Restaurant Coffee

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Vallejo Times Herald on Moschetti Espresso

Posted by on 25 Jul 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

Today’s Vallejo Times Herald published a profile piece on Vallejo-based Moschetti Espresso: Grounds for success – Vallejo Times Herald.

Owner Fabrice Moschetti moved here from Nice, France some 20 years ago. These roots show in some of the machine lines his company distributes to Bay Area restaurants, including Monaco-based Conti and Essika.

ROAST WITH THE MOST / A new generation of Bay Area coffee roasters pushes the perfect cup to the next level

Posted by on 14 May 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

Today the SF Chronicle posted an impressively long article on the state of quality coffee roasting in the Bay Area: ROAST WITH THE MOST / A new generation of Bay Area coffee roasters pushes the perfect cup to the next level. It’s a remarkable piece, given its breadth. It lightly touches on everything from the roasting process, roasting trends, more meticulous coffee sourcing, and restaurants taking notice in better quality coffee. It also includes interviews with a good number of quality coffee luminaries in the area — and not just the usual, overexposed suspects.

On the topic of overexposure, it’s also good to see focus on advancements in the quality of the coffee — and not just an emphasis on machinery (and their escalating price tags), which has been something of a media trend of late. Equipment advances such as the Clover brewer would be amount to little more than a curiously expensive robotics grad student project if not for the improvements in coffee sourcing, roasting, and freshness.

Today’s geography lesson: Rome is not a U.S. city

As much as Coffeeratings.com was born five years ago out of frustration with the lack of quality standards and their awareness in the Bay Area specialty coffee scene, we actually take a bit of exception with some of the suggestions in the article — for example, “While the Bay Area is considered the birthplace of premium coffee, many say the quality of its coffee has lagged behind that of other U.S. cities in the past 10 or 15 years.”

In the past few years the Bay Area has arguably established itself as a national coffee leader, second only to perhaps Portland and Seattle. (And even at that, Seattle and Portland — like SF — are equally rife with median-quality coffeehouses that make poor espresso.) But go back a decade ago, and the coffee quality in the great majority of other U.S. cities was hurting far worse than SF.

Only hipster dufuses who use the word “‘spro” need apply

The article also unfortunately feeds this terrible misconception going around that better coffee can only come from a “new generation” of coffee professionals — an attitude that if you haven’t been making coffee for less than three years, you are irrelevant to good quality coffee today. Call it specialty coffee’s take on Jerry Rubin‘s “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” (It’s also one of many reasons why we ridicule the term “Third Wave.” Although the phrase’s originators coined it more to describe coffee consumption rather than coffee purveyors, today it is most commonly used to describe the latter.)

But the media will always focus on the new. And what’s old often becomes new again. (See: siphon coffee.) We read stories that suggest single origin coffees will bring about the (greatly exaggerated) death of the blend, or that lighter roasts will universally trump all those “horrible, traditional darker roasts.” But we see each of these as consumer fads that are merely highlighting the less explored dimensions of the overall coffee enjoyment experience. When the novelty of the new wears off, single origin or blend, light or dark roast, there will always be something to be enjoyed in the full variety of experiences coffee has to offer.

No longer content with mimicking McDonald’s, Starbucks now following 7-Eleven’s lead

Posted by on 13 May 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Starbucks Coffee has spent the last decade squandering away whatever market leadership they had in the world of quality coffee, and it’s no secret that they are now trying to regain some of these losses. But to do so in recent months, Starbucks has bizarrely looked to McDonald’s for inspiration: introducing $1 “daily coffee”, free refills, and their Pike Place Blend (the latter of which has become a source of disingenuous product marketing).

But even if you can forgive them for that McMisstep towards regaining some coffee leadership, turning to the likes of 7-Eleven and their fortified coffee drinks is even more bewildering: Energy Examiner – Starbucks to increase their caffeine content in coffee shops – Examiner.com (also, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Starbucks hopes new drinks can lift profits).

Yes, Starbucks’ desperation has now led them to co-opting 7-Eleven’s coffee strategy, which is about the lowest common coffee denominator you can get. Starting this week, Starbucks has begun selling “+Energy as a special ingredient in their coffee drinks,” which includes “extra B-vitamins, guarana and ginseng” — all things 7-Eleven promoted in their Fusion Energy Coffee over a year ago. By stooping to “healthy coffee” pandering pioneered by the “sophisticated” Super Big Gulp® purveyor, Starbucks is only further debasing their brand as just another commodity. Can Starbucks-branded Slim Jims be far behind?

UPDATE: June 2, 2008
It’s not often we’re inspired to link to citations in GQ Magazine, but this rant on Starbucks’ current sad state is an absolute winner: OPEN LETTER – Dear Starbucks – GQ Articles, Fashion Features, and Pics on men.style.com. We particularly liked, “When we’re in the mood for a twenty-four-ounce cup of pumpkin-pie-flavored Cool Whip… Here’s the thing, though: We’re never, ever in that mood.”

Have we really just been in search of an espresso ‘solution’?

Posted by on 04 May 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Last week, the Contra Costa Times published an article announcing the Bay Area arrival of McDonald’s specialty coffee drinks: McDonald’s new coffee drinks ignite breakfast wars – ContraCostaTimes.com. Of course, none of this info is really new, so we’re a bit perplexed over how someone can “ignite” something with a two-year-long fuse. But the article cites some local coffee lovers who didn’t find McDonald’s specialty coffee drinks up to the task.

Is anyone surprised? We already have the McDonald’s of specialty coffee: it’s called Starbucks.

The article also highlighted one of the more ridiculous aspects of the consumer marketing industry: the art of packaging everything as a “solution”. Quoting Matthew Ramerman, principal of HL2, a Seattle-based advertising agency that focuses on restaurant chains: “Consumers have been saying ‘I’m looking for a breakfast solution.’” Huh?!

Perhaps CoffeeRatings.com has missed this all along: all we’re really looking for is an espresso solution. It reminds me of an old joke I used to tell my marketing friends: “It’s not a chair, it’s a seating solution.”

The reporter also interviewed Michaele Weissman, author of a forthcoming book called God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee. Which, curiously enough, sounds a lot like like last month’s release of Instaurator’s The Espresso Quest, proving just how difficult it is to come up with an original idea.

We received our copy of The Espresso Quest in the mail from Australia a couple weeks back and are still well behind posting a book review here any time soon. But stay tuned… Miracles can happen.

Hawaii (Big Island) Coffee & Espresso

Posted by on 26 Apr 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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.

Scenery around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park The Halema'uma'u Crater, inside Kilauea Crater

Hawaii's Pu'u O'o Crater - hold your breath Lava meets the sea above Hawaii by helicopter

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.)

Hawaiian lava flows from a helicopter - note the trees for scale The expanse of South Big Island

Where the Coffee Grows on Trees

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.

Coffee trees in bloom on Greenwell Farms Fike Farms coffee estate

On Kona's Greenwell Farms Name your Greenwell Farms poison...

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.

Coffee trees on Greenwell Farms Coffee cherries collected at Greenwell Farms

Coffee cherry pulp from wet processing Coffee undergoing sun drying at Greenwell Farms

Where Espresso Best Comes from Overseas

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.

French press Kona coffee menu at Merriman's in Waimea Merriman's in Waimea puts their Kona coffee selections on display

French press Kona coffee menu at Alan Wong's Hualalai Grille at the Four Seasons resort What's Hawaii without luaus and Samoan fire dancing?

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”.

We conclude with a sampling of a few Big Island espresso ratings:

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

Hawaii's Waipi'o Valley Hawaiian sunset

Percolator Love: Or, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Posted by on 16 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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.

Wanted for crimes against coffee: the GE percolator

Coffee Education at the Culinary Institute of America

Posted by on 20 Feb 2008 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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.)

7-Eleven Promotes Fresh-Brewed Coffee

Posted by on 07 Feb 2008 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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.

Oh thank heaven for 7-Eleven recognizing that their coffee needs help

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.

Favorite Bay Area monument: what we've long called, 'Father Serra holds up a 7-Eleven'

What’s New: Restaurants brewing up gourmet blends

Posted by on 18 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Restaurant Coffee

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.

McDonald’s coffee bars to take on Starbucks

Posted by on 07 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

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?”

'Pssst! Hey kid! Wanna McLatte? The first one is free.'

UPDATE: 4:15pm PST
Now that Jim Donald got the axe as Starbucks CEO, with chairman Howard Schultz to replace him, this just got more interesting: Starbucks Founder Returns as Chief – New York Times. Starbucks shareholders are pinning their hopes that Schultz is the coffee industry’s equivalent to Steve Jobs.

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.

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