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Myanmar Coffee: from a Yangon supermarket

Posted by on 24 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Myanmar has been in the news a lot lately, and that includes news about its coffee. For example, earlier this month Myanmar coffee made its first-ever appearance at the annual SCAA Conference.

So why the sudden interest in coffee from Myanmar? While it is still more curiosity than serious demand, coffee from Myanmar is still something of an exotic export — despite Myanmar being overshadowed by its neighbors in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The new Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw The Naypyidaw complex where Htin Kyaw was sworn in as President

The country formerly known as Burma is just now opening up to the world much like Cuba is currently opening up to the U.S. Once a prosperous nation, Myanmar succumbed to a coup d’état in 1962 and it had been under military rule until only recently. Borders were closed, the economy stagnated, civil guerilla wars proliferated among Myanmar’s many tribal minorities, and multiple generations of Burmese citizens were lost to an oppressive regime stuck in the past.

That’s all changing today — and ridiculously fast. Last month, and for the first time in 17 years, a co-worker of mine and all-around cool guy — Anjo — recently returned to his Burmese birthplace. He witnessed a vastly different place with paved roads, modern construction, saturated trucking routes to and from China, the proliferation of smartphones and $1.50 SIM chips, and local Burmese wearing more Western clothes. In the three weeks he was there, he witnessed Myanmar swearing in its first democratically elected president in 50 years and the opening of a new Myanmar stock exchange.

Two bags of supermarket coffee from Yangon, MyanmarAnjo also brought me back some coffee.

At first Anjo hoped to pick up some coffee at origin near his original home in the Shan State, where much of Myanmar’s coffee has been grown ever since it was first introduced by missionaries in 1885. Instead, he picked some up at a City Mart, a popular supermarket in the former capital of Yangon.

This was even more interesting to me, as it represented what is consumed in the domestic coffee market — not just what’s shipped out for export. While the difference between domestic and export market coffee can be dramatic in many coffee-producing countries, Myanmar’s history of closed borders likely means the locals have become used to drinking “the good stuff” as its only market.

Italian Coffee Myanmar

The first 200g bag of coffee I tried was simply labeled — in English — “Italian Coffee Myanmar” from Ananda Cocoa & Coffee Ltd. It was 100% organic, 100% Arabica coffee designed for “Italian espresso” shade grown in the Pyin Oo Lwin of the North Shan State at about 1200m. As for the coffee varietal, it claimed to be Kenyan — which coincides with the SL 6, SL 14, SL 28, and SL 34 cultivars introduced to Myanmar in 2004.

Purchased in mid-March 2016, I couldn’t help but notice the expiration date stamp of 28-Jan-2017 on the bottom of the decorative bag. Taking a wild guess, that was probably an annual stamp and thus the roast date was probably about 6 weeks prior to purchase. It’s also worth noting how much English labeling is on a package of coffee sold in a Yangon supermarket. (Thank you, British colonialism.)

Italian Coffee Myanmar 200g bag Expiration date on Italian Coffee Myanmar

Myanmar coffee is more typically Arabica (two-thirds of its production, the other third being robusta that was originally planted by tribesmen of the Karen minority) and tend to be higher elevation Catimor cultivars — known more for their body and earthiness. Which is why it was a little bit of a surprise — especially on a bag labelled “Italian espresso” — to find a more medium City/Full City roast that barely made the second crack. There was no visible signs of surface oils on the beans. Have Myanmar coffee roasters been following Third Wave hipster protocol all along?

Brewed as espresso, though not on my most meticulous espresso machine setup (a consumer-typical Saeco Syntia Focus), it produced a cup with a medium-to-blonde crema that was relatively slight (6+ weeks since roasting will do that to you). The body was pretty solid but not heavy. The flavor profile lacked sweetness but also that dense, roasted fullness — and thus centered more around the midrange of the palate. I suspect it wasn’t quite a single origin, but it was a close approximation for some relatively similar green stocks.

Overall, an impressive coffee if you compare it with anything you could get in a supermarket bag labeled “Italian espresso” in Vietnam, Thailand, or China.

The surprisingly medium roast of Italian Coffee Myanmar An Italian Coffee Myanmar espresso

Shwe Yin Mar

The second 200g bag of Myanmar coffee I tried came from Shwe Yin Mar Coffee, a member organization of the Mandalay Coffee Group — and not to be confused its related auto parts, iron, and steel business.

The packaging appeared far more commercial and lacked any designation for coffee origin other than “Arabica from Shan State”. While not labelled “100% organic”, they claimed their beans were grown without chemical fertilizers. Plus an expiration date also showing January 2017 and what looks like an indicator that it was roasted January 2016.

Shwe Yin Mar 200g coffee bag Expiration date at the bottom of a bag of Shwe Yin Mar coffee

As a bag labelled “Espresso – whole bean”, the roast was more of what I expected for SE Asia supermarket coffee: a dark roast with a sheen of oils. As with the Italian Coffee Myanmar, the beans are a healthy, Arabica-friendly size which you might not normally associate with coffee in this part of Asia.

Brewed as espresso on the same machine as before, it produced a cup with a slightly more blonde crema of weak thickness. The body was decent, not great, and the flavor profile dipped into that burn-the-crap-out-of-my-identity territory: not quite a watery cup of ash, but definitely heavier on the smoke and tobacco with only some midrange and no real brightness to speak of. Which is a shame, because it was essentially roasted to taste like coffee from anywhere else.

The expected dark roast of Shwe Yin Mar coffee A Shwe Yin Mar espresso

In conclusion, I can’t say I wasn’t fully convinced of the exotic magic of Myanmar coffee. But there was clearly something going on here that I wasn’t quite expecting — and that coffee from Myanmar clearly has the distinctive potential to be something that could stand on its own relative to other quality coffee producers around the world. So at a minimum, I’ve been put on notice for what’s to come from this rapidly evolving country.

Espresso in New Mexico (Albuquerque & Santa Fe)

Posted by on 12 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

As the local T-shirts put it, “New Mexico: It’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”

Even the food here is its own thing. Between sopapillas, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Hatch Valley chiles (and ordering things “red”, “green”, or “Christmas”): it’s not Mexican, and it’s not Tex-Mex either.

Pueblo cave homes in Bandelier National Monument Apache mountain spirit dancer, outside the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, NM

Mountains and high desert of New Mexico Lone Butte, NM is little more than a general store

New Mexico can probably even lay claim to its own state of mind, defining the term high desert. Anywhere you turn starts from at least 6,000 feet of altitude. The combination of the altitude and arid climate can leave you with mild headaches and nosebleeds for days after arriving. Any notable breeze will result in red dust and grit in your teeth.

I last visited this region one winter in the 1990s, passing through one bleary-eyed day in the high-desert driving across I-40 from Flagstaff, AZ to Oklahoma City as part of a marathon trek across the country. Even back then I found Albuquerque more than a little odd, with the entire stretch of the town littered with “experimental speed limit” caution road signs. Experiencing it close up two decades later, it’s far stranger than I could have imagined.

Butte near Los Alamos, NM Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM

Albuquerque aka ABQ aka The Duke City

It seems rather apropos that humanity’s nuclear era started in the neighborhood, just up the road at Los Alamos. The town of Albuquerque strikes you as a post-apocalyptic world where someone entered a typo in their nuclear launch codes and accidentally overlooked this place. Add the many locals who convincingly impress you as veterans of earlier (and multiple) alien abductions, and to this day there is perhaps no better movie that captures the essence of Albuquerque than the 1984 cult film Repo Man:

Repo Man:This could easily have been set in Albuquerque, NM
Yes, even more than No Country for Old Men and the excellent TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While New Mexico may not directly feature in Repo Man, it’s the film’s origin story and its influence permeates throughout. (Sorry, L.A.)

The residential areas are typically a criss-cross of wide East-West-bound boulevards littered with strip malls, with North-South streets (like Washington St. NE) jaggedly intersecting like misfit puzzle pieces so there’s never a continuous line through the many lots of ranch homes, covered car ports, and gravel landscaping.

Old Town Albuquerque, NM KiMo Theater, downtown Albuquerque

On the subject of food, simply eating here reminds you that Albuquerque is not your typical American city. The most exclusive restaurant in town — universally voted the biggest “splurge” restaurant in ABQ — is run by a three-time James Beard nominee. In true ABQ style, it resides in a local strip mall, next door to a hydroponics shop and across the street from a drive-thru emergency loan shark/cash station called Fastbucks. That’s how ABQ rolls.

Among friends I’m known for identifying the TV trope of the generic “fancy restaurant”: high-end dining establishments that have zero distinguishable interior design. Meanwhile, real-life restauranteurs often bleed ridiculous amounts of money to heavily brand their high-end dining room experiences so you always know exactly where you’re eating. For all that Better Call Saul gets right about the town, there was a scene in an episode last month where they dine at one such generic “fancy restaurant” in Albuquerque. If you spend any time in ABQ, you’d immediately recognize that no such place could exist in town.

This restaurant from Better Call Saul simply could not exist in Albuquerque

Better Call Saul does, however, nail the region on lawyers. Albuquerque is overflowing with courthouses and law offices, with the billboards of personal injury attorneys lining Interstates 25 & 40 with come-ons such as, “Hurt? Call Bert”. Is it any wonder why Bugs Bunny should have turned left?

Downtown ABQ gets even stranger. There’s a vast sea of multi-story parking garages, largely filled with cars, scattered among the remains of aging U.S. Route 66 kitsch and the tinted glass monoliths of more modern-yet-nondescript bank and energy company towers. And yet walk the downtown streets on a weekday afternoon a couple hours before rush hour and it is eerily devoid of pedestrians or even traffic. Which gives downtown ABQ the feel of a giant long-term airport parking lot for alien abductions: nobody is here, and yet everyone has left their cars behind.

We’ve written before about Austin, TX and their “Keep Austin Weird” motto. But the people here, although very friendly, are simply just too weird for Austin. More to the point: they’re blissfully unaware of their weirdness, thriving as an amalgamation of teen and adult runaways, Native Americans, silver-toothed street urchins, and the progeny of prior vehicle breakdowns along U.S. Route 66 to California.

Interstate billboard, Albququerque, courtesy of Outside Magazine Albuquerque skyline from I-25

Parking garages and glass towers in downtown Albuquerque Breaking Bad RV tours, Albuquerque

All of this makes Albuquerque a more than unusual base for developing a quality coffee culture, which most cities typically identify with urban hipsters. The bizarro culture of ABQ essentially renders a hipster’s raison d’être as pointless and irrelevant. If anybody from Portland, OR ever ended up here, I’d put them on a suicide watch.

Quality coffee is a relatively new thing in this town that normally celebrates commodities, down to its streets named after mining and minerals. Hence it is surprising to see a few $3 espresso shots here without the “moral outrage” you’d normally expect from most cities that love to gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee.

In Albuquerque, the espresso shots tended to run a bit thin on body and were often served in various presentation contraptions involving carved wooden blocks (or serving trays) and sparkling water on the side.

One of the local oddities I came across was piñon coffee. Much as New Orleans has been known for blending regular coffee with chicory for a unique local variation, piñon coffee is made by combining regular coffee with nuts of the piñon pine tree (the official state tree). Native Americans traditionally harvested these pine nuts. Once roasted and brewed, it exhibits a sweet, spiced smell like an amped up Arabic coffee, but it tastes more like regular coffee with an earthy, nutty edge to it.

Because... Albuquerque New Mexico espresso is heavy on presentation

Santa Fe

An hour up I-25 from Albuquerque is the town of Santa Fe. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonialists, the New Mexico state capital carries a lot more history — including one of the oldest houses and the oldest church in the U.S.

Very much unlike Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a deliberately preserved town. This makes the stark contrast between the two not unlike the city of Napa versus St. Helena in the Napa Valley: one grows through big-box-store sprawl and lower costs of living while the other prefers a controlled aesthetic gentrification that makes it attractive to tourists with money.

San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe: the oldest church in America Downtown Santa Fe in the Pueblo architectural style

De Vargas Street House: one of the oldest homes in America, since 1646 Santa Fe architectural style

This means that Santa Fe, like New Orleans, is one of the few places in the U.S. where you know exactly where you are — i.e., not in some random urban center lined with all the same chain stores. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants and massive hotels and spas about town, but everything is harmoniously dressed up in Pueblo or Spanish style. Every building is some variation of an earthtone and the architecture is remarkably consistent.

Despite the million-dollar Pueblo homes near the old city center, there are still plenty of tourists parading through town in rumbling two-story pickup trucks with tinted windows, Oklahoma or Texas plates, and blasting some variation on death metal out their windows. Yet at the same time there’s an extensive arts community and even the relocation of many Tibetan expatriates in town.

Snow in Santa Fe Tibet comes to Santa Fe

The Old Santa Fe trail leading into town Santa Fe Railyard beneath the Sandia Mountains

Although Santa Fe is where locally roasted coffee was first introduced to New Mexico, the coffee culture here has generally been slow to evolve — with more options growing in just the past few years. Like Albuquerque, there’s often an unusual emphasis on an inventive rotation of specialty drinks. But here there is also a strange validation of the Paleo diet as something more than the snake oil fad that it is: a few places place their own buttered coffee knockoffs prominently on drink menus.

Synesso espresso machines can be found in uncommon locations — cart services, ice cream shops, etc. — which makes us suspect there’s a local distributor with service and influence in the area. If you’re going to cover this high desert service area, my advice — based on ample empirical evidence — is to listen to a lot of Guadalupe Plata on the car stereo:

Guadalupe Plata may be from Andalucía, Spain, but if it was good enough for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I originally noted a lack of sweetness in the coffee of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which I partly blamed on the altitude at first. But I eventually found examples that broke that stereotype, such as the excellent Iconik Coffee Roasters — easily one of my more favorite coffee house finds of the past couple of years.

In conclusion, fallout from the Manhattan Project and Trinity tests may have left behind one unusual place and its residents, but the global advance of good coffee has infiltrated even here in just the past few years. Though for the record: Los Alamos scientists still drink pretty crummy coffee for the most part.

Espresso Ratings in New Mexico
Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Deep Space Coffee 504 Central Ave. SW Albuquerque 8.10 7.50 7.800
Humble Coffee Company 4200 Lomas Blvd. NE, Ste C Albuquerque 7.50 7.80 7.650
Zendo Coffee 413 2nd St. SW Albuquerque 7.50 7.50 7.500
35° North Coffee 60 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.40 5.50 6.450
Holy Spirit Espresso 225 W San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.10 6.50 6.800
Iconik Coffee Roasters 1600 Lena St., Ste A2 Santa Fe 8.10 8.20 8.150
Ohori’s Coffee Roasters 505 Cerrillos Rd., Ste B103 Santa Fe 5.80 5.50 5.650
Santa Fe Espresso Co. 56 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.30 7.00 7.150

Trip Report: Zendo Coffee (Albuquerque, NM)

Posted by on 06 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This art café is located where downtown Albuquerque gets more industrial the further south you get. Opened by Trevor Lucero, a self-proclaimed “coffee guy”, in June 2013, this 1,000-sq-ft space and 600-sq-ft outdoor covered patio serves as much as a community gathering space as it does a coffee bar or art space. Third places are apparently a more natural setting in Albuquerque than they are in Santa Fe.

There’s a short, wooden high counter with stools at the front windows. The white-painted brick wall in the rear is adorned with color photographs. Larger wooden block tables and a bench scatter about in the in-between spaces for contemplating with headphones or laptops under a white-painted wood ceiling. The laptop zombie quotient being higher as it is in ABQ.

The side of the Zendo Coffee + Art building space as you head south on 2nd St. Street-level view of the Zendo Coffee entrance

The Zendo name apparently refers to an international feng-shui-like term for the supposed spacial zen-like state of the joint. Or so we’re told.

Whatever you call it, the place is packed with locals. It seems heavily frequented by a younger, more female clientele who take to eating take-out lunches at the bar stools and conversing with friends for the day. Rather than mistaking them for UNM students from the campus across the I-25 freeway, like much of downtown Albuquerque there’s little indication that the folks hanging out here do much of anything professionally besides, well, hanging out here.

Hanging out at the bar inside Zendo Coffee - where everybody knows your name Laptop zombies take up the perimeter of Zendo Coffee

Zendo Coffee's menu of new, strange drinks above their retail coffee bean sales How about that for presentation at Zendo Coffee?

Señor Lucero bought a three-group manual Victoria Arduino Athena Classic for $6k that’s used at the bar. They originally relied on independent roasters but have since started roasting their own at a facility further down 2nd Street, though they do feature a rotation of guest roasters Denver’s Boxcar was featured on my visit.

Using the Zendo Espresso blend, they pulled a shot with an medium brown, even crema with lighter heat spots from the spouts. It tastes of an edge of tobacco over more spices and herbal pungency. Good, but there are noticeable flaws.

Served on a custom wooden block with even a spoon holder as well as sparkling water — like you do in ABQ — in a World Market China cup with no saucer. Cheap at $2 though.

And like a number of ABQ coffee shops, they offer their own inventive specialty coffee drinks — except here they go a bit crazy with it: the London Fog, the Sweet Bonnie, the Maroccino, the Golden, the Regis, Red Cappuccino, Lapsang Latte, etc. Mixologists Gone Wild.

Read the review of Zendo Coffee in Albuquerque, NM.

Pulling shots at Zendo Coffee's Victoria Arduino Athena Classic The Zendo Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Iconik Coffee Roasters (Santa Fe, NM)

Posted by on 29 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

After my discouraging visit to the much-lauded Ohori’s Coffee Roasters, I was worried that the coffee wasn’t getting much better in Santa Fe. Then I arrived at Iconik.

Opened in May 2013 by Albuquerque native Natalie Slade, her brother Darren Berry, and their longtime friend Todd Spitzer, this café inspires a bit of local controversy. Some of the controversy originates from the intentions of this team: with Ohori’s being such a beloved local institution, they opted for more defiance and a dare — down to naming their flagship espresso blend “Iconoclast”.

Streetside view of Iconik Coffee Roasters Rear parking lot entrance to Iconik Coffee Roasters

The rest of the controversy comes down to Santa Feans, as evidenced in local social media commentary and reviews. Although many locals have taken to Iconik, some seem a little resentful of the interloper — complaining about the coffees being roasted too lightly, about the service staff being too arrogant and snobbish, or perhaps even just expressing resentment over a $3 espresso.

Only the second commercial coffee roaster to open in Santa Fe, their roasts are decidedly lighter — even if they are made in a very rare, 1927 vintage Otto Swadlo roaster that was found in an Oregon warehouse. The roaster sits at the café’s rear entrance.

Inside Iconik Coffee Roasters, with vintage Otto Swadlo roaster in back Outdoor patio at Iconik Coffee Roasters

There’s outdoor patio seating in front with cushioned patio tables and chairs. Inside there are cement floors, a counter with stools, a long shared wooden table, multiple short café tables at the window seats, and even a sofa — giving it more of a vibe like a brighter version of SF’s The Grove.

It’s a little loungey, and it would be a hipster magnet if not for New Mexico’s dearth of self-aware hipsters. There are also a number of older and colorful local Santa Fe patrons about, as the neighborhood is deep into the cheaper rents in town. There’s a wall of merchandising with Chemex equipment, grinders, and roasted coffee. They serve salad, bagels, and lunch items, but it’s all about the coffee.

Roasted Iconik coffee Local Santa Feans line up inside Iconik, unaware of their hipster status

Drink menu at Iconik Coffee Roasters Wall of merchandising at Iconik Coffee Roasters

Using a three-group La Marzocco Strada, they pulled a shot of their single origin Sumatra Takengon Mandheling as the house espresso for the day. It came with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema, a solid body, a good pungency, but little spice: a more narrowband flavor profile due to its single origin (not their Iconoclast espresso blend). Served as a long three sips in black Espresso Parts cups with sparkling water on the side.

I normally prefer a more complex flavor profile for my espresso, but it was interesting — daring for Santa Fe even. And I had every indicator to expect that their Iconoclast blend wouldn’t be half-bad.

Milk-based drinks come with rosetta latte art and gentle, even, quality milk frothing that somewhat integrates well with the espresso emulsion. Their V60 pour-overs are properly flavorful and included options such as a Mexico Oaxaca, a Guatemalan Panchoy, their Sumatra Idido Yirgacheffe, and Panama Hacienda La Esmerda.

Another view of the interior space at Iconik Coffee Roasters Iconik Coffee Roasters service counter with La Marzocco Strada

There is simply no contest about the best coffee in Santa Fe. Local loyalty to Ohori’s seems analogous to South Africa’s complicated relationship with the ANC: i.e., deep appreciation for something revolutionary achieved decades ago, but selectively blind to all of its shortcomings and failings in the years ever since.

Some local haters might complain of the “burning acidity” of Iconik’s lighter roasts, but anything to make it taste this side of Ohori’s ashy wet fireplace is a good thing in my book. As for complaints of arrogant service, that’s always the risk when you’re dealing with someone who is really into their coffee. Customers can feel insecure, if not offended, when they casually order their favorite caffè latte and are suddenly confronted with a question such as, “Do you want it with the Sumatra Takengon Mandheling or the Mexico Oaxaca?” The nerve of those arrogant bastards.

Santa Feans deserved better, and they’re now finally getting it. But it’s not just for Santa Fe. I’d very much enjoy coming to a place like this wherever it’s located.

Read the review of Iconik Coffee Roasters in Santa Fe, NM.

Iconik Coffee Roasters espresso Iconik Coffee Roasters cappuccino

Trip Report: Ohori’s Coffee Roasters (Cerrillos Rd., Santa Fe, NM)

Posted by on 26 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This is a difficult trip report to author. Because on the one hand, we have to pay respects to what Ohori’s Coffee Roasters pioneered in Santa Fe, NM. But on the other hand, we have to call out product failures as we experience them.

Susan Ohori founded this two-store chain in 1984. She learned to roast from Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and introduced commercial fresh-roasted coffee to Santa Fe.

Road sign for Ohori's Coffee at the edge of Cerrillos Road Ohori's Coffee Roasters on Cerrillos Road

Like Peet’s, Ohori’s Coffee started as a take-home bean sales store. Also like Peet’s, as consumer preferences changed over the years, it evolved into a retail coffee beverage shop. This was particularly innovative in Santa Fe, where communal “third places” are rare and most social gatherings take place in private homes. Susan Ohori sold the company to her longtime accountant in 2002, and the tiny chain has operated rather consistently to this day under the “newer” ownership.

This location on Cerrillos Road was the second retail shop they opened, and of the two it is designed to be more of a social gathering space. As I entered, even without knowing Ohori’s Peet’s origin story, I felt like I was in another Peet’s chain café. There are four café tables offering sparse seating in a vast space with tall ceilings with exposed wooden framing. There’s a service counter setup with a heavy emphasis on bean and leaf sales that looks lifted out of the Peet’s interior design catalog. And as for the roasted coffees themselves, many hearken back to a flavor profile of dark roasted ashiness popularized by Peet’s some 40 years ago.

There’s a wall of merchandising (cups, machines, Chemex and pour-over paraphernalia), and the art on the walls here is generously showcased without commission.

Insider Ohori's Coffee Roasters... or is this a Peet's Coffee? Ohori's merchadising wall

As for the retail coffee service, they may have dated roots but have not missed out on many coffee fads. They offer pour-overs, buttered coffee for those most recently into Paleo snake oil, and as a sort of health thing they avoid syrups and artificial sweeteners. Ask for a flat white, which is still not yet on the menu, and they will know how to make you one.

Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli machine, they pull espresso shots in a short paper cup (what’s that the deal with that?) with a creamy-looking medium brown crema of a smooth texture that’s relatively thin. There’s a definite ashy edge to the cup: it’s very harsh with a flavor combination of smoke and ash. This is not a pleasant espresso, and we have consumed hundreds of cups of outright rot-gut espresso before.

And yet Ohori’s has won the “Best of Santa Fe” by the Santa Fe Reporter for 7 of the last 10 years, and even the New York Times recently recommended this location in a 36-Hours piece. At first this lead me to believe that many local fans of the place must rarely ever drink the espresso straight here.

Nuova Simonelli machine at the Ohori's Coffee Roasters helm The Ohori's Coffee Roasters macchiato and espresso

But if that were only the case. The milk-frothing here is dishwater-like: thin with irregular bubbles, producing what seems like little more than milk-flavored air. My wife found the macchiato to be simply undrinkable and abandoned it after the first sip. She never does that. I tried it and sympathized with her assessment. I’ve never experienced this at a Peet’s Coffee, for example.

Thus we can’t be sure that the coffee adoration here is rooted in local loyalty, nostalgia, or layers of milk and natural sweeteners that disguise the raw taste of their espresso. There may be other product lines worth trying besides their straight espresso and macchiato. Ohori’s offers medium- and even light-roasted coffees, even though they believe you often need a medium roast to at least develop the coffee’s flavor more fully — of which I am generally in agreement.

But when the core espresso is this dubious for a best-in-town consideration, something is clearly wrong. And I would be the last person some might accuse of being a Third Wave apologist. Unless you are a die hard, dark roasted Peet’s Coffee fan, we have to recommend that you seek your coffee elsewhere in Santa Fe.

Read the review of Ohori’s Coffee Roasters on Cerrillos Rd. in Santa Fe, NM.

Trip Report: 35° North Coffee (Santa Fe, NM)

Posted by on 19 Mar 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting, Starbucks

This central Santa Fe coffee house resides in the Santa Fe Arcade on the 2nd Floor. Opening in December 2015, it was developed as a new coffee house “concept” by an area restaurant group lead by Gerald Peters called Santa Fe Dining Inc.

Yes, apparently coffee has become a restaurant theme in America, with this concept being self-described as “full-service third wave coffee house”. Which only underscores how the term third wave has become the modern coffee equivalent of the hackneyed gourmet label from the 1980s.

Entrance to 35° North Coffee from inside the Santa Fe Arcade War Room seating opposite the main entrance at 35° North Coffee


A Brief History of the Word Gourmet… or Third Wave By Any Other Term

We’ve been mocking the wannabe hipster use of third wave for a decade now, so most of you are probably glad we’ve largely given it a rest over the years. But ten years later and we’re still surprised that so many relative newbie coffee lovers come to its defense — and so much so that desperate marketers continue to use it.

For the many Millennials who were too young to know the 1980s, a little social history lesson about the term gourmet may provide context. As Wikipedia notes for the word:

In the United States, a 1980s gourmet food movement evolved from a long-term division between elitist (or “gourmet”) tastes and a populist aversion to fancy foods.

Sound anything like the many curmudgeons today who seem offended by the mere existence of “fancy coffee”? Also note that this transformation followed the establishment of supposed “second wave coffee” stalwarts such as Starbucks and Peet’s.

The 1980s saw the popularization of many otherwise commodity foodstuffs to an elevated status with an obligatory gourmet label. Orville Redenbacher became synonymous with gourmet popcorn. Jelly Belly popularized the concept of gourmet jelly beans. Lather, rinse, repeat. Thus at the time, the word gourmet became a sort of shorthand nudge-and-wink to let consumers know that this wasn’t your father’s foodstuff and that its distinguished quality commanded a higher price.

Compared to our coffee wave, your coffee wave is tough and chewy.

Problem was that the term gourmet wasn’t backed by any real definition, guarantee of quality, nor certification. This left the barn doors open for every profit-minded copycat and charlatan to rush in and lay claim to its meaning.

Thus today the term gourmet has since been relegated to downmarket product come-ons in the aisles at commodity goods stores such as Wal-Mart; meanwhile the premium quality/price vanguard has moved on to terms like artisan. Just this week at the ABQ Sunport (airport), I walked up to a Comida Buena with bold “gourmet deli” branding that served me a soggy croissant sandwich wrapped in tin foil and left under a heat lamp for who knows how long. What does gourmet really mean when this happens?

The same is true today of third wave coffee, which has become an unqualified label boasted by wannabes in an attempt to claim some sort of false legitimacy. Meanwhile, virtually all of the top-quality roasters and coffee shops in the world distance themselves from the term. What does third wave really mean when this happens?

When Food Entrepreneurs Extend to Coffee

Which brings us back to the 35° North Coffee concept. Their slogan, coined by restaurant vet and manager Rob Rittmeyer, is “Find your latitude”. Its name refers to Santa Fe’s latitude as well as the number of grams of coffee used in their pour-overs.

As part of a concept restaurant chain, the food gets a bit more of the attention here. They serve beignets, a croque monsieur, and banh mi sandwiches as a sort of French-influenced theme — even if French is a poor choice for a coffee affiliation.

Accessed from inside the mall, there are five nicer faux marble café tables along a back booth and a marble rear counter with a half-dozen stools. There’s also a separate seating room (the “War Room”) with more and larger tables across of the main entrance. The kitchen, and its vent, are massive: these are clearly food people. And the food sensibilities don’t stop with edibles, as they even offer (as is creative coffee in New Mexico) an oatmeal latte: complete with actual oatmeal, brown sugar, and granola as influenced by Colorado ski bums.

Roaster behind the service counter obscuring the La Marzocco Linea at 35° North Coffee Coffee menu at 35° North Coffee

They do roast their own coffee on-site with all the space they have, but any labeling of blend, coffee origin, or other pedigree is virtually absent from a supposed third wave coffee house. They offer drip, pour-overs (supposedly single origin, but how could you tell?), nitro coffee, and espresso service. And yes, they even offer something called a “Latitude Adjustment”: a nod to the Paleo snake oil types seeking a Bulletproof Coffee(tm) knock-off.

All said, they use the three-group La Marzocco Linea behind the counter on shots of their “dark roast blend” to produce an even, medium-to-darker-brown crema of decent thickness. Whatever wave they are supposed to belong to, I have had identical coffee experiences in the late 1990s. But to their credit the espresso body is good, and despite being served in a short paper cup the results are better than expected. It has a darker flavor profile of herbal pungency with some tobacco but no ashiness.

Read the review of 35° North Coffee in Santa Fe, NM.

Vast kitchen space inside 35° North Coffee The 35° North Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Temple Coffee Roasters (Downtown – Sacramento, CA)

Posted by on 23 Feb 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

When it came to coffee in Sacramento during the 1990s, Java City ruled the earth. Starbucks made their imprint like every other market in America, but Sacramento was Java City. Even longtime Sacramento coffee institutions like The Weatherstone — now part of Old Soul — once fell under the Java City spell in the years since its 1974 opening.

Java City eventually closed all of their retail locations by 2012 to focus on wholesale bean distribution. As local coffee entrepreneur, Sean Kohmescher, put it: “Java City’s lack of focus on its retail end hurt its café location(s)”.

Approaching Temple Coffee Roasters in downtown Sacramento Inside Temple Coffee Roasters, downtown Sacramento

Who is Mr. Kohmescher? The founder and original barista of Temple Coffee Roasters, which was established in 2005 in Midtown Sacramento. Exemplifying Sacramento’s newer generation of independent coffee roasters that first came to prominence in the mid-2000s, Temple has since expanded to several Sacramento area shops (including one in nearby Davis, CA) and a nationally recognized roastery.

This downtown location opened in early 2006. Located between the homeless encampments/tents in Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Plaza and the random screams of doorway-dwelling street people along the K Street Mall (an area that has always been a little sketchy), this shop attracts a decidedly student-oriented clientele.

Out front there’s fenced-in sidewalk seating, consisting of a long wooden counter and chairs under parasols along 9th St. Inside they painted the ceiling ducts black, left crude cement slab floors, with a painted coffee menu on the cement block rear wall espousing espresso, French press, and pour-over options (using clear Hario V60s).

Students zoning out along the side-wall bench at Temple Coffee Roasters Downtown Temple Coffee Roasters' wall o' mersh

They have two long, live-edge wood tables for shared seating plus a side bench with various students plugged in to earbuds and laptops. On the opposite wall is a significant wall o’ merch (pots, drippers, brewers, T-shirts, beanies, mugs). They offer a plethora of roasts for sale, and for their espresso at the time of our visit they offered their Dharma Blend, Ethiopia Limmu Burka Gudina, and a Colombia San Jose decaf in different grinders.

Ordering an espresso with their Dharma Blend, they served it from a four-group La Marzocco Linea PB. Despite the stripped-down environment, they brought the espresso to our seat with a small wooden tray containing the espresso in a white notNeutral demitasse and a small glass beaker of sparkling water. Thoughtful and classy. It came with a mottled darker and medium brown crema with a good coagulation and thickness.

Ample roasted coffees for sale at Temple Coffee Roasters along with their La Marzocco Linea PB The Temple Coffee Roasters service counter, backed by their menu

The flavor is “dark” with a full-bodied mouthfeel: there’s molasses, chocolate, and caramel. As an espresso I didn’t get much of the stated cherry, but as a macchiato the cherry comes through more. This is a robust, untrendy espresso that still believes in dark, body-driven complexity — a well-blended coffee that’s just about as good as you can get anywhere. Their milk-frothing is dense and quite good also.

Read the review of Temple Coffee Roasters in Downtown Sacramento, CA.

The Temple Coffee Roasters espresso from a serving tray The Temple Coffee Roasters macchiato

Some blends are created equal: Allann Bros. Maestro’s Blend

Posted by on 30 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

With the National Felon League coming to town for SuperBloat SuperBore SuperBowl 50, and the entire Bay Area overrun with corporate sponsorship, it’s a good time to shelter in place with some good coffee, right?

Allann Bros. Coffee Maestro's BlendThankfully the folks over at Allann Bros. Coffee in Albany, OR shipped us a pound of their Maestro’s Blend for evaluation. Founded in 1972 by their Roast Master, Allan Stuart, Allann Bros. Coffee opened a chain of eight coffee houses beginning in Ashland, Oregon — ye of the Shakespeare Festival fame.

When it comes to bean stocks, they claim to have developed Direct Trade partnerships and use of only high-altitude grown varietals. They fire-roast their coffee in a 1939 Jabez Burns Roaster and apply post-roast blending. Allann Bros. notes that the Maestro’s Blend is their most popular, signature espresso blend, describing it with a “dark, smoky flavor, coupled with a buttery crema and nutty flavor”.

Visually, it’s a seriously scary dark roast with what seems like enough surface oil to comb your hair in the reflection. It probably has an Agtron reading in the 25-30 range, which is akin to a Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend. This ain’t your conformist Third Wave coffee roasted with a brief puff of hot air just this side of grassy.

As such, it will elicit knee-jerk reactions much in the same way a light New England roast did for many Berkeley coffee fiends in the 1980s. But being a long-time believer in the versatility of coffee among its various roasting styles and brewing methods, I wanted to check out any of its merits.

Dark roast and heavy oils on the Maestro's Blend Tiny 51mm portafilter with some Maestro's Blend grinds

Brewing it many times as an espresso with my usual Mazzer Mini and Gaggia G106 Factory lever machine, it produced a rather healthy crema: generous, albeit not too coagulated. The resulting cup had a crema with a swirl of darker and medium brown crema. Buttery? Perhaps.

It had a decent but not remarkable body, and one would expect more body from coffees roasted in this style. Flavorwise, there wasn’t any ashiness or even bitterness. However there was a notably dryness to the palate — a kind of astringency. As expected, sweetness was mostly an afterthought with barely discernible caramelization of sugar starches of a molasses-like quality. It’s a pungent cup with a flavor dominated by tobacco and smoke, and I couldn’t pick up much of their nuttier flavor descriptors.


Allann Bros. Coffee
Blend Aroma [info] Brightness [info] Body [info] Crema [info] Flavor [info] Overall
Maestro’s Blend 6.0 5.0 7.0 8.0

6.0 6.40

Ultimately as a pulled shot it looks much better than it tastes. Which isn’t a bad taste by any means, but it isn’t very flavorful either. And while there’s some balance for the flavors that are actually present in the cup, it lacked large parts of coffee’s flavor spectrum.

It’s unfortunate when the best things I can say about a coffee are more about the negative qualities it lacks rather than the positive qualities it possesses. Unsurprisingly, the coffee serves better as a complement to steamed milk than straight on its own — and there’s a place for that among coffee styles. But I couldn’t find enough qualities that distinguished it from most other dark roasted blends, which is always a challenge.

Although it has one thing going for it: compared with Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, it costs about a third less.

Pulling a shot with the Maestro's Blend An espresso pulled from the Maestro's Blend

Trip Report: Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick (Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 02 Jan 2016 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Founded in 2009, Asado Coffee Company first opened in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood — the same neighborhood that served as Intelligentsia’s birthplace some 20 years ago. Founder Kevin Ashtari started the business by roasting his own with a makeshift roaster: a rotisserie motor rotated a drum over a barbecue grill.

Things blew up in 2010 when Chicago Magazine named theirs the city’s best cup of coffee, and the independent weekly Chicago Reader named them best coffee roaster. Kevin later took on a partner, Jeff Liberman, upgraded to a 12-kilo roaster, and they’ve since expanded with roasting operations in each of three Chicago area cafés. However, they still focus on somewhat unusual, small coffee farms around the world and only roast two days worth of coffee at a time.

Walkway towards Asado Coffee Roasters, Pickwick, in Chicago Front door entrance to Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

One of their newer locations is this historic Loop building, though you might say it’s more of an anachronism than an actual Loop building. Called the Pickwick Stable, it is located in a tight, private alley once called Pickwick Place. This tiny (19 ft x 19 ft) building sits nestled and recessed between two skyscrapers, the Gibbons Building and the Steigler Building. It survived the 1871 Great Chicago Fire — serving as a horse stable and restaurant at various periods throughout its lifetime. It remains one of downtown Chicago’s oldest and smallest buildings.

The long passageway leads up to rather large sign exclaiming “COFFEE”. There is outdoor seating among metal tables and chairs in the alleyway, which would be a great urban respite if not for visiting during the sleet storm of Winter Storm Goliath (and the typical Chicago weather between November and April). The only sheltered seating was a lone chair inside the building next to the service counter.

Entrance to 22 E Jackson when it was Colonel Abson’s Chop House in the 1890s Asado Coffee Roasters' chalkboard menu

Have I mentioned that the place is tiny? Like Spella Caffé in Portland tiny. Their chalkboard menu displays their offerings of drip, pour-over (no batch-brewed here, folks), coldbrew (trendboys be trendboys even in a winter blizzard), and espresso drinks — plus scones, alfajores, and other pastries. They also offer some of their limited roasts for direct retail sale.

Using a three-group spring-lever driven Mirage Idrocompresso (their standard among all outlets), they pull shots of their Especiales blend with a lightly speckled medium brown crema with lighter thickness but decent density. It’s a long cup. Too long, actually, but it still manages not to be runny.

Retail shelf and rear area of tiny Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick Working the three-group Mirage at Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick

The Especiales is Asado’s lone blend: a mix of their two Mt. Meru Tanzania coffees (one a peaberry), each roasted at a medium and at a cliché-busting dark level. The result creates a body-forward, almost Brazil-like taste which is refreshingly distinctive, a little retro, but of unquestionable quality. Asado prides itself on seeking out unusual small lot coffee farms to work with. Combined with their roasting styles, they thankfully ignore many of the monolithic Third Wave clichés.

The milk-frothing here is velvety, but beyond excessive. Their cappuccino comes in what’s arguably a serving bowl that’s nearly the size of your head, suggestive of 1980s wannabe French cafés that focused more on bladder-busting than flavor. Or at least coffee flavor; I never understood why some coffee shops see to adding a sprinkle of coffee flavor to their cappuccino as they would nutmeg or cocoa.

It’s an awesome, historic location with great coffee and a solid espresso. But for milk-based drinks, the resulting coffee flavor is washed out in a sea of milk — so we recommend avoiding those.

Read the review of Asado Coffee Roasters Pickwick in downtown Chicago, IL.

The Asado Coffee Roasters espresso The Asado Coffee Roasters cappuccino

If I must: late thoughts on Peet’s buyouts of Intelligentsia and Stumptown

Posted by on 08 Nov 2015 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

Unless you’re wearing a tinfoil hat and staying off the grid (except for this blog), you probably know that Peet’s Coffee & Tea — through JAB Holding — bought out both Intelligentsia and Stumptown last month. Predictably, there was much hipster angst on social media (as if that isn’t the whole point of social media), and at first I didn’t see the need to cover the story again.

After all, it is essentially an updated rehash of a post I wrote four years ago. This time around there was an enormous amount of mainstream media coverage as well. But prodded some here, there’s probably another chapter on this topic.

Todd Carmichael once likened Duane Sorenson to Che Guevara, whom is now in a full-on T-shirt sales phaseSome of the mainstream media have come to the defense of the acquired, noting the dual standards of how an Instagram sells for billions of dollars to Facebook and its founders are congratulated while Intelligentsia and Stumptown are showered with “sellout” scorn on social media.

However, most Silicon Valley startups scale by merely replicating data and code. With many leveraging Metcalfe’s Law, these businesses naturally improve the customer experience with scale. Contrast this with the business of coffee, which scales through the much higher friction of skilled labor and quality coffee sourcing.

These two factors are subject to a sort of inverse Metcalfe’s Law: the bigger the scale, or the more customers they serve, the poorer the quality of what they serve. Starbucks didn’t dumb down their baristas and throw out their La Marzocco machines for brain-dead, push-button Verismos because it would improve their coffee quality. They did it out of the necessity to scale to thousands of outlets in the face of a dearth of skilled baristas to hire en masse (and less expensive ones at that).

Show me the hockey stick growthThus do not be fooled by any of the founder rhetoric about how joining Peet’s provides access to better supply chains and whatnot. I cannot think of a single coffee purveyor that has improved with scale — at least from the consumer’s perspective of a quality end product. Investors and shareholders are a different story, however. It’s also worth remembering that Starbucks’ scaling genius was in getting millions of people who don’t like coffee to believe that they did — through flavored milkshakes and the like.

But I don’t begrudge the founders of Stumptown and Intelligentsia for taking a great risk in the marketplace when much fewer cared as much about coffee quality, for making a great product, for working hard at it, and for growing their businesses. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and for helping to popularize better coffee. I thank them heartily, but make no mistake: effectively this is their stop. This is where they get off.

The House that Intelligentsia builtYou could argue Stumptown got off earlier than Intelligentsia. While Intelligentsia was still producing barista champions, Stumptown was already downgrading itself as a bottled coffee purveyor as its founder preoccupied himself with becoming a restauranteur. Stumptown counter-intuitively went beyond producing wholesome basics to embarking on the packaged foods path of processed, shelf-stable consumables — just as much of the food world was headed in the opposite direction. In other words: more pumpkin spice latte in a can, less Cup of Excellence.

Why the words “new” and “innovation” should never be associated with good coffee

In fact, the world of coffee today seems obsessed with the brewing-gadget-of-the-week and “new and exciting” coffee beverage concepts as a complete distraction from the basic quality of the fundamentals. These fads and come-ons hint at the side-show desperation of coffee in the 1980s when the emphasis was on faddish gimmicks such as flavored coffees (French vanilla, mocha creme, hazelnut whatever, anyone?).

When you see this associated with coffee, run!Every time I see the words “new” or “innovation” associated with coffee, I know they have completely lost the plot. Those are the marketing buzzwords of factory production and packaging. Coffee is an agricultural product, and there’s a reason why we don’t seek out “new” and “innovation” when buying other agricultural products such as asparagus or pork.

“New” beverage concept introductions such as cold brew and nitro coffee (another thing to thank Stumptown for) are just a page lifted from the Jack-In-The-Box food fad marketing playbook for the Spicy Sriracha Burger. May as well package nitro coffee in a cardboard box along with an action figure from the next Star Wars movie and call it a Happy Pack. Offer good while supplies last.

I do hope both Intelligentsia and Stumptown have a ways to go still under their new ownership. But then I look no further than Starbucks and how its buyout strategy of competitors with better product played out. Whether Torrefazione Italia, Teavana, or the Clover Equipment Company, Starbucks seems to have taken a deliberate scorched earth approach that ultimately eliminates consumer access to better end product.

Thus I recommend fans get their Intelligentsia and Stumptown fixes while they still can, because there really is only one direction for them to go from here.

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