the perfect size, and they use roasts from the quite excellent (and quite obscure, outside of the gourmands in the area) Caffè Mokabar in Torino. The resulting cup is potent and has a flavor that’s mostly herbal (thyme, etc.).
While there are deficiencies, it’s still a solid restaurant espresso. It would rank among SF’s top 7%, sharing that honor with only three other restaurants currently. Piero and company may not be gunning for the best restaurant espresso in Italy, but they have standards to uphold. And at only €2, it doesn’t even come with an obscene mark-up.
In our Portugal travels last year, restaurant espresso was generally as good as anything in a café, and few of the residents held a consensus opinion on where to find the best examples. Here in Piemonte, while restaurant espresso was consistently good, it was the select few cafés in town that had the best espresso — and the locals generally knew it.
Read the review of Guido Ristorante Pollenzo.
The post title is the question of the day. If I may paraphrase an old quote from a previous post — where we asked, “How does the fool who knows nothing about wine impress his guests?” — the answer is: by buying the most expensive coffee they can find — along with a good story to tell about it.
Case and point with American wünderchef, Thomas Keller. In a press release this month: Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Per Se establish one-of-a-kind coffee program [56kb, MS Word doc]. Yes, the man behind America’s most esteemed of restaurants — including Yountville’s The French Laundry and New York’s Per Se — has proudly announced to his customers that his restaurants will now offer Panama Esmeralda Geisha coffee roasted by the consistently underwhelming Equator Estate Coffees.
But how can you knock that? After all, at least they’re not pushing kopi luwak, right? Problem is that the coffee service at The French Laundry is well, uh, severely lacking compared to the otherwise lofty dining expectations and l’addition. (For example, their espresso scored lower than the Starbucks at SFO.) So rather than get educated, train staff, and elevate the craft (if not also chuck their superautomatic Schaerer espresso machine for something less suited for an assembly line), they take the lazy short cut of espousing the merits of “the most expensive coffee in the world” on their menus.
And to drill the point home that they have the whole coffee-as-wine thing confused, here’s a direct quote from their press release — from their master sommelier, a man who sounds like he clearly knows the difference between his Malabars and his Harars:
Paul Roberts, Master Sommelier and the Wine and Beverage Director for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group notes, “We’re delighted to have the opportunity to bring our guests such a rare and extraordinary coffee as the Panama Esmeralda Geisha. The coffee is a truly a gold standard, and a wonderful compliment to our fall menu offerings.”
Thomas Keller’s restaurants don’t have to brew the best cup in the world. But if they’re going to promote an image of coffee connoisseur savvy to match their prowess with food, they should at least have invested more time and thought into it than they spend on boiling an egg.
I can buy some Geisha at the Peet’s Coffee around the block from where I work; I don’t need a restaurant to do that for me, charge me $210 for the privilege, and then act as if they just made me a 1959 Château Margaux with their bare feet. I’m respecting Coi Restaurant more and more for gracefully not pretending to be something they’re not.
In the article, she recounts Mr. Roberts’ use of descriptive adjectives and his telling of the story behind the coffee’s/estate’s history — which curiously looks like a verbatim recitation of what was once posted on the Peet’s Coffee Web site. (The Web page has since been taken down as their supplies ran out.) What remains to be seen is if Mr. Roberts and/or Mr. Keller are capable of demonstrating any knowledge of good coffee beyond the most overhyped coffee in years, let alone the Peet’s Web site.
An article in yesterday’s Dublin Independent perhaps thought it was exalting the Nespresso espresso. However, it did more to underscore how clueless high-end restaurants are when it comes to espresso quality: The cult of Nespresso – Food & Drink, Lifestyle – Independent.ie. Pre-ground coffee that has aged for weeks in plastic pods since the second crack of roasting, idiot-proof brewing systems run by barista idiots, packaged coffee “flavors” such as “ristretto” or “cosi” (as in “sto così così”, or “I’m feeling so-so, but it’s better than when Mussolini was dictator”) — that’s the hallmark of quality in a £7 ($14) cup at heralded UK restaurants such as Fat Duck and Sketch.Forget the Fair Trade controversies in the article for a moment. Despite the clean and convenient system, the Nespresso espresso tastes very bland and comes with a thin, monochromatic crema and a body just this side of tea. But as long as the designators of good restaurant food taste believe their superpowers naturally extend to coffee service as well as amuses bouche, restaurant patrons are doomed to bland, underwhelming coffee at exorbitant prices. It’s surprising they haven’t hired sommeliers who choose the finest boxed wine selections to go with their $400 prix fixe meals.
Oddly enough, this was one of the things I appreciated about Coi restaurant in SF. I took my wife there for her birthday last week, and they didn’t even bother with espresso service. Instead, they served Blue Bottle Coffee in individual French presses — that’s it. They scored points for acknowledging what they didn’t know and couldn’t do well, instead of merely pretending that they did (and failing miserably) like so many other high-end restaurants.