Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
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.
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.
Her 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow’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.
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.
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).
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’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.
Sure, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the transitioning Cape Town neighborhood of Woodstock, which out-Missions the Mission, this espresso bar and roaster perhaps looks like no other you’ve seen before. Located inside the newly-art-conscious Old Biscuit Mill, this small space is a pristine, stark black-&-white-themed coffee lab that exudes meticulous organization. The Old Biscuit Mill is known in town for Cape Town’s original gourmet food market (and hipster Mecca) that it hosts each Saturday — giving Espresso Lab Microroasters a little bit of the small-operation, gourmet-public-market-based origins familiar to the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee.
The periodic table of the chemical elements features heavily in the highly consistent theme of this roaster/café. It shows in the elemental-looking coffee drink menu printed on the white tile walls (those “atomic weights” in the photo are actually prices in South African Rands), through to the labeled chem-lab-looking buckets of unroasted green beans, and all the way to the company T-shirts packaged in silver ziploc bags labeled with the “element” Ts for T-shirt.
Opening a little over a year ago, they have three internal benches for seating plus a couple of outdoor patio tables. In back is a black & white Diedrich IR-7 roaster. In front they offer Hario Buono kettle/V60 drip coffee — their “Artisinal Brew” (Ab). Renato, co-owner with Helene, noted how the locals still haven’t made a leap to filter coffee just yet. However, he is assisting in the opening of a pour-over bar (with Espresso Lab Microroasters’ coffee) in Stellenbosch — part of Cape Town’s famed nearby winelands and their associated fine dining establishments. (Stellenbosch is very much akin to the Napa Valley when compared to Cape Town’s San Francisco.)
Although the pour-over uptake may be slow at this location, there’s plenty of espresso to be had from their two-group La Marzocco GB/5, where you have the choice of an espresso blend or (on the day’s visit) a single-origin Kenya. The Kenya, Gichatha-ini from the Gikanda Farmers Co-Operative Society, won the SCAA’s Best of Kenya. Cup of Excellence still doesn’t exist in Africa outside of Rwanda.
Their Esp008 espresso blend (rated here) uses 40% Serra do Boné Brazil as a base, 40% Puente Ecológico Tarrazú Costa Rica for the midrange, and 20% Guji Ethiopia for brightness and “wildness”. Their espresso blends vary mostly by different African varietals for that last 20%, and they emphasize changes in blending ratios — rather than using additional microlot farms or roasting the coffees differently for different blends or uses.
The Esp008 espresso blend shot (R14, or about $2 US) is dense without being too syrupy — with a textured dark-to-medium-brown crema and an upfront sweetness that’s not too off-putting. Still, its citric bite on top of an herbal background makes for a uniquely layered espresso flavor — one that Renato says is influenced by the lighter roasts of his Oslo, Norway coffee upbringing combined with his Portuguese roots and what Africa adds to the cup. Renato’s Norwegian influences include former WBC champ, Tim Wendelboe, and it shows in the lighter roasting styles and the feel of this space.
Their shot of single-origin Kenya (also used for their “Artisinal Brew” pour-over) was super bright with a pleasant floral and citric base — but without being a brightness bomb. They also offer something they call a cortado, which is pretty much the same as an American Gilbraltar out of a Gibraltar glass. And for milk-frothing, they produce rather exquisite latte art with fine surface bubbles. This is a fine and somewhat unique example of what South African espresso has to offer.
Read the review of Espresso Lab Microroasters in Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa.
Opening in Sept. 2009, this beachfront café in downtown Kalk Bay bustles with lovers of coffee and baked goods. They’ve adopted a theme based on New York City’s TriBeCa neighborhood, which is expressed in NYC imagery on the walls. The tables are pretty classy, actually, and there are often musicians in front along the sidewalk (which has some of its own sidewalk table seating). While popular for breakfast, they also serve sandwiches and dinner after 5pm.
Cappuccinos are on the menu, instead of flat whites, and they also offer the occasional odd South African coffee cocktail, such as the honey nut crunch macchiato. In back there’s an espresso bar that also offers wine, where an older, deep red, three-group La San Marco machine pulls shots of their own espresso blend. (They also have a Mazzer grinder.)
The resulting shot has a flecked, even, medium brown crema. It’s a touch thin, but it’s hard to complain: it’s a potent espresso (surprising as a double-sized single) with a fuller body and a roasted flavor of some pepper and spices blended well. A fine example of espresso in a popular place. R13 (about $1.75).
Read the review of Tribeca Bakery in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, South Africa.