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Trip Report: Espresso Lab Microroasters (Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 26 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

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.

Approaching the Old Biscuit Mill from Albert Road Inside the Old Biscuit Mill grounds

Espresso Lab Microroasters inside the Old Biscuit Mill grounds Espresso Lab Microroaster's setup, with La Marzocco GB/5 and choices of beans

Drink menu at Espresso Lab Microroasters Drums of unroasted green beans (here Brazilian) at Espresso Lab Microroasters

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.

Diedrich IR-7 roaster inside Espresso Lab Microroasters Elemental wall map showing coffee origins for Espresso Lab Microroasters

Hario V60 drippers and Buono kettle for Espresso Lab Microroasters' Artisinal Brew (Ab) Retail beans and equipment for sale at Espresso Lab Microroasters

Even the T-shirts, and the packaging they come in, have a periodic table theme Renato demonstrates the Aeropress and their Gibraltar (Cortado) glass at Espresso Lab Microroasters

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.

Espresso Lab Microroasters' espresso blend: 40% Serra do Boné Brazil, 40% Puente Ecológico Tarrazú Costa Rica and 20% Guji, Ethiopia Renato of Espresso Lab Microroasters

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.

Industry barter: Stumptown, Koppi, Coffee Collective, and Square Mile on the shelves at Espresso Lab Microroasters Espresso Lab Microroasters' espresso: from their Esp008 blend

Espresso Lab Microroasters' cappuccini Espresso Lab Microroasters' single origin espresso shot of Gichatha-ini, Nyeri, Kenya

Trip Report: Tribeca Bakery (Kalk Bay, Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 23 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Roasting

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.

Tribeca Bakery storefront on Kalk Bay Street performers in front of Tribeca Bakery

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.

TriBeCa, NYC-themed interior of Tribeca Bakery View of the beachfront outside Tribeca Bakery

Tribeca Bakery's coffee and wine bar with La San Marco machine The Tribeca Bakery espresso

Trip Report: Deluxe Coffeeworks (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 21 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Foreign Brew, Roasting

This downtown espresso bar and roaster was co-founded by Carl Wessel and former Origin roaster, Judd Francis. It’s a tiny, tiny spot with room for only three stools at the espresso bar, two stools along the shop window counter, and two inside chairs.

Entrance to Deluxe Coffeeworks in Cape Town Close-up of Deluxe Coffeeworks' front window

Deluxe Coffeeworks Inside there are worn, wooden floors, artsy touches like cacti and odd sculptures (not to mention the Vespa skeleton on the wall, giving the guys behind SF’s Vega something to lust after), a short wall rack of coffee accessories, and good rock music for the slacker set.

There’s also a roaster for on-site roasting behind the barista counter, if you can believe it. How they get this all to fit into one tiny space reminds one of a Japanese commuter hotel/locker.

Every drink is R10 (about $1.30) — milk or not — which is a bit of an unusual pricing strategy for anywhere. Using a two-group WEGA, they pull shots with a semi-thin, mottled medium and dark brown crema. It sits a little high in the cup, and this is reflected in the thinner body. Flavorwise, it tastes earthy with pepper and some tobacco. Served in classic brown ACF cups.

Read the review of Deluxe Coffeeworks in Cape Town, South Africa.

Barista at the tight Deluxe Coffeeworks pouring steamed milk Window counter view inside Deluxe Coffeeworks

The Deluxe Coffeeworks WEGA machine, with roaster behind it The Deluxe Coffeeworks espresso

Trip Report: Origin Coffee Roasting (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 12 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Among coffee aficionados in town, quality artisan coffee originates with Origin. Opening in 2006 in a more modest space, this place changed the face of coffee in Cape Town if not South Africa. Since its expansion, it is now three transparent levels of coffee, café, roasting, regional Synesso distributor, and barista training labs. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a Nigiro Tea salon inside that will wow any tea lover. (“Nigiro” being “Origin” backwards.) It’s no mistake that the three core people behind the cool South African coffee blog, I Love Coffee, chose to meet me at this very place to discuss the local coffee culture.

One of the striking things about this three-level church of coffee is its level of transparency and open access. Through efforts such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and the organic coffee movement, transparency in the industry has become an operative word. Here that transparency comes to life — as visitors are welcome to walk throughout the building, check out their roasting operations, inspect their bags of imported beans, and tour their barista training facilities.

Hudson St. entrance to Origin, with Table Mountain in the distance Hudson St. entrance to Origin Coffee Roasting

Level 1

The service area downstairs is dark with wood slat walls — sporting an array of Hario vac pots, moka pots, drippers, home espresso machines, and beans. Sure, you could say that this place has all the same fad-driven coffee trappings at Truth., but for some reason it seems more genuine in this environment. There is plenty of seating and a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the ready for espresso drinks. Though this Hudson-Street-level downstairs entrance is a bit clubby with a lounge-like feel.

Signs announce the more interesting fresh roasts from Origin’s roasting operations, with a heavier emphasis on African-sourced-beans (Tanzania, etc.) but also some single origins from familiar terroir in Central and South America plus the occasional El Salvador Cup of Excellence. Signs also announce Origin’s place as the home of the 2007 & 2008 South African barista champions.

Entering the Hudson St. doorway into Origin First floor of Origin Coffee Roasting

Nigiro Tea occupies part of the first floor of Origin Coffee Roasting Staring down Nigiro tea pots

Level 2

Certified barista, on Origin Coffee Roasting's second levelUp the stairs past the Nigiro Tea salon, you enter their second level which consists of offices and a series of benches that form an espresso machine lab. Here, with barista certifications of employees hung on the wall, you can work with a Synesso machine, a WEGA, or a variety of other machines for training (or repair) services. Five years ago we recall Eton Tsuno of the defunct Café Organica espousing his vision for an espresso bar that offers home barista training, showcases home espresso machine models, etc. It’s been five years, and San Francisco still has yet to deliver on that vision. But here it is in Cape Town, South Africa — almost exactly as Eton described.

Wall of barista certification on the second level of Origin Coffee Roasting Synesso on display in the barista training room on Origin Coffee Roasting's second level

Level 3

Upstairs to the top floor, you encounter their main roasting operations, a lot of in-process bagging for shipment, and a soul food café. Towards the rear of the floor, there’s a brighter, glass-enclosed seating area that opens out to patio tables and chairs under parasols across from nearby modeling agencies. There’s plenty of café seating there behind the bright panes of glass with a chalkboard wall that’s something of a community chat space.

Like a few other quality places in the area, they serve their espresso shots as default doubles. There are no cappuccinos on the drink menu: only flat whites. There’s even a “3/4 flat white” for this who like theirs with less steamed milk. Staff wearing Origin “Some Like It Black” T-shirts use another two-group La Marzocco Linea machine to pull their double shots in 30ml shotglasses (for R14), placed on a saucer with a short glass of mineral water on the side. Origin used to offer ceramic demitasses for their espresso, but they’ve run out and are awaiting a new supply (they complained that those from the previous supplier chipped too easily).

US Roaster on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level Bags of greens and packing roasted coffee on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level

Seating area inside Origin Coffee Roasting's third level L to R: Francois Botha, Cindy Taylor, Andrew Franks of ILoveCoffee.co.za

Drink menu inside Origin Coffee Roasting ILoveCoffee.co.za and coffeeratings.com shares some blackboard space inside Origin Coffee Roasting

The Taste Test

Their espresso has a hefty, darker brown crema that persists, a robust body (one of the better examples in Cape Town), and a rounded, pungent, herbal-based flavor with spices and sweetness at the bottom of the cup. They also produce excellent microfoam: it’s even and not overly generous on their cappuccino (OK, “flat white”). You can readily see how inspirational Origin is — any town would be lucky to have it.

Read the review of Origin Coffee Roasting in Cape Town, South Africa.

Two-group La Marzocco Linea inside Origin Coffee Roasting The Origin Coffee Roasting espresso

The Origin Coffee Roasting flat white Seating outside on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level deck

Trip Report: TRUTH.coffeecult @ Green Point (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 07 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Also known as Truth. (note the period at the end), this café and roastery opened in March 2010 — founded by “charismatic leader and coffee evangelist” David Donde. Those aren’t our words, but Mr. Donde wouldn’t disagree.

Mr. Donde, a somewhat controversial local figure, is no small fish in the South African coffee pond. In 2006, he co-founded both the ground-breaking Origin Coffee Roasters and the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa. He may fancy himself as a coffee cult leader, but perhaps that isn’t entirely an exaggeration. Sure, he’s a regional talk show host and an automobile columnist for the national edition of GQ — giving mirrors a rather excessive workout wherever he goes. Maybe that doesn’t make him the David Koresh of coffee, but perhaps he’s close. Fortunately, Mr. Donde’s coffee efforts largely live up to the self-constructed spectacle and hype.

Entrance to Truth. - set up with Boerewors rolls vending Truth.'s Probat on display

His café sports some outdoor plaza seating with TRUTH.-branded parasols, and indoors the space looks as much a museum to slavery (being home to the Prestwich Memorial) as it does a roastery with bags of beans, a Probat, and a wall of merchandising that includes the necessary Clever drippers, Expobar machines, etc.

Some locals criticize the atmosphere of this place, but we criticize it less for its misgivings in social dynamics and more for its over-earnest veneer of artisan coffee legitimacy. Let’s face it: the place reeks of “Third Wave” clichés. You get the sense that someone visited a few U.S. coffee bars crowned as “Third Wave” destinations by the mainstream media and developed a checklist of brand names, devices, services, and philosophical positions. As a result, Truth. feels a little like it’s going through all the motions of a heralded Third Wave coffee bar, but yet it seems less genuine for its place. To its defense, it’s not a cliché if few others on the continent are doing it. But the resulting espresso here is particularly defensible, given the end product.

Truth.'s wall-o-merchandising The Prestwich Memorial shares space with the inside of Truth.

Truth.'s Clever drippers on full display Truth. branding out front

Although we knew well of this café before arriving in Cape Town, we happened upon it while walking with 149,000 of our closest friends along Cape Town’s World Cup Fan Walk for the Uruguay-Netherlands semi-final. The Fan Walk was arguably more exciting and lively than the match itself.

As the World Cup progressed over the weeks, what started as a secured three-mile-long pedestrian zone for fans to walk to Green Point Stadium organically evolved into a massively popular street carnival filled with revelers, music, dancing, vuvuzelas, and food for people with or without tickets. Given Truth.’s location right on the Fan Walk, they kept their doors open past midnight to serve World Cup revelers seeking espresso and even Boerewors rolls (the South African version of the hot dog).

Nearby Green Point Stadium before Uruguay vs. Netherlands The FIFA Fan Walk after the Netherlands defeated Uruguay 3-2 in the semifinal

Using a three-group Nuova Simonelli Aurelia and grinders from Mazzer and Anfim, they serve double shots by default for R14. The barista also rejects sink shots (also a good thing). While they offer shots in Continental fine bone china, they served us in a 30ml shotglass with a shotglass of mineral water on the side. It has a frothy, darker brown crema with a lighter center at the pour. Its body is still on the lighter side, as is typical of South Africa, but it has a robust toasted flavor, mostly an herbal pungency with a sharp brightness and some earthy body. There’s even some sweetness towards the bottom. One of the most North American-style shots in town.

Read the review of Truth. at Green Point in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Truth. Nuova Simonelli The Truth. espresso



UPDATE: Sept. 14, 2013
TRUTH. not only got moved a few blocks away, but the new location drips with candy for the Internet’s various steampunk fanboys too: TRUTH Coffee Shop In Cape Town, South Africa | Yatzer™.

Trip Report: Cookshop (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 06 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Beans, Foreign Brew, Roasting

As we warned you last month, this is the first of what should be a series of espresso-related trip reports from Cape Town, South Africa.

Opening in Nov. 2009, this tiny breakfast and lunch eatery is owned and operated by Ammy Cope & Tom Sheehy, who are major food enthusiasts. They have a few tables and benches under a small, covered patio, and they specialize in fresh baked goods and good coffee from Deluxe Coffeeworks, one of the more notable roasters in South Africa.

Low-profile storefront to Cookshop Inside the Cookshop patio

A partly-sampled Cookshop cappuccino, with latte artUsing a stainless two-group WEGA, they pull shots with a medium and darker brown spotted crema. The crema may be thin in thickness, but it is visually rich. The resulting cup may run a bit thinner on body, but it has a flavor profile that’s smooth, earthy, and more body-forward.

Their milk frothing is also rather impressive, as they blend the microfoam well with the espresso crema – often producing latte art. Served in delicate Crown Professional porcelain cups. With the espresso standards in town starting to evolve beyond the routine, this cup is one of the better options around town. But there are many higher-profile places yet to try…so stay tuned.

Read the review of Cookshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

Tom working the Cookshop WEGA machine The Cookshop espresso

Espresso Italiano, Talking Coffee the Italian Way with Carlo Odello

Posted by on 30 Jun 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

'Espresso Italiano' equates to either quality standards or narrowmindedness, depending on the audienceA blogger in New Jersey posted an interview with Carlo Odello of the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, or the Italian National Espresso Institute: Espresso Italiano, Talking Coffee the Italian Way with Carlo Odello – Serge the Concierge. Mr. Odello (a friend of this Web site) was recently working Caffè Italia at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York.

Talk of Italian espresso standards have recently ruffled a lot of feathers this side of the Atlantic. Especially for those who bang their heads against their knockboxes with the zombie-like mantra, “Third Wave is Best Wave“. But this brief Q&A with Mr. Odello touches on good and bad coffee odors and the differences between coffee blends roasted in Rome, Sicily, and Liguria.

Worst Coffee Trends – Bad Coffee Trends – Esquire

Posted by on 02 Jun 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

If the title of this post seems like the product of a copy-editor undergoing a seizure, it is intentional. It echoes the title of a new article on Esquire‘s Web site verbatim: Worst Coffee Trends – Bad Coffee Trends – Esquire. To thicken the plot, do note that this is the second article in a series written by La Colombe‘s Todd Carmichael. His first was titled: Coffee Revolution – New Ways to Roast Cofee [sic] – Esquire. ([sic] added by us.)

Coffee smelling guy picks up auditory schizophrenia with hints of dementiaWhat’s going on here? Esquire is usually doing battle with GQ for who’s male readers have more money, power, and women (in that Scarface order). What do they care about hipster doofuses drinking beverages that cost 0.000016% the price of a new Maserati GranTurismo? Why do they list it under the strange blog topic named “food-for-men”? And if they can afford that GranTurismo, why can’t they afford a spell-checker?

Those questions remain unanswered. What also remains unanswered is, “What’s with Todd Carmichael’s stream of consciousness in these pieces?” The original post reads like not-quite-lucid reflection that should be funny and entertaining. It used phrases like “cork sniffers” and “rock star barista”, plus it made an homage to the Torrefazione Italia of old — what’s not to like? But instead, it came off like an unfocused and incoherent rant. Amp up the language a bit, give the man a shopping basket to push, and he could pass for Gary Busey cruising the Tenderloin on his way to Glide Memorial for the night. We didn’t cite his piece the first time around because, well, it didn’t make any more sense than a Frank Chu sign.

Gary Coleman, RIP, to Todd Bridges ... or CarmichaelIn Mr. Carmichael’s latest rant — with the subtitle of 7 Steps to Survive the Horrible Hipster Coffee Trend — he takes on $17,000 coffee machines, roasters who fawn over elitist bean crops, and baristas who don’t conform to his ideals of appearance or speech. In other words: all the stupid crap we write about. Except we’re perhaps the craziest ones of all. Because when we do it, we honestly think we’re trying to make a focused, logical point somewhere along the way.

Mr. Carmichael: we honestly like what you’re trying to say. We even like your coffee — despite the occasional coffee Nazi who wants to publicly urinate on you out of a sense of superiority combined with good-press envy. So take this as benevolently as possible: don’t give up the day job. Stick to making good coffee or crossing the Antarctic, because expressing yourself in writing just isn’t your strong suit … and Lost no longer needs writers.

Trip Report: Hollow

Posted by on 29 May 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Another installment in SF’s series of “espresso bars in strange places,” this one — open since 2009 — is located in a sort of gift shop. It’s a very small space identified by its bright green exterior, and there are a couple of small chairs for sidewalk seating. Inside there are mirrors, planters, birdcages, bath oils, glassware, candle holders, and other odd home gifts — with two small tables in front and an espresso bar in back.

Here they use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Ritual Roasters coffee. They were pulling shots of Ritual’s anniversary Five Candles blend when we visited — recently replacing months of their Evil Twin seasonal blend. The barista identified their Evil Twin blend as being much more forgiving than the two-second extraction range that the Five Candles could tolerate. And they do time their shots here: she sank (as in sink shot) a 17-second shot before letting a 24-second shot pass.

Hollow's modest exterior Tight quarters inside Hollow

The espresso had a mottled medium and darker brown crema, poured rather short in white Nuova Point cups. It was bright, fruity (sour green apple fruity), and a touch thin – likely reflecting the new espresso blend more than anything else. Regarding the fruity descriptor, Ritual even uses the phrase “golden apple” – though it was more green apple. And that kind of sourness just doesn’t have a place in the flavor profile of espresso shots we like very much. Perhaps others will find it interesting.

Hollow is generally known for making some of the best espresso in the Inner Sunset, but the Five Candles blend didn’t let them shine. This is a case where a coffee bean roaster/supplier changes up their blends with the growing seasons and sometimes gets too clever — producing underwhelming results for the retail café.

Read the review of Hollow.

The rest of Hollow's interior - with La Marzocco Linea in back The Hollow espresso

Coincidentally, this afternoon we were looking for a decent espresso in Yountville following the fantastic release party of a winemaker friend of ours. Walking up to the nearby Yountville Coffee Caboose, we asked what Ritual blend they used for their espresso pulls. When they answered “Five Candles,” we instead walked over to Bardessono.

The woman working the Caboose’s register may have been surprised at our reaction, but the Five Candles blend really is that disappointing. It carries many of the signature problems we’ve created when we’ve overweighted more lightly roasted Central American beans in our own home-roasted espresso blends.

Espresso in Seattle

Posted by on 27 May 2010 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting, Starbucks

We wrap up our brief series on Seattle’s espresso and coffee culture with a few observations.

First, it had been way, way too long since our last visit. Twelve years in fact. Which is all the more ridiculous given the kind of coffee tourists we’ve become. It was 15 years ago that I attended graduate summer classes on the UW campus (in the U District), and for the occasion I grew a goatee to mock many a stereotyped Starbucks barista in its birthplace. (Ultimately the joke was on me, as 15 years later I still sport that goatee.)

Seattle Center, looking down E Harrison St. from Capitol Hill Local characters that aren't homeless in Seattle's Pioneer Square

Is Seattle still relevant to great coffee?

Back in 1995, despite its availability elsewhere at the time, espresso and espresso drinks (lattes, etc.) were a quintessential Seattle thing. Espresso Vivace already had 7 years of experimentation and innovation under its belt, and Starbucks had opened its first East Coast outlet just two years prior in Washington, D.C.

But just a decade later, people started looking to cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles for the next shiny new thing in coffee — with Seattle suddenly treated like some quaint, outdated reminder of coffee’s past. Interest in good coffee mutated into something that today looks more like interest in the next gimmick or fad for making good coffee: single origin espressos, the Clover, naked portafilters, cuppings, toys and gadgets, etc.

Today it isn’t enough to make good coffee. You have to invent something, or be new to the market, to get noticed — which isn’t something always equated with Seattle’s coffee culture. Restaurants suffer the same fate, as a quality stalwart like Masa’s is almost always passed up for the hot new place that opened last month or for a kitchen that starts cooking with liquid nitrogen and lasers. (Though given Masa’s espresso quality, perhaps lasers and liquid nitrogen might improve their coffee service.)

Seattle icon: the pink Elephant Super Car Wash Another Seattle icon: buskers in front of the original Starbucks

Ironically, it was Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) roasting over at Seattle’s Zoka who first coined the term “Third Wave“. But within just a few years, the coffee industry largely hijacked its meaning for marketing purposes, shoving Seattle out of any potential spotlight once again. Meanwhile, Seattle found its coffee relevancy publicly questioned as “second waver” Starbucks convinced more and more reluctant believers that it became just another mass-production fast food chain.

Sure, Seattle as a city earned a reputation for coffee quality that was not commensurate with the typical place down the street. Because, let’s face it, most of the coffee served in Seattle is godawful. But this is essentially true for any city outside of, say, Italy and Portugal. What matters for our reviewing purposes is what’s available at the top end.

And from what little we recently tested, Seattle isn’t missing a beat. With the exception of maybe Zoka and, understandably, Caffè Umbria, most of the espresso shots we had exhibited a rather “modern” New World flavor profile. Oddly, it was the local invasion of Portland’s Stumptown that was a no show — with a larger, weaker shot that didn’t quite make the grade, given expectations.

No visit to the Fremont District is complete without saying 'hi' to the troll Vladimir Lenin, famous resident of the Fremont District

The Seattle espresso bar habitat

Synesso machines were all the rage in town — not surprising, given that Synesso is a Seattle-based manufacturer. And Melitta/pour-over bars were quite common. However, single origin espresso shots — and even the option for different roasts for your shot — seemed underrepresented in Seattle compared to what you find at the top end in San Francisco.

The quality at the top end is on par with SF. Yet Seattle still has the coffee culture down in spades by comparison: baristas regularly know their customers by name (and more importantly: know their preferences), and so many of the top places in town roast their own. And Seattle has Vivace, which is truly a cultural treasure for the American espresso lover.

We wish we could have reviewed many more places in our short time in Seattle, but long ago we made it a policy to never sample more than four espresso shots in one given morning or afternoon. Anything more than that, and the flavor profiles start blending together and we stop trusting our senses. Not to mention the caffeine jitters. But Seattle was so tempting that we had to bend our rules a bit, reviewing shots in two separate “shifts” on the same day.

Readers may be surprised that I typically consume an average of only about two espresso shots per day. So after the first shift, I literally developed an eye twitch. But it was nothing like my first visit to the (long gone) Café Organica in 2005, where I downed four successive shots to sample all their blends and paid dearly the rest of the day. This time, after a few hours and some hydration therapy, I was rather proud of my caffeine tolerance after being so out of practice.

Coffee sacks on the floor of Caffé Vita We tried to get in the Fremont Kuma, but it closes early and we were in caffeine detox


Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Cafe Juanita 9702 NE 120th Pl. Kirkland, WA 7.30 7.20 7.250
Caffè Umbria 320 Occidental Ave. S Pioneer Square 7.10 8.20 7.650
Caffé Vita 1005 E Pike St. Capitol Hill 8.30 8.00 8.150
Espresso Vivace Brix 532 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.60 8.80 8.700
Espresso Vivace Sidewalk Bar 321 Broadway Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.80 7.00 7.900
Stumptown Coffee Roasters 616 E Pine St. Capitol Hill 7.40 8.00 7.700
Trabant Coffee & Chai 602 2nd Ave. Pioneer Square 8.10 7.50 7.800
Victrola Coffee and Art 411 15th Ave. E Capitol Hill 8.20 8.20 8.200
Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea 129 Central Way Kirkland, WA 8.10 8.20 8.150

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