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Trip Report: Plein Air Café & Eatery (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 21 Apr 2015 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This café is located in the middle of the University of Chicago campus in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Its next door neighbor is the historic Frederick C. Robie House — designed by famed area architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and influential enough to inspire a $371 Lego kit you can still buy off Amazon.com. Just two blocks down in the opposite direction is a monument to the world’s first nuclear reactor, assembled under Enrico Fermi’s supervision as part of the Manhattan Project.

With a neighborhood pedigree like that, you expect decent coffee. (Even with the frequency of nearby shootings in the surrounding area.) Fortunately this place largely delivers.

University of Chicago campus neaby Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy sculpture marks the spot of the first nuclear chain reaction

Entrance to the Plein Air Café building, shared with the CoOp bookstore Signage for the interior entrance to the Plein Air Café

Sharing a building with the campus Seminary CoOp Bookstore, owner Soo Choi conceived of this café in 2012 as “a French atelier-inspired café and eatery seeking to provide a warm, serene environment where guests can savor coffee, food, and design.” It did not open until March 2014, snagging on permits, chef churn, and other delays.

The wait seems worth it, as it’s been rather packed ever since. For a campus café, and perhaps reflecting the well-heeled and intellectual UChicago demographic, it is often crowded with a mix of UChicago grad students, faculty and staff, and educational tourists (they do have a few good museums on UChicago campus).

Inside they offer several café tables, a couple of long shared tables, and a series of stools at a long window counter. Outdoor patio seating facing the Robie House also exists among wooden benches and tables when weather permits. They serve salads, soups, and baguette sandwiches along with coffee service from a pick-up window. Complimentary taps of cold, sparkling and still water you can pull in jelly jars.

Inside the Plein Air Café Odd table art inside the Plein Air Café

Ordering at the Plein Air Café service window Windows and outdoor seating at the Plein Air Café overlooks the Robie House

Pastries on display at the Plein Air Café Metric Coffee for retail sale at Plein Air Café

As for the coffee service, they are one of the few retail locations serving Metric Coffee. Metric Coffee has received plenty of accolades and a dump truck load of buzz since its 2013 inception. At a San Francisco ceremony in January, they received a Good Food Award for their Kenya Kayu coffee. (Just don’t get us started on coffee being classified as “food” given that heroin better fits the dictionary definition.)

In the cramped space behind the service window glass (showing off the latest pastries), they operate a two-group La Marzocco GB/5. They sell Metric Coffee beans for retail sale at the counter and use their Quantum Espresso to pull shots served properly short with a congealed, medium brown crema with darker brown spots. The shot is full-bodied, potent, and has an acid bite in the long finish over some herbal and molasses flavor notes. Served in a mismatch of ITI China saucers and decorative Front of the House demitasses with a thumb grip at the top.

Is Metric Coffee magically delicious? I’m not sure I’d go chasing a leprechaun for it, but it’s up there.

The milk-frothing here shows good texture, and they do a decent pass at latte art. However, they are heavy-handed with the milk ratio on their cappuccino (served in Vertex mugs). Stick with the double shots. In fact, a lot of quality Chicago coffee shops seem to drown their standard cappuccino in milk, so that’s wise advice anywhere in town.

The Plein Air Café's workhorse: a La Marzocco GB/5 Pick-up counter at the Plein Air Café

The Plein Air Café espresso The Plein Air Café cappuccino

Trip Report: Showplace Caffè (SOMA)

Posted by on 07 Apr 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

It’s hard to say why I like this place as much as I do, but I do. Though it’s just not the espresso.

Opening in late 2010, this place is pretty much a dive in a part of no-mans-land SF. But it melds with the neighborhood and transports you to another place — if that place is a location shoot from a Quentin Tarrantino movie. Don’t ask why I’m into that sort of thing, though I like expecting to run into Tim Roth. But suffice to say, it’s a tiny, corner spot planted in a neighborhood full of auto repair shops and industrial garages.

Showplace Caffè from the corner Showplace Caffè from the front sidewalk

Inside Showplace Caffè looking out Looking out the windows at Showplace Caffè

Ryan, a former Blue Bottle Coffee employee in a previous life, is typically the lone staffer operating this place. And even he can occasionally disappear outside for smoke breaks. Lines are short and it’s kind of a locals-only thing.

Outside, there are two beat-up outdoor tables on the front sidewalk. Inside, there’s one table for seating at the corner windows. To the rear corner there’s something of a mini-lounge consisting of a couch, a turntable, books, and art magazines. (Oddly, on first visit they were playing a vinyl LP of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street just as I had heard at nearby Sightglass the day before.)

At the plywood counter, they have a two-group La Marzocco Linea. But they also sport a red, 1-lb Sonofresco roaster and beans currently from Sweet Maria’s.

Ryan working the La Marzocco at the counter at Showplace Caffè - with coffee menu posted behind Showplace Caffè's Sonofresco roaster

Tiny but sweet digs inside the tiny Showplace Caffè Working auto garage behind Showplace Caffè

While they currently offer De La Paz coffee for drinks and retail sale (and formerly did the same for Sightglass), they ultimately plan to roast their own from Sweet Maria’s Coffee Shrub commercial sister.

Sometimes you can catch them running experiments with their batch roaster, playing with how to extend typical roast profiles. Their ideal roast is an expressive light roast as they’ve experienced from Seattle’s Slate roasters — where in spite of the lightness they can still somehow extract dark chocolate and other notes characteristic of darker roasts.

A decaying Earl Scheib sign marks that you're near...They’re also big fans of dry-processed coffees, their bright and fruity flavors, and the dangerous high-wire act needed when processing these coffees. (They find the washed-coffee-only types in the industry to be a little limiting… if not irritating.) Lest we forget that Illy — about as quality-control-obsessed as they come — makes their flagship blend from a standard nine coffees, four of which are always naturals.

For now Showplace serves espresso using the Peel Sessions blend (two Africans) as a full double shot with an attractive tiger-striped crema. It’s a larger shot with slightly lighter body. It has a reserved brightness and decent flavor balance of spices, mostly herbal pungency, and some edges of caramel sweetness. Milk-frothing here is pretty solid, producing velvety textures and rosetta latte art. Served in black Espresso Parts cups.

Come to Sightglass for the scene and variety, but come here when you want great espresso and a whole other experience. Highly recommended if you’re ever doing jury duty at the SF Glamour Slammer (as I was recently).

Read the review of Showplace Caffè in SF’s SOMA district.

The Showplace Caffè espresso The Showplace Caffè cappucino

Trip Report: Ritual Coffee Roasters Redux (Mission District)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2015 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.

This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.

A new parklet under construction outside the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership Inside the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.

But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.

Art and benches at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Wall o' merch at the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)

A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.

When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.

Service counter looking towards the rear of the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters Succulent garden at the rear of the remodeled Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters

One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.

They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.

The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.

The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters looking to the entrance from the rear 3 Fish Studios/Eric Rewitzer art design on the walls while you wait for your Ritual Coffee order

Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.

Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.

Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.

Read the updated review on Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission.

Synesso machines and Mazzer grinders at the Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters service counter The Valencia St. Ritual Coffee Roasters espresso

Trip Report: Mountain Grounds (Martinez, CA)

Posted by on 17 Feb 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

As we mentioned in our last review of a remote Martinez, CA coffee house: good coffee is everywhere. In fact, the modern boom in good coffee purveyors is akin to the boom of mom & pop video rental stores in the 1980s and ’90s. And as some of these small businesses grow a little larger to form local chains, they’ve become a little like the current surge in home solar installation businesses. The local demand is there and the barriers to entry are generally low.

While the ubiquity of good coffee has its obvious benefits for coffee lovers, it also raises the spectre of market saturation and business sustainability. As good coffee houses open everywhere, they’re no longer rare nor special.

Strip mall entrance to Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA Inside Mountain Grounds with its Nuova Simonelli and 3rd Wave menu on the rear wall

Earlier this month, in response to news of Verve Coffee Roasters planning to open a future location in SF’s Castro District, SFist asked a newly valid question: “Hasn’t the Castro reached Peak Coffee”?

SFist is probably being a little alarmist before we have to worry about carpet-bombing-levels of good coffee in the neighborhood. Verve would have something a little different to say than the others already there, but the nagging old question of espresso sameness comes up. I would be particularly concerned if someone was planning to open yet another coffee shop serving Blue Bottle from La Marzocco machines just like the seven others within a three-block radius.

But in such a saturated environment, discovering a new coffee house with something a little different to offer can be a draw. Sometimes you have to go as far out as Martinez to find something that unique.

Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli machine and some of its roasted coffee menu above Pour-over brewing set up with a Chemex aside of Mountain Grounds Nuova Simonelli

Mountain Grounds + Revel Coffee = Something Different

Opening in the latter half of 2013, Mountain Grounds is in the middle of nowhere but is unique enough, and has high enough quality standards, to make it well worth a visit. If nothing else for the uniqueness of its coffee sourcing.

Located in a Martinez strip mall of four stores (what else are you going to find outside of old downtown Martinez?), it’s a tight space inside with window counter seating in front and hardly a few seats next to the service counter. Outside there are a few café tables along the sidewalk under the strip mall porticos — along with a couple of lounging chairs and a heat lamp.

Mountain Grounds resells Revel Coffee Roasting beans in plastic cupsOwner John Cassidy and his wife, Danielle, gregariously operate this shop. One of John’s longtime friends is Gary Theisen of Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings, Montana. Revel ships in the coffee from Montana every Monday. (The shop’s working business phone number also betrays John’s Montana roots.)

Mountain Grounds follows some creative small-town practices, such as accepting orders via SMS text in advance. (Easier to handle with low volumes.) They also offer a variety of specialty coffee drinks, including crème brûlée lattes (set aflame before being served for the crispy top) and the S’more. At one side of the cramped shop is a menu on the wall titled “A Taste of 3rd Wave Coffee Shops”, which features a double ristretto, a 1 ‘N 1, a macchiato, a cortado, a cappuccino, and a con panna.

The Mountain Grounds espressoThey pull espresso shots from a newer two-group Nuova Simonelli with a modest layer of even, medium brown crema with good coagulation. There’s a fruity brightness in the cup of cherry and berry, but a lack of the apple-like acidity that you might find with typical coffee from newer Cali roasters (e.g., Sightglass). This makes it a unique and rather balanced cup.

Milk-frothing here is pretty even. They offer weight-measured Chemex and pour-over coffee. The shop’s loyal following includes those who also take home Revel beans, which are packaged in clear plastic drinking cups with lids. With no real sink in this tiny shop, coffee drinks are served in paper only except for large ceramic logo cups for the bigger milk-based drinks.

Read the review of Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA.

Trip Report: Cartel Coffee Lab (Scottsdale, AZ)

Posted by on 13 Jan 2015 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

It has been over 20 years since I last spent real time in Arizona. And back then it was either the Flagstaff or Tucson areas — deliberately not Phoenix, with its then-legendary saturation of Denny’s-per-square-mile, above-ground cemetery lifestyle, all the bad things about Los Angeles (smog, traffic) and none of the good (beaches, movie stars), and in-state locals who frequently tried to extricate those they felt were trapped in Phoenix itself.

Did I unfairly give Phoenix a bad rap without spending any first-hand time there? Absolutely. Is it for me? Phoenix can be very scenic and pretty, despite traffic landmarks like The Stack, and the people are outwardly nice in a way that would make any Bay Area resident suspicious. However, it’s probably a place I’ll visit but keep in the arm’s-length acquaintance category, even if I know and met a number of locals who love it there. One of my Über drivers raved about the area, but then he grew up in Sudan.

No matter — much like the rest of America these days, there’s good coffee to be had in town.

Panoramic of Camelback Mountain from Mummy Mountain across Paradise Valley, with Phoenix in the smog at right

Entrance to Cartel Coffee Lab in Scottsdale Inside Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale

Sola Coffee Bar previously stood on this Old Town Scottsdale location, until the owners wanted out of the business in 2011. (Scottsdale sits as a large suburb on the northeast of the Phoenix border.) Jason Silberschlag, owner of the Cartel Coffee Lab chain, loved the location and moved in immediately.

It’s a relatively modest space with exposed wooden panels and fans on the ceiling, a number of exposed supporting posts, and an open art-gallery like space. Outside there’s a sidewalk bench. Inside there is stool seating along the street windows in front and some long, cushioned seating along internal glass walls with small café tables designed like small, squat sections of tree stumps. The few real tables inside are the size of picnic benches with various red and white colored metal chairs about.

Looking back at the entrance inside Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale Cartel Coffee Lab's coffee offerings for retail sale

Various brewing devices in 2x2 formation at Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale Artisan Pop Tarts at the Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale

Off to one side they serve multiple microbrews on tap along with wines. At the back is their coffee service bar. It covers brewing using anything from Aeropress, V60, Clever, and Chemex, and they offer drinks in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 20oz sizes — a dimensioning of their coffee service that I haven’t quite exactly seen before.

Part of their bar surface is covered with these brewing devices in a sort of Noah’s-Ark-like 2×2 formation. A wall of mounted crates offers their merchandise, from roasted coffee to the devices behind any of their various brewing methods. Except one…

Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a little light on thickness. It has a sharp acidity with a flavor of citris and some cedar, though it seems a little light on body and lacks much of any rich, body-forward flavor notes. Served in a shotglass with water on the side.

Overall, it’s a good espresso that tastes inspired by many West Coast roasting stereotypes, but it has enough of its own personality to not taste like a San Francisco or Portland knock-off.

Read the review of Cartel Coffee Lab in Scottsdale, AZ.

Cartel Coffee Lab drink menu and service counter, Scottsdale Beer and wine at the side bar at Cartel Coffee Lab

La Marzocco Strada and wall of coffee and accessories at Cartel Coffee Lab, Scottsdale The Cartel Coffee Lab espresso

Trip Report: Illy Caffè (Union St., Cow Hollow)

Posted by on 31 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).

However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.

Outside the illy caffè on Union St. Entrance to the illy caffè on Union St. - with espresso cup chandelier

Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.

illy caffè's tasting menu for the media brunchIt’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.

Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.

Blind spots in our perceived history of quality coffee

There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.

Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.

Joe Gurdock, at right, with Barry Sheldon, President and COO of illy caffè North America, at the head of the table Illy's Frisée Salad with illy coffee vinaigrette and egg on top

Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.

The converted Metro Theater on Union Street now houses an illy caffè at the near cornerAs another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.

Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.

Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)

Illy was also pioneering coffee subscription models as early as 2004, years before the Third Wavy new coffee middlemen injected themselves into the supply chain.

The illy caffè illy-Misu Housemade Tiramisu illy caffè's Jasmine Vanilla Botanical Latte

Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.

But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and Francis Ford Coppola designer cups Close-up of the illy caffè chandelier - and the unique Federico Fellini designer cup in the foreground

Review of illy caffè

Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!

This café is located at the edge of the former Metro Theater, which has since been converted into an insipidly boring and culturally irrelevant Equinox gym.

There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.

The illy caffè service counter with La Cimbali machine The illy caffè espresso

The illy caffè macchiato The illy caffè cappuccino

Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.

The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.

Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.

Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.

Trip Report: Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (Union St., Cow Hollow)

Posted by on 29 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

Taking its name from the 2013 hit single by Miley Cyrus…

OK, no, seriously.

While the dynamic duo of Trish Rothgeb’s roasting combined with Nick Cho’s barista and service know-how (and hopefully someone else’s tax accounting) has been in the Bay Area for quite a few years, tracking their coffee house openings and closings has been a bit like playing Whac-A-Mole. Seemingly married to the disposable, throwaway culture of pop-ups, you could be excused for mistaking Wrecking Ball for a roving coffee art exhibit meant to simulate the transience and vagrancy of America’s foster care system.

Under the stairwell lies the latest Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters Close-up of Wrecking Ball's entrance

Pineapple wallpaper in the Wrecking Ball entrance Merchandising inside Wrecking Ball

This latest location opened in August 2014 in a former That Takes the Cake. It appears as a converted in-law unit at the base of a Victorian home (or law office). In front there is some quaint yard furniture with miniature table and chair seating along the sidewalk — along with a sign to notify the staff for clean-up when you’re done.

Kalita pour-over bar inside Wrecking BallInside everything seems whitewashed as was vogue with San Francisco home interiors of the 1950s — save for the blue pineapple wallpaper at the entrance and black wood flooring. There are three chairs sitting at their Kalita pour over bar and long bench seating along the entryway.

They offer baked goods from Marla, they sport some antique brewing equipment along their shelves, and during the day they seem to be frequented by a disproportionate number of snobby expat Europeans wearing designer jeans and sportcoats that work in the neighborhood.

Using a white, two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the small counter, they pull shots of their 1UP blend with an even but richly textured medium brown crema. It has a balanced flavor of spices of cinnamon, a little allspice, some sharp acidity, and the suggestion — but not implementation — of deeper, richer body notes. As such, the flavor profile seemed a touch incomplete relative to the last pop-up shop that served us. However, it’s still distinctive as far as San Francisco espresso styles go. Served in a white Inker demitasse.

Visit now before it closes.

Read the review of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters on Union St. in Cow Hollow.

Wrecking Ball's La Marzocco Strada The Wrecking Ball espresso

Trip Report: Seattle Coffee Works (Seattle, WA)

Posted by on 03 Dec 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

Downtown Seattle is something of an espresso wasteland compared to most other city downtowns, especially around the touristy Pike Place Market. Which is ironic, given that it is the birthplace of the biggest coffee quality movement America has ever experienced (i.e., Starbucks).

However, that’s also part of the problem: independent specialty coffee retailers grew successful because of their craft, attracted investment, attracted expectations of scale and reach, and now many of them have evolved to become corporate coffee giants — which is now what dominates downtown Seattle. This evolution differs from most downtowns where the “corporate” part of the local coffee scene invaded from afar rather than transformed in place.

When Seattle’s coffee quality pioneers turned corporate, I fully believe that their quality has declined with that scale, as the quality bar was lowered each time with every additional 100 jobs they needed to fill and each process automation they had to adopt to meet the demand. (I still contend that the individual barista makes up 50% of the end quality in a retail espresso beverage.) Others might argue that newer independents have simply stepped in, stood on the shoulders of their predecessors, raised the quality bar further, and became the new standard-bearers of their time.

Morning at Pike Place Market down the block from Seattle Coffee Works Morning at Seattle Coffee Works

Porttraits of coffee farmers inside Seattle Coffee Works Before the lights go on in the morning at Seattle Coffee Works, the merchandising shelves guide the way

All of which sets an interesting stage for Seattle Coffee Works — a small company established several years ago by California expats. Their story suggests an arrival amidst Pike Place Market’s coffee scene with big expectations, only to encounter serious disappointment. A long story short, the team eventually opened this location right in the shadow of Pike Place Market as an expression of quality coffee, more direct relationships with farmers (they post photos of farmers on the walls and a “Coffee Manifesto” beneath the front counter/register), and trendier (i.e., post-Seattle-espresso) brew bar offerings from a “Slowbar” that offers Chemex, Hario pour-over, Aeropress, and syphon brewing.

With a Diedrich roaster in back for their on-site roasting, they produce mostly single origin roasts for retail use and retail sale. They offer an outdoor seating patio sectioned off from the sidewalk traffic. Inside it’s a wider but spare space with a bare, darker concrete slab floor, worn wooden tables and chairs, and a rear wooden bench for seating. There are shelves of antique coffee brewing equipment, which is a nice touch, and near their Slowbar there are shelves of merchandising: Aeropress, Baratza grinders, kettles, French presses, etc.

Inside seating, Slowbar, and merchandising inside Seattle Coffee Works Seattle Coffee Works' Slowbar

The day's single origin menu at Seattle Coffee Works Entrance to the roasting facilities behind Seattle Coffee Works

For espresso they offer their “award-winning” Seattle Space blend along with a single origin option from their two-group Synesso. With the Space Blend, rated here, they pull a shot with a very even, non-descript medium brown crema. It’s filled rather high in their Espresso Supply Cremaware demitasses from China.

As a result, the body — like the crema — is a bit thin. It has a pungent flavor with some sharper acidity of apples, some cinnamon, and other spices. It’s a classically redundant Third Wave stereotype espresso lacking much body, richness, or breadth of flavor. Served with sparking water (what the locals call “soda water”) on the side.

I had a surprisingly better shot with their single origin Panama Carmen: richer in flavor depth with more rounded, body-friendly notes. Perhaps the Slowbar is the way to go here — if not the single origin shots. The Space Blend here, despite its claimed awards, tastes a little too much like “California Third Wave” as far as my taste preferences go.

Read the review of Seattle Coffee Works in Seattle.

Seattle Coffee Works Synesso with their Coffee Manifesto The Seattle Coffee Works espresso with the Space Blend

Antique coffeemaking equipment hanging near Seattle Coffee Works' Synesso Seattle Coffee Works single origin Panama Carmen as espresso

Trip Report: Caffe Ladro (Downtown Seattle, Pine St.)

Posted by on 24 Nov 2014 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting, Starbucks

Just when you thought I was ready to fawn over every old school coffeehouse in Seattle, here’s something to keep me honest.

Caffe Ladro has been around in Seattle since 1994, and this downtown spot has been one of their now 14 locations for at least what seems like a decade. It resides in a corner office building with a curved, glass surface. Upstairs from the sidewalk level there is some patio seating among tables and chairs and under parasols in front.

Patio outside Caffe Ladro on Pine St. in downtown Seattle Inside Caffe Ladro on Pine St. in downtown Seattle

I entered on a weekday around 6pm, and it was dead save for a lone employee and a lot of disco music played on the sound system. What a difference a couple of hours makes. Once the regular office workers left the building, what remained was a Nighthawks-inspired scene where the only other patrons seemed to be shady locals who only came in to borrow cigarette lighters and the business phone.

But it would be unfair of me to characterize downtown Seattle after dark as being a little, say, dubious. Three days later I came upon a scene at the BART-level San Francisco Centre Starbucks where a woman, who was clearly out of her mind wearing only one shoe, saddled up to the condiment bar and tried to pour an entire pitcher of the free creamer into her empty 12.5-ounce plastic Coke bottle. I say “tried” because virtually all of the creamer wound up on her hands and on the floor. The poor Starbucks employee could only grab the pitcher from her hand and give one of these before mopping up:

Back to Caffe Ladro: despite the circumstances, the barista was exceptionally friendly. Though note that “ladro” means “thief” in Italian. It’s what you yell as a tourist on the #64 bus in Rome when some scugnizzo makes off with your purse or wallet out the back door. Credit to Caffe Ladro’s closing-hour patrons: I can attest to not leaving anything there unintentionally.

Inside, beneath the large, curved panes of glass overlooking the intersection, there are squat stools along a long, black countertop. In back there’s limited seating among leather chairs. The space has a high-ceilinged, loft-like feel with exposed dark wood on one wall, a darkly painted ceiling and vent ducts overhead, and some large orb-like light fixtures.

Caffe Ladro's La Marzocco The Caffe Ladro espresso - and side of sparkling water, of course

Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s more typical of newer coffeehouses around the country. The body is a bit thin for its looks, and it tastes of spices, some pungency, some acidity, but a limited amount of sweetness or range in its flavor profile. In that sense, it reminded me of Flywheel Coffee Roasters in SF.

Served in classic black Nuova Point cups with a glass of sparkling water on the side. Signature drinks include the Medici, Gibraltar, and Shakerato. The resulting cup is surprisingly “modern” for the chain’s 1994 pedigree — though they have been roasting their own only since 2011. Note that my use of the word modern here isn’t necessarily a compliment.

Read the review of Caffe Ladro on Pine St. in downtown Seattle.

Trip Report: Sightglass (Mission/Potrero Hill)

Posted by on 29 Sep 2014 | Filed under: Local Brew, Roasting

Some call this neighborhood the eastern Mission. But avenues with the names of states always say “Potrero Hill” to us, despite being in the flatlands.

This 1,200-square-foot retail space and small roasting operation of Sightglass opened in Feb. 2014. There’s outdoor sidewalk bench seating in front and a narrow wall of merchandising (coffee and brewing equipment) as you walk in the door.

Entrance to Sightglass in Potrero Hill (OK, Mission if you must) Seating area inside Sightglass in Potrero Hill

While a much smaller space than the Sightglass mothership, it has a tall, airy ceiling — made with a bit of reclaimed wood, that trendy building material that costs more than Carrara marble. It has an old-style white-and-black tile floor, four mounted counter tables with a mix of booth and stool seating, and walls decorated with roasted coffee bags.

Wall o' merchandising at the entrance of Sightglass in Potrero HillIn one corner is a 1960’s-era 5-kg Probat they discovered in South Africa for exclusive roasts that they perform for this location only. They have a single origin bar here for that. Using dueling two-group La Marzocco Strada machines, they pull shots with an even medium brown crema with a little miniature speckling.

We reviewed the Jerboa’s Jump Espresso blend here — one of the location’s specialties — rather than the single origin of the day. It has a fruity aroma, but it lacks the strong acidity in the cup you come to expect from Sightglass‘ sledgehammer roasting and flavor profile style. Also unlike the typical Sightglass roast, it has a decent body, and the flavor is primarily centered around some herbal pungency with some woodiness.

Locals might whine about snooty service, but we had no such problem. Served with sparkling or still water on the side in Le Porcellane d’ANCAP logo cups.

Read the review of Sightglass in SF’s Mission/Potrero Hill.

Sightglass dueling La Marzocco Strada machines with Probat roaster in the back The Sightglass (Potrero Hill) espresso

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