Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
After David Schomer lost the original Espresso Vivace Roasteria location on Denny Way to an eminent domain seizure in 2006, when the city of Seattle decided to place a new rail line station at its location, Espresso Vivace needed a new home where they could showcase their coffee and techniques.
This Espresso Vivace location opened up in 2008 as the “Brix” location to help fill that void. It is located just a couple blocks up Broadway Ave. from their Sidewalk Bar, past many cheap phở shops. Inside it is decorated quite fully: high ceilings, nice wood counters, window-facing faux marble countertops, and even a special meeting room in back (supposedly open to all, but locked when we visited).
There is some limited outdoor sidewalk seating among metal chairs along Broadway Ave. as well. The café is quite busy, but not so busy that the barista staff doesn’t engage with many of their customers and knows their life stories, let alone their names.
Using a three-group Synesso (they have two of them), they pull short shots with their trademark highly bubbled, dark-to-medium-brown crema that dissipates quickly. It’s unmistakable Vivace — just on sight alone.
While it is an excellent shot, we found it slightly weaker (surprisingly) than their nearby Sidewalk Bar: the flavor profile was a bit more narrow (but still focused on the herbal notes with some sweetness), and it wasn’t as potently bright either. It is a bit more of a straight-ahead potent, syrupy shot of with a moderately thin crema. But still one of the finest shots in all Seattle. That would also be true for San Francisco.
Read the review of Espresso Vivace Brix in Seattle.
This Stumptown outlet opened in 2007. It arguably first represented the Portland chain’s global ambitions. At the time, there was much consternation among Seattlites about an interloper in their heart of their Capitol Hill coffee culture (not to mention the Northwest rivalry that ensued). Stumptown even opened up roasting operations in town. But things haven’t quite worked out so badly for the Emerald City, despite the chatter.
This small storefront can be identified by the glowing neon Stumptown sign that wraps around — so you never can see more than half of it at a time. Outside there are a couple of sidewalk chairs. Inside there are a few tables and a tall ceiling, walls decorated with coffee-growing scenes, and a 1980s component stereo tuner playing music from the back.
While they offer cold brew coffee, the store focus is on their three-group Mistral (with a Stumptown label). With it, they pull rather large shots — one of the fullest demitasses we’ve had in our trip to Seattle. It’s more like a true doppio served in a classic brown logo ACF cup.
To its credit, it has a thicker, medium-and-darker-brown-striped crema. But given the pour size, the body runs a bit thin. It also has a tame and tepid flavor of mellow spices, pepper, and wood — and it lacks the stereotypical Hairbender brightness, except at the very finish/bottom of the cup.
In short, the shot here was disappointingly weak: this wouldn’t cut it as one of the best shots in most coffee cities. Of course, we have every reason to believe that Stumptown is capable of something better than this, so a revisit is required. But as it stands from our one visit, it wasn’t much better than the shots we had at Caffè Umbria — and wasn’t much different in the timidity of its flavor profile. Based on this limited experience, local Seattle coffee shops have little to worry about from “invasive species.”
Read the review of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district.
We continue our series on Seattle cafés with a visit to another another of the three V’s in town: this time it’s Caffé Vita in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. This combination café and roaster is one of the bigger entities in this coffee-rich neighborhood. It has the bold Caffé Vita neon signage out front — with a row of metal chairs along the E Pike St. sidewalk.
The interior is generally dark downstairs, with old wood floors and more examples of their Harlequin theme. The downstairs also sports several quiet tables, burlap sacks of coffee, and a worldwide collection of logo espresso cups in a lighted glass and wood case. This alone was a highlight of our visit, having established our own personal collection of espresso cups from cafés around the world ourselves. (Bonus points for playing T. Rex’s Electric Warrior album on our visit.) Upstairs is brighter but more library-like, and in back are the roasting operations.
The staff seem pretty good here, though we encountered one employee who actually lived up to the (fortunately rather rare) pain-in-the-ass negative stereotypes often unfairly bestowed upon employees at elite coffee shops. For equipment, they use an elaborate glass Japanese slow-drip coffee maker (as seen at SF’s Blue Bottle Cafe) and a (surprise!) three-group Synesso.
With their Synesso, they pull a short shot with a darker brown, even crema and a robust aroma. It has a flavor of muted pungency compared to the other V’s in town (Victrola and the soon-to-be-reviewed Espresso Vivace), but it still caries some potency. Just with more balanced flavors of wood, cinnamon, and cloves. Definitely a solid shot and an excellent place to experience it. Served in brown logo ACF cups.
Surely we jest about Seattle’s coffee culture being as dated as reruns of Frasier. Coffee journalists and jargonists alike often suffer from a tragic affliction that confuses experience for irrelevance. Infatuation with the over-hyped and under-substantiated pursuit of the next big thing has created a bit of hyperopia: a far-sightedness that makes one blind to many good things right in front of their faces. It also makes people dismissive of the history and cultural roots that got them there in the first place.
Which brings us to a little Seattle coffee roasting history by way of the Old World. This roaster uses this location as its flagship retail store, and with good reason. In 1986, Ornello Bizzarri of Torrefazione Italia fame established this site as a family roastery. Today, his grandson Emanuele roasts for Caffè Umbria.
It’s an old brick storefront in Seattle’s historical Pioneer Square. They offer a bit of outdoor table seating along the “grand piazza” out front. Inside it’s grand café style — albeit a shade less ornate than SF’s Emporio Rulli. The interior is supported by reinforced brick with tall windows and stool seating at them. There are many tables inside the large space, each under decorative light fixtures. Old Italian black & white photographs from the Bizzarri family adorn the walls and a showcase Officine Vittoria roaster sits in the back near the big screen TV.
The place is generally quiet and light on crowds (it has a heavy tourist base). It has an extensive Italian-style espresso bar, where they also serve wine and gelato from Seattle’s Gelatiamo. Behind the bar are two-group and three-group Nuova Simonelli Aurelia machines, and they use their Gusto Crema blend to pull shots.
It’s served as a taller shot in a tall IPA logo cup — which are well-designed to accentuate the crema, a medium brown crema with darker flecks. It has a very subtle flavor — a soft chantilly cream or even marshmallow predominantly, with a hint of some of the spice, pepper, wood, and herbal notes of a typical espresso in the background. This is the direct opposite of a bitter espresso, but its thinner body and muted flavor keep it from standing out. Served with a Fondente (dark) chocolate on the side. The barista also creates some simple latte art.
Not the best espresso in town by any means, but it is a taste of history and is something of a classic. There’s something about an Old World espresso: they just know how to blend in a way that most North Americans haven’t come close to figuring out yet.
Read the review of Caffè Umbria in Seattle.
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.