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So why Blue Bottle Coffee?

Posted by on 30 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

Big-name capital investments in coffee businesses are old news. The newest of this old news is an additional $25.75 million of investment secured by Blue Bottle Coffee (SF Gate, Business Insider).

James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee, looking like a colorized photo from the 1800sNews like this tends to elicit a mixture of validation (i.e., “Good coffee is serious business!”) and a little envy (i.e., “My business makes great coffee, so where’s my $25 million?”). So why Blue Bottle?

To read some of the explanations out there, it’s an investment in “slow coffee” or “craft coffee” (the latter term we avoid for potential confusion with “Kraft coffee” — aka, Maxwell House). We read about their “brand cache” and their “commitment to freshness” — which aren’t exactly unique.

Like any business, Blue Bottle also has it’s problems and flaws — over-extension beyond the reach of their quality controls being one big example (e.g., see our recent review of Fraîche.) But Blue Bottle is doing a number of things right, and we’re surprised that some of them aren’t being reported.

Outside-In vs. Inside-Out

How most roasters sell coffee to consumers is broken and outright wrong. This is rooted in an old industry problem we’ve long lamented here, which is approaching customers from an inside-out approach instead of an outside-in one. Past examples of this discussed here on this blog include coffee cuppings for layman consumers; we’ve gotten into long, drag-out debates on this topic with the likes of Peter Giuliano — co-owner and Director of Coffee at Counter Culture Coffee and Director of Symposium at the SCAA.

But it is symbolic of the coffee industry’s chronic inability to adopt a consumer-centric approach. Rather than think about how coffee is experienced by consumers, many coffee purveyors first try to shoehorn consumers into the perspective of industry insiders. Thus most coffee people today sell as if only to other coffee people — not to consumers.

The Blue Bottle Coffee Web site coffee listings circa 2012

Blue Bottle, on the other hand, exhibits one of the better examples of a coffee company that’s trying to fix that. One way to clearly see this is on their Web site. Last year, Blue Bottle sat down with the Google Ventures design team and an agency in Montreal to rethink their Web site. What they found is that most retail coffee Web sites emphasize things like a coffee’s origin — stuff that’s of great relevance to how people in the industry think about coffee but is often a meaningless descriptor to a consumer. That’s not how consumers buy coffee.

They discovered that primarily selling a coffee under the “Kenya” designation is a little like the early days of selling personal computers, where PC dealers emphasized things like processor clock speeds, memory cache sizes, and PCI slots. All of which made great sense to the way industry insiders thought about computers but were just gibberish to most layman consumers. Today’s ubiquitous Apple retail stores are successful, in part, because Apple addresses consumer needs without weighing it down with superfluous industry insider gibberish.

Blue Bottle Coffee's Web site redesign from 2013: so you have an Aeropress...

This could explain some of the popularity of Philz Coffee‘s Harry-Potter-like alchemy: the nonsensical labels on their coffee blends (e.g., “Ambrosia Coffee of God” or “Silken Splendor”) might be at least as meaningful to consumers as calling something “Kenya Nyeri Gatomboya AA”.

If you look at Blue Bottle’s Web site redesign, notice how it leads with the things that are most meaningful to consumers: how they brew their coffee and what devices they might have at home to brew it. Their Web site also emphasizes consumer brewing guides to complement this cause.

Queuing Psychology

Soup kitchen or Blue Bottle Coffee line?I’m not the only one who has either avoided or abandoned the long lines at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco’s touristy Ferry Building Marketplace location. But some may be surprised that these lines aren’t entirely by accident.

Another smart thing Blue Bottle does (and they’re far from the only ones) is apply queuing psychology at such a publicly visible location to influence perceived demand and value — or what FastCompany last year called “The Wisdom of the Cronut.”

The painful morning wait for cronuts is likely to be contributing to the product’s popularity. The fact that people are waiting signals to others that they too should be in on the trend.

–FastCompany, “The Wisdom of the Cronut: Why Long Lines Are Worth The Wait”

What’s worse than a line that’s too long? A line that’s too short. We’re talking some Disneyland mental mojo here.

Think of all the tourists walking by in the Ferry Building, saying, “Do you see that line? That must be some pretty good coffee!” Or even the revenue-per-customer-transaction winner of, “If we’re going to wait in line this long, we may as well also pick up a Blue Bottle hoodie, a Hario Buono kettle, and a coffee subscription.”

Breaking Out of the Retail Point-of-Sale Model

On the subject of coffee subscriptions and how they’ve reportedly reached “trendy” status finally, Blue Bottle has been at it for quite a while. We may not get the point of adding another middleman for the brief window consumers play the field before settling down more with their favorite coffee purveyors. But we do like the longer-term prospects of buying direct from the roasters you do come to enjoy, which suits Blue Bottle extremely well.

Coffee subscriptions get Blue Bottle Coffee to Phase 3For Blue Bottle, coffee subscriptions have become where they make most of their money. Although revenue-per-customer is higher with prepared retail coffee beverages, so are the underlying costs. Because when you drink that latte, the main ingredient — and biggest contributor to the price of the beverage — is labor costs. For selling coffee subscriptions as a bean & leaf shop, the additional costs are little more than drop shipping.

This has transformed how Blue Bottle approaches coffee sales, as most coffee businesses still sell to consumers like most other real-estate-based point-of-sale businesses. Thus at tourist-friendly locations such as the Ferry Building, Blue Bottle is no longer suggesting that visitors take home a freshly roasted 12-ounce pack. Rather, they suggest that they sign up for a running coffee subscription shipped regularly to their home.

And when it comes to venture capitalists who are most familiar with funding software companies, investing in a subscription business gets them very excited. After all, virtually every software business has spent the past decade trying to shift consumers from retail purchases to subscription models.

Trip Report: Chromatic Coffee Co. (Santa Clara, CA)

Posted by on 15 Jan 2014 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

For those who lamented the closure of the great Barefoot Coffee Roasters at this South Bay strip mall location in 2012 (and we were among them), Chromatic hasn’t missed a beat since it moved in right afterwards.

Opening in October 2012, Chromatic picked up very much where Barefoot left off: a great attention to coffee-making detail and roasting their own. It also didn’t hurt that when we first visited, they espoused a playlist featuring obscure-but-outstanding ’80s & ’90s college radio. (“Johnny’s Gonna Die” by the Replacements, “Chapel Hill” by Sonic Youth, etc. — stuff for which we have an immense soft spot.)

Familiar entrance: this time to Chromatic Coffee Wall o' merchandising inside Chromatic Coffee

Table seating inside Chromatic Coffee Another view of Chromatic Coffee's merchandising wall

One small change from Barefoot is that the wall of merchandising is on your left instead of your right as you walk in: various roasts, coffee equipment, and the occasional marketing swag. The café table seating hasn’t really changed at all, featuring several smaller tables and chairs arranged out in front of the coffee bar and extending towards the back.

Using a three-group La Marzocco Strada machine and their Gamut Espresso blend, they pulled shots that weren’t too heavy on body but have some nice chocolate tones with some caramel and a little orange peel. This is not a brightness bomb espresso (thankfully); there aren’t any sharp edges that mask other flavors. There’s balance, nuance, and some subtlety here: all qualities that are lost on many newer roasters.

One might hypothesize that the trend towards highly acidic espresso shots has parallels in the ever-popular wine analogy, where American consumers have shown a strong preference for overly big, fruity, and oaky wines with the finesse of a sledgehammer. While there’s no right or wrong when it comes to personal taste, we’re reminded of those who put hot peppers on everything they eat just to taste their food at all.

Fortunately, Chromatic’s espresso is nothing like that. In fact, it’s a great espresso that should be the envy of virtually any neighborhood in the world. Even if the service here can be painfully slow at times — as in Blue Bottle Mint Plaza slow. But who wants to rush quality, right?

Read the review of Chromatic Coffee Co. in Santa Clara, CA.

Coffee for sale at Chromatic Coffee Service area inside Chromatic Coffee

Chromatic Coffee's Strada machine The Chromatic Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Espresso in Eataly Chicago

Posted by on 23 Dec 2013 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting

Six years ago we wrote about the original Eataly in Torino, Italy. Since then, Eataly crossed the Atlantic with a wildly successful New York City opening in August 2010. Earlier this month, Eataly Chicago opened — and boy, did it open. Within its first week of operation, it had to shut down for two days just to retrench for the customer demand onslaught.

At 63,000 square feet, Eataly Chicago is a little larger than the one in New York City, but still only about half the size of the original in Torino. (It actually seems small by comparison to that former Carpano factory.) But surprisingly, despite the many cultural and personnel differences from Italy, Eataly Chicago mostly stays true to its roots at the original.

Eataly Chicago beckons the tourists off Mag Mile Inside Eataly Chicago

Eataly Chicago sticks to recognizably common branding with its mothership. Food slogans are prominently offered in English and Italian. Even its supply chain has a lot in common — from Lurisia water, to exquisite wines from Prunotto and Albino Rocca, to Baratti & Milano chocolates.

And yet there are distribution anomalies. Nutella crêpes and Lavazza bars are totally incongruous from the Slow Food-driven, small producer focus as in Eataly in Italy. And what American supermarket doesn’t carry Barilla pasta? Meanwhile, Eataly Torino would promote meat from a specific breed of rabbit that would die out if not for the careful and deliberate cultivation of its species.

Eataly Chicago's sponsors - with a noticeable lack of some of the core team from Italy Meat counter inside Eataly Chicago

Of course, encouraging patrons to “eat local” is naturally going to be incongruous with being a massive Italian import store. We recognize that some concessions must be made to remain commercially viable. Hence why American-friendly celebrity chefs, such as Mario Batali and Lidia & Joe Bastianich, are prominently featured — whereas Italian restauranteur geniuses behind the original Eataly, such as Piero Alciati, are not. The shelves of food books by Batali-buddy Gwyneth Paltrow may have made us throw up in our mouths a little, but we understand why she’s there.

There are two coffee purveyors within Eataly Chicago. Unlike Eataly Torino, they may not showcase the use of Slow Food coffee bean stocks from Huehuetenango, Guatemala as roasted by Torinese prison inmates. But they chose two purveyors that are recognizably Piemontese: Lavazza and Caffè Vergnano.

Lavazza

Lavazza is no stranger to Chicago, so it’s a little odd that they were chosen as one of two coffee purveyors in Eataly Chicago. Especially since Eataly was founded on small, local purveyors within the radar of the Slow Food movement, and Lavazza is the largest coffee distributor in Italy.

Located next to the Nutella crêpe bar on first floor of Eataly Chicago, they offer decorative baked items in addition to a hot and cold “Dolcezze Lavazza” specialty drinks menu. They offer seating along a curved window counter in the main corner of Eataly Chicago.

Main counter at Eataly Chicago's Lavazza bar Curved serving and consuming counters at Eataly Chicago's Lavazza bar

Using dueling three-group La Cimbali machines, they pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema. They serve them properly short — but not too strongly flavored of a fresher Lavazza flavor profile of toasted spices and pungency. For milk-frothing, they produce a rich and creamy microform with token latte art. Surprisingly rather solid.

Read the review of Lavazza at Eataly Chicago.

The Eataly Chicago Lavazza espresso and cappuccino Close-up of the Eataly Chicago Lavazza espresso

Caffè Vergnano

This is Chicago’s installment of a series of chain roasters and cafés based in Italy’s Piemonte region, but with multiple locations in international locations such as London.

Located on the second floor of Eataly Chicago, it’s a no-frills affair with six coffee blends available for purchase and only two different kinds of prepared coffee drinks for retail purchase: an espresso and a caffè macchiato in single and doppio sizes. Not even the cappuccino makes the list here, and we admire them for sticking to their guns and ensuring it’s about the coffee and not the milk.

Caffè Vergnano at Eataly Chicago Caffè Vergnano's Elektra Belle Epoque Verticale at Eataly Chicago

A walk-up bar service with three marble countertops in front, they use a gorgeous, chrome, three-group Elektra Belle Epoque Verticale to pull shots with an even, darker brown crema with a small heat spot. It has a heartier aroma of darker flavors with a flavor profile consisting of chocolate and some herbal pungency all in balance.

Served with a packaged Caffè Vergnano 1882 biscoffee biscuit on the side, it is surprisingly better than its Italian equivalent — although we may have caught their Alba location on an off day. With a small glass of still water optionally served on the side of their logo block IPA cups.

Read the review of Caffè Vergnano at Eataly Chicago.

The Caffè Vergnano espresso and macchiato at Eataly Chicago Close-up of the Caffè Vergnano espresso at Eataly Chicago

Service area at the Eataly Chicago Lavazza bar Service and seating area near the Eataly Chicago Caffè Vergnano

Trip Report: Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 (Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, Italy)

Posted by on 08 Dec 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

This restaurant is often considered the best in Southern Italy and certainly one of its most famous. It’s earned two Michelin stars, and it’s known as something of a Chez Panisse of Italy: an emphasis on locally grown ingredients sourced from the chef’s 6 hectare farm, Le Peracciole (purchased in 1990), but elevated to a fine dining experience.

Located at the heart of the remote hill town of Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, it’s situated on a mountain ridge that overlooks both the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno (hence the town’s name). Driving up in a torrential downpour, we accidentally pulled in for cover into the garage for the restaurant service staff — decorated with large murals of various fruits and vegetables — and arrived via the service entrance. Not that it mattered, because whether we stumbled upon the pre-service staff dinner or found ourselves in part of the kitchen, the staff were exceptionally friendly and accommodating.

Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 - in less stormy times Kitchen prep inside Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890

Alfonso Costanzo Iaccarino started this operation as a hotel in 1890. Today it is both a hotel and restaurant (the latter begun in 1973) owned and operated by Livia and Alfonso Iaccarino. The two patrol the dining room with its pink and white walls, ensuring their brigade offers impeccable service (and it very much is).

One of the few buildings on site is La Cantina, their world-famous, 25,000-bottle wine cellar. It begins as you enter a 17th century Neapolitan building. It then leads to an earlier wing from the 16th century. And it then descends some 40 meters at an angle into the earth into what was originally a 6th century Etruscan tomb. At the bottom of the tomb they also age some of their cheeses.

Don Alfonso 1890's custom coffee blend from Caffè Maresca Old bottles inside Don Alfonso 1890's La Cantina

Descending into Don Alfonso 1890's 6th century Etruscan tomb Inside Don Alfonso 1890's 6th century Etruscan tomb

Besides the over-the-top tasting menu (eel mousse?!), they also offer a coffee service that aspires to the level of uniqueness and memorability as the food here. (Contrast with the more pedestrian — albeit top-quality — approach taken by Copenhagen’s Noma.)

They wood-roast their own private coffee label through nearby Caffè Maresca, and they swear by La San Marco as the best espresso machines they can get their hands on. They pull very short shots of espresso with a darker and medium brown crema and heavy chocolate tones to the flavor, and they serve it in cartoon-colorful Solimene ceramic cups from Vietri sul Mare with lids and two saucers.

Eel mousse? Part of a tasting course at Don Alfonso 1890 Food porn: pasta and black truffles at Don Alfonso 1890

Inside Don Alfonso 1890's dining room Alfonso Iaccarino patrolling the dining room at Don Alfonso 1890

To create a more unique experience, they serve their espresso with five different sugars — each produced at different levels of refinement. It may not be close to the best espresso we’ve ever had, but they clearly make the effort and do what you’d expect from such a special restaurant to make the coffee service equally as memorable. At least more than just the sticker shock you get from its €5 price tag.

As over-the-top Italian restaurants go, Don Alfonso 1890 offers some of the best service we’ve experienced anywhere. The food is outstanding and showcases an emphasis on simple, quality ingredients for which Southern Italy is known. That said, we’d still have to give a slight edge to more of the culinary refinement you’ll find at a place like Guido Ristorante Pollenzo up north.

Read the review of Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 in Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, Italy.

French press coffee being prepared as part of a dessert in the kitchen at Don Alfonso 1890 Sugar at various levels of refinement at Don Alfonso 1890

Coffee service at Don Alfonso 1890 Espresso at Don Alfonso 1890

Trip Report: Giovanni Scaturchio (Napoli, Italy)

Posted by on 24 Oct 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

This bakery in the heart of Napoli has been a family operation since its founding by its namesake in 1905. They are mostly known for their baked goods: a pasticceria filled with sweets, pastries, and cakes. One of their more comical creations is a Vesuvio cake on display that comes in the shape of the famed volcano that looms on the horizon. Though who wouldn’t want a cake to celebrate your impending fiery death in a vaporizing cloud of molten ash?

Entrance to Giovanni Scaturchio Seating outside in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore

Scaturchio cakes - including the Vesuvio (center) Tight quarters inside Giovanni Scaturchio

Scaturchio also makes their own gelato and roasts their own supply of coffee offsite in small, personal batches. They also sell their coffee on request. Of course as in much of Napoli, most families only have stovetop Moka pots — so the coffee is sold pre-ground and in tins.

Scaturchio also resells their roasted coffeeThis is a traditionally tight space with no seating inside. If you want a caffè at the bar during a popular hour, be prepared to muscle in or wait patiently a bit. However, if the weather is decent, there’s ample outdoor seating under parasols across the entrance to the shop in one of Napoli’s great piazzas. The people-watching there alone is worth the price of admission.

Using a three-group manual lever La San Marco machine behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, almost a dark grey, ochre-looking crema — unlike any crema we have even seen prior. (The lighting in the attached images don’t do it justice.) But be not afraid: it’s a solid, good espresso.

There’s a lot of life to the cup: there’s some smoke, but it’s not too smoky. Flavorwise, it is primarily a mixture of potent spice and some herbal notes in good balance. Served with water on the side for €0.90. They scored a 1(/3) tazzina and 1(/3) chiccho in the 2014 Gambero Rosso Bar d’Italia.

Read the review of Giovanni Scaturchio in Napoli, Italy.

Barista working Scaturchio's lever La San Marco The Scaturchio espresso - and it's bizarrely greyish matte crema

Coffee Quality When Growing Your Own, or: What Coffee Was Like Before the Coffee Industry

Posted by on 10 Sep 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

The Internet sags from a surfeit of posts from Do-It-Yourself (DIY) types. But at the risk of seeming like we’re piling on, we’re posting some of our bean-to-cup experiences with coffee grown quite literally in a family backyard.

But this coffee isn’t the result of an obsession where home roasting just didn’t take things far enough. Instead, it’s an isolated glimpse into a casual family production of green coffee — much in the same way your extended family might grow its own garden tomatoes or cucumbers. It arrived hand-delivered by a family friend in a Ziploc bag, some 5,000 miles from its origin.

Dairy in the bucolic setting of São Jorge island Igreja de São Mateus, with the crowds anticipating rowdy bulls in the streets

The Origin

While there have been multiple efforts to commercially grow coffee in California’s Santa Barbara County since the 1850s, the coffee for our story was grown on the island of São Jorge in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. The subtropical, volcanic islands of the Azores are the only real coffee growing region in Europe. Although bucolic São Jorge produces agricultural exports such as its famed cheese, its coffee production is dominated by personal rather than commercial use (with very rare and minuscule exceptions, such as Café Nunes in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes).

Our mini coffee lot originates from a few acres of property that stretches from the center of town in Urzelina to the Atlantic Ocean. More than once over the years, my wife and I climbed a ladder and sat on a wall of this property — located across the street of the Igreja de São Mateus church where my in-laws were married in the Sixties — safely observing one of the many crazy street bullfights in the central Azores, called touradas à corda, that took place below our dangling feet. Thus we’ll jokingly name the coffee’s origin as Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus.

Bull at Igreja de São Mateus in tourada à corda Bull walking along a wall over which our coffee originated

It neighbors similar lots where other families grow, pick, dry, and sort their own coffee for home use. Isabel graciously offered a few pounds of the stuff from her property, and we played no role in its processing nor pedigree. Thus the goal was to experience what home-grown coffee in the Azores might truly be like. I’m no botanist, so I can’t tell you if it’s Typica or Bourbon or Caturra (highly unlikely). It most resembles a Yemen-like Typica variant or a shortberry harrar, which also explains a little of why it is dry-processed rather than washed.

As for any screening and hand-sorting, well, this is, after all, a family farm operation. Fortunately the sorting was clean enough that I did not have to worry about my burr grinder gagging on any obvious stones or twigs.

The first thing you notice about the processed beans is how darkly colored and irregular they are compared to commercial coffees. This is hardly unique to dry-processed coffees, but this takes the commercial grade stuff a step further.

And the beans themselves are quite small, and the screening used on the family farm isn’t very stringent. But to their credit, there are few major irregularities in size. Everything is larger than a sunflower kernel and there’s only the occasional large and/or off-colored bean. Even so, we resisted the temptation to further sort the coffee to keep it true to its personal use in the Azores. Long before commercial buyers, processors, roasters, and coffeehouses existed, this is how most people experienced coffee.

A ZipLoc bag of the dark and somewhat irregular Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus Left: a three-bean Malabar Gold blend; Right:  Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

Closer inspection of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus The tiny bean size of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

The Roast

Pan roasting is typical among families who grow their own green coffee beans. Even James Freeman started Blue Bottle Coffee with a baking sheet in his oven. Although I could have reverted to some of these very original and primitive roasting methods, I’m no good at any of them and have no real practice. All of which spells trouble if you’ve only got a couple of pounds of coffee to work through to get it right.

Instead, I made a slight nod to modern convenience and opted for my old, trusty Fresh Roast+ roaster. It is essentially a glorified hot air popcorn popper with a chaff collector that I purchased over a decade ago, and I’ve had years of practice making pretty decent roasts with it. And unlike the newer Fresh Roast models with larger roasting chambers (normally a big plus), its tiny two-ounce batch size lent well to dialing in a target roast profile quickly with a limited supply of green coffee beans.

The first thing I noticed is that the coffee lacked a real discernible first or even second crack. Without the sound or a temperature gauge on my roaster, I thus had to determine my target roast levels by sight (color) and smell (and smoke) entirely. The second thing I noticed is that the bean size inconsistencies and bean shape irregularities required a lot of post-roast culling to even out the result. The third thing I noticed was that the chaff looked a lot like bird food.

After a trial with several roasting levels and tasting the results (after a couple days rest for the CO2 to escape), I rediscovered what all commercial coffee roasters have known for eons: by roasting cheaper grade coffee more darkly, you can hide a lot of problems.

Which isn’t to say that we believe dark roasting is universally bad; there are some good body-heavy coffees from Indonesia that shine best under darker roasting conditions. But dark roasting is the lazy roaster’s shortcut to consistency. We could only imagine how uneven pan roasting would contribute to this effect.

Roasting Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus The chaff of the Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus looks mixed with bird seed

The Brew

Any bean and roasting irregularities of course came out in the resulting brew, as a few under-roasted beans would lend a grassy or sometimes downright wonky taste that could spoil the entire cup. (This is a big reason why Ernesto Illy was religious about Illy‘s screening process.) Fortunately the combination of a darker roast profile and post-roast bean culling mitigated these problems quite a lot.

So how best to brew this beast? Espresso would be too sensitive to the bean quality and irregularities. We tried a small French press pot, but the inconsistent beans somehow imparted a little too much grit in the cup to our liking. Not surprisingly, the Moka stovetop produced some of the best results — mirroring what many families have used for years to brew coffee in the Azores. But we also did have a little success with an Aeropress, which seems to lend well for this type of coffee profile: a body-centric cup with little to offer at the bright ends and a flavor of smoke, spice, and the unfortunate edge of ashiness.

The resulting cup was definitely drinkable, but far from anything we’d write home about (save for this post here I suppose). The experience served as both of an appreciation of what coffee was informally like for consumers before the advent of the commercial coffee industry. It was also an exercise in appreciating the many quality and process improvements we enjoy from that same coffee industry today.

The roasted end product of Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus Aeropress brewing of the  Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus

Eight random people rank SF coffees in a blind taste test

Posted by on 20 Jun 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

In 1980, just before the 49ers were any good, SF staple Folgers Coffee started a TV commercial blitz that quickly became a running joke in comedy circles. It began with a TV spot where diners at SF’s then-esteemed Blue Fox restaurant (located at 659 Merchant St.) were duped by replacing the Blue Fox’s “fine coffee” (yeah, right) with Folgers “Instant Coffee Crystals”. Would any of the discriminating diners notice?

The Bold Italic wants us to 'guess the loser' rather than choose good coffeeThis week one of the latest of many knock-off local online rags, The Bold Italic, published their findings of a slightly more modern — and equally irrelevant — blind taste test: Guess The Loser of Our Blind Coffee Taste Test – The Bold Italic – San Francisco. Their question?: “can city dwellers really tell the difference between premium artisanal coffee and your average cup of joe?”

The Bold Italic chose eight random people to compare and rank coffees from six different roasting sources: Ritual, Sightglass, Four Barrel, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and — back from the grave — Folgers.

Survey says… very little

The supposed big “shock” of this miniscule random sample is that, while Ritual came out on top, Dunkin’ Donuts beat out Sightglass and Four Barrel. (Folgers wasn’t rock bottom, however, as that place was reserved for Starbucks.) However, is it really any surprise that mass market coffees might appeal to the broader public tastes of a random sample? Here at CoffeeRatings.com, we never claimed to speak for anyone’s tastes but our own: it’s a very subjective thing.

The Bold Italic sets up their blind taste testThousands of people love In-N-Out Burger to a religious degree, and yet I think they are no better than a glorified Burger King. And while some people adore the brightness bombs from Sightglass, I’ve often thought their coffee tasted like an under-roasted acid bomb going off in my mouth. This is just personal taste, not a freak of statistics.

However, what we found most amusing of all about the article was the writing. We have no idea what kind of coffee fairytale-land Ms. Medina believes we San Franciscans live in — complete with unicorn baristas and rainbow coffee enemas. She offers quotes about “thousands of coffee shops offering the most freshly picked beans” (do you have any clue how many opt for cheap bean fodder such as America’s Best Coffee?) and locals accustomed to coffee “ground to perfection to form the perfect espresso” (have you actually seen our local espresso ratings over the past 10 years?).

And then this unsubstantiated hyperbole: locals “surrounded by $6 cups of coffee galore”?!? The $4 coffee myth has apparently hit major inflation. Where can you even find a cup of drip coffee for $6 around here that isn’t either the extremely rare promotional Geisha or some coffee tourist gag novelty crapped out of a Southeast Asian mammal?

We suppose if there’s anything to learn from this random anecdote disguised as a study, it’s that SF webmags have no boundaries for being unintentionally comedic.

CoffeeCON 2013

Posted by on 10 May 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

CoffeeCON 2013 event brandingPerhaps the biggest irony is that nobody should ever need a CoffeeCON.

As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.

And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)

CoffeeCON 2013 at the IBEW Local Union 701 with the roasting demo on the patio Entrance to CoffeeCON 2013, with Metropolis and Counter Culture Coffee off on the left

Coffee: Y U No Like Your Customers?

Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”

But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.

Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)

Regular Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Home roasting demos outside at CoffeeCON 2013

You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)

All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?

More Coffee, Less Con

CoffeeCON 2013's course listingCoincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.

CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:

CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.

Jim Schulman (L) and Kevin Sinnott (R) at CoffeeCON 2013 Baratza's course on grinding at CoffeeCON 2013

Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.

Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.

Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.

CoffeeCON’s Coffee and Personalities

Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.

The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.

Yes, the Heat Gun/Dog Bowl method being demoed at CoffeeCON 2013 Oren and son from Oren's Daily Roast at CoffeeCON 2013

Tasting cups as part of George Howell's sensory lab at CoffeeCON 2013Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.

As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.

A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.

George Howell giving his 2 1/2 hour lecture at CoffeeCON 2013 Halfwit barista raves about how the Kalita pot is at least twice as good as the Hario equivalent

Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.

Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.

Counter Culture Coffee at CoffeeCON 2013 Counter Culture Coffee's Finca El Puente Honduras espresso at CoffeeCON 2013

Trip Report: La Colombe (West Loop, Chicago, IL)

Posted by on 09 May 2013 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Machine, Roasting, Starbucks

La Colombe continues to play an interesting role in the modern evolution of consumer coffee tastes. Starting in 1985 in Seattle, co-founders Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe (JP) Iberti joined forces and decided to set up their idea for a great American roaster in Philadelphia. Which was no small risk, given that Philadelphia isn’t the friendliest environment to start a froofy coffee business peddling $4 lattes. National accolades followed in the 1990s and early 2000s from many in the food journalism world — many who were simply taken aback that someone dared to do something interesting with coffee when Starbucks was presumed to be its final word.

Fast forward to today, and you can’t swing a dead cat in most cities without hitting a local microroaster who deals in Direct Trade. In terms of this absurd coffee wave business, this made La Colombe something of a genetic missing link — a kind of coffee wave version number 2.6. Given that La Colombe has not succumbed to faddish trends of trying to make all coffee taste like hibiscus and blueberries (and worst of all: lawn clippings), this has sometimes made them seem a bit passé in the eyes of many who would rather fawn over coffee’s latest Young Turks/poster boys like the K-Pop idol band flavor of the month.

Entrance to La Colombe in Chicago's West Loop Inside Chicago's La Colombe in the West Loop

Inside Chicago's West Loop La Colombe at the Randolph St. windows La Colombe's Officine Vittoria roaster in back

Thus while a lot of industry attention has focused obsessively on “what’s next”, as if in daily anticipation of a coming Ray-Kurzweil-inspired coffee singularity, La Colombe as fallen a bit off the radar — quietly building out coffeehouses in New York, Chicago, and Seoul and establishing wholesale operations.

La Colombe Chicago

Opening back in the Summer of 2011, the first Chicago outlet started in the transforming neighborhood of the West Loop on Randolph St. This is an old neighborhood of butchers and meat delivery trucks … of Greek markets where students at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago knew they could buy alcohol without ever being carded. (I know this, because I was one of them.)

In the past decade, this neighborhood has transformed: giving way to luxury lofts, fine foods, dog care salons, and — shockingly — al fresco dining along the sidewalks. La Colombe is part of this new neighborhood breed. Though they also plan to open a second Chicago location in Bucktown.

This location is an open space with wood floors, wide windows that open in front, a large wooden bench, and a few café tables for seating. It’s a rather spacious place, with roasting operations taking place in the back with a sparkling, classic Officine Vittoria roaster from Bologna, Italy. La Colombe co-founder, JP Iberti, loves to roast on the same equipment put into popular use in the 1980s by Seattle’s Bizzarri family.

La Colombe's Steampunk 4.0 brewing coffee A final pour from La Colombe's Steampunk 4.0

A cup of La Colombe Papua New Guinea from the Steampunk And yet some grit remains in the Steampunk-brewed cup

But that’s not the only curious device obsession here. They have a red, three-group La Marzocco FB/70 for espresso. And they recently replaced one of their grinders (for a second espresso option besides their Nizza blend) with a Alpha Dominche Steampunk 4.0 siphon brewer. La Colombe co-founder (and TV personality), Todd Carmichael, is a healthy skeptic when it comes to the latest coffee gadgetry, but he swears by the Steampunk brewer. He made a big point of it at the last SCAA conference, and all La Colombe locations are in the process of installing them.

Some coffee personalities, like Blue Bottle‘s James Freeman, are enamored with rare and elegant classics when it comes to their coffee machinery. Others, like the Morrison brothers behind Sightglass, gravitate to the newest fads available so that they may play around with them in their toyshop. Curiously, La Colombe seems to operate a little at both ends of the spectrum.

As for the Steampunk, it’s a bit of a throwback to the fleeting halcyon days of the Clover brewer. We personally found that it produces a clean cup, requires its own staffing plan, and generates a little grit at the bottom. However, it didn’t really change the filter coffee equation for us — at least for the trial we joined in with the staff that day. (Sorry, Steampunkers — we’re just not feeling the love yet.)

As for their Nizza espresso, they pull shots with an even layer of medium brown crema and a decent body. There’s an exceptional balance to the cup, with a flavor of spices, mellow pungency, and orange zest. That’s the thing so few North American roasters fail to achieve: the art and complexity of a well thought out, balanced blend. Roasters seem to forget that if you listen to a symphony, 98% of the instruments are wasted if something is screaming to the level that you can’t hear anything else.

Read the review of La Colombe in Chicago’s West Loop.

Old scale as part of La Colombe's Chicago roasting operations The La Colombe Nizza espresso

Trip Report: Pavement Coffeehouse (Boylston St., Boston, MA)

Posted by on 24 Apr 2013 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

This coffeehouse is highly decorated by the locals. Boston Magazine named it Boston’s Best Coffee Shop 2012. It has even achieved national recognition, including listing among Food & Wine‘s America’s Best Coffee Bars and Travel + Leisure‘s America’s Coolest Coffeehouses. And you can see why: it’s a vibrant spot that serves some really good coffee.

The “main” Pavement — and there’s more than one in Back Bay — is located a couple blocks up Massachusetts Ave. from one of our favorite Boston landmarks, the Mapparium. (OK, it hasn’t hurt that we’re also big fans of the Unwound album, Challenge for a Civilized Society.) There’s patio seating along Boylston St. in front, three window counter seats along the entrance, exposed masonry painted white in back with silver, upholstered booths around many smaller tables.

Entrance to Boston's Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston St. With the SCAA in town, Pavement shows off a La Marzocco GS/3 on the Boylston St. patio

Pavement Coffeehouse's La Marzocco GB/5 and service area Inside Pavement Coffeehouse's seating area

While labelled a coffeeshop, they do a lot of business in meals (lunches, etc.) — making it more of a café. However, they prominently display their use of Counter Culture Coffee and also sell their beans. They additionally offer a “featured espresso” for $3 — which, when we visited, was Anyetsu from Denver’s Novo. (Thus Pavement did not opt in for Counter Culture Coffee’s exclusivity contracts for service and training.)

Using a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 and the Rustico blend from Counter Culture, they pull shots with a highly textured medium-to-darker-brown crema. For its looks, it has a surprisingly lighter body. But with a nice, balanced flavor of cinnamon, cardamom, and a light sweetness and no real smokiness. The flavor profile is very expressive in the midrange, but rather absent at either end of the flavor spectrum.

All-in-all, they serve a great shot. But for all the local and national praised heaped on this coffeehouse, we’ve found at least one place in the city we liked even better. (More in a future review.) Furthermore, we also found the busy vibe here a bit too busy. The environment can be a study in Brownian motion: a bit frenetic with customers always coming, going, and bumping into each other. It made us just want to grab our shot, drink it, and leave.

Read the review of Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston St. in Boston.

Pavement Coffeehouse's GB/5 with Counter Culture branding The Pavement Coffeehouse espresso

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