Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Flying under our radar last month was a great cover story on the evolution and pitfalls of a quality local coffee business in Milwaukee Magazine: MilwaukeeMag.com – Coffee Wars.
As in many other mid-market cities across America over the past decade-plus, quality coffee has infiltrated even the most staunch communes of Starbucks drones. The Milwaukee coffee market is no exception, with Alterra Coffee serving as something of Milwaukee’s analogue to Blue Bottle.
But the story of Alterra Coffee could be the story of any pioneering quality coffee purveyor in America: local start-up business makes great coffee and changes local tastes and expectations, business success translates into growth of operations (roasting, retail, and distribution) and ambition, continued growth brings the company to a crossroads when they must answer where continued growth hurts product quality and company values, and the inspiration and spawning of newer, more nimble local competition.
That major crossroads for Alterra came in 2010 when Mars Corporation — the self-proclaimed “world’s leading petcare, chocolate, confection, food & drink company” (from their Web site) — approached them with an offer to include their coffee in Mars’ owned Flavia packets in exchange for revenue sharing and distribution rights.
Some 27 years ago in nearby Minneapolis, The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg croaked the words, “Time for decisions to be made: crack up in the sun, or lose it in the shade.” Do you reach for greater distribution and more revenues to expand your mission of good coffee? Or are you diluting your product and your brand, all the while inviting customer criticisms of going too “corporate” and selling out? (As the article quotes the local criticisms: “Alterra is the ‘Microsoft of coffee in Milwaukee’.”)
Like the Facebook status says: it’s complicated. And a cautionary tale worth the read.
What a fantastic find on the fringes of Monterey city. This location, open for a few years now, is mostly a roastery (with a roaster in back supplied by Roasters Exchange) who supplies a number of area restaurants and cafés, however they also offer kiosk-like walk-up retail beverage service.
The address will take you to their non-descript garage entrance, so you need to head around the corner to an alley with a cyclone-fence-enclosed parking lot. Even if there’s no place to sit here, there are plenty of locals who frequent this spot and all seem to know each other: women in exercise pants, hipsters, old guys with pick-ups, former employees, etc. There are two short metal counters to stand against and drink your brew, however.
There are various stickers against the front counter, plus various odd collectables on the walls and a general homage to the odd and unusual. It feels a lot like the Barefoot Coffee Roasters Coffee Works and Roll-UP Bar in San Jose, just with a lot more quirk. (And how many places do you know sell straight chicory for $3.50 a half pound?)
For coffee service they offer a pour-over bar, a two-group, turquoise Rancilio Z9 lever machine, and a very rare and less-used three-group orange Brugnetti Aurora lever machine. In addition to espresso shots with their Motor City Espresso blend, they were offering single origin shots of Guatemala Hue Hue Tenango.
They serve shots with a mottled, swirled dark and medium brown crema, a potent aroma, a rich body, and a complex, well-blended flavor of fresh spice, some tobacco, and sweeter notes. Served in a mismatched collection of ceramic espresso cups. This is one of the finest new espresso shots we’ve had in a year.
The milk-frothing leaves a lot to be desired, however, as they serve cappuccino in only paper cups and with too much coffee volume – making it more of a latte with some stiff froth. Monterey’s Café Lumiere makes a much better cap with latte art.
Opening around Thanksgiving of 2011, this downtown location of Verve clearly ups the design aesthetics and sends a signal across the street of the venerable Lulu Carpenters. If only the coffee service could live up to everything else promised by visual pageantry here.
It’s a beautiful, open space with a prime location. A former curiosity shop (fruit baskets, etc.) called “Best of Everything Santa Cruz”, this space remained vacant for a number of years prior to Verve’s move-in. There’s a lot of exposed, unfinished wood integrated in its interior design (though less wood than, say, Sightglass) and bare, decorative hanging lightbulbs.
It’s an airy space with seating concentrated at stools and window counters along Pacific Ave. and Front St. There’s also larger wooden tables with affixed, movable seating that suggests a strange cross between a McDonald’s and a German biergarten. There’s a wall of merchandising, which includes a variety of freshly roasted coffees. And not that we’re big fans of marketing literature, but they oddly offer nothing for potential consumers to discriminate their different coffees. This becomes particularly perplexing when they offer roasts from four different El Salvador farms as when we visited. (For the record, we tried some of their El Salvador La Benedición, which we randomly purchased and recommend after some home trials.)
They showcase two gleaming three-group La Marzocco Strada machines, each accompanied by three Mazzer grinders featuring three different bean stocks. It’s not like their service counter doesn’t take the appropriate time — waits for an espresso shot can be 5-10 minutes even at 3pm on a Saturday. But the resulting shot, using their Sermon blend, had a tepid serving temperature, a thin medium brown crema with some limited texture, and a watered-down body that tastes of wet tobacco leaves. Served in notNeutral cups with a side of sparkling water.
It is surprisingly disappointing, given the quality at their mothership location, although not inconsistent with most places that opt to showcase modern pressure-control machines like the Strada or Slayer. (Too often we find that new toys or aesthetics can matter more than a good end product.) It certainly could be an off barista or one that refused to sink shot when they should have. But the overall experience leaves you with the impression that the emphasis and expense here are focused on the wrong, superficial things.
A setup like this with the results they produce are as wastefully aggrevating as the guy with the $60,000 Porsche roadster driving 55mph in a 65mph zone along US 101 — using the passing lane instead as a retirement lane to mentally check-out and avoid making any driving decisions. We will take a storebought roast with a cheap, used La Spaziale machine and a barista obsessive about perfecting his/her shot — and who knows how to use the equipment properly — over this puffed-up experience anyday. It may cost a mere $2.75, but when you can get comparable quality shots for $1.25, Verve is letting their standards and their customers down. Verve is clearly capable of much better, so a revisit is mandatory.
Now is that rare time of year where being way out in the Avenues doesn’t feel like being a political prisoner living in exile. For a few weeks out of the year — before the blanket of cold fog transforms the western half of San Francisco into nature’s largest refrigerator — tourists and locals alike experience a brief hallucination where places like SF’s Richmond District seem like attractive, undervalued beachfront property.
Just above the ruins of the old Sutro Baths, the recently opened Lands End Lookout may serve the always-frightful Peerless Coffee in its mini café. But don’t let this neighborhood’s lack of Third Wave self-congratulation get your coffee taste buds down. Even if a bit of the Old West still seems alive here, it boasts some interesting — if not also eclectic — coffee bars.
Take Simple Pleasures Cafe. Its name might suggest a sex toy store if it were in some SF neighborhood a few miles East. Here it is a coffeehouse that claims to be the oldest in the Richmond District, in operation since 1978. Two doors down is their roasting facilities. It’s a social place that serves as an active community center. On these rare fair-weather days, the sidewalk out front can be populated with many of the eclectic local characters conversing on café tables and chairs.
Inside they have the typical colored chalkboard menus that characterized SF cafes in the 1980s. Seating is among big wooden tables in front on numerous odd chairs in back. They offer live music, beer on tap, and espresso shots pulled from a two-group La San Marco machine. The pour is a bit large with a dark to medium brown, healthy crema. Yet the body is robust, with a bold, body-forward flavor of earthiness, chocolate, and tobacco. It’s a flavor profile that practically says, “Screw you and your hipster coffee.” We like that once in a while.
The experience here may feel a bit like you transported yourself to an SF café circa 1987, but that’s not always such a bad thing. Especially when you come to expect a little bit of weird when hanging out near San Francisco’s normally tourist-repellant oceanfront.
Read the review of Simple Pleasures Cafe.
This bakery/café first opened in 2010 as a joint venture of the Goody Goodie bakery and John Quintos, who’s behind Cento, Special Xtra, and Vega. It was originally named “StarStream,” and the coffee routinely followed the Quintos rubber-stamp formula of small La Marzocco Linea espresso machines and Blue Bottle Coffee. However, as the location developed it became less a café and more the relocated headquarters of the Goody Goodie bakery from their sidewalk window — hence the name change.
Coinciding with that change, the coffee service also started taking on its own identity. They serve (dessert) waffles, cookies, and other goods that have earned the quirky bakery its deserved reputation, but the coffee here is no less serious — despite the flowery, heavy-on-pink flea market motif inside. There are two metal garden café tables and chairs along the front Harrison St. sidewalk and a collection of odd items in the interior: patio tables, a whimsical wooden bench, colorfully painted walls, and an odd collection of signage and curiosities that’s mildly reminiscent of Trouble Coffee.
Like Trouble Coffee, they deliberately toss sink shots that don’t measure up to their standards (always a good sign). But what’s particularly impressive is that they have a clear coffee philosophy that comes through: namely, with their switch to Emeryville’s Roast Coffee Co., they want to emphasize balance in their coffee flavor profile without all the overbearing citrus that’s become a tiresome trademark among many new coffee purveyors (see: brightness bomb).
Of course, seeing this philosophy in practice is music to our taste buds. Most North American coffee roasters of note have proven themselves incapable of creating dynamic coffee blends of much merit or finesse. It kills us how the typical Torino, Italy-based blend still runs circles around the Americans. Of all the new coffees we tried out in the past year for home espresso use, almost apologetically the imported Caffè Bomrad topped the lot of them.
But should we really be surprised that the brightness bomb has come to define the quality espresso in North America? To raise that specter of the ever-popular wine analogy again (hey, it’s been at least two weeks), North American wines have run a similar course. Over the past couple of decades, big, bold, fruit-driven, and overly oaky wines with the subtlety and grace of a ball-peen hammer have become the popular choice for American consumers. So much so that wine producers with a different palate in mind have had to circle the wagons with interest groups such as In Pursuit of Balance
Goody Goodie is still tuning in their custom blend with Roast, but for now it has a nice, restrained citric brightness that complements (rather than overwhelms) other notes like chocolate and caramel and some herbal pungency. (Perhaps very appropriate for a dessert café?) They pull modest-sized shots from a two-group Linea with a mottled medium and lighter brown crema in colorful Nuova Point cups. It’s great to witness someone trying to lead instead of following with their coffee.
As we last left our story, SOMA‘s ever-morphing Sightglass Coffee was glacially executing on its grand designs to become a major SF roastery and a spacious coffee destination. It had been over a year since we last walked among the spent heroin needles of nearby 6th Street, so much of our new Sightglass experience had been through retail brightness bombs sold throughout the Bay Area using Sightglass’ own roasts.
This past week we finally got the chance to revisit Sightglass, and we can safely say it has largely succeeded at its very ambitious goals. We say “largely”, however, because we have more than just a little qualified ambivalence for what exactly Sightglass has become.
Sightglass’ original cubbyhole is now merely the doorway entrance to a vast warehouse space dedicated to exposed wood beams and coffee production. There are a couple of split levels upstairs for staff and vast amounts of stand-up counter space all around the floor plan. But while the square footage of this coffeeshop has expanded some 100-fold, there is seating for only about a dozen more people than before. There is window counter seating along the 7th Street sidewalk. But between that and the bicycle parking at the other end of the building there is virtually no place to sit.
The deliberate scarcity of seating is a decidedly useful move to ward off the laptop zombie set. And we wish far more places catered to stand-up espresso service the way it is a cultural institution in places like Italy. But somehow a place like Four Barrel makes their zombie-warding mojo seem natural and organic to the space, whereas at Sightglass it comes off like a lack of planning.
The vibe inside is a bit unique for a Bay Area coffee shop. In some areas, children sometimes play on the floor with parents in an unusual day-care-lite-like fashion. Meanwhile, there is a noticeable bent towards employing comely female staff and an unusually high proportion of both staff and patrons wearing cycling caps. Yet there is an unusual shortage of the obligatory piercings and body art. And as if an homage to Four Barrel and its mounted boar heads, the sparse decór inside includes the occasional mounted desert animal skull.
As if to proclaim they can mimic more than just Four Barrel, there’s a trusty turntable by the coffee service area for playing vinyl copies of the Beatles’ Revolver or the Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim EP — giving it a little of that Stumptown Portland feel.
But enough about interior decorating: what about the coffee? For one, there’s an ample wall of the stuff for retail purchase. It’s not even the “$15 a pound” stuff we mentioned earlier this week: we’re talking the $19.50 for 12 ounces category. At which price, we want bottle rockets shooting out of our ears when we sip this stuff. After sampling some of their Guatemala Finca San Diego Buena Vista Yellow Bourbon at home, let’s just say we’re not giving up our Barefoot Coffee take on Edwin Martinez’ Finca Vista Hermosa — despite some recent local press love.
The general quality of barista here seems to have raised a notch with their expansion. In store they offer Chemex and Hario V60 brewing of three different cultivars — plus the usual espresso drinks, a few baked goods, and the usual Hooker’s Sweet Treats salted caramels. And to pull those shots they employ both Slayer and La Marzocco Strada machines at opposite ends of the service area. Explaining the difference between the two espresso machines to a friend who was there with us, there’s really no other polite way to say this: owners Jerad and Justin Morrison are total name brand fad whores. So we merely described the machines as “last year’s model” versus “this year’s model” — and then proceeded to pay on their iPad checkout system, established here since the week the iPad went public.
Living up to their reputation as worshippers at the altar of the brightness bomb, they pull espresso shots with a rather one-dimensional, medium brown, even crema that struggles to coat the surface. It is very bright and flavorful in a citrus-meets-malt way, but surprisingly not overwhelmingly so. Though there is a tinny, almost metallic taste in the finish where it lacks any real sweetness or molasses-like smoothness.
Of course, a lot of people in North America enjoy this flavor profile. But it becomes particularly problematic when it comes to American’s love of milk-based espresso drinks. Their cappuccino is what we might call a “supermodel” cappuccino — pretty and perfect on the outside, but vapid at the core and lacking any real substance. Despite the beautiful appearance and accompanying latte art, their cappuccinos are tepid, milky, and lack any real punch that can hold up to the milk. We honestly cannot recommend the cappuccino here, as the primary brightness notes in the espresso are lost to become something insidiously bland and rather flavorless.
It’s fair to say that by establishing both their roasting operations and a large service area, Sightglass has positioned themselves as one of the premiere coffee destinations in San Francisco. These days, that says something. However, we cannot help but feel there’s a missing attention to detail here that holds Sightglass back from being among the very best — this despite a web site that proclaims their “deep attention to detail.”
There’s nothing inherently flawed in name brand fad whoring if you get the execution right. But without that execution, you risk appearing as though you’ve followed a checklist for a paint-by-numbers Third Wave coffeeshop — rather than being something with a soul and substance of its own. We don’t even mind if your interior design ideas were lifted from the Stumptown and Four Barrel catalogs as long as your attention to detail comes out in your coffee. Forget the other details for a moment: a washed-out, bland cappuccino just doesn’t cut it.
An almost poetically symbolic example of this attention-to-detail problem was evident watching the team perform maintenance on their on-site Probat roaster (aka, “the sightglass”). They re-applied the mounting bolts to their Probat … without washers. Sometimes it takes just a little extra effort to do it right.
Read the updated review of Sightglass Coffee.
Today’s installment for comic relief Friday comes from a regular blog reader here (espressophile): New Coffee Concept Makes Roasting Obsolete | Roaster Project.
This comic piece from the Roaster Project is highly buzzword-compliant (“fourth wave”, etc.). Part of its premise is that if third wave coffee is “barely roasted,” the next stage is to not even roast the green beans at all — otherwise damaging the coffee’s delicate expressions of micro-lot terroir.
The piece also offers a few quotable gems, including:
Its crowning image of green coffee latte art is also sure to be great inspiration for future Coffee Fests.
Today’s New York Times reported on another chapter in this year’s ownership-change-for-funding-for-growth saga of quality independent coffee chains: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea Asks a Friend to Help It Grow – NYTimes.com. This past May, the subject was Stumptown Coffee Roasters — generating quite a bit of angst among many loyalists who cried “sell-out!” This time the subject is Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, whose expansion plans seem to have stalled or required less-than-ideal compromises.
If 2010 was the year of the Great Coffee Rush — where prospecting independent roasting/coffeeshop elites in the West packed their covered wagons and migrated East to help fill a gaping quality coffee void — 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the investment, merger, and acquisition. The article notes Intelligentsia’s 2009 acquisition of Ecco Caffè — and, more importantly, how its planned Potrero Hill roasting operations have yet to materialize.
Of course, when was the last time that a major roasting operation in San Francisco didn’t materialize months, if not years, behind the original schedule? (Think Four Barrel, Sightglass, etc.) Even so, it’s becoming clear that as the quality independent coffee industry has matured, the next stage of its evolution now requires wealthier investors to fund their ambitions.
Shockingly, it’s taken us this long to make it to Portland, Oregon — considered by many to be ground zero (no café name pun intended) of American coffee culture. And if you’re going to start sampling the offerings in Portland, it only makes sense that you start with the legendary Stumptown Coffee Roasters. This despite that a number of Portland locals might suggest that other, newer, smaller coffee vendors in the area have taken what Stumptown started and have since overtaken them.
Lucky for us, I arrived yesterday on what was informally called “the first day of summer” in Portland: the weather was warm, the skies were clear, and in the north I could even see the rounded dome of Mount St. Helens in the distance over some of the treelines (something, I was told, Portlanders get to see maybe once a year). The downtown Stumptown was easy to spot once you found the Great-Depression-era-like breadlines that wound around the sidewalk and lead up to the nearby Voodoo Doughnut — which is apparently Portlandese for “crack cocaine” among international tourists.
The lines at this Stumptown Coffee Roasters may not have been that ridiculous, but they hold their own — even if they manage to remain inside the building. They have a couple of small sidewalk tables outside and a cavernous space inside, which includes several tables and benches along the long wall, a magazine rack, limited front window counter stool seating, a rack of coffee and accessories, and a long coffee bar. Plus a Technics turntable at the back for DJ’ing, because that’s what you do in Northwest coffeehouses, plus rear bathrooms covered in graffiti.
All sorts of Portland locals and visitors line up here: from the wandering tourist to hipsters in bright orange or pink pants. It’s odd to see a Mistral machine set off to the side and neglected here, as if it were a 1984 Chevy Impala. But that’s what happens when you install a new, three-group La Marzocco
La Strada machine. Behind the service area there’s a brick wall with a large mirror to show off what happens behind the La Strada — plus some stool seating off to the side of the machine.
They offer several single cup Chemex variations. As for their espresso, they pull shots with an even, hybrid crema of darker and lighter brown that suggests some unevenness in the draw. The resulting cup is potent and has a semi-syrupy body, with a good deal of brightness that doesn’t go over the top (as you might expect for Hairbender at times). Flavorwise, it has something of a peppery edge over a kind of allspice/nutmeg spice profile and a semi-creamy mouthfeel. Served in a brown logo ACF cup.
A solid espresso, but as with other Stumptowns we’ve visited, hardly ranking among our favorites in North America. In fact, 26 places in San Francisco scored higher than this Stumptown on espresso score. The fuss does not seem generally justified, and the aforementioned locals seem to be onto something. (Which also kind of says something else, given New Yorkers’ infatuation with Stumptown.)
We also have another example where espresso machine technology has been modernized with heavy investments, with results that suggest the benefits are only for baristas and not for espresso consumers.
Read the review of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Downtown Portland, Oregon.
As many of you may know, we started CoffeeRatings.com in 2003 with the idea of making a printed, local, quantitative guide to San Francisco’s best coffee. Our fair city still lacks its own printed guide, but that hasn’t stopped cities such as Sydney and Melbourne in Australia from forging ahead: Mecca Espresso Ultimo Cafe of the Year In SMH Good Cafe Guide 2011, and The winners of The Age Good Cafe Guide Awards 2011.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne) have each just released inaugural Good Cafe Guide publications to promote the best coffeeshops in their respective hometowns. In Sydney, Mecca Espresso in Ultimo took top café honors while Auction Rooms in North Melbourne did the same for its mother city. Coffee Alchemy in Marrickville and Seven Seeds in Carlton each took their city’s respective top coffee prizes. (Note to Californians: Melbourne is sometimes referred as San Francisco to Sydney’s L.A.)
Each guide boasts around 250 reviewed cafés that make the cut, awarding points primarily for coffee quality. But the guides also reward a “café’s commitment to quality beans and a great experience.” As noted in the SMH article cited above, a number of cafés are rated with one, two, or three stars. In the printed guide, they are rated up to three “coffee cups” (rather than stars) — making them not unlike the chicchi awarded in the Gambero Rosso’s annual Bar d’Italia. (The Bar d’Italia uses up to three chicchi, or coffee beans, to rate an establishment’s coffee. Not to confuse things, but it additionally uses up to three coffee cups to rate these places for qualities other than their coffee.)
The SMH article also mentions some emerging trends for area coffeeshops, including naked portafilters, local microroasting, tasting rooms/cupping schools, new contraptions to showcase single origins, bone china cups (here here!), and economy-sized drinks such as the piccolo latte or mezzo-mezzo. In other words: today’s Sydney coffee culture sounds a lot like San Francisco circa 2008. But you have to forgive them, considering that Australia lacks a filter-brewed coffee culture and history.