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Archived Posts from this Category
Portland Brothers Sam and Nick Purvis were quite busy last year. In addition to opening a bar and general market, they opened (with partner Dustin Evans) two locations of Good Coffee. The first began as a coffee cart service for several months until the café formally opened. A few months later they opened this sister spot.
Both brothers bring coffee credibility to the table. Older brother Sam worked a number of Portland area cafés: working alongside Matt Higgins when he was separately starting Coava, working at a Barista PDX location alongside eventual 2014 USBC champ Laila Ghambari, and working at Coava where he won the 2011 Northwestern Regional Barista Competition. Younger brother Nick worked at Santa Barbara’s French Press and was trained by Chris Baca and crew at Verve Coffee Roasters, eventually going on to compete at the USBC level himself.
It’s a small, bright space with tall windows on the two edges of the corner shop. There’s rough wood-paneled floors, corner seating at metal chairs and wood slat café tables, and a mix of small inner tables with odd choices for uncomfortable, impractical chairs. The design aesthetic of a few newer newer Portland coffee houses seems strangely drawn to uncomfortable, over-designed chairs.
There’s a large central rack of coffee and coffee accessory sales, and the place seems to have a clientele heavy on spandex yoga pants — partly due to a nearby gym.
Good Coffee is dedicated as a multi-roaster café — serving Madcap, Roseline, Coava, and Heart at the time of our visit. They offer cortados and mochas, but no pour-over coffee — just batch-brewed and espresso drinks.
Using a three-group La Marzocco Linea PB Classic and showcased white Mahlkönig grinders, they pulled shots of Madcap Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (they offer no blends) that came with a pale blonde, relatively thin crema. It had a complex aroma and a narrow flavor profile that you’d classically expect from a single origin shot, but it surprisingly wasn’t a brightness bomb. There was some balance in the narrower profile as three quite flavorful sips: vanilla, butter, and some turpeny elements that stretched into cedar.
It was a pleasant surprise in that the shot defied my usual heuristics for what makes a great espresso, still delivering an interesting and flavorful shot anyway. And to his credit, the barista made at least four sink shots before dialing in the shot he served me. Served in notNeutral white cups.
Led Zeppelin fanatic Matt Higgins truly started his career in coffee at Walnut Creek’s Pacific Bay Coffee Company — first as an apprentice, and later as their roaster. Back then in the early-mid ’00s, Pacific Bay was a very different business, with different owners, than it is today. But it was the kind of combination café and roastery that attracted a number of like-minded, budding coffee professionals that would come to make their mark on American coffee over the following decade. (Another example includes Gabriel Boscana — now of Paramo Coffee Roasters, but back then a USBC competitor with Pacific Bay before joining the initial crew at Ritual Roasters.)
Taking his trade back to Portland, Matt began Coava in his garage in 2008. While working at a coffee bar in North Portland, he met Keith Gehrke and the two co-founded Coava as a real business by 2009. The name is a collective noun for green, unroasted coffee beans, spoken as if by someone who enjoys coffee a little too much. (It’s pronounced as the two-syllable “co-VUH” — it’s Turkish for green coffee.)
Coava expanded to open this location, their first “Brew Bar”, in the Summer of 2010. It’s a vast space in Portland’s Central Eastside industrial district, which they share with the Bamboo Revolution showroom. Hence the stylish all-bamboo bathroom that feels like a modern ice fishing hut.
Inside there are seemingly acres of open showroom space — 10,000 square feet: you could operate a roller rink in here on weekends — with a machine shop feel. With roll-up doors along the Grand Ave. entrance, they also offer limited metal café table seating along the SE Main St. sidewalk.
Inside you’ll hear more than just the Led Zeppelin stereotype — such as the sounds of SchoolBoy Q to the Jesus & Mary Chain combined with the occasional TriMet streetcar rattling up Grand Ave., locomotives running nearer to the Willamette River, and all with obstructed views of downtown Portland just beyond the river.
There’s exposed wood everywhere along with concrete slab flooring. Seating is very limited for its space, consisting of a few shared large tables and benches with chairs plus additional counter seating at one side furthest from the windows. A functioning 1980s 5-kilo Probat roaster sits proudly next to the service counter along with various coffee roasts for retail sale.
They admirably offer an incredibly simplistic menu in the manner of doing just a few things really well, including offering some excellent pastries. Using a matte gray refinished two-group La Marzocco Linea (a technique that La Marzocco admired so much they adopted the practice themselves), we rated shots of their Ethiopia Meaza. With Matt reacting a bit to his time at Pacific Bay, Coava doesn’t do blends.
The Meaza came as a compact shot, two sips short, with a mottled medium brown crema of decent thickness. Served in a white ANCAP cup, it has a sharper, astringent, acidic bite that finishes off a mostly pungent shot with sweeter edges of candies and syrup. A solid, quality espresso shot within the confines of what’s possible with single origin Ethiopian coffee (a habit that’s practically ubiquitous among Portland coffee bars).
Their cappuccino is modestly sized with detailed latte art, a good layer of microfoam, and a decent balance without being too milky. They also have excellent pour-overs, exclusively using their own Kone metal filters over Chemex brewers. (Yes, they eat their own dog food.)
Bonus points for their baristas’ customer-focused attitudes about coffee. They stash their milk in an ice chest in a way that it’s almost hidden. My wife felt sheepish asking for milk to add to her pour-over, but she was greeted with a very non-judgmental “You should have your coffee the way you like it.” Definitely one of the best coffee destinations in all of Portland.
Given Portland’s vaunted status as an American coffee capital of sorts, this is one of the more well-regarded coffee houses in downtown Portland. It opened in the Spring of 2010 near the Pioneer Courthouse Square — replacing the former Portland Coffee House.
Public Domain is the brainchild of the much bigger Coffee Bean International as a way to showcase some of their specialty, seasonal roasts and in a retail space to properly serve it. Think a little of Coffee Bar vis-à-vis Mr. Espresso. A major difference being that Coffee Bean International used to receive a lot of flack for squeezing out smaller players in the roasting market. In a sense, Public Domain is their response to being squeezed by the growth of small, independent roasters in Portland. How the times have changed.
It’s a clean, well-lit space with tall, diner-like windows wrapping around its corner location (allowing sunlight in when available — this is Portland, after all). It’s not a terribly large space, but there are a number of smaller tables indoors wrapped around a central service counter that juts out.
There’s the wall of merchandising as you enter (primarily Chemex gear and mugs plus t-shirts), blonde wood floors, and retail roasted coffee offered beneath the central service counter — which displays two two-group Synesso machines in operation and some six commercial grinders for their various bean stock options. Pastries are about the only food service here. They also offer pour-over coffees, including an intriguing Colombia Finca La Esperanza — a 2014 Cup of Excellence winner — at our visit.
For espresso they offer a single origin option, but this review is based on their core Prometheus Espresso blend. They pull shots with an even, medium brown crema with finer microbubbles. It has a strong, potent flavor centered around herbal pungency and some spice, but it has limited sweetness and lacks any real fruit. Good, but not exactly outstanding. Served in a non-descript white ceramic cup with a side of sparkling water.
They serve their cappuccino in a proper classic brown Espresso Parts 5.5-oz tulip cup with a little rosetta latte art. It lacks much texture in the milk, and the overall cap is a bit too milky and weak despite its proper size.
Being a beloved coffee house in Portland sets expectations quite high. While it is a very good place overall, it’s also nothing we haven’t found in many other cities.
Read the review of Public Domain in Portland, OR.
I first came across Bow Truss coffee a few years ago at Chicago’s Gilt Bar, across the street from the massive Merchandise Mart — a building so large that it inspired Soviet envy and had its own ZIP code up until 2008. The coffee was particularly good for a gastropub, and Lakeview-based Bow Truss was in the process of papering up the windows of their planned downtown Chicago shop just around the corner.
Bow Truss coffee shop openings haven’t come quietly. Earlier this year, their Pilsen opening was the target of much publicized anti-gentrification protests. (West Oakland’s Kilovolt Coffee suffered a similar welcome several months earlier with barely a media mention.) In a story not all too unfamiliar to San Franciscans who recently witnessed bus rage, some Pilsen residents apparently preferred the historical charm of street signage penned by the Latin Kings, Vice Lords, and the Insane Gangsta Satan Disciples. Though I can personally attest that back in the days before consumer GPS and FourSquare, gang tags provided a relatively reliable form of geolocation in Chicago’s South and West sides.
This tiny location opened in the winter of 2013, sitting beneath a Ravenswood Brown Line “L” stop. It’s also incredibly busy with a constantly slamming front door (they need to fix that).
The interior is a victim of poor space planning, making the seating situation much more scarce than it needs to be. For example, one exposed brick wall is covered with a large chalkboard artwork for Bow Truss — which could be better served as counter space with stool seating.
It has a dark interior with one central round table and a mismatch of stools at a counter on the opposite wall, a front window table, and there’s a handful of chairs strewn about the place. Plus a lot of people standing around because, well, there’s no place to sit.
Behind the counter there’s a decent amount of service space, with luggage in a shipper’s net hung from a ceiling pulley above. Roasted beans for sale are on display in an upright half canoe that’s split back-to-back. There are also oars beneath the wooden counter, two sleds, and a ViewMaster at the retail accessories and “coffee accoutrements” stand with slides of Vegas hotels. Thus there’s little theme here beyond “garage sale”.
They offer V-60 pour-overs, batch brewed coffee, cold brew coffee, and espresso. They also adopt the language here of “take-away” versus “to-stay”. Using their Foundation blend — the barista tunes a Mahlkönig grinder and the two-group Rancilio Xcelsius to it — they pull shots of a true doppio size in white Espresso Parts cups.
It has a darker, textured crema and a deep, rich flavor of darker spices, herbs, and some molasses sweetness with some acid in the finish but not a major bite. It predominantly exhibits flavors of cherry and 85% dark bitter chocolate, served with sparkling water on the side. For $3.25 they offer an “alternate espresso” (Colombia Nariño single origin on our visit).
They also make a very milky cappuccino: a large volume of liquid and with a scant, thinner surface of microfoam with latte art. As with many Chicago coffee shops, try to avoid the milk-based drinks and get the straight shots here for the best results. This town is drowning in milk.
This café is located in the middle of the University of Chicago campus in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Its next door neighbor is the historic Frederick C. Robie House — designed by famed area architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and influential enough to inspire a $371 Lego kit you can still buy off Amazon.com. Just two blocks down in the opposite direction is a monument to the world’s first nuclear reactor, assembled under Enrico Fermi’s supervision as part of the Manhattan Project.
With a neighborhood pedigree like that, you expect decent coffee. (Even with the frequency of nearby shootings in the surrounding area.) Fortunately this place largely delivers.
Sharing a building with the campus Seminary CoOp Bookstore, owner Soo Choi conceived of this café in 2012 as “a French atelier-inspired café and eatery seeking to provide a warm, serene environment where guests can savor coffee, food, and design.” It did not open until March 2014, snagging on permits, chef churn, and other delays.
The wait seems worth it, as it’s been rather packed ever since. For a campus café, and perhaps reflecting the well-heeled and intellectual UChicago demographic, it is often crowded with a mix of UChicago grad students, faculty and staff, and educational tourists (they do have a few good museums on UChicago campus).
Inside they offer several café tables, a couple of long shared tables, and a series of stools at a long window counter. Outdoor patio seating facing the Robie House also exists among wooden benches and tables when weather permits. They serve salads, soups, and baguette sandwiches along with coffee service from a pick-up window. Complimentary taps of cold, sparkling and still water you can pull in jelly jars.
As for the coffee service, they are one of the few retail locations serving Metric Coffee. Metric Coffee has received plenty of accolades and a dump truck load of buzz since its 2013 inception. At a San Francisco ceremony in January, they received a Good Food Award for their Kenya Kayu coffee. (Just don’t get us started on coffee being classified as “food” given that heroin better fits the dictionary definition.)
In the cramped space behind the service window glass (showing off the latest pastries), they operate a two-group La Marzocco GB/5. They sell Metric Coffee beans for retail sale at the counter and use their Quantum Espresso to pull shots served properly short with a congealed, medium brown crema with darker brown spots. The shot is full-bodied, potent, and has an acid bite in the long finish over some herbal and molasses flavor notes. Served in a mismatch of ITI China saucers and decorative Front of the House demitasses with a thumb grip at the top.
Is Metric Coffee magically delicious? I’m not sure I’d go chasing a leprechaun for it, but it’s up there.
The milk-frothing here shows good texture, and they do a decent pass at latte art. However, they are heavy-handed with the milk ratio on their cappuccino (served in Vertex mugs). Stick with the double shots. In fact, a lot of quality Chicago coffee shops seem to drown their standard cappuccino in milk, so that’s wise advice anywhere in town.
It’s hard to say why I like this place as much as I do, but I do. Though it’s just not the espresso.
Opening in late 2010, this place is pretty much a dive in a part of no-mans-land SF. But it melds with the neighborhood and transports you to another place — if that place is a location shoot from a Quentin Tarrantino movie. Don’t ask why I’m into that sort of thing, though I like expecting to run into Tim Roth. But suffice to say, it’s a tiny, corner spot planted in a neighborhood full of auto repair shops and industrial garages.
Ryan, a former Blue Bottle Coffee employee in a previous life, is typically the lone staffer operating this place. And even he can occasionally disappear outside for smoke breaks. Lines are short and it’s kind of a locals-only thing.
Outside, there are two beat-up outdoor tables on the front sidewalk. Inside, there’s one table for seating at the corner windows. To the rear corner there’s something of a mini-lounge consisting of a couch, a turntable, books, and art magazines. (Oddly, on first visit they were playing a vinyl LP of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street just as I had heard at nearby Sightglass the day before.)
While they currently offer De La Paz coffee for drinks and retail sale (and formerly did the same for Sightglass), they ultimately plan to roast their own from Sweet Maria’s Coffee Shrub commercial sister.
Sometimes you can catch them running experiments with their batch roaster, playing with how to extend typical roast profiles. Their ideal roast is an expressive light roast as they’ve experienced from Seattle’s Slate roasters — where in spite of the lightness they can still somehow extract dark chocolate and other notes characteristic of darker roasts.
They’re also big fans of dry-processed coffees, their bright and fruity flavors, and the dangerous high-wire act needed when processing these coffees. (They find the washed-coffee-only types in the industry to be a little limiting… if not irritating.) Lest we forget that Illy — about as quality-control-obsessed as they come — makes their flagship blend from a standard nine coffees, four of which are always naturals.
For now Showplace serves espresso using the Peel Sessions blend (two Africans) as a full double shot with an attractive tiger-striped crema. It’s a larger shot with slightly lighter body. It has a reserved brightness and decent flavor balance of spices, mostly herbal pungency, and some edges of caramel sweetness. Milk-frothing here is pretty solid, producing velvety textures and rosetta latte art. Served in black Espresso Parts cups.
Come to Sightglass for the scene and variety, but come here when you want great espresso and a whole other experience. Highly recommended if you’re ever doing jury duty at the SF Glamour Slammer (as I was recently).
Read the review of Showplace Caffè in SF’s SOMA district.
It’s not like I never go back to the same place twice. I often evolve the ratings and reviews for a coffee purveyor over multiple visits: sometimes a few, sometimes dozens. Sometimes over a period of several years.
This experience ultimately factors into our consistency rating, as the quality of a place can depend so much on the barista that day, the coffee supply that week, the state of the equipment maintenance that month. It’s a bit audacious to attempt to quantify this, I know.
Yet I am quite confident in the consistency and repeatability of our ratings system and review style — at least for my own personal use — based upon hundreds of blind spot re-tests I’ve repeated over the years. Comparing and contrasting new reviews and ratings for a place with those I’ve made for it in the past, I’ve frequently surprised myself for how well I’ve captured the sensory and quality experience of an espresso rated years prior. That is, when a place demonstrates remarkable consistency.
But with so many great retail coffee options abound these days, it’s rare that we post separately about return visits. It’s been over nine years since we last posted about a visit to the Ritual Coffee Roasters mothership in SF’s Mission. And particularly with its recent remodel, it’s more than deserving of an update.
Eileen Hassi’s busy café first opened in May 2005 (along with then-partner, Jeremy Tooker, now of Four Barrel Coffee fame). It opened as a long, modern, clean space with many tables and thrift store living room sets in the back. But over the years, free Wi-Fi brought hordes of laptop squatters and the place also attracted a bit of a grittier Mission vibe. (Arguably Jeremy got so freaked by the environmental changes that it spurred him on to open his own place.)
A Fall 2014 remodel is now starkly clean and minimalist, with a white/black/red color scheme. It very much looks ripped off from the Montgomery St. Coffee Bar, save for the succulent garden in back, but it works. Or maybe that’s Saint Frank I’m thinking of. Or the latest reincarnation of Wrecking Ball. Or maybe that’s more “all of the above”.
When I lamented over Bay Area espresso sameness years ago, I never thought that would extend to the same architects and interior designers to make so many coffee houses look the same as well.
One major positive from this location’s redesign seems that in getting rid of some of their chairs and the on-site Wi-Fi, they also got rid of many of the, well, vagrants. Which makes the space a lot more inviting and less standoffish than it was prior. In addition to less clutter, there’s also more of an emphasis now on long, communally shared tables.
They originally used and sold Stumptown‘s Hair Bender (with Eileen and Jeremy being big Stumptown fanatics), but they’ve long since started roasting their own — at first with an on site Probat that has long since been removed offsite. Over the years they replaced their shiny red, three-group La Marzocco FB70 with a GB/5 … and then a three-group Synesso … and now two custom 2- and 3-group Synesso Hydra machines. Black counters and white machines with red trim and wood paddles. Plus the mandatory Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders.
The baristas remain well-trained: they grind to order, they pull shots directly in the cup where appropriate, and they take their time making a deliberate tamp — even down to the final twist.
Same as it ever was, they produce an espresso (a regular and rotating seasonal blend) with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema of modest thickness and some congealed richness — and occasionally some larger bubbles at the center. Flavorwise, there’s a caramel sweetness combined with a good mid-range palate (roasted hazelnut, etc.) and sharp acidity in the finish — which is a little like a trademark. Roasting their coffees bright, they can border on underripe fruit sometimes — which works as a pour-over but can be problematic as espresso. And now served in their newer Le Porcellane d’ANCAP cups with a sparkling water on the side.
Going back to our opening on consistency, what is noticeably different now from before is a little more of a broader flavor profile and reduced emphasis on underripe fruit that raised its flavor score since my last visits in 2013. If you’re into milk-based drinks, the rosetta latte art can vary from award-winning to amateur, depending upon the barista shift, but they get the fine microfoam down well no matter what. Hence part of why — over some 40 visits over 10 years — they rate as “Consistent” but not “Very Consistent”.
Approaching 10 years of operations, this Ritual location still delivers the goods and has even revitalized itself somewhat in both the environment and some of the end product itself.
As we mentioned in our last review of a remote Martinez, CA coffee house: good coffee is everywhere. In fact, the modern boom in good coffee purveyors is akin to the boom of mom & pop video rental stores in the 1980s and ’90s. And as some of these small businesses grow a little larger to form local chains, they’ve become a little like the current surge in home solar installation businesses. The local demand is there and the barriers to entry are generally low.
While the ubiquity of good coffee has its obvious benefits for coffee lovers, it also raises the spectre of market saturation and business sustainability. As good coffee houses open everywhere, they’re no longer rare nor special.
Earlier this month, in response to news of Verve Coffee Roasters planning to open a future location in SF’s Castro District, SFist asked a newly valid question: “Hasn’t the Castro reached Peak Coffee”?
SFist is probably being a little alarmist before we have to worry about carpet-bombing-levels of good coffee in the neighborhood. Verve would have something a little different to say than the others already there, but the nagging old question of espresso sameness comes up. I would be particularly concerned if someone was planning to open yet another coffee shop serving Blue Bottle from La Marzocco machines just like the seven others within a three-block radius.
But in such a saturated environment, discovering a new coffee house with something a little different to offer can be a draw. Sometimes you have to go as far out as Martinez to find something that unique.
Opening in the latter half of 2013, Mountain Grounds is in the middle of nowhere but is unique enough, and has high enough quality standards, to make it well worth a visit. If nothing else for the uniqueness of its coffee sourcing.
Located in a Martinez strip mall of four stores (what else are you going to find outside of old downtown Martinez?), it’s a tight space inside with window counter seating in front and hardly a few seats next to the service counter. Outside there are a few café tables along the sidewalk under the strip mall porticos — along with a couple of lounging chairs and a heat lamp.
Owner John Cassidy and his wife, Danielle, gregariously operate this shop. One of John’s longtime friends is Gary Theisen of Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings, Montana. Revel ships in the coffee from Montana every Monday. (The shop’s working business phone number also betrays John’s Montana roots.) Mountain Grounds also follows the unusual practice of prominently designating their coffee options by their growing altitude (1900m, etc.).
Mountain Grounds follows some creative small-town practices, such as accepting orders via SMS text in advance. (Easier to handle with low volumes.) They also offer a variety of specialty coffee drinks, including crème brûlée lattes (set aflame before being served for the crispy top) and the S’more. At one side of the cramped shop is a menu on the wall titled “A Taste of 3rd Wave Coffee Shops”, which features a double ristretto, a 1 ‘N 1, a macchiato, a cortado, a cappuccino, and a con panna.
They pull espresso shots from a newer two-group Nuova Simonelli with a modest layer of even, medium brown crema with good coagulation. There’s a fruity brightness in the cup of cherry and berry, but a lack of the apple-like acidity that you might find with typical coffee from newer Cali roasters (e.g., Sightglass). This makes it a unique and rather balanced cup.
Milk-frothing here is pretty even. They offer weight-measured Chemex and pour-over coffee. The shop’s loyal following includes those who also take home Revel beans, which are packaged in clear plastic drinking cups with lids. With no real sink in this tiny shop, coffee drinks are served in paper only except for large ceramic logo cups for the bigger milk-based drinks.
Read the review of Mountain Grounds in Martinez, CA.
It has been over 20 years since I last spent real time in Arizona. And back then it was either the Flagstaff or Tucson areas — deliberately not Phoenix, with its then-legendary saturation of Denny’s-per-square-mile, above-ground cemetery lifestyle, all the bad things about Los Angeles (smog, traffic) and none of the good (beaches, movie stars), and in-state locals who frequently tried to extricate those they felt were trapped in Phoenix itself.
Did I unfairly give Phoenix a bad rap without spending any first-hand time there? Absolutely. Is it for me? Phoenix can be very scenic and pretty, despite traffic landmarks like The Stack, and the people are outwardly nice in a way that would make any Bay Area resident suspicious. However, it’s probably a place I’ll visit but keep in the arm’s-length acquaintance category, even if I know and met a number of locals who love it there. One of my Über drivers raved about the area, but then he grew up in Sudan.
No matter — much like the rest of America these days, there’s good coffee to be had in town.
Sola Coffee Bar previously stood on this Old Town Scottsdale location, until the owners wanted out of the business in 2011. (Scottsdale sits as a large suburb on the northeast of the Phoenix border.) Jason Silberschlag, owner of the Cartel Coffee Lab chain, loved the location and moved in immediately.
It’s a relatively modest space with exposed wooden panels and fans on the ceiling, a number of exposed supporting posts, and an open art-gallery like space. Outside there’s a sidewalk bench. Inside there is stool seating along the street windows in front and some long, cushioned seating along internal glass walls with small café tables designed like small, squat sections of tree stumps. The few real tables inside are the size of picnic benches with various red and white colored metal chairs about.
Off to one side they serve multiple microbrews on tap along with wines. At the back is their coffee service bar. It covers brewing using anything from Aeropress, V60, Clever, and Chemex, and they offer drinks in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 20oz sizes — a dimensioning of their coffee service that I haven’t quite exactly seen before.
Part of their bar surface is covered with these brewing devices in a sort of Noah’s-Ark-like 2×2 formation. A wall of mounted crates offers their merchandise, from roasted coffee to the devices behind any of their various brewing methods. Except one…
Using a two-group La Marzocco Strada behind the bar, they pull shots with an even, medium brown crema that’s a little light on thickness. It has a sharp acidity with a flavor of citris and some cedar, though it seems a little light on body and lacks much of any rich, body-forward flavor notes. Served in a shotglass with water on the side.
Overall, it’s a good espresso that tastes inspired by many West Coast roasting stereotypes, but it has enough of its own personality to not taste like a San Francisco or Portland knock-off.
Read the review of Cartel Coffee Lab in Scottsdale, AZ.
illy caffè North America has operated Espressamente cafés here as in Europe, but this example is modeled more after a truer café rather than coffee bar per se. As such, Illy has designated it with a different name (“illy caffè”).
However, that hasn’t stopped many confused locals who still insist on calling it “Espressamente.” (I dare anyone to find the word “Espressamente” written anywhere inside or out of this place.) The lesson here is to be careful how you brand yourself: once it starts working, the blinders come out and you may have a difficult time getting people to change.
Unlike Illy’s Espressamente coffee bars, the food menu here — while still designed by the famed Joyce Goldstein — is a bit more involved. The service levels are also just a touch higher.
It’s not too much of a surprise that Illy decided to pull off this subtle concept shift here in San Francisco. Back in 2011, the Espressamente on Battery St. opened as America’s first free-standing example of the chain (i.e., not linked to a hotel, etc.). Like SF’s other Illy locations, it’s run by Joe Gurdock and the Prima Cosa team. Joe is an SF native with local coffee roots dating back to managing Pasqua Coffee cafés here in the 1990s.
Earlier this month illy caffè North America invited me to a media brunch for this café’s opening, with much of their executive team flying in from New York and parts east. I’m not easily impressed by these sorts of events, but I came away from the event with an even greater appreciation for what Illy does and what they are as a company.
There’s a tendency in today’s self-described “craft” coffee community to claim credit for much of anything good about coffee these days — even if most of it consists of small modifications built upon a sizable foundation of older, established arts. There’s also a lot of fawning over anything that smells new — often much of which is just new to those who haven’t dug deep enough. Meanwhile, many might roll their eyes over a “coffee dinosaur” like Illy.
Case and point with the latest coffee roasting guide du jour. Now we very much enjoy’s Scott Rao’s practical, hands-on books, and his latest The Coffee Roaster’s Companion is a good reference. Yet we know a number of craft coffee types who regard it as highly technical manual, oblivious to some of its glaring predecessors.
Just take Chapter 4 of Andrea Illy‘s (editor and Illy chairman) Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality. This chapter dedicated to coffee roasting introduces thermodynamic differential equations, diagrams of three-dimensional thermal gradients within roasting beans over time, tables of chemical compounds and their resulting odors from roasting, ion chromatography charts, structural formulas of the changing organic chemistry bonds in roasting coffee, and references to 91 scientific coffee papers. No disrespect to Mr. Rao, but by comparison on a technical scale you could call his book Coffee Roasting for Dummies.
As another example of this cognitive gap, media people and Illy reps sat around a large, shared table at this brunch event. One of the media invitees was a freelance writer for 7×7 and other food-friendly publications (who shall remain nameless). I had mentioned how most so-called Third Wave roasters were abject underachievers at the subtle art of coffee blending, and she interjected by saying she thought that the Third Wave was instead identified more by medium roast levels.
Forget for a moment that Dunkin’ Donuts has been medium roasting their coffee pretty much since the invention of the donut. While taking furious notes, she straight-face asked the Illy reps about how they were positioned with their darker roasts in this modern taste era of Third Wave medium roasting.
Illy has been selling coffees clearly labelled “Medium Roast” before many of these Third Wave roasters were even in diapers. Thus I thought her question was honestly a little offensive. But the Illy team, probably used to being perceived as playing catch-up rather than leading the charge in coffee these days, politely answered her question without any hint of judgement. (I probably would have had to restrain myself from punching her in the throat.)
Now Illy is hardly perfect, and this post isn’t intended as an Illy love-fest. Responding to commercial pressure, they’ve bowed to some regrettable-but-business-necessary fads, such as creating their own pod system coffee and promoting dubious home espresso machines. Their coffee here in the U.S. — while employing outstanding quality controls — has never measured up to the quality standards I’ve experienced at their cafés in Europe.
But besides Illy’s many great investments in quality and to the science of coffee, the company has won awards for its ethics. They’ve been actively invested in the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee far longer than any other coffee company I know. They essentially pioneered the Direct Trade model years before it was ever called that. And they’ve done all that without the modern sledgehammer-to-the-head, profit-from-consumer-guilt practice of publicly blowing their own horn over their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.
Was there espresso to be reviewed here again? Of course!
There’s an elaborate designer Illy coffee cup chandelier as you walk in — a hallmark of many other Espressamente shops, but different for the rarity of some of the limited edition art cups. Since 1992, Illy’s designer cup series is technically the longest running pop art project in the world. (Their continued investment in the arts is another cool aspect of the company.) There’s a tall table with stools, some window stool seating, central café tables, and black booth café seating around the edges.
Using a chrome, three-group La Cimbali, they pull moderately-sized shots with a healthy, mottled/swirled medium and darker brown crema. The crema isn’t as thick as you typically get in a European Espressamente, but it’s decent.
The flavor isn’t exactly the typical mild spaces and wood that you get at most American outlets serving Illy: there are extra notes in between in the flavor profile. So while still not up to European standards, this is one of their best attempts yet. Served in designer IPA logo cups, of course.
Milk-frothing here is decent: somewhat dense, even, and with little erratic touches here and there. They also offer signature drinks, including botanicals like their vanilla jasmine or lavender lattes — if you like that sort of thing.
Read the review of Illy Caffè on Union St. in Cow Hollow.