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The Selling of Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Posted by on 31 May 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

It’s a good thing we’re no longer monitoring signs of the impending Apocalypse. But in perhaps yet another sign that quality coffee is at the end of a Golden Age, rumors today of a Stumptown Coffee Roasters buyout: Stumptown Sold Out – The Selling of Stumptown Coffee Roasters – Esquire.

Todd Carmichael likened Duane Sorenson to Che Guevara, whom seems primed for his own profitable T-shirt design sales phaseUnlike the article’s author (and La Colombe staple), Todd Carmichael, we’re not exactly taking the news as reason to mourn the death of a coffee great. Despite the very un-Portlandia image of such a Wall Street buyout, a Stumptown ownership change is perhaps less of a sad loss for the quality coffee world and more of a necessary step in its progressive legitimization.

Mr. Carmichael calls Stumptown’s founder, Duane Sorenson, “the Che Guevara of the rock-star barista movement.” Coincidentally, today Mr. Guevara is known far more for his T-shirt iconography than for his political treatises. Similarly, Stumptown helped usher in the era of the Clover brewer, only for Clover to sell out to Starbucks less than two years later — ultimately inspiring today’s throwback to decades-old pour-over brewing technology.

Any reasonably successful counter-cultural movement ultimately gets co-opted by the mainstream as part of its natural evolution. And if the rumors are indeed true, Mr. Sorenson has busted his tail for many years and has earned a break. Should we feel sad?

Eight years ago, we lamented the demise of Torrefazione Italia when it sold its soul to Starbucks. And yet out of those ashes, two employees who met while working at a San Francisco Torrefazione Italia, Eileen Hassi and Jeremy Tooker, would soon go on to found Ritual Coffee Roasters. Ritual, and later Mr. Tooker’s Four Barrel Coffee, would play instrumental roles as San Francisco experienced one of the greatest quality coffee booms in its history. Instead of lamenting the end of the coffee world as we know it, a la Family Radio International, perhaps a better model is the Hindu god Shiva — who simultaneously plays roles as both the destroyer and the creator of the universe.

ADDENDUM
Meanwhile, Mr. Carmichael received some interesting coverage today in his hometown paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer: Haiti’s incredible coffee | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/31/2011. Did you know that Haiti grew 45% of the world’s coffee back in the 1800s?

UPDATE: June 1, 2011
The plot thins?: Founder still owns Stumptown Coffee | OregonLive.com. (Also this.)

UPDATE: June 5, 2011
…and yet thickens once again: Rumors of Stumptown Coffee Sale Gain Strength | An Exploration of Portland Oregon Food and Drink ; Stumptown Coffee Has Been Sold, Industry Sources Tell WW.

The 10 Types of Commenters on Coffee Articles

Posted by on 02 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting, Starbucks

Over the years we’ve read a lot of coffee articles. And ever since feedback forms became commonplace on the Internet, we’ve also read a lot of user comments on these posts. At least enough for us to identify 10 common archetypes among coffee article commenters on the Internet — analogous to the ever-popular coffee shop customer archetypes.

Commenters on coffee articles often fall into distinct cliques — many of them rather nonsensical. Just look at Erin Meister’s Serious Eats post last week on the cost of coffee. Not surprisingly, former U.S. barista champ, Kyle Glanville, described it simply as “great post, silly comments

So here’s to creating a lexicon so we can all say next time, “Stop being such a #6.”

1. The Starbucks Fire Marshall

Tastes like... burning!Like a mutant cross between Tourette Syndrome and a drinking game, these commenters cannot help themselves whenever someone posts something that includes “the S word.” No matter what context or circumstances for the article, we get their reflexive reply: “Starbucks tastes burnt!”

Doesn’t matter if it’s a Wall Street Journal article discussing their quarterly earnings or the latest police blotter reporting on yet another vehicle unable to resist the siren song of a Starbucks’ storefront window. This comment is also frequently offered with an air of implied revelation — akin to Charlton Heston’s infamous, “Soylent green is people!” (Sorry if we ruined that for you.)

2. The Daily Coffee Affirmation with Senator Stuart Smalley

It’s hard to believe that a someone’s self-worth could be called into question by something as trivial as another person’s choice of beverage, but these commenters face this very existential quandary. For them, coffee is still a raw, generic commodity — like kerosene. Hence 1950s truck stop coffee was good enough for grandpa and it’s good enough for us. Anyone who suggests or believes otherwise is part of a social conspiracy.

This conspiracy takes on two dimensions. The first involves separating fools from their money. Yet this is insufficient to explain why these commenters so viscerally exclaim that anybody who pays more than $1 for a cup of coffee is a moron. If it were merely this, any half-lucid person would keep their mouths shut in order to keep fleecing those fools all the way to early retirement.

Senator Smalley approves of your coffee choicesWhich leads us to the second dimension of the conspiracy: these commenters are also reacting to a perceived sense of class warfare. One man’s threat is another man’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

Rather than admit that “fancy coffee” isn’t their thing and they don’t really get it — the way that some of us don’t get kombucha or Russell Brand — projecting this social unease on those “idiots” paying for expensive coffee is a means of self-affirmation. “Because I’m good enough.. I’m smart enough.. and, doggone it, people like me!”

3. Coffee Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Speaking of conspiracies, this commenter archetype believes that the entire apparatus of the coffee industry was deliberately constructed by The Man as a means of enslaving and impoverishing coffee farmers. The actual concept that someone might actually consume and enjoy the end product is irrelevant.

Which explains Fair Trade, a sacred cow among these commenters. Like the TV trope, “think of the children!,” comments from this group focus almost exclusively on “think of the coffee farmer!” What they imply is that every person who touches coffee after it leaves the farm, including the various truck drivers and dockworkers working for pittance wages in coffee-growing nations, are blood-sucking parasites profiting off the backs of noble coffee farmers.

4. The Junkie

This commenter archetype views coffee exclusively as a performance-enhancing drug. When they encounter articles suggesting that there’s good or bad coffee, or that coffee might actually have a taste or flavor, you may as well ask your grandfather what’s his favorite crunkcore band; it’s just as alien.

Appealing to the malt liquor drinkers of the coffee worldWhen they’re drinking the coffee, these commenters could not care less if their coffee tastes like battery acid, and the idea of decaffeinated coffee seems utterly pointless. They are typically attracted to the malt liquor of the coffee world: coffees branded with wake-the-dead, crystal-meth-like psychoactive properties and the sinister names to match.

And if somebody else reports to drink coffee for its flavor, these commenters discount them as merely drug addicts in denial — kind of like the guy who says he buys Shaved Asian Beaver magazine only for the articles.

5. The Born-Again Junkie

Privileged white people haven’t had it easy. In today’s society of competitive victimhood and I’ve-suffered-more-than-you one-upmanship, some are lucky enough to experience the trauma of not getting into Harvard. Others aren’t so fortunate and have to resort to makeshift, bogus afflictions like “caffeine addition.”

Which brings us to the archetype of the recovered caffeine addict. These born-again commenters proselytize a lifestyle free of caffeine: “I once was a caffeine addict, but my life is so much better since I gave up coffee for yerba maté!” Like all lifestyle preachers, it’s not enough that they live with their own life choices — they must convince you to choose them too.

The dirty secret of this archetype is that, rather than face their demons, they are only hiding from the real problem in their lives — namely, their lack of self-control and inability to moderate themselves. Which makes them kind of like the gay man who joins the Catholic priesthood to “cure” himself of his homosexuality. (And we all know how well that works out.)

6. Reverend Home Roaster

Rev. Billy discovers the Gene Cafe coffee roasterHome roasting has been around for over a millennium. Its latest generation, with more modern prosumer equipment, probably peaked about a decade ago. But it is a brand new phenomenon for many. Often those who have discovered home roasting in the past year seem particularly afflicted with a brand of religious zealotry when posting comments on coffee articles.

Whether the article is about the cost of coffee, a Cup of Excellence competition, or even the pour-over brewing device of the month, the comment box is an irresistible platform (read: soapbox) to preach a sort of home roasting gospel. “It’s better than you can buy!” “It’s cheaper to do it yourself!” “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it!” One popular sermon is the Legend of the $5 Hot Air Popcorn Popper: “I have seen the promised land, and it is a West Bend Poppery II!”

You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t start selling off all our worldly possessions in anticipation of the home roasting Rapture. Yes, we like home roasting. It’s kind of a fun hobby from time to time. And yes, we understand that, by golly, you really like this new home roasting thing. We also like Benecio del Toro, but we don’t use the comment thread on a Cup of Excellence article to proselytize his merits as an actor and movie producer. The key to sales is relevancy — that goes whether you’re selling mortgage-backed securities or a home roasting lifestyle.

7. The MacGruber

Somewhere coffee comes out of the end of this contraptionThe MacGruber represents another kind of commenter with a DIY fetish — except that this archetype sees the DIY ethos as a form of social currency. Less idealistic and more self-interested than Rev. Home Roaster, the MacGruber comments on coffee articles to boast of their exploits building traveling espresso machines out of bike parts or attaching PID controllers to portafilter handles. In this regard, they’re a bit like those guys with gold chains and silk shirts who boast of their sexual conquests in laser-filled nightclubs. The difference being that most rational people would be socially embarrassed if confused for a MacGruber.

Given the choice between spending $35,000 on a new BMW or on a used Honda Civic and tricking it out with accessories over the next four years, the MacGruber will invariably choose the Civic. This might lead others to believe there’s something fatally flawed with the Civic. But this archetype also has an obsession with reinventing the wheel. We fondly recall one MacGruber who wrote up an elaborate post on how he converted his Vacu Vin wine-stopper into a coffee preservation system — blissfully ignorant that Vacu Vin has been making “coffee saver” systems for years that are available for $10 on Amazon.com.

8. The Dumpster® Diver

Coffee sale!!!Like The MacGruber, posts from this commenter archetype are about establishing social currency. Except here the currency is scoring a kilo of Colombian for the ridiculously low price of $1.99 a pound at Sam’s Club. As if to jab a hot fork in the eyes of Fair Trade advocates, this archetype boasts about their competitive place in the race to zero-cost, zero-conscience, quality-free coffee.

When this archetype isn’t posting about how much they’ve saved on coffee, they’re frequently long on ideas for using spent coffee grounds to Spackle® bathroom tiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid their frequent posts about how they bought their new car with the Dumpsters® full of cash they saved by making coffee at home instead of going to Starbucks.

9. The No Coffee Left Behind Act

Whether you’ve tried the coffee at three hundred different places or just three, most people have their favorite coffee. A large number of comments on coffee articles consist of personal endorsements of the coffee from a specific roaster, coffee shop, or home brewing contraption. As an anonymous poster put it on Boing Boing this week:

Every comment thread about coffee contains: (1) someone mentioning how great their home roasted coffee is; (2) a plug for a cafe not mentioned in the article.

Maybe we could just assume the existence of these kinds of comments from now on, with no need to actually post them?

But if we all assumed that, what would there be left to talk about? Hence this archetype of commenters who actively police various online media sources, ensuring their favorite coffee sources don’t suffer the egregious injustice of being omitted from a coffee article.

Some may take the additional step of attempting to elevate their pet coffee by dissing on the various coffee sources mentioned in the article. For example, this archetype frequently engages in slagging on quoted coffee shops for their pretentiousness, for the hipsters who work there, and over the fact that the owners cover their electrical outlets. Basically: all of the ridiculous stuff that’s the irreverent lifeblood of Yelp ratings.

10. The Jaded, Crotchety Blogger

This archetype believes they have seen it/done it long before you even heard of it/thought about it. And despite their whiny complaints of coffee articles that dredge up old topics hashed out thousands of times before over the years, they still cannot look away and feel compelled to respond — like gawkers at a gruesome car accident.

Yes, we’re making fun of ourselves this time. Because if it sounds like we’ve seen it all before, quite sadly we literally have seen it all before. Do you realize what kind of petty life you must lead to have read every coffee article ever written on the Internet? How about so pathetic, you come up with a list of 10 types of commenters on coffee articles.

Trip Report: Brown Owl Coffee

Posted by on 20 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Local Brew, Roasting

Good coffee is not only a rare treat in the Outer Sunset, but it is often a rather uplifting social experience. (Though some will call this neighborhood “Central Sunset” or “Parkside”.) This adage remains true at this tiny coffee shop, which looks more like an old barber shop from the outside — save for the wooden owl in the tree out front next to the Muni L-line stop.

Inside it has a woodsy, camp-like feel with decorative logs and wood-cuttings, lacquered wood-cut tables, and mosaic arts decorating the walls. Opening in January 2011 (a big opening month for many area cafés), this shop is the brainchild of Ariana Akbar — who has to be one of the most genuinely friendly and engaging people we’ve ever met in the coffee world. You may be in the Outer Sunset, but you’ll feel like you’re in a friendly Alaskan outpost.

The humble storefront of Brown Owl Coffee - with wooden owl in tree The wooden interior of Brown Owl Coffee

Ariana got into the business by roasting her own coffee (now as Hearth Coffee Roasters, where she time shares at a Peninsula roasting facility) and deciding to open a shop here, rather than the much more expensive and competitive North Beach. Her local friendships show in the mosaic art on the walls and the John Campbell baked goods. Engaging her patrons with stories and conversation, she’s generously been known to offer a cookie or two, pour some Pelligrino with your espresso, etc.

The not-so-brown wooden owl out front of Brown Owl CoffeeHer coffee emphasis is supported by Clever drippers and a four-group La Marzocco Linea. For her espresso, she’s using Flores Island (Indonesia) Blue Dragon, which exhibits a surprisingly broad flavor profile for a single origin. She produces it in classic brown ACF cups with a healthy mottled dark and medium brown crema, plus a brief acidic sharpness followed by a more rounded herbal profile.

It’s a great espresso of truly personal-crafted origins, and the location is a real asset to the neighborhood — which is otherwise dominated both positively by the character of a true working class SF neighborhood and by the pitfalls of its many 40-year-old, forgettable food establishments. But this is the very kind of local place many of us would like to see supported in SF — and the kind of place where something like a disloyalty card program fails at its mission just where it is needed most. A few coffee shops have tried and failed on this spot before, including the E Surf Café and Cafe Benalli. But this one is doing something different enough, and with enough pride, that it definitely deserves the support of the locals.

Read the review of Brown Owl Coffee.

Ariana Akbar working the La Marzocco Linea at Brown Owl Coffee The Brown Owl Coffee espresso

Trip Report: Caffè Pascucci

Posted by on 14 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

In 2009, the Italy-based Caffè Pascucci chain (including its espresso school, etc.) turned over its financial management to a group that has since favored more aggressive global expansion plans. These expansion plans included bringing their first non-Italian café chain store on this spot, across of AT&T Park in a modern brick commercial complex.

The Italian bible of coffee ratings, the Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia, rates the coffee at two of this café’s many sisters in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. The location in Rimini (Viale Amerigo Vespucci, 3a) received two chicchi (coffee beans) out of a maximum of three, and the grander shop in Riccone (Via Parini) received a full three chicchi. So there’s enough reason to expect the espresso here to be pretty good (and worth exporting). Contrast this with, say, Segafredo Zanetti chain, which has always underwhelmed.

Building maintenance at the entrance to Caffè Pascucci in SF Inside Caffè Pascucci

They call themselves Rimini-based, however. The on-duty barista on our visit worked for two years in their Rimini café, and he had the appropriate accent and tattoos for someone from the area. But for the many Americans who think of Italy as Florence-Rome-Venice, saying you’re from Rimini is like telling a San Francisco tourist that you live in the Excelsior. (“Is that near the Golden Gate Bridge?”) Despite its famous beach and favorite son in Federico Fellini, we caught an American (who had traveled in Italy, mind you) asking the barista where in Italy the café was from. The barista smartly replied, “East.”

Inside the café it looks like a modern Italian furnishings store — complete with white leather seating options (sofas, chairs), angular tables and chairs, and tall stools. It’s not a particularly large space, but the mirrored wall helps.

Dueling Fiorenzato machines and a large drink menu inside Caffè Pascucci The Caffè Pascucci espresso

Front and center is a serving bar with twin, two-group, shiny Fiorenzato Ducale Tall machines — from which they produce sizable doppio shots with a sharp, potent flavor. There’s little softness to the cup’s spice, woodiness, and slight bitterness that borders on a medicinal edge (which isn’t particularly appealing). It has a nicely textured medium brown crema, however. Served in gold logo ACF cups, like the ones used in their Italian cafés.

It’s a solid Italian espresso, but not among the best examples of Italian cultural exports — i.e., better than Segafredo Zanetti, but weaker than Caffè del Doge.

Their drink menu famously has odd creations, what the Bar d’Italia calls versioni più fantasiose (“more imaginative versions”) or versioni golose (literally, “gluttonous versions”). A prefect example are their espressi confuso — where the confuso means what you think it does. These are espresso drinks made with a unique cream-like concoction served from a whipped cream maker at a premium price, suggesting the popular bucket-of-pumpkin-pie-flavored-Cool-Whip drinks that Starbucks made famous with their own ode to gluttony — but with some Italian-style modesty thrown in.

Read the review of Caffè Pascucci.



UPDATE: April 18, 2011
In case there was any question about Caffè Pascucci’s over-reaching global ambitions under new management: Caffe Pascucci launches ‘Wood?Fired’ pizza in Bangalore.

Lisbon Cafés per the Wall Street Journal

Posted by on 13 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting, Robusta

Pasteleria São Roque from the Wall Street JournalTomorrow’s Wall Street Journal features an article on the Lisbon espresso, the bica: The Best Cafes in Lisbon – WSJ.com. It touches on Lisboeta coffee culture — e.g., drinking many shots each day at the local pasteleria (a sort of pastry shop/bar); a dependence on slower roasts, good quality coffee from Brazil, but also a proportion of robusta from former African colonies; and 40ml espresso shots instead of the Italian standard of 20ml (something we never saw as a positive, btw).

The article’s title is something of a misnomer, as it overlooks some of the best and most notable cafés in town. In part, this is due to the article’s focus on Delta Cafés coffee. Cafés such as Pastéis de Belém and A Brasileira are mentioned. But then again, our definition of quintessential Portuguese/Lisbon experiences includes headbanging to Da Weasel in Praça do Comércio whereas it probably doesn’t rank with the Journal.

Trip Report: Contraband Coffee Bar

Posted by on 06 Jan 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Machine, Roasting

This neighborhood coffee bar had been unusually hyped in the local presses, and on Facebook, for more than six months before it opened. This in a town where online foodie blogs make daily fodder of vacant, stripped-to-the-studs restaurant and café spaces with indefinite opening dates slated sometime before the next presidential administration.

We can attribute some of the hype to Contraband taking over the same spot as the former John Barleycorn bar, a local bar that developed a Nob Hill neighborhood love affair before closing in 2007. Contraband already had several 5-star Yelp reviews well before its opening on Christmas Eve 2010. (Underscoring one of the reasons why Yelp’s ratings are, well, stoopid.) But it’s hard to blame the locals when there aren’t a lot of great coffee bars nearby — even if co-owner Josh Magnani looks to Oakland for his coffee bar’s off-site roasting operations.

Entrance to Contraband Coffee Bar Contraband Coffee Bar's interior

They have a couple of sidewalk tables in front. Inside there’s a short counter lining the front window for stool seating, two seats at the coffee serving bar, and a few inside chairs centered around a long, tall table with flowers growing out of its center. They offer 3-4 different coffees for Hario V60 pour-over (Ethiopia, Guatemala, etc.) plus two kinds of espresso from their two-group Synesso Hydra machine.

They have a Compak grinder for their regular espresso blend (rated in our linked review below), which uses a Costa Rican base among some 5-6 other varietals. It comes with a good thickness of heady medium brown crema and is served in a shotglass to show it off. It is lighter bodied for an espresso and has a molasses-like sweetness (very much in the North American style).

Contraband's Compak and Versalab grinders and Synesso Hydra The Contraband Coffee espresso

Their Organic Kintimani Bali ($3) is more of their single-origin espresso treat — and a favorite of Mr. Magnani. They grind it with a separate Versalab M3 grinder, with its alternating dosing hoppers, and pull shots with a ridiculously bountiful crema. The resulting cup is practically effervescent, like a prosecco, and its lightness and subtle brightness spins the dark, heavy-bodied stereotype of Indonesian coffees on its head. They have access to a few hundred pounds of the stuff, so it’s bound to be in supply for a while.

In all, Contraband is a great local coffee bar — even if it doesn’t quite rank among the city’s elite.

Read the review of Contraband Coffee Bar.

Contraband Coffee's Organic Bali Kintimani data sheet Contraband Coffee's single-origin Bali espresso

While you were staring at that Coava Kone in a box, you missed the Versalab M3

Contraband’s Versalab M3 is worth a passing mention. Much of the local press has zeroed in on Contraband’s use of a Coava Kone. Now we love what the Coava guys are doing. They may yet even displace the Hario V60 this year for all we know. Be we still don’t quite get the industry hype over the Kone.

Contraband Coffee's unusual Versalab M3 grinderSure, it’s clever in that it sort of takes a Finite Element Analysis approach to emulating a paper filter out of stainless steel. But that makes it a second-rate imitation of a paper filter. In our experimentation, and we’re not alone, the Kone hasn’t improved the taste of Chemex-brewed coffee. In fact, the one of the better complements we’ve heard about it was, “It’s almost as good as with a paper filter.” Not that less waste doesn’t have its merits and virtues, but the Michelin guides don’t hand out extra rating stars if a restaurant uses a more water-efficient dishwashing machine.

Yet the local press fails to make any mention of the Versalab M3 here. At least we should expect articles with naïve headlines like, “The $1,700 grinder!” The M3 may not be the greatest grinder on the market — or just maybe it could be. You have to give it serious points for grind consistency. In any case, it is quite a novelty — made by a Florida-based geek who makes only speakers, turntables and coffee grinders. And it’s about time grinders got their due over espresso machines and the pour-over method du jour.

Trip Report: Barefoot Coffee Works / Roll-UP Bar (San Jose, CA)

Posted by on 25 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

This past weekend, Barefoot Coffee Roasters celebrated their seventh anniversary. While the San Francisco Coffee Wars have clearly overlooked the South Bay, we’ve frequently traced some of our favorite coffee experiences back to this small microroaster and their tiny chain of cafés. Besides their flagship café in Santa Clara, they have recently expanded to a couple of small kiosks in San Jose. One of which we visited this past weekend.

Having lived in Palo Alto for four years during the early 1990s, I used to joke “in Palo Alto, diversity means owning a Macintosh.” While there’s more to the Peninsula and South Bay than strip malls and residential sprawl, those are two of the reasons we don’t go back. One of the reasons we do go back is if said strip mall or residential sprawl hosts a Barefoot location. Barefoot’s Roll-Up Bar falls in the latter category.

This ain't the new Brady Bunch, it's Barefoot Coffee Works The garage: the Barefoot Coffee Roll-Up Bar in San Jose

Espresso machines and coffee supplies inside the Barefoot Coffee Works Unroasted green beans inside Barefoot Coffee Works

Co-located with the Barefoot Coffee Works (the new home of Barefoot’s roasting operations), the Roll-Up Bar is literally located at the garage door at the end of a massive driveway. If that sounds rather residential, it’s because it is. Located in pretty much a house that is only lacking a basketball hoop in the wide driveway, this is a casual spot not far from the Shark Tank where locals can enjoy great coffee in what feels like someone’s gated front yard.

If you’re driving here like most people, just be prepared to look for a morning house party serving coffee. The neighbor next door currently sports a rather elaborate Halloween yard decoration, then commemorating the impending doom for the Philadelphia Phillies. (Even if San Jose has their own Giants.)

There are a few benches in front for seating, but otherwise it’s a limited set of stools at a small wooden counter bar set up for Hario V60 pour-overs plus an ornate, copper-plated, three-group Victoria Arduino lever machine. In back there are a couple of Probat roasters, a lot of storage shelves, a cupping room, and plenty of unroasted coffee.

Cupping room inside Barefoot Coffee Works Beans from the trade inside Barefoot Coffee Works' cupping room

Probat roasting in Barefoot Coffee Works Roast profiling inside Barefoot Coffee Works

For their 7th anniversary celebration, Barefoot did the crazy thing and gave out free coffee all day long at all of their locations. But rather than offer only their everyday, less expensive coffees, to their credit they poured a lot of their special supplies. Besides serving their Bolivia Cup of Excellence #29 Flor Rosa (with three days age) at the pour-over bar in notNeutral Bangladeshi cups, they were also serving this coffee (normally at $24/12-oz) as their single origin espresso.

The resulting cup was fragrant, with a medium brown, even layer of crema in their classic dark brown ACF cups. It’s single origin overboard — with a sharp, acidic sweetness tasting of berries, honey, and a light molasses. This is straight-out brightness bomb espresso that would make most Italians recoil in disgust. But if you’re into that sort of thing, and we sometimes are, it’s rather exceptional. However, we need to update this review at some point with a more “typical” shot from this location.

Read the review of Barefoot Coffee Roasters’ Roll-Up Bar in San Jose.

Coffees on display at the Barefoot Roll-Up Bar The coffee-loving local patrons at the Barefoot Roll-Up Bar

Hario V60 pour-over bar and Victoria Arduino lever machine at the Barefoot Roll-Up Bar The Barefoot Roll-Up Bar espresso made with Bolivia Cup of Excellence #29 Flor Rosa

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. (Jack London Square, Oakland, CA)

Posted by on 01 Sep 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Opening in Oct. 2009, James Freeman finally established a spacious company headquarters home for his ever-growing Bay Area coffee empire here in Jack London Square. They host a surprisingly small café for retail coffee service. There’s several tall stools and tables for outdoor seating along Webster St., and indoors there is barely a four-person window counter to sit at.

Much of the space is dedicated to specialized operations such as warehousing equipment and supplies, larger batch roasting (with two large Probat roasters), daily cuppings (every day at 2pm), making baked goods for all of their outlets, barista training, and desks for buyers and all the other administrative details.

Blue Bottle Coffee's company headquarters in Oakland Small retail coffee area inside Blue Bottle Coffee's company headquarters

Warehouse space inside Blue Bottle Coffee's corporate headquarters James Freeman in front of one of Blue Bottle's Probat roasters

This location is part coffee lab, given the test roasts and equipment trials they perform here, but also part museum — the latter reflecting Mr. Freeman’s enthusiasm for older equipment and electronics. His blending of the two seems to put the recent media obsession with gadgetizing coffee and emphasizing coffee “firsts” in a rather conflicted state.

Coffee so fresh, it’s from the future!

On the one hand, you have Mr. Freeman experimenting with the Marco Über boiler — a device the New York Times yesterday called “The Rolls-Royce of Kettles” in breaking-news fashion (“the first in New York City!”). Media outlets like the Times have recently picked up the puzzling, and frequently annoying, habit of taking the centuries-old art of making coffee and suddenly pitching it as if we were in the midst of a Cold War-era coffee-making arms race against the Russians. “Throw out that obsolete La Marzocco Linea — now it’s all about the new $22,000 Cannibal Corpse machine!”

This bizarre hyperactive emphasis is something you just don’t see for making tea or waffles or ice cream. Coffee not only seems to bring out the cause-driven kooks more than any other consumable. It also seems to bring out the misplaced desires of bleeding-edge technology news junkies — an odd lot who have been suffering withdrawal symptoms ever since the demise of manned space flight. (This before you add a fickleness and ADHD that’s normally associated with the fashion industry.)

Now juxtapose this fetish with Mr. Freeman’s obvious infatuation with things like the 1940s Altec Lansing “Voice of the Theatre” speakers at this location, an old Russian projector scope for internal office presentations, vintage stereo equipment in the barista training room, and a dual-lever La San Marco machine at the Mint Plaza Blue Bottle Cafe — nostalgically, Blue Bottle’s first espresso machine and it’s still in service for single origin coffees. Good luck geeking out on the bleeding-edge technology news in all that.

Inside Blue Bottle Coffee's barista training room - with old stereo equipment Old five-barrel Probat sample roaster - Blue Bottle uses a single barrel version for testing roasts

The Voice of the Theater speakers inside Blue Bottle Coffee's Oakland headquarters The other big Probat roaster inside Blue Bottle Coffee's Oakland headquarters

Old classics, and classically good coffee

The facility emphasizes transparency: large glass panes with visibility inside Blue Bottle’s various operations. Combined with their roasting and training facilities, this makes Blue Bottle’s headquarters perhaps the closest Bay Area equivalent we have to Cape Town’s Origin Coffee Roasting complex — just with all the Cal/OSHA regulations thrown in so that transparency here means “look, but don’t touch”.

The retail coffee bar may be small at this location, but it’s capable of great things with its “oh so last year, honey” three-group La Marzocco Linea machine. The resulting shot is extra potent and short without being overly syrupy. It has a textured, richer medium brown crema and a smooth, rounded, fresh-tasting, flavorful pungency of thyme, some pepper, and traces of smoke, honey, and cedar. An outstanding shot. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.

Read the review of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company in Oakland‘s Jack London Square.

Blue Bottle Coffee's tasting room and window to their baking operations at their Oakland headquarters Daily cuppings take place at 2pm at Blue Bottle Coffee's Oakland headquarters

Working behind the La Marzocco Linea at Blue Bottle Coffee's Oakland headquarters The Blue Bottle Coffee espresso at their Oakland headquarters

Food and coffee…for realz

Posted by on 30 Aug 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

Last week we wrote about how coffee, like food, has become a primary form of consumer entertainment. We also mentioned recent experiences at newer coffee bars that have felt, well, “manipulative and artificial.” This concern over what seems real might sound trivial, but it’s at the foundation of a great deal of consumer behavior and marketing today.

Don’t believe us? Look at the immense popularity of reality television shows, the critical importance of reality to today’s video game industry, and the heavy emphasis of realness, or authenticity, in our food and drink. Social theorists suggest that our lives today are so consumed with virtual crap — crap that severs us from nature and self-sufficiency — that we now crave authenticity and reality in the things we do and the things we buy. Authors Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore heavily explored this theme in their book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.

We're lead to presume that authentic food is only available from taco trucks What's eating real and local without being served from a truck?

Oakland’s Eat Real (?) Festival

Speaking of food and drink experiences that overtly express their realness, this past weekend we attended Oakland’s (recently) annual Eat Real Festival. Coffee featured at the event (more on that later), and the event Web site tells us, “Eat Real’s mission is to make real food as accessible and as affordable as fast food at events held in strategic communities across the United States.”

So, according to this food fest, what does real food actually mean? For one, no fewer than two separate kombucha demonstration sessions. For another, urban homesteading — with models of a backyard townhouse you can build for a chicken that’s the envy of many an East Oakland resident. And lots and lots of taco trucks. As if the mere act of serving food out of fad-friendly taco trucks makes it naturally affordable, nutritious, locally grown, and oh-so-real.

If we thought so many of our recent new coffee experiences were artificial, what could we make of the realness of this event? Planted smack in the middle of this festival was a McDonald’s-owned Chipotle booth. With over 22,500 employees at 1,000 locations in 36 states, you can bet your kombucha that Chipotle doesn’t raise their chickens in backyard townhouses.

Chipotle and 'Eat Locally' at the same Eat Real Festival??? The nearby Oakland Chinatown Streetfest , quietly keeping it real for 23 years

The festival is the brainchild of Susan Coss and Anya Fernald, organizers behind the 2008 Slow Food Nation that we highly endorsed. That event may have received heavy, but misplaced, criticism for its “elitist” price tag at the time. While there’s nothing disingenuous about dressing up a county fair with more modern food fads, slapping the real or authentic label on it hops on the express lane to Phonytown. Pine & Gilmore write about three basic rules of authenticity, and the Eat Real Festival failed at all of them. The second rule being, “It’s easier to be authentic if you don’t say you’re authentic.” Remind you of any Third Wave flag wavers you know?

Coincidentally, a few blocks away was the 23rd annual Oakland Chinatown Streetfest where they offered no kombucha demonstrations, no taco trucks, and no Chipotle booth dressed in “I’m locally grown” clothing. Your guess as to which festival felt more real and authentic.

Ritual Coffee Roasters' trailer at the Eat Real Festival Nothing like having a GB/5 hanging out your trailer window

Ritual Coffee Roasters owner, Eileen Hassi, getting her urban homesteading in The surprisingly over milky Ritual Coffee Roasters cappuccino

Coffee at the Eat Real Festival

Back to the coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee‘s James Freeman spoke about home coffee roasting at the event — focusing on his roasting roots with a basic oven (in other words: forget those newfangled popcorn poppers!).

Ritual Coffee Roasters established a presence with an event-suitable trailer-on-wheels — with La Marzocco GB/5 sticking out of one end. Going beyond our usual straight espresso shots, the cappuccino was decent but a far too milky for their usual standards.

Hands-down the most impressive coffee drinks at the festival grounds came from — surprise, surprise — Mr. Espresso. We’ve normally considered particularly fluffy espresso specialty drinks as superfluous barista competition fodder. But their Venezuelan Cappuccino — made with Mr. Espresso’s Neapolitan Espresso and Barlovento Venezuelan Hot Chocolate Truffle of “Star Anise, Orange zest, and All Spice berries” made believers out of us.

Luigi di Ruocco serving up espresso drinks at the Mr. Espresso booth The Mr. Espresso Venezuelan Cappuccino

Trip Report: Saeco Caffè (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 28 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting

This unusual, two-story café resides at the base of the ultra modern, five-star 15 on Orange Hotel. On the upper floor, it has a serving area with a two-group Saeco Steel SE 200 at a bar, a number of black tables and chairs, a branded lit display, a couple of Saeco home machines on display, a fashionable clothing and jewelry shop, and a few baked goods under glass. Outside there’s a patio with three plastic chairs and café tables under parasols advertising Saeco. Downstairs there’s more black tables and chairs and an array of several home Saeco machines for demonstration.

Together the place is wrapped heavily in Saeco red & black branding, giving it a Segafredo Zanetti-like feel. But this café, currently unique in the world, is Saeco’s showcase for their machines and coffee — a sort of counter to the Nespresso showrooms planted all over the world.

Branding outside the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town Inside the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town

Home espresso machine demo counter inside the Saeco Caffè What's a café without high-fashion retailing? Inside the Saeco Caffè.

Despite the hip, modern feel of the place, the friendly barista leaves the portafilter handles cooling in the drip tray. But when the machine is in service (there are few customers ever in here), they pull shots of Saeco coffee (also sold here in kilo-sized bags) into plastic, transparent, double-walled Bodum cups. You can see a good 2mm layer of even, medium brown crema.

But despite the rich aroma and good looks, the flavor is a bit of a disappointment: flat, a little tarry, but otherwise pungent cloves. Served on a silver platter with a large glass of water. R12, or about $1.55.

Read the review of Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa.

Branding and Saeco machine inside the Saeco Caffè The Saeco Caffè espresso

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