Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Now that we’ve been told Seattle espresso is passé — with self-proclaimed Third Wave aficionados holding their nose at the (former) Queen City’s “Oh So Last Wave” reputation — we recently visited a variety of Seattle espresso bars. This is the first post of a coming series on Seattle cafés. We hope this series will provide some basic insight into Seattle’s coffee culture and how it is currently measuring up next to the rest of the coffee world. (More on that later.)
Oddly enough, our first installment comes from Kirkland, WA. Most of you are probably familiar with Kirkland only through Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand — named after this town that served as Costco’s headquarters from 1987 to 1996. Located on the shores of Lake Washington, northeast of Seattle, Kirkland is a quiet suburb of old homes and sprawling new condo development … and it’s home to the only Zoka Coffee outside of Seattle and Japan.
This is a large corner café in “downtown” Kirkland with a lot of seating inside on various tables and chairs, including a giant communal long wooden table and even the sawed-up midsection of a giant tree stump. Outside there is a lone metal table along Central Way near bronze public sculptures of wrestling rabbits in front.
The laptop zombie factor is heavy here, as even this spacious café with its tall ceilings is packed with people who don’t appear to work for a living. (Not unlike, say, SF’s original Ritual Roasters.) They use Mazzer grinders, a Hario Buono drip kettle with Bonmac drippers, and the wall sells everything from beans to Bodums to Chemex.
They had a two-group Slayer machine when we visited, but they were packing it up to ship to an alternate Seattle location because of “underuse” here. Sorry, folks, but you’re “stuck” with a three-group La Marzocco GB/5 instead. The signage proclaims “19g of espresso extracted for all espresso drinks,” and they use their Espresso Paladino for pulling shots (ours was from a five-day old roast).
The shot has a mottled medium brown crema of average thickness. It has a smooth and simple flavor of blended spices, herbs, a touch of molasses, and runs very fruity (stone fruit). Combined with a little bit of chocolate on the finish, there’s a bit of chocolate-covered cherries going on. But clearly this is no brightness bomb.
The flavor is blended well and somewhat understated — almost too understated compared to the shots of Paladino we used to have at SF’s defunct Cafe Organica. There is definitely an Old World dimension to the working espresso blend here. While a good, solid effort, there’s room for improvement and there’s better Seattle espresso to come.
This industrial art space café opened in late 2009 and is easy to miss — despite its size and being across the street from AT&T Park. There are a few French café tables among the front patio and also inside, but inside it is primarily a large art space with white walls and a number of pieces of various media, including lawn chairs on a real patch of lawn.
At the center of the airy space is a coffee bar that doesn’t mess with food items: the focus here is on the coffee. They use a two-group Laranzato ME-2, which is the only one we’ve seen outside of the Big Island of Hawaii. There are also a number of plastic Clever drippers from Sweet Maria’s and a number of Pelligrino bottles lining the long serving countertops.
The SF Weekly highlighted the introduction of these Clever drippers earlier this month — as they now are available for retail coffee use in SF beyond Four Barrel Coffee. The SFoodie crew at SF Weekly were also quick to anoint them as a “Third Wave coffee shop” in the article’s first sentence, but that (meaningless) claim rings hollow when paper cups are the only option available. To us, this is akin to comparing a restaurant to a James Beard Award winner while it only serves on paper plates.
But let’s forget the coffee toy du jour for a moment: of course, our reviews focus on the espresso.
They proudly feature coffee from Equator Coffees & Teas, which we’ve long been ambivalent about — particularly in a retail environment. Equator receives tremendous accolades as a roaster, but virtually all of the cafés they supply produce decent but ultimately forgettable results. Here they used Equator’s Arabian Mocha Java blend for espresso, but they also featured an organic Brazil Chapada Diamantina, a Colombia La Josefina, and a Costa Rica Montes de Oro (for the Clever drippers).
They pull espresso as sizable shots served in larger, drip-coffee-sized paper cups (unfortunately). It has a healthy looking, mottled, medium brown crema of average thickness and a flavor of a light tobacco smokiness. There are some herbal notes and pleasant spices in the mix, but the shot has a somewhat narrow flavor profile.
The crowds are light and the art space makes for an interesting place to linger over a coffee. And the coffee itself is pretty good — just again not the place to showcase Equator beans. But then that isn’t surprising for Equator coffee in a retail environment.
Read the review of Sohberts.
We honestly don’t like repeating ourselves, but we will anyway. No, this has nothing to do with the Cafe Grumpy $12 cup of coffee scuttlebutt going around — where New Yorkers once again find something in their backyard and therefore presume they must have invented it. (Curiously, this came up one month after CNN reported on a $13 cup of coffee in Baltimore. Let alone the $15 cups we wrote about in 2007.)
Food & Wine magazine publishes an annual “Go List” [pdf, 1.34Mb] of their Top 100 “New Food & Drink Experiences,” and the 2010 version that came out in this month’s issue includes the Bay Area’s Blue Bottle Coffee (#20) and Four Barrel Coffee (#21). Rounding out their coffee obsession: cult roasters section is Copenhagen’s Coffee Collective (#19) and Melbourne, Australia’s Seven Seeds (#22).
What makes this a repeat? Flashback to our recent posts on Bon Appétit’s Top 10 Boutique Coffee Shops or MSN City Guide’s choices for coffee roasters for a moment. Not that Blue Bottle and Four Barrel wouldn’t be on our short list, but we sometimes wonder if said article researchers do little more than read each other’s Top 10 magazine lists. We also wonder why a list of supposedly “new” hot spots includes roasters who have been established for a few years now.
What we do appreciate is that a magazine called Food & Wine noticeably changed their tone with a decidedly Food & Drink list — so that they may include beverages such as coffee. Well, that and it was also interesting to see Ceretto‘s new wine tasting room in Piemonte at #6 — having experienced some of the modern glass architecture of Ceretto’s Bricco Rocche estate when we last visited in 2007.
Good coffee cultures are exported. Starbucks grew by churning out a mutant strain of Italian coffee culture by the thousands. Fifteen years ago, we saw cafés in Prague that boasted “Seattle style lattes.” And while New York City is beating its chest lately over its recent coffee prowess — emulating one of its most famous tourists of the Great Depression — most of what’s boast-worthy has been imported from the coffee cultures of places such as Portland and San Francisco (or even Australia).
Wait? Did we just say San Francisco? Despite this town’s long coffee history, ten years ago SF lacked any quality focal points that were honestly worth exporting. A lot, however, has changed since then — even to the point where the term “San Francisco” has become something of a coffee branding strategy.
Atlanta, GA, for example, has a local, independent coffee house and roaster known as the San Francisco Coffee Roasting Company (not to be confused with the Pier 39 place with the same name). There’s the San Francisco Coffee Company in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (not to be confused with a local roaster). Malaysia and Singapore even have a 27-outlet chain called San Francisco Coffee.
Of course, the quality at most coffee shops in San Francisco is suspect at best. So there’s clearly no need to get into the protectionism of regional labeling that we’ve seen in products such as champagne or Vidalia onions. But whenever parts in the rest of the world take notice, that’s usually a good thing.
We published our first trip report for Sightglass last July: Sightglass Coffee, Version 0.3. Back then, Sightglass was a tiny espresso-serving kiosk at the front of a vast, 4,000-sq-ft space with a 14-kg Probat roasting operation planned to start in the Fall of 2009. We revisited Sightglass this week to see how much things have changed.
It’s perhaps both bad and good news that things haven’t changed much at all since our first visit. They still operate as a tiny kiosk of a service station in front, offering espresso, Chemex brewing, and some salt caramels. Their roasting operations are still being built out; the current completion estimate is now June 2010. Instead of facing the permit issues that delayed Four Barrel’s roasting operations, the delays at Sightglass were primarily zoning: given that there are two other notable roasters in the SOMA district, the environmental impact of another neighborhood roaster required a rather thorough evaluation.
One other major change here was a highly publicized switch of their espresso machine. What was a beautiful, rare, refurbished, two-group La Marzocco GS2 espresso machine — straight out of the 1970s, and a sister to the one recently installed at Intelligentsia‘s fabled Venice Beach location — has since been replaced with a two-group Slayer machine. (Just like the one at Matching Half Cafe.)
Ah, the infamous, fetish du jour: the Slayer. While the verdict is still out on the merits of the Slayer as an espresso machine, its merits as a hype machine are unquestionable. For example, two months ago one barista/blogger made the ludicrous claim in Serious Eats that, with the Slayer, “fourth wave coffee has arrived”.
First of all, remember that the term third wave was originally coined to describe a level of consumer appreciation for coffee. Thus, the author literally suggested that an espresso machine will single-handedly make consumers appreciate coffee in such a significantly novel way as to change consumer culture. By comparing waves, her statement suggested that once consumers compare a Slayer-made espresso with a run-of-the-mill Blue Bottle shot, for example, public coffee-drinking habits will change as dramatically as when people raised on cups of Sanka brewed in 1950s percolators discovered the espresso made at Rome’s Sant’Eustachio il caffè.
Wow. Talk about Mother of All Hyperbole. We’re honestly incredulous at how someone could make such an absurdist claim.
Thankfully, the New York Times tempered the post’s price-tag-based hype: the Serious Eats post lead with sensationalist $18,000 price tag headline, completely oblivious to the fact that a decent, three-group La Marzocco GB/5 will set you back more than that. But then Salon magazine echoed that piece with a post titled “Baristas gone wild”, and local culture & clique rag, 7×7, anointed the Slayer at Sightglass as “ushering in coffee’s fourth wave”.
We love a taste test challenge. But to make a fair and reasonable comparison, a number of variables must be held in check: location, barista, coffee roast, grind, ambient temperature and humidity, etc. Unfortunately, controlling all of these is a next to impossible task. However, there are a few things in our favor: the same place (Sightglass) using the same roast (a Sightglass blend made at Verve Coffee Roasters) and the same grinding equipment.
On the negative side, the baristas were different (but were hopefully trained to the same standards), the weather may have been different, the age of the roasts could be different, etc. But since we couldn’t reasonably get lab time to compare a Slayer with a La Marzocco GB/5, we’ll have to settle for a taste comparison made months apart.
The other thing in our favor is that we’ve historically found our own espresso tasting descriptors and rating system to be very consistent between visits at cafés with good standards and consistency. We’ve been surprised many times when, having a “blind” test at a place we haven’t visited in over a year, we’ve compared our notes and scores with our previous visit and discovered that they completely agree. And if the Slayer truly created an entirely new wave of consumer coffee appreciation over the old standards, our lack of precision should theoretically matter little.
We found our Slayer-pulled Sightglass shot to have a dark crema. Comparing it with the La Marzocco-made shot of old, the crema is a little darker but a little less substantial. The body is a touch thin, but that was true before here also. One greater difference was the focus of the flavor profile: instead of a potent flavor dominated more in the pungent range of the flavor spectrum (more of cloves, herbs, etc.), the Slayer-made shot had a darker, more earthy flavor dominated more in the smoky/muted tobacco end of the spectrum. And while their La Marzocco shot had a pretty limited dynamic range of flavors that were still executed well, the newer shot had the same limited range with the exception of a surprisingly acidic bite to its finish.
Even so, these differences were subtle. We noticed the $0.50 increase in their shot prices more than any tasting differences (namely: more smokiness than pungency plus a brighter finish). In fact, when we tallied our espresso rating scores, they were identical with the GS2 shot from last July.
So does that mean the Slayer isn’t a great machine? No. But it does suggest that the 2010 issue Slayer, for all its hype, imparted no noticeable difference to the resulting shot in the cup — from a 1970′s-made La Marzocco. At least from our espresso consumer’s perspective, this supposed fourth wave looks identical to the so-called third. We honestly couldn’t tell them apart.
Sure, we have taken a bit of poetic license to its literal extreme with this semi-facetious comparison. But if you are going make audacious claims, we ask that you back them up.
Of course, the Slayer’s prime advantages are manual pressure control and pre-infusion capabilities that are perhaps best suited for single origin coffees rather than blends. The reason we found little difference from the Slayer at Sightglass could be due to the coffee being a blend, or because they’ve tuned it to produce shots that meet their previous flavor profiles, or because their baristas haven’t yet learned how to take advantage of the additional controls.
But perhaps the biggest telltale sign as to why Sightglass switched from a perfectly reasonable GS2 to a Slayer can be found in their most recent cash register system, which is now based on the Apple iPad released just this week. Is there any better way to indicate how much you’re enamored with the new and less with the reasons why behind a switch?
Read the updated review of Sightglass.
The New York Times today published a piece on the Bay Area roaster land grab going on out East: West Coast Coffee Roasters Are Lengthening Their Reach – NYTimes.com. Ritual Coffee Roasters, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Four Barrel Coffee are each mentioned — lugging their roasting equipment over the Rocky Mountains and through the Great Plains of our nation’s mid-section, panning for retail gold as prospectors in the uncivilized coffee wilderness of our nation’s Atlantic Coast.
Who knows what obstacles they might find among the savage tastes and customs of the local natives? But these brave men and women are taking our nation’s pioneer spirit to heart, from sea to shining sea, spreading our Manifest Destiny of good coffee for all.
Seems a lot like it, doesn’t it?
On a more serious note, we did learn something from the article — such as the word “java” was first coined on the coffee docks of San Francisco. Otherwise there’s Ritual’s Eileen Hassi mentioning the importance of green bean seasonality, Intelligentsia taking over Ecco Caffè and establishing a roaster in Potrero Hill, and of course some of the obligatory third wave gibberish.
I particularly liked The Age‘s comments about the flat white — i.e., “they’re considered uncool back home” — and yet they’re appearing all over New York. Last night I had dinner with a friend living in London, and he says the coffee shops there are crawling with flat whites these days.
Saturday’s Chicago Tribune published a pretty good piece on Intelligentsia CEO, Doug Zell:
Intelligentsia Coffee’s CEO talks beans – chicagotribune.com.
While Doug gets a little loopy (our opinion) in abusing the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee — e.g., espousing such shoehorned ideas as coffee pairings — he’s been a pioneer and leader in areas such as:
The article also notes the roots of his coffee experience at the Bay Area’s Peet’s and Spinelli chains (the latter since bought out by Tully’s), Intelligentsia’s successes at barista competitions, and working with area restaurateurs.
However, on that last note, the article also quotes Rick Bayless — the “Frontera Grill/Topolobampo chef/cookbook author/TV personality.” While he is a genuinely talented perfectionist himself, and we love his food, his restaurants pull some of the weakest shots of Intelligentsia we’ve ever had.
Stirring a bit of the coffee world today is this piece from TIME magazine: Stumptown Coffee vs. Starbucks: Portland, Seattle Rivals – TIME. If Josh Ozersky’s headline of “Is Stumptown the New Starbucks — or Better?” seems oddly familiar, it’s because his article conceptually (and shamelessly) recycled Ethan Epstein’s piece for the New York Press from last June: “Totally Stumped” — an article that lead Eater to run with the headline “Stumped: Is Stumptown This Decade’s Starbucks?” Mr. Ozersky may have won a James Beard Award for food writing, but talk about a strange coincidence.
One major difference, however, is that the TIME article goes all third wave on us. Our years-long annoyance with third wave fiction aside, there’s something outright creepy about mainstream media stumbling cluelessly into social trends years after the fact in an attempt to explain them to us. It made us rethink their headline as, “Is TIME the new 60 Minutes — or Worse?” — given how reading the article made us feel like we were watching Mike Wallace introduce the World Wide Web to a 60 Minutes audience circa 1999. (We may be fans of 60 Minutes, but its track record of reporting on cultural phenomena years after the fact was exceptionally poor.)
In any case, Trish Rothgeb created a mutating monster that must be stopped.
The TIME article also alludes to, but does not deliver on, the Portland vs. Seattle coffee turf wars going on lately. This would have been a much more interesting angle, although it is only a regional (and not national) story, e.g.: A Tale Of Two Cities: Portland’s Coffee Culture Swipes Seattle’s Crown. Could you imagine an amusing piece invoking a comparison with the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry? With Duane Sorenson playing the role of 2Pac and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as “Biggie,” The Notorious B.I.G.
Just when you think the profession of the coffee “middleman” was on its way out in this era of the Internet, in come a number of entrepreneurs trying to reintroduce them. What we’re talking about are consumer retailers that intermediate the sale of roasted coffee — with examples that include Citizen Bean, GoCoffeeGo (see Man Seeking Coffee’s recent review), and ROASTe.
These e-retailers provide online storefronts for consumers to review, order, and purchase roasted coffees from a variety of specialty coffee roasters. Virtually all of the participating roasters already have their own online storefronts with support for direct ordering. So the value of these e-retailers is supposedly in the discovery of new roasters and the convenience of buying your roasted coffee from one Web site. Or so the PR machines behind them have stated in our stuffed e-mail inboxes over the past few months.
In some ways, this reflects the ambitions of entrepreneurs who wish to shoehorn the specialty wine merchant business model on coffee’s ever-popular wine analogy. Other elements seem like attempts at coffee’s wine-of-the-month club. In either case, a major flaw in this model is that coffee, unlike wine, goes stale immediately after roasting. To address this, these e-retailers have established on-demand roasting relationships with their roasters.
Another major challenge with this business model concerns pricing. Adding a middleman always costs more money than a system without one, as they have to make expenses and payroll on top of all the other costs in the supply chain. It’s for this reason that coffee middlemen have been extremely unpopular in recent years. They’ve been demonized by the Fair Trade movement as unnecessary leeches, siphoning money from the coffee trade supply chain that should otherwise be going to coffee farmers.
In fact, the entire financial premise behind Fair Trade and Direct Trade coffee is to get rid of the middlemen. So who is paying for these e-retailers? Right now, it seems to be an arrangement akin to that of travel agents before the age of the Internet: the seller picks up the additional costs as a marketing and distribution expense, and no additional costs are passed on to the consumer. But how long will this last once the consumer novelty wears off?
It’s indirect trade: buying coffee through these roasted coffee brokers effectively cuts into the coffee roaster’s capacity to pay top dollar to their coffee farmers.
The travel agent analogy to these e-retailers is fitting, as there’s little you can do with them that you cannot already do directly, and more cheaply (total supply chain cost-wise), over the Internet. Like travel agents in their heyday, the value of a middleman comes when there is a lack of consumer information and/or a lack of direct public access to the suppliers. The Internet has rendered both as non-issues when buying roasted coffee. And we all know what happened to travel agents. So unless the individual roasters themselves completely screw up their business at sales and distribution, a middleman will have a very limited opportunity to improve upon these relationships.
For a comparison, over the years I have purchased green coffee beans (for home roasting) from distributors such as Sweet Maria’s and The Coffee Project. Why? For one, I simply cannot find supplies down the street. It also helps that a Web site like Sweet Maria’s provides a lot of flavor profile information and roasting recommendations. But if individual farms I knew and trusted started selling directly over the Web, that would change things.
Does this mean that these e-tailers don’t provide a valuable service customers want? Absolutely not. A number of them already have vocal, loyal customers. There may turn out to be a sustainable long-term market for one or two of these middlemen for a limited set of customers. But given the economic and disintermediation forces of the Internet, we foresee a pretty ugly commercial bloodbath on the horizon for a number of them. Travel agents did give way to travel-aggregating Web sites, but then we already had an established need for travel agents well before the Web came along.
Today the New York Times Magazine blog posted a mini bio-piece on James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee fame: The Nifty 50 | James Freeman, Coffee Maker – T Magazine Blog – NYTimes.com. The story behind their “Nifty 50″ (did they hire a former 1960′s editor from Tiger Beat for that?) is to highlight “America’s up-and-coming talent.”
Since Mr. Freeman is not likely making an appearance on American Idol anytime soon — and since there’s still no word on the pilot for Clarineting With the Stars — the Bay Area coffee world fortunately can still celebrate him as one of our own talents. Of course, New York City has supposedly been calling for a while now, and the article claims James still holds some Gotham interest.
Sitting in James’ Blue Bottle Cafe this afternoon with visiting Hawaii coffee author and consultant, Shawn Steiman, we discussed Hawaii’s laggard status at quality retail coffee despite its notable coffee growing credentials. The conversation then turned to New York City’s laggard quality coffee status and how much its quality coffee culture had to be imported from places like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco — including a number of coffee professionals who hail from these towns.
We previously knew of New York City’s challenges in establishing local roasters — given its commercial real estate environment and zoning laws. But what we didn’t know, and learned from Shawn today, was something he once heard from Gimme! in Ithaca, NY: that Manhattan has no roasters because the island has insufficient gas pressure to support them.
Today’s Times piece also exhumed the old $20,000 figure on Mr. Freeman’s Japanese siphon bar. Whenever journalists turn to price tags for coffee headlines, it reminds us of the old Oscar Wilde quote about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. $11,000 Clovers, $18,000 Slayer machines included. (Do they expect commercial coffee-brewing equipment to cost about as much as their $200 Krups home espresso machine?)
Yes, pour-over coffee: essentially the same process prosthelytized by Philz’ Coffee for the better part of the past decade — and available in Bay Area outposts as remote as Monterey’s Plumes Coffee House since the previous decade. They obviously need a James Freeman in New York City fast, because at this rate Japanese siphon bars should arrive there around the year 2018.