Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
You may not have noticed it through most of the usual “coffee media” channels, but this past Saturday San Francisco hosted CoffeeCon‘s first-ever road tour. You might recall our coverage last year of CoffeeCon 2013, held at its Warrenville, IL mothership. In its fourth year, CoffeeCon has been enough of a success at addressing unmet coffee consumer interest to take the show nationally for the first time — with SF on July 26, NY on October 11, and finally in L.A. on November 8.
CoffeeCon is somewhat unique as a consumer-oriented coffee event, where layman coffee lovers and enthusiasts can participate without being overlooked for coffee professionals or shunned by trade show hucksters. We may have derided the widespread abuse of the term “Third Wave” as self-promotional marketing babble for some eight years now. But if there was ever an experience that epitomized coffee lovers “enjoying coffee for its own sake,” this has to rank right up there.
They held it in SOMA’s Terra Galleries art gallery/event space, which operated with a surprisingly heavy security detail. A great number of area coffee purveyors came to show off their goods to attendees — including roast-to-order Artís in Berkeley, Blue Bottle, Chromatic, De La Paz, Equator, Flywheel, Four Barrel, George Howell (from MA), Henry’s House of Coffee, Mr. Espresso, Old Soul Co. (a gem from Sacramento), Peerless, Ritual Roasters, Sightglass, and Verve. A favorite overheard non-sequitur of the day reflected the variety on display: “Oh, there’s Blue Bottle… but I can get that anywhere.”
Besides sampling a lot of coffee, attendees could also take courses, experience hands-on demonstrations of consumer equipment, hear talks from professionals (CoffeeCon has contractually locked up much of George Howell‘s speaking tours), and even check out home roasting equipment in the outdoor space.
We caught Mr. Espresso’s Luigi di Ruocco‘s “Italian Espresso” talk and even had an epiphany or two. For example, the Italian art of balance in espresso blends makes all the more sense when you think of how many each Italian sips in a given day. Punchy, overbearing brightness bomb shots would create more palate fatigue if experienced multiple times daily. It also dawned on us how important a rounded espresso flavor profile is to end a meal on as a complement, rather than competitor, to the food you’ve just eaten.
KitchenAid was one of the event’s key sponsors, and they announced a new home coffee brewer currently in factory production. It attempts to automate manual pour-over coffeemaking with an enclosed system of water-pulsing that follows a programmable pour-vs.-steep algorithm. In that sense, it seems a little like a consumer version of Clover‘s Precision Pour Over concept, which has seemingly gone dark over the past couple of years.
While KitchenAid has been long known for its mixers, it first got into the coffee business with the A-9 and A-10 coffee mills back in 1937. They still do amateurish things, such as exclusives with Williams-Sonoma (who notoriously offer some of the most overpriced and most substandard/landfill-bound consumer coffee appliances on the market). But in recent years KitchenAid has introduced decent-for-the-price-point Pro-line Burr grinders and other worthy consumer coffee products targeting what they now, unfortunately, call the craft coffee market.
Side note: the term “craft coffee”, appropriated from the beer world, is really just a pound-for-pound stupidity surrogate for the ever-more-embarrassing “Third Wave” term these days. Use of the term is made all the worse by the decades-old homonym, “Kraft coffee“: i.e., the Big Four coffee purveyor more commonly known as “Maxwell House.” This is akin to the craft beer market calling itself the “blue ribbon beer market”. *Facepalm*
So it’s with curious irony, lost on KitchenAid, that they’re now offering an appliance that push-button automates a manual pour-over in the name of craft coffee. (And not an Alanis Morissette “irony” either.)
As a home-grown event with little professional event staffing, CoffeeCon seemed to experience a bit of chaos outside of its mothership confines for the first time: running out of badge-holders, a lack of pre-event press, some improv when an occasional speaker didn’t show on time, and a couple of classrooms separated only by a hospital-room-like thin cloth barrier. The last one generated audible cacophony when the class next door would roar with coffee grinders. But all in all, the event was anything but disappointing.
We even reconnected with Aleco Chigounis, whose coffee sourcing we’ve long been big fans of. He’s since established Red Fox Coffee Merchants. (No relation, however, to “This is the Big One. Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you, honey!“.)
A project of husband & wife team Lauren Crabbe (former Blue Bottle lead barista) and mixologist Michael McCrory, the couple followed the well-travelled “free money” route of Kickstarter to open this this neighborhood café and roastery in March 2014.
It’s located in a corner shop with a small storefront but long interior that extends well back to their converted 5-lb Probat LE5 roaster. In front as you enter, there’s communal seating at a larger wooden table just behind their large glass windows overlooking the street corner. There are also a few stool seats along the long wall beneath wide white shelving of retail coffee merchandising, across from the service counter.
Overall, the store can only handle a limited number of simultaneous customers: it feels deceptively large, but large swaths of the floorspace are dedicated to the service counter. But of the few seats available inside, almost none of them laptop zombies — which helps create more of a communal feel for the space.
The highlight of the service counter is the impressive three-group, manual Kees van der Westen Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette espresso machine secured from Blue Bottle’s SFMOMA location (since under much reconstruction). They use Mazzer and Astoria grinders, and for their espresso they pulled shots of their Short Strand blend: a combination of washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe and natural Brazil from Daterra Farms (sourced as greens via InterAmerican). Michael was roasting some of the Daterra Brazil at the time of our visit, noting its lack of “peanut” character typical of its brethren.
They pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema of good thickness. It comes with a pungent aroma and possesses a fruity brightness with sharp acidity, but yet it’s backed up with a solid body from its Brazilian base. It’s a vibrant and lively shot, which is quite excellent even if it’s lacking a little balance. Served in hand-fashioned ceramic cups created by SF-based Douglas Dowers and served on a wooden plank with a glass of mineral water on the side.
It’s a seriously solid espresso, and its enjoyed within an authentic experience that seems delightfully ignorant of many of the new coffee shop trends and expectations from the more fashionable parts of the city.
In fact, it wasn’t until we tallied up our scores after the fact that we noted our ratings tied it for the best espresso shot in San Francisco. It’s an excellent shot, but it definitely warrants a revisit to ensure consistency. Or at least I need to ensure I wasn’t just in a giddy coffee mood at the time.
Long before there was Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso continually wrestled with the “last mile” of retail coffee delivery. All their quality efforts sourcing, roasting, and blending coffee could be undone by poor storage, an inexperienced barista, or a poorly maintained espresso machine. By opening Coffee Bar, Mr. Espresso could take more direct control of that last mile and better showcase their coffee.
Equator Estate Coffees is another local roaster that hasn’t quite yet had the retail coffee outlet to truly show them off. This was a particularly nagging issue for us on CoffeeRatings.com, where over the years we noted their industry accolades but were continually challenged to find just one among dozens of example outlets where their roasts didn’t underwhelm us.
Equator co-founder and master roaster, Brooke McDonnell, sometimes took to the comments on our blog posts to debate the variances in personal tastes. She was right that personal tastes vary, and none are necessarily more “right” or “wrong” than others.
Sure, we’ve been known to pause over the likes of Stumptown Coffee Roasters — who while clearly in the upper echelon of coffee quality always seemed to rank in the lower end of that class. Someone certainly has to, so why not them?
But if Stumptown marked a natural statistical outcome when forced to jockey for rankings within subjective personal tastes, Equator represented nothing short of an anomaly for us. Ultimately, we had more or less come to the conclusion that our perception-of-quality disparity had less to do with our own coffee palate and more with their relatively loose controls over the supply and delivery chain at the retail end.
Opening in June 2013, Equator Coffees at Proof Lab Surf Shop represents a joint venture where the roaster finally got their own “reference quality” coffee bar. Located at one of the main divides in Mill Valley between traffic into “downtown” and traffic towards Muir Woods and the California Highway 1 beaches, this red-painted wooden shack at the head of a part-gravel parking lot beckons surfers and coffee lovers alike. It seems like an odd place for a surf shop (Proof Lab, in back): sandwiched between the Bothin Marsh and Coyote Creek with no sign of sand for miles. But the surfers (and boarders) come.
There’s a cement patio in front, enclosed from the highway by standing surfboards and a surf-board-inspired outdoor table. The rear entrance to the building has seating among white-painted metal café tables and chairs — and a surfboard table. Inside there are several small wooden café tables set against a wall of Hurley surf advertising. (With surfboards in the rear.) One wall is dedicated to retail sale of various coffees and home brewing equipment.
Using a red, two-group La Marzocco Strada machine, they pull shots with a mottled, textured crema of a medium and darker brown. It looks robust and organic, has a decent body, a full aroma, and a well-blended flavor of herbal pungency mixed with some spices, heavy cherry-like fruit (perhaps just a touch too much fruit for my tastes), and some honey-like edges. Served in white logo Espresso Parts cups with very necessary sparkling water on the side.
It’s a solid cup. It has great visual appeal and seems like it has all the ingredients for excellence. However, you might say the enigma continues a little: as good as it is, it still falls on the weaker side of excellence with still some room for improvement.
Haight Street has taken decades to emerge from its Summer of Love bender. Despite locals declaring “the Death of the Hippie” and the end of an idealized Haight-Ashbury by October 1967, runaway teens and drug addicts continued to flock to the neighborhood seeking social escape while lacking any support networks.
By the time I first visited the area in the late 1980s, the stories of wars between drug dealers, crime epidemics, and kids on LSD falling to their deaths out of Victorian windows had long since vanished. But the chronic problems of homelessness and drug addiction remained. Other than seeing live music at the I-Beam or experiencing the camp of Rock & Bowl (now Amoeba Records), this part of the neighborhood was something you generally avoided after dark.
Today, things are very different. In place of the sketchy Cala Foods (whose closing was celebrated by locals), there’s now a Whole Foods. Gentrification hasn’t scrubbed everything clean, but at least the Golden Gate Park area across the street no longer looks like a refugee camp from a condemned methadone clinic.
And located in a large, tall space adjacent to the Whole Foods parking lot — at what used to be the San Francisco Cyclery — is Flywheel Coffee Roasters, opening in April 2012. They have added to the growing coffee legitimacy of the Upper Haight by roasting their own beans — using a Portuguese Joper Roaster in the back.
The space has a sunny entrance with tall windows facing west over Stanyan St. Inside there is counter seating along the windows, simple stool seating at taller tables, and several other tables indoors. Out back there’s something of an enclosed deck that’s exposed to a little bit of the occasional outdoor breeze. Up wooden stairs is a low-ceiling space with a bit of coffee roasting supply storage.
The laptop zombie quotient is on the high side here (ah, the price of gentrification). This gives it a rather cavernous, library-like feel. They offer cold brew drippers ($4), syphon-brewed coffee ($5), Hario V60 pour-overs, and a new three-group Faema Enova for espresso drinks.
They pull shots with a mottled medium brown crema of some coagulated thickness. It tastes of cloves and other, deeper herbal pungency without much spice nor tobacco: it’s actually a rather narrow, limited flavor profile with little roundedness. This perhaps reflects their usual choice of single origin coffees from Colombia, Kenya, Ethiopia, etc. Served in black Espresso Parts cups with a short glass of mineral water on the side.
It may be far from the better espresso shots in town. However, that a decent coffee house serving decent coffee could exist here was difficult to imagine 25 years ago. At least that much is progress, and we always have a soft spot for truly independent cafés.
This original Stanza Coffee location opened in April 2012 with the explicit purpose of showcasing coffee roasted from outside the Bay Area. As such, it’s unfortunately another example of a coffee shop that has defined itself in the negative: i.e., not by what it does and what it stands for, but rather its identity is wrapped up in what it does not do.
We’re big believers that the best coffee shops — or the best of anything, really — simply chart their own course instead of reacting to what others are doing. Defining your own identity as a foil against what others are up to unwittingly puts your own business strategy into your competitors’ hands. That’s driving from your rear-view mirror.
But if anything, that we now have coffee bars specializing in exclusively imported coffee is a healthy sign for local roasters.
Formerly the confectioner, Coco-luxes Haight Street Boutique, this is a small space along Haight St. with dark raspberry walls, dark wood, beat-up upholstered black chairs, and tables in front converted from the tops of barrels. Further back past the short service counter is an almost diner-like lunch counter where laptop zombies crouch over electrical outlets, sucking much of the life out of the place.
Using a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/80 at the bar, they pulled shots of Intelligentsia’s Black Cat that came with a very even, medium brown crema. While it smelled like it could have been an undetonated brightness bomb, it pleasantly (and not surprisingly) was not: a softer Black Cat flavor of some mild spices and some herbalness in a rounded balance. They serve it with a short glass of still water on the side of their white notNeutral cups.
Despite its good qualities, it is far from the more flavorful and best espresso shots in town. With a mission to showcase roasts from outside the area, they modestly live up to the task but do not take it over the line of excellence. It’s hard to say if the results would be significantly better if they focused more on themselves and looked over their shoulders a little less.
That said, we continually wish we could conveniently sample more coffees roasted outside of the area. We’ve been fans of the multi-roaster concept for years — from Ma’velous through the defunct likes of Café Organica. Hopefully Stanza Coffee will continue to fine-tune their operations to better showcase these imports.
This coffee shop opening in Sept. 2013 received an almost inordinate amount of fanfare. It still gets some of it. One of the latest examples being the New York Times Travel section with a recent piece by their former coffee scribe, Oliver Strand.
Andrew Barnett (of Ecco Caffè fame — now Intelligentsia SF — and currently the Good Food Awards and Cup of Excellence judging) established the coffee side of the operations, starting with his own micro-batch coffee roasts. So there’s some definite reason to get excited about that.
But here’s where things get convoluted. Grafted onto this perfectly good coffee bar is GreenSalads.org. Overlooking the folly of naming your brick & mortar business after your electronic address (e.g., “1800 Flowers? But I only need a dozen.”), they serve salads that read like a checklist of 2013’s most trendy and overdone ingredients: kale, quinoa, Brussels sprouts. Is a cauliflower salad in the cards for 2014? It’s honestly hard to tell if the menu here is meant as a self-parody of SF salad menus or not.
But wait — that’s not all. Also grafted onto this place is Lt. Waffle, offering sweet and savory Brussels-style waffles. One even garnered local 7×7 cover press as the #1 item of their “The Big Eat 2014″ list of 100 things we absolutely must eat before we die. (I know I’m holding off on including that DNR in my advanced health care directive until I eat one.) The salad and waffle offerings come courtesy of Anthony Myint, who partnered up with Mr. Barnett while he was a regular customer at Mr. Myint’s Mission Chinese Food.
We may be established fans of Mr. Myint’s Commonwealth and certainly of Mr. Barnett’s coffee. But the resulting café is a bit of a Kickstarter Frankenstein: an odd fusion of waffles, salad, and coffee with the feel of a schizophrenic food consignment shop.
Even so, that hasn’t deterred SF foodies any. Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, the restaurant world has been downsizing their menu ambitions while simultaneously upsizing their revenue-per-plate on lunch fare for the common man. Out are top-dollar amuse-bouches, tasting menus, and culinary foams. In are glorified comfort foods: pimped out burgers, pizza, grilled cheese, and salads offered at twice the price we used to pay, and demonstrating less than half of the culinary creativity pre-2008.
If SF diners proved financially apprehensive about splashing out for a new BMW, they’ve proven more than happy to spend almost as much on a tricked out Honda Civic. The fetishized $4 toast was only a matter of time.
But enough about salads and waffles. While good, we’ll leave those details to Mr. Strand’s quoted restaurant review. The coffee side of the house has its act in order even if it doesn’t quite “wow” for the area. It’s a small corner space with virtually only outdoor sidewalk seating along San Carlos. Inside the wide windows open out to the street and there’s a tiny bench for two.
Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea namesake and Mazzer grinders, they pull shots of espresso with an even medium brown crema and a potent aroma. It’s two-sips short and has a moderate body with a flavor profile of some spice and a slightly bright fruity edge. Served in red Heath cups for espresso (white for caps), Illy spoons, and sparkling water on the side.
Things get a little more unusual when milk is involved. Their macchiato has a dense and creamy milkiness that borders on cappuccino territory, despite its diminutive size. It comes with a latte-art heart. We do like the fact that Linea ruffles some coffee fad feathers in not offering any drip coffee options at the small bar here.
Maybe it’s just me, but Napoli has come up a lot since I posted our survey of the espresso there two weeks ago.
Over the weekend I attended the comedic play Napoli! at SF’s American Conservatory Theater. I can’t remember a play where coffee played such a central role in every scene. Then last night, Neapolitan film director Paolo Sorrentino won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). Like any good Neapolitan, he even thanked soccer player and Napoli patron saint, Diego Maradona:
Both works of art come recommended, btw.
However, last week we also came across a great contrarian article (in Italian) about the espresso in Napoli by Andrej Godina: ANDREJ GODINA A NAPOLI – Un viaggio, una giornata alla scoperta del presunto mito del caffè di Napoli. In it, Mr. Godina tours Napoli to sample the local espresso and is mostly left with a bad taste in his mouth.
Chances are you don’t know Mr. Godina, but it’s fair to say he has credentials. He earned a PhD in Science, Technology and Economics in the Coffee Industry at the University of Trieste studying the scientific papers of Ernesto Illy; he is an SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) Authorized Trainer, Master Barista, and Barista Examiner; and he works at Dalla Corte — an espresso machine manufacturer in Italy whose lineage brought about the E61 group head and the company La Spaziale.
Rather than follow a quality guide, like a Bar d’Italia, he and his barista trainer, Andrea, arrived in Napoli by train and began choosing a number of coffee shops at random. In short, they found them all quite terrible despite the legend of Napoli’s great coffee — which goes back the the 18th century and is even supported by some of Illy‘s own research conducted there.
He discovers minute-and-a-half (i.e., over-) extractions, stale coffee, burnt coffee, dirty cups, grinders with oily build-up, and bitter and astringent espresso. He also dispenses a lot of the folklore behind why Napoli espresso is so “good”: it’s the water, it’s the special roasting process, etc. He even takes a pot shot or two at caffè sospeso (suspended coffee), the Neapolitan caffettiera coffee maker (la tazzulella), and the zucchero-crema. After tasting some dozen espresso shots, the best he could rate them was a 4 out of 10 — with a 6 being acceptable.
It’s one hell of a condemning indictment. Is it fair? In our reviews, it’s true that we targeted many quality caffès with advance research. But we also mixed in a number of places at random and didn’t find them to be too far off the mark. (Save for one horrid exception in the guest breakfast room of a Napoli hotel.) Mr. Godina also dismissed Gran Caffè Gambrinus with a 4/10 rating — which we found to be quite good, even if nothing in Napoli would crack our Top 15 list for San Francisco.
It just shows that a lot still comes down to individual tastes and preferences. While Mr. Godina and I may agree on how good Illy can be in Italy, his company is located in Milano — which we’ve long lamented as one of the most underachieving coffee cities in Italy with many places serving the Dunkin’ Donuts of Italian espresso. Mr. Godina also rates an espresso in Piazza San Marco, Venezia as one of the best he’s ever had. Historical, absolutely, but we would never consider the espresso quality at the likes of Caffè Florian worth writing home about.
We stand by our assessment that the random espresso in Napoli beats the typical baseline quality standards at any other city in the world to which we’ve been (and we’ve been to a lot). But as Mr. Godina’s article proves, opinions will vary.
Napoli is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Globally, it is the city most associated with coffee — and certainly espresso. (Sorry, Seattle.) Yet despite this reputation and Napoli’s many cultural treasures, most tourists avoid it like the 1656 outbreak of the bubonic plague.
Many will pass through Napoli to see the stunning sights of the nearby Amalfi Coast, the islands of Capri or Ischia, or the volcanic graveyards of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But few stay for more than a namesake pizza. Because Napoli has the reputation for a bit too much bustle and way too much hustle. Most of all, Napoli can’t shake its reputation for crime — with legends about the Camorra and Napoli’s scugnizzi street kids abound.
The first time I visited Napoli a dozen years ago, I too was just passing through. And Napoli immediately intimidated me with what seemed like hustlers on the make at every corner: taxi drivers, store owners, people who come up to you on the street. I felt like I had to watch my back at every moment.
I should note that hustlers and crime do not spook me easily. I went to college for four years in the inner city of Chicago at what’s considered the birthplace of Chicago Blues, where John Lee Hooker performed in the streets in the movie The Blues Brothers just a few years earlier, before the Maxwell Street market area was swept up by redevelopment in the 1990s. And in the early ’90s I lived at the intersection of Alcatraz & Sacramento in West Berkeley, where gunfire rang out almost nightly in front of the nearby liquor stores and the black & white Berkeley Police mobile drug enforcement bus — nicknamed “Orca” by the locals — had to set up a near-permanent camp.
But friends more recently travelled to Napoli and told me how much they enjoyed the city — and not just its surrounding environs. What did I miss? This time, I had to “conquer” Napoli: I wasn’t just passing through, and I psyched myself up to face an expected onslaught. But to my bewildered surprise and delight, this time it was nothing like the Napoli I last experienced.
What was different? I’ve come to believe everything had to do with where I was. Before when I was just passing through Napoli, I entered the chaos of Piazza Garibaldi and the main train station or swam against the tide of humanity at the Molo Beverello port: two massive transportation hubs where tourists passing through are easy and plentiful targets for Napoli’s infamous scavenger class.
This time, immersing myself in the various neighborhoods alongside the locals, the Neapolitans seemed much more friendly — in addition to being generally casual, expressive, and proud. They may hold their stares a bit longer than is considered polite in the rest of Italy, but they were no more “threatening” than most Londoners. I managed to completely relax among them, even if my Italian accent betrayed the toscanaccia (or Tuscan snobbery) of my most recent Italian teacher.
The significance of Italian regionalism is particularly acute in Napoli — something called il campanilismo that connotes a strong identity and affiliation with the town campanile from where one is from. Because the Neapolitans are a proud people with a proud history distinctly separate from the rest of Italy, and many wear a chip on their shoulder about it to this day. Since animosities are rarely one-sided, the rest of Italy — particularly the northern, more affluent regions — responds in kind.
A good bit of this internal animosity traces back to the 19th century unification of Italy, the Risorgimento, that gave Napoli and the rest of Southern Italy the short end of the economic, political, and cultural stick. The grudge continues to this day.
As with many other soccer-crazed nations, Italian football (or calcio) serves as a proxy war for the clash of cultures. This past September, Milan-based AC Milan had their stadium shut down because of anti-Napoli abuse by their fans at a match against Neapolitan club heroes SSC Napoli. In today’s papers, now the Rome stadium risks closure for anti-Neapolitan chants outside of their stadium last night.
A common stadium banner in the north at matches against SSC Napoli pleads for nearby Mt. Vesuvius to “lavali col fuoco,” or “wash it with fire,” as Vesuvius did to Pompeii in 79 A.D. Italian soccer fans are Michelangelos of sick, black humor. SF stadium chants of “L.A. sucks!” are childish by comparison.
As an example riposte, while we were in Napoli on October 15, the city hosted a 2014 World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Italy. A vocal number of local fans loudly booed whenever an Italian player touched the ball — with the lone exception of forward Lorenzo Insigne, SSC Napoli player and native of Napoli. That’s how ugly this thing gets, with Neapolitans practically cheering for the other country.
Support for SSC Napoli represents a way for locals to “stick it to the man” up North. While Napoli may have over 50 patron saints, there are perhaps none more celebrated than all-time soccer great, Diego Maradona. Playing for Napoli in the late ’80s, Maradona all but singlehandedly upset the northern dominance of Italian football — leading Napoli to shock championships in 1987 and 1990.
A tough kid from the slums of Buenos Aires, Neapolitans identified with Maradona and accepted him as one of their own scugnizzi. To this day, there are still many painted murals and saintly votive shrines dedicated to Maradona in the streets of Napoli, and his occasional returns to town are as venerated as visits from the Pope.
Despite il campanilismo, Napoli is a city of immigrants — dating back from its Greek settlement roots some 3,000 years ago through to today’s South Asian, Eastern European, and North African communities. But it’s not all gritty slums like the Quartieri Spagnoli either. There are also the Chiaia and Vomero districts — each dotted with luxury boutiques, fine restaurants, grand caffès, and the smell of old money and some new. But what we really like about Napoli, as with Torino, is that unlike Firenze (Florence) it feels left to the locals and nothing like a Disneyland for American tourists.
Napoli is the world’s most important city for espresso. There, I said it. How un-Third Wave of me. Without previously exploring Napoli enough, we had rated Torino and Piemonte as having the best baseline quality standards in Italy (if not the world). But upon further review, Napoli seems to have the edge: virtually everywhere you go rates solid 7s and 8s.
That’s not to say they are the best-of-the-best. Our highest-rated Napoli caffè wouldn’t make SF’s top 15 list. But unlike SF, that caffè is a 94-year-old family business in the same location for 73 years.
In Napoli, old is not the enemy of good. Now what is new, and the act of exploring and discovery, has value. But take a newer, world-renowned restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea and its molecular gastronomy counterparts for example. As outstanding and experimental as its food is, part of its appeal is a kind of gimmick, a fleeting conceptual art project bound to fall out of vogue within the next decade — unlike the soulfully satisfying cuisine that has stayed with us for generations. Novelty has a relatively short shelf-life.
In recent years, I have suffered a kind of fatigue over new café openings around the world. Not that I don’t love the continual investments in an improved end-product. And news has the word “new” right in it, hence why all the attention is there. But lately café openings seem much more about their physical place or their gadgetry than they seem about their actual coffee.
There’s a growing emphasis on named space designers and architects or on nameless machines with custom modifications (e.g., “That Modbar looks cool, but have you tried your coffee from it?”). All these superficial trappings have new cafés trying to distinguish themselves on everything but the resulting shot in the cup. It feels more like an arms race to feature in Architectural Digest or Popular Mechanics, as if they’ve overlooked the actual coffee in their mission.
But it’s not just coffee. Much of the West seems obsessed with a disposable culture of everything new, everything trendy, and nothing that’s built to last. If you really want to talk about “slow coffee”, immerse yourself in a place where respect comes measured not in the number of tweets and blog citations this week but rather in generations of customers who have come to expect high standards.
Because we’d honestly like to believe that some of today’s standard bearers of quality — such as Blue Bottle and Four Barrel — somehow manage to survive and stay relevant for at least another generation of customers. At least without succumbing to a fad-of-the-month that replaces them within a decade. Perhaps that seems unnecessarily nostalgic. The reality is that in 10-20 years the likes of Blue Bottle or Four Barrel will be swept up in mergers and acquisitions and become unrecognizable. Which makes us appreciate Napoli’s coffee culture even more.
In Napoli, nobody hits you over the head proclaiming that they are “craft” or “artisinal” — even if they often are by most Western definitions. Nobody tries to distract you with the exotic pedigree of their coffee equipment. There’s something soulfully satisfying about their focus on a solid espresso backed by tradition and, well, craft.
That aforementioned il campanilismo extends to how Neapolitans think about their coffee, and in particular their roasters. They can be fiercely local and independent in their coffee loyalties, often proudly professing their roaster affiliation on street-level signage. Furthermore, wood-fired coffee roasting is often highly revered here for its tradition and flavor profile.
When it comes to roasting, the tendency is towards second-crack darkness. Back in the ’90s, Torrefazione Italia did a clever thing by offering different roast-level blends named after towns that geographically represented lighter to darker roasts from north to south: Venezia, Milano, Perugia, Roma, Napoli, Sardegna, Palermo. Napoli was one of the darker roasts as is more of the norm for Southern Italy.
This darker roasting can be a dubious quality practice. However, the beans here tend not to have a heavy sheen of oil, and the darker roasts redemptively manage to be neither bitter nor ashy. They rarely even verge into smoky territory.
Of the classic four Ms of espresso quality — miscela (bean blend), macinatura (grind), macchina (machine), and mano (the hand of the barista) — I’ve often said that half of the espresso quality comes down to the barista. But because the Neapolitan barista standards are so consistently good, I found the biggest quality difference between Napoli caffès comes down to their choice of roaster.
When it comes to espresso machines, La Cimbali is very popular along with La San Marco. Manual lever La San Marco machines are held in almost universal high regard among Napoli’s best caffès — as if to skeptically say, “I’ve got your pre-infusion and variable pressure control right here!” while making an obscene arm gesture. The only Rancilio I came across was in an airport Mozzarella bar. The only Gaggia I encountered was in a hotel bar, and it made the worst cappuccino I had on the entire trip.
Although the sample sizes were small, some my favorite roasters at caffès in the area (of which I experienced multiple shots) included:
Note that this list disqualifies many of the independent, more obscure roasters that are the pride of the caffès that serve their coffee.
Neapolitan caffès will often offer espresso as “zuccherato” or “amaro” — that is, presweetened or without sugar. And that’s where the coffee drink menu begins. Napoli caffès frequently offer dozens of variants to a degree unmatched in the rest of Italy. Many are rooted in a given caffè’s own secret formula of zucchero-crema or cremina di caffè — a sugar/cream/espresso concoction used to sweeten up and add volume to their espresso drinks.
Despite these concoctions, Neapolitan cuisine is about simplicity and celebrating the core ingredients. After all, Napoli belongs to the region of Campania, which means “country”. So it is extremely rare if you find any latte art here.
Culturally, latte art is perceived as an almost childish playing with your food — like serving pancakes covered with a smiley face made of whipped cream. Neapolitans don’t have the patience for that nonsense. A dusting of cocoa on a morning cappuccino is about as fanciful as they get. Your espresso will always come with a glass of water served on the side. And you won’t find a single laptop zombie.
If you go, one bit of travel advice: lose your American habits and don’t trust Google Maps at all. It’s not just because the Neapolitans are masters of location-based bait-and-switch marketing either. Many cities and towns in Italy follow non-serial, seemingly Byzantine address numbering systems. The piazze that frequently appear also often throw off Google Maps’ overly simplistic addressing assumptions.
Just being one city block off of your destination means four square city blocks of searching back-and-forth, sometimes leading you down streets and neighborhoods where you don’t want to be. For example, a Google Maps search for Ravello’s Caffè Calce at Via Roma, 2 will take you 400 feet away from the square you should be on. A search for Napoli’s Cafè Amadeus will lead you 4 miles away from its nearby Amedeo Metro station. Virtually all the caffè reviews linked below required me to manually enter their GPS coordinates in their maps at the bottom for accuracy, rather than relying on Google’s addressing look-up.
A frequently better option is to use TuttoCittà, which additionally shows street address numbers on many of its maps.
|Name||Address||City/Neighborhood||2014 Bar d’Italia [info]||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Gran Caffè La Caffettiera||Piazza dei Martiri, 26||Napoli / Chiaia||2 / 2||7.80||8.00||7.900|
|Moccia||Via San Pasquale a Chiaia, 24||Napoli / Chiaia||1 / 2||8.20||7.80||8.000|
|Caffè d’Epoca||Piazza Trieste e Trento, 2||Napoli / Toledo||NR||7.90||7.80||7.850|
|Gran Caffè Grambrinus||Via Chiaia, 1||Napoli / Chiaia||2 / 2||8.10||8.50||8.300|
|Cafè Amadeus||Piazza Amedeo, 5||Napoli / Chiaia||1 / 2||7.90||8.20||8.050|
|Gran Caffè Cimmino||Via Gaetano Filamgieri, 12/13||Napoli / Chiaia||2 / 3||7.80||8.00||7.900|
|Calise al Porto||Via Iasolino, 19||Ischia / Ischia Porto||NR||7.40||7.50||7.450|
|Gran Caffè Vittoria||Corso Vittoria Colonna, 110||Ischia / Ischia Porto||1 / 2||7.80||8.20||8.000|
|Arago||Via Luigi Mazzella, 75||Ischia / Ischia Ponte||NR||7.80||7.80||7.800|
|Dal Pescatore||Piazza Ottorino Troia, 12||Ischia / Sant’Angelo d’Ischia||NR||7.60||7.50||7.550|
|Divino Cafè||Via Erasmo di Lustro, 6||Ischia / Forio||1 / 2||7.60||7.80||7.700|
|Bar Calise a Ischia||Via Antonio Sogliuzzo, 69||Ischia / Ischia Porto||2 / 1||7.90||8.20||8.050|
|Bar Cocò||Piazzale Aragonese, 1||Ischia / Ischia Ponte||1 / 2||7.80||7.80||7.800|
|Pasticceria Napoli||Corso Regina, 64||Maiori||2 / 2||8.00||7.80||7.900|
|Sal de Riso||Piazza Ettore Gaetano Cantilena, 28||Minori||2 / 2||7.60||7.80||7.700|
|Bar Il Panino||Piazza Duomo, 7||Ravello||NR||8.00||7.80||7.900|
|Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890||Corso Sant’Agata, 11||Sant’Agata sui due Golfi||NR||8.00||8.00||8.000|
|La Zagara||Via dei Mulini, 8/10||Positano||2 / 1||7.00||7.80||7.400|
|La Brezza Net Art Café||Via del Brigantino, 1||Positano||2 / 2||8.00||8.00||8.000|
|Bar Al San Domingo||Piazza Duomo, 2||Ravello||NR||7.60||7.20||7.400|
|Figli di Papà||Via della Marra, 7||Ravello||NR||7.90||7.80||7.850|
|Andrea Pansa||Piazza Duomo, 40||Amalfi||3 / 2||7.90||8.00||7.950|
|La Vecchia Cantina||Via della Marra, 15/19||Ravello||NR||7.50||7.20||7.350|
|Caffè Duomo||Piazza Duomo, 15||Ravello||NR||7.90||7.80||7.850|
|Caffè Calce||Via Roma, 2||Ravello||1 / 1||7.70||7.00||7.350|
|Gran Caffè Neapolis||Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 14/15||Napoli / Spaccanapoli||1 / 2||7.80||7.20||7.500|
|Giovanni Scaturchio||Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 19||Napoli / Spaccanapoli||1 / 1||7.90||7.50||7.700|
|Caffè Mexico||Piazza Dante, 86||Napoli / Decumano Maggiore||NR||8.00||7.50||7.750|
News 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
For 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.
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.)
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.